Greer Garson was one generation's idea of a great screen actress. It's a view hard to sustain but, in the 1940s, the noble emoting of Garson or Joan Crawford was thought superior to the more subtle truths of, say, Ann Sothern or Judy Garland. Unlike Crawford, Garson did reveal a lively sense of humour and she could be captivating on occasion. The key to her career was that she was in the right place at the right time. If she was lucky, then so was MGM.
She was a successful stage actress when the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, went to a West End play called Old Music (1937) on the (mistaken) assumption that it was a musical. Her performance impressed him enough to offer a contract, but his studio did not know what to do with a broad-faced, university-educated thirtyish British actress; so, this being the era of typecasting, they saw her as another Binnie Barnes, whose forte was to chase after men, money or both.
Illness prevented Garson from following this path (the film was called Dramatic School) and she languished till Sam Wood cast her in Goodbye Mr Chips (1939), which he was to direct in Britain. She did not relish the role, since she was due to die only screen minutes after marrying and humanising the dry schoolteacher Mr Chipping. Robert Donat collected a popular Oscar for playing him, but Garson's brief contribution was equally vital. C.A. Lejeune, the film critic of the Observer, spoke of her "vivid grace" and Graham Greene admired "the short-lived wife [who] lifts the whole picture into - we are tempted to call it reality - common sense and tenderness, a sense of happiness too good to last".
On her return to Hollywood she was forced into the studio's chosen image - a New York sophisticate, jagged with sophistication in huge hats - squabbling and making up with Robert Taylor in Remember? But her Mrs Chipping was uppermost in executive minds when casting Pride and Prejudice (1940), based on a stage version which had been bought for Norma Shearer and Clark Gable. Garson and Olivier were much more sensible choices, even if Olivier later observed: "Dear Greer seemed to me all wrong as Elizabeth . . . she was the only down-to-earth sister but Greer played her as the most affected and silly of the lot". However, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote that she had "stepped out of the book, or rather out of one's fondest imagination: poised, graceful, self-contained, witty, spasmodically stubborn and as lovely as a woman can be." Nevertheless those who tend to Olivier's view sighed for her presence during the recent BBC adaptation, in which Jennifer Ehle completely missed Lizzie's sense of self-mockery.
Garson's performance reversed MGM's concept of her, and she replaced Shearer in the title role of Mrs Miniver (1942) when that actress refused to play the mother of a grown-up son. He was played by Richard Ney, who was actually years younger than Garson: 14, in fact, though at the time it seemed less, since MGM's publicists had lopped years off her age. She obliged them by waiting till the film had gone its rounds before making him her second husband, but as far as the studio was concerned the film had made her the biggest star on the lot.
It was a movie showered with Oscars, including Best Film, Best Actress (Garson) and Best Director (William Wyler). Garson made cinema history by making an acceptance speech that lasted 45 minutes: new rules were brought in to stop this happening thereafter. The story of an "ordinary" British family through Dunkirk and the Blitz, it struck a particular chord with the Americans, who had just entered the war.
Winston Churchill told Parliament that it had done more for the British war effort than a flotilla of destroyers. Yes, and Garson epitomised the courageous British housewife, the domestic ideal, partnering the equally sunny Walter Pidgeon, with whom she was to make eight films in all; but what with Mrs M rounding up a German paratrooper in the garden and no mention of rationing it was hardly realistic. Wyler, when he arrived in Britain with the Army, admitted that he would have made a very different picture if he had been here first.
Better altogether was Random Harvest since, as adapted by the same four writers, including James Hilton (who had written the original novel as well as Goodbye Mr Chips), it aspired only to romantic melodrama. Ronald Colman was the amnesiac officer who meets and falls in love with a music- hall star played by Garson on Armistice Day 1918 and marries her; and who later doesn't recognise her when she becomes his secretary. Accompanied by some publicity about the lady's short stage kilt and tights, the film was a second box-office bonanza (at a time when few New York cinemas showed their films for more than a week, these ran for 10 and 11 weeks respectively at Radio City Music Hall).
MGM had forced Shearer into retirement and had let Myrna Loy, "the perfect wife" go; Garbo had withdrawn for the duration; Crawford, who had hoped to inherit the mantle of Metro's First Lady, saw it (to her chagrin) bestowed on Garson, who also inherited a role intended for Garbo - Madame Curie (1943), with Pidgeon as Monsieur. James Agate didn't care for it but took the occasion to observe that it was time "to recognise Greer Garson as the next best film actress to Bette Davis".
MGM had just signed her to a new seven-year contract without options, and reinforced her new persona, that of a patrician matriarchal figure, in two period family dramas, Mrs Parkington (1944), with Pidgeon, and The Valley of Decision (1945), with Gregory Peck. "Gable's Back and Garson's Got Him" was the way the studio publicised his first post-war film, Adventure (1946), but it was a slogan much derided - partly because the plot degenerated (depending on how you lok at it) from romantic comedy to religious allegory, and partly because Clark Gable let it be known that he loathed it.
The movie marked the start of a gradual decline in Garson's fortunes, and the next, Desire Me (1947), was the only film to be issued without a director credit in the studio's history. This was hardly her fault, but co-star Robert Mitchum observed that he stopped taking acting seriously when she needed 125 takes to say "No". Garson and Pidgeon were put into a comedy in an attempt to change the image, but Julia Misbehaves (1948) was chiefly remarkable for ill-using its source, Margery Sharpe's clever novel The Nutmeg Tree. Garson's fans returned when she played Irene to Errol Flynn's Soames in That Forsyte Woman (1949), based on part of Galsworthy's saga, but they stayed away from a more obvious attempt to retrieve them, The Miniver Story (1950).
With the exception of Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar (1953), in which she was Calpurnia, her last films for the studio were mediocre. She was considered for the role Grace Kelly eventually played in Mogambo but the producer, Sam Zimbalist, considered her too mannered. Like Fox's Betty Grable, her only constant rival on the box-office lists, she had become a liability, but because their names had been so indelibly associated with these studios for so long, they were kept on well after they had outlived their appeal.
A Western at Warners, Strange Lady in Town (1955), confirmed this and, having married a wealthy Texan, Garson didn't need to work. She accepted only occasional roles that she really wanted to do, including Auntie Mame (1958) on Broadway, replacing Rosalind Russell; Eleanor Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello (1960); an imperious Queen Mary, by this time a sort of alter-ego, in Crown Matrimonial (1974), for television; and Aunt March in a television Little Women (1978). She spent her last years in Dallas, where her work for good causes was unstinting, including the campus theatre endowed in her name.
Joe Mankiewicz, who was at MGM at the same time, was once talking to me about its producers. "They all had a girl on the side. Eddie Mannix had - what was the name of that Irish-Jewish redhead?" "Greer Garson?" I ventured, wondering that what to me was one of the most regal of stars was to him just another half-forgotten "protegee". Could this be the same Greer Garson who indignantly rejected the self-parody number in Ziegfeld Follies written for her by Roger Edens and Kay Thompson, which Judy Garland so eagerly played?
Greer Garson, actress: born Co Down, Northern Ireland 29 September 1903; married 1933 Edward A. Snelson (marriage dissolved 1937), 1943 Richard Ney (marriage dissolved 1947), 1949 Elijah "Buddy" Fogelson (died 1987); died Dallas, Texas 6 April 1996.
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