“Hello everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”
— Mrs. Norman Maine (Janet Gaynor) in A Star Is Born (1937)
When I first saw the red neon of the opening credits of the 1937 best picture nominee, A Star Is Born, I thought to myself, “This is a real movie movie.” And I was so impressed by that thought that I even jotted it down in my review notes and now, looking down at my notes, I’m struggling to figure out how to explain just what exactly it was that I meant.
I think that what I was trying to say, in my own way, was that, when we think of a typical big budget Hollywood romance, A Star Is Born is the type of film of which we tend to think. It’s a big, glossy film that is shot in vibrant technicolor and which features a self-sacrificing woman (Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor) falling in love with a self-destructive but ultimately noble man (Norman Maine, played by Fredric March). It’s a film that has romance, humor, and tragedy. It’s a film that’s designed to make you laugh, cry, and ultimately fall in love. It’s pure melodrama, the type of film that would probably be made for Lifetime today. (And, in fact, it has been remade for Lifetime a number of times, just never under the title A Star Is Born.)
It’s a familiar story that, if I may indulge in a cliché, as old as the movies. Esther is a girl who lives on a farm in North Dakota and she wants to be a star, despite being told by her aunt that she need to start concentrating on finding a man and having children. Esther’s grandmother (Fay Robson) tells Eleanor to pursue her dreams and loans her some money to take with her to Hollywood.
With stars in her eyes, Esther goes out to California and deals with rejection after rejection. (She does, however, manage to rent out an apartment. The weekly rent is $6.00.) Esther does befriend an assistant director (Andy Devine) who gets Esther a job as a waitress at a party. As Esther serves the food, she imitates everyone from Katharine Hepburn to Mae West, all in an attempt to get noticed.
And, amazingly enough, it works! She meets film star, Norman Maine. With Norman’s help, she gets her first screen test and, after her name is changed to Vicki Lester, Esther is put under contract to a studio. She and Norman also fall in love and soon end up married. However, while Vicki Lester is rising to stardom, Norman is descending into irrelevance. He’s an alcoholic who has managed to alienate almost everyone in Hollywood. When Vicki wins her first award, Norman shows up at the ceremony drunk and destroys what little is left of his career.
Will Vicki be able to save Norman from his demons? And will she be able to do so without destroying her own career?
Well, you probably already know the answer. A Star Is Born is one of those stories that everyone seems to know, regardless of whether they’ve actually seen the film or not. (And even if they haven’t seen the 1937 version, chances are that they’ve seen one of the many remakes or ripoffs.) The original Star Is Born is an undeniably familiar and old-fashioned movie but it holds up as a celebration of both old Hollywood glamour and a heartfelt romance.
And it’s in the public domain!
Watch the original A Star is Born below!