Oscar for Best Writing: Original Story (William A. Wellman, Robert Carson), and Honorary Award for Color Cinematography (W. Howard Greene)
Producer David O. Selznick’s second crack at the Star is Born tale (after 1932’s What Price Hollywood?) retains the main points – girls wants to be a star; as her career thrives, her most devoted supporter (her husband) loses his battle to alcoholism – and adds blazing Technicolor and a full Max Steiner score to boot.
The changes to the original Price story, though, are major, and takes away the prior depiction of Hollywood as a poisonous town and replaces it with the more box office-friendly industrial dream city whose worst enemies are the personal demons that drive people to self destruct; the paparazzi and booze are just extra stressors that make brilliant talent go kaboom or rot in slow motion.
The Basic Story, Done New
One has to compare Price and Star to illustrate the furthering of the Star mythos, and certainly the central change involves the transformation of indie-minded Mary Evans into Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor). No longer a woman who’s moved to Hollywood on her own, Esther is an emotional small-town girl being stifled by her dour aunt and uncle, and teasing cousin. Only grandmother Lettie believes in following dreams, and Esther’s trip to Hollywood is given a push one night (and dramatized like prison camp escape) when gammy gives her money for train fare and find lodging in La-La Land.
Like Price’s Mary, Esther’s persistence isn’t eroded, but she is naïve to think the doors to fame are open to the general public. Efforts to try out extra work are rewarded with genteel scorn, and it’s only when she meets a neighboring assistant director named Danny (Andy Devine) that things kind of click. He offers her work as a waitress at a Hollywood partee, where she meets big star / giant drunk Norman Maine (Fredric March).
Smitten with her big-eyes, career hopes and innocence, he’s compelled to combine stealth courting with career counseling, and when a screen test proves sufficiently favorable, she’s signed as a small player by studio boss Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou). As her star power ascends, the public and exhibitors lose interest in Maine, adding a special stress to their relationship after they marry.
The power couple’s dynamics become unstable when Maine and Niles break their contract, and Maine’s unemployment woes are numbed by booze again – the evil substance he swore off as part of his marriage vows.
Worse (from a Hollywood stance), the former Oscar-winning Maine has been downgraded to has-been status. When Esther wins an Oscar for Best Actress, Maine destroys her triumph by crashing the awards ceremony drunk, even smacking her in the face during a rant against the town that built and subsequently spat him out like slag.
Efforts to go sober almost succeed until a fight with Nile’s vile publicist Matt Libby (Lionel Stander) brings out the town’s quiet distaste for the known drunk, so Maine decides to step back into his old persona and falls off the wagon again, going on a days-long bender.
After Esther and Niles bail him out from jail, Maine recuperates in the bedroom, where he hears Esther telling Niles she wants to quit acting and devote time to her marriage. Maine decides to sacrifice himself for his wife’s dignity and career, and goes for a swim in the ocean, with no intention of returning into Esther’s arms.
Maine’s funeral ends with the press and fans literally tearing away at Esther and her veil, and although she plans to pack up and go back to her small town home, grandmother Lettie arrives and scolds her for abandoning her career. Just as she built up her confidence to escape to Hollywood, gammy convinces her to stay and return to acting, and at the red carpet for her comeback film’s premiere, she introduces herself as Mrs. Norman Maine, in tribute to the man who sacrificed so much for her career.
Story Upgrades, Tweaks, and Refocusing
Price was sneaky, sharp attack at the Hollywood Dream factory, and how the town and its corrupted establishment ultimately ruin marriages and sanity, with a physical flight to another country being the only salvation. That radical depiction of Hollywood allowed the filmmakers to inject lots of commentary on fame, as well as overtly sexy behaviour in the bedroom.
With Star made after the implementation of the evil Production Code, the moral dynamics needed some tweaking.
First the characters had to be simplified: Price’s drunk director Max and virile polo athlete / husband Lonny are distilled into charismatic / tragic Norman Maine (and like Max, Maine also commits suicide for the benefit of star Mary / Esther).
Studio boss Niles is less money-grubbing than Price’s Julius Saxe. Niles is clearly torn between the needs of stockholders and exhibitors, and his friendship with Esther and Maine, whom he genuinely likes; he just wishes the drunkenness would disappear.
With Niles no longer a loud-mouthed, grey-level villain, the writers created publicist Matt Libby, patterned after the hawkish studio publicists who shaped the lives of stars in print and radio before the celebrities lived them out. He’s loathsome, has contempt for the studio’s cattle, and wields considerable power in Hollywood, including the town’s police force. (When Maine and Libby get into a brawl, Libby sends the police away – a true reflection of the influence publicists like legendary MGM publicity chief Howard Strickling).
Libby’s one-note character and lack of charisma may also be one of the few ways in which the filmmakers were able to subversively criticize town machinations, since the film’s pro-Hollywood stance is so overt.
Additionally, in Price, Mary’s marriage to Lonny is organized by boss Julius, and the mass of press and fans tear away at her wedding gown. In Star, Esther and Maine elope, and while their quick civil ceremony is a cute scene, it also hints at the unpleasantness of fame mucking up a star’s private moments. The fans in Star are less brutal and invasive, but their fickleness is apparent when Maine and Libby have that racetrack fisticuff; and at Maine’s funeral where, as with Mary’s wedding parade, Esther has her veil ripped off by a fan hungry for a picture.
Esther has no other lovers outside of Maine, and any intimacy happens (off-screen) after marriage. Her supportive friend Danny is sexually inert. Essentially a functional character who disappears from the narrative after Esther meets Maine, the writers bring him back now and then purely because they need to show Esther has a friend or two.
The writers also make Danny present during her screen test, which sets him up as a friend of Maine’s. That makes it logical that he’d be present at the couple’s civil wedding and Maine’s funeral, but it’s offset by Danny having no dialogue for the rest of the film except a wisecrack or two. (It’s probably a tribute to Devine that the actor / comedian’s persona ends up saving Danny’s severely neutered character in the film’s second half.)
Moreover, unlike Max or Lonny – both virile men who like to flirt with Mary in Price – Danny’s written like a chubby older and unattractive brother, ensuring his talks or hugs with Esther never lead to any romance.
The one interesting piece of subtext the writers managed to work into Danny’s scenes actually sets up an inference that Maine is back to drinking long before he tells Esther ‘he needs a drink.’
Early in the film, Danny and Esther toast their new friendship by having milk and rum; later on, after Maine is unemployed, he ends up answering calls and taking messages for Esther, and at one point is called ‘Mr. Lester” by a delivery boy. When Maine and Esther sit down afterwards for a dinner of sandwiches, Maine offers a quick toast, but he seems to hold his glass of milk rather nervously (and a flash of angst creeping across his face), which quietly tells the audience he’s probably been sneaking booze into his diet for a while now, since he’s been reduced to an ‘Oscar-winning’ secretary for big star Vicki Lester.
The primary drama in Star isn’t the pathway Esther takes to live the Hollywood star myth; it’s the affects of booze on a genuinely loving couple, and it’s their little moments as well as the really strong performances that make the film work so well, seventy years after its release.
Gaynor is wonderful as the sensitive but strong Esther, and she has solid chemistry with March, who looks dashing and comfortably inhabits the role of a big star dealing with the ill trappings of fame. (The irony is that while stars do fall from grace, sometimes due to personal demons and awfully public sandals, March’s fame increased during the forties, after which he evolved into a strong character actor.)
March has some wry, comedic moments, but perhaps the most amusing is the nervous expressions he makes at the bar when he needs a full glass of scotch and a squirt of soda to get through the night. The grimacing and shirt collar pulling recall the transformation scenes he acted out in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), and one can’t help wondering if he was having some fun, referencing the film to infer Maine’s Hyde – the boorish drunk – was starting to come out.
The comedic moments between March and Esther are tonally similar to the humour in Price, but it feels less schizophrenic. Maine is a lovable drunk, and the script offers up a number of witty scenes, such as the kitchen plate breaking at the Hollywood partee, and dry cracks other characters make about beauty, stardom, and voguish eyebrows.
The honeymoon sequence includes Esther foolishly trying to fry a steak and heat up buns in the camping trailer while Maine drives on a bumpy mountain road, and Maine taking a shower in the camper’s foot-wide ‘shower stall.’ Less jarring (and funny in the way director William Wellman and March time the scene) is where Maine sits in the studio commissary eating breakfast, and sees Esther rehearsing lines for her day’s work. He initially thinks it’s all part of the morning hangover, and we know he’s having one because his slow realization that Esther is seated nearby is punctuated by Maine preparing his hangover cocktail: a raw egg, salt, pepper, and Tabasco sauce.
Gammy: Shades of Tara
One significant change that wasn’t retained in the 1954 remake is grandmother Lettie’s self-serving visit at the end. Gammy explains that her current pride in Esther stems from being the grandmother of Vicki Lester, not Esther Blodgett, and if she came back home, Lettie would have little reason to be proud. In keeping with the myth of ‘the show must go on’ for the greatness of Hollywood, Esther decides to stay, and the moment is acted out by Gaynor as something hugely triumphant.
The dialogue in which Lettie argues her case of struggling on, sacrificing part of your heart, and picking up the pieces and getting stronger from tragedy is very much a precursor to the ‘Tara’ speech that cycles in Scarlett O’Hara’s mind at the end of Selznick’s Gone With The Wind (1939).
One can’t help feel that producer / wannabe writer Selznick grafted the basics of this scene onto the finale of GWTW, because as a producer and amateur writer, he was very hands-on with his productions. (Like GWTW, Star was produced under the Selznick International shingle.) The flow of Lettie’s dialogue progresses to inspirational phrases, and like Scarlett O’Hara, Esther physically shifts from a slumped over figure to an erect stance, almost facing the camera with her big Technicolor face.
Months later, Esther, friend Danny (still blatantly emasculated), and her grandmother are at the premier of her comeback film, and when Lettie is beckoned to the microphone to share some words to millions of fans (all live), she expresses her delight in becoming a star ‘sixty years’ late, which may have been superficially humorous, but really reveals gammy as a fame-hungry vampire who pushes Esther to return to the phony life of Vicki Lester so Lettie can bask in the expansive wave of her granddaughter’s fame and fortune.
It’s perhaps the film’s most significant stealth comment on the ills of fame that the filmmakers injected into a movie that’s ostensibly a fairy tale about the myth that anyone can become a star. That myth is nailed home by the first and last pages of the Star shooting script that bookend the film.
In terms of ephemera, Star is a time capsule of names and famous places in Hollywood, as well as the practice of having a live mic feed to radio listeners at the premiere of a major film, where the actors would pull up in their limos, stroll onto the red carpet in their toniest attire, and say a few witty or personable words to film fans before disappearing into Mann’s Chinese Theatre (the same locale used for the premiere sequence in the ’54 remake as well as Price).
Just as intriguing is the Oscar ceremony, which is really just an industry banquet where the bald gold statues are handed out, and a few platitudes are expressed by the winner before he or she returns to their table. It’s such a low-key affair compared to the ’54 variation, whereby the ceremony had evolved into the premiere media event for stars, producers, and studios to tout their wares, and film acceptance speeches for newsreels and TV cameras.
Lastly, there’s the preview sequence in which Esther’s film debut with Maine is screened for an audience. Like current previews, there’s a warning card that explains the film’s partially unfinished status, and the follow-up sequence where producer Niles stands by the theatre doors, listening to the comments of exiting film fans.
March would reteam with director Wellman to make the nutty Ben Hecht comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), playing a character with a rebellious streak and dry wit not dissimilar from Norman Maine. Menjou would enjoy a long and prolific career, whereas Gaynor would make only two more films – Three Loves of Nancy, and The Young at Heart (both 1938) – before retiring from film until a rare appearance in the teen comedy Bernadine (1957).
The Current DVD Edition
Like many of the Selznick International productions, Star is badly in need of restoration and a proper home video release. Image’s DVD seems to use the old 1997 laserdisc master, which was derived from a wear-worn Technicolor print that has its share of scratches, weak colour registration and the odd fuzzy focus issues. The sound is low, flat and generally horrible, and the disc’s only extra is a Technicolor costume test that has models in long gowns posing for the camera before each one steps away and leaves the frame.
If the ‘54 remake deserved a restoration in 1983, so does this lost classic, which offers a strikingly different spin on the Star mythos. Warner’s home video editions of the ‘54 and ‘76 remakes include the same striking trailer for the ‘37 version, and it’s a tragedy Image’s disc looks nowhere nearly as gorgeous as the trailer.
Whoever owns the film should assemble a special edition with surviving archival materials (at least four radio show versions of the film were performed by different members of the cast between 19837-1950), an historian commentary track, and an isolated score track (culled, at least, from surviving acetates).
Seriously. This film deserves it.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan