Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Star That Got Away

The Good Girl: Lucille Bremer and the Golden Age of MGM
By David Ehrenstein and Bill Reed

As movie entrances go, the one created for Lucille Bremer at the top of Meet Me in St. Louis couldn’t be smoother. Judy Garland’s Esther Smith is explaining to Marjorie Main’s Katie the housekeeper “the brutal fact” about her sister Rose: she “isn’t getting any younger.”

“Well here comes the poor old maid now,” quips Main’s Katie with offhand sarcasm and we cut to a most attractive young woman with long red hair beneath her picture hat. Swanning up the walkway of the Smith family house, while ever-so-coquettishly trying to steal a glance at the just-moved-in “Boy Next Door, “ Lucille Bremer is the very image of feminine charm. As we quickly learn, said boy isn’t destined for her but her younger sister, leading into one of the songs that made Garland’s fame. But Bremer is scarcely short-shrifted. She gets fourth billing in this beautifully made half-ensemble-piece half-star vehicle. She and Garland make a marvelous “sister act” in a confection light on plot but generous on atmosphere, designed to cheer the spirits of wartime moviegoers in 1944 with sunny images of a better “simpler” life back in 1903. And for the soldiers at the front, always first to be shown the latest Hollywood releases -- this was literally“ what they were fighting for.“ The thing is that Meet Me in St. Louis proved so effective as to transcend its original context, going on to entertain several generations afterwards with no end in sight. And Bremer, with her perfect “cameo” features, “Gibson Girl” look, and light-spirited manner is very much a part of what makes it all work so well.

Clearly Lucille Bremer was a “find.” Even before Meet Me in St. Louis debuted plans were underway to launch her in three major follow-ups: Ziegfeld Follies, Till the Clouds Roll By and most important of all, Yolanda and the Thief. Why the rush, and on such a scale? Well, as Tinseltown scuttlebutt would have it Lucille Bremer was the producer Arthur Freed’s mistress -- or as the ever-colorful Ann Miller put it “Arthur Freed‘s pussy.” If that was indeed the case (and there’s much controversy regarding that point even to this day) Bremer would scarcely be the first movie mogul girlfriend to get the big star treatment. Think of Marion Davies and ultra-powerful newspaper magnate turned movie producer William Randolph Hearst or Darryl Zanuck head of 20th Century-Fox and the bevy of sumptuous ladies (some of quite limited acting ability) he tried to make household words. But as anyone who has seen her work knows Marion Davies, would have been a star had she never met Hearst. And while only the most dedicated of “Trivial Pursuit” players recalls Bella Darvi, Irina Demick or Genevieve Gilles, Juliette Greco remains a name to conjure with. For she had a career as a singer and “Left Bank” intellectual muse long before Zanuck met her that held her in good stead long after their affair had ended. Make no mistake about Bremer, she was always closer to the Juliette Greco than Genevieve Gilles end of the talent scale. The difference is Freed didn’t run a studio. He was simply the most celebrated producer within one -- MGM. While Louis B. Mayer was the big boss, Freed was given considerable free rein to run his “unit” (as the Freed group was called), for the musicals he produced were not only moneymakers but set the pace for the “no expense spared” look and style of MGM as a whole. Consequently any actress chosen for “Freed unit” stardom was a very special entity. And within that matrix there was nothing ever quite like the dizzying height of Bremer’s rise and the brutal rapidity of her fall.

Lucille Bremer caught Arthur Freed’s eye when he saw her performing at New York’s “Versailles” nightclub in 1943 -- the year just before St. Louis was made . It was to that venue that the classically-trained performer repaired after the out-of-town failure of the Broadway-bound, Dancing in the Streets. Prior to this she had appeared in several big New York hits including Panama Hattie and Lady in the Dark. She had also been a Rockette, at which time she was voted by her colleagues of the chorus line as "the one among them most likely to gain fame in pictures." And indeed she was, and Freed had to work fast, for when he met Bremer she had already made a screen test for Goldwyn and been offered a contract. 



Kelly said...

Okay…where's part two?

Bill Reed said...

To say that I was overly-surprised by how under-whelmed everyone seemed to be by the first Bremer post is a vast under-statement.

Thea said...

Always curious about Lucille Beemer and her career (and her relationship with Freed). She was marvelous in MMiSL but her later career didn't do her justice. Perhaps her 'casting couch' beginnings put her on the outs with the rest of the Freed Unit.