Ronald Haver's "A Star Is Born: The Making of the 1954 Movie and its 1983 Restoration" is quite simply one of the best books ever written about Hollywood. If it had stuck strictly to its subject, as stated in its subtitle, it would be fascinating and invaluable as a record of the fate of one of the American cinema's most cherished films maudits.
Happily, it's much more than that. Through an exceedingly detailed--yet brisk and succinct--account of the film's troubled production, Haver, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's longtime film programmer, gives a clear idea of the workings of a major studio in the twilight of Hollywood's Golden Era. He even sets the stage by evoking not only the motion picture industry but the city of Los Angeles and the country at large at the time "A Star Is Born" was shooting.
Throughout, he illumines the technical aspects of film making by bringing alive a cast of real-life Hollywood characters more vivid than even those in the film they were making. At the forefront are Judy Garland, for whom the film was to be a comeback after a troubled four-year absence from the screen; director George Cukor, celebrated for his deftness in guiding star-actresses; and Jack Warner, who gambled a near-unprecedented $4,970,000 of his studio's money on the belief that the public still loved Garland. There is even the shadowy presence of a Burbank Studios film editor, said to have some key missing footage from the film's uncut version; sure enough, it turned out that he did--when he was arrested for the illegal possession of hundreds of cans and boxes of film!
It was Garland's new husband, producer Sid Luft, who had the inspired idea of starring his wife in a musical remake of one of Hollywood's most popular movies about itself. Its sure-fire plot, as all movie lovers know, has to do with an alcoholic matinee idol (Norman Maine) who discovers and falls in love with the talented, unknown Esther Blodgett, soon to be given the nom de film Vicki Lester. Norman and Vicki marry, but as she soars to stardom, he hits the skids. Janet Gaynor and Fredric March were the original Norman and Vicki. (Cukor himself had directed an even earlier variation on the plot, the 1932 "What Price Hollywood?" starring Constance Bennett, Joel McCrea and Lowell Sherman.) Moss Hart wrote the new script and Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin contributed the songs, including the famous "The Man That Got Away."
At the time Haver directed the 1983 restoration effort on behalf of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he said that there were no real villains in the unhappy fate of the film that resulted in its being trimmed by 27 minutes from its original 181-minute running time. Yet Haver makes it clear that "A Star Is Born" was a risky venture from the beginning. First of all, there was Garland, caught up in her barbiturate and amphetamine dependence that inevitably resulted in many absences from the set. Then there was Luft, who, while clearly invaluable in holding his wife together, had no experience in producing such an elaborate film. And then there was the costly decision, early in production, to scrap everything and shoot in the new CinemaScope format.
Most of us who love the movie love the 18-minute "Born in a Trunk" sequence written by Leonard Gershe and Roger Edens and directed by choreographer Richard Barstow. It's a film-within-the-film, inserted by Luft, Garland and Jack Warner, that tells of its heroine's birth into vaudeville and emergence into a star that has direct parallels to Garland's own life, but it does bring the overall story to a halt, and it did pave the way for Warner to yield to the demands of exhibitors faced with less-than-thrilling box-office receipts. (In major cities, Haver discovered, the uncut version started screening at 8 a.m ., and in the evening it was shown at the inconvenient hours of 6:30 and 10 p.m.) Cukor was outraged that he and Hart had not been allowed to "sweat out" 20 minutes that he claimed "would never have been missed." Most of the cuts are near the beginning of the film and contain scenes crucial to the development of Vicki and Norman's relationship. Haver suggests, credibly, that the aborted version could have cost Garland, Mason and others the Oscar.
Even though Warner regrettably did not let Cukor make the cuts that everyone seemed to finally agree were necessary, he does not emerge as the stereotypical villainous studio head but a thoroughgoing, no-nonsense professional prepared to take considerable risks--and even battle with his brothers to do so--but also quick to cut losses. The Judy Garland that emerges here seems tragically doomed--gallant, rarely temperamental but too often absent, incredibly courageous and giving, but finally too fragile to be expected to resume the rigors of full-time movie making. As for Cukor, the book offers the best portrait of the director yet--mercurial, witty and--to use his own favorite word of praise-- tough .
Among Haver's primary sources were production designer Gene Allen, assistant directors Earl Bellamy and Russ Llewellyn and the late James Mason, who was the perfect Norman Maine but was far from the first choice for the role. (That was Laurence Olivier, followed by Richard Burton, Tyrone Power and Cary Grant. Grant actually read for Cukor, who believed he would never reveal himself on the screen in the way the role of Norman demanded.) Some of the most pleasurable moments in the book come from Allen and Bellamy's descriptions of the truly collaborative art of film making, in particular that of the crew rising to the challenges presented by the wide CinemaScope image.
The second part of the book is a veritable detective story as Haver starts searching for the missing 27 minutes, which took him into the Warner vaults, where he did find the uncut sound track but eventually had to settle for filling out an elusive seven minutes with stills. Even the task of restoration climaxed on a moment of high drama; less than 24 hours before Cukor was to see the first reassembled portion of the film, he died suddenly of heart failure in January, 1983, at age 83. As Haver describes the arduous, tantalizing process of the restoration, filled with nearly as many disappointments as happy surprises, his book becomes a timely plea for the cause of film preservation. (If only Jack Warner had preserved all the cuts from the original negative instead of melting them down for the silver content, a lamentably standard Hollywood practice for decades.)
In "A Star Is Born: The Making of the 1954 Film and Its 1983 Restoration," Haver admirably clarifies the intricate, often high-pressure task of big-scale Hollywood film making, but his primary accomplishment is making the most dramatic and persuasive case imaginable for the need to preserve our film heritage.