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History repeats itself - even in Hollywood and even at MGM. Twice before the studio had built up actresses as 'great ladies'. Yet when, after a long and successful run, the public began to tire of the ice-queens, MGM thawed the image by putting their actresses in broad comedies. Two-Faced Woman (1941) ended Greta Garbo's career and Her Cardboard Lover (1942) ended Norma Shearer's. For Greer Garson, MGM's current 'great lady', the defrosting would be Julia Misbehaves (1948).
Greer Garson had arrived in Hollywood with a bang in 1939's Goodbye, Mr. Chips and throughout the 1940s starred in MGM's high-brow films, co-starred with "class acts" like Ronald Colman, Laurence Olivier, and her most frequent partner, Walter Pidgeon. Audiences saw her as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1940) or the noble, wartime English mother, Mrs. Miniver (1942). Now it was 1948. World War II was over, the world had changed, and so had audience tastes. Seeing a decline of Garson's films at the box-office (her last picture Desire Me, 1947, co-starring Robert Mitchum, had had three directors who all refused to allow their name to be put on the film), the studio once again decided to thaw the ice-queen. The film chosen was Julia Misbehaves, based on the 1937 novel The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp, which had also been a Broadway play starring Gladys Cooper. In it, Garson plays a madcap actress who abandoned her husband and child and returns, years later, to attend her daughter's wedding. In the film, Garson is seen in a bubble bath, as part of a tumbling act with a Cockney-voiced Cesar Romero, and conning Nigel Bruce out of enough money to buy her daughter a wedding present. Playing the abandoned husband was the reliable Pidgeon in his sixth film with Garson; her ex-mother-in-law is played by Lucile Watson (the great Canadian character actress who seemed to make a career out of playing disapproving mothers-in-law); the soon-to-be-wed daughter is played by Elizabeth Taylor (fresh from the set of A Date with Judy, 1948), and Taylor's fianc is played by Peter Lawford (MGM's reigning heart-throb).
If Garson's star was on the wane, then Taylor's was on the ascent. Having scored a huge hit with National Velvet (1944) only four years before, she was now transitioning from child-star to ingnue. For Taylor, Julia Misbehaves would be a memorable shoot for two reasons: she would receive her first on-screen kiss (from Lawford); and she turned sixteen during production on February 27, 1948. As Alexander Walker wrote in his Taylor biography Elizabeth, "She spent the night of her birthday dancing at the Coconut Grove, arriving in a white mink...Her parents' gift was a powder-blue Cadillac with a gold-plated ignition key. Once the photos had been taken, she considerately handed it back to them. She would stick with the old open-top Ford she had been given a couple of years ago. Rich but unspoilt was the message, though a remark she made might have had a few people wondering if there wasn't an edgy resentfulness beneath all this well-drilled ecstasy and obedience. Driving the old Ford convertible back and forth to the studio, she said, was the only time she could count on getting fresh air." MGM was certainly working Taylor hard.
Elizabeth Taylor had developed a serious crush on Peter Lawford. "Peter to me was the last word in sophistication, and he was so terribly handsome." This crush was no secret to anyone on the set and it caused Taylor acute embarrassment while shooting a love scene. "The whole company knew I had a crush on him. In the scene where he had to kiss me I was supposed to say, 'Oh, Ritchie, what are we going to do?' After the kiss I looked at him and said 'Oh Peter, what am I going to do?' And the whole company fell down laughing." Off-screen she pursued Lawford as only a sixteen year old could. While flattered by the attention, he was not about to get involved with an under-aged girl - especially such a high profile one. "The word around the studio was that anybody who touched the girl would be banished forever. They didn't want anything to befoul their investment. The joke was that anyone who took her virginity would be in violation of the Pure Food and Drug Act". Still, he was not immune to her beauty. "She was incredible, you just couldn't believe it. The nose was perfect, the eyes, everything. I'd be awfully dumb if I said I wasn't attracted to her sexually...She was coming on strong, batting those beautiful eyes and saying things like, 'You love the beach and I love the beach, so why don't we go together one day?'" Reluctantly, Lawford took Taylor to the beach. "In a bathing suit she was stunning. But it was an innocuous day. Because no matter how beautiful she was, I had to stay on ice. I saw nothing but trouble in getting involved. I had the feeling we were being constantly watched." Lawford finally told Taylor that there was no chance at a romance with him, which devastated her to the extent that she stayed in bed for days. Eventually Lawford went to her home and spoke to her at length and they remained platonic friends. Soon after production wrapped on Julia Misbehaves they would begin filming Little Women (1949).
Although Lawford couldn't make Elizabeth Taylor happy in love, he did make Greer Garson very happy. "One day Pete mentioned that he was off the next day and was going to shoot skeet with some man from Texas who was in Hollywood for a visit. He planned to bring him to lunch in the commissary at MGM and then take him on a tour of the studio. Would it be okay to bring him over to our set? I said, 'Of course'. It was better than okay, as the visitor was none other than E.E. 'Buddy' Fogelson." Lawford introduced Garson to the Texas oil and cattle millionaire, who had been in charge of oil procurement for the Allies during the war. Fogelson and Garson, who had recently been divorced from her Mrs. Miniver co-star, Richard Ney, fell in love and married the next year. The marriage would last nearly forty years until Fogelson's death. Garson would later say of Lawford, "Buddy and I always felt a very special affection for our cupid."
Garson may have been in love with Fogelson, but the critics were not in love with Julia Misbehaves. Bosley Crowther wrote in his October 17, 1948 review, "It is not that the radiant Miss Garson - the beloved Mrs. Miniver, et al - has chosen (and been permitted) to play a frivolous role. One can easily imagine and thoroughly sympathize with her eagerness to play something other than a female paragon. And her obvious disposition to kick up her artistic heels and make a few faces at virtue can be thoroughly understood. But the trouble is that she hasn't been given her head. She is still Mrs. Miniver - or Mme. Curie, or even Mrs. Parkington - on a spree.... Now, we can readily fathom the factors which MGM very carefully considered in making this grotesque film. Miss Garson has a reputation (and an instinct) for being refined. Any defilement of that status might be repugnant to her fans."
Time would prove Mr. Crowther wrong. While not a smash hit, Julia Misbehaves performed respectably at the box office. For Garson, it was a case of "third time lucky". Unlike Garbo and Shearer, her career survived MGM's attempt to change her image.
Producer: Everett Riskin
Director: Jack Conway
Screenplay: Monckton Hoffe, Gina Kaus, William Ludwig, Harry Ruskin, Arthur Wimperis, Margery Sharp (novel)
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Film Editing: John Dunning
Art Direction: Daniel B. Cathcart, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Hal Borne, Adolph Deutsch, Jerry Seelen
Cast: Greer Garson (Julia Packett), Walter Pidgeon (William Sylvester Packett), Peter Lawford (Ricthie Lorgan), Elizabeth Taylor (Susan Packett), Cesar Romero (Fred Ghenoccio), Lucile Watson (Mrs. Packett).
BW-99m. Closed captioning.
by Lorraine LoBianco
Bosley Crowther, "Garson Misbehaves", The New York Times, October 17, 1948
Dick Sheppard, "Elizabeth: The Life and Career of Elizabeth Taylor", 1974
Alexander Walker, "Elizabeth: The Life of Elizabeth Taylor"
James Spada, "Peter Lawford", 1991