Betty Garrett: “We decided to put the Hollywood blacklist behind us and get on with our lives”

On April 7, 2004, American philanthropist and media mogul Ted Turner, founder of CNN and TCM among others, received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Several actors from Hollywood’s golden age, including MGM stars Esther Williams, Margaret O’Brien, Ann Rutherford, and Betty Garrett came to honor him. Ann Rutherford praised Turner for running the screen classics on television ‘without breaking for commercials, without making those surgical cuts that idiots make. He has given a new life to so many, many people, who suddenly were getting fan mail.’

Betty Garrett, being one of them, started her short but memorable film career at MGM in 1948 and became known for her singing, dancing and bright comic acting, as a bouncy and bubbling second lead, typically playing the heroine’s best friend. Throughout her career, which ultimately covered more than six decades, she also appeared in theatrical revues, nightclubs and television sitcoms. But she most beguiled film audiences in a small number of standout supporting roles in the popular MGM musicals of the late 1940s. In 1951 her career stalled after her husband Larry Parks, who had played Al Jolson in “The Jolson Story” (1946), was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and admitted he had been a member of the Communist Party. Standing by her man, the studios shunned both, and she did not return to the screen until several years later in “My Sister Eileen” (1955).

Ann Rutherford, Cora Sue Collins, Ted Turner, Betty Garrett, Margaret O’Brien and Esther Williams on April 7, 2004, when Ted Turner received his Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Photograph: Leo Verswijver

I first met Ms. Garrett at the Ted Turner event on Hollywood Boulevard, and was introduced to her there by a very dear mutual friend, Hollywood casting agent Marvin Paige. We set a date right away to meet for an interview at her home in Studio City, California, where she has been residing since 1963.

Ms. Garrett, was it a difficult choice for you to stand by your husband politically when he was blacklisted, a decision which interrupted your career pretty badly?

It always amazes me when people say that. It’s almost like saying, ‘It was nice to stick by your husband when he had his appendix out.’ What else would I do? And of course, I was always very much involved in all the radical things myself.

What was the atmosphere really like during the blacklist era? Were people really scared?

Yes, that was the most terrifying thing about it. People were so scared of losing their career, scared of being disgraced – and for what? Because of a political opinion? Because they marched against discrimination and for good housing? Those were the things that I was involved in, and for this, I had to be scared to let anybody know that I did this? And because we were all scared, some lifelong friends became enemies. So many lives and careers were ruined.

The cover of Betty Garrett’s autobiography “Betty Garrett and Other Songs: A Life on Stage and Screen” (1998)

Whenever you talk to people from your generation, certainly if they were blacklisted, it’s pretty clear that the wounds have not healed after all those years.

Well, there’s always something to fight for. People have told me, ‘Oh, that will never happen again.’ And then I said, ‘Wait a minute!’ It’s happening right now, it always takes a different color or face, for example when someone says you can’t think or speak this way, because you have to think their way, and if you don’t, you’re un-American, immoral, or whatever. If you don’t fight against that kind of prejudice, you’re gonna lose. My husband was hurt very badly during the Hollywood blacklist. After he did “The Jolson Story,” he became a major star in the U.S., because it was one of the first Hollywood films to make ten million dollars in its first year. That’s nothing compared to the box office receipts today, but in those days that was a huge profit for a movie to make. But when he was blacklisted and was up for something, all of a sudden someone would say, ‘No, he’s not hireable.’ So he went into the building business, built apartment houses in the Los Angeles area, and we continued performing in plays on the stage, in summer stock, and took it on the road. We even played twice in Las Vegas, strangely enough there was no blacklist in Las Vegas or on the stage. So at one point, we just put the Hollywood blacklist all behind us and got on with our lives.

It affected your film career very profoundly, but you became a very busy stage and TV actress later on. Did it make a difference to you that the gates of the film studios remained closed for you?

Not really, because movies, TV, stage… it’s all acting, it’s all show business. That is my art, if you wanna call it that. And I don’t think I’ll ever retire.

Do you still have an agent?

There is someone who represents me, he keeps track of what’s going on, and he gives me a call when something’s cooking. It’s interesting, because I never signed a contract with him. If I get a job, I pay him a commission. It’s an ideal situation, because I know a lot of people with agents who don’t do a thing for them. And yet, they hang on and wait for a phone call.

What about your days at MGM? Were you nurtured to become a star?

Those contract days were very interesting. We were all shaped by the studio, they controlled everything we did, and yet, when looking back, it was a very comfortable situation. You signed a contract for seven years, the only hitch to it was that they had an option every year dropping you – they could fire you at the end of every year – while you didn’t have an option of leaving. I once heard a judge make a judgment on that, saying it was one of the most inequitable contracts he ever heard of. During the first year, you got a substantial salary, whether you made a picture or not. You might make more pictures during that time and work your head off, but no matter what, you had a guaranteed income. And they more or less cast you in pictures that they felt you were right for. I had the fortune of being cast in pictures that I think I was very right for, especially the pictures with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Esther Williams and Red Skelton. And I didn’t have to do a thing but just answer the call. I didn’t have to audition or anything. There’s a wonderful security about that. Nowadays if you’re up for a picture, you have to go and read and compete with other people, sit around and wait for the phone to ring to see if you got the job – unless you’re a big star. That gives you a certain freedom, so I don’t know whether I like the old system better [laughs].

When you started working at MGM, how did they welcome you?

I arrived at MGM in January 1947 and they didn’t know who the hell I was. There was this division between New York and Hollywood that I will never understand, a kind of snobbery from New York people when they think that movie people are really not artists, like theater people are. And when I arrived in Hollywood, coming from New York, I had that same feeling, about how they felt about New York people. ‘Oh, she’s a New York actress, so what could she do.’ For a whole year, I didn’t get a movie, I just wandered around the lot, getting my pay check every week. Back then, MGM was the home of big stars such as Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, Esther Williams and Elizabeth Taylor – and then I came along [laughs]. But I didn’t just sit and wait, because in the meantime I started working with Lillian Burns, a very dynamic woman and a perfect acting coach at the studio. She was married to film director George Sidney, and she would act a whole part with you moment by moment. She worked constantly with Lana Turner, and to this day I can see Lana’s pictures and recognize Lillian’s expressions in nearly every scene. But I didn’t really get noticed on the lot until Louis B. Mayer’s secretary, a wonderful woman called Ida Koverman, gave Mr. Mayer a birthday party on the Fourth of July. She organized it every year, and everybody had to be in the commissary to wish him a happy birthday. So Miss Koverman decided to put together that year the entertainment and she wanted to use all of the young people the studio had just signed. That turned out to be three young children aged 9-14 years, and me [laughs]. So when it was my turn, I walked on the stage and I said, ‘I think I’m a little bit old for this program’ and it broke the place up. Everybody laughed. After I had sung three songs, everybody came up to me, hugged me, and congratulated me. The next day I was called into four or five producers’ offices, now they knew me, ‘That’s the musical comedy comedienne, now we know what to do with her.’ Metro was so big, it was like a city in itself, but once I got started there, I just loved working.

‘More stars than there are in heaven’: MGM celebrates its 25th anniversary in 1949. Front row (from left to right): Lionel Barrymore, June Allyson, Leon Ames, Fred Astaire, Edward Arnold, Lassie, Mary Astor, Ethel Barrymore, Spring Byington, James Craig, Arlene Dahl. Second row: Gloria DeHaven, Tom Drake, Jimmy Durante, Vera-Ellen, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, Betty Garrett, Edmund Gwenn, Kathryn Grayson, Van Heflin. Third row: Katharine Hepburn, John Hodiak, Claude Jarman Jr., Van Johnson, Jennifer Jones, Louis Jourdan, Howard Keel, Gene Kelly, Christopher Kent, Angela Lansbury, Mario Lanza, Janet Leigh. Fourth row: Peter Lawford, Jeanette MacDonald, Ann Miller, Ricardo Montalban, Jules Munshin, George Murphy, Reginald Owen, Walter Pidgeon, Jane Powell, Ginger Rogers, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton. Top row: Alexis Smith, Ann Sothern, J. Carrol Naish, Dean Stockwell, Lewis Stone, Clinton Sundberg, Robert Taylor, Audrey Totter, Spencer Tracy, Esther Williams, Keenan Wynn. Photograph: Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

Is there any film you did that consider a favorite?

That’s hard to say. “On the Town” [1949] was a very innovative movie at that time, because of the locations in New York, and the musical numbers that came out of the situations and the characters. The musical numbers were done by the characters in character. I also like “My Sister Eileen” [1955] which took nine months to shoot and at the time it was not a successful film. The cast became very close, I became very good friends with Janet Leigh, we all liked working with Bob Fosse, and Jack Lemmon became one of my favorite movie men of all time. He was a sweet, dear man, one of those ideal and easygoing actors. ‘You don’t want to rehearse? That’s fine, let’s just see where it will take us.’ At the same time he was a very hard worker, full of joy and laughter. But to get back to your question, it’s hard to say which film is my favorite. I also like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” [1949], Esther Williams and I became lifelong friends.

Do you remember the luncheon when MGM celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1949?

Yes. I think I was sitting next to Clark Gable, Judy Garland and Errol Flynn. Fred Astaire got in there, I didn’t know how that happened, because everybody was seated in alphabetical order, so somehow he managed to be in that group of “G” [laughs]. There are also photographs of everybody at the studio that day, all of them under the same roof, it’s simply amazing.

The 1949 luncheon at MGM celebrating its 25th anniversary. Ms. Garrett enters the MGM commissary at 1:13 minutes, and is seated between Fred Astaire and Errol Flynn at 3:55 minutes

What about your work for television?

I loved doing “Laverne & Shirley” [Ms. Garrett appeared in it from 1976-1981], but I think that “All in the Family” [with Ms. Garrett from 1973-1975] is probably one of the best written series that I’ve ever known. I was lucky to be in that for three years and all of the cast was a wonderful group of people, very talented and very bright.

Betty Garrett, Larry Parks and their first child, Garrett Parks, in 1950. Photograph: Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

Was there ever a film scheduled for you and your husband to do together?

We were always hoping for that, but it didn’t happen. We did make two TV shows for Screen Gems which was connected to Columbia Pictures, those were fun to make together, and we also did a lot of summer stock together. It was always so much fun, we loved doing that. We also had a variety act, we played all over the country and took it to Great Britain where we played twice at the Palladium, a big variety house in London. We did those variety acts every two years for about six years, and then television took over. Variety houses became sleazier, the performers were working less than they did before. That was heartbreaking, because we loved playing our act.

You’re still working now, aren’t you?

Yes, and I think the last year has been one of my busiest years in a long time. I did two major television shows [“Boston Public” and “Becker,” both 2003] and for one of them I was nominated for an Emmy [“Becker”], a very funny show – a live show with a live audience. I had a wonderful part, an old lady who lives across the hall from John Becker [character played by Ted Danson] in this apartment building. So I’m still very active, I’ve also been involved with a theater group I founded in 1962 [Theatre West in Los Angeles]; I teach a master comedy class there once a week. I keep busier than I mean to [laughs]. It’s funny, yesterday I had lunch with a woman who’s writing a book about aging. This country is very youth-oriented and everybody tries to look young. But you can be elderly and advanced in age, while you certainly can keep doing things and not be or feel old. I have a great interest in life, so when you get to be my age, don’t fall in love with your bed [laughs]. Most friends my age are still very active.

Are you still in touch with movie people from your generation?

Yes, quite a lot. Margaret O’Brien, Ann Rutherford, I also used to see Ann Miller quite a bit, she passed away recently. We don’t do efforts to get together, because I like to go into many different directions with everything I do, but most of these people I run into at banquets and luncheons. Esther Williams and I see each other quite often, although so many people like Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly all passed away in the meantime. I’ve been close to some people who were with my theater group, like Richard Dreyfuss and Tom Skerritt. And we’ve always been very close to the Bridges family, they are my best friends. Lloyd Bridges and my husband Larry were always very close friends, Lloyd was best man at our wedding, I am Jeff Bridges’ godmother, and Lloyd and Dorothy [Lloyd Bridges’ wife from 1938 until his death in 1998] are godparents of my oldest son. So I see Beau and Jeff Bridges quite often, they’re the closest friends I have. My boys [Garrett Parks, b. 1950; Andrew Parks, b. 1951] and the Bridges boys are also very close in age.

“The Jolson Story” is a picture that really stands the test of time, isn’t it?

Absolutely. I have more actors now who come to me and say, ‘That picture is the reason why I went into show business.’ I don’t know anyone who did a better job in synchronizing than Larry did. There is a clip from the film that had been cut, I was hoping to find it one day, and somebody found it in his basement, it’s a song Jolson [Larry Parks] sings at a party where he comes in and everybody asks him, ‘Sing us a song!’ And he says, ‘I’ll sing you a song you’ve never heard.’ The Jolson Society paid five thousand dollars to restore the scene, and then they sent to me. So now I have this beautiful clip that was cut out of the film. It’s an incredible society, with a lot of people who are still interested in Al Jolson.

The trailer of “The Jolson Story” (1946), directed by Alfred E. Green, and starring Larry Parks and Evelyn Keyes

Did you also ever meet him in person?

Yes, I got to meet him a couple of times. He wasn’t around when Larry did the Jolson picture. People think he coached Larry, but he didn’t. He went off to Florida. He would have loved to play the part himself, but he was too old, so he hoped a big star would do it. He once suggested James Cagney, because he played George M. Cohen so well [in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” 1942]. Larry did his imitation without any help at all, he wasn’t even allowed to see Jolson’s old movies, because Warner Brothers wouldn’t loan them to Columbia. I don’t know why they didn’t, maybe there was some kind of rivalry between the studios, so Larry had to really come up with everything. When listening to Jolson’s music, he had to find out how Jolson would have moved in a certain way. We knew people who knew Jolson, and they told him, ‘Oh my God, you just move exactly like him!’ Larry was a very disciplined actor and I learned a lot from him, and from his precision – I was a kind of sloppy performer at first. But he really had no help at all. Larry liked the second film better [“Jolson Sings Again,” 1949] because he thought it was a better script, but they had used the best songs in the first one. In the second picture, they had songs like ‘Baby Face’ and ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry,’ things like that, which were fine songs, but nothing compared to ‘Mamie’ and ‘You Made Me Love You.’ Those were big classics. The second picture did very well, but it was not acclaimed as the first one.

Did your husband also guide your career?

No, we stayed off each other’s careers. When Larry and I worked together in summer stock, we had a rule that we didn’t criticize or direct each other. We just worked together and loved working together – we had so much fun – but it was a no-no to go home and start criticizing each other. When I did “My Sister Eileen,” Larry was teaching me how to drive, and we learned that was a very bad idea [laughs].

Larry Parks (1914-1975) and Betty Garrett (1919-2011). Photograph: Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

Did the blacklist make any of you bitter, because of the missed opportunities?

I was able to get on with better than Larry was. He only made one more picture in his life. I guess it’s not my nature to hold on to things like that. And I’ve never been a very big big star – I’m not even sure that would have mattered to me. In fact, when I meet people who are superstars, their lives are not their own. That’s very hard. When we did “All in the Family,” Rob Reiner and I were shooting down at the Farmers Market, and we used to go out and eat lunch. People wouldn’t recognize me, but it was very difficult for him to go over there, just like Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton and Sally Struthers. They’d sit down and they’d be mobbed for autographs, photographs… They couldn’t eat their lunch. In my case, I got very nice recognition from people who would ask me for an autograph, but always very polite and good-natured. I think it has to do with the parts that I’ve been lucky to play, they were not glamorous parts that make fans go wild.

Do you remember the Academy Awards ceremony of April 1947, when your husband was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor? [The other nominees were Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, James Stewart and Oscar winner Fredric March.]

Oh yes, that was a marvellous evening. I had just come out here in Los Angeles after being in New York for two years. I think I was only in town for six months or so, and all of a sudden Larry was up for an Oscar. They had a couple of wonderful night clubs here, and after the Oscars we all went to the Mocambo [on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood]. That was a real, true Hollywood glamour evening.

Studio City, California
April 14, 2004

+ Ms. Garrett died of an aortic aneurysm in Los Angeles on February 12, 2011, at the age of 91

FILMS

BIG CITY (1948) DIR Norman Taurog PROD Joe Pasternak SCR Anne Morrison Chapin (story by Miklós László; adaptation by Nanette Kutner) CAM Robert Surtees ED Gene Ruggiero CAST Margaret O’Brien, Robert Preston, Danny Thomas, George Murphy, Karin Booth, Edward Arnold, Butch Jenkins, Betty Garrett (Shoo Shoo Grady), Lotte Lehmann

WORDS AND MUSIC (1948) DIR Norman Taurog PROD Arthur Freed SCR Fred F. Finklehoffe (story by Guy Bolton, Jean Holloway; adaptation by Ben Feiner Jr.) CAM Harry Stradling Sr., Lennie Hayton ED Ferris Webster, Albert Akst CAST June Allyson, Perry Como, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, Mickey Rooney, Ann Sothern, Cyd Charisse, Betty Garrett (Peggy Lorgan McNeil), Janet Leigh, Marshall Thompson, Mel Tormé, Vera-Ellen, Richard Quine, Gower Champion

TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME (1949) DIR Busby Berkeley PROD Arthur Freed SCR George Wells, Harry Tugend (story by Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly) CAM George J. Folsey ED Blanche Sewell CAST Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams, Gene Kelly, Betty Garrett (Shirley Delwyn), Edward Arnold, Jules Munshin, Richard Lane, Tom Dugan

NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER (1949) DIR Edward Buzzell PROD Jack Cummings SCR Dorothy Kingsley CAM Charles Rosher ED Cotton Warburton CAST Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Ricardo Montalban, Betty Garrett (Betty Barrett), Keenan Wynn, Xavier Cugat, Ted de Corsia

ON THE TOWN (1949) DIR Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly PROD Arthur Freed SCR Betty Comden, Adolph Green (musical play ‘On the Town’ [1944] by Betty Comden, Adolph Green) CAM Harold Rosson ED Ralph E. Winters MUS Leonard Bernstein, Roger Edens CAST Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett (Brunhilde Esterhazy), Ann Miller, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen, Florence Bates, Judy Holliday

MY SISTER EILEEN (1955) DIR Richard Quine PROD Fred Kohlmar SCR Richard Quine, Blake Edwards (play by Jerome Chodorov, Joseph Fields; stories by Ruth McKenney) CAM Charles Lawton Jr. ED Charles Nelson MUS George Duning CAST Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon, Betty Garrett (Ruth Sherwood), Bob Fosse, Kurt Kasznar, Dick York, Lucy Marlow

THE SHADOW ON THE WINDOW (1957) DIR William Asher PROD Jonie Taps SCR David P. Harmon, Leo Townsend (story by John Hawkins, Ward Hawkins) CAM Frank G. Carson ED William A. Lyon MUS George Duning CAST Phil Carey, Betty Garrett (Linda Atlas), John Barrymore Jr., Corey Allen, Gerald Sarracini, Jerry Mathers

TRAIL OF THE SCREAMING FOREHEAD (2007) DIR – PROD – SCR Larry Blamire CAM Kevin F. Jones ED Bill Bryn Russell MUS Chris Ainscough CAST Daniel Roebuck, Susan McConnell, Fay Masterson, Andrew Parks, H.M. Wynant, Brian Howe, Dan Conroy, Betty Garrett (Mrs. Cuttle), Dick Miller, Kevin McCarthy

DARK AND STORMY NIGHT (2009) DIR – SCR Larry Blamire PROD Trish Geiger, Sara Van der Voort, Michael Schlesinger CAM Anthony J. Rickert-Epstein ED Bill Bryn Russell MUS Christopher Caliendo CAST Jim Beaver, Jennifer Blaire, Larry Blamire, Bob Burns, Dan Conroy, Robert Deveau, Betty Garrett (Mrs. Hausenstout), Andrew Parks

TV MOVIES

ALL THE WAY HOME (1981) DIR Delbert Mann PROD Charles Raymond TELEPLAY Jeff Cullen (play by Tad Mosel; novel by James Agee) CAST William Hurt, Sally Field, Ned Beatty, Ellen Corby, Ann Doran, Betty Garrett (Catherine), Murray Hamilton, Polly Holliday

THE LONG WAY HOME (1998) DIR – PROD Glenn Jordan TELEPLAY William Hanley [screenplay of TV movie THOMAS GUERIN, RETRAITÉ [1978] by Louise Vincent) CAM Tobias A. Schliessler ED David A. Simmons MUS Michel Colombier CAST Jack Lemmon, Sarah Paulson, Kristin Griffith, Garwin Sanford, Rosemary Dunsmore, Betty Garrett (Veronica)