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Synopsis: Sick of drumming for the boring school orchestra, senior Jimmy Connors (Mickey Rooney) begs permission to form his own modern dance band. With Mary Holden (Judy Garland) singing, the band is the hit of a school party. But Jimmy's ambition to compete in a 'battle of the bands' promotion sponsored by big time bandleader Paul Whiteman (himself) is stalled by the lack of train fare to Chicago. One possible source of revenue is new girl Barbara Frances Morgan (June Preisser), whose father is hiring a band for a big party. Mary doesn't appreciate Jimmy's sudden attentions to Barbara. Mary is sure that she and Jimmy are a natural couple, but Jimmy doesn't seem to have gotten the message.
Strike Up the Band is the second of Arthur Freed's big 'teen musicals', with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland playing Louis B. Mayer's ideal kids next door. Both Jimmy Connors and Mary Holden are enormous talents eager to spring up from the grass roots of America. The simple formula worked at least three times without much variation: ambitious Jimmy wants to be a big success and his girlfriend Mary supports him all the way. The high school hopefuls are consummate performers and carry themselves like seasoned professionals. During practice sessions Jimmy's 'kid' orchestra can barely keep time, but when the show goes on they become polished crowd pleasers complete with elaborate choreographed stage business. Jimmy's drum solos have as much pizzazz as Gene Krupa's, and a brace of harmonizing backup singers materializes to support Mary's killer song deliveries.
Former Warner Bros. musical number specialist Busby Berkeley keeps his camera moving around the hyperactive Rooney and slows down to appreciate Judy Garland's doe-eyed romantic confusion. The musical numbers are integrated smoothly into the story line, beginning with an impromptu piano duet, Our Love Affair. An encore is 'performed' by stop-motion animated fruit on Mary Holden's dining room table. Jimmy and Mary are as adept at putting across a slick big band presentation, as they are at staging Nell of New Rochelle, a Broadway-quality spoof of quaint morality plays.
What there is of a plot fills in the gaps between musical sequences. Only one scene takes place in a classroom, where new girl Barbara catches Jimmy's eye. Pining for romantic overtures from Jimmy, Mary contains her frustration and gently deflects a juvenile declaration of love from little Willie Brewster (Larry Nunn). Other 'fun' kids Phil Turner (William Tracy of The Shop Around the Corner) and Annie (Margaret Early) mostly cheerlead the heroes.
Sheer 'let's put on a show' enthusiasm is the key to the Mayer-MGM-Berkeley musicals. Jimmy's personal energy overcomes all obstacles and practical limitations. The dance band suddenly appears in matching outfits for the high school show. 'Old clothes from the attic' turn into a fully costumed period show with expensive scenery. A giant working buzz saw appears for the damsel-in-distress scene. Somebody tells Rooney that he has 45 minutes to get his orchestra on a Chicago train, and the film dissolves to a sendoff complete with a large crowd, customized banners and the town band. Jimmy Connors' organizing talent is wasted in music; he should have been put in charge of U.S. defenses at Pearl Harbor.
Hometown dreams of show biz fame are a key American fantasy, and Strike Up the Band doesn't get bogged down with the problems of reality. To make his dear mother happy, Jimmy Connors tells her that he'll give up his showbiz ambitions and become a doctor like his dead father. Of course, after hearing Jimmy's self-serving baloney about band-leading being as humanitarian an ideal as healing people, Mother relents and gives him her blessing to follow his dream. This fits in with the Louis B. Mayer fantasy that MGM movies are the heart and soul of America; like Louis himself, Jimmy Connors has no interest in personal fame or fortune, and wants only to make people happy!
Jimmy proves that he has 'good guy' credentials by generously using his hard-earned Chicago money to save little Willie's arm. Nobody points out that Willie was injured performing for free in a risky stunt in Jimmy's Temperance musical. As it turns out, being 'nice' to the flirtatious Barbara was a very good idea -- her rich daddy has both the needed cash and the personal connection to Paul Whiteman to make Jimmy's band a shoo-in to win the big competition. Jimmy Connors isn't a 'user', he's an all-around swell guy who deserves to be a star!
Director Berkeley pulls out the stops for the big musical scenes. Do the La Conga lets Rooney and Garland go over the top on a big Latin American number. The syncopated line dancing looks great even if the spoofy interpretation is exaggerated: Garland shakes her frilly dress in a weirdly antiseptic manner. June Preisser's contortionist acrobatics are allowed a few seconds' exposure, but the supporting players are pushed into the background in the rush to favor the stars. The finale song Strike Up the Band is yet another wave-the-flag patriotic extravaganza. Tunneling through long lines of marching brass musicians, Berkeley's camera emerges to elevate Jimmy and Mary to mythical heights. "This is American youth", the movie insists, "and it can do anything."
Warner DVD's Strike Up the Band is a beautifully transferred and polished restoration of this old favorite. It's one film in the 5-disc Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland Collection with Babes in Arms, Babes on Broadway and Girl Crazy, all directed by Busby Berkeley. This particular title includes an introduction by Mickey Rooney, a Pete Smith comedy and the cartoon Romeo Rhythm, plus a stereo remix of the Do the La Conga number. Although not recorded in stereo, MGM musical numbers were often recorded with multiple microphones. When the original tracks were retained, modern audio techniques can manufacture a stereo mix from the different audio perspectives. Besides a trailer, the disc also contains three radio promos and shows, two of them with Rooney and Garland.
A fourth disc in the set has a full 1996 TCM interview show with Mickey Rooney and Robert Osborne, a trailer gallery of Mickey and Judy films and an extensive "Judy Garland Songbook" that collects 21 full musical numbers from 1936 to 1954.
For more information about Strike Up the Band, visit Warner Video. To order Strike Up the Band (which is included in the Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collection), go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson