Musical Monday: A Star is Born (1954)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
A Star Is Born (1954) – Musical #342

Studio:
Warner Bros.

Director:
George Cukor

Starring:
Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, Tommy Noonan, Lucy Marlow, Hazel Shermet, Amanda Blake, Irving Bacon, James Brown, Nancy Kulp (uncredited), Barbara Pepper (uncredited), Dick Simmons (uncredited), Grady Sutton (uncredited)

Plot:
Singer Esther Blodgett (Garland) is spotted by film star Norman Maine (Mason). Though Norman is one of Hollywood’s top stars, his career is on the decline due to his alcoholism. Norman helps Esther into the picture business and Esther becomes successful film star Vicki Lester. The two fall in love and marry, but will their marriage enough for Norman?

Trivia:
• There are multiple versions of this story. Those set in Hollywood include this version, “What Price Hollywood?” (1932) starring Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman; and “A Star Is Born” (1937) starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. More recent versions switch the story to the music industry: “A Star Is Born” (1976) stars Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson; and a 2018 version of this film stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.

• Cary Grant was heavily considered for the role, and Grant event did some rehearsing for the part. However, he backed out the role, according to the book, A Star Is Born: Judy Garland and the Film that Got Away.

• Other stars considered for Norman Maine included Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Tyrone Power, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Ray Milland, Stewart Granger, Robert Taylor and Glenn Ford, according to Luft and Vance’s book.

• Scenes from the film were cut out, and are now lost. The film was reconstructed in 1983 with stills of the scenes and the remaining audio. The film was released at 157 minutes, according to the book George Cukor: Interviews by George Dewey Cukor

• Composer Ray Heindorf has a cameo at the party after Vicki’s first film and Jack Carson greets him.

• It was Judy Garland who was interested in making a musical remake of the 1937 version after revisiting it. She proposed a remake to MGM in 1951, which they declined, according to Luft and Vance’s book.

• William Powell was offered the role of Oliver Niles, which was played by Charles Bickford. He declined since it wasn’t a lead role, according to Luft and Vance’s book.

• Sid Luft purchased the furniture used in the beach house scenes and brought them to his own home. Jack L. Warner accused Luft of stealing the furniture in his autobiography and Luft sued him over the remarks, according to Luft and Vance’s book.

• This was Judy Garland’s first film since “Summer Stock” (1950) and having her contract dropped from MGM. “A Star is Born” was touted as her big comeback.

• Judy Garland previously played the role of Esther Blodgett on “Lux Radio Theatre” on Dec. 28, 1942, opposite Walter Pidgeon as Norman Maine.

• Judy Garland is the only solo singer in this film. Moss Hart wrote the script to suggest to songwriters Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin where songs could be added, according to Luft and Vance’s book.

James Mason as Norman Maine and Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester in “A Star is Born.”

Highlights:
• Academy Award statuettes get a credit for their use in the opening credits
• Use of real footage of premieres at the start of the movie
• Vibrant Technicolor
• Interesting shots that highlight the backstage life of Hollywood: close-ups of stage lights opening, close-ups of camera flashbulbs

Notable Songs:
• “The Man That Got Away” performed by Judy Garland

My review:
I love Judy Garland and she is one of the greatest talents Hollywood has ever seen or will see. I’ve seen all of her 31 full-length films, but I won’t pretend that I love this version of “A Star is Born” just because she stars in it. Put plainly, I dreaded revisiting this film to review it because I don’t care for it.

After seeing the 1937 version of “A Star is Born,” starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, on nitrate film at the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival last spring, visions of that version rang clear in my head. I couldn’t help comparing the two while I revisited this musical remake for the first time since 2009. (I remember watching this version as I unpacked my dorm room at the start of junior year of college.)

While much of the story is the same, there are some differences:
• In the 1937 version, Esther is just a girl dreaming of stardom while living in the Midwest and follows her dreams to Hollywood. In the 1954, Esther already works as a singer in Hollywood, though she isn’t a star.
• In the 1937 version, Esther and Norman meet at a private Hollywood party. In the 1954 version, Esther is performing at a Hollywood benefit when Norman drunkenly walks on stage and joins her act.
• There is no May Robson grandma character or pal Andy Devine in the 1954 version. These two characters are rolled into Tommy Noonan’s role in the 1954 version, where he works as a musician and then suddenly has a job at the studio (which isn’t really explained Noonan just starts appearing like he belongs at the studio).

Naturally, while I made these comparisons, I was even more firm in my decision that I prefer the earlier non-musical version, which was directed by William Wellman.

But before I got into what I don’t care for in this 1954 film, let me discuss what I like.

“A Star is Born” (1954) is beautifully and gorgeously shot in vibrant Technicolor. It also has fascinating cinematography that effectively illustrates the feel of the hustle and bustle of Hollywood chaos: close-ups of flashbulbs from the first person point of view. Bright, glaring lights opening up on set before filming begins. Swarms of people waiting and running towards their favorite movie star. There even appears to be some footage spliced in from real Hollywood events, which adds to the chaotic and even claustrophobic feel of stardom vs. fandom.

This film is also, sadly, seemingly autobiographical for Judy Garland. Lorna Luft and Jeffrey Vance’s book on the film note that Garland is both Esther Blodgett and Norman Maine — the wide-eyed young girl in Hollywood eager to make good and the star on the decline of their career, beaten down by a battle with substance abuse and years of working as a studio commodity.

Jack Carson, who grew to fame as a funny man at Warner Bros., shows his versatility in “A Star is Born” as he plays a grade A heel. His character is the workaholic publicity man who wants to do well at his job but could care less about the stars he’s writing about. He holds particular disdain for Norman Maine who makes his life difficult. Carson plays an unsympathetic role and may give one of the best performances in the film.

Now for what turns me off about the film. What’s odd is the 1954 “A Star is Born” has it all: beautifully shot, one of the best directors of all time and the industry’s top stars. But it falls flat in many areas for me.

I’m a person who gets teary when Judy Garland sings — it doesn’t matter if it’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe” or “Minnie From Trinidad.” But I don’t feel moved by her character or by the songs in “A Star is Born.”

Outside of “The Man that Got Away,” the songs do nothing for me, and the 10-minute showstoppers make me weary. I didn’t care for “Born in a Trunk,” but the number where she dances around in the living room for Norman was particularly painful.

James Mason and Judy Garland in the number I especially couldn’t stand in the film.

Throughout most of the film, I felt little for Judy’s Esther Blodgett. It was only towards the end of the film when I felt anything. Esther is crying and breaking down as she talks to studio head Oliver (played by Charles Bickford) about loving Norman, but sometimes also hating him and not knowing what to do or what will happen to them because of his alcoholism. Maybe it’s because this speech was familiar to what was going on in Judy’s life, but she plays it to the hilt. After this scene, Judy has to go back on set to perform and turns on the sparkle and shine like nothing had happened. No one would ever know she was crying and despondent moments before, which is a powerful “backstage life” message and most likely paralleled her own life. For me, I wonder if this would have worked better during the 1946-1948 period of her career.

I also don’t have much sympathy for James Mason. His drunk Norman Maine is mean, violent and someone you have to walk on eggshells around. Fredric March’s Maine is more sympathetic and I really wanted it to work out for him. I have to wonder if Cary Grant, a swoon-worthy Hollywood charmer, had followed through with the part if he would have been someone I would have cared about more.

In 1983 the film was reconstructed to audio tracks over photo stills to try to recreate the scenes cut from the original film, and I hate it. The stills are jarring removed me from the film watching experience, and I didn’t see what those scenes really added to the film, except maybe when Norman finds Esther after searching for her.

By the way, I saw Amanda Blake billed in the film. Where was she? Did she get edited out and they left her in? I searched for her the whole film and never found her.

At 181 minutes, the whole thing just felt like a slog. I know many people love and worship this version of “A Star is Born” (1954), and I wish I could find the appeal. It has all the right pieces, but for some reason, the puzzle comes out all wrong for me.

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3 thoughts on “Musical Monday: A Star is Born (1954)

  1. The problem was with the original print being too long for “neighborhood theaters” to get in their usual two-showings-per weeknight-slot to let people get back home in time to get a good night’s sleep before going to work the next day. Theater owners in turn complained directly to the studio and chief Jack Warner made the ultimate decision to cut the film accordingly. This threw the movie out-of-balance and it never recovered from that “butchering.” The final death-knell came when the studio lost the excised bits of film which ruined the work for all time. (It’s said there may be someone who has the complete work but to date isn’t releasing it.) So I wouldn’t be too quick to criticize this Cukor work, which critics at the premieres praised as masterful. Chalk it up to business winning over art. ###

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