We are now entering the Shane universe…
The one and only time Van Heflin worked with Judy Garland in any significant capacity was on the 1943 film, Presenting Lily Mars, a light fun comedy that showed both actors to their best advantages and sometimes unexpected ones.
Lily Mars (Judy Garland) is a native of Midhaven, Indiana and wants to be an actress. Like, really, really badly. Her family is a little bit eccentric but no one in town minds. Mama (Spring Byington), a widow, teaches piano and makes hats. Brother Davey (Douglas Croft) collects doorknobs. Sisters Poppy (Patrick Barker), Violet (Janet Chapman), and Rosie (Annie Ross) mostly watch what Lily does and do whatever she does.
Not everyone is impressed, though. Lily’s boyfriend, Charlie (Ray McDonald) is dead set against Lily being an actress and at the beginning of the movie we see him storm out of the Mars house in a huff.
John Thornway (Van Heflin), a famous Broadway producer, still calls Midhaven his hometown even though he lives and works in New York, but since his mother, Mrs. Thornway (Fay Bainter) still works there, John goes back and forth. When Mama sends Lily over to the Thornway house to deliver a hat, Lily talks her way into seeing John, and won’t take no for an answer even though John is in no way interested.
Lily accidentally-on-purpose steals John’s script in her hat box and when John comes over to get it she and her sisters stage a hammy Victorian version of the sleepwalking scene from MacBeth. Nice guy that he is, John demonstrates the proper way to play the scene before taking his script and going back to his mom’s house.
It doesn’t matter anyway, because Lily will be over with Poppy later to perform again, only this time it’s a scene from an actual Victorian melodrama called “The Secret Bride.” John isn’t impressed, and gives Lily tickets to see his current show so she can see what professional acting looks like. Lily knows how to be a pest, though, and crashes the afterparty, where she wows the crowd with a song and John glowers some more.
Mama tells Lily she’s not going to get anywhere as an actress in Midhaven and needs to go to New York, so Lily hitchhikes her way there and sneaks into John’s new show. John’s a little peeved initially, but he feels himself softening and gives Lily a job in the chorus. He even buys her lunch and helps her find a boardinghouse.
New York, of course, isn’t Midhaven, and John’s leading lady in the show, Isobel (Martha Eggert) isn’t too happy John is giving Lily so much attention, especially once she crashes one of John and Lily’s dates and hears Lily do a rather dead-on impression of her. When Isobel walks out on John’s show, John tries sticking Lily in there even though she’s a bit too green and not continental enough for the role of a mature Russian princess. More changes will be made, but the big question is whether or not Lily will take the brass ring too soon or allow herself to grow into it.
OK. Presenting Lily Mars, which was based on a Boothe Tarkington novel, is a lot of fun, the music is great (my favorite is “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son“), although the doorknob-collecting is kind of needless and a little annoying. Judy was showing new maturity as an actress, since she not only turned twenty-one in 1943, but she was already out of her first marriage. It’s amazing that she looks so fresh-faced in this movie, because when rehearsals for Mars started Judy was finishing For Me And My Gal, and then while Mars was wrapping up Judy would be starting rehearsals for Girl Crazy. Yeesh, that’s nuts.
Lily Mars is a different kind of film for Van Heflin, who seemed to be more of a fixture in dramatic roles and satisfyingly so, although he can be Mr. Permascowl. The glower makes it into Mars as well, but the film also gave Heflin a rare opportunity to flex his comedic muscles, and he naturally settles in as the straight man while Judy and Richard Carlson, who plays playwright Owen, are the goofballs. His John Thornway also smokes his pipe upside down, which I used to find kind of odd, but now I wonder if it was done because most of the movie takes place in New York and blackouts took place there early in America’s involvement in the war.
Heflin also got to flex his dramatic muscles in the film, albeit briefly. In the first act of the movie when John goes over to the Mars house, he reads a brief excerpt of Lady MacBeth’s sleepwalking scene, and everyone, from Judy to the kids hiding in the dining room, watches him soberly, and Judy’s applause looks genuine. I have to wonder how many takes were done of that scene, but I don’t think it would matter because good Shakespeare readings don’t get stale.
Presenting Lily Mars would be Heflin’s last feature film until 1946, as he would serve in the U.S. Army Field Artillery, and incidentally, one of the first films he would make when he got back was Til the Clouds Roll By, which kind of reunited him with Judy, who played Marilyn Miller.
The public loved Lily; the critics didn’t, mainly because they thought the film was too paint-by-numbers and they were tired of Judy playing teenagers. They didn’t seem to care much for Judy’s character, either; Variety, for instance, called Lily Mars a “pest.” For that matter, current-day critic Dennis Schwartz said the same thing, adding that the movie “is a long slog through predictable Hollywood material and is filled with enough cliches to fill all the potholes in Manhattan.”
Me, I don’t hate Presenting Lily Mars. It might not be Judy or Van’s best, but there’s definitely fun to be had, even if the doorknob thing does get a little old.
For more of the Shades of Shane Blogathon, please see Rachel at Hamlette’s Soliloquy, Thanks for hosting this, Rachel–it was a blast. Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you next Friday with my post for Gill and Barry’s Futurethon…
Presenting Lily Mars is available to own on DVD from Amazon.
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2 thoughts on “Van and Judy”
This sounds quirky and fun, maybe in the line of You Can’t Take it With You and Harvey with the really eccentric families? I’m trying to picture Van Heflin doing comedy and I think I’m just going to have to see this.
As for the pipe thing, I didn’t know you could smoke them upside down? Wouldn’t the tobacco and fire fall out??? How odd.
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It is really odd. I guess it was because New York was still doing blackouts in 1943? Maybe? Who knows. Hope you can see this, though–it’s definitely a fun one. 🙂