Monday, April 6, 2009

The Film That Got Away: A Star Is Born (1954) Review


A STAR IS BORN (1954)

This film is a tragedy, and not just because of the story on the screen. Rather, the greater tragedy is what happened after it premiered, on how misguided efforts to keep to one of the Golden Rules of Filmmaking destroyed what could have been a true masterpiece.

The rule in question is: Movies are made for two reasons--to make art or to make money. The remake of A Star is Born was made for BOTH reasons, but because of its running time the front office decided to sacrifice the former to achieve the latter. They achieved neither, and it now what we have is A Beautiful Corpse.

The story is that of Esther Blogett (Judy Garland), an insecure singer who with the help and encouragement of Norman Maine (James Mason), a matinee idol, achieves fame and success in Hollywood as Vicki Lester. While her career rises to the heights, his career falters and then falls due to his alcoholism. The love they have for each other cannot save him from destroying himself and nearly destroying her.

A Star is Born was suppose to be the comeback vehicle for Judy Garland, whose various health problems and reputation had derailed her career. The film seemed tailor-made for immortality: screenplay by Moss Hart, music by Harold Arlen & Ira Gershwin, direction by George Cukor.

What went wrong?

When it premiered at 3 hours, the reaction was fantastic. However, this would mean fewer showings. The solution they came up with? Just cut half an hour out of it. They didn't tell Cukor WHAT they were going to cut, and the end result would leave the story jumbled and confusing.

The film we have now is a restoration that comes as close to what Cukor envisioned, and the result is as good as possible. However, to modern viewers, the overall effect makes the film look odd. A lot of the back story was removed, specially the developing relationship between Esther and Norman. To try and restore that, the audio tracks were laid over still pictures and outtakes of those scenes. The benefit is that it keeps the continuity flowing, but it looks strange on screen, almost fake.



What was left on screen are some extraordinary moments. The Man That Got Away is one of the greatest musical performances ever captured on film. Unlike the more elaborate Born in a Trunk number, the former consists of one take, and Garland delivered this song of tortured love with a passion that has not been equaled. It is Perfection.

There are also great acting moments. James Mason as Norman Maine has one bravura moment when he crashes Esther/Vicki's speech when she wins Best Actress (something Garland was inexplicably denied). Even when Norman is at his worst, Mason always has the audience on his side: the scene when he falls off the wagon is both believable and heartbreaking. As for Garland, her performance when she lets out her frustration at him and herself before having to sing a happy song is an extraordinary scene of acting, as is the scene where she talks about her past and how she got to the point she was when they first meet.

The film is also both satirical and truthful about Hollywood. The scene when Esther first comes to the studio is hilarious. Early in the film, the M.C. proclaims, "Motion picture stars never forget their own". Near the end of the film, when Norman is brought before a judge for drunk driving, he's asked, "Weren't you Norman Maine?" The scene where Vicki's veil is ripped off is reminiscent of a similar incident that happened to Joan Crawford as she left her husband's funeral, which occurred five years AFTER the movie's release. Some things never change.

That isn't to say the film hasn't its flaws. If I would have cut something, it would have been some of the musical numbers. It might be heresy, but the Born in the Trunk number slows the film down and is too reminiscent of the Gotta Dance number in Singin' in the Rain (which curiously had the same effect). It's a great showcase for Garland, but adds nothing to the plot.

Ultimately, it's unintentionally autobiographical. Judy Garland in real life was both Esther Blogett AND Norman Maine--a person with deep insecurities but an extraordinary talent who under another name devolved into alcoholism and drugs. As for A Star is Born? It would be nice to see it complete, and perhaps one day it will be. Perhaps a complete print is lying in an obscure archive or a back room. It has wonderful moments but the patch-up work might throw off people. It should be seen, both for what it has...and for what it could have had. Be prepared for a long evening. If you do decide to tackle it, one thing's sure: you too will never forget The Man That Got Away.

DECISION: A-

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