Long Time Coming

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So you thought your family get-togethers were bad. What is it with weddings on “Game of Thrones” anyway?

Ordinarily I’d wait until further on in the season to comment, but last night’s episode was one I’d been waiting for. Being semi-spoiled, I was relishing that moment when Joffrey would finally get his. The powers that be did not disappoint—the build-up and suspense were terrific, and the sense of dread overhanging the wedding banquet was enormous. I doubt we’ll ever forget the sight of Tyrion’s barely concealed rage and Sansa’s enormous pain, both in response to Joffrey’s twisted sense of fun.

Just a few more observations at this point:

Given how the banquet was filmed, it appears there are several suspects in the “Who Killed Joffrey Sweepstakes,” though odds are Tyrion isn’t one of them. There’s Olenna Tyrell, Tywin Lannister and Margaery, not to mention that old stand-by Varys, and a man burning for vengeance, Oberyn Martell. But coming from a totally non-spoiled perspective (I knew about Joffrey’s death but not whodunit), I’m putting my money on Cersei. Just her grimace each time she was referred to as the former Queen Regent is cause enough. Joffrey was no longer hers to control, and I suspect she feared he would turn on her without warning. With her younger son she can start afresh as Queen Regent without having to worry about losing her head or ending up in a dungeon.

Margaery is now a two time loser. She’s twice a widow without a consummated marriage to her credit. I wonder who grandma is going to pick out for her now?

Prediction: Roose Bolton and his bastard will get theirs, hopefully as indicated by Lady Stoneheart. And as to who or what she is, I’m not telling.

Lady Brianna in love with Jamie Lannister? Duh. I’m curious as to how this plays out because I like both characters very much.

Joffrey in action bore an uncanny resemblance to the immortal Anthony in that classic “Twlight Zone” episode (and tremendous short story by Jerome Bixby), “It’s a Good Life.” The tantrums, the sadism inflicted on a whim, the ruling over a kingdom, all responded to by the tip-toeing around and the false smiles of others. If Joffrey didn’t have a sword and crossbow, I swear he’d have been wishing his enemies away into a cornfield.

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“You’re a bad man. A very bad man!”

Kudos to Jack Gleeson for creating such an unforgettably nasty piece of work. From all accounts, Mr. Gleeson is the polar opposite of the character he portrayed, and in fact, is leaving the acting profession to study for the clergy. “Game of Thrones” will miss him.

Until next time.

 

Neanderthal Mouths

ImageNormally I’d save this for a “Brain Bits” post, but since the expositors are patently brainless, the temptation is just too great. The (non) controversy? The Mets’ second baseman, Daniel Murphy, exercising his rights under Major League Baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement to take paternity leave for a maximum of three (3) games for the birth of his first child.

Why the controversy? The first game he missed was Opening Day.

The brainless Neanderthals with plenty of gas and zero gray matter? New York radio’s Mike Francesa and Boomer Esiason who have variously opined that (a) Murphy should NEVER have missed Opening Day (b) flying to Florida just for the birth would have been more than enough (c) maybe Mrs. Murphy should have had a C-section before the season started so hubby wouldn’t have missed Opening Day and so on, ad nauseum.

To which I reply: “What the hell business is it of yours?”

Both of these morons who unbelievably are paid seven figures and more to bloviate in this mode just demonstrated how ugly ugly can get. First of all, the Mets had no problem with Murphy’s absence—they have the quaint notion that contracts should be honored. And truth be told, will Murphy’s two-game absence prevent this stellar (ha!) team from winning the pennant? As a lifelong Mets fan, I can tell you that the answer to that one is a resounding NO.

Frankly I think more of Daniel Murphy for wanting to be with his wife at this time. He’ll have many more Opening Days, but the birth of a first child only happens once. It’s shameful that he has to put up with self-styled critics whose knuckles drag the ground as they walk. You have to wonder about the kind of men they truly are.

A bouquet to the Murphys and kudos to the Mets for sticking up for their player. Francesa and Esiason owe them all an apology.

The Comedian Harmonists

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The Comedian Harmonists (L to R): Robert Biberti, Erich Collin, Edwin Bootz, Roman Cycowski, Harry Frommerman and Ari Leschnikoff

This photograph, which I first saw in the New York Times about twenty years ago, was my introduction to the Comedian Harmonists, one of the best vocal groups of the last century. Their history, as equally celebrated as their music, is a poignant story of lives interrupted and careers cut short by the Nazi regime.

Organized in Berlin in 1927, the Comedian Harmonists had a unique sound, though one quite reflective of Jazz Age music popular on both sides of the Atlantic. In descending vocal order, the group consisted of a high (lead) tenor, a second tenor, a swing vocalist who specialized in imitating musical instruments, a baritone and a bass. Mirroring the dance bands of that era, with their alto saxes wailing in the treble while a tuba or bass sax rumbled below, the Comedian Harmonists’ songs emphasized the same wide spectrum of sound. Their music featured leads sung by tenor Leschnikoff and bass Biberti, but the inner voices of second tenor Collin and baritone Cycowski were just as essential, if not more so, as were the arrangements by Frommerman, the group’s founder and faux instrumentalist, accompanied by Bootz at the piano.

Their repertoire covered a great deal of musical ground: traditional German folk songs, marches, novelty numbers about cactuses and crocodiles, classical pieces, operetta and popular tunes in at least four languages. My favorite songs are the contemporary numbers: the tango “Gitarren spielt auf,” “Wochenend und Sonnenschein” (“Happy Days Are Here Again”), “Du Armes Girl von Chor” (so very 20′s) and “In der Barzum Krokodil,” with a sly intro borrowed from the Nile Scene of Verdi’s “Aida.”

The Comedian Harmonists featured some wonderful arrangements, especially their version of “Stormy Weather” recorded in German (“Ohne Dich”) and French (“Quand il pleut”) with a lovely lead by second tenor Erich Collin. I’m also fond of their version of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” again in French (“Tout le jour, tout le nuit),” as well as the Italian “Ah Maria, Mari” with the soaring lead of Ari Leschnikoff, seconded by baritone Roman Cycowski, who stretches quite successfully into tenor territory. But if I had to pick an all-time Comedian Harmonists favorite, it would have to be “Der Onkel Bumba aus Kalumba tanzt nur Rumba,” perhaps their most intricate arrangement with its breakneck syncopation and bluesy ending. So much fun and a joy to hear.

Comedian Harmonists II

While the Comedian Harmonists were a true product of Weimar Germany, they soon ran into difficulty when the Nazis came to power. Three of the singers were of Jewish origin, though Frommerman and Cycowski were not observant, and both sides of Collin’s family had converted long before his birth. Because the group was an international money-maker, it was allowed to continue, though with a dwindling performance and recording schedule. Things finally ended in 1935 when the Comedian Harmonists were banned outright, with the Jewish contingent temporarily relocating to Austria and later to Australia, restaffing and performing as the Comedy Harmonists. Although Biberti, Bootz and Leschnikoff regrouped with additional singers as the Meistersextett, issues with the Nazis continued. Their repertoire, the majority of which had been written by Jewish composers, was gutted; their remaining novelty numbers were later banned as too frivolous for the war effort.

The Comedian Harmonists never reunited as a group. Their post-war lives took divergent paths: for years Frommerman and Collin tried unsuccessfully to revive their musical careers, forming and reforming other vocal groups; Leschnikoff suffered one financial disaster after another; and Biberti became an antique dealer and master wood craftsman. Bootz remained a performing musician and club impresario, but Cycowski’s life took the most radical turn. Following his father’s murder at the hands of Polish Nazi sympathizers, he rededicated himself to his faith and became a cantor, active until his death at the age of 97.

Interviews with the then-surviving members of the group appear in Eberhard Fechner’s 1976 documentary “Sechs Lebensläufe” (“Six Life Stories”) which, sad to say, isn’t commercially available in a version with English subtitles. However, the entire film (actually a two-parter made for German television) is available on YouTube. Even if you don’t know a word of German, it’s worth watching the first several minutes just to see Leschnikoff and Cycowski react to hearing their old recording of “Gitarren speilt auf.” The tenor smilingly responds with “Schoen” (“Beautiful”), but it’s even more gratifying to watch Cycowski listen as his younger self sings. There’s a justified look of pride in his eyes as he nods his approval and echoes Leschnikoff’s appraisal: “Schoen.”

The Comedian Harmonists have been the subject of other films and books, including the 1997  feature “The Harmonists,” directed by Joseph Vilsmaier, which unfortunately suffers from Hollywooditis in its fictionalized story of the group. However, we finally have a comprehensive history in English by Douglas E. Friedman, “The Comedian Harmonists,”  and there’s even a musical by Barry Manilow (“Harmony”) which has yet to make it to Broadway.

But there’s nothing like seeing the members of the group perform, and once again, YouTube comes through. There’s a truncated version of “Veronika, der Lenz ist da,” with Bootz grinning maniacally at the piano, and an intriguing clip from a 1936 Austrian film in which the Comedy Harmonists strut their stuff with musical instrument imitations. There’s no dearth of the group on CD, but I strongly recommend the remastered “History Records: Comedian Harmonists.” The sound is clear beyond belief, the artistry superb. This one shouldn’t be missed.

State of the Art

Though New York”s winter weather has indeed been frightful, the music in this corner of the world has certainly been delightful.

When a performance of Handel’s “Theodora” was scheduled at Carnegie Hall for February 2nd, I was reluctant to buy a ticket. With New Jersey serving as host for the first time, this was Super Bowl Sunday, which meant ridership on the train to New York, not to mention security issues, threatened to be overwhelming. But “Theodora” was to feature Harry Bicket and the English Concert, joined by some expert Handelians, so I just had to go (P.S.: It turned out I had no trouble whatsoever with transportation that day).

Röschmann + Bicket + English Concert = Glorious

Röschmann + Bicket + English Concert = Glorious

After a slow first act (Handel’s fault, not the performers’), the work just bloomed. Dorothea Röschmann, whose dark soprano was a perfect fit for the heroine, was simply on fire that afternoon. Sarah Connolly was a wonderful contrast as Irene, and David Daniels (Didymus), Kurt Streit (Septimius) and especially Neal Davies (Valens) were equally expert in their roles. I’m in awe of singers who perform Handel at this level—in addition to considerable vocalism, they’re required to complement the orchestral line in a manner that few other composers demand. But the key ingredients that day were Harry Bicket and the English Concert, who together with these soloists turned what is basically a one-line plot (Christians vs. Early Romans and we all know how that ends) into a musical spellbinder.

Next up was the Met’s new production of Borodin’s “Prince Igor,” a work that hadn’t been performed by the company in nearly 100 years. This one’s a great deal of fun for fans of the musical “Kismet,” like myself, since so much of the score of that show is derived from this opera—a phrase here, a few notes there, and of course, the “Polovtsian Dances,” a.k.a. “Stranger in Paradise.” What makes “Prince Igor” somewhat unique is that there isn’t a set edition of the score. Borodin died leaving entire sections of the work unfinished; Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov then split the responsibility of completing the opera and orchestrating it. The Met’s current version omits the Overture, yet adds other Borodin-composed music, and presents Igor’s encounter with Khan Konchak and the Polovtsians earlier than usual, this time immediately after the Prologue.

Prince Igor

Prince Igor

Musically, the performance I saw was extraordinary: conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, the opera was marvelously sung by Ildar Abdrazakov (Igor), Oksana Dyka (Yaroslavna), Anita Rachvelishvili (Konchakovna) and Sergey Semisher (Vladimir). The richness and exoticism of the score were a welcome change from the standard Italian-German repertory, especially in the seductive mezzo-tenor duet. Dramatically, though, you have to wonder why this is called “Prince Igor” when his wife, Yaroslavna, has the better role—she’s the Russian version of “Game of Thrones’” Catelyn Stark, betrayed by her usurper brother, Prince Galitsky (a terrific Mikhail Petrenko), yet trying in her husband’s absence to hold the kingdom together with her faithful boyars.

I thought some of the choices by director Dmitri Tcherniakov were odd. The poppy fields in rows for the Polovtsian scene were unnecessarily confining for the dancers who were forced to hurdle the flower hedges like track stars, and Igor’s hallucinations seemed too realistic (his “missing you” duet with Yaroslavna was staged in full light as she stood right next to him). And there was too much old-fashioned “Oh my God” head-holding and similar gestures by some of the singers. Nevertheless, “Prince Igor” is a wonderful change of pace, and one which the Met should be performing on a far more frequent basis.

Jonas. No further words necessary.

Jonas. No further words necessary.

The term “physique du rôle” could have been coined to describe Jonas Kaufmann as Massenet’s “Werther” in the Met’s new production–he absolutely embodies all aspects of the character in a manner not often seen on the opera stage. Unlike other singers, he shows us Werther’s social awkwardness in Act I, as a man far more comfortable extolling nature than interacting with people. His first scenes with Charlotte are magical in this production, as we see them dance at the ball to what will become a recurring theme in the opera, the motif that signals Werther’s love.

Nevertheless, Kaufmann had to resort to some odd choices to produce the sound the role demands. Werther is somewhat tricky—the role is lyrical at the beginning of the opera, yet it requires dramatic force when the character finally confesses his love for Charlotte. Kaufmann has a big voice—the man sings Wagner after all—so there was some reining in at various times in the performance I saw, and not a small amount of crooning on his part. When he finally let fly with an impassioned “Pourquoi me reveiller” I was relieved to hear that golden Jonas sound.

Sophie Koch’s vibrant mezzo brought out the best in Charlotte. There was a welcome warmth to her performance (I’ve seen more than one Charlotte who so tended toward ice you wonder why Werther would even bother), and she added no small amount of insight. At the beginning of Act II, when Charlotte and Albert, her new husband, enter, they sit a bit apart on a bench. While he marvels at his happiness by exclaiming “I can’t believe it’s been three months since we wed,” her stiff posture alone, even before she repeats that line, shows her quite opposite view of their marriage.

The production by Richard Eyre is traditional, which to me seems fitting for some of the most romantic music in the repertoire. Nevertheless a few directorial choices were questionable. With the exception of showing Werther and Charlotte at the ball, Eyre’s invented moments of illustration for the prelude and scene transitions ranged from unnecessary to ludicrous. We didn’t need to have the opera start with the death of Charlotte’s mother, and Charlotte’s struggling into her booties onstage before rushing out after the dispatch of those pistols was a mood-breaker, to put it mildly. On the other hand, the suicide is extraordinarily realistic—when Werther shot himself and the blood spattered on the opposite wall, I gasped and the woman sitting next to me jumped right off her seat. And for once, Werther and Charlotte’s final scene is properly staged. The man is dying of blood loss and Kaufmann acts it superbly, lying prone for the most part and only able to stand with Charlotte’s considerable assistance (In the prior Met staging Werther was on his feet so much you expected him to finally shake it all off and go out for a beer).

“Werther” will be shown as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series on March 15th. With Kaufmann and Koch, as well as two unusually vivid characterizations by Lisette Oropesa as Sophie and David Bizic as Albert, this is a performance that shouldn’t be missed.

 

Brain Bits for an Endless Winter

As I write this the New York metropolitan area is gearing up for yet another wave of snow, sleet and freezing rain. How much of the above we’re going to be socked with this time is still up in the air (no pun intended). We only know that the weather forecasters have been predicting doom for the last five days. Well, my refrigerator is stocked, my car’s gas tank is full and my boots and snow shovel are once more at the ready. I saw a robin on my front lawn yesterday afternoon, and while I refrained from asking “You lost, buddy?,” I still took heart. Spring will arrive—sometime.

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No gown was ever better wrecked

No gown was ever better wrecked

“Downton Abbey” just completed its fourth season here. My opinion? Kind of meh.

I’m not saying the show was without its charms: I’ll be interested in Lady Mary’s doings until the cows (or perhaps I should say, the pigs) come home. I’ve always liked the character, even at her bitchiest, and she’s got the type of self-awareness that’s enormously refreshing—she cuts to the heart of things, no matter whose feelings may be hurt. Tom Branson is still fun to watch, as are Carson and Mrs. Hughes, and I’d like Paul Giamatti to make a return visit as Harold Levenson, Cora’s brother. But the show now seems stuffy and predictable, especially if you’re a fan of “Last Tango in Halifax,” whose characters in no way have consistency in their lexicon. At this point you’re assured of the following in every “Downton Abbey” episode: a cutting quip and a snark at Isobel Crawley by the Dowager Countess, a Lady Edith misfortune, a block-headed remark by the Earl, a blackmail attempt by Barrow and an ambiguously sinister shot of Bates. The pattern has yet to change.

Despite all this, I’ll continue to watch “Downton Abbey” until its end. I just wish it had a little more zest in its storytelling and a little more oxygen in its atmosphere.

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MetThat sound you hear is the rattling of sabres as management and labor gear up for contract talks at the Metropolitan Opera. Words are already being exchanged, what with General Manger Peter Gelb leading negotiations for the first time and Tino Gagliardi, head of the musicians’ union, vowing to seek oversight of the Met’s spending in order to prevent salary cuts and other givebacks.

There’s been a distressing pattern of musicians’ unions blinding themselves to significant changes in both the prevailing culture and the economy. This is no longer 1960, when arts programming was a regular feature on the handful of television channels in existence, Leonard Bernstein won Emmys for his “Young People’s Concerts” and most importantly, visual and musical arts were mandatory courses in public schools. Is it any wonder that audiences for classical music and opera have dwindled over the years, to the extent that box office receipts make up only one third of the Met’s income? Outreach programs are great, but nothing creates a lifelong interest in the arts like a thorough education such as my boomer generation received. Sadly, those times are gone.

I know very few people who weren’t impacted by the financial collapse of 2008 and its lingering aftermath. There’s a trickle-down effect on the arts after such disasters: over time contributions are curtailed if not eliminated, and patrons find themselves with less disposable income for ticket purchases. To put it bluntly, we’ve all had to suck it up during the last several years, and performers are not exempt from the new reality. If, as the Met claims, two-thirds of its expenses are labor costs, that’s the pool from which reductions should come first.

I would hate to see a strike or a lock-out at the Met. But the unions would better serve both their membership and the ticket-buying public by dealing in the real world.

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Gary Carter, N.Y. Mets

Gary Carter, N.Y. Mets

Once upon a time there was a future Hall of Fame catcher named Gary Carter. For five delirious years he was a New York Met, and a mainstay of that 1986 championship team. As a lifelong, diehard Mets fan, I loved watching him play.

Flash forward to a few days ago. I’ve been wanting to adopt another cat for several months, ever since poor Roger departed to the great litter box in the sky. I needed a mellow boy past kitten stage who could get along with Miss Teddi, a somewhat crotchety 16 year-old, and Gregory, a laid back 7 year-old built like a pro football linebacker.

Gary Carter, Cat

Gary Carter, Cat

Is there a better name for a polydactyl cat whose front paws resemble catcher’s mitts? I can’t claim credit for his name: it said “Gary Carter” on his cat cubby at the shelter. Under the circumstances I couldn’t not take him, so now Mr. Carter is comfortably ensconced in his new surroundings. This young man blended in immediately with the other feline residents, and is simply one terrific cat.

Now if I could just get him to wear a baseball cap……

Kubrick’s “The Shining”

"Your money's no good here, Mr. Torrance"

“Your money’s no good here, Mr. Torrance”

I hadn’t seen Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining” in several years, but two recent events made me return to it. One was a debate with my co-workers as to which was better—the movie or the Stephen King novel on which it’s based. The other was purely monetary: I hated to see my hard-earned Best Buy points go to waste. So my newly purchased Blu-ray edition became Sunday’s entertainment as I worked my way through a week’s worth of laundry.

As a huge fan of Stephen King’s novel, I was disappointed in Kubrick’s film when I first saw it in 1980. Like many readers, I expected the movie to be an adaptation, but Kubrick chose to use the novel as a springboard for his own ideas. The result is a clear instance of book and film markedly parting company.

Some flaws remain even when considering the movie without reference to its source. Jack Nicholson gives away far too much too soon. That cocked eyebrow and those glinting eyes signal crazy too early in the game; he becomes outrageous rather than horrific. Kubrick uses Shelley Duvall as little more than a doormat except at the end of the film, and Danny Lloyd, as Danny Torrance, seems like a little zombie who’s been forbidden to act like a child (This is truly a shame, because “The Making of ‘The Shining’” featurette reveals this kid to have been a real charmer with a great laugh).

It’s mentioned a number of times in the Blu-ray’s extras that Kubrick viewed “The Shining” as a tale of a man coming to hate his own family. However, the first time we see Jack, Wendy and Danny together as they drive up to the Overlook Hotel, Jack seems to be there already. He’s irritable and short with his wife and son, there’s no chemistry between Nicholson and Duvall, and by the time Jack tells Danny he loves him, we just don’t believe it. There’s no development, no sense of erosion of feeling. It’s as if Kubrick just flicks the switch on Jack Torrance from responsible family man to monster. A more minor quibble: why have Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) make that long trek from Miami to Denver, rent a Snow Cat and drive through a blizzard just to be axed the moment he steps foot in the Overlook lobby? If you’re going to kill him off, at least give him a fighting chance before the dispatch.

Despite all this, there’s so much I love about the movie. In no particular order:

The Overlook’s maze is a superb replacement for King’s topiary animals. The former is the type of visual good film thrives on; the latter device works best as psychological horror on the printed page (for proof watch the 1997 television remake of “The Shining” where those animals look ridiculous). The maze’s scale model also plays an important role—that shot with Jack looking down into the model as it morphs into an overhead view of Wendy and Danny navigating their way through the real thing is breathtaking.

The Overlook itself, which is really the main character in “The Shining.” The set decoration is stunning. It’s virtually timeless. Despite all the haunted goings-on, you feel a strong urge to be able to step right into that bar and the golden ballroom. One minor gripe: Oregon’s Timberline Lodge, built in 1937 and used for exterior shots of the Overlook, looks too modern for a hotel supposedly built in 1909.

"I co-rrrected her"

“I co-rrrected her”

Jack’s encounters with Lloyd the Bartender (Joe Turkel) and Delbert Grady (Philip Stone). His face lit from below, Lloyd comes across as a kindly Satan in a red jacket. Not so Grady, who counsels Jack in what can only be described as Hell’s Bathroom. Aside from relating that he “co-rrected” his wife and daughters, he’s the harbinger of the story’s end when he insists to Jack: “You have always been the caretaker.”

Despite being over-the-top, there’s a small thing Jack Nicholson does that makes me laugh every time I watch the film. It comes when Jack Torrance returns to the gold Colorado Lounge, now filled with party-goers dressed in 1920′s style. After Jack finishes his conversation with Lloyd at the bar, he gets up and, enjoying the sweet band music, tries out a few nimble dance steps before colliding with Grady. It’s totally unexpected. Speaking of the ballroom scene, the ghostly music that accompanies it (actual recordings of bands from that era) couldn’t be more evocative.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” I’ve always gotten a bigger jolt from this than the scene in Room 237, and in fact, I think it comes in a close second to “REDRUM” as the most frightening bit in the movie. The detail is astonishing—pages and pages of Jack’s typing, some in narrative, some in verse form, others in script format (The Blu-ray extras reveal that Kubrick had his secretary typing for months to create what Wendy discovers).

Danny’s sliding escape out the bathroom window and the ensuing chase through the maze. It’s so eerily beautiful it almost erases the horror of a man trying to kill his own son. And we finally see Danny take some initiative in making those backward footprints in the snow to throw Jack off the trail.

The end, done in a way that film does best. I wonder if Mr. Ullman will be hiring another caretaker for next winter…and whether Jack Torrance will be there to greet him. Need we say more?

shining2

The Man That Got Away

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One of my favorite things is returning to a film upon its reissue on Blu-ray. The disc’s extra features show the evolution of the movie, the artists’ thought processes, what didn’t work but, on the other hand, what triumphantly did. No better example of this is the Blu-ray version of 1954′s “A Star is Born,” starring Judy Garland and James Mason, directed by George Cukor.

“A Star is Born” is one of the most notoriously maimed movies of all time. Trimmed down to a manageable three hours for its premiere, it then underwent a brutal 40-minute cut at Warner Brothers’ direction (sans input from Cukor) when theater owners complained that the film’s length limited the number of daily showings. The movie was partially restored in 1983 after Ronald Haver, then Director of Film Programs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, located a complete soundtrack of the premiere version and the three excised musical numbers (about 10 minutes of dialogue footage was never recovered, and Haver was forced to make do with production stills and other photographs). His search for the original film as well as the movie’s troubled production history is detailed in his fascinating book “A Star is Born: The Making of the 1954 Movie and and It’s 1983 Restoration.”

What makes the Blu-ray release so absorbing is the inclusion of various versions and takes of that classic Harold Arlen torcher, “The Man That Got Away,” for my money Judy Garland’s best musical performance on film. She’s on fire here, but in reality the evolution of that flame took a while.

The number as first shot is prime double-take fodder. This bluesy song, evocative of smoky nightclubs, is sung on a brightly lit set filled with extras seated around small tables. It’s High Noon and everyone, Judy and band included, is wearing pastels. As Haver details in his book, after this was shot a decision was made to scrap all existing footage in order to film “A Star is Born” in CinemaScope, then the latest word in movie technology. And thank heavens, the pastels were tossed.

Version No. 2: One Huge Mistake

Version No. 2: One Huge Mistake

However, the second attempted version of “The Man That Got Away” turned out to be a muddy mess, widescreen notwithstanding. The predominant colors are brown and a muted red. The brunette Judy is defeated by the color scheme as well as the too-visible musicians who pull focus away from her. More than that, the point of the song is somewhat divided between the rehearsal of a musical number and the foreshadowing of Norman Maine’s tragic fate. There’s too much emphasis on the latter, particularly since we’ll see his alcoholism stand in the way of any lasting happiness with Esther. This begs the question: If she never really had him in the first place, how could he get away? Another problem with the early takes of Version No. 2: Esther serving coffee to the boys in the band before she sings. Yes, that’s right. Talk about a mood breaker.

The final version we see in the film today hits on all cylinders. The purpose of the number is now firmly established—it’s a performance piece though the subtext remains. An important bit of business has been added: Esther’s motioning the trombone player over to give her a lead-in to which she harmonizes, setting that torchy mood. With the exception of Danny at the piano, the boys in the band are in shadow throughout the song, a welcome change from the first two versions of the number. And best of all, the predominant colors are now midnight blue and red, far more fitting to the context of the song and exceptionally flattering to Judy Garland (as is the white-collared dark dress she wears, as opposed to the schmatte in Version No. 2). That little nod and wink to the boys as she ends the number put the seal on her pride as a performer, and Lord knows, it’s well-earned.

Cut before the premiere: Norman and Esther at Malibu

Cut before the premiere: Norman and Esther at Malibu

“The Man That Got Away” is only one of the movie’s key elements. Jack Carson’s performance as Matt Libby, the studio publicity head, is indispensable, a perfect blend of affability and malevolence. His best scenes just sizzle—his joking but later acid opinion of Esther and Norman’s elopement, his explosive confrontation with the newly sober Norman at Hollywood Park. Although his years of frustration covering up Norman’s bad behavior are evident, Libby knows how the game is played. Witness his change of attitude toward Esther at the preview party of her film. At first he orders her around like any contract player (“Now I’ll need you tomorrow for some more publicity shots”), but then realizing that her status as a star has shifted the balance of power, he abruptly changes gears. Pasting on a smarmy smile he adds an obsequious “That is, if you can make it.” Just brilliant.

Norman Maine will always remain an enigma. James Mason plays wounded quite well, but we never learn why the erstwhile Ernest Sidney Gubbins drinks to the extent of destroying himself. Much as I like him, Mason seems too sane for the character he plays, though he plays Norman’s final descent into despair in unforgettable fashion.

Judy Garland’s performance as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester, is her finest work on film. Under the guidance of George Cukor, she uses her emotive style wisely, letting loose where it counts, as in her final scene with Danny (the excellent Tom Noonan). “Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine” may be over the top. but Judy makes you believe. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the film is our realization that the opportunity to follow-up with other musicals showcasing her talents at their peak would never be hers.

A revisit to “A Star is Born” is well worth your time.