‘A Star is Born’

By Shane Cronin

Courtesy of poptheology.com

Fifty-six years ago today, what was then one of the most expensive movies ever made (at a cost of approximately $5 million), “A Star Is Born” premiered at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, Calif.

The spectacular event, comparable in scale to the Academy Awards, was also the first movie premiere to be televised in its entirety. Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Dean Martin and scores of other megastars of the day attended.

They were all there to see one woman make her big screen comeback.

What makes “A Star Is Born” memorable is its leading lady: Judy Garland. The actress, singer and all-around entertainer made 31 films during her 14 year tenure at MGM, including “The Wizard of Oz” and “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

She enjoyed enormous popularity from an adoring public. In private, however, Garland’s world was plagued by alcoholism, an addiction to prescription medication, divorce and a suicide attempt.

Frequent bouts of anxiety and depression kept Garland from appearing on set, which led to major delays and inflated production costs. (She even landed in a sanitarium in western Mass.).

Consequently, many of her pictures were critical success, but considered commercial failures. Her reputation for unreliability resulted in her firing from several staring roles and finally the termination of her contract with MGM in 1950.

After a record-breaking concert stint in the United Kingdom and a four-year absence from the box office, Garland signed a deal with Warner Bros. Her first project with the studio was “A Star Is Born.” In her comeback role Garland plays Esther Blodgett, the emerging lead singer of a band. Blodgett is discovered by fictional Hollywood star, Norman Maine (played by James Mason), who helps her realize her talent and propels her into fame. Eventually Esther and Norman marry, but their relationship quickly deteriorates because of his alcoholism and subsequent fall from stardom. Ironically, Mason’s despondent character closely resembles Garland’s real life.

The film was scheduled to be completed in several months, but due to studio head Jack Warner’s decision to re-shoot weeks worth of scenes, Garland’s emotional fragility and other issues, three months turned into almost a year and the budget more than doubled.

Fortunately, director George Cukor settled for nothing less than perfection. Garland’s entire career was riding on “A Star Is Born.” In the end Cukor and Garland created a three hour and 16 minute technicolor masterpiece. Garland’s highly acclaimed performance earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.           

Because of the picture’s length, however, it could only show three times daily. Although ticket sales were stellar, theater owners complained because they could not squeeze in a fourth or fifth screening.

In response, Warner Bros. chopped roughly 30 minutes of footage. The film’s romance was butchered, and at times, the plot seemed non-sensical. Audiences and critics were appalled at the shortened re-release made evident in lackluster ticket sales.

By the time Oscar season arrived in 1955, Judy Garland picked up a Golden Globe for “A Star Is Born” and was the favorite to take the Academy Award. When Grace Kelly beat Garland for the award, comedian Groucho Marx famously remarked that the loss was “the greatest robbery since Brinks.”

Some speculate that movie executives from MGM and Warner Bros. conspired against Garland. She was, after all, essentially fired from both studios. The defeat was an enormous let down. It would be six years before Garland would appear in another picture.           

Garland and Cukor were understandably discouraged by the whole ordeal. Their work of art was disembodied and never to be seen in its original length again. The two vowed never to watch the edited version.           

In the early 1980s, Ron Haver, a Cukor film enthusiast who worked for the American Film Institute embarked on a months long journey to locate the lost footage from “A Star Is Born,” and restore the classic to its entirety.

He was often met with disappointment, however. Warner Bros. was not a stickler for preserving deleted footage. Haver rummaged through post-production warehouses and underground vaults from New York to California. He found sound clips and negatives as well as still shots, but even his best efforts could not uncover material that simply no longer existed. Haver documented the arduous process in his book “A Star Is Born – The Making of the 1954 Film and its 1983 Restoration.”

Thousands of dollars and weeks of dedicated efforts were poured into the restoration project once Haver completed his search.

Twenty minutes of footage (and still shots where there was only sound) was built back into the movie. Haver and his restoration team were pleased with the outcome and they organized a screening. Garland passed away of a drug overdose almost 15 years before, but Cukor was invited to be the guest of honor. Shockingly, the night before Cukor was to view the film, he died.

Today, “A Star Is Born” is a favorite among film associations including the AFI. It is available in magnificent technicolor and sound quality on DVD with hours of special features.

When you see Judy Garland belt out the words to “The Man That Got Away” in a single shot and feel the emotion she delivers in the picture’s darker dramatic scenes, one can’t help but wonder how even a minute of Garland’s performance was omitted. For the rest of the year, we remember her as the little girl in the ruby slippers skipping down the yellow brick road. But today, let’s remember Garland for her finest role as Esther Blodgett in one of the most incredible screenplays Hollywood has ever produced.           

Shane Cronin is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]