Monday, October 26, 2015

For Me and My Gal (1942)

Director: Busby Berkley

Judy Garland had long been the juvenile doll of the MGM’s cavalcade of stars, corralled with a persona of the innocent teenage girl, and pure and true. However here at age nineteen she is given her first mature role, shedding her innocent childlike demeanor for a character with more depth and dimension. Featuring as her co-star is a newcomer making his film debut whose talents as a dancer beyond his acting would make him a foremost star in Hollywood. Directed by the eminent musical filmmaker Busby Berkley is set to background of World War I to enable to message to an audience in the thick of World War II.

For Me and My Gal is a musical about a vaudevillian couple whose relationship is complicated with the outbreak of The Great War. Jo Hayden (Judy Garland) and Harry Palmer (Gene Kelly) are a gifted couple of the vaudeville stage with aspirations of one day playing The Palace Theatre on Broadway in conjunction with the dream to marry immediately following their first performance. After great effort and diligence the two are signed to play out their dreams. However, just weeks before their first scheduled performance at the famed theater Harry is given his draft notice for the army.

To avoid service time Harry intentionally cripples his hand, but that same day Jo learns that her brother had died in battle and shuns Harry for his cowardly act, breaking up the act and calling off the wedding. A dejected Harry can only find solace in entertaining the troops on the front lines to aid in the war effort after his handicap keeps him from being a soldier. In a moment of great bravery Harry have a fleet from ambulance convoy from a surprise attack, earning himself a name of a hero. Fallowing the war Harry attends a performance at the Palace where he is spotted by Jo and the two are reunited.

The film is a wartime morale building musical obviously constructed for the audience of World War II Americans. It may not be cut from the same cloth of Busby Berkley’s 30s musicals, where he coordinated lavish “armies” of showgirls parading in over-the-top gowns or revealing costumes. Rather this picture is a straight romantic drama with a series of musical numbers and wonderful dancing performances by Garland and Kelly, showcasing the two talents stars.

The movie is delightfully constructed and entertains on various levels with moments of humor, a plot that would speak to a generation caught up in the war effort as well as the draft, and beautifully executed song and dance numbers that mixes in well with the overall tone of the picture. The plot toes that fine line of the drama about the draft and those avoiding service by drastic means. For contemporary audiences the film comes of very lighthearted, but for onlookers during WWII this was a very real piece of sensitive drama that some men had to fight with psychologically when they received their draft notice. For some to be drafted was a right and/or privilege, to other it felt as a death sentence. It was a delicate matter that is dealt with in a lighthearted was in this musical.

Garland sheds her innocent look in this picture.
Judy Garland stars in her first grown-up after years of playing youthful teenage girls, most commonly across form Mickey Rooney in the various Andy Hardy pictures. At the still young age of only nineteen she was already sharp veteran for MGM finally being allowed to take that step into a more mature role. She retains that youthful brightness and charm, but delivers a performance that is serious enough to allow her to begin to shed the overly-innocent juvenile persona. Still, this is an MGM picture, where Louis B. Mayer was an architect of his own brand of family morals motion pictures, so Garland’s role remains morally centered.

The role of Jo was originally intended as two separate characters as Harry was projected to be involved to two women, a singer and a dancer. Garland was to be the singer, but after reworking the story and characters the two separate ladies became one and Judy Garland’s skill as a dancer would been seen on screen to accompany her vocal talents.

Ten years her senior Gene Kelly was making his screen debut. Judy Garland took a liking to her co-star and helped to guide him in his transition from stage performer to movie actor. Kelly had been plucked from his stage work by Hollywood producer David O. Selznick with intention to utilize him in one of his pictures in 1941, but was unable to find the right vehicle for him, sitting on his contract for a year. Producer Arthur Freed would attain the rights to Kelly’s contract for the role of Harry, much to his MGM superiors’ objections as Kelly was yet untested in the movie world. With Garland’s aid on set, especially when it came to working with Busby Berkley, with whom she did not work well with, Kelly began his journey in the world of motion picture performing.

With the hiring of Gene Kelly the original actor casted for Harry was pushed over to play the role of Jimmy Metcalf, somewhat the third side of a love triangle in this film’s romantic plot. Actor George Murphy was a performer that appeared in a number of musicals during the 1930s, but never caught on as a star as Gene Kelly would have later on. Somewhat pushed off to the side his character, Jimmy, is the lovable friend that has desires for Jo, but loses out to Harry in the end.

Gene Kelly wins over Garland and the audience.
In initial previews of For Me and My Gal audiences found Harry unlikeable, especially for his draft dodging ways. Script changes and reshoots were made to make Gene Kelly’s character more lovable so that audiences would accept Judy Garland decision to be with him. It was a difficult task to do so as Jimmy is so affable and Harry brings with him more misplaced pride and emotional baggage. However, the retooling allows for audiences to come to terms with Harry’s flaws, redeeming himself as he becomes a hero that had grown emotionally in his journey through the war.

George Murphy’s future was not be as a motion picture star as his career in Hollywood moved him into a more executive role. A couple of years after this feature he would ascend to President as the Screen Actors Guild, then to executive positions at studios and other motion picture related companies. Later in life he would move into politics were he became a US Senator for California.

Despite all the issue the studio had with the picture, especially with the decision of Gene Kelly, For Me and My Gal opened to become one of the highest grossing pictures of the year for MGM. The film was praised for its music, garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Score. Gene Kelly gained praised for his debut work, even garning an award for his acting by the National Board of Review.

For Me and My Gal remains a fine example of musicals for this period that tackles, in its own entertaining way, the serious issue of man being drafted in the army and not initially wanting to serve. Harry’s selfish act may have been for love, but provides enough drama to make for a serious plot to be taken seriously in a period of war. Through it all the movie proved entertaining enough to attract some of the greatest movie going audiences in America during this wartime year, serving a purpose for a notion coping with the hardship of the draft.

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