A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born (1954)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Judy Garland, James Mason
Extras: Newsreel Footage, Alternate Takes, Deleted Scene, Trailers, Production Notes

Viewing Warner Home Video’s radiant DVD of the almost lost 1954 musical version of "A Star Is Born" sparked mixed emotions. Warner’s first foray into DVD-18 territory is an out and out winner, promising good things to come with future Warner titles. However, after watching the film and the supplemental extras, I could not help but realize that in the near five decades since the film’s release our ghoulish thirst for the life’s blood of our entertainers has not been quenched.

George Cukor’s "A Star Is Born" was a musical remake of the 1937 classic starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. Benefiting from a post "Sunset Boulevard" approach to Hollywood movies about Hollywood, "A Star Is Born" exposed the tarnish behind the glitter with an earnestness and unflinching eye atypical of the pabulum churned out during the 50s. The basic premise remains: show biz hopeful Esther Blodgett (Judy, at her peak despite a four year absence) finds herself ensnared by the charm of movie star Norman Maine (James Mason), who has found comfort in drink. We first see him groping and flailing about backstage at a benefit, where Esther also happens to be appearing. Esther saves Maine from public embarrassment, an act that the intoxicated Maine does not forget. Once sobered up, he seeks out Esther at an after-hours nightclub, where she belts out "The Man That Got Away," symbolically charting the trajectory of their rocky courtship.

Norman recognizes Esther’s desire for something more than crooning at local dives. In true Svengali fashion, Norman takes Esther under his shaky wing to groom her for stardom. Soon, Esther is re-born as Vicki Lester, molded by Maine as well as the studio head, played in avuncular fashion by Charles Bickford, and the huckster PR head Libby, essayed by a perfectly cast Jack Carson. Norman witnesses his wife’s star ascend in prominence and adoration, while Norman’s equally devastating descent into alcoholism and regret plot a collision course between Esther’s love for him and his love for self-destruction.

Mercilessly cut by almost an hour shortly after its release, "A Star Is Born" returned to the public eye in 1983 when the late film historian Ronald Haver reconstructed the film. Gathering every scrap available, he just about reconstituted the original running length. While the soundtrack was intact, not all the scenes could be recovered. In those instances where audio was available but the film was absent, Haver substituted publicity and behind the scenes photos to approximate the visual action. Previously utilized in the restorations of Frank Capra’s "Lost Horizon" and Erich Von Stroheim’s "Greed," the process underscores our need to preserve our fading film heritage yet makes us salivate about what might have been.

The stories around this film are legendary. The film marked the triumphant return of Judy Garland to the cinema landscape four years after 1950’s "Summer Stock" where her unsteady appearance led many to believe that the film would be her swan song. Her Esther Blodgett and subsequent transformation into star Vicki Lester is both believable and full of her trademark vulnerability, yet a different face of Judy was on display. The scene where Esther in the bluntest terms bemoans Norman’s failure to quit drinking and how his self-loathing is slowly infecting her could not have found a more focused voice than with a person who knew Hollywood’s penchant for soul-chewing first hand.

The 2.35 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> image simply blazes. If there was ever a time when this film fell into disrepair, all transgressions are hereby forgiven. Cukor painted the rectangular frame with muted hues and the transfer captures that smooth color saturation admirably. Black levels run solid and deep, allowing for exceptional detail delineation and pixel-perfect color accuracy. In chapter 4, we go from the blood red-lit anteroom of a theater to the natural warm light of a proscenium stage with no smearing or bleeding whatsoever. Fleshtones unfortunately suffer from the over-processed make-up, which the increased resolution of DVD magnifies, sometimes to the point of distraction. I detected no digital artifacts and if the reconstruction had any lingering defects present in the source, Warner did an acme job of eliminating them. While I did not see the film in its 1983 release, I feel that with the DVD I did not miss the boat.

The disc’s <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 sound is the perfect showcase for the expansive orchestrations of veteran Warner Bros. music chief Ray Heindorf. While the surrounds and LFE engage intermittently, the front soundstage teems with aural life. From the din of nightclubs to the crowd chaos of movie premieres to the tender vocal styling of Garland, the audio definitely does justice to the original recordings. For all the early claims (many of them justified) that the severe compression of Dolby Digital compromises fidelity, "A Star Is Born’s" soundtrack amply demonstrates that you can have a robust, full sound using less bits.

The supplemental materials highlight both the heralding of the film in its day, as well as highlighting some of the various fragments available that went into its ultimate resurrection. Three alternate takes of the film’s signature musical number, "The Man That Got Away," illustrate how the scene underwent numerous revisions and mutations before arriving at the final version immortalized in the film. Interestingly, the scene started rather bright and energetic, with two takes utilizing close-ups of Judy as the focal point. Notes accompanying each take indicate the changes made, the dates of their filming and their relation to the final cut.

The more I watch deleted scenes, the more I understand why they were left on the cutting room floor in the first place. "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street" was supposed to take place during "Born in A Trunk." (Chapter 24) As such, the "number within a number" is already far too long and the reconstruction notwithstanding, the decision to leave it out both times was a prudent one. The disc includes two alternate audio takes, but without the matching film synched up or even stills to accompany the tracks, I had difficulty making any real substantive comparisons with the final takes.

No less than four versions of Hollywood reality are represented in the DVD’s exploration of the launch of the film. First, there is the Warner Pathe newsreel of the film premiere in Hollywood and post-premiere party at the legendary Coconut Grove Hotel in Los Angeles. Each studio had a newsreel unit and while some of them actually captured legitimate news, their primary function was to plug the average Joe into the PR conduit. Excerpts from a 1954 exhibitor reel hosted by Warner Brothers mogul Jack Warner himself exalt the coming of "A Star Is Born." The reel is notable for the fact that different takes appear in the trailer (again, good liner notes point this out.)

The disc then offers a kinescope of the live TV broadcast of the premiere from the Pantages Theater. Utterly fascinating, we witness a thirty minute parade of 50s Hollywood elite: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Lucy & Desi, Greer Garson, Edward G. Robinson, Liberace and Elizabeth Taylor were among the luminaries attending. The real hoot is that emcees George Fisher and Jack Carson (yes, one of the film’s stars emcees his own premiere) literally herd everyone by the camera so they could "get as many stars as we can to the TV audience." Of course, Judy makes an appearance, flanked by no less a flunkie than the Toastmaster General of the United States, the oft imitated but never duplicated George Jessel.

Even curiouser is the separate coverage from the private post-premiere party at the Coconut Grove. The material looks rather raw in continuity, suggesting that we are watching unedited footage from the studio archives rather than a finished newsreel. We see Judy making a short speech from her dinner table as well as Jack Warner’s remarks about how the film will live with the great film classics of the studio. Ironically, Warner sanctioned the cuts that almost condemned "A Star Is Born" to the celluloid charnel house of studio-tampered visions.

The disc also includes trailers for the 1937, 1954 and the 1975 rock version with Barbra Streisand. The trailers themselves are in very good shape, mapping a progression of the thematic variations over the years. Calculating that the story resurfaces in a new spin every 20 years, I imagine we are due for the next riff shortly.

"A Star Is Born" on DVD succeeds on so many levels: a stunning transfer with a full sound, a testament to film restoration efforts and a time capsule of a moment when a true star shined brightly one more time before growing dim far too soon. This disc is highly recommended.