Since the reason for this weeks muddle of detours was the Gertrude Lawrence musical biopic ‘Star’ with Julie Andrews (this led to Alexander Woolcott to George S. Kaufman to Moss Hart and Judy Garland etc) let’s circle back to the real culprit here. I speak of the greatest star of the London stage in the 1920s, 30s and possibly beyond Gertrude Lawrence. So powerful was her stardom that almost twenty years after her death, 20th Century Fox made a huge biopic about her life (the aforementioned ‘Star’)–three hours with an intermission, roadshow seating etc.–assuming that the life of an English performer of the past would be of absorbing interest to the middle of the country. (Of course the movie bombed so they were clearly mistaken…but who can bemoan the waste of a few million of somebody else’s dollars, all in the service of show-biz nostalgia?)
Lawrence herself appeared very rarely on screen and some of the work of the early thirties is lost forever. There was a 1938 English made version of her hit play ‘Susan And God’, but the film was bought and suppressed by MGM when they remade it two years later with Joan Crawford. (I don’t know if a copy of it survives–probably does but dubbed in Swedish…) She did however appear in a brief British Pathe short (or should that be a short British Pathe brief?) which I’ve posted above, singing a song called ‘You’re My Decline and Fall’. The title is better than the song but the quality of the image is excellent and is probably the clearest view we have of her. Below that I’ve posted a song from a 1929 movie, ‘The Battle Of Paris’. The picture quality of this one is lousy but the song, ‘They All Fall In Love’, is much better–how could it not be, given that it was written by Cole Porter? In each clip you get a sense of her magnetic star power in a curious way: she’s reasonably attractive but not gorgeous while singing in a very period manner with minimal but amusing gestures. Yet you can’t take your damn eyes off her. She seems to know a naughty secret and she’s sharing it only with you. Her appealingness , her almost accidental sensuality and her come-hither humor make you want to meet her after the show, flowers and champagne in hand with a cab at the ready and a table reserved at the Savoy Plaza (and possibly a room as well). Unfortunately there isn’t much more visual evidence of Gertie to see. And I’m sorry to say that, having now seen the real thing, little of her special qualities were captured by Julie Andrews, even though ‘Star’ was clearly a sort of love letter from one English superstar to another who she must have grown up idolizing. In my version of ‘Star’, I’d have cast Julie Christie or Vanessa Redgrave and if they can’t sing, screw it–we revoice them with Marni Nixon.