Roughly forty-five minutes into William A. Wellman’s A Star is Born (1937), veteran press agent Matt Libby (Lionel Stander) is asked to fabricate a marketable biography for a certain Esther Victoria Blodgett (Janet Gaynor), his studio’s freshly signed ingenue. It all seems to be going quite smoothly—until Libby hears the new signee’s name. “Do you know,” he asks his boss indignantly, “what her name is?” Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou), the studio’s head producer, is no less mortified. “We’ll have to do something about that right away,” he concedes, and with that he launches into an impromptu brainstorm. Blodgett is out. Victoria is cut down to Vicki. And Esther? No: “Siesta, Besta, Sesta, Fester, Jester, Hester . . . Lester—Vicki Lester.” Niles chants the name like an incantation. He calls on his cronies for corroboration. The whole office starts crying it out: “Vicki Lester, Vicki Lester, Vicki Lester, Vicki Lester!” With that the studio has bestowed upon its latest acquisition the name she’ll soon have in lights. With that a star is born.
The basic premise of this sequence—that in the artificial world of Hollywood even names can be reinvented instantaneously—is broadly satirical, the sort of joke you expect to made at the industry’s expense in a movie about the entertainment industry. And yet the effect doesn’t seem to be ridicule so much as affection, even enthusiasm. The scene is amusing, but more than anything it’s exciting: the rhythm of the dialogue and the editing, speeding into a frenzy of cinematic christening, inspires a sort of vicarious exhilaration, culminating in Esther’s own reverence for hearing and repeating her newly minted name. The point isn’t simply to mock the superficiality of Hollywood process, nor is to deride from a distance the fickle whims that define authentic stardom. Hollywood is a lot of fakery and misdirection: it’s an old story, and nobody, in 1937 no less than today, could be surprised to hear it. Wellman is up to something more interesting this scene: he wants us to see how quickly and seamlessly an ordinary woman could be transformed into a fully fledged superstar. And he wants us, like awe-struck Vicki Lester, to recognize how extraordinary that is.
Perhaps a comparison is in order here. Consider how the same sequence plays out in George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood?, A Star is Born’s unofficial pre-code antecedent, from 1932: the aspiring actress in this case is Mary Evans (Constance Bennett), who makes her Hollywood debut in a bit part gifted to her by boozy film director Maximilian Carey (Lowell Sherman). After watching her deliver, amidst a deluge of a daily rushes, a single line of dialogue—“Hello Buzzy, you haven’t proposed to me yet tonight!”—producer Julius Saxe is convinced that he’s found “a great discovery,” and he seizes upon the opportunity to birth an overnight star. Ah, but there’s a problem with the name again: “Mary Evans? No good. We’ll change it.” Saxe soon changes his mind and in the end Mary Evans our hero remains. Still, the gag is the same: the cold logic of the studios apparently dictates that names be changed quite capriciously, the sobriquet of the stars just one more contrivance foisted on the moviegoing public. Mary has the good luck to keep her name, but you get the sense that she’d happily ditch it for a shot at stardom. As the title flatly suggests, life atop Hollywood isn’t free.
One further comparison. George Cukor’s more famous remake of A Star is Born, from 1954, borrows much from its 1937 predecessor, expanding the scope of the production (literally: the film was shot in Technicolor in 2.35:1) but retaining many of the story beats and specific details. As in the two original versions, this Star is Born concerns a young actress snapped up by the studio system and hurtled into instant celebrity. And, as in Wellman’s, the star to be is one Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), though this time around the star is spared the rigmarole of formal reinvention. Cukor handles the renaming process in a single line of dialogue: approaching a teller window for her first Hollywood paycheck, Esther is curtly informed that she is a Blodgett no more: “Your name is Vicki Lester,” a pronouncement that settles the issue on the spot.
The scene has been shortened, but the joke has been amplified: the gag isn’t simply that Hollywood will change your name in an instant, but, what’s more, they’ll change it without you even knowing, leaving you to hear about it when you go to pick up your check. The result, I think, makes for better satire—the punchline is funnier as understatement, and it pushes the conception of the star system from unfeeling to faceless and unfeeling. But what it loses is the quality that made Wellman’s scene stand out: the emphatic thrust of the moment, the vigor that unites us with Vicki in glee. All three versions of the film tell the story of the price of success. Each is pitched as tragedy, and in each we believe, by the end of the picture, in the sacrifices made. But if I like Wellman’s best of the three it’s because it’s the one that best impresses upon me a sense of excitement in the star’s ascent—it’s the one that dares exalt the victories of the Hollywood system at the same time that it laments its loses. In the moment of Vicki’s naming we feel what it must be like to be given over to the movies, to be taken and transformed into something more than yourself.