Saturday, January 25, 2014

Babes in Arms (1939)

Director: Busby Berkeley

High end entertainment is not just an adult game, this is the story shared in the MGM adaption of the Broadway musical Babes in Arms. Starring Hollywood’s biggest box office draw, the juvenile star, Mickey Rooney and his popular female co-star Judy Garland, this musical is directed by the renowned director of 1930s musicals fame Busby Berkeley. With large musical numbers, a talented cast and director, and fresh off the high of Garland’s iconic breakthrough hit in The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Arms would become a generous financial success for MGM.

Babes in Arms is a musical about a group of talented young performers determined to prove they have what it takes to make it in show business to prove themselves to their failing vaudevillian parents. The talented juvenile song writer Mickey Moran (Mickey Rooney) and his friends are left at home while their parents, old vaudevillians, set on the road to rekindle their careers on the stage. Frustrated by the idea of not accompanying his parents on their road show Mickey along with his girlfriend and singer Patsy (Judy Garland) decide to write and produce a show of their own. Mickey runs into romantic trouble with Patsy as he recasts his leading lady with a former baby actor Rosalie (June Preisser). Although upset, on opening night when Rosalie is removed from the cast Patsy fills in for the show’s starring leading lady and fills the stage with energy. Despite a traumatic opening show shortened by weather, their spectacle of “Babes in Arms” is signed to a Broadway production, and Mickey is able to help his father, home early from a failure of a tour, hiring him for the show. The film concludes in Busby Berkeley style with a lavish musical celebrating American life and values.

After the period when the more prolific musicals of the mid 1930s became passé this Busby Berkeley musical plays lower key with music more tied into the plot then his previous pictures, but has its moments of abundant artistic direction. The film features two of MGM’s greatest attractions in top money maker Mickey Rooney and the new toast of Hollywood, Judy Garland. The picture is filled with great musical numbers and performances by the various young actors featuring such memorable songs as “Good Morning” and “God’s Country” which would become popular tunes in their own right.

Busby Berkeley’s tastes in how musicals were presented on screen had changed with the tastes of audiences. Here he presents a more plot driven story with richer characters that are relatable. This is compared to the musicals of just a few years earlier where the plot was very simple with very little character development and music that had little to nothing to do with the story. This shift in style most likely progress because of the success of the RKO produced Fred Astaire/ Ginger Rogers films where large garish numbers made way for more intimate performances. This shift would not dissuade Berkeley from his eye for large production numbers as seen in the finale where the large cast of juvenile performers march in tune with “God’s Country” creating a exhibition that points back to the numbers seen before in movies such as 42nd Street.

Perhaps the best known on screen couple of the day, Rooney and Garland.
To star in the feature audiences are reunited with the Andy Hardy coupling of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Both actors were consummate professional performers appearing on constant back to back pictures for the movie factory that was MGM. Rooney shot out pictures regularly, most of which made good profits, amassing a large sum that gave him the title of the highest box office draw of the year (as well as for the next two years). Garland came into production straight off her performance in The Wizard of Oz. While Oz was in post production she was able to shoot all of Babes in Arms before the cultural iconic Oz film would hit the market and change her career forever.

Rooney would be his ever vigorous self. His energy and talent guide the film and its plot, laying a role that is a little more mature than that of his usual Andy Hardy character, but still youthful enough to make him appealing to younger audiences. Garland is rather low key in her role. She provides the love interest whose heart is tested with Mickey as she believes he might be favoring another girl. She still supplies the very powerful singing in her usual jazzier tone of her pre-Oz days that made her an attective commodity for the studio. As the film was released after The Wizard of Oz it was abundantly clear that Judy Garland was going to be a major draw for this and every picture she would appear in after. Her performance here would far be outweighed by her Dorothy character, but it was Rooney that would gain himself an Academy Award nomination for best actor in his role as the determined and talented character of Mickey.

The supporting cast was full of fellow young performers that hoped to hit heights of Rooney or Garland. June Preisser was a stage acrobat and singer who appears as Garland’s rival for Mickey’s attention. In her first major role Preisser would begin in making a name for herself in her short career. The film also featured the musically married couple of Betty Jaynes, who plays Mickey’s sister, and Douglas McPhail, a baritone singer and friend of Mickey and Patsy in their show. Although appearing as characters on separate parts of the story, the two are featured singing tighter in the final numbers of the picture. Both made little in way of show business as their careers met short ends along with McPhail’s life.

The picture features the acting talents of character actors Margaret Hamilton, Guy Kibbee, and Charles Winninger, each of who would appear to see roles in major musicals as side characters. Winninger was known for his appearance in the musical Show Boat, Kibbee in 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, while Hamilton in the all time classic as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. MGM’s well of actors were known to get plenty of work as manifested by these examples.

MGM utilized the draw of the picture to self-promote their own talent in the film by seeding the idea of MGM stars into the story. As Rooney and Garland dream of the days when they will be big stars they envision the likes of the major stars of the day. Despite the story is about the stage, the young performers name big name MGM talent as the level which they would one day like to attain, including most notably Clark Gable. Rooney impersonates Gable, as well as other actors of the likes of Lionel Barrymore, but it is future star of Gone with the Wind who seems to continually pop up in the upper echelon of what a movie star is in the mind’s eye of Mickey’s character.

Rooney and Garland continue to impersonate other famous individuals including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor, as Rooney walks on the set of the capital building. This performance manifests how well the President’s image was to the public as it would come to be known years later that Roosevelt suffered from polio and could not walk, but gave the appearance he was able bodied.

Produced for a lighter sum of about $750,000, Babes in Arms made over $3.3 million bringing in a higher margin of profit than any other MGM picture during the year, including The Wizard of Oz. Apart from Rooney’s nomination for Best Actor, the feature was up for the Award of Best Score, putting the film on lists with the big boys of the year despite it not being as prestigious as the many big name pictures of 1939.

Babes in Arms lives as one of the better loved Rooney/Garland features in their library together. With Rooney being the biggest draw of the period and Garland being made into a cultural icon Babes in Arms produces a look at the two while they were still fresh-faced and youthfully energetic. MGM seemed to know how to capitalize on their talent and synergize their business as Babes in Arms would a major hit for the studio.

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