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Babes in Arms (1939) was the third of eight movies Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney made together (the count actually goes up to ten, technically speaking, if you include the MGM all-star extravaganza Thousands Cheer (1943), in which they both have cameo roles as themselves but don't appear together, and Words and Music (1948) in which Garland and Rooney perform a duet to "I Wish I Were in Love Again"). The partnership started in Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937), followed by a Garland turn in Love Finds Andy Hardy in 1938 for Rooney's popular Andy Hardy series. Babes in Arms would be the pair's first picture under director Busby Berkeley, who would direct three more Mickey-Judy movies: Strike Up the Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1941) and Girl Crazy (1943). It would also be the first film for MGM musical maestro Arthur Freed as producer and head of his own MGM unit.
Arthur Freed got his start writing and performing in New York vaudeville, before being signed to write songs for MGM's new musical department in 1929. His early efforts included writing lyrics for songs in The Hollywood Revue (1929), which introduced the songs "Singin' in the Rain" and "You Were Meant For Me." Both songs were co-written with Freed's frequent partner, Nacio Herb Brown. Freed's tunes were also heard in Bing Crosby's Going Hollywood (1933), The Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935) and in Freed's first outing with Garland and Rooney for Thoroughbreds Don't Cry. However, Freed's career would soon encompass more than just songwriting.
In 1939, Arthur Freed was given a test assignment on a little project called The Wizard of Oz. Not only would Freed serve as associate producer for the film, he'd come to play an instrumental part in shaping and preserving an unforgettable piece of Americana - Garland's on-screen rendition of "Over the Rainbow." As the Hollywood legend has it, the producers of The Wizard of Oz and MGM head Louis B. Mayer wanted to cut "Over the Rainbow" from the movie, saying it slowed the story down. But Freed insisted the song stay in, remarking, "the song stays or I go." Freed, of course, got his way. And soon after, his own musical production department at MGM.
Based very loosely on a hit Rodgers and Hart play of the same title, Babes in Arms would be Freed's first project under the watch of his new unit. The movie retained only three of the show's original songs - the title song, "The Lady is a Tramp" and "When or Where." The movie's plot was also changed significantly from the stage version, to enhance Mickey Rooney's part, but still maintained the basic audience-pleasing formula of some talented kids putting on a show. Freed added some of his old tunes to the adaptation including "You are My Lucky Star" and "I Cried For You." He and Brown wrote "Good Morning" especially for the movie. And Oz songwriters E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen (who'd written "Over the Rainbow" as well as "If I Only Had a Brain" and "We're Off to See the Wizard") were called in to write "God's Country" for the big finale.
Freed and Garland had just completed The Wizard of Oz when filming began on Babes in Arms on May 12, 1939. In fact, Freed was still wrapped up in edits of The Wizard of Oz and his battle for Over the Rainbow all through the Babes in Arms shoot. July 18, 1939 turned into quite a big day for Freed. Primary production wrapped on Babes in Arms and the first preview of The Wizard of Oz was screened. "Over the Rainbow" was an instant success. But it hadn't all been smooth sailing on Babes in Arms. It seems Garland and director Berkeley didn't get along terribly well, and that the young star had trouble keeping up with co-star Rooney's energy. Some Garland bios claim she was already on diet pills at this time.
Still, Babes in Arms opened to enthusiastic reviews. It was a vindication for Berkeley who proved he could change with the times and create a hit even without his signature production numbers. Variety's review noted Berkeley's direction saying, "He blends drama, comedy and musical episodes into a fine composite of mass entertainment." Mickey Rooney was nominated for an Oscar for his part, which the actor later said "may have been the best picture I ever made." Judy Garland got her hands and footprints set in cement outside Grauman's Chinese Theater to mark the Babes in Arms premiere. And she was awarded a special Oscar that year "for her outstanding performance as a screen juvenile for the past year."
As for Freed, he became synonymous with MGM's integrated musical and would go on to produce such crowd pleasers as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Singin' in the Rain (1952) and Gigi (1958). Babes in Arms would be a triumphant beginning for his new musical unit, costing around $600,000 to make and taking in over 2 million dollars domestically to become one of MGM's biggest grossers of 1939. And best of all, the movie led the way for many other Freed productions, that just like Babes in Arms would be what Variety called "topflight filmusical entertainment."
Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: Busby Berkeley
Screenplay: Jack McGowan, Kay Van Riper (based on the play by Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers)
Music: Harold Arlen, Nacio Herb Brown, Bob Carleton, George M. Cohan, Roger Edens, Ernie Erdman, Arthur Freed, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers
Cinematography: Ray June
Cast: Mickey Rooney (Mickey Moran), Judy Garland (Patsy Barton), Charles Winninger (Joe Moran), Guy Kibbee (Judge Black), June Preisser (Rosalie Essex), Grace Hayes (Florrie Moran), Betty Jaynes (Molly Moran), Henry Hull (Maddox).
BW-97m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Stephanie Thames