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.
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.
“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.