great moment in music is reasonably perceived to be a live moment, but
such a moment on film bears a unique, though paradoxical, organicity: we
can continue to experience it in its imperfectly frozen essence. To me,
the greatest such moment — and definitely a standout moment in music — is
Judy Garland's legendary performance of The Man That Got Away in
the 1954 re-make of A Star Is Born.
that film critic David Denby once referred to as a great moment in
American film is that and more. Norman Maine (James Mason) searches for
Esther Blodgett (Garland), and finds her jamming with her band after-hours
in an otherwise deserted club on Sunset Boulevard. The chairs are stacked
on the tables, and the lights are very low. The boys in the band are
playing softly, and when Danny (Tommy Noonan) tells Esther to "take it
from the top", we hear the now-famous muted trombone introduction to the
Arlen-Gershwin classic. When Esther is finished, Norman tells her that
listening to her gives him "little jabs of pleasure", and compares the
experience to watching a great prizefight or a great dancer.
history is in order here. Much of the George Cukor-directed film (produced
by Garland's husband, Sid Luft) had already been shot when Warner Bros.
decided to start all over, using CinemaScope. In his biography of Garland,
Get Happy, Gerald Clarke explains that the early CinemaScope
process was flawed. The cameras could capture a wide screen, but they
didn't have much flexibility in coming in for zooms and clasps. Intimate
scenes like the one in the club were difficult to shoot.
were several costume considerations. In John Fricke's book on Garland,
there is a photo of the star in one of the rejected costumes: A-line
skirt, big belt, short-sleeved blouse with the first two buttons
unbuttoned. The final selection, of course, was the dark blue, fitted
dress with three-quarter sleeves, a big white collar and a printed tie —
an Esther Blodgett dress if ever there were one.
wonders how much more devastating the scene would have been in black and
white, but it is good enough in color. The Man That Got Away,
arguably the greatest torch song ever written, is heartbreaking to listen
to. When you watch Garland's performance in the film, however, you see
more of an ironic interpretation. She smiles a lot; she is visibly pleased
with the strength of her own performance. At one point, she is framed by
shelves of bar glasses in the back, and — on the left — the startling
appearance of brass and wind instruments, which are raised in a
counterpoint to her performance. When Garland sings “Good riddance,
Goodbye”, she makes a dismissive gesture toward the orchestra, and the
trumpets, trombones and saxophones are just as suddenly withdrawn.
the singer does the trademark Garland hand-through-the-hair gesture, and
her movements range from elocutionary to Vaudevillian. When the song is
over, she winks. In a lesser artist, these movements would have been over
the top, but when Garland executes them, they are perfect.
legend has it that vocal arranger Hugh Martin argued fiercely with Garland
over her interpretation of the song, and we can only make an educated
guess that Garland won the argument. It is, in fact, absurd to think that
anyone anywhere would have argued with Judy Garland over the vocal
interpretation of any song.
A lot of
credit for the stunning effect of The Man That Got Away scene,
which occurs early in the film, must go to Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin,
for the song itself is haunting. The orchestral arrangement by Skip
Martin, with its seductively driven coda, is brilliant. And then there is
Judy Garland herself, whom we cannot—and should not—totally separate from
Esther Blodgett or Vicki Lester.
time Garland made A Star Is Born, she was ravaged by alcohol and
drugs, most of her romantic dreams had "all gone astray," and she was
dealing with the consequences of her own substance-driven behaviors. She
still had her marvelous sense of humor, which she never lost. In the film,
she is Everywoman, with layers of skin peeled off. Her otherworldly voice
takes possession of her body and suffuses it with a strength that makes
her appear physically powerful. She is the perfect vessel for the perfect
A Star Is
Born became a victim of the worst type of Hollywood abuse. Despite
glowing critical acclaim for the film, Harry Warner—secretly, and at the
last minute—cut twenty-seven minutes from the three-hour movie, thinking
he could get a better box office return with a shorter product. Judy
Garland was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but lost to Grace Kelly,
for her role in The Country Girl. Perhaps even more outrageous,
The Man That Got Away, nominated for Best Song, lost to the insipid
Three Coins In a Fountain. A Star Is Born did not even receive
a Best Picture nomination, and Cukor wasn't nominated as Best Director.
The popularity-driven Academy Awards are never much of a gauge of what is
good in film, but the 1954 travesties have gone down in film history as
especially low moments.
in 1983, A Star Is Born was given new life. Footage that Warner had
destroyed was restored, and the footage that resisted restoration was
replaced with still photographs. I was fortunate enough to see a premiere
of the restored version at New Orleans' grand old Saenger Theater, with
its giant screen and outlandishly ornate ceilings and balconies. When the
Sunset Boulevard club scene appeared on the screen and Garland sang The
Man That Got Away, I was a mass of deep breathing and taut muscles.
Never having seen Garland live, I drank in every facial twitch, every eye
opening, every vibrating phrase.
many great musical moments in film, and several of them feature Judy
Garland. But for me, there will probably never be one with the combination
of intimacy, simplicity and primitive power of The Man That Got Away.
For a few minutes, Judy Garland owns a piece of your very soul, and you
are completely satisfied to give it up to her.
[ Diane Dees runs a Web site called
Cafe, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org ]