A Star is Born (1937)

Dir: William A. Wellman. 1937. Starring: Janet Gaynor, Norman Maine, May Robson. English. Drama.
A Star is Born (1937)

A Star is Born. What a title. It promises greatness, wish fulfillment and a kind of immortality. What could sustain such a fire? What could possibly bring forth such legendary light? Even a star has humble beginnings and we meet our speck of star dust in a provincial home on a snowy day in Smalltown, USA. It is classic Americana movie making that marries depression era silents to the slow emerging prosperity of WWII America still harboring a romantic vision of manifest destiny.

There is an embittered aunt, a struggling pop, a bright but unformed kid brother, but most importantly and impressively a wise grandmother played with brilliance by May Robson. If you ever need inspiration watch her speech to Janet Gaynor's young and determined Esther, as she encourages her to follow her dreams of being an actress in Hollywood. It practically sings with the spirit of the wild west, not to mention female empowerment.

Hollywood and Hard Knocks. Oh what an ingénue must do to fulfill her destiny. Our charming pebble makes a few friends and and holds on to what looks a like a fool's dream until by chance she meets Norman Maine (Fredric March), an A-list actor whose life and career are teetering on a major decline. When given her first big break Esther doesn't waste it. In fact we start to see the first inkling of why this glimmering child might actually have the stuff of super novas. But once her light starts to emerge so Norman's must fade. Though James Mason's performance in the 1954 remake with Judy Garland is famed for its shattering heartbreak, March's grounded and and quiet crumbling makes for a much deeper silence as the last light of his own star blinks out.

This is a wonderful cinematic experience. Slightly over the top themes and settings are balanced by truly remarkable performances and acutely sagacious writing. There are immortal quotes in every scene. I've watched every version of this movie and there are fantastic elements to each one, but what a joy to engage a time seemingly far away and still so absolutely familiar to our own. Formula movies really do not change but sometimes it's the way you add the ingredients that makes the difference. 1937's A Star is Born retains a sharp wit, an affectionate optimism and undercurrent of sorrow that authentically exemplifies it's era more than any other version.


A Star is Born won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It was nominated for 6 additional Oscars, including Best Actor (Fredric March), Best Actress (Janet Gaynor), Best Director, and Best Picture.

Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Jan 21, 2008 3:54pm
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