On to 1954--and what a difference a year makes! In place of the typical squarish-rectangular frame, the black and white image, and the monophonic sound I see a full color image stretched nearly twice as wide and hear Judy Garland's musical number burst forth from multiple channels of audio. After watching fifty-odd years worth of movies in the Academy ratio these are welcome changes for me. Reading through old newspapers and magazines I discovered that these screen innovations were often advertised--and are sometimes still written about today--as brand new advances in filmmaking circa mid-1950s. In fact, these innovations really amount to gimmicks that had been under development for years. And it's ironic that I'm viewing this picture on a television because widescreen, color, multi-channel sound, and other gimmicks like 3-D pictures were parts of the studios' response to the growing popularity of television back in the 1950s. Back then the heads of the major studios worried over what they believed to be a direct correlation between the decline in motion picture attendance and the millions of television sets entering American homes. The question they asked of themselves was: how do you convince families in the suburbs to travel to downtown movie houses and pay to a see a motion picture when they can watch broadcast entertainment for free in the comfort of their own living rooms? No one seemed to have a definite answer but the studios gambled on various gimmicks to win spectators. Unfortunately nothing would reverse the box-office decline and by the end of the decade weekly theater attendance sunk to only half of what it had been at its peak back in 1946.
Before we get to this Film of the Year I just want to take a moment to mention that after half a century some still claim that TV was solely responsible for this decline in attendance. For example, just before viewing A Star is Born I watched an episode of You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story (2008), a television documentary about the history of Warner Bros., The doc is a fine survey history narrated by Clint Eastwood with lots of other famous directors and actors contributing to the discussion and it helped me get a better handle on the context in which this week's film was produced. The doc begins by talking about massive layoffs at the studios after WWII but, when it gets to the years in question it states "Doris Day was about all the studio had for good news in the early 1950s. Television had risen out of nowhere and by mid-decade had cost Hollywood half its audience, Warners half its profits, and serious people thought the movies were doomed." The doc doesn't give us any examples nor point us to sources to back up the claims. I'm easily convinced that delightful Doris Day is good news, but the rest is an oversimplification. First of all, television did not "appear out of nowhere." It was, in fact, a technology developing throughout the century and "serious people" had been discussing its potential ramifications on cinema and radio for years. By 1948 there were about a million sets in the U.S., nearly all in large urban areas like New York. In the mid-1950s the FCC worked out licensing and television stations opened up around the country and business boomed. Secondly, television wasn't solely responsible for the decline at the box office. Historians tell us that the decline in attendance was actually, like all events in history, the result of a multitude of factors. For example, American society and culture was transformed after WWII by the move of large numbers to the suburbs away from downtown movie houses; the Baby Boom brought a new focus on child-raising; increasing spending power coincided with new and more options for leisure-time of which television was but one alternative, and so on. In the early-1950s studio heads like Jack Warner may have been convinced that television was solely at fault for the decline in his business (which incidentally began back in the late 1940s), but to hear the same tired claim repeated in a brand new documentary is odd and irritating. In any case, gimmickry alone wouldn't reverse trends brought about by these changes. Back to our film...
Life reflecting art or art reflecting life? A television camera (left) and a film camera (center) capture a Hollywood premiere in this unusual shot from the opening of A Star is Born. The premiere of the motion picture received similar coverage and was broadcast on television.
I chose to view A Star is Born (1954) for this Film of the Year because its production history is a veritable checklist of technical, promotional and content gimmicks used by Warner Bros. to lure audiences into the theaters. For example, at various stages the picture was considered for WarnerScope, sterescopic (3-D) filming, non-anamorphic widescreen, Technicolor, and, finally, Fox's CinemaScope and Eastman Color. Moreover, the picture is a musical with big production numbers; it's a remake of William Wellman's classic Hollywood fable; it features the return of Judy Garland after a two-year hiatus from the screen; the studio gambled millions on it despite declining box-offices; and it was promoted with a major advertising campaign, televised sneak previews, a sound track LP tie-in, and a star-studded Hollywood premiere shown on live television (the latter is included on the DVD version and for fans of Hollywood stars of the 1950s it's almost as fascinating to watch as the movie itself).
In the film, Garland plays singer and aspiring actress Esther Blodgett who meets and marries box office star Norman Maine (James Mason). He uses his connections to help her career get started while his own career plummets due to alcoholism. Does Esther have what it takes to rise above adversity and become a true star? Director George Cukor presents us with nearly three hours of fabulous singing, dancing, and melodrama in full color CinemaScope before we find out.A number of aesthetic opportunities for motion pictures have been attributed to widescreen formats such as CinemaScope. For example, they open up the frame and distances actors from each other and the mise en scène, presents a continuous space and suggests a connection between objects within that space, and increases the illusion of depth. One often cited benefit of working in widescreen is an increased psychological insight into characters' experience of the environment. That can be the case but it isn't necessarily exclusive to widescreen movies. Some early concerns about the format that I found in various old film reviews suggest that the expanded shape presents unexpected challenges for editing because cutting forces the eye jump around the extra-wide image to find the area of focus. As a result long takes and point-of-view or eye-line cutting were developed and challenged traditional continuity style editing.
I noticed Cukor working in the extra-wide CinemaScope frame in a number of novel ways, but the cinematic advantages of widescreen versus the old format and the differences between motion pictures and television were apparently on the mind of the producers and Cukor because these technologies appear prominently in a number of key scenes. I don't know if it's a result of Cukor experimenting with the format for the first time, or directions found in the screenplay, or dictates by studio brass (anyone out there have a production history for this picture handy?) but what I see on the screen looks like a rather self-conscious response to the aforementioned screen changes. For me, part of the fun of watching A Star is Born turned out to be noticing the various appearances of filmmaking and television technology and seeing how they're used in the story. I've noted three of my favorite instances below:
One of the most obvious comparisons of the standard Academy format with widescreen CinemaScope occurs when Esther and Norman attend a preview of her breakout picture at the Marcopia Theater. Cukor begins the sequence by showing the film as projected on the screen inside the theater. In a frame within a frame, and a motion picture within a motion picture, we see the final moments of a musical number in the Academy ratio. A few dancers can be seen around Blodgett, but they're cut off by the boundaries of the square-ish frame. She dominates the image and we can barely discern anything about the background. The open curtains on either side would likely be moved to the edges of the projected image in an actual theatrical exhibition, but here they help to reinforce the additional frame space made possible by the widescreen format.
After a cutaway to Esther and Norman watching in the audience, Cukor returns to the picture-within-a-picture for an exceptional extended musical sequence that recounts a movie star's rise to fame--only this time we see it in all the widescreen glory of CinemaScope. I screencapped the musical number at nearly the same point as above to compare the two formats. CinemaScope allows Cukor to crowd the frame with colorfully costumed performers so that image projects not only Garland's energy, but that of the entire chorus and the background. The visual impact outshines that of the previous image.
Another of my favorite examples occurs when Esther receives an Oscar in a scene midway through A Star is Born. The actual Academy award ceremony was first broadcast on television in 1953 and the scene encourages us to compare television with cinema in a creative way. Take a look at the screencaps below:
Notice which part of the frame draws your attention? In the scene, Esther is standing just off-center on the stage holding her newly-won award. On the left we see a television camera crew dolly-in on her while she gives an acceptance speech. On the right we see how this movement of the camera affects the image broadcasted to the nation's TV screens. At least three things are happening here: One, as the unbroken image on the right transforms from a full-shot to a medium close-up Esther's words and facial expressions seem to have an increased emotional impact (I noticed similar close-ups during the most recent Academy awards broadcast). Second, because the human eye is attracted to, among other things, movement, light, and size on the screen we're drawn to look at the televised speech on the right part of the screen instead of the long-shot of the event unfolding even though it takes up the majority of screen space--in effect, we stop watching the movie and begin watching television within the movie! But Cukor isn't finished yet because he sets up what I'd like to call a comparison shot...
Aware that we're looking at the close-up of Garland on the television in the long-shot Cukor cuts away to a drunken Norman rudely interrupting Esther's speech and then cuts to a close-up of Garland in CinemaScope. In a comparison of close-ups, CinemaScope certainly comes out on top. The size, framing, light and color of the Scope shot makes us forget all about the fuzzy little black and white square that held our attention mere moments before.
Comparative home viewing choices make for an interesting background during a scene in which Norman is told that the studio is letting him go. Home viewing of motion pictures was a popular pastime among those who could afford the equipment and had the knowledge to operate it before television offered a relatively worry and work free alternative. In the top image above, Norman and Esther show a newsreel and a feature film on their impressive home theater system during a cocktail party at their oceanside mansion. In the lower image, Norman catches the film's producer sneaking off to watch a fight on Norman's tiny black and white television set in another room. Packaged newsreels like the one in the top image began to fade from screens as television news came into its own during the 1950s. Live coverage of events, such as the boxing match the producer prefers to watch over his own picture, is another advantage TV has over the movies. "Traitor," Maine says with a smile.
I mentioned above that it feels ironic to watch a picture like this on the hated television. But if 1954 is remembered as a year when gimmicks were promoted as the future of Hollywood then a far more grand irony can be found. For, Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954), which features rising star Marlon Brando, taut direction, and a socially relevant script but none of the aforementioned screen innovations, swept the Academy Awards and received some of the highest critical praise for that year. That must have stung the studio heads who banked on widescreen and the other expensive gimmicks. But knowing this it seems natural to ask the question, is wider better? I have to admit to being a fan of the experience of watching the wider image. In fact, I've got Rear Window (1954) and Carmen Jones (1954) in the DVD stack ready to view next. But, I'm also aware that a wider image cannot improve a bad picture any more than 3-D is likely improve something like Cat Women of the Moon (1954). Though 3-D receded to a relative rarity, widescreen and some of the other screen innovations would become parts of the eventual mechanization of "movies" as something wider than Academy ratio but less than CinemaScope, in color, with sync sound, and multichannel audio. But from an artistic standpoint it seems that the success of On the Waterfront is a reminder that better technology is no guarantee--or even necessary--for better films.