Chapter 8—The Men of her Dreams
As the new decade, the decade of the Forties, began, Judy was an audience favorite. But it was a teenager with wide, searching eyes and a tentative, beseeching smile, that people paid to see. Would they line up at the box office for a grown-up Judy Garland? For Judy Garland, the woman, not the girl?
That was a question MGM did not want to ask, or even contemplate asking. The careers of most child stars ended with adolescence; once they had lost their heart-tugging, playful-puppy innocence, a fickle public quickly became bored with them. Jackie Coogan and Baby Peggy, darlings of the Twenties, long since had been shown the door; Jackie Cooper and Freddie Bartholomew, darlings of the Thirties, were soon to follow. Even Shirley Temple, whose popularity had seemed as durable as Gibralter, was beginning to lose her race with time. No one in Culver City wanted Judy to suffer the same fate. Audiences knew her only as a girl in her mid-teens, and if a nervous Metro had had its way, she would have remained that age forever.
The studio did its best, certainly, to stop the clock, continuing to give her the sexless, young teenager parts her fans were accustomed to. In her first picture after Babes in Arms—Andy Hardy Meets Debutante it was awkwardly titled—she again played Mickey Rooney's lovestruck sidekick, Betsy Booth. Next, starting in April 1940, came Strike Up the Band, which, the songs aside, was almost a copy of Babes in Arms, a sequel in all but name. Once more poor Judy was Mickey's junior partner; once more her loving glances went unnoticed—his busy eyes were fastened on other, prettier girls. "You're as important to me as a brass section," was as amorous as the scriptwriters allowed him to get. For the moment, romance was not to be hers, not on screen, anyway. A perpetual adolescent, with as much sex appeal as a tuba or a trombone, was just the image Metro wanted Judy to have.
The portrait painted by Metro's artful propagandists was not entirely false: in some ways Judy was an ordinary, all-American girl. She met her friends, mostly other show business brats, for malteds at the drug store. She spent hours listening to the latest records. She invited the gang over on Saturday nights to dance and play charades. Good-looking, energetic and fun-loving, her friends looked as if they had stepped straight out of Hardy country, which was just what many of them had done. Mickey, Andy Hardy himself, was a regular at Stone Canyon Road. So, too, were a dozen or more other familiar faces from Thirties films, a collection that included Leonard Sues and Sidney Miller, both of whom had landed small roles in Babes in Arms; Bonita Granville, the lead in the Nancy Drew, girl detective, series; Buddy Pepper, who appeared in Seventeen with Jackie Cooper; and Frankie Darro. A more attractive snapshot of young America, refulgent in its well-scrubbed wholesomeness, could not have been taken in Grand Rapids, or in any one of the thousands of other small towns that sententious commentators liked to say represented the real United States.
Yet if the studio's portrait of Judy was not entirely false, it was not entirely accurate either. She was not sixteen when the new decade began, as Metro was still claiming; she was almost eighteen. Nor was she the sexual innocent the studio presented, and persuaded her to present, to the public. "Nobody thinks less about boys than I do," she assured one fan magazine. "I don't want to get married till I'm 24. Why 24? Well, that sounds like a good long while away."
Even MGM could not repeal the biological mandate, however, and the truth was the exact opposite. Not only did boys dominate her thoughts, not only did she dote on their rude and boisterous company, but she had been enjoying sex with them for many months. Marriage? She did not plan to wait until she was twenty-four, twenty, or eighteen. She wanted—she was desperate, in fact—to say her vows immediately, that very afternoon if it could have been arranged. She had the man of her dreams already picked out. He loved her, or so she thought, and there was just one barrier to a quick trip down the aisle: he had not yet asked her to marry him.
© 2006 Gerald Clarke
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