If I have one major regret... it's the fact that STAR! didn't really take off and wasn't recognized, wasn't appreciated for what it is when it first came out. ~Robert Wise
A fallen STAR!
NOTE: My article about STAR! has become a trilogy. You can look at this post as the "saggy, middle section". I'm captivated by the creativity of the dreamweavers who make these fantastical movies. I'm easily fascinated by production details and the star-maker machinery behind them. I realize that not everyone is, but I promise you that the next installment will be thrilling. It will be about Julie Andrews early life on the stage, and the uncanny coincidences that relate it to this film and its subject, Gertrude Lawrence. In the meantime, here is a post about how STAR! was nearly a "lost film". ~Ezra
I've made 39 films over the years, and... If I have one major regret connected with iny of the films, it's the fact that STAR! didn't really take off and wasn't recognized, wasn't appreciated for what it is when it first came out. ~Robert Wise
STAR! It had all the ear-marks of a successful film.
Director Robert Wise and producer Saul Chaplin had already had great sucess with West Side Story, and were looking to produce a screen adaption of The Sound of Music when Walt Disney generously agreed to screen advance footage of Mary Poppins for them. One the strength of that footage, 20th Century Fox production chief Richard Zanuck, (who passed away recently) offered her a three picture deal. Andrews, who wanted to keep her options open, would only agree to two.
When prouction began on The Sound of Music, Wise and Chaplin immediately knew that they wanted to work with Julie Andrews again. So they set to work on developing a second film before the opportunity passed. It would be a "star vehicle" for Andrews, developed especially for her, and it would be BIG!
Writer Max Lamb proposed the life of Broadway star Gertrude Lawrence as a subject. Originally from London, Lawrence was a versatile performer who originated many popular songs by the likes of Gershwin and Cole Porter. Music producer Saul Chaplin could select from dozens of songs she was known for and build a musical for Julie Andrews from scratch. Wise agreed, and the team immediately went to work.
Lawrence's autobiography, and a biography written by husband Richard Aldrich were puchased by Robert Wise but rejected as source material. They didn't reflect the star's reputation as "difficult". Instead, Lamb and Brittish screenwriter William Fairchild began intensive research of Lawrence's life, interviewing her friends and relatives and those of her good friend Noλl Coward.
Since Lawrence was a fashion icon in New York, topping Eleanor Lambert's first "Best Dressed List" in 1940; so popular fashion designer Donald Brooks was hired to design costumes for the project. Fox approved a sizeable costume budget, provided that the studio owned the costumes afterward. This allowed Brooks to work with the best materials. One beaded gown weighed 20 pounds and cost $2,200 to make.
Brooks designed 3,040 costumes for the production, 125 for Julie Andrews alone, many of them glamourous haute coture. Draped in a wardrobe worth nearly $350,000 (in 1967 dollars) and millions of dollars in gems borrowed from Cartier, Andrews is presented as stately, elegant, glamourous, and a little sexy.
Her look was inspired by the real Getrude Lawrence:
Robert Wise is notorious for combing over fine details, insuring that there are no "wristwatch moments". Boris Leven built 185 sets for the production on 7 sound stages. Watch for a stunning New York apapartment done up in powder blue frosted mirrors decorated with a mural in gold leaf. Location shooting was extensive and took place in London, the French Riviera, New York City and the Los Angeles area.
No expense was spared, and every penny appears on screen. It features a lead actress that just had two big box-office hits (Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music) in similar features. It's from the director of classics like Blood on the Moon, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Sombeody Up There Likes Me, Run Silent, Run Deep, Two for the Seesaw, The Haunting, The Andromeda Strain, and two of the biggest hit musicals of all time; West Side Story and The Sound gf Music
By any means, it should have been at very least a moderate success. Instead it's an obscure "forgotten film". So... what happened?
STAR! suffers from several identity issues. Robert Wise instructed screenwriter William Fairchild to "invent a new concept for the biographical musical film". As such, it doesn't conveniently fit into the "musical comedy" film category. Although there are bits of comedy here and there, mostly in the beginning of the film, it's not a light-hearted film. It's a mellodrama that becomes more and more serious as the film progresses. Gertrude Lawrence's antics become less amusing as the story goes on in fact that is the story. It's all fun and games until it up in bankrupcy court surrounded by frustrated ex-lovers and a disinterested, estranged daughter.
Although typical Hollywood liberties were taken with the story (eliminating or re-naming characters and them into composit, representative fictional characters), the intent was to paint a somewhat faithful portrait of Gertrude Lawrence which was more than a little worrisome to it's star, Julie Andrews. "This lady, the way the script eventually turned out, was portrayed in a not particularly flattering way. She wasn't enormously loveable," Andrews recalls. "I actually enjoyed the challenge of playing something a little bit more heavy, a little bit more real."
Unfortunately, there was little public awareness of Gertrude Lawrence. She was famous on Broadway, but that had been decades ago. Older, hardcore theatre fans had her record albums; but Lawrence hadn't done much in the way of film or television appearances. As such, she wasn't a "household name" the way Ethel Merman or Mary Martin were.
Then there's the title, "STAR!". It was selected because several of Gertrude Lawrence's recored albums feature the word "star" in the title (The Star Herself, Star Quality, A Star Sings!, etc.), or a graphic of a star, or both. It was a logo of sorts for Lawrence.
But the one-word title is vague. 20th Century Fox was aware of this problem, requestiong suggestions from the sudio staff. Titles like Standing Room Only, Center Stage, Curtain Going Up, or Commmand Performance weren't any better, and the end result of decision " by comittee" resulted in "STAR!" being selected anyway. But a vague title related to a celebrity so little remembered isn't exactly a marketing asset.
There are mild story problems as well. The filmmakers have taken three hours to present the story, but couldn't find the time to foreshadow a few of the films turning points. We're suddenly given extended scenes of the rift between Lawrence a daughter that has so little mention in the film that we've forgotten all about her by then. A bankrupcy crisis is suddenly sprung on us unawares, when a line or two about "How are you paying for all this?" would have given us some warning. But these are minor quibbles that don't explain the utter failure of this film.
STAR! is a period piece, taking place in the "Roaring 20s" and continuing into 1940. Robert Wise's lavish attention to detail is as much a detriment as an advantage. Often, period pieces are intentionally nudged forward a bit to appeal to contemporary tastes. Compare this film to, say, Thoroughly Modern Millie, in which the Flapper-fashions are given a slightly 1960s "Mod" interpretation.
STAR!, by comparison looks old-fashioned. Even the most fasion-forward elements Andrews' costume for "Lady in the Dark", or her rehearsal outfits for "Skylark" look like the beatnick outfits in the 1958 production of Auntie Mame.
The color palate of the film begining in a smoky sepia tone representing the shabby music hall period; then progressing to Technicolor-style "candybox colors" as the film progresses has the look of an older film. Wise's West Side Story and The Sound of Music both have a fresh, crisp, modern look that this film lacks. Giving STAR! a much too faithful period look merely makes the film seem dated.
STAR! is a "jukebox musical": It's score is made up almost entirely of older already popular songs. This only adds to the public impression that there is nothing new to be seen here. It's really as shame. Andrews' performances of these classic songs especially the minimalist presentations of Someone To Watch Over Me and My Ship perfectly illustrate the reason these songs are standards: They're timeless.
Being a "jukebox musical" isn't a dissadvantage in itself: Thoroughly Modern Milliewas also a "jukebox musical" and a modest success. But added to the other seemingly "old fashioned" elements doesn't help pique public interest. The real problem is that there are too many period elements all together in the same film: there's very little that seems "unique" about the production.
Actually, there's much that is unique about STAR!: It's a musical, but NOT a musical comedy: It's quite serious. All the numbers are performances; nobody spontaneously "bursts into song". The portrayal of backstage life in all its shabbiness was unusual at the time long before All That Jazz or A Chorus Line. And there's a certain psychological element present in the second half of the film.
It's only near the very end of the film that modern elements creep in; specifically, the psychically charged relationship between Lawrence and Richard Aldrich. By then, it's too little, too late: The audience has already taken away the "old-fashioned" impression of the film.
Marketing was a challenge, and it's mishandling played a major part of it. Wise Productions publicist Mike Kapland and Fox publicist Howard Newman worked well together in the begining. For more than a year, they released multi-page inserts for newspapers in the style of an issue of Variety, full of articles and publicity stills about the production of STAR!
An advertisement in the New York Times announcing the dates of the film's premiere engagement there was placed 18 months in advance. The ad instructed potential viewers to write in and be put on a list for reserved seating. An astounding 15,000 people answered that ad.
They hired famed New Yorker caricaturist Al Hirschfeld to observe the filming. Hirschfeld submitted 39 utterly charming drawings, many of which would have made fine ad copy. Beautiful posters were painted, looking remarkably like the famous poster and album cover for My Fair Lady. There were also posters featuring Andrews looking elegant in her "Lady in the Dark" costume.
Unfortunately, Fox executives took control of publicity out of Wise's hands; deciding for themselves that the film needed something like a logo; an image that would be associated with the film in the minds of the movie-going public. Wise had proposed a steamer-trunk with the title and details stenciled on it, but it was rejected.
What the studio came up with instead is a screen printed extreme close-up of Julie Andrews face with a star superimposed over one eye. The face is not necessarily recognizable as Andrews, looking a bit like the poster for Judy Garland's I Could Go On Singing. The combination of screen print and Wise's stencil typeface could give the impression that this is a re-release of a much older film. Wise recalls being asked "why the black eye?" Out of all the beautiful artwork submitted, this is what they settled on?
Robert Wise had already arranged for a roadshow presentation of the film. Roadshow pictures only played in luxury theatres like the El Capitan. These theatres offered reserve seating at a premium ticket price. Many had larger, more plush seats in the front which were offered at an even higher ticket price. Ushers guided patrons to their assigned seats. An overture played before the film began, and there was an intermission, just like a live theatre performance. Roadshwo pictures held limited engagements in a handful of cities, then moving on to the next few cities on the itinerary.
Only a highly anticipated feature could do with in a roadshow presentation, but Wise was confident that a big, lavish production like STAR! would do well. The Sound of Music did very well in it's roadshow run. A general release of a 35mm print would follow later, at regular ticket prices. The studio could make twice the money on the same picture this way.
But roadshow presentations were swiftly becoming a thing of the past, as more and more general release theatres were upgraded with the capability to show 70mm "Cinemascope" and "Sensaround" audio. Even so, the roadshow had always been a dicey proposition. If a film doesn't do well in the roadshow circuit, it can sour public opinion of the general release that would come later. Walt Disney's Fantasia in 1940 failed miserably as a roadshow, and as a result, even the general release didn't recover the investment. (Fantasia didn't make it into the black ink until 1974!)
Unfortunately for STAR!, the timing of it's release couldn't have been worse. Funny Girl, Barbara Streisand's film debut, was released the month before. It was also a musical about famed vaudeville performer, but had the advantage of being a new rather than a "jukebox" movie. The broadway run of Funny Girl was quite recent, it's cast album lp was popular, and Streisand made sensational televisions appearances.
Even it's subject, Ziegfeld Follies' Fanny Brice was much more well known nationally than Gertrude Lawrence, having featured performances in several revue films, such as The Great Ziegfeld and Everybody Sing. Her character "Baby Snooks" was enormously popular on radio, and made numerous appearances in television's early days.
Interest in seeing yet another musical about yet another lesser known old state peformer so soon after Funny Girl was minimal. Of the 15,000 people on the list for the New York engagement of STAR!, only a handful responded when the time actually arrived. And most of them opted for a matinee showing, rather then the full ticket evening performance.
The other cities fared no better. although glowing fan mail came in prasing the movie from those few who did see it. In general release it could have been a "sleeper" hit, relying on word of mouth advertising. As a roadshow, it was a complete flop.
After only a week, Fox ordered an edited version of STAR!, thinking that perhaps the long running time was keeping people away. Rather than releasing a new print, the studio issued instructions to the exhibitors, trusting the projectionists to cut the film. The "Private Lives" performance; probably the most illustrative of Gertruce Lawrence and Noλl Coward as performers, hit the cutting room floor.
The cuts didn't help how the film played at all. People who saw the film and liked it enough to return saw a radically edited version only a week or two later. This was very disconcerting to the few fans the film did have, who wrote letters of complaint to the studio.
20th Century Fox pulled the plug on the roadshow schedule early, opting for general release. Robert Wise, perhaps hoping to shame the studio into restoring the cut film, slipped a poster into Fox's publicity machine: One he felt properly touted Julie Andrews performance and promised that moviegoers would see "All Of It":
Fox used this poster, but released the edited version of the film instead. (Personally, I'm not critical of the idea of cutting the running time down by 20 minutes: It's a very long movie. But I would have simply cut down the begining of the movie, and started with Gertie barging in on Andrι Charlot's audition. The first few music hall numbers are adorable, but not really necessary to the story. An audience wouldn't feel like they were misssing anything.)
Clearly the studio was desperate to wring its invenstment out of this movie one way or another. They even devised a new, andvertising campaign that made the movies seem steamy. Tag lines like "The many loves of a STAR!" and images of Julie Andrews on a motorcycle were featured. (There is a police motorcycle in the film, but Gertie doesn't ride it! It must have been a between-scenes moment for Andrews.) There was even and ad which read "Why is she running from these men" and shows a doctored photo of Andrews running and being grabbed by a masculine hand that had been inserted.
The new campaign completely misrepresented the picture. After responding to torrid ads like these, and seeing Burlington Bertie instead, is it any wonder that someone would walk out of the theatre in the first hour? So, the incomplete STAR! had a ho-hum general release.
The following year, the film was re-cut and released in a 35mm print under a new title of Those Were the Happy Times. As I've said, this is not a light-hearted film, so to release it with a title of Happy Times and a tagline of Be GLAD they still make pictures like this! is yet another misrepresentation of the film. The main image on the poster Julie Andrews with full, flowing hair, wearing a psychodelic print shirt and scattering flowers from a basket looks more like an ad for a kooky 60s comedy like What's New, Pussycat? or Please Don't Eat The Daisies
Even more rediculous is the fact that the new poster and trailers acutaly say "Formerly titled STAR!" right on them! Wouldn't it be better to say nothing and hope the public assumes that it's a new film?
Unbelievably, this release cut the running time down to 120 minutes: that's less than half the film! The first three Vaudeville numbers remain, but the prop-gags in the middle Burlington Bertie are gone. Limehouse Blues and Someone to Watch Over Me is gone, as is My Ship. Someday I'll Find You and everything else from Private Lives. Has Anybody Seen My Ship? is still there, but the dressing room scene in which Noλl and Gertie discuss how rediculous the number is, was cut.
Nearly everything that Gertrude Lawrence was famous for is gone from the picture. With no demonstration of what made Lawrence so special, we have no reason to care about the story of her personal life. We're left with an out-of-control nutjob who performs hokey novelty acts.
Even the connecting scenes, which briefly provide the audience with important plot exposition newsreel style, are cut. The introductions of two of her lovers are cut, so when they show up later, we're left to wonder just who the heck are they? The sequence with her estranged daughter is there, but the moment when she asks to leave early is gone! So the whole point of the segment is gone. Why not cut her out entirely, then?
What we're left with is a mess of amusing but disconnected scenes that don't add up to a story. Robert Wise pressed for the removal of "A Robert Wise Picture" from the credits.
Sadly, this is the version of Happy Times that ran on television. So if you vaguely recollect seeing some near-unwatchable movie with Julie Andrews in it on the late-late-late show, Those Were the Happy Times is probably what you saw. The original STAR! had dissapeared.
In the wake of Funny Girl's success, the studio could have postponed the release of STAR! to give it some breathing space. If they had held this release until the following summer, it may have fared much better, by then the public could have been looking for another film "like Funny Girl" This frenzied activity to salvage (or rather scavenge) it could have been completely unnecessary. I suppose that no one involved had the slightest doubt that is film would be anything but a big hit.
The original run of STAR! was a great success in England, where "our dear Julie" had come home again. The film was never edited there, and a very clean and well preserved 70mm copy was discovered circulated around the country in 1981, where it did very good business yet again. Fox noticed it and ordered new prints of the full length film direct from the 70mm negative, to be made available by request in an open release.
The original version of STAR! played film festivals and repertory art houses in the US and did well enough to make the list of "most wanted" home videos in Premiere Magazine in 1991. For the film's 25th Anniversary, Fox released this original version on laser disk: the same one that's now available on DVD.
It's a nice clean print, but it's a tiny bit spooty, and slightly yellow: not enough to be annoying, just not quite upt to modern HD standards of quality. It sounds good, too. The extras are minimal and the Menu is wonky, but it's a lovely presentation of a visually impressive film. The DVD is available from Amazon: STAR! (1968)
Still, in a few more years STAR! will have its 50th Anniversary, so perhaps there'll be a good digital clean-up and a new release. I'm hoping for a good featurette about Julie Andrews early life on the stage and her personal connections to this production, and to Gertie Lawrence. That will be the subject of part III.