Posted by Moira Finnie on July 15, 2009
I can’t watch Judy Garland.
Well, let me amend that a bit. I can’t watch much of the work of the legendary singer as she evolved over time. Sure, I’ve seen ‘em all at least once: from that surreal Vitaphone short with the toddler with the unlikely name of Frances Gumm dancing for her supper in Bubbles (1930), to her last appearance on film, making Dirk Bogarde a more miserable guy than usual in that creepy slice-of-showbiz-life, I Could Go On Singing (1963). Yet, aside from the glimpses of the sublime in that strange yet touching waltz down the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the visit to that fragile, cozy world of a family teetering on the brink of the 20th century in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), the sight of this talented little heartbreaker on screen pains me a bit. It’s silly, I know, but seeing her makes me hope that somehow–some sort of retrospective child labor law might save her from all that exploitation of her vulnerable talent. Maybe I ought to turn in my membership card as a classic film fan.
I probably shouldn’t be counted among that army of Garland fans. Hearing her bouncing through a peppy song or achingly wring the unspoken meaning from a ballad is an aural pleasure now and then. However, watching many of her movies leaves me with a queasy feeling, similar to that guilty sensation you get when you drive by a car crash in slow motion, battling the instinct to look as well as to turn away out of respect for those caught up in the overwhelming events and fear of what your eyes might see. As my fellow Morlock RHSmith eloquently outlined here a few weeks ago in his blog on Hollywood’s scandals and audience fixation on them, I would prefer to appreciate this singer’s talent without prying too deeply into her pain, voyeuristically, once again.
I think that this is one reason why I was so surprised to find myself completely enthralled by Presenting Lily Mars (1943) the other day on TCM.
To tell the truth, I don’t even like most musicals. It’s not the musical interludes that put me off, which can occasionally be enchanting, especially when people such as Astaire, Kelly, Rogers, Charisse and Hayworth are involved, but one must sit through those arid plots to get to those moments. 99% of the musicals I’ve seen seem to follow this formula: Meet cute, misunderstand one another, discover the wonderfulness of the other, live happily ever…oh, jeez, you don’t need me to fill this in. Still, Presenting Lily Mars was a bit different and quite winning, in its messy, ramshackle way, but a worthwhile footnote in the career of the leading lady.
This rarely broadcast film, which only emerged on DVD within the last year and a half, is based on the 1933 Booth Tarkington novel. That book is redolent with the Indiana-born author’s gently satirical and sophisticated understanding of the foibles of class, ambition and human limitations as factors in life in the changing American Midwest.
As with many Tarkington books translated to film, among them Alice Adams, The Magnificent Ambersons, and the Penrod stories, the seriocomic focus of the stories are often on our illusions, limitations and the transcendence and defeat that can result from a refusal to see life as it is rather than as we’d wish it to be. Of course, Hollywood, which sometimes knew a good yarn when they spotted one, never knew enough to leave well enough alone. Tarkington‘s stories, if filmed as written–especially with those pesky realistic endings–might have sent people out of the movie palace onto the cold, dimly lit streets of the Depression and the WWII eras without a bit of hope.
Not only would that have been disheartening for a stressed audience, but it would not have been good box office. So, we see Katharine Hepburn’s Alice Adams getting her beau, and RKO edited The Magnificent Ambersons to try to make it a grey story rather than a dark one. And, yes, Judy Garland‘s Lily Mars has a triumph, but not entirely one that might be expected, which is another reason I liked this movie.
The film was originally considered a likely dramatic project at MGM for Lana Turner or as a possible showcase for up and coming coloratura soprano Kathryn Grayson. While planning a possible musical version of Little Women for Judy Garland and Grayson, this more commercially viable project soon landed in the unlikely lap of the Hungarian born producer, Joseph Pasternak, who had recently joined MGM. Hired in large part because of his spectacular success in introducing the charming 14 year old songbird Deanna Durbin to the American public through several old-fashioned yet very well crafted musicals in the 1930s, Pasternak understood how to make slick entertainment and a buck on a tight budget. He’d left the often financially shaky Universal Studio solvent after a series of amusingly refashioned formulaic movies such as Destry Rides Again and Seven Sinners. The “Tiffany of movie studios” was hoping for the same resulting cash flow.
Since he was comfortable working in an operetta style that studio head Louis B. Mayer found most appealing, Pasternak (seen at right) probably seemed a logical choice to produce this light little movie, which was directed by Norman Taurog. As a rising star, adolescent division, Judy Garland‘s transition to a more contemporary adult screen persona really began with this movie, made in 1942, just after Ziegfeld Girl, For Me and My Gal, the Hardy movies and those tuneful “let’s put on a show” style films with Mickey Rooney had solidified her popularity. While the studio and the audiences would always have mixed emotions about Judy’s emergence into adulthood, she was ready to be a modern young woman, (a part she’d played for several years already off-screen).
Playing the eldest child of a small town widow (played beautifully but all too briefly by Spring Byington as a woman of gentle strength) with five children, with an annoyingly parochial-minded boyfriend, Garland is inexplicably convinced that she is destined for theatrical greatness, despite her profound lack of experience. Her only real introduction to acting has been via the lessons of a local yokel, Professor Eggleston, played by Henry Sylvester in a funny bit. When Eggleston meets Garland unexpectedly at a party, he enunciates every pear-shaped vowel expressing his surprise crisply and clearly, a tendency that Lily unconsciously imitates for a moment, until she realizes how odd it sounds.
The first half of the movie, which sticks closest to the setting and story created by Tarkington, is the most entertaining and observant about real life concerns such as money, longing and family ties that bind and constrict. Throughout those first 40 minutes, Judy aggressively strives to get the attention of a “local boy who has made good” as a theatrical producer, (Van Heflin, in a role that asks him to be almost strictly reactive, just a year after his Oscar winning turn in Johnny Eager should have changed his career—but didn’t!). Lily’s invasion of the home of Fay Bainter (who is given little to do but literally play with a feather) just before the visit by her son John Thornaway (Heflin) is greeted enthusiastically by Bainter, who is happy to be Garland‘s co-conspirator in attracting her preoccupied son’s attention. Lily’s ploys to get him to see her act are quite funny, demonstrating Garland‘s real comic flair, especially evidenced by the scene below, in which she “does” Lady MacBeth for Heflin, with the enthusiastic assistance of her jazz baby sister, Annabelle Logan aka Annie Ross, a noted actress and musician active to this day. Don’t miss the nice touch of the squeaking doll baby that Heflin steps on at the beginning of the scene as Spring Byington answers to the door. The squall of the doll appears to be an unofficial family doorbell:
The neophyte next tries to prove her mettle a bit later by enacting “that sad scene from ‘The Secret Bride’”, an apparent combination of East Lynne and Way Down East which is very funny. With the help of another hammy little sister, the pair plead unbidden outside of Heflin‘s window, proving Lily’s ardor, if not any nascent skill for the theatrical. Naturally, the plot eventually allows Judy to show her remarkable singing ability too, as well as her character’s ferocious ambition.
The second half of the movie, centers around Lily Mars in New York, where she hitchhikes to make her mark on Broadway. Somehow, of course, her first stop is John Thornaway’s theater, where she encounters first the stage door attendant, Joe Yule (Mickey Rooney‘s burlesque comic father). From this point on in the movie there is a weirdly cobbled together aspect to this movie that makes it strangely enjoyable but increasingly like a windup toy that is running down you keep expecting to run down.
The presence of such lively influences as Americana, Viennese kitsch, swing and classical music, as well as really laugh out loud touches of humor and quirky casting make this cult movie of Garland‘s so watchable.
One cast member who isn’t treated with quite the same generosity of spirit as the rest of the cast is European singing star Mártha Eggerth. She is the temperamental star of Heflin‘s dreadful looking and sounding Russian musical. I wonder if Pasternak was parodying his own lucrative past adding operetta style to this American movie as he had done with Durbin‘s films, but without the Old World charm and excellent musical taste in evidence here. Eggerth, who is still living and singing at age 97, also popped up in the earlier Garland movie, For Me and My Gal (1942) and, as Medusa pointed out in an earlier blog, this singer was very popular in the ’20s and ’30s in European musical films . in this film, her coloratura is lovely yet annoying at times. I suppose the schmaltz inherent in the style of song that she sings gave audiences a keener hunger for Judy‘s modern style of singing. Perhaps the presence of this classically trained singer was also an overt attempt to keep Garland from feeling her oats. Sadly, it seems that the studio rarely let an opportunity pass to undermine their star’s confidence about her appearance.
Allegedly, Garland often told the story of Mr. Mayer introducing studio visitors to the young woman with a flourish, claiming “You see this little girl? She used to be a hunchback. Look what I’ve made her into.” The makeup department would also insist that she wear caps on her slightly crooked front teeth and went so far as to insist that she wear prosthetics in her nose to smooth out her elfin profile. This practice went on at least until her appearance in 1944 in Meet Me in St. Louis. It was on that film that Garland would always claim that the first time she ever felt beautiful on screen and off was when her next husband, Vincente Minnelli arranged to have her photographed with care by the talented George Folsey, emphasizing her soulful eyes and sensual mouth. If she needed an earlier reflection of her own budding beauty, she should have looked at this movie too. The youngster who used to be a “hunchback” and felt so unattractive next to MGM beauties such as Lana Turner was truly lovely in a coltish way here in Presenting Lily Mars photographed with great tenderness by Joseph Ruttenberg. Slim without being too gaunt at this time, she was given an attractively soft blonde hairstyle with one wave constantly in need of brushing back, (though Lily’s mannerism of toying with it was a bit overdone). Her self-confidence, openness to the cast around her, and her acting in this movie seems less mannered than in her prior films since leaving Oz. Her voice, especially when she has a chance to effortlessly exercise her pipes in a swing number or two, (Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg‘s “Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son” is particularly well done, though Bob Crosby‘s orchestra doesn’t fare as well backing up Judy in one sequence), sounds clear and vibrant. Perhaps it was her growing sense of her own power as a performer that allowed her to share the screen rather than dominate it.
The most memorable song in this film, and the best example of the star’s ability to share the screen with another performer, allowing her to shine equally, came just after a penniless Lily arrives in New York. Hiding in the theater overnight, the girl encounters the fine character actress Connie Gilchrist, playing a cleaning lady who is ready to shoo her out into the street. Just before Judy wearily leaves, Gilchrist‘s “Frankie” pauses long enough to see that the girl is her, fifty years ago, when as an ambitious young woman, she’d set out to conquer the theater too. Recalling her brief moments of triumph as a trouper in turn of the century New York, when she’d had a song to sing and a taste of theatrical triumph, Gilchrist realizes that they both belong here, even though things may not always work out as planned. Singing a hit of 1910 by composer Karl Hoschna and lyricist Otto Harbach in a beguiling manner, (even though Gilchrist was dubbed by Mary Kent), “Every Little Movement Has A Meaning All Its Own” becomes a charming, low key duet between the rotund veteran and the starry-eyed hopeful.
Unfortunately, after this highlight, the movie nearly goes off the rails. There is a totally forced feel to the inevitable romance between Van Heflin and Garland. The manipulative behavior that a more cynical eye would bring to the occasion when Lily shows up unbidden at Thornaway’s apartment and maneuvers him into a clinch is so facile, that I kept expecting Garland to suddenly become a character out of The Hard Way, clawing her way to the top of the heap. Despite this unsupported romantic hairpin turn in the plot, the movie isn’t done surprising us pleasantly as well as unexpectedly. Just when you think that 42nd Street must have been the template for this movie, with Judy ” going out there a youngster and coming back a star”, the scenario pulls back again and takes a swipe at realism. The girl isn’t ready for a big part. Her eventual acknowledgment of this doesn’t lead her back to her small town roots, however, but back to work–hard work. Still, there were more peregrinations for this gossamer thin plot before MGM’s unleashed this movie on the world, centering on the denouement.
A familiar tune (“Broadway Melody”) is tacked onto a medley in a mangled ending that threatens to overpower the charm of the film with mechanical excess. (You can see some of this overproduced sequence at the right, with what look like miniature copies of Judy as she would appear later in costume singing “Get Happy” in Summer Stock). This ending was added months after production when Louis B. Mayer realized that there was a slightly B movie chintziness as well as some good qualities in the film. Frankly, I like the quiet ending in the original, when the character of Lily realizes she has much to learn, without the “boffo” finish.
Mayer’s decision to have this peculiar finale added was initially directed, according to some sources, by Busby Berkeley. The added footage may also have been prompted by the negative reactions of preview audiences, who did not care for a final song, featuring a rah-rah song warbled by Garland urging citizens to buy war bonds. So, instead, we have a suddenly fully adult Judy swallowed up by a swirling black tulle dress, (that makes her look very short), sprinting across one of a massive, glistening soundstages while Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra play beneath an ominous-looking disc that looks like a space ship coming in for a landing. There is one perk to all this. Garland, who did not get along with the often insensitive Berkeley, saw him replaced by Charles Walters, a dancer who also appeared as her partner in this sequence. Despite this ending and the other peculiarities of the plot, I’d recommend this movie to anyone who wants to see a fresh-faced, magnetic Garland on the cusp of maturity. With all her gifts for expressing her emotional, comical and musical individuality crystallizing on screen, she’s irresistable.
Fennimore, Keith J., Booth Tarkington, Twayne Publishers, 1974.
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