Monday, November 3, 2014

Strike Up the Band (1940)


With recent success MGM teams up once again the young stars Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland with renowned musical director Busby Berkley in the lively musical comedy Strike Up the Band. This picture mixes various musical numbers with the energetic money maker that was Mickey Rooney packaging him with Garland fresh off her highly praised performance from the beloved fantasy picture The Wizard of Oz complete with higher than usual production budget in tow to supply MGM with one of their most profitable films of the year. In other words, this picture was the perfect film for a studio to make money on during its time.

Strike Up the Band is a musical about a teenager with dreams of making the big time, taking his high school band and performing on a national stage while learning valuable lessons along the way. Jimmy Connors (Mickey Rooney) bored of playing in the usual high school band forms his own swinging orchestra to perform dance music. Along with his good friend and love interest Mary Holden (Judy Garland) who happens to have the best musical voice around as the band’s lead singer, Jimmy plans for the band to compete in a band contest in Chicago sponsored by famed band leader Paul Whiteman (played by himself). To help raise the funds for travel the band puts on a sizable revue which is a wild success, but is a bit short. A chance meeting with Paul Whiteman himself helps Jimmy to finance the last few dollars for the band’s travel expenses. However, even with high hopes Jimmy does the valiant deed of helping a physically ailing fellow band member with the proposed travel funds. Despite acceptance of the missed chance of competing, luck would still find a way for the band to go to Chicago and win the contest, concluding with a grand musical finale.

The picture is the usual lively fair for musicals around 1940. With a story that revolves around juveniles led by Rooney and Garland, the film contains a solid story with a full beginning, middle, and end, filled with a mix of popular and original music including tunes written by the famed George and Ira Gershwin.

Rooney and Garland in a Berkley musical number.
Historically speaking motion picture musicals were born at the moment when talking pictures first hit the silver screen and exploded into wild productions of enormous popularity in the early to mid-1930s. This was followed with a lull in the genre’s popularity as they would become seen as stale repetitive entertainment later in the decade. MGM began to see the upswing in musicals again when big spectacle numbers were replaced with music that went along with the storytelling. Judy Garland was the studio’s bright musical talent with pipes that demanded the audience’s attention. Teaming her musical talent with the performance energy of Mickey Rooney proved to be a winning combination in the musical Babes in Arms In 1939 as MGM reaped the profits at the box office and sought to do so again.

The films two stars were rather big names on any marquee during this time as the names of Rooney and Garland alone having the ability of bringing in audiences. On top of that is added the skill of the film’s director, the musically famed Busby Berkley, best known for visually orchestrating many of the most popular musical sequences throughout the relatively short history of musical cinema. MGM clearly puts up a larger budget for Strike Up the Band in order to one-up themselves from the previous musicals featuring Rooney and Garland.

To put the times in perspective Mickey Rooney was the highest grossing star in Hollywood, meaning films featuring Rooney’s name combined brought in more money than any other headlining actor/actress of 1937-1940. Having Rooney’s names in the credits alone created an audience. Judy Garland was fresh off her appearance in the soon to be considered all time classic The Wizard of Oz, for which the Motion Picture Academy awarded her a special Juveniles Award for her work. Busby Berkley was perhaps the most well-known musical director ever in cinema history choreographing some of the most visually impressive musical scenes ever seen. By putting these three names together at this time was like printing money for MGM as they saw profits come in immediately.

When MGM began to see the box office return for Babes in Arms producers immediately ordered a follow-up picture which became Strike Up the Band. The production would follow almost the exact same style and similar plotline with teenagers attempting to achieve major success as musicians. Busby Berkley would be brought in once again to direct the film starring the two MGM youths, but added the added finances to the budget to give Berkley the means to augment the film with his usual large production flair. Berkley is able to keep the film about the story of Jimmy and Mary, but as well have his moments where the musically numbers escalate to spectacle status where the surroundings become far more fanciful, much like his works in Footlight Parade or 42nd Street. He does it slowly, but with skill before bringing the film back down to the story so that the music does not outweigh the plot of the picture.

The romantic side story plot followed the usual Rooney/Garland formula as Rooney’s character overlooks the romantic wants of Garland’s character as he works all his efforts to accomplish the goals overlooking what is happening directly in front of him. To complicate matters is the introduction of a secondary female character played by June Preisser, who appears in a similar role in Babes in Arms. Her character of Barbara is everything Garland’s character, Mary, is not. Mary is shy, insistent but not forward with Jimmy about her romantic wants, while Barbara is very flirtatious and forward with her possible romance with Jimmy to the point of making him very uncomfortable. This formula of these three in this manner would even bleed into Rooney’s popular Andy Hardy series.

Featured in Strike Up the Band is the popular band leader Paul Whiteman. Made famous from his high grossing recordings of his jazz inspired orchestra, Paul Whiteman became nationally recognizable when he was nicknamed the “The King of Jazz.” Despite his music not necessarily being jazz, but rather a jazz-like sound to his orchestrations his musical popularity and good composure made him promising enough to appear in motion pictures including the film King of Jazz which feature himself and his music. Whiteman’s appearance here in Strike Up the Band serves more as a capsule of popular music of the time as Whiteman’s character really does not add very much to plot of the story, but rather complements just another star name to be placed on the marquee of the theater in which the film would play at.

The picture would be a great financial success by MGM, as producers had strategically planned out. As a popular musical the feature would be nominated for three Academy Awards, winning in the category of Best Sound, while falling short for Best Score and Best Song (for the song “Our Love Affair”). This successful formula of Rooney-Garland-Berkley would continue the following year in the musical Babes of Broadway and in 1943 with Girl Crazy proving MGM had a good thing going with these types of movies during this period.

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