[You can read Part I here.]
Fast forward. Vicki Lester (Judy Garland) has gotten her big break, a starring role in a movie musical. She and husband Norman Maine (James Mason) go to the sneak preview, watching avidly from the balcony.
The movie doesn’t cut away from this (unnamed, I believe) movie-within-a-movie — the so-called “Born in a Trunk” sequence. Hardly. It stays there for no less than fifteen minutes. The sequence was actually added after director George Cukor had finished his work on A Star Is Born and left the country to scout locations for his next picture. In Cukor’s rough cut, Norman and Vicki are seen going into the theater and then emerging at the end of the preview to wild cheers, a star having been born. Studio chief Jack Warner decided proof of Vicki’s talent was needed, and hired longtime Garland collaborator and friend Roger Edens to supply it.
If there is a more meta moment in a major American film, I don’t know what it is. Beyond its being a film within a film, the sequence is a version of Vicki’s star-is-born story, but also, more pointedly, a retelling of Garland’s own saga. As Trey Taylor has written, it
is special not only because it was a near-faithful reproduction of [Garland’s] own tumultuous journey to stardom – a classic retelling of the E! True Hollywood Story as narrated and sung by the protagonist herself – but also because it was her onscreen comeback. Who else has made a film about a star who makes a comeback and, as a premonitory result, has a comeback? What better example of art-imitating-life is there?
In the film-within-a-film, Vicki Lester’s character accepts the audience’s cheers and flowers for her show-stopping and -ending performance of “Swanee” (one of a half-dozen vintage tunes in the sequence), and sits on the edge of the stage, surrounded by “garlands” of roses.
She addresses the audience, speaking rather than speaking (the words are by Leonard Gershe, later the Broadway playwright of Butterflies Are Free):
Thank you, thank you very much
I can’t express it any other way
For with this awful trembling in my heart
I just can’t find another thing to say
I’m happy that you liked the show
I’m grateful you liked me
And I’m sure to you the tribute seemed quite right.
But if you knew of all the years
Of hopes and dreams and tears
You’d know it didn’t happen overnight
And I don’t know if it strikes anyone else this way, but it reminds me of nothing other than the rhyming Munchkins in Garland’s The Wizard of Oz of fifteen years earlier:
We thank you very sweetly
For doing it so neatly
You’ve killed her so completely
That we thank you very sweetly
Anyway, at this point she starts to sing (melody by Edens),
I was born in a trunk
In the Princess Theatre in Pocatella, Idaho
It was during the matinee on Friday
And they used a makeup towel for my didee
When I first saw the light
It was pink and amber
Coming from the footlights on the stage
When my dad carried me out there to say hello
They told me that I stopped the show.
And here art is imitating life imitating art, or some such. The story she sings is less that of Vicki Lester (born Esther Blodgett) than of Judy Garland — born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in 1922 and nicknamed “Baby.” According to Garland biographer John Fricke
Her father managed the town movie theatre; her mother accompanied silent films on the piano. Both parents performed, as did Baby’s two older sisters, and she joined the family act on December 26, 1924, in a song-and-dance routine with her sisters and her own solo, a scheduled one-chorus arrangement of “Jingle Bells.” To the delight of the audience, Baby refused to leave the stage and went into reprise after reprise of the latter number; her grandmother finally had to walk on from the wings and carry the child offstage as she protested, “I wanna sing some more!”
Vicki’s character continues to tell her story, and then …
The cinematic flashback nearly, but not quite, qualifies this as a movie-in-a-movie-in-a-movie, a triple-header seen before only in Scream 4 and New York, New York. And that Martin Scorsese picture offers one more meta angle on A Star Is Born. Far more than I realized when I wrote the post on it, the “Happy Endings” sequence in New York, New York, starring Garland’s daughter, Liza Minelli — at 31, she was one year younger than her mother in Star Is Born — is an homage, reworking, imitation, call it what you will, of “Born in a Trunk,” a movie-in-a-movie (twelve minutes long instead of fifteen) showing the rise to stardom of the character her character plays.
And if you want spooky, I’ll give you spooky. Quick, who is this a photo of?
If you said Garland in “Born in a Trunk,” you’d be right. But if you said Minelli, it would be completely understandable, and just one more example of the reverberations — past, future, and inward — of A Star Is Born.
Next (and last): A Star Is Born goes even mo’ meta.