A Biography That Stands Tall
Filichia shares his thoughts about the new biography of Joan McCracken, The Girl Who Fell Down
Never heard of McCracken? And to think that the dancer-singer-comedienne worked on Broadway with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, George Abbott, Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg, Bob Fosse (whom she married) -- and twice with Rodgers and Hammerstein. Alas, the R&H show in which she played a lead (Me and Juliet) was a flop and the one in which she had a bit part (Oklahoma!) was a smash. That's show business -- and the type of bad luck that would dog McCracken right up to her untimely death in 1961 at the young age of 43.
Still, as Sagolla details, even a small bit in Oklahoma! in 1943 was enough to jump-start McCracken's career. Choreographer Agnes De Mille had requested that each of her dancers do something distinctive in the show to attract attention. McCracken later related, "I said I could fall down and make it look real. Then I showed her. At rehearsal, the director Rouben Mamoulian didn't like it, but Richard Rodgers spoke up for me. 'Let her do it; it will make them laugh.'"
That may seem an odd response from a composer who had an integrated musical in mind, but McCracken's little bit as "The Girl Who Falls Down" -- as the program eventually listed her -- did get her noticed by audiences night after night, and also by Broadway's show-makers. It led to a genuine supporting role in Bloomer Girl in 1944, which wasn't as big a hit as Oklahoma! but still led to her getting the lead in Billion Dollar Baby in 1945, which wasn't as big a hit as Bloomer Girl. Indeed, it wasn't a hit at all; but Sagolla shows that it sure tried to be. "In the 1940s," she writes, "the Broadway theater still played an important role in setting styles. Despite its mixed reviews, Billion Dollar Baby ushered in an era of '20s nostalgia in the fashion world. For $3.50, women could visit the beauty salon at Saks 34th Street and get a modified version of the hairdo worn by McCracken in the show." Yeah, those were the days!)
The author acknowledges that McCracken was a bit of a firecracker. She reports that once, while giving an interview, McCracken asked the writer, "Why don't you say that, when you came into my dressing room, I was sitting on the ceiling?" More provocative still was what she did when she had an appointment with vocal coach Kay Thompson: She told Thompson that she needed to make herself more comfortable, then took off not only her blouse but also her bra. (Thompson later played the impossibly demanding magazine editor in Funny Face. If you've caught that film, can you see the look on the woman's face when McCracken stripped?)
McCracken wasn't particularly lucky in love, either -- at least not until the end of her life. Admittedly, she did cheat on her first husband Jack Dunphy while he was overseas during World War II. He responded by leaving her and soon started what would be a lifelong partnership with Truman Capote. Sagolla quotes Dunphy as saying, "I would have never become homosexual if Joan stayed with me." (Of course not!)
But McCracken really did get a raw deal from second husband Fosse, whom she took under her wing when she was established and he was struggling. Sagolla quotes Hal Prince as saying, "Joan McCracken was single-handedly responsible for getting Bobby Fosse his first job as a choreographer on Broadway." That was The Pajama Game, for which Fosse hired Shirley MacLaine. Sagolla quotes MacLaine, too: "Fosse listened to McCracken. I was the beneficiary." And Fosse was indeed devoted to McCracken -- until Gwen Verdon came on the scene. Sagolla tells a heartbreaking story about how, in later years, McCracken was walking on Sixth Avenue and thought she saw Verdon. She ducked into a store and hid there until the coast was clear. (The irony is that the passerby was actually Dolores Gray.)
McCracken may have helped Fosse in another way when, during a 1946 interview for a dance magazine, she addressed the topic of movie musicals: "Why not photograph what can't happen on stage? If there were people to take full advantage of the opportunities the camera offers that the stage does not, the front would not only be photographed but the back, side, top, and bottom. How lovely an arabesque turn done three times as slow would be. Dancing is movement, and the movies could make it move even more if the stage were forgotten." I'll assume that she later shared these thoughts with Fosse, who sure used techniques like those she described in his films of Sweet Charity and Cabaret, as well as All That Jazz.
So here was the type of person who was better at helping others than helping herself. Sagolla shows how McCracken was very much responsible for getting A Hole in the Head produced. (Had she not, we would have never had Golden Rainbow.) Yet Sagolla doesn't show us someone particularly self-destructive but someone more victimized by her diabetes than anything else. True, McCracken did make some bad decisions along the way. MGM was interested in having her play Esther Smith's sister in Meet Me in St. Louis but she never much pursued the role and, in the end, it went to Lucille Bremer. She was also pursued by Warner Brothers to star as Marilyn Miller in the biopic of that one-time Broadway legend but opted for Bloomer Girl instead. The picture wasn't made for years, and when it finally was green-lit as Look for the Silver Lining, June Haver was a star on the rise while McCracken was not. So while The Girl Who Fell Down is an apt title for the book, Sagolla might just as well have named the book after a character that McCracken once played in a ballet: "The Girl Claimed by Sorrow."
What Sagolla has chosen to include in his 267 pages of text and 20 more pages of notes and acknowledgments is staggering. Early on, she wants to make the point that ballet was not a popular activity for young children in the late '20s, when McCracken was growing up in Philadelphia. She proves it by noting that "the city's 1926 yellow pages contained 85 different listings for dance teachers [but] few if any offered serious ballet training." Someone who makes an effort to find and look through an ancient Yellow Pages to check a fact shows me that she's working hard. (I also love a story that only tangentially involved McCracken when she was a member of the Littlefield Ballet Company and the troupe played London. Guys waiting for girls at the stage doors ridiculed the men in the troupe who were exiting -- "and," writes Sagolla, "the macho male contingent resounded with force and gave them a beating." Awright!)
What quotes Sagolla has garnered, too. There are tributes from critics as well as from people who worked with McCracken, and precious few criticisms (although Isabel Bigley, her Me and Juliet co-star, airs a big gripe). There are also some startling opinions offered. "Of all of Fosse's women," says Betty Comden, "Joan was the most special to him." And if you think that comment packs a wallop, listen to Gwen Verdon's assessment of McCracken's relationship with Fosse: "Nobody -- not one of us except Joan -- was able to enhance his life."
Today, the best way to see McCracken is in "Pass That Peace Pipe" in the second movie version of Good News, and in her dance specialty in Hollywood Canteen. Another great way to see her is to read Lisa Jo Sagolla's The Girl Who Fell Down, for these words are worth a thousand pictures.