Friday, June 15, 2012

Important Birthdays: Judy Garland and Basil Rathbone

I could not let the week close without marking two birthdays important to our shared popular culture: singer-actress Judy Garland (June 10, 1922) and actor Basil Rathbone (June 13, 1892).  This year marks the 90th anniversary of Garland’s birth and the 120th for Rathbone.  An unusual paring, to be sure, but we at The Jade Sphinx are nothing if not eclectic.

So much has been written about Garland since her death in 1969 that most anything I could add at this point would be superfluous.  Let us note, however, that she was a remarkable talent: simply one of the most gifted singers or her era (and a focal point of the Great American Songbook), as well as an actress of unusual depth and sensitivity.  Younger audiences perhaps know her best from her turn as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (1939), and this is something of a shame.  Not that she is less than terrific – in fact, it remains one of the few “perfect” movies – but that there is so much more to Garland’s oeuvre than this one perfect film.

Readers interested in knowing the woman that Garland eventually became should seek out several films that showcase her varied talents.  Garland delivers a magnificent, subtle, non-singing performance in The Clock (1945), where she is wooed and wed by soldier Robert Walker in a brief 24-hour period; she is equally delightful in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), which may be her best musical film.  (Yes – better than Oz.  Rent it and see.) 

Garland was set loose by her studio, MGM, after executives managed to squeeze everything possible they could out of the young woman, casting aside the exhausted and ruined husk as no longer viable.  Garland was to prove them wrong in 1954, when she financed A Star is Born, her ‘comeback’ picture, which garnered her an Academy Award nomination.  This started the second half of her career, which was more interesting (if not as stellar) as the first half, and included a series of concert performances culminating in her great success at the Palace. 

The challenge in writing about Garland today is that any critic has to deal with the cult that has grown up around her.  Cult status has ruined our ability to fairly assess – to greater or lesser degrees – such diverse figures as Garland, James Dean, H. P. Lovecraft and fictional constructs like Star Trek or Sherlock Holmes.  (One day I will tell of my visit, as a journalist, to a Dark Shadows convention, which might rank as the single most surreal and grotesque occurrence of my life.) 

The problem with cults is that the one must cut through the miasma of fandom before reaching some kind of sane critical evaluation – and that is often the thing most cults want least.  It is my belief, for instance, that the well-meaning but fatuous groups of Sherlock Holmes aficionados (“Sherlockians”) have kept both aesthetes and academe from seriously assessing the literary contribution of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Cultists protect their fetishistic properties with a fierce devotion, and woe to any of the uninitiated who seek to make a balanced critical judgment.

The Garland cult is somewhat less potent today: Tracie Bennett currently stars on Broadway in End of the Rainbow, which chronicles Garland’s final days.  This has met with some success, but also with uncomprehending shrugs.  The great  multitude that made up most of her fan base – gay men of a certain age – are no longer cultural arbiters, and younger fans are often without a clue as to what the fuss is all about.  I contend that if Garland’s legacy was shared by the multitudes rather than a smallish cult, her cultural currency would be greater today.

Sir Philip St. John Basil Rathbone was something commonplace today but unique in his era: a classical actor who specialized in popular entertainments.  Rathbone was, simply put, one of the most gifted actors of his generation:  handsome in a leonine way, blessed with a mellifluous voice and perfect diction, poise and hauteur, and an incredible range and physicality.  If Rathbone were alive today, his career would be similar to that of Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen, both classical actors who have made popular successes.  (Indeed, one can only imagine Rathbone as Professor X or Gandalf!)

Like many actors with a gift for the classics, Rathbone was often most effectively cast as characters from a more romantic and swashbuckling past: Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Murdstone, Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Karenin, Levasseur and Ebenezer Scrooge.  Sadly, only one of his Shakespearean performances survives on film: Tybalt, in the largely ill-conceived MGM 1936 production of Romeo and Juliet.  Rathbone and John Barrymore, as Mercutio, are the only members of the cast to deliver striking performances.

The most gifted fencer in Hollywood, Rathbone was the “go-to” guy for costume dramas.  He often joked that he could easily have bested his frequent co-star Errol Flynn in most of their on-screen duels, significantly changing the plotlines had he done so.  This close identification with swashbucklers led him to be cast, later in his career, in the Danny Kaye comedy The Court Jester (1955), where he effortlessly sent-up his own image.

The year 1939 was a pivotal one for Rathbone.  Author Margaret Mitchell supposedly wanted Rathbone to play Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind (imagine his icy delivery of “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”).  Instead, he made The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, two films that would forever identify him with the Great Detective and limit his career as a serious actor.

Today, such an identification would lead to greater roles in big-budget junk movies (look at Robert Downey, Jr.); in Hollywood in the 1930s-40s, it meant an endless procession of B-pictures.  Rathbone toiled on Hollywood’s Baker Street for nine years before returning to Broadway.  There, he made a triumphant return in 1948 as Dr. Sloper in The Heiress, winning the Tony Award for Best Actor.  But, in the eyes of Hollywood, he was only Sherlock Holmes and the role in the film adaptation went to Ralph Richardson.  That Rathbone’s performance was not committed to film remains one of the great tragedies in movie history.

Sadly, Rathbone ended his career in low-budget horror films in the 1960s.  Despite these indignities, he also managed to perform a one-man show at the White House for President John F. Kennedy, recorded many classics for Caedmon Records (including the finest interpretations of Edgar Allen Poe ever conceived), and appearing in a live television musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol, The Stingiest Man in Town.

Rathbone was a singular film persona: he managed to bring a sense of glamour and romance to each and every role, often taking audiences out of the contemporary world into a more romantic vision of the past.  Ours is, sadly, a world too often too busy for such romance, and the world is poorer without it.  For those who relish such things, Rathbone’s many film performances remain a delight.

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