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DVD SAVANT

Star!


Star!
Fox Home Entertainment
1968 /Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 173 120, 218? min. / Those Were the Happy Times / Street Date April 20, 2004 / 14.98
Starring Julie Andrews, Richard Crenna, Michael Craig, Daniel Massey, Robert Reed, Beryl Reid, John Collin, Alan Oppenheimer, Garrett Lewis, Jenny Agutter, Anthony Eisley
Cinematography Ernest Laszlo
Production Designer Boris Leven
Choreographer Michael Kidd
Film Editor William Reynolds
Original Music Lennie Hayton, Jay Thompson, Jimmy Van Heusen
Written by William Fairchild
Produced by Saul Chaplin
Directed by Robert Wise

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Of all the late 60s pictures that put old Hollywood into a panic, Star! was the flop that did the most damage. Julie Andrews was considered box office gold and The Sound of Music had convinced the industry that her name on the marquee of a musical could not fail.

Star! not only failed, it almost single-handedly dragged the Fox studio down with it. Although it has its fans, it's a lackluster and rather pointless show that says nothing good about the talent that made it, even Ms. Andrews. Looked at today in this handsome restoration, it's still a ponderous "thing" that shakes one's faith in the entire musical genre.

Synopsis:

Famed stage star Gertrude Lawrence (Julie Andrews) recalls twenty years of her career while approving a newsreel documentary. Fleeing a broken home, she followed her unsupportive father into the theater and crashed the revue of Andre Charlot (Alan Oppenheimer) with the help of young pianist Noel Coward (Daniel Massey). She marries stage hand Jack Roper (John Collin), has a child, divorces and is subsequently wooed by a succession of handsome men, the most serious of which is Sir Anthony Spencer (Michael Craig). Success in New York brings her to the attention of banker-turned-showman Richard Aldrich (Richard Crenna).

Julie Andrews is a fine actress who can make a good script sing, as she'd proved in The Americanization of Emily long before her typing as the "polly wolly doodle" type in Mary Poppins. Robert Wise has his detractors but his basic director's instinct for recognizing entertainment value had paid off time and again. One can only surmise that the blazing success of The Sound of Music went to everyone's heads, because this expensive follow-up neglected to give Ms. Andrews a character to play or a story to bring to life.

Musical biographies are a messy subgenre that usually ignore the facts about their subjects. They invent backgrounds, clean up romances and avoid legal hassles. Some of the best, like Words and Music ignore anything real and concentrate on musical numbers. A superior show like The Eddy Duchin Story still suffers because real life rarely contains the kind of symmetry a stylized musical needs - we keep wondering when Duchin's wife Kim Novak is going to return from the grave.

Star!'s script mostly sticks to the facts of Gertrude Lawrence's life but finds nothing to replace the phony melodramatics associated with the genre. Gertrude's rise to success doesn't seem to be based on any great talent, and although charming, Andrews doesn't impress as the kind of showgirl to grab the attention of influential knight-bachelors like Sir Anthony Spencer. The most successful part of the movie is her friendship with Noel Coward but even that doesn't sparkle. The millieu is reminiscent of ritzy comedies from the 30s, but this has little wit and no pizzazz. Gertrude throws wild parties, including one that's a double-decker bus trip to a lake at 2 a.m.. We see her holding court with a social elite, but we don't see any evidence why anyone would show up.

Is the script to blame? Screenwriter William Fairchild is responsible for Outcast of the Islands, a Carol Reed film that would be heralded a classic if there was any way to see it now. There's no life at all to this tale and even Noel Coward's celebrated wit mostly falls flat. All we needed was a reason to like Gertrude or care about her, but it isn't here. The real Gertrude isn't as easy to define as, say Fanny Brice. In movies, Lawrence can be seen in the 1950 Warners version of The Glass Menagerie and that's about it. If Star! doesn't tell us, we aren't going to know about her.

The endless musical numbers in Star! are almost all un-memorable, even as choreographed by the great Michael Kidd. The period recreations of music-hall acts are credible enough, but not all that interesting. Part of this failure is definitely due to the fact that Star! was shot in Hollywood. Boris Leven's designs and sets lack atmosphere, or some other element is missing to make them seem British enough. Everything is obviously expensive, but it looks cheap.

One number called Limehouse seems a combo of the Slaughter on 10th Avenue and Broadway Ballet numbers in famous Gene Kelly films, with identical movements scaled down to accomodate Andrews' dancing skills. The big finale Jenny has energy, but it doesn't connect with the movie. It plays and sounds like something from the late 50s (I'm thinking of a June Allyson number in The Opposite Sex) and the basic look is more like Jailhouse Rock than 1939 or whenever it's supposed to be taking place. Perhaps it's an identical copy of the original, but Star! doesn't give us any clues as to what it means or why it's there. The Jenny number is preceded by a muffed scene where impresario Richard Crenna takes Lawrence to The Cotton Club to see an act, that we don't see. It seems to inspire her. Lawrence immediately understands and knows how to do her musical number. But we understand neither her problem nor the solution. It's hopeless.

At one point we're shown an excerpt from the Coward play Private Lives, shot flat head-on from the audience POV, like most of the other musical numbers. It's deadly. We don't understand why our Star! was ever a star.

Is Robert Wise's (uncommonly flat) direction to blame? The use of newsreels to tie Lawrence's life together is ponderous and unrewarding. Scenes tend to die halfway through or end before they've begun, as happens with Sir Spencer's marriage proposal. Scenes with Lawrence's daughter Pamela (a beautiful Jenny Agutter) bring up issues that are then dropped. Just as Gertrude jumps into a car and the film's first truly witty exchange of dialogue finally begins, titles start coming up to tell us that the movie is over.

Julie Andrews soldiers on through a tough role in an obstinate script. Daniel Massey is consistently clever but never endearing as her professional friend, presumed gay only by convention. Michael Craig (Mysterious Island) is thick as the knight and Richard Crenna has no character to play. Future Brady Bunch paterfamilias Robert Reed and B-movie actor Anthony Eisley are various swains who pursue Gertrude for no visible reason. Alan Oppenheimer is rather good as Lawrence's first employer. Beryl Reed (The Killing of Sister George)'s part is very, very brief.


Fox's DVD of Star! is a great enhanced transfer that will thrill Julie Andrews fans. It was originally shot in 70mm and the image is consistently sharp and bright. There's a 5.1 Dolby mix as well as an original (?) mono. It's full roadshow length. The IMDB lists a much longer length that I've seen no other reference for. There's an obvious, undramatic point for an intermission that has not been retained. The only criticism: on my set, many closeups converted Julie Andrews' perfect teeth into a row of sawblade points that look like they belong to a shark. I think it's the result of image and edge enhancement, because her pearlies are so bright and contrasty. It's kind of distracting.

It's a flipper disc. Side one announces a commentary with director Robert Wise but more than a dozen actors and filmmakers are included on the track, some well-recorded and others not. Wise explains how the Overture was supposed to work in Roadshow engagements, without mentioning that it is a repeat of his "changing colors" screen trick from West Side Story. Saul Chaplin and Daniel Massey both passed away a few years back, indicating that the commentary and other extras have been recycled from a 1995 laserdisc special edition. Both the extras producers and the participants insist that Star! is a great unheralded film that deserves a big following.

The opposite side offers a long list of contents that is very impressive until one finds that the majority are text pages in large type, fuzzily ported over from the old laserdisc. An original program, for instance, turns out to be the text from the original program in an ugly typeface, in letters large enough to read on a 5" mini-screen.

There is a 1968 featurette, an optimistic teaser trailer, other trailers, TV spots and still galleries.

Savant wishes Star! no ill will, but I really remember this as one of the most still-born dinosaurs ever made. I originally saw it on a double bill under the blah title Those Were the Happy Times. Even at only two hours, we didn't stay for the whole thing. It is good to catch up with it now, but this one is for the Julie Andrews faithful.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Star! rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, text galleries, photos, trailers, teaser, tv spots, original featurette
Packaging: Flipper disc in Keep case
Reviewed: April 5, 2004





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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