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The Queen Cuts Loose: Greer Garson in Julia Misbehaves

August 11, 2014

For those who don't know, a movie exists in which Elizabeth Bennett/Madame Curie/Mrs. Miniver/Mrs. Parkington makes her entrance in a bath tub, dons a leotard for a musical number, AND shamelessly flirts with a number of men while legally married. Those reasons alone make Julia Misbehaves a must see for any Greer Garson fan, but beware: this isn't your grandmother's Greer Garson. It's 1948's, very much a reflection of that time in Garson's career and personal life.


Julia Misbehaves was one of the eight films Garson made with frequent screen partner Walter Pidgeon over the course of 12 years from 1941-1953. Most of their pictures fit solidly in heavy melodrama territory (we’re talking affairs, wars, orphanages, car accidents, cancer, the discovery of radium - straight up drama!), which usually isn't my favorite genre, but even so, from their most popular film, the wartime rallying cry that is Mrs. Miniver (1942), to the star-studded That Forsyte Woman (1949 - Janet Leigh, Errol Flynn, Robert Young, oh my!), it can't be denied the pair had wonderful chemistry together.  


Though Garson and Pidgeon excelled in dramas, I always love when actors play against type, and this movie is a prime example of Madame and Monsieur Curie going a bit screwy in the only comedy they made together. Garson, in particular, was not viewed as a comedic actress; her first comedy in Hollywood was 1939’s Remember?, and no one did, because it was a flop. She sparkled in a few lighter scenes in When Ladies Meet (1941), but let's face it, the best parts of that picture involve the insane dramatic tension between Garson and Joan Crawford (was it like that off screen too?). Pidgeon, on the other hand, enjoyed more chances to show his funny bone in fare like Too Hot to Handle (1938) and Design for Scandal (1941), but in my opinion he was a terrific comedic actor who wasn’t given enough opportunity in the genre.   

Julia Misbehaves opens on Garson's Julia in the bathtub, which is the farthest you can get from a bomb shelter. She's gotten herself into quite a large amount of debt and threatens to kill herself; this obviously isn't the first time she's pulled a scheme like this, and it won't be the last.  After she seduces a male friend into giving her a loan (while negotiating prices of 'antiques' to sell him in exchange, still in the bathroom), Julia receives an invitation to her daughter, Susan's (16 year-old Elizabeth Taylor) wedding. Yes, her daughter. To her friend's surprise, she is a mother AND a wife! Though she hasn't seen either in years, Julia takes this opportunity to hop on a boat and pay her husband and daughter a long overdue visit to attend Susan's nuptials. 

One of the lobby cards featuring Julia (Greer Garson) from the film's opening scene: "Gay, glamorous, but broke...Julia keeps her creditors waiting while she luxuriates in a bubble bath!"

Being Julia, the boat trip doesn't go without a hitch - or a song. Though Julia's husband William Packett (Walter Pidgeon) is instructed by his mother, Mrs. Packett (Lucile Watson), to intercept Julia before she finds her way to the house, that doesn't happen. On the boat, Julia's sidetracked/smitten by Fred Ghenoccio (Cesar Romero), a romantically bereft but physically charming specimen of a man who makes up a part of The Flying Ghenoccios, a brothers and mother act of acrobats, and the rest of her journey doesn't quite go as planned. 

Fred Ghenoccio (Cesar Romero) thoroughly impresses Julia with his acrobatic skills... 

...but even more alluring are his muscles.

When Julia accidently gets the show's leading lady, Ma (Mary Boland), drunk, she naturally must take Ma's place atop a pyramid of men, fittingly, which is where her husband first lays eyes on her again after more than a decade, though she doesn't see him.

This is how William first sees Julia again...

...holding on for dear life to an unknown man...

...and then toppling five of them.

Once Julia arrives at the Packett home in the south of France, she naturally tries to make up, emotionally and physically, for all the lost time with her daughter - 18 years to be exact - and she spares no time in doing so. For starters, she cons a man, Col. Bruce 'Bunny' Willowbrook (Nigel Bruce) into giving her money for gifts, tries to play matchmaker for Susan and painter Ritchie (Peter Lawford) even though Susan's getting married to someone else (no biggie), and manages to make William fall for her again, much to the ire of Mrs. Packett.

Susan (Elizabeth Taylor) first sees her mother again...and she doesn't know who she is!

Julia seems to be handling everything well when in walks Fred, who's looking for his fiancée. Yes, Julia and Fred got engaged while yelling their goodbyes back and forth as she hopped the train for the Packetts earlier in the movie, but she conveniently forgot to bring up the small detail of still being married to William, much to the surprise of both men.   

This situation could cause some issues, especially between Julia's husband, William (Walter Pidgeon) and her fiancée, Fred. 

Add to this the fact that Bunny shows up to collect on the 'loan' he gave Julia, and you've got one man who's thoroughly appalled by the actions of his fiancée and another who sits back and chuckles over the antics of his wife as she comically attempts to defend her actions (you'll see William has good reason to act that way). Though Julia caused the three ring circus in the first place, she also seems to be the only one who can pull everything together perfectly in standard romantic comedy fashion.

Julia uses her hands a lot to try to explain away Bunny (Nigel Bruce)'s loan to her husband and fiancée.

Julia Misbehaves marked the first Garson and Pidgeon pairing in four years. Their previous teaming was 1944's Mrs. Parkington, the last of four successive films, all dramas, they began in 1941. By 1948, a lighthearted comedy was just what the doctor ordered for Garson, particularly because she didn't fare well in those three years in between, personally or professionally: in 1947 she split from her second husband, Richard Ney, who played her son in Mrs. Miniver, after a very rough and public divorce proceeding. Furthermore, despite good casts, her films during those years (besides 1945's The Valley of Decision) sank at the box office: 1945's Adventure, Clark Gable's first movie back after he served in WWII, flopped (posters proclaimed: "Gable's back and Garson's got him!"), and 1947's disastrous Desire Me was a poor experience on several levels; Garson was swept out to sea and badly injured during filming, and the final product turned out so badly that not one of the multiple directors who worked on it would let their name appear in the credits. It's no wonder then after all that ruckus Garson "wanted a rip-snorting comedy to play," according to her biographer Michael Troyan. "No more queens; the queen's crown had slipped slightly...what I've wanted to do all along was make people laugh," she said (208). 

It's a bit hard to see, but there's no director credited on this lobby card for Desire Me.

And who better to stand by her side than Pidgeon? By 1948, the team was a well oiled machine, and despite the time off, Garson and Pidgeon quickly and easily fell back into their routine on set. Even the crew was well aware of the duo's comfort with each other: during filming of the movie's opening scene in which Garson's in a bathtub, director Jack Conway ordered everyone out except Pidgeon, who observed: "As an actor who has been married to Greer Garson four times, I should have some privileges" (209).   

No need to tuck in that tablecloth dress, Julia. These two have been 'married' several times before. 

Besides Pidgeon, Julia Misbehaves re-teamed Garson with more familiar faces. Garson worked previously with one of the three writers who penned the adaptation of Margery Sharp’s novel The Nutmeg Tree, Arthur Wimperis, on both Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Random Harvest (1942).  Wimperis, with the help of William Ludwig (the Andy Hardy series) and Harry Ruskin (the Dr. Kildare series, The Postman Always Rings Twice), transformed Sharp’s story into a brisk, romantic comedy that is at times brash, zany, and sentimental, pulling strengths from its three diverse scribes. Additionally, the ever capable and versatile Conway, who had been flexing his directorial skills since the 1910s, had been one of MGM's go-to contract directors since 1928. Pidgeon worked with him a decade before in the comedy Too Hot to Handle, and Garson's first experience with him was in the previous year's flop, Desire Me; perhaps he didn't want to end his career on such a dismal note, because Julia Misbehaves, his next movie, would also be his last. To top it all off, Garson had longtime MGM cinematographer and trusted friend Joseph Ruttenberg behind the camera, who knew exactly what angles and lighting suited her best (as legend goes, sometimes sets were built to favor her right side, the apparent stronger of the two).

On the set of Julia Misbehaves, left to right: director Jack Conway, Garson, cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, and studio chief Louis B. Mayer.

Back in a comfortable zone with rather light material to boot, Garson recalled during the film's promotion (which she participated in "with a verve she had seldom displayed on earlier occasions") that Julia Misbehaves was a joy to film: "MGM calls it, 'The New Look on Garson' and nobody's kidding...I'm happy as a lark again! We had so much fun making it, and when it was finished it was wonderful to go into the theater and hear people laughing at what that formerly staid and prim Greer Garson was doing up there on the screen" (211).  It's not hard to believe the cheerfulness either; in addition to playing a rare jolly and carefree character, Garson's personal life took a turn towards the bright side during filming as well: she met her soon-to-be third husband, Texas oil man Buddy Fogelson, a friend of both Peter Lawford and Elizabeth Taylor, on set. Their marriage a year later would prove happy and relatively stable, lasting almost four decades until Fogelson's death in 1987. 

The movie's ads played up the fact that Julia Misbehaves was quite a change of pace for Garson and Pidgeon.

But back to the movie.


For a while in the early 40s, Garson's laugh was as rare as Garbo's, which made it almost as anticipated in 1948 as Garbo's was in Ninotchka nine years earlier. Thus, its return in full force, so perfectly timed both in her personal life and in the role of Julia, is a delight to watch. Garson portrayed several strong female characters throughout her career, and while Julia is sharp in her own right, she's a whole different ballgame, perhaps coming closest to Paula in the early scenes of Random Harvest back in 1942. Here, the actress sparkles as the lovably carefree, flirtatious former (or current still?) showgirl who gave up her rich husband and young daughter for life on the stage. Though not forced into her position (and the attitude of the era in the form of Mrs. Packett reminds her of that often), the path she chose suits her better: Julia's vivacious and blithe, whereas the Packett clan leads a quiet, uneventful life, as evidenced by Susan's joint rearing by her father and grandmother, the latter's influence the stronger of the two.  


Julia's arrival at the house, a surprise to William and unwelcome to Mrs. Packett, hilariously uproots the peace and quiet that existed previously, and her re-entry into the Packett world notably re-ignites the dormant lively spirit in William. William clearly relishes the opportunity to warm up to her again, and that feeling most likely occurred on a personal level for Pidgeon as well since the two actors were so close (he famously told an interviewer once, "I did eight pictures with that gal and we never had a bad word between us"). From the first time William sees Julia again in an acrobatic show where she replaces Fred's mother because Julia accidently got her drunk, it's obvious that he's always loved her; after concerns for her safety cease (she is atop a pyramid of men), William lights up when she appears on stage, and Pidgeon glides through the part with laidback ease as he "skillfully injects just the right amount of underplaying to balance broader delivery of his partner in fun," according to Variety's review of the film.


However, the biggest adjustment for Julia is that of motherhood, 18 years after the fact. Julia's mature treatment of her daughter, who is about to be married, contrasts greatly with Mrs. Packett's strict mothering. The latter clearly doesn't want the lively Julia to be a hindrance in either Susan or William's lives; after all, she wasn't involved in the first 18 years, why now? Well, it seems not everyone holds that opinion, as ironically it was Susan who invited Julia to the wedding, though she doesn't admit it to her grandmother. Susan's secretly ecstatic that Julia came, and since this is a comedy, there's no room for Susan to feel any hostility toward her mother, who abandoned her for a career. Conversely, Julia quickly eases into the mother role, using her just-kicked-in maternal radar to uncover what no one else seems to realize: painter Ritchie is painfully in love with shy Susan, though being young and naive, Susan finds Ritchie's flirtations rather repulsive at first. It seems what she was missing all along was a mother figure to guide her through the rocky roads that are the teenage years. 

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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