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Star Is Born: Special Edition, A (Blu-ray Review)

21 Jun, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 6/22/10
$20.97 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, Tommy Noonan.

Starting with the late Ron Haver’s definitive 1988 book on its production and his own discovery of notorious “lost” Star footage in the Warner Bros. vaults, so much has been written about the Judy Garland-James Mason-George Cukor-CinemaScope masterpiece that I prefer to offer just a few offhand observations rather than starting from scratch. Doing otherwise is a little like saying, “There was this hottie named Scarlett who lived on a Southern estate named Tara, and …” So here goes.

*Warner released Star just six months before James Dean’s explosively new-school debut in East of Eden. So there’s always been a fascinatingly schizoid disconnect between a savvy Moss Hart script that nonetheless dealt with a dying Hollywood and the then cutting-edge visual technology utilized to remake David O. Selznick’s 1937 Star original that had starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. Movie professionals Vicki Lester (Garland) and Norman Maine (Mason) keep making these prehistoric wheezers with titles purloined from the Warner catalog (Happiness Ahead, Black Legion), and the movie Vicki is making when she performs her “Lose That Long Face” number looks as if it would be one of the most retro ever (she’s tap-dancing with black children, and can those be watermelons tucked away in a corner of the frame?). And though the Oscar ceremony sequence utilizes an in-house monitor, the show isn’t being televised nationally, even though Oscarcasts had just begun to be when Star was being made. Meanwhile, Warner’s first Scope production (though others, like The Command and The High and the Mighty, beat it to the screen) is still pretty close to the end-all/be-all of anamorphic framing and showed what could be done with a form that stifled a lot of other directors.

*In his already long pre-Star career, director Cukor was regarded as a master of actors but not a particularly distinguished filmmaker, though even in a 1.33:1 black-and-white comedy such as Adam’s Rib he knew how to use the frame (and to suggest what was going on outside it). Then, with Scope and color, my God: Bhowani Junction, Les Girls, Heller in Pink Tights (not anamorphic, but oh, what color), Justine and Travels With My Aunt. Of course, there’s also the Oscar-winning My Fair Lady from 1964, though no one wanted to tamper very much with a property whose production rights cost a fortune. So I agree with Andrew Sarris that Cukor finally won his Oscar for one of his weakest jobs of direction.

*A lot of people who ought to know better say that if Warner had to cut 27 minutes out of the film after exhibitors (a breed not always known for films destined to stand the test of time) requested a shorter print, a better bet for scuttling would have been Garland’s epic “Born in a Trunk” number just before the intermission (one Cukor didn’t direct). But had that happened, I am positive the movie wouldn’t be as revered today as it is.

*Garland’s famous weight fluctuations from scene to scene really are something, reflecting the arduous shooting schedule. But in a perverse way, I think they contribute to Star’s underlying neurotic quotient (as do Maine’s character and the movie business in general).

*Many regard Garland’s loss to Grace Kelly (The Country Girl) as the greatest travesty in Oscar history, but it’s worth noting that both the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review went for Kelly that year as well. I think Mason steals the picture, and that Jack Carson (incredibly, not nominated in support when The Caine Mutiny’s Tom Tully was) is on a level with both leads in terms of doing what he’s asked to do. On the other hand, so many of the movie’s greatest moments — her opening number with Mason, “The Man That Got Away,” “Trunk,” her immortal final capper at the microphone — belong to Garland.

*In the cut 155-minute version I grew up with on television, it always struck me that about 90% of the scenes were either at night or indoors. But in the restored footage Haver found — also in the still photos that stand in for visuals his search through the Warner vaults couldn’t locate — there are several daytime exteriors. I don’t think there was any indoor-outdoor design in terms of trims but that it was just the way things worked out. Interesting, though.

*The movie always had a harsh orange-y tint that I can’t quite recall being replicated in any other movie, but the restoration and 6K resolution — just smashing here — has a much warmer, cleaner look. I certainly prefer it, but at first, it’s like seeing someone you love with a slightly different hairstyle. 

Until the very last frame can be found and assembled — and credible-sounding rumors still exist that a full print is somewhere out there — this is about as good as one of my favorite movies ever is likely to get. The copious bonus extras (including the Blu-ray’s essay by Mr. Who-Ya-Gonna-Call in all things Garland, John Fricke) include one of the most amazing features I’ve ever seen: take after alternate take — the approach is to put one on top and one on the bottom — of the “Man That Got Away” sequence with Garland in different costumes and body language. Which means the musicians have to display different body language as well.

And one last thing: “Here’s What I’m Here For” — one of the cut scenes Haver discovered — is by default perhaps the weakest song in the outstanding Harold Arlen-Ira Gershwin score. But it’s one of the strongest scenes in the movie due to Cukor’s mastery with actors and ability to compose a widescreen image as brilliantly as Max Ophuls, Nicholas Ray or anyone ever did.

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