Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Faithful Companion

by Mark Griffin

[Please note that this review originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of The Baum Bugle]

The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion
By Jay Scarfone and William Stillman
Harper Design/HarperCollins Publishers, 2013. 
Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

I’ve long harbored this fantasy that in the summer of 1939, some subversive MGM janitor – fed up with sweeping the cutting room floor – decided to “preserve” some of the scraps of celluloid that he found after the editors on The Wizard of Oz had knocked off for the night. 

Allowing my fantasy to take full flight, I imagine that this crafty custodian managed to rescue the choicest cuts.  What if he had salvaged scenes deleted from Oz that have obsessed movie buffs for decades?  We’re talking about the mother lode here:  The "Jitterbug" number, “The Triumphal Return” to the Emerald City (following the Wicked Witch’s unforgettable liquidation) and a poignant reprise of “Over The Rainbow.”   As my wishful thinking would have it, my insubordinate janitor not only saved the most significant excisions but he stashed these treasures in his worn-out steamer trunk.  Said cache is now sitting in a downtown Burbank consignment shop, just waiting for someone to peer inside that battered trunk and make the cinematic discovery of a lifetime.

The point of all of this is to express a fervent hope that there is still something new that remains to be seen in reference to everybody’s favorite movie.  That kind of hopefulness envelops The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion by Jay Scarfone and William Stillman.  This is the same duo responsible for the 1989 bestseller, The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History (co-written with John Fricke) as well as its lavishly illustrated follow-up, The Wizardry of Oz, which followed a decade later.  You’d think that by now the cupboard would be bare in terms of excavating any unseen Oz ephemera. 

Apparently not.  In their latest effort, Scarfone and Stillman promise the reader material “rarely seen or previously unknown since 1939” as well as “new, uncovered quotes and fresh facts.”  Do they deliver?  Pretty much.  Or as well as can be expected considering that The Wizard of Oz has been exhaustively analyzed, annotated and footnoted like no other film in history. 

So what new information have the authors uncovered?  The most exciting discoveries in this anniversary companion are the visual elements.  On page 38, we’re treated to a fascinating glimpse of the Oz that almost was:  An image of an uber glam Judy Garland, decked out in a blonde wig and looking far more Lana Turner of Beverly Hills than Dorothy Gale of Kansas.  The authors inform us that this is “the only color photograph known to have survived from Richard Thorpe’s tenure as [the film’s original] director.”  As none of Thorpe’s footage has surfaced, this kind of intriguing artifact becomes all the more important.  The photo also bears evidence of producer Mervyn LeRoy’s original vision – his Oz was initially conceived as a highly stylized production, like an animated cartoon come to life.  In this way, the movie would serve as Metro’s answer to Disney’s groundbreaking blockbuster Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
  
Another rare visual is an arresting sepia-toned image of the Gale farmyard, looking every inch like a Walker Evans photograph of the Dust Bowl in the midst of the Great Depression.  This still image allows one to fully absorb just how meticulously detailed this production was.  To the best of my knowledge, this shot hasn’t turned up in any of the previous books on the film’s production history.   Same would be true for a series of captivating thumbnail photos that reveal how the Great and Powerful Oz’s disembodied head appeared to float over the throne room long before the advent of digital technology.

The book has been beautifully designed by Paul Kepple and Ralph Geroni of the Philadelphia-based Headcase Design.  The elegant, Art Deco style on display is reminiscent of MGM in its voguish hey day.  The visual style of the Companion reminds us that Oz emerged from the same sleek universe where Joan Crawford was gowned by Adrian and William Powell and Myrna Loy solved murders between sips of champagne.

Text-wise, the style is straightforward and restrained, though the narrative is upstaged by the outstanding artwork throughout.  Purists will undoubtedly take exception to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Mighty Miracle Show” being repeatedly referred to as “Turner Entertainment Co.’s The Wizard of Oz,” which sounds an awful lot like a corporate takeover talking.

The glut of commercial tie-ins whipped up to cash in on the 75th anniversary of Oz ranged from the embarrassing  (Julep’s Oz-inspired nail polish…”Give Tin Man a try…It’s a silver, holographic shade that reminds us of the man without a heart”) to the lackluster (the recent Warner Home Video re-packaging of the film).  Compared to these letdowns, the Scarfone-Stillman collaboration achieves the appropriate balance.  Their Anniversary Companion is reverent yet fun and the determination to scrounge up some new material for die-hard Oz fans is admirable.  So skip the holographic manicure and celebrate in style.     

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Good Life: An Interview with Tony Bennett

"I could have retired fifteen years ago but here I am still going at it," says Tony Bennett.  At 87, the legendary vocalist has certainly earned the right to stay home and spend time with his seventeen Grammy Awards and a roomful of hit records that come in shades of triple platinum and certified gold.  Nevertheless Bennett prefers to keep looking forward.  "I'm 87 and believe me, I feel like I'm just starting out and learning so many new things," says Bennett, who has now been performing for seven decades.  He's worked with all of the greats - from Sinatra to Streisand, Garland to Gaga.  He's hit the top of the charts dozens of times and did so while fully clothed and without ever once using a wrecking ball as a means of transportation.

After racking up honors from the Kennedy Center, the United Nations and Billboard, most performers would be content to spend their days hitting the links at Pebble Beach but not Bennett, who is currently in rehearsals for his Waterfront Concerts appearance at Merrill Auditorium in Portland on April 19th.  Bennett says that the program will include many of his favorite standards.  And is it any wonder that one of our country's most gifted singers would find inspiration in the Great American Songbook?

"In America, we're very privileged to have produced this extraordinary group of composers - George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and of course, Cole Porter, who was better than all of them," Bennett says.  "All of these artists were part of a great renaissance period in music...You just swoon when you hear songs like "Embraceable You" or "Night and Day."  These songs don't sound old to me in any way.  In fact, after years of performing these songs, I'm completely convinced that in about fifty years, they'll be called 'America's Classical Music' and not just referred to as 'light entertainment.'"

Several of the songs Bennett performs in concert are featured on his new Sony Legacy compilation, "The Classics."  This career-spanning anthology allows the listener to hear Bennett transition from a youthful, full-bodied belter to a more mature and nuanced interpreter.  The collection kicks off with his 1951 breakout hit, "Because of You," and concludes with "Steppin' Out With My Baby," his 2012 duet with Christina Aguilera.  Listening to the various tracks, its easy to see why record executives determined early on that Bennett had "undeniable crossover appeal."  After all, it's a rare performer who can claim both AARP members and Phi Kappa Sigma members as part of their fan base.

Bennett believes that his widespread and enduring popularity is at least partially attributable to some advice he received at the beginning of his career.  "When I was at the American Theatre Wing, I had this wonderful vocal coach, Mimi Speer, and she gave me some terrific advice," recalls Bennett.  She said, 'Don't imitate other singers because you'll just end up in the chorus if you do that...You always have to remember to be yourself.'"

After signing with Columbia Records in 1950, Bennett says that he never picked songs based on their Top 40 prospects.  "I never tried to get a hit song.  I just tried to find intelligent songs that were built right musically and that have beautiful lyrics," says Bennett.  "I was taught at the American Theatre Wing to never compromise and to sing quality all of the time.  If you find a song that's well written, then you try to record the definitive version of that song.  You know, it's a lot like fishing.  Some days you can catch a whole barrel of good fish and other days, you can't get any of them.  But you go for it anyway and you give it your best shot."

When it was released as a single in 1962, "Once Upon a Time" was expected to be Bennett's next chart topper but disc jockeys preferred the song that had been relegated to the "B' side.  Bennett's wistful longing "to be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars" turned "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" into a career milestone.  "I had a musical director, Ralph Sharon and he found that song for me," Bennett remembers.  "He had some friends that wrote that song and one day when we were trying different tunes out, he just said to me, 'How about this one?'  We had no idea that it was going to go through the roof...I can't think of a better signature song to be associated with because the city is a very romantic city and it's really beautiful.  It's not that Maine isn't beautiful because that's an incredible place also but there is a spirit about San Francisco that is very unique."

The 60's proved to be a particularly fertile decade for Bennett.  "I Wanna Be Around," "The Good Life" and "This Is All I Ask" all soared to the top of the charts and several of the albums he recorded during this period (When Lights Are LowAlone Together) are considered among his finest.  As Bennett recalls, "I had a wonderful arranger, Marty Manning, who never blew horns about his career and never wanted his name mentioned or anything like that but I remember when I was a young singer he said to me, 'Just know that whenever I do an arrangement for you, it's going to be just right for you...'  Lo and behold, every time we had a hit record and I had quite a few of them, it was Marty Manning who had done the orchestrations.  He'd never take the credit but Marty Manning was the one who wrote the music so that it would be an absolute perfect fit to whatever I was singing."      

As for today's music, Bennett believes that art has taken a backseat to the bottom line and that the tide began to turn with the man behind the candelabra. "Liberace was the first one.  He was playing the Waldorf but at the same time he was saying,'I'd like to play Madison Square Garden,'" Bennett recalls.  "He was the first one to fill 35,000 seats.  Every producer in town said, 'This kind of thing can make us a ton of money...' and suddenly you had performers doing their acts in these enormous stadiums.  I resented it because I sing intimately and acoustically.  I'm not in any race to try and be bigger than another act or something like that...It means more to me to have a composer come up and say, 'Nobody performed my song better than that.'  That's the game I play, you know?"

Bennett's eldest son, Danny, has been responsible for many of his father's most successful recording ventures including Tony Bennett Duets: An American Classic. "He was the one who came up with that idea of having all of the young artists record an album with me," Bennett says.  In terms of future projects, there's a highly anticipated collaboration with Lady Gaga being released later this year.  "I think people are going to be shocked because we did all of these great American standards and Gaga has a wonderful Ella Fitzgerald quality on this album," says Bennett.  "I think people are going to be surprised and very impressed."

After his appearance in Portland, Bennett is back on the road with performances scheduled everywhere from Pittsburgh to Kansas.  Between engagements, he keeps up with his other passion - painting.  "It's not that I want to do it," Bennett says.  "I have to sing.  I have to paint.  I never want to stop learning until the day I die, you know?  I just want to keep trying to explore and improve.  I'm just going to keep going for it, you know?"




[Mark Griffin is a writer for the Boston-based organization Laughter With a Lesson]

Go and Do:

What:  Tony Bennett in Concert (One Night Only)
Where:  Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle Street, Portland
When:  Saturday, April 19.  7:30pm
Tickets: $140.75, $110.75, $80.75 at tickets.porttix.com or 207-842-0800.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Funny Business: Mark Griffin Interviews Joan Rivers

photo credit: Charles William Bush
She is New York City in a dress.  She's fast talking, all revved up and unapologetically in your face.  Joan Rivers is an inexhaustible powerhouse who has built her long and multi-faceted career on telling it like it is and letting it all hang out.

"For me, the fun of being on stage is that I can say everything that everyone else is thinking but wouldn't ever dream of saying aloud," says Rivers.  "Being on stage gives me the opportunity and the privilege of saying, 'Are you crazy?  Come on, this one is a bitch and this one is a tramp and exactly who are we kidding here?"

Outrageous and unsparing, Rivers is packing up her trademark pink boa and heading for the last place you'd expect to find a Phi Beta Kappa turned Vegas headliner turned QVC queen: Southern Maine.  When Rivers lands at Merrill Auditorium on November 22, her appearance will be the highlight of a diverse season of Portland Ovations presentations.  But how will audiences accustomed to the likes of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain respond to the uncensored Rivers at full throttle?

"Sweet, darling, tranquil Maine has cable and everyone there is part of the audience that's watching me on Fashion Police or tuning in to Breaking Bad," Rivers says.  "So I'm not worried for a second about how I'll be received.  Maine has gone universal and everything has become so global now.  In fact, I'm sure there's a great bagel shop somewhere in Portland, Maine.  And I'll bet there's someone eating sushi in Maine right now as we're talking.  Everything is so one world now that it's frightening.  I find it hilarious that when I'm in some remote place like Peru, someone will rush up to me and say, 'Oh, we love you, Joan!' and I'm thinking...Peru? The whole world has now become like one small village."

photo credit: Charles William Bush
Rivers, who turned 80 earlier this year, is a self-described "small industry."  She regularly rakes celebrities over the coals on the E! Channel hit Fashion Police. "God bless the Kardashian girls.  God bless Rihanna.  God bless Miley Cyrus," Rivers says of the tabloid fixtures that have inspired some of her most memorable zingers.  Never one to sit still, Rivers teams with her daughter, Melissa for the WE-tv reality show, Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?, which was recently renewed for a fourth season.  And Rivers's no holes barred web chat show, In Bed With Joan, has her hitting the hay (so to speak) with everyone from RuPaul to Carmen Electra.  If all that weren't enough, next year the comedian embarks on her highly anticipated "Before They Close The Lid" tour.  So what makes Rivers run?

"I'm in a business where there is no guarantee on anything," says Rivers.  "A friend of mine literally didn't know that his television series had been cancelled until his agent called him up and said, 'I'm sorry but it's already in the papers...' There is no security in our business, unless you're very lucky like a Jerry Seinfeld and you own a piece of a humongous hit...But I've been lucky, too.  I'm one of those few people that found what they love to do and I've been doing it all my life and I never stop enjoying it."

For Rivers, the road to multi-media domination has been long and winding.  After graduating from Barnard College, the demure English lit major from Larchmont who dreamed of being an actress realized that she had a gift for making people laugh.  Rivers began refining her stand-up technique in seedy nightclubs ("We'd pass the hat and sometimes the hat wouldn't come back") and strip joints, where she was billed as "Pepper January - Comedy with Spice." 

In 1959, Rivers appeared in an off-off Broadway play entitled Driftwood.  Also featured in the show was an aspiring young actress from Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School named Barbara Streisand.  "It wasn't so much off Broadway.  It was actually above Broadway, as in six flights up," Rivers remembers.  "My poor parents had to climb six flights to see this terrible play.  The playwright had turned his living room into a theatre on East Forty-ninth Street.  And I was there with my little friend, 'Babsie' Streisand.  She was still Barbara Streisand then, with all three a's in her first name and I was still Joan Molinsky.  It was such a bad play.  They had originally offered it to Geraldine Page, who was then married to an actor named Ralph Meeker. Both of them could read, so they turned it down.  Then the director started to look for smaller names - a lot smaller - and they ended up with Barbra, who was still a senior in high school and they couldn't get anyone to play the male lead.  I read the script and I said, 'Can't we make this about two women?  Turn them into lesbians!'  And this was very edgy for the time.  So I became Barbra Streisand's lover in Driftwood."          

Rivers next became a "girl writer" for The Ed Sullivan Show and Candid Camera.  In 1965, after what Rivers describes as "seven years of rejection and humiliation," she made an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and the host predicted on air: "You're going to be a star." 

Eventually Rivers would become the first and only permanent guest host of The Tonight Show and she says Carson taught her an important lesson about holding back until show time.  "He believed you should always 'save it for the screen.'  He'd walk right past you in the make-up room and barely say hello to you before the show,' Rivers recalls.  "He wanted all of that energy out there on the set.  Because if you've already blown all of the good stuff like 'How's your wife?' or "I heard your dog isn't well...' then what are you going to talk about on camera?"

photo credit: Charles William Bush
Rivers says Carson never spoke to her again after she left The Tonight Show to launch her own ill-fated late night venture on the Fox Network in 1986.  Only months after Rivers was ousted from her own show, her 62-year-old husband-manager Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide in a Philadelphia hotel room.  Though devastated by the tragedy, Rivers soldiered on.  "I had bills.  I had professional commitments.  Though what truly pulled me through was my obligation to my daughter, Melissa," Rivers says. "I had to be there for her.  What a legacy that would have been otherwise.  'Surprise, surprise.  Your daddy killed himself and look, now mommy killed herself, too...Now go out and have a good world.'  I just had to keep going for her."

The day after her Portland Ovations appearance, Rivers will headline back to back shows at Boston's Wilbur Theatre.  Carol Ann Small, a motivational humorist based in Melrose, Mass., bought her tickets minutes after they went on sale.  Small, the founder of Laughter With A Lesson, is hoping to meet her idol backstage between engagements.  "As a funny lady and a fellow blonde - notice that I didn't say 'natural blonde' - Joan Rivers has always been an inspiration to me," says Small.  "To this day, Joan continues to pave the way for women in comedy and I'm thrilled that she's finally being recognized as a pioneer."

So does Rivers see herself as a trailblazer?  "I see myself as a desperate woman trying to slap Kathy Griffin and Whitney Cummings out of the way so that I can get back on the stage," Rivers admits.  "I feel so competitive.  Whenever another comedian says to me, 'You're an icon' or 'You're a legend,' I want to say, 'And darling, I can still take you with one hand tied behind my back.'"

Rivers says that's she counting on two things when she arrives in Vacationland: "I'm delighted to come to Maine and I bet it's going to be filled with snow, which I'm very excited about.  Also, they tell me that I'm going to have the equivalent of the gay men's choir up there, which I hope is true."  Rivers readily acknowledges that the gay community has always been a key component of her fan base.  "I think they like me because I'm outspoken and then on a serious level, I was the first performer to come out fighting against AIDS when it was still being called 'Gay Pneumonia.'  I did the first benefit and we got such hate mail that we had to have armed guards on stage.  We even got death threats.  I think somehow the community remembers that I lived through that with them. And beyond all of that, I just think that I am a gay man living in a fat Jewish woman's body."

Saturday, August 24, 2013

"The Band Wagon" Is Back...and Better Than Ever!


Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire in "The Girl Hunt Ballet" from Vincente Minnelli's musical The Band Wagon
Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire in
"The Girl Hunt Ballet"
from Vincente Minnelli's musical 
The Band Wagon
It's been called "the greatest of movie musicals" and now The Band Wagon is returning to the big screen.  Join Vincente Minnelli biographer Mark Griffin as he introduces a special 60th anniversary screening of Minnelli's acclaimed masterpiece at the Museum of Modern Art Film Center (11 W. 53 St., between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) on September 5th at 8pm.  Originally released in the summer of 1953,The Band Wagon stars Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse and Nanette Fabray. The film features such timeless tunes as "That's Entertainment," "By Myself" and "Dancing in the Dark" and boasts an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Widely considered one of MGM's finest achievements, The Band Wagon is capped with the sly and stylish private eye spoof, "The Girl Hunt Ballet."  In later years, director Minnelli would single out The Band Wagon as a personal favorite, telling an interviewer, "We all pitched in and it all came together wonderfully."  The critics concurred.  In reviewing a reissue of the film, Pauline Kael conceded, "There have been few screen musicals as good as this one."   For further information on this event, please visit www.moma.org

Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan performing "Triplets" in The Band Wagon (1953) directed by Vincente Minnelli
Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan performing
"Triplets" in The Band Wagon
(1953) directed by Vincente Minnelli

Coming Attractions...The Best of Bergman


Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn in The Visit
Coming in 2014...Mark Griffin will introduce three films featuring the incandescent Ingrid Bergman, including her rarely screened 1964 drama The Visit, co-starring Anthony Quinn (who also co-produced the film).  Winner of three Academy Awards, Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982) captivated audiences with her unforgettable performances in IntermezzoCasablancaGaslight and Notorious.  During her long and celebrated career, the actress worked with many great directors including Michael Curtiz, Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor and Vincente Minnelli.  In The Visit, Bergman plays an extraordinarily wealthy woman who returns to her poverty-stricken hometown hellbent on revenge.  Directed by Bernhard Wicki, The Visit was out of circulation for many years but it has now become the "in" film among Bergman buffs.  The forthcoming screenings will include special guests and take place at your favorite Boston-based revival house.  Stay tuned for further details on this exciting three part tribute.  


Ingrid Bergman and her pet panther in The Visit
      








Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Gigi for Valentine's Day

What better way to welcome Valentine's Day and Oscar season than with one of the most romantic Oscar-winning movies ever made? "Gigi" Introduced by Vincente Minnelli biographer, Mark Griffin 2/14/13 7:00 pm - 10:00 pm Emerson College Paramount Center Bright Family Screening Room "Gigi" (MGM, 1958), winner of nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, this sumptuous musical stars Leslie Caron as a precocious Parisian girl groomed to be a kept woman, who comes to realize she'd rather marry for love instead. Laced with some of Lerner-and-Loewe's finest songs ("Thank Heaven for Little Girls," "The Night They Invented Champagne") and considered to be the last great MGM musical, this luxurious production crowned the career of acclaimed director Vincente Minnelli. "Gigi" will be introduced by Emerson graduate Mark Griffin, author of "A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli" (Da Capo Press). Before the main feature, Griffin will screen a compilation of clips from some of Minnelli's other movies including "Meet Me In St. Louis," "An American in Paris" and "The Band Wagon." Read more in Arts Boston HERE. Sponsored by Department of Visual and Media Arts. For more information please contact: Anna Feder

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mark Griffin Reviews John Fricke's new book, "Judy: A Legendary Film Career."

[Please Note: This review originally appeared in the Spring 2012 edition of The Baum Bugle] Judy: A Legendary Film Career by John Fricke Just as there have been great stars, there have been great fans. There was the mysterious, veiled "Lady in Black," who made an annual pilgrimage to the grave site of silent screen legend Rudolph Valentino. As the story goes, this shrouded figure would appear at Valentino's mausoleum and leave behind a single red rose in a poignant tribute to 'The Great Lover.' Then there was the farmer in the Midwest who reportedly bequeathed his entire fortune to the divine Greta Garbo...despite the fact that his closest encounter with 'The Swedish Sphinx' more than likely occurred while he was occupying a seat in the third row of his neighborhood movie house. All well and good. But if Judy Garland was the greatest star of them all (as anyone who can quote directly from Andy Hardy Meets Debutante will readily attest) then doesn't she deserve the most reverent disciple of them all? Well, naturally. And Garland's most proactive supporter is unquestionably John Fricke, who has now earned the title as The Most Faithful Fan in The History of The Entire Universe. Bar none.
With an unwavering commitment bordering on religious zeal, Fricke has devoted his entire career to paying tribute to 'Miss Show Business' and along the way, he has elevated Judy-worship into an art form while creating something of a cottage industry. Fricke has now paid homage to Garland in the form of several Emmy Award-winning documentaries (By Myself; Judy: Beyond The Rainbow), acclaimed audio compilations (Judy Garland: 25th Anniversary Retrospective), live tributes (including a pair of high profile Carnegie Hall concerts in 1998), a number of bestselling books (Judy Garland/World's Greatest Entertainer, The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History) and liner notes for every occasion. In other words, this is I Can't Give You Anything But Love...and then some. With each of these meticulously researched projects, Fricke seems intent on deflecting attention from some of the tabloid aspects of Garland's chaotic personal life and re-directing the focus on her extraordinary artistry. Judy: A Legendary Film Career (Running Press, $30) is Fricke's latest act of canonization and it's a sumptuously produced, visually rich reminder of Garland's impressive cinematic legacy. Where Garland's film work is concerned, Fricke has an embarrassment of riches to work with. Just consider the fact that Judy not only starred as the most beloved heroine in the history of cinema ("I'm Dorothy Gale, from Kansas...") in The Wizard of Oz but she played everything from Broadway headliner Marilyn Miller in the 1947 musical biopic Till The Clouds Roll By to a tortured German hausfrau in Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).
While most movie stars who died more than forty years ago are barely remembered today, Garland's stature and legend have only grown since her death in 1969. In 1999, the American Film Institute placed Garland at #8 on their list of all-time greatest movie legends, ranking her above such heavyweights as Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. With this kind of high-level endorsement, it would appear that the rest of world has finally figured out what Judy's legions of followers have always known - that she is thoroughly unique even among the upper echelon of superstars. Whether she was portraying a Ziegfeld Girl or a Harvey Girl, Garland "radiated the soul of show business," as film historian Leslie Halliwell once put it. Judy's electrifying performance style and uncanny ability to connect with her audiences were evident from her earliest film appearances. She's the best thing about her first feature, the otherwise forgettable Pigskin Parade (1936). And by the time she sang "You Made Me Love You" to a scrapbook full of Clark Gable in Broadway Melody of 1938, the fifteen year-old Garland was already performing like a seasoned veteran. In 1939, immortality would arrive in the form of MGM's heavenly adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Judy's Oscar-winning Oz lyricist, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg would later marvel at Garland's ability "to sing into your soul...she was the most unusual voice in the first half of this century." What Cole Porter described as Garland's "prodigal voice" would continue to wow moviegoers until Judy's final film appearance in I Could Go On Singing in 1963. But that magnificent voice was only one of Garland's gifts. There was her complete sincerity and utter believability: "Never have I caught her in a lie. And never have I caught her 'acting,'" says Broadway legend Elaine Stritch. There was also a seemingly inexhaustible supply of inspiration: "I never underestimated the range of her talent [and] she was an extraordinary talent. Very unique in pictures," said Garland's second husband Vincente Minnelli, who directed her in five films. Perhaps the most important quality that distinguished Garland from some of her equally talented colleagues was the fact that she needed to perform. "I somehow feel most alive when I'm singing," Garland's Esther Blodgett confesses to James Mason's Norman Maine in A Star Is Born (1954). So it was with Judy Garland. She always gave her all - not only because audiences wanted her to but because she felt compelled to. As Fricke insightfully points out, it was "as if singing and dancing were the natural extension of her persona." It's been awhile since Garland's fans have been treated to a comprehensive exploration of her filmography. For many years, Joe Morella and Edward Z. Epstein's The Complete Films and Career of Judy Garland, was the go-to text for those who needed to know what Time magazine thought of Meet Me In St. Louis ("A musical even the deaf should enjoy...") or which of Garland's co-stars in Everybody Sing launched his career by doing imitations of wallpaper (Reginald Gardiner). Published the same year that Garland died, the Morella-Epstein tribute was both heartfelt and straightforward but it wasn't the pull-all-the-stops-out extravaganza that MGM's greatest asset truly deserved.
Two decades later, Emily R. Coleman's The Complete Judy Garland: The Ultimate Guide to Her Career in Films, Records, Concerts, Radio and Television, 1935-1969, arrived in bookstores (remember those?). Despite the ambitious title, Coleman's collection is more of a cataloguing of film credits, personal appearances and recording dates. So leave it to John Fricke to come through with the most scrupulous, spectacular and engaging exploration of Judy Garland's film career to date. Without question, this is the volume that Garland's fans have long been clamoring for. Like some of Fricke's previous efforts, Judy: A Legendary Film Career, re-defines the term "lavishly illustrated," with rare and beautifully reproduced photos and artwork appearing on virtually every page. In addition to revisiting Judy's blockbusters (St. Louis, Easter Parade), Fricke also reviews the umpteen screen projects that Judy was scheduled for but did not appear in - the most notable being Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and the most notorious being the camp masterpiece Valley of the Dolls (1967). And just imagine Judy starring in a big budget movie version of Jerry Herman's smash Broadway musical Mame. In so many ways, Judy was Auntie Mame, the flamboyant free-spirit with the tinselly laugh that novelist Patrick Dennis brought to life in 1955. Garland would have worked wonders with Herman's score, which includes the poignant "If He Walked Into My Life" and that exuberant anthem to living life to the fullest, "It's Today."
Although Judy as Mame never came together, the kind of roll-the-rug-up celebration that the queen of No. 3 Beekman Place preferred can be found within the pages of John Fricke's splendid tribute. This book is a big, loud party in honor of a national treasure and that's what best fans are for. - Mark Griffin