Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: A Star Is Born (1937)

Can love survive in Hollywood as one star’s career is on the rise and the other’s is fading? In the 1937 film A Star Is Born, just such a thing occurs, and our heroine and hero try their best to keep their love intact in the ruthless world of golden-age Hollywood. The film stars Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou, and Andy Devine. William A. Wellman directed the film and also collaborated with Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell. The film won a 1937 Academy Award for Best Writing and a special award for Best Color Photography.

Young Esther Victoria Blodgett (Gaynor) has dreams of leaving her small North Dakota town and go to Hollywood to become a movie star. Her aunt and father are very discouraging and urge her to forget her dreams, but her grandmother gives Esther her savings so that Esther can go to Hollywood and try to make her dream come true.

A Star Is Born (1937) movie poster
Poster from the film. Image via Wikipedia.

Esther has a difficult time even finding a job as an extra in Hollywood. While staying at a boarding house, she meets another resident, Danny McGuire (Devine), an assistant director who is currently out of work. The two bond over their chronic unemployment and become fast friends. They attend concerts together to forget their woes. it’s at one of these concerts that Esther meets Norman Maine (March), a big actor whose career is beginning to fail because of his struggles with alcoholism. Esther makes an impression on Norman, though he doesn’t remember her until later when he sees her waitressing at a fancy party given by one of the studios. The two spend more time together talking, and when Esther tells Norman she has come to Hollywood to become an actress, he decides that he can help her. He gets his friend, producer Oliver Miles (Menjou), to give Esther a screen test. Oliver is delighted to give her a contract, as long as she takes on the stage name of Vicki Lester. Esther, known from here on out as Vicki, first thinks she’s going to have small roles, but when the studio has trouble finding a female lead for Norman’s first film, Norman convinces Oliver to cast Esther. The film, The Enchanted Hour, is an immediate success and propels Vicki to instant stardom.

Vicki’s personal life is improving, too, as she and Norman slowly fall in love. Norman wants to marry Vicki, but she makes him promise to give up drinking. Studio agent Matt Libby wants the two to have a big wedding, as this will be a huge opportunity for publicity for the studio, but the two are against it and decide to elope in the mountains. When the couple gets back from their honeymoon, they purchase a gorgeous home, and Vicki’s career continues to grow as Norman’s is waning. Norman tries to take it in stride, though, and tries his hand at taking care of the house for Vicki because she is working so much. Vicki is proud of his efforts, but she sees that lack of work and three unsuccessful films are causing her husband to become depressed, and he turns to alcohol again as an escape. When Vicki wins a top award for best actress for that year, a drunken Norman interrupts her speech and demands three awards for worst actor.

Norman’s move all but destroys his career, and he checks himself into a sanitorium to get better. Things are all right for a while, but after a nasty encounter with Libby, who always hated Norman, Norman starts drinking again. Vicki decides to give up her career so that she can help her husband to get better, despite Oliver’s protests. Norman overhears their conversation, and, deciding that he can’t be the reason that Vicki ends her career, he drowns himself in the Pacific Ocean. Of course, the studio and newspapers portray it all as a horrible accident, but Vicki knows the truth, and she is devastated.

Janet Gaynor in A Star Is Born.
Janet Gaynor in film. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Vicki decides to leave Hollywood and go home because the sorrow is too much to bear. Her grandmother shows up to support her during her time of grief and, giving that tough love that grandmothers only can, convinces her to keep acting. With her grandmother there in the supportive role that Norman once filled, Vicki is able to keep acting. Vicki’s grandmother attends her next première at Graumans’s Chinese Theater with her, with Danny and Oliver alongside. Vicki is led to the microphone and is asked to say something to her many fans around the world who are listening. Vicki says, “Hello, everybody, this is Mrs. Norman Maine.”

This film is one of my favorites because it actually addresses things like mental illness, addiction, and marriages in which both spouses have careers very progressively. Norman’s depression and alcoholism are very well portrayed, and there is no stigma surrounding his decision to enter a sanitorium so he can get better. Sadly enough, the portrayal of the motivating factors behind Norman’s suicide are accurate, as he did not wish to be a burden to Vicki and didn’t wish for her to quit acting, which she loved and at which she was successful, so that she could help him with his mental illness and addiction, which he was battling but certainly not winning. He loved Vicki so much he couldn’t allow her to quit her career, which shows a lot for movies of the time.

The depiction of the couple whose careers are in different places is very well done, too. Vicki’s stardom is on the wise, and the world is her oyster, but Norman’s career is pretty much over because of circumstances beyond his control. Norman doesn’t let Vicki know he’s depressed, and he makes an honest effort at being content with taking care of the home, but he misses his work. It’s nothing Vicki has done, but he misses working in general, and that’s what bothers him. He would be happy if both he and Vicki were working and successful, and he’s not envious of her success, but he doesn’t know what to do with himself.

The question of identity is a big theme in this movie as well. Vicki took a stage name because the studio wanted her to have a catchier name that would be easier for an audience to remember. Vicki basically gave up her name so that she could achieve stardom, which was all well and good, since she owed her success to it, but she was never given the chance to enjoy the fact that she had married Norman and taken his name. In the very last line of the film, she reasserted her identity and where she had come from. Her husband had also had an active role in her success, and in that moment, she was making that clear.

Vicki’s grandmother’s reappearance also serves as a reminder of where Vicki had come from. Without her grandmother’s faith in her, Vicki would not have gone to Hollywood and achieved her current success. With Norman gone as a support system, Granny steps in to fulfill that role, but she is better able to bask in the glow of Vicki’s success than Norman is. It’s a bittersweet ending, but it makes things come full circle and resolve themselves. Vicki’s grandmother gave her the money to go to Hollywood because she believed in Vicki, and now Granny is able to see that Vicki has done well.

All in all, this is a wonderful movie. I love the Judy Garland one, but the Janet Gaynor film evokes so many feelings because 1930s films were much braver when it came to portrayals of gender roles and the effects that changes in society, and life, could have on them. Also, please make sure to have your Kleenex ready. It’s that good.

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