Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) is a starry-eyed farm girl with dreams of hitting it big in the movies. She heads out to Hollywood but struggles to find work as an extra. A friend of hers gets her a job waitressing at a movie star cocktail party. She fails to impress the bigwig producers at the party but does draw the attention of Norman Maine, a major movie star (Fredric March).
Norman has some major problems. Most importantly, he's a raging alcoholic with an unfortunate tendency to get drunk in public. His alcoholism is negatively impacting his film career, which is on the downhill slide—which is making him drink more, in a negative feedback loop. Despite his demons, Norman is enchanted with the lovely, guileless Esther. He gets her a screen test at his studio, which leads to the stage name "Vicki Lester", which leads to a starring role opposite Norman in his next movie. Soon Esther/Vicki is a major star. She and Norman fall in love and get married—but she can't stop his slide into oblivion.
This is not related to the 1948 film A Song Is Born. However, it is the first iteration of a popular show business story that was remade in 1954, 1976, and 2018. Ironically, stars Gaynor and March were the opposites of their characters; Gaynor made only one more movie before retiring from show business, while March was then at the zenith of a film career that lasted into the 1970s.
The Oscar seen in the film is Janet Gaynor's Oscar, the first ever given for Best Actress.
Tropes present in this work:
- And a Diet Coke: Norman orders a scotch and soda from the bar. He then makes the bartender fill it nearly to the top with scotch. The bartender has enough room for one squirt of soda.Oliver: The word is pronounced "when"!
- Award Show: Vicki wins an Oscar. This leads to a memorable drunken disruption by Norman:"I want a statue for the Worst Performance of the year!"
- The Alcoholic: Norman's addiction of choice, which takes a toll on his career and personal relationships.
- And Starring: In-Universe, Vicki gets this billing for her first big part in The Enchanted Hour.
- Deadpan Snarker: Randall, the desk clerk at the rooming house where Esther lives. When she walks in and asks if there were any calls, he says "Oh no, Jesse Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn must be writing you letters instead."
- Face Framed in Shadow:
- In the scene where Norman is saying goodbye after his and Esther's first quasi-date, the whole shot is carefully framed to show her face half-framed in shadow, by his shadow. The shot is finally disrupted when he leans in to kiss her.
- Only Norman's eyes are visible as he listens to Vicki tell Oliver that she's going to quit the movies to take care of Norman. He kills himself right after.
- Famous, Famous, Fictional: When a newly-arrived Esther checks out the footprints in concrete at Grauman's Chinese Theater she sees the footprints of Jean Harlow, Harold Lloyd, and Norman Maine. (Lloyd's footprints were in Real Life next to the square for Janet Gaynor; you can see the last "r" in Gaynor's name.)
- Hourglass Plot: Vicki rockets to stardom while Norman's career is already going downhill at the start of the movie, and starts picking up speed.
- Inadvertent Entrance Cue: Oliver grouses about Norman's drinking, saying "He's probably at the studio sleeping it off." Cue Norman coming down stairs in an immaculate tuxedo for the party.
- Instantly Proven Wrong: Oliver the producer is trying to reassure a skeptical director about Norman's drinking problem, saying "You don't have to worry about his behavior." Cue a phone call reporting that a drunk Norman stole an ambulance.
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Norman's implied main motivation for his suicide, after he overhears Esther/Vicki say that she is willing to give up her career to help him.
- I Was Quite a Looker: When recounting how she chased her dreams when she was Esther's age, Granny says "I was a very pretty young girl. Prettier than you!"
- Jerkass: The press agent Libby, as well as the fans who have zero empathy after Norman's suicide and reassure Vicki that "he was nothing."
- Match Cut: In this case, matched with a Wipe. Esther enters Libby's office. Two doors meet in the middle of the doorway to close the entrance. Then the scene wipes to the next scene in the exact same way, with two wipes coming from each side and meeting in the middle.
- Meaningful Echo: "Do you mind if I take just one more look?" The first time Norman says this is as he's saying goodbye to Esther at the end of their first date. The second time Norman says this is right before he walks out the patio door to commit Suicide by Sea. The third time, Vicki says this as she's packing away a photo of Norman at the end.
- Never Mess with Granny: Vicki's grandmother is the only one to encourage and fund her dream, and later shows up to storm her way into Vicki's room to encourage her to continue her career after Norman's death.
- Painting the Medium: The film begins and ends with shots of the opening and closing pages of its own screenplay.
- Pretty in Mink: Vicki wears an ermine wrap, worn like a dress, at the end of the film.
- Real Name as an Alias: Vicki and Norman get married under their real names to avoid public attention; they even fool the priest.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Libby eventually gives Norman a scathing speech about how much he's always hated and resented him.
- Revealing Hug: When Norman hugs Vicki for the final time before he commits suicide, he has a hidden, tragic look on his face.
- Sarcasm Mode: When Norman humiliates Vicki at the Oscars, the lady that Norman dumped for Vicki sidles up to Vicki's table and says, voice dripping with sarcasm, "My dear, do let me congratulate you. You must be terribly proud and happy tonight."
- Show Within a Show: Norman and Vicki go to see a screening of their own movie, The Enchanted Hour. It comes off as very hokey Melodrama but it makes Vicki a star.
- Stage Names: The studio gets "Vicki" from Esthers middle name, Victoria, and "Lester" rhymes with Esther. How they got Norman Maine from Alfred Hinkle is never explained, though.
- Suicide by Sea: Norman kills himself by walking off into the ocean to drown.
- Tap on the Head: Norman's girlfriend, seeing him pay attention to Esther, smashes what appears to be a ceramic serving dish over his head. He pops right back up, none the worse for wear.
- Title Drop: When Norman and Vicki sneak out of the theater after the preview of her first film, she is positively thrilled at the need to flee from paparazzi. An amused Norman says "A star is born."
- Trrrilling Rrrs: In Vicki's first bit part, her single line requires her to be a secretary who answers the phone with "Acme Trucking Company." She tries out a whole bunch of accents, including once saying "Acme Trrrrrrrrrrucking Company."
- Widow's Weeds: Vicki wears the standard black dress and veil at Norman's funeral. The veil gets ripped off of her hat by a crazed fan.
- Worst News Judgment Ever: Well sure, celebrity marriages are news. But they probably didn't need to take up the whole front page of the newspaper with "VICKI LOVES IN TRAILER" and a gigantic photo of Vicki and Norman.