By Steve Barnes
Summer in New York means a lot of things to different people, but one thing it has always meant to me is a time for the kind of movie retrospectives that move old standbys from TV screens back into theaters. Film Forum has always been the biggest kid on the block when it comes to this sort of programming, its summer series devoted to science fiction, film noir and the raciest examples of pre-Code movie making having become a staple for many New York filmgoers. And they’re at it again this year with “Essential Pre-Code,” which is going on through August 11. This year’s model of their pre-Code smorgasbord features a tribute to wonderfully smarmy Warren William and a series of Tuesday triple bills. One highlight yet to come in the series is a double feature (July 31 and August 1) of “Call Her Savage,” in which an over-the-top Clara Bow makes what many think of as the first visit to a gay bar in any Hollywood film, and “Blonde Venus,” with Marlene Dietrich channeling King Kong a year before he hit the screen in a performance of the song “Hot Voodoo.” And one of those Tuesday triple bills (August 2) is nothing to sneeze at either: Ruth Chatteron as a powerful executive in “Female,” followed by two shots of Bette Davis in “Cabin in the Cotton” and “Ex-Lady.”
Over at Anthology Film Archives
in the East Village, a retrospective devoted to movie musicals of the 1980s is running through August 9. While many of the movies being shown don’t quite hit the bar set by musicals from earlier decades, there are pleasures to be had here. Julien Temple’s “Absolute Beginners
” (July 30, August 4 and 6) turns a story about the 1950s into a veritable 1980s time capsule, Francis Ford Coppola’s “One From the Heart
” (August 5) puts its songs into the mouths of two outside commentators on the film’s story (Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle), and Robert Altman’s “Popeye
” (August 3 and 8) features Shelley Duvall in the role that Altman said she was born to play—Olive Oyl.
Judy (I have a hard time making my hands type the words “Ms. Garland”) is a performer so much more interesting than the mythology surrounding her that it’s really necessary to pull back from her life story every now and then. The last emotions I would ever feel when watching her on screen are pity or pathos—I’m much more bowled over by her presence, energy and humor. What’s most amazing to me is how her body language and her reactions to other performers always seem so relaxed and casually thrown off, while always hitting the mark exactly where they’re supposed to. (For example, watch her dancing with Fred Astaire at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hrzo5SPaOvg
). The only other actor I can compare her to in that regard is Elizabeth Taylor. Both of them have such a natural ability to be the center of any scene they’re in that they can wear their status as center of attention extremely lightly. They can dispense with any of vanity’s protective coverings, thanks to the assurance of knowing that they simply don’t need them.
And Judy had that assurance right from the start. Just have a look at her (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-5PGkg1yg0
) at 14, singing “You Made Me Love You” to a picture of Clark Gable in “Broadway Melody of 1938
” (screening on July 30 at 1 p.m.). This is no green kid making a tentative MGM debut—this is a trouper, a vaudeville pro who knows just what to do with the spotlight when she gets it. Somehow it seems very appropriate that the woman playing her mother in this sequence is one of the greatest vaudevillians of them all—Sophie Tucker.
As important as her natural talent and assurance are, that early training on the vaudeville stage is also a big part of what makes Garland unique among major movie-musical stars. Sure, Al Jolson and Fanny Brice do have their moments in pictures. But Judy brought that same verve to over 30 films. She took the vaudevillian’s ability to grab an audience by the heartstrings—to make it laugh, cry and sing along with her—and made it work in the constantly shifting context of movie musicals from the 1930s through the 1960s. She is just as comfortable in George Cukor’s sprawling “A Star is Born
” (July 31, August 5 and 9) as she was back in the days when she was known as Baby Gumm (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRpT9jSNNX8&feature=related
Talking about highlights in a series like this is beside the point. A series that has “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Harvey Girls,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Girl Crazy” and a score of others is going to be entertaining no matter where you land. What I might recommend is something that seems a little off of the main track, the first film with Judy in it that I ever saw—back when I was six years old. That would be the 1962 animated feature “Gay Purr-ee
,” in which Judy provides the voice of Mewsette, a Parisian cat who suffers a series of trials and tribulations before an inevitable happy ending. In addition to the delicious voice of Hermione Gingold, the film also has several wonderful Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg songs. It provides a nice sense of continuity to hear Judy still working with the same guys who wrote “Over the Rainbow” more than 20 years earlier.
And just one more thing: the Film Society’s web site has a very entertaining extra. Cashing in on Judy’s reputation as one of the all time great storytellers, they’ve put up some of her own commentary on her films (see it at http://www.filmlinc.com/blog/entry/judy-garland-in-her-own-words
). You’re sure to laugh at least once, and you’ll be even more anxious to see her films again.
Steve Barnes is a freelance writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in such publications as ARTnews and the Wall Street Journal.