Here’s a knockout dance number from the MGM 1947 version of ‘Good News’, featuring the great and mostly now-forgotten dancer/performer/personality/actress Joan McCracken. The original Broadway show, a big hit in the late 1920s, had long been on producer Arthur Freed’s list to adapt as a movie musical at MGM and by the time he got around to it it was clear that, rather than attempting to update the camp nature of the 20s material, it would be best to root the movie firmly in that era. As far as I know, ‘Good News’ is the first musical–and perhaps the first movie?–to revisit the 1920s. The original score, by DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, was retained but several songs were added by MGM house stalwarts Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine. ‘Pass That Peace Pipe’ is one of them.
So who was Joan McCracken and what was all the fuss about and why is she forgotten? She was a magnetic personality, a cracker-jack dancer and a serious student both of modern dance and modern drama (she was one of the charter members of the Actors Studio). She rose to prominence in the original Broadway production of ‘Oklahoma’ and quickly was offered a contract by Warner Brothers, who put her in ‘Hollywood Canteen’. But something about McCracken was a little too smart for show-biz–she didn’t like the movie, considering it pandering to serviceman, and wasn’t comfortable in Hollywood in general. Nonetheless (and thankfully) she did wind up in several movies and the above number is probably the strongest and most admired appearance of hers on film. (NOTE: you have to sit through a minute and forty seconds of the song being sung before the dance number kicks into high gear. Silly as the song is, McCracken is a mesmerizing personality and it’s worth watching the first section largely to watch her). McCracken never took hold in Hollywood and was more comfortable on Broadway. During her short life (she died of complications of diabetes at age 43) she was something of a cult figure, known for her quirky and dramatic off-stage personality as much as anything else. Her first husband, Jack Dunphy, later came out as gay and became Truman Capote’s lifelong partner. Capote based Holly Golightly, the heroine of ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’, on McCracken, even appropriating a story that Dunphy told him about McCracken’s violent reaction upon hearing of her brother’s death in World War 2. Her second husband was Bob Fosse and McCracken is credited with both encouraging him to become a choreographer and with gaining him the opportunity by badgering producer George Abbott whilst at work on ‘The Pajama Game’. Here’s a detailed Wikpedia bio of this unusual, somewhat tragic and still fascinating musical and dramatic craftsperson who life didn’t exactly treat fairly, but who nonetheless left her mark both on Broadway and in Hollywood.