Thanks to four consecutive films made over a two-year period (1948-49), Betty Garrett became a bright light of the MGM musical: as love interest to Mickey Rooney in Words and Music; as part of the quartet (along with Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalban, and Red Skelton) that introduced the Oscar-winning “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in Neptune’s Daughter; and, most memorably, paired with Frank Sinatra twice, first in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, again with Esther Williams and also with Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin, and then reteaming with all three fellows (Gene, Jules, and Frank) in On the Town, with Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen making it a memorable sextet.
Garrett died at 91 on Saturday, February 12th. Let’s just be grateful that she got to MGM when she did, in time to go “on the town” and “to the ball game.” Her warm Broadway belt, easygoing likability, sparkling energy, and crackerjack comic timing made her every inch a first-rate musical-comedy performer. She’ll always be remembered as Hildy, the lady cab driver who chases Sinatra through most of On the Town, eventually winning him. She delightfully harasses him to “Come Up to My Place.”
Garrett was married to actor Larry Parks, the Oscar-nominated star of The Jolson Story (1946) whose career was destroyed by the 50s blacklist. She was away from Hollywood musicals until 1955 when she starred in a new version of My Sister Eileen (unrelated to the 1953 Broadway musical version titled Wonderful Town). Garrett played Ruth, created by Shirley Booth in the original play on Broadway in 1940, then portrayed by Rosalind Russell to Oscar-nominated effect in the 1942 film version and also in her Tony-winning performance in Wonderful Town. The 1942 film, though exceedingly popular, was overrated, both obvious and uninspired, exaggerated and forced. It’s so damned ordinary.
I much prefer the barely known 1955 version with Garrett and, in the title role, Janet Leigh. The basic material is still conventional, as two sisters move to New York from Ohio to achieve their dreams, but this version feels pleasantly simple and unpretentious. Its appealing mildness can also be interpreted as blandness, and it does get mired in a 50s sense of virtue. With tunes by Jule Styne, the musical selections are primarily performed by a quartet of ex-MGM players, both Garrett and Leigh, plus Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall. (The fellas’ dance-off in an alley is the film’s one great moment.) Young Jack Lemmon is Garrett’s love interest, not altogether at home in a musical but gamely forging ahead. See it for Garrett and her effortless grace, singing and dancing and making you laugh as if it were merely a lark. Which it very well might have been for someone as multi-talented as Betty Garrett.