By the late nineteen thirties Janet Gaynor‘s incredible run in the movies was coming to an end. At the age of twenty only two years after arriving in Hollywood she became one of the biggest stars of the silent movie era.
Although basically typecast as the wholesome girl next door she made the absolute most of it and turned in one outstanding performance after another culminating in the 1928 Academy Award for Best Actress.
The arrival of sound posed no problems for Gaynor as it did for many other silent movie titans. Her voice seemed to be what audiences of that time period expected namely sweet and innocent.
But changing taste and one too many bland films had started to take its toll. She would not appear on the big screen again for almost twenty years.
But Gaynor was not going to go quietly into the night. In 1937 this 5 foot dynamo showed she still had the acting chops and magnetic screen presence to make film goers take notice. That was the year she was cast in A Star Is Born.
Her co-star Fredric March was at the opposite end of the Hollywood movie spectrum.March had also won an Academy Award for his role in Dr Jekyll/Mister Hyde six years before and was settling into a long career in film which would take him all the way into the nineteen seventies.
Yet it really does not matter where either one was during this time period. When two actors who know their craft get together with a great director a terrific script and a solid supporting cast then good things are going to happen. That was exactly the case with A Star Is Born.
In it Gaynor plays Esther Blodgett.She is a wholesome small town girl (surprise surprise) who arrives in Hollywood with dreams of becoming a movie star.
When told that her chances of achieving this goal are one in a hundred thousand she says “But maybe I’m that one.” It’s not said with arrogance or desperation but with a gentle confidence that lets you know that Esther is in Hollywood to stay.
After a series of setbacks she meets Norman Maine (March) a brilliant actor who takes a serious liking to Esther and does everything in his power to fulfill her ambition. Along the way the two fall in love and get married.
And she does become a star. Studio boss Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou) transforms her from Esther Blodgett to Vicki Lester sets the publicity machine in motion and before long Vicki’s fame has surpassed Norman’s.
But Maine is a very troubled man. The stardom that he worked so hard to achieve and that he hoped would finally bring him happiness turned out to be an illusion. Instead he finds himself battling and losing to the one person who is doing everything they can to destroy him once and for all. Norman Maine.
Yes Esther becomes a huge star but it is a bitter sweet triumph as she watches the man she loves, the person who made her dreams come true self-destruct before her eyes.
And his descent is a painful thing to watch. The people that Maine treated with contempt relish his fall from grace as mostly any human that has been stepped on one too many times would. Is Maine getting what he deserves?
Most likely but you cannot help but feel sorry for him. That’s to the credit of Frederic March who creates a full portrait of this character from beginning to end. The scene where he drunkenly interrupts the award ceremony for Esther is a great example. It’s awkward, humiliating and unpleasant to say the least. Which means one thing: A great actor pulled it off beautifully.
Director William Wellman and writer Robert Carson do not pull any punches. It’s not so much a comment about the dark side of Hollywood but a love story with the inner workings of movie making as a backdrop. Two individuals brought together by chance only to be pulled apart by personal choices.
*** Had to add this short video. If you want to know why Janet Gaynor became America’s Sweetheart here’s your answer.