va-va-va-voom and vaudeville.

Four musicals, or maybe three musicals and one movie with music.

For Me and My Gal
This movie is propaganda! In a nutshell, it's about an actor who avoids the draft so he can further his career, based on a true story. It was set in 1916, but released in 1942. At the end, there was a message saying "America needs your money. Buy war bonds and stamps at this theater." I know that propaganda is still made today, but old propaganda is always very striking in its ham-handedness. It's quaint, even. And I suppose there's well-made propaganda, but we just call it "inspirational." Then there's poorly-made propaganda, and this movie was just an example of the that. I wonder how it seemed to the audiences of the 40s. Maybe they didn't care about all that because they were surrounded by reminders of the war effort. They were just there to see Judy Garland and this new fella, Gene Kelly.

This movie was Gene's film debut, and for that reason, I'll cut him some slack for his mediocre acting. He's sort of a bad guy in this movie, a "heel" as he calls it. He's conniving, self-serving, and uh, he slammed his hand in a suitcase so he wouldn't have to go to war. He is redeemed by Judy, who loves him. You love her, she loves him, and so you want to forgive him. Later he does join up with the YMCA to go entertain troops and he even shoots some Germans in a ill-advised act of heroism. The movie tries really hard to make him loveable so you're happy at the end when he and Judy reunite and sing the titular song. But honestly? I wanted Judy to end up with the other guy, who was an all-around nice person the whole movie. You see that, movie? You made me root against Gene Kelly.

An interesting thing about this movie is that the songs are not a part of the plot. But, Sandra, you say, all musicals are like that! That's the point, people just sing and dance whenever they feel like it! No, that's just not true. While it's not exactly realistic that regular folks starting singing in harmony and dancing elaborately choreographed moves, the songs generally are related to the plot.

However, there are many musicals which revolve around the lives of performers, and rather than having people sing and dance as part of their daily communications, the musical numbers are actually performances that the main characters are doing. So in For Me and My Gal, Judy and Gene are vaudevillians, and the songs are their shows or rehearsals. The same device is used in Victor/Victoria and Cabaret. Doing this eliminates the restriction that your songs have to relate somehow to what's going on in the movie. And that's why Judy Garland can sing "It's a Long Way to Tiperrary," even when her character is not actually travelling there at all.

Songs and Dance: Judy's a great singer and a pretty good dancer. Gene's a great dancer and a passable singer. They are marvelous together. The songs were all old vaudeville songs, so some were familiar. Here's the title song.

You know, that diner owner might have more customers if he put in more tables instead of having huge open spaces suitable for dancing. Also, Gene may be a heel, but he sure looks sharp in that suit.

Will I Make Josh Watch It: No. Except maybe to point out that he should get a suit like that.

Shall We Dance?
Another Astaire-Rogers movie. Now, it's only my second one, but I think I've got a pretty good plot outline that might apply to them all.

Fred dances. Fred falls for Ginger based on a brief meeting or photograph or some other trivial connection that only leads to love in the movies. Ginger is not interested in Fred's advances, due to her own personal situation. Fred dances, is persistent and charming. Fred and Ginger dance. Ginger falls for Fred. Fred and Ginger dance. Something happens to tear Fred and Ginger apart, perhaps a wacky misunderstanding, as opposed to character flaws of either Fred or Ginger. Fred and Ginger get back together, then dance. Fin.

It was while watching this movie that I decided that sometimes it's okay to not care about the plot, because, dangit, I was entertained. Good music, impressive dancing, witty dialogue - who needs a storyline?

Songs and Dance: Gershwin! Not one, but two of them! This has some excellent classics from the Brothers G, including "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me." There were several good dancing scenes. There was a scene in the belly of a ship where Fred danced while the black crewmen played jazz. Something bothered me about that scene, but it's not what you think. No, it wasn't overt racism, but the fact that the dude holding the double bass was not playing it. He was sort of slapping at it half-heartedly, but not at the same time that the bass sounds were playing. Surely, they could have found a black man in Hollywood that could play the dang bass. I guess they blew the budget on the set so that Fred could tap all over the place. There were several excellent dance scenes, but my favorite was in the park - on roller skates!

Will I Make Josh Watch It: He saw some of it, including the above scene. He was properly impressed. Give me another twenty years, and he'll actually like musicals.

The Girl Can't Help It
Is this a musical? I couldn't decide. There are songs, but most of them are sung by performers, rather than characters in the movie. There were a couple of songs by the characters, so I guess it counts. I'm including it mostly because I liked it.

This movie was apparently made to capitalize on that crazy teen fad, rock and roll. Several early rock performers are shown, either in music clubs or on TV, including Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, The Platters, etc. If Wikipedia can be trusted, this movie inspired John Lennon by showing him that his rock idols were just dudes, too. You could call this movie required viewing for Beatlemaniacs.

The plot has to do with an ex-mobster who wants his girlfriend to become a singing sensation, so he hires a has-been agent to make her a star. Of course, the agent and the girl fall in love, there's a lot of wackiness, but in the end, the people who want to be famous are famous and those who want to be housewives get to be housewives. The girl is played by Jayne Mansfield. Plain old Jayne.

The only word for her is va-va-va-voom, which is honestly not a word I use very often. I can only imagine how uncomfortable her undergarments must be to make her figure look like that.

She's beautiful, she's blonde, and she's just a little bit naive, but actually very likeable because she comes off as innocent rather than just bone-chillingly stupid. And the agent, played by Tom Ewell is very likeable as well, despite his terrible drinking problem. He drinks because, what else, he lost a girl. There's a scene where his lost love, played by Julie London, appears in various elaborate dresses around his apartment, singing "Cry Me a River." It's not really my style to sympathize with people who have drunk their lives away, but the scene is so effective that I do feel sorry for the guy, what with this beautiful woman with a sorrowful voice haunting him all the time. That's gotta get old.

The movie is not deep, and feminists will find a lot to roll their eyes at. Aside from various cartoonish sight gags that happen whenever Jayne walks by (milk boils, ice melts, eyeglasses break), we find that Jayne only wants to be a wife. She utters this classic line "No one things I'm equipped for motherhood."


I don't have any problem with motherhood as a career, the movie just sort of implies that none of these newfangled career girls actually want to work. Deep down, they all wish they were wearing aprons. Or maybe the movie is just meant to appeal to men, who all want a woman that looks like Jayne Mansfield and wants nothing more in life than to make them dinner and give them babies.

Anyway, despite all of that, the film is entertaining. The musical numbers are good, because the performers are good. The characters are really appealing - you want them to win. The script is well-written - funny dialogue, and though you know there is obviously going to be a happy ending, it's not ever clear how those two kids are ever going to get together. But they do: Tom quits drinking, Jayne cooks dinner, and they have babies. Ah, the 50s.

Songs and Dance: Early rock and roll. Very little dancing, except for some teenager types bopping or swinging or whatever they called it. Here's Little Richard.

Clearly, piano benches are for squares.

Will I Make Josh Watch It: I told him about Eddie Cochran and Little Richard, and now he wants to see it. It must not be a real musical.

Babes in Arms
Since I included The Girl Can't Help It, which may not be a musical, I'll include this one as well, which definitely is. This is one of several movies that pairs Mickey Rooney with Judy Garland. This is my first real Mickey Rooney experience, and I have to say that he's alternately charming and annoying. Or charmingly annoying? I spent the whole movie trying to come up with some sort of comparison that would explain young Mickey Rooney to people my age. This is what I came up with: Mickey Rooney was the David Spade of the 30s, except he sang and danced because sarcasm hadn't been invented yet. You tolerate him mostly because you like who he is paired with. Does that mean Judy Garland is like Chris Farley? Actually, in some ways, yes.

ANYWAY, I didn't care much for this movie. For one thing, I was confused by the music. A lot of the same songs were later used in Singin' in the Rain. In fact, the plot was sort of based around the same thing: talkies! While Singin' in the Rain was about some silent film stars trying to make a talkie, Babes in Arms is about some vaudevillians trying to compete with those blasted motion pictures. The vaudevillians go off on tour to revive their careers, while their children (Mickey, Judy, some other kids) put on their own show to prove to their parents that they can perform. Unfortunately for this movie's place in history, much of their show is based on the idea of the old-fashioned minstrel show. And that means blackface. Yes, folks, Judy Garland, young and beautiful, and in blackface. If you don't want your childhood memories of The Wizard of Oz shattered, maybe don't watch this movie.

I promise that I don't watch these movies looking to be horrified by their datedness, though it seems like I call all of them either racist or sexist. I understand that they were made in different contexts of history and their preservation can be used as a lesson. We seem to be in an era of particularly thick political correctness, so, heck, maybe in another 60 years, we'll be laughing at how concerned we were about not offending anyone.

One final note: the "bad guy" was a lady who was trying to have all those ragtag vaudeville offspring sent off to "state works school." Those kids never went to school, and instead went around singing and carrying on. There was a scene where they were bearing torches and ended up starting a bonfire in the middle of the town. If not for the singing, it might have been a Frankenstein movie. Anyway, the uptight lady was played by Margaret Hamilton, better known as the Wicked Witch of the West.

Songs and Dance: I liked them better in Singin' in the Rain. See that movie, it's much better. In addition to Judy and Mickey, there were a couple other cast members who were quite young and had amazing opera-style voices. They apparently did not go on to bigger things, but they sure could sing. I've included a clip of terrible audio/video quality, but the scene is quite cute. It was either this or Judy in blackface. They're making fun of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Apparently, this scene was deleted (and thought lost) from the film after FDR died, because it was deemed disrespectful. Isn't that funny? Now we are careful not to stereotype large groups of people, but I don't remember any films being re-edited so as not to besmirch the memory of Richard Nixon after he died.

Later, the Roosevelts dance, which is funny and ironic. Not that I make fun of great leaders who were crippled by terrible diseases. Now I've gone and offended myself.

Will I Make Josh Watch It: He saw the last half and was not impressed. Rather, he was annoyed (Mickey) and offended (blackface), though momentarily smitten (Judy) and amused (dancing FDR).


Knocker said...

Wow! I googled the video with Judy Garland in blackface! Oh my! I had no idea. What is *UP* with the WHITE LIPS?! Ugh!

Wikipedia says that some black performers also performed in black makeup. Something about that cries out for explanation, but none is given.

Anonymous said...

The way I remember Mickey Rooney now (and Sid's kids and Carla's kids will) is from playing the horse trainer in The Black Stallion.