Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Babes in Arms (1939) * * *

In 1921 Joe Moran (Charles Winninger) and Florrie Moran (Grace Hayes) are old vaudevillians who begin a touring show featuring many of their senior colleagues. Their children Mickey (Mickey Rooney) and Molly (Betty Jaynes) want to tag along, but the parents refuse. They live in Seaport, Long Island, NY just before the Great Depression and the "talkies" replace silent movies. Vaudeville is dying. Mickey writes songs, and Patsy Barton (Judy Garland) sings "Good Morning." Mickey sells the song for $100, gives Patsy his pin and kisses her. He writes a show he will star in as well as direct, and puts on the show to avoid being sent with other vaudevillians' children to a work farm. He'll improvise his show in the country, despite the awful weather conditions. Patsy is in love with Mickey, and he loves her too, but for him the show must go on, and his big dream maybe will come true: formally stage his play in a big scenario, with a huge production. The determined youngsters must also prove that, contrary to the demands of Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton), they don't belong in a state-administered trade school. Don Brice (Douglas McPhail) sings "Babes in Arms" as they march and make a bonfire. Joe says good-bye to Mickey.

Mickey Moran: No, no, no, judge! You don't understand; she don't understand, either. Oh, she don't mean no harm to us, but... we're not her kind of people--or yours, either. We belong in show business. We gotta start young so we can get some steel in our backbone. Well, gee, we're developing. You couldn't teach us a trade: we've GOT one. And you couldn't do without it... Oh, we're only kids now, but someday we're gonna be the guys that make ya laugh and cry and think that there's a little stardust left on life's dirty old pan. Oh, she don't understand: she'd put butterflies to work makin' rubber tires!

Nasty old Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton) and her son Jeff Steele (Rand Brooks) from military school want the kids on a work farm. They complain to Judge John Black (Guy Kibbee) about the Vaudeville kids, but he won't take them from their homes. Mickey tells Judge Black that his parents' show flopped. The judge gives Mickey 30 days to put on the show and prove they don't belong in the jail-like school. The rest of the action involves the talented kids successful efforts to not only stage the show, but to bring the whole troupe to Broadway. Don and Molly sing "Where or When" with an orchestra of children. In a drugstore Mickey and Patsy meet movie star Baby Rosalie Essex (June Preisser), but Mickey gets in a fight with Jeff. Mickey has a date with Baby and dines in her house. Mickey wants Baby in the show, which needs $287. She offers to pay it, so Mickey bumps Garland from the lead, smokes a cigar and leaves.

Mickey tells Patsy that Baby has to play the lead because of the money, and Baby shows how good she is. Mickey directs a rehearsal with Baby and Don, imitating Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore. Patsy sees Mickey kiss Baby, then Mickey tries to stop Patsy from leaving. She tells him, "Did you have to kiss Baby Rosalie today? In the future if we should meet again at the opera or at a ball, and I'm dazzling in my diamonds and pearls and ermine wraps and surrounded by lords and dukes and princes, you'll probably be sorry!" On the train Patsy sings "I Cried for You." She goes to a theater to see her mother (Ann Shoemaker) and says that Mickey is putting on a show to keep the kids out of an institution. Patsy's mother tells her not to quit her show. She inevitably retakes the lead in the show and everything ends happily when out of nowhere a hot-shot producer likes what he sees in the barn show scene.

Baby's father takes her out of the show, and Mickey asks Patsy to go on. In the show Patsy sings "Daddy Was a Minstrel Man". Mickey and Patsy put on black face and sing a medley with Don. The barn show scene includes a minstrel show typical of the era that is not only dated but potentially ofensive to some viewers. Patsy sings "I'm Just Wild About Harry," but a storm drives the audience away. Mickey says, "Please folks, don't go! It's just a little shower!" He learns that his father quit theater and got an elevator job. Mrs. Steele says the children must report and gives Joe the paper. Mickey gets a letter from producer Maddox (Henry Hull), who liked the show and produces it. As hidden Mickey listens, Maddox asks bitter Joe to teach the youngsters in the show. Mickey introduces the show by singing "God's Country," which the company contrasts to fascism. Mickey and Patsy satirize FDR and Eleanor and dance.

As fascism is terrorizing Europe, young Americans have the freedom to organize a show and even satirize their government leaders. Mickey wonders if America can loan money for war, why can't they get some for entertainment? The marching and bonfire scene offers a parallel to fascists but a significant difference in purpose as they are struggling for artistic freedom not against it.

BABES IN ARMS was originally a 1937 Rogers and Hart Broadway musical that proved a smash on the New York stage--a slightly satirical script with one of the most powerful scores of the 1930s. MGM specifically purchased the property for Rooney and Garland and then promptly threw out the script, most of the score, and transformed the thing into a tale of young teenagers who decide to put on a show in a barn. It was the first Rooney/Garland vehicle directed by Busby Berkeley, and its success set the tone for their 9 films together. Busby Berkeley's big production numbers are a sight to behold, from a march through town for the title number to an embarrassing minstrel show routine. The movie was made the same year as THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) and features the same villain: Margaret Hamilton. At the time Rooney was the number one box-office attraction.

The Broadway script was revamped to accommodate Hollywood standards. Most of the Rodgers and Hart songs were cut, except for the title tune, "The Lady Is a Tramp", used as background music during a dinner scene, and "Where or When". Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown wrote a new song for the film, "Good Morning". This was the first of the Rooney/Garland "let's put on a show" extravaganzas and it's saved by Rooney's brash nerve and the charm of Garland. The storyline has been reduced to vaudeville corn, but Garland transcends the cliche, transforming a formula into critical and box-office gold. Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg (composer and lyricist for THE WIZARD OF OZ) wrote a new grand finale, called "God's Country", a strange mixture of Hollywood ballyhoo, patriotism, and fear of the European war that would soon engulf the world.

Although well performed, the songs that replaced the original score simply are inferior to the play's original score, and viewers are likely to be startled by a minstrel show number that find Mickey and Judy romping in blackface, a now dead theatrical tradition. The movie also has a number of distinct flaws. Busby Berkley was best with big-budget musicals that had scope for the elaborate dance numbers he favored, and his approach here feels heavy handed. Although immensely popular at the time Mickey Rooney's performance is manic by modern standards, and Garland's more natural performance is often overshadowed by his excesses. The script is as weak as the score, few of the supporting performers are memorable, with the exception of Margaret Hamilton, and the whole movie has an awkward quality to it. However, the film does capture the famous Rooney/Garland chemistry--a chemistry that would fuel three more "let's put on a show!" musicals, each one more more effective than the last. Casual viewers would do better to select BABES ON BROADWAY or GIRL CRAZY, but in spite of all its flaws, Rooney and Garland fans will likely find BABES IN ARMS a delight.

The original release of the film included a segment during the finale in which Rooney and Garland lampoon Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. This was edited from the film during a later reissue and not restored until the 1990s. MGM worried it might be construed as disrespectful during wartime. Filming of BABES IN ARMS began on May 12, 1939, soon after Garland had finished filming THE WIZARD OF OZ, and was completed on July 18, 1939. The film premiered on October 13, 1939. It was released not long after OZ and was an immediate and major hit, becoming one of the most admired musicals of the year. But time has a way of changing our perspective. Today, BABES IN ARMS feels a little strange, a little strained, and somewhat dated.

The cast also includes: June Preisser (Rosalie Essex), Leni Lynn (Dody Martin), Johnny Sheffielfd (Bobs), Barnett Parker (William Bartlett), Ann Shoemaker (Mrs. Barton), Joseph Crehan (Mr. Essex), George McKay (Brice), Henry Roquemore (Shaw), Lelah Tyler (Mrs. Brice), Charles D. Brown (Larry Randall), Joe Caits (Vaudevillian Veteran), Frank Darien Mr. Parks, Druggist), James Donlan (Fred), Inna Gest (Extra), Robert Emmett Keane Booking Agent), Lon McCallister (Boy), Sidney Miller (Sid), Cyril Ring (Vaudevilian Celebrant), Charles Smith (Shy Youth), Leonard Sues, Libby Taylor (Millicent, Rosalie's Maid), Mary Treen (Receptionist), Pat West (Vaudevillian Veteran), and Robert Winkler. Nacio Herb Brown composed the incidental music. Jack McGowan, Kay Van Riper, and Annalee Whitmore wrote the screenplay adapted from the play by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Busby Berkeley directed.

Babes in Arms was released on DVD for the first time as part of Warner Bros. 5-disc DVD set "The Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collection" on September 25, 2007. The set contains BABES IN ARMS, BABES ON BROADWAY, GIRL CRAZY, and STRIKE UP THE BAND, as well as a fifth disc containing bonus features on Rooney and Garland.

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