27 January 2015

You could even beat the atomic bomb

Ava Gardner starred in only one musical, George Sidney's lavish remake of the tearjerker "Show Boat" (1951). She was cast as the mulatto Julie LaVerne after MGM had ruled out Judy Garland, Dinah Shore and Ava's good friend Lena Horne. Ava had agreed to play the part but only if she could do her own singing. For several weeks she was coached by a vocal teacher, after which she recorded her two songs "Can't help lovin' dat man" and "Bill". In her autobiography "Ava: My Story" (1990), Ava remembered giving her test record to producer Arthur Freed: "I don't think the son of a bitch ever even listened to it. He just put it on a shelf and delivered the usual studio ultimatum: "Now, listen, Ava, you can't sing and you're among professional singers." So Freed had professional singer Annette Warren record the songs as well and chose her vocals over Ava's. Ava was quite upset with MGM, and I think rightfully so since she did a wonderful job singing those songs (I actually prefer her renditions over Annette Warren's).

Ava Gardner with co-star Kathryn Grayson on the set of "Show Boat" (above) and with Howard Keel and Marge Champion (below). Ava said in her autobiography that she got on "extremely well" with Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel: "After each day's shooting we would meet in one of the dressing rooms and, ignoring one of Metro's cardinal rules, smuggle in enough tequila to send us back home in the best of humor".
But despite being upset with MGM, Ava liked playing the role of Julie LaVerne-- in fact, it was one of the few roles she liked. Her performance was well received, not just by critics but also by people in the industry. Jerry Wald, producer of such classics as "Mildred Pierce" (1945) and "Key Largo" (1948), saw Ava in "Show Boat" two months before the film opened and was very impressed. He wanted to let her know how much he liked her performance, so he wrote her the following letter on 18 July 1951 (at the time Ava was married to Frank Sinatra, hence Wald's opening line):

Source: heritage auctions/ reproduced with permission

Transcript:

July 18, 1951

Dear Ava:

Saw SHOWBOAT last night. I hate Sinatra.

Nothing could have pleased me more than the warm, brilliant performance you turned in. I think the last fan letter I wrote you was on "One Touch of Venus". Please add this to that one. There is nothing to stop you from becoming one of the top dramatic actresses in our Industry- nothing except the atomic bomb. And, if it came to a tie, you could even beat the atomic bomb.

These few lines are merely to express my deep admiration for the superb job you did in SHOWBOAT. 

Warmest personal regards.

Sincerely,
Jerry (signed)

Miss Ava Gardner
15000 Altata
Pacific Palisades, Calif.

The heartbreaking finale of "Show Boat": Ava Gardner looks on while the show boat is leaving and William Warfield is giving his goose-bump rendition of "Ol' Man River".
Writer/producer Jerry Wald and Ava Gardner in the scene where she sings "Bill".

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