A Star Is Born (1954)

I've been meaning to watch A Star Is Born since the dawn of time but I kept putting it off because of its length. Having read great things about it eventually got the best of me. I guess it's because I had very high expectations but I didn't find it that special, just an average musical. 

The film tells the story of Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), a talented young singer with a band, and Norman Maine (James Mason), an alcoholic movie star whose career is on the wane. He drunkenly stumbles into her act one night, he is smitten by her voice, takes her under his wing and gets her a screen test at the studio he works for. She becomes a major star, their relationship grows and they eventually get married. But soon Norman loses control as he can't control his alcoholism.

A Star Is Born's is a very simple and familiar story, and it is completely predictable because we know exactly where it's going right from the start and yet it's interesting. Only a part of it though. While the first part, depicting Norman's attempt to make of Esther the person he used to be, is very interesting and compelling, as soon as the two get married, the story becomes heavy and tedious and it gets pretty hard to keep watching.

In spite of that lack, the film still works fine as a portrayal of a marriage destroyed by alcoholism, of alcoholism itself and of someone who is married to an alcoholic. Esther is a (classic) co-dependent wife who is in real pain because of her husband. The problem with her is that she has no resilience and she is too easily humiliated which makes us sympathize with her alcoholic, self-destructive husband, Norman, on whom, by the way, the film focuses too much in my opinion.

Anyway, the actors both go a good job with their roles. Judy Garland does great as Esther as she makes the character's pain so real, and her singing is of course fantastic. James Mason is terrific as Norman as he brings to the screen a character that is so believable it's frightening. Also, the chemistry between Garland and Mason is pretty good.

Warner Bros.
The biggest issues I had with A Star Is Born is that it is a musical. While most of the songs, if not all, are great and quite memorable, and the numbers are wonderful, some should have been cut off the movie as they add absolutely nothing to it, they only make it longer and serve as an excuse for Judy Garland to show off her singing skills.

Actually, there's something else that bothered me more than the pointless musical numbers, it was the choppy editing and the usage of still photos taken from the production photo library with dialogue playing behind them. Those parts looked terrible and sounded terrible. Sure, it does give us a glimpse of what the movie was supposed to be as it was cut against the director's will, but it just didn't work for me.


  1. Having seen both versions, the truncated one and the restored with the additional dialog musical numbers etc., I can definitely say the restored version is the better. So much texture is added back into the film. In the shorter version almost all of Esther & Norman's courtship is gone as well as her struggle. He hears her sing and BOOM she's a star. The musical numbers provide respite later in what is a heavy, heavy tale.

    I can't agree about the musical numbers either. The Someone at Last number was always there and it provides a look into their home life when times are good. But Lose That Long Face I think shows the fiction that we want to believe that what we see the actors performing on the screen is all true after Esther goes back to film her pickup following that devastating dressing room scene and ends with that huge smile on her face. The proposal scene in the recording studio again adds to their relationship and a bit of whimsy to the film. All that had been cut save the dressing room scene. I could forego the Born in a Trunk sequence, though both Melancholy Baby (where I think Judy looks the best in the entire film) and Swanee are great pieces, ironically that entire sequence was added as an afterthought and Judy fought against it feeling it out of place.

    How is she not resilient? She stands by him through every single humiliation, the man backhands her on national television at what should be a highlight of her life and she coddles and protects him back to his seat then ultimately is prepared to give up everything so that he can recover.

    Judy is just phenomenal. She goes so much deeper than her previous films had allowed and meets the challenge, she was robbed of the Oscar. James Mason was such a brilliant actor and amazing though not the first choice. Cary Grant had signed and bowed out, love him but I can't see him in the role he was always guarded on screen and this required a level of emotional nakedness he apparently was uncomfortable with. But they don't perform in a vacuum. Charles Bickford is a warm comforting presence as the kindly Oliver Niles and I love Tommy Noonan as Esther's seemingly imperturbable friend Danny. Such a difference from his role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as the gullible Gus!

    But I think the great and underappreciated Jack Carson makes perhaps the biggest impact as the venomous Matt Libby. The man is a pit viper and while you never like him Carson manages to add some shading to his feelings of contempt for Norman Maine rather than render him a stock villain. The scene between the two at the racetrack is vicious and full of bile and designed to engender sympathy for the fragile Norman but it didn't from me. Norman is down on his luck and struggling to say the course but he put himself there and when he was on top he treated Libby abominably never hiding the fact that he hated him so why shouldn't Libby want to give some of that back.

    However if this one didn't work fully for you check out the original (non-musical) with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March it’s very fine. Just avoid the bitter hash that Barbra Streisand made of it in the 70's which unfortunately seems to be the one Bradley Cooper used as his template for the new redo.

    1. I'm glad you love this but it just didn't work for me. I might give the original a chance.

  2. Un film "culto" degli anni '50, che è figlio del suo tempo: a vederlo oggi, in effetti, risulta un po' datato... ma la curiosità, inutile dirlo, è per il remake che vedremo a Venezia diretto da Bradley Cooper, con Lady Gaga protagonista. Sarà il trionfo del trash oppure del romanticismo? ;)

    1. Del film di Cooper più di tutto mi intriga l'interpretazione di Lady Gaga. Sembra sarà da Oscar.

  3. I've been thinking about watching all the versions of that film in anticipation for the new version with Lady Gaga. Usually with most of these kinds of films, I always watch with low expectations.

    1. I'll keep that in mind for the next time I watch one of these movies.