I have not been the most vigilant writer on the block when it comes to noting the most recent of celebrity passings which I would normally insist upon commenting— from Irvin Kershner to John Barry, these are people who have meant a great deal to me in the development of my passion as a moviegoer. But I have, for one reason or another, kept my feelings private of late when it comes to many of these deaths, sometimes because I feel that others are more up to the task, but mostly because I simply haven’t stepped back and taken the time.
But on this Valentine’s Day I feel like I want to at least acknowledge the importance to me of a player who, compared to many of the notables who have left us in the past three or four months, may cut the most unassuming of figures in the grand scheme of cinema history. Betty Garrett (1919-2011) was one of those faces that registered as instant comfort for me, a supremely talented singer, dancer and bubbly comedienne whose presence was perhaps never as appreciated as it should have been. She worked for plenty of talented directors, most famously for Busby Berkeley (1949’s Take Me Out to the Ball Game) and Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly when she buzzed Frank Sinatra around in her taxicab as Brunhilde Estzerhazy in On the Town (1949).
Yet her filmography was a spotty one, thanks in large part to the degree her career suffered when she stood beside her husband Larry Parks, who appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s. Parks, who played Al Jolson for Columbia in The Jolson Story (1946), was a past member of the Communist Party, as was Garrett, but Parks refused to name names in front of this infamous psychological and economically fueled firing squad and as a result was dropped from Columbia’s roster. Garrett didn’t work for six years, time she took off to support Parks and raise their two children. She returned to the screen in My Sister Eileen (for Columbia), but after that and another minor role (in William Asher’s The Shadow on the Window alongside Philip Carey) the film work dried up and she made her way into the world of television. She worked steadily in the medium for nearly 40 years, from 1961 through 2009; in fact, it was her recurring role as Irene Lorenzo, levelheaded next-door neighbor to Archie and Edith Bunker, that first brought her to my young attention back in 1975. Irene and her husband Frank (Vincent Gardenia) routinely drove America’s favorite bigoted hardhat nuts with the ways in which they so comfortably switched out traditional gender roles in their marriage. The Lorenzos were depicted as quite happily and supportively wed, and as I grew older and found out more about Garrett and Parks and what they went through, I imagined that their relationship must have been something like the one I saw her enjoy on All in the Family.
Last year I was lucky enough to attend the first annual TCM Classic Film Festival, and we who were not admitted to the gala premiere of the restored version of George Cukor’s A Star is Born were treated instead to a fabulous opening night of our own, courtesy of a personal appearance by Esther Williams and Betty Garrett. If I may, here is an excerpt from my account of the festival, ”Four Days at the TCM Classic Film Festival,” which describes Garrett’s and Williams’ in-person appearance, a joy then and still, though slightly bittersweet now. Betty Garrett was a genuine delight, and the world is just slightly sadder without her in it.
Sipping my tasty complimentary beer (beer always seems to taste better when freely bestowed), I turned my thoughts away from Judy Garland and James Mason and toward Esther Williams and Betty Garrett. My first event at the TCM Classic Film Festival would, it seemed, be a screening of Edward Buzzell's Neptune's Daughter (1949), according to sources one of Williams' most well-received hits. But the kicker is, it was being screened here outdoors and poolside, amongst the Roosevelt's multitude of chaise lounges and cabanas, and Mmes. Williams and Garrett would be in attendance. I have never been more than the most academic appreciator of Williams' splashy (sorry) Technicolor MGM musicals, but really, what better venue or moment could there be to truly enjoy one? Thanks to the crossed wires of a TCM festival staffer, I arrived late for the lineup of pass holders to gain admittance to the pool area and, having never been near the pool at this hotel and guessing that not too many people could be crammed in around its perimeter, I figured the likelihood I would be turned away from the event was pretty high thanks to my status as caboose on this particular train. (The festival staffers would, in my experience, get their wires crossed a few more times over the weekend, but they were unfailingly polite, and what's more, all the snafus were decidedly minor and never caused me anything more than the most insignificant of inconveniences. So salud, I say, to the hard-working TCM film festival staff!)
As I trailed into the open poolside area, I observed there must have been a couple hundred people buzzing around the edges of the pool, many more than I thought could have fit comfortably. All the seats near the screen were of course snapped up, and the only place I could find to settle in was at the corner of the pool furthest from the screen, which was barely visible to these weary eyes from that distance. But I was just glad to be inside, and so I plopped down on the nicely padded chair and made fast pals with my chaise mates, Roger and Joe, two very excited gentlemen from Atlanta who were staying at the Roosevelt. (Talk about splurging for the full experience.) We traded small talk about the festival, the places we lived, and of course our lousy position re the evening's events. But as the lights dimmed and the spotlight landed on TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, who would introduce and interview the honored guests of the evening, our attitude began to change. Mankiewicz was positioned about 10 feet from where we were sitting, and as he made his way through his genial introductory repartee I turned to Roger and said, "I think we lucked out in a big way"—the understatement of the evening, as it turned out. We heard Mankiewicz say, "Ladies and gentlemen, Esther Williams and Betty Garrett!" and a few seconds later Betty Garrett, 89, with the help of a cane and a lovely escort, and Esther Williams, 87, wheelchair-bound but lively as hell, made their way right past Roger and Joe and I in our now not-so-crummy seats.
Williams and Garrett were utterly delightful, and Mankiewicz was respectful and charming in his conversation with them as well. Both stars marveled at the gathered throng and the atmosphere of the evening. At one point Garrett apologized for the gravelly tone of her voice due to a persistent cold and scoffed when told it was "sexy." Williams piped right up: "Honey, anytime anybody says it's sexy, believe 'em!" As for her own singing voice, which appears unadorned alongside Ricardo Montalban's in Neptune's Daughter's Oscar-winning tune "Baby, It's Cold Outside," all the self-effacing Williams would say is, "Everybody sounds better underwater." At the conclusion of the interview, counting the appearance of Williams and Garrett as two surprises (odd, since everyone in attendance knew they were coming), Mankiewicz announced a third which was equally no surprise, but no less charming for it. The Aqualillies, a synchronized swimming troupe decked out in a line of Esther Williams swimwear, swam-danced three routines to numbers from the MGM mermaid's movies, and I must say it was kind of a goose-bumpy thrill to see such a performance knowing that Williams herself was watching.
The movie stars of the hour made their exit to thunderous applause and a second standing ovation (no festival goers or photographers fell in the pool, I'm sad to report). My new friends Roger and Joe unceremoniously dumped me in favor of a snappy-looking, well-built bald fella in a charcoal-gray suit who claimed to have known Esther Williams personally for the last 10 years. They listened with rapt excitement as Baldy regaled them with stories of up-close-and-personal Hollywood glamour, and at that point, as about half the crowd took their cue from the vanishing movie stars and headed back to Club TCM, I made my way from the back of the pool and up toward the screen where a DVD projection of Neptune's Daughter had just commenced. Some technical difficulties notwithstanding (a short in a cable rendered the first five minutes of the movie a decidedly unsplendiferous and fuzzy black-and-white), the screening was in keen thematic and atmospheric sync with the rest of the evening.
And the movie itself turned out to be a perfectly frothy, delightful, and unexpectedly hilarious concoction, due largely to the inspired antics of Red Skelton. Williams actually plays a swimsuit designer being courted by colleague Keenan Wynn and playboy polo player Jose O'Rourke ("From the country of South America!") played by Ricardo Montalban. But when clumsy masseuse Skelton assumes the polo player's identity in order to charm Williams's sister (Garrett), all manner of confusion and farcical foul play ensue, all of which threaten Williams and Montalban's inevitable romance but thankfully do nothing to impede the movie's splendid songs, riotous comedy set pieces (Skelton trying to mount a polo horse is a classic of sustained hilarity) and, of course, those one-of-a-kind moments when Esther takes a dip. The movie was so entertaining that I didn't mind one bit having to stand under a palm tree near the bushes (so as not to block the view of those still sitting around the pool) in order to watch it. In fact, all the attendant Hollywood magic already doled out on the evening, and the lovely atmosphere of the evening breeze still wafting through the palms, seemed perfectly combined with the glorious recreation on display in Neptune's Daughter, from the silly joy of the swimming sequences to the atmosphere of the polo grounds, hanging out with O'Rourke's Mexican assistant, played by Mel Blanc in full Speedy Gonzalez mode, and especially the rhythmic exuberance of Xavier Cugat's club, where Esther and Ricardo and Red and Betty and Keenan go to shake a tail feather.
I began to feel like I was in that club too, doing the mambo or whatever it is they do there, as if I'd stepped into, if not the movie itself, then at least an alternate universe poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt where old Hollywood never got old, where the movies and the parties never stopped. (The guy standing next to me for the first half of the movie was a dead ringer for John Marley in full-on Jack Woltz mode, which did nothing to dissipate that alternate Hollywood universe feeling.) Just before Esther and Ricardo began singing their Oscar-winning roundelay, the bushes I was standing near, the ones separating the pool area from the first-floor cabanas, began to rustle, and soon I was surrounded by six of those shapely Aqualillies, still in their Esther Williams swimwear. They had popped out of their cabins just to see and hear "Baby, It's Cold Outside." For them it undoubtedly was, but I was warmed by their presence, just another giddy, unexpected treat to start out the festival. When the number was over they scampered back through the bushes, leaving a cozy residue which was nicely augmented by the nearby heat lamps, just enough to temper the chilled night air and encourage my already broad smile to stick around a while longer. Neptune's Daughter poolside with Esther Williams and Betty Garrett may not have been my first choice to kick off the festival, but in what game show universe have the consolation prizes ever been this good?
Betty Garrett and Red Skelton in a Valentine’s Day-worthy scene from Neptune’s Daughter (1949): "I wanna if you wanna!" "Sacramento, California!"