Saturday, February 20, 2010

Kathryn Grayson Passes Away

The fresh impression given us by certain performers can linger in memory. When they pass away, it is still a shock to realize that they have achieved a great age. This was the case when I learned that the former MGM musical star Kathryn Grayson had died in her sleep at home at age 88. Her face, as lovely as an open flower, with a lilting coloratura soprano voice to match, never seemed quite real to me. Neither did many of the plots of her movies, but who turns to musical movies for realism?

The sometimes featherweight plots were at their best when their mechanisms paused long enough for a moment when Ms. Grayson's soaring voice was allowed expression, and these are often the most memorable sequences in any of her films. Below is one such instance from Seven Sweethearts (1942-Frank Borzage), a slight film from early in Grayson's career, set in an idyllic American town populated by Dutch emigrants aware of the world at war outside their own. The 19 year old singer conveys that awareness through a Walter Jurmann and Paul Francis Webster song evocative of another Europe in a gentler time in "You and the Waltz and I" accompanied by Carl Esmond on the piano:
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Born in North Carolina in 1922 into a highly musical family, it was after a move to Missouri that Kathryn Grayson was reportedly discovered at the age of 12 singing alone on an empty stage at the St. Louis Municipal Opera House. If that sounds like the plot to one of the lady's early movies, so be it, but, unlike those movie characters, she had a lifelong desire for excellence, and especially wanted to achieve something in the world of opera, even after signing with Louis B. Mayer at MGM while still a teenager. Reportedly she begged to be released from her contract at MGM to appear in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met, but Mayer, who she later said "saw the big picture" for her, told her that if she appeared in an opera prior to making her first movie and then appeared on screen, she might be known only to opera world, but a movie debut would likely make her much better known for many years to come.

Fortunately, Grayson was evenutally able to make her operatic stage debut in 1960 in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, a role that I believe might have suited her beautifully. (Kathryn Grayson did sing a duet with Mario Lanza from Madama Butterfly in The Toast of New Orleans (1950), but the sound quality of the clips I found of this were not of good quality). Eventually, she did appear in Camelot, Man of La Mancha and other musicals as well as other operas on stage in the 1960s.

While some found her acting mannered, I believe her acting to have been particularly good in two films that must have satisfied her expressed longing "for good stories with great music", in Showboat (1951-George Sidney) and Kiss Me Kate (1953-George Sidney). I wish that I could include a segment of her singing "After the Ball Is Over" from Showboat, but unfortunately have been unable to find any clips of that exquisite, bittersweet moment of reunion on New Year's Eve between her and Joe E. Brown, who played her father, "Cap'n Andy". Still, I was able to find a captivating version of "You Are Love" with her best on-screen partner, Howard Keel:
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Retiring from films in the mid-50s to do what she described as "something intelligent and that isn't musicals", the singer was discouraged by the loss of quality in musical films. “The audience did not change,” she said. “The studios changed. They wanted to make cheap movies and grab the money and run.” I suspect that her feminine delicacy and plangent voice will live much longer thanks to those movies made before those "studios changed." Below is a sequence from So This Is Love (1953-Gordon Douglas), a biopic about opera great Grace Moore. Grayson sings "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", a song that was used very effectively in the TCM Remembers video tribute to her that has aired frequently since her death.
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The Hattie McDaniel Victory

I wrote the following piece for TCM's Movie Morlock Oscar blogathon in an attempt to celebrate the accomplishment of Hattie McDaniel in her role in Gone With the Wind. I hoped to show how that part and the artistry of that actress and filmmakers both highlighted and transcended the issues of that period. I was moved to write it after introducing some younger people to GWTW who surprised me with their response to the film. I hope you will understand this perspective on the film concentrates on the richness of that movie, while acknowledging the period it emerged from in Hollywood history:

Last year, in part because of the celebrations surrounding the films of 1939, I had a chance to introduce Gone With the Wind to younger viewers in my family who had never seen the film. It's not a favorite movie of mine, so I could understand their appalled reactions to the innate racism of the story that implied that a slave's first loyalty was to the families that owned them, (even after the Civil War and emancipation). Seen at a glance in GWTW, maybe the antebellum South's biggest problems may only seem to be uppity white trash like Victor Jory's oily Jonas Wilkerson, or the need for rebellious girls like Scarlett to maintain their hypocritical poses in a rigid social structure, while secretly acting on their own half-understood impulses, and the upheaval caused by those damn Yankees. But look a bit closer and you can see the story of changing attitudes and a brave woman struggling to make her mark in a world that both rejected and accepted her. I don't mean Scarlett Katie O'Hara, either...more on the Movie Morlocks

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