‘A Star is Born’ (1954) (Film)

‘A STAR IS BORN’ (1954)

Please feel free to comment on my review.

Judy and James in the 1954 film

I’ve seen ‘A Star is Born’ at last!

It’s incredible to believe that there are many versions of ‘A Star is Born’ out there today! There’s the 1937 film version starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, the 1976 film version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and the 2018 film version starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. 🙂

Yes, even the guy who voiced Rocket from the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ films directed and starred in a film version of ‘A Star is Born’! The film version of ‘A Star is Born’ that my parents and I currently own and which we are very familiar with is the 1954 film version starring Judy Garland and James Mason.

The 1954 film of ‘A Star is Born’ is based on the screenplay for the first film made in 1937 by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell. William A. Wellman and Robert Carson provided the story for the 1954 film whilst Moss Hart wrote the screenplay based upon that.

I enjoyed 1954’s ‘A Star is Born’ with Judy Garland and James Mason. It was fascinating to see it and it’s considered one of Judy’s best works in later life. Judy had done plenty of films beforehand including ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Little Nellie Kelly’. She’s also done many films with Mickey Rooney.

1954’s ‘A Star is Born’ was released on a 2-disc Special Edition DVD in 2002. I’m sure there have been many DVD/Blu-ray releases since then, but the 2002 Special Edition DVD is the version my parents and I currently own. The film is also very unique in that it lasts for about 169 minutes in total length.

So, almost 3 hours. There are also some additional sequences included in the film that weren’t in the original cut of the film. Mind you, a lot of the extras scenes are presented as photos with the audio in the background. I would’ve liked it if the extra scenes were animated rather than as photographs.

You know like how certain ‘Doctor Who’ stories get animated like ‘Shada’ and such. Sometimes it gets jarring when you switch from a live-action scene to an extra scene filled with photos and audio. Despite this, I was able to enjoy 1954’s ‘A Star is Born’ in its entirety and it was very gripping indeed.

Apparently, Judy Garland hadn’t made a film since she had a negotiated release from MGM soon after the filming of ‘Royal Wedding’ in 1950 began. ‘A Star is Born’ was promoted heavily for Judy’s comeback. Judy was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress from making ‘A Star is Born’.

Unfortunately, Judy didn’t get the award as it went to Grace Kelly for her performance in ‘The Country Girl’. A shame really, but very amusing to find out that Judy ended up in hospital where she was about to give birth to her son Joey and she would’ve delivered her acceptance speech live then.

The story has Judy Garland star as Esther Blodgett, a singer who is an undeniable talent but hasn’t made her fame in movies yet. She catches the attention of James Mason as Norman Maine, an alcoholic actor whose career is in decline. Norman encourages Esther to pursue a career in movies. 🙂

Soon, Esther, who takes the stage name of Vicki Lester, becomes a successful film actress. She also ends up marrying Norman. Their intense love for each other changes their lives, but only one person will survive the Hollywood spotlight. Norman soon returns to drinking whilst Esther’s being a success.

In many ways, the film is tragic in that it concludes on a note that’s downbeat. For the most part, ‘A Star is Born’ seemed to be optimistic with Judy’s character becoming a success whilst James Mason’s character was going down on a road to depression. It is quite saddening how this film ends like that.

Judy Garland excels in her performance as Esther Blodgett a.k.a. Vicki Lester in the movie. I’m not sure why she had to have her name changed from Esther Blodgett to Vicki Lester since her given name was fine and could’ve worked in the movies. But then her identity could have been protected.

And at least Esther’s happy with being called Vicki Lester after contemplating about it. Watching this film does make me wonder whether the film career of Esther/Vicki reflects how Judy’s film career turned out. Some might say ‘yes’ to that but others have a different point of view saying against that.

Either way, it was fascinating to watch Judy play the character who’s a really good singer before she becomes a successful film actress. The trials and tribulations she goes through, especially with balancing her marriage life and her acting career are well-handled and are intriguing to watch in film.

James Mason is equally excellent as Norman Maine (also known as Ernest Gubbins – I believe that’s his real name rather than his stage name). I’ve seen James Mason before as he played a villain in ‘North by Northwest’. It was fascinating to see him play a romantic lead opposite Judy Garland here.

In some ways, Norman Maine could’ve easily ended up being a villain with his dependency to heavy drinking before and after his marriage to Esther/Vicki. But I like how James Mason is able to convey various layers to his character as Norman tries to fight against his heavy drinking and fails miserably.

Despite these issues, Norman Maine comes across as someone who has great confidence in Esther’s abilities as a singer and being a real success in film acting. It’s such a shame the film ends on a note where Norman ends up committing suicide by drowning in the sea, which I wouldn’t have included.

Jack Carson stars as Matt Libby, a studio publicist who tries to keep Norman Maine offstage when he’s intoxicated at a function at the Shrine Auditorium. This is where Esther first meets Norman incidentally. Matt is a rather mean sort, especially in how he treats people like Esther and Norman. 😦

This is exemplified when Norman, after coming out of a heavy drinking spell, meets with Matt. Matt openly insults him, not considering him a friend. A punch-out ensues. Matt also puts in a positive image about himself on how he feels about Norman before he unveils how he truly feels about him.

Charles Bickford stars as Oliver Niles, a studio head whom Norman Maine tries to convince that Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester is a good actress to be considered for upcoming films. Oliver Niles isn’t convinced at first as she considers her a passing fancy at first. But once Oliver hears her sing…well! 🙂

I like how Oliver Niles gradually develops and becomes a friend of Norman and Esther’s during the film. A shame Oliver took away the protection given to Norman because of his heavy drinking. That scene with Oliver and Esther where she’s sharing her feelings over Norman to him was mesmerising.

Tom Noonan stars as Danny McGuire, a bandmate of Esther’s. The two work together at an after hours’ club before Norman recruits her to go for a screen test and pursue a career in movies. Esther tells Danny that she’s quitting the band to pursue a career in movies. Danny says she’s crazy on this.

Many years later when Danny meets up with Esther, after her husband Norman committed suicide, he convinces her that she needs to attend a charity function as it’ll constitute the only good work Norman did and which he died trying to save. A fascinating contrast of Danny in those two scenes! 🙂

The film also features Amanda Blake as Susan Etting (although she appears in a deleted/lost scene in the movie), Lucy Marlow as Lola Lavery, Irving Bacon as Graves, Hazel Shermet as Libby’s secretary, Nancy Kulp as Esther’s neighbour, Frank Puglia as Bruno and Strother Martin as a delivery boy.

There are a number of musical numbers and sequences featured in the film, mostly sung by Judy Garland. A lot of the songs have lyrics by Ira Gershwin whilst the music is by Harold Arlen. The musical direction for this film by Ray Heindorf! Some of the songs I recognise from Judy Garland CDs.

There’s ‘Gotta Have Me Go with You’ which is performed by Judy as Esther during the scene where Norman Maine comes on stage in a drunken state. There’s ‘The Man That Got Away’ where Judy as Esther performs during the nightclub scene where Norman Maine gets mesmerised by her singing. 🙂

There’s ‘Born in a Trunk’, which is a musical number performed by Judy Garland as Esther/Vicki during a film preview (I believe). In a sense, ‘Born in a Trunk’ is where Judy’s character gets to be famous and she’s recognised by the viewing public. There is a sense of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ with that number.

The songs ‘Swanee’, ‘You Took Advantage of Me’, ‘The Peanut Vendor’ and ‘My Melancholy Baby’ are also included somewhere in the ‘Born in a Trunk’ sequence. Esther also sings ‘Here’s What I’m Here For’ before she gets proposed marriage by Norman when they don’t think they’re being overheard.

I’m surprised Esther/Vicki and Norman didn’t see the microphone above their heads whilst talking to each other and whilst everyone else was singing. 😀 There’s also ‘It’s a New World’, ‘Someone at Last’ and ‘Lose That Long Face’ performed by Judy Garland at certain points during the movie here. 🙂

I like it when Judy as Esther/Vicki performs for James Mason as Norman when they seem to be blissfully happy and forgetting about the outside world for a bit whilst having sandwiches or something. This is before outside commitments interfere and Norman starts becoming depressive. 😦

It was quite painful when Judy as Esther/Vicki accepted her award for Best Actress in a film she did and Norman comes in a drunken state to ruin things. It’s at this stage that the marriage goes downhill when Norman struggles to stop his drinking habits and Esther is upset this is all happening.

I really liked it when Judy as Esther/Vicki stood up for her husband when he was about to be condemned for nine months in prison by the court’s judge after heavy drinking. Esther/Vicki promises to keep Norman is custody. It shows how much Esther/Vicki truly loves her husband in this.

I found it quite shocking towards the end of the film where Judy as Esther/Vicki came out after attending Norman’s funeral and her fans were flocking to see before she passes out. I would’ve thought fans would be more sensitive than that, especially considering Esther/Vicki lost her hubby. 😦

I liked how the film concluded with Judy’s character going on stage and greeting her fans, saying, “Hello everybody! This is Mrs. Norman Maine!” and the crowd responds in a standing ovation. I thought the film would’ve ended on a song sung by Judy as it seemed to end all too abruptly for me.

The special features for the 2-disc Special Edition 2002 DVD of 1954’s ‘A Star is Born’ is as follows. There aren’t any special features found on Disc 1. Why there should be a Special Features button on Disc 2 where it tells you all the special features can be found on Disc 2, I don’t know. Pointless! 😐

On Disc 2, there are some Judy Garland outtakes, including an alternative version of ‘The Man That Got Away’ with a pink blouse, a brown dress and a brown dress #2. 😀 There’s also an alternative version of ‘When My Sugar Walks Down the Street’, which was a song not included in the 1954 film. There’s also some documentary footage including a Hollywood Premiere newsreel, a Pantages Premiere TV Special and the Cocoanut Grove Premiere Party. There are also theatrical trailers for the 1937 film, the 1954 film and the 1976 film. There’s a 1954 Warner Bros. Exhibitors reel and audio outtakes on ‘Oliver on the phone with the director discussing Norman’ and ‘Norman and Esther on the roof of the Hotel Lancaster’. There’s also a ‘cast & crew’ page and an ‘awards’ page to check out.

1954’s ‘A Star is Born’ is certainly an epic musical film. I’m glad I’ve seen it and it’s certainly regarded as one of Judy Garland’s best films. I enjoyed her performances in acting and singing throughout as Esther/Vicki and her co-star James Mason is equally good. I can see why this movie gets high praise!

I wish the film ended on a more upbeat note, but then again it does showcase the trials and tribulations of being in film/movies and that life isn’t always as glamorous as one may think. Overall, ‘A Star is Born’ with Judy Garland and James Mason was worth checking out and is really compelling.

By the way, there’s a guy called Cuddles in this film, played by Henry Kulky.

Cuddles: “I didn’t know I was a man once in another life as well as a bull in ‘Rhythm on the Range’!”

‘A Star is Born’ (1954) rating – 8/10

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