Thursday, December 20, 2012
While the President is in the spotlight for nabbing the cover of Time this week, 69 years ago today that honor went to Miss Greer Garson, MGM's post-Shearer doyenne of prestige pictures and Great Lady parts.
It's funny, for I was thinking of her earlier today; I'm home sick with a very boring cold, and I've been amusing myself on YouTube watching bits and pieces and a couple of whole episodes of What's My Line?, which I really can't recommend highly enough to anyone with even a passing interest in the popular culture of the middle of the last century (a group I trust includes virtually all of the Café's Gentle Readers, no?).
Most famous for its Mystery Challenger segment, the program was really less a game show (in the Wheel of Fortune or the Supermarket Sweep sense) than a conversation, by a group of exceedingly smart and funny people, in the form of a game. Garson was a lively Mystery guest, not least because she appears in the costume and more or less in the persona of Auntie Mame, whom she was playing on Broadway in 1958 (and she stumped the panel, which not many managed to do). Her appearance is among other things an excellent lesson in the wielding of a cigarette holder, which is I suppose these days nearly as much of a lost art as buggy-whip making. Most of all, she is amazingly likable, which, given her reputation in some circles as both chilly and smug, might come as a surprise.
Actually, I like Greer Garson a lot. She was a created star (plucked out of a middling stage career in London by Louis B. Mayer to be his next Queen of the Lot) who actually took root - Anna Sten as Academy Award winner, if you will. Changing fashions in movies meant that her career was fairly short, but in an oeuvre of only two dozen or so pictures, there are an awful lot of keepers: her debut, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, set the template for the Garson character - loyal, plucky, smart, and lovely, and is still a guaranteed good cry. Pride and Prejudice infuriates Austenites but is undeniably good fun, with Garson a mature Elizabeth Bennett (she hadn't arrived at MGM until she was 34, after all) who holds her own against champion scene stealers including Laurence Olivier and the redoubtable Edna May Oliver.
Within a couple of years of her debut, she really hit her stride, appearing, for example, in something rather rare at Metro, a two-star-lady feature, When Ladies Meet, against Joan Crawford and then achieving her apotheosis as what might be the screen's first Glamour Matron in Mrs. Miniver (another guarantor of waterworks). Madame Curie, Adventure ("Gable's back and Garson's got him! - a tag line that proved more memorable, actually than the film, but still - Gable), then, later Sunrise at Campobello (improbably elegant as Mrs. Roosevelt - who, come to think of it, was another Mystery Guest) and The Singing Nun - she had a broader range than she is given credit for and was a bigger popular favorite than might seem the case today. She's not Rosalind Russell (who among us is, really?), but based on What's My Line?, her Mame looks like it was a kick.
Time does funny things; these days, Garson is a bit of a punchline, remembered for her incautiously long Oscar speech (she got it for Miniver, and was nominated four more times, although, perhaps fearing an encore, Academy voters never gave her another nod) and for a stuffy solemnity that seems to have been far from the case (although Madame Curie is rather a chore, both hagiographic and laughably inaccurate). She had the gift of playing nice characters (and who is nicer, in the end, than Elizabeth Bennett or Kay Miniver - let alone Eleanor Roosevelt?) memorably, which is a great deal harder than it looks and not generally the path to top roles (if it were, Ann Harding would have been the biggest star in Hollywood history).
She had a good run, and when she'd had enough, she married well (a Texas millionaire) and lived out what seems to have been a very pleasant life. If that's not worth the cover of Time, I don't know what is.