Sunday, June 30, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: GIRL CRAZY (1943)

By 1943, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland had made more than half a dozen movies together, so Girl Crazy (1943) was both a return to a tested formula and an attempt to do something a little different with the two stars. Once again we have the “let’s put on a show” plot that justifies a series of musical numbers, but Rooney and Garland’s characters have more mature parts to play and a more complicated twist to their usual romance. Fans of the two stars will probably like this picture well enough, but Girl Crazy doesn’t come off quite as successfully as their earlier collaborations, largely because of the way the story sets up the main characters and their relationships.

Rooney is Danny Churchill, Jr., a rich man’s son and a playboy who has an eye for the ladies. In order to make something of him, his father ships Danny off to a remote Western college with no female students, but Danny promptly meets the dean’s granddaughter, Ginger (Judy Garland), and tries to impress her. Ginger rebuffs Danny’s advances at first, but eventually she warms up to him, and the two decide to stage a Western rodeo show to save the college from closing.

The sweet, adolescent quality of Rooney and Garland’s romance is a big part of their earlier films’ appeal, but in Girl Crazy Rooney’s character comes off as something of a masher, putting the moves on every girl he sees, and it’s harder to accept him as an adult romantic lead. He looks foolishly out of place, whether partying on stage in his tuxedo or moseying about the desert in his ridiculous cowboy duds. If Ginger has the pick of every handsome man in town, why would she go for the short, overeager Danny? Their love affairs make more sense when the two are childhood friends and sweethearts from the start, as they are in Babes in Arms (1939). Garland’s character is also problematic; Ginger is very much a Ginger Rogers personality, prickly and resistant to romance, which works great in the Fred and Ginger movies but not so much here. Ginger Rogers had, in fact, originated the role in the 1930 Broadway production, and the character was renamed "Ginger" from the original "Molly" in her honor. Once she decides to like Danny, Ginger’s character works better as a Judy Garland role, but she never manages the perfect balance of attraction and repulsion that makes Rogers so much fun in films like Swing Time (1936).

Despite these problems, there are things to like about Girl Crazy. Big band fans will love seeing Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra in several numbers, with Dorsey playing himself as one of Danny’s nightclub friends. Guy Kibbee is lovable as the college dean, and a young Nancy Walker livens up the group as Ginger’s streetwise cousin, Polly. June Allyson makes an early feature film appearance as a specialty singer, and Busby Berkeley directs a particularly lavish Western finale featuring the song, “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Other musical highlights include “Bidin’ My Time” and “Fascinating Rhythm.” Even if she’s not ideally suited to her character, Garland looks and sounds great, and Rooney also gets a fun number in “Could You Use Me.”

Try the earlier Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney films for a chance to see the two stars in their best collaborations, starting with Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) and Babes in Arms (1939). Garland, of course, is best remembered for The Wizard of Oz (1939), but see some of her later musicals, too, including Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Harvey Girls (1946), and Easter Parade (1948). Mickey Rooney, a living legend in 2013, has earned four Oscar nominations and appeared in more than 300 films and television programs, starting with the Mickey McGuire shorts of the late 1920s. Catch him in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), A Family Affair (1937), and Captains Courageous (1937) for some of his best adolescent roles. Norman Taurog, who directed everything except the finale, also directed Mickey Rooney in Boys Town (1937), Young Tom Edison (1940), and Men of Boys Town (1941).