Babes in Arms: Mickey and Judy put on a show!
When people point up gaping holes in my film viewing history, I generally counter with, “I have to save something for my deathbed.” Seeing how I’m closer to the end than I am to the beginning, it’s time I watched a couple of films starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.
Babes in Arms (1939)
Babes in Arms was in many ways a film of great significance for all parties concerned: M-G-M’s contract wunderkind Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland’s first musical together kicked off a profitable series of four tune-filled vehicles directed by Busby Berkeley. The two star as the talented offspring of vaudeville artists — performers whose popularity is dying off faster than the once dominant variety show format. To help prop up his parent’s financial situation — and prove to the world that the youth of America is just as capable of putting on a show as the former generation — Mickey brings together his schoolmates in the name of charity to turn a barn into a music hall gala. Gee willikers, kids! Do you think there’ll be a big-shot producer in the crowd clamoring to take the show all the way to Broadway?
Long before anamorphic filmmaking made CinemaScope a household name, Berkeley was working hard at Warner Bros. using different optical apparatus to choreograph his musical numbers: gyroscopes and kaleidoscopes. And it was Berkeley’s brilliant idea to position his camera on high and aim it directly down at the decorative human geometric designs into which he was wont to mold his chorines. Berkeley very much wanted to prove himself to be more than just a purveyor of novelty numbers in this, his first entirely solo effort since making the leap from Warners to Metro. The intimate, comparatively low-key numbers — one set inside an apartment, another in the audience of a legitimate theatre — find Berkeley more than capable of working in confined spaces. Still, for all the subtlety, the most memorable production number in the piece is the titular tune, shot from overhead, as we follow our leads and Douglas McPhail (who at 25 is far too old to be playing an ingenue), marching as if en route to a Bund rally, toting burnable items though the backlot to build a giant bonfire.
This was the maiden production of MGM’s illustrious Arthur Freed Unit, the studio detachment that went on to set one musical benchmark after another (The Pirate, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon). Freed would later be more generous to his leading ladies, but in spite of their work together on The Wizard of Oz (Freed didn’t receive credit), Judy always took a back seat to the multifaceted Mick. (It didn’t help that she and Berkeley reportedly did not get along.) They appeared in ten films together; Judy received top billing once, on their debut pairing, Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry. Author Charles Wolfe observed that Berkeley “seems more comfortable with the cocky, energetic Rooney, who plays an adolescent version of Cagney’s role in Footlight Parade, than with Garland.” In this company, Judy becomes little more than a prop. When prolific songwriter Mickey needs someone to perform “Good Morning,” Judy’s there on cue. When Mickey needs a shoulder to cry on, it’s Judy’s ball-and-socket joint absorbing much of the moisture.
The film’s most understated highlight is June Preisser’s Baby Rosalie, so much so that one rather wished that Mick would have slighted Judy in favor of her rival babe in arms. The once-popular child star whose career got stalled in puberty is a direct dig at Shirley Temple. If something can be both bland and tasty, this is it.
Strike Up the Band (1940)
Berkeley was one of the progenitors of the backstage musical format, so it’s no surprise that MGM’s successor to Babes in Arms was another high school musical in which the clarion call was, “Hey, gang! Let’s put on a show!” Mickey sings! Mickey dances! Mickey drums! And three weeks is the amount of time Mickey is given to whip the Riverwood High marching band into a world class jazz ensemble, one capable of taking home first prize in a local contest headed by bandleader Paul Whiteman, who just happens to be passing through town. (June Preisser returns as the pampered child of a wealthy daddy who engages Whiteman’s outfit to open for his daughter when she makes her debut.) It’s still Mickey’s show, but at least this time, best gal Judy is given more room to show off her talents.
Borrowing a sentimental page from the Andy Hardy playbook, Mickey’s mom (Ann Shoemaker) finally gives her consent to her son’s dream of becoming a jazzbo, instead of a sawbones like dear, dead dad. A mid-section blast of Gay Nineties tomfoolery traipses across W.C. Fields territory without a comedic map to guide it; it’s old-fashioned in every way imaginable. Pathos arrives in the form of Larry Nunn, Judy’s 13-year-old admirer, who almost has his arm ripped from its socket in mid-performance. And Whiteman’s plea to keep potential juvenile delinquents on the straight and narrow provides the film with its biggest (unintentional) laugh: “Teach a kid to blow a horn, and he’ll never blow a safe.”
The production values are higher, the musical numbers more ornate, there’s no offensive blackface number to bring things to a halt, and damn if stop motion pioneer George Pal doesn’t show up to literally give life to a fruit and nut orchestra.