Down From the Shelf ~ A Star is Born (1954)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A film star helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career on a downward spiral.

Stars: Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, Tommy Noonan, Lucy Marlow

Director: George Cukor

Rated: NR

Running Length: 154 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  You’ve seen the cover image of of 1954’s A Star is Born a million times over the years.  It’s an iconic image: Judy Garland’s wide eyes looking toward the heavens with her hands forming a picture frame around her face.  Aside from The Wizard of Oz, it’s surely Garland’s most recognizable calling card though it still surprises me how many people haven’t seen the movie its taken from. A musicalized remake of 1937’s A Star is Born, screenwriter Moss Hart and legendary director George Cukor reworked the rather simple story of the original to better suit their female star.  Garland hadn’t been onscreen for four years and after working through so many “kid” roles over the previous decade this was seen as her most adult role to date.  Produced for a then astounding $5 million and becoming a huge hit with a lasting history, this version of A Star is Born is what people usually think of when they hear the title.

Jettisoning Esther’s backstory in North Dakota and jumping right into the present, Cukor introduces us to former matinee idol Norman Maine (James Mason) as he arrives at a high-profile event three sheets to the wind.  Though the studio press agent tries to keep him offstage, Maine manages to stumble into the mix of the big band and singers currently performing.  One of these singers is Esther (Garland) and she gamely tries to work Norman into the act. As he sobers up and realizes how she saved his butt, Maine follows Esther to a nightclub where he is knocked out by her after-hours performance.

We have to pause here and recognize how likely the most famous sequence of the film and of oft-shown in Garland’s career happens less than 30 minutes into the 2 ½ hour movie.  When Esther ferociously belts out The Man that Got Away it’s one of those rare magic moments in film that instantly made it a classic clip.  Garland’s vocals are on fire and her performance is the stuff that Oscars are given out for (more on her Oscar loss later) and it’s not hard to see why Maine is so taken with the singer and her voice in that pulse-quickening rush of a moment.

Even if the film never quite gets back to that level of engagement with the audience, the remaining developments in A Star is Born manage to make improvements to the original story while never doing a disservice to the people involved in the 1937 version.  This is very much its own film and while the character names are largely the same, some dialogue is repeated verbatim, and certain passages feel like shot-for-shot recreations, it still operates as an entity entirely unto itself.  There are several large musical numbers for Garland and in true road show fashion the movie begins with an overture and has an intermission halfway through.

Cukor has the same lust for showing the underbelly of Hollywood’s studio system that his predecessor William A. Wellman did and he manages to go even further.  We see how Esther (again renamed Vicki) is brought into the fold by Maine and how initially her new bosses at the studio want to change her appearance.  Maine intervenes and grooms Vicki into the star he knows her to be while falling believably in love with her along the way.  The same rise to fame for Vicki and fall from grace for Maine is present as is the devasting moment when Maine embarrasses her publicly.  The tragic ending wisely remains unchanged but I feel like it’s missing one final song for Garland to close the picture out.

Nominated for six Oscars, the film rather unbelievably won none (it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture!).  Garland was beaten by Grace Kelly for The Country Girl, a loss that still pops up on many lists of Oscar wrongs that were never made right.  I admit I’ve never seen Kelly’s film but I just can’t imagine the performance would be even close to what Garland did here.  Her work has guts and glory, pain and pride, beauty and tragedy.  I don’t think she was ever better before or after and it’s a testament to the power of her performance that it holds up so very well.  Mason isn’t anything to scoff at either.  Whenever I start to watch the film I always feel like he’s too old for her and the age difference seems too wide (he was 13 years older than her in real life) but by the time they are falling in love and he asks her to marry him the gap fills and it all makes sense.  This is, after all, a story about someone with experience mentoring a newcomer and then watching her flourish – it all fits.  I do wish that Garland had a female friend because the movie is so heavy with brash male characters, missing is that maternal care from Janet Gaynor’s grandmother in the original.  As it is, it comes off like Garland only has males to take care of her and confide in.  The chemistry between Garland and Mason is strong, though, so these observations only pop up upon reflection when the movie has long since ended.

An unquestionable classic (as a film and a snapshot of Garland at her very best), 1954’s A Star is Born is the easiest of the three existing versions to recommend if you can only watch one before taking in the 2018 version about to be released.  I’d also encourage you to pair this one with the 1937 original because that’s a dandy of a film, too!  You can just as easily skip the unwise 1976 reworking.

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