A Star Is Born

poster_astarisborn A Star Is Born is a typical 1950s musical; I feel that those with little patience with movies of this type are not going to enjoy it very much. I however, really liked the film. The performances are fantastic, and even though the production design gets a little overbearing and the movie is a bit too long, overall it’s a remarkably sincere and heartfelt telling of a fairly typical story.

The titular star is Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), a semi-successful band singer who is discovered by ailing alcoholic actor Norman Maine (James Mason). As anyone can guess, the two fall in love and eventually get married, though their relationship is strained by Norman’s drinking and the discrepancies between their careers. As Esther’s career skyrockets, Norman’s plummets because no one will work with him. Norman tries to get back on the wagon and work again, but his attempts prove futile and eventually, tragic.

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At the heart of the film is the relationship between Esther and Norman. It’s very sweet and Garland and Mason have great chemistry. From the first moments they come into contact, you want them to stay together. You want Norman to clean up his act and everything to be okay. Unfortunately, that’s not really how it works. Everyone means well, but Norman’s alcoholism eventually wins out. It’s heartbreaking to see their relationship go through the things it does. The drawback though, is that even though they are intertwined, the career stuff is not really as interesting as the relationship stuff.

Though Judy Garland consistently turns in a great performance, the film is just not as good when it focuses solely on her and her career. This is not her fault; it’s just that the movie is better when both of them are together. It actually enforces the point the movie, come to think of it, but obviously this was the intention.

The same applies to the musical numbers in the show. A lot of them stand alone, just as examples of Esther’s career. They serve little purpose in the film other than to establish that Esther is a success at what she does. There’s one number that is just taken out of Esther’s first film, “Born in a Trunk” which gives us information that we already know. It’s all about the character in the film’s rise to stardom, and even though it still applies to Esther herself, we already know what happened. It’s also one of those numbers that mashes a bunch of songs together, and I’m not a huge fan (the excessive use of the color red is also quite nauseating). However, one of the film’s best numbers is one that Esther puts on specifically for Norman, “Someone at Last.” Again, this is one taken out of Esther’s latest movie, but because she’s interacting with Norman at the same time, it adds a lot more to the film.

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I watched this movie on TCM, and they did kind of a strange thing when they showed it. I don’t know if this is how it appears on DVDs, but TCM played the film including a previously lost audio track accompanied by found footage that didn’t quite match, and when they didn’t have that, still photographs. It really didn’t work. I appreciate the attempt to show the film as it was originally intended, but in this case it took me out of the film and was confusing because you couldn’t always tell who was speaking. Again, I’m sure they had the best intentions, but if you have the option to see it without the partially restored footage, then go that route.

A Star Is Born is a good film, though it suffers a bit from turning away from the main relationship a little too often. Regardless, much attention is paid to the central relationship; it is well developed and all the more effective for it. It’s quite tragic and emotional, and Garland and Mason give it all they got.  A little more focus would have turned this into a truly great film.

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“Hello everybody, this is Mrs. Norman Maine.”

Long story short: 3/4 stars

For Further Reading:

The New York Times review 

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7 responses to “A Star Is Born

  1. Pingback: George Cukor Friday – Watch: ‘A Star is Born’ (1954) | Seminal Cinema Outfit·

    • I was also impressed with Mason’s performance here, but then again, when am I not. He and Garland worked great together.
      Thanks for commenting!

  2. The photos are part of the restoration and they can be a bit distracting if you’re not expecting them but they fill in a great deal of the leads backstory. Without it not only does she go from being discovered to being a star almost instantly but scenes later in the picture, the proposal scene at her recording session, the Lose That Long Face number which adds so much context to her dressing room scene with Oliver Niles and a few others would also be missing. The film was heavily cut after its initial premiere to allow for more showings a day against the objections of Cukor and Judy but it ended up biting the studio in the end because the bad press about it hurt the film at the box office.

    • When I was watching it they were more of a distraction than anything else, though I appreciate the effort to get the film back to how it was originally intended. It seemed to me like the film still would have made sense without them, but of course I didn’t see the version without them so I can’t be sure.

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