Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Fabulous Art Direction of A Star Is Born (1954)

Remember "A Star Is Born" with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson? Well, don't BOTHER with that muck-colored, would-be weepy (Streisand, a rock goddess?--no). This 1954 remake (the first version was made in 1937) starring Judy Garland and James Mason, directed by George Cukor, is the only "Star Is Born" you need to see. Ever. Period. Even in its studio-butchered truncated edit, or if you're a glutton for overwrought musical dramas, the restored version currently available on DVD (with stills and sound tapes standing in for lost footage on the cutting-room floor).

Some people don't like this film, claiming: Too long! Too ham-fisted! Judy's weight fluctuates too much and she's too old! Who did her hair, for God's sake! James Mason is too drunkenly psychotic to be considered charming! To that, I say: Pooh. Have you no appreciation for art direction? Cinematographer Sam Leavitt's use of CinemaScope is stupendously rich and eye-poppingly colorful. Oscar-nominated Art director/Set Decorator Malcolm C. Bert earned every vote of his nomination. I always thought I'd grow up to own a house where I would decorate every room as an homage to every set in this film. I was a strange and underdeveloped 23-year-old, I admit. But, look, this musical is just saturated with creative thought processes, some of them in need of editing, some of them overly ambitious. But they add up to a bunch of errors in judgment that somehow manage to stand the test of time.

So while elements of "A Star Is Born" don't jive with today's hip, now, happening world (like the entire story, for instance), one thing is for sure: Ms. Garland has the most fantastic voice in Hollywood musical history. She really belts it out here and manages to be completely heart-felt as well. Plus her Vicki Lester/Esther Blodgett is a sweet-natured, enabling, loyal sort. If her relationship with James Mason's falling-down-drunk Norman Maine is unhealthy, who are we to judge? I mean, look at Norman's fabulous bachelor pad--who wouldn't fall for that? And that is successful art direction. And now...

Look at the pinks and sparkly tiaras of the opening scene! Only there to wow us with their pinkness and sparkliness.

Which are echoed in this fading-out chandelier. Wowee-wow-wow.

What alternate universe is this? This scene just keeps going into "over-budget" territory.



This is a great room to pass out in, and the fact that he manages to hit the bed first shows what a pro drinker Norman Maine is.

Nice matte painting from Hans Koenekamp and crew. I like to give matte painters credit when possible, though I don't know who actually painted this.

The bamboo interiored, intentionally fake palm-tree night club, was built from the ground up with no purpose other than to get Norman from this end of town to the other while looking for Esther and her ultimate singing voice. I mean, she's not even here. And he just leaves, ignoring the advances of the would-be groupie sitting at table 12. And still, I want to go to this club.

Oh, there she is, at another club, after-hours, belting out The Man That Got Away. Check out that multi-colored screen, back on the left. Just a minute detail to liven up the joint. Judy sounds fabulous in this clip, but how does she muster this energy so late at night after two performances already? I don't wanna know...

You go, Garland.

The cheap motel Esther must reside in, between on-the-road digs. Very JC Penney in scope, but kind of sweet. I've stayed in worse, believe me. There was this Motel 6 in Portland--oh baby, let's not go there...

More of Norman's Asian-inspired digs. What's that thing to the right of the fireplace? Visual interest.

Nothing much to see here, folks. Just thought I'd note the two hanging sconces on either side of the bed with the lamp in the foreground. Someone needs a lot of light, perhaps for reading all those star contracts and screenplays.

When I saw this needless scrim, I got so excited, I dropped my optical mouse off the desk. Needless scrim--a rarely used theatrical device that just looks cool.

The intro to the seemingly endless Born In A Trunk. Check out the juxtaposition of the pants against that flower backdrop. That's movie magic.

I used to work with some former Midwestern art students who became San Francisco hipsters.They would play Born In A Trunk in their restaurant at closing time. There's nothing like the sound of plates and wine glasses clinking together on the way to the dishwasher with this epic show-business saga pumping through the ceiling speakers—made clean-up a breeze.

And look at this funky art direction. George Cukor had left town for Europe when producers (including Garland) inserted into the film. It has a spare, minimalist (cheap) look that doesn't match the rest of the art direction. Plus, viewers complained: It goes on too long! Well, they obviously never bussed tables at midnight like I did. Thanks, Judy, for getting me through every weekend my sophomore year in college.

Norman's bizarro studio-lot dressing room. Bigger than most NYC apartments and full of weaponry. Ominous, and not a very beguiling view of the studio-system way of interior decoration.

Norman and Esther/Vicki's magnificent beach-front property. It's a miniature. I would love to have this on my fireplace mantel.

Fabulous parties featuring multi-room views and swanky guests holding strong cocktails.

 Too many cocktails can undo a man. Norman's Asian inspiration has been feminized under Vicki's guidance. She's taking over the world, his world and ours.

Mid-century modern. This set was designed to be completely overrun by Vicki's number Someone At Last. Take a look at every inch of this still. She will use all these props in a dance routine that is exhausting but somehow uplifting for Norman, whose star is on the wane. And there's jazz hands too.

Throw pillows, furniture, leopard rug, lamps, a wall clock, strobe light, and even houseplant fronds all have their moment in this one. Not the most P.C. of numbers but better than watching kitties on the Internet.

Christmas at the fabulous beach-front property is not a festive affair with Norman in a sanitarium attempting to dry out. What's in all those packages anyway? I think they're home-versions of TV game shows, like Password and To Tell The Truth. That's what my parents used to get for Christmas.

Some miserable modern art, to go with Norman's demise.

And we end on a bleak note. Sorry. Vicki will triumph of course, because it's Hollywood. But for now, her master bedroom suite is a textured honeycomb of misery and despair. Still, she will pick up the pieces and carry on the dream of being Mrs. Norman Maine and when all is said and done, that's apparently a step up from being Esther Blodgett.

An excellent and very detailed account of the design, building and dismantling of the fabulous Malibu beach house is at Jetset Modern. Writer Sandy McLendon includes an anecdote about what happened to all the mid-century modern furniture that Judy used so well in her Someone At Last number. It's a funny story, like so many in the movie industry.


Tuckers said...

Yeah it's an awesome movie. I am in love with her beach house! It's the most awesome 50's style ever :)

Bev Sykes said...

My favorite movie since I first saw it in 1954.