David Thomson: Film Studies

There were many 'Stars' - but only one that shone
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The Independent Culture

One of the oddest things about A Star is Born is that you could call it Death of a Star. There's no doubt that the original concept (offered by the eventual director, William Wellman, and Robert Carson) was a satire on balance. For as Hollywood discovers a new star, and turns Esther Blodgett (from North Dakota) into Vicki Lester, so one of its established figures, Norman Maine, has to go. What made the story more than satire, was that Vicki and Norman fall in love as their paths cross. And so, when the helplessly alcoholic Maine walks into the Pacific off Malibu, he's sacrificing himself so that Vicki's career can go on without hindrance.

One of the oddest things about A Star is Born is that you could call it Death of a Star. There's no doubt that the original concept (offered by the eventual director, William Wellman, and Robert Carson) was a satire on balance. For as Hollywood discovers a new star, and turns Esther Blodgett (from North Dakota) into Vicki Lester, so one of its established figures, Norman Maine, has to go. What made the story more than satire, was that Vicki and Norman fall in love as their paths cross. And so, when the helplessly alcoholic Maine walks into the Pacific off Malibu, he's sacrificing himself so that Vicki's career can go on without hindrance.

Of course, Vicki has a breakdown. She wants to give up her career. But then her grandmother reminds her of the pioneer spirit, and the great ideal for which Norman died. You can't give up the movies! Vicki rallies, and the film ends with her making a return appearance at an Academy Awards evening, amending the official announcement - "Vicki Lester" - to say that she is "Mrs Norman Maine".

Well, it was always a perilous storyline, and it's worth remembering that the two later Stars (with Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand) were less than box-office glories. Only the 1937 version really clicked, and that owes a lot to the astonishing idealism of Hollywood at that time and to the romanticism of the film's producer, David O Selznick.

No degree of irony, candour or satire could ever diminish David Selznick's urge to be a great man in the movies and in America (he saw little distinction between the two). He was the son of Lewis Selznick, a chronic gambler, a huckster, a hustler and a shark, who had made and lost a fortune in the movies before sound came along. So David wanted to redeem the family name, and prove that pictures could tell America's story in an uplifting way.

He and his kind were ruthless, brazen, vainglorious, you name it - no amount of dirt took the shine of heroism out of his own eyes. You could say that American movies were making a fortune for a few people while demolishing the narrative standards of the 19th-century novel. But David Selznick would have replied: how many read Henry James? I am making stories for everyone. And for a moment that universality was heady and noble. You can't approach A Star is Born without understanding that righteousness.

It was David's wife, Irene (the daughter of Louis B Mayer), who urged him to make A Star is Born (he had had doubts), and years later she wrote about the strange idealism the Selznicks had felt in those days: "Movies were like a great cause to us; to be pretentious, you could call it a sense of mission. I reinforced his [David's] aspirations. We had one romance with each other and another with the movies."

Neither lasted: Gone With the Wind was the climax of the marriage, and its success turned the idealists into warring factions who talked to each other through their lawyers. But that need not take everything away from the spirit of 1937, and the way in which as Selznick and Wellman made A Star is Born, they gave up the comedy and the satire and replaced it with a pure romance, as complete - if as fragile - as the pact of reciprocity in which a dumb beauty gazes at herself in the mirror.

So the Hollywood where Blodgett rises and Maine falls is forgiven - no matter that the sharpest character in the film, Matt Libby, the publicist and the true spirit of the factory system, is revealed as odious. It's more or less natural and proper that Norman should give way to Vicki, and the beguiling fatalism of Fredric March's performance as Norman adds a lot to that illusion. Esther/Vicki is Janet Gaynor. It's a lovely puzzle that the role always goes to mature stars (like Judy Garland) instead of real ingénues. For myself, I see a movie about March, just as in the re-make, despite the splendour of "The Man That Got Away", I still see it as a James Mason picture.

But if you want to understand Hollywood's self-belief, circa 1937, look at the original and the mixture of humbug and poetry in the grandmother's encouragement to the girl to go to Hollywood: "For every dream of yours that comes true, you pay the price in heartbreak. But if you're my grand-daughter - if you've got any of my blood, you'll go out to that Hollywood you're always mooning about... maybe it's your wilderness, your frontier." In that single speech, you can see the iconography of the western dissolving into the city-scape of Las Vegas, and the notion of perseverance and desire inspiring a community of gambling.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

'A Star is Born' is out now on DVD (Elstree Hill)

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