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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>
Not a few persons consider "A Star is Born" to be Judy Garland's finest film, and there is, indeed, a great deal to admire in it.
Among the good: First, Sam Leavitt's Cinemascope cinematography may well be the best demonstration of wide screen Technicolor photography ever committed to celluloid. His compositional balance in each frame is rarely less than breathtaking, and this also applies to the Technicolor whose chroma is similarly balanced and visually thrilling. The reds and blues achieved in the opening backstage sequence startle the sensibilities in their effectiveness.
Ray Heindorf's orchestrations are the finest in any Garland film, even surpassing those of Lennie Hayton and Johnny Green. The use of brass in many of the orchestrations attains a big band blues perfectly in pitch with the rueful story about to unfold. This is particularly true during the overture where the picture's principal themes are laid out in swinging rhythms drenched in deep emotion.
Art direction is similarly distinguished perhaps most evidently in the otherwise expendable "Born in a Trunk" segment.
Alas, we come at last to the screenplay. Few would argue with the choice of Moss Hart as a scenarist, but despite the best efforts of those involved, the story fails to cohere.
This failure has less to do with the situations themselves, than with the characters as they are delineated in both script and performance.
Norman Maine is ostensibly intended to be a charming and attractive man, despite the fact that he is in the throes of a losing battle with dipsomania. However, as etched by James Mason, Norman fails entirely to transmit even the remotest appeal. Consider his opening sequence, as he smashes mirrors and attempts to pinion showgirls, not to mention a whole raft of similar offenses. Where is the charm in this? Where is the appeal? What on earth would endear him to a total stranger? Most people would be running for the hills to get out of his way. His only genuine moment comes when he describes Esther's talent to her after hearing her in the after hours club.
If Mason had brought some of the smoldering appeal he had manifested in "The Man in Gray" perhaps the audience could buy Esther's infatuation. As it stands, her interest in him seems wholly contrived.
Judy Garland's Esther Blodgett is a woman of considerable appeal, but the emotional instability she suggests throughout, throws the whole script off kilter. Surely, Mr. Hart intended that she provide the ballast to Mr. Mason's portrayal. After all, she is the woman who thinks she can save Norman Maine. As it is, however, she is so utterly neurasthenic in not a few of her on screen moments, that the viewer is forced to conclude that, of the two of them, Norman appears far more psychologically self possessed.
Then there are simply blatant inconsistencies in the script. For example upon meeting Norman, Esther recalls working for a band, and painting her fingernails in gas station washrooms. "Wow that was a low point," she intones, "...and no matter what I'll never do it again." What kind of "low point" was it ? however, when she is later depicted working as a car hop!
Musically the film serves to transition Miss Garland from MGM sweet miss to international concert diva, sometimes at the expense of the introspective plaintiveness she had displayed so often in the 40s.
Presumably the premiere of her "new voice" as she called it, was the by-product of her play dates at the Palladium and Palace, where she embraced a powerhouse style of belting not found in her MGM vocals. Certainly the voice is deeper and harder hitting. How appealing the change is considered varies according to the taste of the listener.
Nelson Riddle later averred that he had difficulty in convincing her to revert to her earlier style, though when he succeeded, (as in her late 50's Capital recording of "Just Imagine" )the results were enchanting.
Still it must be admitted that vocally she is at her peak, both in depth of interpretation and emotional resonance.
Though Garland's voice may have changed for the better, however, her appearance had most certainly not. Unlike her fellow MGM alums, Jane Powell, Gloria De Haven, June Allyson, Kathryn Grayson or Ann Miller who had changed but little during the preceding decade, Garland bears little visual connection to her Metro ingénue period. She is not helped at all by a new (very dark and very short, with nary a hint of her Metro auburn) hair-do which is scarcely flattering.
Though she looks smashing in the Academy Awards sequence and "Melancholy Baby," these are the only two sequences that recall her former prettiness, or find her successfully gowned.
Then, as Noel Coward (a huge fan of hers) confided to his diary after seeing the unexpurgated version, it's "interminable." The picture was in severe need of trimming, and though it's undeniably true that the cutting was ham fisted, with the removal of worthy sequences, there can be no denying that "Born in a Trunk" (yes it has virtues--such as the stunning "Melancholy Baby" with Garland in the swank gray gown with opera gloves) is padded and unnecessary, bringing the whole momentum of the story to a dead halt, and causing British critic Leslie Halliwell to conclude that the "musical numbers add very little except length." All of which probably contributed to the picture's commercial failure. Certainly, none of the blame lies with Garland, who does turn in an arrestingly emotional performance. In this connection it must be recalled that musicals were collapsing at the box office at this time, and many such extravaganzas were failing to reap back their production costs.
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