George Cukor offered Marlon Brando the role of Norman Maine on the set of Julius Caesar (1953). "Why would you come to me?" asked Brando. "I'm in the prime of my life... If you're looking around for some actor to play an alcoholic has-been, he's sitting right over there"- pointing at his costar James Mason, who got the part.
George Cukor was an expert on pushing actresses to an emotional brink and then capturing it on film. For Judy Garland's breakdown scene in Esther's dressing room, he drove her so hard that she threw up before the first take. Then he made her do the scene over and over until he had it just right. But he was also an expert in easing tension on the set through humor. After the final take, Garland was sobbing uncontrollably. He came up to her quietly, put his hand on her shoulder and said, "Judy, Marjorie Main couldn't have done that any better!"
The film was re-edited several times. Premiering at 181 minutes, the studio (Warner Bros.) cut the film by 30 minutes despite the objections of director George Cukor and producer Sidney Luft (Judy Garland's husband). In 1983, all but 5 minutes of the cut footage was found and re-instated, but some footage had to be reconstructed using production stills.
Groucho Marx called Judy Garland's not winning an Oscar for A Star Is Born (1954) "the biggest robbery since Brink's." Hedda Hopper later reported that her loss to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl (1954) was the result of the closest Oscar vote up till that time that didn't end in a tie, with just six votes separating the two. In any event, it was a heartbreak from which she never really recovered and which has remained a matter of some controversy ever since.
Judy Garland was on her best behaviour during the early days of shooting, but she slowly lost control. She first called in sick on November 9, which kept her off the film for four days. She got sick again shooting outdoor locations and missed three more days. She was sick again for two days in December. Then they had to postpone a scene because she didn't like her costume. Other days, she had to leave early because she was too tired or sick to go on. By February, they were 41 days behind schedule. In late March, she took two weeks off to get herself off all prescription medications. Ultimately, the production would drag on for nine months.
In 1974, film historian Ronald Haver was doing a George Cukor retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. For the showing of A Star Is Born, he put together a brochure featuring stills from the cut scenes and descriptions of what was missing. This triggered interest at Warner Bros., where an apprentice film editor discovered the complete three-hour soundtrack in the sound department's storage vaults. Haver wanted to create a restored version using the soundtrack with stills filling in for the missing scenes, but was unable to raise the budget through the LA County Museum.
After filming was completed, Judy Garland stole some furniture from the sets of the film and brought them to her home. Producer Jack Warner found out when she invited him over after the premiere of the film.
The restored version received its world premiere at the Radio City Music Hall in New York on July 7, 1983. As soon as the lost musical numbers appeared, the audience started applauding. At the end, the audience gave the film a standing ovation. Both of Judy Garland's daughters, Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft, were in the audience. Afterwards, they had to be taken to a dressing room, where it took them 20 minutes to stop crying.
Cary Grant at first accepted, then turned down the role of Norman Maine, citing semi-retirement as his reason. He reportedly refused to work with Judy Garland because he was semi-retired. After Grant's death, his widow revealed that Garland's drug addiction made the actor have second thoughts and drop out of the film.
James Mason on his contention that A Star Is Born (1937) is superior: "Ours was a little thrown out of kilter because it became centred on the activities of a musical performer, who happened to be the less important of the two characters - However, ours survives, and ours has become a classic because Judy Garland was such an extraordinary performer... It's a wonderful film, and I always watch it when it comes on the telly".
The first preview was a triumph for Judy Garland. As she left, fans shouted at her "Don't cut a single minute of it." The second preview, on August 3, was equally successful. At this point the film ran 196 minutes.
In 1981, Haver enlisted the help of writer Fay Kanin, president of the Motion Picture Academy® and a member of the National Committee for Film Preservation. She pitched the restoration project to Warner Bros. chairman Robert Daly, who gave Haver the go-ahead. Haver went through film storage vaults on both coasts and dug up leads about private, illegally obtained footage held by private collectors. He even had to call the police to track down one collector who had a 35mm negative of "Lose That Long Face. Eventually he assembled about 20 minutes of the missing half-hour, including both cut musical numbers and the proposal scene. Along the way, he also found a negative and print of The Animal Kingdom (1932), a film long thought lost; a pristine 35mm print of Of Human Bondage (1934) and the original negatives for A Star Is Born (1937), along with costume and photographic tests for the 1954 version. Other treats he found included newsreel footage and kinescopes of the film's premieres in Hollywood and New York and the first CinemaScope version of "The Man That Got Away."
With the film's box-office failure, Judy Garland and Sidney Luft were broke. Both Jack and Harry Warner had advanced Luft money against his share of the profits. When they failed to see their money returned from ticket sales, they both ended up suing Luft to get their money back, and the Lufts' contract with Warners for future pictures was canceled.
In October 1954, after the film had opened and been reviewed, Harry Warner, head of the studio's business side in New York, decided that the picture was too long. He ordered another half-hour of cuts so that exhibitors could get in one more showing per day. By this time, George Cukor was in India filming Bhowani Junction (1956), so he was unable to influence the re-editing of the film. The cuts included an entire sequence in which Norman and Esther lose touch with each other while Norman is on location. A comic scene of her getting sick on the way to her first preview was also deleted, along with two complete numbers, "Here's What I'm Here For," the song Esther is recording when Norman proposes to her, and "Lose That Long Face," the number she does before and after she breaks down in her dressing room. The cuts represented most of the scenes that developed Norman and Esther's relationship. To make matters worse, the studio melted the negative from the cut scenes to retrieve the film's silver content. Word of the cuts hit the press and generated such a strong backlash against the film that attendance dropped precipitously. As a result, despite the film's promising opening, it ended up losing money.
Norman Maine mentions the name 'Ellen Terry' to Esther Blodgett. Ellen Terry (1847-1928, created a Dame in 1925) was an English stage actress who became the leading Shakespearean actress in Britain during the late 19th century, as well as performing in plays by Ibsen, G.B. Shaw and many others. She was also the maternal aunt of actor John Gielgud, who worked with Mason in Julius Caesar (1953), his protege Sam Neill in Merlin (1998), and most notably, opposite Judy Garland's daughter Liza Minnelli in Arthur (1981).
James Mason disliked "Born in a Trunk" = "It slows the narrative. Yes, I know that it would make a lovely television special or something like that, but I thought it was out of place at that particular juncture".
Judy Garland did not attend the 1955 Academy Awards, where she was nominated as Best Actress for her portrayal of Vicki Lester, because she was in hospital after giving birth to her third child and only son Joey Luft.
At first the limitations of working in CinemaScope presented an obstacle to George Cukor. There was a whole set of rules about what would and would not work in the new system. The so-called experts advised against certain camera moves, certain colours, tight close-ups and too much quick cutting. Finally he and his two consultants on the film, production designer Gene Allen and colour consultant George Hoyningen-Huene, decided to ignore the rules and make up new ones as they went along. As a result, this was one of the first films to make truly creative use of the CinemaScope process.
For the last two weeks of production, during which the "Born in a Trunk" number was completed, Jack L. Warner approved a night-time shooting schedule to better accommodate Judy Garland's "body clock." This added still more to the budget, as the unions required extra payments for evening work.
Shortly before the premiere, George Cukor cut the film down to 181 minutes. Among the footage removed was a segment from the "Born in the Trunk" number; Norman's return to the Shrine Auditorium to try to learn Esther's name; Norman and Esther planning the beach house; and a montage of scenes from Norman Maine's leading roles. The musical number is included in the most recent DVDs of the film but the other footage has never been recovered.
At age 20, Judy Garland first had played the role of Vicki Lester/Esther Blodgett on the "Lux Radio Theatre" hour-long adaptation of the original 1937 film. The CBS broadcast of December 28, 1942, without songs, co-starred Walter Pidgeon as Norman Maine.
Stewart Granger was the front runner for the role of Norman Maine for a period of time, but he backed out when he was unable to adjust to George Cukor's habit of acting out scenes as a form of direction
A torch song supreme which was nominated for an Oscar, "The Man That Got Away" (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) had been photographed in three diverse schemes on a nightclub floor using distinctly different camera setups, lighting, placement of the band members and furniture, costuming for Judy Garland and the musicians, hairstyles for Miss Garland, and bits of business before she sings. (In the initial footage, Tommy Noonan lightly shoves Judy off the piano bench. In the next design, Judy serves coffee to Tommy and the on-screen trumpeter.) Ultimately, the "dark" version was chosen - with the club appearing somewhat cavernous in mostly dark-brownish hues, plus Judy wearing a navy-blue dress. The various permutations of this famous film number can be compared on the DVD from Warner Home Video.
Judy Garland was nominated for an Oscar as best actress and James Mason was nominated for best actor. These two nominations are the first time in Academy Awards history for two people in the same film playing roles for which different people were earlier nominated for Oscars: Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in the 1937 version.
Matt Libby's "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, with a whimper" comes nearly verbatim from the last two lines of T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men": "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper".
The 15-minute "Born in a Trunk" medley was designed by Roger Edens and Leonard Gershe. It was inserted into the film when it was decided that none of the three Arlen/Gershwin songs submitted supplied an acceptable conclusion to the first half of the film. Mr. Edens, Judy Garland's musical mentor during her MGM years (1935-1950), also crafted the around-the-world-in-a-living-room concept for "Someone at Last" (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Ira Gershwin). Still under contract to Metro in 1954, Roger received no screen credit as either contributor or co-writer (with Mr. Gershe) of the "Born in a Trunk" song. Credit was finally given the duo when the film was restored years later.
The first major delays were technical. George Cukor had started making the film in WarnerScope, a wide-screen process Warner Bros. had designed to compete with CinemaScope. But even studio management knew the process wasn't perfected. Albert Warner, who supervised the studio's technical side, was negotiating for the use of CinemaScope as the film started shooting. After two weeks of filming, he asked that they test the process, so "The Man That Got Away" number was shot in two versions, one in WarnerScope and one in CinemaScope. It was obvious the latter version was superior, so they had to start the film over, at a cost of $300,000. They also had to redo the number to make better use of the new screen size. As a result, the film fell behind schedule a total of 18 days.
The film featured some ironic parallels to the real lives of its two loads. Norman Maine is a has-been actor who has fallen into substance abuse. This is in marked contrast to James Mason, who worked steadily until his death. In real life, it was Judy Garland whose career had suffered this fate. She even had her own Oscar-night disappointment when she lost the award to Grace Kelly. Like his character, however, Mason did discover another actor whom he mentored into a successful career, that being Sam Neill.
Hugh Martin, who was hired as vocal arranger, stormed off the set after a row with Judy Garland over her interpretation of "The Man That Got Away". Garland's mentor and MGM vocal arranger Roger Edens replaced him.
Judy Garland wasn't always home resting when she was sick. She'd take a day off, then George Cukor would read in Louella Parsons' column that she had spent the night singing at a nightclub. She'd leave early and go to the races. None of this was released to the press. Instead, the Warners PR department attributed the delays to Garland's relentless perfectionism.
The initial Columbia Records soundtrack LP (now reissued in the original mono sound on a British CD from Prism Leisure) reached the fourth slot on "Billboard"'s popular albums chart. Subsequently, two "improved" versions of the soundtrack have been released by the Sony label: a 1988 CD in mostly true stereo; and a 2004 deluxe package containing a second, unused Judy Garland rendition of "It's a New World"; the singing commercial on TV for Trinidad Coconut Oil Shampoo; the discarded chorus of "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street" (Judy with Jack Baker) from the "Born in a Trunk" sequence; the full orchestral introduction to "Gotta Have Me Go with You" (Judy with Don McKay and Jack Harmon); the complete orchestral introduction, not totally heard in the release print, to the Academy Award-nominated Garland trademark, "The Man That Got Away"; and musical director Ray Heindorf's Oscar-nominated background score, including portions not included in the finished picture.
Esther's Grandma Lettie from the original A Star Is Born (1937) was written out of this version. Her lines were divided between Norman Maine in the early scenes and Danny McGuire in the later part of the movie.
As Matt Libby dictates the cancellation/resignation of Norman Maine's contract, a theater marquee featuring "Black Legion" starring Norman Maine, outside his window, is being taken down. Black Legion (1937) starred Humphrey Bogart, one of the actors that turned down the role of Norman Maine for this picture.
Humphrey Bogart: (unconfirmed) Some sources credit Bogart, who turned down the role of Norman Maine, as the voice of the drunk café patron requesting "Melancholy Baby". Other listeners insist that it sounds nothing like him.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The moment where Esther's widow's veil is ripped from her face by a fan at a funeral, was imitated in real life in 1958. During the graveside service for her husband Mike Todd (who had died in a plane crash), Elizabeth Taylor was traumatized when one of her fans thoughtlessly tore the widow's veil from Taylor's face.
The church for the funeral scene is the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, California. Real-life celebrity funerals there have included Rudolph Valentino (1926), Carmen Miranda (1955), Gary Cooper (1961), William Frawley (1966), Pier Angeli (1971), Jack Haley (1979), Alfred Hitchcock (1980), Vincente Minnelli (1986), Rita Hayworth (1987), Danny Thomas (1991), Eva Gabor (1995), Mary Frann (1998), Frank Sinatra (1998), Don Adams (2005), Merv Griffin (2007) and Zsa Zsa Gabor (2016).