Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The Gotta Dance! Blogathon: Gene Kelly & Judy Garland

In 1940, up-and-coming Broadway star Gene Kelly was offered the lead role in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's new musical Pal Joey, based on the John O'Hara novel about an ambitious and manipulative small-time nightclub performer. Opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Christmas Day, the show brought Gene is best reviews to date. John Martin of The New York Times wrote of him: "A tap-dancer who can characterize his routines and turn them into an integral element of an imaginative theatrical whole would seem to be pretty close, indeed, to unique." One of his performances was attended by established Hollywood star Judy Garland, who requested to meet him after the show. Gene agreed and then accompanied Judy and her entourage, which included her mother Ethel and several press agents, to dinner at the newly-opened Copacabana nightclub. They sang and danced until 3 a.m., after which Gene took Judy for a walk through Central Park, talking about the future possibilities of making a film together until the early hours of the morning.

Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in a publicity
still for For Me and My Gal
Meanwhile, famed MGM producer Arthur Freed decided to build a film around Judy and her early stage background as a vaudeville performer. In keeping with the patriotic mood of the nation at the time, Freed chose a World War I story by Howard Emmet Rogers called "The Big Time," inspired by the true life story of vaudeville actors Harry Palmer and Jo Hayden. The title of the film was eventually changed to For Me and My Gal (1942), after the song by George W. Meyer, Edgar Leslie and E. Ray Goetz.

 The original script called for Harry to be involved with two women, a singer and a dancer, but acting teacher Stella Adler — then working as a production advisor at MGM — suggested to Freed that the female roles be combined into one to take full advantage of Judy's talents. Adler also recommended Gene Kelly, who had just been signed by independent producer David O. Selznick, for the role of Harry Palmer. Freed had actually been interested in Gene since he had seen him in William Saroyan's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Time of Your Life in late 1939. He purchased Gene's contract from Selznick and hired him to play Harry, which meant relegating original male lead George Murphy to, in his own words, "the schnook who never gets the gal."

The plot of For Me and My Gal is fairly simple. Arriving in town, wisecracking dancer/singer Harry Palmer (Kelly) meets other performers on the vaudeville circuit, namely Jo Hayden (Garland) and Jimmy Metcalf (Murphy). Jimmy, who is secretly in love with Jo, is heartbroken when she leaves to form a travelling duo with Harry. They fall in love and plan to marry once they get their shot at the Palace Theatre on Broadway, the epitome of vaudeville success, but Harry is drafted into the Army before that can happen. He purposedly smashes his hand and fails the Army physical examination, at the same time that Jo learns that her brother Danny (Richard Quine) has been killed in combat. When she realizes what he has done, Jo leaves Harry, prompting him to enlist in the YMCA's effort of producing entertainment for the troops on the front line. Circumstanc find Harry on the battlefield, where he heroically saves a convoy of Red Cross ambulances by tossing a hand grenade into an enemy stronghold. After the war, during a victory performance at the Palace, Jo sees Harry (and his bravery medal) in the audience and runs to him, finally reconciling.

Judy and Gene rehearsing "Ballin' the Jack"
Judy and Gene got along extremely well during the making of For Me and My Gal. She had been in favor his getting the part and helped him adjust his stage acting for motion pictures. Judy also backed him in disagreements with director Busby Berkeley, whose notoriously abusive behavior on set infuriated both stars. Berkeley had previously directed Judy in Babes in Arms (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940) and Babes on Broadway (1941), but the two never truly understood each other; in fact, she had Freed fired Berkeley from Girl Crazy (1943) after continued disagreements with him. As for Gene, he felt Berkeley "had a heavy-handed technique that subjugated the performer to the camera," thus limiting what he could do on screen. In For Me and My Gal, Gene and Judy perform three numbers: the classic "For Me and My Gal," the vaudeville routine "When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose" and the ragtime standard "Ballin' the Jack."

Without [Judy Garland], my first few weeks would have been even more miserable than they were. She pulled me through. She was very kind and helpful, more than she ever realized, because I watched her to find out what I had to do. I was amazed at her skill; she knew every mark and every move. All I could do for her was help with the dancing. She wasn't a dancer, but she could pick up a step instantly, and as a singer she was incredible. She had only to hear a melody once, and it was locked in her mind; we used to call her "Ol' Tin Ear." I learned a great deal about making movies doing this first one, and much of it was due to Judy. She was a very relaxed, marvelous person [...] the most talented performer we've ever had. 
(Gene Kelly about Judy Garland)

As Gene and Manuela in The Pirate
In June 1945, Judy married director Vincente Minnelli, with whom she had began a relationship on the set of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). During their honeymoon in New York, Minnelli asked Judy to read S. N. Behrman's Broadway play The Pirate, based on the 1911 novel Der Seeräuber by German author Ludwig Fulda. Believing that the material would allow her to display her largely unexplored talent for sophisticated comedy, Judy suggested they turn The Pirate into a musical. Freed initially resisted the idea, but eventually agreed to produce the film after reading the treatment.

Given the successful of For Me and My Gal, Gene was the obvious choice for the male lead in The Pirate (1948). Like Judy, Gene was enthusiastic about the project, as it would let him showcase another facet of his extraordinary talents: "I wanted the opportunity to do a different kind of dancing, a popular style with a lot of classic form, acrobatics and athletics." With both Judy and Gene on board, the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich were instructed to adapt the story and the dialogue for the stars' specific talents.

Set in the Caribbean Islands in the 1830s, The Pirate tells the story of Manuela Alva (Garland), a young woman who dreams of being swept away by the legendary pirate Macoco, better known as Mack the Black. However, her uncle and aunt have forced her to marry the middle-aged town mayor, Don Pedro Vargas (Walter Slezak). Shortly before the wedding, Manuela falls in love with conceited actor Serafin (Kelly), who insists she call off the marriage and run away with his troupe. Overhearing this conversation, Don Pedro bursts into the room and prepares to whip Serafin. Alone with Don Pedro, Serafin recognizes him as Macoco and strikes a deal with him: he will keep Don Pedro's real identity a secret, but in turn the former pirate has to allow Serafin to pose as Macoco to win Manuela's affections. She readily believes that Serafin is Macoco and plans are made for their elopement. Meanwhile, Don Pedro double-crosses Serafin by having the Viceroy (George Zucco) execute him for Macoco's crimes. With the help of Manuela, who has by now learned all the truth, Serafin outwits Don Pedro and the happy couple then leaves town with the travelling show.

Judy and Gene on the set of The Pirate
Although Judy was excited about working with Gene again, her enthusiasm for the project began to decline when she entered the studio to record her songs for The Pirate (it was customary to pre-record the songs and then lip-synch them during filming). On the first day of recording, December 27, 1946, Judy was frail and depressed and the session had to be canceled. Her frequent absences caused further delays, which ultimately postponed the start of production until February 17, 1947. When filming did commence, a number of unresolved conflicts and psychological torments — perhaps exarcebated by the challenges of being a new mother (daughter Liza had been born in March 1946) — brought back the self-destructive pattern that she had so valiantly tried to abandon. It was not long before pressures started to build on set, as Gene recalled: "Judy had periods when she didn't show up on set. This was the first indication that something was wrong." According to Minnelli, it was while shooting The Pirate that Judy "began to feel that she wasn't functioning and turned again to the pills that had sustained her during past crises."

Much of Judy's anxiety apparently stemmed from her fear that Gene would "steal" the picture away from her. He saw The Pirate as a chance to take dancing closer to ballet — as evident in the sequence "The Pirate Ballet" — and was glad to assist coreographer Robert Alton in any way he could. As shooting progressed, Gene, who at first staged only his own numbers, became involved in all facets of the production. Judy admired Gene as a performer and liked him immensely as a person, but his excessive enthusiasm only increased her insecurities. She also became jealous of the time of the time Minnelli and Gene were spending together, even believing that the two were having an affair. In addition, Judy feared that her husband was expanding Gene's role at her expense, while also excluding her from any discussion regarding the creative aspects of the film. At one point, surely to spite Minnelli, she asked Gene to stage her musicals numbers. Judy and Gene perform only one number together in The Pirate, the lively "Be a Clown" by Cole Porter.

Discussing music for Easter Parade with Irving Berlin,
before Gene broke his ankle
 Immediately after The Pirate  which went on to become a box-office disappointment Judy and Gene were paired in Easter Parade (1948), a nostalgic musical conceptualized around Irving Berlin's prolific songbook. Minnelli was originally hired as director, but Freed soon replaced him with former dancer Charles Walters, in order to avoid further altercations with Judy. A month into rehearsals, Gene fractured his ankle while playing either volleyball, baseball or football, depending on the source, and was told he would not be able to dance for six to eight months. With a possible disaster in his hands, Freed coaxed Fred Astaire out of premature retirement to take over Gene's role in the film. As it turned out, Easter Parade ended up being the most financially successful picture for both Judy and Astaire, as well as the highest grossing musical of the year.

By late 1949, Judy was by all accounts a physical and mental wreck. After being fired from Annie Get Your Gun (1950) Betty Hutton eventually replaced her she had spent three months in a hospital in Boston being treated for drug dependency. Fresh out of rehab, MGM offered Judy the female lead in Summer Stock (1950) to get her back to work and, hopefully, on the road to full recovery. As he had done with In the Good Old Summertime (1949), producer Joe Pasternak assembled a group of people that Judy knew and liked: Charles Walters to direct and Gene Kelly, Gloria DeHaven, Phil Silvers, Eddie Bracken and Marjorie Main to co-star. Studio chief Louis B. Mayer himself came down to the production office to ensure that the right attitude prevailed. "We're going to bring Judy back," he said, "and I want everybody on the set to cheer her on and make her happy." Although Gene was not interested in joining a Pasternak project, he agreed to do the film as a favor to Judy. He said: "We loved her and we understood what she was going through, and I had every reason to be grateful for all the help she had given me." 

Judy and Gene in Summer Stock
Designed as "barnyard entertainment," Summer Stock concerns Jane Falbury (Garland), a dependable young woman struggling to keep her Connecticut farm operating, while her erratic sister Abigail (DeHaven) is studying acting in New York. She returns with a theatrical company, which included their director Joe Ross (Kelly) and his assistant Herb (Silvers), to stage a musical in the farm's barn. Jane and her housekeeper Esme (Main) reluctanly agree to let them use the barn and the troupe repays her hospitality by doing chores around the farm. Amid rehearsals, Abigail leaves with the leading man (Hans Conried), forcing Jane and Joe to take their places in the show. Although Jane is engaged to Orville Wingait (Bracken), she falls in love with Joe and he with her.

As filming began, Judy was still unstable, both physically and emotionally. Insecure about her weight (she had gained fifteen pounds during her stay in Boston) and her ability to perform, she felt that she was letting both Gene and Walters down. "Gene took her left arm," Walters later recalled, "and I took her right one, and between us, we literally tried to keep her on her feet. But it wasn't easy. Emotionally she was at her lowest ebb. Physically she was pretty unsure of herself as well. There were even times when we had to nail the scenery down and provide her with supports so she wouldn't fall over. Once, I remember, she had to walk up a few steps, and she couldn't do it. So I had to cheat the shot, and shoot the scene from a different angle. The whole experience was a ghastly, hideous nightmare which, happily, is a blur in my memory."

On the set of Summer Stock
Judy herself admitted that it was a struggle making Summer Stock: "I was late I've been unpunctual all my life and there were fights over that. I hate fights. I can't stand ill-feeling. I was wobbly and unsure, and desperately trying to prove, not to the world but to myself, that I was making good as a person." Thanks to the affection and support of her castmates and crew, who encouraged her every day, Judy delivered regardless of her physical and emotional weakness. Gene was especially helpful in giving Judy the motivation she needed. According to Walters, "He'd placate [Judy] and hold her hand, [asking], 'Anything I can do today?'" Judy later said of her co-star: "I made Summer Stock with Gene Kelly, who is a dear. You can work in pictures with some people and never really get to known them, but Gene and I have been friends ever since our first film. [...] We got through Summer Stock, but not without a struggle. Gene encouraged me to forget what people might be saying, laughed with me, helped keep down the friction."

Gene and Judy's musical numbers in Summer Stock include the lively "Portland Fancy"; the magical "You, Wonderful You," which they reprise at the end of the film; and the classy "All For You." But the most outstanding sequence in the picture is "Get Happy," performed by Judy as a "cool jazz vamp" and accompanied by eight male dancers. During editing, it became obvious that Judy "never had a star turn in the final show." She resolved the problem herself, telling Walters, "I'll give you a week. I want Harold Arlen's 'Get Happy' and I want to wear the costume from the 'Mr. Monotony' number in Easter Parade [a man's tuxedo jacket and fedora]. And I want [you] to do it." By then, Judy had lost fifteen to twenty pounds and looked "thin as a string." For that reason, many thought the footage was taken from the MGM archives. 

As soon as she finished work on Summer Stock, Judy asked for (and was granted) a release from her contract with MGM, thus ending her 15-year association with the studio. Her screen career slowed down considerably after that, though she did have two final triumphs before her last film appearance in 1963: A Star is Born (1954), for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress; and Jugdment at Nuremberg (1961), which gave her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. As for Gene, he went on to make An American in Paris (1951), the Best Picture winner at the 24th Academy Awards, and Singin' in the Rain (1952), which has been regarded by the American Film Institute as the greatest movie musical of all time. Summer Stock marked the last time Gene Kelly and Judy Garland appeared together on screen, but their extraordinary legacy lives on in the Hollywood annals as the best that ever was.

This post is my contribution to The Gotta Dance! Blogathon hosted by Classic Reel Girl. To view all entries, click HERE.

A Hundred and More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli by Mark Griffin (2010) | Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley by Jeffrey Litvak (2011) | Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance by Brent Phillips (2014) | Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clarke (2001) | Judy Garland on Judy Garland: Interviews and Encounters edited by Randy L. Schmidt (2014) | Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood's Dark Dreamer by Emanuel Levy (2009) | For Me and My Gal at "The Judy Room" | Summer Stock at "The Judy Room"


  1. I love reading your posts--you always give me a new tidbit of info. I had no idea that Hayden and Palmer were actual vaudevillians. I'm sure the plot was a stretch on the truth, but now I'm curious to know fiction from fact.

    Following Judy's relationship with Gene as you did really illustrates her highs and lows. Walters' quote about holding her up and nailing down scenery broke my heart. I'm so glad Kelly didn't let success make him into a diva. I love that he helped her out as she had helped him.

    Thank you for participating in the blogathon!

    1. Aw, thanks, Bonnie. And thank you for hosting such a fun blogathon. It was wonderful learning more about Gene and Judy's relationship.

  2. Very much enjoyed your look at Gene and Judy's films. They made a great team.

  3. Judy and Gene were so delightful together. I've read in a few places that she was his favorite partner, and their friendship sounds so lovely and endearing. I hold Judy very near and dear to my heart, so the fact that Gene was there for her during Summer Stock just makes my heart want to burst. Wonderful piece!

    1. I completely agree. Gene and Judy were absolutely wonderful together.
      Thanks for reading. :)

  4. That was a great post -- thanks! I love Gene and Judy's friendship and partnership and this was a nice, thorough, well-done story about it. (I didn't know Harry and Jo were real people either! Learn something new every day! :-) )

    I've also heard that Gene went so far as to fake an injury while doing Summer Stock, to give Judy extra time to get through one of her rough periods. I don't know if it's true, but it sounds consistent with his behavior toward her. Gene is a great favorite of mine anyway, and it just makes me love him more to know he was so loyal and kind to someone who needed it so much.

    1. Thank you so much for reading.
      I don't know if that is true either, but it definitely sounds like something Gene would do for Judy.

  5. Great and informative article Catia! I really have to see more Judy Garland and Gene Kelly's films, so these are pretty nice suggestions!

  6. Marvelous post! It was fascinating to learn the history behind the making of their films together...and their mutual support despite some ups and downs. I love both Gene Kelly and Judy Garland separately, but together they had a special chemistry. It seems like their friendship and respect really shown through.

    When you wrote about Pal Joey, I was reminded how much I would have loved to see him be able to reprise his role on film.

    1. Thank you.
      I agree with you about "Pal Joey." As much as I love Frank Sinatra in the film, I wish Gene had reprised his role. It was quite the perfect role for him.

  7. I haven't seen The Pirate nor Summer Stock, but I saw For Me and My Gal recently and I didn't expect it to be so full of ups and downs - I was on the verge of tears several times. But they were wonderful together in the movie, with a lot of chemistry.