Opening time capsules can be fun. That was my experience recently saw Babes in Arms, a 1939 classic that’s also a surprising curiosity. It’s known as the first in a series of Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland “let’s put on a show” movies (Strike Up the Band, Babes on Broadway, and Girl Crazy were to follow) and that’s the context in which it’s normally viewed. But standing on its own, it’s a showcase for Rooney and Garland, a strange and not always wondrous example of shifting musical tastes, and a pre-WWII rally all in one.
Rooney was nominated for Best Actor for this, and in many ways this may represent a peak for him. Considering his competition that year, he really doesn’t deserve it, but the film shows us what was so attractive about him. If you love energy, you love this guy. He’s everywhere at once, and his imitations of Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore are cute if not dead-on. He’s called irrepressible by many, and a bit over the top and tiring by others. He can barely contain himself in some scenes, and you sometimes fear he’s going to explode or pass out. He’s really more of a performer and impersonator than an actor, and doesn’t really have much of a singing voice or a range. He seems to play a variety of instruments, but doesn’t. He does dance well, though.
The film opens with his character’s birth, and it’s fun to see inserted footage of the child Mickey as the film follows his character growing up on the stage. He was an exceptional child performer who unhappily didn’t develop into a more nuanced and subtle actor.
Garland, though, astonishes. Just 17 when the film was produced, she is already a solid actress and a extraordinarily sensitive singer. Released just after The Wizard of Oz, this film shows the young adult Garland with yearnings and thoughts beyond anything Dorothy was dreaming of. Her version of I Cried for You, while a bit too imitative of her Gable-dedicated You Made Me Love You of a few years before, is as heartfelt and exquisite a version as is possible from a young person. And it is as beautifully interpreted as anyone has ever done it. “Music adaptor” Roger Edens knew exactly what to do with Garland’s voice, and here he draws out a performance where every note vibrates with meaning. Some people have a voice; others know how to sing. Garland had the voice, and knew what to do with it. Revisiting that expressive, haunting voice alone is worth the visit to the film.
The other main singers contribute to the curiosity label. Betty Jaynes plays Mickey’s sister in the film, and she and baritone Douglas MacPhail supply the antiquated semi-classical sound that Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald had contributed to the mid-‘30s. There was a moment in time when placing opera next to “swing” was a win-win. It may have worked with audiences in 1939, but feels strange and musically mutant here. MacPhail has a strong baritone voice, but its power and size don’t quite fit with the others. Neither does his age (25). But perhaps the greatest curiosity of all is June Preisser as a child star looking for a comeback. Her acting style, voice and bizarre gymnastics look and sound downright alien, and remind us all that novelty acts age quickly and raise more questions than they answer. (You’ll have to see it to appreciate what I’m talking about here.)
Perhaps the most instructive part of watching—and studying—Babes in Arms is realizing what a grand departure it is from the original Broadway play. Rodgers and Hart, New York sophistication, and perhaps the greatest musical score up to that time (and continuing for another 20 year, IMHO). Think of it: “Where or When,” “My Funny Valentine,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “Johnny One Note” and “I Wish I Were in Love Again.” All those great classics were in the Broadway version—an astonishment. Only “Where or When” made it into the film—and that was given the soft operatic trteatment by Jaynes and MacPhail. Of course, Garland would have nailed the song if given the opportunity, though as with “I Cried for You,” it would have been a bit compromised by her lack of years. Think of what Garland’s version of “My Funny Valentine” might have sounded like then. We already know what her (later) versions of the other songs sounded like. The specter of Andy Hardy hangs over the film; this was conceived as an extension of Rooney-Garland instead of as a film version of a Broadway show with the best score anyone could remember. Sometimes films simply have to cut songs because of time (Cabaret, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, etc.). Thinking that Garland and some others couldn’t have helped turn the play into a workable, albeit sophisticated, film was a business decision, a failure of imagination, or both. In either event, it was an opportunity missed.
Instead of these musical jewels, we get the fun and serviceable “Good Morning,” which shows up all over the place. It’s a solid song, and is best known as part of 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the other songs from the original play. It might have made a solid addition to them, but fails as a substitute.
I’ve always considered 1939 “the year of the century,” and Babes in Arms gives another reason why. In what is traditionally considered Hollywood’s peak year, this film gives us a trip back to a time few of us remember, and even fewer can relate to. Busby Berkeley at the helm reminds us of the left-leaning Depression musicals at the early part of the decade (42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933)—making this MGM film look strangely like a Warner Bros. production. Berkeley’s style is a little less kaleidoscopic here, yet those sweeping crane shots are his personal signature and easily evoke those earlier films and their gritty, working-man themes. But the last number, God’s Country,” is given a classic Berkeley treatment, but with a theme as right-leaning as his earlier films were left-of-center. It’s as far from the stage version as one could get. It’s all gung-ho USA, with jibes at Hitler, Nazis and other enemies we weren’t officially at war with yet. In that way, perhaps it’s either of its time or prescient. In either case, it yanks the film (pun intended) into a rah-rah patriotism that feels out of place in a ’30s musical at the same time as it places the film at the forefront of wartime propaganda.
And I had just remembered it as the first of the “let’s put on a show” films….