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Warner Home Video presents
A Star Is Born (1954)

"Hello everybody, this is Mrs. Norman Maine."
- Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester (Judy Garland)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: May 08, 2003

Stars: Judy Garland, James Mason
Other Stars: Charles Bickford, Jack Carson, Tom Noonan
Director: George Cukor

MPAA Rating: PG for (adult subject matter, depiction of alcoholism)
Run Time: 02h:56m:00s
Release Date: September 19, 2000
UPC: 085391758822
Genre: musical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AA-A- A-

DVD Review

For an industry as vain as motion pictures, especially during the glittering Golden Age, one would naturally assume that any movie about movie-making would paint a glossy portrait of Tinseltown, ignoring all the dark, seedy elements that permeate the town and its inhabitants. But you have to hand it to Hollywood. On the rare occasions it musters the courage to look in the mirror, it doesn't flinch. On the contrary, it often embraces its blemishes, almost reveling in the tarnish beneath the tinsel. Such classic—and uncompromising—films as Sunset Boulevard, The Bad and the Beautiful and The Big Knife are the result of this introspection, offering a fascinating look at what really goes on behind the scenes and between the sheets in Movieland. A Star Is Born fits snugly into this clique, depicting both sides of the Hollywood coin: fairy tale success and nightmarish despair. The story of a young actress on the rise molded and mentored by a self-destructive actor teetering on a personal and professional precipice is so timeless it can be adapted to any era, and so popular it's been filmed three times already (four, if you count the film on which it was based, 1932's What Price Hollywood?), with rumors of a fourth retelling currently swirling about. This musical version, produced in 1954 and starring Judy Garland and James Mason, is widely regarded as the best of the bunch, and features the added bonus of a production history almost as compelling—and tragic—as the film itself.

Many entertainment insiders believed Garland was washed up after her dismissal from MGM in 1950. Well-documented personal travails tainted her image and no studio wished to take the financial risks associated with employing her. It was only after a hugely successful concert tour marked by rapturous audience response that Hollywood took a second look, believing box office dollars would surpass production delays. Garland and her husband, producer Sid Luft, had always dreamed of remaking A Star Is Born as a musical, and struck a deal with Warner Bros. Top-notch talent signed on to help. George Cukor would direct his first ever musical, with songs by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, while the acclaimed playwright Moss Hart would pen the screenplay. Although Garland hoped Cary Grant would portray fading actor Norman Maine, Grant demurred and James Mason was signed. After two weeks of shooting, all footage was scrapped, and production began anew using the fledgling CinemaScope process. The decision was a good one. The use of widescreen opens up the drama and accentuates the pageantry. While the film is swathed in dark, deep colors, which make the popping of the ever-present flashbulbs intentionally jarring and intrusive, the lushness of the Hollywood backdrop is not lost. Though the film may not exploit Technicolor's brilliance, no other production may better showcase its depth.

A Star Is Born is far from a "typical" musical, at once establishing its dramatic focus and never wavering from it, even during its many light moments. Garland plays Esther Blodgett, an insecure band singer with starry-eyed dreams. At a glitzy benefit concert, she saves the hide of drunken star Norman Maine (Mason), who stumbles onstage during her number. Esther cleverly makes him part of the act, thus seducing the audience and bewitching Maine. Unable to forget her, he later seeks her out and offers to introduce her to the top brass at his studio. Complications ensue, but Esther finally gets her big break, a name change to Vicki Lester, and a romance with the jinxed, tortured Maine. As her star ascends, his begins its inexorable, painful decline. While the film blithely handles Esther's rise, spoofing such industry foibles as disinterested publicists and overzealous make-up artists, it cuts like a knife in its final act, as Esther and Norman fight to preserve their relationship, careers and dignity. In a fascinating twist, it is the fragile Garland who plays the survivor. As she pours her heart out to the far too sympathetic studio chief (the film's one unbelievable character—Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn were never like that!), imploring him to answer the question, "What is it that makes him want to destroy himself?," it's impossible not to project Garland's own persona into the proceedings. The result is doubly heartbreaking and provides Garland with the finest acting moments of her career.

Often overlooked, Mason is equally brilliant, walking a tightrope between Maine's brash egotism and crippling insecurity. His chemistry with Garland is palpable. And as the vindictive publicity chief, Jack Carson files one of his best portrayals, suppressing his venomous nature until it can do the most harm.

Musically, Garland is at her zenith. The songs, including her signature The Man That Got Away, are top-notch and creatively presented, advancing the story as well as providing a showcase for Garland's resonant pipes. Even the over-blown and over-long Born in a Trunk sequence features eye-popping art direction and vocals that would melt steel.

The film received unanimous praise upon its premiere, but Jack Warner obsessed over its three-hour running time, fearing fewer showings per day would make it difficult to recoup its multi-million-dollar budget. In what could only be called a fit of panic, Warner ordered that a half-hour be cut. Cukor, who could have seamlessly trimmed the minutes, was on location in India shooting Bhowani Junction, so instead an entire reel was summarily hacked, punching a major hole into the story and destroying much of the development of Esther and Norman's relationship. Two musical numbers also were cut, but inexplicably Born in a Trunk, the most logical bit to excise, remained. The film still received six Oscar® nominations (including Best Actor and Best Actress), but the editing was universally reviled.

The cut footage became the stuff of Hollywood legend, as many attempts to recover it proved futile. Finally, in the early 1980s, film historian Ronald Haver literally crawled through the vaults at Warner and found both deleted musical numbers, as well as the complete stereo film soundtrack, and bits and pieces of the cut dramatic reel. Using the then highly innovative technique of plugging in production stills for missing footage, he reconstructed the film and it premiered to great fanfare in 1983. Thankfully, it is this version of A Star Is Born that is regarded as definitive, and is presented on this DVD. While the inserted stills are jarring at first, the presentation is so classy, one quickly forgives the intrusion and becomes caught up in the creative presentation—all the while cursing Warner for cutting the material in the first place.

As a film purist, it is exhilarating to experience this movie as it was originally envisioned. It paints a dark, but not depressing, portrait of life in front of and behind the camera. And as one reviewer wrote in 1954, it features "what is just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history." No arguments here.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Warner Home Video has given A Star Is Born the red carpet treatment it deserves, fashioning an impeccable anamorphic transfer that exhibits none of the imperfections that so often plague 50-year-old films. Virtually every scene is crisp and clean, with grit and dust almost totally absent. Color saturation is deep and vivid, with no evidence of bleeding. Reds leap off the screen, both in small doses (Garland's lipstick) or when the palette is awash with color (the backdrop of Swanee). Blacks (and there are plenty of them in this film) are rock solid and rich, with shadow detail well defined. Film grain is often noticeable, but only adds to the warmth of the production. Some shimmering occasionally occurs, but not enough to distract or detract from what is a truly glorious transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Warner has remastered the original soundtrack to 5.1, but sadly the surrounds don't get much use. Dialogue is firmly anchored in the center channel, while ambient sounds play nicely across the left and right speakers. The track really comes alive during the musical numbers, making good use of the front speakers and providing full, rich sound that only augments the potency and resonance of Garland's exceptional voice. Even when Judy belts at full throttle, the track handles the power without distortion. The Oscar®-nominated score comes through beautifully, and no hiss or pops could be detected even during quiet moments. The original stereo soundtrack, however, was not included on this disc.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 53 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring A Star Is Born (1937), A Star Is Born (1976)
1 Deleted Scenes
Packaging: Snapper
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Three alternate takes of The Man That Got Away musical number; two audio outtakes
  2. Hollywood premiere newsreel footage and 30-minute Hollywood premiere TV special
  3. Cocoanut Grove Premiere Party footage
  4. 1954 Warner Bros Exhibitors Reel
  5. Awards listing
Extras Review: While not labeled a "special edition" per se, A Star Is Born offers enough rare extras to put any film buff on cloud nine. The DVD is double-sided with the film on Side A and almost all of the extras (except for filmographies and awards listings) on Side B. Most interesting are the three filmed alternate takes of Garland's The Man That Got Away, which feature different costuming, hairstyles and staging from the version that ended up in the film. It's a fascinating examination of a musical number's evolution, and shows just how much work went into capturing the appropriate mood and look, as well as how important the filmmakers deemed the sequence to be. Also included is a brief musical number, When My Sugar Walks Down the Street, which was cut from Born in A Trunk. Amazingly, all of these outtakes look almost as good as the film itself, filled with rich color and sound.

The premiere of A Star Is Born was widely hailed at the time as the granddaddy of all Hollywood premieres, and newsreel and television cameras were on hand to record every moment. The included newsreel footage on the DVD offers a glimpse of what all the hoopla was about, but it's the 30-minute television special—originally shown in primetime!—which proves they sure don't do it like that anymore. A bona fide parade of stars files past the podium, including Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Gary Cooper, Lucy and Desi, Doris Day and a host of others. Each submits to a brief interview, but many are literally shoved aside (quite amusing to see) to make way for the next wave of celebrities. The climax is Garland's arrival on the arm of Jack Warner. After the premiere, Warner hosted a gala at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, and the included footage features a speech by the studio chief as well as a few words from Garland and her producer husband Sid Luft.

A 1954 Warner Brothers exhibitors reel was designed to preview upcoming Warner films for theater owners, and the excerpt featuring A Star Is Born is included. Astute viewers will recognize that some of the clips from the film are alternate takes from those that appeared in the final print. Two audio outtakes expand on scenes from the reconstructed portion of the film—these scenes were edited slightly due to the scarcity of stills necessary to cover the soundtrack and make a cohesive visual product. The expanded audio does flesh out these scenes, adding more realism.

Lastly, the original 1954 trailer is included, which features an alternate audio take of The Man That Got Away as well as additional alternate dramatic takes. As a bonus, the trailer for the 1937 straight dramatic version of the film starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March can be seen, as well as the trailer for the hokey 1976 remake starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, which transferred the storyline to the rock music industry. All three trailers are in excellent condition.

Even with all these riches, the DVD craves a featurette chronicling the film's production, subsequent cutting and ultimate reconstruction. Unfortunately, one was never made. I would have gladly settled for extensive production notes, but the disc doesn't deliver here either. The subject matter is far more substantive than what's included on many other behind-the-scenes featurettes on other DVDs, and would have added the necessary historical perspective to make this DVD truly definitive. A missed opportunity for sure, and food for thought if this film is ever re-released. But it's difficult to complain too much, as the disc does present a wealth of rare and fascinating extra material—more than some other discs that flaunt the special edition label.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

A Star Is Born marked the pinnacle of Judy Garland's film career, containing a performance of such emotional depth and musical brilliance that it holds up beautifully a half century later. This DVD captures Garland's inimitable magic, and its cavalcade of rare extras captures Hollywood at its most glamorous and self-indulgent. The impeccable transfer and remastered sound compliment this moving musical drama, making it a must-own for serious film aficionados. As Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote in his 1954 review of the film, "It is something to see, this A Star Is Born." Once again, no arguments here.


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