Blu-ray Review: A Star is Born


Back of A Star is Born Blu-ray
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 two 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.
A Star is Born on Blu-ray

 

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!

[PART TWO]

I finally got a chance to make it through the extras offered in this release.

Judy Garland in A Star is Born 1954
First up – it’s very irritating that the extras are on a standard DVD rather than Blu-ray.  I know I sound like a big HD snob, but it would have been nice to have the same HD quality on the extras.  As they are, the Cinemascope image is much smaller, with a black box surrounding the entire image, rather than simple letterboxing as on the Blu-ray.  Because the extras are so great, and the image quality of the elements looks to be, in most cases, of superior quality, this fact makes one wish Warner Home Video had taken the time, and money, to make this an all-Blu-ray release.That being said, the extras are still great, and thoroughly enjoyable.  We get much more here than offered on the previous DVD release.

The extras are:

The Man That Got Away: We get more alternate takes of Judy in the “brown dress” version.  The section starts with a nice introduction (showing more behind the scenes footage) and goes into the early “pink blouse” version.  I like this version.  It’s more casual, and the look is completely different and I’m not sure if it would fit in the finished film (I love what’s in the film), but I still like it.  The “brown dress” versions are fascinating in that the last two feature two separate takes split screened so you see them both at the same time.  One features the only surviving footage of these versions with Judy in close up.  Fascinating stuff, and amazing that it survived, and in such good condition.  I can see why they didn’t use the “brown dress” version.  It’s very, um, BROWN.  Judy looks older and more tired.  I don’t think it’s flattering to her at all.  What’s in the finished film is by far the best version.

Here’s What I’m Here For: Here we get alternate takes of the charming recording studio proposal sequence.  It’s fun to see so much of it from different angles.

Lose That Long Face: Another alternate take.  In both this and “Here’s What I’m Here For” there is a short introduction explaining what you’re about to see.  Plus we get a peek at the early version, for which the audio doesn’t survive, showing Judy and jazz singer Monette Moore who had a short little solo spot.

Trinidad Coconut Oil Shampoo: More alternate footage.  Very fun, and as stated it’s the only TV jingle Harold Arlen ever wrote!

When My Sugar Walks Down The Street: The cut bit from the “Born in a Trunk” sequence.

Suicide Scene: Another alternate take.  It’s married to the music originally scored for the scene.  In the film, Norman Maine walks out to the beach while Vicki Lester is in the beach house singing.  Her faint voice way in the distance adds immensely to this scene, as proven here with it replaced by the original music.  The music is way too dramatic for this scene.  Overly melodramatic by any standard.  They made the right choice for the finished film.

Film Effects Reel: This features various clips and takes from the premier of The Robe that were used in the opening of A Star is Born.  Featured here are various effects shots not seen in the final film.  Also features is a short clip of the “blue” version of the “Night of Stars” sequence that opens the film.

Judy Garland in A Star is Born 1954

A Report by Jack L. Warner: Here’s a fun, vintage promotional short made by Warner Bros. which includes a few alternate takes of scenes from A Star is Born.

Huge Premiere Hails ‘A Star is Born’ Newsreel Montage: The newsreel of the premiere of the film is followed by more footage of the premiere, with the DVD narrator identifying the stars and their dates.  What’s funny is he mistakenly identifies Sonja Henie as Alice Faye!  This wonderful footage is followed by  rare footage of the after premiere party at The Coconut Grove, including Jack Warner, Judy and her husband (and producer of the film) Sid Luft, getting up to speak.  Tons of stars – real stars – were there.

‘A Star is Born’ Premiere in Cinemascope: Fantastic color footage of the film’s premiere in Cinemascope.  The DVD narrator identifies the various stars, including “Liberace and his mother (pause) and a date.”  LOL

Pantages Premiere TV Special: Vintage live TV event – the first big premiere telecast on TV.

A Star is Bored (1956 WB Cartoon): Cute short with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam engaging in their usual shenanigans.

We get trailers for all three versions: 1937, 1954, & 1976

Audio Vault: There is much to enjoy here.  Most has been heard before, especially having been traded by Garland fans over the years.  What’s most telling are the two audio sequences that sound like the complete versions that were trimmed a bit in the restored version, due to no stills or footage being available.  They are:  “Oliver on the Phone with the Director Discussing Norman” which is a bit longer and more played out than what’s in the film, and “Norman and Esther on the Roof of the Hotel Lancaster” which is a much longer sequence that sounds utterly charming.  One hopes that ever elusive complete print is out there and will surface.  This sequences really sounds great, and builds the dynamics of the Norman/Esther romance and their bonds.

Also included in the extras (and in excellent sound, some are extended versions of what’s been traded around) are the following “Audio Vault” extras:

Born in a Trunk – early run through
Someone At Last – early run through with Roger Edens
Someone At Last – extended playback
My Melancholy Baby – outtake
Black Bottom – outtake
Swanee – a few takes of Judy working through the song.

12/28/1942 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast with Judy Garland and Walter Pidgeon.  This was the radio program that prompted Judy to want to make a musical version of STAR.  She supposedly took her idea to MGM (her home studio at the time), but they balked at the thought of having “America’s Sweetheart” in such a serious film married to an alcoholic.

Judy Garland Promotional – Louella Parsons interviews Judy.

That’s it.  There are many things to enjoy here.  The extras are just great and well worth the price.

The “DVD Book”:

The last extra is the “DVD book” (I think it’s called).  I really like this idea and packaging.  It’s much better than those big collector’s boxes.  And the book, which houses the discs, is hardbound with the pages printed on high quality paper.  I hope Warner Home Video continues with this format.  It’s sleek, well made, and easy to store.  Too bad the actual contents of the book are, for lack of a better term, boring.  I usually enjoy John Fricke’s writings, overall.  But he’s gotten stale.  I think if I read his comment about the “communicative power” of Judy one more time, I’m going to have to ask if she were really a radio tower!  It’s become rote.  Nicely written, but still rote.

That’s not so bad though.  What really makes the contents of the book useless is the fact that it’s more of a rabid fan’s love letter to Judy Garland than a thoughtful and incisive essay about the film.  If this were part of a Garland boxed set of films this bias approach would make sense.  As it stands on its own, it’s great for Garland fans, but that’s about it.  It’s mostly made up of quotes about how wonderful Garland was:  Quotes from reviewers, critics, film historians, and of course the people who worked with her.  The only person not quoted was the Warner Bros. janitor.  And I’m sure that quote will pop up in the future.  Warner Home Video should have hired a non-Garland-fan historian and real author to write this book.  The film, and this Blu-ray release, deserve a thoughtful, balanced, non-bias approach that a real film critic or historian could provide.  This is hagiography (don’t you just love that word) at best.  It’s definitely not a valid essay about the film by a real author.  For example, Fricke barely even mentions the herculean efforts of Ron Haver in getting the 1983 restoration accomplished.   One gets the impression that it’s only noted because it’s an indelible part of the legend of the film that cannot be ignored.   There is a tiny bit about the making of the film, but it’s not much, and like the Haver mention, it’s there because something should be said about the production.  Perhaps if they had a real editor on the project, it might have turned out better.

As a Garland fan myself, I love anything that’s written about her in a thoughtful, positive way.  But it’s out of place here.  Sure, she was the focus of the film, and one of the major driving forces behind it being made.  That doesn’t need to be shoved down anyone’s throat as it is here.  What’s not clear here is that if Garland weren’t matched in talent and genius every step of the way by those around her, we wouldn’t be talking about the film today.  To relegate the rest of the actors and crew and production staff to barely more than obligatory overviews and mentions (and usually only mentioned because they said something nice about Judy) is negligent.  Anyone looking for a solid overview of the history of the story and the making of the film, should look elsewhere.  Rabid Garland fans (of which I’m one) can go to the front of the line.

Judy Garland in A Star is Born 1954Fricke is so bias and hell bent on putting Garland on a pedestal of unrealistic high standards and virtue, he even rewrites history.  Well, maybe not a complete rewrite, but he most certainly glosses over any negative aspects of her life or career.  And needlessly so.  The most glaring statement is:  “…but the vulnerability and sensitivity that informed her ability left the actress ill-equipped to withstand the rigors of such demands [this is lifted almost verbatim from previous writings].  After a decade in which she endured increasing illness and a regime of prescription medication to combat her exhaustion, Garland collapsed in 1950 and was dismissed by M-G-M.  The industry publicly bandied that she was professionally finished; she was twenty-eight years old.”  Wow!  That statement glosses over Garland’s drug problems and the reasons behind them more than Lucille Ball was glossed over when she filmed Mame.  Judy did eventually take her “medicine” (drugs) to get her energy up for those long days – among many other reasons.  But let’s be honest here.  She was originally given the “medicine” to make her lose weight.  Sadly, she had the type of body chemistry that was prone to addiction.  She was an addict for the rest of her life.  That’s not a negative thing.  She wasn’t a junkie on the streets.  She had an addiction problem like so many other people out there, past and present.  And at times she no doubt did use them as a crutch.  This must be the “illness” Fricke mentions, that’s unclear.  To gloss over this subject does Garland and the film a disservice.  One of the main reasons she was attracted to the story in the first place is not only could she relate to the Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester character, but because of her own addiction issues she could also relate to the Norman Maine character.  That’s part of what makes her performance so powerful and amazing.  She really understood the subject matter from every angle.  To gloss over the essence of her humanity and this very important aspect of her performance is, again, negligent.  But Fricke is like many of the rabid fans out there who refuse to admit that Judy had any flaws at all, or that she was in any way human.  In their eternal quest to “set the record straight,” and counter that negative image the generals public has of a drugged out performer, they go too far off the deep end by putting her so high up that no one could ever measure to those standards – not even someone who was a genius like Judy.  For someone who’s such a stickler for endless minutia and factoids, it’s sad that Fricke can’t see through his own warped bias.Of note here is a recent rumor, told to me by a distributor, that supposedly Warner Home Video is preparing a special edition of all THREE versions (1937, 1954, 1976) packaged together in one uber-set.  And documentary filmmaker and historian Ken Burns is supposedly working on a documentary about the story and the films.  THAT will be something to see.  If it’s true.  I have no confirmation of any of this.  This distributor also mentioned a planned Garland boxed set of films, similar to the boxed sets currently being produced by WHV that feature bare bones (no extras) editions of a set (or series) of a star or director’s films.

In the long run, the book doesn’t matter.  What matters are the film and the extras.  Those will always be enjoyed and revisited long after all of us are gone.  People will return to the film again and again, not some liner notes, or in this case “book,” that someone wrote.  These things are usually read once or twice anyway.  The mostly stellar contents of this Blu-ray edition far outweigh what any critic, author, or hagiographer writes.  And that’s as it should be.  Just like The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind, you can package it with all the fancy trappings in the world, all the “bling” anyone can muster, but it’s the films that last and are the real attraction.  It’s the films that will continue to be celebrated and enjoyed for as long as there’s an audience.  It’s the films that we return to over and over again.

This new Blu-ray edition of A Star is Born succeeds in presenting the film in the best possible format for the best possible viewing experience.This is the definitive home video version of A Star is Born to date – until the next technology comes along!

© 2010 Scott Brogan – Judy Garland News and Events

 

 

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