“We were overworked and underfed…still, I mustn’t complain. We all did well out of Metro and Metro did well out of us. There were lots of good times too.”
- Judy Garland (1968)
In an era famous for its screen teams, there has never been one to rival the megawatt star power of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Apart, each was a legendary performer. Together, they were nothing short of box office dynamite; a powder keg of raw talent and human emotion not lost on MGM’s raja, L.B. Mayer, the custodian of both dynamos’ early careers, and, in later years, the whipping horse chiefly blamed for Garland’s steady, sad demise and premature death. While it is for certain Mayer did have his hand in occasionally setting off and plaguing Garland’s personal demons and insecurities (he famous referred to her as his ‘little monkey’ and sanctioned a rather volatile cocktail of Benzedrine and weight-loss drugs, also sleeping pills, coupled with a steady diet of his world-famous chicken soup to keep the rather plump pre-teen’s weight and mood-swings in check), Mayer’s love affair with Garland as more than just a moneymaking cash cow for the studio began shortly after her loan out to Fox for Pigskin Parade (1936). Prior to this feature-length debut, in which a freckle-faced Garland portrayed a corn-fed yokel who can call hogs down from the hills with her exuberant rendition of ‘Texas Tornado’, Judy had briefly made her mark opposite another MGM hopeful, Deanna Durbin, in a musical short, Every Sunday that same year.
Mayer needed a hook for Garland and seemed to think it would be in promoting his ‘new find’ as the pint-sized purveyor of swing trots. But after a few clever ‘misfires’ (pictures that made money and gave Garland the exposure she required to break out in popularity polls, but did little to successfully shape and carve out an air of distinction for her movie career), Mayer tapped into the winning idea of teaming Judy with the kid who was already ringing registers for him around the world. Mickey Rooney remains an extraordinary talent in the cinema firmament; staggering in his range and superb mimicry of other stars; equally as notorious for his sexual appetites and ability to run the gamut from loveable fop to teenage heartthrob. No less a luminary than Laurence Oliver called him ‘the best there has ever been’ while director, Clarence Brown, for whom Rooney did some of his greatest work in dramatic roles in National Velvet and The Human Comedy, referred to Mickey as ‘the closest thing to a genius’. Today, media hype is so readily bandied about lesser talents – labeling the likes of virtually every ‘child star’ as extraordinary and scene-stealing – one tends to forget Rooney and Garland were the real deal; considered Hollywood royalty for a time and virtually untouchable amongst their peers. In retrospect, Garland’s would become the more prolific career – ensconced as Metro’s ‘go-to’ gal for any movie musical that needed a winner; Garland’s track record throughout the 1940’s peerlessly professional with mega hits: For Me And My Gal, The Harvey Girls, Meet Me In St. Louis, and, Easter Parade to her credit.
But Mickey Rooney ought to be justly celebrated today for the fifteen Andy Hardy movies he made throughout the mid-1930s and early 1940s; homespun scenarios devoted to the timeless appeal of ‘man to man’ chats with his movie father, Lewis Stone about life, love and growing up; also, for his formidable contributions to Boys Town, Captains Courageous, Young Thomas Edison, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and, the sadly underrated, Summer Holiday. Rooney would outlive both his costar and this blazing trail of his early successes, repeatedly hampered from being taken seriously as a leading man by his diminutive 5 ft. height and a few highly publicized rows with directors that effectively put the kibosh on his faltering aspirations for mid-life longevity on celluloid. Although Rooney would work in his later years, he never quite had the ‘comeback’ Garland did with 1954’s A Star is Born (released nearly four years after she was unceremoniously dumped by MGM for her increasing erratic behavior). Like Rooney, Garland would leave the Hollywood musical in the rearview for her last act finales; committing to some A-list dramatic work in such high profile flicks as Judgment at Nuremberg, A Child is Waiting and the posthumously prolific, I Could Go On Singing (a sort of ‘This is Your Life’ backstage portrait of the epic highs and crippling lows steadily eating away at a life of a living legend).
But in the spring of 1939, all of this was, as yet, unknown to either star. What was for certain was producer, Arthur Freed had decided to buy Richard Rodgers and Lorenzo Hart’s stage smash, Babes in Arms for Mickey and Judy to star. Garland’s reoccurring role as Rooney’s next door neighbor, Betsy Booth in the Andy Hardy series had practically ensured their teaming for this, their first big-scale musical together. 1939 would be a very busy year for Rooney who appeared in no less than six movies within this twelve month period to Garland’s two. Fair enough, The Wizard of Oz – Garland’s other contribution of the season – sported a budget and lengthy shooting schedule for which virtually all of Rooney’s six commitments could have easily fitted in with money and time to spare. And Garland, already high-strung and lamentably ‘strung out’ on those studio-sanctioned uppers and downers to keep her pistons firing at breakneck levels, was entering the annals of movie-land immortality, even as Rooney’s career had already crested and begun to show the first hiccups his supremacy as one of MGM’s most popular stars was on the wane.
Babes in Arms would keep Garland and Rooney at the top of their game; the picture out-grossing Oz on its relatively miniscule budget and becoming one of the top ten hits of the year. It also marked something of a resurrection for the career of its director/choreographer, Busby Berkeley. Only a few short years prior to this release, Berkeley had been considered an untouchable at Warner Bros.; his kaleidoscopic array of leggy chorines, perfectly placed with military precision, elevating the art of that studio’s in-house style and making stars of relative unknowns, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. Alas, Berkeley was something of his own worst enemy; his massive ego chastised and haunted by a horrific car wreck causing the death of 2 people in 1935 – presumably, while Berkeley was under the influence – from which he walked away virtually without reprisals, except the sting and pall of what it had done to his reputation within the industry. Berkeley’s reinvention at MGM would greatly augment the last three musicals in the Garland/Rooney canon; 1940’s Strike Up the Band, 1941’s Babes on Broadway, and 1943’s Girl Crazy. But it is a little hard to spot it in Babes in Arms; Berkeley refraining from falling back on his ‘proven’ methods; his focus on Garland and Rooney – always placed at center stage, as per Mayer’s edict – creating a queer disconnect with the precepts of those autonomous geometric patterns made from the human form, only echoes from his earlier work on the Warner backlot.
In hindsight, the bulk of Babes in Arms is a fairly pedestrian affair, regrettably so, since Freed and MGM elected to jettison all but two of the Broadway show’s hit songs and most of its sophisticated subplot in favor of the careworn ‘hey kids…let’s put on a show!’ scenario that would become the main staple of all four Mickey/Judy musicals. The story basically centers on two precocious teens, Mickey Moran (Rooney) and Patsy Barton (Garland) whose parents are time-honored Vaudeville hams. The stock market crash and changing times shake the kids’ familial foundation to its core, forcing Mickey into an impossible decision; stage his own show to supplement the parent’s income and save everyone from complete financial ruin. Into this kerfuffle comes truancy officer, Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton, perpetually cast as everyone’s favor witch with a capital ‘B’); presumably, looking out for the welfare of these potential urchins by forcing them to be institutionalized in state-sanctioned schools while their parents are away attempting a comeback.
Predictably, it all turns out fine in the end; or rather, lavishly so, with Berkeley staging one of the surviving tunes from the Broadway show – God’s Country – as a mind-boggling piece of kitsch taking place on the steps of Washington’s Capital Building. Despite some impressive child star talent cluttering the backdrop, operatic hopefuls, Betty Jayne (cast as Mickey’s sister, Molly) and, Douglas McPhail (Don Brice), and, June Preisser, doing a wicked knock-off of a teenage, Shirley Temple already past her prime, the real joy of the piece is Garland and Rooney’s ebullient rendering of one of Arthur Freed’s time-honored hits from the 1920’s, reconstituted for this score. Auditioning ‘his’ new song for publisher, Madox (Henry Hull), Rooney breaks into the first verse of Freed’s ‘Good Morning’ – ably abetted by Garland’s trilling vocals for the chorus. It remains the picture’s most free-spirited moment. To promote Babes in Arms, Mayer sent Rooney and Garland on a whirlwind live tour; at each stop, greeted by the fervor and insanity of wildly cheering crowds, already heralded in Variety as ‘the Garbo and Gable of Hollywood High’; their banter and songs book-ended by robust outbursts of spontaneous applause.
The premiere of Babes in Arms at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Oct. 10th – a full month after it had already enjoyed a limited release – marked one of those glittery assemblages for which Hollywood then was particularly well-known; the forecourt strewn in rose-petals and glimpses of the rich and famous pulling up in their long black limousines; rabid fans screaming from the bleachers and photogs from every major newspaper snapping and lapping up the chaos with adulating coverage. By then, The Hollywood Reporter had already heralded its praise on the picture, declaring “Judy Garland does Judy Garland…which is enough for any ticket buyer!” As a humorous aside, Garland was to leave her mark on the evening in two other ways; one, decidedly not at all flattering. Invited to immortalize her foot and hand prints in the wet cement of Sid Grauman’s famed forecourt, Garland had had one of Metro’s beauticians affix her palms with some fake nails a few hours before the premiere to conceal the real ones she readily enjoyed biting off to alleviate stress. Alas, the soft cement stuck and hardened under those fake nails, forcing Garland to have her ‘glamor’ chipped away the next day.
While Babes in Arms preserved Rooney’s reputation as a versatile performer, it all but made an overnight sensation out of Garland who, until its release, remained one of Metro’s most solid ‘contract players’. It had taken four years to mature Garland into this suddenly highly bankable star power. But from this moment on, she would rarely be caught ‘between films’; her projects and work schedules overlapping, leading to an even more insidiously chronic dependency on pills to see her through. Possibly, neither Mayer nor Arthur Freed had any time to notice their star was spiraling out of control. They were much too busy preparing the next ‘Garland’ picture; Freed, equally invested in a top-heavy spate of Broadway to Hollywood hybrids and new-to-screen musical properties in development. Of these, Good News seemed like a viable option; a home-spun college-themed musical derived from a Broadway hit and an early 1930’s talkie (later, to be remade as a glossy 1947 Technicolor film, co-starring June Allyson and Peter Lawford). But the evolution of Good News into a Garland/Rooney follow-up did not go smoothly; Freed, eventually losing his patience and interest, abandoning the project altogether, even as he was putting the finishing touches on Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (also co-starring Rooney and Garland).
Mayer had the answer; an original property to be based on a failed 1927 Broadway show by George and Ira Gershwin, later revived to critical acclaim in 1930. Strike Up the Band – the movie – bears no earthly resemblance to the Gershwin show, jettisoning its witty and timely banter and barbs about social mores and politics in favor of yet another ‘local kids make good’ scenario. This time, John Monks/Fred F. Finklehoffe’s screenplay has Rooney cast as amiable drummer, Jimmy Connors, who manages the nearly impossible feat of taking his high school band national, achieving early success but reaching a stumbling block when he discovers famed band leader, Paul Whitman is hosting a radio program in search of the ‘stars of tomorrow’. Lacking the necessary funds to enter the competition, the outpouring of support shown ‘the kids’ via some ambitious fundraising is further thrown into a tailspin when Jimmy must choose between helping a friend in need of a costly medical procedure or selfishly use the moneys collected to gratify his own ego. After some consternation, Jimmy makes the right decision and is rewarded when the band is invited to perform at the competition anyway.
Strike Up the Band’s plot is no better than a hundred others, but the picture is immeasurably blessed to have the Rooney/Garland chemistry at play. Apart from the patriotic flag-waving finale, the picture is noted for Roger Edens/Arthur Freed song, ‘Our Love Affair’ – immediately becoming a standard on the hit parade. By now, rumors abounded Rooney and Garland might be on their way to a real-life romance. Until his dying day, Rooney emphatically insisted there was never any real ‘love affair’. “We were more like brother and sister,” he confided in one of his last interviews, “I said to her, Judy, honey…you’re the best in the world. Now, go out there and show them what you got.” The other extraordinary contribution in the movie is Busby Berkeley’s phenomenal staging of ‘Do The La Conga’ – originally written by Edens as a little trifle. Berkeley saw it as a huge production number, employing scores of dancers and a six minute rendition of the song; Garland gyrating and warbling in tandem; the full eleven minute number shot by Berkeley in one continuous take. After nearly five weeks of meticulous planning, staging and rehearsals, Berkeley confidently took his seat behind the camera and lensed everything without interruption; the cast – particularly Garland – exhausted to the point of collapse by the end of it. Viewed today, one can still sense a pulsating, frenetic energy coursing through this number.
Garland and Rooney barely had time to breathe in the interim between Strike Up the Band and their next, and arguably, best of their on-screen teaming – 1941’s Babes on Broadway. Indeed, even before Metro had let ‘Band’ out of the bag, Freed was negotiating the details with screenwriter, Fred Finklehoffe who, together with writer, Elaine Ryan would concoct the, by now, convivial – if slightly too sentimental, though nevertheless charming – complications to round out the dramatic portion of Babes on Broadway; Rooney, once again cast as the hopeful of hopefuls, rechristened Tommy Williams, who together with his pals, Ray Lambert (Ray McDonald) and Morton Hammond (Richard Quine) make up the aspiring ‘Three Balls of Fire; a nightclub act without representation until Miss Jones (Fay Bainter), a talent scout for Broadway impresario, Thornton Reed (James Gleason), catches their act and decides to give the boys their big break. All, of course, does not go according to plan and soon, Tommy latches onto an idea of exploiting an ambitious young singer, Penny Morris (Judy Garland) who is working hard to raise money to send tenement orphans on a two week sojourn to the country. Tommy’s goal in pitching in on this fund-raiser is less than altruistic. After all, he can make a quick buck necessary to hire out the theater to produce his own show.
Predictably, snags and snafus follow; Tommy’s burgeoning romance with Penny is thwarted when she discovers his less than honorable intensions. A guilt trip and a fluff-off later and Tommy uses the monies accrued to send the boys and girls to the country. He is rewarded by Miss Jones, who offers them one of Thornton’s boarded up theaters in which to stage their revue. Alas, the place needs a lot of work. On opening night, after only beginning to perform a hilarious homage to Carmen Miranda (for which Miranda herself was borrowed from Fox to coach Rooney in his delicious lampoon), the fire marshal moves in and declares the place a hazard, shutting everything down. But Jones knows a good thing when she sees it – urging Thornton (whose own Broadway extravaganza has hit a rough spot) to reconsider what hiring fresh young talent could do to invigorate his venture. Tommy, Penny and the rest of the hopefuls debut on Broadway in a minstrel show and instantly become the toast of the Great White Way.
Babes on Broadway is perhaps the most stylish and satisfying of all the Garland/Rooney musicals; for it performs superbly that delicate balancing act between drama and song, falling just shy of being considered ‘the integrated musical’, but suggesting an air of connectivity between these polar opposites the other films lack. Taking its cue from Strike Up the Band, Babes on Broadway contains two impressively mounted musical vignettes; the first, an homage to great thespians of the theatrical profession, with Garland and Rooney playing all the parts as they imagine adding their own success to this formidable body of art; the latter, a staggeringly lavish minstrel show with Garland and Rooney appearing in black face. For this penultimate finale, Freed had banjo great, Eddie Peabody counsel Rooney on his fingering; also, to record the electrifying solo of Swanee River/Alabama Bound. Today, blackface is heavily criticized as being racist. However, in its time, it was regarded as much more the tribute than a parody. In this context, Garland acquits herself very nicely of two solos; Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones, and Waiting for the Robert E. Lee. She also gets the lion’s share of musical moments apart from the finale; her heartrending rendition of Chin Up, Cheerio, Carry On, a distinct highlight.
Yet, the biggest hit in the picture was How About You; a rather farcical nod to young love; Tommy auditioning and simultaneously falling in love with Penny. Garland and Rooney also shared the spotlight on Hoe Down – a bucolic nod to the ‘simple life’. Once again, Berkeley is at the top of his game, pulling out all the stops for a miraculously conceived and meticulously choreographed series of maneuvers, captured in sweeping crane shots. By now, Garland’s nerves were frail. She frequently balked when asked to do as Berkeley commanded and steadily found the working experience ‘unpleasant’ – her impressions of Berkeley and the odious tension between them to permeate their last failed venture together – Girl Crazy (1943). For decades after Babes on Broadway’s spectacular debut, Arthur Freed was to carry around with him a note dashed off by Broadway legend, Oscar Hammerstein II who, upon seeing the film declared, “…there was spontaneous applause and the right kind of laughs and now and then a handkerchief came out – including mine. Altogether, it seemed to me to be one of the smartest and most well-rounded of all the musical productions that have come out of Hollywood, and I think you deserve congratulations. You are hereby getting mine.”
Arguably, Freed would have liked nothing better than to keep the momentum of these collaborations moving forward. But Garland had tired of the studio’s repeated efforts to conceal her blossoming into womanhood. Furthermore, she resented being perpetually typecast as the quintessential starry-eyed teenager in love. As her temperament steadily got the better of her work ethic, Mayer and Freed both elected to give their most bankable female star a change of venue rather than a break. Garland would star in 1942’s For Me and My Gal opposite Gene Kelly; then 1943’s Presenting Lily Mars; also, appearing in cameo as herself in the all-star wartime cavalcade, Thousands Cheer (also, 1943) before being thrust into her final costarring feature with Mickey Rooney, Girl Crazy (1943). In the meantime, Rooney fell into four more installments of his ever-popular Andy Hardy franchise, interpolated with co-starring parts in Men of Boy’s Town (a sequel to 1938 Boy’s Town) and a tepid comedy, A Yank at Eton.
From the onset, Girl Crazy was something of a nightmare production. Once again teamed with Busby Berkeley to direct, Garland had lost so much weight, thanks in part to her breakneck scheduling and chronic addiction to prescription drugs, her doctor suggested an eight week respite before production could resume. Instead, Mayer ordered Garland report for work immediately, Berkeley already begun to stage the I Got Rhythm dude ranch finale. But Berkeley, fighting his own demons exacerbated by his chronic boozing, became combative when Garland failed to perform up to his specifications. I Got Rhythm went four days over its scheduled shoot and budget as Berkeley continued to refine, restage, and reshoot whole portions, adding more embellishments, fast transforming it into a very noisy and not altogether memorable affair. Pushed to the brink of her physical powers, Garland collapsed on set – crews working like mad to accommodate her absence for eight days, by which time Berkeley was taken off the project; replaced by Charles Walters to stage the musical numbers and Norman Taurog to direct the rest of the picture. Meanwhile, the screenplay, primarily rewritten by Finkelhoffe, bore no earthly resemblance to the original Broadway show, except its retention of seven of the George and Ira Gershwin hit tunes.
In the rewrites, Rooney became Daniel Churchill Jr., a notorious playboy whose father (Henry O’Neill) sends him to an out of the way ranch to learn the virtues of becoming a real man. Daniel soon rubs everyone the wrong way, including Ginger Gray, granddaughter to the Dean of nearby Cody College. Threatened with foreclosure, Cody is at the mercy of outside financial backing; that is, until Danny concocts a rodeo to help raise money, modernize its facilities and introduce new and progressive programs to the curriculum. The college goes coed and is saved in the eleventh hour with Ginger and Danny predictably falling in love. Girl Crazy ought to have paved the way to more Rooney/Garland collaborations, except that in agreeing to return after her convalescence, Garland had made the steadfast demand this would be her very last of their co-starring features. The critics, while laudatory in their tributes, were quick to point out how Garland had outgrown such threadbare plots; the Los Angeles Daily summarizing “away from Rooney she (Garland) loses her ingénue tricks and becomes a smart, poised and sophisticated leading lady.” It was not all acting. In the interim, Garland had established a newfound maturity in attempting to rid herself of a mother’s overbearing presence – also, L.B. Mayer’s; marrying band leader, David Rose and suffering through the enforced abortion of their first child at the badgering and behest of all concerned. A baby, it seems, is bad for business. Resentful, and with her marriage to Rose crumbling by the time Girl Crazy went into production, Garland effectively got her way for once; although, by the end of the decade, she would consent to appear in cameo opposite Rooney in his penultimate musical, Words and Music (1948), performing ‘I Wish I Were In Love Again’ – a song, originally nixed from Strike Up The Band because of its adult insinuations to fractured romance.
Viewed from our present-day vantage, the Garland/Rooney movie musicals retain their luster and wide-eyed optimism; most unforgettably etched into our collective consciousness – not simply as confections from a more naïve time, but as testaments to that supremely awesome authority wielded by the studios during Hollywood’s golden era; moguls willing to package and market such ‘screen teams’ with mind-boggling slickness and professionalism. In an era where instant fame is frequently accompanied by an almost grotesque embarrassment of high praise (chiefly undeserved, but good for marketing campaigns), it is important to remember Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland – first, if not foremost – as trailblazing teenage superstars. Despite nearly eight decades of cultural changes in social mores and tastes, they have retained a goodly portion of this allure – a rarified pleasure to behold and likely to remain undiminished for as long as kids will be kids and there are shows yet to be put on for the benefit of all.
Warner Home Video has repackaged the Garland/Rooney movies as a TCM 4-pack. Although the price point is attractive enough (retailing, in some cases for less than $15) I would sincerely encourage the collector to invest in Warner’s ‘Ultimate Collector’s Edition’; chocked full of an infinitely more satisfying array of extra features and some nice swag to go along. Either way, the disc content remains the same; four separate discs – one for each movie – loaded with a litany of extras, including comprehensive audio commentaries, short subjects, behind the scenes footage, isolate music cues and deleted songs. How do the movies look? Great – mostly, the one exception being Girl Crazy (more on this in a moment). Overall, the gray scale on these B&W treasures has been impeccably remastered. We get razor-sharp images; crisp with accurately preserved film grain, a sumptuous amount of fine detail and solid black levels. Great stuff – except, remember, Girl Crazy? Inexplicably, the last of the lot is marred by some excessive edge enhancement. It isn’t consistently rendered throughout the entire feature, but it affects at least half of it and is a real distraction to say the least. For shame! The audio on all these discs is mono, as originally recorded, but with good solid spatiality throughout.
Now, the reason why you should pay nearly double, in some cases, triple to invest in the ‘Ultimate Collector’s Edition’. Unlike so many box sets released today, that are scant on padding out the extras with some superfluous junkets you wouldn’t really want for free anyway, this collector’s set is fitted full of informative and treasurable extras any collector would be proud to add to his/her collection. For starters, we get a handsomely produced ‘portfolio’ with 20 glossy photo reproductions of scenes and still from behind-the-scenes. Also, Warner has put together a stunningly beautiful booklet, with liner notes from noted Garland biographer, John Fricke. This booklet offers insight, not only into Garland and Rooney – both apart and together – but includes a gorgeous assortment of reproduced stills and poster art from all the movies. Best of all, it comes with a bonus DVD that includes Private Screenings with Mickey Rooney (a TCM original hosted by Robert Osborne), as well as a formidable Judy Garland ‘songbook’ featuring numbers excised from all her movies, also a Mickey/Judy ‘trailer’ gallery. Honestly, I cannot imagine a better put together tribute to this immortal pair. Oh, wait – yes I can. One on Blu-ray! For now, this is the definitive way to watch these two legendary talents perform; a soothing comfort some snowy night in front of the fire, indeed! Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Babes in Arms – 4.5
Strike Up The Band – 4.5
Babes on Broadway – 5+
Girl Crazy – 4
Babes in Arms – 4.5
Strike Up The Band – 4.5
Babes on Broadway – 4.5
Girl Crazy – 3
Ultimate Edition – 5+
TCM repackage – 0