Person of Interest: Dorothy Parker and A Star is Born

I first fell in love with Dorothy Parker in high school. I can’t remember exactly what the first piece I read of hers, but her most famous short poem has also defined her charm and wit for me.

Resumé
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Something about her writing opened my eyes to the creative voice of different eras. At that age, I had only been subjected to young adult novels and classics mandated by the Texas Education System. Reading about this woman who couldn’t be bothered to commit suicide was like revealing the wizard behind the magic curtain.

Curtain

Suddenly, there was literature that was interesting and complex. I ran out and got Complete Stories and read it cover to cover. I couldn’t get enough of the sharp wit and ironic charm from this woman–a female writer in an era where women writers were not always respected for their work.

Fast-forward about ten years and many life experiences later, and I have rediscovered my high school companion. Wandering through a used-book store, I found her more-famous The Portable Dorothy Parker. It was like reconnecting with long-lost memories of homework, shoddy computer training, and scantron exams, but as I read the familiar and unfamiliar, I found myself appreciating Mrs. Parker’s words with a new appreciation.

The Red Dress
I always saw I always said
If I were grown and free,
I’d have a gown of reddest red
As fine as you could see. 

To wear out walking, sleep and slow
Upon a Summer Day, 
And there’d be one to see me so
And flip the world away.

And he would be a gallant one, 
With stars behind his eyes,
And hair like metal in the sun, 
And lips too warm for lies. 

I always saw us, gay and good,
High honored in the town. 
Now I am grown to womanhood…
I have the silly gown.

Dorothy Rothschild was born in 1893 to a difficult household with an overbearing father. Her mother died when she was young, and her father brought in stepmothers that Dorothy never got along with. But it was with this strict and rule-abiding childhood that she learned to break out and become the sarcastic and cynical poet and author most famously known today.

Dorothy married Edwin Pond Parker II in 1917 to the surprise of her friends and loved ones because he could not match her intellect in social situations. He became the butt of jokes, but it turned out to be no matter since he was away fighting in WWI most of their marriage.

While Edwin was away, Dorothy continued to write for Vanity Fair writing theatre reviews and participating in the famous Algonquin Round Table. She and a group of writers, actors, and intellectuals would gather at The Algonquin Hotel for lunch and spend hours in the middle of the floor in full view of other patrons, talking, drinking, eating and having a jovial time, to which people wondered who and how this was being paid for. But tourists would flock to the famed hotel to watch the minds at work until about 1929 when people began leaving New York.

One of the favorite discussions was to try and trip Dorothy up on using difficult words in a sentence. The most famous instance was when she was asked to use the word “horticulture.” Her response was, “You can lead a ‘horticulture,’ but you can’t make her think.”

She eventually divorced Edwin and married Alan Campbell, an aspiring actor and screenwriter. They both moved to Hollywood and signed a contract with Paramount Pictures to write. Their main and most well-known collaboration was on A Star is Born (1937) starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March.

In 1954, a remake was done starting Judy Garland, and that is the version that is most well-known today. I was unable to find the 1937 version, but I did give the later version a watch. While the new screenplay was only based on the original script penned by Parker and her husband with William Wellman and Robert Carson, the unmistakable Parker wit and cynicism is alive and well in the post-war update giving the female lead a much needed spotlight for the time.

If you haven’t seen the film, it’s absolutely wonderful as a parody about the Hollywood system. It’s always refreshing to see Hollywood make fun of itself much like Singing in the Rain. The Academy loves stories like this and has remade this same story a couple more times (1976 and TBD 2016 with Bradley Cooper directing). It also makes for a safe financial decision, but that’s a discussion for another blog post.

Judy Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a woman with an unfortunate name but a killer voice. Norman Maine is a drunken has-been looking to maintain his bank roll in the Hollywood system, but finds himself completely taken by Esther’s quick-thinking (a la Parker) and vocal talent. He decides to try like hell to get her a place in Hollywood. It eventually happens for her putting her name in spotlights and her voice on jukeboxes around the nation.

Her dream has come true, but at what cost? Hollywood has completely destroyed Norman. And now that they are married, he is going to take her down with him.

The film is three hours long, making it quite a feat for the time. But what I also noticed was in spots throughout the first act, dialogue and the soundtrack were accompanied by only still images. Poor maintenance of the classic film have given an “angel’s share” of celluloid to the ether. In 1983, a restored version was released and that’s what I watched. Luckily, it is a version with two previously missing musical numbers. It’s amazing what modern technology can do.

Dorothy was nominated for an Academy Award for the 1937 film. But she contributed to many screenplays in the 1930s and 1940s, leaving her mark in Hollywood as one of the funniest female writers. Her downfall came in the 1950s when she had aligned herself with the “wrong” political party, essentially blacklisting herself from making another film.

She continued to write and get more active in the political arena voicing her support for Martin Luther King, Jr. Upon her death, her entire estate was donated to the NAACP because she believed so completely in Dr. King’s cause.

Dorothy Parker is much loved today for her humor, her debauchery, and her talent during her lifetime. For someone so cynical and hell-bent on ending her life, she lived until her early 70s.

“I’m that regular old bad penny. I’ll be turning up again before you know it.” — The Bolt Behind the Blue

I know my life is all the better after finding her stories. My absolute favorite of hers is Here We Are. Check out this funny clip of students acting out the short story in a one act play.

Who is an author that has shaped you as a writer, reader, or adult?

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