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HOME ENTERTAINMENT : 'Star!' Gets Back Original Luster on Laser

November 03, 1995|BARBARA SALTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was 1968, and the day of the roadshow musical was drawing to an ignominious close. Yet Julie Andrews and director Robert Wise, optimistic after their mega-hit "The Sound of Music," were confident their latest vehicle, "Star!," an extravagant musical biography of 1920s-'50s musical star Gertrude Lawrence, would buck the trend and be another sure-fire hit.

But before they knew it, "Star!" hit the nation's theaters with a thud, despite earlier success abroad. They barely had a chance to see the film's premiere before 20th Century Fox declared it a resounding failure, grabbed a scissors and ruthlessly excised 56 minutes from the nearly three-hour movie. (It was also retitled to "Those Were the Happy Times.")

So disenchanted was the studio at the early reception that it didn't even recall the film to make the cuts. Snipping instructions went directly to the theaters. Most moviegoers never had a chance to see the original roadshow version.

Thanks once again to the laser disc (and occasional showings on TV's American Movie Classics), fans can see exactly what they missed. But unlike many restored films, this transfer was digitally mastered from the original 65mm negative and six-track magnetic stereo soundtrack, which, luckily, were not destroyed when the film was trimmed to 120 minutes.

The film also was shown theatrically at a 25th anniversary presentation at the Directors Guild Theatre, during which additional footage of the stars and director was shot; much of that also is included in supplementary material.

The two-disc set (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, $80) is presented in its original wide screen 2:2:1 theatrical format and includes an informative running analog track commentary from Wise.

Featured as the men in Lawrence's life are Richard Crenna, Michael Craig, Robert Reed and Daniel Massey in a tour de force, Oscar-nominated portrayal of writer-composer-actor Noel Coward. Musical numbers were staged by Michael Kidd, and Donald Brooks did the wonderful period costumes.

Andrews, Massey, Crenna, Kidd and producer Saul Chaplin join Wise in talking about their experiences during filming and reiterate their delight at seeing the picture returned to its original cut. Video interviews, original theatrical trailers, television commercials and a making-of featurette are all part of this spectacular offering.

But the real star of this Todd-AO film is the movie itself. Watching it with all of its musical numbers intact, it's easy to see how audiences who only saw the sliced-up celluloid came away less than thrilled. Classic numbers that marked Lawrence's career championing the music and devilishly clever lyrics of Coward, Cole Porter and other greats were unceremoniously dumped, including the absolutely delightful "The Physician." The hilarious "Has Anybody Seen Our Ship," the daring "The Saga of Jenny" and the beautifully staged "Limehouse Blues" take on new life here.

Unfortunately, you can't refer to liner notes to find out what scenes, songs and dance numbers were cut. A chapter index indicates where they can now be found. But it would have been a lot more helpful to have trimmed scenes noted at the chapter stops, as other carefully produced laser editions have done. You can find that information on Side Four, but how much more useful to have a reference guide at your fingertips while watching the film.

Reissues of Note: "For Whom the Bell Tolls," the 1943 classic with Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman based on the Hemingway bestseller (MCA); "His Girl Friday," featuring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in the popular 1940 Howard Hawks version of the Hecht-MacArthur play "The Front Page" (Columbia TriStar Studio Heritage Collection); Frank Capra's 1939 "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur (Columbia TriStar Studio Heritage Collection); "Wuthering Heights," starring Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier and David Niven in the 1939 classic version of the Emily Bronte novel (Pioneer Special Edition).

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From the '70s and '80s: Gary Busey in "The Buddy Holly Story" (Columbia Pictures, letterboxed, 1978); director George Roy Hill's film of novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s classic "Slaughterhouse Five," featuring Michael Sacks, Ron Leibman and Valerie Perrine (MCA Universal, letterboxed, 1972); Robert Redford in "The Natural," directed by Barry Levinson (Columbia TriStar, letterboxed, 1984); Barbra Streisand and Redford in "The Way We Were" (Columbia TriStar, letterboxed, 1973).

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Recent Releases: "Pulp Fiction," the stylish John Travolta, Samuel Jackson, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman blood bath that won director-writer Quentin Tarantino a best original screenplay Oscar (Miramax, letterboxed, THX); "The Madness of King George," starring Nigel Hawthorne, Helen Mirren and Ian Holm (Image Entertainment, letterboxed); "A Man of No Importance," starring Albert Finney (Columbia TriStar, letterboxed); "The Cure," featuring Joseph Mazzello and Brad Renfro (MCA Universal, letterboxed).

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