It was the money-grubbing movie-studio fuckup to end all money-grubbing movie-studio fuckups. George Cukor's epic musical remake of A Star Is Born, starring Judy Garland as a rising ingenue and James Mason as the alcoholic fading star with whom she falls in love, opened in September 1954 to widespread critical acclaim and decent box office. But as the most expensive film Warner Bros. had made to that point (it cost $6 million, or about $50 million in 2010 terms), "decent" wasn't good enough; Variety, speaking on behalf of grumpy exhibitors, slammed the film's three-hour running time as "murder to the turnover." And so, within two weeks of the premiere, Harry Warner ordered that the existing prints be removed from circulation so they could have a half-hour shaved from the running time. (Exactly who decided what to cut remains a mystery to this day.) The shorter cut was then put back in theaters without fanfare, in the hope that no one but the accountants would notice.
"It was painfully shortsighted, and horrific in its implications," says George Feltenstein, senior vice president of marketing for Warner Home Video, and an unabashed Star fan, who claims to have seen Cukor's film "easily 100 times." Though Star's original three-hour length was unusually long for the era, the decision to quickly and quietly recut the film — essentially behind the back of its director, who was shooting another project in India at the time — wasn't exactly business as usual. Even worse, WB failed to preserve a single print of the original version. Some of the cut material was stored, some of it was recycled into stock-footage libraries — and some was lost forever.
Nearly 30 years later, LACMA's then–film chief Ronald Haver set out on a massive mission to find the missing links and reassemble Cukor's director's cut. It was a semisuccess — Haver found some lost footage, including two full musical numbers, and the whole of the original sound track. A new version of the film was released in 1983, with still-photo montages animating a chunk of the second act. Now, 27 years later, WB has finished a new restoration, to be unveiled Thursday, April 22, at Grauman's Chinese Theatre as the Opening Night Gala of the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival (April 22-25). A Blu-ray version will be released on June 22, the 41st anniversary of Judy Garland's death by overdose.
Though Feltenstein calls the new restoration "expensive major surgery," the operation was cosmetic rather than structural: The second-act section is still lost. Rumors have long circulated that someone, somewhere has a single extant print of Cukor's version in his or her private collection, but, Feltenstein says, WB has run out of places to look — Haver's early-'80s hunt was exhaustive, and Feltenstein is convinced "nothing survived other than what Haver found."
The good news is that the film's original negative has been digitized in order to return the footage that does survive to the state in which Cukor intended it to be seen. Star was shot on Eastman Color stock, which is notorious for its propensity to fade, and until now, prints and video transfers "always looked brown and grimy," Feltenstein says. "People will be shocked. Finally, we get to appreciate the color, the production design and the extreme attention to detail that Cukor put into every frame."
Feltenstein is typical of a Star fan, in that he speaks of the film almost evangelically, comparing the theatrical experience to a kind of spiritual revival; he refers to the 1983 Radio City Music Hall unveiling of the Haver reconstruction as "one of the great nights of my life. You felt Judy in the theater."
TCM's Robert Osbourne, who will host the Grauman screening, is almost as effusive: "As effective as Judy Garland is singing 'The Man That Got Away' in any medium, there's nothing like seeing her singing that song three stories tall, in Technicolor."
Part of the fan devotion stems from the perception that Star was underappreciated in its own time; don't even mention the fact that Garland lost the 1954 Best Actress Oscar unless you want to get an earful. "It's one of the great Oscar atrocities of all time," Feltenstein contends. "It's like Network losing Best Picture to Rocky — it's something so ridiculously stupid that you just can't understand it."
If it's hard to imagine how any of this could have happened to a film that inspires such ardent devotion, A Star is Born's convoluted path to Blu-ray reflects just how Hollywood's attitude toward its own detritus has changed over time. Films were considered so disposable through the 1930s that original negatives were routinely thrown out or melted down in order to salvage small amounts of silver nitrate. And before the advent of home video, the notion that an outtake or flub could actually have monetary value was absurd.
Thus, the new restoration is, in some sense, a kind of reparation on behalf of the studio for its prior callousness in prioritizing short-term commerce over long-term legacy. In rushing this film to the front of the Eastman Color restoration line, Warner is essentially sending the message that it won't let what's left of A Star Is Born slip away. (That said, when we ask Feltenstein if anything like this could ever happen again, he lowers his voice and says, ominously, "Never say never.")
There's an obvious irony to the fact that two corporate Warner cousins have invested so much money in, and have given such a grand platform to, a film that Warner Bros. itself so cavalierly mutilated. Even outside the drama surrounding the reconstruction and restoration, in terms of sheer tone, A Star Is Born's viciously cynical vision of the Hollywood life cycle would seem an unlikely choice to open a for-profit film festival that serves as a love letter to various eras of the studio system. It's much sadder and more sardonic than Singin' in the Rain, or even Sunset Boulevard (both of which are also on the festival schedule).
But TCM's Osbourne says Star's darkness makes it the perfect overture to a weekend-long conversation about Hollywood as both mythology and real industry.
"It is cynical, but happy stories about Hollywood aren't very interesting," he says. "The majority of the people who work in Hollywood are sensible professionals who show up on time and get the job done, or the industry wouldn't exist, because there's too much money involved to have it all riding on the crazy ones. But it's the crazy ones who make it interesting."
Garland was one of the crazies, a fiercely talented performer who, between hard living and crippling insecurities, couldn't always get it together to show up. Star is her most autobiographical work, and though in real life she may have more often than not fallen into the self-medicating habits depicted by Mason as part and parcel of the price of fame, Star's gut-wrenching climax exaggerates the all-consuming, destructive relationship between performer and audience that Garland herself knew well. In one scene, shot handheld with almost documentary-style immediacy, a veiled Garland pushes through a crowd of gawkers outside her husband's funeral. The clawing lookie-loos ultimately rip the veil off the widow with the gleeful cry, "Give us just one good look!"
"That's the moment of the film that just tears my heart to pieces," Feltenstein says. "That mentality of public people being public property. It's so real — and so out of today's TMZ."
Butchered due to a lack of foresight of the brothers Warner, A Star Is Born still managed to foretell the future.
A STAR IS BORN: Opening Night Gala of the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, April 22-25. Grauman's Chinese Theatre, 6925 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. (323) 464-6266.
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes