The bells keep ringing for Busby Berkeley’s For Me And My Gal (1942) a delightful musical that gives Judy Garland her first real opportunity to play an adult on screen.
Garland is Jo Hayden, a seasoned Vaudevillian working the end of a double bill with partner, Jimmy Metcalf (George Murphy). However, on the train Jo meets Harry Palmer (Gene Kelly); a brash newcomer who can’t help but think he’s God’s gift to the stage and women. Jo finds him obnoxious and tells him so immediately. When Harry greets her off a snow covered train platform with a toothy smile and “hello, spring time” Jo replies, “Aren’t you a little out of season?”
Jimmy doesn't care for Harry all that much - not because he's outspoken, cocky and self-assured, but because he's just the type of guy women like Jo can easily fall for. Besides, Jimmy's already hinted at how he feels about his dance partner. Regrettably, the feeling's not mutual.
Meeting up at a café Jo and Harry realize that their vocal and Terpsichorean talents are syncopated and destined for stardom. Harry convinces Jo to go on a whirlwind tour with him. But just as the opportunity of a lifetime seems inches from their doorstep, Harry is drafted into World War I. Determined that everything he’s worked so hard for should not be ruined by his enlistment, Harry deliberately maims his hand to avoid joining the army.
When Jo finds this out she is outraged. Believing that Harry is nothing more than a coward, Jo calls off the act. Unable to perform until his hand heals, Harry sinks into oblivion and Jo joins the Army Corp. to entertain the troops.
There, she is once more reunited with Jimmy who again hints that his affections towards her have not cooled. Instead, Jo cries on Jimmy's shoulder about Harry. "What do you do when someone you love doesn't love you back?" Jo tearfully insists without realizing the parallel in their predicaments. "I don't know," Jimmy painfully admits.
Having recovered from his injury Harry has joined the army, determined to be the man Jo wants him to be in order to win her back. During a command performance, Jo and Harry spot one another in the crowd and are reunited.
For Me And My Gal is a timely musical with a faint whiff of wartime propaganda clipped in for good measure. The story is just so/so. Roger Eden's score is anything but. Garland belts out one hit some after the next; memorable tunes that have since become an iconic part of the musical milieu.
Fresh from his Broadway success in Pal Joey, Gene Kelly makes his MGM film debut opposite Garland - ten years his junior, though already a movie musical veteran. Years later Kelly would acknowledge the actress's contribution to his foray with “I owe her an eternal debt of gratitude!”
Behind the scenes Garland backed Kelly in his disagreements with director Busby Berkeley over the staging of some of his dance numbers. Kelly was hardly in a position to call the shots. But Garland stood firm beside him, adding clout to his 'requests' and more often than not, getting his way.
In hindsight For Me And My Gal comes at a particularly awkward period in Busby Berkeley's career. He had been the wunderkind choreographer over at Warner Bros. throughout the 1930s and the envy of his peers. But a bout with alcoholism and a notorious auto accident had done much to tarnish his reputation. Worse, Warner was getting out of musicals - at least the kind Berkeley preferred - leaving the director no choice but to accept an offer from MGM producer Arthur Freed.
At MGM Berkeley would never again know the autonomy he had once commanded. MGM was a star-heavy studio and stars had their say; not like the celebrities of today do - but still taking precedence over a director - particularly in the musical genre. And Berkeley, it must be remembered, was the only choreographer working in movies who could not dance himself. The geometric precision he employed using hundreds of chorus girls at WB would not do at MGM where star driven intimacy in musicals was the norm.
As such, For Me And My Gal is a very unlikely vehicle for Berkeley. There are no real opportunities for his style to distinguish itself. Nevertheless, the film trips along with an effervescence and charm that intoxicates. The blending of Gene Kelly and Judy Garland's voices seems tailor-made for the movies. She improves his singing ability and he augments her dance routines.
When For Me And My Gal opened it was one of MGM's top moneymakers. Viewed today, the film retains a warm fuzzy glow for restrained spectacle with William H. Daniel's luscious cinematography transforming Kelly and Garland into rare objects of exquisite beauty.
Warner Home Video delivers a very stylish and clean DVD transfer. The gray scale is perfectly balanced with deep blacks and very clean whites. Age related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum. There is some minor shimmering of fine details but nothing that terribly distracts. The audio is mono but presented at an adequate listening level. Extras are limited to an introduction by Garland biographer, John Fricke, a musical outtake and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)