10 June 2011

The Little Girl with the Great Big Voice

Today marks the anniversary of the birth of quite possibly the most famous entertainer in history. Eighty eight years ago today, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Francis and Ethel Gumm welcomed their third daughter, Frances Ethel Gumm. Being the youngest of the family's children, she was immediately nicknamed Baby. Almost as soon as she could walk and talk, she could sing and dance.

At the age of thirteen, she signed a contract with MGM, the biggest studio with the greatest stars. At first they weren't sure what to do with her, and so she spent her first three years at the studio in forgettable movies. Then, in 1939, she was chosen to star in what would become her most well known film, one that would immortalize her and make her known to people all over the world: The Wizard of Oz.

She would stay at MGM until 1950, where her films were hugely popular and successful: Meet Me in St Louis, The Clock, Easter Parade, For Me and My Gal. Well liked by audiences, hers was a regular voice on the radio, singing and cracking jokes with the likes of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. She toured the country entertaining troops during World War II along with Lucille Ball, Greer Garson, James Cagney, and Mickey Rooney among others.

In 1950, she left MGM to embark on a series of concert tours. This was quite a risky venture. Concerts were considered old fashioned and dull and nobody knew how Garland would be received. They needn't have worried though; the concerts were highly successful and Judy was once again on top. In 1954, she took yet another big risk: She decided to make another movie: a musical version of the 1937 film A Star is Born. Directed by George Cukor, the film ran almost three hours. It was extremely successful and, yet again, Judy was back. She was nominated for a Best actress Academy Award but lost out to Grace Kelly. Groucho Marx called it "The biggest robbery since Brinks".

In 1961Judy made yet another "comeback" when she appeared at New York City's Carnegie Hall. Garland sang, danced, talked with the audience and cracked jokes for two hours. It stayed at number one on the Billboard chart and won four Grammys.

But success wasn't without its price. Since childhood, Judy, along with many others in the industry, were on a steady diet of pills. She was taking Benzedrine during the day to give her increased energy to be able to cope with a long day of filming. Because of these, she couldn't sleep, and so she was prescribed Barbiturates to help her sleep. She soon developed a very serious addiction, to the point where she could no longer function without the aid of pills. Although she had tried on numerous occasions to overcome her addiction, she never could, and on June 22, 1969, Judy Garland died of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. She was 47 years old.

It's tough for me to talk about Judy Garland and stay neutral. I've loved her since I was in the fifth grade. She is one of my favorite actresses and one of my favorite singers.  Listening to her sing really puts me in a better mood and helps a bad day brighten up. I'm not sure what I can say about her that hasn't been said before, but, I really am glad that she was around, if only for a short while. She gave so much and touched more people than she could ever know, and continues to inspire people years after her death.

Happy Birthday, Judy

02 June 2011

Hey, Mr. Wilson!

 Dennis the Menace, 1993

I'm sure that this post kind of seems out of place, being that it isn't exactly considered one of the finest pictures ever made. But, being that I have quite the soft spot for this movie, being that I have been watching it for as long as I can remember, I decided that it wouldn't hurt to write about 1993's Dennis the Menace. 

Based off of characters from a 1950s comic strip, the story centers around the misadventures of a five year old boy named Dennis, his dog Ruff, and his long-suffering neighbor, the elderly Mister Wilson. Although well-meaning, Dennis can't seem to stay in Mister Wilson's good graces. The plot of the movie is somewhat weak; The Wilsons must babysit Dennis while his parents go out of town on a business trip, and the quiet town is disturbed by the presence of a robber. Granted, it isn't the best story, but this is a movie that's not looking to get any prizes; it just wants to entertain. And it certainly does. 

The role of Dennis was given to a boy by the name of Mason Gamble. He is so magnificent in this movie. I think it's because he, along with the rest of the cast of children, were allowed to just be kids and play. Gamble brings both innocence and an air of believing that he possesses supreme intelligence often exhibited by small children to his role. Dennis, buddy Joey and tag-along Margaret, definitely get the best lines in the movie. Dennis in particular, is hilarious, especially when he's explaining something that the other kids don't get. Take the children's discussion of parenthood:

Margaret: You know why men are so lousy when it comes to taking care of babies?
 Dennis: They have better things to do.
Margaret: Like what, play golf and drink beer?
Dennis: No, like hunting, having wars, driving cars, shaving, cleaning fish. Do you know how to do that?
Margaret: If you didn't have women, you wouldn't have babies, which means you wouldn't have people. 
Joey: If you didn't have men, who'd drive the ladies to the hospital?
Dennis: The most important thing is, they marry the women, then the women can go down and get the baby.
Margaret: The baby is in her stomach.
Dennis: She has to get it installed, her stomach just isn't filled up with babies.
Margaret: Who installs them?
Dennis: A minister and a doctor. 

Upon being questioned on exactly how babies are installed, Dennis informs them that the bellybutton opens up. Margaret then asks him why men have bellybuttons, to which Dennis replies matter- of- factly, "So they don't look weird in bathing suits."   

I tend to find most children in films to be quite obnoxious. I think it's because they're trying too hard to be actors, rather than just being kids at play. Here lies the brilliance of Dennis the Menace. Producer John Hughes made sure that his actors were normal kids, having a good time and playing with their friends. The kids were relaxed and clearly having a good time. 

The second essential aspect to Dennis the Menace is Mister Wilson. The producers had a stroke of genius when they decided to cast Walter Matthau as the archetypal crotchety old man neighbor. He is gruff, sarcastic, acerbic, grouchy, and tender all rolled up into one great package. His performance is balanced by Joan Plowright as his good-natured wife Martha. Although I'm not the biggest fan of Joan Plowrights, I have to admit that I quite like her in this movie, and I think that she compliments Matthau wonderfully and she provides the perfect foil for him. She is particularly touching in a scene when she recites the poem "Winkin' Blinkin' and Nod" to Dennis before she puts him to bed for the night. 

The biggest laugh in the entire movie is gotten my Matthau. Unaware that Dennis has knocked the front teeth out of his dentures and replaced them with Chicklets gum, when having his picture taken for the local paper, he gives a big happy smile:

What makes Dennis the Menace enjoyable is its sense of fun. It's not trying to impress, it doesn't take itself seriously, and it just has fun. It really is such a likable film that I have always enjoyed watching.