“The reason I sought out Betty Garrett’s book in the first place was because of something devastating that I read – and didn’t want to be true – in Farley Granger’s 2007 memoir, Include Me Out: My Life from Goldwyn to Broadway.”
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Did you ever notice that the stories of people who succeed beyond their wildest dreams are rarely as interesting as the stories of people who don’t? I mean, really: what’s so spellbinding about the tale of a person who gets exactly what she wants? One of my favorite books is 2012’s The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century, in which The New Yorker’s Margaret Talbot recounts the life of her father, the actor Lyle Talbot, who managed to support his family through his acting career but never achieved anything resembling household-name status. The Hollywood star-making machinery was grinding for him, he was easy on the eyes, and he had as much talent as anyone preening on the studio lot at the time. And yet the scales never tipped in his favor.
The same was true for Betty Garrett, who died eight years ago today (February 12, 2011) and would have turned 100 on May 23. The difference is, there’s a heartbreaking reason that her career never took off, and I don’t just mean the blacklist, although, yes, of course there was that.
After winning plaudits in 1946 as a triple threat in Broadway’s Call Me Mister, Garrett was wooed by Hollywood, where in 1948 and 1949 she appeared in five MGM films, four of them musicals, alongside the likes of Danny Thomas, Mickey Rooney, and Gene Kelly. On the Town is both the best known and the best of the bunch – Garrett plays a libidinous cabbie with the hots for navy man Frank Sinatra – but her best work is in Neptune’s Daughter, in which she plays the equally man-crazy sister of Esther Williams. In both films, there’s a warm, game-for-anything quality to Garrett’s performances, including lots of gangly-graceful mugging conjuring a Busby Berkeley hoofer by way of Lucille Ball. When Garrett’s longtime manager and lawyer, Lou Mandel, told her early on in her career, “Don’t worry, darling, someday you’re going to be a big star!,” he seemed to have a good read on her future.
When Judy Garland left MGM’s Annie Get Your Gun, Garrett was in position to pounce. She dearly wanted the role, she says in Betty Garrett and Other Songs, her 1998 memoir written with Ron Rapoport; the problem was that playing Annie Oakley would have required signing another seven-year contract with MGM. (There were three years left on her original contract.) Garrett says that Lou Mandel encouraged her to hold out for a less binding offer: “It wasn’t really the money that was at stake,” Garrett writes. “It was the studio’s belief it had to be in total control of you. MGM kept saying I was being offered the chance of a lifetime and that my lawyer was ruining my career. But I felt Lou was urging me to do exactly what I should have done.” Garrett considers the William Morris Agency the “real villain” of this story: “My agent was a little guy named Sammy Weisbord and he kept encouraging me to hold out, too. What I did not know was that William Morris also represented Betty Hutton, who made a lot more money than I did. Betty got the part and the agency got a higher commission.”
Garrett’s next film role was for Columbia, in 1955’s My Sister Eileen, in which she plays the older and (as the movie ceaselessly reminds us) less attractive of two sisters who transplant themselves to Greenwich Village to pursue their artistic dreams. Even the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, who didn’t like much of anything, slobbered over Garrett’s performance: “Miss Garrett has the proper skepticism and the right desperation for the role. Her way with a line is homicidal.” But the film didn’t do good business – musicals were falling out of favor – and neither did the next movie Garrett made, 1957’s The Shadow on the Window, a slow-witted black-and-white thriller in which she was bewilderingly cast as the female lead. Columbia dropped her option: “Perhaps the studio was still worried about the blacklist or thought I was too strongly identified as a musical performer. Or perhaps, because I had been in two flops in a row, I was no longer a saleable property. Whatever the reason, I have not made a movie since Shadow on the Window.”
Forget the twerp at William Morris: the villain in Betty Garrett and Other Songs is the blacklist. (This explains the back-of-book blurb by someone who would seem to be among the world’s least likely celebrity-memoir endorsers: liberal icon Studs Terkel.) In 1944, Garrett married the actor Larry Parks, who is probably remembered less for his Oscar-nominated starring role in 1946’s The Jolson Story than for being a sacrificial lamb during Hollywood’s odious blacklist period. Like many of Parks’s and Garrett’s peers, he had joined the Communist Party in his younger days, although his participation had been low-level and he hadn’t attended a meeting in years. Still, Parks’s erstwhile membership was enough to earn him a summons from the Communist-stalking House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. The hearing was postponed until 1951, when, his career chugging along nicely, Parks received a subpoena.
This time he testified before HUAC, admitting that he had been a member of the Communist Party. Then Parks had a choice: he could name the famous personalities who were already targets of HUAC, or he could say nothing and be held in contempt of the committee, like the original Hollywood Ten, who landed in jail for refusing to talk. Parks did the former, literally reading aloud the names that were written on a piece of paper before him, although Garrett notes that “nothing I have ever heard or read about his testimony makes this clear.” Columbia canceled Parks’s next film role, and the offers dried up. (Garrett writes that, although she too was blacklisted, her career wasn’t affected to the same extent.) For income, Parks constructed and rented out apartment buildings. In 1975, at age sixty, he died at home of a heart attack helped along by years of self-destructive habits rooted in the despair caused by the politically motivated torpedoing of his acting career. As one of their sons tells Garrett after Parks’s death, “Pop didn’t die of overeating. He died of disappointment.”
Understandably, the fallout from Parks’s sunken career casts more of a pall over Betty Garrett and Other Songs than Garrett’s comparatively smaller disappointment: blowing the chance to star in 1950’s smash Annie Get Your Gun. But if one is to believe Farley Granger, who moved in the same lefty showbiz circles as Garrett and Parks, Garrett hobbled more than one career when she let Annie slip past her. The reason I sought out her book in the first place was because of something devastating that I read – and didn’t want to be true – in Granger’s 2007 memoir, Include Me Out: My Life from Goldwyn to Broadway. About what happened following Judy Garland’s abdication of the lead in Annie, Granger writes,
Louis B. Mayer’s next move was to offer the part to Betty Garrett, who, after Neptune’s Daughter, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and On the Town, was a rising star in the musical unit at Metro. Betty’s manager, obviously thinking he had Mayer in a corner, demanded more money for her to step into the part, a mistake that was as stupid as it was big. Louis B. fired her instead, and borrowed Betty Hutton from Paramount. The terrible irony of that manager’s mistake was that not only would Annie Get Your Gun have made a big star of Betty Garrett, it might have saved her husband’s career as well. Larry Parks of The Jolson Story fame was making a movie at Metro with Elizabeth Taylor at approximately the same time as Annie Get Your Gun was released. He was subpoenaed by HUAC. Even though he named names, his career was finished. If his wife had been in Metro’s big musical of the year, the studio would have gone to any lengths to quash that subpoena, and two careers would most likely have been saved.
It’s a cringe-makingly persuasive take on the situation, whether Granger was correct that Lou Mandel’s greed undid Garrett’s lock on Annie or it was Garrett’s shortsighted balking at the seven-year contract that cost her the career-making part. Of course, Garrett couldn’t have known how badly she might one day need the Annie role on her résumé for her career’s sake, never mind her husband’s.
She remained professionally active into middle age and beyond, playing recurring secondary roles in the seventies TV staples All in the Family and Laverne and Shirley; acting, directing, and teaching at Los Angeles’s Theatre West, of which she was a founding member; returning to Broadway in 1989 in Meet Me in St. Louis; doing the requisite Murder, She Wrote episode or two; and putting on the self-created one-person show for which her memoir is named. It’s an impressive career to those of us who know to look for it.
Garrett writes in her book, her upper lip stiff, “In the long run, I never really regretted not playing Annie. Larry and I took our act to the London Palladium and the British provinces for the first time shortly afterwards and that opened up a wonderful period in our lives we would have missed if I had stayed at MGM.” Garrett may have copped to no regrets, but I have one on her behalf. And I don’t think I’ll ever have the heart to watch Annie Get Your Gun.