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

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