Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Enmity at First Glance

Did you ever see "The Shop Around the Corner" with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan?

It was a romantic comedy about two co–workers in a Budapest gift shop in the 1930s who couldn't stand each other — and had no idea that, in reality, they were each other's secret pen pals and had fallen in love.

That's a familiar plotline for anyone who saw "You've Got Mail" with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan a few years ago.

Or "In the Good Old Summertime," a musical starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson that premiered on this date in 1949.

In this version, they weren't in Budapest. They were in Chicago, it was the turn of the century, and the store was a music store. Other than that, the plot was pretty much the same.

Oh, and it was a musical. Did I mention that? Of course I did. Well, it just about goes without saying, doesn't it? Nearly everything Judy Garland did involved music.

And, in "In the Good Old Summertime," Garland not only sang, she also sold music.

Garland was multi–dimensional. She had great talent and could do many things well.

Fred Astaire said Garland was "the greatest entertainer who ever lived," a designation she earned long before she made "In the Good Old Summertime." She added to that reputation with "In the Good Old Summertime."

Craig Butler of AllMovie.com wrote that Garland was "in superb voice" and "in peak comedic form, delivering an exceptional performance." No argument.

"In the Good Old Summertime" introduced the world to the song "Merry Christmas" — sung by Garland, of course — which apparently became a holiday staple for some people.

Its popularity had faded considerably by the time I came along. In fact, I can't recall ever hearing it during a Christmas season.

Johnny Mathis and Bette Midler recorded versions of it, but I don't think it was ever regarded as the holiday standard that, say, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (from Garland's movie "Meet Me in St. Louis" five years earlier) turned out to be.

I'm not the fan of Van Johnson that some people are, and I certainly wouldn't rate his performance in almost anything ahead of Jimmy Stewart's. But I will say that, for a musical version of this story, Johnson was clearly preferable to Stewart. Stewart might have been able to sing, but I doubt that his singing voice could match Johnson's.

"In the Good Old Summertime" was noteworthy for a couple of other reasons, too.

Buster Keaton, the famed silent–movie star, made one of his appearances in a non–silent movie as Hickey the shop owner's nephew in "In the Good Old Summertime." He'd been serving as a comedy consultant for MGM, and it was decided that he was the only one who could execute the moves he suggested. Butler observed that he was "largely wasted" in his role. Again, no argument.

The other noteworthy point was that Garland's daughter, 18–month–old Liza Minnelli, made an on–screen appearance in Johnson's arms in the final scene.

Some folks believe it was Minnelli's movie debut — but it wasn't. That was in "Easter Parade," another one of her mother's musicals, in 1948.