Friday, June 10, 2011

Happy Birthday, Judy!

Werth: Happy Friday, Wise!  

Wise: Happy Friday nothing.  It's Judy Garland's birthday!

Werth: I knew there was a reason you were wearing pigtails. How do you plan on celebrating? 

Wise: Well, first I plan on spending some quality time enjoying the catalog for Profiles in History's auction of Debbie Reynolds' massive collection of  Hollywood memorabilia, paying particular attention to a blue and white dotted dress and a pair of Ruby Slippers that Judy Garland wore while testing costumes for The Wizard of Oz.  And then I thought I'd talk about how great Judy is in one of her most iconic roles: Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis.
Werth: I'm expecting a trolley cake with 89 candles.

Wise: Of course there will be cake, even thought it's hardly necessary when there's a confection as sweet as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).  This was the first collaboration between Judy and her soon to be husband Vincente Minnelli, and while it seems like the perfect fit now, at the time Judy turned down both of them.  

She was tired of playing an endless parade of winsome teenage girls who sing a few tunes while pining away hopelessly for the boy next door. But Minnelli convinced her that this was the role that could make audiences accept her in more adult roles and that he was just the director to do it. 

Werth: Oh they did it, all right.

Wise: Even though Minnelli had only been in Hollywood a few years, his experience designing and directing musical reviews in New York had honed his talent in creating striking images.  While the script was full of the kind of puppy love romance Judy had been tossing off in her films with Mickey Rooney, the musical numbers allowed her to express a very grown up longing for love.  Tom Drake, who played the neighboring object of her affection, seems completely bereft of any screen chemistry until Judy begins to sing "The Boy Next Door" and suddenly the bland milquetoast gets a lot more appealing.

Werth: And that's really an accomplishment, considering you don't even see Tom in that number. Minnelli focuses solely on Judy's blossoming feelings, allowing us to see Tom in her eyes as she peeps through her window.

Wise: St. Louis is also interesting because it is such a well-balanced ensemble piece.  Mary Astor has some wonderful moments as Judy's mother, and Leon Ames is fantastic in the blustery father role that Minnelli would later perfect with Spencer Tracy in the original Father of the Bride films.  
But it is Margaret O'Brien who has the juiciest role as Judy's hilariously death-haunted little sister, Tootie.  She lops off her dolls' heads and buries them in the back yard, and even has one of the most surreal, terrifying and exhilarating scenes in all film history when she confronts spooky neighbor Mr. Braukoff on Halloween. 

Werth: Speaking of surreal, I revisited one of Judy's later films and found myself feeling, well... rather odd.

Wise: Did you manage to sit through Gay Purr-ee again?

Werth: Even more odd than Judy doing the V.O. for a Parisian pussycat is Judy's second to last film, 1963's A Child Is Waiting. Deep in her dramatic film phase, Judy plays an ex-Julliard concert pianist who gets a job working at an institution for special needs kids. Burt Lancaster plays the dedicated, stern, over-worked head of the under-funded facility. These two cinematic titans begin to bump heads when little Reuben Widdicome (Bruce Ritchey) develops an attachment to Garland.

Wise: What kid wouldn't want to get close to Dorothy? 

Werth: What makes this movie so unique and at times disquieting is that director John Cassavetes used actual special needs kids to fill out the cast of child actors (look closely for TV's Billy Mumy and Butch Patrick.) Billed as "The Children" the classrooms were filled with children with Downs Syndrome, autism, and other mental and behavioral disabilities. And these students weren't simply window-dressing. 
Cassavetes used them as active characters in the story, keeping the camera focused on them as they interacted with the main characters off-script. The choice to give these children the spotlight was bold, and gives the film a sense of real heart that Hollywood dramas could sometimes dilute. Cassavetes was ultimately fired by producer Stanley Kramer because the two disagreed on how to edit the film, but the clash between verite and Hollywood tear-jerker adds to the thematic battle between handicapped and handicapable in the film.

Wise: Judy's forte was always in turning vulnerability into strength. 

Werth: After re-seeing the film, I think it's one of Garland's most subtly beautiful performances. Her usual acting ticks and tricks were absent giving her performance a rare naturalistic feel. There's a sense when you see her interacting with these children (especially Ritchey) that she had an innate understanding of not fitting in, of a longing for childhood. When she is surrounded in the hallway by an inquisitive mob on her first day at the institution, she seems almost as lost and vulnerable as the children around her.

Wise: You just want to give Judy a big ol' hug.

Werth: But since she's been dead 42 years, let's just raise a glass to the one and only Judy Garland!

Wise: Hear, hear! And tune in to next week's Film Gab when we find more films to drink to.

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