A Star is Born Part II: Backstory (& Foreshadowing)

sib poster

Well, it’s been months, darling. Time when contemplation of the past kicks in. . .when you wonder, have I got bitter, have the stars have lost their glitter?  We’ve had a storm here in New York and I’m cozying inside in a half-melancholic February nostalgia.

I’m as pure as the driven slush, Tallulah Bankhead once said, and having watched the original Selznick-produced A Star is Born (1937), one gets the feeling that it was only family money that allowed her such honesty–rare in a business built on selling dreams.  Selznick’s A Star is Born is all about Hollywood and about the syruped poison of success. 

Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) in a snow storm, returns home with her movie magazine, and is taunted by her family for her big dreams of becoming an actress.  Her grandma takes her aside, gives her a sockful of money, and tells her to hit the next bus for Hollywood.  Dreams are good, says grandma, they tell us who we are.

Naturrally, when Esther hits town she quite quickly meets a major star  (the superb Frederic March playing Norman Maine), when she’s cater-waitering at a tony mansion. It’s pretty clear from the bounce that he has an unquenchable taste for booze and small town cuties with big big eyes.  But this one–well, this one he falls for.

The myth-making commences. Norman takes her to the head of the studio, who quite naturally is awfully, awfully nice (!) and insists on Esther for his next picture. The studio publicist cringes at the sound of her name; “Blodgett?” he says, finally giving a name to that stuff which appears between your toes after a long run on a summer’s day. The makeup artists try giving her Dietrich brows and a Crawford sneer. . .it’s hopeless.  How about–say here’s an idea–how about having her look natural? Norman Maine coaches our girl, she tries to help him lay off the sauce, everything’s dreamy in that short-lived way of the movies–and when the movie is released the public likes her!  Dove-breasted ladies leaving the cinema remark to one another, “You can tell she’s a good girl.”

Unfortunately, no one’s talking about Norman.  Not anymore.

And as success arrives in Esther Blodge–sorry, now Vicky Lester’s–life, we see it draining from Norman’s like fluid from an IV bag.  And all the people Norman’s pissed off over his last decade of starlet-chasing and bathtub-boozing, do their damndest to kick him on his way down.  But no one damages Norman quite as much as the stunned man does himself.

Naturally it’s time to cue the wedding march! Oh boy. . .things are going to get nasty and then (worse, far worse). It must be seen for the luscious early technicolor. The ice cream pastels make the cruelty far more piercing.

And after you’ve watched it, come back here. I’ll be waiting, my love. Here and ready to lay down a few little riffs on how ASIB film brilliantly–and in at least one case, unintentionally– is a carnival mirror of Hollywood history:

1. Norman Maine’s descent: Hollywood whispered that ASIB was inspired by the Frank Fay/Barbara Stanwyck marriage (below right).  Fay was a mega-star on Broadway who came to Hollywood with fanfare and a fat contract.  His thin-skinned orphan of a wife accompanied him. She got little work–until Fay talked Capra into auditioning her, and one of the great collaborations of 30s film began with Ladies of Leisure in 1930.  faystanwyckCapra fell for Stanwyck’s naturalness and her ease; he filmed the young actress so her skin glows like wet paint, lush in its tactility.  Fay meanwhile, leaned hard on the bottle, lost work, began to knock his wife around and basically bought himself a one-way ticket out of town. Ten years later, Stanwyck was the highest paid woman in America. And Fay? Gone baby. Gone.

2. The sanitarium scene is said to be based on the a visit George Cukor (a frequent Selznick collaborator) made to a facility where Barrymore had been sent to dry up.  Cukor was there to talk about a potential role in “Camille,” and was unnerved by Barrymore’s awkward humility on this rare sober occasion.

3. When Vicky’s widow’s veil is snatched off by a fan? It happened to Norma Shearer at her producer husband Irving Thalberg’s funeral (which occurred during ASIB’s production) and led the way for Selznick to move to MGM and begin working with Louis B. Mayer.  Of course, working for his wife’s father prompted all sorts of nepotism slurs around town (“The Son-In-Law Also Rises”), despite Selznick’s constant struggle for independence.

4. The technicolor itself was part of a deal Selznick signed with his friend and partner, Jock Whitney, who had a 15% stake in Technicolor.  The arrogant/chronically insecure Selznick was thrilled to be allied with blue-blood east-coast aristos. Boy, was he naive.  In 1942, when Selznick had to sell his share in Gone with the Wind due to chronic gambling debts, Whitney generously offered $500,000. Two days later Whitney turned around and sold the movie to Selznick’s own controlling father-in-law, the aforementioned head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, for $3,000,000.  The old man had been trying to get his hands on the picture for years. And just like that (plus just like Norman Maine) Selznick became an instant has-been.

5. “. . .This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” The little fillip of lurve and showmanship at the end was inspired by the wife of silent film actor Wallace Reid.

Wallace Reid: The First Star System Casualty?
Wallace Reid: The First Star System Casualty?

He had been one of the first silent stars,  a dashing, teeth-flashing sort who was started on morphine after an on-set injury, and became terribly addicted.  He died in a sanatorium desperately trying to kick the drug.  Afterwards, his wife travelled the country afterward, talking about the dangers of drugs and of Hollywood, always calling herself Mrs. Wallace Reid.

6.After Whitney’s betrayal, Selznick’s career slowly imploded, led by his own gambling and obsession with shiksa cuties.  After years of chasing secretaries and showgirls around his desk, he finally got caught by the big eyes and gentle melancholy of Jennifer Jones. And his wife Irene  (née Mayer) wasn’t having it.

Jennifer Jones
Jennifer Jones. Cute. . .and well, she’s cute. 

Selznick (oh so reluctantly!) agreed to the divorce. In divorcing Irene Mayer–and her redoubtable father–he was divorcing Hollywood itself.  He spent the rest of his life trying vainly to make Jones a great enough star to make his divorce seem worth it. It wasn’t; they both knew it.  Everyone else knew it, too. Selznick retreated to amphetamines and travel, bullying old friends as he tried trying to recreate his past glittering successes of his. . .but it every time turned to slush beneath his feet.  Finally, in a twist-of-the-knife development, Irene Mayer herself became a discoverer of the Next Great Star: As producer of A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, she brought Marlon Brando to the world’s attention.

Selznick had started out to prove that someone could make a successful movie about Hollywood at a time when it was believed it couldn’t be done.  The irony is that the poor bastard did thought he was above it all. The fear produced by arrogance. The illusory charms of youth. The iron whim of the public. He’d thought hard work would be enough to keep the demons of the past at bay and that he’d never have to pay for something as trivial as his twin addictions: dexedrine and the casting couch.

Which makes one wonder. . .What was Vicki Lester’s second marriage like?

ScreenHunter_04 Feb. 17 08.00