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The Queen Cuts Loose: Greer Garson in Julia Misbehaves

August 11, 2014

Some things only a mother can see (and anyone else, if they were looking). Julia watches Susan with Ritchie (Peter Lawford) on a picnic she set up.

It's in these quieter moments where the screenplay's unevenness comes to light. For all the crazy situations Julia finds herself in, bringing her back down to earth calls into question the script's underlying premise: a mother who abandoned her husband and child for life on the stage returns 18 years later. While an interesting, thought provoking drama could have been made around this subject (and in 1948!), for the sake of comedy this rather scandalous detail is so underplayed that it's almost a nonstarter for anyone other than Mrs. Packett. The characters most affected, William and Susan, may put on a serious face for the Packett matriarch and briefly side with her in questioning Julia's intentions, but secretly they welcome Julia's reappearance with nary a consequence; indeed, Julia herself sees little problem with what she's doing.  Since the film doesn't broach the potentially touchy subject, it was easy for me to simply make note of it and move on, which wasn't difficult considering the insanely fast pace of the movie.


In stark contrast to some of the touching moments between mother and daughter that are more reminiscent of Garson and Pidgeon's previous vehicles, several scenes in Julia Misbehaves are purely amusing to take in, if only for the fact that Garson is the one performing in them; indeed, watching Julia pick up Bunny and outwardly flirt with him in a casino so he'll give her money to buy a sheer nightgown - too inappropriate for him to see, of course, because she's really buying presents for her daughter - is all the more comical because we're watching the previous epitome of perfect wifedom and motherhood do so. to get hold of that money...

Lots of flirting and flashy smiles did the trick!

A similar reaction occurs during the movie's final moments, as Julia stubbornly tries to leave the middle of a rain storm. The scene cuts back and forth between Julia battling the elements - you know: rain, mud, bears - and William sitting comfortably indoors smoking a cigar. Between the looks they exchange and the items Julia throws at William's window, it's quite clear what the outcome will be. 

Exactly what you'd like to see in a rain storm: a bear! Especially when you just left the only nearby safe indoor space in a huff. 

All is dandy, warm, and dry indoors.

This is your punishment for letting Julia leave, William.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I failed to mention Julia's astonishing performance singing/screwing everything up with Fred and The Flying Ghenoccios. This scene was actually shot on the last day of production, and for good reason: While singing (in that unique, unharmonious husky voice) "When You're Playing with Fire," Garson performed her own stunts on a balcony 30 feet above the stage. I'm guessing the way she let MGM allow her to do that was by reasoning "...if I break my neck, it won't matter. MGM will still have a picture to release," as she told publicists (211).  After Julia clumsily makes her way from the top of the castle set to the bottom, Fred and his brothers try to get her off stage, but the show isn't over yet: Julia's drawn to nearby howling troops and spontaneously breaks into "Oh What A Difference the Navy's Meant To Me" while dodging the Ghenoccios' attempt to pull her off stage, which naturally results in them comically pulling off pieces of her costume until she's left with just a leotard and tights. Garson hams it up, gallivanting across the stage and flirting with the audience, and she's seemingly up for anything - she even swings from the curtains as they close on her! 

The sailors are definitely more Julia's crowd.

By the looks of it, Fred's a bit upset. 

What an exit!

The obvious delight Garson had with the role was clear to critics of the day, though some pointed out the great lengths the frenetically paced movie went to over compensate for all her staunch matronly roles in years past. As Bosley Crowther noted in The New York Times, when "Metro finally surrender to Greer Garson's agonized pleas that it let her play something less capitulated with a rush to the opposite extreme." Crowther gleaned that the movie "promotes the lovely lady in so many frank delinquencies that one might be strongly suspicious of the studio's liberality, if it weren't that Walter Pidgeon is also in the film... The conjunction of her and Mr. Pidgeon makes honor inevitable." It's true: a Pidgeon and Garson film without a doubt warrants the couple's ultimate pairing, and this film is no different, even though Garson goes to extremes to take Julia as far from Mrs. Miniver or Elizabeth Bennett as possible, as Crowther noted: "When the dignified lady starts scrambling about on the heads of a troupe of acrobatic tumblers as Lou Costello might do; when she goes down gurgling into a lake in a leaky rowboat and then ends up wrapped in a tablecloth, she's out of her element." 

Naturally, this can only lead to...

...Champagne and drying clothes by the fire...

...and makeshift clothing. What a form-fitting tablecloth they have in that cabin!

Out of her element Garson sure is, but I found the oftentimes slapstick roller coaster ride of events, complete with the customary scenes of nobility with Susan, rather fun. In particular, viewing the film in the context of Garson's personal and professional hardships in the years prior, I couldn't help but smile at the joy she brings to the screen - flaws or negatives be damned!   



How to get a front row seat to Garson misbehaving:

Warner Archive released Julia Misbehaves on DVD, and I think it's worth the price simply to watch Garson flirt with Nigel Bruce... and sing and dance... and prance around in a tablecloth... just buy the movie!

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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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