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Pigskin Parade

Pigskin Parade(1936)

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teaser Pigskin Parade (1936)

Stu Erwin became the first lead player nominated for a supporting Oscar® in the 1936 musical Pigskin Parade, but the real attraction is Judy Garland, billed 13th in her feature film debut and rocking the house with three solos. She's the stand-out in the kind of eclectic cast you would only find in a 20th Century-Fox musical, with this one combining wisecracker Patsy Kelly, song-and-dance man Jack Haley, the young Betty Grable and Tony Martin, eternal stoolie Elisha Cook, Jr. (as a student communist) and future star Alan Ladd. Somewhere in the midst of all that is a very funny story about a hillbilly with a killer throwing arm recruited to save a college football team.

Garland had been signed at MGM through the interest of Louis B. Mayer's executive secretary, Ida Koverman, who discovered her singing with her sisters. The studio tested her and another contract singer, Deanna Durbin, in the musical short Every Sunday, then decided to drop both. Koverman and executive Benny Thau intervened on Garland's behalf, but with no projects under development for the pudgy 14-year-old, the studio loaned her to 20th Century-Fox, her only loan-out during her 15 years at MGM. To loan Garland to Fox, MGM had to turn down another offer for her services from Universal producer Joseph Pasternak, who wanted her to play the youngest of three sisters in Three Smart Girls (1936). With Garland unavailable, he turned to Durbin instead, and the film made her a star while Garland was still languishing in minor roles and singing at studio parties.

It helped a great deal that Pigskin Parade was directed by David Butler, a pioneer in movie musicals who had helped bring Fox's biggest silent female star, Janet Gaynor, into talking films with hits like Sunnyside Up (1929). His work combined graceful camera movements, a quirky sense of humor and a knack for making quieter musical numbers play intimately. Gaynor's rendition of "I'm a Dreamer (Aren't We All?)" in Sunnyside Up had been a revelation to film audiences accustomed to stars like Al Jolson, who belted out songs as though trying to reach the last row of the balcony. He made theatre-goers feel as if the star were singing directly to each of them.

Garland was far from pleased with her comic relief role as Erwin's hillbilly sister, nor did she have any friends on the Fox lot. Fortunately, Kelly took a liking to her and invited Garland to share her dressing room. Though most biographers would agree that her songs in Pigskin Parade were eminently forgettable, the young Garland wasn't. When she sang during location shooting at the Los Angeles memorial Coliseum, her voice was so powerful passersby could hear her on surrounding streets. When she had to perform the ballad, "It's Love I'm After," Garland forgot she was supposed to be a comic character and poured her heart into the song, as she had often done in her vaudeville career. The cast erupted with spontaneous applause and cries of "bravo," ruining the take. At that point, co-star Haley realized he had heard her before, at the Trocadero, and told her she was going to be a big star. They would co-star in Garland's most famous film, The Wizard of Oz (1939), and years later her daughter Liza would marry his son. A fourth Garland number, "Hold That Bulldog," was cut, though the audio is available on the soundtrack CD. Also cut was a duet version of Garland's "It's Love I'm After" sung by Betty Grable and Johnny Downs, because executives didn't want to blunt the effectiveness of Garland's solo. That cut number is also available on CD.

Pigskin Parade also gave Betty Grable more to do than she was getting at her home studio, RKO. There, she had most recently played one of the chorus girls in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Follow the Fleet (1936), a promising part cut to only a few minutes of screen time while the film was readied for release. She actually had to seek out the role in Pigskin Parade on her own, only to be overshadowed by the rest of the large cast. Just to make things worse, RKO let her go after just one more film. She found a new home at Paramount, but it was back at Fox a few years later that she would finally rise to stardom.

Pigskin Paradewas pleasantly received as an amalgam of college musical and sports comedy and did well enough to earn Erwin an Oscar® nomination the first year the Academy® gave awards for supporting players, even though he was top-billed. The Hollywood Reporter noted that preview audiences responded best to Garland's numbers, but the New York Times simply called her "cute, not too pretty, but a pleasingly fetching personality, who certainly knows how to sell a pop." Robert Garland, the New York American reviewer from whom she had taken her professional name, was more perceptive, calling her "a girl to keep an eye and ear on." Garland herself was less than pleased with the film, calling herself a "fat little frightening pig with pigtails." Fox had even dressed her to emphasize her pubescent weight problems. It would mark the beginning of a lifelong struggle with weight that would eventually contribute to the health problems that killed her.

Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: David Butler
Screenplay: William M. Conselman, Harry Tugend, Jack Yellen
Based on a story by Mark Kelly, Nat Perrin, Arthur Sheekman
Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller
Art Direction: Hans Peters
Score: David Buttolph
Principal Cast: Stuart Erwin (Amos Dodd), Patsy Kelly (Bessie Winters), Jack Haley (Winston "Slug" Winters), The Yacht Club Boys (Student Quartette), Johnny Downs (Chip Carson), Betty Grable (Laura Watson), Arline Judge (Sally Saxon), Dixie Dunbar (Ginger Jones), Judy Garland (Sairy Dodd), Tony Martin (Tommy Barker), Grady Sutton (Mortimer Higgins), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Herbert Terwilliger Van Dyck), Lynn Bari (Football Game Spectator), Alan Ladd (Student).

by Frank Miller

The Life of Judy Garland: Get Happy, Gerald Clark

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