A Star to a Start (Part 1)
Updated: Aug 20
I've loved musicals for as long as I can remember. Cherished memories made over several decades of singing catchy (and eye-catching) tunes, dancing to the rhythm of show-stealing scenes and reciting lines from unforgettable characters have struck with me both a harmonious cord and an emotional one. Over the years, movie favorites like Grease, The Sound of Music, Chicago, Hairspray and Dreamgirls were on constant replay, as was
a 1984 Russian version of Mary Poppins for which I've had — and still have to this day — a particular fondness and the softest of spots.
When I think about my deep dive into Wonderland, a cosmically significant moment when my love of this genre skyrocketed to the next level, prompting an ongoing discovery of performers from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and I ask myself how it all happened, I can probably point to Lady Gaga. Yes, I know that sounds completely bizarre, but she was, after all, partly responsibly for the origins of this adventure. And yet, the credit isn't entirely hers to take, for this particular journey begins with a trunk in Pocatello, Idaho and the story of the biggest and brightest star — a legend of her time and for all time — who has ever graced the silver screen.
Prior to the release of Gaga's A Star is Born in 2018, I ventured over to my local library in hopes of renting a copy of its 1976 predecessor with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Back then, my curiosity had already gotten the best of me, and I felt the need to compare and contrast the film that was coming out with the one that had set a precedent before it. From what I gathered, many moviegoers have at least heard of, if not seen, that version. Either way, it's the film that most people seem to recall when the title comes to mind, and it was time that I myself gave it a go.
When I got to the library, however, working my way slowly through the Ss and keeping my fingers crossed, I was surprised to find an entirely different, doe-eyed Star staring at me from the cover of a DVD case, which contained a 1954 version of the same film.
Though I'm slightly embarrassed to admit it now, I was not particularly interested in watching this movie when I found myself staring back at a face that wasn't Streisand's; in all fairness, I could have just gone home, ordered the version that I really wanted to see on demand and called it a day. But then there would be no Wonderland, no curiosity to satisfy and no story to tell. In retrospect, I realize that a higher power was probably at work that day, and the compelling decision I made was life-changing in many ways, opening the door to a new rabbit hole and leading me to the rediscovery of the world's greatest entertainer.
I am fairly certain that there isn't a single person in the world today who hasn't seen The Wizard of Oz, listened to "Over the Rainbow" or heard of Judy Garland, whose portrayal of Dorothy Gale (followed by my own in a circa-1997 Halloween costume) has been forever engrained in pop-culture history. But that may be the extent of your knowledge; unless you have a few extra years on you and somehow been exposed to an entirely different generation of films and artists, you would probably never know about Judy's other box office hits (Meet Me in St.Louis and Easter Parade aside), the legacy she left behind and why, to this day, no one has come close to replicating her genuinely heartfelt performances or surpassing her musical genius.
Warner Bros.'s 1954 A Star is Born tells the story of Esther Blodgett (whose name received a few makeovers in consecutive versions), a young performer trying to get her break in show business. Despite experiencing her fair share of disappointments over the years, she is continuing to pave the way to some sort of stardom and make her dream, as simplistic as it may be, a reality one day. Esther is first seen performing with the Glenn Williams Orchestra during a variety show at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, following a brief and somewhat unorthodox introduction to Hollywood actor Norman Maine. Played by the broodingly handsome James Mason, Norman — whose own star once shone brightly but is continuing to fade away even as he struggles with an alcohol addiction — stumbles onto the stage and nearly disrupts Esther's moment in the spotlight. But being the professional that she is, even at this stage of her career, Esther shifts gears and improvises a comedic routine that sends the "Gotta Have Me Go With You" musical number, the first of several songs that make up an outstanding soundtrack, off with a hesitant-turned-hearty applause.
Norman's encounter with Esther doesn't end with the curtain drop or even backstage after the show, when he runs into her once again and leaves behind a small memento of their encounter, a heart-shaped EB+NM tribute drawn on the wall with Esther's own lipstick. The few moments he spends talking (and professing his love) to her last only a few minutes, but the experience drags on late into the night. Despite an on-location call the next morning, Norman leaves the confines of his bed, in which he's been placed for good measure, to go looking for Esther. By the time he steps inside a late-night dive, following a lead from a restaurant waiter who seems to know about her whereabouts, his search comes to an end. And ours is just beginning.
The brilliance of "The Man That Got Away," a haunting tune composed by the musical geniuses Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin especially for this film, is evident from the moment Judy hums the first few chords of the melody and begins to illuminate an otherwise dimly lit room with what Hollywood producers and directors used to call the old 'Garland magic.' As she turns away from the piano and shifts her gaze to the audience, you realize that you are about to witness something extraordinary.
Surprisingly, though the staging of this scene is nowhere near what you'd consider elaborate, at least by comparison to the rest of the picture, Judy's performance among a group of musicians playing at an impromptu gig is nothing short of spectacular. With her uncanny phrasing, well-timed inflections and overall vocal prowess, she describes a romance gone astray in a way that avoids unnecessary heartache and disappointment but leaves you in a bittersweet state of forever reminiscence. This is no longer the Judy you remember the 1930s, when the little girl with the big voice was taught to control her natural vibrato in order to sing within the stylistic parameters Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Studios (MGM) imposed on her. No, Judy is here in all her glory, often imitated but never duplicated and truly one of a kind.
If you happen to search for alternate versions of this song on YouTube, and you might as well, you will find many covers performed by greats like Cher, Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand. Though all have given this song their best shot, not one has managed to surpass the tour-de-force performance of the original.
Convinced that Esther possesses that extra something, a spark that can set a genuine talent apart from the everyday run-of-the-mill performer, Norman encourages her to leave the band and start thinking — dreaming — bigger. He is certain she can make it in the movies. There is just one prerequisite: she has to believe in herself first. Easier said than done, of course, and yet the words, spoken so earnestly by James Mason, somehow ring true.
Esther's rise to stardom is assured with Norman by her side, and even though she eventually finds herself at a sneak preview of her first picture, her success is not instantaneous. Esther expresses that very sentiment in the "Born in a Trunk" number, the real showstopper of the film that manages to pay homage to Judy Garland's own humble beginnings in the Vaudeville circuit. The sequence lasts over 20 minutes, offering a glimpse into the life of a performer who both grows up on and outgrows the theater stage, and though feeling like somewhat of an indulgence at times, the number is a necessity in highlighting the highs and lows of show business reality. It is also the perfect vehicle for showcasing what has often been referred to as Judy's triple-threat talent of acting, singing and dancing — an experience that tends to leave one dumbfounded and speechless.
As audiences begin falling in love with Esther — who now goes by Vicki Lester, drawing for us yet another parallel (whether intentional or coincidental) to the professional name change of Judy Garland (nee Frances Gumm) — she, in turn, develops feelings for Norman. "It's a New World" for the soon-to-be newlyweds as they tie the knot in a private courthouse ceremony and strive to find a balance between their married lives and professional aspirations. But while Esther seems to be just what the Hollywood doctor ordered, there is no medicine that can help Norman overcome his struggle with alcoholism. Esther certainly gives the daunting task her best shot, entertaining her out-of-work husband with an over-the-top reenactment of her rehearsal at the studio (a number called "Someone at Last"), but the magic of a trip taken around the world in a living room couch fades away as Norman, mistakenly referred to as Mr. Lester by an arriving mailman with extremely poor timing, questions his purpose and self-worth.
The tragedy of A Star is Born lies in the realization that life does not always go the way we planned; more often than not, our dreams require sacrifices that we may not be ready to make. A trade-off, so to speak, in giving back in order to receive. In Esther's case, she must make the difficult choice between nurturing a career she's worked for all her life or holding on to a love that has the potential to last a lifetime. In two separate but equally as breathtaking scenes, Judy Garland draws upon emotions that emerge from somewhere within her inner self, giving us a brief glimpse of a private place tinged with shadows.
James Mason's portrayal of a man who can either stay (and risk standing in the way of his wife's promising future) or step aside and let her go is heartbreaking to watch, but his sincerity and charismatic charm make him the most appealing and sympathetic of all the Normans (or Jacksons, depending on the Star in question) who came before and after.
Though I've now seen this movie more times than I can count, and it's now my absolute favorite, I was unsettled the first time I brought it home from the library. Why was I just now seeing this Star and so late in life? Why have I, a self-proclaimed movie lover, never even heard of it? This is where the plot thickens — or thins out — depending on how you look at it.
Many books and articles have been written about 1954's A Star is Born. Most seem to agree: from its origin and release to its destruction and restoration, this film has faced many an epic battle. And though it has yet to find its happy ending, all is not completely lost.
Thanks to the inspired vision of veteran film director George Cukor, the mastermind behind such masterpieces as The Philadelphia Story and My Fair Lady, the production, costumes and art design of A Star is Born are second to none. From clothing selections worn by the actors to the array of rich colors present in almost every scene — all enhanced by the soundtrack of a well-orchestrated score — everything is meticulously and artistically selected to immerse the viewer in an all-sensory presentation. Pacing in a way that encourages you to truly familiarize themselves with the characters, you find yourself following along on a journey of self-discovery (or destruction, as in the case of Norman), love, heartbreak and resilience.
When the film, presented in the intended director's cut, made its world debut at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood on September 29, 1954, signaling the long-awaited return of Judy Garland to the big screen, friends and colleagues from near and far came out to show support for and welcome her back after a four-year hiatus and untimely departure from MGM. Everything, including a financial investment by Judy's then-husband Sid Luft, was riding on the success of this picture. Running at an extensive length of 181 minutes, Star didn't disappoint, garnering not only praise for Judy's dramatic acting ability but also hinting at a potential Academy Awards® nomination. With such a promising start, Judy was bound to make a comeback and reclaim her rightful place in Hollywood once again.
Shortly after the film made it to first-run movie theaters, positive reviews continued coming in from general audiences and critics alike, most of whom commented on the film's use of the CinemaScope technology, its production and art design and, most importantly, Judy Garland and James Mason's performances. After a few weeks, however, the tide began to turn, and exhibitors were no longer as ecstatic. At its current runtime, which interfered with the theaters' ability to lock in additional prime-time screenings, the film just didn't work. Something had to be done if the picture was going to turn a profit. Failing to consult Cukor on ways in which the movie could be shortened without compromising the integrity of the storyline, Warner Bros. ordered drastic cuts to be made to portions of the film that could be considered as essential in showcasing the development and growth of the two main characters.
Earlier on, I touched upon the turning point in Esther's career, prompted by Norman, when she chooses to take the path less traveled, away from her band, and journey into the unknown. What I didn't mention, however, is that Esther's life-altering decision is off to a shaky start when Norman is unexpectedly shanghaied to an on-location shoot, leaving her to fend for herself as she waits for a call that doesn't come. Living on the limited resources that are now available to her, Esther vows to keep going and finds the strength she needs to continue working — in whatever capacity she can — refusing to give up. And Norman? Well, let's just say that the ladies' man who'd broken plenty of hearts was about to have a change of his own. These key sequences, plus two additional musical numbers ("What Am I Here For?" and "Lose That Long Face") that come later, were completely removed from the master prints. After the remaining film was spliced together, the original footage was discarded, and exhibitors running all future showing engagements received reels of a very different picture.
Once the nonsensical, shorter version of the film, trimmed to a mere 154 minutes, hit second-run and local theaters once again, word had gotten out that the new Star just wasn't all it was 'cut' out to be. Some moviegoers and critics who watched the shorter version of the film protested against the harsh edits, as made evident in this letter written by a frustrated Variety reader:
"The 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."
Frustrations continued to mount, and praise from critics and reviewers who had seen the original release began to falter. The post-release trimming of the movie was questionable on many levels, further diminishing its integrity and artistic caliber. On the night of the Academy Awards®, Judy Garland was in the hospital, having recently given birth to her son, Joey, and — if predictions came to pass — receive the coveted Oscar statuette she so desperately deserved. Instead of flowers, Judy found herself surrounded by a bouquet of cables, wires, microphones and cameramen, placed on standby to capture her acceptance speech. But the announcement never came, and the award for Best Actress was handed over to Grace Kelly for her role in The Country Girl; awards in five other categories were given away to other contenders. A movie that should have made history as one of the greatest musicals ever made was on its way to becoming history.
For decades, 1954's A Star is Born was an afterthought in living rooms across the country, syndicated in its 154-minute length to audiences who would never again experience the motion picture as it was meant to be seen by the unwavering vision of George Cukor. It wasn't until the 1980s and the dedication of Ronald Haver, the head of the film department at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, that Star would find its rebirth. Taking on a significant restoration project, Haver set out to locate the footage that was edited out of the film all those years ago, seeking to find just the right vault that would hold the missing pieces to a long-forgotten puzzle.
Haver's efforts were partially successful, for he acquired the isolated audio soundtrack of the film, alternate takes of a few deleted scenes, access to stills taken during filming and — as fate would have it — the two musical sequences. Even when the remaining scenes could not be located, Haver was unstoppable. Staging and compositing new stills with himself and an added cast member (actress Gloria Lewin in a re-enactment of Esther's landlady), he was determined to tell the story from beginning to end and, preferably, on the big screen. Against all odds, A Star is Born, extended to a runtime of 176 minutes, finally saw the light of day when it made its comeback with a premiere at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City on July 7, 1983.
Although Haver's restoration is the prominent version of the 1954 movie that's available for viewing, the previously cut edition having long since been out of circulation, many questions still remain. Could a first-run exhibitor have retained an original reel of the full-length feature that's now in the hands of a private collector? Is there even the slightest chance that one uncut copy of this timeless classic exists in another vault, waiting to be set free once and for all? Fans like myself will never know, but we are willing to hold out for a miraculous reappearance. And until then, there are plenty of other Judy Garland movies — which I'll touch upon in later posts — that will make everyone's wait worthwhile.
So you see, A Star is Born really isn't Gaga's film. Nor is it Streisand's. And if I'm being technically correct, it isn't Garland's either*. And yet, there is something wonderful (make that Wonderlandful) about the 1954 version, described as "Just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history" by TIME, that's simply the best and better than all the rest.