Like with the greatest of films, every time I see the 1954 version of A Star is Born, I notice something new. This time, the great shot above, which seems a noir rendering using as background the shade of green so often deployed by Edward Hopper in his paintings (see below), and even in his rural or landscape works:
What makes the shot so poignant is that the shadowy embrace against the Edward Hopper green is their entrance to their honeymoon hotel. The first night of their marriage is already imbued with suggestions of sadness, loneliness, alienation, of imprisonment in/and shadows. This had already been foreshadowed earlier by the notice of their marriage dissolving into an image of prisoners behind bars (later turned into a joke with the knowledge that the room the judge is marrying them also contains a jail). See below:
Prison bars feature heavily in the film, particularly and most obviously in the scene where Norman Maine (James Mason) ends up in jail:
But the whole film partakes of aspects of a noir aesthetic, from the Bleue Bleu nightclub to shadowy lighting to LA nights where neon illuminates the darkness (see below)
The film also contains as many references to then ´Modern´painting as Minnelli´s An American in Paris (1951). Rousseau, Dégas, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, all are referenced backstage in the Shriner Auditorium sequence, and later on we even get a Mondrian image from the ‘Born in a Trunk’ number (see below):
The film is made up of such purposeful patternings both in referencing a history of art but also in deploying particular aspects of noir lighting as part of its mise-en-scène. What the first image shown above tells us is that this marriage is doomed from the very beginning. It will have passion, it will have beauty, but it will also be full of the darkness where addiction and self-hatred create a prison from a home, one that even love can´t breach. It´s all there in that first image that marks the start of their honeymoon.
José reminisces about Judy Garland as a feature of his childhood, a constant presence on his family’s television, and as a person who took on different significance to him as he grew up. Whether he admits it or not, he’s been keen to see Judy since the trailers first appeared. Mike, predictably, neither knows much about her nor cares, although he has seen The Wizard of Oz about a thousand times.
The film’s greatest pleasure is Renée Zellweger’s performance, a pleasant surprise to José as he’s never liked her very much. We agree that the stage numbers leave something to be desired – the production seems to create a disconnect between Zellweger’s performance and singing, sounding artificial – but swoon at moments when it all comes together, particularly in the climactic rendition of Over the Rainbow. José suggests that this is when Zellweger most deviates from any of Garland’s true performances, and perhaps that relative freedom from imitation is what gives her the space to connect to the song here.
In general terms, the film is none too exciting, shot effectively but inexpressively and ticking off the normal plot points of a star-on-the-decline biopic, with money and family worries, substance abuse problems, temper tantrums and assorted other clichés making appearances, and authentic as it may be, there’s only so many times Judy can be late for a gig before the drama wears thin. Her relationship with her children is an emotional wrench, though, and the film builds to an effective ending, powered by that fantastic final number.
There’s a subplot about Judy’s encounter with a gay couple that recognises her importance to the gay community and contrasts her glitz and stardom with the inhumane oppression to which gay people were and are treated – homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK only two years prior to when the film is set. It’s a plot strand that could fall on its face through cheesiness or clumsiness, particularly considering the couple’s role in the final scene, but it arguably succeeds through periphrastic, sparing dialogue, and by tying everything back to Judy’s songs. Everything comes back to those, ultimately, and despite some lacklustre direction here and there, it all comes together when it absolutely needs to.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Gary Horrocks came to talk on Judy Garland at Warwick University and I grabbed him briefly to discuss fandom and Judy Garland; how he became a Judy Garland fan; and how he eventually went on to run The International Judy Garland Fan Club and become editor of, first, The Rainbow Review, which originated in 1963, and, more recently, Judy Garland: A Celebration.
Judy Garland is famous for starring in some of the most renown and celebrated films of all time: The Wizard of Oz (1939), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), A Star is Born (1954); films which are seen and re-seen, from generation to generation; films which for some become totems through which to make sense of their lives and the world they live in: ‘what is it to have a heart?,’ I’ve heard children ask their mothers after watching The Wizard of Oz, and children ask a deeper, more complex and philosophical question than most adults do when using the same words.
Aside from her film work, Garland also appeared regularly on radio when that was at its peak in the ‘40s, she made dozens and dozens of albums, had her own television variety show and gave thousands of live performances in concert, some, such as the Carnegie Hall concert from ’61, so legendary that Rufus Wainwright re-interpreted it in 2006 and toured with for several years after. Since her 1951 performances at The Palladium to her last ones at The Talk of The Town in ’69, The UK was fundamental to her success.
In the podcast below, Gary talks of how The Judy Garland Club’s journal has been used as a primary source of research in biographies. The Rainbow Review, which was started in 1963 by Lorna Smith, and ran for over 100 issues is a mine of information and the club has kept every letter from every fan, many now sadly deceased. Fans also meticulously kept every newspaper article, review, etc., all of which the club has kept, filed and curated. The club also filmed interviews with people who’d met her, and this now amounts to over 400 hours of footage.
In 1998 Gary Horrocks was invited to take over the editorship of the The Rainbow Review, which eventually evolved into Judy Garland: A Celebration. There are now members from all over the world. They’ve recently produced a documentary on the 1957 Dominion show based on the archives, written by Gary Horrocks and created by Andy Warrington. The actor/comedian/author Tony Hawks is narrator.
In 2019 the Club is publishing its next journal with an extensive contribution from its founder Lorna Smith, alongside iJUDY – its online newsletter. More information on the club can be found at: www.Judygarlandclub.org.
The conversation, which can be listened to above, touches on I Could Go on Singing, Judy’s first UK tour, the appearances at the Dominion, the cult of Dorothy, her recordings at Abbey Road, the importance attached to her sincerity, and the various types of Judy fandom: ‘Some fans say I don’t like that version of Judy or I prefer the 60’s version. Or they say, ‘I don’t do Dorothy’. People approach her in different ways. There’s lots of friction amongst the fan community due to a sense of ownership around her. She gave the impression that she was singing just for you. Again I come back to ‘sincerity’. Her flame seems to get brighter every year.
I always get sad and embarrassed when I see the great stars of the Hollywood musical don blackface, even when, as Fred Astaire does in Swing Time, it’s done as an homage to a black performer, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. I thought Doris Day might have escaped this blight merely by becoming a star a generation later than Astaire or Garland or so many others. But no, here she is in I’ll See You In My Dreams .(Curtiz, 1951) .and one feels ‘poor everybody’.
The image and the number condenses a concatenation of meanings that evoke both the push and pull, the inclusiveness and hierarchisation of American identity. The number is set in a WW1 camp where Gus and Grace Kahn are entertaining the troops. The film makes much of Kahn’s family having emigrated to America and of Kahn writing the songbook to the lives of several generations of Americans (‘Making Whoopee’, ‘Ain’t We Got Fun’, ‘My Buddy’, ‘It Had To Be You’, ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ etc). The film in a way charts a journey of assimilation and inclusiveness. Danny Thomas, gives a great performance as Gus: wide-eyed, wide-open emotionally, overly focussed to the point of autism, very endearing in expressing love of wife and children the character he plays can’t express except through song. Danny Thomas himself was famously of Lebanese origin. So Danny, Danny as Gus, Doris, Doris as Grace, Grace married to Gus, her blondness, his darkness, all speak assimilation and inclusiveness.
Except we have this number, which in spite of the flag and in spite of narrative speaks a hierarchy of exclusions. Doris is not just donning blackface. She’s donning blackface (and drag!) to imitate Al Jolson singing ‘Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye’, so a blond female Kapplehoff, Day’s real name, is summoning and superseding a male jew, Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson), who himself poked fun, embodied, reproduced and made himself superior to a derogatory stereotype of a black man.
So the image speaks of Doris Day (Doris Ma Anne Kapplehoff) and Danny Thomas (born Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz) coming together under a flag, just like the characters they play, speaks of assimilation and inclusiveness. But the blackface itself belts out the limits to that inclusiveness, a hierarchy of race and ethnicity, a hierarchy of power which is both gendered and racialised, differential access to belonging and a colour barrier to inclusiveness tout court.
I grew up in Montreal, where Elvis was King en français.The local commercial French station, TVA Canal Dix, showed Elvis films regularly: the dialogue was in French but Elvis rocked in English. I must have seen all of them and had firm favourites: Viva Las Vegas (George Sidney, 1964) with Ann-Margaret, Blue Hawaii (Norman Taurog, 1961), and this one, King Creole. I now see that it’s perhaps significant that these were all directed by old-timers of the studio system who knew their craft.
Some fans prefer Jailhouse Rock (Richard Thorpe, 1957), and certainly its famous and eponymous number is a delight. But King Creole is arguably Elvis’ best film. And it’s part of the tragedy of his film career that even his best film is but a derivative and pulpy melodrama. Themes of teenage rebellion, the relationships of fathers and sons, and children looking on pityingly at what they see as the emasculation of their fathers by society and societal institutions, are all themes that are better dealt with, in this very same period, by Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
As a teenager, I’d read and enjoyed the Harold Robbins novel the film is based on, A Stone for Danny Fisher. And Curtiz’ film follows the plot quite closely, if exchanging Brooklyn for New Orleans, the boxing world for that of the nightclub scene on Bourbon Street and the 1930 Depression setting for the film’s present.
Presley’s Danny Fisher, a talented singer, is busing tables at a nightclub whilst trying to graduate from high school. The money he brings in is needed to keep the family afloat. His father’s given up. He’s been a prominent pharmacist but lost it all when his wife’s death led to a spiral of depression and drink. They lost their house and now live in a slum tenement next to a brothel. Fisher keeps failing High School’s cause he’s just got too much to do. In the meantime the streets offer lots of opportunity for easy money. Danny’s father is willing to lower himself so that his son can get a diploma but Danny can’t bear to see his father so bullied and humiliated. Also, he can make easy money singing. The tangles of family, show-business and the underworld lead to tragedy. King Creole is a mix of teen film, musical, and noir. There are few musical performers more exiting to watch in this period than Elvis. And almost no one in the Hollywood of this time is better at using the camera than Michael Curtiz. Elvis performing and how Michael Cutiz films him performing are what propel this otherwise pulpy melodrama into something great.
King Creole is one of the few Presley films, the only one I remember, where he’s presented as a real film star. He gets a great star entrance with the ‘Crawfish’ number, a duet with rhythm and blues singer Kitty White, written by songwriters Ben Weisman and Fred Wise as a street vendor’s cry, that starts off in the pre-credit sequence, continues on Kitty White post-credits, then cranes up and dissolves to introduce us to Elvis, who is framed behind lace curtains, in turn framed by the window, in turn framed by the shutters, in turn framed by balcony railings.
Elvis opens up the curtains, and comes out, to us, like a fancy chocolate in a box within a box within a box and next to flowers. As the song continues, Elvis is intercut with Kitty passing by on her cart, finally we get a reverse shot that shows us the other side of the street, with the ‘hostesses’ on the balcony on the nightclub next door soliciting Elvis. In the shot when he responds, ‘No you don’t, ya gotta pay me’, his sister appears on the right hand side to offer him breakfast. Curtiz masterfully presents what people have paid to see — Elvis — makes us wait for what he’s got to offer, frames him, teases us, and reveals his talent, desirability, family relations and a context in which the drama can unfold all in one scene. It’s a brilliant mise-en-scene of stardom. Something Curtiz is so expert at and that so few other directors ever offered to Elvis.
What Elvis was famous for in 1958 was conveying sex to teenagers. The Los Angeles Mirror-News entertainment editor wrote that ‘what Elvis offers is not basically music but a sex show’ (cited on p. 438 in Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis (438). Guralnick writes that Leber and Stoller’s ‘Trouble’, a Muddy Waters-styled blues was intended somewhat tongue in cheek but was delivered by Elvis with untempered ferocity. ‘It sounded sort of comical to us, but strangely enough to the mass market it wasn’t. It was somewhat generational and somewhat cultural, but they bought it’. (p.449).
In the film, Curtiz stages that sexy ferocity as a challenge to the gangster played by Walter Matthau, as something to entice the gangster’s moll played by Carolyn Jones, and as a source of conflict between the two nightclub owners. That talent, sex and ferocity are once more put in the scene in the context of different narrative threads where his very power and desirability originate the source of the tragedy to come. It’s a lesson in how to mobilise a star persona in narrative and how to narrativise stardom.
Julie Lobalzo-Wright in Crossover Stardom’ writes that there can be no doubt that Presley represented the rebellious image of the 1950s, both within America and worldwide, and his cultural impact cannot be overstated. (p.59)…Presley’s early live performances on The Milton Berle Sow, The Steve Allen Sow, and The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956) created a stir displaying Presley’s overt sexuality that consistently presented his sexualized body as an object of desire. Thomas. C. Carlos has described his early television performances as ‘so sexy, not white sexy, not coy sexy, but so humping swaggering black r&b sexy” that they led to a national uproar’.
I’d also like to comment on the quieter ‘Young Dreams’ number (see above). This is such a joyful performance, the dip in his shoulder, the shake of his head during ‘kiss you morning, noon and night’ then again dipping his shoulders and opening his mouth in the pause as if to say, “‘wow’ isn’t this naughty and marvellous’. Presley conveys the saucy and the tender filtered through a joyful amazement, sex combined with feeling in gleeful wonderment. No wonder his girlfriend in the audience is on the verge of tears with longing. Seeing him, we understand her, and understand why Elvis was so appealing to both men and women for so long. It’s a quiet number in the film, but powerful. And made more so by Presley being at the centre of a pool of light amidst the shadows and darkness of the nightclub, a light also highlighted by wearing a shirt that photographs white. Thus in a longer shot he’s the focus bathed in light, and then of course, there are the close-ups, when it’s his singing, his sensuality, and the effect that these things are having on his girlfriend that Curtiz draws our attention to.
As we can see in King Creole Crutiz constructs a mise-en-scene of and around Presley’s stardom, both as a musical performer, a sensation really, and as a movie star. I’ve commented on some of the numbers above. But let me just draw your eye to other aspects:
See, for example, how in the scene where he takes his girlfriend to see his old home, the focus is on him even when she’s doing all the talking; and note how he’s lit (see below):
See also how Curtiz present Presley to us in and through through light. Lighting is accentuating his features, his feelings, his very presence. He’s often shown coming in and out of the light. See some of the pictures below but further down you can also see how he’s lit as a kind of noir hero/film star in the scene were he watches his father get attacked.
Ultimately, the story is hackneyed but professionally told. Curtiz knows how to make his stars shine and how to use what they represent to create context, plot and convey feeling. Elvis’ stardom is part of the mise-en-scene of King Creole. It’s the same kind of care others took to present Judy Garland, Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire; it’s the same kind of care Curtiz used in his musicals with James Cagney and Doris Day; it’s the kind of care Elvis rarely got from any of his other directors.
Dottie Ponedel was the make-up artist to the stars in the classic era. She helped develop Dietrich’s look and did her make-up throughout the thirties. She also developed Garland’s ‘natural’ look beginning in Meet Me in St. Louis. For years she was the only female make-up artist, hard to believe now, and for years the boys in the union tried to get her kicked out (see image below). The book is a reminiscence, jottings from memory once all the adventures had been lived and whilst Ponedel was living through a difficult and all too early retirement brought on by Multiple Sclerosis. In a way it’s a slight book; a person’s memories, treasured, vividly rendered, but of a past already distant when they were written.
But what a person Dottie Ponedel was! She moved to LA with her mother and on 300 dollars they set up a bakery. She was picked off the street to work as an extra, and LA being a small town then, got to know all the big stars; Valentino and his first wife, Jean Acker, Carole Lombard when she was a Mack Sennett bathing beauty. She moved from bit parts to dancing bits and even got a contract with Goldwyn. She became a make-up artist only when she solved a spit-curl problem for Nancy Carroll and Carroll insisted on having her onset. The film was Follow Thru in 1930. Then, by her account, Von Sternberg had seen what she’d done with Carroll and wanted her to do something similar for Dietrich. In the book Ponedel goes to great lengths to explain what she did do, and why Dietrich’s look in her American films was so different than in The Blue Angel. Soon she was under exclusive contract to Paramount as a make-up person, at a time when all of them were men, the most famous of them, the only one who enjoyed a similar level of fame to hers, being Perc Westmore, and that because he was head of the whole make-up department at Warners.
‘At the studios, the make-up men hated my guts’ writes Ponedel. ‘They called me everything under the sun because I wouldn’t make charts to show them what I was doing. Why should I, the way they were treating me. If they were smart, they would have done the same as I, take a little from this painting and that painting and use a little imagination and they would have the Ponedel make-up style. That’s how I became so well known’.
Whilst Ponedel had been an extra, bit player and dancer, men had been a certain kind of problem. The sexual harassment seems relentless: ‘it seems every time I did a dance I got into trouble with the male sex.’ And it was structural, from the lowest to the highest: ‘Those big guys had offices that looked like Grand Central Station. I did a hop, skip, and jump around the oval table and he after me’.
Once Ponedel became a make-up artist most of that stopped. The make-up men and the union boys might have hated her. But the stars, particularly the women –Dietrich, Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, Barbara Stanwyck, Judy Garland — loved her. The book evokes a strong sense of female solidarity, women creating all-women networks in which they could find mutual support, help, voice their troubles. And we all know the hair and make-up people are privy to all the secrets. And Ponedel still respects them. We hear of Dietrich’s extraordinary generosity and kindness. How Paulette Goddard credited her with getting her role in Unconquered after De Mille had rejected her. How Garland stole back some of her own money from Sid Luft so that she could go to Rome. What come across here is the kindness and generosity of women one thinks of a bit as monstres sacrées.
Almost a third of the book is devoted to Judy Garland. The chapter that begins the story of their relationship is entitled ‘My Wonderful Judy’ and begins, ‘Now that Judy Garland has taken her final trip over the rainbow, it’s up to me to write the story that Judy and I were going to write together. I was with Judy a quarter of a century and if she wasn’t at my house or me at hers, or on the phone, I always knew what she was up to. Few people meant more to me in my life than Judy Garland.’
What follows, for almost a third of of the book or more is an account of that friendship, its professional beginnings and how it flowered into something deeper. Men do not come across well in this account. Here’s Danny Kaye jumping on Ponedel in a hotel room whilst she’s asleep and pretending he’ assaulting her for a practical joke. Ha Ha: the humour curdles the blood. Here’s Minnelli, distant, ineffectual, complete powerless to help, uncaring of the many adventures Garland is undertaking with other men; here’s Sid Luft, exhibiting the classic behaviour of an abuser and stealing her money; worse he’s stealing her money whilst she knows he’s stealing her money and she lets him because…well, one can always make more money.
It’s quite an extraordinary tale, partial, lacking in context, but offering information one doesn’t get elsewhere and told with a personality that jumps off the page. I recommend.
Most musicals aren’t very good. But I love them. Even the worst have at least one great number; and when the whole film is good, there’s nothing better. The glories of the ‘Astaire and Rogers’ films have already been extolled here. And the best of the Freed Unit (Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bandwagon) needs no introduction. So today I’m going for ‘not quite top notch Freed-Unit’, which still probably makes it better than anything by anybody else. I’m thinking of films like The Harvey Girls, Show Boat, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Cabin in the Sky.
The reason for choosing Easter Parade (Chuck Walters, MGM, 1948) is simple. It’s the only film to star Astaire and Garland– to me the two giants of the genre. Each made films that are arguably better (much of the RKO series for Astaire; Wizard, Meet Me, and Star is Born for Garland). Irving Berlin raided his back catalogue and wrote new music for it: the score is a treasure box of standards, most sung by Garland and Astaire, of whom there’s no one better at singing the classic American songbook ,and at its very inception: this is the film that introduced ‘It Only Happens When I Dance With You’. Easter Parade was MGM’s biggest hit of the year one of the greatest successes of both of their careers. The ever-so alive Anne Miller helps anyone shake the blues away. Peter Lawford is the rich, charming but passive and not-fully-there fellar with an umbrellar. This is the film where Judy and Fred do the famous tramp number, ‘A Couple of Swells’.
Judy was supposed to star with Kelly but he broke his leg and aren’t we glad he did? Breaking a leg can indeed bring luck. I used to watch this annually with my sister; and the only thing that’s changed about my feelings for it is that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate Garland’s performance more. She’s a truly great and truly inventive comic actress with crack timing. Just look at her parody of Ginger Rogers, feathers moulting off her dress in ‘Top Hat’ (see above). The DVD of Easter Parade has a wonderful series of out-takes on ‘Mr. Monotony’ which demonstrate so well how a film is pieced together of various takes. There are moments where she’s listening on the playback and then turns on the performance on a beat of the music — subtly projecting, fully present, eager to please and express — that are just astonishing to see. And you get to see how she does it the same but with slight subtle variations in take after take. Comparing the out-takes to the final number (excised from the print on its initial release) one realises that it’s almost always the first take that’s chosen. It’s truly amazing.
Easter Parade is a treasure trove of delights. My favourite moment is not the great Anne Miller ‘Shaking The Blues Away’ number. Nor is it the legendary Garland-Astaire ‘A Couple of Swells’; nor any of the great Irving Berlin songs: (‘Stepping Out With My Baby’; ‘It Only Happens When I Dance With You,’ so many others. The moment I treasure most is this one above: Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) has been ditched by his elegant and sexy dancing partner Nadine Hale (Anne Miller). He vows that he can replace her with anyone and chooses Hannah Brown (Judy Garland), a singing waitress he picks up at a tavern.
Hewes tries to teach her how to dance, how to dress, how to walk. Hannah Brown’s not good enough if he’s going to be as big a hit as he was with Nadine. To replace a Nadine he needs a Juanita, not a plain Hannah Brown. But when that Hannah Brown is played by Judy Garland…. sigh, what bliss. This is the moment where Hannah Brown has to prove to Don Hewes that she can become the sexy ‘Juanita’ he’s dreamed up for the act and where Garland shows us why plain old Hannah Brown is so much better. They might not look back to her for sex, but boy will they look back. I’ve always delighted in this moment. It seems to me to speak to the best bits of the Hannah Browns in each of us.
‘The Man That Got Away’ number in the 1954 version of A Star is Born directed by George Cukor is widely acknowledged as one of the very greatest in the history of the musical genre.
There’s so much to admire: dramatically, the choice of a song of loss and longing as the moment that sparks admiration and love in the narrative is inspired — it’s at first unusual and original and later becomes prescient and structuring. The song itself, a Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin tune, written for Garland, given a great brassy orchestration by Skip Martin, and so wonderful it’s become a standard covered by a whole array of singers through the ages, including a sparse version by Jeff Buckley accompanied only on guitar; Garland’s performance of the song, both the singing and the acting of it, are, as I will demonstrate later to any who doubt, legendary and beyond compare. As is the choice to film it as a noir in colour but with most of the colour drained out and used sparingly but powerfully. Here director George Cukor acknowledges the contributions of production designer Gene Allen and legendary photographer George Hoyningen-Huene to the way the film looks. Sam Leavitt was Director of Photography.
What I want to deal with here is the direction, particularly in its use of the cinemascope frame: the fluid arrangement and re-arrangement of compositions, the forward move of the action, the creation of the illusion of three dimensional space and the way which the filmmakers manage to create a sense of horizon in a narrow rectangular frame. CinemaScope was relatively new then and, along with technicolour, prominently publicised in all the posters for the initial release. This number to me is a sublime example of brilliant use of it made even more gobsmacking by the singing of the number all being filmed in one extended long take.
If you’re interested have a look at the number, refresh your memory. delight in the brilliance of the singing, the acting, the direction, the look, the way the scene unfolds and the way the camera moves…
Shot 1 (14 seconds): Then let’s look at the first shot of the sequence. Note how the frame is divided into thirds, that the title of the club is the ‘bleu bleu’ — significantly narratively as a place one goes to drown one’s sorrows but ends driving the blues away and also as an indicator of the overall look and tone of the scene — advertised on different sides of James Mason’s back (see the first frame.) Then Mason advances towards the door, whilst the camera at first stays still, thus creating a new composition within the shot, now we have neon blue on one side, and a poster, pinkish with red overtones, advertising the band on the other. In the third reframing within the same shot, the camera has caught up with Norman Maine (James Mason) and as he opens the door to the club, the door occupies one third, the poster the other and Maine and the open door roughly occupy the centre. The open door gives a sense of horizon, the illusion of three-dimensional space so familiar from Renaissance painting, think of the Mona Lisa, and so hard to achieve in that narrowly rectangular cinemascope frame. The door opening coincides with the brass element of the orchestration trumpeting the refrain: something new is announced, a new space of possibility just beyond the horizon.
Shot 2 (3 seconds, see frame enlargement below): the second shot is only three seconds. It’s an establishing shot of Norman Maine looking. But note how the shot is almost drained of colour except for the neon red throwing its pool of light from outside to the inside of the club. Note also how the lighting is focussed on Norman Maine’s face, and how the furniture is arranged along with the post in the right hand side. This creates a triangular shape within the frame, a sense of horizon, this time from the reverse perspective that we saw in the previous shot and inside. What the shot establishes is Norman Maine’s point-of-view, which is what will anchor the whole sequence. His gaze on her is what’s important, it’s how she, through him, will demonstrate to us that she is in fact the great singer and star he will know her to be once the song ends and that we, the audience, already know. According to Patrick MacGilligan,
‘The marriage of Technicolor and the wide-screen CinemaScope (a process still in its infancy) was partly responsible for the delay and cost. Color-test scenes had been filmed and re-filmed until everyone was satisfied’ (p.226). One can see in this shot how all those tests with the format and the colour paid off. It’s sparse, elegant, dramatic, like the work of a great painter, or here a great director elegantly mobilising all the talents of his cast and crew to purposeful and meaningful expression that delights the eyes and ears.
Shot 3 (7 seconds, see frame enlargement below)
The third shot is Norman’s point-of-view. He looks in the previous shot and this is what he and we see. Note how Esther Blodgett, soon to be transformed into Vicky Lester, superstar, and played by Judy Garland is a pinprick in a pool of light at the centre of the frame with her band. Her importance is signalled by her centrality but not quite yet made overt. Note how the frame is also divided into thirds. How the chairs on the right are closer to the lens, how the two musicians are framed by that pink/coral light we first saw on the poster on the right side of the frame in the first shot, accented by the pool of light that follows Norman Maine’s entrance into the club in the second shot. Note how this arrangement helps create a sense of three-dimensionality, gives a horizon to the space that would otherwise seem flat. Note how there’ a sense of drama in placing those chairs so as to impede but not quite block our view of Esther and the band. She, and her talent, will only fully be revealed to us later. It’s not only gorgeous and artful but dramatic and meaningful.
Shot 4: (23 second, see frame enlargements below)
The fourth shot is as the French call it, a plan sequence, a longer take, which can have different sequences within it created by camera movement and which involves the orchestration of various elements. This shot begins where shot 3 left off (see frame enlargement below on the left), with Norman Maine at the entrance of the club, triangularly placed on the horizon, with that hint of neon red just above him. He moves towards the camera, which is towards the sound of the band, towards Esther, and through pools of light and darkness. As he sits on by the pile of chairs, a waiter enters the frame from the left (see frame enlargement below, centre). At this point the camera leaves Norman and accompanies the waiter through the club, past chairs and pillars (John Ford claimed that nothing created a sense of three dimensionality as moving the camera past trees. This has a similar effect) to deposit his tray by the band (see frame enlargement on the right). The touch neon red behind Norman Maine has become the quasi coral pink that engulfs Esther Blodgett and her band, and her face is bathed in pure white light. The dramatic advantage of filming it in this way is that Norman and Esther are united in space and time, that his attention is focussed on her, he is watching she is doing performing. Symbolically his darkness, his troubled moving through dark and light ends with a hope of pure light in a coral setting. How better to represent was Esther/Vicky will represent to Norman?
Shot 5 (4 seconds)
The fifth shot is a closer look, Norman Maine’s look, on where the camera had deposited us previously. ‘Take it honey’ says the pianist. Esther rises as you can see below, occupying the left third of the frame. As the pianist reiterates ‘Take it from the top’, Esther will come to occupy the right of the third of the frame, so in one shot there’s an elegant move across the wide Cinemascope frame, from left to right, once more leaving the frame neatly organised in thirds, whilst the pianist, chiars and glasses behind the bar, all work together to create an illusion of depth.
Shot 6 (1 second):
Shot six barely lasts a second. It’s a medium closeup of Norman Maine straining to see through the darkness of the empty club. The editing here reminding us that it is Norman who is looking, like us, but unlike us, and as was established in shot four, Norman and Esther are united in time in space. We’re reminded of us as the voice-over to this shot is Esther repeating what the pianist had said but as a question ‘from the top?’. The sound is Esther, the image is Norman. He is the big star, she is the unknown band singer yet it is he who is looking, she who is being looked at.
Shot 7: (3.26 seconds. The frame enlargements below are representative examples of each time the camera moves and re-calibrates the composition, except for figures Gand H which are the same composition but where Esther commands the image, the arrangement of things and figures in the frame created in the ‘good riddance, goodbye moment’ with a wave of her hand on the goodbye moment which makes all the musicians bring down their instruments)
As the DVD extras of A Star is Born inform us, ‘The Man That Got Away’ is arguably the most important single musical sequence in A Star is Born. It was photographed in 3 different costumes on 3 different occasions, in over 40 different partial or complete takes’. According to Patrick McGilligan ‘The director drove people to distraction with his unusual lighting and color demands. Some of the voluptuous effects were arrived at after much argument and costly experimentation’ and it was partly this (along with Garland’s illnesses) that helped turn A Star is Born into the second most expensive picture in Hollywood history up to that point. Its official cost of $5, 019, 777 made it second only to Selznick’s 1946 film, Duel in the Sun, recorded at 5,225,000′ (p. 226).
Every re-framing of ‘The Man That Got Away Moment’ can be analysed in at least as much detail as the shots discussed previously, which themselves can be discussed in greater detail than I’ve offered. I characteristically have run out of time just at the moment of greater interest so I just want to indicate certain things I marvel at. Note how Esther/Garland beckons the musician to her at the beginning. Throughout this sequence she will be in constant communication withe the various musicians (see figures A,E,L and Q as only representative examples), she will also be conveying the meaning of the song, losing herself in it, running to the camera (fig J), and fearlessly turning her back to it (fig K), whilst also conveying Esther, an insecure star-in-waiting, one of the boys in the band, who does this as if it’s nothing, yet giggling and winking at them at the end for the joy of a job well done (see figure Q). Garland must perform all of this whilst being conscious of always hitting her mark, always being in the light, always co-ordinating each of her movements with the band, which has been clearly choreographed compositionally. It’s a tour de force.
And it’s a tour de force of direction. Cukor performs a high-wire act of co-ordinating all the disparate elements because Garland is always at the centre, the camera will tilt upward or move slightly to ensure she’s always in the frame; yet on the other hand every stop in the camera’s movement has been designed to create an abstract geometric shape amongst the musicians, usually framing Garland, usually at the top (figs D, E) or bottom (figure M, O) of a triangular shape.
Every area of the cinemascope frame is deployed expressively. Each shape made seems beautiful, each is meaningful. In the world of the film, we are introduced, through Norman Maine’s to his love, who will not save him from all the darkness he’s encased in. Note how they’re both wearing variants of the same outfit, black suit with a white collar. They’re meant for each other. But she, encased in light and amidst coral pink will not save him from himself. We’re also introduced to a great talent which the film tells us is Esther Blodgett but who will become Vicky Lester but who we know to be Judy Garland. The Judy Garland who can do the extraordinary things we’ve just witnessed thanks to George Cukor’s extraordinary use of colour and composition in one of the greatest of long takes.
Some people have argued that the number is misplaced in the narrative that Esther doesn’t yet have the life experience to sing a torch song like this. That the number would have been better once it more clearly voiced Esther’s feelings in the narrative. But I disagree. Esther’s been on the road with a band going nowhere and knows musicians. She’s had the experience. On the other hand, it’s brave to make this the number on which they meet, brave and unusual, and of course totally foreshadows, what will happen subsequently. Moreover, note Esther going in and out of the song, ‘performing’ it, and the interactions with the rest of the musicians. The number has multiple functions, one of which is to show Norman Maine how great a performer she is, that she’s a star who can stop the show as easily as the giggle and the wink that ends the number and gives the impression that this is the kind of thing she can do at the drop of the hat, for fun, and anytime she wants.It’s a brilliant choice and as carefully thought through as any other aspect of this magnificent film.
In Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, Jonathan Rosenbaum writes: ‘It’s almost twenty- two minutes into the 1954 A Star Is Bornwhen, along with Norman Maine, we enter the front door of a sleepy after- hours cabaret where swing musicians and a vocalist, Esther Blodgett, are performing exclusively for themselves. Esther casually slides into a chorus of “The Man Who GotAway,” and slowly she builds from there. Once again, a fi lm suddenly leaps to such a high level of intensity, in this case for about four minutes, that all the remainder of the fi lm—in this case, 150 minutes—can do is fitfully and wistfully remember that pinnacle, refer back to it musically and emotionally in a variety of ways’ (p.262). For Rosenbaum, the film peaks to early. I’m not sure I agree, though as he points out, the film was tampered with and even the ‘restored’ version has serious gaps. But even if the film suffers from peaking early, it’s still a peak moment in the history of cinema.
Seeing Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1944) again yesterday brought to mind a half-remembered anecdote from some long-forgotten biography where, in the mid forties, L.B. Mayer fired a writer in a fit of pique for giving the wrong answer to the question: ‘who are the greatest actors on the MGM lot’? ‘Spencer Tracy and Judy Garland’ seemed to Mayer a wiseass answer when Greer Garson was the reigning queen of the lot. But who wouldn’t side with the writer now? By then, Garson was doing ‘great lady parts’ in a way so ripe for satire that Garland did just that in the ‘The Great Lady Has an Interview/aka Madame Crematon’ sequence of Ziegfield Follies (various directors but Minnelli is credited with this Garland sequence, USA, 1945). Garbo was long gone; Katharine Hepburn was on the lot but the only good material she got was the material she brought to the studio earlier (The Philadelphia Story in 1940, Woman of the Year in 1942) and later (Adam’s Rib in 1949, Pat and Mike in 1951); the mid-forties is one of the low-points in Hepburn’s career: Dragon Seed (Harold S. Bouquet and Jack Conway, 1944), Undercurrent (Vincente Minnelli, 1946), The Sea of Grass (Elia Kazan, 1947), Song of Love (Clarence Brown, 1947), etc.
What tends to be regarded as great acting is often extremes of emotion in extreme situations (Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot [Jim Sheridan, UK, 1989); Charleze Therzon as Aileen Wuornos in Monster [Patty Jenkins, USA, 2003]) and more subtle, more complex, more humane, mundane but no less affecting realms of emotion – the kind Garland so beautifully depicts — are often ignored. But look at what she’s able to accomplish in a few shots of the Christmas Ball sequence of Meet Me in St. Louis extracted above.
Esther Smith (Garland) and her sister Rose (Lucille Bremmer) have planned an evil tease on Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart) because their brother Lon (Henry H. Daniels Jr.) had planned to attend the ball with her but she instead came with the boy Rose had set her eyes on, Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully). As revenge, they’ve filled her dance-card with the least desirable men at the ball. But it turns out that Lucille really wants to be with Lon and Warren Sheffield wants to be with Rose. The plans have been changed, Esther is left holding the bag, her grandfather discovers what they’ve been up to, and Esther chooses to take over Lucille’s dance-card and suffer the punishment they’d planned for her so as not to impede the other couplings and so that the social niceties may be maintained. Their last Christmas in St. Louis, planned as a triumph has derailed into self-sacrificial torture.
Ignore if you can Minnelli’s gorgeous and complex mise-en-scene, the compositions, the way the couples are paired off or enter the frame (though I have in the past written here, and on this film in particular, as to why you shouldn’t); ignore if you can how purposefully and beautifully staged it all is. But let’s not bypass every element. When evaluating acting, the long take is a consideration. Not all actors can do them and it has become a test of a film actor’s skill. George Cukor famously observed that whilst Joan Crawford could act any emotion, she was incapable of showing transitions from one to another; she could only do one at a time; but then her whole face would scrunch up like Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde when transitioning. Thus there always had to be a cut between one emotion and another. She couldn’t do it in long take. But see what Garland does here.
We first see her enthusiastic entrance into the group, kind of gleeful at the plans afoot, ‘I’ve been very anxious to meet you’. Then there’s a cut to the three girls where she explains that they’ve taken the liberty of filling out her dance card. Note the look Esther gives her sister and note the laugh Garland achieves in that look as if indicating ‘Ha, she doesn’t know what’s in store!’ Then note the change in Garland’s expression, all within the same take, as Lucille responds with extraordinary kindness, offering to give them a party when they arrive in New York. Garland’s face is transparent, first we see a hint of guilt, her mouth opens, she’s bewildered. Her sister nudges her, ‘The plans have been changed’. Then the couples pair off, leave the shot, Garland still slack-jawed with bewilderment and then her grandfather enters the shot. She’s been caught, she hides the dance-card, attempts to laugh away the situation and flee. Then look at her expression as her grandfather reads out the names. ‘Clinton Badger’? She nods, it’s brutal and she’s been caught. She doesn’t respond to the next one, it’s unbearable. Then see what she does with her face when Sidney Gorsey’s mentioned. We see shame, embarrassment, the sense she now deserves everything that’s coming to her.
Garland is extraordinarily transparent through a range of emotions, often conflicting or contradictory, and often played for laughs, she seems to pluck them out of thin air and achieve effects few actors are capable of. It’s quite remarkeable in quite a low key way. Then in the next shot, when Lucille goes to get her dance card and Garland says she’s made a mistake, note her reading of the line ‘This is mine’. She’s achieving laughs facially, vocally, and in the series of dances that follow she proves herself a superb physical comedienne; all whilst simultaneously evoking a range of feeling, sometimes complex and contradictory, that is emotionally recognisable as truthful.
In The Lego Movie, ‘the story of a nobody who saved everybody’, the villain is President Business aka The Lord of Business; everyone has to do exactly the same thing whilst asserting their uniqueness; and all sing ‘Everything is Awesome’ whilst applying themselves to each daily routine like blissed-out Moonies.
It’s a kid film but so knowing parents will find plenty to delight them:Judy Garland is heard singing ‘How you going to keep them down in the farm after they’ve seen Paree’; Batman, Wonder Woman and Han Solo are some of the guest-stars; All of the Lego worlds, some of which kids might already own and play with, appear as alternate dimensions that the protagonists zap through. Glue is the deadly enemy. The whole film is super smart, razor sharp and very funny until the icky Will Ferrell appears and the film turns compromising, sentimental and appeasing, almost ruining everything.
It’s great to see a film for kids that’s brilliant as well as bright; you’ve got to be quick on your feet with it; until 3/4’s of the way through I thought it the most critical, intelligent and inventive film of the year but then it got sentimental, message-y and the whole Farrell episode was like watching an Andy Hardy movie from 1938 where the Judge and his son sermonize each other into an understanding that nobody believed then and nobody believes now.
The message in this one is that the invisible person is the chosen one, everyone is special, and if business works with rather than against the average person, we’d find utopia. You can see why I preferred the first 3/4 when it was all anti-business and anti-dumbness. Urgh!
I had successfully avoided The Lego Movie until friends went on and on …. and on about its many virtues. I’m glad I saw it and mostly agree. On the evidence of their work here, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are pretty dazzling directors of comedy; and it’s refreshing to see an American comedy where what’s funny is not just the situation, or the lines but the style of showing itself: the play with images, narrative, point of view. It’s great to see how wit of approach makes a marvel of the banal, even basic dialogue is transformed into dazzling wit via a shift of accent and intonation: ‘He is about to be erased by the poh-leesh of nah-eel’
The Lego Movie nonetheless performs a primary ideological function which is to first articulate a dissatisfaction with what is – in this case a corporate dictatorship parents of kids might be all too familiar with — and then construct an imaginary resolution at the end to help audiences not only reconcile with the devil they know but learn to love him. As soon as Will Farrell appeared the whole message changes from ‘business is evil’ to ‘ordinary people could work together with business and wage-slaves might develop into entrepreneurs — or at least really happy workers — in order to create more business! Everyone wins and everyone is happy! We are business, business is the world, isn’t it lovely, let’s sing our love of Legoland, our land’. It’s as if someone dropped an e into the filmmakers’ kool-aid 3/4 of the way through and they started exclaiming ‘I love you’ and offering drunken hugs to that which they had previously most hated.
Fundamentally the film is just one long advertisement for Lego of course but it is also more than that…but then again, it is very much limited by what it sets out as its primary raison d’être. Anything whose primary goal is to sell you something can’t be art partly because it doesn’t want to deal with truth, even as a partial personal expression of it. It’s out for the sell..and the sell is always some kind of con. What’s interesting about The Lego Movie is that it so fervently makes one wish this weren’t inevitably and always the case.