A Star Is Born (1954) Blu-ray Review: Judy Garland is at the Top of Her Game

After being unceremoniously dismissed from MGM in 1950 due to erratic behavior as a result of psychological problems and addiction, Judy Garland made a triumphant return to the silver screen in a musical remake of A Star Is Born, one of many films that counter the argument against Hollywood remakes.

Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a young singer whose talent is noticed by Norman Maine (James Mason), an actor whose career is collapsing due to his alcoholism. He strongly believes in her and suggests she give up singing with the band she’s with to take a screen test. She becomes a contract player doing minor work on the lot until studio head Oliver Niles hears her sing. Oliver is very impressed and gives her a lead in a musical. Her name is changed to Vicky Lester and she becomes a big star. After Norman promises to stop his drinking for her, they get married, but he can’t keep his vow. As her career rises, including an Academy Award win, Norman continues to sink. He embarrasses them both in public and stops working in films. Norman hits rock bottom and Esther considers giving up Hollywood to try and save him because she doesn’t know what else to do.

Judy Garland is at the top of her game with songs like “The Man That Got Away;” however, it’s her acting that really shines here. She has never been better, particularly the scenes where her character copes with Norman’s addiction. She draws on her own life to infuse this powerful performance, and it’s all the more impressive and gut wrenching to those who know she was in Norman’s position only a few years earlier.

A Star Is Born is a classic Hollywood film about classic Hollywood as it tells a behind-the-scenes story that likely occurred more often than people realize. It was Warner Brothers’ first CineScope film and the first time director George Cukor shot in color. It premiered at 182 minutes but the studio cut it down to 154 minutes, causing Cukor to disown it. Led by film historian Ronald Haver, a restored 176-minute version was released in 1983 that includes stills over the soundtrack where film footage was missing.

The film has been restored and remastered again for the 2010 Blu-ray release. Although the original negative has faded beyond the ability of traditional photochemical means to generate a quality print, state-of-the-art digital tools have created an exquisitely colorful print and the 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer looks very good for the most part in its 2.55:1 aspect ratio. Colors are well rendered. Reds are especially vibrant as they pop off the screen, and blacks are rich. There is very good contrast in the images, which are usually sharp, and shadow delineation is strong as many items can be made out in the shadows. Light grain can be seen. There thankfully appears to be no DNR or other digital flaws.

There are some problems though. The digital process can’t handle fades and that is the transition used almost the entire time throughout the film. Shortly before a scene dissolves into the next, it loses its clarity and vividness. That murkiness continues for a few moments into the next scene and then like a switch being hit the brilliant, high-definition look returns. I was distracted by it all throughout.

Another problem is the focus. Quite often objects lose their sharpness. It seems to be more than a depth-of-field problem of the source because some items seem to be on the same plane but are in different positions within the frame. It happens too frequently and mars the presentation.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is hard to fault considering the film’s original soundtrack was destroyed, and what we have here was pieced together from sources located in the Library of Congress and France. The dialogue is clear and mainly out the front-center channel. The music makes the most use of the surrounds and the orchestra instruments are distinct. There’s little ambiance and not a great deal of bass.

The Special Features are plentiful, running almost four hours, and appear on a separate DVD. After an “Introduction” (3 min), a narrator accompanies many of the features and provides background. There are Deleted Scenes (22 min), Outakes (1 min), and Alternate Takes (11 min). A “Film Effects Reel” (1 min) reveals tests and “A Report by Jack L. Warner” (6 min) is a brief promotional piece by the studio head. There’s “A Star Is Bored” (7 min), a cartoon where Daffy Duck fills in as a stunt stand-in for Bugs Bunny, which is only related in the title’s play on words. To compare and contrast, theatrical trailers from all three versions of the film are included.

There was a star-studded premiere for the film that almost everybody who was somebody (or was trying to be) was in attendance. It’s teased with “Huge Premiere Hails A Star Is Born Newsreel Montage” (8 min) and “A Star Is Born Premiere in Cinemascope” (2 min), but to show how truly amazing it was is “Pantages Premiere TV Special” (30 min), a mind-blowing Kinescope that will knock the socks off classic Hollywood fans as the stars parade by.

The “Audio Vault” includes outtakes (5 min), a Judy Garland Promotional piece (3 min), and recording sessions including rehearsals (45 min). A great piece is the 12/28/1942 “Lux Theater Radio Broadcast” (58 min) sans songs, co-starring Garland and Walter Pidgeon as Norman Maine.

The discs in this Blu-ray edition of A Star Is Born are encased in a book that contains 40 pages related to the film. It’s an absolute treasure for fans of the film and is well worth checking out for fans of Hollywood musicals. Don’t let this be the Blu-ray that got away.

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Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site. "I'm making this up as I go" - Indiana Jones

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