Warner Home Video was kind enough to send me a pre-release copy of the new A Star is Born Blu-ray. This new special edition will be released on June 22nd as will a new standard DVD edition.
This is the first of several reviews. I have only watched the film and a tiny bit of the many extras on the bonus disc, so I’ll review the extras, and the book, in the next few days as I make my way through them. For a complete listing of the contents of the discs, go to: The Judy Room A Star is Born DVD Page.
Overall the film looks great. Of course, even prior to its restoration it would have looked great on Blu-ray. It’s that good of a film. I’ve always felt that this film has the most singular palette of any film made in 1953/54. Just look at the other films from that time period, especially the musicals. A Star is Born has a richer, more nuanced look, light years ahead of what the other musicals of that time looked like.
This new restoration provides a richer, more vibrant clarity in many sequences. Due to the fact that the film was restored from multiple sources, there are some variations in quality. Some scenes are gorgeous. The “Born in a Trunk” sequence is one of these. The reds of all those flowers behind Judy were previously a big blur – making fans ponder just why they used all that red. Now, you can see details in the flowers, and even some green leaves. The costumes, especially during “Swanee,” pop out in their brightness and clarity. Judy is especially breathtaking when she performs “My Melancholy Baby.” As with the very good parts of the film, the backgrounds are more noticeable, in a good way. There is more clarity with them as well, revealing more details of the time and care that went into the making of the film.
Of particular note is the proposal scene. According to a recent Warner Home Video press release:
“The team did uncover original separation materials for the number “Here’s What I’m Here For” and the scene in which Norman Maine (James Mason) proposes to Esther/Vicky (Garland). Both of these had been cut for the general-release version, and they were able to improve on the material Haver had used for these scenes. The separations actually survived by chance. An editor made deletions to the separation masters, but did not realize the camera negative had been rebalanced to accommodate the new shortened running time, so the scene survives in the masters due to this oversight.”
The sequence, as with “Born in a Trunk,” is much more vibrant, adding to its overall effect. “Lose That Long Face” also looks great. Ditto “Someone At Last” and some assorted dramatic sequences.
There are a few scenes that look like they were taken from source material of a lesser quality than those mentioned above. Most of the entire opening, the “Shrine Auditorium” sequence, have a slight blur to them. The color has been punched up, but the whites in things like James Mason’s (as Norman Maine) white shirt and Judy’s (as Vicki Lester) white collar, are too bright, as though a light were shining solely on them. There is a haze around these white areas that remind me of the haze around similar white areas in Warner Bros. 1964 Cukor film My Fair Lady. This haze looks like a restoration from 10 – 15 years ago, when anomalies like that were common, like the 90’s restoration of My Fair Lady.
Another scene that jumped out at me as being off was part of the Academy Awards sequence. In the scene where Norman Maine interrupts Vicki there is a medium, almost long, shot of the two of them on the stairs of the stage (during his speech and right before the slap), the top quarter of the screen is blurred, while the lower three quarters are sharp and crystal clear. As a matter of fact, Vicki’s dress looks incredible throughout this whole section. But these shots, at this angle, when going back and forth, all look like Vaseline was smudged on that top portion only. Very odd.
In many parts of the film, it’s noticeable that sequences look better in close up than they do in medium or long shot. Many of these medium and long shots look out of focus. Especially the actors. At times, the background is great, the colors are great, but there’s a slight blur. This could have been there before, is now more accentuated on Blu-ray. I don’t know. I will say that that I doubt this is in any way a fault of Warner Home Video. I think it’s the source material. As luck would have it, just after I finished watching the film, I switched over to Turner Classic Movies. They were showing Warner Bros. 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause. This has the same image quality issues, and was obviously filmed with the the same film stock and cameras. I think it must be the film and Technicolor Warner Bros. used at that time. It’s doubtful any of this could be remedied without the original three strip Technicolor negatives. At this point in time, I believe that Technicolor had moved away from the three strip process and filmed in color on one strip. These films will never have the same clarity as restored three strip films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind.
These flaws in no way hinder the enjoyment of the film. It’s still a great film, and even better on Blu-ray. So many details are still revealed. Especially, as mentioned earlier, in the backgrounds. Judy looks very pretty throughout. In only a few sequences does she look too old for the part. We can blame director George Cukor for not lighting her in a flattering way on those days. 🙂 Everyone else looks great too. The skin tones are realistic, for a film of this era. The costumes, the lighting, everything has (overall) a general increase in clarity and color over previous video and DVD releases. Those few quibbles of mine are happily in the minor. And again, they don’t hamper the enjoyment of the film.
Except – the stills sequences. For those of you who might not know, there is one section and and a few scenes that have been recreated using stills and various existing shots. When the film was originally restored in 1983, the man behind the restoration, Ron Haver, located the entire film soundtrack to the original release version, but not all of the footage. For these missing parts, he used stills and saved film clips (deleted shots of cars and things that did not show the stars were saved for use in other films). In 1983, the stills sequences were clever and looked pretty good. Now, on Blu-ray, they look glaringly out of place, and old. Even the film quality looks sub par to the rest of the film.
Without an explanation at the beginning of the film warning unsuspecting viewers of these parts, the switch is jarring and curious. My husband, who hadn’t seen the complete film, just parts on TV, glanced over at me with a “WTF” look on his face. I had to pause the disc and explain what was happening. As it wore on, he finally said “this sucks.” He’s not a classic film hater by any means, but he’s not a film expert or Judy expert either. Lord, can you imagine two of “me” living together? Scary! At any rate, with all the time and money and care that went into this restoration, one would think they could have re-done these stills sequences. These days, anyone with a computer can make a compelling slideshow sequence that would be on the level this film deserves. It would have been a wonderful tribute to Ron Haver to have a card at the beginning of the film briefly explaining his amazing efforts, and how the stills sequence has been revisited for this new restoration. If Haver were still alive, he would probably welcome revisiting these scenes with today’s technology. Sadly, these are now the lowest points of the film, and not because they’re stills sequences, but because as I noted before, they’re just not on the same level as the rest of the film. It would have been great to dedicate the new restoration to him. He’s barely mentioned, almost in passing, in the accompanying book (more on that book later).
In spite of the now abundantly apparent need for new stills sequences, the film is still amazing. Judy, James, and everyone else involved are at their peak. The colors and look of the film are beautiful, deep, rich, and – to this day – a singular achievement. Blurry parts be damned! Judy and James really were robbed of those Oscars, although the argument could be made in favor of Brando’s performance in On the Waterfront over Mason’s in A Star is Born. If anyone had any doubts before, just watch this film again, on Blu-ray, from start to finish.
If I had to grade it, I would give this new release, the film on Blu-ray, a solid A. Worth the price. And I love the new “DVD book” packaging. So much nicer, and easier to manage, than those boxed behemoths that have previously been released. It’s very nicely done. I definitely urge any fan of Garland, Mason, Cukor, classic films, classic musicals, or just any film fan/collector, to get this Blu-ray. You won’t be disappointed.
I will post a review of the extras (many new and exciting), in the next few days. So far, they’re great! So stay tuned…
To read about the making of the film, and the 1983 restoration, check out The Judy Room Spotlight on A Star is Born. Lots of great photos, information, and scans of rare material!
This is excellent, Scott – thank you so much for your insightful thoughts. I look forward to reading what you also have to say about the extras. 🙂
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Nice review. You make me want to go buy a Blu Ray player.