A Star Is Born | 1954
One of the most expensive movies of its time, and Warners’ costliest, it was butchered by the studio and, shockingly, every existing copy was cut, including the original negative – the ever-penny pinching Jack Warner wanting to retrieve each last grain of silver.
Production began during the hysterical flap caused by the arrival of television, with film companies desperately experimenting with every gimmick available. Consequently, A Star Is Born was filmed in Technicolor and CinemaScope, but was beaten by Twentieth Century Fox’s The Robe, the first film released in the new widescreen format, but Warner’s cheekily managed to incorporate into the opening scene shots of the Fox epic’s old-style searchlight première, at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, now lumbered with the corporate name of TLC Chinese Theatre, 6925 Hollywood Boulevard (do you think anyone has ever called it that?).
The bright, clear shots were specially filmed, in ’Scope, at the Shrine, and the grainier, newsreel footage is the Grauman’s première. The Shrine, a massive 6,700-seat Moorish fantasy built in 1926, occasionally hosted the Oscars before the purpose-built Kodak Theatre returned the ceremony to Hollywood. It was here that James Cameron became King of the World in 1998. Another king, King Kong was exhibited here in 1933 (it was supposed to be New York), while one more lumbering colossus of the cinema, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was similarly exhibited 50 years later, clad in red, white and blue, when he and 2,000 other worthies became citizens of the USA.
The real Shrine stage and backstage areas were used for Blodgett’s first encounter with wobbling star Norman Maine. The boorishly drunken Maine lurches on to the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel, which stood at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard at Catalina Street, midtown.
The exterior is real, though the Grove’s campy, palmy interior was recreated in the studio at Warners’.
The Ambassador – site of Oscar ceremonies in the Thirties and of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 – stood empty for many years, until finally succumbing to the wrecker’s ball in 2006.
The ‘Oleander Arms’, where Blodgett stays, was an apartment complex at the corner of Crescent Heights Boulevard and Fountain Avenue, West Hollywood. In 1983, when still photographs were taken to fill gaps for the film’s restoration, the building was unchanged, but by 1984 the wooden structure had been dismantled and, reportedly, carted away.
Also gone is Robert’s Drive-in Restaurant, where Blodgett works as a car-hop, which stood at Sunset Boulevard and Cahuenga.
The ‘Oliver Niles Studio’ is, obviously, the Warner Bros lot itself, at 4000 Warner Boulevard, Burbank. Director Cukor, though, reassigns buildings for visual effect: Norman Maine’s lavish dressing room, where he gets rid of the blond wig and false nose foisted onto Esther, is one of WB’s Executive Offices; the ‘Publicity Department’ is actually the Wardrobe Building; the screening room, where studio head Niles (Charles Bickford) watches a deafening Western, is the Sound Building.
At the ‘payroll window’, which is a warehouse opposite the studio’s Commissary, Blodgett finds out her new name is Vicki Lester, and a star is born.
You can view the lot on on the excellent Warner Bros VIP Studio Tour. Unlike the huge Universal theme park approach, the WB tour is a small, low-key affair which will take you around the venerable soundstages where classics such as 42nd Street, The Maltese Falcon, Now, Voyager, Casablanca, Rebel Without a Cause – and more recently, Spider-Man – were shot.
Maine and Lester sneak off to ‘San Verdo’ for a quiet wedding. The tiny town used for the wedding scene is Piru, a main street and a railway line off I-126, north of LA.
At the studio, Vicki goes from bright and fresh-faced to exhausted and drained in one cut. A whole musical number, Lose That Long Face, was cut (but since found and included in the restored version). The ‘New Orleans’ backdrop is the old ‘Elysian Fields’ set from Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire, prettied up with a lick of white paint.
With its towering palms and distinctive green and yellow wrought ironwork, the Santa Anita has long been a favourite with Hollywood punters since 1934 (it’s where the Marx Brothers spent A Day at the Races in 1937, and more recently cropped up in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.) and is still going strong. Fredric March ran into trouble here in the 1937 version, and this Norman Maine follows suit, falling off the wagon in spectacular fashion.
Before you can say ‘large scotch’, Vicki Lester is racing along Sunset Boulevard (yes, that’s the legendary but long-gone Schwab’s Drugstore zooming by) to bail Norman out of the drunk tank at frequent movie location Lincoln Heights Jail, 421 North Avenue 19, Lincoln Heights, near downtown LA. Its interior supplied locations for the original 1984 A Nightmare On Elm Street and appears in Con Air, among other productions.
At their ‘Malibu’ beach house, Norman makes the ultimate Hollywood gesture of self-sacrifice for Vicki’s career. It’s not ‘Malibu’, though, but Laguna Beach, on I-1 south of LA, where he walks into the sea.
His memorial service is held at the Church of the Good Shepherd, 505 North Bedford Drive, Beverly Hills (cheekily dubbed ‘Our Lady of the Cadillacs’). Forbidden to use lighting within the church, Cukor silhouettes the emerging figures in sepulchral gloom against the stained glass windows before letting rip with a barrage of flashbulbs outside the church, where screeching fans rip off grieving Vicki’s veil.
And the final shot is, once more, the Shrine Auditorium, as Vicki Lester greets the crowd with “Hello everybody, this is Mrs Norman Maine...”