Audiences don’t usually jump out of their chairs and cheer when a movie star’s name is projected on the big screen — especially when the movie is 56 years old and the star’s been dead more than four decades.
Judy Garland got a minutes-long standing ovation when Warner Bros. recently unveiled a restored print of her 1954 big-screen comeback, “A Star is Born,” on opening night of the first TCM Classic Film Festival at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.
“It’s not just a movie. There’s nothing like it,” says George Feltenstein, a Warner Home Video executive. “At the Chinese screening, the title came on the screen, and I was in a wash of tears. ... Here we were in a theater 56 years later with people applauding and screaming.”
Tuesday, Garland fans can carry on at home: Warner releases the high-definition “A Star is Born” restoration on Blu-ray ($35) and DVD ($21).
Garland became a movie legend at 17 in 1939 when she starred as Dorothy and sang “Over the Rainbow” in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Because of ‘Oz,’ she will live forever. There will always be a new generation who will want to know more about Dorothy,” Feltenstein says. “That is her link to immortality.”
Her other films at MGM included a series of backyard musicals with co-star Mickey Rooney and “Meet Me in St. Louis” in 1944, directed by Vincente Minnelli, who later became her second husband. After making more than 25 feature films in 13 years, the studio fired her in 1950 following a string of illnesses and breakdowns.
A year later, Garland made big stage comebacks at both the London Palladium and Palace Theatre on Broadway. She won a special Tony Award in 1952.
Garland then signed with Warner Bros. to make “A Star is Born,” in which she first sang Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man That Got Away.” The movie, produced by Garland’s third husband, Sid Luft, cost $6 million and was filmed in early stereophonic sound, one-strip Technicolor and CinemaScope.
The 1954 Hollywood premiere was broadcast live on national television. Stars in attendance included Garland, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Clark Gable, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. A complete 30-minute kinescope of the TV special is part of the Blu-ray/DVD set, along with soundtrack prerecordings and other extras, including eight different takes of “The Man That Got Away.”
“A Star is Born” arguably was Garland’s finest hour. Three hours, actually, until Warner Bros. haphazardly cut the musical tearjerker to 154 minutes — for more daily showings — and discarded the trimmed footage.
Director George Cukor disowned the edited version. Three decades later, “A Star is Born” was reassembled by Ronald Haver, director of film at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The junked footage had been presumed lost for nearly 30 years. Haver, who died in 1993, spent months creeping through the vaults at Warner Bros. studios, looking inside hundreds of cans of film. Eventually, he found the film’s complete soundtrack and most of its lost footage. For visual scenes that couldn’t be recovered, he substituted still pictures of Garland and co-star James Mason.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences helped finance the 1983 restoration, which had an old-fashioned premiere at Radio City Music Hall, attended by Mason, Garland’s daughters (Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft), and 6,000 movie fans.
The Haver restoration is the version Warner Home Video releases this week.
“The original negative was the source for the film transfer,” says Feltenstein, Warner’s senior vice president for theatrical catalog marketing. “The production design in the film is astounding. Gorgeous. The unrestored film was always a grimy, mousy brown. Now it looks great.”
Garland’s performance as Esther Blodgett (aka Mrs. Norman Maine), whose show-biz career skyrockets while her movie-star husband’s collapses, earned an Oscar nomination. Her unexpected loss to Grace Kelly in “The Country Girl” prompted Groucho Marx to call it “the biggest robbery since Brinks.”
The film, written by Moss Hart, is based on two earlier movies, “What Price Hollywood?” (made in 1932 and also directed by Cukor) and “A Star is Born,” a 1937 early-Technicolor drama starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson remade it in 1976 and there’s talk that Beyonce and Russell Crowe will remake it once again.
Still, it’s Garland’s version that endures.
“It doesn’t date, the bare honesty and truth of its screenplay. The characters are believable and honest in a way that movies of that era are not,” says Feltenstein, an unabashed Garland fan. “If you had to pick one film to explain why she was so great, this would be it.”
In 2000, the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry selected it for preservation for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
When “A Star is Born” briefly played in its original length, critics called it “the ‘Gone With the Wind’ of musicals,” according to Garland historian John Fricke, who wrote text for a book bound into the Blu-ray jacket.
“She was playing a real person, a real human being. Somebody who had more problems than putting on a show in a barn,” Fricke says.
After “A Star is Born,” Garland made several more movies but concentrated on TV and concert work. The complete 1963-64 “The Judy Garland Show” has been released on DVD and the recording of her famous 1961 Carnegie Hall concert has never been out of print. Many books and films have depicted her life, including “Me and My Shadows” by daughter Lorna Luft. Last year, Anne Hathaway announced she would portray Garland in stage and screen biographies.
Married five times, Garland died at 47 in 1969 from an accidental overdose of prescription sleeping pills.
Fricke, who wrote “Judy Garland: World’s Greatest Entertainer,” says “there was only one of her at the time, and there hasn’t been anyone since.”
Says Fricke: “Nobody does what she does and ‘A Star is Born’ is the greatest showcase for the arc of what Judy Garland does. The emphasis on the present tense is intentional.”