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Two stars of that great (and notoriously inaccurate) American Songbook institution, the Hollywood biopic, were in the news recently. Mickey Rooney, who testified before Congress in March, and Betty Garrett, who died in February, are symbols of longevity (both lived into their 90’s) and reminders of a sad irony for the less-long-lived peers of these former musical stars. Because of modern media like DVDs and the Internet, Rooney and Garrett, who appeared together in the Rodgers and Hart biopic Words and Music (1948), have seen their early works resurrected and celebrated to a degree that other musical stars could only dream of. In the days before VCRs and later-format movie players, Hollywood musical legends had little chance of seeing their work reexamined and augmented with background material, other than through books, the occasional film-revival series, or the whims of a late-night TV movie programmer. Stars like Groucho Marx lived to see a resurgence in popularity among college-student film buffs. Youngsters in Groucho’s time, Rooney and Garrett made it to the DVD and YouTube eras.
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Betty Garrett’s modern fan base, of course, is derived mostly from her stints on All in the Family and Laverne and Shirley in the 1970’s, despite the extensive work in musicals that bookended her TV career. She was a featured player in the great MGM musicals of the 40’s, most famously singing “There’s a Small Hotel” in Words and Music and “Come Up to My Place” with Frank Sinatra in the Bernstein-Comden & Greene classic On the Town. (That would be the heavily altered 1949 Hollywood version, which retained only five numbers, including “Come Up to My Place,” and “New York New York,” it’s “helluva town” sanitized to “wonderful town,” from Leonard Bernstein’s original 1946 Broadway music.) From the 80’s on, Betty Garrett resumed her stage career in productions of Meet Me in St. Louis on Broadway (1989), Noël Coward’s Waiting in the Wings in Los Angeles (2007), and Follies on Broadway in 2001. Garrett had another role in the resurgence of earlier music during the biopic era: Her only husband, Larry Parks, was the star of two hit movies that revitalized the legend of Al Jolson, The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again. Parks was blacklisted in the 1950’s, and he and Garrett toured in various productions and shows as their careers slumped before Garrett found success opposite Archie Bunker.
|Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland sing the Gershwins’ “Could You Use Me” from Girl Crazy. Click to buy Mickey-Judy DVD collection.|
Mickey Rooney’s later-life celebrity usually has been expanded because of unfortunate circumstances, such as his testimony to Congress about his alleged abuse at the hands of his stepson, or Dana Carvey’s unflattering impersonation on Saturday Night Live. (Carvey costarred with Rooney and Nathan Lane in the short-lived sitcom, One of the Boys, in 1982.) Rooney, a World War II vet who had previously been the top Hollywood star from 1939 to 1941, has a body of work that is unparalleled (if not unassailable), including his films with Judy Garland, his work in the Andy Hardy series, and his dramatic performances in films like Boys Town, Anatomy of a Heavyweight, and Bill, despite several professional and personal setbacks in later years. A personal favorite is his work as straight man to Buddy Hackett in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
|Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, and the great Jim Backus in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Click to buy DVD from Amazon.|
A sad irony of modern life is that the longer these stars live, the less likely it is that they will be celebrated to any degree comparable to the heights they reached in their heyday. Even Bob Hope, who died at 100 in 2003, did not receive the kind of public mourning and adulation that certainly would have accompanied his passing had it occurred only 20 years before, when he was 80. Doubtless, Hope and Garrett were, and Rooney is, happy to trade a reduction in posthumous celebration for some extra years on Earth. At least the new technology can help make fans even more aware of the talents that made these stars famous in their youth.
When the World War I veteran Frank Buckles, the last American doughboy, died last month at 110, his interview remembrances of his war days in France were fascinating. He doesn’t appear to have offered (and probably wasn’t asked about) any memories of shows he saw or entertainers he met. But the fact that he could remember news reports of the Titanic (and actually sailed on the Carpathia, which rescued her survivors) means he could have witnessed legendary performances—could have seen the Marx Brothers or the original production of Show Boat on Broadway in the 1920s or seen Bessie Smith or George M. Cohan in the 1910’s, for example. Clearly there are younger people (nonagenarians) who have memories of some of these events and can recount them. Hopefully some oral historian is at work with ones who won’t achieve Mr. Buckle’s level of fame, and we will benefit from their memories, as we have from the recorded works of Rooney and Garrett.