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Thursday, March 31, 2011


The time has come for some more cinematic "What ifs." Hope you like the latest lot:

Judy Garland, wondering where her latest part went...

Toward the end of Judy Garland's MGM career, there were many roles that were snatched out from under her. Or rather, several roles that she let slip away. As her disenchantment with the studio's slave-driving and her own personal and substance abuse problems increased, her work became less consistent-- in quantity if not in quality. Judy missed out on an opportunity to re-team with Fred Astaire in The Barkleys of Broadway. After their success in the triumphant Easter Parade, MGM was looking to put the duo back together again, a gig that both stars were looking forward to, since they got along swimmingly-- or should I say dancingly? (Interestingly, Gene Kelly had originally been slated to star in Parade, but his injured ankle called Astaire out of retirement). Sadly, a reunion for Fred and Judy was too not to be. Judy was still worn out from the previous film-- pale and gaunt, she lacked the energy to fulfill her obligations. In the end, it was Ginger Rogers who was called upon to take back her place as Fred's most famous waltzing partner. This would be the first time the two had appeared together since 1939's The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. A decade later, they were still a sight to behold (see left). It would be the last movie the famous pair made together, ending an 10 picture winning streak.

In 1949, Judy was also slated to star in Annie Get Your Gun, however there were several strikes working against her. She had recently and admittedly separated from her husband, Vincente Minnelli, and the realization of his true sexual tendencies was a crushing blow to her feelings of security as a woman. In addition, the film's director was to be Busby Berkeley, an arch nemesis who had driven Judy to the brink of collapse in her earlier, childhood roles. Judy too disliked the frumpy wardrobe (right), which further inhibited her already enormous physical insecurity. Judy's response was to arrive late or not at all. In addition, her health was poor as a result of the temporary electroshock therapy she was undergoing. As her weight dropped and her hair began to fall out, her one coup was having Berkeley replaced with her friend Chuck Walters, but even he couldn't save Judy. She was offered an ultimatum by the studio-- show up on time, or you're fired! Judy left in a huff and Betty Hutton, everyone's favorite, loud-mouth mug, stepped into Annie's stirrups. It remains her most famous role.

Betty Hutton, guns blazin'!

Errol Flynn is remembered as America's Favorite Swashbuckler. It seems that this Tasmanian Devil was destined for fame, for the beginning of his career was guided by a power greater than himself. His big breakthrough role as Peter Blood in Captain Blood was a phenomenon (left with Olivia De Havilland). Jack Warner took a big gamble in allowing the unknown Flynn to be cast in Michael Curtiz's epic pirate adventure. Originally, Robert Donat was slated to star as the doctor-turned-seafaring hero. After he dropped out due to illness, Leslie Howard, Ronald Coleman, and Fredric March were also considered. 22 other actors in total were given screen tests for the role.  It was Errol's own wife, Lili Damita (a bigger star at the time), who encouraged Curtiz (her ex-husband!) to cast him. He did, and the gamble paid off. The film was a box-office bonanza, and Errol Flynn was a star! Lili was in tears at the premiere, not out of joy but out of despair. She knew that Errol's rising star would mean the end of their tempestuous marriage. She was right.

This didn't mean everything came easily to him in the casting world. The role with which he is most synonymous, Robin Hood, was almost one he never got to play. It appeared for a time that James Cagney (right) was to be the eternal man in tights. However, due to professional disagreements, he walked right out of Nottingham, leaving the way free and clear for another leading man. Again, Errol was chosen, and he will forever be remembered as that delicious cad in green, fending off foes in Sherwood Forest. As one of Warner Bros. greatest films, it is impossible to imagine anyone else wooing Olivia De Havilland's Maid Marian. Besides, Cagney looked better with a gun than a bow and arrow... Errol's good friend David Niven was also supposed to step in as Will Scarlett, but he couldn't be torn away from his vacation in England, so Patric Knowles took the job.

Patric and Errol relax between takes in Sherwood.

William Holden's struggle for and with the role of Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy is a story many love telling. The "rich kid" had been studying chemistry but had always had a penchant for the dramatics. He was on a high when cast in the role of a lifetime in Golden boy, but this unknown was immediately humbled when he found that he quite simply couldn't act under pressure. Bumbling around the set, flubbing his lines, and looking mighty awkward, director Rouben Mamoulian was shaking his head wondering why he had cast him in the first place. John Garfield too must have been pondering the same question, since he was the actor that author Clifford Odets had originally penned the role for when it was to go up on the New York stage. At the time, The Group Theatre chose Luther Adler to take on the role instead. In response, John quit the group and went to Hollywood. When word came that the play was to become a movie, John thought his time had finally come to take on the role that he had always wanted to play. This time the part went to the unknown Holden. After some help from Barbara Stanwyck, Bill got his grip on himself and the role of a lifetime and had his day in the sun as the Golden Boy (left). Garfield was ok, though. By this time he was a well on his way to becoming a big star too, having performed in the very popular Four Daughters the year before.

John Garfield would get to play a boxer later 
in Body and Soul. He would also play
a violinist opposite Joan Crawford
in Humoresque.

In struggling to choose the greatest romantic comedy of all time, I go back and forth between two films: The More the Merrier and Roman Holiday. It is hard to choose the greatest of them all, but often I veer toward the latter. The star-making performance of Audrey Hepburn, the amiable dignity of Gregory Peck, the fun and adventure of a Princess's day as a normal girl, and, of course, the heartbreaking end when she must return to a life of discipline and reserve. All of these elements came together so beautifully that it is impossible to imagine the film any other way. But, it very nearly was an entirely different film, one which was to star Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor. Oy! Though both of these performers were fantastic, the lighthearted innocence of the film would have been lost. Grant is both too sophisticated and too comically playful to take on the newspaperman next-door role that Peck created so gracefully, and Liz had too much maturity and sensuality to carry off the delicate and naive enchantment that Audrey delivered. Thus, the one-two punch of Greg and Aud' was the right combo, creating the profound chemistry needed to illicit love in 24 hours. Heart-- the most crucial element to any romance-- is very poignantly felt because of both actors' performances, and when Peck walks away from that empty silent hall at the end, it is completely clear just what he is leaving behind-- a love that could have been and a cinematic legacy.

Ahhh, movie heaven: Audrey and Greg 
in Roman Holiday.

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