A superb piece of classical Hollywood craftsmanship, William A. Wellman’s A Star is Born represents one of the sturdiest movie biz entertainments out there. Remade into the sublime George Cukor-directed, Judy Garland-starring musical in 1954 and the somewhat less-regarded Barbra Streisand vehicle two decades later, A Star is Born is on the remake radar yet again, with the proposed Clint Eastwood/Beyoncé pairing hardly sounding promising. Beyond strict remakes, some of the DNA of A Star is Born is present in nearly every film about Hollywood, and though Wellman’s film was hardly the originator, it’s a pretty perfect encapsulation of the wish fulfillment/heartbreak engine that drives films about show business dreams.
The delicate, enchanting Janet Gaynor stars as Esther Blodgett, a farm girl in North Dakota obsessed with the movies. Enabled by a gift from her grandmother (May Robson) to try her luck in Hollywood, she sets out to become a famous actress. But upon arriving she finds that even work as an extra is hard to come by, and her chances of making it on the big screen are essentially nonexistent.
Discouraged, she strikes up a friendship with similarly unemployed assistant director Danny McGuire (Andy Devine), whose few industry connections help land Esther her first gig — as a waitress at a wrap party. But an encounter with a charmed Norman Maine (Fredric March), one of Esther’s screen idols, sets her on the path to stardom. A simple camera test and a one-line part soon give way to a starring role opposite Maine, and Esther — rebranded as Vicki Lester, a wholesome girl next door type — becomes a star nearly overnight. But the euphoria of silver screen success is fleeting.
One of the greatest strengths of A Star is Born is it doesn’t play strictly as a cautionary tale. While Esther undergoes a significant, mythologizing makeover to be considered an adequate celebrity, she isn’t obviously fundamentally changed. Rather, the opposite side of her success is played out by Norman, whose career is crumbling thanks to changing tastes and his never-quite-conquered alcoholism. As a romance between Esther and Norman blossoms, his stardom evaporates while her popularity soars through the roof.