“The Self-Referentiality of Backstudio Pictures: The Trailer for A Star Is Born (1937) as Case Study”

Curator's Note

The movie about making movies or “backstudio picture” as Frank Nugent dubbed it in 1937, is the longstanding cinematic equivalent of the backstage musical: both operate through a comparable impulse of demystifying the production of entertainment as a prelude to remystifying it. The trailer for A Star Is Born (1937) well crystallizes how backstudio pictures self-referentially authenticate both their industrial revelations and their branding of “Hollywood.” According to the logic of a backstudio picture, the extrafictive guarantee of truthfulness lies in the film product itself, which is then viewed doubly as a diegetic representation (the fictional story referring in one way or another to real-life practices, people, histories) and as an objective correlative of the industry (the product perpetuating the mystique of the movies) and its location (that “glamorous city” in California). Thus scenes from A Star is Born (such as Janet Gaynor in a make-up chair or, later on, of her accepting an Oscar and of Fredric March interrupting the ceremony to plead for a job) illustrate what the announcer says about the “new” Gaynor or about the eventual payment “in heartbreak and tears for every moment of triumph in Hollywood.” With these claims so illustrated by the Selznick production, the trailer wants us to see how A Star Is Born is capable of merging fiction and reality. Similarly, it is not the Selznick studio’s refusal to offer “a Cinderella story” but its manufacturing of A Star Is Born that contrasts with both the frivolity of Hollywood “playtime” and the make-believe that “a glorification of motion pictures” perpetuates. All the same, the Star Is Born trailer is glorifying motion pictures through its self-referentiality. This strategy performs the symbolic condensation that gives “Hollywood” its currency as a place (the initial display of Southern California landmarks) which in turn is understood to be equivalent with the film industry (the Selznick studio at work, shown making this film) while also being synonymous with the fantasy that glorifies the work, enabling it to signify as an institution (“the rich human interest story of Hollywood,” which turns out to comprise the triumphs and tragedies of stardom for characters and actors alike). The process of recounting what happens behind the scenes secures the authenticity of Hollywood through its product. This trailer, in sum, fully recognizes that the ultimate referent of A Star Is Born is its own industrial existence as a backstudio picture.


Thanks, Steven, for starting off the week with this revealing post, a valuable reminder of how the self-referential mode is alive and well in classical Hollywood cinema despite its being used (as you describe) to shore up the illusory fantasy world it constructs. Though we often assign self-referentiality (or self-reflexivity) as a marker of artistic distinction, indicating art cinema's ostensibly more authentic and transparent re-presentation of reality, Hollywood was/is by no means averse to letting us peek behind the curtain. That this distanciation effect seems not to have broken the dream factory's spell on viewers of CHC films like 'A Star Is Born' compels us to reorient our understanding of spectatorial engagements and pleasures.

I echo the above gratitude. A great gateway to this week's themes. You raise a really interesting debate on the way Hollywood self-reflexivity is caught between questioning and reifying its 'greatness'. This is certainly a persistent theme throughout Hollywood examples of self-reflexivity. I wonder, does it carry over into 'art' films? Could the usual, 'intellectual' site of self-reflexivity simply be reifying its own parameters?

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