Black Narcissus (1947)

“There’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated.”

Synopsis:
A nun (Deborah Kerr) is sent to establish a convent high in the Himalayas, where she and her fellow nuns — Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), Sister Honey (Jenny Laird), Sister Briony (Judith Furse), and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) — each confront their personal demons.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
The opening line of Peary’s review of Black Narcissus simply exclaims, “An erotic masterpiece about nuns!” Indeed. The creative team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger managed to produce a remarkably “intense adaptation of Rumer Godden‘s novel”, in which a youthful head sister (Kerr) and her four charges “find their commitment to the order greatly tested” as they’re placed in “an exotic setting” — a former “residence of a potentate’s harem… situated on an isolated mountain ledge” which is “dark and haunted by its sinful past”, and where “an eerie wind blows constantly through the empty corridors”. Peary accurately argues that the picture “is splendidly acted, uncompromisingly written…, and ranks as one of the most stunningly beautiful color films of all time, thanks to cinematographer Jack Cardiff” (about whom a recent must-see documentary — Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff [2010] — was just released) “and art director Alfred Junge“. Yet as Peary notes, “viewers” (myself included) “are usually shocked to discover that for the most part the picture was made inside a studio so that Cardiff could better establish the nuns’ terrible sense of claustrophobia”.

In his Alternate Oscars, Peary awards Kerr Best Actress of the Year — after venting about how that year’s Oscar was “wasted” on Loretta Young, who “made only a half-dozen noteworthy movies, and wasn’t all that impressive in any of them”, though he jokingly concedes perhaps she “deserved an Emmy for years of twirling through a door without once ripping her dress as the hostess of… The Loretta Young Show” — ouch! At any rate, in this text, Peary lauds Kerr’s ability to “not… let Kathleen Byron overwhelm her in a much showier part”; yet while Kerr holds her own admirably — she does phenomenal, subtle work representing her character’s emotional arc throughout the narrative — it’s hard to deny that Byron is the protagonist who first comes to mind when thinking back on this film. Her mental derangement — so brilliantly filmed and conceived by all involved (including the make-up artists; see stills below) — provides an unforgettable climax to a truly unique film, one which (surprisingly enough) may ultimately best “belong” to the horror genre (as suggested so persuasively by DVD Savant).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh (voted Best Actress of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
  • Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth
  • Flora Robson as Sister Philippa
  • David Farrar as Mr. Dean
  • Stunning cinematography by Jack Cardiff
  • Alfred Junge’s production design
  • The surreal climax

Must See?
Most definitely. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Naked Night, The / Sawdust and Tinsel (1953)

“You want to put all this behind you. You old buzzard! You’re getting old and rickety… and scared!”

Synopsis:
An aging circus owner (Aake Gronberg) visits his estranged wife (Annika Tretow) and kids, while his mistress (Harriet Andersson) flirts with an arrogant stage actor (Hasse Ekman).

Genres:

Review:
Originally released in America as The Naked Night (and more literally translated as Night of the Clowns), Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel is the first film by this famed Scandinavian director included in Peary’s book (where he lists no less than 18 of his titles in all). Though Bergman actually helmed a dozen other films before this one (and I’ll confess to not having seen any of these), it seems to me that Sawdust and Tinsel remains a worthy and historically relevant Bergman outing, given that it represents the famed director at both his most experimental (many elements of the film are redolent of German expressionism) and iconic (as several of his most prominent and personally relevant themes — relationships, infidelity, insecurity — are explored). Regardless of its placement within Bergman’s broader oeuvre, however, viewers will surely be surprised to find themselves so genuinely absorbed in this bizarre tale of circus-versus-stage, couched within both a serious midlife crisis and an overall crisis of identity.

Gronberg and Andersson (the latter bodaciously sensual and earthy) represent the presumed self-loathing of those involved in the “low-brow” world of circus/carnival life, while Ekman’s detestable Frans (what a villain!) personifies the arrogance of theatre, with its stereotypically bombastic self-adoration; meanwhile, Tretow’s Agda embodies the stability and peace of mind to (potentially) be found in a life far removed from performing. The various confrontations between these four characters — and the emotive clown “Frost” (Anders Ek), whose nightmare flashback opens the film — drive the narrative forward, as each is forced to contemplate exactly where they stand in the world, and how much power they ultimately possess over themselves, their lives, and others. It all sounds awfully heady — but really, Sawdust and Tinsel boils down to an elegant chamber piece about dominance, love, and fear. It’s played remarkably well by all the central performers, and is consistently stunning to look at: the cinematography by Bergman’s regular d.p., Sven Nyqvist, doesn’t disappoint in the slightest, and Bergman’s directorial hand is remarkably well-assured.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Harriet Andersson as Anne
  • Aake Gronberg as Albert
  • Hasse Ekman as Frans
  • Annika Tretow as Agda
  • Anders Ek as Frost
  • Bergman’s masterful direction
  • Sven Nykvist’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful and haunting early film by a master director. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Easter Parade (1948)

“Who says I can’t get along without her? See those girls? Any one of them has as much talent as she has.”

Synopsis:
When his longtime partner (Ann Miller) leaves him to go solo, a dancer (Fred Astaire) takes a chorus girl (Judy Garland) under his wing and decides to turn her into his protegee.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately notes that the result of the triple-switcheroo behind Easter Parade (Fred Astaire replaced Gene Kelly at the last minute when Kelly broke his ankle, while Cyd Charisse was replaced by Ann Miller, and director Charles Walters replaced Vincente Minnelli at the advice of Judy Garland’s psychoanalyst!) resulted in “one of MGM’s brightest, cheeriest musicals”. He’s right to state that “Astaire and Garland” — despite their age gap (Astaire was officially retired at the time) — “are a most engaging screen couple”, and that “it seems Garland is really enjoying herself — which is nice to see”. He notes that there are many “fine musical numbers” — most notably Astaire’s “particularly exciting” solo, ‘Steppin’ Out With My Baby’, in which he “dances in slow motion while the chorus behind him dances at full speed” (impressively ‘daring’ stuff!), and “Ann Miller’s sexy tap solo to ‘Shaking the Blues Away'” (which she unfortunately performed in a great deal of pain, though you’d never know it). He further adds that “the Astaire-Garland numbers are special, too” (‘A Couple of Swells’ remains iconic), and he notes that “the uplifting Irving Berlin score” (fabulous!) is “first-rate and used to perfection” (though he admits to not being “a fan of Peter Lawford’s singing”, a sentiment I can get behind; fortunately, Lawford sings just one short, innocuous song).

Peary points out that the “simple storyline… is essentially Pygmalion“, given that it’s about an accomplished professional (in this case, a dancer) who dares his partner that “he can take an unknown non-professional… and make her… a big star”. Despite its familiarity, it’s handled well enough — and with enough humor — that it feels fresh and engaging. Fleshing out this central storyline is a rather pedestrian, if complicated and unrealistic, love quadrangle (Lawford loves Garland at first sight, but Garland secretly loves Astaire, who is still in love with Miller — though God only knows why! — and Miller has a massive crush on Lawford). This angle of the film is best left under-analyzed, as it’s really just a prop for the non-stop songs and dances (that Berlin score!) that thankfully dominate the screentime.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fred Astaire as Don
  • Judy Garland as Hannah
  • Astaire singing and dancing to “Drum Crazy” in a toy store
  • Astaire and Garland’s many fine dances together


  • Astaire’s surreal, oh-so-cool slo-mo dance “Steppin’ Out With My Baby”

Must See?
Yes, as a most enjoyably escapist musical — and oh, that Irving Berlin score!

Categories

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Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

“I don’t want to be just introduced to him. I want it to be something strange and romantic and something I’ll always remember!”

Synopsis:
In turn-of-the-century St. Louis, a teenager (Judy Garland) in love with the boy next door (Tom Drake) is distraught when her father (Leon Ames) declares that she and her family — including her sisters (Lucille Bremer, Joan Carroll, and Margaret O’Brien), her brother (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.), her mother (Mary Astor), and their housekeeper (Marjorie Main) — will be moving to New York City.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary describes this “wonderful M-G-M musical” — which he argues is the best musical by director Vincente Minnelli, and the second-best for Garland (after The Wizard of Oz) — as “a warm, unsentimental” [really???] “tribute to family, home, and tree-lined America”. He doesn’t go into much detail in his analysis of the film, instead simply calling out certain notable aspects, such as the “magnificent $100,000 set designed by Lemuel Ayres and Cedric Gibbons”, the “striking color photography” by George Folsey (which “contributes to the picture’s early-century flavor”), and the performance given by “cute, feisty O’Brien, who won a Special Oscar” for her role here as the youngest child in Garland’s family, thanks in part to “two exceptional dramatic scenes”: “one set on a scary Halloween night and another in which she destroys her snowman because she’s so upset about the family’s moving”.

Adapted from “Sally Benson’s short stories about her youth”, the narrative of Meet Me in St. Louis is similarly vignette-driven, divided into four seasons (introduced by old-fashioned title cards), and primarily concerned with showing a nostalgia-riddled vision of a bygone era (which, one should recall, was just 40 years earlier at the time the film was released). At this latter goal, it succeeds admirably: viewers would be hard-pressed to find anything at all unappealing about the lives lived by the Smith family, who are close-knit, wear gorgeous period clothing, live in a “large-but-cozy” house, and have a stern but kind housekeeper (Main) to watch over them. Their biggest concerns — other than the imminent move to NYC, of course — are whether a batch of ketchup stirred up by Astor is too sweet or too sharp; whether Bremer’s long-distance boyfriend will propose to her over the phone; whether the “boy next door” will finally realize Garland is alive; and whether young Tootie and Agnes (Carroll) will survive that year’s Halloween “festivities” (which provide us with a fascinating glimpse at what used to serve as entertainment for young kids on this ghoulish night; getting eggs thrown at your windows no longer seems quite so bad in comparison.)

For a rare dissenting (or at least refreshingly critical) view of the film, be sure to check out DVD Savant’s review. While he rates the film “Excellent” and acknowledges its many virtues, he points out that its primary function at the time was to serve as a subtle wartime reminder “that staying home and staying the same is a great ambition”, and that “Americans were supposed to be lovable small town hicks, the kind who would keep buying tickets to MGM movies indefinitely.” He’s also not afraid to specifically call out some of the storyline’s more troublesome elements — such as during the climactic high school dance, when (as we watch Garland dancing with a series of “undesirable” boys she was originally planning to hoist onto her rival), “the movie… dooms a whole social underclass of boys … to ‘inhuman’ status, in the kind of casual discrimination that the writers had no trouble milking for laughs.”

DVD Savant also admits, “When I first saw the film, I thought Margaret O’Brien was delightful, but her precocious morbidity no longer seems so funny.” Indeed, O’Brien’s iconic performance here continues to divide viewers into two distinct camps (as evidenced by a heated discussion on IMDb’s message board for the film): those who find her “annoying and disturbed”, and those who prefer to view her behavior more forgivingly, as simply a product of the film’s escapism and time period. I’ll admit to agreeing with Savant’s overall sentiment: while I thought she was the cutest thing ever when I first saw this film years ago, upon rewatching it recently I found her surprisingly irritating during certain early scenes. With that said, her heartfelt performance during the two dramatic scenes called out by Peary (particularly the latter one with the snowmen — a precursor to her teary presence while Garland sings the heart-rending “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) do show clear evidence of her acting abilities, and I believe she deserved the honorary Oscar she was given.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Judy Garland as Esther
  • Margaret O’Brien as Tootie
  • Garland’s first meaningful interaction with Drake, as he helps her put out the lights in her home
  • Fine sets and period detail
  • Garland singing “The Boy Next Door”, “The Trolley Song”, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — three memorable classics


  • George Folsey’s rich Technicolor cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as an acknowledged American classic. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Pirate, The (1948)

“Underneath this prim exterior there are depths of emotion — romantic longings!”

Synopsis:
On a 19th century Caribbean isle, a young woman (Judy Garland) engaged to her town’s pompous mayor (Walter Slezak) is wooed by a travelling troubadour (Gene Kelly), who pretends to be the mysterious pirate Macoco in order to impress her.

Genres:

Review:
Vincente Minnelli’s third and final film with his wife (Garland) in a leading role — after Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and The Clock (1945) — was this critically panned musical-fantasy, which has since gained a renewed reputation as a cult favorite (though it’s not labeled as such in the back of Peary’s book; perhaps this status has emerged in recent years). Both Garland and Kelly are in peak form, and appear to be having a blast; they seem to realize that the story is purely escapist fare, and (thankfully) never take it too seriously. Garland’s finest moment comes early on, as she breaks free from her character’s prim persona, and — under the influence of hypnosis — dazzles Kelly and everyone around her by breaking into a lustful ditty about her crush on “Mack the Black” (who, according to the song’s lyrics, “leads a flaming trail of masculinity” !); the pure contrast between this and what we’ve seen before, with Garland’s Manuela meekly agreeing to marry a portly man much older than herself, is remarkably effective.

Kelly, meanwhile, exhibits seemingly unflagging energy throughout. He’s given the opportunity to shine during two wonderful dance sequences: early on, during the song “Nina”, as he makes it known that he’ll fall for any beautiful woman he sees (though naturally, once he lays eyes on Manuela, his womanizing days are over); then later, during a daydream envisioned by Manuela, as he shows off his remarkably muscular physique while dancing the stunning “Pirate Ballet” (see still below). Walter Slezak is well-cast as his nemesis (and the film’s all-around baddie); to that end, the mistaken identity plot is nicely handled, and allows for some fine tension during the denouement. The vibrant sets and Technicolor cinematography are also worth a mention. While not one of Garland’s (or Minnelli’s) best musicals, The Pirate is enjoyable while it lasts, and should be seen by all film fanatics at least once, simply for its cult status.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Gene Kelly as Serafin
  • Judy Garland as Manuela
  • Fabulous Technicolor sets

Must See?
Yes, as a recent cult favorite.

Categories

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Child is Waiting, A (1963)

“We have to accept these children as they are — just as they are.”

Synopsis:
A musician (Judy Garland) comes to work at a boarding school for mentally retarded children (run by Burt Lancaster), and finds herself especially drawn towards one particular child, Reuben (Bruce Ritchey). Soon she’s called Reuben’s absentee mother (Gena Rowlands) out to the school for a visit, and learns more about his parents’ reluctance to play an active part in his life.

Genres:

Review:
Judy Garland’s next-to-last film — one of just two studio pictures directed by independent filmmaker John Cassavetes — is a well-intentioned but ultimately patronizing, dated, and frustrating affair. It shows just enough evidence of Cassavetes’ famed cinéma vérité style (through footage of actual children at the school where the story takes place) to frustrate viewers hoping for much more of this; meanwhile, the storyline itself is purely calculated drivel all the way. One would think that Garland, close to the end of her tragically drug-addled existence, would be well-suited for the lead role, playing a musician desperately seeking some kind of meaning in her life (rumor has it that Garland loved children in general, and children with disabilities in particular) — but her character is frustratingly shallow here; all we learn about her is that she’s an unmarried, well-trained musician. Meanwhile, she’s allowed to come work at the school despite possessing no credentials other than her own good intentions — and even once she’s hired, we simply see her wandering the grounds for the majority of the film, until she’s finally tasked by Lancaster to actually teach the music classes she claimed in her brief interview that she wanted to implement; ultimately, her character comes across as simply one more “case” for Lancaster to explore (though this angle isn’t sufficiently exploited, either).

That a mid-century-Hollywood “issue” film like this comes across these days as horribly dated is no surprise, and shouldn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker for would-be viewers. Fortunately, at least in the United States, we’ve moved beyond the well-intentioned but utterly corrupt notion that children with mental retardation (now referred to more properly as students with intellectual disabilities) are best served by being separated from their families and taught to live “independently” in a group home with others; in one climactic “horror scene”, we’re shown older MR individuals (clearly in a state of blathering incapacity) who were apparently allowed to stay at home with their parents for too long, and consequently were left helpless and without appropriate skills by the time they were finally institutionalized as adults (!!). While surely well-intentioned at the time, this scene comes across nowadays as voyeuristic at best.

Meanwhile, Reuben (well-played by Bruce Ritchey, the only actor among the cast of children) becomes the film’s token representative case study — someone Garland immediately “adopts” as her special-interest child (perhaps because he looks “normal”, in comparison to the other children, though her rationale is never made quite clear). We’re shown flashbacks of the trauma his well-heeled, educated parents (Gena Rowlands and Steven Hill) experienced before finally realizing that their child was “defective”; as Lancaster explains heatedly, and in all sincerity, to Garland, “His parents didn’t face the fact that he was retarded until very, very late; they let him play with ordinary children, and go to Kindergarten!” This kind of statement would be campily laughable if it weren’t so painfully representative of erstwhile attitudes.

The film’s best moments are those in which Cassavetes is allowed to show his directorial hand, and presents us with more authentic slices-of-life — most noticeably during the interactions between Rowlands and Hill (both wonderful), and one short scene in which Paul Stewart shares his own experiences as the father of a child with intellectual challenges. In contrast, all scenes with either Lancaster or Garland simply smack of Hollywoodized “best intentions”; while many viewers (see IMDb) seem to adore both actors here, and to admire the film in general for its “daring” subject-matter, I’m not impressed by any of it (as should be clear by now!). Lancaster’s Dr. Clark represents a Firm-But-Kind Authority Figure who occasionally (for no apparent reason other than to allow us a refreshing glimpse of the “real” children) wanders through the school quizzing the students on their letter recognition skills (wouldn’t this be done by a trained speech pathologist?); meanwhile, Garland’s character isn’t nearly fleshed-out enough — she seems to simply be wandering the set in a state of dazed bewilderment (surely a reflection of her personal health at the time), and we quickly become desperate to see more spunk and vitality of some kind. True Garland fans (and there are plenty of them!) probably won’t mind — but all other film fanatics should simply stick with watching her earlier films.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bruce Ritchey as Reuben
  • Gena Rowlands as Reuben’s mother
  • Steven Hill as Reuben’s father
  • Paul Stewart in a small but memorable role as a sympathetic school staff member
  • Fine, if frustratingly intermittent, use of cinéma vérité techniques

Must See?
No, though most film fanatics will be curious to check it out once.

Links:

Clock, The (1945)

“Why can’t we have this one last day together — couldn’t we?”

Synopsis:
During World War II, a soldier (Robert Walker) on leave for two days in New York City meets a pretty young secretary (Judy Garland) and falls in love; soon they’re desperately trying to find a way to get married before he’s shipped back to active duty.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
I was surprised to find myself largely in agreement with Peary’s cynical review of this early Vincente Minnelli film, a rare non-musical for Judy Garland (who Minnelli married shortly afterwards). Peary argues that while “Garland is extremely fetching” (true), the “romance is too calculated to endear us through simplicity”, and the picture itself is ultimately “too proud of itself for its ‘realistic’ characters, innocent romance, [and] ‘honest’ common-folks dialogue”. He forewarns us that “despite the fine cast and a few touching moments, [the] picture may grate on your nerves”. The Clock is the type of film you desperately want to enjoy, given that its heart is clearly in the right place — who wouldn’t root for a pair of such likable protagonists under such imposed duress? Thanks to sensitive performances by both Garland and Walker, we like these individuals right away; and it’s refreshing to see Garland only gradually coming to the realization this random “Joe” is someone she may be seriously interested in getting to know better.

As the granddaughter-in-law of a wartime bride, I’ve heard much about the reality of the romantic climate at the time, which was very much one of grabbing opportunities as they presented themselves — and the storyline is faithful to that general sentiment. I’m sure it hit a nerve with audiences at the time. What ultimately undoes the film, however — as Peary points out — is its attempt to engage the leading couple in a series of “authentic” NYC adventures, most of which simply never ring quite true. While James Gleason is believably wholesome as a milkman who picks up Walker and Garland late at night (and I had no problem buying the idea that he’d take them along for a ride; such night-time jobs can get pretty lonesome), the excitement they subsequently undergo quickly feels calculated to drive the plot forward. Meanwhile, Minnelli’s attempts to infuse humor into the script — such as through the weird performance of a prim older woman (Moyna MacGill, Angela Lansbury’s mother) who glances repeatedly up to the heavens while attempting to eat her dinner through the ruckus caused by drunk Keenan Wynn (perfectly cast) — often fall flat, and seem better suited for a different type of indie film altogether.

With all that said, The Clock does get several things right — most notably the palpable sense on the part of both Walker and Garland’s characters that they’ve been thrown into a unique pocket-hole of fate, one they’d be stupid to turn against or ignore. In the midst of war and leave and loneliness, finding a “soulmate” — even for a few days — would surely feel larger-than-life, and it absolutely comes across as authentic that they’d scramble to find a way to consummate (and legitimate) their brief union. So, despite my overall grumpiness, I’ll concede that The Clock is worth a look on numerous levels, even if it fails to deliver an entirely satisfying package.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Judy Garland as Alice
  • Robert Walker as Joe
  • Fine character performances
  • An effective view of both the charms and frustrations of New York City

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly recommended for one-time viewing — and a must for Garland fans, naturally.

Links:

Girl Crazy (1943)

“I always said you were girl crazy. I was wrong – you’re just crazy!”

Synopsis:
The girl-crazy son (Mickey Rooney) of a newspaper magnate (Henry O’Neill) is sent out West to attend a boys-only college, where he nonetheless falls in love with one of the only girls around — the dean’s beautiful daughter, Ginger (Judy Garland).

Genres:

Review:
Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney’s final film together (at least in leading roles) was this rousing adaptation of George and Ira Gershwin’s 1930 stage musical. The plot is as silly as they come, but ultimately inconsequential in the face of a host of fabulous, memorable tunes — including “Bidin’ My Time”, “Fascinating Rhythm”, “But Not For Me”, and “I’ve Got Rhythm”, among others (wowee!). Meanwhile, Garland and Rooney are in peak form here, with Garland lovelier than ever (it’s a treat to see her actually resisting Rooney’s advances for once, rather than the other way around), and Rooney a bundle of typically irrepressible — but somehow tolerable — energy (viz. the random but enjoyable scene in which he entertains Garland by acting out a boxing round). Busby Berkeley notoriously directed the film’s stunningly choreographed finale, “I’ve Got Rhythm” (which was shot first), but was replaced by Norman Taurog, who does a fine job managing the rest of the escapist material. Don’t pay too much attention to details of the plot, however, or you’ll find yourself irritated by what amounts to lazy scriptwriting (I’m speaking specifically about events related to the “Miss Rodeo” contest, but won’t give away more here).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Mickey Rooney as Danny
  • Judy Garland as Ginger
  • Numerous rousing Gershwin tunes

Must See?
Yes, as one of Rooney and Garland’s best films together (in large part due to that Gershwin score!).

Categories

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Summer Stock (1950)

“Running a farm isn’t women’s work; why don’t you put the burden where it belongs?”

Synopsis:
A farmer (Judy Garland) engaged to the nebbishy son (Eddie Bracken) of a storeowner (Ray Collins) struggles to make ends meet; meanwhile, her flighty sister (Gloria DeHaven) suddenly brings her boyfriend (Gene Kelly) and his troupe of performers to Garland’s barn, where they hope to put on a show.

Genres:

Review:
Summer Stock is primarily remembered for its notoriety as the film which ended Judy Garland’s career at MGM. Read any review or write-up on the movie, and you’ll learn all you need to know about the sad details surrounding Garland’s ongoing addiction, stint in rehab, 20-pound weight gain (leading to the oddity of a “show-stopping” finale number added several months after primary filming, at which point she’d clearly lost the weight), and overall struggles to make it to the set each day; you’ll also read about Kelly’s infamous kindness in helping her through the ordeal (including faking a fall one day to allow her to take the day off). Ultimately, however, what really “matters” is whether the film succeeds or not — and critical opinions remain deeply divided on this point.

DVD Savant
, for instance — while acknowledging the redeeming power of the musical numbers — argues that the plot’s “mechanics are even simpler than shows like Babes on Broadway: Save the farm, put on a show, ditch the loser love interests so the leads can get together”, and points out the “lazy way the… script abuses the supporting players” so that “amusing personality Eddie Bracken and so-so MGM contract player Gloria DeHaven both play unfunny, unpleasant jerks so as to make Garland and Kelly seem all the more virtuous for dumping them”. In his laudatory review for Digitally Obsessed, however, David Krauss argues that the “snappy script… somehow makes the tired backstage story seem fresh”, and that “the colorful characters and brisk pacing (care of director Charles Walters, who also helmed Easter Parade) keep us fully engaged at all times”.

In truth, I’m more in agreement with DVD Savant than Krauss on this debate; the cliched storyline is a bit too escapist for my blood (sorry, but nothing about Garland’s attempt to fill farming shoes “worked” for me) — and while I didn’t have much of a problem with DeHaven as Garland’s spoiled sister (or Bracken as her spineless fiance), the presence of Phil Silvers as Kelly’s irritating sidekick was simply cringe-worthy throughout. With all that said, the film is at least partially redeemed by a host of rousing musical numbers, as well as truly top-notch performances by both Garland and Kelly; whatever troubles Garland may have been having behind the scenes are (amazingly) nowhere in evidence on-screen. While only her stunning finale number (“Get Happy”) is memorable enough to stick in your head for days afterwards, the remaining songs are all enjoyable while they last, and perfectly suited for Garland’s timbre. Meanwhile, Kelly gets to dance one of his best, most creative numbers (and that’s saying a lot!) as he shuffles away on a wooden floor, engaging a newspaper for sound effects. It’s fun stuff.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Judy Garland as Jane
  • Gene Kelly as Joe
  • Kelly and Garland dancing the Portland Fancy
  • Kelly’s truly classic solo tap-dance sequence
  • Garland’s justifiably famous “Get Happy” finale

Must See?
No. While certainly recommended, this one is only must-see for Garland or Kelly completists.

Links:

For Me and My Gal (1942)

“You think anything’s going to stand in the way of us playing the Palace this time? Oh no, not even a war.”

Synopsis:
An ambitious vaudevillian (Gene Kelly) falls in love with a young singer (Judy Garland) and promises to marry her once they’ve hit the big time; but when World War One arrives and Kelly attempts to temporarily dodge the draft, he loses not only the respect of everyone around him, but the love of his life as well.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
For Me and My Gal — directed “with surprising restraint by Busby Berkeley” — is primarily notable as the film in which “Judy Garland got her first solo star billing and Gene Kelly made his screen debut” (after impressing audiences in Broadway’s “Pal Joey”). As Peary notes, the film’s storyline is “obvious, sentimental, [and] patriotic”, but “is bolstered by [the] charisma of the two energetic stars and some fine musical numbers” — most notably “the cheerful title song”. Much has been made about the fact that Kelly’s character is too much of a self-centered heel to be worth rooting for as Garland’s love interest — but at least his character stays consistently opportunistic throughout, and comes across as refreshingly human (until the laughably unrealistic finale, which simply adds an irritating twist of delusional escapism to the entire affair). More frustrating to me than Kelly’s character is the lack of development afforded to George Murphy, playing Garland’s former partner and would-be love interest; Murphy is highly sympathetic in his tiny supporting role, but ultimately never poses enough of a threat to Kelly.

P.S. Don’t bother trying to avoid spoilers about what exactly Kelly does that’s just so awful, as it’s broadcast everywhere, even in Peary’ review — though I’ll refrain from mentioning it here.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Judy Garland as Jo
  • George Murphy as Jimmy
  • Garland and Kelly singing “For Me and My Gal”

Must See?
No — though naturally fans of Garland and/or Kelly will want to check it out.

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