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Film Review: A Star Is Born

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A Star Is Born

Transcona / Warner Bros, 1954 (Color, 176 minutes)

Esther Blodgett is a singer with the Glenn Williams Orchestra when Norman Maine discovers her. He is enthralled - she is a great singer, and she has that "little something extra" that marks star quality. And who should know better - Maine is one of the top stars in Hollywood. He explains to her that she should aim higher; that she could be a great star if only she would believe in herself and her talent. He talks her into quitting the orchestra and staying over in Los Angeles so he can get her a screen test at his studio. Esther is taken by surprise, but she senses that there is something in what Norman has said, so she agrees to stay, much to the chagrin of Danny McGuire, her close friend who also travels with the orchestra.

Esther is signed by the studio as a contract player, and she works at bit parts until opportunity knocks: a major production is about to be shut down due to an unexplained absence of the big singing star. Maine talks Niles into giving Esther a chance at the part. She auditions for the part, and Niles decides to take a chance on her. The film is a hit, and Esther is on her way.

Esther and Maine get married, and she's on top of the world. But soon Maine's heavy drinking is causing problems at the studio. His career begins to slide, and he cannot get himself turned around, though he tries desperately. As Esther rises to stardom, Norman slides into oblivion, losing his contract at the studio, and nearly losing the one thing he loves best - Esther. Out of desperation he does the one thing that he knows will ensure Esther's continued success...

Crew

Produced by: Sidney Luft
Associate Producer: Vern Alves
Directed by: George Cukor
Assistant Directors: Earl Bellamy, Edward Graham, Russell Llewellyn
Screen Play by: Moss Hart
Based on the Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Robert Carson Screen Play
From a story by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson
Musical Direction by: Ray Heindorf
New Songs: Music by Harold Arlen, Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Vocal Arrangements by: Jack Cathcart
Orchestrations by: Skip Martin
Song: "Born in a Trunk" Music and lyrics by Leonard Gershe
Dances Created and Staged by: Richard Barstow
Additional Choreography: Eugene Loring
Production Design by: Gene Allen
Special Color Design Adviser: Hoyningen-Huene
Art Director: Malcolm Bert
Art Direction and Costumes for "Born in a Trunk" by: Irene Sharaff
Set Decorator: George James Hopkins
Costumes Designed by: Jean Louis, Mary Ann Nyberg
Makeup Artist: Gordon Bau
Miss Garland's Makeup Created by: Del Armstrong
Miss Garland's Hair Styles by: Helen Young
Sound by: Charles B. Lang, David Forrest
Director of Photography: Sam Leavitt
Special Effects by: H. F. Koenekamp
Filmed in CinemaScope, Color by Technicolor
Technicolor Color Consultant: Mitchell G. Kovaleski
Film Editor: Folmar Blangsted

Filmed: October 1953 - July 1954
Released: September 1954 (premiered at the RKO Pantages Theatre, Hollywood, California, Thursday evening, September 29, 1954)

Awards: Academy Award Nominations for Best Actor (James Mason), Best Actress (Judy Garland), Best Score - Musical (Ray Heindorf), Best Song ("The Man That Got Away"), Best Art Direction/Set Decoration - Color, Best Costume Design - Color

Cast

Judy Garland ... Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester
James Mason ... Norman Maine
Jack Carson ... Matt Libby
Charles Bickford ... Oliver Niles
Tom Noonan ... Danny McGuire
with:
Lucy Marlow ... Lola Lavery
Amanda Blake ... Miss Ettinger
Irving Bacon ... Graves
Hazel Shermet ... Libby's Secretary
Wilton Graff ... Emcee
Grady Sutton ... Artie Carver
James Brown ... Glenn Williams
Lotus Robb ... Miss Markham

More complete cast list (in order of appearance):
Jerry DeCoe, Wayne Taylor, Melvin Pogue, Janet Stewart, Sylvia Arslan, Colette McMahon [Autograph Seekers]; George Fisher [Announcer]; Jim Hyland [Assistant Announcer]; Lucy Marlow [Lola Lavery]; Charles Bickford [Oliver Niles]; Jack Carson [Matt Libby]; Joan Shawlee [Woman Announcer]; Sam Colt [Store Manager]; Jay Johnson [Musician]; James Brown [Glenn Williams]; James Mason [Norman Maine]; Tommy Noonan [Danny McGuire]; Judy Garland [Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester]; Tom Kingston, George Kitchell, Robert Dumas, Duff Whitney [Reporters]; Irving Bacon [Graves]; Louis Mason [Doorman]; Frank Puglia [Bruno]; Michael Hathaway [Agent]; Havis Davenport [Starlet]; Elmera Smith [Pasadena Girl]; Jack Pepper [Chef]; Dub Taylor [Driver]; Louis Jean Heydt [Director]; Don Richards [Cameraman]; Bob Jellison [Eddie]; Don Shelton [TV Director]; Robert Stevenson [Boom Man]; Chick Chandler [Man in Car]; Kathryn Card [Landlady]; Geraldine Wall [Woman]; Nancy Kulp, Mary Young [Boarding House Women]; Alan DeWitt [1st Makeup Man]; Rudy Anders [2nd Makeup Man]; Joe Dougherty [3rd Makeup Man]; Ross Carmichael [Photographer]; Lotus Robb [Miss Markham]; Blythe Daly [Miss Fusselow]; Leonard Penn [Director]; Eddie Dew [Cameraman]; Charles Conrad [Assistant Director]; George Becwar [Assistant Director]; Charles Halton [1st Cashier]; Joseph Mell [2nd Cashier]; Olin Howlin [Charley]; Dick Simmons [Director]; Joe Greene [1st Agent]; Joe Hamilton [2nd Agent]; Phil Arnold [3rd Agent]; Jack Baker [Father]; Ila McAvoy [Mother]; Nadene Ashdown [Esther, Age 6]; Heidi Meadows [Esther, Age 3]; Jack Kenney [1st Night Club Man]; Dick Ryan [2nd Night Club Man]; Ted Thorpe, David Armstrong, Bob Hoy, Larry Rio [Sound Men]; Al Thompson [1st Vagrant]; Oscar Blank [2nd Vagrant]; Emerson Treacy [Justice of the Peace]; Ruth Bradee, Shirley Whitney, Jean Engstrom, Almeda Fowler, Mae Marsh, Arlene Karr, Paul Levitt, Rodney Bell, Richard Bauman, Marshall Bradford [Malibu Party Guests]; Eric Wilton [Butler]; Hazel Shermet [Libby's Secretary]; John Monaghan [Male Secretary]; louis Tomei [1st Signboard Man]; Carey Loftin [2nd Signboard Man]; Strother Martin [Express Man]; Grady Sutton [Artie Carver]; Rex Evans [Emcee]; Amanda Blake [Susan Ettinger]; Richard Webb [Wallace]; Steve Wyman [Nigel Peters]; Tom Cound [Price Waterhouse Man]; Mort Mills [Makeup Man]; Kay Ridhl [Hairdresser]; Tristram Coffin [Director]; Henry Kulky [Cuddles]; Riza Royce [Secretary]; Charles Watts [Manager]; Sam Colt [Sam]; Paul Bryar [Bartender]; Tom Blakiston [Young Man]; Pat O'Malley, Gertrude Astor [Race Track Patrons]; Valerie Vernon [Marian]; Pat Sexton [Bert]; Jack Ellis [Pinkerton Detective]; Frank Ferguson [Judge]; Timothy Farrell [Bailiff]; Percy Helton [Gregory]; Michael Hall [Rails]; Arthur Space [Clerk]; Nacho Galindo [Rodriguez]; Benny Burt, Ralph Volkie, Robert Strong [Reporters at Courtroom]; Josephine Whittell, Sheila Bromley, Elizabeth Flournoy, Ruth Warren, Cele Kirk, Eileene Stevens, Helen Eby Rock, Hilda Plowright, Ezelle Poule [Women at Funeral]; Harte Wayne, Louis Mason, Frank Kreig, Paul Brinegar [Men at Funeral]; Dale Van Sickel, Don Richards, Robert Dumas, Jean Woodley [Reporters at Shrine Auditorium]; Pat Miller, Al Hill, Frank Marlowe, Charles Morton, Gordon Finn [Photographers at Shrine Auditorium]; Wilton Graff [Emcee]

[from A Star Is Born: The Making of the 1954 Movie and Its 1983 Restoration, Ronald Haver, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988]

Musical Program

[0:00] Overture (played by Orchestra behind titles)
[0:11] Gotta Have Me Go with You (sung by Judy Garland with The Glenn Williams Orchestra)
[0:21] The Man That Got Away [AAN] (sung by Judy Garland)
[0:45] Trinidad Coconut Oil Shampoo (short commercial jingle sung by Judy Garland)
[1:04] The Man That Got Away (excerpt sung by Judy Garland)
[1:08] Born in a Trunk (performed by Judy Garland)
Includes excerpts of:
Swanee
I'll Get By
When My Sugar Walks Down the Street [cut]
You Took Advantage of Me
Black Bottom
The Peanut Vendor
My Melancholy Baby
Swanee (reprise by Judy Garland and Chorus)
[1:28] Here's What I'm Here For (sung by Judy Garland)
[1:40] It's a New World (sung by Judy Garland)
[1:53] Someone at Last (sung by Judy Garland)
[2:09] Lose That Long Face (sung by Judy Garland)
[2:18] Lose That Long Face (short reprisal by Judy Garland)
[2:42] It's a New World (reprised by Judy Garland)
[2:53] It's a New World (reprised by Chorus at end of film)
[2:54] The Man That Got Away (reprised by Orchestra behind end credits)

Notes

I received a letter from Mr. Leonard Gershe, generally credited for the "Born in a Trunk" number. That letter is reprinted here, with Mr. Gershe's kind permission:

Dear Mr. Johnson:
I would appreciate your straightening out a misapprehension about "Born In A Trunk." I wrote the lyric, but the music was composed by Roger Edens, who could not be credited at the time because he was under exclusive contract to MGM. If you read the credit on the screen, it reads: "Born In A Trunk" by Leonard Gershe. That was as ambiguous as we could get. It does not say I wrote the music. I feel enough time has gone by for the truth the be known and for Roger Edens to be given his credit.
Yours,
Leonard Gershe


Consequently, I have changed the credits on the Judy Garland Database to "Lyrics by Leonard Gershe, Music by Roger Edens." Mr. Gershe expands in a further email, when asked if Judy had anything to do with creation of the "Born in a Trunk" sequence:

"No, Judy had nothing to do with the writing of the song. I had had the first stanza of the lyric (with a totally different tune, in a faster tempo) going through my head for some time. Sid Luft called Roger when they realized they needed a musical number in the film to show exactly what made Vicki Lester a star. Roger came to me and asked me if I had any ideas. I sang him my 'Born In A Trunk.' He liked it. He wrote a new tune and I completed the lyric. I wrote the narration for the body of the number that follows the first chorus and Roger picked the standards ('You Took Advantage Of Me,' 'Black Bottom,' etc.) I asked that we include 'Melancholy Baby' because it was the punchline of a joke that Judy loved at the time and I knew Judy would love it."

- Leonard Gershe / Jim Johnson, January 26, 1998

Judy Garland wrote:

It is difficult to be objective about one's performance. You simply cannot, no matter how hard you try, see yourself as others see you.

This is especially true in making a motion picture. There is no audience to play to, only a large crowd of technicians behind a very candid camera. But perhaps this professional "audience" is a surer guide to achievement than any other. After all, this is a group that is paid to do a job. They are not there primarily to be entertained. So, when, after I sang a song on the set of "A Star Is Born", some of these veterans applauded I knew that it was a spontaneous reaction and that I had made contact with their emotions.

This is how I gauged myself for the singing you will hear in the Transcona Enterprises motion picture for Warner Bros. and on these Columbia Records. When we were shooting "A Star Is Born" at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, I would try to make the electricians and the cameramen and the others react to the song. If it was a humorous number, I would try to make them laugh. If it was a blues, I would try to make them feel in the spirit of the song. Only when they had shown the emotion the particular song was supposed to evoke did I feel that my job was properly done.

This technique was something I had worked out in my recent personal appearance tours. I used to think of audiences as something important but remote. But after I got out on the stage at the Palace in New York and the Palladium in London, and could feel the warmth sweeping up at me from the rows of people who had come to see me, I realized in a very real way that people were on my side. This is a relaxing thing for an artist, and is the only measure of human contact, which is to say, a successful performance. When people react openly the way you feel inside, you know you are reaching them. In singing these songs from "A Star Is Born", I have tried to make each of them an emotional experience. Each song mirrors a different mood, a different phase of the picture. Each should give you the pleasure of fine entertainment."

- Judy Garland, from the liner notes of
the Columbia Album A Star Is Born, 1954



Transcona Enterprises was owned by Judy and her husband Sid Luft, along with several associates. The company was formed specifically to produce A Star Is Born. The film was basically a joint venture between Transcona and Warner Brothers.

A Star Is Born was made once before in 1937 by Selznick International Pictures, starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor. The screenplay for Star, written by Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell and Robert Carson was partly inspired by the film What Price Hollywood made in 1932 by RKO, which was also directed by George Cukor.

Judy played Esther in the radio version of A Star Is Born, with Walter Pidgeon as Norman Maine. The show was broadcast on Lux Radio Theater on December 28, 1942.

Judy received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her work in the film, but the award went to Grace Kelly for her work in The Country Girl. Judy received hundreds of conciliatory telegrams including one from Groucho Marx who said it was "the greatest robbery since Brink's".

Look magazine cited Judy as best actress of the year with its Look Annual Movie Awards, stating "The versatility and elegance that Judy Garland displays in A Star Is Born win her the Look Award for best actress of the year. In past films, Judy often revealed extraordinary talents as a variety artist and an actress potentially rich in both comedy and tragedy. These talents grow to full maturity in this "drama with music" and give her a place with the genuine artists who are wholly products of Hollywood training."

For the second time in her career, Life magazine made Judy its cover girl of the week on the September 13, 1954 issue, which contained an article on Judy and her work on Star. Judy was also Life's cover girl of the week on the December 11, 1944 issue for her work in Meet Me in St. Louis.

The premiere of Star, on September 29, 1954, was one of the biggest events of its kind that Hollywood had ever seen, with scores of celebrities in attendance. It was also the first premiere to be televised.

Many exhibitors complained about the long running time, so Warner Brothers cut it, unmercifully, from 181 minutes to 154 minutes. Some of the more important scenes were deleted - critical scenes which establish the beginning of the relationship between Esther Blodgett and Norman Maine. As cut, Esther appears to become a star practically overnight. In addition, two of Judy's musical numbers, "Here's What I'm Here For" and "Lose That Long Face" were cut. This may well be the reason that the film did not do so well with the Academy, since the cut version was the one which the Academy officially reviewed. The film was restored (and subsequently re-released) in 1983, thanks largely to the efforts of Ronald Haver, who wrote an excellent book on the film: A Star Is Born: The Making of the 1954 Movie and its 1983 Restoration.

After considerable footage had been filmed, Warner Brothers decided that the film should be shot in CinemaScope, so the project was restarted and Star became the first major motion picture to use CinemaScope.

"Among the movies in the pantheon of Hollywood classics, the 1954 version of A Star Is Born holds a special place. An immense and complicated production, it brought together some of the finest artists and technicians working in film at the time...it was George Cukor's first foray into musicals and the first time he worked in color...it was the first movie to use CinemaScope for artistic ends...it marked Judy Garland's spectacular cinematic comeback after a difficult four-year hiatus - and the end of her career as a movie star...and, most remarkably, it was a musical - a genre not known for its seriousness - that treated the emotional rigors of life in the movies with unprecedented honesty and drama. And along with such movies as Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind, it has become one of our most ardently admired (and often fanatically loved) films." [cover notes from the book A Star Is Born: The Making of the 1954 Movie and its 1983 Restoration, Ronald Haver, Alfred A. Knopf, 1988 (ISBN 0-394-53714-9).

See Judy Garland Movies on Video for purchasing information.

See Class Act for more information on this and other classic films.

Critical Response

"Those who have blissful recollections of David O. Selznick's "A Star Is Born" as probably the most affecting movie ever made about Hollywood may get themselves set for a new experience that should put the former one in the shade...[George Cukor]...gets performances from Miss Garland and Mr. Mason that make the heart flutter and bleed."

- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, October 12, 1954

"[Judy Garland]...gives what is just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history...she has never sung better...Her big, dark voice sobs, sighs, sulks and socks them out like a cross between Tara's harp and the late Bessie Smith...Everybody's little sister, it would seem, has grown out of her braids and into a tiara."

- Time, October 25, 1954

"A Star Is Born is best classified as a thrilling personal triumph for Judy Garland. As an actress Miss Garland is more than adequate. As a mime and comedienne she is even better. But as a singer she can handle anything from torch songs and blues to ballads. In more ways than one, the picture is hers."

- Newsweek, November 1, 1954

Supplemental Material

Supplement 1: Assorted photographs

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A Star Is Born DVD
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A Star Is Born DVD Box Set
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Judy Garland Signature Collection DVD Box Set
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A Star Is Born VHS
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A Star Is Born Soundtrack CD
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A Star Is Born Soundtrack CD
Buy Original Soundtrack CD


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A Star Is Born Posters
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Judy Garland publicity pose
publicity pose


Swanee number
lobby card


Judy on the cover of Life Magazine
cover of Life magazine
September 13, 1954


music sheet
music sheet


Original German movie program
German movie program


Back cover of German movie program
German movie program


Original title card
original title card


"Born in a Trunk," from "Look" Magazine, March 22, 1955
from Look magazine
March 22, 1955


Original movie still
original movie still


Black Bottom Original movie still
original movie still


Judy Garland publicity photo
publicity photo

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