A Star Is Born appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.55:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. A movie with a difficult history, the transfer reflected that.
This meant a lot of ups and downs. At its best, Born could looked excellent, but more than occasional exceptions occurred. The biggest concerns related to sharpness. Though some shots appeared concise and well-defined – and a few were really stunning – a lot of the movie suffered from light softness. Some scenes were worse than others, undoubtedly an issue related to the flick’s difficult restoration; for instance, the shots of Esther as a carhop were downright ugly. Those were in the minority, but so were the great shots; most of the film displayed adequate sharpness but no better.
No issues with jagged edges or shimmering appeared, but occasionally instances of edge haloes occurred, most likely due to problems with the source material. The film did almost entirely avoid print flaws, though. I saw a couple of small specks but the movie was awfully clean the vast majority of the time.
Colors tended to be pretty good, though they had their peaks and valleys as well – sometimes in the same scene. Take the big Oscar sequence about two-thirds of the way through the flick, for example. It boasted some vibrant, dynamic hues along with some flat, muddy ones. So it went, though colors were usually one of the transfer’s best elements.
Blacks were also usually satisfying, and shadows tended to appear clear and well-developed. Given the movie’s difficult history, I expect that it will never look much better than this, and quite a lot of it seemed very pleasing. However, it was so erratic – and so soft at times – that I just couldn’t justify a grade above a “C+”; too many unattractive sequences appeared.
As for the remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack, it also had ups and downs, but it was more than satisfactory given its age. The soundfield offered pretty good imaging. As expected, the many musical sequences used the audio the best. Those boasted nice stereo presence across the front and used the rears to bolster the material.
Otherwise, the track didn’t have a lot to dazzle, but that was perfectly acceptable since music dominated the movie and no big “effects sequences” materialized. The flick showed decent ambience and a little directional dialogue, but nothing memorable. I didn’t mind; this wasn’t an action spectacular, after all.
Audio quality showed its age but was fine for the most part. Though some lines could be a bit reedy and edgy, they usually came across as reasonably concise, and they remained perfectly intelligible. Music showed decent range. I thought low-end could be a little muddy, but the track demonstrated fair breadth in general. Effects were also somewhat thin, but they were good given the age of the track. When I factored in that issue, I thought this was an above-average mix for its era.
All of the set’s disc-based extras appear on a separate DVD. We open with an Introduction. This runs three minutes, two seconds as it tells us a bit about the film’s production and what we’ll find among the disc’s supplements. It offers a good start to the materials.
Five Deleted Scenes fill a total of 22 minutes, 23 seconds. These include multiple musical performance takes of “The Man That Got Away”; named after Garland’s garb, we get one “Pink Blouse” shoot and four of “Brown Dress”. These clips will be great for big fans but will likely bore others.
Four Alternate Takes go for 11 minutes, 13 seconds. We find “Here’s What I’m Looking For”, “Lose That Long Face”, “Trinidad Coconut Oil Shampoo” and “Norman Maine’s Finale”. Like the “Deleted Scenes”, these are of historical interest and will likely be fun for those big fans I mentioned earlier, but there’s nothing particularly fascinating otherwise.
After this we get a Song Outtake for “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street”. It fills 58 seconds and gives us a brief look at the progression of the family stage act depicted in one of Esther’s songs. The fact it alludes to the death of the singer’s mother – in the movie within the movie, at least – makes it marginally interesting, but otherwise it remains in the “historical artifact” category.
In a 55-second Film Effects Reel, we see various shots used to test photographic methods. We’re firmly into Born trainspotting territory here; like the previous material, this stays in the purview of the “potentially fun for big fans” realm.
More archival material appears under A Report by Jack Warner. It lasts six minutes, 22 seconds, and it includes a reel to promote various WB projects in production. Born was part of that roster, and we see a few minutes from the film. We don’t view anything from any other productions; the Born shots are bookended by remarks from Warner. Honestly, it’s pretty forgettable.
Next we locate a Newsreel Montage. This seven-minute, 53-second compilation shows shots from the Hollywood premiere. It’s a bit disjointed, but the omnipresent narrator helps sort things out and allows this to become a good glimpse of the big night.
Similar material arrives in Film Premiere Cinemascope/TV Special. The Cinemascope clip runs two minutes, six seconds, while the TV special lasts 29 minutes, 48 seconds. This footage follows the same event as in the “Newsreel Montage”, but because it’s in glorious Cinemascope, it provides a different perspective.
Taken from a kinescope, the “Special” doesn’t look nearly as good, but it’s even more interesting. Basically it shows a parade of stars who briefly chat with the show’s host. We see Mamie Van Doren, Dean Martin, Hedda Hopper, Raymond Burr, Elizabeth Taylor, Liberace, Joan Crawford and a jillion others – they come on and off stage rapidly. This isn’t a substantive extra, but it’s a cool glimpse of the promotional side of the premiere.
For a little levity, we get a Looney Tunes cartoon entitled A Star Is Bored. In the seven-minute, 12-second short, Bugs Bunny enjoys the spotlight while an envious Daffy Duck fumes. He gets the job as Bugs’ stunt double – and lots of pain. Other than its title, Bored has little to do with Born, but it’s a fun short.
Under Audio Vault, we locate five sections. These feature “Oliver on the Phone with the Director Discussing Norman” outtake (1:25), “Norman and Esther on the Roof of the Hotel Lancaster” (3:55), “12/28/42 Lux Theater Broadcast” (58:21), “Judy Garland Promotional” (3:01) and “Recording Sessions”. That last one provides renditions of six songs; all together, they run 40 minutes, 41 seconds.
Perhaps others will disagree, but I think the “Lux Theater Broadcast” offers easily the most interesting tidbit in the “Vault”. It’s certainly a fascinating historical relic, as it allows us to hear Garland play Esther 12 years before she’d perform the role on screen. It also means she gets to act in a version that adapts the 1937 film, which differs from the 1954 edition in a variety of ways. It’s quite enjoyable to hear this old radio broadcast. (By the way, Walter Pidgeon plays Norman Maine here.)
As for the others, they’re also cool to hear. I wish that previously omnipresent narrator would give us some context for “Phone” and “Roof”, but they’re still interesting instances of footage cut from the film. “Promotional” offers Garland as she chats with Luella Parsons about the film – well, as she sort of/maybe chats with Parsons. It sounds like they were recorded separately and edited together, but I could be wrong. It’s a fluffy discussion but kind of cool for archival purposes.
The “Sessions” give us two rehearsals (“Born in a Trunk” and “Someone at Last”) along with an “extended playback” of “Someone” as well as “My Melancholy Baby”, “Black Bottom” and “Swanee”. Some of these are compelling mainly for the serious fans, but the rehearsals are cool due to their looseness. A male does Garland’s spoken-word portions of “Someone”, and she also comments on her performance when she says she sounds like Shirley Booth. I like this rough glimpse behind the scenes.
The DVD finishes with a collection of Trailers. This area provides ads for the 1937, 1954 and 1976 editions of Star. One final note about the extras: they come with wildly varying volume levels. Some pieces were at normal levels, whereas others I had to really crank – and a couple were surprisingly loud. This inconsistency could become unpleasant.
Finally, we locate a hardcover book. This comes as part of the package; open up the disc’s casing and the book appears in the middle between the two platters. The book features a mix of components. It presents extended production notes about the movie, its restoration and reception. It also provides various photos and movie publicity. The book adds a nice touch of class to the set.
As a dramatic film, A Star Is Born has a lot of strengths, mainly due to its compelling story and excellent cast. However, it comes burdened with too many tangential musical numbers and a ridiculously inflated running time that makes it really drag. The Blu-ray provides erratic visuals along with fairly good audio and a decent roster of supplements.
In a surprising move, the latter area omits any commentaries or documentaries about the film and/or its creators. Instead, all of the extras give us archival/historical tidbits, a choice that makes me think this set is meant mostly for the more serious Born fans – ie, the ones who already know about its production. I still think it’s strange that such a well-known film gives us so little information about the shoot; the hardcover book is the only place we find any details of that sort.
All of this leaves the Blu-ray as something of a mixed bag, though it’s definitely a release that I endorse for fans. The picture quality comes with problems, but I suspect those are inevitable, and I also believe the film has never looked better. I remain disappointed by the lack of perspective found in the supplements, but this Blu-ray offers a good representation of the movie and will be viewed affectionately by fans.