Tuesday, June 18

MGMs Sopranos I

When Leo the Lion stopped roaring at the beginning of an MGM film, that lovely soprano voice often heard from the mid-forties to the early fifties likely belonged to Kathryn Grayson.  It signaled the beginning of a light musical, one that wasn't too taxing on a weary brain and one that could allow you to forget all your troubles for about two hours.

The studio once had Jeanette MacDonald as the reigning queen of MGMs musicals but by the mid to late forties her career had ground to a halt.  It seemed to take three sopranos to replace her and we shall discuss all three in time.  First up was Grayson who came along at just the right time.

Her career, as it turned out, didn't last very long although she became a favorite of the boss, L.B. Mayer.  He was a man of strong likes and dislikes who was given to thinking of his employees as family.  Families have favorites and she assumed a position held earlier by McDonald.  Grayson was a southern belle, born in North Carolina in 1922 and moved a bit later to St. Louis.  It was there her coloratura soprano was encouraged, improved upon and discovered.  She dreamed of becoming an opera star but settled for being a movie star when Mayer discovered her and even signed her without the usual screen test.

I thought she was a beautiful actress, much more so than she's perhaps given credit for.  Her heart-shaped face was aided and abetted by sparkling eyes, a mischievous grin and an adorable little nose.  She was given to lowering her head when she was embarrassed.  She always seemed to me to be a lady.  Hollywood never was able to get her too far away from a demure nature and a southern charm.  A funny story always circulated about her.  She was big-busted but was apparently very shy about that fact, often insisting that she was dressed and photographed in a way that her ample cleavage would be difficult to detect.  Right.

While her film career got rolling with an Andy Hardy film, a successful studio franchise starring Mickey Rooney, which was frequently the launching pad for young actresses (Lana Turner and Donna Reed were part of the club), she was groomed for stardom as the soprano of the day.  She took voice lessons, dancing lessons, diction lessons and everything else the studio had in mind including horseback riding and fencing. She was soon put into those musical revue numbers in all-star extravaganzas, so popular at the time, like Ziegfeld Follies and Til the Clouds Roll By.  In another one, Thousands Cheer, she was given the lead opposite Gene Kelly as an army acrobat who falls for the colonel's daughter.

She teamed up with Kelly again (and a young Frank Sinatra) in the very successful Anchors Aweigh as an L.A. singer raising a young nephew who befriends two sailors on leave.  She would work with the crooner again in It Happened in Brooklyn and The Kissing Bandit, neither very highly regarded. 

When a young tenor by the name of Mario Lanza arrived at the studio, Grayson was quickly and understandably assigned to two pictures with him, That Midnight Kiss and The Toast of New Orleans.  They had some good moments together but often feuded and she tried to get out of working with him the second time.  I thought he was a glorious operatic singer but it was said he was a big ham, always trying to upstage her and stick his tongue down her throat.  The lady would have none of it.

Her most highly acclaimed work came actually toward the end of her career in films with her friend, Howard Keel.  (He, by the way, was the only movie baritone to star opposite all three of MGMs sopranos.)  I think the public would most remember him and Grayson for their lovely turn in 1951s Showboat.  I can still close my eyes and see them singing Make-Believe on the boat's upper deck.  

Perhaps those in the film community regard her work in 1953's Kiss Me Kate, again with Keel, as the highlight of her career and I have no problem with that.  She was blonde and as saucy and sexy as we'd ever seen her.

That same year she jumped over to Warner Brothers and made two films, one of which I truly loved because it co-starred my favorite male movie singer, Gordon MacRae.  The film was the newest rendering of The Desert Song, an operetta with music by Sigmund Romberg and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein.  It was pretty silly but again I can close my eyes and see the two of them singing the title song in that desert camp.  You don't have to close your eyes... open them and your ears and take it in:


The second film for the Burbank studio was So This Is Love, again blonde as operatic star Grace Moore who was killed several years earlier in a plane crash.  Grayson did a wild shimmy so unlike the ladylike characters she usually played.  I loved it.  Her leading man was none other than future talk show host and mega-millionaire, Merv Griffin.

In 1954 she made a musical at Paramount called The Vagabond King that was an enormous flop.  As a result either Grayson  decided to give up her career as a movie actress and try something else or as musicals were starting to fade in popularity, maybe there just wasn't a lot for her to do.  Personally I thought she had lovely comedic talents and could be counted on to deliver some dramatic flourishes, but still, one would think of her as a movie soprano and little else.  The Vagabond King, her 20th film, would be her last.

She would take up musical theater and dinner theater, often with  Keel, and they were very popular.  Ultimately she would realize her early dream to perform in opera and she would appear in productions of Madama Butterfly, La bohéme, La traviata and Orpheus in the Underworld, which she dearly loved.  In still later years she did television guest shots.  Her last appearance was in a Murder She Wrote.

Her personal life, unlike so many of her contemporaries, was never much in the spotlight.  She was married twice, to a not-so-successful actor, John Shelton, and a not-so-successful singer, Johnnie Johnston, with whom she had one daughter.  She divorced Johnston in 1951, around the time she made Showboat, and never remarried.

I thought she left films way too soon but unfortunately she was one of those performers who was pigeon-holed into a particular kind of role.  She was a fabulous singer and she was certainly at the right studio at the right time to showcase that enormous talent.  She was also beautiful and apparently a joy to work with.  It's just too bad that other areas, like comedy and drama, as stated earlier, weren't tapped into.

Kathryn Grayson died peacefully in her sleep at age 88 in 2010.

Review of The East

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