Wednesday, February 6, 2019

NPR, Judy Garland and Black History Month

It was racially refreshing segment and one that gave me a minor tingle of jealousy.  I wished I was the guest contributor conducting the interview. One of NPR's most popular shows is FRESH AIR hosted by Terry Gross. On the February 5th show, Terry featured an interview done by a contributor named Sonari. He's a young black gentleman, a self-described child of the 80s, who is gay and loves the famous 1954 remake of A STAR IS BORN which is lit up by a spectacular big screen return of Judy Garland in the lead role. She'd been fired by her longtime home studio, MGM, in 1950.  Her third husband, Sid Luft, produced A STAR IS BORN. It was a Warner Bros. release as was the 1976 remake starring Barbra Streisand and the current one starring Lady Gaga. The reviews were love letters. Critics praised Judy Garland's work in this heartbreaking Hollywood-on-Hollywood musical drama directed by George Cukor. She played an unknown singer with a band, unaware of her extraordinary talent. She's discovered by and falls in love with a movie star whose career declines due to his drinking while hers hits the Hollywood heights.
Judy Garland got an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. James Mason, her excellent leading man, got an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin got nominated in the Best Song category for the blues number, "That Man That Got Away" which became a classic and one of Garland's signature tunes for the rest of her life and career.
Sonari interviewed Judy Garland's daughter, Lorna Luft. Lorna, an under-appreciated singer and actress, is also a good writer. Her new book is entitled A STAR IS BORN: Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away.  The film had an intermission and ran about 3 hours. In what's become sad Hollywood history, Jack L. Warner, head of the studio, had about a half-hour of the movie cut out when it went from its exclusive engagement to a wide release. No one could find the missing footage. In the 1980s, the entire audio tracks of the deleted scenes and three musical numbers were found and restored. But not all of the film footage was found. George Cukor was never given a director's print of his original work.
Why was this NPR segment racially refreshing? Because a black person was given the opportunity to conduct an interview about a classic film -- and it was not a classic film about a black issue like interracial marriage, slavery, the Civil Rights Movement or the "Oscars So White" controversy. Many of us African Americans who have reviewed films, love classic films and have done celebrity interviews have to contain our irritation and frustration when we are excluded from the general discussion of classic films.

1954's A STAR IS BORN is one of my Top 5 Favorite Films of All Time. I've been obsessed with it since I was in high school.  In the early 70s, when I left South Central L.A. to attend Marquette University in Milwaukee, you could hear Judy Garland's "Born in a Trunk" number from the movie coming out of my dorm room. Why? Because it was one of the albums I brought with me from me. If you think I'm making that up about playing the A STAR IS BORN soundtrack in my dorm room, just ask my longtime buddy, writer Charles P. Pierce of Esquire Magazine. We lived on the same dorm floor. When the grand premiere of the restored A STAR IS BORN was a sold-out event at Radio City in 1983, I attended thanks to Lorna Luft. She got me a ticket after I'd interviewed her on local TV in Milwaukee.

Thank you, NPR, for letting a black person do a segment on a classic film by George Cukor. From the 80s when ABC, CBS and NBC weekday morning news programs each had a weekly white male film critic to the Siskel & Ebert years and all the pairings of white male film critics who followed them on syndicated movie review shows, to the white male hosts of AMC when it was American Movie Classics and aired only old films, to the current TCM (Turner Classic Movies) channel with its Caucasian quartet of hosts, you have to admit that the field of talent picked for the discussions of new and classic films has looked segregated.

As for the interview, Sonari was extremely enthusiastic. I feel his high-energy got bumpy to a small degree at a few moments. I wish I could've been his segment producer to help him be able to make smoother transitions and add major information. One huge item he forgot to mention was that Garland, who was the princess-turned-queen of sunny MGM musical comedies from 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ to 1950's SUMMER STOCK, got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her screen comeback. This was a dramatic film that had true love, violence, alcoholism, sacrifice, self-loathing, suicide and showtunes. She was the Hollywood favorite to win. She was so favored that a TV crew had been positioned in her hospital room on Oscar night to get her live reaction when her name was read. Garland was in the hospital because she'd just given birth to Lorna's brother, Joey. But Judy lost to Grace Kelly for THE COUNTRY GIRL, one of the biggest upsets in all Oscar history.

The 1954 film marked the second time Garland had played Vicki Lester in A STAR IS BORN. The first time was in early 1940s radio version of the original 1937 film. It was then she had the desire to remake the film as a dramatic musical. But MGM utilized her impressive dramatic skills even after her second husband, Vincente Minnelli, gave audiences a look at her emotional depth in the only drama of her 15 MGM years, the World War 2 love story, THE CLOCK (1945). She signed her contract when she was 13. By the time she was 16, she had to be at work at MGM, a Hollywood dream factory, at 6:00 AM. Think about it. She's 16, the breadwinner of her family, and she had to be at work at 6am. Lorna Luft reveals even more about that in the interview.

In a rather awkward transition that Luft handled with lovely grace, Sonari professed his love for the "Born in a Trunk" number but he was bothered by the sight of black back-up dancers singing "Swanee." Then he mentioned how he was also bothered by Garland's blackface number in a couple of her MGM musicals. The "Born in a Trunk" production number is a movie-within-a-movie segment. Vicki Lester gets her big break. A Broadway star slated to make a deluxe musical can't get out of her contract with the show. The studio head takes a chance on newcomer Vicki Lester. We, like the preview audience in the film, see Vicki's terrific screen debut. The black back-up dancers are nattily attired. Not raggedy. They're in costumes you could've put on Ben Vereen for FUNNY LADY or a Broadway musical revue. What some may not realize is that MGM would never have permitted such a scene. There is Judy Garland in a big number with black back-up dancers. Glamorous Lena Horne was at MGM in the 1940s and she was never permitted to share screen time and act opposite white stars who were also on the studio's A-list for musicals.  In TV interviews, Gene Kelly mentioned that he and director Vincente Minnelli had to argue with the studio head so that they could have black people in THE PIRATE, Gene's musical comedy with Judy Garland that has a story set in...the Caribbean. Kelly and Minnelli pressured and won the argument. Lots of black background actors got work. Kelly got to do a number with The Nicholas Brothers. But a scene like this in Judy's off-screen 1951 life would never have been allowed on the big screen. Here she is dancing with boxing great, Sugar Ray Robinson.
About Judy's blackface in MGM numbers, keep in mind those were performed when she was a minor under contract to a powerful studio. She did what she was told, she ate what she was allowed to eat, she wore what she was ordered to wear. The person who put young Garland in blackface the most was director Busby Berkeley, a musical director who seemed obsessed with blackface numbers. He put Garland, Mickey Rooney and other teens in blackface for films such as BABES IN ARMS (1939) and BABES ON BROADWAY (1941). Don't blame those actors.  Spike Lee blamed Judy and Mickey in his film BAMBOOZLED (2000). Put the blame on Berkeley. I didn't feel the blackface question from Sonari was a good fit for this interview but, in light of the recent Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam scandal during Black History Month, it did have relevance.

To underline my point about Busby Berkeley's irritating affection for blackface numbers, rent the 1934 Warner Bros. musical, WONDER BAR, starring Dick Powell and Al Jolson. Wait until you see Jolson's "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule" production number designed and choreographed by Busby Berkeley. It's a long musical number ripe with offensive racial images of black people. I saw it on TV when I was in middle school and my jaw dropped down to my kneecaps.

Judy Garland wanted to join other celebrities at the March on Washington. But she had a weekly CBS prime time music variety program, THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW, and could not get away from Hollywood duty to be there.  But she did something bold and beautiful for stars at that time in the aftermath of some racist evil. The day after the murder of 4 little girls in a Birmingham church bombing, a tragedy covered in Spike Lee's gripping 4 LITTLE GIRLS documentary, Garland held a press conference with actresses June Allyson and Carolyn Jones to raise funds for survivors. Notice the headline on the newspaper in front of Judy. Lorna's sister, Liza Minnelli, stands above Judy. That racist crime happened two weeks after Dr. King's March on Washington.
Lorna Luft gave a rich, warm interview. She's bounced back from serious surgery. She sounds at peace with the world, grateful for her family history, proud of what it means to people such as our LGBTQ community and she sounds like she's reached a newfound comfort in her own skin. There was an elegant soulfulness about her in the interview. To hear her on the February 5th edition of FRESH AIR on NPR, go here and search in the shows and podcasts section:

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