Friday, 23 September 2016

Film Friday: «Babes in Arms» (1939)

In honor of Mickey Rooney's 96th birthday, which happens to be today, this week on «Film Friday» I bring you what remains one of his most famous pictures. This is also the film that made him the first teenager to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Busby Berkley, Babes in Arms (1939) begins in 1921 with the birth of Mickey Moran (Mickey Rooney), the son of popular vaudeville entertainers Joe and Florrie Moran (Charles Winninger and Grace Hayes). Years later, when vaudeville is eclipsed by the motion picture industry, Joe and Florrie — along with their former colleagues — decide to resurrect their careers by financing a travelling vaudeville show of their own. Their children want to be a part of it as well, but their parents refuse to let them go. Undaunted, Mickey resolves to write a show to be presented by himself and the kids — which include his sister Molly (Betty Jaynes), his sweetheart Patsy Barton (Judy Garland) and their friend Don Brice (Douglas MacPhail) — in his hometown of Seaport, Long Island.

In order to reach his goal, Mickey has to contend with many adversities. Among these, are the threats of busybody Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton), the head of the welfare society, who is against show business and wants to send the youngsters to a state work school. She and her son Jeff (Rand Brooks) complain to Judge John Black (Guy Kibbee) about the vaudeville kids, but he refuses to take them from their homes. The judge happens to like the show folk and appreciates that they work hard to entertain others. In addition, egotistical child star Baby Rosalie Essex (June Preisser), whom Mickey and Patsy meet at the local drugstore, is willing to finance the production, but only if she gets to play to lead role — Patsy's role. Jealous of Rosalie, Patsy considers abandoning Mickey and the show, but her mother, stage actress Lillian Barton (Ann Shoemaker), advises her not to. Although Mickey manages to overcome all problems, he is unable to control the weather when a a storm drives the audience away in mid-performance. Just as Mrs. Steele is about to succeed in her task to send the children to work school, Mickey receives a letter from New York producer Harry Maddox (Henry Hull) saying that he liked the show and wants to produce it on Broadway.

Mickey Moran: Listen, are you kids willing to stick together and pull yourselves out of a hole? I've got an idea. Our folks think we're babes in arms, huh? Well, we'll show 'em whether we're babes in arms or not. I'm gonna write a show for us to put on right here in Seaport! How about it, kids? Whatta ya say?

Born to a Jewish family in South Carolina, Arthur Freed grew up with a fascination for words and poetry. While attending Phillips Exeter Academy, a highly selective secondary school in New Hampshire, he began writing his own poems, which he soon turned into lyrics. Upon finishing his education, Freed found employment as a piano player for a music publisher in Chicago and ended up meeting Minnie Marx, who invited him to join her four sons (future screen stars The Marx Brothers) in their vaudeville act as a vocalist. During World War I, he staged military shows and managed a theatre, before teaming with Gus Edwards to write lyrics with various composers. His first hit came in 1923, when he penned the jazz standard «I Cried For You» with bandleaders Abe Lyman and Gus Arnheim. In 1929, as Hollywood was transitioning into the sound era, Freed accepted Irving Thalberg's offer to work at MGM's newly formed music department. In his first decade at the studio, he worked largely in collaboration with composer Nacio Herb Brown, writing songs and scores for such pictures as The Broadway Melody (1929), Going Hollywood (1933) and Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935).

An ambitious man, Freed was anxious to move beyond songwriting and began bombarding Louis B. Mayer, the studio chief at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with requests to produce a film. His moment finally arrived when Mayer assigned him to work (albeit uncredited) as an assistant to producer Mervyn Leroy on The Wizard of Oz (1939), with the assurance that he could produce a musical of his own afterwards. For his first project as a solo producer, Freed convinced MGM to purchase the rights to Babes in Arms, a stage musical comedy penned by longtime collaborators Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The plot concerned a group of talented teenagers, the offspring of former vaudevillians, who stage their own show to avoid being sent to a work farm by the town sheriff. Rodgers and Hart became inspired to write the story after observing some children having fun on a playground and wondering about how effective youngsters might be if given adult responsibilities. Directed by Robert B. Sinclair, Babes in Arms opened at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway in April 1937, six months before being transferred to the Majestic Theatre, where it closed in December of that same year, after 289 performances. The cast included Mitzi Green as Billie Smith, Ray Heatherton and Val Lamar, Alfred Drake as Marshall Blackstone, Wynn Murray as Baby Rose and George Watts as Sheriff Reynolds.

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland
From the beginning, Freed envisioned Babes in Arms as a vehicle for young MGM contract players Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, who had been close friends since they were students together at the Hollywood Professional School in 1935. Born Joseph Yule Jr. in Brooklyn, New York, Rooney began performing at the age of 15 months in his parents' vaudeville act. When the Yules separated in 1924, Rooney moved with his mother to Hollywood, where he soon made his film debut in the silent short Not To Be Trusted (1926). He became known to larger audiences for playing the lead role of Mickey McGuire in a series of comedy shorts produced between 1927 and 1933, before signing a long-term contract with MGM in 1934. Two years later, Rooney was selected to portray Andy Hardy opposite Academy Award winner Lionel Barrymore in A Family Affair (1937), originally planned by the studio as a B-movie. The film was an unexpected hit, initiating a series of 16 pictures, and suddenly turned Rooney into a household name.

Garland's background and entry into show business was very similar to that of her co-star. She was born Frances Ethel Gumm to vaudevillian parents and made her first appearance at the age of two-and-a-half, when she joined her two older sisters on stage during a Christmas show. After the Gumms moved to California in 1926, Garland and her sisters found work performing in short films, as well as in several vaudeville and radio shows. In late 1935, Garland was spotted by songwriter Burton Lane, who subsquently took her for an audition at MGM. Mayer immediately signed Garland to long-term contract with the studio and she soon came to the attention of moviegoers by singing «You Made Me Love You (I Didn't Want To Do It)» to a photograph of Clark Gable in The Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937). That same year, she was paired with Rooney for the first time in Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937), where their screen chemistry impressed Mayer enough to team them again in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), the fourth installment in the popular series. When Freed requested Rooney and Garland for Babes in Arms, Mayer did not hesitated in giving the producer his approval.

Douglas McPhail, Betty Jaynes, Mickey
Rooney and Judy Garland in a publicity still
To support Rooney and Garland, Freed engaged a variety of seasoned veterans and young hopefuls. These included former vaudeville entertainer Charles Winninger, widely known portraying Cap'n Andy Hawks in Show Boat (1936), a role he had originated on Broadway; character actress Margaret Hamilton, who was then playing the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, starring Garland; character actor Guy Kibbee, who had appeared in Warner Bros.' massively successful musicals 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933); former Ziegfeld Girl June Preisser, an MGM contract player since 1938; classically trained opera singer Betty Jaynes and operatic baritone Douglas McPhail, a young married couple whom the studio was grooming as the next Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. By the late 1930s, however, glossy operettas were no longer in vogue and neither Jaynes or McPhail became stars as a result. Their marriage soon failed, driving McPhail to alcoholism and suicide by poisoning himself in 1944, at the age of 30. Jaynes would last be seen in a 1952 episode of I Love Lucy (1951-1957), although she is still alive today.

To direct Babes in Arms, MGM employed its recent steal from Warner Bros, Busby Berkeley, who had been responsible for the kaleidoscopic and often sexually charged dance routines in the aforementioned 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade. The son of two stage actors, Berkeley began his career at the age of five, acting in the stock company of his performing family. He served as a field artillery lieutenant during World War II, after which he became a dance director for nearly two dozen Broadway musicals, including the hugely successful A Connecticut Yankee (1928), written by Rodgers and Hart. With the advent of sound pictures, Berkeley moved to Hollywood to coreograph the Eddie Cantor musical Whoopee! (1930), before being hired to work at Warner Bros. in 1932. His dazzling and intricate designs successfully revitalized the musical genre, which had experienced a sharp decline earlier in the decade, and guaranteed his popularity with an entertainment-hungry Great Depression audience. When his larger-than-life style became passé in the late 1930s, Berkeley decided to try his hand at directing on his own, beginning with They Made Me a Criminal (1939).

Mickey Rooney and June Preisser in Babes in Arms
Babes in Arms began production just after Freed, Garland and Hamilton finished shooting The Wizard of Oz, on May 13, 1939. Throughout filming, Freed fought to keep the song «Over the Rainbow» in The Wizard of Oz against the wishes of studio executives, including Mayer himself, who felt that the sequence slowed down the action. Fortunately, the producer got his way and «Over the Rainbow» went on to become a massive success, winning the Oscar for Best Song. Rooney recalled: «I remember when we were recording the songs for the picture, Judy had to get in costume and do retakes on Wizard of Oz, and then hurried to the sound department to record a duet with me for Babes in Arms. So here I am singing a song with Judy in her Dorothy costume, including the pigtails.»

Filming on Babes in Arms went a few days over schedule — delays caused by its painstaking director, who would spend hours endlessly rehearsing before shooting take after take, each from a different angle. Still, the entire film — including rehearsals, setups, recording, filming and post-production — was completed in just eleven weeks. Despite the efficiency of the production, shooting was not an easy process for Garland. She had a hard time connecting with Berkeley and lacked any time to rest after the grueling pace of The Wizard of Oz. In addition, as they finished work on Babes in Arms, Rooney and Garland were sent on a press junket to promote The Wizard of Oz, which had just been released. At one point on this tour, Garland collapsed backstage from exhaustion and Rooney had to ad-lib on his own until she recovered enough to join him. Garland and Berkeley's arguments not only took place on the set of Babes in Arms, but also continued through the making of Strike Up the Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1941) and Girl Crazy (1943), all of which co-starred Rooney. In fact, Berkeley was fired from Girl Crazy because of his run-ins with Garland, being subsequently replaced by Norman Traurog.

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland
Rooney, on the other hand, liked working with Berkeley, although he called him «impossibly demanding.» According to the actor, Berkeley had «flashing eyes, huge expressive eyebrows, a smile that warmed everyone around him and an alcoholic's perfectionism,» which found the company sometimes working until 3 a.m. On other occasions, with cast and crew assembled on the set in the early morning, Berkeley would not be ready to shoot until almost 6 p.m. One day, as everyone awaited Berkeley's orders, the director overheard Rooney doing impressions of people on the lot to entertain his castmates and crew members. He did Mayer, Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore, composer Roger Edens and even himself. Berkeley was so amused that he asked Rooney to try it in the picture. It worked and the director kept a couple of impersonations — Gable and Barrymore — in the final cut. 

The script of Babes in Arms — written by Jack McGowan and Kay Van Riper especially to suit the talents of Rooney and Garland — differed radically from the original plot devised by Rodgers and Hart. It changed the names of the characters, used a minstrel show as the highlight of the revue and added a romantic and professional complication in the person of a Shirley Temple-type movie star, played by Preisser. The film also eliminated the stage version's strong political overtones, which included discussions of Nietzsche, a Communist character and two African-American youths (portrayed by brothers Harold and Fayard Nicholas) who are victims of racism. In addition, only three of the original 11 Rodgers and Hart tunes were kept: the title song, «Where or When» and «The Lady and the Tramp,» although the latter is heard just as background music during a dinner scene. The score of Babes in Arms was expanded by a few new numbers — «Good Morning» (written by Freed and Brown), «Broadway Rhythm,» «Daddy was a Minstrel Man» and «God's Country» — and some old favorites, such as «You Are My Lucky Star,» «Moonlight Bay,» «Oh, Susannah,» «I'm Just Wild About Harry» and even «Stars and Stripes Forever.» «Good Morning» later gained notoriety in Freed's Singin' in the Rain (1952) as performed by Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor, while «The Lady is a Tramp» was popularized by Frank Sinatra in George Sidney's Pal Joey (1957).

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland at the
Hollywood premiere of Babes in Arms
Babes in Arms premiered in Houston, Texas on September 15, 1939, a month before being released to the general public. The Hollywood opening was held on October 10 at the prestigious Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where Garland — now a star due to the massive success of The Wizard of Oz — was honored by placing her hand and footprints in the famous forecourt.

Critical response for Babes in Arms was generally positive. Irene Thirer of the New York Post, for instance, called it «a brightly entertaining screen version of the Rodgers and Hart legit musical. Perked up by [...] Mickey's mugging and undeniable song and dance talents, and by Judy's simply swell sense of swing [...] Babes in Arms is quite a show. It moves fast with guaranteed laughs and lots of sure-fire tunes.» For their part, Variety described the film as «a greatly enhanced piece of entertainment, with Mickey Rooney having a field day parading his versatile talents.» Babes in Arms was also a massive financial success — one of the ten biggest hits of the year — earning $4 million in the domestic gross and nearly $2 million in pure profits.

At the 12th Academy Awards ceremony held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in February 1940, Mickey Rooney received a nomination for Best Actor — the first teenager (he was 19 at the time) to receive such an accolade — while Rogers Edens and Georgie Stoll were nominated for Best Original Score. During the event, Judy Garland was presented with the Academy Juvenile Award, which Rooney had been honored with the previous year, for her «outstanding performance as a screen juvenile for the past year.» Regarding his first Oscar nomination, Rooney said, «The competition I had for Best Actor included Jimmy Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Clark Gable for Gone with the Wind. And, of course, the actor who won, Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips. What a year to be nominated! The greatest year in American movies! I didn't have a chance.» The popularity of Babes in Arms made Rooney the biggest box-office attraction of 1939, a feat he repeated in 1940 and 1941. In later years, Rooney asserted that Babes in Arms «may have been the best picture I ever made.»

Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s by Thomas Schatz (University of California Press, 1997)
Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley by Jeffrey Spivak (The University Press of Kentucky, 2011)
Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Green (Hal Leonard Corporation, 1999)
The Essential Mickey Rooney by James L. Neibaur (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016)
The Life and Times of Mickey Rooney by Richard Lertzman and William J. Birnes (Gallery Books, 2015)
The Oxford Companion to American Musical: Theatre, Film and Television by Thomas S. Hischak (Oxford University Press, 2008)
Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song by David A. Jasen (Routledge, 2003)
Babes in Arms at The Judy Garland Database 
TCM's article on Babes in Arms by Stephanie Thames Variety review by the Variety Staff

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