Star Is Born, A (1937): Wellman’s Oscar Winning Film, Starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March

UA (Selznick International Pictures)

Legendary producer David O. Selznick chose Janet Gaynor for the lead role in A Star Is Born, even the  circumstances of her own rise were almost the opposite of the character she plays in the movie.

Gaynor won the best actress Oscar in the Academy’s first year, for three different roles: “Seventh Heaven,” “Street Angel,” and “Sunrise.”  Gaynor, who had a charming voice ideally suited for talkies, and was nominated for an Oscar for “A Star Is Born.”

Her fans adored it when she was teamed romantically in many movies with handsome Charles Farrell and she was not a party girl. By mid‑1930’s her appearances onscreen were relatively infrequent. Janet Gaynor’s star persona differed from and was highly similar to Lester’s personality. She pretty much plays herself as Lester and has a big charm.

The first scenes of this tale, which describes Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester’s rise to fame, are the most impressive, conveying vividly the physical and emotional preparation for being a major star.  The public has never scene this before, the work of cosmetic and facial experts, hair stylists, make-up artists

At least half a dozen individuals, including Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell (who were credited) and producer Selznick (who was not), contributed to the screenplay.

There are some witty, darkly humorous lines, probably penned by Dorothy Parker, member of the famous and notorious “Algonquin Round Table.”  Thus, after Frederic March’s Norman Maine’s drowning himself in Malibu to save his wife’s career, Lettie (Lionel Stander)  says: “First drink of water he’s had in 20 years, and then he had to get it by accident. How do you wire congratulations to the Pacific Ocean?”

The producer Oliver Niles (played by Adolph Menjou) also quips cynically about the public: “Fans will write to anyone for a picture, because it only takes a three-cent stamp, and that makes pictures cheaper than wallpaper.”

Of the three versions of the same story, George Cukor’s 1954 film, starring Judy Garland and James Mason, is the most satisfying.

Oscar Nominations: 7

Best Picture, produced by David O. Selznick

Director: William A. Wellman

Actor: Frederic March

Actress: Janet Gaynor

Assistant Director: Eric Stacey

Original Story: William A. Wellman and Robert Carson

Screenplay: Alan Campbell, Robert Carson, and Dorothy Parker

Oscar Awards: 2

Original Story

Special Award: W. Howard Greene for the color photography

Oscar Context:

In 1937, nine other movies competed with “A Star is Born” for Best Picture, including Warner’s biopic “The Life of Emile Zola,” nominated for ten Oscars and wining the top prize, Leo McCarey’s marital comedy “The Awful Truth” with six nominations, and Gregory La Cava’s backstage drama, “Stage Door,” with four.  The other nominees were: William Wyler’s social drama set in a New York City slum, “Dead End,” Frank Capra’s utopian comedy “Lost Horizon,” and Henry King’s adventure “In Old Chicago,” the adaptation of Pearl Buck’s novel “The Good Earth,” and the Deana Durbin vehicle, “One Hundred Men and a Girl.”

Next to “The Life of Emile Zola,” the most-nominated films were Fox’s adventure “In Old Chicago” and “A Star Is Born.”  Only one of the ten nominated pictures was a comedy, Leo McCarey’s sublime screwball, “The Awful Truth,” co-starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne at their very best.

The Oscars were spread among eight films; the only two pictures that didn’t win any award were “Dead End” and “Stage Door.”