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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Metro Musicals Off The Second Tier

Giving credit where it’s due, let me start by emphasizing that most of what we know about MGM musicals originated with Hugh Fordin and his remarkable book, The World Of Entertainment. A few weeks ago, Val Lewton was a Greenbriar subject. Much of what I learned about him was gleaned from Joel Siegel’s The Reality Of Terror. Both Fordin and Siegel broke ground for a generation of film scholars who would benefit from research and interviews these two contributed. How many such detailed books were published in the early to mid-seventies? These were historians ahead of their time. Fordin made contact with a number of MGM musical veterans in their twilight years. If you look at reunion footage taken at the 1974 premiere of That’s Entertainment, it’s startling to note how many of those performers would be gone within a few short years. This was about the time Fordin conducted a lot of his interviews, as The World Of Entertainment was published in 1975. There have been many reprints since, some under different titles. The book covers Arthur Freed’s career and the many great musicals he produced at Metro. Fordin interviewed Freed extensively, and not a moment too soon, as the producer died in April of 1973. The best anecdotes about MGM musicals originated with The World Of Entertainment. It’s a book that belongs on the shelf of everyone who cares about movies. I found various editions on Amazon at very low prices, some less than two dollars.

Mickey Rooney says he did much of Words and Music hung over. It was his last MGM picture under the old contract. They would have kept him on, but Mick got impatient and argued his way out of the best money he’d ever see acting in movies, admitting later that it was a mistake to leave. You watch Rooney play Lorenz Hart and it’s hard to believe he was just twenty-eight. Show biz and dog years are much the same. Both put on miles far in excess of wear and tear the rest of us experience. Even in 1948, it must have seemed Mickey was around forever. Some people find him hard to take. I think he’s one of the best actors that ever worked, but I’m not necessarily a fan. Last year, he did a show not forty miles from my house, but I didn’t attend, preferring the beach instead. Eighty years this man’s been in show business, and I passed. Do we take him so much for granted still? Life Is Too Short was the second of his published memoirs. He settles scores and writes a near-porn account of trysts with actress greats. The stories Rooney could tell would fill more volumes than the Warren Commission, so how come his interviews are so rigid and rote?

Judy Garland was in Words and Music just enough to sell a double-sided 78 RPM platter of the two songs they paid her $100,000 to perform. Metro held out on dollars Garland earned for previous work on The Pirate, cost overruns having been laid at her doorstep, so bosses held her checks against further misbehavior. According to biographers, the only way she could loosen cash coming to her was by doing Words and Music. Garland's appearance would amount to an extended cameo Judy playing herself. This actress/singer was always the highlight of any revue for which she turned up. There just wasn’t enough of this entertainer to go around. No wonder she cracked up. Morphine pills were getting her through days by the time she did Words and Music. Judy and various doctors begged for a year off, but hers was talent too valuable to turn loose of. An extended break she expected was withdrawn, for the simple reason that every promising idea for a musical became more so when Garland was attached. No other female performer could deliver like this one, more a curse than a blessing. She was too great for her own good, a performer so unique and in such demand that it finally had to do her in.

Amidst uncommon talent in Words and Music, there is Tom Drake, a link sausage out of machinery operated with soulless efficiency. Pre-war personalities were largely born of vaudeville and stage. Seasoned males were off to the service, lowering standards by necessity rather than choice. Would Van Johnson have clicked if not for the war? Tom Drake was several years on Metro’s payroll by the time he played Richard Rodgers in Words and Music. The eternal boy next door, potential for stardom still unrealized, and hopes of same largely passed. There’s such yearning in Drake to make good, and a seeming awareness he can’t. Soon enough they’d let him out of Metro, but unlike Judy Garland’s departure, few would notice. Drake carries the thankless "book" sections of Words and Music. He’s either watching others sing, or lying beneath Rooney’s steamroller. Boys next door were a type no one wanted once the peace was won, and Drake had not the shading to graduate into film noir or reveal anti-social tendencies such as would rescue Robert Walker’s legacy. Like a lot of ex-contract driftwood, he went where they’d have him, generally television, occasional westerns, and sci-fi. Old friends like Elizabeth Taylor arranged work, and he’d turn up in Raintree County. There’s a particularly bittersweet anecdote among many in Richard Lamparski’s recent Hollywood Diary, in which the author recounts Drake’s unannounced appearance at a 16mm collector’s showing of Meet Me In St. Louis. The one-time almost star was feted by this handful of fans gathered in a Hollywood apartment, but was cruelly brought to earth when one of them exclaimed as to what those years had done to his once youthful appearance. Drake would eventually sell used cars a hundred or so yards from the Metro gate. By then, the studio’s luster would be as faded as his own.

Composers thrust into the limelight for something other than songs they’d written were probably as embarrassed and reluctant as any of us might be under similar circumstances, which explains why these musical bios generally emerged as packs of lies. Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter --- all regarded themselves as private citizens (accent on the private) who just happened to write popular hits. They’d never have expected to see their own lives immortalized in movies. When that cycle gained ground in the forties, a tacit arrangement with writers and studios assured that real lives would be fictionalized beyond recognition, with music catalogues the only tangible link between subject and finished product. Cole Porter is said to have laughed off Night and Day along with intimates hep to the real facts, while uneventful lives such as those of Kern and Richard Rodgers guaranteed audience boredom relieved only by snappy tunes they had penned. What little real-life drama propelled Lorenz Hart’s career was of an exceedingly unpleasant sort. Photos of him reveal a dwarfish stature. He’s said to have suffered grievously when not taking bows. Mickey Rooney matched him only in terms of height. Hart had died in 1943. Mick plays him as habitually lonely because he could never get it together with women. Mostly this is Rooney’s let’s put on a show character from the Mickey/Judys all grown up and finding that Broadway won’t buy him a ticket to paradise. The drama works fine as  reflection of Rooney’s own song-and-dance career in twilight, though he seemed too resilient a sort to collapse pajama-clad on a rainy street as did Hart. Richard Rodgers viewed his participation as strictly business. Years later, when Hugh Fordin contacted him for a reminiscence of Words and Music, he curtly replied there was nothing to say. By the early seventies, the man had probably forgotten he'd even been the subject of a screen bio.

The Barkleys Of Broadway was the reunion (after ten years) for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was yet another project intended for Judy Garland. The idea was to reunite she and Fred after Easter Parade. Special numbers were prepared for Garland. Most got dumped when Rogers took over. For all the musicals MGM wanted Judy to do, they could have worked her three shifts a day and still wanted retakes. Once she was off a project, you could forget about it becoming anything special (with the arguable exception of Annie Get Your Gun). Legend has it Rogers was lured from her country retreat to fill in after Garland flaked out following two weeks in rehearsal, though I’m betting the woman nearly got a charlie horse racing to Culver City once she heard the spot was open. Fans tend to withhold approval from Barkleys they extend to earlier RKO musicals from this team. Something was missing after that decade apart. Could it be that they were playing a married couple and bickering for most of Barkley length? With age now an issue for both, you could hardly depict them meeting cute with Edward Everett Horton in tow. That formula could not be recycled. Technicolor is an asset, their first and only time dancing together in multi-hues. I liked The Barkleys Of Broadway for what it reveals of demands now being made by both Astaire and Rogers. She’d been empowered in drama since 1939, brandishing an Academy Award and playing to the hilt a sequence where her Barkleys character delivers a stunning on-stage audition. Garland would have essayed that for humor with a well-judged dose of pathos. Rogers is intent on reminding us how she’s graduated to loftier heights. From the pressbook: In addition to appearing with Astaire in five singing and dancing routines, the ambitious role calls for Miss Rogers to do not only romantic comedy but moving dramatic acting in sequences in which she portrays the celebrated Sarah Bernhardt in a play within the film. The sequence lays an egg scrambled by an actress willing to dance again for old time’s sake, yet committed to distancing herself from audience notions that she would return to musicals as a steady occupation.

Astaire is said to have insisted composers throw together a thing he called The Swing Trot. It was a new dance executed during (and under) the credits. Fred wanted honey he could spread over ads for his dancing school. Franchises were salted all over the country. They’re probably as good a reason as any for his willingness to un-retire and continue making musicals. Again the pressbook: The picture opens with Astaire and Miss Rogers introducing the "Swing Trot," a modern ballroom dance created by Astaire and expected to gain considerable popularity among America’s dancing couples. Exhibitors were expected to push the dance mightily in whatever circulars and Roto sections it could go. Contests encouraged patrons to duplicate The Swing Trot on theatre stages. Astaire assured would-be steppers they could execute necessary moves on dime-sized floors in the midst of a typically overflow crowd (preferably among paid-up members of local Fred Astaire Dance Academies). He predicted the appeal would extend to bobby-soxers, for after all, their dollars would spend as well as old-timers who had swung to the Carioca and Piccolino. Metro released The Barkleys Of Broadway in May of 1949. This was a fallow year for all of Hollywood. Much of what they’d release lost money. Words and Music had come six months earlier and posted a deficit of $317,000. Barkleys would bring back profits of $346,000. Metro musicals we love today were never sure bets at the boxoffice. A Date With Judy could track $1.5 million in black ink, then see the good of that swept away with $2.6 million lost on a thing like The Kissing Bandit. Both Words and Music and The Barkleys Of Broadway shine on Warner DVD. Their release schedule has yielded more treasure this year than any so far, with the Rooney/Garlands imminent and a long awaited Vitaphone collection just beyond. That’s the event of 2007 I look forward to most.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

Rooney was 28, so Garland was, what, 26? In that photo on top, they both look like they're at least 40. That's some hard-living there.

5:26 AM  
Blogger Buzz Stephens said...

Speaking of Judy Garland, there is an exciting, and wildly popular new group on Yahoo called The Judy Garland Experience. The group features lively discussions, great photo's, and the most amazing music files anywhere. This week they are featuring a retrospective of Judy's performances at the London Palladium 1951-1969 with all never before released performances. They also have all of Judy's tracks from The Hollywood Palace as well as many other rarities. And if that's not enough they are even featuring a rare concert performance by the exciting Damita Jo.
The membership of the group includes Garland family members, other celebrities, author's, people who have made films about Judy Garland, and fans from all levels and backgrounds. The only thing missing is you!
Come check it out, you may never want to leave!

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wished that Judy Garland had made a horror movie towards the end of her career (a la Baby Jane Hudson?). She always scared the shit out of me.

1:53 AM  
Blogger Rich D said...

The mention of Mickey Rooney interviews recalled an incident that happened to me about 10-12 years back when I was freelancing for the local paper. Rooney was coming to town to perform at the local cultural center and I was able to convince my editor to see if I could land an interview that would run a few days before the show. I made the calls and lined everything up, and at the appropriate time a few weeks before the show and with tape recorder all set up and ready to run, I called Mr. Rooney at the number I was supplied. Unfortunately, between the time the interview was set and when I made the call, the show had been cancelled and the promoter hadn't made any sort of announcement. I was finding this out from Rooney himself!

I was mortified! Such a thing had never happened to me before in the five or six years I had been doing this and I was aghast that it had to happen with someone like him. I gushed a few apologies, which he seemed to wave away, saying something along the lines of "don't worry about it." We chatted briefly for a moment about the weather or something else inconsequental, and then with another apology, I hung up.

Once I got my bearings back, I realized how incredibly nice he was over the whole incident.

While not much of an encounter with him, I'll always think of him as a real class act.

8:13 PM  
Blogger mel said...

I recommend Clive Hirschhorn's great book "The Hollywood Musical" which is long out of print, but copies are still avaliable from Amazon.

11:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love Mickey Rooney, have read some books about him(some by him) and love his movies. I recently wrote him a letter, but did not get a response but I can't say I really expected one either I would hope that he receives hundreds of letters each week.

11:27 PM  

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