Oscar History

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Entries in Cyd Charisse (4)


Someone pitch a "Beulah" Miniseries. Hear me out. 

Imitation of Life (1934) starred Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers who went into the pancake business

On this day in 1902 Louise Beavers born in Cincinatti. Though she was never as famous as the similarly cast Hattie McDaniel she also had her own big film moments in the studio system including the original Imitation of Life in which Claudette Colbert got wildly rich off of her recipe while she Beavers struggled with her light-skinned daughter. FREE PITCH IDEA FOR WRITERS OF COLOR: Don't you think a prestige miniseries on Black Hollywood throughout the years would be fascinating?

More on Louise Beavers and other "on this day" items after the jump...

Click to read more ...


Judy by the Numbers: "I Love A Piano"

Anne Marie is tracking Judy Garland's career through musical numbers... 

Easter Parade has becomea perrenial holiday favorite. Inevitably, the lighthearted musical appears on TCM Easter Sunday marathons, sandwiched between Ben Hur (1959) and King of Kings (1961). However, despite the annual dominance of this Judy Garland/Irving Berlin musical, the movie nearly stopped before it began. A combination of bad luck, souring relationships, and weak ankles nearly prevented the production from getting off the ground. Fans of the film have one person to thank for its resurrection: Fred Astaire.

The Movie: Easter Parade (1948)
The Songwriter: Irving Berlin (music & lyrics)
The Players: Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Ann Miller, Peter Lawford, directed by Charles Walters

The Story: The production of Easter Parade was plagued from the start. Though Irving Berlin enthusiastically agreed to expand upon his hit Holiday Inn for a new Judy Garland vehicle, the rest of the cast and crew was harder to secure. Originally, MGM sought to replicate the Freed unit partnerships that had already been proven box office success: Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, directed by Vincente Minnelli. But Judy and Minnelli were fighting, so she demanded that he be replaced with Charles Walters, a choreographer-turned-director on his second feature film. Then, Kelly broke his ankle playing football. Then Cyd Charisse broke her ankle. With two of three stars out of commission and a neophyte director at the helm, Easter Parade needed a big win. Then out of retirement waltzed Fred Astaire.

While the replacement of Gene Kelly with Fred Astaire saved the film, it also provides a window into how well-tailored numbers were tailored to their musical stars. Though "I Love A Piano" starts with the now old familiar standby of Judy Garland standing by a piano and singing to her beaux, it also moves into the high-energy, bright dancing style of Gene Kelly. Adapted to Fred Astaire, this dancing style loses none of its energy, but shows hints of ballroom influence in the lifts and mirrored taps of two partners arm in arm. Astaire doesn't simply stand in for Kelly; he makes the film his own. As a result, Astaire's retirement would turn out to be temporary; he kept on dancing for another 20 years.


Judy by the Numbers: "On The Atchison Topeka And The Santa Fe"

Anne Marie is tracking Judy Garland's career through musical numbers...

Though we last left Judy Garland in 1944 crooning from a trolley and cementing a (troubled) place in Hollywood history, this week we must catapult two years into the future to rejoin our musical heroine. The reason has to do with the odd nature of the Studio System in general and this series in specific. Judy Garland actually shot two movies between 1944 and 1945, but because one was delayed due to reshoots (therefore getting bumped to next week) and the other was a straight drama (therefore not fitting a series focused on musical numbers), we must travel through the end of WW2 and the beginning of Judy Garland's marriage to Vincente Minnelli. Thus, in 1946 we arrive in... the Old West? 
The Movie:
 The Harvey Girls (1946)
The Songwriters: Johnny Mercer (lyrics), Harry Warren (music)
The Players: Judy Garland, Angela Lansbury, Ray Bolger, Cyd Charisse, & John Hodiak, directed by George Sidney 

The Story: In 1946, Judy Garland hopped off the trolley and onto a train for a Western-style musical entitled The Harvey Girls. I have to admit, while this is by no means Judy Garland's best musical, it remains a personal favorite for three reasons:

1) Judy Garland sings on a train. 
2) It's a musical western genre mashup that misses Oklahoma! by three years and and one saloon fight.
3) Angela Lansbury plays a chorus girl/prostitute named Em. In fact, the movie is a veritable Who's Who of MGM & the Freed Unit, since it also stars baby Cyd Charisse, the return of former Scarecrow Ray Bolger, deadpan alto Virginia O'Brien, and the delightful dulcet tones of Marjorie Main and Chill Wills!

More importantly for Judy, though, this movie shows the Freed Unit's ability to find a winning formula for its tiny Technicolor titan and stick to it. Like Meet Me in St. Louis before it (and many Freed films after it), The Harvey Girls was a musical that leaned heavily on nostalgia; a period piece mixing authentic songs - conveniently taken from the MGM catalogue - with new insta-classics provided by a rotating stable of songwriters. The plots of each of these movies revolves around Judy meeting, loathing, then learning to love a confounded-but-charismatic man; providing ample opportunity for musical numbers, slapstick, and a brightly-colored battle of the sexes. Though this decision may seem limiting, it also further defined Judy Garland at MGM: Judy's image would embrace the tension between modern stardom and nostalgic Americana, a potent symbol of post-war America.


Judy Fest: "The Harvey Girls"

Silly me. I had the greatest time at the Judy Garland festival at Lincoln Center this week and the movie I didn't write about Presenting Lily Mars was probably my favorite viewing experience. Rent it! Judy was just so funny in it, it was really charming and I liked her chemistry with Van Heflin (I confess I had to look him up since Shane had slipped my mind and I'd never seen his Best Supporting Actor Oscar performance for Johnny Eager (1941). Have any of you seen that one? Is it worth checking out?

But enough about Lily Mars... on to Judy in another incarnation. The Lincoln Center portion of the festival ends tomorrow though the celebration continues at the Paley Center for Television (since Judy did a lot of variety work on TV in the 50s). The last two films I caught were period musicals and here's the first of them.


The Harvey Girls (1946)
I always forget that Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury were contemporaries. They were just three years apart in age (Angela is younger) though in this western musical, Lansbury is clearly meant to be the older woman. Or at least the more experienced one, if you know what I'm saying. Angela is a hardened showgirl (i.e. prostitute) at a rowdy saloon (i.e. casino/brothel) and she's just about the only person in the frontier town who isn't thrilled when Judy Garland arrives "On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe".

In fact, that first big ensemble musical number hilarious stops halfway through just so everyone can gawk at Judy as she steps off the train, like she's the most famous beloved celebrity in the world. The showstopping entrance makes no narrative sense whatsoever -- Judy's "Susan Bradley" being a nobody who is about to start work at Harvey's restaurant -- but it makes perfect movie-movie sense because Judy Garland IS famous and beloved. And if there's a musical number already in progress when Garland arrives at the scene it's basically the Red Sea to her Moses.

The town is divided too, right down the middle, between the wild saloon and the proper restaurant. It's basically a battle for both the soul of the town and the town's most powerful man (John Hodiak) with Lansbury and Garland representing for either side. Guess who wins: The good girl or the bad one? The headliner or the newbie (this was only Lansbury's fourth picture)? I'll give you one guess.

The Harvey Girls hasn't aged as well as some of Garland's output. It's pretty creaky and I don't think it's only due to the print we saw that badly needed some restoration and color correction. Part of the problem is that the film grinds to a halt whenever the typically able Garland isn't front and center. Plus, the songs aren't as memorable as those from her other films. Though the young Cyd Charisse is all porcelain loveliness and Angela Lansbury's perma-scowl is amusing the plot points connecting their numbers and several other characters feel insufficiently developed to hold interest in The Harvey Girls as an ensemble piece. It's always "Can we please get back to Garland?" Still, you can't beat that rare opportunity to see Dorothy dance with her Scarecrow again (Ray Bolger). I think she had missed him most of all. B-