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Before Lady Gaga played Ally, North Dakota got a nod in the original 'A Star is Born'

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Janet Gaynor played Esther Blodgett, a young woman from North Dakota, in the original 1937 version of the film "A Star is Born." Special to The Forum2 / 3
"A Star is Born" poster for the 1937 film. Special to The Forum3 / 3

FARGO — A story as old as Hollywood itself depicted in “A Star is Born” originally hit the big screen more than 80 years ago with a nod to North Dakota.

“A Star is Born” has been remade three times since the original 1937 production that starred Janet Gaynor in the lead role, which singer and actress Lady Gaga is known for today.

Gaynor played Esther Blodgett, a young woman from North Dakota who leaves her farmhouse one cold winter night and takes the train to Hollywood.

The opening scene shows the moon glistening on a snowy, isolated landscape dramatized with the howl of a wolf. Gaynor enters the house with her brother, and they peel off layers of winter clothes before reflecting on a film they just saw at the local theater.

“The North Dakota connection is fascinating,” said Matt Olien, local movie critic for Prairie Public who serves on the Fargo Film Festival executive committee. “I think a lot of people have forgotten about that in the original film.”

Olien, 54, first saw the 1937 version in high school and said he’s watched every Oscars since he was 12 years old.

At the 91st Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 24, “A Star is Born” took home only one Oscar for Gaga’s original song, “Shallow,” but other versions of the film were snubbed, too.

Some may be familiar with the 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. It was nominated for four Oscars, but only won best original song for “Evergreen.”

The 1937 iteration won the Oscar for best original story, and the first remake from 1954 – Olien’s favorite version starring Judy Garland – was nominated for six Oscars but won none.

North Dakota isn’t part of any of the remakes, but the plot in all four versions sticks to the lead actress meeting a drunk, falling star who tragically commits suicide while a new star is born. In the original film, actor Fredric March plays Norman Maine, the same last name as director and actor Bradley Cooper's character, Jackson Maine.

“How can this little girl go from North Dakota to (Los Angeles) and become a star? It’s almost unbelievable in the first film, whereas the Lady Gaga version is a little more believable: She’s a singer, he (Cooper) spots her in a bar, next thing you know, she’s got these great pipes," Olien said. "So, you have to suspend your belief a little bit in the first film that this could actually happen, that suddenly she (Gaynor) thinks, ‘I have all this talent, I’m going to go out there.’”

Though the original film doesn’t even mention a specific North Dakota town and the farmhouse scene lasts only a few minutes, very few Hollywood films acknowledge the state. Olien said besides the 1996 comedy “Fargo,” he believes the only other North Dakota reference made in a popular film would be “The Great Gatsby.” James Gatz, the main character in the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, was born in rural North Dakota.

Asked why North Dakota was dubbed the star’s home state in the original “A Star is Born,” Olien offered an explanation.

“I think what they are setting up in the original film is that a star can come from anywhere,” Olien said. “They probably picked as remote of spot as they could think of for the Janet Gaynor character to come from to set up this incredible, polar extreme of going to a theater in Grand Forks or Fargo and all of a sudden, six months later, she’s doing screen tests. It wouldn’t have had the same effect if she would’ve come from New York City or California.”