Quick. No thinking: Name your favorite Judy Garland movie. "The Wizard of Oz," huh? Yeah, that would be my first choice, too. "Meet Me in St. Louis"? "The Harvey Girls"? "In the Good Old Summertime"? "Easter Parade"? "Summer Stock"? "The Pirate"? Maybe. But there is no denying that "A Star Is Born" would rank pretty high, especially among Garland enthusiasts.
My question, though, is whether people today still consider "A Star Is Born" as important as people did fifty-odd years ago; whether that many people even remember it well enough to justify Warner Bros. having lavished a complete refurbishing and an 8K remastering of it for high-definition Blu-ray (taking them several years in the process, I might add). Don't get me wrong: "A Star Is Born" is a very good film, made even better by the sheer star power of Ms. Garland, who used the film as a spectacular comeback after a four-year layoff. I just keep wondering if the studio gave any thought to spending so much time and money restoring some of the other big musicals in their catalogue, like "Singin' in the Rain," "Cabaret," and "Camelot," to name a few.
Anyway, Hollywood liked the story of "A Star Is Born" so well they filmed it three times. The original movie appeared in 1937 (loosely inspired by the 1932 film "What Price Hollywood"), starring Janet Gaynor as an actress on her way up in show business and Fredric March as a star on his way down. The next movie, reviewed here, appeared in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason. This time, because it was a Garland film, the filmmakers added songs (and not just any songs but many of them provided by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin). Finally, we got a 1976 rendition starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, which set the story in the world of pop-rock. It was not an improvement unless you liked loud.
As I say, Judy Garland came back after a four-year hiatus to do the film, and George Cukor ("The Philadelphia Story," "Gaslight," "Born Yesterday," "My Fair Lady") directed. It was a triumphant success for everyone involved, earning six Academy Award nominations (Best Actor, Actress, Art Direction, Costume Design, Original Music, and Music Scoring). Nevertheless, it won no Oscars, and Ms. Garland, continually plagued by prescription-drug addiction, depression, and a reputation for being unreliable on the set, decided to pursue her stage appearances rather than continue her Hollywood career. She wouldn't make another film for seven years.
The story of "A Star Is Born" is as old as Hollywood (or Broadway, depending on the version of it you see). A young nobody meets a big somebody, they fall in love, and marry. The young nobody becomes an overnight sensation and soon eclipses the husband in popularity, and the foreseeable conflicts ensue.
In the movie at hand, Garland plays a young singer, Esther Blodgett, performing with a small band around the country. One night she meets a big Hollywood star, Norman Maine (James Mason), at an all-star gala in which she is a very minor player. She meets him by accident when Maine, drunk as always, stumbles onto the stage and tries to sing along with the performers, Esther graciously and diplomatically ushering him into the wings.
From there the inevitable happens. Maine offers to help Esther with her career (if she'll change her name), he gets her a job with his studio, and Esther (now called Vicki Lester) becomes an instant hit all across America and the world. Meanwhile, Maine and Blodgett/Lester marry, and Maine continues to make a fool of himself drinking too much. Her star rises as his sinks into obscurity.
Notable in the movie are the performances of Garland and Mason, both of them excellent, believable, touching, and sincere. Then there's the supporting cast, most of whom get little screen time because this is practically a two-person picture for almost three hours. Nevertheless, the rest of the cast carry on like the troupers they are: Jack Carson plays Matt Libby, a hypocritical studio press agent; Tom Noonan plays Danny McGuire, Vicki's pianist and close friend; and Charles Bickford plays Oliver Niles, the paternal head of Niles Studio. Interestingly, the town of Niles, California, not far from me, was home to the Essanay Film Company from 1913 to about 1925, making a number of silent movies including many from Charlie Chaplin. I can't help thinking that the names of the studio head and the little town were not coincidental.
Then, there are the songs by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, at least a couple of which hold up pretty well today: "The Man That Got Away," "What Am I Here For?," "It's a New World," "Somewhere There's a Someone," and others , plus Leonard Gershe's "I Was Born in a Trunk" (providing, no doubt, the best musical sequence in the picture). I can't say the songs add much to the story line, but they are entertaining taken on their own.
There are those folks who consider Garland's "A Star Is Born" the greatest musical drama of all time; I am not one of them. It's a good film, to be sure, and it provides some fascinating glimpses into backstage Hollywood, the filmmaking process, and the old studio system.
But as the Wife-O-Meter noted, the women's dreadful hairstyles date the movie, the second half becomes quite melodramatic and soap opera-ish, and the whole thing, now restored, is far too long for its subject matter. Garland fans will disagree.
According to WB's press release, "'A Star Is Born' opened in 1954 with a run time of 192 minutes. This is the version that was approved by the director and creative team. However, soon after, the film was trimmed by 28 minutes, presumably so exhibitors could squeeze in an extra show daily. At that point, director George Cukor disowned this 'final' 154-minute version, claiming the film had been completely compromised.
In 1982, with the support of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Warner Bros., film historian and author Ronald Haver, who also ran the LACMA film program at the time, started his restoration efforts by spending several months rummaging through the studio vaults to reclaim George Cukor's original edit. Haver located the entire soundtrack for the 182-minute version, along with footage for three missing musical numbers and portions of the deleted dialogue scenes. Where no film existed, Haver used stills over the soundtrack for transition and only slightly trimmed the dialogue when photographic coverage was deemed inadequate. At 176 minutes, Haver's restoration premiered at Radio City Music Hall July 7, 1983 to wildly enthusiastic audiences and continued the run to sold-out houses around the country.
Cut to the present as Warner Home Video prepared to restore and remaster the film for its debut on Blu-ray disc." It is here that the studio scanned the negative at 8K, allowing Warner "to retrieve the full color," corrected the color from the negatives, and worked with multiple sources in refurbishing the sound. The outcome, downscaled to 1080 x 1920 high definition, is probably about as close to what the film looked like in 1954 as one could get.
Warner Bros. filmed "A Star Is Born" in 2.55:1 CinemaScope, which they have preserved in the restoration and transferred to Blu-ray disc using a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec. The clarity is, as we might expect, excellent, as are the deep, rich colors and intense black levels. Reds in particular stand out brilliantly. The Warner engineers also preserved the film's light, natural film grain for appropriate texture. In some ways, the picture quality is as good as anything produced today, although there is a very slight veiling of the image in some scenes, hardly a concern.
Despite reconstructing the soundtrack and attempting to restore it to its former glory, the sound of the day was probably never as good as the picture quality. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does what it can in reproducing the dynamic range and frequency response of the original track, but it still comes across as sounding somewhat old, losing some of its sheen and sparkle. Understandably, there is very little rear-channel activity beyond a small amount of musical-ambiance bloom, and there is a touch of hollow nasality in some of the voices. However, the stereo spread is extremely wide, and the musical numbers appear very smooth, if a little soft.
Disc one of this two-disc Blu-ray Book edition is a Blu-ray containing only the film. Accompanying the film are fifty-three scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two is a standard-definition DVD containing the supplemental materials, most of them in non-anamorphic widescreen or 1.33:1 standard screen. Up first is a three-minute introduction to the materials on the disc. Next is a series of deleted scenes providing five different versions of "The Man That Got Away," the scenes totaling about twenty-two minutes. After that we get alternative filmings of four musical numbers and one dramatic sequence, lasting a total of about eleven minutes.
Following those are a one-minute outtake, "When My Sugar Goes Down the Street," that never appeared in the movie, and an effects reel showing the results of two competing film processes. Then, there is a "Report by Jack L. Warner," six minutes, which includes several scenes from "A Star Is Born"; and several newsreels of the movie's Hollywood première, one filmed in CinemaScope, another a twenty-nine-minute "Pantages Première TV special, and yet another a post-première Coconut Grove party.
Further, we get an "Audio Vault," an audio-only series of items that include several outtakes, a one-hour Lux Radio Theater broadcast of "A Star Is Born" from 1942, a Judy Garland promotional, and various recording sessions. The disc's extras conclude with theatrical trailers for all three movie versions (1937, 1954, and 1976).
Finally, because this is a Blu-ray Book edition, we get the two discs housed in a plush, forty-page, hardbound book, the discs fastened to the inside front and back covers with plastic Digipak spindles. The book itself comes profusely illustrated with color pictures, along with a good deal of explanatory text. It's another one of WB's elegant packages that will surely disappoint no one.
What we have in "A Star Is Born" is a well-worn, often clichéd, and overlong story, with a few good musical numbers, a fine performance from James Mason, and a terrific performance from Judy Garland. Does Garland make up for the movie's shortcomings? For Garland fans, the answer is a resounding Yes! For me, it's more of a toss-up. At the risk of incurring the eternal wrath of Garland lovers everywhere, "A Star Is Born" is a good film, but maybe not a great one.