Thursday, June 20, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: BABES IN ARMS (1939)

The Busby Berkeley musical Babes in Arms (1939) proved an important moment in Mickey Rooney’s career; his role as showbiz hopeful Mickey Moran earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, in a year when the competition included Clark Gable for Gone with the Wind, Laurence Olivier for Wuthering Heights, and Jimmy Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. They would all lose to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, but the nomination put Rooney at the top of Hollywood’s list of leading men when he was still a teenager. It was also his first musical with Judy Garland as his leading lady; the two had appeared in films together before, but the new formula would be a big enough hit to inspire a whole series of Garland and Rooney musicals. Today, Babes in Arms shows its age, especially in some of its vaudeville numbers, but it still offers plenty to interest fans of its two young stars.

Rooney stars as Michael “Mickey” Moran, a child of vaudeville performers who have fallen on hard times with the rise of the talkies. Along with his girlfriend, Patsy (Judy Garland), his sister, Molly (Betty Jaynes), and their pal, Don (Douglas McPhail), Mickey hopes to turn things around for the older entertainers by staging a new show with the other kids. There’s a lot riding on their success, since meddlesome Miss Steele (Margaret Hamilton) is trying to have all of the youngsters sent away to learn trades at a state work school. The assistance of former child star Baby Rosalie (June Preisser) might save the show, but only if it doesn’t ruin Mickey and Patsy’s relationship.

Rooney is more a comedian than a singer, but he gets plenty of opportunities to exercise his usual energetic humor, and his impressions of Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore are especially funny. Garland looks achingly young, even more so than she does in her better known film from that year, The Wizard of Oz. The two share a sweet, innocent chemistry that justifies their frequent pairings, and both of them carry their more dramatic scenes effectively. They get ample support from older actors like Charles Winninger, Guy Kibbee, Margaret Hamilton, and Henry Hull, but June Preisser proves a real scene-stealer as Baby Rosalie, a Shirley Temple type whose precious act has grown stale with adolescence. Preisser also does some jaw-dropping acrobatics that you have to see to believe; it’s worth noting that Preisser, Rooney, and Garland had all been vaudeville performers in real life before they made the jump to films.

The songs in Babes in Arms cover a lot of territory, although viewers will recognize several of them from their use in the later classic, Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Busby Berkeley directs most of the numbers with great restraint considering his penchant for dizzy spectacle, but he does provide a more traditional Berkeley treatment for the finale of “God’s Country.” The number that will give most viewers pause is the minstrel sequence, done with the entire group of youngsters, including Rooney and Garland, in full blackface. Despite its attempt to pay tribute to the vaudeville convention, the number is sure to make modern audiences profoundly uncomfortable, if not outraged, by its use of the most noxious racial stereotypes. Fortunately, the performance gets cut short by a plot point, but it goes on much too long for anyone watching it today. Be prepared to have a thoughtful discussion about the history of blackface in Hollywood if you watch this picture with the family.

Babes in Arms also earned an Oscar nomination for Best Music Scoring. For more of Rooney and Garland’s musicals, see Strike Up the Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1941), and Girl Crazy (1943). Busby Berkeley is best remembered for gloriously surreal musical productions in 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), and Footlight Parade (1933). June Preisser also appears in Strike Up the Band and with Rooney in two of the Andy Hardy films. Groomed as the next Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, neither Betty Jaynes nor Douglas McPhail ever became stars, but they were actually married to one another from 1938-1941, which casts an interesting light on their performance as sweethearts in Babes in Arms.