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George M. Cohan, the song-and-dance man whose hits single-handedlyAmericanized the musical comedy, had been holding out on Hollywood.Although he had sold his dramas and comedies to the screen during the '30s,he hadn't licensed one of his musicals for screen adaptation since 1929,when Warner Bros. filmed his Little Johnny Jones. That changedwhen he had lunch with MGM's top musical producer, Arthur Freed. Theformer songwriter had just set up his legendary musical production unit atMGM. Searching for properties, and particularly vehicles for his protegee,Judy Garland, Freed impulsively offered to buy the screen rights to the1922 Cohan hit Little Nellie Kelly, and Cohan just as impulsivelyaccepted. The result hit the screens in 1940, becoming one of Freed'sfirst big hits.
Thinking ahead, Freed was looking for the right vehicle to move Garlandinto adult parts. In Little Nellie Kelly, she would play a dualrole, an Irishwoman who travels to the U.S. with her feuding husband andfather only to die in childbirth, and the daughter raised by the two meneven though they're not speaking to each other. Garland had just scored atriumph and a special Oscar® for The Wizard of Oz (1939), but nobody atthe studio could deny that she was growing up quickly. Nobody exceptstudio head Louis B. Mayer, that is. When he heard of Freed's plans tostar her in the film, he protested, "We simply can't have that baby have achild." Of course, that child was already 18, was firmly entrenched in theprescription-drug regimen that would ultimately destroy her career, wassmoking four packs a day to keep her weight down and was running around insecret with a series of older men. In fact, during the filming ofLittle Nellie Kelly, she started dating the man who would become herfirst husband, composer David Rose, even though he was still married toMartha Raye at the time.
But Hollywood is a city of illusions, and nobody created the illusion ofyouthful joy and innocence better than Garland. She dazzled audiences withupbeat performances of musical mentor Roger Eden's "It's a Great Day forthe Irish" and a swing version of the MGM standard, "Singin' in the Rain."Ironically, only one Cohan song remained from the original score, "NellieKelly, I Love You," and Garland didn't even sing it. It was performed byDouglas McPhail as the man the younger Nellie falls for. Another Cohansong, "You Remind Me of My Mother," was cut from the film, as was Garland'srendition of "Danny Boy."
Little Nellie Kelly was important for more than its score, however.This was the film in which Garland not only grew up on screen -- bearing achild, playing a death scene and receiving her first adult kiss (fromMcPhail) -- but it was also the first film to showcase her impressivedramatic abilities. When she completed her death scene, costar GeorgeMurphy reports that there was no crew left on the set. All the hardenedmovie veterans had snuck off so their sobs wouldn't ruin the take. Sadly,MGM would do little to build on her dramatic impact in the film, confiningher to musicals for all but one feature (The Clock, 1945) during her timethere.
Although the film received mixed reviews, Garland was the critics' darling,earning raves for her singing and acting. In addition, LittleNellie Kelly turned a tidy profit, earning over $2 million on aninvestment of just over $650,000. Co-star Murphy -- who played first herhusband, then her father -- would hail it as his favorite film, largelybecause of his work with Garland. Decades later, her performance of"Singin' in the Rain" would resurface in the studio's tribute to itsmusical past, That's Entertainment! (1974). The film even got a backhandedcompliment from Cohan himself. Shortly before its release, he ran intoFreed again and asked, "I hope you didn't keep any of that terrible play?"Freed responded, "No, I just kept the title and little Nellie Kelly being apoliceman's daughter." In Cohan's opinion, that would guarantee thepicture's success.
Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: Norman Taurog
Screenplay: Jack McGowan
Based on the Musical Comedy by George M. Cohan
Cinematography: Ray June
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Roger Edens, George Stoll
Principal Cast: Judy Garland (Nellie Kelly/Little Nellie Kelly), GeorgeMurphy (Jerry Kelly), Charles Winninger (Michael Noonan), Douglas McPhail(Dennis Fogarty), Arthur Shields (Timothy Fogarty), John Raitt (Intern).
BW-99m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller