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Plenty of movies have tried to capture the glamour, glory and heartbreak of Hollywood. Few manage to tap into anything like an accurate picture of the town, and most of the better ones end up expressing the rage and self-hatred of their own makers. William Wellman's 1937 'original" A Star is Born is a fairy tale about a farm girl's wish to become a movie actress, that shows her dreams coming true because she becomes the sweetheart of an established matinee idol. Echoing the demise of a classic movie legend that didn't survive the transition from silents to talkies, the farm girl rises to superstardom as her patron/lover's career collapses in alcoholism and failure.
The story was remade twice over roughly 20-year intervals. The 1954 Judy Garland version converts the property into a musical. To say that it's the perfect showcase for Garland's talents doesn't convey the film's emotional power or its connection to Hollywood in a period of distress, when studios were dismissing their contract players and established actors struggled to stay employed. Moss Hart's rewrite of the original makes room for Judy Garland to sing and dance, but it also shows Los Angeles as a factory town where career troubles could break any movie star that faltered -- as did Garland. The movie is "about" band singer Esther Blodgett, but it's also directly about Judy Garland, who sacrificed her youth to make great movie art at MGM, only to collapse under the weight of personal problems. A Star is Born shows Garland in a place nobody would ever expected her to be, forced to make a movie comeback when she should be in her prime. Garland's distinguishing grace as a singer and actor was always her emotional transparency. Her performance here communicates love and despair, often at the same time. Garland's enduring legion of fans has picked themselves a worthy object of worship: as scrambled as this woman's life was, no actress on film was able to make so instantaneous an emotional connection with an audience.
The film's first hour displays some of the best Hollywood moviemaking since the end of the war. Screenwriter Moss Hart drops the farm girl business and makes this film's Esther Blodgett an aspiring singer attached to a popular band. Playing a benefit at the Shrine Auditorium, Esther tangles with major star Norman Maine (James Mason), who is running his career into the ground after years of drinking and public carousing. Neither studio chief Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) nor Publicity Director Matt Libby (Jack Carson) can keep Norman from causing a scandal, but Esther saves the day by humoring the star when he lumbers onstage determined to crash her song & dance act. Everyone knows that Hollywood's collective patience with Norman Maine is running thin.
But Norman takes a fancy to Esther and traces her to an after-hours jam session. He hears her sing the torch song The Man that Got Away and is inspired to launch her career. Norman waves his arm over the lights of Los Angeles and tells Esther that it all will belong to her, a prediction that sounds as ominous as something out of a 30s gangster epic: "Cooks Tours, The World is Yours".
Esther's rise to stardom is a bit more realistic than that of Janet Gaynor in the earlier version. Already a seasoned performer, Esther only needs the opportunity that Norman can give her. Her voice does the rest. Esther (now given the name Vicki Lester) becomes one of those "overnight successes" backed by eight or nine years of unseen struggle and effort. At this point the '54 film returns to the format of the original, with the addition of some large-scale musical numbers. Vicki's breakthrough premiere screening shares a double bill with Norman's latest dog of an adventure film; as her star rises, his falls. They marry in secret, betraying the studio publicity plans made by Matt Libby, who has always resented cleaning up after Norman Maine's scandalous behavior. Vicki becomes both a top star and a top recording success while Norman's contract is quietly dropped. He spirals off into alcoholism and is confined in a clinic to recover. Fresh from jail on a charge of drunkenness, Norman suddenly realizes that he's a threat to Vicki's career, as she might quit to take care of him. All he has left is his pride.
Before its partial restoration in the early 1980s A Star is Born was seen mostly Pan-scanned on television. When it was returned to its CinemaScope dimensions audiences suddenly remembered that James Mason was in the movie -- he'd often been cropped half off screen in scanned two-shots favoring Garland. Mason is nothing short of phenomenal in the show. Nothing looks more fake than an artificial movie star playing a movie star, but Mason brings Norman Maine's excesses to life. This is a man who passes out from drinking at 8:30 p.m. but by one in the morning is back up and in a tuxedo, prowling the Cocoanut Grove for a willing starlet to finish the night with. Life has been a twenty-year party for Norman yet he's still able to communicate his spirit and enthusiasm to Esther. The rush of musical numbers and privileged Judy Garland moments gives Mason little screen time, yet he scores with every scene on his path to self-destruction. Without begging for sympathy or leaning on maudlin ploys, Mason makes Norman Maine -- a cliché waiting to happen -- into a great screen performance.
Garland fans will probably think this is heresy, but in terms of production gloss Vicki Lester's big musical numbers in A Star is Born aren't a match for her Golden Age MGM work. Her personal contribution is flawless, especially in the powerful number Born in a Trunk. Some of the writing of these scenes is reminiscent of Singin' in the Rain, especially a sequence showing a performing hopeful dashing from agent to agent collecting rejections. Some dialogue ideas seem to have come from the Comden-Green musical as well, as when Norman talks about being "Fit as a Fiddle".
George Cukor doesn't get enough praise for A Star is Born. It's Cukor's first CinemaScope film -- tests were done shooting standard Academy as well - and he works hard to keep the visuals active in a way he didn't have to back in the MGM days. With the help of cinematographer Sam Leavitt Cukor rises to the challenge. The compositions are more natural and imaginative than most seen in other early 'Scope work. The frenzied atmosphere at the first Shrine benefit scene is enhanced by shots filmed against glaring lights, and others that look hand-held. Life with Norman Maine is all convertibles on warm evenings with the sun going down and Los Angeles neon burning brightly. Cukor succeeds in stepping far beyond the normal Warners' color look. The director was typed (unfairly) for coaxing fine performances from actresses, but with this script he outdoes himself.
It may be accurate to describe A Star is Born as the ultimate star vehicle. It doesn't abuse the form, as occurred with the second remake with Barbra Streisand. As in most Streisand pictures of the time, everything is tilted to favor her image. But this 1954 version gives all of the supporting stars meaty roles. Charles Bickford convinces as a studio chief truly concerned about the welfare of his stars (a tall order) while Jack Carson gets a rare chance to do something other than clown. As we never get a peek at one of Norman Maine's supposedly stinker movies, we have to gauge the star's decline through Matt Libby's contempt. Libby's a sour apple but he's taken years of abuse getting that way. The proof of the pudding in this 'give supporting talent a chance' gambit is Tom(my) Noonan's role. Noonan trained as a comedian and specialized in ineffectual nerds; he'd just finished playing Marilyn Monroe's sexless boyfriend. A Star is Born seemingly sets him up once again as lowly piano player Danny McGuire, the best friend who doesn't measure up in the romantic stakes. But Noonan gets to cut loose in the film's penultimate scene, laying into Vicki Lester to stop feeling sorry for herself. A Barbra Streisand would arrange to have the roles in that scene reversed, even if her character had to split in two to lecture herself. The narrative integrity in Garland's A Star is Born sets her film far above the level of a star vanity production.
Warners' Blu-ray of A Star is Born has been in the works for quite a while. Confirmed fans don't need to be told to snap it up, but I can honestly recommend a look-see by others not entirely sold on musicals or even on Judy Garland -- it's that different from her earlier MGM work.
The lush transfer brings most of the show up to the quality of original Technicolor prints, which I can personally confirm were dazzling. The sound comes in DTS-HD Master Audio and 5.1 Dolby Digital configurations. A mono Spanish and a 2.0 stereo French track are included as well, with subtitles in English, French and Spanish. Ray Heindorf's score has the sharp, brassy quality of Warner tracks of this period. Curiously, although Heindorf has a tiny cameo in the film, his name does not appear in the credits.
The extras are all included on a second Standard DVD. The big draw is an extensive gallery of alternate musical takes, which may have been preserved in Jack Warner's personal vault. Garland is seen singing The Man That Got Away in different costumes and lighting. The first attempt may have been a visual study to decide whether to shoot the entire film in CinemaScope, as the angle plainly shows that Tommy Noonan's fingers aren't striking the piano keyboard. Alternate takes and angles represent several more musical numbers, as well as a dialogue scene. More video extras include a promotional film that uses alternate takes of key scenes, and the extensive coverage of the 1954 premiere is seen in newsreel and extended telecast extras. The premiere must have been as big as the studio claimed. Every star on the charts seems to be attending, either to see the highly touted film or to lend support to Ms. Garland's big comeback.
Also highly desirable is an extensive gallery of audio extras -- raw music session tapes (a specialty of the musical experts in Warner Home Video) and a vintage radio program.
There's more than enough here to satisfy fans. What's missing is coverage of the film's restoration history. Perhaps it's just too contentious! The movie was cut by over twenty minutes not long after its premiere, and the studio inexplicably discarded the cut negative for the long version. In the early 1980s museum curator Ron Haver made big news reassembling the film as best he could, and a refinement of that assembly is presented here. Because the soundtrack of the long version had been retained, missing scenes and musical numbers were added by animating stills and inserting where practical shots from scenes that had been saved as stock shot material -- like the hamburger scene. Just before Haver's restoration was finished, a Hollywood pirating bust yielded a missing musical number in a print apparently taken by a projectionist from a Warners' trash bin. One of the restored sections missing from cut prints was the entire proposal scene, the one with the snooping microphone that seems, again, inspired by Singin' in the Rain. What I personally can't understand is how A Star is Born played so well with all of these scenes missing. Although the 176-minute restoration does seem to be One Musical Number too long, most of the missing material greatly adds to the film's impact.
Once again, the Blu-ray totally revives A Star is Born's terrific sound and picture atmosphere. In a decent home screening environment nothing will be lost. That Man that Got Away number is still a marvel of mood set by rich, dark colors and Judy Garland's near- heavenly singing performance. I know I'll be watching the movie again soon, and I'll be pulling that scene out as a special treat when the family gets together.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Star is Born Blu-ray rates:
1. A Note (a realignment, actually) from "B" about the music of A Star Is Born:
Dear Glenn: "Original Music -- Ray Heindorf"
Uh, while I believe that WB's resident musical ace Heindorf supervised, arranged and conducted the score for A Star Is Born, and he certainly composed many connective cues, I would point out that most of the original music in the picture comes from the songs penned for the film by Harold Arlen (music) and Ira Gershwin (lyrics)*. I was pleased to see Heindorf's contribution to the movie cited in your review (I haven't seen the picture in a while; I thought he was credited as the film's musical director), but no favorable piece on the film is really complete without due recognition of the terrific original songs by Arlen and Gershwin. The complex, bluesy "The Man that Got Away" became an instant standard. "It's a New World" is a haunting ballad. "Somewhere There's a Someone" is a wonderful piece of material for Garland. Arlen & Gershwin even wrote the shampoo jingle.
Otherwise, very nice review -- good observation about Tom Noonan's fine performance. Best, Always. -- B.
* The "Born in a Trunk" medley was written/compiled by Roger Edens with Leonard Gershe, though only Gershe is credited (Edens was exclusively under contract to MGM and composed the song as a favor to longtime friend Garland).
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T'was Ever Thus.