Little Nellie Kelly
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George M. Cohan, the song-and-dance man whose hits single-handedly Americanized 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 changed when he had lunch with MGM's top musical producer, Arthur Freed. The former songwriter had just set up his legendary musical production unit at MGM. Searching for properties, and particularly vehicles for his protegee, Judy Garland, Freed impulsively offered to buy the screen rights to the 1922 Cohan hit Little Nellie Kelly, and Cohan just as impulsively accepted. The result hit the screens in 1940, becoming one of Freed's first big hits.
Thinking ahead, Freed was looking for the right vehicle to move Garland into adult parts. In Little Nellie Kelly, she would play a dual role, an Irishwoman who travels to the U.S. with her feuding husband and father only to die in childbirth, and the daughter raised by the two men even though they're not speaking to each other. Garland had just scored a triumph and a special Oscar® for The Wizard of Oz (1939), but nobody at the studio could deny that she was growing up quickly. Nobody except studio head Louis B. Mayer, that is. When he heard of Freed's plans to star her in the film, he protested, "We simply can't have that baby have a child." Of course, that child was already 18, was firmly entrenched in the prescription-drug regimen that would ultimately destroy her career, was smoking four packs a day to keep her weight down and was running around in secret with a series of older men. In fact, during the filming of Little Nellie Kelly, she started dating the man who would become her first husband, composer David Rose, even though he was still married to Martha Raye at the time.
But Hollywood is a city of illusions, and nobody created the illusion of youthful joy and innocence better than Garland. She dazzled audiences with upbeat performances of musical mentor Roger Eden's "It's a Great Day for the Irish" and a swing version of the MGM standard, "Singin' in the Rain." Ironically, only one Cohan song remained from the original score, "Nellie Kelly, I Love You," and Garland didn't even sing it. It was performed by Douglas McPhail as the man the younger Nellie falls for. Another Cohan song, "You Remind Me of My Mother," was cut from the film, as was Garland's rendition 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 a child, playing a death scene and receiving her first adult kiss (from McPhail) -- but it was also the first film to showcase her impressive dramatic abilities. When she completed her death scene, costar George Murphy reports that there was no crew left on the set. All the hardened movie 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, confining her to musicals for all but one feature (The Clock, 1945) during her time there.
Although the film received mixed reviews, Garland was the critics' darling, earning raves for her singing and acting. In addition, Little Nellie Kelly turned a tidy profit, earning over $2 million on an investment of just over $650,000. Co-star Murphy -- who played first her husband, then her father -- would hail it as his favorite film, largely because of his work with Garland. Decades later, her performance of "Singin' in the Rain" would resurface in the studio's tribute to its musical past, That's Entertainment! (1974). The film even got a backhanded compliment from Cohan himself. Shortly before its release, he ran into Freed 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 a policeman's daughter." In Cohan's opinion, that would guarantee the picture'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), George Murphy (Jerry Kelly), Charles Winninger (Michael Noonan), Douglas McPhail (Dennis Fogarty), Arthur Shields (Timothy Fogarty), John Raitt (Intern).
BW-99m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller