George Cukor’s A Star is Born starring Judy Garland and James Mason, released in 1954 by Warner Brothers was, for nearly 30 years, the Holy Grail for film enthusiasts. The 181 minute original release version had been chopped by the studio to 154 minutes only about a month after its premiere in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Detroit. So, if you had not seen the film in the first couple of months of its engagements in these four cities, you were out of luck. To make matters worse, all national reviews of the film were based on viewings of the 181-minute version, the re-cutting received press in nation film journals and magazines of the day, the soundtrack album included two songs that were completely excised by this re-cutting, and, once the film was available on television, only a “pan and scan” version (which lopped off more than half the widescreen image in order to accommodate standard television sets of the time) of the 154 minute version (or even shorter if local stations also took their scissors to it for time reasons) was available to be seen. For nearly two decades various folks had tried to obtain a copy of the 181-minute version for exhibition at film festivals and retrospectives. Warner Brothers continued to insist that the only version they had was the 154-minute version. In 1981, Ronald Haver, then working at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, received permission from the head of Warner Brothers to do an exhaustive search of the studio’s vaults and archives in an attempt to finally answer the question as to whether the 181-minute version still existed or not. This book is his story of that search and the eventual reconstruction of the film that premièred in 1983. But more than that, the bulk of Haver’s book is a telling of the story of how the film came to be made in the first place, a detailed reporting of the production of the film, the film’s première, and how the decisions were made to cut the film, and the aftermath of those decisions. The result is the most detailed reporting of the day-to-day saga of a film’s production that I have ever read. It is also an insightful examination of the most far-reaching technical revolution (widescreen) that had been thrust upon Hollywood filmmakers since the arrival of sound in the late 1920s, and the compelling story of how A Star is Born affected the careers and lives of those who participated in its creation and the lives of those for whom the film remains a milestone in Hollywood history and filmmaking.
In 1983 I had the incredible good luck to be in the right place at the right time. The right place was at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California. The right time was July 16th. There I was among the lucky few who got to see the newly restored and reconstructed 176-minute version of A Star is Born as it was re-premièred in six cities across the country. It was a magical night. Not only were we the audience going to get to see A Star is Born as we had only dreamed of seeing it for low those many years, James Mason, Lillian Gish, Fay Kanin (then president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and an instrumental force in getting this version done), and Ronald Haver whose baby this was were in attendance to introduce the film. James Mason was charm and movie star glamour all rolled into one. He ruminated about Gertrude Stein’s famous quote about Oakland, “There is no there there.” He spoke of how proud he was to be a part of the film, and how gratifying it was to see it restored to its former glory. Lillian Gish (tiny, tiny woman!) thanked us for supporting film preservation and urged us to keep up the good fight. It was important! The lights dimmed and that famous overture began in full stereophonic sound and we were all transported back-and also for the first time-into the tumultuous world of Vicki and Norman, Libby and Danny and the Oliver Niles Studio. As I reread Haver’s book for the first time in twenty years, I wished Haver, who died in 1993, could have been here to see A Star is Born re-mastered in high definition for home video release and theatrical exhibition to a whole new generation. His ruminations in the book about how movies will be seen by audiences of the future have turned out to be spot on. His obvious passion for movies, and for A Star is Born in particular, comes across in his prose. I highly recommend this book for anyone who has a passion for films of the past. This is a great story.