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Film Friday: «A Star Is Born» (1954)

In honor of Judy Garland's 94th birthday, which is today, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you one of her most iconic pictures, one that should have given her the Oscar for Best Actress. Groucho Marx was right; it was "the biggest robbery since Brinks." 

Original release poster
Directed by George Cukor, A Star Is Born (1954) tells the story of Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), a band singer who saves screen legend Norman Maine (James Mason) from complete humiliation when he arrives drunk at a benefit show at the Shrine Auditorium. Once sober, Norman goes looking for Esther and finds her performing in an after-hours club. Impressed by her talent, he convinces her to leave her band and pursue a career in motion pictures, promising to introduce her to studio head Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford). Just as Esther arrives in Hollywood, Norman is called away to filming on location and is unable to reach her. Assuming that he was being insincere, Esther becomes determined to make it with or without Norman.

When they are finally reunited, Norman persuades Oliver to give Esther a contract at his studio. Publicist Matt Libby (Jack Carson) then sets the wheels of her ascent to stardom in motion by having her rechristened Vicki Lester. With Norman's guidance, she becomes an overnight sensation in her first film, after which the two marry. As the demand for Esther's pictures increases, Norman's career goes steadily downhill. Following several episodes of drunken embarrassment, Norman overhears Esther's plan to abandon her success and go away with him, so he can regain his health and eventually his career. To keep from being a burden, he walks out of the couple's Malibu beach house and downs himself in the Pacific Ocean. Devasted over the loss of her husband, Esther becomes a recluse and refuses to see anyone. Only her long-time musical arranger Danny Maguire (Tommy Noonan) is able to convince her that her withdrawal from the spotlight is just what Norman most feared. He also persuades her to attend a benefit concert at the Shrine Auditorium that she had promised to go to before Norman's death. When the emcee asks her to say a few words to her fans, she proclaims, "Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine."

Norman Maine: Listen to me, Esther, a career is a curious thing. Talent isn't always enough. You need a sense of timing, an eye for seeing the turning point or recognizing the big chance when it comes along and grabbing it. A career can rest on a trifle like... like us, here, tonight. Or it can turn on somebody saying to you, "You're better than that. You're better than you know." Don't settle for the little dream; go on to the big one.

The basic storyline of A Star Is Born originated in the early 1930s, when David O. Selznick, then the head of production at RKO, had the idea of making a serious film about the Hollywood of the day. He hired former reporter Adela Rogers St. John to write a treatment, which eventually resulted in What Price Hollywood? (1932), the story of a waitress named Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) who achieves stardom with the help of heavy-drinking director Maximilian Carey (Lowell Sherman). When his alcoholism starts to threaten her career, he kills himself with a bullet to the chest. Directed by George Cukor, the film was a great success, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Story. Still fascinated with the subject, Selznick returned it for William A. Wellman's A Star Is Born (1937), wherein Janet Gaynor portrayed Esther Blodgett, a farmgirl who becomes a Hollywood star with the help of falling screen legend Norman Maine (Fredric March). They marry, but his disruptive drinking habits soon jeopardize her career, leading Norman to drown himself in the Pacific Ocean. Filmed in Technicolor, A Star Is Born opened to critical and commercial acclaim, garnering seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

Hollywood legend has suggested several sources of inspiration for the story and the character of Maximilian Carey/Norman Maine. Some claim that St. Johns based her plot on the marriage of silent film actress Colleen Moore and alcoholic producer John McCormick, as well as the life and death of director Tom Forman, who committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart. Others say that it was inspired by the experiences of John Gilbert and his wife Ina Claire, a stage actress who enjoyed a spurt of popularity in the early days of sound pictures just as his career was sinking. Film director Marshall "Mickey" Neilan, whose promising career was destroyed by drinking and other scandals, has also been apointed as a model for Norman Maine. Reportedly, Sherman based much of his characterization in What Price Hollywood? in his brother-in-law, screen legend John Barrymore, who struggled with alcoholism and marital problems throughout his adult life. The film also had elements of producer B. P. Schulberg's hardships at Paramount and the sudden early deaths of silent matinee idol Rudolph Valentino and MGM's head of production Irving Thalberg.

Judy Garland in A Star Is Born
Ever since playing Esther Blodgett in a radio adaptation of A Star Is Born in 1942, Judy Garland had tried to interest MGM in a musical remake of the film. Studio chief Louis B. Mayer, however, rejected the idea, claiming that her fans would never accept her as the wife of an alcoholic. It was not until the studio cancelled her contract nine years later that Garland again thought of the property. In 1951, her personal manager and future husband Sidney Luft arranged for her to appear in a series of concerts at the London Palladium and the Palace Theatre in New York. These shows were personal triumphs for Garland, who felt rejuvenated enough to begin looking for a new vehicle with which to return to Hollywood. When Luft suggested A Star Is Born, Garland jumped at the idea. Edward L. Alperson purchased the rights to the property from Selznick, before joining the couple to create Transcona Enterprises specifically to produce the film. In September 1952, after many months of negotiations, Transcona was able to achieve a co-production deal with Warner Bros., which included three additional pictures starring Garland and six others produced by Luft without her. Warners would supply funds, production facilities and crew, as well as distribute the film.

To adapt the script, Luft hired acclaimed playwright Moss Hart, who had received an Academy Award nomination for co-writing Gentleman's Agreement (1947) with Elia Kazan. Hart carefully expanded and updated the 1937 story to reflect the Hollywood film industry of the early 1950s, simultaneously tailoring the screenplay for Garland's talents. In doing so, he first transformed Esther Blodgett from a North Dakota farmgirl who achieves stardom in costume dramas to a seasoned singer who leaves her current job with a band to become a musical star. He also eliminated the role of Esther's grandmother, played in 1937 by veteran actress May Robson, and turned the character of Danny Maguire originally an assistant director who befriends Esther into a band leader who stands by her after Norman Maine's death. When Garland read Hart's final draft, she reportedly said, "If I can only say it the way you've written it. I'll be home! God bless you."

James Mason, Judy Garland and George Cukor on the set
To helm A Star Is Born, Luft selected George Cukor, who had declined the chance to direct the original film because of its similarity to What Price Hollywood?. However, the notion of making his first Technicolor picture, his first musical and collaborating with Hart and especially Garland appealed to him and he accepted the offer right away. Cukor had crossed paths professionally with Garland twice before. During a transitional period in the filming of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Cukor had made crucial changes to Garland's look as Dorothy Gale by discarding her blonde wig and adjusting her make-up and costume, thus giving her a more natural appearance. He also considered as the director for Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and even spent a few months working with screenwriters, but the picture was eventually assigned to Vincente Minnelli, who would become Garland's second husband.

Finding an actor to play Norman Maine proved a challenging task. Luft's first choice was Cary Grant, whom he courted for weeks, trying to convince him to at least read the screenplay, which he steadfastly refused to do. Cukor, too, wanted Grant and eventually managed to convince him to read the entire script with him. When they were finished, Cukor smiled and said to Grant, "This is the part you were born to play!" "Of course," Grant agreed. "That is why I won't." His main reason for declining A Star Is Born had to do with similarity of the script to his own life: Grant was married to the much-younger Betsy Drake, whose career he was mentoring. Maine was a cold, narcissistic and self-absorded actor with a serious drinking problem; Grant was considered by many in Hollywood to be likewise aloof and egotistic and, while he was not an alcoholic, he was still a notorious drinker. Cukor, who had previously directed Grant in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), apparently never forgave the actor for turning him down.

James Mason and Judy Garland
A number of leading men were then sought for the role, but all withdrew from the project for one reason of the other. Laurence Olivier and Humphrey Bogart were not interested; Richard Burton was already committed to make the Biblical epic The Robe (1953) at 20th Century Fox; Tyrone Power was too expensive; Frank Sinatra and Errol Flynn, both of whom actively campaigned for the role, were personally rejected by studio chief Jack Warner for being too difficult. British-born Stewart Granger read for the role, but decided after two rehearsals that he did not like Cukor's approach to film acting. Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Robert Taylor, Ray Milland, Burt Lancaster, Robert Young, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford were also considered.

Finally, the role was given to British actor James Mason, who had recently scored big hits with the costume dramas The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) and Julius Caesar (1953). A graduate of Cambridge University, Mason began his acting career on the London stage, where he was guided by legendary theatrical director Tyrone Guthrie. In the first half of the 1940s, he gained widespread recognition in his native England for his portrayal of brooding anti-heroes in a series of melodramas produced by Gainsborough Pictures, including The Man in Grey (1943) and The Wicked Lady (1945). Following a lead role in the hugely popular The Seventh Veil (1945), Mason was catapulted to international fame, which led to offers from Hollywood. His second American film, Madame Bovary (1949), was directed by Garland's ex-husband, Vincente Minnelli. Having befriended her during that period, Mason was thrilled at the opportunity to work with Garland.

Charles Bickford, Judy Garland, James Mason and
Jack Carson in A Star Is Born
The role of studio publicist Matt Libby, originally portrayed by Lionel Stander, was assigned to Jack Carson, a popular character actor whose previous credits included such varied genres as the noir Mildred Pierce (1945), the musical comedy Romance on the High Seas (1948) and the costume drama Bright Leaf (1950). To play studio head Oliver Niles, a part originated by Adolphe Menjou, they selected another prominent character actor, Charles Bickford, who had received Academy Award nomination for his performances in The Song of Bernadette (1943), The Farmer's Daughter (1947) and Johnny Belinda (1948). Comedy performer Tommy Noonan, who had recently appeared opposite Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), was cast as Esther's bandmate Danny Maguire, a role played in 1937 by Andy Devine.

To complete the production team, Luft signed composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Ira Gershwin to musicalize A Star Is Born. Arlen was best known for his Academy Award-winning song "Over the Rainbow," which Garland had performed to great success in The Wizard of Oz. He and Gershwin worked closely with Hart to determine the best places in his scenario to slot at least six new songs. There included "Gotta Have Me Go With You," the number Esther is performing when a drunken Norman staggers onto the stage at the Shrine Auditorium; "The Man That Got Away," the song that leads Norman to believe that Esther has a future in motion pictures; "Here's What I'm Here For," the tune Esther is recording when Norman proposes to her; "It's a New World," which Esther sings to Norman on their wedding night; "Someone at Last," a number from Esther's new film, which she performs to Norman at their house; and "Lose That Long Face," the number she does before and after she breaks down in her dressing room.

James Mason and Judy Garland
Cukor was initially instructed to film A Star Is Born on WarnerScope, a wide-screen process newly designed by Warner Bros. to compete with Fox's CinemaScope. However, two weeks after shooting began on October 12, 1953, it became clear that the quality of WarnerScope was far inferior to that of CinemaScope. Consequently, the studio decided to scrap all the footage shot by Cukor thus far and start the picture from scratch using Fox's process. This cost an additional $300,000 and put filming a total of 18 days behind schedule. 

Cukor initially struggled to work with CinemaScope, as Warners' technical experts advised him against certain cameras moves, certain colors, tight close-ups and too much quick cutting. In fact, he remarked that the new system made him feel like he was shooting through a coffin. Ultimately, Cukor and his two consultants on the film production  designer Gene Allen and color consultatnt George Hoyningen-Huene came up with an effective for CinemaScope's limitations: since A Star Is Born was a character-driven story, they would fill the far side of the screen with visuals that would draw the attention in to the actors.

Garland was on best behavior during the early days of shooting, but she slowly returned to her notoriously erratic behavior. She began calling in sick and missed several days of work, causing numerous delays throughout production. On one occasion, they had to postpone a scene simply because she did not like her costume. In addition, Garland experienced significant weight fluctuations during this period and returned to her old habit of taking prescription medications. By February 1954, A Star Is Born was 41 days behind schedule and eventually dragged on for nine months. The various delays, along with Luft's inexperience as a producer, exasperated Jack Warner, who felt that he was spending most of his time at the race track and not taking control of the picture. Reportedly, Garland would often leave the set early and accompany her husband to the races.

Judy Garland in "The Peanut Vendor"
In spite of all of this, studio executives were delighted with the results after viewing a rough cut of the film in March 1954. However, they felt it was necessary to add a number to demonstrate Esther's triumph in his first big picture. As it was, A Star Is Born showed Esther and Norman going to see her film debut, then it cut to the theatre lobby, with crowds applauding her performance. Rather than have Arlen and Gershwin develop a new number, Luft convinced Warner to authorize a medley of standards much like the popular "ballet" sequences in the MGM musicals. This would become the "Born in a Trunk" number, including performances of "Swanee," "I'll Get By," "You Took Advantage of Me," "The Black Bottom," "The Peanut Vendor" and "My Melancholy Baby." Cukor, who objected to the sequence, had already planned his annual vacation to Europe, so Warners took him off salary and assigned the film's coreographer, Richard Barstow, to direct it instead. Allen and Huene personally oversaw the shoot to make sure Barstwo would stay true to Cukor's vision. "Born in a Trunk" would add 18 minutes to the already long picture and cost an additional $250,000.

By the time production ended on July 28, 1954, the film's budget had come to $5,019,770, making A Star Is Born Warner Bros.' most expensive film and the second costliest in Hollywood history up to that date, just behind Selznick's Duel in the Sun (1946), which had cost just $205,000 more. The previews in early August received unanimous praise, with audiences shouting at Garland, "Don't cut a single minute of it." At that point, the film ran 196 minutes, but Cukor cut it down to 181 shortly before the premiere. Among the footage removed was the segment "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street"  from the "Born in a Trunk" sequence; Norman's return to the Shrine Auditorium to try to learn Esther's name; Norman and Esther planning their beach house; and a montage of scenes from Norman's leading roles. Apart from the musical number, none of this footage had been recovered.

The premiere night of A Star Is Born
A Star Is Born opened at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood on September 29, 1954. The dazzling event was attended by some of the biggest stars of the time, including Humphrey Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor. The New York premiere on October 11 was so big that it had to be held at two theatres, the Victoria and the Paramount. Critical reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called the film "one of the grandest heartbreak dramas that has drenched the screen in years," adding that Garland and Mason's performances "make the heart flutter and bleed." TIME magazine considered that Garland "gives what is just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history," while Newsweek wrote that "A Star Is Born is best classified as a thrilling personal triumph for Judy Garland. As an actress Miss Garland is more than adequate. As a mime and comedienne she is even better. But as a singer she can handle anything from torch songs and blues to ballads. In more ways than one, the picture is hers." Although the picture grossed an impressive $6,100,000, it was ultimately not enough to recoup its large cost. 

At the 27th Academy Awards held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in March 1955, A Star Is Born received nominations for Best Actor (Mason), Best Actress (Garland), Best Art Direction (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Original Song ("The Man That Got Away") and Best Musical Score. Mason lost to Marlon Brando for On the Waterfront (1954), while Garland lost to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl (1954). Garland, whom everyone assumed would win, was unable to attend the ceremony, as she had just given birth to her son Joey. Cameras were set up in her room so that she could express her thanks in the likely case of her winning. When the statuette was presented to Kelly, Garland received dozen of telegrams of "condolences" the most famous being from Groucho Marx, who called her loss "the biggest robbery since Brinks." 

Judy Garland on the set of A Star Is Born
With the box-office disappointment of A Star Is Born, Garland and Luft found themselves broke. Warner had advanced Luft money against his share of the profits; when he failed to see his money returned from ticket sales, he sued Luft to get it back. Consequently, Transcona's contract with Warner Bros. for future pictures was cancelled. Although Garland continued to enjoy a successful career on stage and in television, she made only four more films until her untimely death in 1969, at the age of 47. One of them was Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), a controversial courtroom drama depicting a fictionalized version of the Judges' Trial of 1947, the third of twelve trials for war crimes held by American authorities in Nuremberg after the end of World War II. Garland's critically acclaimed performance in the film earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but she lost to Rita Moreno for West Side Story (1961). I dare say, that was the second biggest robbery since Brinks.

It's the biggest and the toughest I've ever been in; I never worked so hard in my life. James Mason had to give me a good sock in the face at [the] Academy Awards rally. Well, it had to be right and realistic, you know. So James gave me seventeen vigorous blows in the cheek [before we got the scene]. He was terribly sorry and apologetic, but my face took a real beating. My husband couldn't stand to be on the set. [...] [But] I'm sadistic about this picture! I love to make people cry and they do. Clark Gable sat right behind me at a screening and bawled like a baby. Afterwards, Deborah Kerr came up to me and said, "Hello," and burst into tears and cried for half a hour.
(Judy Garland on her experiences on A Star Is Born)

Cary Grant: A Biography by Marc Eliot (2004) | Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Green (1999) | Judy: A Legendary Film Career by John Fricke (2010) | A Star Is Born at 60 |  A Star Is Born at The Judy Room | Judy Garland Database film review: A Star Is Born | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review


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