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Paul Whiteman and Orchestra
Norman Maine, a movie star whose career is on the wane, meets showgirl Esther Blodgett when he drunkenly stumbles into her act one night. A friendship develops, then blossoms into romance before tensions increase as Esther's career takes off while Norman's continues to plummet. Written by
Col Needham <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Garland's Shining Hour in a Pristine Print of Her Legendary Vehicle
Marked by a pervasive sense of melancholy, the 1954 musical version of the familiar Hollywood warhorse will forever be remembered as Judy Garland's most acclaimed work in films. Even though she would go on to a handful of films in the early 1960's, this was her last leading role in a major Hollywood production, an ironic point since she plays an emerging movie star on the rise. True, she doesn't look her best in the film, but her fulsome talent is on full, heart-wrenching display as Esther Blodgett, an obscure but thriving band singer who becomes movie star Vicki Lester thanks to Norman Maine, an alcoholic has-been movie star in career free-fall. Their love story and the opposing trajectories of their careers are tracked meticulously by Moss Hart's shrewdly observed screenplay and George Cukor's sensitive direction.
The double-sided 2000 DVD provides the 176-minute restored version, which is just five minutes less than what was shown at the original premiere. Until 1983, the half-hour of footage excised after the premiere was thought lost, but film historian Ron Haver found much of it and supervised an extraordinary restoration effort that includes a necessary albeit brief use of production stills to match up with the complete soundtrack. Even with such technicalities, the resulting film is even more of a landmark musical drama, emotionally resonant in spite of certain pacing issues with the storyline. Cukor's approach is probably more leisurely than the relatively hard-boiled material requires since he includes so many establishing and lengthy shots, but his direction shows his legendary sensitivity toward actors.
While he comes across a bit too robust as a fading matinée idol, James Mason vigorously captures Norman's scornful pride and self-pity. He may lack Fredric March's innate sense of vulnerability in the original, but Mason makes the character's inner torment more palpable. As for Garland, she brings so much of her own history to Esther/Vicki that her scenes feel alive with her vibrant, masochistic personality. She is aided immeasurably by the masterful songs of Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, most significantly her torchy rendition of "The Man That Got Away", as perfect a musical movie moment as has been ever produced. While her work in the fifteen-minute "Born in the Trunk" sequence is impressive, it is really later in the film when she soars, in particular, when she segues from the tap-happy "Lose That Long Face" into a breakdown scene in her dressing room with sympathetic studio head Oliver Niles portrayed with his typically stentorian fervor by Charles Bickford.
The print condition and sound quality on the DVD are superb. There are also some fascinating extras on the B-side starting with three alternative takes on "The Man That Got Away", each distinctive in presentation with costume and lighting changes, a must for Garland fans. Also included is a very brief deleted number within the "Born in the Trunk" sequence", "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street". Three vintage pieces have been gathered - a brief newsreel piece of the premiere, a four-minute clip of the Coconut Grove premiere party held after the premiere, and most interestingly, a half-hour kinescope akin to the current-day red carpet pre-shows with an amazing parade of period stars expressing little more than good wishes on their way to the theater. Lastly, the theatrical trailers for all three versions of "A Star Is Born" are also included.
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