Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A STAR IS BORN: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1954) Warner Home Video

Few musicals are as revered as George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954) – an uncommonly dazzling achievement by any artistic measure that effectively – if briefly – resurrected Judy Garland’s imploded career. In hindsight, A Star is Born remains Garland’s penultimate great work; her all but ‘retirement’ from the screen, segue into steady television work and live sell-out concert tours an unimaginable breakneck for most any celebrity of today. The story behind A Star Is Born is as riveting as the perennial favorite being told on the screen. Cukor undeniably elevates its backstage rags to riches scenario to a subtle fine art form with all the melodramatic intensity of a four hanky women’s weepy. Star is one of the truly outstanding movie-going experiences witnessed within a lifetime; unparalleled in its emotional arc and sweep, superbly paced and expertly played. More than a half a century after its debut at the Pantages Theater no other movie about Hollywood manages to so completely or exquisitely capture the meteoric highs and perilous lows signifying self-destruction within an industry in chronic flux, perpetual upheaval and caught in its ongoing frantic search for the next new talent looming large on the horizon.
In retrospect, A Star is Born had everything going for it: Judy Garland as its ‘unknown’ transformed into Hollywood royalty overnight, co-stars James Mason, Jack Carson and Charles Bickford exceptionally well cast in support, a superb Harold Arlen/Ira Gershwin score with plush orchestrations by Ray Heindorf, and, a screenplay by Moss Hart that not only typified the emotional struggles of its characters but also seems to mirror and tragically foreshadow the trajectory of Garland’s own life and career. No,Star was and remains a prototypical story about life in the fast lane with all the emotional pitfalls extending from it like the strings of a harp plucked by the virtuosi behind the camera. It had the very best pedigree any movie could ask for and the results speak for themselves. Unhappily, Jack Warner could not see the luster in his Star’ – electing to hack into Cukor’s carefully paced melodrama with all the understanding and editorial prowess of a buzz saw cutting through a snow pea. Just two weeks into its public engagement, A Star is Born’s box office receipts suggested it might not immediately become the dynamo Warner had hoped for, the mogul deciding instead to satisfy exhibitor’s requests to fit in more nightly screenings.
At nearly three hours Star’ could only be shown once nightly, or perhaps twice, though arguably never at the established ‘peak hours’ of viewing: seven and nine o’clock. But Warner’s cuts proved disastrous – creating a disjointed narrative with lengthy gaps in-between the songs that had once punctuated the deeper intensity of its melodrama. Worse, Warner had not only instructed exhibitors where to disrupt Cukor’s continuity, he had also decided that the master negative – nee, the very work print from which all future prints of A Star Is Born would derive, should also be cut to reflect his changes; all of the excised material shortly thereafter destroyed. Those who had seen A Star Is Born during its two week initial engagement – and had been spellbound by its overwhelming impact – returned to theaters to rekindle this sensation only to discover that their memory palled in comparison to the ‘new’ version being screened. Letters of outrage poured into the studio, including a strenuous objection from George Cukor who had labored tirelessly to will his masterpiece into existence but could now only lament the fact that what had once been considered his finest effort by the critics (and this in a peerless career of exceptionally fine efforts) was now being referred to as one of the biggest disappointments in recent years. Arguably, cutting Star cost Garland the Academy Award for Best Actress she so justly deserved. Undeniably, it fractured Cukor’s masterpiece into a wan ghost flower of its former glory. 
Every year Warner Bros. gets a few telephone calls from well-intended fans and collectors who swear they’ve recently screened the unedited A Star is Born at the home of some secretive collector and/or archivist who somehow managed to squirrel away a print from the studio vaults back in 1954. Indeed, from the onset of the truncated version’s theatrical engagement the studio was inundated with requests to ‘bring back’ the complete version for which Jack Warner had to sheepishly admit no footage existed. In the mid-1970s author/historian Ronald Haver sought to unearth the missing pieces of A Star Is Born by conducting a worldwide search for surviving elements with the complicity and financing of the studio who evidently now believed thatStar’ should be given its due. Haver’s research managed to locate a treasure trove of ‘lost’ footage, including a portion of the medley ‘Born in A Trunk’ excised from the film even before its premiere, never seen by the public and thus never intended for inclusion. Haver’s hunt was also successful at reinstating two musical numbers cut after ‘Star’s’ premiere; both Garland masterpieces – Lose That long Face, and, Here’s What I’m Here For, plus portions of Garland’s Cocoanut Oil Shampoo commercial and a complete stereophonic soundtrack for the unedited version. But nothing beyond a few trims of the dramatic portions of the story had survived. Hence, when A Star Is Born had its second world premiere at Radio City Music Hall, Haver and Warner’s team of restoration experts elected to include the complete soundtrack with still photos inserted to fill gaps in the movie’s runtime.
I have seen A Star Is Born many times. In fact, it remains one of my absolute favorite movies of all time. But like others who have only known it in its truncated form but have nevertheless fallen under its spell I absolutely hunger for this missing footage. With each passing year it seems more unlikely to ever resurface, if in fact, it continues to exist at all inside some hoarder’s private collection. The tragedy of A Star is Born – the one apart from the scenario being played out on the expansive Cinemascope screen – is still very much with us; its permutations most readily witnessed today by Hollywood’s renewed shortsightedness to preserve their illustrious back catalogues of classic movies and present them in hi-definition on Blu-ray. Mercifully, A Star is Born is not among the forgotten.
Even in its truncated form, A Star Is Born retains an elusive luster – ‘that little something extra’ referenced by Norman Maine (James Mason) that the movie’s Esther Bloggett (Judy Garland) so obviously possesses in spades. George Cukor was a master constructionist. His movies always reveal far more about character than plot, his pacing so telescopically focused on giving use fully formed characterizations that the scenes and scenarios seem to move as though by effortless artful life and sustained magic from moment to moment. Early on, Norman explains to Esther about ‘little jabs of pleasure’: moments that can elevate one’s appreciation for art and artists; the rarity of discovering the extraordinary in the every day. A Star is Born is of this rarified ilk – an embarrassment of riches, going far beyond the tickling fancy or stirring emotions. You can feel Star’ in your bones as the images wash over from the expansive Cinemascope screen; the hairs raised on the neck as Garland’s voice throbs with romantic intensity, emoting ‘The Man That Got Away’ or trilling the near-acapella ‘It’s a New World’, carrying the audience along with bounce and hustle during ‘Gotta Have You Go With Me’ or ‘Somewhere There’s a Someone’.
A Star is Born echoes throughout our collective consciousness as few movies of any generation have or can, perhaps because nowhere else in her canon of movies does Garland’s own real life tragedy seem so close to the surface. When Esther breaks down in-between exuberant takes of ‘Lose That Long Face’, her tear-stained confession to studio head, Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) seems not only genuine and indigenous to the story but intuitively self-reflexive, directly referencing Garland’s own hard-won battles and emotional regrets that would continue to plague her to the bitter end. We can sense the desperation in Garland’s real need to be loved lurking from the peripheries of her performance and it is genuinely without guile. James Mason’s disillusionment, as the falling star of the piece, is less potent than Garland’s perhaps because Mason’s career was on very solid ground. He can play the imploding star, but Garland’s Esther is the real deal – self-sacrificing, only to emerge more resilient than ever before the final fade-out.
A Star Is Born sears itself into our memory because it just seems all too real, too meaningful in unexpected ways. It’s too brutally honest about the cynicism of Hollywood to be considered just a well-intended bit of mythologizing. It does, in fact, peel back the curtain of fame to expose the grislier side of celebrity. Its kernels of truth are somehow better expressed, more sincerely fleshed out, and questioningly harsh about what it means to be a ‘star’ – exposing the public’s unflattering fascination to build up/then tear down that which appears indestructibly adored. Indeed, many of the sobering moments in the movie; Norman’s impaired self-respect and consequent spiral into alcoholism, Esther’s giddy bailing him out of the drunk tank, her own emotional collapse after having her mourning veil unceremoniously torn off by an ‘adoring’ fan, and finally, Esther’s terrific confrontation with the admonishing Danny McGuire (Tommy Noonan) – her one true friend; these evoke an unsympathetic truth that can frighten even the most starry-eyed daydreamer who still thinks of Hollywood as a veritable Disneyland where dreams do come true. And yet A Star is Born remains a mostly glamorous affair; one of the undisputed flowers from that ancient civilization in film-making when pictorial perfection was desired above all else in the cinema firmament.
A Star is Born marked Judy Garland's comeback to the big screen after nearly a four year hiatus. Garland – once the most bankable star in MGM’s roster of formidable musical talents had been rather unceremoniously suspended following her erratic behavior on the set of Annie Get Your Gun (1950). MGM’s VP, Dory Schary had pleaded with Garland to seek therapy – a fairly laughable concern given that the studio had frequently reneged allowing Garland her much needed rest for more than two week intervals at a time. Garland did, in fact, take a very brief respite to convalesce, but when she returned to begin production on Royal Wedding her demons resurfaced and she was fired. Schary might otherwise have reasoned that Garland’s chronic addiction to prescription sedatives had been heavily sanctioned by studio doctors all through her youth and at a great expense to her health merely to squeeze every last minute of work and ounce of talent from her diminutive frame while netting MGM millions.
During her MGM heyday, Garland's private perils were in direct - often stark - contrast to the sunny, bright and wide-eyed innocence she effortlessly projected on screen. Still, there is no denying that by the time A Star Is Born came about Garland was steadily losing her battle with addiction. Yet, in retrospect this downward spiral seems only to have enriched Garland's depth as an actress. Her Esther Bloggett is a painful reminder of the differences between a public persona and a private life; the parallels unforgiving and unapologetic in their revealing the destructive consequences of fame. Garland's third husband, producer Sid Luft had heavily campaigned for A Star Is Born despite industry indifference and skepticism. Undaunted, and bolstered by director George Cukor’s overwhelming interest in re-making one of Hollywood’s great melodramatic tragedies about itself the production finally found a home at Warner Bros. Indeed, mogul, Jack L. Warner recognized that there was still money to be made from Garland. While Warner's interests in Garland were focused on his bottom line and a three picture deal with Luft, in director George Cukor Garland found a compassionate friend; someone who really treasured her as a human being, loved, coddled and nurtured her talents through one of the most difficult shoots of her career.
In this musical remake, Judy is Esther Bloggett, a singer turned movie star whose rise to fame is marred by her movie star husband's plummet into self-pity and alcoholic oblivion. We first meet Esther preparing backstage during a benefit at the Shrine Auditorium where movie legend Norman Maine (James Mason) is the guest of honor. The band's piano player, Danny McGuire (Tom Noonan) spots a very drunk Norman stumbling backstage. To prevent making a spectacle of himself Norman is detained from making his appearance by cutthroat studio publicist, Matt Libby (Jack Carson). But Esther's musical cue stirs Norman to violently force his way from beyond the curtain right in the middle of her song ‘Gotta Have Me Go With You’. Coaxing Norman to the periphery of the proscenium, Esther narrowly saves his face; Norman’s legion of fans unsuspecting he is intoxicated.
Sheepish and grateful, Norman pursues Esther to the Downbeat Club: an after-hours blues bar where he once again becomes spellbound by her singing of the smoky torch song, ‘The Man That Got Away’. Encouraging Esther to quit the band, Norman offers her a chance to become a contract player with Oliver Niles Studios - his alma mater; then promptly goes on location to shoot his next film, leaving Esther high and dry without a job. In desperation, she takes work doing commercial cues while supplementing her income as a waitress - a profession earlier confessed she would never go back to. Eventually, Norman's shoot wraps up and he holds true to his promise. Under Oliver's (Charles Bickford) command Esther Bloggett is magically transformed into Vicki Lester - a musical star of the first magnitude.
Esther and Norman fall in love and eventually elope much to Libby's chagrin and at approximately the moment when Norman's career begins to lose its momentum. Pressured by his stockholders, Oliver informs Norman that his contract is being bought out. Left to his own devices, Norman turns to drink to console himself, eventually winding up in night court on a drunk-driving charge. The judge throws the book at him, but Esther comes to his aid. She informs Oliver that she intends to put her career on hold to nurse Norman back to health. However, unbeknownst to either, Norman has eavesdropped on their conversation. Horrified that he is the cause of Esther throwing away her own career, Norman commits suicide by drowning - convinced that without him, Esther will be better off.
But Norman has underestimated the depth of Esther's love for him. Becoming a recluse in their Malibu mansion, Esther is stirred by Danny's angry diatribe. This forces her to reconsider her life apart from the spotlight and what Norman's life will mean if she gives up her career. "It's as though you're throwing everything he worked for into the ocean right after him," Danny tells Esther, "Like there never was a Norman Maine at all." Realizing that Danny is right, Esther musters all her remaining courage to appear at the annual benefit at the Shrine, introducing herself as Mrs. Norman Maine to a round of thunderous applause.
A Star Is Born is superb beyond mere quality; a grand, emotionally enriching masterpiece that burrows into our hearts and minds, becoming instantly recognizable, iconic and above all else, endearing. Its unceremonious deconstruction enraged George Cukor who vowed never again to make another film for Warner Bros. and didn't until he was given complete creative freedom and artistic control on My Fair Lady some 11 years later. As for Judy Garland, she is perhaps the Academy’s most grotesque oversight; the Best Actress Oscar afforded retiring star, Grace Kelly for The Country Girl instead. Previously Judy had taken home a statuette for Best Performance by a juvenile for The Wizard of Oz (1939). As for the ongoing saga of the film itself; after news of the edited A Star Is Born reached the critics, public interest in the movie quickly cooled. In the intervening decades Star’ was infrequently relegated to late night television where it endured even further truncations to accommodate TV’s commercial content.
However, ‘Star’ refused to go quietly into the night and thanks to the late Ronald Haver experienced its half-resurrection with a reissue engagement at Radio City in 1983 reinstating the movie’s reputation as one of the greatest motion pictures of all time. It was a bittersweet occasion. For George Cukor, who had always regarded A Star is Born with great affinity, and had, in fact backed Haver’s due diligence to see the movie put back together, had died the night before this premiere. But ‘Star’ was undeniably back in the spotlight; its’ disgraceful mismanagement over the years serving as a cause celebre for activism and the preservation and restoration of classic movies, giving rise to the home video craze in nostalgia that remains very much with us to this day and rightfully so. Through decades of neglect and a casual disregard of movie art in general – that chronically perceived these shimmering images as just a disposable way to pass one’s leisure - the history of Hollywood has been allowed too long to molder without appreciation.
The stemming of that tide is owed to A Star Is Born’s resurrection in 1983. While 80% of movies made before 1950 have been lost to us for all time, and many more are in a delicate state of disrepair, the advent of home video and the public’s insatiable desire to revisit the classics at home has brought about a renaissance for the movies; that badly needed shot of cultural awareness to hopefully continue to speak in perpetuity for the ever-dwindling roster of creative geniuses no longer with us. As a cultural touchstone, A Star Is Born remains perennially fascinating; the definitive folklore about Hollywood. As movie art however, it is quite simply remains in a class apart from the rest.    
Warner Home Video’s ‘restored version’ of A Star Is Born exhibits marked improvements. In hi-def, colors are very rich. Film grain is more obvious and contrast levels are darker as they should be. The shortcomings of early Cinemascope have been lovingly preserved. Flesh tones are far less orange. The transfer favors a predominantly red/blue palette, moody, saturated and visually a winner. Long ago the isolated six track magnetic stereo was discarded by Jack Warner, leaving a stereo effects, music and dialogue track as the only surviving elements. Herein, these take on a robust aural presentation, quite remarkable though obviously limited by the technologies of the day. Occasionally, there are audio drop offs into almost mono. However, given the less than perfect elements Warner Home Video is working from this is likely the closest approximation we will ever have to the original opening night splendor.
Boo-hoo to Warner Home Video for not giving us a definitive box set to include the original 1937 A Star Is Born, as well as its unofficial precursor What Price Hollywood? as well as the 1976 Streisand remake. Also, a film with a history as complex and thoroughly fascinating as Star ought to have been deserving of a comprehensive documentary or, at the very least, an audio commentary. Instead, we get extras largely imported from the DVD, including the televised world premiere and several alternative versions of Judy singing ‘The Man That Got Away’ as well as the more recently discovered ‘When My Sugar Walks Down The Street’ a vignette excised from the ambitiously mounted, ‘Born in a Trunk.’ A newly featured audio vault provides some outtakes that can also be found on Sony BMG's reissue of the A Star Is Born soundtrack album.
Bottom line: A Star is Born has never looked or sounded better and it is a blessing to have this new Blu-Ray. One merely wishes the missing footage, in whatever condition, would miraculously surface after all these years, allowing ‘Star’ to finally be whole once again. But A Star is Born is a magical movie experience even in its truncated form. This disc has been impeccably mastered and comes very highly recommended for that reason.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS

3

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