Director: George Cukor
Writer: Moss Hart
Cinematographer: Sam Leavitt
by Jon Cvack
For a three hour film this movie felt small, as though spending too much time on the juicy parts of the story and too little on their causes. It charts the rise of lounge singer Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) who’s discovered by A-list performer Norman Maine (James Mason). The film opens up at some type of theatrical performance at the Shrine Auditorium, with all of the who’s who of Hollywood in attendance. Esther has a bit part and everything seems to be going pretty well until Norman arrives, drunk out of his mind, laughing as he bumps into people, nearly heading out onto the live stage before Esther tames him. Norman then takes her out to dinner in gratitude, watches a club performance and sees her as destined for the stars. Thus begins the rise of Esther Blodgett, renamed Vicky Lester, soon marrying Norman, while, for some reason, his own career takes the opposite direction, abetting his alcoholism.
Having let the movie bake a bit, I think the first problem is the film doesn’t really know what it wants to be, shifting between a romanticized epic drama and a musical that never matches the movie’s scale. The early musical numbers, particularly in the club are fantastic and engaging, but when Lester gets to Hollywood they’re hackneyed and awkward. For instance, after Norman is fired and attempts the domesticated life, Lester comes out. Norman has made sandwiches that are too big to eat and asks Lester to performer her new musical piece. And so instead of seeing it as written, with the lyrics focused on exotic destinations all around the world, we instead watch as she dances around a living room. And let me just note that this number is big; basically, it’s about as exciting as you could make a song and dance number that takes place in an expensive living room. So on the one hand we’re empathizing with Norman’s job loss, but then this uneventful musical kicks in, making us forget this fact, serving the exact purpose of musical numbers in that it takes our mind off the bad, but then I also just feel bad for Norman, making the scene awkward, and because it takes place in such a boring setting, it’s not even that gripping to begin with. For instance, if Cukor had kept cutting to Norman and his fake smile, rather than creating such a big and elaborate routine, it could have been a brilliant scene. Instead, he shift tones with such speed that you’re not sure what you should feel, forcing you into some strange neutral territory.
Worse, is when Norman loses his contract, which comes out of absolutely nowhere, and while I understand it might have been caused by his excessive drinking, Norman hasn’t really been drinking at all up to this point, even promising Lester he’d cut it down once they got married. Even after discovering Esther and having produced monuments of success for the studio, they’ve now decided to cut him loose. This would have been a bit more justified if he had another episode like the opening scene, having embarrassed the studio once again. Instead, they’re watching a newsreel, the Head of the Studio takes Norman aside and cut him loose. It all seemed much too convenient and quick for the more interesting story - what happens to a person who falls from the top, when their partner keeps on rising? Or what happens when a man's unable to avoid destroying himself? There were so many opportunities to explore jealousy and envy, never really explored or provided. Norman’s love for Esther was impenetrable, with nothing except his love of liquor standing between them. There were even a few moments, such as when Norman is before judge after crashing his car, with the Judge mentioning on how his unappreciated and lucky success is reason enough to send him to jail. It felt as though as all these issues were only grazed upon, with Cukor favoring a cut to another song and dance number, no matter how inappropriate or awkward. For how big the film was, Norman’s arc felt so small.
When reading the trivia, I discovered that many A-list stars turned down the role, either because their egos were too large, or because they felt their name wasn’t fitting for what the part demanded. In fact, when turning down the role, Marlon Brando actually mentioned James Mason. Mason is perfect. He’s the type of actor where you find yourself wondering what else he’d been in, having seen him before. And while there were a of couple incredible films (Lolita, North by Northwest, ), he never really took off, and I’d assume it’s because of his similarity to Cary Grant; functioning as the Deep Impact to Armageddon. Even with the limited material, Mason gives an incredible performance, especially as he veers off the deep end.
Coincidentally, Judy Garland had a severe addiction to pain meds during the film, eventually pushing the production back 41 days. With her self-conscious professions, she perfectly captures a role of someone who feels inadequate, but is determined to power through to reach her dreams. She ended up losing the Oscar to Grace Kelly (in The Country Girl; in what sounds like a strangely similar and pretty good film I’ve never heard of). Even with awkward song and dance numbers, Garland was still able to find the humanity within each scene, such as when, during a brief lighting change, she talks to the Head of Studio about Norman’s decline, then returning in Close Up to the same song. We see as she stares off, worried, and once the music kicks, taking but a second, she immediately shifts back to the happy go lucky performer. Grace Kelly would have to give a pretty killer performance to beat what Garland pulls off, and all while on the influence of pain meds.
It’s a pretty good film, never really having the confidence it needed - too worried to get into the depths of Norman’s condition, thinking that cheerful musical numbers were enough to compensate. Seeing that On the Waterfront came out and won Best Picture that year, I wish Cukor had the same confidence to go as far as Kazan. It’s all the perfect formula, executed just okay.
BELOW: Judy Garland shifting on a dime from concerned wife to happy-go-lucky performer
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