David O. Selznick scored an outsized hit with his showbiz 'expose' A Star is Born, one of the first Technicolor films. The work of his credited writers was second-guessed by a phalanx of pinch hitters that included Adela Rogers St. John, Ring Lardner Jr. and the ubiquitous Ben Hecht, all of whom were probably rewritten by Selznick anyway. The independent Selznick production was originally released through United Artists (man, if the pre-1950 UA pix were still part of the library...) but eventually fell into the public domain along with other popular classics like Stagecoach; this title unfortunately is still public domain. Savant first tried to watch it on television in the early 1980s and was shocked to see some 5th generation splicey mess; Image's budget-priced release has a few flaws but is far better than anything I've seen.
There's this great Merrie Melody Warner cartoon where a scrawny hick chick from Kansas wants to be a star and traipses around the barnyard like Katherine Hepburn; she's picked up by a slick bantam in a convertible and given a humiliating Hollywood runaround. Eventually back home and married to a slackjawed farmer-chicken, she catches one of her own fat little chicks doing a movie star impersonation ("Yahs, Rally, I would") and socks her with a thrown boot!
The cartoon had to be inspired by A Star is Born, a film that is half-realistic and the other half just as dreamy-eyed as any con-man's line about "come along with me and I'll make you a star, little girl." Janet Gaynor gives a terrific performance by not looking ridiculous as the hayseed hopeful from the midwest, desperately hoping to make it in Hollywood. Few Hollywood-on-Hollywood movies had treated the subject seriously, with the funny Marion Davies silent Show People standing out as one of the better "be a star!" fantasies. Davies does this great schtick striking exaggerated facial expressions to prove what a great actor she is; the only 'acting' we see Gaynor's wannabe do are some dreadful star imitations while trying to attract attention as a waitress.
A lot of A Star is Born is right-on for realism. Yep, it's true there were a zillion babes arriving in LA to get their big chance, and one of the better early scenes has the receptionist of a talent agency showing Gaynor a busy telephone exchange where operators repeating 100 times a minute that there are no jobs available.
Even more accurate is how Gaynor's Esther Victoria Blodgett gets her break. Clownish Andy Devine can't do much for her except be a sexless pal, but then Esther catches the eye of matinee idol Norman Maine, deftly played by Fredric March. It must be Esther's sparkling personality, because she's no looker in the standard sense. We just have to take it for granted that the girl from the corn country has some magic light in her eye. That and the fact that the script makes every other available female in the film out to be a contemptible snake.
Now, Norman gets Esther a screen test and then a plum role based on nothing but friendship and good faith, seeing her act only in a screen test (that we don't see). That much is credible enough, but the usual dispiriting truth of such arrangements is that the powerful person ends up sleeping with the hopeful wannabe and either loses their judgment or never had any in the first place. We never see Esther perform; yet from then on everything she does turns to gold. She just happens to have that magic that sends audiences, that elusive star power that Norman knows is slipping through his own fingers.
The more cynical of us will mentally re-write Esther's part the same way we did Debbie Reynolds' Kathy Selden in Singin' in the Rain - she uses Norman for all he's worth. A new life means a new identity for her as Vicki Lester - renamed as if she were reborn. It's a depression fairy tale that millions of American females could relate to.
Like most big Hollywood movies about The Movies, A Star is Born criticizes everyone but the producers. The big villain is Lionel Stander's loathsome press agent, Matt Libby. He pronounces Esther's last name like it was a disgusting bodily function, and has a psychotic need to kick Norman Maine when he's down. But the rest of the town behaves identically, envious and hateful of the big star when he's on top, and eager to laugh at him when he's not.
The producer Oliver Niles (Adolph Menjou, as benign here as he was malign in A Farewell to Arms) reluctantly signs Esther on the basis of Norman's say-so, and casts the complete unknown star into a major production as well. Esther thinks for a second that Oliver is making a move on her, right in his office, but he turns out to be a sincere, helpful and truly loyal friend from the start. That must have made lecherous predators like Harry Cohn feel really good. Niles is understanding and flexible with Norman's outrageous behavior and never disassociates himself from the disgraced actor, even after a scandalous appearance at the Oscar ceremony.
There's nothing about producers overworking their actors, or running their love lives, or cheating them out of money or forcing them to work in crummy movies or feeding them drugs to keep them on their feet for long shooting days. Not that that was always the case. It would be more likely that Esther would be kept on as a contract player but used only as someone to dress up parties and perhaps get cozy with whoever the studio needed to entertain. Ask Shelley Winters.
A Star is Born gets a lot of the atmosphere right, even if day-to-day Hollywood is overglamorized. The script handles Maine's drinking problem and Vicki Lester's attempt to do right by him with dignity and grace - Maine's sacrifice at the end was said to have been inspired by John Barrymore, if I remember my Hollywood Babylon correctly.
No wonder Hollywood ate up A Star is Born as the first affirmation of the town as a worthwhile place with some worthwhile people. There were just as many ethical movie people in the Golden Age as there were predators and fakes, and the script probably oversells the worst of the town in an effort to make Vicki and Norman seem as virtuous as possible.
Beyond the leads, the acting in A Star is Born is functional but snappy, with Menjou and Stander doing fine work. There are a lot of good bits filled by familiar faces (Francis Ford, Franklin Pangborn) and some good unusual ones. Edgar Kennedy is Esther's sweetheart landlord. Jed Prouty is a reprehensible press agent who would fit right in in Sweet Smell of Success. Among the starlets glimpsed at bars are Carole Landis (One Million, B.C.) and Margaret Tallichet (Stranger on the Third Floor).
Image's DVD of A Star is Born is a good transfer taken from a Technicolor print in reasonable shape. The colors are contrasty and a bit harsh but it's still the best I've seen this picture off a museum screen. A couple of splices are evident and one scene appears to have been faded early to avoid some damage, but the movie is almost completely intact. Best of all, the audio is fairly robust. It's been cleaned up and doesn't have problems of compression or distortion often found when the optical track from a print is used as a source. This is a good bargain for the price, and given the Public Domain status of the movie, getting anything better in the forseeable future is a doubtful prospect.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Star is Born rates: