THE DVD SHELF: Judy Garland's "A Star Is Born" and the Carol Reed Thriller "Night Train to Munich"

News   THE DVD SHELF: Judy Garland's "A Star Is Born" and the Carol Reed Thriller "Night Train to Munich" We screen the Blu-ray release of Judy Garland in "A Star Is Born" and Rex Harrison in the British wartime thriller, "Night Train to Munich."
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A star was born, you surely could say, when Judy Garland came along in 1922. Not Garland but Gumm; Ethel Gumm, to be exact. She found herself singing on stage in 1924 — yes, 1924, at the age of two-and-a-half — and her career was launched. "Judy Garland" was born in 1934 and signed by M-G-M, at 13, in 1935. She became a movie star (minor) in 1937, opposite Mickey Rooney in "Thoroughbreds Don't Cry" and "Love Finds Andy Hardy," and a movie star (major) was born in 1939 singing "Over the Rainbow" in "The Wizard of Oz."

After a decade of superstardom, "gin and rum and destiny" (in the words of Ira Gershwin), or the like, played funny tricks and Garland was (temporarily) washed up. After a nervous breakdown, a suicide attempt and recurring absences which caused her to be replaced in three big-budget musicals, Garland was cashiered from M-G-M in 1950. Washed up at 28, she almost immediately reinvigorated her career with a 1951 concert tour of the U.K., capped by a month at the London Palladium and a legendary two-a-day stint for 19 weeks at the Palace on old Broadway.

Now what? Why not devise a big-budget motion picture and return to the screen in what was sure to be your greatest role? "A Star Is Born" had been a major hit for producer David O. Selznick and director William Wellman in 1937, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. In her early days of superstardom — Dec. 28, 1942 to be exact — Garland played Esther Blodgett on the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the film, opposite Walter Pidgeon. Ten years later, Garland and her new husband/manager Sid Luft decided to remake the still-not-so-old film. George Cukor, an old hand at directing major motion pictures but without a musical or a Technicolor production to his credit, was quickly enlisted. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Moss Hart wrote the screenplay, with songs by Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist Ira Gershwin and composer Harold Arlen (who never won a Pulitzer but deserves all the prizes in the book, in my book anyway).

Jack Warner seemed to be thrilled to provide the money for this super attraction starring one of M-G-M's biggest and most bankable stars, and plenty of money it was. The inevitable delays caused by Garland's work habits added monumentally to the costs, naturally, but Warner seemed intent to make this film big; so much so that after filming began, they decided to scrap the footage and start over using the new CinemaScope process. "A Star Is Born" wound up way over budget, with costs topping the five-million mark. And it was worth it, or so it initially seemed. The film opened in 1954 to highly enthusiastic reviews, and a new star was born; or, rather, the faded star of Judy Garland was reborn. But a problem immediately presented itself. "A Star Is Born" was 181 minutes long, which is to say just over three hours. Cukor had devised it with an intermission break, as was the custom for major roadshow attractions at the time. Warner opened the film without the intermission, which left it as a straight three-hour sit-through. Too long, it seems, so almost immediately after the opening Warner (without Cukor's participation) cut out a full thirty minutes — which translated to an additional showing per screen per day.

Did that missing 30 minutes doom "A Star Is Born"? Was it simply too long for popular consumption? Or was there perhaps a backlash against the star, formerly America's favorite girl-next-door, after the stormily seamy public focus on her offscreen life? In any event, business was disappointingly poor with a U.S. gross of just $4.4 million. Garland's performance, nevertheless, made her a shoo-in for that year's Best Actress Oscar. She lost that too, though — was it her off-screen travails? — with Grace Kelly taking the statuette for "The Country Girl." That said, "A Star Is Born" is a top-notch drama, with Garland giving a dazzlingly good performance. As does James Mason, playing the washed-up Norman Maine.

Given the increasing focus on Garland's work since her death in 1969, it was inevitable that someone would try to reassemble the full "Star Is Born." Film archivist Ronald Haver did just that in 1983. He was able to locate the original 181-minute soundtrack, as well as footage for three lost musical numbers and some cut dialogue scenes. In some places, he had little option but to resort to still photos. Even so, this gave us a good idea of what "A Star Is Born" was originally like. For three weeks, that is, until the Warner's editors snipped it.

Warner Home Video has now taken Haver's expanded reconstruction and restored it using today's digital tools. Colors are more colorful, stains and damaged sections are corrected, and the whole thing is especially enhanced by Blu-ray. Bonuses are abundant. The special features disc includes five unused takes of "The Man That Got Away," which was filmed with Judy in three different costumes; alternate takes of two other songs; a 1956 Warner cartoon, "A Star Is Bored"; numerous audio-only tracks of songs and scenes; and the full 1942 radio broadcast version starring Garland and Pigeon. The Blu-ray edition comes packaged within a well-assembled 40-page book filled with photos and a rather illuminating essay by John Fricke. All in all, this is "A Star Is Born" in a lustrously sparkling package.

The folks at the Criterion Collection keep on coming up with classy releases of films that we want to see again. Night Train to Munich is not a vintage Hitchcock thriller, but it might as well be. This 1940 film comes with a script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, screenwriters of Hitch's 1938 classic "The Lady Vanishes." Margaret Lockwood, heroine of that similarly train-bound affair, serves the same role here; Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne actually play identical roles, coming along on the rails as those cricket-fanciers Charters and Caldicott. Carol Reed, of "The Third Man" and "The Fallen Idol" — both of which are already on the Criterion list — is the director, and the suspense is taught. Those of you who have yearned to hear Rex Harrison sing 16 years before My Fair Lady, here's your chance. Rex plays a Navy officer working undercover as a seaside song-plugger. Margaret's father is a scientist who has fled the Nazis; they arrest the daughter and then let her flee to England, as bait. It all winds up on — well, on the night train to Munich. Not to mention a cable car floating Hitchcockoniously across a mountain gorge.

The third side of the triangle is sympathetically played by Paul von Hernried, a Max Reinhardt actor from Austria who was himself a refugee. He continued on to America, where as Paul Henreid he lit Bette Davis' cigarette in "Now, Voyager" and went on to fight for freedom as Victor Laszlo in "Casablanca." But it is Rex's show, and Margaret Lockwood's — with the taunt suspense goosed by the comedic presence of Charters and Caldicott.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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