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On Sept. 29, 1954, Warner Bros. premiered George Cukor’s A Star Is Born at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. The highly anticipated event was billed at the time as “the first film to premiere telecast coast-to-coast; first to provide a working press room.” The drama went on to be nominated for six Oscars at the 27th Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
This is one of the greatest movies of a great movie season. Jack Warner has given it a lavish production, yet the entire film is done with such taste that not a single element of it seems overdone or unnecessary. The superb screenplay by Moss Hart keeps a personal story at all times dominating the magnitude of the production. George Cukor’s direction, briskly paced, combines heartbreaking tragedy, out-of-this-world musical entertainment and rib-splitting comedy into a coordinated whole that can only be compared for sheer cinematic know-how with Gone With the Wind. This is a picture that’s worth seeing over and over again. It should be good for endless revivals. It’s impossible to recall all of its fine touches after one viewing, and until Webster comes up with a new set of adjectives it’s impossible to tell how good it is in a review of this length.
A Star Is Born is the perfect blend of drama and musical — of cinematic art and popular entertainment.
Hart’s script wisely introduces Judy Garland as a girl who has fought her way up by waiting on tables and enduring most of the drudgery of show business, until she has a good job singing in a band. Her ambition is some day to make a hit record for jukeboxes. Then James Mason, a drunken, brilliant, erratic movie star, comes along and makes her see that this dream is too small. He recognizes an unusual quality in her voice — a quality that means stardom. The entire success of the picture depends upon the fact that Judy really has it. Her song styling is as individual and arresting as Ethel Merman’s. And, as the picture progresses, she proves it in one smash number after another.
In his offhand way, but with a judgment enjoyed only by genius of show business, Mason builds her to stardom. Step after step is played with a remarkable blending of suspense, realism and comedy. The plot unfolds a penetrating satire of Hollywood, but the satire never becomes a lampoon. Judy arrives at the top of the ladder and marries Mason just as his star is fading. For all his talent, he has the seeds of failure in him — he is the kind of man fated to spoil his own success. By now every anxiety he causes her is torture.
There is one scene where, in clown makeup, she tells her producer (Charles Bickford) that she doesn’t know whether she loves or hates the man she pities that ranks with the finest screen acting jobs of all time. Mason arouses infinite compassion as he traces the story of the man’s disintegration. With both his main characters Cukor evokes the noblest form of tragic audience reaction — an intense feeling of sympathy and a sort of divine helplessness over being unable to save them from their all too human weaknesses. And it’s hard to see how either player could be better.
The film was previewed too late to permit an adequate review of all its many qualities. It will be discussed in more detail in the “Talking Shop” column. However, it should not be concluded without saying that the “Born in a Trunk” number is one of the most ingenious musical montages ever placed on the screen, and the “Someone at Last” routine, in which Mason gives Judy expert assistance, combines a delightful takeoff of film musicals with dramatization that is rollicking fun for the characters as well as the audience.
Jack Carson curbs his comedy gifts to turn in a sharp study of a hard-driven studio publicity director, and Tom Noonan has a couple of terrific scenes as Judy’s youthful and steadfast admirer. Bickford is quietly wonderful as the producer — just about as quietly wonderful as Sidney Luft, who gets the production credit. — Jack Moffitt, originally published on Sept. 29, 1954
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