Here's a piece I wrote on the restoration last summer:
It's probably hard to believe that until the restoration of Star is Born
was undertaken in the early 1980s, the only way to see the film was in the truncated version.
The film had debuted in 1954 at 181 minutes. Reviews were good and critical praise for both Garland and Mason was over the moon.
Life called it “a brilliantly staged, scored, and photographed film, worth all the effort” and the New York Times said it was “stunning.
But theater owners implored Jack Warner that if the film were cut down they could squeeze in an extra screening a day meaning more money for them and for Warners.
The film was cut against the wishes of George Cukor and was trimmed down to 154 minutes. While it doesn't rate as the worst truncated film of all time (that honor might go to the hack who cut down the original release of Once Upon a Time in America
and tried to put the film in chronological order), the resulting cuts all but destroyed James Mason's tragic portrayal of Norman Maine.
In the truncated version, some of the tragedy is still there but the shorter version destroyed the power of his performance as his character spiraled out of control.
His final scene (SPOILER!!!!!!)
where he walks out to the ocean was moving but it wasn't heart-rendering.
For years, that was the only version available and the only version those of us of certain age saw.
In the mid-1970s (before I arrived in the City of Angels), the Los Angeles County Art Museum held a retrospective of George Cukor films. Film Curators David Shepard and Ron Haver decided to show Star
and create a brochure using stills to show the public what had been cut out. Cukor loaned them his shooting script and his extensive photo collection from the film.
Cukor did not attend the screening. In fact, he refused to watch the truncated version.
The screening, however, did light a fire under Warners to go on a hunt for the missing footage. But word came back from Warners that after extensive looking, none of the cut sequences could be found.
However, a few months later, a young apprentice editor on the lot contacted Ron Haver and told him that he had found the complete mixed soundtrack for the 181 minute version in a mislabeled can in one of the vaults.
It wasn't until 1981 that the idea to restore the film took hold. The Academy held a tribute to Ira Gershwin and Ron Haver screened "The Man Who Got Away"
number and then remarked to the audience that two of Gershwin and Arlen's best songs had been cut from the film.
The Academy president at the time was Fay Kanin who was good friends with Cukor. Kanin also sat on the Board of Directors of the AFI and was part of the committee there that took film preservation seriously (ah, for the old days of the AFI).
The board agreed that restoring Star should be a priority and would be a great way of kicking off a "decade of preservation". There were concerns about the negative shot on Eastman color stock which was known to fade. The AFI got on board.
With that, Kanin contacted Robert Daly, then head of Warners and eventually got permission for Ron Haver to explore the company's film storage facilities.
In the spring of 1982, Haver began his treasure hunt. He started his search back East in the old Vitagraph storage facilities in Brooklyn that Warners had maintained since the 1920s. He checked out he lab in Manhattan that had struck the prints.
His journey brought him back to Los Angeles and the Technicolor lab on the Universal lot. Technicolor had made the first prints of the roadshow version back in 1954. According to its September 1954 records, the company struck 150 four-track stereo prints on Eastman color stock for the first run.
No more additional work was done until an order came through to cut the master negative.
The trims and deletions, as they were labeled, were shipped back to the studio in Burbank. 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.
The Academy placed ads in trade publications, but turned up nothing of interest.
Haver's first stop at Warners Burbank was the Sound Department's storage area located under the old Technicolor building on the lot. The subterranean basement was over a quarter of an acre.
"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!" Ron Haver said.in an interview.
But finding the soundtrack was only half the battle.
Some bits and pieces were found. Haver found the missing "Here's What I'm Here For"
musical number as well as the marriage proposal and the live mic pick up in one can.
The studio's stock footage library yielded some more because the exterior shots had been printed for use in other films should they need an exterior shot.
But none of the scenes with principal players were found despite a detailed search.
Haver then hit upon the idea of using Cukor's production stills to cover the missing footage. Up til then, stills had been used in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
to show Butch, the Kid and Etta at New York's Coney Island but stills had not been used in place of lost footage.
Haver worked up a budget and got approval from the AFI. George Cukor and Gene Allen, Star's
Production Designer, both agreed to help the project. Kanin approached Robert Daly at Warners about underwriting the budget. Daly wanted to see a test first and agreed to $5000 for the test.
It took five weeks to put together the test. The night before the test was to be shown to Robert Daly and George Cukor, Cukor passed away.
Despite the disappointment and sadness at Cukor's passing, it reinvigorated the participants and Robert Daly committed Warners to finishing the project.
Eastman Kodak got on board and donated the raw film stock needed to complete the project.
The restored version screened at Radio City Music Hall on July 7th, 1983 about six months after Cukor's passing.
The response was tremendous. The film played here in Los Angeles a week later. I was in the audience.
Watching the restored film it was obvious from the beginning that James Mason had been the one most robbed by the truncated version. As the love story played out across the screen we were all shown for the first time in almost twenty years, just how nuanced, tragic and moving his performance really was.
By the time he walked out into the surf, there were few dry eyes in the Academy theater and when Judy announced, "This is Mrs. Norman Maine" the audience felt the full impact of Norman's sacrifice.
Rumors have run abound over the last thirty years of complete prints being out there in the hands of collectors but as of yet, no one has come forward.
Ron Haver wrote an article for the old AFI American Film magazine about the restoration that summer. He later expanded that article into a book. "A Star Is Born - The Making of the 1954 Film and its 1983 Restoration "
. He passed away way too soon and each time I go to the Academy or the LACMA theater I always think of him.
The AFI article can be read on-line athttp://www.judy-garland.org/asib/restoration.html