April 7, 2014
“Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy ….”
Mickey Rooney fiddled with his makeup kit and muttered those words again and again as though we weren’t in the room.
That was in 1973. My colleague, Andy Kudrick, and I had entered Rooney’s dressing room a few moments before and had introduced ourselves. The ritual seemed to send Rooney into a meditative trance in which we had provided the mantra: “Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy, Chuck and Andy ….”
When the actor again became conscious of our presence, he said, “Sit down, but don’t ask me about Judy Garland. I don’t talk about those days. I don’t live in the past. I look forward to the future!”
Judy Garland hadn’t been on our minds, so we were comfortable with this ground rule.
Apparently, Mickey Rooney himself was not comfortable with it. We were there to talk to him about a stage production of William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which he was cast as Bottom. Rooney, who died yesterday, had played Puck in the 1935 film version of that play.
But before we could begin the conversation, he launched into a rambling invective against unspecified demons who, in his view, had used Judy Garland for their own profit and advancement and ultimately had destroyed her. I had read about her life, so I had some idea what he was referring to. “I loved her,” he said when he had exhausted the topic, at least for then: “I really loved her.”
Andy and I were unsettled by this outburst, because we felt as if it were an intimate moment that we had no business witnessing and because, in the seconds that followed, we didn’t know if we should remain silent, speak, or quietly leave the room.
But Rooney recovered from his reverie without so much as a “Chuck and Andy,” broke into a grin, and engaged us in a lively conversation about Bottom, Puck, and things besides.
I was relieved. Although entertainment personalities were part of the raw material of my profession, I had approached this particular encounter fully conscious of what an iconic figure Rooney was. He was also a personal favorite, and that was because of his enormous range as an actor, something that helps to account for a career that lasted 88 years. He became a star through what now appear to be overblown characters in both musical comedies and dramas, but over time he showed that he had a capacity for subtlety, too, as witness his performances in the feature film Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) and the television movie Bill (1982).
November 4, 2012
Knowing that a storm visitor was a fan of Judy Garland, I picked out Babes in Arms from the On Demand list, and wound up watching it myself. I did that because this 1939 film was based on a 1937 Broadway musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. I’ve always been curious about that show, but I’ve never seen it produced on stage. I knew well before the movie was over that the stage show has to have been better.
This was one of the “let’s put on a show” movies that Garland made with Mickey Rooney. It turns out that it was only loosely based on the Broadway show. In fact, I have since read that once the brains at MGM got the rights to the show, they made wholesale changes to the script and threw out all the songs except the unmemorable title song and the memorable “Where or When,” which was introduced on Broadway by Ray Heatherton (who later had a long run on television as the “Merry Mailman”) and Mitzi Green.
That means, that MGM — specifically producer Arthur Freed — cut “My Funny Valentine,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “Johnny One Note,” and “That’s Why the Lady is a Tramp” (which is heard only as incidental background music). Freed added two old songs of his own — “I Cried for You” and “You Are My Lucky Star” — and he and Nacio Herb Brown wrote “Good Mornin'” especially for this movie. E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen, who had contributed three classic songs to The Wizard of Oz, were employed on this movie to write “God’s Country,” a heavy-handed finale that was influenced by the war under way in Europe.
This film was directed by Buzby Berkeley in an era when the canteen didn’t stock de-caf coffee. It is, in a word, exhausting. The production numbers with their quick-step marches are dated and Rooney in particular, as talented as he is, is manic — a fault that is made more conspicuous by the fact that Garland’s performance is comparatively understated.
Apparently there was some racially insensitive material in the Broadway production, and there is an offensive minstrel sequence in the movie. Blackface was common into the 1950s; in fact, when I was a kid, my parish used to stage annual minstrels complete with end men in burnt cork exchanging idiotic banter with “Mr. Interlocutor.” It’s as hard to watch now as it should have been then.
I’ve read some attempts to rationalize this display, including one argument that the caricatures were mild, but there is nothing mild about Rooney’s lampooning in particular. He’s Jolson in overdrive.
There is a clever number in which Rooney and Garland do good-natured send ups of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. This scene was cut from copies of the film distributed after FDR died in 1945, but it has been restored and is one of the most worthwhile things in the movie.
June 29, 2012
Every so often, acting trumps story. That’s the case with “How About You?”, a 2007 Irish film based on a short story by Maeve Binchy.
I can’t speak for the short story, but the film is predictable. Thirty-something Kate Harris (Orla Bradley) runs a residence that is occupied by older people, including four who are particularly nasty. Kate’s sister, Ellie (Hayley Atwell), appears unexpectedly to ask Kate to help her finance a trip around the world Ellie is planning with her boyfriend. Kate clearly doesn’t approve of Ellie’s lifestyle but grudgingly gives her a job cleaning the house and attending to the needs of the residents. Ellie develops an interest in sweet, fragile Alice Peterson (Joan O’Hara), and tries to take the edge off Alice’s loneliness — with a little smoke as part of the remedy.
But Ellie has no patience with the sour quartet that includes the widowed former judge Donald Vanston (Joss Ackland); the spinster Nightingale sisters, Heather (Brenda Fricker) and Hazel (Imelda Staunton); and former singer-actress Georgia Platts (Vanessa Redgrave).
As Christmas approaches, most of the residents leave for the holiday, but not these four. Meanwhile, Kate receives word that her mother has suffered a stroke. Kate wants to be with her mother and leaves the reluctant Ellie to manage the house and look after the unholy quartet.
Kate warns Ellie that the house is constantly being inspected by a local health official who could drop in at any time. With Kate gone, Ellie makes an effort to maintain control, but the unreasonable demands of the residents wear out her limited patience.
In her climactic conflict with the group, Ellie confronts them with the unvarnished truth about the way they are living. They take her remarks to heart, and gradually they reveal the events in their past lives that brought them to this house and turned them into such bitter human beings.
I won’t describe how the story turns out, but suffice it to say that not many viewers would be surprised.
In spite of the see-it-coming-a-mile-away resolution, the film is worthwhile because all of the characters are interesting and all of the actors are talented. The most complex figures are the Nightingale sisters, one of whom is a skillful artist and the other a pool shark. We learn only enough about their dark family background to be tantalized, but we never hear the details and we never witness the denouement.
The title of the film is a reference to the song by Burton Lane and Ralph Freed that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland introduced in the 1941 film Babes on Broadway. The song is heard several times during this movie, including a barroom rendition by Vanessa Redgrave.
March 17, 2011
In the midst of the tragedies playing out in Japan and Libya and Bahrain, song writer Hugh Martin — an important figure in American musical history — slipped away last Thursday at the age of 96.
Martin wrote a lot of fine music for the Broadway stage and for films, but he etched his name in brass when he composed “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Trolley Song,” and “The Boy Next Door” — all classics and all written for Judy Garland in the film “Meet Me in St Louis.”
The first of those songs set Martin apart in special way, because it is relatively rare for a writer to produce a song that becomes a Christmas standard. That one became not only a standard but one of the most recorded and most popular Christmas songs of all time.
The song has an interesting history which is available in Martin’s own words at THIS LINK. This is the short version. Martin’s perennial songwriting partner, Ralph Blane, asked about a tune he had overheard Martin fooling around with, but Martin said he had given up on it. Blane had liked the melody and asked Martin to try it again. Martin wound up writing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Judy Garland’s character sang this song to her little sister (Margaret O’Brien) who was distraught because their father was moving the family from its homestead in Missouri to New York City.
In that context, the combination of Martin’s melancholy melody and his lyrics was heart-wrenching. So much so, that Judy Garland and others objected that it was too sad. Martin at first refused to change it, but actor Tom Drake talked him into it.
For instance, the song originally began: Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past. Martin changed that to Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.
That was in 1944. In 1957, at the request of Frank Sinatra, Martin changed the song again. The original lyric read, But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow / From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow. Sinatra found that a little downbeat for a Christmas album he was recording, and Martin accommodated him with, Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” which is the way it is usually performed now.
No matter, in all of its versions it’s a wonderful song from a wonderful talent.
“You are talking to a man who has laughed in the face of death, sneered at doom and chuckled at catastrophe” — Frank Morgan (The Wizard of Oz)
March 13, 2010
To hear Josh Olson tell it, he’s courting all kinds of trouble by writing a script for a proposed follow-up to MGM’s classic film, “The Wizard of Oz.” According to the Los Angeles Times interview with Olson, who wrote the 2005 film “A History of Violence” — don’t tell me he’s not versatile — he expects some pushback from purist fans of the original. Actually, what he said was the following: “You want to write something that takes people back to the fondness they had for the original. I’m aware of the fact that there are a couple million people who will come to your house and burn it down if you don’t get it right” — which would, after all, be one more chapter in the history of violence.
However, the script Olson submitted to Warner Brothers is not intended as a re-make of the Judy Garland film, which is why I used the term “follow-up” earlier. The proposed new film, to be called simply “Oz,” would deal with a granddaughter of Dorothy Gale who visits the Other Side. This really would be in keeping with the history of the story introduced in 1900 in the form of a children’s book (“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”) by L. Frank Baum. The book and a play adapted from it a couple of years later were very successful, and Baum — apparently nobody’s fool — wrote a total of 14 Oz books. Those books, plus 19 written by Ruth Plumly Thompson, two written by Frank Kramer, one written by Rachel Cosgrove, and a final one written in 1963 by Eloise Jarvis McGraw and Lauren Lynn McGraw, are considered the “canon” of Oz literature. Obviously, in the aggregate they wander far from the premises of the original story.
Literary critics with a lot of time on their hands have tried over the years to read political messages and other serious subtexts into Baum’s work, but Baum himself insisted that he had intended only to write stories for the entertainment of children. Oz, in other words, was not like Wonderland.
Olson’s premonition of an angry mob — tongue in cheek, of course — put me to mind of the furious gang that gathered outside the Binney & Smith plant in Easton, Pa., about a decade ago to protest the retirement of certain colors in the Crayola spectrum.
Change can be a buster.
The LA Times blog is at THIS LINK.