In 1932, John Wayne was washed up. “Since [The Big Trail] Wayne has done nothing of consequence, and his future looks none too promising,” declared Picture Play Magazine columnist Madeline Glass that April, in a piece on disposable “One-day Stars.” It had been six years since the beginning of his film career. Stagecoach was still seven years away. “Hollywood prophesied that John Wayne’s future would be brighter than Peggy Hopkins Joyce’s diamonds. So then what happened?… You’ll see [him] in an occasional ‘quickie,’ ” scoffed Photoplay’s Katherine Albert in August. He was still working consistently; that summer alone he appeared in Columbia’s Two-Fisted Law, Paramount’s Lady and Gent, and Warners’ Ride Him, Cowboy. But for the duration of the Depression, his career trajectory would remain a horizontal line.
In November, Gladys Zimmerman’s letter ran in Picture Play. She was writing from Lisbon, North Dakota, a town about an hour southwest of Fargo which even now holds scarcely over 2,000 people. Its Main Street runs south from the Sheyenne River, a path first charted by homesteader Joseph Colton in 1880. If you follow it for five blocks, you’ll end up at the Scenic Theater, which first opened in 1911 and today bills itself as the “oldest continuously run theater in America.” Perhaps Gladys’s passion first flowered there, in the glow of a 10¢ matinee.
Perhaps she saw an outlet for that passion in Picture Play. Within the magazine’s pages, her missive and its fervor would hardly have been outliers, since every issue abounded with similar declamations: fans trashing Norma Shearer, lusting after George Brent, gossiping about Garbo. What makes Gladys stand out, however, is the object of her desire—a future legend then experiencing his professional nadir—as well as the earnest giddiness of her prose. She opens with demands directed at her fellow moviegoers: “Wake up!” and “What are you going to do about it?” That’s the voice of a woman who’s standing on her soapbox and will yield to no one.
Throughout her letter, Gladys asserts the power of the female gaze. She’s undressing Wayne (who was then 25) with her words: “a real man’s physique… those broad shoulders, that magnificent body… half the female portion of the audience swoons in ecstasy.” It’s a mere degree removed from erotic poetry, and it outlines a fundamental truth about cinema: since the art form’s inception, actors have been put onscreen in part because they turn the audience on. Gladys, though, isn’t content just to watch her idol in cheap westerns. She may not go as far as her friend, who plans a trip west presumably for the sole purpose of bedding John Wayne, but she does end her letter with an entreaty: “please write me about him.”
Like much of the letter, that last line may initially provoke gentle laughter. It’s symptomatic of a young woman’s crush. But (like many crushes) it’s poignant, too; suggestive of loneliness. She wants to get closer to this tall, handsome man she’s seen in shoot-outs and stampedes. He’s smiled at her from the screen, stirred her feelings, entered her dreams. Maybe he’s made her more aware of the shortcomings that tarnish Lisbon’s eligible young men—for what real-life beau could ever measure up to a movie star?
About five years later, A Star Is Born was released. It’s a show biz melodrama about a farm girl named Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor, who lives out Gladys’s friend’s fantasy by actually moving to Hollywood and marrying a star. The film opens with Esther coming home from the movie theater, kid brother in tow, gushing about actor Norman Maine. Her father, fiddling with his outdated stereoscope, is indifferent, but her aunt embarks on a full-blown tirade: “Gadding around picture shows, house all cluttered up with movie magazines… and the other day, I caught her talking to a horse with a Swedish accent!” This girl is spending too much time in her dreams. “You’d better be getting yourself a good husband,” advises the aunt, “and stop mooning about Hollywood.”
Esther’s family lives in Fillmore, North Dakota, which is a real place roughly four hours northwest of Lisbon. (Recent reports make it out to be a “ghost town,” devastated by the loss of a nearby railroad line.) If Gladys ever saw A Star Is Born, she may have identified with its heroine and her yen to migrate west. The movie is very deliberately structured as a small town girl’s wish fulfillment fantasy, allowing lucky Esther to metamorphose from a moviegoer into Vicki Lester, movie star: from the looker into the one who’s looked at. She may suffer, but it’s cathartic suffering that ends with her as the brightest star in filmdom’s firmament. Vicki and Esther and Janet Gaynor herself become avatars into whose stories young women can project themselves.
Hollywood becomes a paradise (“Metropolis of Make-Believe,” as A Star Is Born puts it) about which they can fantasize. It has all the romance and adventure that their Depression-blighted hometowns in the Midwest lack. Two years later, that same longing would find its apotheosis in the plaintive voice of another young woman who’d go on to star in her own A Star Is Born: Judy Garland, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy may not be pining for a John Wayne or a Norman Maine, but her Emerald City isn’t too far from Gladys and Esther’s Hollywood. It’s somewhere other than a dusty farm. Somewhere she can do what what she wants and fashion herself as the person she wants to be. It’s like something she’s seen in a movie—it’s her dream.