When I first saw the 1954 A Star is Born, I was a little confused. I watched it because Judy Garland is the star, but that’s all I knew. I didn’t know that it was a remake and that there was a later remake starring Barbra Streisand. And I certainly didn’t know about the troubles the film faced post-release that led to the oddities that confused.

About 40 minutes into the three-hour film, the moving picture is replaced by stills and audio. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for that particular part of the movie, consisting of some narrative stuff, to take what seems to be an artistic turn. It goes on for about 10 minutes, with a few seconds of moving pictures interjecting every now and then. Then the film resumes normally, as if nothing happened. I just chalked it up to an odd artistic choice and concluded it was a fantastic movie. Garland’s performance of “The Man that Got Away” knocked me out, and her acting was the best I’d ever seen her do.

Some time thereafter, at the university where I both attended and worked, I came across a stack of magazines in the copy room. A July-August 1983 issue of American Film caught my eye because it had a picture of Judy Garland on the cover along with the title “A Star is Born Again: The Classic Restored.” In that article I learned that A Star is Born was a huge gamble on what was supposed to be Judy Garland’s comeback; she had been fired from MGM for being unreliable and hadn’t made a movie in years. Garland with then husband Sid Luft and Warner Brothers poured a lot of money into it, and at first it seemed to pay off. Critics and audiences loved it. But a few weeks after release theater owners complained it was too long, which reduced the number of times they could show it per day, which reduced their ticket sales. So the film was pulled from theaters and positively butchered in the editing room.

I learned more details later from Gerald Clarke’s biography of Judy Garland, Get Happy. Apparently, there were grumblings pre-release about the film’s length. What doesn’t help is that the musical number “Born in a Trunk” is fifteen minutes long. Fifteen minutes. Noël Coward quipped that by the end of the sequence, “...I found myself wishing that dear enchanting Judy was at the bottom of the sea.” They didn’t cut that boring mess, instead choosing to lop off scenes important to narrative flow, and intimate scenes important to character development. The cuts are so dramatic and so blunt that Clarke theorizes it was Harry Warner’s way of punishing his younger brother, Jack, with whom he did not get along.

Fortunately, the writer of that American Film article, Ronald Haver, went on a quest in the early 1980s to restore the movie to its original glory. Much of the footage was totally destroyed but he did find a lot, including two musical numbers and the marriage proposal scene--one of the most charming parts of the film. He also found the entire original audio track and some stills, and was therefore able to piece together as close an approximation of the original as could be had. Oddly enough, Clarke does not mention the restored version of the film in his biography, published in 2000. I almost want to email the guy to let him know that the version exists, in case no one told him.

I was lucky to have seen the restored version. Otherwise I, like many viewers between late 1954 and the early 1980s, probably wouldn’t have liked it much because the emotional force of the movie was so diminished by the cuts. A Star is Born is one of my favorite films. I have never seen the original [though I plan to] and I can’t stand the 1976 version, but there’s a reason this story endures. It’s a self-flagellating myth, a cautionary tale, that Hollywood loves to tell about itself: be careful, because fame is fleeting and there can only be one in the brightest spotlight at a time. As Esther’s star rises, her pygmalion-turned-husband’s star falls in the most tragic way. And the fascination with this story has not waned: in August 2016 Warner Bros greenlit another remake, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper [who will also be directing]. 

Part of the reason why I love it is because Garland gives the best performance of her career. Despite the film’s post-release troubles, both she and James Mason were nominated for Oscars, and there was a near-universal outcry of robbery when the award went to Grace Kelly. I always cry during the heart-wrenching scene when Esther is anguishing over watching her husband repeatedly succumb to alcoholism. Director George Cukor was known for getting extraordinary performances out of actresses and his work with Garland is no exception. I think she is a fine actress, and I also think that now, just as when she was alive and working, her singing talents are so great that they drown out her considerable acting talents. But here she is given the room and support to be truly great. Time called the movie “Just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history” and I mostly agree with them, if they take out the “just about” part.

Here's what you can expect this week:

  • A deeper look at the three different versions of the film
  • Filmography on star Judy Garland
  • Related Review of Judy Garland's Easter Parade
  • Our regular streaming recommendations
  • And more!