Remembering Kathryn Grayson (1922-2010)

Kathryn Grayson, blue-eyed, button-nosed brunette star of MGM musicals who played opposite Gene Kelly, Mario Lanza and Sinatra, has died at the age 88 in her home in Los Angeles. The first time I ever heard Grayson sing was while watching That’s Entertainment on television years ago. I have always been drawn to soprano voices, and knew several accomplished sopranos myself. But this was the first time as a kid that I ever heard anyone applying the coloratura technique, which fascinated me. I made it a point to seek out her other films, including the 1951 adaptation of Show Boat and Kiss Me Kate, both co-starring Howard Keel, who once said she was “the most beautiful woman in the history of movies.”

She was born Zelma Kathryn Elisabeth Hedrick on February 9, 1922 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and would relocate to St. Louis and finally Los Angeles. MGM was desperately seeking a rival for Universal star Deanna Durbin, a young soprano whose career unexpectedly skyrocketed after MGM let her go. A talent scout for Metro gave the teenage Kathryn a screen test and she reluctantly signed (she wanted opera, not film). After she signed her contract, she was offered the chance to sing Lucia at the Met, but was convinced by Mayer that she should turn it down. Grayson wouldn’t appear onstage in opera for years, though she would sing many of the famed operatic arias in her films.

Her film debut was in 1941’s Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary who unwittingly caused Mickey Rooney’s eye to wander away from Ann Rutherford. Typical of the studio system, her role was basically an excuse to showcase her talent and to test her bankability; she sang Johann Strauss’ “Voices of Spring” in Italian, capping it off with a coloratura cadenza that culminated on a G above high C. After a few more roles, her career would take off as the top-billed star of Anchors Aweigh, in which she would introduce the song “All of a Sudden My Heart Sings.”

She would prove a cross-over artist as she brought much of the classical repertoire to film audiences, playing many characters were either aspiring or established opera stars or headlining numerous stage to screen adaptations. In many such films she was often paired with piano virtuoso Jose Iturbi, who served as an onscreen mentor of sorts. In The Toast of New Orleans (1950), Grayson would introduce the standard “Be My Love” only to be upstaged by Mario Lanza, who was the one co-star with whom she didn’t get along.

Though I have seen better singing-actresses (particularly coloraturas) in the years that have passed since I first encountered Grayson, I hold a special place for her for being that first. Many of the roles she played are negligible, excuses for a beautiful soprano to sing. For what it’s worth, I think her finest moment onscreen was as Lilli Vanessi in the bowdlerized film version of Kiss Me Kate, it offers her the rare chance to be something other than an ingenue, and she really took the opportunity to heart. She was slated to star in the film version of Brigadoon, but her contract expired and Kate would prove to be her final film as an MGM player. She would make three more films, none of them very successful. The last, a Paramount produced adaptation of The Vagabond King, proved a misguided flop and one that Grayson herself admitted should never have been made.

Grayson appeared in regional and stock productions of musicals and operettas after her film career waned, recreating some of her film roles in their original stage incarnations. She made only one appearance on Broadway, as a replacement Guenevere in the original production of Camelot in 1962 (where she reportedly sang the score up a third and added unnecessary coloratura flourishes). She would take star in the show’s national tour for almost a year and a half. In the ’60s, she also made many appearances in various operas with companies around the country.

There were a few TV appearances, including a recurring bit as Ideal Molloy on Murder She Wrote. She lived in peaceful retirement, teaching voice and making appearances about her MGM days and taping a few recollections for TCM.

Grayson was married twice. Her first husband was actor John Shelton, her second singer-actor Johnny Johnston. She is survived by her daughter Patricia Kathryn Johnston and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

From Anchors Aweigh, “All of a Sudden My Heart Sings” & “From the Heart of the Lonely Poet”:

The Barn Dance

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was a rather small-scale film that came out of nowhere in 1954 to become one of the biggest hits of the year. Produced by MGM, the musical found its budget cut and studio bound as the musical unit decided to put its money into lavish film versions of Brigadoon and Rose Marie. Filmed on the soundstage with painted backdrops and a shoestring budget, filming wrapped in 48 days, the suits convinced they had a solid B picture on their hands. What they really had was an unstoppable blockbuster.

Based on Stephen Vincent BenĂ©t’s short story “The Sobbin Women,” itself an update of Plutarch’s story of the Sabine (Sabine, Sobbin’, get it?) women in Lives of Romulus, the story deals with seven backwoods brothers in Oregon who take an interest in getting a wife. When eldest Adam hurriedly marries feisty but warm Milly, he inspires the others to get their own wives – by kidnapping their lady friends and holding them at their remote cabin until the winter thaw.

Howard Keel and Jane Powell were signed on for the leads. Gene De Paul supplied the music, Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics. The film was directed by Stanley Donen, who’d gained clout for his co-direction of On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly. Michael Kidd, who won Tony Awards for his choreography of Guys and Dolls and Can-Can, and also supplied dancing for the MGM hit The Band Wagon, was signed on to provide musical staging. Kidd’s choreography on this picture would prove to be some of the most noted of his film career, particularly the Barn Dance during the first half of the picture.

After Milly has cleaned up the men, and taught them how to politely and properly court a girl, they show up at a Barn Raising and there is a dance off between the six remaining brothers and the suitors of their prospective lady friends. (The other six brothers were played by Jeff Richards (professional baseball player), Russ Tamblyn (acrobat), Matt Mattox, Jacques d’Amboise, Marc Platt and Tommy Rall (all dancers). The brides were all professional dancers, the notable standout being young Julie Newmeyer, who change her last name to Newmar and find great success as Catwoman on the 60s Batman series. Kidd’s dancing is legendary. Here is the result:
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers-Barn Dance

The film became a sleeper hit of the year, outgrossing both Rose Marie and Brigadoon. It ended up a leading contender at the Academy Awards, surprising the studio when it was nominated for Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay and, of all things, Best Picture. It won for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.

The property has maintained its popularity over the years – a stage version was commissioned in the late 70s with Lawrence Kashka and David Landay supplemented the score with some new numbers. Powell and Keel reprised their roles for this initial tour, but when the show moved to Broadway Debby Boone and David-James Carroll were in the leads. The musical was a noted flop on Broadway, lasting a mere 5 performances at the Alvin Theatre in 1982. A London company in 1985 was met with considerably more success, and even produced a cast album of the stage score. The stage version was overhauled in 2005 and is currently licensed. The film also inspired a TV series that ran on CBS from 1982-83.

London audiences were quite taken with the stage adaptation, and it has already received a West End revival. This past August, during the broadcast of the famed Proms, conductor Jon Wilson wanted to present some lighter music for audiences from American film musicals. In performing “The Barn Dance,” he find himself at an arduous task for MGM threw out orchestrations for their films once recording was completed. Wilson reconstructed Conrad Salinger’s original orchestrations by piecing together short scores and parts, and even drawing aurally from the film soundtrack. Here is their performance from August 3, 2009:

"The Varsity Drag"

It’s been pretty well established that the Freed unit at MGM was the zenith for movie musicals during the Golden Age of Hollywood. However, when it came to adapting stage hits for film they were seldom faithful to their source material. In some cases, a film musical only retained the title and maybe a song or two and nothing else. The 1947 version of Good News directed by Charles Walters fared better than most, but wasn’t spared in being overhauled. (A 1930 film was made and quickly forgotten; clips are bonus material on the DVD). The song order was changed, songs were dropped and others composed specifically for the film. Comden and Green had their first screenplay assignment bringing the 1927 smash to a late forties sensibility, and supplied the words for “The French Lesson.” Roger Edens, Ray Henderson, Kay Thompson, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane all contributed new material. Edens, Martin & Blane were Oscar-nominated for “Pass that Peace Pipe,” a showcase for Joan McCracken, a vibrant musical comedy dancer who is (unfairly) recognized as a footnote in musical theatre lore as Bob Fosse’s first wife.

The plot, if you want to call it that, involves the star player for the college football team (an unlikely Peter Lawford) who needs to be tutored in French by the charming all-American Connie Lane (the lovable June Allyson) in order to pass his exam and win the “big game.” Complications ensue when a golddigger (Patricia Marshall, who is perhaps best known as Mrs. Larry Gelbart) sets her sights on our hero. I’ll give you three guesses how the story turns out and the second two don’t count. While the film isn’t in the upper ranks of MGM classics like The Band Wagon or Singin’ in the Rain, it is considerably charming. In pulling out the stops, MGM also placed Mel Torme on the scene as one of the college cohorts, getting his own reprise of the show’s famed ballad “The Best Things in Life Are Free.”

The show was revived at the tail end of the nostalgia craze of the early 70s that brought about No, No Nanette and Irene, among others. Starring Alice Faye and John Payne, the show went out on a considerable road tour before coming to NY with Gene Nelson replacing Payne. The show was revised to build up the senior roles (professors) to give Faye and Payne/Nelson considerably more stage time ultimately deflecting the show and its energy away from the kids. The revival was met with critical indifference and lasted 16 performances at the St James Theatre. (A live cast album was made as a souvenir for the show folk out there and features the sole Broadway performance of the late, great Alice Faye). Another reworking of the show was crafted in 1993 and is licensed as an updated alternative to the original piece. While we’re on it, this would be one helluva a fun show for Encores.

“The Varsity Drag” was originally an act one showstopper led by the soubrette (McCracken’s character) but for the sake of creative license (and because the song is pure joy) it became the film’s finale, choreographed by Robert Alton. It’s one of those big 20s style numbers that’s insanely catchy (plus it teaches you the basic steps in its lyrics) and I just love it. Here’s a clip from the 1947 film.