Judy Garland is so tied to the role of Dorothy, and pretty much every role that followed it, that it’s easy to forget what her career was like before she clicked her Ruby Slippers together. One of my favorites of her pre-Oz movies is 1938’s Listen, Darling, a fun road trip-meets-Parent Trap dramedy that features durable character actors Gene Lockhart, Alan Hale, Mary Astor, and Walter Pidgeon, not to mention a maturing Freddie Bartholomew.
The movie opens at Daniel Webster Junior High’s commencement ceremony, where Canadian expat Herbert “Buzz” Mitchell (Freddie Bartholomew) is giving out with a speech about the school’s august namesake, or is trying to. He draws a blank and his Uncle Joe (Charley Grapewin) has to feed him some lines. Buzz sits down feeling a bit embarassed but forgets about his forgetfulness when his best friend, Pinkie Wingate (Judy Garland) takes the stage and wows the crowd with “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.”
Pinkie’s worried that her widowed mother, Dottie (Mary Astor) might marry Mr. Drubbs (Gene Lockhart), the local banker. Drubbs isn’t a bad guy, but Pinkie knows her mother doesn’t love him. She just wants to hear her mother laugh again and reminisces about when her dad was alive and they all took a spontaneous road trip in the family trailer.
Dottie is sympathetic, but she’s also looking out for her family’s security. Money is very tight, and Mr. Wingate left no life insurance, so the family is having to sell the trailer and their house. Dottie also wants Pinkie to go to music school for proper voice training.
Buzz finds Pinkie crying in the family trailer, which is for sale at Uncle Joe’s shop, and starts hatching a plan. The only way to cheer Dottie up is to take her on a road trip, but since they know she won’t leave, Buzz suggests they basically kidnap her. Pinkie runs home to pack while Buzz quietly drives the trailer over to her house, and as soon as he gets there she drops the luggage out the window.
Everything seems to be going off without a hitch (no pun intended) except that Pinkie’s brother, Billie (Scotty Beckett) figures out that something’s up, and Buzz locks him in the trailer closet to keep him quiet. Naturally, Dottie, who’s just taken a roast out of the oven, goes looking for Billie, and when she ducks in the trailer to let him out of the closet, Buzz slams the door and locks it tight. Pinkie comes tearing out of the house with more luggage, throws it in the back of Buzz’s jalopy, and they’re on their way.
Dottie is a wee bit peeved at first, and funnily enough, no one mentions the fact that she left an entire roast sitting on her kitchen counter, but after Pinkie explains her concerns she softens. There’s only one condition: Buzz has to let Dottie drive.
Just taking a road trip isn’t going to cure anything, though. When Dottie tells Buzz she’s going to have to go back home eventually and marry Drubbs, Buzz and Pinkie cook up a plan to find Dottie a husband she actually loves and Pinkie can be happy with. They’re going to get an early start in the morning and go look for him.
Conveniently enough, there’s a fancy trailer parked next to our group when everyone wakes up in the morning. It’s owned by Richard Furlow (Walter Pidgeon), amateur photographer, lawyer, free spirit, and very much available. Up the road a bit there’s also J.J. Slattery (Alan Hale) the kindly widowed owner of a life insurance company. Yep. Things start happening.
There’s not much to the plot of Listen, Darling; in fact, that was the critics’ chief complaint about the movie when it first released. On the other hand, though, the film is so danged likeable. There was probably a lot of surprise on the part of both the critics and the public about this, because Hollywood was still trying to figure out what to do with teenaged performers.
Heck, society was figuring out what to do with teenagers in general because so many cultural and economic factors changed in the early twentieth century. More kids were going to school longer, child labor laws were becoming stricter, and kids weren’t expected to grow up as quickly as they had been throughout previous history.
Getting back to the movie, I’m glad Listen Darling is a simple, direct story. The whole thing is a delight. Judy Garland and Freddie Bartholomew were friends in real life and this showed in their performances.
Well, in Freddie’s case, he wanted to be more than friends with Judy, and it’s obvious how smitten he is playing Buzz. In the first scene when Judy sings, Freddie watches slackjawed and probably not entirely acting. Bartholomew said later the whole thing was obviously one-sided, but it’s likely he and Judy always thought fondly of each other.
The movie hits all the right notes (I know, I know, another pun). It’s charming and funny, and everyone gives wonderful performances. I like that it isn’t loaded up with too much intrigue or schtick because a simple story like this would get lost in the shuffle. As it is, it’s easily enjoyable and satisfying.
Judy Garland was probably thankful that things were kept light. As TCM has pointed out, the film had some uncomfortable parallels to Judy’s real life. “Zing! Went the Strings Of My Heart” was the song she sang at her MGM audition and remained one of her signature tunes for the rest of her life. Judy lost her own dad three years before Listen, Darling; in fact, she sang “Zing! Went the Strings Of My Heart” on the radio while Frank Gumm was dying in the hospital.
Unlike Pinkie, Judy didn’t get to whisk her mother away on a road trip and stumble on a nice potential stepfather. Four years to the day after her husband died, Ethel Gumm married Will Gilmore, a man Judy hated. Who knows how that marriage turned out, but Gilmore understandably seems to be persona non grata among Judy fans and film historians. He doesn’t even have an entry on Find A Grave. Either way, the marriage deepened the rift that already existed between Ethel and Judy, and eventually they would be almost completely estranged.
The film has yet another, pleasanter, parallel to Garland’s life, because it was the first of two instances in which a Garland movie featured a character named Wingate. The second time was in 1950 when Judy’s Jane Falbury played opposite Eddie Bracken’s Orville Wingate in Summer Stock, her final movie at MGM.
In 1938, though, Judy wouldn’t have been aware of what was ahead of her, and that’s one of the things that makes Listen, Darling work, even if it is a diminutive movie. It’s innocent through and through, which is rare indeed.
I’ll be participating in a surprise blogathon tomorrow. Thanks for reading, all…
Listen, Darling is available on DVD from Amazon.
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