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This story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In the weeks leading up to the Sept. 29, 1954 premiere of A Star Is Born, Jack Warner sent telegrams to every movie star in town. The Warner Bros. honcho was determined to create a celebrity-studded event for the first-ever nationally televised premiere, airing on NBC. He hoped the attention would help him recoup his investment: Judy Garland‘s first film in three years — a classic tale of the vagaries of fame and meant to be her comeback after leaving longtime studio home MGM — ran far over budget, topping out at more than $5 million, the second-most-expensive movie ever.
Warners’ opening-night arm-twisting worked: 20,000 fans thronged the outside of L.A.’s RKO Pantages Theatre, while inside, Humphrey Bogart mingled with Frank Sinatra (both had been turned down for the male lead that went to James Mason). Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor shot the glamour quotient into the stratosphere. Clips of the NBC telecast (which can be found on YouTube) show a parade of stars being interviewed in the lobby. “Tonight, a star is reborn,” proclaimed Dorothy Lamour of Garland’s return. Recalls Kim Novak, then a contract player at Columbia, “It was like seeing Hollywood in its grandest style. I was just spellbound.”
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But even with raves — and a midrun, studio-ordered hatchet job that cut a half-hour from the release’s three hours and two minutes — box office lagged. Its $6 million worldwide take wasn’t enough to cover production costs. Garland, considered a shoo-in for a best actress Oscar, was beat by Grace Kelly for The Country Girl. Not all was lost, though: In 1983, then-LACMA film head Ronald Haver, one of many movie buffs who mourned Warners’ cuts, unveiled a semirestored new version after an extensive hunt for the half-hour footage. Among his finds were two lost musical numbers, one titled “Lose That Long Face.”
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