Babes in Arms (1939)

“Listen, you kids: I think our time has come!”

Synopsis:
The son (Mickey Rooney) of aging vaudevillians (Charles Winninger and Grace Hayes) is determined to put on a show to raise money for his household, and his girlfriend (Judy Garland) is eager to help — but she soon feels insecure about the arrival of a former child actress (June Preisser) hoping to play the lead role.

Genres:

Review:
Babes in Arms — the third on-screen pairing of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, a year after their memorable rapport in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) — is notable for being an even higher money-maker than The Wizard of Oz, released the same year and also co-starring typecast Margaret Hamilton, whose character is cleverly described here as someone who would “put butterflies to work making rubber tires” (!). Babes… — directed by Busby Berkeley — is likely the first film one thinks of when contemplating the “let’s put on a show!” genre, and this one pulls out all the stops, complete with an offensive black-face minstrel piece which will distress any modern viewers not hardened enough to simply regard it as an unfortunate product of its time.

The storyline itself is surprisingly hard-hitting — most notably in its depiction of strained relations between Rooney and his father (Winninger), who at first is in massive denial about the imminent collapse of vaudeville’s reign, then bitterly angry about the role his son is trying to play in its revitalization; their father-son squalls together are far from representative of typical escapist fare. But, naturally, there’s plenty of levity throughout as well — primarily in the form of Preisser as an “aging” child-actress with tremendous gymnastic talents (check out those back flips!), plenty of money to fling around, and mooning eyes for Rooney; her temporary threat to Rooney’s romance with Garland provides the bulk of the film’s narrative tension. The songs, sadly, are mostly forgettable, but listen for a fine rendition of Arthur Freed’s “Good Morning”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Mickey Rooney as Mickey
  • Judy Garland as Patsy

Must See?
Yes, simply for its erstwhile popularity. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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

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One Response to “Babes in Arms (1939)”

  1. Not a must – this is not Judy and Mickey at their best, but they do with it what they can.

    What’s even more surprising than the fact that, on release, ‘Babes…’ was more popular than ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is the fact that overall it’s a rather dull film. One can only think that ‘Wizard’ was waaay ahead of its time as well as the sensibilities of audiences in 1939, since they still seemed to prefer something firmly planted in 1939.

    Agreed, the score is largely forgettable (little of the original 1937 Rodgers and Hart musical seems to be intact here). And, oddly, for a musical, it hardly seems like a musical at all, it’s so story-heavy.

    One of the most memorable bits (tho it’s short) is in a show rehearsal, during which Rooney has opportunity to do amusing impersonations of both Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore. That’s about the only bit I found amusing, anyway. The bulk of the film comes off as a ping-pong of frenzied and over-wrought.

    Of particularly little interest is the film’s finale – a cheerfully served-up yet still lackluster tribute to America called ‘God’s Country’. Filled with tons of names of M-G-M stars, we’re led to believe that M-G-M is clearly a large part of what was making America so great, aside only from the fact that America in 1939 wasn’t Nazi Germany.

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