Monday, April 18, 2011

A Moment for Betty Garrett: Neptune's Daughter

Carne con frijoles...  You know, that's just the way I feel about you!

The Movie
   I am slow to post this - Betty Garrett, comedienne and musical actress extraordinaire, passed away in February of this year. Neptune's Daughter (directed by Edward Buzzell, 1949) may not be the most fitting tribute movie, but it is the film for which I remember her best.
   The set-up for Daughter revolves around Eve Barrett's swimwear design company, not a surprise when you know that Eve is played by Esther Williams -- a swimsuit just can't be far away.  Esther and Betty play sisters; Esther is the older sister with her life and business well under control, while Betty is the madcap, man-chasing younger sister.
   The plot turns on a case of mistaken identity between Jose O'Rourke, an Argentinian polo-playing lothario (Ricardo Montalban, apparently with Irish ancestry) and bumbling country-club masseuse Jack Spratt (Red Skelton).  Amidst the identity confusion, stay tuned for a swimwear fashion show, Xaviar Cugat production numbers, a love triangle involving Keenan Wynn, a swimming spectacular, an ensemble performance of a new Christmas carol in an un-Christmas-like setting and some hilarious bits involving a man trying to get on a horse.  I loved this movie when I was younger and still find it enjoyable; with so much going on, it's hard not to...
   And, yes, Neptune's Daughter is really an Oscar-winner.  Frank Loesser's tune 'Baby It's Cold Outside' won the Best Original Song Oscar in 1950, and is sung by all four of the main players:  Garrett, Williams, Skelton and Montalban.  In this film, Betty Garrett's talent for cheerful musical comedy is on full display in Loesser's tune and in an assist to Xavier Cugat.

Betty the Musical Star
  Betty had a somewhat peripatetic childhood, moving with her mother several times after her birth in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1919.  The family lived in Seattle several times, and while in her senior year of high school, a family friend connected Betty with Martha Graham who was touring with her dance troupe at the time.  On Ms Graham's recommendation, Betty received a scholarship to an acting academy in New York where Graham taught dance.  In between studying, she performed in summer-stock theaters in upstate New York.  After her schooling, Betty joined the last performance of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater company, performed in company at Carnegie Hall and sang at the Village Vanguard jazz club.
  Her Broadway debut was more of a series of short-lived roles, each leading to the next and sometimes to a touring show.  Her performance in Call Me Mister on Broadway led to awards and a one-year MGM contract in 1947.  Following her first MGM performance, the studio renewed her contract and she appeared in several musicals, including On The Town with Frank Sinatra, before taking some time to tour in England with her husband in a nightclub show.  When they returned, she was cast in another MGM musical, but the next 20 years would see Betty only occasionally working - on Broadway, TV and in film.
   Betty's career picked up again in the early 70s with the television show All in the Family, in which she played neighbor Irene Lorenzo, and on Laverne and Shirley, in which she played the neighbor Edna Babish (and won a Golden Globe).  She continued to guest on television shows until her death in 2011.

Betty Off-Stage
   Betty met her husband, Oscar-nominee Larry Parks, at an Actor's Studio workshop event in 1944 and immediately hit it off.  She proposed marriage to him after a few months dating, they were married, then did not live together again for two years while each worked in different places.
   In the early 1940s, both had joined the Communist party, and were later called to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the mid-1950s.  Parks did testify that he had been a member of the party and was blacklisted.  Betty was not called to testify at the time, which she attributed to the late stage of her pregnancy, but she was 'grey-listed' and had difficulty working for some time.  Later, when they were performing in Vegas to avoid their notoriety in LA, former senator Joseph McCarthy showed up backstage one evening, and re-appeared the next day to attempt to teach their two boys to swim.  "They never understood why they had to take a bath right after getting out of the swimming pool," she said of her two sons that day.  Her husband's career was never to recover, and after some time as a housebuilder, he died at the age of 60 in 1975.  They had been married for 30 years.
  In her later years, Betty continued to perform, teach and to support Theater West in Los Angeles, which she had helped to start in the mid-1960s.

Sources and Links
Betty Garrett's 90th Birthday Bash edited by David Engel, YouTube (well worth watching!)
Betty Garrett, Wikipedia
Betty Garrett, Time Magazine
Betty Garrett, LA Times
Her Story is One of Luck..., LA Times 
Also, check out these great pics of the TCM screening of Neptune's Daughter with Betty Garrett and Esther Williams in 2010 over at Life

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