A World of Fragments

This is a blog for the review and discussion of films; all kinds of film, old and new, good and bad. Participation is always encouraged - even if you disagree! Leave me a comment, drop me a line. Heck, you might even want to recommend a movie...

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Star is Born: Song and Dance and Shattered Lives

Title: A Star is Born (1954)
Dir.: George Cukor
Stars: Judy Garland, James Mason, Charles Bickford

Viewed: on TV (TCM restored version)

This review contains NO SPOILERS

A Star is Born is one of those films I've been meaning to see for years and years and years, but I've never really had the stamina to sit down and do it. My mother has single-handedly tried to get me to watch it for months, always to be put off: "Oh, but it's so long!" And it is - nearly three hours - but, more than that, I think I was afraid I wouldn't be having any fun for all that time. We all know that it's a sad story, of course, and not exactly light viewing. And I know I'm committing sacrilege here, but to me, a little Judy Garland goes a long way. While she was a great, even tremendous talent - you need only to pop in any of her earlier musicals to see it - she has a way of being a showstopper...literally. Her songs are often set pieces, little movies in miniature, and unlike dance sequences in many musicals they tend not to carry the film - they stop it, cold, and I sit there and go, "Wow, that was really good. Why bother going on?" Add to that the simple fact that I have trouble watching the older Judy (it's very hard to watch such a beloved figure literally deteriorating before your eyes), and you can perhaps see why I avoided this film, no matter how illogically.

Having now seen it, I think my fears were, in part, justified. It's a very depressing story, especially the second half, and though Judy Garland is extremely good at what she does, she's at least ten years too old for the part. Then there's the songs. They are mainly 'serious' songs, as befits the film, and few of them have any relevance on the story, which again has the effect of stopping the action dead each time there's a number. This is particularly true of "Born in a Trunk," which is a really lovely little twenty-minute montage - and then it's over, and you suddenly realize the movie is back. It's disorienting. The one great exception is "Someone at Last," where the two leads actually appear to be having fun as Judy cavorts around her living room, pretending to be on sets representing locations around the world. That's pretty fantastic, and easily represents the height of the film.

I seriously think the big misstep is the running length, whether that be in the slowness of the story or the amount of musical numbers, because otherwise everything really does fall into place. James Mason is an extremely effective drunk, and has great chemistry with Judy, while Charles Bickford and Jack Carson weigh in (somewhat typecast, admittedly) with good supporting roles. Clearly Warner Bros. agreed with me, too - after the premiere, they cut a solid half hour of material from the film. Unfortunately, it's not a film that'd be easy to cut - it's not as if there's just oodles and oodles of subplots - so that has the exciting effect of simply rendering the story unintelligible.

The version I saw, presented on the Turner Classic Movies channel, has restored the missing footage with the original soundtrack, snippets of footage (both real and 8mm), photographs and animated transitions. At first I thought I was watching a particularly avant-garde film! There's a good, solid (consecutive) reel's worth cut from the film's first act alone, and without it, the story is insensible - so the restoration is extremely welcome, even if it does take getting used to. (For the record, I've only seen one other film restored in this manner - 1937's Lost Horizon, which has significantly fewer missing scenes.) I have heard, though, that the DVD is even more fully restored, including a cut musical number (another one!) that isn't present in the version I saw.

So...a mixed bag, this one. I liked it, and if you're a fan of either James Mason or Judy Garland you'll probably like it, too. I do, however, feel that it's a rare example of a Hollywood musical where the parts are much greater than the whole. I'd almost rather sit through certain sequences - "Born in a Trunk" or "Someone at Last," for instance - as part of a clip show than sit through the entire film again.


  • At 4:42 PM, Blogger broadcastellan said…

    The restored version truly is "A World of Fragments." Yet, for me, at least, these shards all fall into place somehow, reflecting Garland's uneven career. Sentimental without being silly, manipulative without being false, it reduced me to tears (both of joy and sadness) when first I saw it. This is Judy's big comeback, of course, and her maturity is an asset. She sure knows what James Mason's character is going through. I'm glad you got to see and review it.


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