Who is “A Star is Born” about?

What Hollywood figures inspired the characters in “A Star is Born”?

When I started out this post, I was ready with a relatively simple answer.  In an April 2018 interview with William Wellman, Jr., at the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival, he listed one couple. But the more I researched, the more complex this answer became.

Since the first studios were built in Hollywood, the lives and deaths of film stars were as dramatic as the roles they played on the screens. Their tragic lives and deaths inspired “What Price Hollywood?” (1932) – the unofficial precursor to “A Star is Born” —and the 1937 film “A Star Is Born” starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March.”

John McCormick and Colleen Moore

Colleen Moore and John McCormick

Colleen Moore was one of the influences for “What Price Hollywood?” (1932), according to the book “The Bennetts: An Acting Family” by Brian Kellow. Moore was married to First National Pictures producer John McCormick. McCormick was responsible for Moore cutting her hair into a sleek bob for the flapper look. The actress and producer were married in 1923, collaborated on 20 films together and made millions of dollars. Business-wise, it was a successful match. But as Moore became even more famous, her husband’s alcoholism deepened and she covered up for him when he was hospitalized or at the studio. Moore divorced McCormick in 1930.

John Bowers and Marguerite De La Motte in a publicity photo for Daughters Who Pay (1925)

John Bowers and Marguerite De La Motte:

Silent film actor John Bowers started in films in 1914 and was in 95 films from 1914 to 1931. Marguerite De La Motte, who started in films in 1916, was a frequent co-star of Bowers’s. They first co-starred in the film “Desire” (1923) and were in a total of 12 films together from 1923 to 1927. John Bowers and Marguerite De La Motte were married in 1924. But when sound entered in films, Bowers’s film career ended. De La Motte was also in a few talking pictures, though she only appeared in five films from 1930 to 1942. Bowers began to have a drinking problem after his career ended, according to the website Silents are Golden, and the couple separated. Director Henry Hathaway remembered Bowers begging for a job, and Hathaway invited Bowers to dinner. When Bowers left, he said, “Well, this is the last time you’ll ever see me. You’ll have a real life picture. I’m going to jump overboard.”

On Nov. 13, 1936, John Bowers rented a boat, sailed it out into the Pacific Ocean and drowned. Police found his body floating near Las Flores, according to the book “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940” by Victoria Wilson. William Wellman, Jr., son of William Wellman who directed “A Star is Born” (1937), said Norman Maine was based on the marriage, career, and death of John Bowers, though Wellman was two weeks into shooting the film when Bowers died, according to Wilson’s book.

Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Faye

Frank Fay and Barbara Stanwyck:

Barbara Stanwyck biographer Victoria Wilson writes that the Vicki Lester and Norman Maine acting marriage was based on Frank Fay and Barbara Stanwyck during their marriage from 1928 to 1935.

When they were first married, Stanwyck was not acting in films, and Frank Fay was a famous vaudeville star and already acting in films. By 1935 when they divorced, Stanwyck’s star was rising, and Fay helped guide her success: from convincing Harry Cohn to hire her for “Mexicali Rose” to giving her screen test to director Frank Capra. Capra then made Stanwyck a star by casting her in four of his films, according to Wilson’s book. While Stanwyck’s films were successful, Fay’s failed, and he began to drink. Stanwyck tried to help him with his career and would appear with him on stage. They divorced due to his abuse and alcoholism. Barbara Stanwyck also did not attend the premiere of “A Star is Born” (1937).

John Barrymore

John Barrymore

Of any actor, John Barrymore has the most parallels to Norman Maine, the once famous matinee idol who fell into alcohlism as his career declined. John Barrymore was one of the top stars of stage and screen of the 1920s and 1930s, but drinking was his downfall. He became unreliable, and his roles became fewer and lacked prestige as the years wore on and he drank more. In his last film, “Playmates” (1941), co-starring comedic big band leader Kay Kyser, Barrymore’s character is a has-been who drinks too much. The fact that his life became a punchline in an RKO musical comedy is depressing. John Barrymore went to a sanitarium for a rest cure and director George Cukor visited him with a possible role, just like Oliver Niles does for Norman Maine. And like Maine, Barrymore turned down the role because it was too small, according to Wilson’s book. David O. Selznick even wanted John Barrymore for the role of Norman Maine in “A Star is Born” (1937), but at this point Barrymore had a hard time remembering his lines. John Barrymore died in 1942 at age 60 from pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver.

 

Marshall Neilan

Marshall Neilan

Director Marshall Neilan is cited as an inspiration for Lowell Sherman’s director character of Max Carey in “What Price Hollywood?” (1932), who drinks too much and commits suicide at the end of the film, according to Kellow’s book. From 1913 to 1937, Neilan directed 107 films, but his work slowed after the dawn of sound due to his alcoholism. Neilan has a small role in the 1937 version of “A Star is Born” when Norman (Fredric March) goes to the race track after being released from the sanitarium. Neilan died in 1958 of throat cancer.

 

Tom Forman

Tom Forman

Another inspiration for Max Carey in “What Price Hollywood” (1932) is director Tom Forman. Author Adela Rogers St. Johns based her story “The Truth About Hollywood” on Forman. Forman directed successful films in Hollywood such as “Shadows” (1922) and “The Virginian” (1923). However, his career took a turn and Forman was left with low-budget directing projects. On Nov. 7, 1926, Forman shot himself through the heart and died at the age of 33. In the film “What Price Hollywood,” Max Carey dies in the same manner.

 

John Gilbert and Virginia Bruce

William Wellman’s son, William Wellman, Jr., wrote in the book “Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel,” that John Gilbert and the decline of his career was another inspiration for his father’s Norman Maine in “A Star is Born” (1937). John Gilbert was one of the top stars of the silent era, and his alcoholism was part of his downfall — similar to John Barrymore. However, his daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain says “A Star is Born” is not based on her father in her 1985 book, “Dark Star: The Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of Legendary Silent Screen Star John Gilbert.” But Gilbert being an inspiration for Norman Maine would make sense, particularly, because he was married to up-and-coming starlet Virginia Bruce from 1932 to 1934. Bruce was gaining popularity while Gilbert was practically a has-been. Gilbert’s last film was in 1934, and he died in 1936 at age 38 of a heart attack.

B.P. Schulberg

B.P. Schulberg

B. P. Schulberg, film pioneer and studio executive, was the inspiration for studio head, Oliver Niles, according to the book “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck” by Victoria Wilson. Niles is played by Adolphe Menjou in the 1937 version and Charles Bickford in the 1954 version

Russell Birdwell

Russell Birdwell

Russell Birdwell was the model of ruthless publicity agent Matt Libby, according to Victoria Wilson’s book. Libby is played by Lionel Stander in the 1937 version and Jack Carson in the 1954 version. One of Birdwell’s publicity stunts included hiring an actress in 1927 to dress in all black and lay flowers on the tomb of Rudolph Valentino on the first anniversary of his death, known as “The Woman in Black.”

Other nods to real life:

  • Vicki Lester’s closing line of “I am Mrs. Norman Maine” was inspired by Dorothy Davenport who was billed as Mrs. Wallace Reid after her husband, actor Wallace Reid, died in 1923. Reid died due to complications from his addiction to morphine. This is the last line in both the 1937 and 1954 version.
  • The funeral scenes in the 1937 and 1954 versions are said to be inspired by Irving Thalberg’s funeral and the response the crowd had to his widow, Norma Shearer. A Sept. 16, 1936, newspaper said 1,500 attended Thalberg’s funeral.

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For the fallen: Performers killed during World War II

During World War II, some of Hollywood’s top stars went overseas to fight. From Clark Gable, James Stewart and Robert Taylor, each returned home to their careers, though they also were changed people from their war experiences.

But some performers didn’t return home from World War II.

In honor of Memorial Day, I would like to highlight those who were killed during World War II, whether it be on the battlefield, in training camp, helping with the war effort, or surrounded by mysterious circumstances. some of these people were actors who enlisted, while others were taking part in the war effort:

Phillips Holmes

Phillips Holmes (July 22, 1907 – August 12, 1942) Phillips Holmes was an American actor who starred in 48 films from 1928 to 1938, though the bulk of his films were made in the 1930s. Some of his filmography includes An American Tragedy (1931), Dinner at Eight (1933) and Great Expectations. In 1938, Holmes decided to turn his attention to the stage. However, when World War II began, Holmes and his brother Ralph enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941 before the United States entered the war. Holmes graduated from Air Ground School in Winnipeg. On Aug. 12, 1942, while flying to another base in Ottawa, their plane collided with another aircraft in Ontario and killed everyone on board. Holmes was 33 years old.

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Hollywood stars who married royalty, nobility

With the royal wedding happening this weekend, much ado has been made about Meghan Markle being an actress and marrying into royalty.

Of course, she isn’t the only actor or actress to marry into royalty or nobility. Well cited examples include Grace Kelly marrying Rainier III, Prince of Monaco, making Grace Kelly a princess. The two were married from 1956 unti her death in 1982. And there was Rita Hayworth, who became a princess when she married Prince Aly Khan, who were married in 1949 and divorced in 1953.

But I started wondering was there anyone else? I found a few other actors who were married to royalty or nobility, though some titles have been up for debate:

Actor Donald Cook (unable to find a photo together with wife)

Donald Cook and Princess Gioia Tasca di Cuto (1937 to 1961): Actor Donald Cook was married to Princess Giovanna Mastro – Giovanni Tasca Di Cuto from 1937 until Cook’s death in 1961. I can find little on Princess Giovnna, except that the two lived in Long Island in the 1940s and also had a home in Connecticut. An April 1971 newspaper called Gioia Cook the great-granddaughter of Prince Niccolo of Sicily. According to a 1966 newspaper, calls Gioia a “former” royal and calls her Gioia Cook. It seems Donald Cook did not take up a title as other stars did. After Donald Cook’s death, Gioia owned a restaurant called Leopard.

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The Man Who was Almost Bond: John Gavin

Actor John Gavin

From Cary Grant to Rod Taylor, we have heard of many actors that were considered to play Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

And one came closer than others: John Gavin.

John Gavin, who passed away Feb. 9, 2018, is not an actor as well-known as Grant or Sean Connery, but he was a handsome leading man throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He retired from acting in the 1980s and went on to become the United States Ambassador to Mexico during the Reagan administration. Today, Gavin is best known for his role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) and Lana Turner’s love interest in “Imitation of Life” (1959).

Gavin was considered for the role of James Bond after George Lazenby refused to continue playing the character after the film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969).

In an interview at the 2015 Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival, Lazenby said he got bad advice and was told to quit the role, because Bond films were going to lose popularity with changing times.

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Lizabeth Scott Sings!

Lizabeth Scott, “The Threat”

She usually played a mysterious blond that was up to no good. Actress Lizabeth Scott, known for her husky voice and sleek, straight blond hair was often a woman with a secret in 1940s and 1950s film noirs.

Publicity departments of the golden era of Hollywood often saddled their actors with nicknames: from the It Girl (Clara Bow), the Oomph Girl (Ann Sheridan) to the Lavender Blonde (Kim Novak).

Scott was nicknamed “The Threat,” as she was threatening to “The Body (Marie MacDonald), “The Voice” (Frank Sinatra), and “The Look” (Lauren Bacall).

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Remembering Robert Osborne, a Friend to all Classic Film Fans

It was Thursday, April 25, 2013, and I had just flown into Los Angeles from North Carolina for my first Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival.

My first glimpse of Robert Osborne in person in 2013 (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

I was excited, tired and scared. It was my first solo plane trip, and I had unwisely flown into the festival the day it started, rather than the day before. I was momentarily homeless until my friend, Lindsay — who I was staying with — got out of class at UCLA. I stashed my suitcase in the hotel room of another friend, Jill, and went with her to the Roosevelt Hotel to get my film festival pass and for a press announcement.

I’m sitting at a small table, nervously saying hello to friends who I knew only from the internet before the film festival. And then film historian and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne walks out on stage. Everyone else around me is calm and collected but I’m about to burst. I didn’t know if I should cry, laugh or faint. I had only been in Los Angeles for two hours and there was my hero standing 15 feet away from me!

Robert Osborne introducing “Desert Song” in 2013 (Comet Over Hollywood/Jessica P)

That Saturday during the festival, I was first in line for a rare screening of The Desert Song (1943), a Dennis Morgan and Irene Manning musical that isn’t often seen because of copyright issues. A volunteer confided that she heard Robert would be introducing the film. I excitedly sat in the front row so I could get a good picture.

Robert discussed the film and said that he had never seen The Desert Song and would be joining the audience to watch. While the Technicolor Warner Bros. film danced on the screen, I could barely focus; knowing Robert was somewhere behind me in the crowd.

After the film ended, I waited outside to see if I could get a picture and fulfil my dream of meeting Mr. Osborne. Another fan held Robert in conversation and it looked like I may not get my chance. When the fan left, I meekly approached him and asked for a photo.

“Yes, but we will have hurry because I have to meet Ann Blyth before Mildred Pierce,” he said.

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West Side Story: The Names Behind the Jets and Sharks

When I was 14 in 2002, I watched “West Side Story” for the first time and became obsessed with the movie musical, which premiered 55 years ago in New York City on Oct. 18, 1961. My dad who introduced me to the film later regretted it, because I listened to the soundtrack every night and tried to learn the dances. “West Side Story” is directly responsible for my love of movie musicals which manifested into the weekly Musical Monday.

West Side Story” is one of those movies where you notice or learn something new with every viewing and every detail and aesthetic was carefully planned. When you’re obsessed with a film, you research the heck out of it to learn all you can. One thing that I have always been interested in is the story behind all the dancers that made up the film.

The Sharks and the Jets

The Sharks and the Jets

The lead actors of Natalie Wood (as Maria), Richard Beymer (as Tony), Rita Moreno (as Anita), George Chakiris (as Bernardo), and Russ Tamblyn (as Riff) are all stupendous. But many of us already know their stories.

I really wanted to delve into the actors you don’t know as well: the story behind the actor who played Baby John who is now a renowned in the New York City ballet world. Or there’s the Shark who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. You maybe didn’t know it, but you probably watched Consuelo on “Full House.”

This is the story behind the Jets, the Sharks and their girlfriends. They weren’t the ones who picked up the Academy Awards for “West Side Story” and didn’t even have their name on the marquee, but their dancing is what mesmerized the audiences.

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Olympic Stars that Didn’t Soar in Hollywood

During the past two weeks, Comet Over Hollywood has looked at Olympic athletes who found Hollywood fame after exhibiting their athletic prowess. Some Olympians were scouted for Hollywood but their stars didn’t rise has high as others.

Eleanor Holm
Eleanor Holm was an Olympic swimmer who competed for the United States in 1928 summer Olympics in Amsterdam where she finished fifth in the 100-meter backstroke. At the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Holm won a gold medal in the 100-meter backstroke.

Eleanor Holm at the 1932 Olympics

Eleanor Holm at the 1932 Olympics

Between the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, producer Florenz Ziegfeld hired her to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway in 1930. She left the show to train for the 1932 Olympics. After the 1932 Olympics, she was placed under contract to Warner Bros. for $500 a week, but despite studio-hired acting coaches, she declared herself a spectacular flop as an actress, according to her 2004 obituary.

Holm was to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and where she would be the first woman to compete on the United States Olympic team three times.

Holm boarded the ship to sail for Berlin for the 1936 games and when she got to Berlin, she was no longer on the team. Olympic president Avery Brundage expelled Holm for breaking curfew and drinking while traveling to Berlin.

“All I did was drink a couple of glasses of champagne,” she told People magazine in 1996. “I was married, singing in a nightclub with my husband’s band. I was not exactly a child.”

In 1938, Holm starred aside fellow Olympian Glenn Morris in “Tarzan’s Revenge.” This was the only film she was in. After this she married producer Billy Rose from 1939 to 1954. She starred in Rose’s New York World’s Fair Aquacades, swimming with fellow Olympian gold medalists Johnny Weissmuller in the 1939 show and Buster Crabbe in 1940.

Olympians Eleanor Holm and Glenn Morris in "Tarzan's Revenge" (1938)

Olympians Eleanor Holm and Glenn Morris in “Tarzan’s Revenge” (1938)

 

Glenn Morris at the 1936 Olympics

Glenn Morris at the 1936 Olympics

Glenn Morris
Glenn Morris competed on the United States team at the 1936 Berlin summer Olympics and won a gold medal for the decathlon. After the Olympics, Morris had a brief Hollywood career.

His film career started with an uncredited role in “She Married an Artist” (1937) at Columbian Pictures, and he was the fourth Olympian to play Tarzan.

Distributed through 20th Century Fox, Morris starred in a low budget Tarzan film, “Tarzan’s Revenge” (1938) which co-starred with Olympic swimmer Eleanor Holm.

After the Tarzan film, Morris acted in one more film, “Hold That Co-Ed” (1938) before leaving Hollywood.

Murray Rose
Murray Rose is an Australian swimmer who won six Olympic medals at the 1956 Melbourne and 1960 Rome Olympics. All three of the medals at the Melbourne Olympics were gold and he won a gold medal in Rome as well as one silver and one bronze.

Murray Rose (center) at the 1960 Olympics with his gold medal

Murray Rose (center) at the 1960 Olympics with his gold medal

After graduating from college at the University of California, Rose entered a brief Hollywood career. His first film was the beach movie “Ride the Wild Surf” (1964) with Tab Hunter, Peter Brown, Shelley Fabares and Fabian. Columbia called him “one of the best bets for stardom in a long time,” according to Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969 by Thomas Lisanti.

Murray Rose in "Ice Station Zebra" (1968)

Murray Rose in “Ice Station Zebra” (1968)

From 1964 to 2008, Rose made a total of 10 film and TV appearances including an appearance on the TV shows “Dr. Kildare” and “Patty Duke.” He also had a role in the 1968 film “Ice Station Zebra” with Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine.

However, he was not passionate enough about acting to continue perusing it, according to his 2012 obituary.

Don’t miss our other Olympic spotlights:

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Olympics to Hollywood: Harold Sakata

Harold Sakata in the 1948 Olympics

Harold Sakata in the 1948 Olympics

You probably know him best as a James Bond henchman with a lethal bowler hat. But Harold Sakata’s career started as an Olympian.

Born in Hawaii, Sakata competed on the United States team in the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, England. Sakata won a silver medal for lifting 380 pounds in the men’s weightlifting portion in the light-heavyweight division.

After the Olympics, he was a professional wrestler under the name of Tosh Togo in the 1950s and 1960s, according to the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame.

But despite his silver medal winning, Sakata’s athletics aren’t what he’s best known for.

Noticed for his muscular build, James Bond producers hired Sakata to play Oddjob, Auric Goldfinger’s personal bodyguard in the film “Goldfinger” (1964). Oddjob wore a steel-rimmed bowler hat that he would toss at enemies.

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Esther Williams and the Canceled Olympics

What do you do when you’re an athlete and the Olympics are canceled? Become one of Hollywood’s top stars.

At least, that’s what Esther Williams did.

esther1

17-year-old Esther Williams (third from left) with the Los Angeles Athletic Swim Club team in 1939.

In 1939, 17-year-old Esther Williams was the United States women’s 100 meter freestyle national champion at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Championship. She represented the Los Angeles Athletic Club with the winning time of 1:09, which was better than all but one of the swimmers for the next six years, according to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

The AAU formerly worked closely with the United States Olympic Committee.

Williams was assured a spot on the United States team for the 1940 Summer Olympics which were going to be held in Tokyo, Japan. But the games were canceled due to the outbreak of World War II.

She felt her career as a swimmer was over when the Olympics were canceled and she didn’t receive a swimming scholarship to the University of Southern California, she wrote in her autobiography “The Million Dollar Mermaid.”

She said stardom was her consolation prize.

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