Even in this incomplete restoration George Cukor’s 1954 musical remake of the 1937 Hollywood drama is devastating. Judy Garland plays a young singer discovered by aging, alcoholic star Norman Maine (James Mason), who helps her to fame as “Vicki Lester” even as his career slips. Garland gives a deeply affecting performance–halting, volatile, unsure of herself early on and unsure of Norman later–and her musical numbers are superb. Yet the film’s core is its two-character scenes, in which small shifts in posture subtly articulate the drama’s essence. Cukor gives his preoccupation with self-image a surprisingly anti-Hollywood spin: despite the many industry-oriented group scenes, the characters seem fully authentic only when they’re alone with each other. The scenes of Lester acting seem tainted with artifice, and her a cappella performance of her current hit for Norman on their wedding night further separates the public from the private. Later, reenacting the production number shot that day, she uses a food cart for a dolly and a chair for a harp; Cukor’s initial long take heightens the intimacy between her and Norman, just as the household props implicitly critique studio artificiality. All that matters, Cukor implies, is what people can try to become for each other. The film was badly mangled when Warner Brothers cut a half hour shortly after its release; this 1983 35-millimeter restoration replaces some footage, offering stills when only the sound track could be found. Fortunately these slide shows are confined to early scenes, giving some sense of what was lost. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Thursday, December 18, 6:00, 312-443-3737. –Fred Camper
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited film still.