On April 20, 1937, David O. Selznick premiered A Star Is Born, featuring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, in Los Angeles. The film went on to earn seven Oscar nominations at the 10th Academy Awards, winning for original story. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review, headlined “‘A Star Is Born’ Magnificent, Entertaining Money Picture,” is below:
Magically capturing the essence of that Hollywood which to many millions throughout the world is the most interesting city on earth, and welding into that a poignant film-star love tale, the whole embodied in a production in color of superlative excellence, David O. Selznick has smashed through again with a triumphant entertainment.
Not for a long time has there been a picture as susceptible to legitimate exploitation and few if any that better deserved it or could make a bigger return in dollars. A Star Is Born, with a responsive world-audience ready made, is due for a record-smashing career everywhere.
In its picturization of the film world of Hollywood, Selznick does the industry a marked service. Without missing its comedies or its fascinations of whitewashing its follies and its heartbreaks it contrives to give an essentially authentic and a wholesome portrait. This is not the usual parody or burlesque of the film capital but an almost documentary presentation, albeit a delightfully entertaining and slyly amusing one.
The story is as typical of Hollywood as are the episodes so adroitly chosen to embody it — the meteoric rise of one player by persistence, hard work and a likable personality and the slide to obscurity of another whose head has been turned by success. The device of joining these two in a happy marriage, so that the man’s decline runs side by side with his wife’s advancement until they are faced with the need for the self-sacrifice of one or the other, is exceedingly effective in creating emotional stress, sympathy and acting opportunity. It also makes the perfect frame for a comprehensive look in on Hollywood’s work world and play spots.
The stars who play these stars are Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. Miss Gaynor is the sweet, smalltown Esther Blodgett who joins the thousands storming the studio gates and, unlike most of the thousands, gets her chance and becomes the world-favorite, Vicki Lester. March is the enormously successful Norman Main, whose numerous affairs with women and heavy drinking have already set him on the skids that are so seldom reversible. Both give brilliant portrayals. Miss Gaynor’s unaffected naturalness and always winning personality are Vicki’s big assets throughout her screen career but she commands with power an ample emotional range as the tragic ending approaches. March, in his drunken flamboyance, his struggles against his own weakness, his respectful adoration of his girl wife and his final courageous facing of the supreme sacrifice for her sake, is completely satisfying. Every chord rings true and the character is at all times made sympathetic, despite the surface defacements.
The use of Technicolor for the production adds greatly to its interest and value, precisely because the color is at all times kept subordinate. It enriches without overwhelming. The tints are more completely controlled and effective than in any of the previous color pictures. Soft tones in expressive harmonies prevail and even the inevitable solid blacks are capitalized for pictorial value, notably in the opening night episode in the girl’s home town, where the somberness of the situation is matched by low-key photography, with so little color apparent that it will probably miss the attention of many. Credit goes to Lansing C. Holding, designer and to Natalie Kalmus of the Technicolor staff, for this satisfying advance in the new technique.
The story is the work of William A. Wellman, who also directs, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell. It is especially effective in meeting the problem of multiple activities and locations. Drama does not really begin until the marriage, half way through, but the long opening narrative built of short scenes that are often little more than anecdotes, each one of which is a step in the girl’s climb, is completely self-supporting, as are each of its parts. The writing is delightful and the comedy content is surprisingly high as it is true to the real Hollywood.
To give it a quick glance — Janet arrives in front of the Chinese theatre for a reverential glance at the famous footprints. She finds a rooming house presided over by “Pop” Edgar Kennedy, where she is befriended by Andy Devine, a jobless assistant director. Andy takes her to the Hollywood Bowl for a Symphony concert and there she sees her future husband make a drunken fool of himself. She encounters the real Central Casting and its non-registration rule and hires out as a waitress at a party because film biggies are to be there and tries to attract their attention with priceless imitations of Garbo, Hepburn and Mae West.
But it is her simple charm that attracts the respectful admiration of March, who wrangles a test for her from his producer, played as a reasonable and friendly human being, and very well played, by Adolphe Menjou. Then come the steps of training and a contract, the ministrations of Lionel Stander as a high-power publicity man and at last a preview and a success that also marks the fall of March.
Add a party at the Trocadero, with a beautiful night shot of the lights of Hollywood from the hill, a runaway marriage and an idyllic honeymoon in a trailer among the mountains, a boxing bout at the Legion Stadium, home — far too static for the idle March — in a Beverly Hills mansion, Santa Anita with the blue Sierras shimmering gorgeously in the background, the Academy dinner, with Janet getting the acting award and her husband disgracing her before them all, but not for jealousy of her. Then a home in Malibu, their happiness in each other interrupted by a shameful police court episode, and here the contrite husband swims to his end into the only sunset in the picture. Then the funeral with a morbid and merciless mob driving the heartbroken widow into hysterics, and afterwards, under the wise goading of that most understanding and spirited of grandmothers, May Robson, the resolve to carry on in her profession.
Technical credits for this striking work must be unstinted. William A. Wellman, directing, has built magnificently, eliciting top values in human interest, veracious comedy and moving emotion. W. Howard Greene’s photography capitalizes the widely varied scenes and their varied color for a pictorial tour de force, to which the sets of Lyle Wheeler and Edward Boyle and the costumes of Omar Kiam are a fine contribution. Max Steiner’s musical score is unobtrusively a delight.
The rest of the supporting cast is large and excellent, some of the best work being in uncredited bits in the short scenes. Among the standouts are Peggy Wood, Elizabeth Jenns, J.C. Nugent, Guinn Williams and Clarence Wilson. — Staff review, originally published on April 19, 1937.