Beneath the mercurial haze of lights and glitter that surround Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium on this “Night of Stars” charity benefit featuring members of the Hollywood elite, including screen idol Norman Maine (James Mason), one of the scheduled bands hits the stage with a song and dance. Unknown singer Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) is shocked when Norman appears on the stage, interrupting her number. Realizing he is drunk, Esther deftly incorporates the superstar into the act, duping the shocked audience into believing it is part of the show.
Later, when Norman witnesses Esther’s rousing vocal rehearsal at an after-hours club, he extends his adoring hand, telling her she possess “star quality, that little something extra.” He insists she leave the band and come to the studio for a screen test. Wary but flattered and star struck, Esther nervously takes the hand that will eventually lead her to an incredibly successful career as a Hollywood actress dubbed Vicki Lester and then to being Mrs. Norman Maine. The two popular stars live a Hollywood fantasy for awhile until Norman’s drinking problem takes a toll on his work and Vicki’s stardom eclipses his own. At that point one of the country’s most popular stars, Vicki must choose between her career and her troubled marriage to Norman, who is drinking himself to death.
In 1954, after a four-year absence from the screen, popular entertainer Judy Garland made a triumphant comeback with a glossy remake of the 1937 classic Hollywood fable A Star is Born. Garland’s husband at the time, producer Sidney Luft, set up a deal with Warner Bros. that included director George Cukor, who tailored the material to her sizable talents. Cukor, directing his first color film, enlisted production designer Gene Allen, art director Malcolm C. Bert and color-design advisor and artist George Hoyningen-Huene to give the film a unique, hyper-realistic tone. Using paintings by Degas as inspiration, the team would work out the sets and then present the ideas to the cinematographer, who would balance light to delicately reflect the textures of the paintings. While principle photography had begun with cinematographer Winton C. Hoch, ASC (The Quiet Man, The Searchers), using a 1.75:1 Technicolor process, the studio decided the new anamorphic WarnerScope, widescreen process would be employed in hopes of cashing in on the public’s new fascination with Fox’s CinemaScope process. Unfortunately, WarnerScope reproduced Technicolor with unnecessary grain and distortion of the carefully designed color and lighting so another change was made. Warner’s finally adopted Fox’s CinemaScope process, which exposed Technicolor much more accurately. With the previously shot footage discarded, A Star is Born’s true cinematographer, Sam Leavitt, ASC (The Defiant Ones, Exodus), took over, joining the creative team and bringing the meticulous design of the production to the new, expansive canvas.
A Star is Born premiered in 1954, with a running time of 182 minutes, but because of distribution arguments with theater chains, Warner’s truncated it to 154 minutes for general release. For many years, the deletions remained unseen. Then, in 198l, all but six minutes of the missing footage was discovered in studio vaults and restored to the film. In 1983, the film was re-released at 176 minutes, including the newly restored footage as well as still photographs combined with original audio tracks incorporated to simulate six minutes of footage that remained missing.
Warner Home Video has recently released the 176-minute version of A Star is Born on Blu-ray. The image transfer, a meticulous digital restoration from the original source elements scanned at 8K resolution, is beautifully rendered, with breathtaking color and deep, solid blacks. Leavitt’s work has never looked so vivid and extravagant on home screens. The high-definition transfer has well rounded contrasts and pleasing shadow detail in spite of revealing occasional softness from the weathered source elements. The softness is hardly an issue as the generally sharp and well polished restoration efforts are still extraordinary. Although the audio restoration presented here from several sources may not measure up to modern 5.1 DTS mixes, it is still remarkably efficient, with most of the sound appearing across the front sound stage of center, right and left channels and musical numbers filling the surround channels.
The two-disc edition is packaged as a digibook containing a strong essay by historian John Fricke. The first disc presents the feature, and the second is a standard-def DVD containing more than four hours of special features, most of which were part of Warner’s previously released 2000 DVD of the film. The supplements include numerous alternate takes of the famous Man That Got Away number, alternate takes of four key scenes, a deleted musical number, a special-effects reel, theatrical trailers, a premier newsreel and TV footage, a cartoon and, finally, an extensive audio vault with outtakes, recording sessions, interviews and a Lux Radio broadcast.
The bloom has certainly been restored to the rose with this new presentation of A Star is Born. Proof of this is most evident when, 70 minutes into the feature, Garland stands surrounded by hundreds of crimson flowers, taking command of the luminous Technicolor, CinemaScope frame and reminding audiences of not only her legendary talents, but also of the glowing splendor of the Golden Age of Hollywood Cinema. This new Blu-ray is an essential addition to any home collection.