Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Babes in Arms (MGM, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was Babes in Arms, an old favorite of mine from 1939 and the first musical Arthur Freed produced on his own at MGM (on The Wizard of Oz he had been Mervyn LeRoy’s assistant), and though it wasn’t the first film Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland had been in together it was the one that set the clichés for the ones to come. The film was based on a 1937 stage musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart — though the title song and “Where or When?” are the only songs from the original actually performed in the film — and the plot centers around vaudeville star Joe Moran (Charles Winninger), his wife and onstage partner Florrie (Grace Hayes) and their two kids, son Mickey (Mickey Rooney, top-billed) and daughter Molly (Betty Jaynes). The film begins with the elder Morans playing the Palace theatre — well, Joe playing it anyway; he struts about the stage playing Bob Carleton’s jazz standard “Ja-Da” on trombone and apologizes for Florrie’s regrettable but temporary absence from their act because she’s off giving birth to Mickey. The fact that Rooney’s character enters the world during his dad’s performance is supposed to indicate that he’s born and destined for the stage and couldn’t possibly grow up to be anything else.

Flash-forward to a young Mickey Moran tap-dancing as part of his parents’ act (a clip from Rooney’s earlier MGM film Broadway to Hollywood from 1933 — the ultimate “doubles” movie since it not only features both Rooney, star of the 1943 Girl Crazy, and Eddie Quillan, who had played the part in the earlier version from 1932, they play the same role in Broadway to Hollywood as well: Rooney’s character grows up to be Quillan) and then to a montage showing the death of vaudeville at the hands of talking pictures and also audience boredom with the same old routines — one character even kids the Morans by saying their act is so old, if they miss a line the audience can prompt them. (This was true of a lot of vaudevillians; the ones who did successfully make the transition to other forms of entertainment were the ones like George Burns who were inventive enough to keep creating new material based on his familiar characterization. Alas, not many were.) Before their part of show business crumbled around them, the vaudevillians had actually managed to make a stable life for themselves, settling in the upstate New York town of Seaport and staying there for the 12 weeks of every year they could afford to lay off. Now, with fewer places to work, families like the Morans and the Bartons — another vaudeville couple whose daughter Patsy is Judy Garland’s role — are running up bills all over town and having to struggle. Joe Moran hits on the idea of gathering up the remaining vaudeville entertainers and having them go out together on tour, but because they have to keep down expenses they can’t take their kids along the way they used to when they were flush. So the kids decide to mount a show of their own, which Mickey Moran will write, direct and star in while Patsy Barton will be the female lead. Their hope is to bring the major Broadway producers down to Seaport to witness what they have wrought, so they’ll get an offer to bring Babes in Arms to Broadway and make enough money to pay off their parents’ debts. Only they have to work fast because the town busybody, Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton, re-creating her “Miss Gulch” persona from the Kansas scenes of The Wizard of Oz), wants the town judge (Guy Kibbee) to pull all the vaudevillians’ kids from their homes and put them in the state work school — and when she snarls at the poor man, “I want all those actors’ kids in the state work school, where they belong,” one half-expects her to add, “And their little dogs, too!”

Complications ensue in the appearance of Baby Rosalie (June Preisser), burned-out child movie star who’s looking for a comeback vehicle as an adolescent — judging from the titles of her fictitious films writers Jack McGowan and Kay Van Riper were obviously intending her as a parody of Shirley Temple (and not coincidentally, 1939 was the year Shirley Temple fell off her perch on top of the list of Hollywood’s top moneymakers, replaced by — you guessed it — Mickey Rooney) — and who agrees to bankroll the show if she, not Patsy, gets to play the female lead. (Though most of the sophisticated songs Rodgers and Hart wrote for the stage version — “My Funny Valentine”, “I Wish I Were in Love Again”, “Way Out West”, and “Johnny One Note” — were left out of the film altogether, “The Lady Is a Tramp” survived instrumentally as a theme symbolizing Rosalie’s prima donna bitchiness.) Rosalie makes a play for Mickey, Patsy is left to sulk in the background and sing a version of the 1932 song “I Cried for You” (co-written by the film’s producer, Arthur Freed) with a talking bridge similar to the one in the “Dear Mr. Gable” rearrangement of “You Made Me Love You” she performed in Broadway Melody of 1938 (and as in that film, the acoustics change noticeably when she finishes the talking bridge and resumes singing — evidently, Judy once again pre-recorded the sung portion but delivered the spoken lines “live” as the cameras were turning), then tears off on a bus to join her parents on their tour in Schenectady, where she finds out they’re bombing. Fortunately, the old-time troupers talk her into returning to Mickey’s show — and a good thing, too, because on opening night Rosalie’s father shows up and angrily pulls her out of the show, Patsy goes on in her place and everything looks headed for a happy ending when a catastrophic hurricane sweeps the East Coast and drenches Mickey’s outdoor theatre in terrific rain. (There really was a huge hurricane on the East Coast in 1938, so the writers were being topical with their plot.)

Fortunately, a deus ex machina arrives in the form of another ex-vaudevillian who saw the light in time and became a Broadway producer; he agrees to put Mickey’s show on the Main Stem and for good measure hires his dad Joe to coach its performers. Babes in Arms was the original follow-up to The Wizard of Oz — a movie that actually flopped commercially on its first release; it was one of those films that attracted audiences but cost so much to make it still didn’t turn a profit even though a lot of people paid to see it — and though considerably cheaper Babes in Arms actually out-grossed Oz and it was the film that made Judy Garland a star — even though she’s oddly ill-used in it: she gets to sing a bit of “Where or When” (interrupting a rehearsal by the stentorian Betty Jaynes and her real-life husband, Douglas MacPhail, whom MGM were hoping to build into the next Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy), she makes an appearance in drag as a minstrel in yet another one of Hollywood’s mind-numbing tributes to minstrelsy that clog up a lot of otherwise good movies (they would do the minstrel schtick again in Babes on Broadway, a 1940 follow-up that really wasn’t a sequel to Babes in Arms even though the title made it look like one), she gets “I Cried for You,” she gets some brief appearances in other big ensemble numbers — including the bizarre routine director Busby Berkeley (just after his switch from Warners to MGM and already starting to chafe under MGM’s ukase that his numbers could be big, but not so big that they took attention away from their star performers) worked up for the title song, in which the vaudevillians’ kids look like they’re staging a protest rally that ends in a bonfire.

She’s also featured in the final production number, a Popular Front song by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg called “God’s Country” (requisitioned from a stage musical called Hooray for What! that had convinced Arthur Freed that Arlen and Harburg would be the right people to write the songs for The Wizard of Oz), celebrating the wonders of American democracy, where “every man is his own dictator” and “we’ve got no Duce, we’ve got no Führer/But we’ve got Garbo and Norma Shearer” (and Judy does her best to convince the listener that “Führer” and “Shearer” actually rhyme). The number includes a bizarre segment in which Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland impersonate Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, which according to was removed from the film after FDR’s death in 1945, long thought lost and only restored when a 16 mm print containing it surfaced in the 1990’s. Babes in Arms is a comfortable musical, at its best when Judy is singing — she and Betty Jaynes also do an “Opera vs. Swing” number closely paralleling the one Judy and Deanna Durbin did in their 1936 short Every Sunday, including a nice parody of the big “Figaro” aria from The Barber of Seville written by Judy’s long-term confidante and coach Roger Edens and sung by her in one of her early, and reasonably close, simulacra of swing. (In a lot of her early appearances — including her first commercial record, “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and “Swing, Mr. Charlie” with Bob Crosby’s band for Decca in 1936 — Judy was presented as a swing singer, which she really wasn’t. Her phrasing was too squarely on the beat for her to sing jazz, and Artie Shaw — who was dating her platonically while Billie Holiday was singing with his band — recalled that Judy was ferociously jealous of Billie and wished she could sing like her.) One can see why 1939 audiences liked it and felt more comfortable with it than they had with The Wizard of Oz, especially since it not only gave Rooney a showcase for the overacting his fans expected from him, but by casting Charles Winninger as his dad it made overacting seem like a genetically acquired trait!