Betty Garrett, Hollywood comedian – Hollywood victim.

So Betty Garrett died at the weekend aged 91. She was the taxi driving girl, Brunhilde Esterhazy, Frank Sinatra’s relentless girlfriend in one of the best screen musicals that ever came out of Hollywood – On the Town with its lively and fresh musical score by Leonard Bernstein.

Her duet with Sinatra, “Come up to my place”  is enough to give her screen immortality. She was a natural comedian and was well on her way to stardom by the time she made her two MGM musicals with Sinatra.

Sadly, well for posterity, her career, which was about to offer so much more from this zany actress, came to an abrupt end in the 1950s when her sympathy for the down-at-heel, her social conscience, her work to help others and her membership of the Communist Party led to her disappearance from the silver screen.

She was married to the actor Larry Parks, also a one-time Communist, who appeared before the infamous  House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities when it met to investigate the political sympathies of actors, directors and producers in Hollywood in the late 1940s and which led to over 300 of them, including Charlie Chaplin, having to either escape abroad or to leave the industry altogether. Parks, the rising star best known for The Jolson Story, was ruined by the investigation and then by his apparent collaboration with the committee. His film career was over. 

Betty Garrett was heavily pregnant at the time and was not summoned before the committee. later she said she thought she escaped investigation because the committee was worried that her pregnant state would look too sympathetic. Not formally blacklisted, she still had her MGM contract cancelled and she, with her husband, was silenced.

She came back though proving maybe that the feisty characters she portrayed on screen were close to her  natural fighting spirit. She was seen on American television through the 1970s in popular comedies such as All in the Family and Laverne and Shirley and even when she was well into her late eighties, made two spoof horror films, the last only two years ago.

It is worth a moment of our time to remember this funny, lively, intelligent and politically alert woman who lived long enough to help us put those days of the Hollywood blacklist into context.

So how did she remember those days?

“It’s not my nature to be bitter. What I feel is deep sorrow. We both, I think, were just on the verge of becoming really big stars, particularly Larry. And it just went crashing down.”

“To me, anger is a futile emotion. I think I can sum it up in two words: deep sorrow. Not for myself – I’ve survived, and my life is full of joy – but a deep sorrow for  Larry that will be with me in my heart for the rest of my life.”
“With all of it I tried to keep smiling, I always say if one loses ones sense of humour it’s the end of everything and one might as well turn out the light.”
Betty Garrett must have been one of the last victims of  the Hollywood blacklist days and she should be remembered, not just for her joyfully silly screen roles but also for her strength in adversity and her integrity in her beliefs.  She should remind us all too of the heartlessness of prejudice.

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