Claimed by fans as a great Hollywood musical, the 1954 version of A Star is Born—a song-and-dance-enhanced remake of a 1937 hit drama—isn’t, quite. Its A-list director, George Cukor, departed after some six months of shooting, and had nothing to do with its ambitious “Born in a Trunk” production number. Of a handful of original songs by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, the only classic (“The Man That Got Away”) is performed early, 20 minutes in. The film is an old-fashioned, expensive star vehicle, custom-made as a comeback engine for Judy Garland by her producer-husband, Sid Luft, which perhaps explains how a familiar, melodramatic showbiz fable ballooned to a pretentious three-hour running time, cut by nearly 30 minutes after its premiere so increased showings could give a fearful Warner Bros. greater assurance of recouping its investment. (Restored to its present cut in 1983, several lost scenes in the film’s early reels are represented by a surviving audio track and production stills.) And yet, despite this checkered history and its wobbly identity as a tragic romance with music, the movie generally works, almost entirely due to the forceful talents of Garland and her non-singing leading man, James Mason.
Mason is Norman Maine, a feckless movie star drinking his way out of a career, whose antics on and off the set have earned him the indulgence of his studio boss (Charles Bickford) and the enmity of the chief publicist (Jack Carson, dyspeptic and nasty, who makes the only notable impression among the supporting cast). Rescued from public embarrassment at a glitzy benefit by band singer Esther Blodgett (Garland), Norman falls hard for the preternaturally gifted trouper, and after a few false starts, badgers the studio into screen-testing the neophyte actress and, after she is marooned in anonymous extra work, manipulates her casting in the lead of an endangered project. Propelled into the Tinseltown stratosphere, Esther—now called Vicki Lester by everyone but her friends—accepts Norman’s marriage proposal despite his warning that “I destroy everything I touch,” and the story’s glum second half turns on whether she will go down in flames with him.
This plot was already well-worn hokum by the mid ’50s, and even decked out in CinemaScope and Technicolor splendor, it’s nearly too much to overcome. The romantic comedy tone of the first half, blessedly, was Cukor’s forte; having directed Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Cary Grant in some of their most charming performances, he let Garland and Mason skirmish and banter with a seductive, bittersweet rhythm. Playwright and stage director Moss Hart’s screenplay particularly gives Mason the fatigued, louche class of a burned-out prince. Led around a nightclub by a maitre d’ who offers him starlets as if they were pâté, Norman rejects one girl by sighing, “Too young. I had a very young week last week.” When, just out of the drunk tank and nearing his end, Norman overhears Esther tell the chief that she’s giving up films to save her husband, the dialogue isn’t enough to redeem the scene’s contrivance, but Mason’s agonized writhing in his bed manages to. Giving Garland a partner who could be this dark and formidable was the filmmakers’ savviest move.
As for Judy, with her movie career riding on A Star Is Born’s success after her 1950 firing from MGM, the results show on the screen whenever the orchestra cues begin. The film’s split personality has the lengthy “Born in a Trunk” sequence aping the Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen numbers (semi-abstract sets included) that had become the signature of Garland’s former studio, soon followed by a parody of overblown song-spectacles (“Someone at Last”) performed by Esther for Norman in their mammoth living room. But except for the latter’s silly, kid-gloved poke at the era’s musical conventions, that superstar voice, and the pathos and strength it expresses, are still in peak form; when she belts out “The Man That Got Away” in an after-hours club, you can believe that Norman wants to cash in all his chips on Esther’s behalf, even if her “No one’s ever called me a great singer” requires a suspension of disbelief. Garland holds her own dramatically with Mason, but while she pulls off the big Oscar-baiting scene of a dressing-room breakdown (“Why does he want to destroy himself?”), its effect is inevitably informed by our knowledge that the star lived the life of a Norman, not an Esther.
Garland didn’t win that Oscar, perhaps, in part, because she’s seen accepting one in A Star Is Born’s most mortifying set piece, when Esther’s honor from the Academy is interrupted by a soused Norman stumbling onto the stage, accidentally backhanding her in the chops, and begging the assembled industry for a role. (It also gets one to musing on how badly Norman was needed during Halle Berry and Sandra Bullock’s speeches.) While her character gets the last word by embracing her mate’s sacrifice before the public with the famed closing line, “This is Mrs. Norman Maine,” Judy’s Hollywood comeback was stalled by her personal demons and reputation; she headlined exactly one more musical film, nine years later. Despite A Star Is Born’s musty jabs at movieland decadence in the wake of satires like Sunset Blvd. and The Bad and the Beautiful, it was the craft found in Cukor’s alternately splashy and shadowy mise-en-scène, and displayed by Mr. James Mason, that most greatly aided Mrs. Sid Luft.
The visual transfer is handsome, spectacularly colorful (with assorted reds prominent) in the musical numbers and the Warner Bros. backlot-shot moviemaking scenes, with a more muted, pastel palette in homes and "dressing rooms"—like the massive, nearly noirish bungalow for James Mason's Norman Maine. The soft-edged look may be related to the qualities of the single-strip Technicolor process, and the extremely wide CinemaScope frame goes a wee bit funhouse-mirror during pans. The crucial stereo track is fine, with Judy Garland's vocals high up in the mix, as they should be.
In this edition, about half of the supplements are new, with a wealth of outtakes and excisions available for most of the musical numbers in A Star Is Born. The "five additional takes" of Garland's volcanic "The Man That Got Away" actually total seven—two of the supps are split-screened—out of 30-odd that were shot, with different costumes and lighting designs (all synched to the same audio track). Alternate versions of "Here's What I'm Here For" and "Lose That Long Face," the cut song "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street," and audio featurettes of Garland recording or rehearsing "Born in a Trunk, "Swanee," "Melancholy Baby," and other tunes are also included. There's also an earlier version of Mason wading into the Pacific for his last swim, scored and edited differently from the released scene.
A compelling, pieced-together view of the movie's Hollywood premiere at the Pantages Theater is provided by several extras; a black-and-white newsreel, along with color CinemaScope footage shot by a Warner Bros. house crew, gives a standard view of the arriving stars and the crowds of spectators. Looser and more fascinating is the kinescope of a live half-hour TV special of the red-carpet arrivals, the first of its kind: A Star Is Born actor Jack Carson and "toastmaster" George Jessel herd everyone from Liberace (and his mom) to Joan Crawford past the camera for a quick hello, until Garland arrives, looking dazed in the company of husband Sid Luft and WB production chief Jack Warner. Film of the afterparty at the Cocoanut Grove club has Warner bumbling through his remarks while Garland and Luft wear fixed smiles; the irony of the proceedings in light of the movie's jaundiced view of the biz is a hoot. Among a few vintage radio pieces is an hour-long 1942 adaptation of the original A Star Is Born feature, with Garland, age 20, cast opposite Walter Pidgeon; a dozen years before appearing on the screen as Esther Blodgett, she plays her as a callow ingénue instead of a wary adult. Also tossed in is the Daffy Duck-Bugs Bunny cartoon A Star Is Bored (not a direct parody), and the trailers for the 1937, 1954, and 1976 productions of A Star Is Born.
Reassembled and augmented to the nth degree, these discs are nirvana for Friends of Judy.