Tuesday, December 24, 2013

In the Good Old Summertime (MGM, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Judy Garland was the star of the movie Charles and I watched last night, In the Good Old Summertime, which I hadn’t seen in some time; released in 1949, it was her next-to-last film under contract to MGM, and while virtually all her other movies of the period either were abandoned and recast with others (Annie Get Your Gun with Betty Hutton, The Barkleys of Broadway with Ginger Rogers, Royal Wedding with Jane Powell) or put both her co-stars and the behind-the-camera personnel through the trials and tribulations of sheer hell before they were finished (The Pirate, Easter Parade, Summer Stock), this one seems to have been an easygoing experience for her and the other people involved — including several she worked with only this one time: co-star Van Johnson (he’s billed second and is the only other cast member listed above the title), featured player Buster Keaton and director Robert Z. Leonard. Leonard had begun his career in the silent era directing his then-wife, Mae Murray, at Universal; they both obtained contracts at MGM and then broke up. Murray married one of the Mdivani brothers, scapegrace princes from Europe who ran through their celebrity wives’ money, while Leonard stayed on at MGM, directed Norma Shearer (wife of MGM production head Irving Thalberg) in her Academy Award-winning performance in The Divorcée, helmed the big musical The Great Ziegfeld in 1936 (dully; the director the film really needed was John Murray Anderson, who’d directed most of the Ziegfeld Follies on stage and had also made the awesome 1930 musical The King of Jazz) and the following year made one authentic masterpiece; Maytime, the third and (to my mind) the best of the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy cycle. Then it was back to the hack salt mines, doing a wide range of film types including the quite credible 1949 film noir The Bribe (though when I watched it last I called it “a mediocre movie with a great one inside trying to escape”), and taking on a long-simmering project at MGM that had originally been a charming 1940 comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch called The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch had run afoul of MGM’s boss, Louis B. Mayer, in 1939 by making Ninotchka, a sophisticated, satirical comedy about Soviet Russia starring Greta Garbo as a commissar who comes to Paris to sell some of the Imperial crown jewels to get foreign exchange for the Soviet government, and is seduced away from her principles by gigolo Melvyn Douglas. It made money, but Mayer was fond of pointing out that a Hardy Family movie that had been released at the same time grossed just as much as Ninotchka and turned a bigger profit because it was so much cheaper to make.

Lubitsch got the message and looked for a story he could shoot that would have the kind of homey “family values” Mayer liked in his projects, which he found in a play by Miklós László called Parfumerie. Lubitsch’s writer, Samson Raphaelson, changed the business around which the plot revolves from a perfume store to a music store but kept the basic plot premise intact: a young man who works at a music store (James Stewart) is having an pen-pal relationship with a woman he’s never met and whose name he does not know. The music store’s owner (Frank Morgan — yes, the Wizard of Oz himself!) hires a new female staff member (Margaret Sullavan) and she and Stewart hate each other at first sight — only, you guessed it, she’s his mysterious pen-pal, and the whole running time is taken up keeping both them and us in suspense as to what’s going to happen when these two people who can’t stand each other in the flesh realize that they’re the people who have fallen in love by letter. (Later, in the 1990’s, there was a third version, You’ve Got Mail!, which seized on the Internet as a way to update the story and was actually pitched as “The Shop Around the Corner with e-mail!”) MGM seemed to be looking for a musical version of The Shop Around the Corner, with its turn-of-the-century setting, almost as soon as Meet Me in St. Louis became the biggest hit MGM had produced to date. (Gone With the Wind was even bigger, but it was a Selznick International production that MGM had merely co-financed and distributed in exchange for supplying Clark Gable to play Rhett Butler.) Though MGM announced the project for a dizzying array of stars in both the female and male leads — among the candidates to play the woman were June Allyson and Gloria DeHaven, while Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Peter Lawford were considered for the man — the people they ended up with, Judy Garland and Van Johnson, were near-perfect for the roles. The script was worked up from Raphaelson’s The Shop Around the Corner by the husband-and-wife team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich along with Ivan Tors (whose presence puts Judy Garland one degree of separation from Flipper!), and they gave MGM pretty much what they wanted: another homey, family-oriented musical drawing on the actual early 20th-century songbook.

In the Good Old Summertime is what I’ve taken to calling a “monomusical” since only one cast member sings, but even though Van Johnson (who did have something of a voice — he replaced Gene Kelly in the original Broadway production of Pal Joey, much to lyricist Lorenz Hart’s disappointment) doesn’t sing he’s a surprisingly good co-star for Judy. The two make themselves believable as both lovebirds and hatebirds, and they have an easygoing chemistry that gives the musical an old-fashioned charm. In the Good Old Summertime also benefits from glowing Technicolor (The Shop Around the Corner had been in black-and-white), though so many of the interiors are burnished brown that at times this looks like a more recent past-is-brown “color” film. And most of all, it has Judy Garland, who despite the troubles she was going through at this time — her fraught relationship with MGM and fragile marriage-on-the-rocks with director Vincente Minnelli (who had, on Judy’s psychiatrist’s orders, stopped directing her films in a failed attempt to save their off-screen relationship) — turns in one of her most remarkable performances, showing herself capable of physical comedy, witty repartée and, of course, incredible singing. Her voice shows traces of the muscle-bound quality that would afflict it in the post-MGM years, but for the most part it’s still a lovely instrument that does justice to the songs, especially the scene in the beer garden where the store owner, Otto Oberkugen (S. Z. Sakall in Frank Morgan’s old role — he’s even identified on his credit with his nickname “Cuddles”), is throwing a party and Judy harmonizes with four male singers on “Play That Barbershop Chord” and then does an uptempo belt version of “I Don’t Care,” the star-making song for vaudevillian Eva Tanguay. And In the Good Old Summertime is also notable as the first film in which Liza Minnelli appeared — at least visibly; Judy had made Till the Clouds Roll By while she was pregnant with Liza and, despite their best efforts to cover it up, some intimations that she was “with child” are visible in the final cut — at the very end, when she shows up at a park in the company of Judy and Van Johnson, playing their daughter.

In the Good Old Summertime was made at a time when Judy Garland was not only fed up with MGM generally but in particular was upset at being thrown one big period musical after another when she desperately wanted to play more sophisticated roles in stories set in her own time. She’d wanted to make Yolanda and the Thief with Minnelli but got assigned The Harvey Girls instead (one time when the studio was right and a star was wrong: The Harvey Girls was an enormous hit and Yolanda an enormous flop), and she got In the Good Old Summertime after having one of her nervous breakdowns and being bounced out of The Barkleys of Broadway (which became, instead of a reunion between Fred Astaire and Judy Garland after their joint success in Easter Parade, a reunion between Astaire and Ginger Rogers 10 years after their last RKO film together, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle) — indeed, this film was cut so much to the Meet Me in St. Louis formula that it even features Judy singing a Christmas-themed song to a pre-pubescent girl (supposedly someone her aunt, whom she lives with, is baby-sitting), though the song is a simple piece called “Merry Christmas” by Fred Spielman and Janice Torre, and is hardly on the level of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (a masterpiece that no one has sung as well as Garland did). One surprise in this film is the opening narration delivered, in character, by Van Johnson, over a sequence that dissolves from Chicago (the film’s setting) as it was in 1949 to the representation of it half a century earlier — the text is so much like the opening of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (and the Booth Tarkington source novel) I suspect at least one of the writers was consciously copying it even though usually Welles’ name and anything he’d done was persona non grata at MGM. Another MGM bête noire who got an unexpected rehabilitation on this film was Buster Keaton, who’d been hired back by the studio as a gagman in the early 1940’s but hadn’t appeared on screen in an MGM movie since he was fired after What, No Beer? in 1933. Keaton was asked to come up with a way for a character accidentally to break a violin (a key plot point), and he did such a spectacular pratfall director Leonard decided to have him play the character — and he also worked out a marvelous slapstick sequence when Van Johnson’s and Judy Garland’s characters meet early on; indeed, he had enough creative involvement in this film that imdb.com lists him as an uncredited co-director!