August 8, 2021 marks the 100th birthday of MGM swimming superstar, Esther Williams. Williams’ remains one of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s best known musical stars, despite her stardom only lasting about a decade or so. I’ll admit that I used to not be a huge fan of Williams’. Not that I disliked her, but I thought she was stiff and somewhat bland. However, I think that I watched the wrong film as my introduction to Williams–Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949). I had originally watched ‘Ballgame’ to see Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. In this film, Williams plays the owner of a baseball team who does not initially get along with Kelly. Her character in this film is somewhat a stick in the mud and we’re only treated to a shoehorned-in swimming scene.
However, as someone who likes to give everyone another chance, because honestly as a classic film fan, I want to like everyone and everything. Luckily, my second introduction to Esther Williams was in the biopic, Million Dollar Mermaid, one of Williams’ best-known films.
In Million Dollar Mermaid, Esther plays real-life Australian swimming star, Annette Kellermann. We’ll look past the fact that Esther does not even attempt an Australian accent. The film starts in the late 19th century with polio-stricken Annette expressing her desire to swim as a means to improve the strength in her legs and overall health. Her father, Frederick (Walter Pidgeon) runs a music conservatory. We’re then treated to a montage of the young Annette taking swimming lessons, and later winning competitions. The montage also serves as a means to advance the timeline. Finally, we see a grown Annette (Esther Williams) accepting her latest trophy in the regional championship.
Later, Frederick accepts a teaching position that will take he and his daughter to England. While on board the steamer, Annette meets American promoter James “Jimmy” Sullivan, who is taking a boxing kangaroo to England. Thinking that Annette’s swimming talents will net them more funds than the boxing kangaroo, Jimmy begins to schmooze Annette and talks her into allowing him to promote her skills. As a promotional stunt, Jimmy announces that Annette will make the six-mile swim across a body of water. Annette ups the ante and announces that she will swim for 26 miles. Word gets around about Annette’s swim. However, she is unable to complete the swim.
Determined to figure out a way to market Annette’s skills, Jimmy suggests that they go to New York City to perform in an aquatic show in the famed Hippodrome. However, the owner of the Hippodrome does not see Jimmy’s vision and he is unable to get the deal. Annette then tries to go for a swim in Boston, but her “scandalous” one-piece piece bathing suit (versus the baggy dress with bloomers bathing suit that was worn at the time). The beachgoers are irate at seeing Annette’s body and repeatedly declare their disgust with being able to see her legs and shoulders. Annette ends up being arrested and goes to trial for indecent exposure.
In court, Annette pleads her case, stating that the one-piece men’s racing suit that she wears is much more practical for swimming than the big baggy things that women at the time were expected to wear. Annette’s occupation as a competitive female swimmer was unusual for the time as well. In the trial, Annette pleads not guilty to the indecent exposure charge. However, she offers a compromise: She has augmented her short, one-piece bathing suit by adding leggings to the bottom, thus covering her legs. Her new bathing suit basically looks like a cross between footie pajamas and a leotard. The judge is convinced and all charges are dropped. Annette is permitted to wear her custom swimwear.
Annette and Jimmy’s aquatic show is given the greenlight and is a big success. As these films typically go, Annette begins to fall in love with Jimmy, leading to amazing dialogue like this:
(Annette has finished her show and is drying off. Jimmy enters and pulls her into an embrace)
ANNETTE: Please, I’m soaking wet
JIMMY: Good, maybe it’ll put the fire out
Esther Williams and Victor Mature in “Million Dollar Mermaid.”
And like how these films often go, Annette and Jimmy have a misunderstanding which causes their romance to fizzle out… at least temporarily. During her separation with Jimmy Annette’s star begins to get bigger and bigger as her Hippodrome shows get more extravagant. Busby Berkeley directed the large, insane and extravagant water sequence, complete with Esther being dropped 50-feet and then rising above the surface on a platform.
After my lukewarm introduction to Esther in Take Me Out to the Ballgame, Million Dollar Mermaid proved to be a much better initiation into Esther Williams’ stardom and filmography. I’ve found that no matter how corny, contrived and/or formulaic Williams’ movies can be, they are first and foremost entertaining. I love the spectacle of her films. Her underwater ballet sequences are fascinating and Esther’s dives and stunts are also impressive. Now, I find myself enjoying Williams’ films–even yes, Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
May 16th is upon us again. It’s National Classic Movie Day. Though honestly, I’m sure for many of us, EVERYDAY is National Classic Movie Day. For this year’s event, Classic Film and TV Cafe has asked us to list six favorite films, each from a different decade–starting with the 1920s through the 1970s. We were also given another option of the 1930s-1980s, but since my husband I have been trying to watch more silent films, I’m going to take the original challenge. To ease ourselves into silent films, we’ve started with the classic comedians–an obvious and easy jumping off point. Good comedy is universal and timeless. Since I’ve written about a lot of my favorite films over the years and have a tendency to be verbose and not wanting to bore everyone with yet another dissertation detailing my love for The Long Long Trailer, I’m going to try and change things up a bit by selecting some favorites that I don’t *think* I’ve talked about yet.
1920s- The Freshman (1925)
Starring: Harold Lloyd & Jobyna Ralston
Plot: Lloyd stars as “Harold Lamb,” an incoming freshman who is eager to begin his studies at Tate University. He has saved up quite a tidy sum, $485 ($7400 in 2021 dollars), to use as spending money while enrolled in college. While on the train, Harold meets Peggy (Ralston) and the two are smitten with one another. While at Tate, Harold decides that the best way to fit in is to emulate his favorite movie star, known as “The College Hero” in a series of films. Upon introducing himself to a potential friend, Harold performs The College Hero’s jig and adopting the nickname, “Speedy.” However, unbeknownst to Harold, his attempts to be cool and fit in make him the object of everyone’s jokes, especially the college bully. The students’ laughter makes Harold think that he’s fitting in and he’s unaware that he is the school laughing stock. His only true friend in the film is Peggy, his landlady’s daughter. Harold ends up trying out for the football team, but his obvious lack of athleticism does not impress the coach. The star football player, wanting to continue to make fun of Harold, convinces the coach to hire Harold as the waterboy, hereby making Harold think that he’s made the team. The star football player’s ruse may end up haunting him and the team later.
My Favorite Part: My favorite part of this film is when Harold is at the Fall Frolic in an unfinished suit. His tailor has all the pieces of the suit attached with some very loose stitches. Harold opts to wear the suit while the tailor hides behind a curtain, hoping to casually finishing sewing Harold’s suit. While Harold tries to partake in the Fall Frolic activities, his suit starts falling apart.
1930s- Alice Adams (1935)
Starring: Katharine Hepburn & Fred MacMurray
Plot: Hepburn stars as the titular Alice Adams, a young woman from the “wrong side of the tracks,” at least from Alice’s perception. In reality, there’s nothing wrong with the Adams’ home. It is a nice, clean home. It’s not fancy, but it’s functional and well-maintained. However, it is obvious that the Adamses are unhappy with their lot in life. Mr. Adams (Fred Stone) is an invalid and works as a clerk at Mr. Lamb’s (Charley Grapewin) glue factory. Mr. Lamb as been very nice and patient with Mr. Adams and his illness. However, Mrs. Adams (Ann Shoemaker) is frustrated with her husband’s lack of motivation or ambition to do anything to improve their financial situation. Alice’s brother, Walter (Frank Albertson), is a gambling addict and is unable to hold down a job. He also fraternizes with African-Americans, which at the time, was seen as unseemly (and embarrassing) behavior.
Alice is invited to a dance hosted by a wealthy peer of hers, Mildred Palmer (Evelyn Venable). Alice tries to put on airs, despite being escorted by her brother and carrying a bouquet of violets that she harvested outside. In an attempt to prove herself worthy of attending this party, she tries to impress her peers with haughty behavior and conversation, but they are not impressed and she is essentially shunned. While at the dance, she meets the wealthy Arthur Russell (MacMurray) who sees through her shtick but is nonetheless charmed. He makes it known that he wishes to see her more often and Alice, worried that he won’t be interested in her if he knew her true social standing (though he already does), tries to continue her charade.
My Favorite Part: The family dinner is hilarious and heartbreaking all at once. Alice invites Arthur to have dinner with her family. Alice hires a maid, Malena (Hattie McDaniel), to keep up the charade. Despite being blistering hot outside, the entire family dresses in formal attire. Alice plans this absurd (and very hot and heavy) meal made up of fancy delicacies, but Malena’s poor cooking skills are not up to par with the food Alice wants to serve. Malena provides the comic relief of the dinner with her unimpressed facial expressions and genuinely uncouth behavior. Poor Alice is collapsing emotionally with each and everything that goes wrong. Arthur, bless his heart, stoically carries on despite the disastrous evening.
1940s- Gilda (1946)
Starring: Rita Hayworth & Glenn Ford
Plot: Johnny Farrell (Ford) is an American gambler, newly arrived to Buenos Aires, Argentina. When the film opens, Johnny is hustling some gangsters outside during a game of craps. Johnny wins a large sum of money using loaded dice. When the gangsters discover Johnny’s ruse they are about to beat him up when Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a stranger, steps in and rescues Johnny. Ballin owns a fancy casino and brings Johnny there, but warns him not to cheat. However, once a cheater, always a cheater and Johnny is caught cheating at blackjack. After Ballin catches him cheating again, Johnny convinces him to give him a job and soon becomes the manager.
One day, Ballin comes back from a trip announcing that he’s taken a new wife, despite having only known her for a day. He takes Johnny to meet his new wife, Gilda (Hayworth), and Johnny is shocked. The smile on Gilda’s face quickly fades. It is obvious that these two know each other and have a past. What kind of past remains to be seen. Ballin assigns Johnny to be Gilda’s keeper of sorts. Gilda and Johnny have a very intense love/hate relationship. Gilda at one point says to Johnny: “I hate you so much, that I would destroy myself to take you down with me.” However, in spite of how much they say they hate each other, they’re also always about 5 minutes away from jumping into the sack with one another. To irritate Johnny and get his goat, Gilda begins cavorting with various men at all hours of the evening. Johnny has to keep intervening out of loyalty to Ballin. However, at some point, the tension between Gilda and Johnny begins to take over and they’re unable to contain themselves. Ballin observes his manager and wife’s lust for each other and takes matters into his own hands.
My Favorite Part: My absolute favorite part is Gilda’s floor-length sequin coat. But plot wise, the classic “Put the Blame on Mame” song is definitely a highlight. I also really love the scenes at Carnival. Gilda’s gaucho outfit is amazing.
1950s- His Kind of Woman (1951)
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Vincent Price & Raymond Burr
Plot: Robert Mitchum plays Dan Millner, a professional gambler. At the beginning of the film, he is very much down on his luck. One night, after being ambushed by a group of thugs, he is brought to one of the more senior thugs and is offered a “too good to be true” job. For $50k, Dan has to spend a year in Mexico. Figuring that there’s got to be a catch, but also figuring that he has nothing to lose, Dan accepts a $5k advance and takes a chartered flight to the isolated Morro’s Lodge in Mexico. While on his flight, Dan meets Lenore Brent (Russell). Lenore very matter-of-factly tells Dan that she has a million dollars. Dan is attracted to her but disappointed to learn that she’s involved with another guest at the resort, famous actor Mark Cardigan (Price). While milling around the resort, Dan overhears two guests: Martin Kraft and a man by the name of Thompson (Jim “Thurston Howell III” Backus) discussing a plot that Dan suspects is related to the $50k he was offered. The two men give Dan $10k hush money and tell him that someone will be arriving soon to go over the plan with him.
Around the same time, an undercover agent from the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service shows up stating that underworld boss, Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr) is scheming to try and get back into the US. Four years prior, he’d been deported to Italy. At this point, as far as I can tell, Ferraro is planning a “Face/Off” situation where he and Dan, supposedly of similar height and build, will literally switch faces. It seems that Martin Kraft is a plastic surgeon, who is armed with some sort of anesthesia that will allow him to perform the face switching procedure. At some point, Dan is kidnapped and under duress on Ferraro’s boat and it becomes up to Mark Cardigan to head an expedition to save Dan.
My Favorite Part: The entire scene involving Mark Cardigan heading up the rescue mission. Vincent Price’s hamminess makes the scene and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as interesting or funny without Price. Price brings some much wanted levity to the film, especially while Robert Mitchum faces the idea of having to literally have his face ripped off and switched with Raymond Burr’s. I love the scene where Mark valiantly boards a small boat, only to have it sink immediately because it’s overloaded. I love the hilarious super long (and I imagine, heavy, especially water-logged) cape that he wears while he mans the (larger) rescue boat.
1960s- Girl Happy (1965)
Starring: Elvis Presley & Shelley Fabares
Plot: Elvis plays Rusty Wells, a nightclub singer (duh) who along with the other three members of his quartet have just ended their gig at a nightclub in Chicago. They plan to travel to Fort Lauderdale, Florida for Spring Break before moving onto their next job. However, the nightclub owner, “Big Frank,” messes up their plans when he extends their contract and they have to cancel their trip.
At the same time, Big Frank’s 18-year old college-aged daughter, Valerie (Fabares), is also planning on traveling to Fort Lauderdale for spring break. Despite his daughter’s legal adult status, Big Frank is terrified at the idea of letting his daughter travel so far away with just her friends in tow. Rusty sees his boss’ worry, and still wanting to go to Florida, comes up with the brilliant idea of offering to chaperone Valerie. Big Frank likes the idea and offers to bankroll Rusty and his friends’ trip. While in Fort Lauderdale, Rusty struggles with keeping an Italian playboy from lusting after Valerie and maintaining a semblance of a relationship with a “good time girl” (i.e. loose girl) Deena (Mary Ann Mobley). Rusty has to keep bailing on Deena when duty calls and she quickly grows tired of him. But because it’s an Elvis movie and he has to find himself in some sort of love triangle, Deena continues to maintain an interest in Rusty throughout the entire film.
And because this is an Elvis movie and because it’s a tried and true plot with one party being hired to chaperone or hang out with (or what have you) the other. You know that they’ll fall in love and you know that the person being chaperoned will find out. Despite the formulaic Elvis movies and plotlines, I still love it. His movies are fluffy, but they’re fun. And sometimes a fun movie is all that is needed.
My Favorite Part: I love the part when Elvis dresses up in Nina Talbot’s dress to escape from Officer Jackie Coogan’s jail. Elvis had dug a large hole and burrowed himself into the jail cell so that he could save Valerie and the other women.
1970s- The Muppet Movie (1979)
Starring: Kermit the Frog & Fozzie Bear
Plot: The film opens with all of the Muppets sitting together in an auditorium, waiting to watch their film. This film shows how all the Muppets met. We meet Kermit the Frog sitting in a boat in a pond, singing “Rainbow Connection” while strumming his banjo. A talent agent (Dom Deluise) who just happens to be at the same pond, hears Kermit’s song and says that he could be a Hollywood star. I mean obviously, it’s a singing frog playing the banjo! What more could anyone want? Kermit loves the idea of making millions of people happy and sets off for Hollywood. Along the way, he meets a terrible (but awesome) stand-up comedian, Fozzie Bear. Kermit invites Fozzie to Hollywood and the two set off in Fozzie’s Studebaker. This brings about my favorite quote from the film, “A frog and a bear, seeing America.”
Along the way, Kermit and Fozzie meet Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (which includes Animal), the band’s manager, Scooter, Gonzo and his girlfriend (Camilla the Chicken), Sweetums, Miss Piggy, Rowlf, Bunsen Honeydew, and Beaker. There are a million of celebrity cameos: James Coburn, Madeline Kahn, Telly Savalas, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Cloris Leachman, and perhaps the greatest cameo of them all… ORSON WELLES.
My Favorite Part: This entire film is hilarious. But I really love the part where Kermit the Frog and Miss Peggy go out for a romantic dinner. They are greeted by a snarky and rude waiter (Steve Martin) who wears shorty shorts, offers them a straw for their bottle-capped Idaho champagne (after offering to let them smell the bottlecap, of course).
Doris Day would have celebrated her 99th birthday on April 3, 2021. Miss Day passed away almost two years ago on May 13, 2019 at the age of 97. Up until the day she passed away, Doris had devoted the last half of her life to animal welfare–forming multiple non-profit organizations whose intent was to support both animals and other like-minded organizations. Through Doris’ non-profits, she also protected animals’ well-being through her Spay and Neuter program, and support at other legislation aimed to give animals the respect and dignity they deserve when facing illnesses and injuries that could potentially prolong their suffering and pain. With all that I’ve read about Doris and from what I’ve seen of her in interviews, I’m sure that she’s most proud of her animal welfare work and is what she’d like to be her legacy.
For major classic film fans like myself and others, Doris Day will forever be known for her pretty, perky girl next door persona, which later evolved into the persona of a sophisticated career woman. She ended her career playing mother roles. However, in all of these roles, no matter the setting, Doris Day was always a cute, personable woman with a gorgeous singing voice and effortless charm. She, much like the younger Sandra Dee, ended up being saddled with a reputation for being virginal–which really doesn’t make sense considering that she often played a mother toward the end of her career. This “virgin” label is often used as some sort of an insult, as if to discount Day’s work as being trivial or fluff. To this I say, what’s wrong with fluff?
I like fluff.
In a pair of my favorite fluffy films, On Moonlight Bay (1951) and its sequel, By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), Day plays eighteen-year old, Marjorie Winfield. We’ll look past the fact that Doris was 29 and 31 in the two films. Day’s youthfulness and effervescent personality more than makes her believable as an eighteen-year old. She was also paired up with frequent co-star, Gordon MacRae, who is adorable in both films. On Moonlight Bay starts the Winfield Family’s story in the mid-1910s. The Winfields have just moved into a larger home in a more affluent neighborhood in their small Indiana town. Marjorie has recently graduated high school and since she’s not getting any younger, her father, George (Leon Ames), is eager to have her meet a suitor and marry. Much to his chagrin however, Marjorie is a tomboy and would rather play baseball than wear dresses and look for a suitable husband.
Lucky for Marjorie however, she soon meets neighbor Bill Sherman (MacRae), an Indiana University student. He is at home while on a break from school. Marjorie is smitten with him and soon is all about being a proper young woman, wearing dresses and the like. At first George is overjoyed, but soon is dismayed when Bill shares his unconventional thoughts regarding marriage and finances. Bill’s thoughts on finances is especially upsetting since George makes his living as a banker. Marjorie’s mother, Alice (Rosemary DeCamp), likes Bill as does Marjorie’s precocious younger brother, Wesley (Billy Gray). The Winfield’s maid, Stella (Mary Wickes), is too busy dealing with Wesley’s hijinks to be concerned about Marjorie and Bill’s relationship.
At some point, George tries to fix Marjorie up with his idea of a suitable suitor, Hubert, but Hubert is lame and dull. Nobody except George likes him. Marjorie reluctantly follows along, but Wesley has no qualms about making his opinions on Hubert known. By the end of the film, the US has entered WWI and Bill leaves to fight in the war. In the sequel, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, it is 1918. WWI is over and Bill returns to his small Indiana town to pick things up with Marjorie. Thankfully, Marjorie has been waiting for Bill and the two resume their relationship.
Marjorie and Bill’s relationship really hits its stride. Except, the now nineteen/twenty-year old Marjorie is ready to marry Bill. However, Bill is reluctant to commit to Marjorie, because he has yet to find a good job. He does not want to marry Marjorie if he is not gainfully employed. Of course, because every movie needs to find a reason for the romantic couple to break up so that they can triumphantly reunite towards the end, Marjorie and Bill breakup over his not wanting to marry Marjorie. They are reunited thanks to one of Wesley’s schemes, which involves Bill disguising himself (with a fake mustache, of course) as a horse and carriage driver. There’s also an odd subplot involving the family thinking that father George is having an affair. Wesley also has a fantasy sequence where he’s a detective. Those sequences are fine, but honestly this film is all about Doris Day and Gordon MacRae.
On Moonlight Bay and By the Light of the Silvery Moon never seem to be mentioned among Day’s more well known titles like Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, Send Me No Flowers, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Calamity Jane, Love Me or Leave Me, etc. This pair of films deserve to be mentioned along Doris’ other wonderful films. Both films capture Doris’ wonderful girl next door persona, she’s cute as a button and it’s easy to see why Gordon would be so enamored by her. She is so cheery and charming. As is Gordon. Why that guy wasn’t a bigger star is beyond me. These films are very much in the same vein as Meet Me in St. Louis (even with the same dad), but they are different enough to not be considered a knock-off. I don’t even usually like child actors, but Billy Gray is able to imbue his character Wesley, with enough charm and personality that he comes off as funny, rather than obnoxious. At no point is Wesley cloying, or trying to manipulate the audience into feeling affection toward him. He is legitimately funny and sweet towards his sister in the film.
It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are often listed as “must-see” films every year on various lists of classic Christmas films. And these films are fine. But they hardly rank on my list of films that I have to watch each year. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these films, I own these films; but honestly, they’re usually at the bottom of my pile when I exhaust all other possibilities and decide to not re-watch my absolute favorite Christmas film–White Christmas (1954) for the millionth time during the season. I usually end up watching White Christmas at least 3-4 times during the season. One year, I think 2018, I even saw it in the theater! That was amazing.
I absolutely love White Christmas. It is funny, it has great music, a great cast, a great plot, and great dancing! And, if that weren’t enough, it was also filmed in gorgeous Technicolor and presented in Paramount’s revolutionary (for 1954) VistaVision widescreen format. There were other technological innovations used in the production of this film including using larger negatives and prints that I don’t really understand, nor do I care. What’s important is that this film is absolutely gorgeous to watch.
The film opens on Christmas Eve, 1944 during World War II. Former Broadway star, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and aspiring Broadway star, Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) are entertaining their fellow soldiers of the 151st Division. Bing (Bob) sings the perennial Christmas standard for which Bing Crosby will forever be associated and all other Christmas songs will be judged against–Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” “White Christmas” was originally introduced in 1942 for Holiday Inn, also starring Bing Crosby. In this film he co-stars with Fred Astaire. While “White Christmas” was introduced ten years prior, I believe that it is more associated with the 1954 film of the same name.
After Bob finishes singing, the troop receives word that their beloved General Waverly (Dean Jagger) is being relieved of his command. General Waverly arrives and says goodbye to his men. The men send him off with a song and then are bombed. Phil saves Bob from being crushed by a falling wall; but his arm is wounded in the process. This sets off a funny running gag throughout the film where Phil uses his arm injury as a means to guilt trip Bob into following his plan. Bob asks Phil what he can do to repay him for saving his life and Phil responds with the idea that he and Bob should team up as a Broadway duo. Bob is hesitant, but agrees.
PHIL: “My dear partner, when what’s left of you gets around to what’s left to be gotten, what’s left to be gotten won’t be worth getting whatever it is you’ve got left.”
BOB: “When I figure out what that means, I’ll come up with a crushing reply.”
National Treasure Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby in “White Christmas” (1954)
After the end of World War II, Bob and Phil go on the road and are a huge sensation. After a string of successes as performers, Bob and Phil turn to producing their own shows. They develop a new musical, called “Playing Around” and set off to cast it. One day, Bob and Phil travel down to Miami, FL to view “The Haynes Sisters,” a sister-act starring Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen) Haynes. It seems that the Haynes Sisters’ brother, Ben “Freckle Face” Haynes (Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer) was an old Army buddy of Bob and Phil’s and he wrote to them asking them to check out his sisters’ act.
After watching Betty and Judy sing “Sisters,” both Bob and Phil are smitten. Bob has his sights set on Betty and Phil has a crush on Judy. Phil, liking to play matchmaker, notices that Bob is ogling Betty. After the sisters’ performance, he arranges for the four of them to meet. Phil and Judy hit it off immediately and sing and dance a gorgeous duet, “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing.” It also comes out that it was Judy who wrote to Bob and Phil, not her brother.
PHIL (Looking at the Haynes’ Sisters’ brother’s photo): “How can a guy that UGLY have the nerve to have sisters?”
BOB: “Very brave parents, I guess.”
National Treasure Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby in “White Christmas.”
Between sets, the sisters’ landlord shows up and announces that he is suing them for the cost of a damaged rug. The sisters claim innocence, but the landlord isn’t having it. He’s even gone as far as to get the police involved. To get Betty and Judy away from the police, Phil gives them his and Bob’s train tickets (in a compartment, naturally) to New York. However, Betty and Judy need to perform one more set at the club. Bob and Phil go on in their places in a very funny, lip-synced rendition of “Sisters.” One can’t help but see how much fun Danny Kaye was having hitting Bing Crosby with the feather fan. At this moment, I am going to start referring to Danny Kaye as “National Treasure Danny Kaye” because imo, he is what holds this entire film together.
Bob and Phil escape to the train, where Bob discovers that Phil has not only given away their train tickets, but he’s also given away their beds. Much to Bob’s chagrin, he and Phil will have to spend the evening in the club car. Bob, Phil, Betty, and Judy reunite on the train. Betty and Judy inform Bob and Phil that they’re on their way to Vermont to perform at a ski lodge over the Christmas holiday. The girls invite the boys to come along. The boys agree and the foursome sings about snow.
When they arrive at the Inn, they discover that Vermont has received exactly 0″ of snow. So much for skiing or tourism. For me personally, I welcome any winter without snow, but I can understand how the lack of snow would hinder people’s ski holidays. Bob and Phil are shocked to discover that their beloved General Waverly is the proprietor of the Inn and sunk his entire life savings into it. If he can’t turn a profit on it this holiday season, he will go bankrupt. Seeing their friend in trouble, Bob and Phil set off to save the Inn.
BOB: “We came up here for the snow. Where’re you keepin’ it?”
EMMA: “Well, we take it in during the day!”
Bing Crosby and Mary Wickes in “White Christmas” (1954)
I can’t get enough “White Christmas.” I’ve seen it at least two dozen times and I never tire of it. All the music is fantastic. Aside from the title song, “White Christmas,” I also really love Rosemary Clooney’s solo number, “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” and the Haynes Sisters’ song, “Sisters.” And though I detest snow, I love the “Snow” song that the group sings on the train. And like many of these films where they put together a show, none of the musical numbers seem to make any sense in the context of the show that they’re supposedly putting together.
In rehearsals, we see a Minstrel show with Vera-Ellen dancing to “Mandy.” Later, we see National Treasure Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dance to a song called “Choreography” where Kaye is some sort of flamboyant choreographer. Vera-Ellen dances to an instrumental version of the controversial “Abraham” song from “Holiday Inn.” Finally, we see the foursome perform “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army” behind oversized, exaggerated cutouts of people in typical professions. All of these lead us into the fantastic, emotional finale where we hear a reprise of “White Christmas.”
None of these songs could possibly fit together into any sort of cohesive narrative. But it doesn’t matter. Because all the songs are fantastic and the dancing is fantastic.
PHIL (After kissing Judy): “You know, in some ways, you’re far superior to my cocker spaniel.”
National Treasure Danny Kaye in “White Christmas” (1954)
This film is so much fun to watch. It is funny, emotional, sad, happy, romantic, this movie has everything. I love National Treasure Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen. Rosemary Clooney has such a beautiful singing voice and such a great style. I love Bing’s singing as well and I especially love his musician slang that he incorporates throughout the film. I love when he asks Betty to “bring the cow” (grab the pitcher of milk) over to the table where they are sitting. Mary Wickes, who plays General Waverly’s housekeeper, Emma, is hilarious. She’s often seen eavesdropping on phone calls and spreading misinformation.
EMMA: “Oh, my word. If I wasn’t such a mean old biddy, I’d break down and cry.”
Mary Wickes in “White Christmas” (1954)
Now excuse me, I’m off to watch “White Christmas” and National Treasure Danny Kaye.
August 8th would have been Esther Williams’ 99th birthday. I’ll admit that in the past, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Williams. Not that I thought she was bad or anything, but I hadn’t been impressed by her in the films of hers that I’d seen (Take Me Out to the Ball Game and Easy to Wed). I unfairly dismissed her “aqua-musicals” as ridiculous.
Then, it all changed when I saw Williams in Neptune’s Daughter. I watched this film and found that I really enjoyed it. Williams looked beautiful and there was a great aqua-musical number towards the end. Leading man, Ricardo Montalban was handsome, and supporting players, Red Skelton and Betty Garrett were funny.
Art imitates life in Neptune’s Daughter, where Esther Williams portrays Eve Barrett, an aquatic ballet dancer and then swimsuit fashion designer. After retiring from movie-making in the mid-1960s, Williams started her own line of fashionable swimwear. In Neptune’s Daughter however, Williams’ character, Eve, is an aquatic ballet dancer, who is asked to become a business partner at the Neptune swimwear company. She is reluctant at first, but then agrees when she realizes the publicity value of the position.
Williams’ role as a swimsuit designer allows a foray into one of my favorite things about classic movies, the mini-fashion show. Singin’ in the Rain, The Women, How to Marry a Millionaire, Cover Girl, Easter Parade, Designing Woman… all feature fashion shows.
Back to Neptune’s Daughter… Eve’s business partner, Joe, learns that the South American polo team will be in town for a big match. He and Eve decide that this event would be the perfect opportunity to market their swimwear via a big swimming spectacle. Eve informs her man-crazy sister, Betty (Betty Garrett) about the South American team’s upcoming visit, and she decides that she needs to score a date with one of the players.
During polo practice, the captain of the South American team, Jose O’Rourke (Ricardo Montalban) is injured and seeks relief from the club’s masseur, Jack Spratt (Red Skelton). Jack is awkward and clumsy. He laments his lack of success with women to Jose. Jose gives Jack advice on how to attract women, including this gem: speaking to women in Spanish because it is the “language of love.”
Because when you think Spanish lover, you instantly think of Red Skelton.
A comedy of errors occurs when Betty, looking for the famous team captain, mistakes Jack for Jose and pursues him, aggressively. Jack decides not to tell Betty her mistake and accepts her invitation to visit her at home. He brings along a Spanish instruction record so that he can pretend to speak romantic Spanish phrases to Betty. Betty excitedly tells Eve about her date and Eve tries to encourage her to date outside of the visiting polo team.
Meanwhile, the real Jose is interested in Eve, however, at first, Eve isn’t aware that he isn’t the man whom Betty dated the night prior. Eve tells Jose to stay away from Betty, and he is understandably confused as he did not date Betty. But, he pretends to agree (because why not) and then asks Eve out. Eve reluctantly agrees to the date, because she thinks she’s keeping Jose away from Betty. On the date, Eve tries to ruin the date by being standoffish and disinterested, but ultimately Jose wins her over and they have a wonderful date.
The next morning, the mistaken identity motif persists when Eve’s maid advises her that Betty and “Jose” (i.e. Jack) have gone on another date. Furious, she goes down to Jose’s hotel room and is confused when Betty is nowhere to be found. At the same time, a crooked nightclub owner plots a scheme to kidnap Jose when he learns that he is the team’s most valuable player. He has money on the game–removing the opposing team’s best player will surely help him win the bet. However, he kidnaps “Jose” rather than the actual Jose.
Then, as classic Hollywood films typically go, the main characters have known each other for a week, so obviously a marriage proposal and subsequent engagement is the most realistic next step. Jose proposes to Eve and she accepts.
Further hijinks ensue when Eve tries to share her engagement to Jose with Betty, who tells her of her engagement to “Jose.” Meanwhile, the real Jose is kidnapped as “Jose” escapes.
The film ends with Eve and Jose and Betty and “Jose” reunited. We see the big water spectacle that Eve and her business partner have planned. Dozens of girls dive into the water from varying heights. Eve and Jose “dance” in the water. Obviously, you had to be a good swimmer to be Esther Williams’ leading man in her aqua-musicals.
This is an absurd but fun film. You have to look past the ridiculous plot points (e.g. anyone mistaking Red Skelton for a South American polo star) and roll with it. This is also the film that introduced the annual Christmas classic (despite not having anything to do with Christmas), “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Despite popular (and uninformed) opinion, this song is not about date rape.
I liked how the lyrics of the song were presented in two fashions: In the duet between Montalban and Williams, Montalban takes on the male part of the song and pursues Williams. In the Garrett and Skelton duet, Garrett takes on the role of the male pursuer with Skelton on the defense. The version between the two leads plays out more traditionally and romantically; whereas the duet between the supporting leads is more comical.
Mel Blanc (aka Bugs Bunny, Speedy Gonzales, Porky Pig, etc.) appears as “Pancho” one of the assistants to the polo team. His face might not be recognizable, but when he speaks, he’s instantly recognizable–it’s Speedy Gonzales! Ricky Ricardo’s nemesis, Xavier Cugat, also appears in the film at Casa Cugat, Xavier Cugat’s Mexican restaurant. Apparently, he also provides the live entertainment!
Esther Williams’ aqua-musicals aren’t the greatest films in the world, they are no Singin’ in the Rain, but they’re fun. The plots can be contrived at times, especially when they have to figure out how to insert a swimming musical number. Her films can also be repetitive, again, how to insert a swimming musical number and have it make sense within the context of the film, but they’re fun to watch. The thing I like about Williams’ films is the spectacle. The aqua-musicals are so elaborate. Williams wears such gorgeous bathing suits and her hair and makeup are never out of place. Obviously in real life, when swimming, you look like a mess!
The best thing about Neptune’s Daughter and Esther Williams’ other films is that they serve as a fun diversion from the monotony of day-to-day life–especially now. These films allow you to escape from the world and relieve a little stress. And honestly, I think we could all go for a stress reliever.
On July 1, 2020, Dame Olivia de Havilland celebrated her 104th (!) birthday in Paris, France. Aside from being the last surviving cast member from Gone With the Wind, she is also one of the last surviving figures from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Olivia is a two-time Oscar winner, having won the Best Actress Academy Award for her roles in Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and The Heiress (1949). However, aside from being known for her age and status as an Oscar-winner, Olivia is probably best known for her nine (!) collaborations with the incomparable Errol Flynn.
Full Disclosure: I LOVE Errol Flynn.
In his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways*, Errol admits that he fell in love with Olivia during the making of his (and her) first big studio film, Captain Blood. However, despite his infamous reputation as a panty-dropping ladies man, Errol does not kiss and tell. In fact, he states that his propensity for playing juvenile pranks on Olivia probably lost him his chance at a relationship with her. Olivia on the other hand, admits that the two of them had some sort of passionate romance, however, their relationship was never consummated. What is the real truth? The only people who know that for sure are Errol and Olivia. Errol unfortunately is no longer around (passed in 1959) and Olivia is remaining tight-lipped on the subject.
*My Wicked, Wicked Ways is an amazing book. It, along with Desi Arnaz’ A Book, is the most entertaining book I have ever read. During my first read, when I got toward the end, I actually read just one page a night because I didn’t want it to stop!
What we do know is that on-screen, Errol and Olivia’s chemistry is off the charts.
Errol and Olivia appeared in the following films together:
Captain Blood (1935). Errol and Olivia’s big break. This film made an overnight matinee idol out of Errol and opened the doors for Olivia. Errol appears as the title character, Dr. Peter Blood aka “Captain Blood.” Peter is arrested for treason while treating a patient who participated in the recent rebellion. Peter is given a break (maybe?) and instead of execution (after being sentenced to death), he is sold into slavery. Peter, along with other future slaves, are shipped off to the West Indies.
Olivia appears as Arabella Bishop, the niece of the local military commander, Colonel Bishop. Arabella fulfills every woman’s fantasy and purchases Errol… err… Peter for 10 pounds to be her slave. You got one heck of a deal, Arabella. You will not be unhappy. Peter of course, resents being sold into slavery and is cold to Arabella. Eventually Peter and the other men revolt, seize a Spanish ship and become pirates.
Peter and Arabella’s relationship follows a similar trajectory that many film romances share. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl don’t get along. Boy or girl spend much of the movie trying to get the other to like them. They fall in love at the end. However, unlike most of the romantic fluff out there, Captain Blood is exciting, entertaining, and fun. Errol and Olivia’s playful flirtation and rapport is one of the big reasons for this film’s success.
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
I’ll admit that I’ve only seen this film once. It features Errol and Patric Knowles as brothers living in India during the mid-19th century. Errol is a Major and Patric is a Captain with the 27th Lancers of the British Army. The main conflict is that Patric has betrayed Errol by taking up with his fiancee, Elsa, played by Olivia.
Much of this film features battles (blah) and the love triangle between Errol, Patric, and Olivia (ooh I love love triangles). However, the animal abuse by the film production crew, and Errol’s subsequent outrage is my biggest takeaway from this film.
In his autobiography, Errol details in length the cruel tactics used to make the horses trip for the battle scenes. An animal lover and accomplished horseman, Errol was disgusted and outraged by what he saw on set. He was further incensed by director Michael Curtiz’ nonchalant attitude toward the numbers of horses injured and killed by his stunts. Errol reported the production to the ASPCA. This action led to the US Congress implementing measures to ensure that animals used in film production were not injured or killed–thus the “no animals were harmed in making this motion picture” statement that is featured in most movies today.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
This is probably Errol and Olivia’s best known film collaboration, as well it should be. This film is perfect from start to finish. It is exciting, funny, has a great cast, fun characters, beautiful costumes, everything that one wants in a film. And this film, in its glorious Technicolor, is absolutely gorgeous.
I don’t think much plot is necessary, as most people, I imagine, are familiar with the Robin Hood legend. Errol plays the titular character, Robin Hood. Robin and his gang of merrymen have been banished to Sherwood Forest after opposing Prince John (Claude Rains)’s tax raise and voicing his opposition to Prince John’s usurping his brother, King Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter)’s throne and his intention to restore Richard’s place in the kingdom when he returns from fighting in the Crusades. Olivia plays Maid Marian and she’s disgusted by Robin’s insolence and vigilante behavior. She also doesn’t like that Robin and his gang regularly rob the rich to pay the poor.
However, as the film progresses, Marian begins to see Prince John for who he truly is, and also realizes that Robin is a good guy and begins to fall in love with him–much to the chagrin of Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone).
Four’s a Crowd (1938)
This is one of Olivia and Errol’s lighter fare. After appearing in back to back swashbucklers, Flynn was eager to do something else. Warner Brothers appeased their star by placing him in this light comedy. Honestly, this isn’t the greatest film, but it has a fantastic cast, Errol looks great, it’s amusing, and it’s fun to see Errol in a comedic part. He shows a flair for comedy. It’s a shame that he wasn’t given more opportunities.
Olivia in this film is adorable, but honestly, her character is annoying. The best pairing in this film is Errol and Rosalind Russell.
In this film, Errol plays Bob Lansford, the former editor-in-chief of the local newspaper where Jean Christy (Russell) works as a reporter. Jean is concerned that her new boss, Pat Buckley (Patric Knowles) is running the newspaper into the ground. Since leaving the paper, Bob has formed a new PR firm. Jean appeals to Bob to return to the helm of the newspaper. While initially uninterested, Bob becomes interested in this prospect when he learns that Pat’s fiancee is Lori Dillingwell (Olivia). Lori is the granddaughter to John P. Dillingwell (Walter Connolly), a millionaire who has developed a poor reputation. Bob hopes to use Lori to gain access to John P. so that he can obtain his business for his PR film.
Errol is his usual charming self in this film. Olivia on the other hand, while pretty and adorable, acts like a giggly airhead and has an irritating laugh. Patric Knowles’ character isn’t much better. The two of them together can be a little annoying at times. However, if you love Errol and love Rosalind Russell (like I do), then they are worth the time spent watching this film. I’ve watched this film numerous times, so obviously Olivia and Patric’s characters don’t keep me away from this film too much.
Dodge City (1939)
I’m not a big Westerns fan, but I love this movie. In this film, Errol plays Wade Hatton, an Irish cowboy who has ties to Dodge City is enlisted by Colonel Dodge to clean up the town. It has been overrun by Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his gang. Wade brings his friends, Rusty (Alan Hale) and Tex (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) to assist. Olivia plays Abbie Irving, a settler who is traveling to Dodge City with Wade and his companions. She is planning on living with her aunt and uncle who reside in Dodge City.
After initially turning down the sheriff job, Wade agrees after witnessing the tragic death of a young boy in town. Wade, Rusty and Tex are doing a good job of clearing out the riff raff, but obviously are met with opposition by Surrett and his cronies. Abbie, meanwhile, has taken a job writing for the local newspaper, headed up by Joe Clemons (Frank McHugh).
Despite being a Western, I think this is a really fun film and Olivia and Errol once again light up the screen. Alan Hale is hilarious, especially when he inadvertently joins a temperance movement. Frank McHugh is always a delight.
Ann Sheridan’s talents and personality are wasted in this film. She appears in a small part as a saloon girl. Someone of Sheridan’s caliber was not needed for this role.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
At this point in her career, Olivia was tired of playing Errol’s girlfriend in all her films (there are worse things you could be, imo). She wanted a chance to play more challenging parts and stretch her acting chops. She had just completed one of her most famous roles, Melanie in Gone With the Wind, and hoped that this was her chance for more meaty parts. However, Jack Warner, the bigwig at Warner Brothers was afraid that this experience would go to her head. To keep her grounded, he cast her in a small part in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex starring Errol and Bette Davis.
‘Elizabeth and Essex’ is Bette’s film. Olivia’s part is so insignificant, that it could have been given to anyone and not made much of a difference. Olivia is completely lost in this film, especially in the shadow of Bette’s performance as Queen Elizabeth I. This film details Elizabeth I’s relationship with the much younger Lord Essex, played by Errol. While in love with Elizabeth I, Essex also yearns for power and is frequently at odds with his lover/Queen when he defies her orders. Elizabeth I struggles with her age, vanity, and her love for Essex, but also wants to retain her power.
Olivia plays Lady Penelope, Elizabeth I’s lady in waiting. The main conflict with her character is that she’s in love with Essex as well. Elizabeth I fears losing Essex to the much younger and prettier Penelope. Penelope also schemes to break Elizabeth I and Essex up so that she can pursue him. This could possibly be a meaty part, but Bette’s performance as Elizabeth I is so intense and, frankly, it’s A LOT, that one almost forgets that Olivia is even in the film until she’s seen again.
While I love Bette, I cannot decide if I like this performance. Sometimes I think it’s amazing and other times, I can’t get past Bette’s constant fidgeting. What does make this film worth watching are the gorgeous costumes, a young Nanette Fabray in her film debut, and Errol’s thigh-high boots.
Santa Fe Trail (1940)
This film must be Errol and Olivia’s least popular. I only say that because this film is in public domain. As far as I know, it’s never received a proper studio release. I’ve only seen it a couple times, it’s not bad, but it’s not my favorite either.
In this film, Errol plays Jeb Stuart, a recent West Point graduate. He, along with his friend George Custer, played by Ronald Reagan, are sent to Fort Leavenworth, the most dangerous assignment in the Army. Both Jeb and George relish this assignment. On the way to Kansas, Jeb and George meet Cyrus Holliday who is building the railroad to Santa Fe, NM. His daughter, Kit, played by Olivia, is also accompanying him. Both Jeb and George are smitten.
Most of the remainder of the film features Raymond Massey as the villain, John Brown, and lots of battles and such. I don’t really remember the particulars.
They Died With Their Boots On (1941)
This is technically Olivia and Errol’s last film together. They have a very fitting goodbye scene toward the end of the film. While Errol’s dialogue is given within the context of a husband (who knows he will most likely die) saying a final goodbye to his wife (who knows deep-down that she won’t see her husband again), the words could apply to Errol and Olivia as well.
“Walking through life with you, ma’am, has been a very gracious thing.”
George Custer (Errol Flynn) to wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer (Olivia de Havilland)
In this film, Errol plays General George Custer. At the beginning of the film, he is arriving at West Point in a ridiculous uniform that he designed himself, with the intention of looking like a visiting foreign general. While at West Point, George racks up a series of demerits for pranks and general disregard for any protocol and rules. Despite being at the bottom of his class, George and his class graduate early so that they can report immediately to Washington, D.C. at the onset of the Civil War.
Prior to graduation, George had met Libbie Bacon (Olivia) when she approached him, asking for directions. He asks her out on a date, but is unable to meet up with her when he is forced to report to DC for his war assignment. When they finally meet up again, George has made himself very unpopular, after making a joke at Libbie’s father’s expense. Libbie and George have to meet up in secret. Libbie’s maid, Callie (Hattie McDaniel), helps the couple keep their secret.
Through a miscommunication with the War Department, George is mistakenly promoted to Brigadier General. Despite this however, his regiment, the Michigan Brigade, wins at Gettysburg.
The remainder of the film features George and Libbie’s lives leading up to that fateful day at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where the audience knows George will meet his fate.
This is a very sweet film, though not one that I re-watch very often. War and Westerns aren’t my favorite genres, but Errol and Olivia and Hattie make this film very re-watchable. Errol’s appearance at he beginning in his outlandish military garb is hilarious.
Thank Your Lucky Stars (1942)
Errol and Olivia appeared in this film together, but they weren’t together. Both appeared as themselves in separate numbers. Thank Your Lucky Stars was made during WWII and created to serve as a fundraiser for the war effort. Every star who appeared in the film donated his or her salary to the Hollywood Canteen.
The Hollywood Canteen was an organization opened by Bette Davis and John Garfield. It was intended to serve as a club that catered only to servicemen fighting in WWII. In addition to the US servicemen, servicemen of Allied forces and women in any branch of service were invited to attend. The idea of the Hollywood Canteen was that servicemen (and servicewomen) could enter the club using their uniform as a ticket. All amenities within the club were free. The club was staffed by countless members of the entertainment industry. Everyone from the big A-list stars down to the key grips volunteered to work at the Hollywood Canteen. A serviceman could enter the canteen and have Rita Hayworth serve him lunch, only to dance with Betty Grable afterwards.
The plot of Thank Your Lucky Stars is very thin. Basically, Edward Everett Horton and SZ Sakall are trying to stage a “Cavalcade of Stars” wartime charity show, but star Eddie Cantor’s ego is threatening to take over the production. Aspiring singer Tommy (Dennis Morgan) and his songwriter girlfriend, Pat (Joan Leslie), conspire to join the production by coaxing Horton and Sakall into replacing Cantor with their look-a-like friend, Joe.
Throughout the initial part of the plot, Hollywood stars like Humphrey Bogart make non-musical appearances. At the end of the film, we’re treated to what is presumably Horton and Sakall’s “Cavalcade of Stars.” It is in this section where we’re treated to Olivia and Errol’s only on-screen musical performances. They do not appear in the same production number. Olivia is paired with Ida Lupino. Honestly, their number isn’t really that great. Errol on the other hand, has a solo number and his song is one of the best in the show. His natural charisma and good looks are on full display, despite the silliness of the number.
By 1939, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had made nine films together at RKO studios. Their first film together, Flying Down to Rio (1933), featured the duo in supporting roles. This wasn’t even supposed to be a vehicle for Fred and Ginger, the film starred Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond. However, they excited audiences so much in “The Carioca,” that RKO was quick to re-team the duo in their second vehicle, The Gay Divorcee. When ‘Rio’ was made, Ginger was the bigger star. She had already appeared in almost two dozen films, including: 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. Fred on the other hand, was primarily a Broadway performer and had only appeared in one other film (Dancing Lady, where we’re treated to Joan Crawford’s awful dancing), where he played a fictionalized version of himself.
The Gay Divorcee was a huge hit and RKO was quick to keep teaming Fred and Ginger up in picture after picture. Between 1933 and 1939, the duo had appeared in nine films: The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). By this point, both Fred and Ginger were ready to move onto other projects. Ginger, especially, was ready to prove herself as more than just a dancer in fluffy romantic films. She had achieved some success in the ensemble dramatic film, Stage Door (1937), and wanted to do more in this realm.
Fred, I don’t believe had acting aspirations as lofty as Ginger, but I believe he did want to try some more inventive dance routines. Not that Ginger held him back, but seeing his performances where he dances solo, Fred seems to have more fun dancing–perhaps because he can do a more technical routine. After his initial partnership with Ginger ended, Fred appeared in a few more musicals with a variety of dancers: Broadway Melody of 1940 (w/ Eleanor Powell), You’ll Never Get Rich (w/ Rita Hayworth), You Were Never Lovelier (also w/ Rita Hayworth), and Yolanda and the Thief (with Lucille Bremer). By 1946, Fred was tired of making films and retired.
Meanwhile, Ginger’s career was only getting bigger and bigger. In 1940, Ginger appeared in one of her first major dramatic roles, Primrose Path with Joel McCrea. I really like this film. In this film, Ginger plays a woman who hails from a family whose tradition is prostitution. Both Ginger’s grandmother and mother are prostitutes. Ginger, understandably, does not want to follow in the family business. She ends up meeting and marrying McCrea who is unaware of her family’s history. Later in 1940, Ginger gets the role of a lifetime, the title role in Kitty Foyle.
When Ginger was first given the book for Kitty Foyle (for which RKO had just purchased the film rights), she was not impressed. As she says in her 1991 autobiography, Ginger: My Story:
“As Howard [Hughes] and I were driving toward his residence, I glanced at my copy of Kitty Foyle. There were explicit love scenes in it that were quite disturbing to me. As I read these passages, I found myself passing judgement on them. “That could never pass the censor board. So what good is it for me to spend time reading it?” I was really embarrassed that RKO would send me something like this. I snapped the book shut and quite deliberately, through it in the corner of Howard’s car.”
Ginger spoke to her mother, Lela, about the trashy book. Lela very matter of factly, told Ginger that the studio would obviously have to tone down the sexual content as it would be impossible to film it. The entire story would essentially have to be re-written. After speaking with Lela, the producer and writer Dalton Trumbo (who was hired to write the script), Ginger’s qualms about accepting the part had been squashed. Kitty Foyle ended up being a major hit, winning Ginger the Best Actress Oscar.
After Kitty Foyle, Ginger continued to act in dramatic films but also dabbled in comedic and noir roles as well. Ginger even went back to her roots and appeared in more musicals. One of my personal favorites of Ginger’s 1940s career is her turn in Billy Wilder’s directorial debut–The Major and the Minor. This film is hilarious. However, you really have to suspend your disbelief when it comes to the premise. If you can accept co-star Ray Milland believing that Ginger’s character is “eleven, twelve next week” then you will enjoy this film.
The Major and the Minor gave Ginger the opportunity to show off her broad comedy skills. The premise of this film is that Ginger has been trying to make a-go in New York City for a year but to no avail. She decides to return home (to Stevenson, Iowa) via train. However, she finds out that she doesn’t have enough money to pay an adult fare. She does however have enough money to purchase a children’s ticket. She gives herself a “makeunder” by removing her makeup and putting her hair in pigtails. She modifies her clothing to make it look like something a child would wear. She purchases her ticket.
On the train ride, Ginger attracts much attention from the conductor and train staff who are not buying her story that she’s “eleven, twelve next week” and that she’s tall because she’s “from Swedish stock.” Ginger has some very funny scenes trying to rationalize her grown-up appearance to the adults. Ginger does take her child shtick a little far as she’s supposed to be 12 but she acts 5. On the train, Ginger meets Ray Milland, a major who teaches at an all boys’ military school. Milland can not see out of one eye. With his blurred vision, he buys Ginger’s story that she’s 12. Ginger ends up staying with Milland, Milland’s fiance and her sister for a few days. Complications ensue when Ginger attracts the attention of the male cadets at the military academy and Milland’s fiance who is just not buying Ginger’s story.
I gave The Major and the Minor a lot of space in my article about Fred and Ginger, because it is probably my favorite of all of Ginger’s post-Fred films. She also made one of my favorite Christmas-time films, I’ll Be Seeing You, where she plays a woman convicted of involuntary manslaughter and is serving time in prison. She is given an eight-day furlough so that she can spend Christmas with her family. During this furlough, she meets and falls in love with Joseph Cotten who is on a 10-day leave from the military hospital he’s been staying at. I’ll Be Seeing You is a sweet, romantic film and is perfect for the holiday season.
In 1948, Gene Kelly was all set to appear opposite Judy Garland in Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade. However, right before filming was to begin, Gene broke his ankle playing volleyball. Feeling bad, Gene coaxed Fred into coming out of retirement and replacing him in Easter Parade. Fred agreed and this began a renaissance of some sorts of Fred’s career. Easter Parade is one of my favorite films and as much as I love Gene, I cannot picture anyone else in this film other than Fred.
Easter Parade takes place in 1912-1913 New York City. Fred plays a dancer who is part of a popular dance team. His partner, Ann Miller, casually drops a bombshell on Fred: she’s been offered a solo show and has accepted. Ann it seems, wants to be thought of as more than just Fred’s dance partner (Sound familiar?). Upset, Fred goes down to a restaurant/bar to figure out a game-plan for his career. While at the restaurant, Fred spots Judy, a singing waitress. He makes a “My Fair Lady” type bet with the bartender. He will pick Judy out of the lineup and turn her into his next dance partner. The problem is Judy can’t dance.
Fred tries to teach Judy how to dance and she does okay, but is struggling. It finally occurs to Fred that perhaps they should base their act around their respective talents. Fred will dance and Judy will sing. Perfect! With this change, Fred and Judy are a sensation and are soon auditioning for the famed Florenz Ziegfeld’s Ziegfeld Follies revue. There is some drama between Ann and Fred and Judy and Fred that threatens to break up the act. However, like all these films go, the drama is resolved and all is well by the end.
Easter Parade was a smash hit and MGM was eager to re-team Fred and Judy for another film: The Barkleys of Broadway. However, by this point in her life, Judy was in bad shape and ended up being fired from production. In perhaps a bit of a publicity coup for the film, MGM hired Ginger to take Judy’s place. It had been ten years since their last pairing. I don’t know if this is true, but I read somewhere that Judy, upset at being replaced, sent Ginger a shaving kit as a passive aggressive “congratulations” gift. It seems that Ginger had a lot of peach fuzz on her face and used makeup and filters to hide it on screen. I hope this story is true, because it is hilarious.
The Barkleys of Broadway very much resembled Fred and Ginger’s real professional relationship: except in the film, they played a married couple. In the film, Fred and Ginger are at the peak of their popularity, a sensation. While at one of their shows, Ginger meets a playwright who suggests she take up dramatic acting. Ginger tries to keep it a secret, but Fred finds out and the couple separate. The Barkleys of Broadway was a big hit and continued to revitalize Fred’s career. Curiously enough, Ginger’s career was starting to wind down. She didn’t really make many big films in the 1950s, except for one of my favorites, Monkey Business with Cary Grant and a young Marilyn Monroe.
Starting with Easter Parade, Fred was becoming more innovative in his dance routines. In Easter Parade, Fred used trick photography in “Steppin’ Out with my Baby” to make it appear like he was dancing in slow-motion. In Royal Wedding, Fred again uses trick photography to make it look like he was dancing on the ceiling. The Barkleys of Broadway features Fred’s “Shoes with Wings” routine where he dances with a bunch of shoes.
My other absolute favorite film from the later part of Fred’s career is Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn. In this film, Fred plays Dick Avery, a fashion photographer for Quality magazine. He is tired of photographing the same vapid models, who are pretty, but don’t really bring anything to his photograph. His editor, Maggie Prescott (hilariously played by Kay Thompson, whom I wished had made more films), agrees that the magazine needs a new look. They want to find someone who is as smart as they are beautiful. They end up barging into (and destroying) the Manhattan bookstore: Embryo Concepts. While at the bookstore, they find Audrey Hepburn, the shy shop clerk.
Fred and Kay photograph the comic book reading model, Marion, but she’s just blah. All beauty but no substance. Fred ends up getting a photo of Audrey during the shoot. Back at the magazine office, Fred is developing his photo of Audrey and sees that she has that je ne sais quoi that he and Kay have been looking for. Kay calls up Audrey’s shop and orders some random books as a pretense to get her to come down to their office. Audrey shows up and before she knows it, she’s been swept up in the world of modeling. Audrey accepts the modeling work, as she’s informed that she’ll get to go to Paris. Paris is where the renowned philosopher, Emile Flostre, regularly holds lectures about empathicalism–a philosophy that Audrey is very interested in. Complications ensue when Audrey prioritizes her personal interests above those of her employer’s. One of my favorite scenes of Funny Face is Fred and Kay’s dance at the beatnik hangout–“Clap Yo’ Hands.”
By the 1960s, both Fred and Ginger appeared infrequently in films but kept busy pursuing other interests. Fred had his own television show for awhile and Ginger was a hit in theater, even appearing on London’s famed West End for a period. Fred’s television career was very successful, his programs won numerous Emmys and revived an interest in dance. In 1985, Ginger realized a lifelong ambition–to direct a play. She directed an off-Broadway production of Babes in Arms. Fred passed away in 1987 and Ginger in 1995.
96 years ago today, one of the world’s best entertainers was born. Judy Garland was born Frances Gumm in 1922 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. As a young girl, she performed with her two sisters, Mary Jane and Virginia as part of the Gumm Sisters vaudeville act. Frances was the youngest and most talented in the group. When Frances was five, the Gumm family moved to the Los Angeles area. Mrs. Gumm tried to keep her daughters in the minds of show business executives by having them appear in various short films. The Gumm sisters toiled in short films, dance classes and schooling for a few years until 1935 when Frances was discovered by MGM. The Gumm sisters had changed their last names to “Garland” at the end of 1934. In addition, Frances changed her name to Judy.
MGM studio head, Louis B. Mayer, saw Judy performing with her sisters and was immediately impressed with Judy’s talent. He requested that Judy and her father come down to MGM and meet with him in his office. Judy sang “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” for Mayer. She was immediately signed to a contract. However, soon MGM found that Judy was difficult to cast. She was thirteen–too old to be a child star and too young to be an adult star. Judy spent a few years playing the girl next door parts, co-starring with huge MGM star Mickey Rooney in his Andy Hardy series. In 1939, Judy was cast in her star-making role: Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.
After ‘Oz,’ Judy was seventeen and was eager to move onto more mature parts. MGM however, kept her pigeonholed into girl next door parts. She appeared as a goody goody teen in Babes in Arms and Strike Up the Band with Mickey Rooney. In 1940, Judy finally snagged her first adult role in Little Nellie Kelly, playing a dual role to boot! By 1940, much to MGM’s chagrin, there was no doubt that Judy was grown up. She had already been embroiled in a hot and heavy affair with bandleader Artie Shaw until he ran off with Lana Turner. Judy was devastated. She then got together with musician David Rose, whom she married in 1941. By 1942, Judy was a huge star at MGM and was transitioning into adult roles. One of her major adult roles was as a vaudeville star in For Me and My Gal.
For Me and My Gal is notable for not only being one of Judy’s early adult roles, but also for being Gene Kelly’s film debut. Gene had been making a name for himself on Broadway, first as a choreographer and then as the star of Pal Joey. MGM objected to Gene’s casting, but Judy supported him and campaigned for him to get the part. Throughout production, movie veteran Judy supported Gene and gave him acting tips, especially when it came to adjusting his stage acting for the silver screen. Gene always remembered Judy’s kindness when he made his first film and continued to support her throughout the rest of her life.
By 1948, Judy and Gene were huge musical stars. It was also by this time that Judy was having her well-documented personal issues. Judy initially was excited about shooting The Pirate, she thought it would be fun. Director Vincente Minnelli (and Judy’s husband) also thought it would be a nice change of pace for he and Judy. However, the production was in trouble as soon as it began. Production was delayed two months because of Judy’s mental health. She was then worried that co-star Gene would steal all her thunder. Gene would regularly assist in choreographing the routines–he saw The Pirate as a way to make the dancing more ballet-like, a dance style that Gene was very familiar with.
Judy experienced multiple paranoia episodes during production and barely even showed up to shoot her scenes. She was only present about 35 days out of the 100+ days of production. When Judy was absent, the filmmakers would shoot around her. During Judy’s absences, Gene would work closely with Minnelli on coming up with ideas for scenes and such. When Judy would show up for work, she’d notice Gene and Vincente’s close relationship and become jealous. She also thought that her husband had developed a crush on Gene (By all accounts, Gene was straight and did not reciprocate the crush). Judy’s paranoia, combined with her addiction to pills, led to a nervous breakdown.
Judy’s mental health issues caused production to stretch from the planned two months to six. In the end though, Judy pulled out a great performance–like she usually did. Judy’s Manuela is one of her funniest performances–especially when she is hypnotized and starts crying out for Macoco. “Mack the Black” is one of Judy’s most memorable songs. The Pirate ended up losing money at the box office and was considered one of Judy, Gene and Minnelli’s worst films. However, now The Pirate has found its audience and it is considered one of the classic musicals. If you only watch one part of The Pirate, watch the scene where Gene dances with fire while wearing shorty shorts. You won’t regret it.
In 1948, MGM wanted to re-team their two biggest musical stars, Judy and Gene, in another film, this time Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade. Judy was supposed to play a waitress whom Gene’s character discovers and molds into his new dance partner. Gene’s partner, played by Cyd Charisse, has decided to leave the act and strike out on her own. Just prior to production however, Gene broke his ankle during a heated volleyball game at his home. Gene managed to coax Fred Astaire out of retirement and asked him to take his place. Cyd Charisse ended up tearing a ligament in her knee and she was replaced by Ann Miller. If you can’t get Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, I guess Fred Astaire and Ann Miller will have to do (lol). Easter Parade was a smash hit and soon MGM was eager to pair Judy and Fred up in The Barkleys of Broadway.
The Barkleys of Broadway was supposed to feature Judy and Fred as a successful husband and wife musical comedy team. However, Judy’s character meets a famous playwright who suggests that she take up dramatic acting. Fred’s character of course is upset. Judy started production on the film but was soon fired after it was apparent that she had a serious addiction to prescription pills and alcohol. MGM fired Judy from the film. They then had the brilliant idea of reuniting Fred with his old RKO dance partner, Ginger Rogers. Judy fumed at being replaced by Ginger. It was known that Ginger had an unusually high amount of peach fuzz on her face. Judy, feeling vindictive, sent Ginger a shaving mug and brush to “congratulate” her on the role (I don’t know if this anecdote is true, I read it somewhere, but if it is, it’s horribly petty on Judy’s part. But it’s also hilarious).
In 1950, Judy was cast and then fired from Annie Get Your Gun, due to her normal attendance issues and mental problems. Busby Berkeley had also been hired to stage the musical numbers and Judy absolutely loathed him. They had had their run-ins on previous Judy films. MGM gave her one last shot and re-teamed her with co-star Gene in Summer Stock. By this point, Gene was a huge star and he didn’t want to appear in a typical “let’s put a show on in the barn!” musical. And in fact, Summer Stock does feature the gang putting a show on in the barn, albeit, a very large and fancy barn. Neither Gene, nor director Charles Walters wanted to do the film, but both men did so as a favor to Judy, whom they liked and wanted to help.
In Summer Stock, Gene appears as the director of a small-time musical theater troupe. One of the members of this troupe happens to be Judy’s sister, Gloria DeHaven. Gene is also dating Gloria. The theater troupe has been looking for a place to practice and hold their show. Gloria suggests sister Judy’s barn on the family farm. It is apparent that Judy is working hard to keep her family farm going, even through hard times. Gloria on the other hand, doesn’t want to be a farmer, she wants to be an actress. Eventually, Gloria ends up leaving the show and Gene ends up coaxing Judy to join the show after seeing that she has singing and dancing talent. The conflict is that Judy is dating Eddie Bracken, the son of a very boisterous and bossy man who only wants to unite the two oldest families in town. Eddie however, is such a wimp, that it’s hard to see why Judy even tolerates him. By the end of the film, she doesn’t and has fallen for Gene–who in return, has fallen for her. It’s a simple story, nothing groundbreaking, but it features a lot of memorable songs and dances.
During production, Judy experienced her usual issues, but MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer pressured the film crew to keep going and to accommodate Judy’s issues. He didn’t want to see her get fired from her third consecutive film. In one incident, Judy did show up for work, but wasn’t up to filming. To take the heat off of her, Gene feigned an ankle injury, so that he would be the cause of the production delay. Gene choreographed two of the most memorable numbers in the film: “You, Wonderful, You” which he performs with simply a squeaky floorboard and a newspaper, and “The Portland Fancy” which features Judy and Gene in a fun dance-off. Spoiler Alert: Gene wins! Thankfully, Gene was not responsible for creating the god-awful “Heavenly Music” number. He only had the misfortune of appearing in it. Supposedly, Judy was supposed to appear in it too, but called in sick that day. It was decided to go on without her and film it with just Phil Silvers and Gene. I don’t think Judy was sick, she knew what she was doing. She didn’t want to have any part of that terrible number.
After filming completed, it was decided that Judy needed a big solo number. By this point, she had taken a well needed vacation and had lost 15-20 pounds. “Get Happy” was the number that was selected. Judy looks noticeably thinner in this number and looks and acts more like the Judy Garland that everyone knows. “Get Happy” is one of the highlights of Summer Stock and is one of Judy’s best numbers. Summer Stock was released and was a big hit.
Judy was then re-teamed with Fred Astaire and assigned Royal Wedding. Judy was replacing June Allyson who had to drop out of the film due to pregnancy. However, Judy’s demons once again re-surfaced and she was replaced by Jane Powell. At the end of 1950, MGM and Judy made the mutual decision to terminate Judy’s contract. Judy wouldn’t return to the silver screen until 1954’s A Star is Born. Judy’s performance as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester is tremendous, especially her rendition of “The Man That Got Away.” Judy was nominated for the Oscar and in my opinion, she should have won. However, Grace Kelly ended up walking away with the award for her performance as Bing Crosby’s plain and disgruntled wife in The Country Girl. Judy was devastated by the loss.
While Gene Kelly’s star soared even higher after Summer Stock (his last pairing with Judy), Judy’s collapsed except for her brief renaissance in A Star is Born. Gene went on to create two of the most influential and highly regarded musicals of all time: An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain. Gene’s rendition and dance to “Singin’ in the Rain” is probably the most famous musical number of all time. Judy herself had sung “Singin’ in the Rain” in Little Nellie Kelly (1940). The famous “Good Morning” song performed and danced by Gene, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds was also performed by Judy and Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms (1939). These songs were used in the film to show the development and transition of silent to talking pictures. I would argue that Judy was one of the major players in helping the transition. Gene’s contributions were important of course, but films had transitioned by the time he came on the scene. Judy was right there almost from the beginning.
Without Judy Garland, there might not have been a Gene Kelly.
“…Meet me in St. Louis, Louis. Meet me at the fair. Don’t tell me the lights are shining any place but there…
This lyric is heard multiple times in Meet Me in St. Louis and it perfectly sums up the 1944 MGM classic, Meet Me in St. Louis. In a nutshell, the film is about the Smith family and the love they have for each other and their hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Their hometown also happens to be the future home of that year’s World’s Fair. However, Meet Me in St. Louis is so much more. It rightfully deserves to be remembered as one of the great musicals of not only the Golden Age of Hollywood, but of all time.
Meet Me in St. Louis opens in the summer of 1903. The Smith family is seen conducting their day-to-day business. Matriarch Anna Smith (Mary Astor) and maid Katie (Marjorie Main) are making ketchup. Younger daughter Agnes (Joan Carroll) comes in from swimming, crooning “Meet me in St. Louis.” Grandpa Smith (Harry Davenport) is taking a bath. High school aged siblings Esther (Judy Garland) and Rose (Lucille Bremer) come in from a trip downtown. It seems that a new attractive young neighbor, John Truett (Tom Drake) has moved in next door. Esther immediately has a crush on John. I don’t blame Esther for crushing on John, he’s cute, even if he’s kind of a dork. Rose on the other hand, is dating Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully), who has moved to New York (for school perhaps? Or maybe he’s on vacation? It’s not clear why he’s there). Rose is expecting a phone call from Warren. A phone call in 1903 is a BIG deal.
Rose’s phone call is such a big deal that the family is planning their dinner around Warren’s call. It is assumed by Esther and Rose that Warren is calling to propose marriage to Rose. After all, Rose is 18, and in 1903, if you’re not engaged by 18, you might as well be dead. The regular Smith dinner time is 6:30 pm. However, Warren is planning to call at the same time. Dinner has been moved up to 5:30 pm. Patriarch Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames) is not too keen on the change in dinner times and Rose ends up taking the call with the entire gang in the room. Warren finally calls and he and Rose end up having a hilarious conversation with a lot of “WHAT?! I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” The phone call ends with nary a proposal from Warren. Rose may as well become a nun now.
Eldest sibling and brother Lon (Henry Daniels, Jr.) Rose and Esther plan a party for all their friends and to celebrate Lon’s admission to Princeton University. The siblings plan a wild party, complete with roast rabbit, and a rousing song and dance to “Skip to My Lou.” Esther also has ulterior motives at this party. She and Rose have invited neighbor John to the festivities and Esther plans to make her move.
ESTHER: “I’m going to let John Truett kiss me tonight.” ROSE: “Esther Smith!” ESTHER: “Well, if we’re going to get married, I may as well start it.” ROSE: “Nice girls don’t let men kiss them until after they’re engaged. Men don’t want the bloom rubbed off.” ESTHER: “Personally, I think I have too much bloom. Maybe that’s the trouble with me.”
Esther gives it everything she’s got. She tries hiding his hat in the breadbox to keep him from leaving, she wears her special perfume and she invites him to turn off the lights with her. All she ends up with is returning John’s hat complete with raisins inside and John complimenting her on her strong grip and her perfume that reminds him of his grandmother.
The next day, Esther takes a trolley ride and hopes to see John. The trolley is taking guests on an excursion to the construction site of the World’s Fair that is taking place in the coming year. John misses the trolley, but after a rousing rendition of “The Trolley Song,” Esther is overjoyed to see that John has managed to catch a ride after all. Later that evening, youngest sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) and Agnes go out for Halloween.
Halloween in 1903 is a very strange affair. The neighborhood kids dress up (which is fine) and spend the evening burning furniture and stealing things from the neighbor’s homes. It seems that the stealing is condoned, as it is mentioned that the neighbors specifically set things out to be stolen, on the condition that it is returned. The children also go around playing tricks on the neighbors. Tootie ends up having to confront and throw flour at the “scariest” neighbor, Mr. Burkhoff. She does so to prove herself to the older children.
TOOTIE (after throwing the flour at Mr. Burkhoff): “I killed him!”
TOOTIE (after the kids celebrate her “murder” of Mr. Burkhoff): “I’m the most horrible!”
On the way home from Halloween, Tootie and Agnes tie a dummy to the trolley tracks as a joke. The trolley nearly derails and John helps the kids hide from the angry conductor. Tootie ends up sustaining a split lip and a broken tooth during the affair. When she returns home, she concocts a story about being assaulted by John.
Esther is furious that John would supposedly beat up children and goes over to his home to confront him. She ends up attacking him. John is caught completely off-guard and thinks Esther has just gone off the deep end. Tootie then admits that she made up the entire story and Esther is angry and petrified that she just beat up the guy she likes. This is the least of her problems however when Alonzo comes home with a big announcement.
It seems that Alonzo’s law firm is planning to transfer him (and consequently his family) to New York City. The family is devastated at the idea of leaving their home. Rose and Esther are especially upset, because they are still in high school and will have to leave their respective romances, friends, school, etc. Esther and Rose are also upset when they realize that they will miss the World’s Fair that they’ve been looking forward to for a long time.
Christmas Eve rolls around and the three eldest children are looking forward to attending the annual Christmas Ball. Esther plans to attend with John. It seems that Rose’s paramour, Warren is attending the dance with Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart), a girl he met in New York. Out of revenge, Esther and Rose plan to take the liberty of filling out Lucille’s dance card for her. They plan on filling in all the names of all the losers and bad dancers at the dance. By the time the Smiths get to the dance and meet up with Warren and Lucille, it seems that the plans have changed. At Lucille’s urging, Warren and Rose pair up and Lucille pairs up with Lon. At Grandpa’s behest, Esther ends up taking the bad dance card.
Esther’s dance card perks up however when John manages to get his tuxedo and come to the dance afterall. He and Esther dance their last dance at the ball. The Smiths are planning on leaving St. Louis after Christmas. John proposes marriage to Esther that evening and she is overjoyed and accepts. Later that evening, Tootie is realizing how moving to New York is going to affect her. Esther tries to help Tootie by singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but all this does is drive Tootie to a near nervous breakdown about the thought of leaving everything behind.
Alonzo, seeing first hand how moving is going to affect his family, changes his mind and announces that the family will remain in St. Louis. The family is overjoyed. Warren, apparently overcome by emotion at the Christmas Ball, bursts in:
WARREN: “Rose Smith, we can’t go on like this any longer. I’ve positively decided we’re going to get married at the earliest opportunity and I don’t want to hear any arguments. That’s final. I LOVE YOU! Merry Christmas.”
ROSE: “Merry Christmas.”
ALONZO: “Anna, who is that boy?”
ANNA: “Now Lonny, he’s a very fine young man. We’ll talk about it later.”
GRANDPA: “That young man is so excited he’s liable to leave on his honeymoon without Rose.”
The films concludes with the entire family, boyfriends and girlfriends included, attending the 1904 St. Louis World’s fair, or the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The family looks on at awe at the fountain that was also used in An American in Paris. I feel like this fountain is also in Gigi and Clueless, but I am not sure. For sure it’s in An American in Paris, however. The film ends on a corny, but appropriate note.
ESTHER: “Isn’t it breathtaking John!? I never dreamed anything could be so beautiful.”
ANNA: “There’s never been anything like it in the whole world.”
ROSE: “We don’t have to come here on a train or stay in a hotel. It’s right in our own home town.”
TOOTIE: “Grandpa? They’ll never tear it down, will they?”
GRANDPA: “Well, they’d better not.”
ESTHER: “I can’t believe it. Right here where we live. Right here in St. Louis.”
Meet Me in St. Louis is memorable not only for the memorable songs in the film, but for the effect it had on Judy Garland and her career. By 1944, 21/22 year old Garland was tired of playing the cute teenage girl. She was eager to take on adult roles. Initially, when offered the role of “Esther Smith” in Meet Me in St. Louis, Garland was not happy. Esther was yet another teenage girl. However, director Vincente Minnelli managed to convince Garland to do the film. One of the big things Minnelli did was to hire makeup artist Dorothy Ponedel to do Garland’s makeup. With Ponedel, Garland was given an entirely new, glamorous image. Garland was so happy with how she appeared on screen, that she had her contracts written so that Ponedel was her makeup artist on each film. Minnelli made Garland feel beautiful in Meet Me in St. Louis. Perhaps it was this reason why Garland fell in love and married him.
There are multiple reasons why I love Meet Me in St. Louis. One of the main reasons are the costumes. I love many of the costumes that Rose and Esther wear. Anna wears an amazing multi-colored striped robe toward the end of the film. It is so over the top and gaudy, I love it. I also love the Smith Victorian home. It’s gorgeous. All the rich woodwork and detailed wallpapers are so ornate, but beautiful. One of the best rooms in the entire house is the bathroom. It has a beautiful stained glass feature. I love that the set department paid so much attention to the details in the home.
Another reason I love Meet Me in St. Louis is for Garland herself. Her personal problems are well known and it is well known that they affected her professionalism on this film as well. However, in typical Garland fashion, the audience would have never known of Garland’s personal problems, they do not affect her performance at all. I read somewhere that Garland never showed up to rehearsals to “The Trolley Song.” The day came for the number to be filmed. Everyone was nervous that Garland wouldn’t be prepared and the shoot wouldn’t go off as planned. Garland showed up and boom! nailed the song on the first take.
Meet Me in St. Louis is such a joy to watch. I’ve probably seen it over twenty times and I never tire of it. I love Judy. I love Tom Drake. I love the costumes. I love the songs. I love the Smith home. I love how Tom Drake describes everything as “peachy.” I love Tootie and how morbid she is. I love everything about this film.
Kim Novak is someone who I discovered when I saw Picnic (1955) for the first time. I had heard of her and knew what she looked like, but I had never actually seen any of her films until I saw Picnic. She wasn’t my original draw to the film either. I originally recorded it because I was a fan of co-star William Holden and I also love the overwrought melodramas of the 1950s. My initial impression of Novak was that she was very pretty but she seemed somewhat stiff. I began wondering if it was all style and no substance when it came to Novak. However, as I kept watching her in Picnic, I noticed that she didn’t seem as stiff as she had in the opening scene. I found myself warming up to her.
In Picnic, the crux of Novak’s character, Madge, is that she feels that she is only wanted and appreciated for her looks. Her mother insists that Madge seal the deal with her rich upper crust boyfriend Alan, before her looks begin to fade. Madge is 19, by the way. Alan talks about and treats Madge like she’s a trophy on his arm. Madge begins to resent everyone only focusing on her looks and not showing any regard for her wants, needs and desires. Novak was very skilled in bringing the conflicted Madge to life. On one hand, Madge doesn’t want to disappoint her mother; but on the other hand, she wants to live her own life and not skate by on her looks, even if that path looks uncertain. Madge spends much of the film battling with her own wants and needs, versus those of her mother, boyfriend and the hot, mysterious, and exciting drifter William Holden.
After Picnic, I remember making a point of seeing Novak in some of her other films. I saw Bell, Book and Candle co-starring James Stewart. This film allowed the audience to see Novak as another type of character–a beautiful woman afraid to fall in love. In this film, Novak plays a beautiful witch who lives in Greenwich Village in New York City. Novak develops a crush on Stewart and ends up casting a love spell on him when she discovers he’s engaged to marry another woman. The love spell causes Stewart to fall in love with Novak instead. Soon Novak finds herself falling in love with Stewart and she’s faced with a choice to make: Fall in love with Stewart and lose her magical powers or keep her powers and let Stewart go. Novak plays it cool in this film and is very adept at showing the progression of her character falling in love. Despite being very beautiful and being labeled as one of the 1950s sex symbols of Hollywood, Novak’s characters are never overt in their sexuality, unlike someone like Marilyn Monroe.
One of Novak’s most famous films is her turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Novak is cast as one of Hitchcock’s typical icy blondes, but she brings so much to her complicated, somewhat dual role. In this film, Novak must portray the beautiful and tragic Madeline who Stewart meets and falls in love with. Later, she portrays the small-town girl, Judy, who of course resembles Madeline, and agrees to allow Stewart to transform her into his lost love. As Madeline, Novak plays the wispy blonde, who is so beautiful but with an underlying vulnerability. As Judy, Novak plays a more average looking woman (more like a gorgeous woman wearing too much heavy makeup) from Kansas who is trying to make it in big city San Francisco. She is brassier and more no-nonsense than Madeline. Of course there is more to the story than meets the eye and Novak was fascinating to watch.
Novak is a highly underrated actress who I believe wasn’t taken seriously because she was so beautiful. In all her films, she brings charm and also an underlying vulnerability that makes her a joy to watch on screen. Today, Kim Novak lives on a ranch in a small town in Southern Oregon. It’s exciting to think that one of my favorite Classic Hollywood stars is still alive and thriving in a town only about 3.5 hours south of me. Maybe someday, I’ll make it back down there and maybe run into Kim Novak on the street or something. I can always hope!
My favorite Kim Novak films:
-Picnic (1955).I already talked about this film above; but this film deals with a drifter (William Holden) who interrupts the tranquility in a small Kansas town. Most of the action occurs at the town’s annual Labor Day picnic. Novak portrays Madge, a beautiful nineteen year old woman who is dating Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), one of the town’s most eligible bachelors. Novak falls for Holden, much to the chagrin of Robertson and her mother (Betty Field).
–Bell, Book and Candle (1958). Described above as well. This film depicts the story of a beautiful witch (Novak) who casts a spell on a man (James Stewart) whom she’s been admiring from afar. Soon, she must decide whether to fall in love with Stewart and give up her magical powers, or let Stewart go in order to retain her powers.
–Vertigo (1958). Mentioned briefly above. This film is so complex that it would be hard to describe it and do it any justice. This is a film that has to be watched and watched intently, not casually. A couple weeks ago, I watched this film in the theater and was fascinated by how much of the film I had forgotten or hadn’t pieced together the pieces of the story. Once I had the story figured out, I found it amazing and captivating. In a nutshell, this film tells the story of a man, James Stewart, who falls in love with a mysterious blonde and loses her in a tragic accident. He meets another woman, Kim Novak, who resembles his lost love. Stewart goes to work transforming his new girl into the girl he lost.
–Boys’ Night Out (1962). This 1962 comedy is silly and definitely not worthy of any sort of award, but I love it. There’s just something about early 1960s comedies. In this film, Novak plays a college student who rents an apartment from a group of men (James Garner, Tony Randall, Howard Morris and Howard Duff). The men are all married, except for Garner. The husbands are bored with their wives and their day-to-day routine and want to set up an apartment to have a fling. They base their plan on the same tactics their boss uses to have his fling. Novak rents the apartment not knowing of their plan to commit adultery and the men don’t know that Novak is pretending to romance them as a means to gather material for her college thesis on the sexual life of the middle class male. Hilarity ensues.
-Pushover (1954). This is a really great noir and is Novak’s film debut. Novak portrays the beautiful girlfriend of a man who robs a bank and both of them are now on the lam. Fred MacMurray co-stars as an undercover cop who is tasked with setting up a stakeout in an apartment across the street from Novak’s. While watching her, MacMurray ends up falling in love with Novak. Soon Novak is trying to corrupt him to join her side and MacMurray is conflicted between his love for Novak and his duty to his job and the police department.
–Pal Joey (1957). This is a musical starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Novak. Sinatra portrays Joey, a singer and charmer who can make pretty much any woman fall for him. The only problem is that he’s a complete cad. Sinatra meets Novak, a chorus girl in one of his shows. He genuinely seems to have real feelings for her. Sinatra dreams of opening his own nightclub but needs money. He appeals to an old flame, Hayworth, who used to also work as a stripper. She married a wealthy man and is now widowed. Sinatra decides to romance Hayworth in order to convince her to give him money for his nightclub. Throughout the film, Sinatra and Hayworth use each other and continues to romance Novak. The love-triangle continues throughout the film until Sinatra is forced to make a decision.