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Friday, October 7, 2016

STRIKE UP THE BAND (1940)

This was the second, and weakest, of the four let’s-put-on-a-show musicals for Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney, early productions out of M-G-M’s Arthur Freed unit. Quickly turned out in the wake of the mega-successful BABES IN ARMS’/’39, it’s a High School Musical without the Depression & unemployment issues that shadow the earlier film. (Also without the BlackFace Minstrel Show.) In their place, a plot about rebooting the school band as a ‘swing’ outfit to win a gig on Jazz King Paul Whiteman’s radio show; story beats courtesy of puppy-love tiffs & ginned-up medical emergencies; but always making time for Rooney’s heart-to-heart guidance counseling from Mom or the nearest available surrogate parent. (Too bad none of them stopped him from padding the film out with two interminable reels of Old-Time melodrama.) Three numbers come off pretty well: Rooney & Co. in the superbly swinging ‘Drummer Boy;’ director Busby Berkeley showing some of his old form in geometric patterns on ‘La Conga;’ and a weird little stop-motion animation routine for fruits & vegetables thought up by visiting future director Vincente Minnelli. Garland looks & sounds adorable here, though very much subservient to Rooney who shows his multiple talents with less exhausting desperation than usual. Perhaps because the film story has so little at stake.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: The DVD’s cartoon-short, Rudolf Ising’s ROMEO IN RHYTHM, is an exceptional piece of animation, but take warning that the fierce racial stereotyping (shanty-town Black Crows in a ‘hep’ R&J parody) comes without any historical/cultural distancing.

DOUBLE-BILL: The title song is from an otherwise unrelated Gershwin musical, a flop political satire meant to follow OF THEE I SING. Why they didn’t find a spot for Garland to sing the show’s great ballad (‘I’ve Got a Crush on You’) is a mystery. No doubt, it sounded swell in the show’s original pit band which included Red Nichols, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey & Jack Teagarden, a group recreated in Anthony Mann’s GLENN MILLER STORY/’56 for the slightly later Gershwin show (also the last in the Judy/Mickey series) GIRL CRAZY.

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