Friday, December 17, 2010

Momma & Poppa Can You Hear Me? Part Deux

Werth: So Wise, what did you think of Robert Osborne's interview with Liza on Turner Classic Movies?

Wise: Well, at first I was worried that someone had slipped me a mickey, but then I realized the focus was just incredibly soft.  

Werth: Not as soft as those layers of pancake makeup they were both wearing. 

 Wise: Liza has always impressed me with her ability to assess the talents and the failings of both her parents.  She’s respectful of their privacy, which maybe doesn’t allow film historians as much access as they’d like, but she’s also frank about the kinds of creative and personal pressures they were under.  She must understand that because, unlike a lot of celebrity children, her talents are on a level equal to those of her parents. What did you think?  

Werth: I think that the premise of showing her as the girl next door who puts on her flowing bell-bottoms one leg at a time just like the rest of us was misguided. We don’t watch Liza to see someone we could run into at Gristedes. We watch Liza to see her explode with quirkiness and lust for life in ways that only a Hollywood legend can. But it is nice to see her alive and kicking.

Wise: The interview did make me want to watch Cabin in the Sky which was her father's directorial debut and a film I had never seen before. 

Werth: I know it well. What did you think?

Wise: Well, for a long time, I had always thought of Cabin as the movie that used a couple leftover effects from The Wizard of Oz.  It was hardly ever shown on TV and a lot of the books I read praised it, but dismissed it as less important and less accomplished than Minnelli’s later work.  So I was surprised by how immediately engaging it is.
Werth: It’s really a primer to the whole Minnelli style.  You can see the root of all his fanciful touches, the decor, the costumes, the sweeping camera moves, and his two favorite motifs—mirrors and stairs.

Wise: Plus he’s already great with actors.  Before watching it, I had a dim feeling that Cabin, being an all-black musical from 1943, would be full of the regrettable stereotypes of the period.  And they are there, no question, but Minnelli clearly has such respect for both the actors and the characters  they’re portraying.  Ethel Waters and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson play a couple whose marriage nearly breaks apart because of his philandering and gambling.  Minnelli emphasizes their physical interactions—caresses, embraces, even punches—which gives the characters a heft they wouldn’t have had if another director, perhaps, had pushed the cartoonish eye-rolling and shuffling that was seen as comic during this time.  

Werth: It’s funny you should say that because when I saw Cabin in a film class this semester a number of the students were offended by it.  

Wise: Sure, there are a couple cringe-worthy moments, but I think that’s mostly due to some of the actors playing to type.  It was unavoidable at the time—Clark Gable had a type, Bette Davis had a type, Vincente helped create Judy’s type—but an actor playing to persona could sometimes allow for more creative risks.  

Werth: I know you don’t want to leave our discussion of Cabin without mentioning Lena Horne playing Georgia Brown, the bad girl temptress sent by the devil.  

Wise: Gorgeous, beautiful voice, funny, electric.  It’s just a shame that the culture didn’t allow us to see more of her talents on screen.

Werth: Since you’ve dealt so brilliantly with Vincente, I’m going to handle Judy.

Wise: Is that what Vincente said?

Werth: That depends which biography you’re reading.  But Wise, even though I hate to do this, I’m going to fly in the face of Werth & Wise tradition—

Wise: All four weeks of it?

Werth: I’m going to talk about… Television.

Wise: Should we change the name of the blog to Media Gab?

Werth: Hells no. We’re all aware how great Judy was on the big screen, but not everyone knows as much about her on the small screen. From 1963-1964 Garland hosted her very own musical variety show on CBS. Sunday nights opposite Bonanza, Judy would sing, dance, joke and chat her way through an hour-long entertainment extravaganza complete with guest stars and comic sidekicks.

Wise: Sounds a bit all over the place.

Werth: It was. The main problem was that the TV execs had no idea what to do with Judy. They tried giving her Dick Van Dyke’s brother Jerry to enhance the comedy. He wasn’t funny. They tried Judy serving “tea” to certain notable guests who would banter with her and tell stories. Censors yelled at her for touching her guests too much. They finally got on the right path when they decided to just turn the show into a weekly concert special where Judy would do what she did best—sing. But by then Judy was exhausted from a floundering marriage, the assassination of friend JFK, and the renewed influence of pills and white wine. So brand new CBS head honcho, Hunt Stromberg, Jr. (who’d never liked her to begin with) sent her a bouquet of flowers with the card, “You were great. Thanks a lot. You’re through.”

Wise: Ouch.

Werth: Despite all of that, Judy’s performances in these shows are, for the most part, marvelous. Her voice is powerful; her stage presence equal parts warm, charming and sad; and her interpretation of the songs insightful. She sings standards from her famous concerts and others like “Old Man River,” “Shenandoah” and a Porgy and Bess medley (with Vic Damone) that she would never have gotten the chance to sing in a movie. “Old Man River” in particular is so resonant with genuine pathos that you don’t question why this skinny white lady is singing a song written for a black man. Judy’s stint as a Hollywood laborer scarred her in a way that makes her performance of this song emotionally credible.

Wise: It always feels like she lived the lyrics of her songs.

Werth: True. True. But the shows aren’t all gloom and doom. The sets and the costumes have that early 60’s look. It’s a rare treat to see Judy perform with guest stars like Lena Horne, a tipsy June Allyson and ingenue Barbra Streisand. It’s a reminder how great the now-extinct variety show genre was.

Wise: If you want to bring the variety show back, we could start juggling flaming pins on the blog.

Werth: But then we’d have to change our blog name to The Werth & Wise Media Variety Hour.

Wise: Tune in next week for Film Gab with Werth & Wise.

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