By Carley Johnson
Presenting Lily Mars is a 1943 piece of cotton candy directed by Norman Taurog that is sweet and pleasant, and relies on the explosive talent of Judy Garland to mask the fact that, actually, it doesn’t really do much. It’s Americana at its most excessively idyllic (think Andy Hardy’s Carvel), which is of course what you’d expect from MGM in 1943, and takes the oft-told story of a precocious small town girl who wants to be a star and …. well, tells the story again.
Lily Mars (Judy Garland) is an aspiring young actress, who pulls out all the stops to get noticed by Broadway producer John Thornway (Van Heflin). Thornway not only comes from the same small town as Lily, but is an old friend of the family—a fact that she exploits the full in an effort to get a role in his new show. The hijinks and screwball mix-ups that ensue are cute (at one point, Thornhill’s playwright and leading lady believe that Garland is the unwed mother to three girls…who are, of course, her sisters) and the strong stable of character actors are a treat (the wonderful Fay Bainter and Spring Byington), resulting in a film that makes you…smile. But that’s about it. Which I suppose is the central problem of the film. This light, romantic musical comedy is a bit too light for its own good. For nearly two hours, it keeps ramping up as if to set up some great pay off that is never fully realized. The script knows there’s something good in the story somewhere, but it never finds what that something is and somehow ends up missing the mark. And that’s a shame, because this film could have been so much better had the script simply brought something, anything, more to the table.
Thankfully, it’s almost as if the two leads sense this structural flaw, and therefore give it everything they’ve got. This is where the film works and why it is worth watching: Garland and Heflin understand precisely how to work their respective instruments—night and day as those instruments are—and the sheer weight of their talent keeps the film afloat.
First and foremost, of course: Judy Garland. The true title of the film should really be Presenting Judy Garland, as it is obviously an MGM vehicle to showcase her starpower. And at 19 years old, Garland is a total knockout in the film; lovingly photographed, and visibly in the bloom of youth, MGM went full throttle glam on Garland here for her first truly adult role. (Notwithstanding the previous year’s Me and My Gal.) Her gorgeous round eyes fairly sparkle with excitement; her hair falls over her face and with a flip of her head it goes cascading back behind her; you can almost hear the boys’ hearts start to pound. When she sings, time stands still; her magical voice commands the catchy “Every Little Movement” and “Tom, Tom The Piper’s Son” which, unsurprisingly, are the film’s high points. (Heflin kneeing her in the derriere during “Piper’s Son” is a definite highlight.) Garland was in a healthy and happy state at the time, and finally being allowed by MGM to be a sexy woman and not a wholesome little girl it is easy to see that she is absolutely loving it; her zest for life is palpable. When she fiddles, flirtingly, with Van Heflin’s tie and says, “The reason you treat me like a little girl is because you’re afraid to think of me as a woman,” you know Garland means every last word of it.
Now, it’s pretty damn hard to even be noticed in a movie when you’re opposite Judy Garland. That five-foot-nothing towering powerhouse performer shrinks anyone and everyone else in the frame into oblivion. Unless you’re Gene Kelly (The Pirate). Or Fred Astaire (Easter Parade). Or unless you possess the supremely calculated, scene sabotaging tactics of a gesticulating Mickey Rooney.
Or if you’re Van Heflin. If you aren’t familiar with his name, then you don’t know what you’re missing. An a-typical Hollywood leading man, Heflin is not exactly a name that resonates amongst the fabled stable of Classic Hollywood leading men: Grant, Cooper, Stewart, Fonda… and that is almost certainly due to the fact that Van Heflin hardly looked like a Classic Hollywood leading man. My mother, bless her, refers to him as a “squat-faced cumquat.” Well. That may be, but Van Heflin not only owned every moment of every scene of every film he was ever in, he often was the best thing about the film itself. And Heflin, who was already an Academy Award-winning actor by the time of Lily Mars‘ release (he won Best Supporting Actor for 1942’s Johnny Eager) is more than capable of holding his own against the scene-stealing Judy Garland. Not only that, but Heflin is, as per usual, the one who makes the film actually work. Judy is a delight and her talent is tremendous, but without Heflin’s threatening-yet-tender Broadway producer Thornway, the film would be lost. He’s the anchor that holds the ship steady amid the script’s choppy waters; the solid foundation the film needs to let Judy stand tall, take center stage, and shine.
Watch Presenting Lily Mars to see a young and beautiful Judy Garland at her feisty best, and to watch how Heflin takes the oars and keeps it all together.