A Star Is Born
|by Dan Goldwasser
on June 23rd, 2010
Last year, Warner Brothers spent a lot of time and money restoring some of cinema's classic films - The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, North by Northwest and Doctor Zhivago - for release on Blu-ray. Their admirable efforts continue, with 1954's A Star Is Born, based on the 1937 film of the same name. The film was directed by George Cukor and produced by Sidney Luft, and starred Luft's wife, Judy Garland. Garland had not made a movie in nearly four years, and this musical adaptation, also starring James Mason, was heralded as Garland's comeback film.
The film tells the story of the rise and fall of the relationship between downtrodden matinee idol Norman Maine (James Mason) and singer Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland). After a bit of a rocky start to their relationship, Maine fosters Blodgett's talents, and soon she's becoming more and more famous, as his celebrity starts to fade, and he descends into abusive alcoholism. The film endured a lengthy production, with casting issues, constant script changes, and even a decision by the studio to change the film format to use CinemaScope, requiring significant material to be re-shot. In all, it would take nearly a year to bring the film to the screen. Musically, the film was notable for the collaboration between Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, which resulted in some classic songs, including "Lose That Long Face", "Here's What I'm Here For" and "The Man That Got Away". While ultimately a tragedy, A Star Is Born definitely has enough uplifting and inspirational material to keep it from being a total downer.
When it premiered in New York City in October 1954, the film ran 182-minutes, down from Cukor's director's cut of 192-minutes. However, to get the film more daily plays in theaters, Warner Brothers executives cut the film down to the final theatrical running time of 154-minutes. In 1983, film preservationist Ronald Haver was able to restore the film to 176-minutes, re-instating two musical numbers and numerous scenes that had been cut. Unfortunately some material was still missing, and with the use of production stills and audio recordings, the scenes were somewhat reconstructed. It is this 176-minute long version of A Star Is Born which was restored.
Using the original negative, transferred at 6k resolution, a new digital restoration of the film was created Released as a special two-disc hardcover DigiBook Blu-ray release, the "Deluxe Edition" of A Star Is Born sports this new transfer, and it's the best the film has ever looked on home video. The colors are deeply saturated and pop off the screen, showcasing Sam Leavitt's vibrant cinematography. Sharp and clear for the most part, the film grain is present but naturalistic, and the 2.55:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio gives the film a sense of epic grandeur when seen on a big screen. For a 56-year old musical, the audio is good, but not great. Presented with just an English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, the sources for the audio restoration were from numerous sources, due to the original four-track stereo magnetic master being accidentally erased decades ago. As a result, the audio is not always consistent, and dialogue is occasionally muffled or quieter than one might expect, but the music benefits the most. And as this is a musical, that's just fine! Unfortunately, even a copy of the original 4-track stereo track (which should be available on some film prints used for the audio restoration), is not included.
Billed as a "Deluxe Edition" that features "over three hours" of extras, A Star Is Born certainly has plenty of material to keep enthusiasts busy for a while - but it doesn't quite go into the level of detail that true fans and film buffs would probably hope for. While some of the extras were released previously on the 2000 DVD release, most of the material is newly compiled for the Deluxe Edition - but all are presented in standard definition, as the second disc is a DVD, not a Blu-ray. First up we have a brief "Introduction" (3-minutes) that looks at the production. This should have been a 30-minute featurette, since we don't really get anything that covers the overall "making-of" the film. We do get five different versions of two "Deleted Scenes" (22-minutes), and a few "Alternate Takes" (11-minutes) for variations on sequences that remain in the film, and an "Outtake" (1-minute) from the musical sequence of "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street". Innocuously labeled the "Audio Vault", we actually have nearly 110-minutes of audio supplements, including interviews, song outtakes, rehearsal recordings, and - most notably - the entire 1942 "Lux Radio Theater Broadcast" of A Star is Born, which also happened to star Judy Garland.
A promotional short, "A Report by Jack L. Warner" (6-minutes) gives a sneak peek at the then-in-production film, and "Film Effects Reel" (1-minute) shows off a little bit of test footage comparing different color processes that was used to help determine how to shoot the film. "Premiere in CinemaScope" (2-minutes) looks at the celebrities that attended the Hollywood premiere at the Pantages Theater. "Newsreel Montage" (8-minutes) continues the Premiere coverage, and finally wrapping up this section, the entire "Pantages Premiere TV Special" (30-minutes) is included. This was the first ever live broadcast of a film premiere on television, and is about as exciting as you can imagine a film premiere to be.
Finally, the Looney Tunes short "A Star Is Bored" (7-minutes), starring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck is included, as well as the Theatrical Trailers (10-minutes) for all three versions of A Star Is Born: the 1937 film, the 1954 musical, and the 1976 Barbra Streisand version. If you get the Blu-ray, the DigiBook packaging features 40-pages of full color photos and information on the production and legacy of the film. With no commentary track, and no documentary talking about the various edits of the film - or even the extensive restoration that Warner admirably undertook for this new release - it's a shame that most of the supplemental material is relegated to showcasing archival footage, but not much perspective.
But still, A Star Is Born is one of those Hollywood classics. A cautionary tale full of hope, love, tragedy and redemption, the film is just as applicable today as it was over fifty years ago. With a brand new restoration and short but sweet set of extras, the film is definitely worth checking out. But if you're not familiar with it, I'd rent it first. It should also be noted that in conjunction with the Blu-ray/DVD release, A Star Is Born is also now available for download in HD via Amazon ON DEMAND, and that might be a great way to check it out right now.
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