When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2
In Part 1, I presented five films, ranging from the silent classic Metropolis to possibly the greatest musical ever, The Band Wagon, that have been restored with questionable results. Here, I will tackle some more recent films—if you consider the period from 1954 to 1972 recent—that weren’t necessarily improved by the efforts of the restorationists.
A Star is Born (1954)
The 1954 A Star Is Born ranks with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed as one of the most ruthlessly cut films of all time. When missing songs, footage, and soundtracks were found in the early 1980s and restored for a 1983 re-release, it was all quite exciting. Since two of the songs—“Lose That Long Face” and “Here’s What I’m Here For”—had been included on the best-selling LP soundtrack album, everyone knew something was missing, and a whole generation of Judy Garland fans had wondered where the footage could be.
This was finally and blissfully restored. However, there was also about 15 minutes where only the soundtrack existed, so production photos were shown over the audio to suggest what had once been there. At the time, this was fascinating and
lovely. However, the stills now look grainy, blurry, antiquated, and sometimes tasteless. But we are stuck with them.
In truth, A Star Is Born feels about 20 minutes too long anyway, and the “talking stills” only make that worse, interrupting and dismantling the fine dramatic story. Recently investigating this myself, I became suspicious that the scenes represented by these added black & white sections may have only been part of a preview print, not the opening-night presentation.
As regards the trimming of the film, one must remember that almost all road-show versions of films—which typically included an overture and intermission—were trimmed for general release. Only a handful of very popular epics like The Ten Commandments and musicals like The Sound of Music were never trimmed. Even Ben-Hur was trimmed by 1969. All films were trimmed of at least their intermissions and overtures.
So the actual problem with the butchering of A Star Is Born is not that it was cut down, but how and when. When Rodgers & Hammerstein movie musicals such as South Pacific, The King and I, and Carousel were trimmed, special versions were prepared in pre-release so, one, dramatically nothing was compromised; two, no songs were cut without approval from R&H; and three, you would never even notice anything was missing.
The producers of A Star Is Born should have prepared a 150-minute version for general release. It might have made
it a better film, and Judy could have won her Academy Award! As it is now, we all have to suffer through the antiquated 1983 restored version, which now looks messy and choppy. Can’t the fascinating extra “stills” footage just be an addendum to the live-action version? We have all the songs now—that’s all we really want.
Touch of Evil (1958)
This oddball crime drama was seen for decades in a somewhat conventional 93-minute version that Universal-International prepared. It was always fascinating because of its set of major stars: Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston, and Marlene Dietrich. And, of course it was directed by Orson (Citizen Kane) Welles. Universal’s version contained a jazzy score by Henry Mancini and a few additional scenes that were shot without Welles on hand. Directed by Harry Keller, these were primarily shot to clarify some of the more ambiguous plot points.
Because of the film’s team of stars, and Welles’ appeal to a growing audience, in 1976, Universal released a 108-minute version to cinemas and later issued it on video, billing it as “Complete, Uncut, and Restored.” In fact, this print was not a restoration at all but a preview version.
By 1998, interest in the film had developed to the point where a full restoration was produced, based on Welles’ 58-page memo to Universal on how to re-edit the preview version. This version is certainly more complete, but eliminates Mancini’s music over the credits. This is a valid choice, meant to showcase Welles’ celebrated long take, but the opening isn’t as exciting sans the excellent score. Some of the scenes shot by Keller for clarity were also removed.
Today, the film makes less sense than it did in 1976. While it is fascinating to see what Welles’ envisioned, the more conventional Universal version is easier to follow. What went wrong is not that the 1998 restoration was done (or whether it is better or worse than the Universal version), but that it is now considered the only valid version of the film.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
True, this was one of the greatest films of all time. And it still is. But, thanks to its restoration, it’s not quite as much of a great film as it was in the 1960s. Some footage was added in the 1990s, and the resulting edit was deemed to be the “Director’s Cut.” However, I suspect this was done to create a new copyright, and even to compensate David Lean financially. This longer version may have indeed been what Lean handed over for the film’s premiere, but the subsequent cuts made it much tighter and smoother.
The footage restored for the current version includes a shot of Lawrence’s motorcycle goggles in the bushes. Lean uses the same exact shot in Dr. Zhivago when Tom Courtney’s eyeglasses are flung into a snow drift during a World War I battle. Would he really have wanted to restore this shot once it had been seen in Zhivago? (Or would he have used it in the later film if Lawrence’s goggles were actually in the first road-show version?) The next restored scene is in front of a marble bust of Lawrence. This seems a bit campy, and I’ll wager Lean was happy to see it go in 1962.
The second half of the film suffers from the restoration of several scenes. This is exactly where Lawrence does not need to be longer. The lengthening of Lawrence’s torture by Jose Ferrer as the Turkish bey is slow, moody, and also a bit tasteless. But the scene that is simply overly long is the political discussion between Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal and Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley. Peter O’Toole as Lawrence is far away. We wait patiently (or not) as we watch Alec Guinness in brown face affecting a singsong phony Arab accent. Add an always less-than-stellar Arthur Kennedy with his one-expression disgruntled face and you have a scene that looks straight out of South Park. Further add to this embarrassment overdubbing done by an older Alec Guinness in 1992 (that is noticeably dropped in) and the scene becomes a blot on the film.
I think the trims done in 1962 were all wise, meant to keep the film moving and word-of-mouth excellent. I’m suspicious someone at some point said, “Hey, if we can find 15 minutes to expand the film with, we can re-release it in 70mm again and market a new video!” I’m glad they found this footage, but can’t both versions be available in 4K HDR instead of only the overly long, questionable one?
My Fair Lady (1964)
This is one of the greatest movie musicals of all time based on probably the best Broadway musical of all time. It’s all expertly done, because as Bette Davis said to George Cukor: “You’re directing My Fair Lady? You’d better do it right or they’ll shoot you.” Every detail is meticulously done—even right from the first frame of the main titles. “Wait! What’s this?” you say. “All they do is flash grainy photos of flowers under the hard-to-read script credits?” Well, do you think in 1964 George Cukor really wanted to be shot? No! What you see in this most recent restored version is not the original main title!
Now remember, My Fair Lady was a very important film and it had to look that way from the top. Whether it was George Cukor’s idea or perhaps art director Cecil Beaton’s, here’s how it originally looked, as designed by Wayne Fitzgerald (The Music Man, Imitation of Life). The movie fades in to a picture of a beautiful rhododendron. It’s clear, detailed, and gorgeous. It then dissolves to a picture of a delicate carnation—but we begin to realize these are not freeze-frame pictures but actually live flowers filmed in 70mm! There’s another dissolve to another gorgeous flower! It seems to breathe as it sways in the soft breeze. The next set of flowers subtly waft in the wind. In Super Panavision and widescreen, it was glorious! After a while, you could swear you could smell the flowers’ perfume. The title card “My Fair Lady” appears over the soaring bridge of “On the
The title sequence from the restoration
Street Where You Live” as the flowers seem to open up right in front of you.
It’s a very different and entirely special way to start a film. It says. “This is important. We spent a lot of extra money to do this ‘live’—and, like the story you are about to see, it’s subtle and intelligent.” That’s 1964 to 1993.
Now fast-forward to 1994 when the film is being restored so CBS can take back control of it from Warner Bros. Probably to save costs, it was decided
to dump the old main title and create a new freeze-frame version rather than restore every frame. Presumably, no one would notice. Who would? Well, the answer to that is, yes, you don’t really notice outright, but (as with any brilliant detail) you do subliminally. Think of all the subliminal visual elements of, let’s say, Citizen Kane. Who really notices those shots that include a ceiling? Hmmm?
To make matters even more disturbing, the newest video restoration of My Fair Lady seems to have redone the credits yet again. There is still no live footage of the flowers, but now the timing of the dissolve between the names is slightly off, probably because it was done with video instead of real film. Each credit comes up a split second too fast so you can’t clearly read them. For the generation that isn’t used to reading (or writing) in script, the credits must look like strange markings in Sanskrit. As for the music, it’s mixed rather strangely too. The strings are too soft and fairly far off in the background.
In addition, on my video version, more than a few of the songs are out of sync with the actors’ lips. Now, this could have been a sound/sync problem with my home theater, but I have never noticed it on earlier video versions of My Fair Lady, or any other musical for that matter. Most egregious was “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Now I know Audrey was dubbed by the great (and better) singer Marni Nixon here, but other songs were out of sync as well—even songs performed by actors who did their own singing, like Stanley Holloway, and at times, even Rex Harrison, who sang all his songs live on the set! I’ve seen this film over many decades and it’s never been out of sync till now.
This movie was originally filmed as a very straightforward adaptation of the Broadway blockbuster hit from 1969. It was planned to be a road-show presentation like My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof—a film over two hours long, presented in two “acts” with an intermission. It also was the last film produced by Jack L. Warner, although it was filmed and released by Columbia Pictures.
But by 1972, road shows were a thing of the past. Either Jack L. Warner or Columbia decided not to present the film in that format, which meant it needed to be shortened and given a more modern or “cinematic” feel. Having witnessed that first version, I can attest it was quite excellent, and exactly the right choice. Even though I am a fan of the Broadway show (which, by the way, was originally performed in one act), I found the more cinematic version snappier and more contemporary for the 1970s.
In the 1990s, all the missing footage was added back in for home video. The additions include the second chorus of “Piddle Twiddle and Resolve,” the entire “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” two reprises, and a “new” (or perhaps original) main title that looks like a ripoff of the main title of Oliver! In this case, longer is not better. The songs now prove why the original producers eliminated them.
As far as stage-to-screen photographic efforts, these are the stodgier stage-bound segments, and, in the case of “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” very bizarre. It has been said this number was cut by Warner at the request of then President Nixon because the lyric makes unflattering references to the political “Right.” However, on viewing the film version of the number, it is strangely overly stylized and doesn’t fit with the more realistic look of the rest of the film. My guess it was cut because it didn’t come off well and was an easy edit to shorten the film for general release.
The main title sequence the film was released with in 1972 is inventive. The film begins with founding father (“hero”) John Adams in contemplation beside the Liberty Bell. When the Continental Congress convenes, he rushes down the long staircase from the bell tower as the credits roll. He then begins “Piddle Twiddle . . .” It’s quite stylish and cinematic. Both versions are available on the 4K Blu-ray, which means you can enjoy it all and decide for yourself.
Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.