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Like the movie itself, the saga of the 1954 version of A STAR IS BORN ($25) is a tale filled with triumph, tragedy and a phoenix like rebirth. A STAR IS BORN was produced by Warner Bros. and with a great deal of fanfare; the movie marked the return of the legendary Judy Garland to the screen after a four-year absence. At the time of its premiere, A STAR IS BORN ran 181 minutes, which was considered long for a movie musical, even one telling a dramatic story. Looking for a way to cram more screenings of the film into a single day, Warner Bros. made extensive cuts to the film, which reduced its running time to 154 minutes. As one might expect, the butchered version of A STAR IS BORN ended up being commercially unsuccessful and sullied the reputation of what was originally a very fine movie. Additionally, when Warner re-edited the movie, they physically cut every last film element in their possession, without first preserving the 181-minute cut of A STAR IS BORN for posterity. For nearly three decades, audiences were subjected to watching the horribly truncated version of A STAR IS BORN. However, in 1983 film historian Ronald Haver went through a painstaking process to track down the lost footage from various sources and was able to reconstruct the film to almost its complete length. The entire story of the reconstruction can be found in Ronald Haverís book A Star Is Born: The Making of the 1954 Movie and Its 1983 Restoration.

A STAR IS BORN tells the story of Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), an aspiring singer working with a band in Hollywood. One night, while performing at a benefit, Esther encounters movie star Norman Maine (James Mason), who comes wandering onto the stage totally inebriated. With a little quick thinking, Esther is able to prevent the Hollywood luminary from making a complete jackass out of himself in front of an audience of his peers. Much later that evening, a sober Norman Maine tracks down Esther in a small club where she is singing, so that he may thank her for her assistance. Listening to Esther sing, Norman immediately recognizes her enormous talent and on the spot decides that she must come to the studio for a screen test. With Normanís help, Esther gets her foot in the door, however it is her talent that makes her a star when the studio puts her in her first musical. As you might expect, Esther and Norman fall in love and get married. Unfortunately, their relationship is greatly challenged when Normanís career goes into decline, just as Estherís takes off.

George Cukor had a reputation as a "womanís director" and this particular project does little to dispute that notion of Cukor. A STAR IS BORN is very much a starring vehicle for Judy Garland, but Cukor does get the very best performances from both of his stars. As Esther Blodgett, Judy Garland displays an immense dramatic range, something that was not really part of her repertoire during her years at MGM. Norman Maine was one of the meatier roles that James Mason tackled in his career and he carries it off with aplomb. Sure, the sophisticated veneer remains present, but Mason brings a lot of depth to the role of a man deeply in love, desperately wrestling with his physical addiction to alcohol and a loss of control in his life. In addition to Garland and Mason, the cast of A STAR IS BORN also features Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, Tommy Noonan, Lucy Marlow, Amanda Blake, Irving Bacon and Hazel Shermet.

Warner Home Video has done a very impressive job with their DVD edition of A STAR IS BORN. Performing digital wizardry, Warner has gotten its reconstructed film elements to look quite good and relatively uniform. Whatever long-term restoration work the film elements still require are not obvious from this presentation. In terms of picture quality, there are certain sequences of the movie that are not ideally matched to the rest of the film, but even these portions of the movie still look quite good on DVD. At present, Ronald Haver and Warnerís reconstruction of A STAR IS BORN has managed to restore the filmís length to 176 minutes. This is still five minutes shy of its premiere version and there are a few moments within the movie where only the soundtrack remains intact and stills have been inserted to replace the missing footage.

Warner Home Videoís 16:9 enhanced presentation of A STAR IS BORN properly frames the film at its early CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.55:1 and looks quite impressive. The early CinemaScope lenses do have some limitations in their optics, so the actors do appear a little fuller in the face in close ups than they did in real life. Also, the CinemaScope lenses had a very limited depth of field, which Cukor pushed to the limits with adventurous staging and camera work during musical numbers. The transfer is usually crisp and nicely defined, with some modest variations in image quality owning to the shape of the reconstructed elements. Blemishes would seem to have been digitally excised, which is a definite plus. In places, the movie displays some noticeable film grain, although it is never distracting. Colors are quite vivid, displaying that rich IB Technicolor saturation of yesterday. Reds tend to leap off the screen, although there are places where the most intense hues do appear to bleed just a little. Flesh tones have that healthy glow of old time Hollywood, which still looks appealing to this classic movie fan. Blacks are usually deep and true, plus the image offers up respectable depth and shadow detail for a film of this period. Digital compression artifacts are well concealed by clean, dual layer authoring.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtrack has been adapted from the movieís original 4-channel magnetic stereo soundtrack and maintains that 1950ís sound mix. There is distinct channel separation across the forward soundstage, which includes the panning of dialogue across what was once a very wide and very large screen. However, there isnít very much call for directionality in the material. The surround channels see very limited use; in fact Iíd say they are barely perceivable. Since A STAR IS BORN is a musical, the music is the highlight of the original recordings. Of course, the music doesnít have the clarity or frequency range of a modern recording. However, the sound is very good for a motion picture recording from the mid-1950. As normal volume levels, A STAR IS BORN provides the listener with a very pleasant sonic experience. English and French subtitles have been provided on the DVD

Basic interactive menus are present on both sides of the DVD. Side oneís menus offer access to the standard scene selection and set up features. Side two contains all of the supplements, which are accessible through the menu system. The most interesting supplemental feature on the DVD may be the presentation of the three alternate versions of the musical number The Man Who Got Away. This number was shot with various lighting, staging and costume changes, showing how it evolved through the various revisions. The song, When My Sugar Walks Down the Street, which was cut before the premiere version of the film, is also presented on the DVD. Also included on the disc is documentary and newsreel footage from the Hollywood premiere of A STAR IS BORN. Production notes and theatrical trailers for the 1937, 1954 and 1976 versions of A STAR IS BORN fill out the supplements.

Hopefully someday the last missing pieces of A STAR IS BORN will be found and the film can undergo whatever restoration required, preserving it for future generations. Until then, the reconstructed version A STAR IS BORN is a DVD that belongs in the library of every movie buff who loves the Hollywood of yesteryear. Highly recommended.





DVD reviews are Copyright © 2000 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.
THE CINEMA LASER is written, edited and published by Derek M. Germano.



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