“Mind if I take just one more look?”
Norman Maine (played by Fredric March) asks this of Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) as he says good night on the evening of their first meeting in the 1937 movie A Star Is Born. Since then, Hollywood has kept taking one more look, remaking the film three times and including that exchange in every iteration, including the new Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga version.
With its inverse tale of one star on the rise as another falls, and its unflinching examination of the costs of stardom and the demons of addiction, A Star Is Born is a story that Hollywood just can’t get enough of — it’s the entertainment industry’s favorite vehicle for self-mythologizing.
It all started with the 1937 A Star Is Born, the first film to bear that title — though purists will point to 1932’s What Price Hollywood? as the true originator of the Star Is Born narrative, complete with the rise of an ingenue and the tragic demise of her alcoholic mentor. (He wouldn’t become mentor and lover until the ’37 film, however.) Both films were produced by David O. Selznick, and they were so similar that RKO threatened to file a plagiarism lawsuit against the renowned producer over ASIB.
But A Star Is Born wasn’t Selznick’s invention so much as it was director William A. Wellman’s baby — he devised the outline of the story with screenwriter Robert Carson. (Carson was ultimately credited as screenwriter alongside notorious wit Dorothy Parker and her husband, Alan Campbell.) Wellman brought the project to Selznick, who only agreed to tackle the property after much prodding from his wife, Irene Selznick, the sister of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, who had already passed on Wellman’s idea.
The core story of the ’37 film is much the same as the subsequent versions: A young woman has dreams of making it in Hollywood (or the music industry) and meets a famous man who both falls for her and helps put her on the path to stardom. That male star is on a downward trajectory, wrestling with alcoholism and addiction as his own career dwindles.
Ironically, the leads of the 1937 film were living circumstances opposite their characters: March’s star was on the rise while Gaynor, an Oscar winner in the 1920s, found her box office appeal waning and had recently left her contract at 20th Century Fox. At the TCM Classic Film Festival earlier this year, William Wellman Jr. revealed that Selznick originally wanted Merle Oberon to play the female lead, but Wellman Sr. felt her more exotic persona wasn’t the right fit for the Midwestern Cinderella at the heart of the film. He pushed for Gaynor, with whom he had recently made Small Town Girl.
The ’37 version leans least on the established star personas of its leads. March and Gaynor bring a complexity and lived-in quality to the roles that differs from the sense we’re watching the leading lady interrogate her own stardom the way we do with Judy Garland (in the 1954 version), Barbra Streisand (1976), and Lady Gaga.
The 1937 movie is extremely self-referential, packed with references to Hollywood stars, films, executives, and landmarks of the era. It opens and closes with filmed pages of a screenplay, outlining the scenes we are about to (or have just) witnessed on screen. It’s a winking nod to Wellman and Selznick’s awareness that they’re mythologizing the very business in which they work. As an extension of that, the film is also far more cynical than its more modern iterations. (As the world becomes more cynical, A Star Is Born grows more earnest.)
In addition to filming at Tinseltown landmarks like Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the Hollywood Bowl, the ’37 film also includes references to real stars and thinly veiled allusions to various studio moguls, fixers, and members of the press. Gaynor, a talented mimic, has a delightful sequence in which she attempts to impress Hollywood brass with her impressions of Greta Garbo, Mae West, and Katharine Hepburn while working a catering gig. Wellman also included cameos from numerous stars on the decline, including Mary Pickford’s first husband, Owen Moore, and Wellman’s own ex-wife, silent film star Helene Chadwick, who some speculate inspired sequences in the film.
If anything has as long a shelf life as the story of A Star Is Born, it’s the rampant speculation about who inspired the movie. What Price Hollywood? was believed to borrow from the life of silent-film star Colleen Moore, who installed her alcoholic husband, John McCormick, as her producer to boost her career, and silent-film director Tom Forman. Many have also surmised that the 1937 iteration of A Star Is Born drew directly from the life of Barbara Stanwyck, who married vaudeville star Frank Fay in 1928, just as she was emerging from chorus girl work — they moved to Hollywood shortly thereafter, and while her star exploded, Fay sank quietly into alcoholism.
There’s also considerable evidence to suggest that silent-screen stars John Gilbert and John Barrymore were models for Norman Maine, as is noted in Lorna Luft and Jeffrey Vance’s new book A Star is Born: Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away. Self-destructive tendencies and alcoholism ended their careers, and Barrymore was even reportedly considered for the role of Maine, but unable to remember lines without cue cards at that stage in his career. Wellman asserted that he based Maine’s watery suicide on the real-life death of John Bowers, a silent-film actor who drowned himself in the Pacific Ocean when his career opportunities dried up.
There are numerous other sequences in the 1937 ASIB that were drawn from Wellman’s own life. He told his son the scene where Blodgett, now Vicki Lester, wins an Oscar and is drunkenly interrupted by Maine was inspired by his own alcohol-fueled Oscar night when Wings, which Wellman directed, won the first-ever Best Picture prize. “My father was not invited to the awards ceremony,” Wellman Jr. recounted at the TCM festival in April. “He told me he went into [his] apartment, and he got drunk, and he gave that kind of speech that Fredric March gives in the movie, telling the Academy where they can go.” Hollywood legend also suggests Gaynor endured a similar indignity when she won her Oscar in 1929 (which she used as a prop in A Star Is Born); her sister was reportedly a drunken embarrassment to her throughout the evening.
The urban legends and rampant rumors surrounding the inspirations for A Star Is Born endure, but it’s the film itself that truly carries on, providing a framework for new generations of stars to both question and prop up the machinery of Hollywood, the music industry, and fame itself.
The original film, which eventually slipped into the public domain — perhaps another explanation for its refusal to leave our collective consciousness — was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, though it won only one, for Wellman and Carson’s original story. The 1954 version of a Star Is Born took home no trophies despite six nominations (many still point to Garland’s loss as the greatest snub in Oscar history), while the 1976 film earned Streisand her second Oscar, for penning the love ballad “Evergreen.” Now the Cooper and Gaga version is generating heavy Oscar buzz for its two leads and Cooper’s direction. In other words, even seven decades later, don’t expect Hollywood to stop looking back anytime soon.