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A Star is Born (1954): Deluxe Edition DVD Review

A Star is Born (1954) movie poster A Star is Born (1954)

Theatrical Release: October 16, 1954 / Running Time: 176 Minutes / Rating: PG (1983 restored cut)

Director: George Cukor / Writers: Moss Hart (screenplay); Robert Carson (1937 story & screenplay); Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell (1937 screenplay); William A. Wellman (1937 story)

Cast: Judy Garland (Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester), James Mason (Norman Maine), Jack Carson (Matt Libby), Charles Bickford (Oliver Niles), Tom Noonan (Danny McGuire), Lucy Marlow (Lola Lavery), Amanda Blake (Susan Ettinger), Irving Bacon (Graves), Hazel Shermet (Libby's Secretary)

Songs: "Gotta Have Me Go with You", "The Man That Got Away", "Trinidad Coconut Oil Shampoo", "Born in a Trunk", "Swanee", "I'll Get By", "You Took Advantage of Me", "The Black Bottom", "The Peanut Vendor", "My Melancholy Baby", "Here's What I'm Here For", "It's a New World", "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street", "Someone at Last", "Lose That Long Face"

Buy A Star is Born from Amazon.com: Deluxe Edition DVD Blu-ray with Book On Demand


Hardly a year seems to pass without Hollywood turning its attention to one of its favorite subjects: itself. Films about the film industry date about as far as back as the industry itself. And rarely are they deemed insider navel-gazing; many fictional and fact-based movies set in the filmmaking world have earned high acclaim, from Fellini's 8 and Truffaut's Day for Night to more recent American productions you're more likely to have seen (The Player, Ed Wood, Adaptation, The Aviator, Tropic Thunder, and so on).

In the 1950s, with film having survived as a popular art form for over twenty-five years, Hollywood really began looking at itself and its past for story ideas. Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd (1950) entwined the lives of a struggling screenwriter and a forgotten silent star.
Singin' in the Rain (1952) recalled the transition to talking pictures with spunky song and dance. Then came a remake of one of the first entries to this class, as 1954's A Star is Born was adapted from the 1937 film of the same name.

The 1937 version starred Janet Gaynor, a 13-year veteran who had ranked as one of the most popular actresses of the silent era. In that part, the 1954 remake cast another actress with history: Judy Garland, who as a teen portrayed one of cinema's most unforgettable protagonists, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Having first appeared in short films at age 7, Garland had an even longer industry record than Gaynor. Though Garland was just 31 when A Star is Born began filming, that was old enough for her to be on her third marriage, with a nervous breakdown, drug dependencies, and a suicide attempt to her name. Garland's first feature in four years, Star was intended to be a comeback project.

The second time that Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) catches Norman's eye, she is singing at an after-hours club with her bandmate Danny (Tom Noonan) on piano.

A Star is Born centers on Esther Blodgett (Garland), a vaudeville performer of modest success. One night, she catches the eye of movie star Norman Maine (James Mason). A drunk, reckless womanizer, Norman is a public relations nightmare but enough of a box office draw to forgive his unruly behavior.

While out on the prowl for a tasty starlet he can cozy up to without reopening old wounds, Norman encounters Esther singing at a club with her pianist bandmate (Tommy Noonan). He pulls her aside and tries to find an appropriate metaphor for her singing prowess. Suffice it to say, Norman claims that Esther has that "little something extra." Inspiring her to chase her dreams, he promises to use his clout to get her a screen test.

Eventually, Norman is good to his word and although Esther is barely noticed by the suits that run the studio, she is assigned a new name, Vicki Lester, and given work. After a preview screening of her first film appearance, everyone seems confident that Vicki is star material. She and Norman marry in a private, secret ceremony.

As one star rises, another falls. The studio decides to buyout Norman's contract, citing the risks of his behavior. Unemployable, he rekindles his love of the bottle, with nothing to distract him but reminders of his and his wife's intersecting career slopes. While Vicki soars to new heights, Norman reaches new lows, with his alcoholic tendencies getting him admitted to a sanitarium and then into trouble with the law.

Actor Norman Maine (James Mason) prefers what he sees after undoing Esther's (Judy Garland) Hollywood makeover.

Unlike most films of its time, A Star is Born wasn't simply released. At its first test screening, this ambitious Technicolor CinemaScope production ran 196 minutes. It was cut down to 182 minutes for its New York premiere. The film was well-received in both venues, but Warner Bros. executives decided to further trim it to 154 minutes, which it ran in general theatrical release, despite director George Cukor's displeasure.

In the early 1980s, a Warner preservationist located some of the cut scenes. Working with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the studio extended Star to 176 minutes. The restored cut didn't simply reinsert scenes, it also reconstructed some whose elements could not all be found. There are a number of such reconstructions that play dialogue and score over montages of panned sepia stills (presumably continuity and set photos). Most of these appear in the middle of Act I and flesh out Esther's trials in between her discovery by Norman and her movie breakthrough.

The thought of cut footage from a major film simply disappearing seems unconscionable today. While the montages do an admirable job of recreating bits the director never wanted cut, I'm not sure the blanks need to be filled in, particularly in the fashion we must settle for. At the very least, you would think that viewers could choose between an entirely filmic presentation of the 154-minute theatrical cut and this nearly 3-hour restoration. That wasn't the case on Warner's original DVD, nor is it the case now on the 2-Disc Deluxe Edition release Star received last week.

The 1983 restoration of "A Star is Born" occasionally uses sepia-toned photos (such as this rooftop shot of Esther and Norman) to reconstruct deleted scenes whose film went missing.

Once they warm to the atypical stylings of the lost scene recreation, I think many viewers will be okay with the photo bits. They might be less patient of the film's three major song and dance sequences, each of which seems to run longer than necessary and one of which was deleted and then completely reinserted for the 1980s restoration.

I think three overstayed welcomes are acceptable for a film that runs almost three hours long, especially because what surrounds those performances tends to be highly engrossing.
Any rise to prominence makes for a pretty compelling story and this one doesn't upset that tradition. Star is unquestionably strengthened by balancing the rise with a spouse's fall. Introduced as an unstable, untrustworthy celebrity, Norman Maine is a complex character. Despite claiming less screentime than Esther/Vicki, Norman is developed considerably more and it is he who ultimately provides the film's weight and pathos.

While the movie is a little melodramatic in places, it largely holds up as a look at the entertainment industry's life cycles. Doing the brunt of the film's acting, Garland and Mason are both pretty exquisite. Though her singing was as much of who she was as her acting, Garland impresses more in the latter capacity. It's tough to believe she is only 31 here, for she looks and sounds middle-aged. I found her deepened singing voice not especially pleasant, although she performs with all the gusto required (and then some).

Garland's performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. She was so expected to win that a camera crew was sent to her hospital, where she had given birth to son Joey Luft the day before, to film her anticipated award acceptance speech live. Instead, Grace Kelly would win for The Country Girl. Garland wouldn't act in a film again for seven years, turning her efforts to concerts and television specials. She would be seen in just three subsequent films, the same number that Janet Gaynor did following her Oscar-nominated turn in the 1937 version of the role.

Unlike Garland's character in the movie, the 1954 filming came away empty-handed at the Academy Awards, also losing for Leading Actor (Mason), Original Song ("The Man That Got Away"), Costume Design - Color, Art Direction - Color, and Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. (Both Garland and Mason did win Golden Globes for Acting in the Musical or Comedy class.) The original Star fared slightly better at 1937's Oscars, winning Best Original Story and an honorary cinematography award in addition to six other nominations. Today, though, the 1954 version is better known and at least as esteemed. Its significance was reaffirmed last decade, when it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry and featured highly on three American Film Institute lists (ranking 43rd on the "100 Years... 100 Passions", 7th among the top 25 Greatest Movie Musicals, and 11th on "100 Years... 100 Songs" for "The Man That Got Away").

Having battled alcoholism and unemployment, Norman Maine (James Mason) vows to turn his life around with a sunset swim.

A Star is Born was again remade in 1976, this time focusing on a romance between rock musicians played by Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. While less critically regarded, it did win the Best Original Song Oscar and five Golden Globes, with the former winner "Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star is Born)" also ranking highly on AFI's 100 song list.

Not at all a case of shameless double-dipping, A Star is Born's second DVD release came almost a full ten years after its September 2000 format debut. Reflecting the 2010 home video scene, Warner simultaneously debuted Star last week on Blu-ray and as a high-definition download.

Buy A Star is Born: Deluxe Edition DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.55:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English), Dolby Surround (French),
Dolby Mono 1.0 (Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled or Captioned
Release Date: June 22, 2010
Two single-layered discs (1 DVD-10 & 1 DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $20.98
Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase with Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on Blu-ray Disc with Book ($34.99 SRP)
and On Demand

VIDEO and AUDIO

As before, A Star is Born is presented in its widescreen original aspect ratio of about 2.55:1 and enhanced for 16:9 displays. Strangely, though it fit fine on two layers, here the film has been split onto two sides, with the brief new intermission now requiring a disc flip. Most will consider that a step backward and it's strange since, at 176 minutes, the film isn't obscenely long.
Having to flip a disc once during 3 hours of playback isn't a big deal (think of laserdisc and all the clunky juggling its limited capacity required), but there is something psychologically troubling about flipper discs, especially in 2010 when one wonders if Star wasn't split up this way to make its continuous one-sided feature Blu-ray more attractive.

The presentation is not without issues, some of which stem from the extended restoration. The color wavers slightly in the reinserted "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street" sequence, while other previously deleted film material is clearly not as presentable as its never-cut neighboring footage. Star relies on a little bit of stock footage, mostly in its opening montage, and this is always grainier and darker than the original content. That original content isn't perfect either. Some shots and parts of shots look a bit soft and out-of-focus or even mildly distorted. I suspect these are the results of early challenges with CinemaScope, the studios' answer to television. Part of Star had to be reshot in that much-hyped widescreen format to satisfy Warner.

Life almost imitated art, but Judy Garland lost the Best Actress Academy Award to Grace Kelly in one of the Oscars' all-time closest races. As Vicki Lester, Garland accepts the statue onstage; winning in real life, she would have given her speech from a hospital bed.

Beyond these concerns, picture quality is otherwise pretty great. I'm not being too forgiving either. While the presence of any shortcomings or anomalies separate this from the generally perfect transfers afforded today's new films, the video here is quite dazzling given the age of Star and the nature of its restoration work. With the exception of the restored sequences, the element remains vibrant and clean throughout, helping the film feel no more dated than it is.

Magnetic prints of A Star is Born presented the film in 4-track stereo, so the DVD's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is more faithful than you might expect. But I sort of doubt its effect resembles the original theatrical experience. Here, the film's thin, quiet dialogue sounds disjointed from the full, expansive music and song vocals. In one scene that bounces back and forth between spoken word and Garland's emphatic singing, the gap between the two elements is especially clear. Of course, this may simply illustrate the challenges of the restoration, as the multi-track mix was rebuilt amidst the early 1980s work.

This DVD offers a couple of new dubs over its predecessor: French in 2.0 Surround and Spanish in 1.0 Mono. It also provides French and new Spanish subtitles. But none of these additions necessitated the two-sided disc. The old DVD's closed captioning has been dropped.

Out with the old and in with the new: Norman Maine's movie billboard goes down to make way for Vicki Lester's "Happiness Ahead." Screencap from the film's original 2000 DVD - click to view in full 720 x 480. Norman Maine's movie billboard goes down and Vicki Lester's goes up. Screencap from 2010's Deluxe Edition DVD - click to view in full 720 x 480.

Screencap from A Star is Born's 2000 DVD

Screencap from 2010's A Star is Born Deluxe Edition DVD

A Star is Born's 2010 Deluxe Edition DVD transfer offers a cleaner picture and different colors.
Notice the earthier grass range and the more vibrant red, blue, and orange of the billboards.

In comparing this Deluxe Edition to Star's original DVD, I noticed clear improvement in picture quality. The new transfer seems a little cleaner and sharper. Its colors are darker, more vibrant and solid; blacks are black and not dark gray. There is less grain and far fewer artifacts. Bothersome issues about the first DVD's transfer aren't completely eradicated, but they are bettered. Whether less was done or I just didn't notice it as readily, the 5.1 soundtracks on the two DVDs sound quite similar. Maybe the elements are very slightly crisper in the new DVD, but after testing several scenes with A/B comparison, I'm still not positive that's the case.

Average bit rate rises slightly from 5.92 Mb/sec on the old DVD to 6.64 Mb/sec on the new one. The Deluxe Edition's feature disc twice falls just shy of single layer capacity, adding up to 8.9 GB of Disc 1 data, a mere 0.36 GB beyond single-sided, dual-layered capacity. It wouldn't have taken much to fit the film on a DVD-9.

Judy Garland gives drastically different performances of "The Man That Got Away" in these splitscreen alternate brown dress takes. Vicki's second Hollywood job (performing a shampoo commercial jingle alongside a marinara pruppet) is one of Disc 2's alternate takes. Jack Warner, one of the studio's namesake brothers, encourages TV viewers to check out "A Star is Born" in this promotional report.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

All of A Star is Born's Deluxe Edition bonus features appear on the single-sided, single-layered Disc 2. In an inexplicable move, all of the widescreen extras (aside from the menus) are letterboxed here.
What makes this especially baffling and unforgivable is that much of this material was offered on the old DVD where it was enhanced for 16:9 displays. How's that for ten years of progress?

The extras begin with a new soft-spoken 3-minute introduction (our first taste of the disc's wildly varying volume levels) that offers an overview of the production and its deleted snippets. It and other new extras seem strangely dated, as if they were intended for some 2003 re-release that never materialized.

Five deleted scenes show us different filmings of the highly-regarded "The Man That Got Away" (22:23), with Garland performing the song in different costumes and lighting. Voiceover explains the differences and three splitscreens illustrate the varying emotion and energy brought to different unbroken takes. It's all more interesting in theory than in watching. Three of these were on the previous DVD.

In a similar vein are new alternate takes of four scenes (11:13): the musical numbers "Here's What I'm Here For", "Lose That Long Face" and "Trinidad Coconut Oil Shampoo", plus James Mason's sunset beach walk to different orchestration. There is also a short recycled outtake from "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street" (0:58).

A new "Film Effects Reel" (0:54) contains some short unused bits from the filming of The Robe's glitzy 1953 premiere with which A Star is Born opens.

Carried over from the previous DVD is "A Report by Jack L. Warner" (6:22), an excerpt from a promotional preview of forthcoming Warner films that deals exclusively with A Star is Born, alternate takes of which are shown.

Judy Garland gives a short speech for the crowd gathered at the Cocoanut Grove for the wee morning hours' premiere after party. The allure of seeing premiere footage in CinemaScope is lost when it's not enhanced for widescreen displays. Elizabeth Taylor and her second husband Michael Wilding convey excitement and admiration to brisk interviewer Jack Carson in the Pantages Premiere TV special.

"Huge Premiere Hails A Star is Born" (7:53) holds Warner's one-minute newsreel on the film's star-studded Pantages Theatre premiere. Then, outtake footage is fitted with narration identifying other red carpet guests and we get to see some of the fun and the Jack Warner and Judy Garland speeches offered at the Cocoanut Grove after-party.

Another new extra, "A Star is Born Premiere in Cinemascope" (2:05), deals us footage of celebrity arrivals shot in color and Scope. Clearly, the wide frame is not conducive to this event, especially since it's unfathomably letterboxed here.

Those whose appetites were whet by the previous two pieces will really appreciate the full kinescope of the "Pantages Premiere TV Special" (29:48) that was aired live on September 29, 1954 and rebroadcast the following night. Among those briskly handshook and superficially interviewed by hosts including a sweaty Jack Carson are gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, Mamie Van Doren, Dean Martin, Raymond Burr, Edward G. Robinson, Elizabeth Taylor, Liberace, Debbie Reynolds, Kim Novak, Peggy Lee, Ray Bolger, Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, Doris Day, Fred MacMurray, Judy Garland and her husband/producer Sidney Luft, Shelley Winters, Lauren Bacall, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Greer Garson. After half a century, any film's premiere should be rendered interesting, but such an unprecedentedly lavish and well-attended shindig is especially entertaining.

In "A Star is Bored", Daffy Duck learns there's more pain than gain in being Bugs Bunny's stunt double. In the 1976 remake's trailer, the sight of a shirtless Kris Kristofferson casts doubt on Barbra Streisand's claim that she'll hate him. The image used for the set's three main menus seems more appropriate for a Judy Garland Collection cover.

A Star is Bored (7:12) is a 1956 Looney Tunes cartoon short whose only connection is its similar title. In it, jealous janitor Daffy Duck thinks acting in a Bugs Bunny film is his big break to stardom, but as Bugs' double, all he gets is broken bones. This is among the DVD's new inclusions.

A bunch of sound extras are held in the Audio Vault. First come two brief deleted scene outtakes (1:18, 3:50) that were also found on the previous DVD. The rest of the audio features are new to DVD.

Next is Lux Radio Theater's December 28, 1942 broadcast (58:21), which gives the original A Star is Born the then-common adaptation treatment, with Judy Garland playing the role of Esther (over a decade before she would on film) and Walter Pidgeon replacing Fredric March as Norman Maine. Cecil B. Demille introduces and concludes this New Year's episode, which gives us some idea of how the remake mildly diverges from its 1937 source film.
Though this lengthy program (which leaves fascinating vintage ads intact) can't be fast-forwarded or rewound, it thankfully can be paused and chapter-skipped/returned.

"Judy Garland Promotional" (3:00) finds the star talking with Louella Parsons. Like so many interviews from this era, this one is scripted and fake sounding. Judy discusses her family and returning to film and also clears up misconceptions regarding production, but the interview cuts out before she can sing "The Man That Got Away."

The audio bonuses end with six song "recording sessions." Heard here are rehearsal of "Born in a Trunk" (9:00) and "Someone at Last" (10:30), extended playback of "Someone at Last" (7:15), and raw takes of "My Melancholy Baby" (7:00), "Black Bottom" (1:45), and "Swanee" (4:55). I guess these are cool to have, but they do very little for me.

Finally, we get three theatrical trailers, one for each version of the film. The 1937 one (2:48), starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, is billed as "Hollywood's first true story." The 1954 version is given a lengthy, bombastic, and unfortunately letterboxed preview (3:54). And the R-rated Streisand/Kristofferson 1976 musician romance (3:45) looks steamy and oh so '70s in an open matte version of the old disc's 16:9 trailer. Clearly, we are overdue for a new remake and word is that one's in the works for 2012, with The Notebook's Nick Cassavetes directing and Beyonce and Russell Crowe leading candidates for the lead parts. Dreams do come true!

This Deluxe Edition drops a few minor text extras from A Star is Born's first DVD release: filmographies for Garland, Mason, and Cukor (the outer two amusingly denoting their collaborations with Mickey Rooney and Katharine Hepburn) and a still page listing the film's two Golden Globe awards. One thing it's nice to see disappear is the old DVD's harebrained menu design, which included clickable listings for all of Side B's extras on Side A. When selected, they'd simply refer you to flip the disc. Like a simple list and notice wouldn't have done?

A Star is Born was among the films that Warner treated to a tangible-boasting Limited Edition Deluxe Box Set in the early part of last decade. That pricey set included a full one-sheet (27" x 40") movie poster, 6 black & white stills, 8 lobby card prints, and a framed senitype and film frame. Naturally, none of it is included here, nor are the Vicki Lester and Norman Maine poster cards that I would have thought to provide.

The new DVD's static menus are as boring as all of Warner's are nowadays. The featured black & white imagery includes a Garland close-up on the main menus, which a score excerpt accompanies on Disc 1. Disc 2 oddly contains a Languages menu with no selectable listings.

The newly-rebranded Vicki Lester (Judy Garland) gives her all in the star-making, act-closing "Born in a Trunk" medley.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

1954's A Star is Born is a solid dramatic movie that probably wouldn't suffer from being a little shorter than this extended restoration lets it run. Though it is considered one of the great movie musicals,
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the scattered song performances actually rank among the film's weakest spots.

Warner's Deluxe Edition is less than the definitive DVD it should have been. It adds a few nice things to an already respectable slate of extras. Most enjoyable among the new inclusions are the Lux Radio Theater broadcast, an unrelated Looney Tunes cartoon, and Garland's short, phony promotional interview clip. The rest of the new material (alternate takes, raw song recordings) is generally less than enlightening. While the recycled premiere and after-party footage is a treat, a general retrospective documentary is still sorely missing.

The disappointments don't end there. It's unfortunate that the film no longer is presented on one side of a disc. The continued lack of the option to view the shorter original theatrical cut is less forgivable this time around. And letterboxing bonus features in 2010, especially very wide ones that were enhanced for 16:9 displays ten years ago, is pretty appalling.

On the upside, A Star is Born has been dealt considerably improved picture quality and this 2-disc set has a reasonable list price. But it's frustrating that a film of this caliber gets revisited in a way that doesn't entirely feel like a clear-cut upgrade. If you're looking to buy this movie for the first time, the Deluxe Edition is your better and easier bet. But unless this is your all-time favorite movie, I wouldn't recommend rebuying it on DVD. If you're into Blu-ray, that might be a different story, but that release is saddled with this same frustrating bonus disc.

Buy A Star is Born from Amazon.com: Deluxe DVD / Blu-ray with Book / On Demand / Original DVD

Buy from Amazon.com / The Other Filmings of A Star is Born on DVD: 1937 / 1976

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Reviewed July 1, 2010.



Text copyright 2010 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1954 Warner Bros. Pictures and 2010, 2000 Warner Home Video. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.