This underrated musical biopic about stage great Gertrude Lawrence makes Judge Bill Treadway feel like singing.
Our review of Fox 75th Anniversary Classic Quad: Set 3, published May 3rd, 2010, is also available.
A dazzling, decadent musical.
Star! should have been a smash hit. All of the ingredients looked right on paper: Julie Andrews and Robert Wise (respectively the star and director of The Sound of Music) reunited in a lavish musical. With a three million dollar budget and complete creative control, Wise finally made a musical that equaled his earlier triumph West Side Story. Now all 20th Century Fox had to do was wait for the money to start rolling in.
Alas, it was not to be. Star! ended up being one of the biggest box office flops of 1968. Despite several efforts to boost the box office, Star! never became the big hit everybody had hoped for.
Facts of the Case
From the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, sixth edition:
Lawrence, Gertrude, 1902?-1952, English actress and singer.
Her original name was Gertrud Alexandra Dagmar Lawrence-Klasen. Performing on
the musical stage from childhood, Lawrence made her New York debut (1924) in
Charlot's Revue, together with Beatrice Lillie. A childhood friend of Noel
Coward, she appeared with him in his Private Lives (1931) and Tonight
at 8:30 (1936). Her charm and magnetic personality in Susan and God
(1937) and in such musicals as Lady in the Dark (1941) and The King
and I (1951) endeared her to the public. In 1950 she played Amanda in a film
version of The Glass Menagerie.
The biographical statement will give you a basic idea of what this film is about. Robert Wise's film is a musical recreation of key moments in the life of Gertrude Lawrence (Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins), stage star. With newsreel recreations acting as punctuation, this is a film about the major events of her life, both professional and private. We see the songs that she performed on stage, including music by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and mentor Noel Coward (played by Academy Award nominee Daniel Massey). We also see the various love affairs with men from stagehand Jack Roper (John Collin) to Sir Anthony Spencer (Michael Craig), Charles Fraser (Robert Reed, The Brady Bunch), and Richard Aldrich (Richard Crenna, First Blood). Most important, we get a glimpse into how she became a Star! and how hard she tried to maintain a happy, fulfilled life.
Star! is a magnificent film. Every bit of the $14 million spent on the production is seen on screen. Robert Wise didn't just make a great movie: He made what is arguably the greatest film musical of the late '60s.
So why did Star! fail at the box office, despite the high quality of the finished film? I think the main problem was the glut of musicals that had sprung up at the box office. Among the major problems that have always plagued Hollywood is the obsession to recreate the latest hit. After My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music earned endless amounts of money and awards, Hollywood believed that the general public wanted musicals. Everywhere you looked, one musical was in either pre-production or general release. Most of them were expensive films for their time and ended up breaking studios. Star! turned out to be one of three musicals that brought 20th Century Fox into dire straits. Also, a severe backlash against The Sound of Music was in full swing by the time Star! reached screens, much like the current trend of trashing films simply because they were exceedingly popular. (I admit right here that I not only like Forrest Gump and Titanic, but I still think they were among the best films of their decade.)
You can't fault the studio for the box office failure of Star!. They believed in the film and tried to salvage it. The first attempt was a second theatrical release that cut the original overture and trimmed the running time to 170 minutes. After that failed to solve the problem, Fox again reedited the film. This version, titled Loves of a Star, ran about 150 minutes. It still failed. Undeterred, Fox brought in William Reynolds, an editor renowned for damage control. (He would take hold of Heaven's Gate after Michael Cimino turned in a five-and-a-half-hour cut.) This shorter 119-minute cut was titled Those Were the Happy Days and was disowned by Robert Wise, who removed his director's credit. Issued in late 1969, it still failed to bring in audiences. From this point on, aside from a few network showings of various lengths, Star! remained unseen and unloved.
Some have accused William Fairchild's screenplay of being "abysmal," but that is an unfair charge. Fairchild was given the daunting task of telling a biographical story punctuated with song and dance, and I thought he did a fine job of balancing both elements. The dialogue feels real and true. The characterizations are realistic and three-dimensional, despite some last-minute name changes to avoid litigation. Fairchild shows great skill in segueing from narrative to song in a flawless manner. My sole problem with the script—and with the film, now that I think about it—is that it ends abruptly. As for the charge that certain events were either exaggerated or fictitiously fleshed out, I have only one thing to say: If you want the complete story, read a book. Film is a completely different format. Those who often look for the absolute truth there are often disappointed. As long as the film maintains most of the truth and captures the look and feel of an era, that is all that should matter.
There is nothing wrong with the direction of Robert Wise. As he had done with his best musicals, Wise finds a perfect balance between story and song. The technical aspects of Star! are also superb. If there's one thing Wise knew how to do, it was how to properly use a sizable budget to get maximum production value on screen. Wise also realized that even the best-made musical will fall apart if the basic ingredients do not work—those ingredients being acting and music. He manages to guide everyone to career-best work.
With the exception of a few new songs by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, the majority of the music is of the period, which is appropriate for a biographical film. All the songs are performed and filmed with style and flair. Robert Wise mentions in the commentary track that he wanted to recreate the feel of a stage performance, and he succeeds beautifully. Instead of using a series of close-ups, as most concert films did at the time, he uses the Todd-AO 70mm widescreen frame to give the feel of the expansiveness of the stage. The stage becomes a character in itself. Michael Kidd's choreography makes excellent use of the properties of both film and stage. The result: the audience feels as if it is part of the show.
The acting is uniformly superb, unusual for a major musical built around a single star. For the sake of space, I'll cover just a few standouts. Julie Andrews is in top form in a role that showcased her solid acting skills. Of course, we all know her musical credentials are solid. With Star!, Andrews at last got the chance to break away from the wide-eyed innocence that characterized her previous smash The Sound of Music. Surely taking the role of a legend such as Gertrude Lawrence would have caused some self-doubt among some actresses, but Andrews is more than up to the challenge, showing a wide range of human emotion. She resists playing the role completely straightforward; this is an interpretation of Lawrence, not an imitation. The film's humor is provided by Daniel Massey. Cast as his own godfather, Noel Coward, he manages to infuse vitality into any scene he is in. He works exceptionally well with Andrews. And whereas most found Richard Crenna dull in the role of fourth husband Richard Aldrich, I thought he did a fine job; providing strength and stability. According to history, Aldrich was the stabilizing force in Lawrence's hectic life, and Crenna fully materializes that aspect here. Robert Reed is likable and well mannered as Charles Fraser; it is easy to see why he was cast in The Brady Bunch. Finally, Michael Craig is appropriately infallible and dashing as Spencer; we understand why Lawrence would fall for him.
For years, Star! languished in movie oblivion, unavailable in any
The audio has been improved to Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. The extra channels give the wonderful soundtrack a bite and dimension that VHS and television never could. There is not a single flaw in the soundtrack, as careful work has been done to remove all flaws and hissing. The music sounds magnificent through the speakers, and dialogue is easily comprehensible. The musical numbers have extra punch to them. You will feel as if you are in the front row.
Although it's not listed as such, Fox has given Star! the special edition treatment. For starters, we have a commentary track. The keep case lists Robert Wise as the sole participant, but in fact it is a group effort featuring key members of the creative team. Don't worry if you think this is going to be a confusing track to follow: Wise introduces each participant as they appear. At first, I assumed this was a newly recorded commentary, but I realized it wasn't when I heard the late Richard Crenna discuss his participation. It turns out that this commentary first appeared on the laserdisc edition, and Fox was wise enough to it offer it on the DVD. This is as good as commentary tracks get. Everything you ever wanted to know about Star! is divulged here. Wise is a genial host, and I hope he records some more commentary tracks in the future.
"Star!: The Sound of a Legend" is listed as a featurette, but that isn't quite the case. It is actually a print production diary. Each on-screen page is crammed with information, organized from the initial concept to the vast editing history. You will have to read this from your television screen, but it's a nice companion to the commentary track. Just in case you were wondering, this was also prepared for the laserdisc edition. Likewise, "Silver Star!" was a featurette made for the laserdisc edition. It is brief at ten minutes. However, you get then-fresh interviews with Wise, Andrews, and other cast members. There is also footage from the theatrical premiere of the restoration. This is worth checking out.
Robert Wise mentions in the commentary track that he made a screen test for 20th Century Fox to convince them that Julie Andrews and Daniel Massey could work together in a film. Here we have the opportunity to see that test. Presented in 2.20:1 non-anamorphic widescreen, it is interesting and invaluable for collectors.
An assortment of stills galleries, with written comments, puts most DVD galleries to shame. Also offered are several theatrical trailers. The real gem is the trailer for the refurbished Those Were the Days, presented in full-frame, but invaluable to own. Several TV promotional spots close out this impressive package.
Fox is offering Star! at a bargain price of $14.95. How could anyone resist this disc? It's a fully loaded special edition at a barebones disc price. Lovers of musicals will want to own it, and Julie Andrews fans will want to make it a part of their collection. Casual viewers will want to rent it first, but I guarantee that it will be the first title on their list of purchases.
I declare this case closed and everyone free!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary track moderated by Robert Wise
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