Twin primary passions, fan passions, have animated my humble fan’s life through childhood, through the ebbs and flows of adolescence, young adulthood, avid private watching and listening, to more public discussions of these feelings. Story telling on stage and screen and song — and the professional legacies of Katharine Hepburn and Judy Garland. Women who knew each other personally, appreciated each other’s art professionally, for a time worked at the same Golden Age movie studio and yet whose lives as lived, other than their common celebrity, could not have been more distinct. Each performer inspires high passions among fans and detractors alike. The two come together, at least in this fan’s mind, quite often. And a particular confluence of thought and event bring them both to mind, as well as other performers, over the past few days.
My love for Hepburn has led me down many roads — travels, love for theatre, college education in New England, a classic American sporty classy clothing aesthetic, and adventures seeing her on stage in several contexts (testimonials to others as well as performances of her own). And I recall sitting in a darkened movie theatre as a preteen midwestern movie and theatre loving geek soaking up the wonders of her star turn (and Academy Award winning performance) as Eleanor in the 1968 film version of The Lion in Winter (see http://tinyurl.com/3xyv6d/). I didn’t see this production on stage for many years — until the magnificent Writers’ Theatre production in 2008 (see http://tinyurl.com/29y4g5n), but have owned the playscript for many years. I pull it from the shelf from time to time to savor particular favorite passages and to analyze the differences in pacing, placement, structure between the story written for the stage and the story as adapted by the playwright James Goldman for film. The play opened on Broadway March 3, 1966 with Robert Preston as Henry and the luminous Rosemary Harris as Eleanor (see http://tinyurl.com/2b6d7to) . One particular speech from the play and film is on my mind. The following is from Henry’s final speech at end of Act One Scene six. In this speech King Henry relays to his sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John some sense of the wonder of his past and of their mother.
“My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. Henry Fitz-Empress, first Plantagenet, a king at twenty-one, the ablest soldier of an able time. He led men well, he cared for justice when he could and ruled, for thirty years, a state as great as Charlemagne’s. He married, out of love, a woman out of legend. Not in Alexandria or Rome or Camelot has there been such a queen.”
And this phrase, this rhythm — “out of love, a woman out of legend” — has been running through my mind for the past day or so. At this moment in the Garland fan community there is great anticipation of a recording, never before commercially released — a test recording that resided in a family ‘s private archives that has, suddenly, within the past few years, been revealed for the historical treasure that it is. Preteen Frances Ethel Gumm, who at the early 1935 time of the recording has just recently begun to call herself Judy Garland, has spent years in the family vaudeville act honing this particular delivery, is now living in southern California with her sisters and her parents, and has not yet been signed to M-G-M. This Decca recording, this shard of history, this evocation of a time, gives pause. A young girl-on-the-cusp-of-being-a-woman’s barely contained talent, almost raw. Barrelhouse stolid piano accompaniment to “Bill” from the then-recent Broadway original production of Show Boat. And a girl, not yet a woman, a talent “out of legend”.
© Martha Wade Steketee (July 10, 2010)