Preferred Citation: Horton, Andrew, and Stuart Y. McDougal, editors Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.

Five— "Once More, from the Top": Musicals the Second Time Around

"Once More, from the Top":
Musicals the Second Time Around

Jerome Delamater

Working on My Sister Eileen (1955), the musical remake of the 1942 comedy, actress Betty Garrett noted how often choreographer Bob Fosse made them repeat dance routines during rehearsals. "I never worked as hard in my life as I did with Bob. He never stopped. He had one phrase: 'Once more.' About five o'clock at night he'd give a little criticism and then say, 'Once more,' and at 7:30 you'd still be doing it once more" (Delamater, 205). With the musical perhaps more than with other genres the phrase "once more," often coupled with "from the top," so important in rehearsals of musical groups, seems the apt metaphor for remakes. Whether it is an attempt to strive for perfection, an opportunity to reinterpret familiar material, or a chance to modify a particular performance to suit different times, repeating the dance, the song, the musical routine, or—in this case—the entire film "once more" suggests that Hollywood periodically recapitulates its own artifice. Since the musical, above all, is a genre of artifice, that artifice reinforces the genre's basic purpose: to conceal conservative ideology with a formal innovation that often gives the illusion of progressive ideology.

The formulaic nature of all genres makes it possible to consider at least three different kinds of musical remakes.[1] The first is simply another version of the original (like the 1951 Show Boat and the 1962 State Fair ), using essentially the same material but with a different cast and possibly different formal approaches. A second type takes a nonmusical entity and explores its material by introducing the genre's primary semantic elements—song and dance. (High Society [1956] and Silk Stockings [1957], for example are musical remakes of The Philadelphia Story [1940] and Ninotchka [1939] respectively.)[2] A third type, the reinterpretations—what some choose to call makeovers—use the essential narrative material of an earlier musical but give it a new gloss with, as in the case of The Wiz (1978), more contemporary


music and an urban, ethnic identity.[3] All three types continue the "once more" metaphor as they explore the nature of entertainment and the interaction of song and dance with narrative.

One trilogy of films, in particular, embodies many of the issues raised by the show-musical subgenre[4]and by remakes. The 1937 melodrama A Star Is Born (itself influenced by the 1932 What Price Hollywood? )[5] was remade twice. Its second incarnation in 1954 is an illustration of a musical version of a nonmusical, while its third in 1976, also a musical, is probably best considered as a reinterpretation or makeover of the second version.[6] (There was also a major, nonmusical, radio adaptation, starring Judy Garland and Walter Pidgeon, in 1942.) These three films demonstrate changes in how Hollywood has viewed itself (or perhaps more accurately how Hollywood has wanted itself to be viewed), the nature of changes in American popular music, and the role of remakes as vehicles for stars and as embodiments of the ideology of entertainment.

The turmoil striking Hollywood in the early fifties—turmoil brought on by the Paramount decrees in 1948 (causing studios to divest themselves of their theater chains) and by television's ascendancy as the primary form of American entertainment—resulted in a number of remakes as producers and studios attempted to cash in on the successes of the past. Warner Brothers' musical remake of A Star Is Born ,[7] directed by George Cukor, fulfilled two functions at that time. First, it gave Warner Brothers a chance to exploit an established star long associated with MGM, a studio renowned for musicals. Second, it gave them a chance to explore one of the new technologies—it was Warner's first CinemaScope film[8] —then being used to compete with television. Reviewing the film several decades later provides an instructive lesson about the turmoil-ridden studios of 1954 as compared with the self-confident ones seen in the 1937 film. Warner Brothers' A Star Is Born suggests a last-gasp, nostalgic view, belied by the film's own production history. Earlier, in 1950 and 1951, the studio had radically restructured its operating system, terminating or renegotiating contracts, dismissing personnel, and generally reducing overhead (Schatz, Genius of the System , 437–38), and one of the ironies of this film is that it presents a picture of a system that the studio was then in the process of dismantling.

Although in the late forties and early fifties the studios introduced an occasional star within the system established years before, as was illustrated by Janet Gaynor's Esther Blodgett-Vicki Lester in the 1937 film, that route to stardom was becoming increasingly rare. Compared to what was really occurring in Hollywood, therefore, the path by which Judy Garland's Blodgett becomes Vicki Lester seems anachronistic. In both films the studio attempts to alter her appearance (although the movie star Norman Maine, her newfound friend, helps her resist and maintain her "natural" look) and changes her name without any consultation with her. Gaynor's Blodgett at



Figure 9.
At the end of the 1937  A Star Is Born , Vicki Lester (Janet Gaynor), accompanied
by her grandmother (May Robson), her pal Danny (Andy Devine), and the
studio patriarch, Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou), attends a studio premiere
where she will declare herself to be "Mrs. Norman Maine."

least listens to the process by which a choice of a new name is made, but the Garland Blodgett discovers the change when she goes to the pay window and is told her check is under L. Similarly in both films the studio sees Esther's marriage to Norman purely in terms of its economic value to the studio. Matt Libby, Niles Studio's public relations officer, says that they have no right to get married quietly; they are stars and have a responsibility to the studio and to the public. Although ostensibly criticizing the studio-controlled, star-making process, both films nevertheless emphasize the "special magic" of stardom (Dyer, 10), a myth that Hollywood long fostered as part of its perceived economic well-being. (See figure 9.)

Certain adjustments to a new, poststudio era are evident, however, in the 1954 version. Perhaps the most obvious concession to the problems affecting Hollywood occurs during Oliver Niles's discussion with Norman about his contract. Having been instructed by the "New York boys" to buy out Norman's contract, Niles says, "They can't afford you anymore, Norman. You're too big a risk. Those big, fat, blush days when a star could get drunk and disappear and hold up production for two weeks are over." He contin-


ues, "No one can afford it anymore. Things are too tough." The 1954 film also de-emphasizes luck as the essential factor in the rise to stardom. Gaynor's Blodgett in 1937, very much the girl next door, pines for Hollywood from afar, struggles to break into films when she does get there (through the generosity of her grandmother), and finally gets her chance: she is waitressing at a party where she catches Norman Maine's fancy. By contrast, Garland's Blodgett is already in show business: she is singing at the benefit performance for which Norman Maine arrives drunk and unable to perform. According to the film, it isn't just luck that creates stars. Obvious talent and hard work provide Esther with the opportunity to meet Norman Maine, and, a point that the "Born in a Trunk" number reinforces, people like her "can't quite be called an overnight sensation, for it began many years ago." In a limited way the 1954 A Star Is Born acknowledges that an era is ending, but it simultaneously camouflages the industry's difficulties in order to reassure its audience of the rewards of entertainment.

If Garland's Esther Blodgett inconsistently suggests someone rising to stardom in a milieu that was in disarray, Barbra Streisand's Esther Hoffman rises to stardom in a totally different milieu altogether. Movies no longer provide the means for stardom; indeed, by 1976 Hollywood has become less a metonymy for the movies than a metaphor for all of show business, with a special emphasis here on music and the recording business. Popular entertainment, once embodied in the movies almost exclusively, has become spread across a variety of media. The first two films reveal something of the workings of the film industry at two different periods whereas the last one depicts "the disorienting surge and psychic voltage of the concert world, its race and disarray" (Stewart, 180). The self-reflexivity implicit in the first two films' inquiries into the exploitation of film stars has become an affirmation, albeit illusory, of one individual's resistance to that kind of control. "Why should I want to change my name?" Esther Hoffman insists at one point, noting all the practical problems—like changing one's driver's license—that would ensue. Similarly, during a rehearsal for a show, she resists a planned walk down a flight of stairs and at another point comments, "They hire me—then they want to change everything about me." Despite her claims of independence, however, Esther Hoffman must yield to the financial exigencies of the music business when she agrees to cancel her long-desired tour with her husband. Streisand's Esther functions in a more inclusive world of show business and in a more socially conscious era than either Gaynor's or Garland's character, but the results are the same: stardom has its price, but entertainment provides redemption.

The motivation for remaking A Star Is Born in 1954 lay with Sid Luft, the film's producer (then Judy Garland's husband), and with Garland herself (Haver, 24), and the 1976 remake, although originally John Gregory Dunne's idea, became exclusively Streisand's project (Pierson, 49–50). Both


remakes accentuate the role of the star and the use of a given film to show-case a star. Each version of A Star Is Born may detail the rise of an unknown, but does so through extremely well-known performers, albeit ones at different stages of their careers. Janet Gaynor "was considered to have outgrown [her earlier] woman-child persona" by the time she made A Star Is Born , but Selznick thought her still capable of playing Esther; a similar return to former type was evident in Fredric March's Norman Maine, as well (Schatz, Genius of the System , 182). Ultimately the melodrama of 1937 has two leading roles of equal strength, but changing the film to a vehicle for Judy Garland in 1954 completely changed the film's emphasis.[9] The melodramatic qualities of the story, evident in all three versions, nevertheless yield to musical ones because of the stars in the two remakes. Cukor's film was the means for Judy Garland's comeback as a movie star. Indeed, her first appearance, singing "Gotta Have Me Go with You," seems an allusion to her MGM films: "The song and performance would have nicely fit into almost all of the earlier Garland musicals" (Jennings, 329). Having been fired by MGM in 1950, however, Garland was beset by personal problems that had become part of her myth and even part of the singing persona that predominates in this remake. In "The Man That Got Away," the second song of the film, "singing becomes a means of expressing tragedy, heartbreak, alienation" (Feuer, The Hollywood Musical , 119), the underlying thrust of the film. (See figure 10.) Barbra Streisand, on the other hand, was at the height of her career in 1976. Her domination of A Star Is Born (she contributed to the writing and even, as Kris Kristofferson, her co-star, saw it, the directing [Burke, 208-9]) was another manifestation of a desire to play out aspects of her own life. The credited director has recounted at length how, during preproduction, Streisand debated the degree to which her autobiography should be reflected in Esther Hoffman (Pierson, 50). If James Mason's character in the 1954 film becomes through role reversal the "fictional counterpart of the neurotic, self-destructive person that Garland [had] become" (Jennings 333), then Streisand's Esther Hoffman directly fulfills everything that Streisand herself has become by 1976. Richard Dyer even suggests that among the "number of cases on which the totality of a film can be laid at the door of the star" the case can be made "most persuasively" for Streisand's A Star Is Born (Dyer, 175).

The resemblances among the three films lie almost exclusively on the narrative level and emphasize the melodrama of the films; what makes the two remakes most interesting, however, is their commitment to the principles of the musical. Certain scenes from Wellman's film are almost duplicated in Cukor's film, for example, and fragments of dialogue similarly recur, but the two musical remakes operate on a different level of intertextuality, one that stresses the semantics of the genre. The Garland and Streisand films use music as a way of exploring the main character's rise to



Figure 10.
Demonstrating to the film's audience as well as to Norman Maine that she
has "that little something extra" that is star quality, Esther Blodgett
(Judy Garland) sings "The Man That Got Away" in the 1954 remake.

stardom, as the means to define the relationship with the man who discovers her, and as an illustration of the star's innate ability. Janet Gaynor's Esther is first seen in the Blodgett farmhouse defending her fascination with Hollywood, whereas Garland's Esther and Streisand's Esther, already residents of Hollywood, are both introduced singing. Prophetic of her subsequent role in the film, Garland's Esther, lead singer of a group, replaces Maine at the Actor's Relief Fund Benefit; she then has to battle him into submission when he tries to interrupt their performance. Streisand also has to battle her Norman—Kris Kristofferson's rock star is named John Norman Howard—when they first meet; after his behavior has interrupted her performance of the song "The Queen Bee," she confronts him: "You're blowin' my act!" In both cases the first song each sings—even though spoiled by their soon-to-be leading man—functions to define who they are. Garland's "Gotta Have Me Go with You" truly replaces Norman when considering the lyrics, which sound like his later appeals to her; in other words, Garland's Esther even sings Norman's song for him:


Hey there, shy one, come be my one.
You want a love that's truly true,
You gotta have me
Go with you.
You want to live high on the wire.
You want to have bells that'll ring
You want to have songs that'll sing
You gotta have me go with you.

Streisand actually sings two first songs—both disturbed by John Norman—that clearly identify her in terms of her future relationship with him and in terms of her ambitions. (See figure 11.) In "The Queen Bee" she yearns for a man in an overtly sexual way:

It is so frustratin'
When you're really into matin'
And there ain't no lovin' man around.

Her second song becomes a statement of her goals:

I want to learn what life is for.
I don't want much,
I just want more.
Ask what I want, and I will sing.
I want everything, everything.

Whatever the melodramatic implications of the narratives, both remakes subordinate those implications to other concerns at the outset and demonstrate that the female lead is a singer and performer and a star soon to be reckoned with.

Similarly the Garland and Streisand characters get their big breaks through singing, and this moment helps further to move the remakes away from their roots in melodrama and to define them as musicals. In the 1937 film, Norman, in a discussion with Esther in the studio cafeteria, describes the need for an actress who clearly fits Esther perfectly, and then the two together—with little persuasion—convince Oliver Niles that she should play opposite Norman in his next film; by contrast, the 1954 and 1976 films use totally different but strongly persuasive musical constructs. In both cases the male is the catalyst for the big break, but the situation demonstrates that the character is a latent star—and the performance demonstrates that the performer is a real star.[10] In the 1954 film, knowing that the studio is desperately seeking a replacement singer for a leading role, Mason's Norman sets up a situation for Niles to overhear Garland-Esther singing. Garland-Esther has previously demonstrated to Norman and to the film's audience that she has "that little something extra" that makes star quality; now she needs to do so to the studio head, which she does by



Figure 11.
Barbra Streisand (as Esther Hoffman) belts out a song in the montage
sequence from her tour without her husband in  A Star Is Born  (1976)
and foregrounds the reasons that she is a star.


reprising "The Man That Got Away," the song by which she had earlier proved herself to Norman. Streisand's Esther has also previously proved herself to both John Norman and to the film audience, but, whereas the two earlier Esthers also needed the imprimatur of a studio head, this Esther needs the acclaim of a concert audience, an audience within the film.[11] John Norman provides her with that opportunity by, in a singular moment of selflessness, setting up the situation for her to sing at his concert. This is clearly not a spontaneous whim; he has even recruited the other members of her former singing group, the Oreos, to back her up at her stage debut. Everything about the performance—within the film and through the film—suggests that the rising star Esther Hoffman is the fully established star Barbra Streisand. As she prepares to begin her song, the camera shoots her from behind, glamorously silhouetted against the lights aimed at the concert stage, her hair highlighted with the aura of a halo. As she sings (one important line is "They can hold back the tide, but they can't hold back the woman in the moon"), she captivates her audience while simultaneously demonstrating that nothing will hold back this Esther from fulfilling her goal of attaining "everything, everything." While fulfilling the function of the character she plays, Streisand foregrounds herself and the demonstrable reasons that she is, in fact, a star.

In certain respects only the 1976 A Star Is Born provides the opportunity for the male lead also to participate in the film as a musical. Throughout all three films the nature of the love relationship of the two main characters and Norman's systematic physical and psychological deterioration are akin to those melodramas in which "the well-meaning patriarch [is reduced] to a confused helpless victim of his own good intentions" (Schatz, Hollywood Genres, 239). In the 1954 film the musical rituals of courtship and romance remain solely Garland's province, thereby confining James Mason's character to the melodrama of the film. Although Norman Maine proposes to her within a musical background (Esther in a rehearsal has just made it clear through the lyrics of a song that she is open to his proposal: "To share a journey that leads to Heaven's door / You'll find is what I'm here for"), he is far more the observer of, than the participant in, their relationship. In the 1937 film Norman and Esther (by now Vicki Lester) do appear together in a film, but in 1954 they don't even do that. Norman's observer role is especially noticeable during her performance for him at home when she sings "Someone at Last." This all-stops-out performance, characterized by hopeful lyrics ("Somewhere there's a someone for me" and "With my someone I'll be someone at last"), is belied by what is actually occurring in the characters' lives. She has become someone because of him, but as he sits there observing her being someone, he realizes that he has become a no one; at the end of her show for him, having just been called Mr. Lester by a delivery boy, he gets himself a drink—the first since their marriage. In con-


trast, Kris Kristofferson's John Norman does participate in their musical rituals of love and courtship. Although he too is the observer during Esther's first concert performance (and her second song, "I Believe in Love," is one of her strong solo statements of their relationship), previously, following the conventions of the genre, they performed love duets. The first occurs when she plays her own composition on his piano and he improvises lyrics ("Then you came inside my life / Now I'm lost inside of you") to her music, leading directly to their first physical contact and love making; the second occurs during her first recording session when he joins her—albeit hesitantly—in singing "Evergreen," a real declaration of their commitment. Photographed in a single take with both of them together, sharing the frame equally, "Evergreen" shows one side of their relationship. In the subsequent scene, when he has subordinated his performance to give her the big break, they are presented separately through crosscutting as he watches her; the unity of "Evergreen" has given way to what will be the divisions of their separate careers.

One of the most revealing comparisons of the three films concerns the externally imposed "house husband" role that the three Normans assume after their careers have ended. In the first two films the scenes are narratively and formally very similar, even beginning with the close-ups of golf balls that Norman is hitting somewhat indolently. By contrast, John Norman persists in his business: he is playing the guitar and then, with ominous resonances from the earlier movies, begins composing a song, "One More Look at You," the line with which the first two Norman Maines exited as they left to commit suicide. Significantly it is a love song, more appropriate for Esther to sing; just as John Norman throughout the film has given Esther her opportunities, likewise Esther has influenced John Norman's song-writing style, which will—in the end—become his chance for musical immortality. Nevertheless, for all of its contemporary references (John Norman has a problem with alcohol and cocaine), its ostensibly updated modifications of the male-female interaction, and its adherence to the semantics of the musical genre, the 1976 film still implies, as did the earlier films, that being reduced to "house husband" is the prelude to suicide. Women can succeed in these films only at the expense of a man, and the films always present this as an innate tragedy.

In their endings all three demonstrate commitment to the genre, but the third also demonstrates this commitment throughout. After Norman Maine has committed suicide, Esther Blodgett receives a lecture in the show-must-go-on philosophy. Her grandmother delivers it to her in the 1937 film, her friend and former band partner Danny McGuire in the 1954 film. In both films, however, the dictates of melodrama supersede those of the musical. As Esther steps up to the microphone to say a few words to her public, the film ends with her proudly asserting her subordination to


a man, to domesticity, and to a way of life that she has never really known in Hollywood: "Hello, everybody, this is Mrs. Norman Maine." The 1937 film underscores that irony when, reminiscent of the film's opening, it cuts to a shot of the last page of the shooting script, allowing the audience to read what it has just witnessed and simultaneously to hear the swelling music that the script says should accompany the ending. The 1954 film is less reflexive but no less melodramatic. After the audience at the Actor's Relief Fund Benefit (the cyclical nature of the experience suggested by returning to the scene of the film's opening) gives Mrs. Norman Maine a standing ovation, the camera frames her center stage then pulls back into extreme high-angle long shot; on the sound track a choir sings "It's a New World," Vicki's hit song, which she sang for Norman on their honeymoon and which she was singing as he prepared to die for her, a song that in its initial use reinforced the "new-found promise" of her marriage and her career. Its use here is ambiguous, however, and reinforces her obsession with the past, with Norman. Had Vicki-Garland herself sung, as in fact the announcer had said she would when introducing her, the strengths of the genre would have carried other implications, that Vicki has overcome the past and can now move on—the show really can go on. Having no final song for the star, however, reinforces the sense that the film may not be a musical at all; it ends as melodrama. Having originally subordinated her identify to the studio's patriarch by accepting a new name, she further suppresses her identity as a star by reveling in being Norman Maine's widow.[12]

The 1976 film, therefore, is the only one to deliver a fulfilled musical destiny to the lead character at the end. Esther Hoffman doesn't need a lecture to recognize her obligations as a star (the equivalent inspiration to carry on is her discovery of the tape John Norman made of "One More Look at You"), nor does she subordinate herself to another person. As she steps out onto the stage for a memorial concert, an announcer intones, "Ladies and Gentlemen, Esther Hoffman Howard"; she has combined her identity with his, as it were. Moreover, this is to be a performance, one that recapitulates their relationship through song. Debuting "One More Look at You," the song he had written because of her influence, she allows his memory to continue through her performance; subsequently she segues into "Watch Closely Now," one of his signature pieces, which she delivers in his hard-rock style. Rather than giving in to the victimization of the melodrama heroine, Esther Hoffman is redeemed through performance, for the genre has always suggested that "the achievement of personal fulfillment goes hand-in-hand with the enjoyment of entertainment" (Feuer, "The Self-Reflective Musical," 171). Garland's Esther says, "I somehow feel most alive when I sing," but it is Streisand's Esther who demonstrates the necessity of that for the musical star. "This movie does not merely come alive in song; it is about lives lived, linked and ended in a lyric" (Stewart, 178).


Surely one of Streisand's motivations for wanting to do A Star Is Born was her view of herself as an heir to Judy Garland's musical legacy. The intertextual resonances of prior films that exist in all remakes would have been strong between the 1954 and 1976 versions of the film, particularly as embodied in the two female stars. (Although the general populace may have had strong memories of the 1937 film,[13] Janet Gaynor, who in 1954 had made no films since 1938 and who was not a singer, certainly had no following comparable to Garland's and Streisand's). Streisand's Esther had to give the illusion of an updated, popularly feminist character, however. Her Esther, for example, proposes to John Norman, but it is still only an illusion since one implication is that her redemption through stardom resides in John Norman. Moreover, Streisand's Esther must sing in a currently popular, rock-music idiom (by comparison one is reminded that Garland's film was being made just at the outset of the rock era), even though Streisand herself has always kept alive loyalties to older forms of popular music. At the end of the film, as Streisand sings Esther's tribute to John Norman, the ultimate conflation of character and performer breaks "down the barriers between art and life" (Feuer, "The Self-Reflective Musical," 171): The audience within the film does not applaud after Esther sings (indeed, the audience is never shown again once she starts singing). Instead by implication the audience of the film is invited to applaud Streisand at the end. Unlike Gaynor's Esther-Vicki, who is relegated to a scripted character at the end of the 1937 film, and also unlike Garland's Esther-Vicki, whom the diegetic audience does applaud (but for being Mrs. Norman Maine, not for her singing), Streisand's Esther (seen in freeze-frame close-up as the credits roll) affirms the power of popular entertainment by making the audience watching the film feel part of the process of entertainment. The musical's self-reflexivity and self-conscious heightening of emotion through song and dance become reinterrogated the second—and third—time around, but even when the films seem contemporary and fashionable, they still result only in the conclusions that have long sustained the genre: in this case, life is fulfilled through the illusions and myths of entertainment and popular culture.

Works Cited

Altman, Rick. The American Film Musical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Burke, Tom. "Kris Kristofferson Sings the Good-Life Blues." Esquire 86 (December 1976): 126–28ff.

Delamater, Jerome. Dance in the Hollywood Musical. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981.

Dunne, John Gregory. "The Coast: Gone Hollywood." Esquire 86 (September 1976): 30 ff.

Dyer, Richard. Stars. London: BFI, 1979.

Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.


———. "The Self-Reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment." In Genre: The Musical , edited by Rick Altman, 159–74. London: Routledge, 1981.

Graham, Bill, and Robert Greenfield. Bill Graham Presents: My Life inside Rock and Out. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Haver, Ronald. A Star Is Born: The Making of the 1954 Movie and Its 1983 Restoration. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Jennings, Wade. "Nova: Garland in 'A Star Is Born.'" Quarterly Review of Film Studies 4, no. 3 (summer 1979): 321–37.

Lang, Robert. American Film Melodrama: Griffith, Vidor, Minnelli. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

McGilligan, Patrick. George Cukor: A Double Life. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

Pierson, Frank. "My Battles with Barbra and Jon." New York 9 (November 15, 1976): 49–60.

Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Film-Making in the Studio Era. New York: Pantheon, 1988.

———. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Studio System. New York: Random House, 1981.

Stewart, Garrett. "The Woman in the Moon." Sight and Sound 46, no. 3 (summer 1977): 177–81f.


Five— "Once More, from the Top": Musicals the Second Time Around

Preferred Citation: Horton, Andrew, and Stuart Y. McDougal, editors Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.