It was 4:00 AM. I had to be somewhere in four hours. I should have been sleeping, or at least trying to. But Mel Tormé was in the next film, a musical from 1947, and I’d never seen young Mel before. Just a glimpse—it couldn’t hurt. Besides, what’s a few extra minutes when you know you won’t be getting any decent sleep anyway? (This is a movie-watching philosophy which has gotten the better of me more times than I can count.)
“This story takes you way, way back to another era—1927….The year of ‘flaming youth’—when a girl was a flapper—and a boy was a sheik.”
So the opening titles inform us. No doubt such a distinction was unnecessary when Good News premiered on the stage in 1927. Nor, for that matter, was it likely that anyone watching the original film version in 1930 needed to be reminded of life in the good ol’ days three years ago. But by 1947, the Production Code had all but extinguished the flame of youth. While babies may have been booming in the bedroom, the Good News girls look less like flappers than they do the mothers they became. After a decade of Depression and the War to End All Wars, the Twenties didn’t so much roar as they did mutter unintelligibly in their sleep.
As always, Hollywood asks us to believe the unbelievable—not just that these girls in cardigans and sensible shoes are quintessential flappers—but outlandish claims like the idea that no one at Tait College finds June Allyson attractive or that Peter Lawford is an American football hero who says “crik” instead of “creek”. And yet none of these moments or a dozen others like them are the film’s greatest sin. Because Good News is a swindle, making grand promises it can never keep. The fix is in from the opening shot—and it’s all down to the girl in the green dress.
To the kids at Tait, she is Babe Doolittle, Connie Lane’s (Allyson) boy crazy roommate. To the rest of the world, she is Joan McCracken, Oklahoma‘s “Girl Who Falls Down” and one of the unsung heroes of American dance.
By the time Good News came calling, June Allyson was an MGM veteran and Peter Lawford was an established leading man taking his second turn at comedy. For his part, Mel Tormé’s supporting role set him up as a teen idol for years to come. But in 1947, Joan McCracken was a Broadway baby hauled out to Hollywood to make good in the golden age of movie musicals, three years into a seven-year contract that had so far resulted in exactly one unremarkable number in Hollywood Canteen (a film McCracken was highly critical of).
Small and athletic with all the grace of a ballerina (which she was) and none of the height, McCracken was more pixie than siren. She was neither the waifish good girl nor the exotic seductress tailor made for studio stardom. And she, to her credit, knew she wasn’t much of a singer. Her Broadway belting style did not translate well to film and lacked the silvery tone of Patricia Marshall (another one-and-done star of Good News). But formal elegance from her many years with the Philadelphia Ballet (under Catherine Littlefield) and the boundless creative energy that inspired choreographer Agnes De Mille on Broadway gave Joan McCracken a seductive quality uniquely her own, such that her presence in any scene is irresistible. Nowhere is this more true than in Good News.
She opens the festivities with the school-spirited “Good News” finding comedy gold and characterization where most would see only choreography. Her lone verse in the ensemble number “Lucky In Love” is notable, not simply for the comic chemistry between McCracken and Ray McDonald, but for her form-fitting lavender dress that affords an unusually close look at the toned, muscular frame—far from the idealized beauty of the time—that made her such an athletic and distinctive dancer. But she shines brightest, no doubt, alongside Ray McDonald (himself a brilliant talent who died too young) in “Pass That Peace Pipe”, one of two numbers written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green especially for the 1947 version of the film. To this day, it remains arguably the best-known and best-loved scene from Good News. Though things could have worked out differently. Legend has it that Joan McCracken wore out 30 pairs of stockings dancing a spectacular solo in the film’s final number, “The Varsity Drag”, a sequence which, perhaps fittingly, wound up on the cutting room floor (the final reel of the 1930 film—shot in color—is also now lost). But musical numbers aside, it is in another scene entirely, when the sheer power of McCracken’s presence in shot is on full display.
Late in the film, all the Tait students gather together to learn whether golden boy Tommy Marlowe (Lawford) has the grades necessary to play in The Big Game. As student librarian, resident language nerd, and jilted lady lead Connie Lane (Allyson) enters with Tommy’s exam grade, all eyes are fixed on the two of them—all eyes in the film, anyway. For we mere humans, our gaze is drawn deeper into the crowd, to McCracken in a black and white plaid coat, blue dress, and matching blue ribbon in her hair. Even in rapt communal silence, the scene belongs to her. Lawford and Allyson are no match for the miraculous presence of Joan McCracken.
It was, by many accounts, a quality she possessed offscreen as well, though little record of it now remains. In 1937, one week after dancing in the first full-scale American production of a full-length ballet, McCracken was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. She managed her condition as best she could in the days before insulin therapy was formalized, but it inevitably took its toll. As dancing became more and more painful for her, McCracken turned her attention to dramatic acting and the budding medium of television. A heart attack (the result of diabetes) and subsequent pneumonia in 1955 all but put a halt to her career as a performer, though she made one final run off Broadway in a revival of Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine.
She would never again dance on film.
Aside from those five forgettable minutes in Hollywood Canteen, Good News has, for nearly 70 years, been the best filmed record of one of Broadway’s most innovative WWII-era musical comedy performers. McCracken’s memory now lives on best, perhaps, in the people she inspired.
While starring on Broadway in a spectacular flop called Dance Me A Song, McCracken met a young ensemble dancer who she would later marry. Impressed by his talent, she encouraged him to strike out on his own and pursue his own vision as a choreographer. Years later, in his autobiographical film All That Jazz, Bob Fosse would model the character Angelique on his late ex-wife. And Truman Capote—whose life partner Jack Dunphy had once been a member of the Littlefield Ballet (and Joan McCracken’s first husband)—drew, in part, upon Joan’s stories of her youth for the character of Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
Joan McCracken died in the fall of 1961. She was 43. Her body was cremated. Her ashes were lost.
Roughly two years after I first watched Good News in the early hours of that early spring morning, two years after I first saw the girl in the green dress, I again sat transfixed. No longer in the comfort of my own home, but on the fourth floor of a private research library in Chicago. It was a Saturday morning. I had the whole room to myself, but I was only concerned with one square foot in the corner—a single unit TV-VCR combo—the most important square foot of space in the world. The resolution on the television was never great to begin with, and the film, 75 years old and silent when it was finally transferred to VHS, was showing its age. But, for 52 seconds in 1937, a girl dances a duet with Sorrow in “Parable In Blue” choreographed by Catherine Littlefield. The dancers’ names are not listed anywhere, but their form-fitting costumes leave little to the imagination, and those shoulders—I would know those shoulders anywhere.
Maybe that’s the Good News.