REDISCOVERING ‘A STAR IS BORN’ 1954
“A Star is Born is a socko candidate for anyone’s must see list, scoring on all counts as fine entertainment…It is among the top musicals that have come from the Hollywood stages…It is a big picture…The tremendous outlay of money…is fully justified…it is to the great credit of Jack Warner that he kept his mind and purse strings open and thus kept the project going despite…the insurmountable stumbling blocks.” – Variety 1954
The durable backstage saga, a maudlin melodrama about fading stardom in the ruthless wilds of cultured Hollywood, has been endlessly recycled - three times under its own title: A Star Is Born. But it is director George Cukor’s masterful 1954 reworking of that same material as a musical that continues to so poignantly capture the tragic essence of lost opportunities in the land of make believe. In truth, the film could just as easily have been re-titled ‘A Star Is Re-Born,’ for Judy Garland had not appeared on the screen for nearly three years.
During this time, Garland had undergone a much publicized crash treatment for her addiction to prescription sedatives and several suicide attempts. She had also gone from A-list musical megastar status to near-forgotten has been since her disastrous dismissal from MGM’s Annie Get Your Gun (1950). In later years, as a delicious raconteur, Garland mused, “I think there’s something peculiar about me, that I haven’t died. It doesn’t make sense but I refuse to die.” Divorced from second husband, director Vincente Minnelli and newly hitched to maverick producer Sid Luft, Garland was effectively floating in the ether until studio mogul Jack L. Warner - a gambling man, liked the idea of remaking ‘Star’ so much that he imported 20th Century-Fox’s newly christened Cinemascope widescreen process for the occasion.
Fox had been the first to patent the anamorphic process invented by Henri Chrétien. In reality, there was nothing new about Cinemascope other than its hearty debut. Since the New York World’s Fair of 1939 various anamorphic processes had been tested and had failed to catch the public’s fascination as anything except a novelty. But in early 1950s, television had cut theater attendance by nearly half and studios were desperate to capitalize on the old adage that ‘bigger is better.’ For his part, director George Cukor, who had never worked in either widescreen or color, though he quickly proved his adeptness under pressure, generating a visual style that few novices to the format achieved. Cukor’s meticulous staging of each scene created a distinct foreground, middle ground and background that filled the expansive 2:35:1 aspect ratio screen, even when only one or two characters appeared in a single frame.
From the onset the project was plagued by setbacks. Initially, Warner had done everything to discourage Sid Luft from casting his wife in the film. The mogul’s apprehensions were indeed well founded. Judy’s absenteeism and tardiness at MGM had resulted in her later films going over budget. However, what was undeniably about Garland as a saleable entity was her overwhelming popularity at the box office and her innate ability to instinctively connect with her audience on an emotional level.
“I try to bring the audience’s own drama – tears and laughter they know about to them.”
A minor snafu with producer David O. Selznick – who still owned the legal rights to the story which his studio had first made in 1937 was sorted out after considerable consternation. However, more problematic for all involved on the project was the fact that no working script from the 1937 film existed from which screenwriter Moss Hart could base his revision. After screening the original film several times, Hart made several key changes to the overall structure of his treatment that greatly improved and updated the material for the postwar generation.
Gone was the idealism of a young girl’s aspirations for stardom exemplified by Janet Gaynor’s central performance in the original. Instead, the 54’ incarnation of Esther Blogget/Vicki Lester (Judy Garland) was already a seasoned performer, acclimated to personal hardship and strife by the time she met movie star on the way down, Norman Maine. Hart also jettisoned the whole pre-Hollywood sequence of the original in which Vicki defies her family to pursue her dreams of stardom. Hart also altered the chemistry of the tragic character of Norman Maine (Frederic March in 1937/James Mason in 1954).
In 1937 Norman is merely a pathetic incarnation – a man living on the edge of his own oblivion. But 1954’s Norman is much more self destructive, self pitying and therefore that much more piteous, emotionally lost and utterly tragic. Yet, perhaps Hart’s biggest alteration to the story was in his depiction of the movie fan (short for ‘fanatic’). In 1937, the adulation of the masses is seen as one collective outpouring of sympathy and admiration for their favorite celebrities. But in 1954, the audience is unflatteringly perceived – perhaps more closely to the truth – as a ravenous pack of vicious gawkers who are fickle and stalk their celebrity like prey for souvenirs while accosting them at the lowest moments of their lives.
Initially production began on A Star Is Born (1954) in the standard Academy aspect ratio of 1:33:1. But the introduction of Cinemascope – and its overwhelming pubic response with The Robe and How To Marry A Millionaire - prompted Jack Warner to shut down ‘Star’, scrap the footage already shot and pursue the idea of making the film in the widescreen process. Two things troubled the old mogul. First, that Cinemascope had eluded the Warner shield mostly due to his own apprehensions, and second, that his one time production assistant/now Fox President Darryl F. Zanuck was demanding a $25,000 fee per production to lease Cinemascope to rival studios.
Warner’s initial response to Cinemascope was ‘Warnerscope’ a pitiable attempt at re-cropping films already shot in 1:33:1 through the use of a rectangular mask and wide angle lens affixed to the projector. This shoddy attempt was quickly followed by another to capitalize on the movies supremacy over television: 3-D. Briefly, Warner had toyed with the idea of shooting A Star is Born in 3-D: a process director George Cukor absolutely abhorred. Cukor was also not particularly keen about shooting ‘Star’ in either Warner or Cinemascope – though on this account Cukor would eventually relent to Jack Warner’s request and lens the film (along with British born cameraman Harry Stradling) in the latter process. The reason for Star ultimately being shot in Cinemascope rather than Warner’s patented ‘Warnerscope’ was in the latter’s inability to properly photograph anything beyond a medium shot without all subjects and setting appearing to be slightly squashed horizontally. Shot on Eastman based film stock, the elongated images were further distorted by film grain and muddy color processing.
Director George Cukor was renown throughout the film community as a women’s director. His skills, though formidable and expansive, could effectively be distilled into managing temperamental beauties. However, on A Star Is Born, Cukor’s adeptness at managing Judy Garland proved trying. Studio sanctioned Benzedrine, uppers and weight loss drugs at MGM had made Judy Garland a substance abuser while in her early teens. Though she had made valiant and frequent attempts to rid herself of this dependency, once pushed by MGM to perform, Garland found solace in her old nemeses. However, the erratic behavior spawned by this addiction ultimately led to her dismissal from MGM.
But Garland was also acutely aware that in her three year absence from the movie screen the world at large and Hollywood in particular had changed. Gone were the cloistered carefree days of the studio system. The film making community was in a sense of utter and complete chaos – struggling to turn a profit and desperate to capitalize on the next big gimmick.
Worse, musicals in general had fallen out of fashion with the public’s tastes. Save imported Broadway shows translated to the big screen – the intimate ‘little’ musical that had been Garland’s forte at MGM had become a thing of the past. Determined to make good on A Star Is Born, Judy Garland’s commitment on the project began in solid earnestness. But after pre-recording all of her songs and beginning principle photography, Garland’s careworn personal demons once again began to emerge.
Cukor, a patient man by most accounts was pushed to the brink of distraction by Garland’s increasing tardiness on the set, though he understood her backstage struggles. Jack Warner however, was not quite so forgiving. In fact, he contemplated shutting the production down on more than one occasion. But Warner was also a gambling man. His maverick ways had managed to maintain his post as CEO of the studio he had co-founded longer than most of his contemporaries and, in the process he and the studio had made some very solid films. A Star Is Born would therefore rank amongst his finest achievements.
What was so damn exasperating about Garland’s growing inability to commit to all but a few short scenes per day is that as a performer Judy herself did not want to be a nuisance. If she was miserable one moment she could be winsome and charming the next – working diligently with cast and crew until the appropriate mood and tone of performance had been met. But it was during those other times – when gripped by fear and self-loathing and withdrawal from her medication that she increasingly managed to alienate her allegiances with nearly everyone who worked on the film at one point or another.
After assembling a rough cut of the footage, Jack Warner was unenthused. He failed to see that what Cukor’s meticulous plotting had achieved was a sumptuous melodrama with music added in, rather than the sort of glossy musical he (Warner) had been expecting. As a result, Warner demanded that the film be recut. At the objection of Cukor and considerable cost, Warner concocted the lavish and somewhat garish, gargantuan ‘Born in a Trunk’ medley.
Inserted into the film at its half way mark of one and a half hours, the sequence was actually a musical recap of the entire story thus far. Though it featured a brilliant performance by Garland, it also tended to slow the film’s pacing. To compensate for this insertion, Warner ordered Cukor to cut nearly 40 minutes of his melodrama. Warner also scrapped the idea to road show ‘Star’ with an intermission – something that the Born in A Trunk medley had originally been allotted for.
Throughout these post production frustrations, Cukor worked tirelessly on making the necessary trims. Eventually Warner and Cukor concurred on a final cut that premiered at the Pantages Theatre at 132 minutes to glowing and near unanimous critical and public praise. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times proclaimed, “It is something to see, this Star is Born!”, while Look declared that Judy Garland “puts on the greatest one woman show on earth.” Despite these accolades Jack Warner continued to have his misgivings. Prodded by theater exhibitors, who urged that at 132 minutes A Star is Born could not be effectively shown during the peak hours of theater attendance, Warner quietly had the film pulled and recut once more – haplessly removing footage and entire scenes and sequences without Cukor’s consent. The cuts were damaging – not only artistically but to the opinion of the film’s critical staying power.
Jack Warner’s truncated version of A Star Is Born, though complimentary to the needs of exhibitors, infuriated critics and audiences alike, particularly those who had seen the film in its entirety. Though many called for, and some demanded, the excised footage to be reinstated – after the first two weeks of the film’s premiere only the edited version continued to play in theaters. Sadly, Warner saw no reason in keeping the footage he had taken out. Presumably, much of what was cut has been lost for all time.
The disdain of one irate patron’s objections, published as an editorial in Variety seem to suffice in encapsulating the overall outrage that followed these cuts. “The Victoria is now showing the abbreviated version…without…however…a price cut…This action is highly objectionable…nor can it be excused on artistic grounds. I would defy any of the critics who complained of the…length to suggest that any improvement has been made in the film’s quality by the trimming. On the contrary, the film suffers noticeably by the fadeouts where it is obvious a musical number has been dropped, to say nothing of dialogue which is now meaningless because it refers to earlier scenes which have been indiscriminately scissored. It seems to this writer that the New York showcase for such a long awaited attraction has acted most unwisely in the matter with contemptuous disregard of the public interest!”
What ought to have been Judy Garland’s grand comeback to motion pictures proved an abysmal disappointment. In latter years, Warner attempted to besmirch both Garland and Luft’s involvement on the project and blame them for the demise of A Star Is Born. Oscar-nominated for her poignant, affecting and tragic performance, Garland was overlooked by Academy voters in favor of Grace Kelly’s rather languid turn in The Country Girl. It was the first, last and only time that Judy Garland - star would earn a Best Actress nomination. Sinking deeper into her chronic addiction to prescription pills, Garland starred in only two more movies, appearing briefly and to good effect as Irene Hoffman in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment At Nuremberg. At the age of 46, Judy Garland’s demons got the better of her and she died of an apparent overdose.
Nearly three decades would pass, until film historian Ron Haver set out to do the impossible – restore A Star Is Born to its original length. Thanks to Haver all of the cut musical footage was eventually rediscovered and reassembled into the film from a variety of source materials, as well as the complete 132 minute audio track.
But the poignant melodrama – the scenes which so effectively established and forever cemented the enduring romance between Esther and Norman remained missing. With the complicity of AMPAS, Warner Brothers and a crew of historians, Haver reconstructed ‘Star,’ using still photographs to supplement the scenes that no longer existed.
Haver’s fondest wish had always been to do justice to the one film that director George Cukor considered his butchered masterpiece. In the final analysis, none of it seemed to matter. For Cukor, who had always considered the alterations a personal slight on his artistic palette, had died the night before.
Even so, the re-release of A Star Is Born (restored) at Radio City Music Hall on July 7, 1983 proved so overwhelmingly successful that it prompted David Denby of New York magazine to classify it as “…the most stirring event of the summer movie season…what made the evening extraordinary, apart from the movie itself, which in any version is devastating, was the all round film savvy and fervor of the audience. Walking around the sold out hall, one felt gratified by the presence of a true film community. These were not people merely latching onto a glamorous occasion; they were people still capable of being moved by the emotional qualities of a favorite movie…six thousand adults concentrated on a thirty-year-old film that meant something to them emotionally.”