Judy Garland bid a bittersweet farewell to her alma mater, MGM with Charles Walter’s Summer Stock (1950); in retrospect a watershed picture in the studio’s history; not so much for either its plot or innate value as ‘original’ entertainment (although there is still, arguably, an embarrassment of riches to be had). No, rather Summer Stock puts a period to Garland’s peerless tenure as Metro’s most illustrious songbird; it also marked an end to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s golden era in film-making. Buffeted by changing audience tastes, the unceremonious ousting of founding father, L.B. Mayer, the advent of television stealing audiences away in droves, and the Government Consent Decrees (meant to stimulate free market enterprise, but instead hastening the painful decline of Hollywood’s dream factories); Summer Stock truly is the first surrender in Metro’s long, sad spiral into oblivion, with Garland its first casualty - the ‘goodbye girl’, as it were. Although Garland’s career in films would endure well into the mid-sixties, arguably, her most prolific work done for director, George Cukor over at Warner Bros. in 1954’s A Star is Born, never again was she to enjoy the coddled security of a major studio asset.
By 1950, Garland had burned too many bridges – and the proverbial ‘candle’ at both ends – to remain ensconced at MGM any longer. Arguably, it wasn’t all, or even partly, her doing. The little girl with the big voice had grown up on the back lot; absorbed by its rules and mythology, made a cog in the great wheel of Metro’s staggering output; her talents, force fed through the gristmill to capitalize on her mind-boggling array of intuitive gifts to the world of entertainment. It’s too easy to dismiss Judy Garland as a drug addict; the studio-sanctioned uppers and downer that kept her peppy when needed, and knocked her out at the end of a fifteen hour work day, simultaneously ravaged her health as it ruined her career. Yet, there was a certain naiveté about prescription pills back then. Even David O. Selznick considered Benzedrine a tonic. And Garland sincerely tried with repeat seriousness to cleanse her system of these negative influences. Alas, the damage was too extensive by the late 40’s; the breakneck demands of the studio never further than arm’s reach, the pressure to constantly be ‘on’ and perform like the trooper she so obviously was, practically guaranteeing frequent falls off the wagon to cope with an impossible level of commitment to everybody except herself.
In retrospect, Summer Stock is not a terribly taxing musical; the Sy Gromberg/George Wells’ screenplay harking all the way back to the ‘hey kids, let’s put on a show’ formula that had catapulted Judy Garland to super stardom in the late 1930’s opposite Mickey Rooney after a series of casual misfires and false starts. Indeed, Summer Stock had begun as a ‘reunion’ picture for Garland and Rooney; the latter’s fading popularity necessitating a cast change. Briefly, Fred Astaire was considered; Astaire putting the kibosh on this plan by emphatically refusing to ever work with Garland again. The two had costarred to joyous effect in Easter Parade (1949). But Garland had frequently delayed the shoot with chronic bouts of anxiety and arriving very late to the set. Even so, Astaire had been all set to go into Royal Wedding (1951) when Garland’s erratic behavior began to get the better of her and Astaire’s patience. Following a brief respite (far too brief, in fact, to make any difference in her ailing health) Judy returned to the fold, looking considerably heavier and healthier to begin work on Summer Stock.
Gene Kelly was assigned to costar. Kelly could have refused, as Astaire did. For he was just as big a star then – arguably, bigger still – and well on his way to becoming the premiere dancer/director/choreographer of his generation. But Kelly was deeply empathetic towards Garland’s struggles. Moreover, he had a great admiration for Judy ever since they costarred in For Me And My Gal (1942); the movie that launched his MGM career. “In her early years Judy was a gay and glorious girl,” Gene later reiterated, “She usually brought joy – rather than sorrow – to everyone’s life. I owe her an eternal debt. Because the finest all-around performer we ever had in America was Judy Garland. There was no limit to her talent. She was the quickest, brightest person I ever worked with.” And Kelly would work like hell on Summer Stock to repay what he could to Garland – more a labor of genuine affection and mutual respect than anything else. As they had done nearly ten years earlier, Garland and Kelly clicked almost immediately on Summer Stock in matters of style, as well as mutual respect and friendship. Only now it was he who coaxed her through the performance, assuaging her fears she was somehow under-performing in the part; failing both her audience and his talents. “Judy was just so fragile – emotionally, I mean,” costar Gloria DeHaven remembered, “You could tell her all you wanted she was the greatest she had ever been, but there was something inside that kept tearing her down. It made her work that much harder. But in the end, it burnt her out.”
Summer Stock features a superb pas deux for Gene and Judy: The Portland Fancy – a country reel turned jazzy sizzler with Kelly coaxing Garland out of her folksy footsteps to partake in a more spirited sashay around the dance floor. The Portland Fancy is hardly one of Kelly’s most technically inventive numbers. But it is joyous nonetheless and full of ebullience; Garland matching Kelly step for step, so clearly engaged and obviously wrapped up in the moment. A pity Summer Stock really doesn’t allow for much more interaction between these two pros than this – and a very brief and clumsily strung together routine near the end – ‘All For You’. And yet, the movie satisfies in so many other ways, we can easily set aside this shortcoming. In her dungarees and sporting a crop of short hair, Garland is merrily homespun, singing ‘Howdy Neighbor, Happy Harvest’; a superb balladeer, tenderly drawing out wellsprings of emotion for ‘Friendly Star’, and adding amps of kilowatt stardust to the grand finale, as she belts out ‘Get Happy’. This latter song was a last minute addition, shot months after the rest of the movie had already been completed; producer, Joe Pasternak feeling Summer Stock still needed something ‘more’ to cap off the story. In every way, ‘Get Happy’ is a hand-me-down; the song, a huge pop hit for Jane Froman; the costume worn by Garland (the top-half of a man’s tuxedo with silk stockings) recycled in its entirety from Easter Parade, after the number, Mr. Monotony had already been cut from that film. Yet, Garland makes something new, fresh and exhilarating out of this; flanked by a male chorus set against a blistering orange/red painted sky back drop. One could almost believe the entire moment were taking place in a barn on Falbury Farm; Garland’s Jane Falbury considerably thinner in this one number than she appears during the rest of the picture.
As for Gene Kelly; his Joe D. Ross – the producer of a traveling menagerie – electrifies the screen with ‘Dig-Dig-Dig for Your Dinner’, then later, mesmerizes in ‘The Newspaper Dance’; an orchestral reprise of ‘You Wonderful You’; splitting sheets of strategically placed newsprint with his heels and kicking the perfectly shredded strips high into the air with his toes. Much has been made of Kelly’s heightened masculine dancing style. “The way I look at a musical, you are commenting on the human condition no matter what you do,” Kelly would suggest in a later interview, “A musical may be light and frivolous, but by its very nature, it makes some kind of social comment. I arrived in Hollywood twenty pounds overweight and as strong as an ox. But if I put on a tux like Fred Astaire, I still looked like a truck driver. I didn't want to move or act like a rich man. I wanted to dance in a pair of jeans. I wanted to dance like the man in the streets.” Indeed, there remains an earthy magnetism to Kelly’s terpsichorean aesthetics in Summer Stock; Kelly, equally believable as the big city lady’s man come down a peg or two since arriving in this not so bucolic paradise, courting Jane’s fickle sister, Abigail (played to perfection by Gloria DeHaven) as he is in blue jeans and cotton-T with sleeves rolled up, straw hat rakishly cocked to one side for the finale – a brief reprise of ‘Howdy Neighbor, Happy Harvest’. The pairing of Kelly and Garland is satisfying in other ways; his thin, higher pitched voice, harmoniously a compliment to Garland’s trilling powerhouse; just wonderful when they warble ‘You Wonderful You’; their only real chance together for an intimate musical moment.
MGM’s impressive array of contract players round out the picture with stellar bits of thoroughly charming nonsense. Summer Stock was, perhaps, one of the last instances the studio could draw from its seemingly bottomless wellspring of homegrown talent; the Consent Decrees forcing Metro to divest itself of its top-heavy ‘star system’ just a scant few years later. Summer Stock is enormously blessed by the presence of Marjorie Maine as the wily curmudgeon/cook and housekeeper, Esme; also by the hilarious comings and goings of Eddie Bracken and Phil Silver; frequently at odds with one another, respectively, as Jane’s dodo fiancée, Orville Wingait and Joe’s right-hand man with an innate squeamishness for hard physical labor, Herb Blake. Even the smallest parts come across with great humor and heart; DeHaven’s spoiled, simpering Miss Priss, run off with deliciously hammy second-string marquee headliner, Harrison Keith (Hans Conried) and Carlton Carpenter (who charmed everyone, accompanying Debbie Reynolds on her ‘Abba-Dabba Honeymoon’ in Two Weeks with Love 1950) is, in Summer Stock, Artie; a sort of hands-on jack of all trades/master of none. Alas, Carpenter isn’t given all that much to do. He doesn’t even get a song. But he nevertheless makes the most of a very small part.
In retrospect, MGM always had greater success concocting original musicals like Summer Stock for the movie screen, rather than adapting time-honored material from the stage; perhaps because Metro, under L.B. Mayer and producer, Arthur Freed had built the most impressive repertory company ever to toil in this sweat box of the cinema arts. One can see the fruits of Mayer and Freed’s collaborative labors in every frame of Summer Stock; Conrad Salinger’s sumptuous orchestrations, Robert H. Planck’s glowing Technicolor cinematography; Jack Martin Smith’s art direction and Edwin B. Willis’ set decoration; Walter Plunkett’s imaginative costuming – a slickly packaged blend of town and country. It all seems to effortlessly fit together. Such was the well-oiled machinery of the studio system then, a miracle so readily on display, it was simply accepted as commonplace when, in actuality, it was cleverly and meticulously designed down to the last visual detail.
Summer Stock begins on Falbury Farm; Jane awakening atypically plucky and eager to start another day. Alas, today will not be just like any other day. The farm’s aged field-hands, Zeb (Erville Alderson) and Frank (Paul E Burns) have decided to quit because Jane has been unable to pay either of them for some time. Money is tight and Jane really doesn’t have a plan to dig herself out of this hole. But thanks to a good season on the way and the anticipated return of Jane’s sister, Abigail, who went away to study acting in New York, presumably getting her education at the farm’s expense, Falbury Farm may, in fact, turn a small profit this year. Esme doesn’t have much use for Abby. She isn’t worth her weight in carrots. Jane’s the real brains; level-headed and determined to make a go of her ancestral roots. Esme also isn’t particularly keen on Jane’s fiancée, Orville Wingait; a real stick in the mud whose father, successful hardware salesman, Jasper (Ray Collins) is pushing hard for their pending marriage. Jane resists, citing that without the proper dowry she would be a poor wife for Orville. Actually, Jane would rather forget the whole affair. She doesn’t love Orville and cannot see her way through to a lifetime as his ‘little wife’. Reluctantly, Jane gets Orville to ask Jasper if he will allow her to have a brand new tractor on credit; committed to paying for it out of the fall harvest. Reasoning such a bequest might grease the gates to the altar for Jane and Orville, Jasper gives Jane her tractor. However, upon returning to the farm, Jane’s exuberance is utterly deflated when she discovers a crazy quilt of activity unfolding in her front yard.
It seems Abby has come home with her own surprise; Joe Ross – a fiancée, and the producer of an off Broadway musical revue in desperate need of a venue to rehearse and test out new material. Without Jane’s consent, Abby has agreed to loan Joe and his company their barn, transforming it into a makeshift stage and theater. Jane is incensed – at first, ordering Joe and his company off the place first thing in the morning. Ah, but then a queer sensation overtakes Jane’s common sense. After all, more hands to work the land might be exactly what she needs to make the farm profitable again. Alas, more hands also mean more mouths to feed. Before long, these new hires make a damn nuisance of themselves, their lack of experience in doing basic chores leading to some very trying times. While Jane is in town with Orville, Herb takes it upon himself to remove a tree stump with her tractor. Too bad Herb doesn’t know the first thing about how to switch gears. He totals the shiny new piece of machinery; Joe and Artie hiding the crumpled mass in pieces inside the tool shed as Jane makes the barn ready for the town’s annual society dance. Jasper is dead set against these actors taking over the farm. Moreover, he is not blind. Joe is a good-looking man; just the kind Jane needs and a definite threat to Orville’s standing as ‘the young bull’ in Jane’s life. Jane discovers what has become of her new tractor and rushes off to cry her heart out. To make amends, Joe gets the entire cast to chip in and buy Jane another tractor – at first, attempting to pass off the new one as having been refurbished by Artie so as not to make Jane feel guilty. It doesn’t work and Jane is incredibly touched by Joe’s gesture; affording the entire company more leeway in their daily choirs to concentrate on rehearsing for their show.
After a rehearsal goes particularly bad, Joe chastises Abby for being a prima donna; Jane pulling him aside to suggest this is no way to treat the woman he loves and is going to eventually marry. Joe, who initially resented Jane’s request, that he and his entourage work the land as part of their own keep, has since come to respect and greatly admire her. So, he agrees to treat Abby with kid gloves. Alas, Abby shows her true stripes by taking advantage of Joe’s good graces – also, her status as his girl; treating him even more shabbily. When co-star, Keith lands a better role in a revue on Broadway, he coaxes Abby to run off with him instead, just days before Joe’s show is set to open on Falbury Farm. Realizing he can take the male lead at a moment’s notice, Joe recalls Jane did a rather wicked impersonation of him without first realizing she was being watched. It’s the only solution to his dilemma now: Jane will take Abby’s place in his show. But can she do it? Jane doesn’t think so. In fact, she is terrified. Joe puts Jane through the rigors of some trying routines. She is exhausted, but strangely, falling in love with more than the smell of greasepaint. Putting on a show is just as much hard work as running a farm – maybe more – and Jane takes to the task like a real trooper. When Orville finds out, he is hardly impressed. In fact, he threatens to stop the show. Jane, however, will brook no nonsense, informing Orville that should he persist in the matter, not only will she break his heart – by ending their engagement – but also his head, if he’s not careful.
Opening night upon them, tension mounts, not only because Orville has disappeared, but also because he has summoned the local sheriff (Eddie Dunn) to wait for him backstage. The curtain goes up on a series of musical skits; each more lavishly produced. Jane is a surprise standout. Unexpectedly, Orville arrives with Abby in tow. It seems all her dreams of hitting the big time in New York with Harrison Keith have been dashed. And Abby, in a convincing about-face, has decided life on a farm is the right path for her; possibly, even marriage to Orville, whom she momentarily knocks unconscious with her handbag, but then gingerly nurses back to life. Jasper couldn’t be more pleased: the Falburys and the Wingaits…just as nature intended, or so it would seem. So, it’s back to the farm for Abby who, ironically, has fallen in love with Orville. Realizing Jane and Joe are in love, Orville is perfectly contented to pursue Abby. Je and Jane march off together to finish the last act finale of Joe’s show, bringing both their opening night and the movie to a close.
Summer Stock is a fitting swan song in Judy Garland’s MGM tenure. She would resurface four years later in Cukor’s A Star is Born; arguably, her greatest musical triumph: certainly, her weightiest and most melodramatic. And yet, Summer Stock is a reminder of ‘the other’ Judy Garland that, until A Star Is Born was the only one audiences knew; full of sweetly bemused innocence and doe-eyed optimism. Garland’s reign at MGM is a treasure trove of such cherished memories. The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) are only the tip of the iceberg. Even the lesser films from this period, or rather, the movies in which Judy appears only briefly in cameo, contributed to her body of work in interesting ways. I am reminded of Garland’s two outstanding musical sequences from 1946’s Till The Clouds Roll By – the understated ‘Look for the Silver Lining’ and the exquisitely lavish, ‘Sunny/Who?’; each exhibiting hallmarks of Garland’s gargantuan screen presence. It is impossible to turn away when she is on the screen; her even briefer cameos in 1943’s Thousands Cheer and 1948’s Words and Music; once more proving – as if proof were required – the blistering kilowatt heat of her immense star power. Too few talents are as versatile or as seasoned. Regrettably true, Garland did not have a childhood. Thanks to her stage mother, she was practically ‘born in a trunk’ and raised on the ether of greasepaint in the afterglow of footlights. Deprived of that natural arc of social development, Garland instead became an expert raconteur. Summer Stock is a final reminder of how far the little girl from Grand Rapids, Minnesota had come in such a relative short time: Garland – the consummate professional and most highly cherished of MGM’s musical stars – practically conceived in a factory-setting with workman-like precision, she set a new and peerless standard, then defied it and broke the mold, rising like cream to the top to become one of the iconic entertainers of the 20th century. There will never be another Judy Garland. That much is for certain.
The significant joys to be had in Summer Stock’s cornucopia are of the ‘corn-fed’ tradition in Hollywood musicals – just a small story about little people given their one big opportunity to shine and fall in love. That Summer Stock comes at the end of Garland’s tenure at Metro it remains slightly overshadowed by her own tragic backstory. Yet, Summer Stock is Garland at the pinnacle of her powers. When she sings ‘Friendly Star’ she breaks our hearts. When she belts out ‘Get Happy’ it is with an infectious zest for life that reaches beyond the proscenium. We can feel her desire to be safe, warm – and yes – even happy. No other performer has ever communicated so much - so clearly - and with such yearning to be loved in return. Although considered par for the course of MGM musicals at their zenith (which, translated properly, still means ‘head and shoulders’ above every other studio), Summer Stock remains a celebration of youth and vitality; Garland at her best, her intangible gifts elevating it from ‘minor programmer’ to A-list, star-studded and toe-tapping entertainment. Thus, only from a biographical standpoint does Summer Stock become something of a bittersweet occasion. As pure showbiz it is one humdinger of a good show - golden, glossy and grand in ways we wish more movie musicals still were or could be. Come on, then. Shout hallelujah and get happy!
I will just go on record to state there are too few Judy Garland musicals available on Blu-ray. Most were made at MGM, hence, virtually all of Garland’s work (save two or three titles) are under the Warner Bros. banner. Warner Home Video would be wise to rectify this shortcoming with a hi-def offering of Summer Stock, The Harvey Girls, For Me And My Gal and all of the Rooney/Garland musicals from the late 30’s and early 40’s. For now, we will content ourselves with their DVD transfer. It isn’t all that hard to do because Summer Stock looks fairly spiffy on DVD. I can only imagine how much better it might look in 1080p. Colors here are rich, vibrant and fully saturated. Fine details are present throughout. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are generally clean. There are minor age-related artifacts present throughout and a slight shimmering of color, but nothing that will distract. No digital artifacts – a very good thing! Truly, this is one fine rendering of a very happy film musical. The audio is mono, but adequately represented. Extras include a few short subjects, a brief featurette (the image quality of which is highly suspect) and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)