Sunday, March 13, 2016

Marathon Stars Blogathon: George Murphy

This post is part of The Marathon Stars Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. You can read more fabulous posts by clicking here.

The Task

*To get to know a star whose films you have not widely viewed (max three prior to blogathon)
*View at least five of their films and report back

Who I picked and why

After consulting Constance Valis Hills' Tap Dancing America and checking to see if there were enough films available for viewing, I selected George Murphy for the Marathon Stars Blogathon. According to Hills, Murphy is one of the "Irish Princes" who brought the vaudevillian and popular stage tradition to the big screen

What better month to celebrate the Irish actor than in March?
Source - Biography.com


Murphy was the true all-American Irish dancer, born on the 4th of July. He dropped out of Yale to dance, forming a partnership with his future wife, Juliet Johnson. The two remained married for 47 years, until her death. He ended up on Broadway before tapping his way into the movies.  

As far as I can see, Murphy was rarely the main attraction in his films. In fact, my own experience with Murphy was accidental. He happened to be in films I viewed for other stars such as Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, and Ginger Rogers. As I type this, it strikes me that it is often noted which women danced with both Astaire and Kelly, but not the men. Murphy would be one of them.


What I've seen
1) For Me and My Gal (1942) - with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly
2) Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) - with Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire
3) Tom, Dick, and Harry (1941) - with Ginger Rogers

Wish List
A Girl, a Guy, and a Gob (1941) - starring Murphy and Lucille Ball, plus it's a comedy--sign me up! I scoured the internet, but it appears this film is only available on VHS. Bummer.

What I viewed

1) Two Girls on Broadway (1940) - starring George Murphy, Joan Blondell, and Lana Turner


George Murphy sandwiched between the lovely Lana Turner and Joan Blondell
Source - Lana Turner 1930-40 Pinterest

I viewed Two Girls for George Murphy, but I'll admit it was difficult to keep my eyes off Lana Turner, who at age nineteen received top billing over veteran actors Murphy and Blondell. After knowing Turner in the capacity of femme fatale and  dramatic actress (with a dabble of comedy in the unpopular Bachelor in Paradise (1961), personal fave), I was surprised to learn she could dance too. Not taxi dance like in These Glamour Girls (1939), but really dance. While you can dub singing, dancing--full out dancing (unlike Monroe's wiggling in "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" or Joan Fontaine's attempt in "Things Are Looking Up")--is not a talent you can fake. Turner keeps up with Murphy in a variety of styles and tempos. Of course, it helps to be in the hands of an expert lead.

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2) Step Lively (1944) - starring George Murphy, Frank Sinatra, Gloria DeHaven

It looks like Murphy has a knack for introducing new stars. In Step Lively, he gets a bit of tap in the beginning, but once Frank Sinatra enters and sings, the movie becomes all Frank's. Murphy is relegated to a fast-talking, scheming side story. His character runs about, trying to pull fast ones on people in order to finance his show and lavish lifestyle. He even asks his girlfriend to play a "phony love scene" to Frank's character to keep him in the production. It's hard for me to stay angry at Murphy, though, as he dances across the stage in the finale with as much elegance as Fred Astaire or Gower Champion. Sigh.



Murphy showcases his ballroom skills while Sinatra sings, "As Long as There's Music."


Impressive set and costume design: half black to give the illusion of disappearing and half white for a stark contrast as the pillars, chandeliers, and dancers reappear 

~ ~ ~

3) The Navy Comes Through (1942) - starring George Murphy, Pat O'Brien, Jane Wyatt

Murphy trades his tap shoes for a Navy uniform in this WWII flick, which reads as a do and don't list for superior military behavior. The film covers the dangers of discussing military plans in public and the importance of obeying orders, maintaining focus under attack, and refraining from excuses.

An ignored warning leads to a surprise attack from the enemy.


Regarding orders, Murphy advises his younger shipmate:
"You know you got to learn to take 'em before you can give 'em."
Murphy is the guy to sell the message. Look at that smile! Doesn't it pull on your heart strings?


The job must get done at all costs:  
"Get back to your station!" O'Brien shouts, "Let him bleed! Get back to your gun!"


Rather than make excuses, Murphy takes the high road, allowing fellow officers to believe he abandoned his station because he was yellow.


Side note: Murphy's luck of the Irish must have rubbed off on his costars. Once again, he works beside a future screen star Desi Arnaz--albeit a decade before his I Love Lucy fame.
[Murphy would also go on to do public relation work for Desilu Productions.

~ ~ ~

4) This is the Army (1943) - starring George Murphy, Joan Leslie, Ronald Reagan 


A year further into the war than The Navy, this film focuses on boosting WWII morale. It serves as a kind of celluloid USO show, but without Hope or Grable. Extremely popular at the time of its release (it earned $10 million for the Army Emergency Relief), the film is the product of its purpose: light in plot, heavy in entertainment. Murphy's character anchors the story whereas Reagan, who plays his son, does little more than introduce the acts.

Murphy plays dancer turned WWI officer. There is that winning smile again--this time in Technicolor.

Naturally, I was most impressed by the dancing acts:


Excluding Murphy, Private William Wyckoff and Corporal James A. Cross have the best dance moves in the film.


Thought dancing "drunk" was a feat? How about dancing as though you have an injured leg? 
Murphy shows how in This is the Army.

~ ~ ~

5) Battleground (1949) - starring George Murphy, Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban


I dragged my feet on watching this non-dancing Murphy flick. I thought, here is an excuse for WWII guys to reminisce about the old days. Now that I have experienced the film...Wow. I spent the movie on the edge of my seat, heart racing, wondering what would happen next to the characters. I felt I was experiencing WWII firsthand. The writing, the acting, the cinematography make this possible. The movie pays attention to details--both big and small. I started going into the film here, but soon realized the movie could constitute it's own post. Expect a post dedicated to the film in the near future. For now, I'll focus on the man of the hour:


Murphy's sparkling smile and eyes shine through the dirt.

Murphy plays an aging solider, whose peers lovingly nickname "Pop." Though it is not a dancing role, his hoofing experience would have come in handy at the beginning of the movie when the men sing-chant during a march. Murphy makes his formal entrance singing, an ode to his musical roots.

At the onset of the movie, Pop is waiting for clearance to go home. His team teases him that the reason is his arthritis, which he denies, stating he is going home because his wife is ill. As the film progresses and the men have been on their feet for awhile, the audience learns the soldiers have not exaggerated Pop's condition. His gait develops into a full limp, a perfect characterization of an old soldier with arthritis.


~ ~ ~

6) Little Miss Broadway (1938) - starring George Murphy and Shirley Temple


I wrapped up my marathon with this fun pic. Jimmy Durante is in the cast (love him!), cracking jokes throughout the film. There is an array of vaudevillian-type acts, including a dancing penguin. And of course, the two star tappers, Shirley Temple and George Murphy.

A whole lot of cuteness in one frame

Following the style pioneered by Astaire, the dance routines are filmed full body without close-ups. Portions of Murphy and Temple's number are shot from a crane, further allowing the audience to appreciate their movements.  

 
Murphy displays athleticism as he jumps from floor to table and over gate in the dance numbers.

"We Should Be Together"



Murphy's entrance to the grand finale number by way of jumping over a gate. Watch out Fred!
  
I could do without Temple's pouting to get her way--and the attitude that this is just what women do. Additionally, it gets a bit creepy when little Shirley goes everywhere with the older Murphy and sings of love to him. (Their characters are not related. She meets him in front of his aunt's house.) But then again, it was a different time. I suppose if I was a little girl going to the movies during the Depression Era, I would want to play out a crush on Murphy via Temple too.

~ ~ ~

Final Thoughts

George Murphy was a talented dancer. He held his own against the likes of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Eleanor Powell. Perhaps he is not as well known as those names because he was also effective as an everyday Joe--or as Temple sings in Little Miss Broadway, "a regular guy." His face was effervescent when he smiled, endearing him to the public, making him accessible, yet he didn't outshine the rising stars around him. These are the same qualities that would later help him transition into public relations and politics. He served on the Board of Directors, then was president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s. In 1951, he received an honorary Oscar "for his services interpreting the film industry to the country at large." Eventually, he became a U.S. Senator for California from 1965-1971.


Senator George Murphy

Dancing with the "greats," an honorary Oscar, and Congress. What's next for this dancer? How about Star of the Month at TCM? That's a campaign I can get behind.

~ ~ ~

Thank you to The Wonderful World of Cinema and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for giving me the opportunity to get to know this talented dancer.


Ciao til next time!

Sources

"The 23rd Academy Awards Memorable Moments." Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences. Oscars.org. 2015. Web. 12 March 2016. 

Arnold, Jeremy. "This is the Army (1943)." TCM. N.d. Web. 11 March 2016.

Dietz, Dan. The Complete Book of 1940s Broadway Musicals. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015. GoogleBooks. 10 March 2016.

Hills, Constance Valis. Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford Press, 2010. Print.

Reich, Kenneth. "George Murphy, 89; Actor-Dancer Who Served 1 Term in U.S. Senate." Los Angeles Times 5 May 1992: Article Collections. Web. 12 March 2016.

Steinberg, Jacques. "George Murphy, Singer and Actor Who Became Senator, Dies at 89." New York Times 5 May 1992: U.S. Web. 12 March 2016.

8 comments:

  1. Wow he certainly seems to be an intriguing actor! Your article gives us a great preview of his films. It was well written and awesome to read. Thanks so much for your participation to the blogathon. Don't forget to read my entry as well! :)

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. =) I enjoyed participating in the blogathon--such a fun idea.

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  2. Great post! Love tap, and didn't realize how many films Murphy made.
    (this is bnoirdetour)

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    1. Thank you, bnoir. Until this blogathon, I wasn't aware of his extensive filmography either. Murphy was a fine dancer and deserves more recognition than he is given.

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  3. Thank you for the wonderful introduction to George Murphy and his films. I had no idea he became a US Senator. And that picture of young Desi--he looks like a baby! Great job.

    -Julia

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    1. Thank you, Julia. Glad you enjoyed the post and Desi pic. I had to do a double-take when I first saw him in the movie. Once he sang, though, I knew it was Desi.

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  4. Very interesting to learn more about George Murphy - I thought his dancing was great in Broadway Melody of 1940, but haven't seen much else with him.

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    1. I am still getting to know him as well. My rental of Broadway Rhythm just arrived from ClassicFlix, and I will be DVR-ing his upcoming movies on TCM. My mini-marathon continues. =) Thank you for stopping by, Judy.

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