A STAR IS BORN (William A. Wellman, 1937)

“You know, Esther, there will always be a wilderness to conquer. Maybe Hollywood is your wilderness now.” — Lettie, to her granddaughter

Tremendous and overwhelming, the original A Star Is Born is the one substantial film among the three versions. People will continue to argue whether Janet Gaynor or Judy Garland gives the better performance (most agree that Barbra Streisand is dreadful in the third version), but in truth neither is so wonderful that the decision matters; on the other hand, Fredric March’s Norman Maine is among the greatest performances in cinema. March’s Maine, “[whose] work,” someone notes, “has begun to interfere with his drinking,” must watch his wife’s film career skyrocket as his own fades. March is terribly, painfully, brilliantly moving. By now it is an open secret that the marriage of the Maines, with its one career rising as the other falls into the Pacific Ocean, was based on Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay, who eventually scored a comeback when he started seeing and hearing a gigantic rabbit that nobody else could see or hear.
     March, then, is the film’s principal claim to artistic glory. But what would the film have been without Wild Bill Wellman at the helm? It is his toughness that cuts across the material’s potential for self-pitying soap opera; we see this potential come into its messy own with George Cukor directing Garland and James Mason, both of whom never miss an opportunity to have their voices throb with emotion. Wellman directs the thing right—and creates an unexpectedly quiet film, as though Maine were recollecting the story right before, or right after, he drowns. (When news of the drowning reaches him, Maine’s publicity agent quips, “First drink of water he’s had in twenty years.”)
     Wellman never won a directorial Oscar, although his Wings (1927) won the first best picture Oscar, and A Star Is Born brought him and Robert Carson the prize for best original story. Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Carson, Ben Hecht, Ring Lardner Jr. and Budd Schulberg were among those who worked on the script.
     However, those familiar with her novels will detect the spirit of Willa Cather also at work here; and the most decisive influence of all is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, which appeared only a few years earlier, and whose doctor-patient have become established movie star-new movie star.
     Unlike Fitzgerald’s novel, Wellman’s film was a big hit.

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