There isn’t really a more quintessential show-business drama than a love story between two professionals, one on the way up, the other on the way down. Variations abound, but the most famous of these——the “Star is Born” story——has been made four times (and a fifth is being readied): The first, about a struggling young actress and an alcoholic film director (Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman), was a modest success called What Price Hollywood? and was directed in 1932 by George Cukor (one of his first films) and produced by David O. Selznick, who five years later turned it into a rising young actress and a fading movie star (Janet Gaynor and Fredric March), in the smash success——and one of the earliest color films——A Star Is Born (1937) directed by William Wellman.
Seventeen years later——and 22 years before Barbra Streisand’s extremely popular 1976 semi-rock version——came the first musical adaptation of the story; directed by the original director, George Cukor, and conceived as a comeback vehicle for Judy Garland, then age 31, whose star had faded at the end of the ‘40s: it was the brilliant 1954 color and Cinemascope A Star Is Born (available on DVD). The irony is that this Cukor-Garland production–co-starring an excellent James Mason as the doomed star, with a fine, insightful script by Moss Hart and a smashing group of new songs (like “The Man That Got Away”) by legendary composer Harold Arlen and equally celebrated lyricist Ira Gershwin——remains both the very best of all the versions and also the only one that in its own day was not a financial success.
There has been a good deal of controversy about this, because the warmly received initial release in New York of Cukor’s A Star Is Born ran over three hours; soon afterward, studio head Jack Warner recut the film and replaced the first release version with one that was 42 minutes (!) shorter. Garland and Cukor were furious and heartbroken. Cukor said to me years later: “Awfully sad. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote an article called ‘The Star Is Shorn.’ For Judy Garland, it was a great injustice, maybe because of that she didn’t win the Academy Award.”
I was one of the lucky few who saw the original long version down near Times Square the first week of its release, and there was an overwhelming emotional wallop and an epic sense of truth which the shorter one undeniably lacked. For years, Cukor and others tried to find the missing sequences–including a Garland musical number–and finally many of these, though not all, did turn up just before Cukor died in 1983 and have been lovingly restored. The only problem with this version (the only one commercially available) is that big hunks of picture are still missing, while the track has been found, so the decision was made to illustrate those sequences with the few stills or bits of shots that remain. Visually and dramatically, this has the unfortunate effect of pulling the viewer repeatedly out of the picture, out of the story. I believe it would have been better for the impact of the film to use those sound-only sequences as a DVD extra. The movie is a dramatic work, not a film study class.
As a tragic show-business fable, it carries all the substantial weight of Cukor’s life experiences in the theater and film with some of the greatest star players of the 20th century, from Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Jean Harlow to John Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, both Hepburns (he discovered Katharine!) and Cary Grant, James Stewart, Judy Holliday, etc. And his Star Is Born has the absolutely truthful ring ——no matter how brassy at times, or even sentimental——of the way it really is in show business. Garland is astonishingly good, terribly moving, naked, honest. Mason has charm, dignity and a sense of great talent wasted, but not quite the star allure the role could have used.
Cukor wanted Cary Grant and you can see why——he would have been far more romantic, therefore more touching. (Hitchcock would prove my point in North by Northwest, by casting Mason and Grant as heavy and hero, and in their scenes together, Mason couldn’t be better, but Grant radiates stardom.) Cary reportedly read the script aloud superbly to Cukor but was afraid the role might be interpreted as autobiographical because Grant’s career was in a slump at the time, and he was fighting a drinking problem. The saddest irony is that Judy Garland’s amazing comeback essentially became her swan’s song. She did some emotionally charged acting in a couple of films (like John Cassavetes’ 1963 A Child Is Waiting), yet A Star Is Born was her farewell to Garland the singer-actress-movie superstar. But then again, what an exit!