Bright Lights Film Journal

Wish Upon a <em>Star!</em> Robert Wise’s Musical Mess on DVD

Or, a turkey returns

How could the star, director, producer, and studio behind The Sound of Music reunite for another musical and go wrong? It’s not an easy accomplishment, but they did — spectacularly. With 1968’s Star!, 20th Century-Fox’s $14 million investment evaporated without a trace. Now it’s back as a new, spruced-up DVD, here to prove that dinosaurs aren’t extinct.

In the 1960s, 20th Century-Fox was a studio of changing fortunes. Cleopatra may have spelled the end had not The Sound of Music come along. While the unbelievable box-office of the latter counterbalanced the unbelievable cost of the former, it indirectly doomed other studios. Everyone, it seemed, went looking for the next Sound of Music. What they found, instead, was the sound of nothing. Witness the long, sad procession of musical misfires produced in the late 1960s after The Sound of Music became the highest-grossing film in history: Doctor Doolittle, Camelot, Finian’s Rainbow, Sweet Charity, Paint Your Wagon, Hello, Dolly!, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

Star! was the most obvious project trying to capitalize on the elusive magic of The Sound of Music. It began as a conventional biopic of British musical stage legend Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952), tracing her humble beginnings, dizzying successes, troubled romances, failed marriages, neglectful parenting, disregard for the law, and ruined finances. Since Julie Andrews would play her, and everything Andrews touched turned to gold, no expense was spared. There were 185 sets built for 186 shooting days scattered around New York City, Cape Cod, London, and the French Riviera. There were 3,000 costumes, 125 just for Andrews at a cost of $347,000, which didn’t include her 20 wigs. Director Robert Wise, king of the world after The Sound of Music, smugly defended all the spending. “Gertrude Lawrence was a glamorous, exciting personality who lived a flamboyant and extravagant life,” he said to a roving reporter. “We feel she would have heartily endorsed our budget.”

The unsagacious makers of Star! believed that Andrews on the marquee would pull in a crowd no matter what she was in. It didn’t bother them that the only Americans who knew of Gertrude Lawrence were the champions of bygone theater. Neither were they bothered with the film-worthiness of her life. Lawrence’s self-inflicted miseries can’t compare to nuns, Nazis, the Austrian Alps, and singing children, particularly when they are stretched like taffy to the untenable length of 176 minutes. In further bad judgment, inherently dramatic events, like a pair of world wars, are treated in Star! as inconveniences on par with traffic jams.

Wise’s choice of threading Star! with faux black-and-white documentary-newsreels of Lawrence’s life is phony-baloney cinematic shorthand. Perhaps he was borrowing Orson Welles’ similar device in Citizen Kane, a film Wise edited, but it doesn’t work here. There’s the question of logic. What documentarian is filming her as a poor Peckham child playing in the streets? Who filmed her and her family escaping an unpaid apartment in the middle of the night? Wise and screenwriter William Fairchild indicate moments of her life rather than dramatize them, while non-musical scenes in Star! have all the resonance of a drumstick pounding on a shoe box.

Star! may amuse the disciples of camp. The male support is borderline perverse. Daniel Massey offers a droll interpretation of Noël Coward, but all references to his sexuality are merely implied. Robert Reed, Mr. Mike Brady himself, stops by to enter the suitor competition. Richard Crenna shows up in the wheezing last third of the movie to give Gertie the tongue lashing we long to hear. All roles are profoundly underwritten, so it’s the sometimes exquisite production values that must take up the slack. Ah, those costumes — so excessive, so vulgar, so movie musical with runaway budget. There isn’t a stitch of fabric that looks like it came from a human being’s closet and not the wardrobe trailer. And you’re sure to titter at the scene of our heroine hospitalized for nervous exhaustion in perfect hair and make-up.

The real appeal of Star!, camp or otherwise, rests with its 17 splashy stage-bound production numbers. Friends of Julie are sure to rejoice at the preservation of her interpretations of Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, George Gershwin, Al Jolson, Noël Coward, and Buddy DeSylva. Some numbers (“Burlington Bertie”) are quite good, but just as many of them are suffocating. “The Saga of Jenny” is a smear of acrobats and sequins, while “Limehouse Blues” asks Andrews to do some Cyd Charisse-style musical vamping. She comes off more like Hayley Mills doing Lulu in Hollywood.

Star! had its world premiere in London in July of 1968. It opened amidst much ballyhoo in the US in October, but audiences forgot to show up. Even drive-in quickies like The Savage Seven and The Miniskirt Mob did better business. Fox whittled Star! down to two hours and considered renaming it Gertie Was a Lady, but decided instead on Those Were the Happy Times. These “please see our movie” desperation measures didn’t work. Variety posted a year-end gross of $1.3 million, while seven Oscar nominations the following year couldn’t dent public antipathy or critical rancor.

Any Monday morning quarterbacking on the fate of Star! must consider the Julie Andrews factor. She’s in every scene; Star! is nothing if not a vehicle for her talents. But I don’t think she’s ever understood that the public wants her typecast as a beneficent, starched woman with at least two children in tow. Let’s face it, the goodwill she still enjoys is due almost entirely to Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Efforts to expand her range have only revealed her limitations. She contributed mightily to the nadir of Alfred Hitchcock’s career with her vacant performance in Torn Curtain. She wasn’t a convincing man for one second in Victor/Victoria. Her breast baring in S.O.B. and femme fataling in Darling Lili were simply embarrassing. In Star! she’s gauche, petulant, and ego-driven. She acts in primary colors, giving idiotically exasperated reactions to everything from a ringing telephone to a badminton birdie. And let us not use musical fatigue as the easy answer to Star!‘s failure. Oliver! was that year’s Best Picture winner, proving that Exclamatory! Musicals! Weren’t Kaput! Until Hello, Dolly! came along the following year. Funny Girl opened two months after Star! came and went, and audiences flocked to see a new kind of singer-musical sensation. (If you don’t know who that was, why are you reading this article?) Poor Andrews went from number-one favorite to leper in four short years. It would be another 12 years before anyone but her husband, director Blake Edwards, would cast her in a feature film.

You’ll hear nothing of Star!‘s misconceptions or any filmmaking regrets in the DVD’s commentary. Instead you’ll hear the unmistakable sound of ass kissing. Wise, Andrews, producer Saul Chaplin, choreographer Michael Kidd, costume designer Donald Brooks, and no less than 13 cast members — some living, some dead — sing praises in oddly spliced-together recordings. Nobody offers honest reflections on why Star! so quickly disappeared into the void of movie obscura. For that, we’d have to reanimate the late studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck, or hunt down an old Fox bookkeeper. Or watch the new DVD and figure it out ourselves.