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Monday, November 10, 2014

BABES IN ARMS (1939)

The first of the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland Let’s-Put-On-A-Show musicals lives on more in memory than in viewings. Loosely based on the Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart B’way show of 1937 about some children of down-on-their-luck vaudevillians who figure they can raise a show of their own, the film drops most of the score and most of the plot, turning into a sort of kiddie 42nd STREET/’33 by its last act. Rooney & Garland are at their freshest here. (That boy really could act, sing, dance, clown & tear your heart out . . . if only you could stop him from doing them all at once!) But the film is sentimental punk, in retrospect, hard to see how it out-grossed it’s very expensive M-G-M sibling, THE WIZARD OF OZ, that year . . . and at a quartet the cost. Things hit something of a low just as the pic needs a lift, when (BLACKFACE ALERT!!) their show turns out to be a big, ol’ Minstrel Show with everyone we’ve met blacked up for the occasion. Judy gets two treatments! ‘Darkie’ make-up as the minstrel act’s ‘Second Endman’ (Mickey is, of course, First Endman) and then a dip into Lena Horne’s paint-box as a saucy gal singer. (No blackface in the original show, just great Black talent from the Nicholas Brothers, Harold & Fayed.) No wonder the film went missing for a few years. Three follow-ups were made, each more elaborate, if not much better, though it’s fascinating to watch Mickey grow more desperate as he ages without growing; and Garland showing more of the nerves that would eventually undo her.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: It wasn’t unusual for Hollywood to buy a B’way hit and toss out most of the musical numbers. BABES keeps only the title song & the popular hit WHERE OR WHEN. But while most B’way shows were lucky to spawn one or two songs that became standards, these Rodgers & Hart discards include ‘The Lady Is A Tramp,’ ‘My Funny Valentine,’ ‘Johnny One-Note,’ and ‘I Wish I Were In Love Again.’ Good gravy! In their place, a couple of old hits, including one from Arthur Freed in his first credit as film producer, and a song from Harold Arlen & ‘Yip’ Harburg (note they're uncredited on our poster), taken from an Ed Wynn show called HOORAY FOR WHAT! A forgotten revue that yielded a boatload of talent Freed would soon hire for his legendary musical film unit: Arlen, Harburg, Vincente Minnelli, Robert Alton, Hugh Martin, Kay Thompson & Conrad Salinger. Hooray for What, indeed.

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