The One That Started It All: 'A Star is Born'

Perhaps more than a morality tale, this film was a strategy to give post-Great Depression audiences hope, so long as they admired Hollywood from afar.

A Star is Born

Director: William A. Wellman
Cast: Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, May Robson
Distributor: Kino
Rated: NR
Release date: 2011-02-07

The story in A Star is Born has become part of Hollywood lore: young Esther Blodgett lives the ultimate fairy tale by going from being an unknown dreamer, to becoming a legitimate superstar -- complete with awards and a prize husband. However, she soon has to pay the price as her life spirals down towards tragedy. More than any other version of the film (out of the three that have been made so far) it’s this one, the first, that works best as a complex morality tale on the perils of show business.

The film opens in a quaint North Dakota farm, where Esther (Janet Gaynor) lives with her family. While she dreams about movies, her entire family disapproves, “I caught her talking to a horse with a Swedish accent” says her little brother, mocking her in front of her father and aunt (how a simple kid from the country could know what a Swedish accent sounds like, is obviously never explained and one can only assume: Garbo). The motherless heroine relies only on grandmother (played by the lovely May Robson) to help her dreams come true. She encourages her granddaughter to come up with the guts to pack her bags and move West, not without first warning her that “in order to get what you want, you need to give your heart in exchange”.

The ingenue moves to Los Angeles and it’s there where the film’s intense Technicolor cinematography first gains prominence (the movie was the first Oscar Best Picture nominee to be shot in color). We are showered with scenes of a land where men and women always wear smiles, have tans, and dress in beautiful clothes. In its insistence of portraying Tinseltown as a land of dreams, the film sets a mood that’s part fable, part nightmare. “Metropolis of Make Believe” is one of the slogans that bedazzle the wide-eyed Esther when she arrives at the Californian city.

At first Esther has a hard time making anything of herself, she’s rejected by film studios and is told that she won’t amount to much, that is until she meets movie star Norman Maine (Fredric March) while working as a waitress. Maine takes an instant liking to her and offers to help her get an audition. This is where the story takes a twist. Where others would’ve sufficed with the poor country girl never getting into the movies, and only having her heart broken, Esther actually gets help from Norman, who not only turns her into a star but also falls in love with her. Then he begins to show his true colors, as alcoholism takes its toll and he sees his wife become more famous than he ever was, and jealousy sets in.

At first glance A Star is Born operates on a seeming oxymoron, for it deals with chauvinism as we see Esther -- who changes her name to Vicki Lester -- fulfill her dreams exclusively because she had a man’s help. What can it mean then, when that same man becomes threatened by the very thing he helped construct? The film most certainly has a Frankenstein feel to it, without the Gothic horror but with an even more perverse aura of romanticism, as it compares Hollywood to a dream factory where past lives are destroyed in order to please the public. “Every 25 cents they pay for a ticket buys them a chance to be a critic” says a character, trying to explain to Norman how he felt from grace.

Soon enough, the film invites us to think that in order for Vicki to achieve her dreams not only must she sell her soul and give away her heart, but she also has to symbolically 'castrate' Norman, who eventually becomes known as Mr. Lester -- the husband to the star. A Star is Born is never really about simple choices, it’s not merely about choosing a career over love or a quiet country life over chaotic superstardom. Vicki and Norman seem to have signed Faustian contracts from which they never can escape. Perhaps more than a morality tale, A Star is Born was a strategy to keep post-Great Depression audiences from thinking that they, too, could make it in Hollywood. The movies would continue giving them hope, yes -- just as long as the masses admired them from afar.

Kino has done an extraordinary job restoring this film: the colors come to life with the magic only Technicolor provided, ironically giving the film an even more menacing touch (how can it hurt you when it looks so good?). It’s a shame, however, that little attention was paid to the bonus supplements which come down to a vintage costume test (running a little under two minutes), theatrical trailer and gallery. This would’ve been the perfect opportunity to dig a little into a movie that has influenced so many after it. Can you imagine having David Lynch give his take on how A Star is Born inspired his Mulholland Drive ? Now that would’ve been a wonderful extra.


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