The following is a guest post from Gershwin Archivist Janet McKinney.
It seems there is something utterly compelling about the core story of A Star is Born, as it is now being told in theaters for the fourth time. Originally a 1937 drama starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, it told the story of a rising actress eclipsing the career of the alcoholic actor she falls in love with: a man who takes his own life to ensure her success. The 1954 remake shifted the story slightly to become a musical, while the subsequent 1976 and 2018 remakes have shifted even further to portray recording musicians as opposed to actors. The 1954 musical starring Judy Garland and James Mason is particularly fascinating because it gave us one of the most iconic scenes in the history of American cinematography: Garland’s performance of “The Man That Got Away.
Moss Hart, author of the screenplay, met with Harold Arlen, the composer, and Ira Gershwin, the lyricist, to discuss his outline of what kind of songs were needed and where they should be placed. Hart knew that the song that was to be sung in the dive bar was absolutely crucial to the story. It would instantly prove Judy Garland’s character as an exceptional singer with great dramatic capabilities, thus setting into motion her relationship with Norman Main and her rise to stardom. Arlen and Gershwin met Hart’s expectations and delivered an instant hit in “The Man That Got Away.” The rest of their score was expertly crafted, working harmoniously with Hart’s screenplay and the development of the two main characters.
The early 1950s saw Hollywood studios wrought with competition over filming processes and technologies. This resulted in multiple delays in the filming of A Star is Born due to the uncertainty as to exactly which technology and method would ultimately be chosen. The important scene of “The Man That Got Away” was used as the litmus test. It was first shot in Technicolor and standard screen; it was then filmed with a different costume in CinemaScope and Eastmancolor using mostly brown hues (above). The final version used yet another costume and was dominated by red and blue colors. All three versions were filmed with director George Cukor’s indefatigable vision of one long, continuous shot.
The production saw many other problems, both throughout the filming process and after its release. The movie lasted over 3 hours, and after it had already premiered Warner studios cut the length, much to the anger of many and the utter disappointment of the creative team. Eventually A Star is Born was painstakingly reconstructed and rereleased in 1983. The film was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2000.
Materials related to the score of A Star is Born (1954) can be found in the George and Ira Gershwin Collection. Fittingly, the film that is a vehicle for some of Ira Gershwin’s final work as a lyricist before retirement also highlights George Gershwin’s very first hit, “Swanee,” in a medley during the “Born in a Trunk” sequence. A star is born, indeed.
To read more about A Star is Born and the movie musical’s history, see:
Haver, Ronald. A Star is Born: The Making of the 1954 and its 1983 Restoration. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1988.