Judy Garland’s interest in the original Star is Born probably began after she appeared in a 1942 radio production based on the 1937 film. Co-starring Walter Pidgeon, Garland played the role of Esther Blodgett, the small-town girl who travels to Hollywood and becomes a big star, while her most avid supporter and eventual husband, Norman Maine, drinks himself into oblivion before a walk into the ocean ‘saves’ Esther’s career.
Assuming you’ve read prior reviews for the ’37 version of A Star is Born and its precursor, What Price Hollywood? (1932), or are at least familiar with the film’s basic story, we’re going straight into an analysis of how the characters and story were upgraded for a custom-tailored vehicle for Judy Garland, and what was touted as her film comeback after the heavy working period at MGM eroded her energies, and Garland was dumped by the studio.
Although Esther is the de facto centerpiece of the Star story, she was gradually overshadowed by Maine in the ’37 version, and Moss Hart’s adaptation of that script for what became the musical ‘54 version tried to fix that problem by creating film-within-a-film, plus recording studio scenes, that gave Garland a chance to expand her character’s talents.
Hart reconfigured Blodgett into a working bar singer whose age is sort of mid-thirties. Like the ’37 film, she has a sexually inert best friend named Danny, but he too has been reformulated from an assistant director and quiet sideline friend… to a brusque but sexually inert best friend / band pianist who hangs around, popping up now and then when Esther needs a witness at her wedding to Maine, a supportive friend at Maine’s funeral, and in the end scene where Esther needs a verbal wake-up before she walks away from a peak career.
Maine remains a falling contract star and self-hating drunk, as well as a wry cad whose fondness for Esther becomes an amusing obsession after she rescues him from wandering on stage in an intoxicated state in front of a live audience. Their courtship is quick and fast, but they also spend a lot of time talking, expressing intimate emotional thoughts; Hart’s revision turns their courtship into a quiet meeting of lonely people rather than the semi-comedic mishaps that brings the two together in the prior version.
Studio boss Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) is fairly identical to his ’37 counterpart, with a few more lines of dialogue that make him more protective of Maine, particularly when New York investors have been putting pressure on Niles to dump Maine from the studio roster, and the lurid press begin a ritual trashing when his drunkenness becomes more public.
Niles also has a new scene where the why’s of Maine’s self-loathing are discussed with Esther. It’s brief and offers no solution, but it acknowledges that the characters are tormented by a once-shining talent destroying himself in slow-motion, and publicly, with TV and tabloid cameras recording every pathetic misstep. (Maine also has a great speech after the premiere of Esther’s film debut, where he warns her that ‘everything I touch I destroy,’ to which Garland reacts with sharp empathy. It’s a beautifully sad moment that gives the nakedly anguished Maine sudden hope of perhaps being able to turn a new leaf.)
Press Executive Matt Libby (Jack Carson) has also been considerably softened from the rather ugly press monster in the ’37 version who just likes to see anyone bright and shiny disintegrate. Libby’s still slick and chilly, but he’s less angry towards the studio’s talent; the cynicism is still present, but his delight in humiliating Maine at the race track bar comes from saving Maine’s ass for a decade, beginning when both men were starting their respective entertainment careers. The ’54 version also offers a more realistic portrait of a press agent because Libby is seen handling crises and events like an executive instead of an irritable sociopath who thinks up outlandish publicity stunts.
Maine benefits from James Mason’s skill in playing complex men harboring deeply painful scars that often make them terribly dysfunctional. Maine’s drunkenness is funny for a while, but the moment he slaps Esther after she concludes her Oscar acceptance speech is truly shocking because the horror of what’s he’s done bleeds across Mason’s face. That ugly action isn’t rewarded by a retort, but with Esther consoling and gently escorting him back to their dinner table.
Unlike the ’37 film where Maine uses the Oscar ceremony as a chance to excoriate his peers and destroy his career for good (screaming he wants an award for the worst performance of the year for a trio of cinematic stinkers), Moss changed Maine’s rant to an act of desperation: he crashes the ceremony because the entire community has turned him into a non-person, and he pleads for a chance at dignity – a job – which they ignore by maintaining a deafening silence.
Another adjustment is a quiet scene near the end where Maine, sprawled across the CinemaScope screen, writhes in anguish as he hears Esther telling Niles she’s through with acting, and will devote her time to her husband’s recuperation. Director George Cukor keeps the camera trained on Maine because it’s important to witness the character’s final sense of self-disgust in order to better grasp his reasoning that his suicide is the only solution to Esther’s personal and professional crises.
Unlike the ’37 version, though, Maine’s walk to the ocean feels abbreviated, and that may be due to the strong impact that Fredric March conveyed when he hugs Esther and asks her to prepare a lunch he’ll never have: March glances away from Janet Gaynor, and for a few seconds, the actor conveys his character’s decision to die, as well as anguish for the awful hurt Maine’s actions will inflict upon Esther in the coming months.
Perhaps the most awkward moment in Hart’s script occurs after Maine’s suicide when Esther is hiding at home, and has no desire to perform a song at the Shriner’s charity show to which she committed months ago. Best friend Danny drops by and gives her a hard talk that’s less of an attempt to emotionally sober his best friend, but outright bullying.
The scene was clumsy in the ’37 version, but whereas grandma Lettie’s speech was about Esther’s career and fame (and covertly grandma’s own desire to become a celebrity through Esther’s return to acting), in Hart’s version Danny screams about Esther being Maine’s legacy, of her shaming that memory and making his life meaningless – which is frankly ridiculous; it was her talent that advanced her career, not Maine; only their status as the town’s hot couple is a shared venture.
Danny’s return to Esther’s life after she abandons the band’s tour and takes a gamble with Maine on a screen test is also a bit of a tough sell. In the ’37 version, Danny’s an assistant director who not only works at Niles’ studio, but works alongside the cinematographer shooting Esther’s screen test with Maine.
In the ’54 version, it’s presumed Danny and the band are back with Garland because of a scene where she sings off-screen to entice Niles during what’s supposed to be a quiet meeting between Niles and Maine about a casting dilemma. Maine keeps opening the window to the unseen courtyard, and eventually Niles becomes enticed by Esther’s voice as she sings the film’s signature tune, “The Man That Got Away.”
Making it Musical
The film’s long production schedule included reshoots as well as rewrites, and one gets a sense the film was never really hammered out into a finished work until the editing stage - problems not dissimilar from the 1976 remake set in the rock world.
One sign come from the use of songs, which dominate the midsection and then disappear, along with Hart’s dialogue in place of periodic and then whole quotes of dialogue and scenes from the ’37 version.
Although hardly new in the realm of remakes - Warner Bros. more or less repurposed the entire 1933 Mystery of the Wax Museum script for 1953 House of Wax remake - but the case of Star is unique because it shows where the dialogue had to be altered to set up the newly-styled characters, and where the film starts to return to its ’37 roots as a melodrama about a drunk and his tormented wife.
Those unfamiliar with the older version will find the transition seamless, and perhaps one reason why critics at the time marginalized the ’37 version in their reviews of the Garland film was the older film may have been out of circulation; it may have appeared on TV or perhaps in second run houses, but most likely the older film – as is often done today if a studio buys up the rights – disappeared from wide circulation, making it difficult for critics to compare the structural similarities and appropriated dialogue.
Prime examples of scene-stealing include the civil marriage ceremony between Esther and Maine (right down to the two drunks in a nearby cell, and the minister kissing the bride); Libby teasing Maine at the racetrack, Niles visiting Maine in the sanitarium, and Esther and Niles rescuing Maine from jail time after being arrested for drunk driving.
The least disruptive musical numbers are “Gotta Have Me Go With You” (the premiere show where Esther drags a hammered Maine off-stage); “The Man That Got Away” (where Maine falls in love with Esther as he hears her singing with the bad at a after hours dive); “Here’s What I’m Here For” (Esther breaks away from a recording session, and in a private conversation by the exit door, agrees to marry Maine); and “It’s a New World” (first heard as a source song that plays form the hotel room radio during the couple’s honeymoon, and later sung a capella by Esther as Maine walks off for his final swim into the ocean).
Each of the songs occur in scenes that are part of a melodrama’s reality, whereas “Lose That Long Face,” “Born in a Trunk” and “Someone at Last” are traditional musical numbers that transform the drama film into a hybrid. Garland fans will adore the lengthy numbers, but fans of the ’37 version will find them structurally clumsy, overlong, and contrived to showcase Garland’s singing and dancing talents.
“Born in a Trunk” is the closing sequence for Act 1, and it’s also the finale of Esther’s ‘film debut’ that begins with a clip as seen by an audience in a theatre, after which Cukor cuts into the film, pushing the real audience (us) into the fictional premiere. Long but colourful, it’s a triumph of set design and choreography and gives Garland room to dance through her own evocation of Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris, but “Trunk” also stops the film’s dead, adds extra length, and makes it tough to re-enter the primary melodrama in spite of a quick intermission.
“Someone at Last” is another Garland show-stopped that has Esther re-enacting the moments of the day’s big musical number, using props from the living room while the song plays from the phonograph. On the one hand, it’s designed to affect Maine, re-igniting his self-hatred now that he’s home alone every day while Esther’s career is going at 100 mph, but the song makes no sense; if one follows the exotic places Esther’s character ‘is sent,’ it’s a jumble that only works if one accepts the sequence as an impressionistic medley of Esther’s talent rather than a real song in a functional feature film.
The last song, “Lose That Long Face,” has roots in reality: we see Esther working hard performing a full musical number, and after agonizing with Niles in her trailer over Maine’s slow disintegration, she returns to the soundstage and ‘switches on’ to deliver a second anguish-free, all-smiles take. The number, like the others, shows off Garland’s amazing ability to do whole songs in one take (or long segments), but the length of “Lose” grinds down the film’s tempo, and prolongs the sequence’s payoff that has Niles deciding to visit Maine at a sanitarium, carrying a film offer to restart his dead career.
The Star Is Reborn Again
In 1983, historian and film archivist Ronald Haver wrote about his quest to find footage shorn from the film after its premiere screenings, and restore Star back to its original 181 mins. running time.
It was a rare moment in film preservation history where legendary lost footage was found, and a film was brought back to a form intended by its star and director. Haver’s sleuthing unearthed most of the long version’s complete soundtrack, the cut musical numbers, alternate takes of “The Man That Got Away” and bits of scenes removed from the film’s first act.
For Garland and Cukor fans, the reward was the banishment the 151 mins. version that was cut by Warner Bros. into oblivion, and indeed that version is no longer in circulation.
Beside two musical numbers (detailed shortly), the missing dramatic scenes are largely from a series of sequences that showed Maine trying to track down Esther’s hotel room, where he brought her after watching her sing “The Man That Got Away.”
In the ’37 version, Maine remembers Esther’s hotel address, whereas in Price, being a pre-Code film, the heroine (Mary) spends the night at her drunken suitor’s mountaintop home. For the ’54 version, Hart contrived a long and meandering series of scenes meant to appear after Esther tells Danny (in his separate hotel room) that she’s going to quit the band and go to the studio in the morning for a screen test.
Maine is supposed to call her, but he forgets her address, doesn’t have her number, and spends part of his days shooting pickups for a pirate movie off the coast, and running around Hollywood in search of places that remind him of Esther’s hotel.
Having never heard back from Maine, Esther goes back to the one job she vowed never to do again – waitressing at a burger joint – but she eventually starts singing jingles for TV ads, like “Trinidad Coconut Oil Shampoo.”
Maine eventually hears that very TV advert, and tracks her down to a rooming house, and the two spend time driving through Hollywood that night before Esther goes to the studio the next morning for her big screen test.
The other snipped materials are the songs “Here’s What I’m Here For” (aka ‘the proposal scene’) and “Lose That Long Face” (which preceded Niles visiting Maine at the sanitarium). Haver was able to find the songs intact in the Warner Bros. vaults, but the deleted dramatic scenes were more problematic because the original negatives and most film clips were ordered destroyed (probably due to space and cost issues instead of corporate spite).
Using the discovered sound mixes, Haver recreated the scenes from trims and stills to give an impression of the lost scenes, and it works and feels far less abrupt than the reconstruction of the finale for Erich von Stroheim’s silent film Queen Kelly (1929), as well as the missing hours shorn from Greed (1924).
The reintegration of the songs merely slow down the narrative (but restore the film’s hybridization as a melodrama and musical), but the ‘search’ scenes feel awfully contrived, and just aren’t necessary. They’re precious pieces of film history, but they add nothing to the film except a banal detour that takes audiences down a series of clichéd scenes meant to evoke comedy and mystery but feel awfully familiar. There’s also an odd continuity issue where Maine drives a convertible Mercedes, which he never used before or after the sequence, making one suspicious those scenes were part of rewrites and/or reshoots.
(The same could even be said of the scene where Niles hears Esther singing outside of Maine’s bungalow. One can imagine another scene draft perhaps had Maine reopening the window and making eye contact with Esther, whom we’d see in a garden cutaway with Danny and a skeleton band. If such a draft existed, it’s possible those exterior elements weren’t filmed due to time and budgetary issues, or perhaps Garland’s unavailability. The ‘singing’ Niles hears is clearly the full band version Maine heard in the club, and it sounds phony coming through window from some unidentified pocket on the studio lot.)
Warner Bros.’ editing basically cut the film down to make more play dates with no intermission, but their decision to eliminate the ‘search’ and have Esther show up at the studio the way she did in the ’37 and ’32 films made sense; it just cuts back to the story’s meat after Hart created a useless tangent. It’s odd that Cukor would prefer these scenes, because he was in fact the director of the ’32 film, whose story was told in lean and propulsive scenes.
Fruits of Hard Labor & Special Features
Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray and DVD place the film on Disc 1, and all extras on Disc 2 (which in the BR set is in also a standard def DVD).
The bounty from Haver’s restoration offer a wealth of archival materials, including the alternate takes of “The Man That Got Away,” “Here’s What I’m Here For,” “Lost That Long Face,” a deleted connective song called “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street” that was meant to follow an apparently unfilmed (or lost) scene within the massive “Born in a Trunk” sequence, and many audio alternates that include music takes as well as mixes of deleted scenes featuring extra dialogue.
Each deleted scene and almost every extra on the DVD is preceded by a brief into where a narrator places the clips in context, and the DVDs Special Features starts with a teaser that sets up the special features gallery, with narration over rare trims from outtakes of the Warner Bros. lot where much of the film was shot, plus clips from an unused wide angle master shot of the theatre where Garland performs her opening number “Gotta Have Me Go With You.” (Note: this wide angle alternate is not featured in its entirety among the Alternate Takes gallery.)
The five “Man That Got Away” alternates include one full take of the ‘pink blouse’ and ‘brown dress’ takes. The remaining three ‘brown dress’ takes are comprised of two sets of additional wide angle takes, and one set of close-ups - one on top of each other to illustrate the development of the performance nuances Garland would refine for the final ‘blue dress’ version in the final cut.
“Here’s What I’m Here For” features the slight addition of Maine waving Esther over from the band before the proposal, and this alternate version was edited from unused footage which reveals more details of the recording studio, and Star’s musical director, Ray Heindorf, conducting the orchestra.
“Lost That Long Face” is actually an alternate take grafted onto the audio of the final edit footage. The new material is minor: we see Garland flubbing the song before a second full-length take, plus some alternate angles.
Also reconstructed using acetate sound material and alternate unused angles is the ad jingle “Trinidad Coconut Oil Shampoo,” which is apparently the only time Harold Arlen & Ira Gershwin wrote a jingle. Some of the shots offer more views of the Bob Baker Marionettes, and close-ups of Garland..
There’s also an unused instrumental medley composed by Ray Heindorf for Maine’s walk into the ocean (which doesn’t work at all, being emotionally schizophrenic), plus audio outtakes of two of the dramatic ‘search’ scenes restored by Haver.
Other oddities include test footage ordered by Cukor to help figure out whether to shoot the film in Technicolor, Eastmancolor, WarnerScope, CinemaScope, or standard 1.33:1. Most of the footage is docu-styled material of the Hollywood premiere of Fox’ The Robe (1953), of which small details were used to create the premiere of the Maine film in Star’s opening sequence.
Garland as Esther, circa 1942
Hosted by Cecil B. DeMille, the December 28, 1942 Lux radio production heavily condenses the 1937 film script rather cleverly, but while it may have seemed like solid melodrama for contemporary radio audiences, the ’42 version has aged over time into a creaky and often amusing piece of ephemera.
Garland, then 20, initially suits young Esther Blodgett, a country girl with big eyes and a dream to enter pictures and hit it big as an actress with no acting experience whatsoever. Star is basically a fairy tale as well as a myth that codifies the dreams that every girl supposedly harbors, and may achieve if she’s got the right talent in her DNA to win the Hollywood lottery, but as her character grows into a mature actress and woman in this compressed radio version, Garland can’t reach the dramatic reserve Janet Gaynor conveyed in the ’37 film, and many of the scenes where Esther is nervous or worried sound like little trembling Dorothy, who happened to leave her small town after that weird dream about the land of Oz, and take a crack at the pictures.
Walter Pidgeon has a magnificent voice, but he’s all-wrong as Norman Maine. He’s too confident and sober in early scenes where Maine is supposed to be inebriated, and his tone lacks that quiet subtext of self-loathing that Frederick March expressed so beautifully when his character is drunk, sober, or in the throes of the shakes.
The character of studio boss Oliver Niles is retained, as well as press agent Matt Libby (whose main scenes are the wedding announcement and the bar fracas at the race track).
The adaptation basically focuses on key scenes: Esther’s decision to leave, her arrival at the hotel, meeting Maine at the party, the screen test, getting married, Maine’s slipping from the graces of Hollywood, his crashing Esther’s speech at the Oscar Awards (minus the face slap), Oliver Niles visiting Esther while Maine’s in a sanitarium, Maine’s arrest and bail hearing, Maine’s apology to Esther before his fatal swim, Esther’s grief and her grandmother’s return, and the ‘This is Mrs. Norman Maine’ declaration to radio audiences at a Hollywood film premiere.
The dialogue is lifted from the screenplay, and bridge material for the missing scenes comes from DeMille’s narration, and the use of a gossip reporter who comments on Esther’s sudden appearance in Hollywood as the new flavour of the month, her romance with Maine, Maine’s release from the sanitarium and appearance at the race track, Esther rescuing Maine from a jail sentence, and Maine’s death. The radio emcee at film premiere describes Esther’s brief panic attack before she comes to the mic and closes the show with the film’s signature fadeout line.
Presented at the very end of 1942, the Lux production makes no mention of WWII until the very end when Pidgeon describes how ‘loose lips sink ships,’ and the need to be vigilant and avoid giving potential spies info that could harm U.S. soldiers.
DeMille closes the show with a brief remark about freedom, but prior to the end of the show, DeMille only refers to the war as ‘these difficult times’ which safeguard the melodrama’s purpose of wartime escapism before the closing references to conservation and vigilance remind listeners of their wartime duties to the state.
Promos, Ephemera & Damage Control
1954 was a tough time for the studio because audience attendance had dropped after WWII, and the free programming on TV started to change people’s habits of going out regularly to the movies. Why pay when there’s gratis entertainment streaming into one’s home?
CinemaScope and stereophonic sound were two of several tools the studios used to convince people the idiot box has little to offer, and to boost the profile of Star as the studio’s next big screen release of the year, WB production boss Jack L. Warner appeared in a ‘scope promo touting the film. The short, “A Report by Jack L. Warner,” is unique for containing some alternate takes of scenes and musical numbers.
Virtually every studio had its own press division, and prior to TV, movie theatres were key places where audiences could catch the news as newsreels, often shot on 16mm black & white stock. The Star premiere was similarly covered by news cameramen, and vintage newsreel features clips from “The biggest premiere in Hollywood history!’ with stars and studio brass Jack and Harry Warner arriving in limos.
(The short is also followed by a brief montage of outtakes, including rare congratulatory speeches by Jack L. Warner, Judy Garland, and producer Sidney Luft at the post-premiere party at the Coconut Grove.)
Premiere details were also shot in colour and CinemaScope by studio cameramen, but the two angles – a wide front-on of the Pantages theatre, and a wide angle from the sidewalk where stars move from their limos to the theatre entrance – don’t provide much detail, hence the occasional digital close-up of faces, and helpful narration that identifies the main stars.
Details of the evening’s event are further covered in a kinescope of a live TV broadcast of the premiere (a first for network TVs) where George Jessel emcees the arrival of stars, coxing some to come to the mic and say a few words in support of the film, of Garland. Some celebs periodically waxing on about wonderful Jack L. Warner (part of a proactive job hunt, perhaps?), and Star co-star Jack Carson takes over the emcee duties for a while. The only major star who manages to evade the mic and TV cameras is Clark Gable. Bah, humbug.
Another significant extra is a rare radio interview with Garland and gossip columnist Louella Parsons (also seen in the premiere footage), and although its date isn’t detailed, it was recorded near the end of filming as a proactive attempt to stop rumours of a dragged out production with cost overruns. Garland makes a point of clarifying filming ran 5 months, although she adds that she’ll be back in front of cameras again for a new musical number (not specified) that both Jack L. Warner and Luft felt was needed.
The whole Q&A was obviously scripted as stealth damage control, and Parsons also ‘brings up’ the issue of Garland working a mere 2 hours a day (which the actress clarifies as actual filming between rehearsal time). The promo closes with Parsons showing her delight in conducting the interview in Garland and Luft’s new home, and she sets up Garland’s rendition of “The Man That Got Away” which the DJ would’ve spun at whatever local radio station the Q&A was using the promo tape.
What’s interesting about the radio promo is the playing around with dates. Garland claims the film properly wrapped after 5 months of shooting, the DVD’s narration specifies a 9 month period, and Jack L. Warner, ever to equate length with epic quality, claims Star was over a year in production in his CinemaScope promo.
The last promos on the DVD include the original 1954 CinemaScope trailer, as well as trailers for the ’37 original (in stunning clarity and stable colours) and ’76 remake.
Not necessarily a promo, but certainly referencing the film in title and Esther’s desperation to be a star, is “A Star is Bored,” a cartoon that has Daffy Duck becoming an understudy / stunt double for big star Bugs Bunny. Little by little, Daffy realizes he’s getting the short end of the stick (and shotgun blasts to the beak), and eventually he demands his own custom project (which he gets, along with a salvo from several hunters).
Only qualms: the narration in the extras intro bits has variable volume levels (a few are mixed too soft), and the extras really should’ve been placed on a BR disc, as the difference between the HD film transfer and compressed elements on the bonus DVD is sometimes striking. Most Garland fans would prefer to have every surviving element and extra in HD, particularly who takes of the musical numbers.
It may be most of these items at present only exist at DVD quality, since the 3 of the alternate “Man That Got Away” takes, the premiere newsreel, party and live TV special footage, and Jack L. Warner’s ‘report’ promo were ported over from the prior 2000 DVD release, which contained a few more extras than the 1999 laserdisc. (Dropped from the 2010 release, however, is a 1954 Warner Bros.’ Exhibitor Reel.)
Warner Home Video’s BR set should please film and Garland fans with a striking HD transfer that shows off the films’ superb cinematography and set designs. The sound, a bit rough in the main title sequence, is generally in good shape, and the 5.1 mixes of the musical numbers have good dynamic range.
The 41 page booklet that comes with the BR Digibook case provides a good overview of the film’s production, and those wanting more details of the reconstruction should track down Haver’s 1983 book, A Star is Born: The Making of the 1954 Movie and its 1983 Restoration (Knopf). Also recommended is Haver’s 1980 book, David O. Selznick’s Hollywood (Random House), which features an exhaustive chronicle of the producer’s career, and his films.
In addition to the restored scenes, Haver’s efforts also uncovered more music material, and the current CD from Sony features more alternate material, as well as underscore cuts.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan