Lately I’ve been taking advantage of the time that I have off by filling up my plate with as many classic film and blog related things as possible before I have to head back to my 9 to 5. The first, of course, was signing up for what promises to be yet another incredible free online film course offered by Turner Classic Movies in partnership with Ball State University, TCM Presents: Mad About Musicals!. This will be my third course from them, and I can hardly believe that it starts tomorrow! The Brodway Bound Blogathon, the first ever blogathon hosted by the always wonderful Taking Up Room, is just the thing to partake in and to ease us all into the history of the Hollywood musical. In addition to that, I have some special original content that I’ll be cooking up for you this week (hopefully that’ll give some of my devoted readers a clue as to what I’m up to!), so definitely keep an eye out for that!
I have to admit that my reasoning for choosing Babes in Arms (1939) as my salute to Broadway (or at least Hollywood’s version of it) was mostly due to my own fondness for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney’s onscreen pairings. Before this I had only seen two, Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) and Girl Crazy (1943), and after missing a screening of the former at the TCM Film Festival this year, I was dying to catch the two of them again and to try watching something of theirs that I hadn’t seen. Babes in Arms (1939), one of their most iconic collaborations, followed by the similarly titled Babes on Broadway (1941) that I’ll be reviewing for The Second Annual Judy Garland Blogathon next week, was the perfect solution. Babes in Arms (1939) depicts the life of a family of vaudeville performers, including parents Joe and Florrie Moran (Charles Winninger and Grace Hayes), who once made up a popular act and are stuck in their old ways despite being defeated by talking pictures.
Their two children Molly (Betty Jaynes) and Mickey (Mickey Rooney) want to breathe new life into the family’s act and take it to Broadway, with Molly as an operatic singer and Mickey as a producer and songwriter accompanied by his girlfriend Patsy Barton (Judy Garland), a new age jazz vocalist. Mickey’s hopes of helping his parents are dashed when they inform their children that they intend on reuniting with the other vaudeville player parents and taking their old show on tour, leaving all of their children who were raised in the theater to fend for themselves in town. To make matters worse, Martha Steele (played by the revered villainess Margaret Hamilton), a bitter old woman whose opinion carries a lot of weight with the judge of the town, wants to send the children to a work camp so that they might receive an education. Mickey’s solution is to create a production with the children as the cast and crew, a show so spectacular that it will be picked up by a Broadway producer and save them from the work camp. Will Mickey’s big dreams be crushed, or will the children be able to prove that they’re more than just “babes in arms”?
Leading man Mickey Rooney considered Babes in Arms (1939) to be his finest onscreen performance, and the world agreed with him. At nineteen years old, he became the second-youngest actor (to this day) to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. The feat is even more incredible when you consider how competitive the year was in the history of film, and that he was nominated again at twenty-three for The Human Comedy (1943). As for skyrocketing star Judy Garland, this was the first film that she made after completing The Wizard of Oz (1939) and one of the biggest financial successes of her career, placing among the top ten highest grossing films of 1939 and further cementing her place among Hollywood’s elite. Not only was much of the plot of Babes in Arms (1939) related to Broadway, it was also based on a 1937 Broadway musical of the same name. While many of the original musical’s songs were cut from the film, it still introduced and popularized an astounding variety of numbers that we consider to be classics today like “The Lady is a Tramp” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry”. The hit song “Singin’ in the Rain”, which had made its rounds on stage and screen throughout the 1930s, was used in this picture, and the song “Good Morning” was specifically written for Babes in Arms (1939). Of course, both would go on to receive their biggest acclaim when they were used in Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
There were plenty of things that I enjoyed about this film, but I will admit that it was a mixed bag and I wasn’t sure what to expect from scene to scene. On one hand, it was such a delight watching Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney putting their own spin on “Good Morning”, a song that I’ve adored for as long as I can remember. I was also incredibly impressed by the beauty and talent of June Preisser, who portrays “Baby” Rosalie Essex, a former child star who hopes to make a comeback in Mickey’s show. I was so taken by her that I felt compelled to do more research on her work, and I’m amazed that she didn’t gain more recognition throughout her career. On the other hand, I found the film’s soundtrack, with some original songs and some taken from various film and stage shows, to be too much of a mismatched jumble. It was just too much to keep up with, and I would have much rather seen Babes in Arms (1939) focus on and use a few of their high quality numbers in their entirety than use bits and pieces of at least a dozen.
I would say that by far my biggest gripe with this movie, though, was that the entire plot revolved around Mickey building this incredible show in order to save the kids of his town, and the anticipation of what the show will be like builds and builds until you get… a drawn-out performance in blackface by the entire cast. Yes, really. It was the longest blackface number that I could recall seeing in a film, and it was very uncomfortable for me to sit through, especially because I had no idea that it was going to be there. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been as terrible if it was a brief throwaway scene, but the fact that it’s treated with the suspense that would lead one to believe that it’s the best production since sliced bread is what really grinds my gears. Every other scene and song in the movie is far better. If you’re able get your thumb ready to fast-forward during that part, though, I think you’re in for a real treat overall, and for the most part I would highly recommend checking out Babes in Arms (1939) if you’re ready to be transported down The Great White Way by Judy and Mickey.