The 1983 Restoration of Judy Garland's A Star is Born

The man most responsible for rescuing and preserving the most complete version of A Star Is Born possible.

A Star Is Born

The following is his article
as published in American Film Magazine's July-August 1983 issue.





Ron Haver

Ron Haver

This is a preview of his incredible book - A Star Is Born - The Making of the 1954 Film and its 1983 Restoration



The search for the missing half hour from George Cukor’s classic had all the ingredients of a detective story.
Ronald Haver

A Star is Born

On July 7 in New York, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in association with Warner Bros., is presenting a most unusual event: the premiere of a restored version of the 1954 classic A Star Is Born, with Judy Garland and James Mason. Following the opening, the new-old film will travel to Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Dallas in a series of single-evening screenings.

The recovery of this lost classic is a saga in itself, one marked not only by the passion and diligence of the researchers, but by the spirit of cooperation among the various institutions – studios, archives, trade associations, and agencies, involved in the restoration.
This is a personal account of the effort to restore A Star Is Born to the original three-hour film that its director loved so much he could never bear to see the cut version. – Eds.

George Cukor’s 1954 version of A Star Is Born is legendary for the way it was edited against its director’s wishes. About a half hour was taken out of the film, and over the years, among Cukor aficionados, the search for the missing material took on aspects of the quest for the Holy Grail.

I know, because I’m one of them. I was fifteen when I first saw A Star Is Born. The ads proclaimed it “the most eagerly awaited motion picture of our time.” It was Jack Warner’s all-or-nothing gamble on the comeback of Judy Garland. She hadn’t made a movie in four years. After a decade and a half on the MGM roster, she had been fired for “unreliability,” had a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide, and divorced her director-husband Vincente Minnelli. Her third husband, a promoter named Sid Luft, masterminded her triumphant return to show business.

In early 1953 she and Luft made a deal with Warner Bros.; the company agreed to finance a remake of David O. Selznick’s A Star Is Born (1937). Luft would produce, George Cukor would direct from a new script by Moss Hart, and Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin would compose the songs. With James Mason as the alcoholic movie superstar Norman Main, who transforms band singer Esther Blodgett (Garland) into star Vicki Lester, filming got under way; the budget was $2 million. Technical delays – caused by the new CinemaScope process – Garland’s emotional ups and downs, and Cukor’s perfectionism stretched the shooting schedule from three months to nearly seven, and the budget ballooned to an astronomical (for 1954) $5 million.

The picture was given the largest, gaudiest, most spectacular opening Hollywood had seen in years. On September 29, 1954, dozens of spotlights formed a huge star over the Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, and more than twenty thousand fans jammed the area around Hollywood and Vine.For the first time, television cameras covered a Hollywood opening live from coast to coast.

Life called it “a brilliantly staged, scored, and photographed film, worth all the effort” and the New York Times said it was “stunning.” Judy on the setSeveral weeks later, though, Variety carried a short item noting that Warners would trim A Star Is Born from three hours to two and a half. Although business had been good, theater owners had complained that the long running time would keep the number of showings down to three per day instead of four or five, thus cutting into revenue.

In the film Norman Maine tries to explain to Esther Blodgett what greatness is: “There are certain pleasures you get – little jabs of pleasure when a swordfish takes the hook…or watching a great dancer – you don’t have to know about ballet. That little bell rings inside – that little jolt of pleasure. That’s what happened to me just now.” So it was with me and A Star Is Born one hot Sunday afternoon. I was disappointed at seeing the shortened version because I wanted more of those “little jabs of pleasure.” I wanted more of the art direction – so carefully and tastefully understated – and of the subtle richness of the photography that filled the huge CinemaScope screen with compositions I’d never seen in a film. I wanted to see and hear the two missing musical numbers. I wanted more of the Moss Hard and Cukor’s observations of the Hollywood social scene, the studio atmosphere, and the ambience of Los Angeles and its environs, more of the elegance and wry sense of humor that permeated the film. But Warners had withdrawn the three-hour version, and it never reappeared.

In 1971, when I was a projectionist in Los Angeles at The American Film Institute, I had the chance to see all of George Cukor’s films. Cukor and Gavin Lambert were screening them during research on Lambert’s book On Cukor. I was completely in awe of Cukor, who was as witty, as elegant, and as forthright as his work. I asked him if we could screen his personal print of A Star Is Born. “I don’t have a copy,” he said. “I don’t have any of my films. All I have are scripts and stills.” I implored the AFI’s film librarian to try to get the 181-minute version from Warners. Back came the word: All the studio had was a stereo print that ran 154 minutes. The day of the screening, Lambert showed up alone. “Where’s Mr. Cukor?” I asked. “He’s not coming,” he said. How strange, I thought, not to want to see one of your best films. His reason was later given in a remark recorded in Lambert’s book” “Judy Garland and I felt like the English queen who had ‘Calais’ engraved on her heart…neither of us could ever bear to see that final version.”

Two years later, when I was working at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with archivist David Shepard, we decided to show A Star Is Born as part of a Cukor retrospective, and to accompany it with a brochure, using stills and script extracts, to show exactly what had been cut. Cukor lent us his script and his complete collection of still from the film, and we were able to finally itemize just exactly what had been taken out, and assess the damage to the story.

In the picture as it has been seen for the past twenty-nine years, Norman Maine, after hearing Esther Blodgett sing in an after-hours dive, talks her into quitting the band she’s been working with and promises to get her a screen test. James Mason and Judy on the roofShe decides to take him up on the offer. Fade out. Fade in: She’s at the studio being made up for her test.

Originally, there were nine additional scenes between the offer and the screen test. Esther the next morning says goodbye to the members of the band, while across town a hung over Norman is being poured into a limousine and taken off to a midsea location for three weeks. She waits for his call; meanwhile, he, out at sea, is making frantic efforts to locate her, but cannot remember the name of the motel where she is staying. In the ensuring weeks, Esther tries for find work, moves to a cheap rooming house in the downtown Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, gets a singing job (doing voice-over for a puppet commercial for shampoo), and finally ends up as a carhop at a Sunset Boulevard drive-in. Norman, having returned, hears her voice on the television commercial and tracks her down. They have an awkward reunion on the roof of the rooming house, which then fades to the studio makeup scene.

Also removed from the film was a two-minute scene of Norman driving a nervous Esther, now Vicki, to the preview of her first starring picture, trying to calm her; she makes him stop the car and gets sick all over an oil derrick. Another deletion was a five-minute segment showing Vicki recording a song while Norman watches; afterward, his marriage proposal and her refusal is picked up by an open microphone and played back by the engineers, leaving her no choice but to accept. The final deletion removed both of Vicki’s renditions of the song “Lose That Long Face’; one had followed Norman’s drunken humiliation of her at the Academy Awards ceremony, and the other had come immediately after her dramatic breakdown in her dressing room with Oliver Niles, the producer (Charles Bickford). A total of twenty-seven minutes was taken out. The deletion of the growing emotional involvement of Norman and Esther eliminated much of the story’s poignance and diminished its tragedy.

I was very proud of the brochure; George looked at it cursorily, murmuring, almost to himself, “They don’t deserve a good picture,” and then beyond a brief “It’s very nice” never said another word. Evidently, it only served to remind him of one of the major disappointments of his career.

One thing the brochure did was to generate renewed interest at Warner Bros. In finding the missing footage. Rudi Fehr, then vice-president in charge of post production, told me that he had his people to through their records and storage vaults and that they turned up nothing. When My Sugar Walks Down the Street - Judy GarlandEvidently, the cut sect6ions had been kept for several months and then destroyed, a common practice at most major studios. I was convinced that if I could get free, unlimited access to the studio vaults, a careful combing through all those thousands of cans of film would turn up the footage, possibly in mismarked cans. But studios don’t like novices, no matter how well meaning, rummaging through their vaults, so it looked as though I wouldn’t get the chance.

One day, from out of nowhere, came a call from an apprentice film editor at Warner Bros. Named Dave Strohmaier; he told me that he had come across the complete mixed soundtrack to the three-hour picture. He had not, however, been able to turn up any footage. Then, one evening in November 1981, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I hosted a tribute to lyricist Ira Gershwin, which ended with an excerpt from A Star Is Born: Judy Garland singing “The Man That Got Away.” Introducing the finale, I commented on the fact that two of Arlen and Gershwin’s best songs had been removed from the film. Fay Kanin, president of the Academy and someone with a long and close relationship with George Cukor, said afterward how wonderful it would be if the complete version of the film could be found.

In addition to being a writer of great sensitivity (Friendly Fire, Hustling), Fay, who has a deep-seated and passionate commitment to film, to film history, and to preservation, is a member of the AFI Board of Trustees’ Preservation Committee, chaired by Jeanine Basinger and including Brian O’Doherty of the National Endowment for the Arts, Jean Firstenberg of the AFI, Mary Lea Bandy of the Museum of Modern Art, and several other individuals concerned with national archive issues. At the request of the committee, the AFI’s board has designated the next ten years the Decade of Preservation. A Star Is Born seemed a perfect vehicle to highlingh the problems of preservation. Questions had already been raised about the stability of the film’s color negative; the mater stereo sound tracks had evidently been erased years ago; and existing prints were on the old Eastmancolor release stock, which has a tendency to fade. So Fay contacted Robert Daly, chairman of the board of Warner Bros., and he eventually granted permission to go through the company’s film-storage facilities.

Jack Carson, George Jessel and Judy Garland at the premiere of A Star is Born
In late spring 1982, I began my search on the East Coast at the old, meticulously maintained Vitagraph storage facilities in Brooklyn, owned by Warners since the late twenties. Nothing useful there, though, and the same was true of the laboratories in midtown Manhattan that had struck the prints. The next stop, back in Los Angeles, was the Technicolor labs in Universal City, where I was aided by Bob Schulte, who went through the history of A Star Is Born’s print holding with me. Technicolor had made the first set of prints for the full-length road-show version in 1954; according to its September 1954 records, the company struck 150 four-track stereo prints on Eastmancolor stock for the first run. No more additional work was done until an order came through to cut the master negative.

When A Star Is Born was cut, reels 3A and 3B were combined to form a new, shorter reel known as 3AB. Cuts were also made in 4A, 5A, 6B, 9A, and 9B. The excised negative material, the “Trims and Deletions,” as the order phrased it, were put in ten cans and shipped to the studio.
A later print order called for another 150 prints of the short version made by the Technicolor dye-transfer process, to be used during the second run. From the shortened master negative were also made all the subsequent printing materials for 16mm and foreign 35mm use. So much for finding a full-length 16mm or overseas print.

The next step was trying to determine what happened to the 150 full-length four-track prints. According to the old studio files now kept at the University of Southern California and the Warner Bros. Distribution records at Princeton University, orders went out in 1954 from the editorial department to all the film exchanges across the country, telling them how to cut the prints and instructing them to send the excised material back to the studio. We thought perhaps some zealous editor-inspector might have kept the extra footage.

During the summer months, the Academy placed ads in trade publications, but turned up nothing of interest.

Everything seemed to point to the studio. Judy Garland in A Star is BornIf the material wasn’t there, then it was pretty certain not to exist. Warners’ editorial and film library is under the calm but firm control of Fred Talmage, vice-president in charge of postproduction, the nerve center for everything that happens to a picture after it comes off the sound stages. When I told him that I wanted to spend my summer vacation prowling through the studio vaults, Fred just smiled, shook his head, and said, “Well, Ron, Whatever turns you on.”

Our first stop was the Sound Department’s storage area under what is known as the old Technicolor building to make certain that Dave Strohmaier had been correct about the complete track being there. It’s a huge subterranean basement, stretching under the studio for nearly a quarter of an acre, lit by bare bulbs, and in some areas thick with a fine dust that covers thousands of cans of sound tracks and magnetic tape. Two Sound Department veterans, Ed Chaplin and Phil Birch, took Fred and me through the narrow aisles. We began pulling out cans marked “A STAR IS BORN, Long Version YD-YF Mag Track,” which meant that this was a monaural dialogue, music, and sound effects track on magnetic film. There were twenty-three cans, and the only way to find out if they were what we were looking for was to play back one of the reels to see if it had the missing material on it. Reel 3A was pulled; if all was well, it would have Esther saying good-bye to the band – and by God it did! Things were off to an auspicious start.

Finding the sound track was half the battle; now all we had to do was locate the picture to match it. Fred turned me over to Don Adler, who’d been working in the film vaults for almost thirty years, cataloging every single piece of exposed film on its journey from camera to release print. I asked him what would have happened to the cans shipped back to the studio from Technicolor containing the cut negative. “In those days,” he said, “we’d keep it for six months, then junk it.” Was it possible that some of it might not have been junked? “Possible, but not likely.” According to Don’s inventory, there were some miscellaneous cans of A Star Is Born material in one of his storage areas. There were about twenty cans, none of which had the appropriate Technicolor numbers on them. Judy Garland sings "The Man That Got Away" in A Star is BornNot one of the reel numbers on the cans corresponded to the reels that had been trimmed, but here was my chance to prove or disprove my theory about the possibility of mismarked cans.

I wound through the film, squinting at the 35mm images, looking for something that was familiar to me from the stills of the missing sequences. Can 7A had the first love scene between Norman and Vicki, immediately after her preview triumph. It takes place on the terrace of an exclusive Hollywood nightclub and is supposed to dissolve into a scene in producer Oliver Nile’s office, when they announce they’re going to be married. Instead, I found I was staring at the missing scene on the recording stage with Vicki singing “Here’s What I’m Here Fore,” followed by the proposal and live microphone pickup.

I must have let out a loud yelp, because Don came running back into the office to see if something had happened to me. I was jumping up and down with excitement. If this one sequence was there, could the others be far off? Don helped me carry in the other cans of film, and I reeled through negative can after negative can, hoping that lightning would strike twice. It didn’t, but for the next two days I examined every single rack and every single label on every single can of film in that basement storage are.

“Where next?” I asked Don. “Try the stock-footage library,” he replied. “I think they have a lot of leftover material from the film.” Every studio has one of these libraries;’ after a picture is put together, an editor goes through all of the unused film and selects material that might be useful in some future film. The Warners stock-footage library is under the iron rule of Evelyn Lane, an imposing woman who stands for no nonsense from anyone. Her long days are spent in a cramped bungalow office stacked with miscellaneous cans of film, overflowing file cabinets, rewinds, and editing tables.

A Star Is Born? Down there in the bottom drawer,” she said, pointing while cradling a telephone on her shoulder and typing up a requisition slip. She hung up and swung around t explain that all fo the Warners features are listed by title, with individual index cards for each piece of stock footage from the movie. Judy Garland in A Star is BornShe pulled out the bottom drawer and there, neatly typed on five-by-seven-inch cards, were the descriptions of all the unused negative segments from A Star Is Born, with a sample frame of each negative on each card. They were all broken down into subject categories - “Apartment Houses,” “Automobile Traffic,” Drive-in,” “Life Rafts,” “Los Angeles Exteriors’ – with a one-line description of what was one each piece of film. I pulled out the card marked “Bus” and read, “Day. But with lettering GLENN WILLIAMS ORCHESTRA on side pulls away from Motel.” I began to get excited again. This was Esther’s good-bye to the band.

There were nearly two hundred entries for A Star Is Born, and some of this negative material had been printed up for possible use. Evelyn took me to the vault holding the printed material, and I began going through dozens of cans, finding numerous takes of the film’s scenes, mostly long and medium shots, carefully edited to that the principals are not visible.

Hoping there might be more than this among the negative material, I asked Evelyn to take me to that storage vault, made up of long, narrow concrete bunkers filled with rank upon rank of film cans – 150 of them from A Star Is Born. Each can had several tightly wound rolls of negative material with a paper label describing the contents. The label on can number 90 read: “Judy Garland sings ‘Lose That Long Face.’” The anonymous stock-footage editor had saved every alternate take of the musical numbers in the film, including the puppet commercial. There seemed a good chance that all the missing dramatic footage, in alternate takes, might be here too.

For the next three weeks I went through the 150 cans, examining every roll, but the all-important close-ups and medium shots of the leads playing the deleted scenes were nowhere to be found. My last hope was the storage vaults for the library prints, the copies that are kept for use by the studio. I worked my way through all these vaults, finding nothing, until finally only one more remained.

Vault 120 looked no different from all the others before it, except that in the back were some tall cardboard boxes of the type that film cans are shipped in. Near the airduct grating in the very rear were two boxes, about three feet high, sealed with no labels other than the Technicolor emblem. I opened the first one and looked at the cans: The Bounty Hunter, a Randolph Scott Western from 1954. The other box was sealed tightly with masking tape. From the look of it, it had never been opened, but I finally managed to peel off the tape and break open the sealed top. There was a silver can inside with the distinctive blue Technicolor label, and on the label were the words “A STAR IS BORN R12A.” a yellow shipping receipt had the date, October 4, 1954.

I opened the top can, and inside were the black waxed bags that film is shipped in; they had never been opened. I began pulling out those cans furiously, looking for two separate reels, 3A and 3B, which would tell me that this was a complete, uncut print. Redbook Magazine adBy the time I got down to the bottom of the box, I was shaking so much that I dropped my flashlight and had a hard time reading the numbers on the top; there was 4B, then 4A, and finally “Reel 3AB.”

It was the cut version. I sat there for a couple of minutes, completely dejected; there was nothing to do but admit that everyone had been correct – the missing sequences were irretrievably lost. However, about 20 minutes of usable deleted footage, a complete, 181-minute monaural soundtrack, 154 minutes of stereo sound track (which was on the studio print), and the mint-condition Technicolor short version had been found.

I occurred to me that we could take the bits and pieces of film that we ’d found in the stock-footage vaults, and, using the sound track and the editor’s script as a guide, put the shots back where they belonged. The several minutes where we had no visuals could be filled in using stills of the missing scenes. Stills have been used successfully before, notably in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Raging Bull, but never before in a restored film. Robert Swarthe, special effects genius and animator par excellence, told me it could be done, but it would be expensive – maybe $25,000. Lisze Bechtold Blyth, a prizewinning animator, agreed to take on the project, if we could get approval and money.

Once Fay Kanin got the approval of George Cukor and Gene Allen, production designer on A Star Is Born, she went back to Robert Daly and asked for Warners’ financial support in reconstructing the film and help in setting up a series of fund-raising screenings for the Academy’s ongoing archival work. Daly was interested, but cautious. He proposed that we do a test reel, and authorized $5,000; we said we’d come back in tow months. The day after the meeting, Lisze, Gene, the Academy’s Douglas Edwards, a young editor named Craig Holt, and I began meeting in the Academy’s editing room. We decided to start right at the beginning of the deletions, with Esther’s farewell to the band, and then go through Norman’s being drive off to location. Esther’s waiting for his call, and all of the other missing bits right up to Esther’s doing the voice-over for the puppet commercial. Evelyn Lane pulled the negative segments we needed.

We were nervous about the color quality, but the material, when it came back from the laboratory, looked absolutely beautiful. Craig and I began the arduous task of looking at the various takes and trying to match them with what was happening on the sound track. It was much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. We cut in blank film w3here we had no picture; then Lisze, Gene, and I timed this blank footage, and worked out the camera moves across the stills.

All this took almost five weeks to work out, and on the day that Lisze brought in the results of her first shooting, we were all a bit nervous. The lights went down, the picture faded in, and the camera traveled across a still of the Glenn Williams Band bus, coming to rest on Judy Garland as, on the track, voices of the men in the band said their farewells. It looked wonderful, and the sound and the image matched up beautifully.

So Fay set up a screening for Daly; George Cukor was going to attend, too. But the night before the screening, the telephone rang and I was told that George had died. I was stunned.

Judy Garland in A Star is BornIt was a very depressed group that met at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater on the evening of January 25, 1983. However, Fay reminded us that we had a great opportunity here. In reconstituting the film and presenting it to audiences, we would not only be restoring a marvelous movie but celebrating George. Suddenly there was a renewed spirit of commitment, shared by Daly when he arrived. The picture looked and sounded spectacular, and three days later Fay excitedly called to say that he had agreed to back the project.

Then came another lucky break. At the Academy’s urging, Jim Parker of Eastman Kodak agreed to donate the raw stock that we needed to complete the project. The longevity of the color negative had been verified by the beautiful prints we were getting from the stock footage. We wanted to print our restored sequences on the new Eastman Kodak print film 5384, with its vastly improved dye stability. This gift freed a large chunk of our budge, which could then be used to restore the stereo sound track.

Craig, Lisze, and Gene worked days, nights, and weekends, joined by D.J. Zeigler of the Academy’s Film Department and Fred Talmage and his technical staff at the studio, to finish in time for the public showings. A Premiere was set for July 7 at the Radio City Music Hall, with screenings to follow in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

These presentations will serve to advance the cause of film preservation and to remind audiences of the achievements of George Cukor, Judy Garland, James Mason, Moss Hart, Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, musical director Ray Heindorf, cinematographer Sam Levitt, and the dozens of other Hollywood crafts people whose work made A Star Is Born the overwhelming theatrical experience that it will once again prove to be. Finally, the presentations will serve to give audiences the chance to experience hundreds of “those little jabs of pleasure.”

Ronald Haver
American Film Magazine
Volume VIII Number 9
July-August 1983

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