Directed by: William A. Wellman
Written by: Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell
Note: New Zealand has recently issued a content warning to go with the 2018 remake of the film. I will not name it in the interest of dramatic surprise, however, those who would benefit from such warnings should know to look into it.
While the fourth iteration of A Star is Born takes its turn on the big screen, I figured I should see the original picture. The 1937 piece has a perfect Rotten Tomatoes score, but it is undoubtedly an old movie. It opens in a somewhat over the top fairy tale fashion (think The Wizard of Oz without the magic), and doesn’t do much beyond telling its story along the way. Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable work and a telling historical document.
It would be a bit of a truism to call A Star is Born dated, so I say it, not to imply a limit, but simply to note one of the film’s interesting qualities. The titular star is a woman: Esther Blodgett aka Vicky Lester (Janet Gaynor), and from a distance it’s hard to say if the film’s gender politics are subversive or not. One of the film’s central themes is emasculation, as Lester’s star rises above that of established Hollywood icon Norman Maine (Frederic March). Whether audiences at the time were more likely to read this plot as an endorsement of women’s equality, or a tragic tale of a man losing his place (or none of the above) is unclear from the way the plot resolves itself. And perhaps this ambiguity is a good thing, adding tonal richness to a simple plot line.
While the film may be dated in its depiction of gendered relations, perhaps the more interesting way in which it’s dated is in its depiction of celebrity. When Vicky and Norman star alongside each other in the same picture, audiences leave praising Lester and laughing off Maine’s forgettable performances. One of the notable qualities of this scene (and of A Star is Born as a whole) is its expository dialogue: the characters tell you with painful bluntness what they think of Maine. The more important point, however, is the very fact that the audience obsesses with Maine’s perceived inferiority to Lester. While we still live in a world where actors are praised or critiqued for their craft, the weight of that critique is far less substantial than A Star is Born makes it out to be. Adam Sander hasn’t lost his stardom just because most of his roles don’t share the prestige of Punch Drunk Love or The Meyerowitz Stories. And Sandler isn’t even a great comparison here. As far we are lead to believe, Maine’s acting isn’t particularly bad: the audience has simply, with shocking unanimity, declared him Lester’s inferior.
A Star is Born is a satisfying Hollywood story with a pair of replicable and adaptable themes. As such it doesn’t surprise me that it has spawned three re-makes. Are the remakes justified? For now I’ll have to plead ignorance. Part of me wonders, however, whether contemporary stories can match the odd, yet somehow historically believeable melodrama contained in this simple 1930s tale.