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Teaming for the third time in Babes on Broadway (1941), Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and director/choreographer Busby Berkeley brought MGM a third winner in thespirit of their earlier hits, Babes in Arms (1939) and Strike Up theBand (1940). Historians have dubbed the series of small-scale musicalsstarring Garland and Rooney the "backyard musicals," though it must benoted that small-scale for MGM would have been a major production for mostother studios. All three were about spirited teens putting on a show,showcasing not just the leads but various other young entertainers comingup through the studio system. By the third outing, however, critics werebeginning to notice that the stars were getting a bit old for this kindof thing -- an observation borne out by the fact both were involved inadult romances during shooting.
Producer Arthur Freed clearly wanted another Babes in Arms when hestarted this film. He even chose a title that mirrored the earlierfilms'. He enlisted Fred Finklehoffe, who had written the team's earlierStrike Up the Band, to create a new story about youngsters trying tobreak into show business. Then he hired Burton Lane to write music for thesongs, with his brother Ralph Freed and E.Y. Harburg as lyricists forvarious numbers. Freed would write the score's biggest hit, "How AboutYou," but Harburg would have the more lasting relationship with Lane, withwhom he would later write the Broadway hit Finian's Rainbow. In order to introduce a wider variety of musical styles into the score, he assigned Roger Edens, Garland's longtimementor at MGM, to arrange a lengthy minstrel sequence with such standardsas "Swanee River" and "Waitin' for the Robert E. Lee." For that sequencethey also bought a song Harold Rome had written for the 1938 Broadway hitSing Out the News, "Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones." Then he asked hisnewest protege, Vincente Minnelli, to conceive a sequence in which Rooneyand Garland visit an historic vaudeville house and re-create great momentsfrom the theatrical past. This allowed Rooney to impersonate Sir HarryLauder singing "She is Ma Daisy," Walter Hampden playing Cyrano de Bergeracand George M. Cohan doing "Yankee Doodle Boy." For her part, Garland wouldre-create Fay Templeton's performance of "Mary's a Grand Old Name," BlancheRing singing "I've Got Rings on My Fingers" and Sarah Bernhardt'srecitation of "La Marseillaise." And just to squeeze in one more number,Rooney impersonated Carmen Miranda -- complete with platform shoes,fruit-basket hat and fake breasts. As a result, this was one of the mostmusical of all MGM's great musicals.
Berkeley kept things hopping with his elaborate staging of the productionnumbers, most notably the large-scale "Hoe Down," for which co-star RayMcDonald provided assistance. He spent nine days rehearsing and anothernine days shooting the minstrel finale at a cost of more than $100,000.For Garland's big solo in the number, "Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones,"Berkeley planned a single shot involving 38 separate camera moves. Hefrightened the front office, however, when he spent an entire morning andmost of the afternoon rehearsing the shot. At one point, studio head LouisB. Mayer even sent his minions to the set to see why he hadn't made a shotyet. Berkeley got rid of them in his usual way: he climbed on the cameraboom and had technicians raise him so high the executives couldn't talk tohim, so they just left. Then he got the entire number on the first take,releasing the company early for the day and saving the studio thousands ofdollars.
Though they were playing young show business hopefuls in Babes onBroadway, Garland and Rooney were clearly growing up off-screen.During the third week of filming, Garland eloped to Las Vegas with composerDavid Rose. She asked for a few days off for a honeymoon, but Mayer forcedher back on set the next day, disappointed that she had deprived him of thechance to garner publicity with a lavish wedding. At the same time, Rooneymet the actress who would become his first wife, Ava Gardner. She had justarrived at the studio and visited the set during an introductory tour (somesources say she has an unbilled bit). Rooney was smitten at once and askedher for a date, but she turned him down, possibly because he was dressed infull Carmen Miranda drag at the time.
Like many of the "backyard musicals," Babes on Broadway was filledwith talent on the rise. The partners in Rooney's dance act in the filmwere Ray McDonald, who would go on to star in musicals at MGM and Universal,and Richard Quine, who would become one of the most respected directors ofthe '50s. The young Donna Reed played one of producer James Gleason'ssecretaries. And in her screen debut, Margaret O'Brien turned up at anaudition as an over-dramatic child actress, a prophetic comment on herlater career as a tearful child star.
By the time Babes on Broadway was released in late 1941, criticswere tiring of the "backyard musicals," complaining that both stars needed to take on more adult roles. But audiences loved them regardless. The film premiered two weeksafter the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, providing audiences with anescape to more innocent times. In addition, the picture featured Garlandsinging the rousing "Chin Up, Cheerio, Carry On" to a group of British warorphans, which boosted ticket sales in England. Babes on Broadwaymade back four times its cost at the box office, spurring MGM to reuniteRooney, Garland and Berkeley for Girl Crazy (1943) later that year.
Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: Busby Berkeley
Screenplay: Fred Finklehoffe, Elaine Ryan
Based on a story by Finklehoffe
Cinematography: Lester White
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Georgie Stoll, Burton Lane, Roger Edens, Harold Rome
Principal Cast: Mickey Rooney (Tommy Williams), Judy Garland (PennyMorris), Fay Bainter (Miss Jones), Virginia Weidler (Barbara Jo), RayMcDonald (Ray Lambert), Richard Quine (Morton Hammond), Donald Meek (Mr.Stone), Alexander Woollcott (Woollcott), James Gleason (Thornton Reed),Donna Reed (Secretary), Joe Yule (Mason), Margaret O'Brien (Maxine).
BW-118m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller