Monday, April 8, 2013

Classic Film Review: Julia Misbehaves

Julia Misbehaves (1948)
Directed by: Jack Conway
Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lawford and Elizabeth Taylor

It was the rare Hollywood film that featured a female lead that abandoned her husband and baby to pursue a career as a music hall performer. But thus is the premise of the MGM comedy, Julia Misbehaves.

After completing a series heavy dramas, British star Greer Garson turned her talents to performing in a light comedy -- one that sees her sing, dance and throw around zingers like the best in the business.

Julia Packett (Garson) hasn't seen her estranged husband (Walter Pidgeon) or daughter Susan (Elizabeth Taylor, only 16 years old at the time) in nearly 20 years. While William raises Susan in Paris as a single parent, Julia traipses around the world, basking in the glow of the spotlight and her most ardent fans. When she unexpectedly receives an invitation to her daughter's impending nuptials, Julia is both shocked and touched by this act of kindness and familiarity. As she barters her way to secure passage on a steerage ship -- and vows to win enough money gambling to buy Susan Christmas presents for every year that she's missed since her birth -- Julia finds herself firmly embedded in everyone's lives the minute she lands in Paris. Her constant meddling leaves William on the verge of madness, especially when Julia gently nudges Susan away from her betrothed and into the direction of Ritchie (Peter Lawford), a young artist who not-so-secretly pines over Susan. And, despite her brash nature and matchmaking schemes, William can't help but fall back in love with the woman who left him all those years ago.

Julia Misbehaves is part screwball comedy and part family drama, with a dash of romance thrown in for good measure. It's the type of crowd-pleasing concoction that made MGM a household name. Although the audience knows that the film will inevitably have a happy ending -- not only for Julia and William but Susan and Ritchie, as well -- you take pleasure in watching all the loose threads come together.
(Left to right): Lawford, Taylor, Pidgeon and Garson.
Garson, in particular, exhibits an innate ability to convey a multitude of emotions in a single glance. Witness her fragility in the scene where she is reunited with Susan for the first time since the girl was a newborn baby. Swathed in a white dress, Julia has abandoned any semblence to her former life as an entertainer. And, despite the fact that she ran off all those years ago, a natural maternal instinct kicks into gear when she locks eyes with Susan and she can't help but reach out to the young woman and desire a close mother-daughter bond.

And while it takes nearly 45 minutes before Garson and Pidgeon unite on screen, watching them navigate through the awkwardness of being married to a complete stranger is a delight to watch. Their relationship -- what little of it once existed -- is gradually revealed through their blossoming friendship. When Julia and William sing together at the piano it's as though they haven't spent nearly 20 years apart.

And while you watch the film for Garson and Pidgeon, you also stay for Taylor and Lawford. With two romantic plotlines, Julia Misbehaves nearly topples under the weight of too many story threads and stolen glances, but it's a joy to watch four young actors pair off and fall in love. And kudos to whoever crafted the idea that Ritchie take Susan on a picnic and lure a bear to follow them so that he can act the part as her saviour and protector. That's a new one! And Taylor and Lawford are charming in the scene.

In the end, Julia Misbehaves suffers from a meandering script (with multiple plotlines that involve a fake fiance for Julia, an extended stage sequence that drags on for far too long and a couple of false endings), yet manages to stay afloat thanks in large part to Garson and her charming costars.

A fun, if unremarkable, little comedy.