Babes in Arms (1939)

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  • directed by Busby Berkeley
  • starring Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Charles Winninger, Guy Kibbee, Douglas McPhail, June Preisser, Margaret Hamilton
  • Mickey, Patsy, and friends organize a show in order to avoid being sent to a work farm.

“Oh, we’re only kids now, but someday we’re gonna be the guys that make you laugh and cry and think that there’s a little stardust left on life’s dirty old pan.”

Babes in Arms is a notable film for a host of reasons, none of which being that it’s actually any good. It’s not all bad, how can it be with the names Berkeley, Freed, Rooney, and Garland attached, but the parts that didn’t work—a slog of a middle section, practically every non-musical scene, and the one musical scene that was one of the most racist things I’ve ever seen—were just painful. My disconnection with the material wasn’t helped by the fact that the entire premise is a celebration of and a wish to return to the age of vaudeville, something that I’m sure tickled the nostalgia bone of 1939 audiences but left me in confused disbelief at times.

One of the interesting production notes on the film includes its proximity in time to that other MGM production, The Wizard of Oz (filming on Oz ended in March ’39 and this one began that May), so it’s pretty surreal to think that the first thing she did after being Dorothy was to put on blackface and act like a moron on stage. I was floored because all throughout the film until that point Mickey and his troop are preparing the big production that’s going to lead to their salvation and big break. There are some decent rehearsal scenes, including a so-so Clark Gable impression and a much better Lionel Barrymore one by Rooney, and a romantic number by two of the other castmates. In the end, though, all they had up their sleeves was blackface. Speaking of that romantic rehearsal song–looking at the tracklisting I think it was “Where or When”–it was really boring the first time, then Mickey gives them some notes on it, and then the unforgivable sin…they do it all over again. Two full run-throughs. What a drag.

You cannot ignore the negative aspects of the film and they stand out all the more in contrast to the couple of things that were successful. I’m not the biggest fan of Mickey Rooney but the guy just goes after it whole hog no matter what. A brilliant performer, Rooney sold the drama, had great comedic timing, and most amazingly considering his runty persona, had a convincing fight scene after which I’m telling myself, this scrappy 19-year-old could probably crush me in a fight. It’s not his best work overall, though it led to his first Oscar nomination, but he was confident and fun. Even though I didn’t enjoy Judy Garland in this, she did have my favorite song in the film “I Cried For You,” which was basically the only song that came from a real and emotional place. Many of the other songs were saturated in namedropping and era-specific references—a line in “God’s Country” actually rhymed Norma Shearer with Führer, which made me cringe followed immediately by my opinion shifting into something more like impressed acceptance. I had a lot of such rollercoaster responses throughout, but most dove downward, such as being dazzled by some of the lavish and meticulous Busby Berkeley choreography only to then realize how insubstantial the material was.

I think the biggest story to come out of the production was that it was the very beginning of Arthur Freed’s career. Legend has it that as associate producer of The Wizard of Oz, his first job in film, he staked his career on the fight surrounding the inclusion of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which many thought slowed the film down too much. Obviously he won that battle and his producing and songwriting credits went on to include great successes like Singin’ in the Rain and Gigi.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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