Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Well, I Was Attempting to Cheer Myself Up

Judy Garland, though by most rational considerations an extremely depressing, as well as spiritually desperate and unfulfilled person, really does cheer me up most of the time, at least up until 1945 or so. She understood instinctively more than just about any other pop singer/movie star I have ever seen that Hollywood movies and optimistic swinging pop records are to their consumers primarily gestures and bulwarks against despair; this at least is how she seems to me to interpret her roles and songs. To me, any 20th century American standard, if she did a version of it around 1940, hers is the best, and most piercing, version.

This song was completely off my radar until a couple of months ago, when I heard the Dean Martin version on the radio and it struck me all at once as being another perfect popular song, much in the same way "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" struck me a couple of years ago and reignited the Judy Garland flame in me. Her version of this, such as I can find, is only about a minute, one verse; but it is poignant. I don't think any other singer has topped that verse (something tells me Michael Buble's recent rendition will not be anything to change my mind). The first part of this video by the way is a piano rendition of the same song by Chico Marx, which is also a wonderful little thing.

Here is yet another version of the song which actually works in spite of all it looks to have going against it. It's just a terrific and uplifting song.

One of my favorite Judy Garland songs is the stirring number "F.D.R. Jones", which I admit I had not realized she had sung in blackface in the movie Babes on Broadway until I saw it. She actually appeared in blackface in films quite often, especially in the movies she made with Mickey Rooney. These scenes are really appalling to sit through to anybody who has grown up since the 60s, even, I would think, if you are ordinarily fairly indifferent to racial matters. There isn't any way around it. The white actors in these movies seem utterly unself-conscious about it compared to the way anybody would respond to doing such a thing now. I suspect putting on blackface was a pretty standard routine in the type of vaudeville shows that Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney, came out of, and even a cursory familiarity with the history of pre-war entertainment gives a good indication that this was a mainstream phenomenom of which most white people thought nothing whatsoever. But still. My God.

I'm not sure why I felt compelled to put this song in tonight. For one thing, I've always thought it was a great song, and the rendition in the movie, with the militaristic Busby Berkeley choreography, the gloomy modernistic, totalitarian lighting and decor, and the raw racial offensiveness, struck me when I saw it as extremely dark, almost a complement to the famous Nazi movies like Triumph of the Will. Dark, but also in a way emphatic, perhaps especially to a modern viewer, because the whole blackface part is so unnervingly direct and unapologetic and you feel you have entered a kind of psychologically unfamiliar and rather scary place that you feel are not supposed to be, and that you certainly wouldn't want anybody to know you had gone there. It is tempting to say, you were fascinated and drawn to these old white people's freedom from any kind of negative racial consciousness, and I will admit that there are other, less ugly and blatant manifestations where such thoughts have crossed my mind, but this was not an attractive picture of that type of mindset.


Gil Roth said...

You have the most awesome commenters ever.

Hannah said...

Didn't she also do a blackface routine with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade? I have some vague memory of that, but haven't seen the movie in a long, long time. Maybe they were just dressed up as hobos (or whatever the term was at the time), but not blackface.

Hannah said...

Eh, no, I was thinking of "A Couple of Swells," which is not a blackface routine.

I assume Gil thinks my comments are equally awesome.

mm45 said...

There were blackface numbers in several of her teenage movies, Babes in Arms I think definitely, I'm not sure what else. Apparently this was a very popular theme in the musical and comedy repertoires of the time. Even Buster Keaton did one where he is so desperate for a job he applies for a position as a 'colored waiter' only to have the steam from the kitchen melt his blackface off, and his routine looked like something he had worked on plenty before that particular shoot.