Posted in Books, Movie Reviews

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.

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Posted in Television

Tangoing Again

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Two of the Best Around: Nicola Walker and Sarah Lancashire

As an avid follower of two great British TV shows—“Downton Abbey” of course, but also “Last Tango in Halifax” which in my opinion is the better series—I’ve been suffering from acute delayed gratification ever since the new seasons of both started airing in the UK. Dodging spoilers and hanging on until PBS starts up “Downton Abbey” again didn’t pose a problem for me. But going tango-less, particularly since PBS has been dead silent about airing Season Two, was just too much. Fortunately a very kind soul posted each episode of the new season as it aired on youtube. Needless to say, for six weeks I couldn’t wait for Wednesday nights to indulge.

Unless you want to delay until PBS finally gets off its horse and imports “Last Tango” once again, you probably should stop reading at this point (horrors!). Because SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.

To be frank I was a little put off by the first episode, which relied heavily on the same trick that ended the show’s first season—a round robin of characters repeating a choice bit of information initially told in confidence. At the end of Season One it was Caroline’s relationship with Kate; this time around it was Gillian unwisely telling Caroline she had slept with John, the latter’s soon-to-be ex-husband. Caroline, in a combination of shock and a bit of residual possessiveness, spills this to Celia who repeats it to Alan, and so on. Much messiness ensues: as you can imagine, some characters fall out with each other and some really raw past history comes out.

But Sally Wainwright, creator and author of all six episodes, once again got the ship on an even keel and delivered some great storytelling. That family tree we see in the opening credits of the show expanded with the introduction of Celia’s sister, Muriel (Gemma Jones) who many years ago stole and married Celia’s boyfriend, post-Alan. While their issues were aired, they weren’t resolved, which hopefully will lead to Muriel’s return next season. We also met Ted, Alan’s brother now living overseas, who arrives for Alan and Celia’s “proper” wedding after their secret ceremony at the registrar’s office.

Although their weddings bracketed the show’s second season, Alan and Celia took something of a back seat to their respective daughters. Gillian’s on-again, off-again relationship with Robbie, the messy denouement of her affair with John and some old business with her father figured prominently, as did her becoming a grandmother courtesy of 17-year-old Raff and his girlfriend. And on the other side of the family, Caroline, while very much in love with Kate, ran away from “out and proud” faster than the speed of light, resulting in a painful breakup.

But what ultimately made this season of “Last Tango” extraordinary were the performances of Nicola Walker and Sarah Lancashire as Gillian and Caroline. These two play a scene together like nobody’s business. From the first episode, when Gillian hesitatingly confides that she slept with John, to their drunken afternoon of wedding planning for their parents, to their comforting each other (prematurely) for being wall flowers at the wedding—it’s so real you feel like you’re eavesdropping. The scene when Gillian confesses the darkest secrets of her life to Caroline is a textbook of acting excellence: the way Nicola Walker delivers Gillian’s drunken but controlled narrative as Sarah Lancashire’s Caroline silently takes all this in was riveting. The morning after, with Gillian afraid of the impact and Caroline wrestling with why Gillian confided this in the first place, was just as skillfully done.

Best of all, Alan and Celia’s “proper” wedding was a marvelous end to the season: Caroline’s graceful speech about her mother; Alan, backed by his choreographed grandsons, serenading Celia with an old country-western tune; and loveliest of all, Kate and Caroline reunited and snogging on the dance floor with the others reacting totally in character (Lawrence clapping his hand over his eyes in horror to the amusement of his friend Angus was the funniest). This is exactly why “Last Tango in Halifax” is the most enjoyable television show to appear in a long time.

Bravo to the BBC for ordering up Season Three. I can’t wait.