“Babes in Arms”

November 4, 2012

JUDY GARLAND and MICKEY ROONEY

Knowing that a storm visitor was a fan of Judy Garland, I picked out Babes in Arms from the On Demand list, and wound up watching it myself. I did that because this 1939 film was based on a 1937 Broadway musical by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. I’ve always been curious about that show, but I’ve never seen it produced on stage. I knew well before the movie was over that the stage show has to have been better.

This was one of the “let’s put on a show” movies that Garland made with Mickey Rooney. It turns out that it was only loosely based on the Broadway show. In fact, I have since read that once the brains at MGM got  the rights to the show, they made wholesale changes to the script and threw out all the songs except the unmemorable title song and the memorable “Where or When,” which was introduced on  Broadway by Ray Heatherton (who later had a long run on television as the “Merry Mailman”) and Mitzi Green.

RAY HEATHERTON

That means, that MGM — specifically producer Arthur Freed — cut “My Funny Valentine,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “Johnny One Note,” and “That’s Why the Lady is a Tramp” (which is heard only as incidental background music). Freed added two old songs of his own — “I Cried for You” and “You Are My Lucky Star” — and he and Nacio Herb Brown wrote “Good Mornin'” especially for this movie. E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen, who had contributed three classic songs to The Wizard of Oz, were employed on this movie to write “God’s Country,” a heavy-handed finale that was influenced by the war under way in Europe.

This film was directed by Buzby Berkeley in an era when the canteen didn’t stock de-caf coffee. It is, in a word, exhausting. The production numbers with their quick-step marches are dated and Rooney in particular, as talented as he is, is manic —  a fault that is made more conspicuous by the fact that Garland’s performance is comparatively understated.

Apparently there was some racially insensitive material in the Broadway production, and there is  an offensive minstrel sequence in the movie. Blackface was common into the 1950s; in fact, when I was a kid, my parish used to stage annual minstrels complete with end men in burnt cork exchanging idiotic banter with “Mr. Interlocutor.” It’s as hard to watch now as it should have been then.

Rooney and Garland in blackface

I’ve read some attempts to rationalize this display, including one argument that the caricatures were mild, but there is nothing mild about Rooney’s lampooning in particular. He’s Jolson in overdrive.

There is a clever number in which Rooney and Garland do good-natured send ups of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. This scene was cut from copies of the film distributed after FDR died in 1945, but it has been restored and is one of the most worthwhile things in the movie.

On the cover of Time

Shirley Booth‘s biographer, Jim Manago, noted an error in my recent post about the movie “Summertime,” which starred Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi. “Summertime” was based on Arthur Laurents’ Broadway play, “The Time of the Cuckoo,” in which Booth played the part that Hepburn later played on the screen. I had incorrectly given the character’s name as Jane Hudson – the name used in “Summertime” – but Manago, whose book is “Love is the Reason for it All,” noted the character was called Leona Samish on the stage. I corrected it in the post.

I interviewed Shirley Booth many years ago; it was one of the few occasions in which I approached the subject of an interview with a sense of awe. By the time of I met her, Booth had established herself as one of the most highly honored actresses in American entertainment — on the stage, on film, and in radio and television – and had won multiple awards. Later generations have largely forgotten her, but she was a serious, versatile artist.

SHIRLEY BOOTH

Her favorite role in a long career, she told me, was Lola Delaney in the Broadway drama, “Come Back, Little Sheba” by William Inge.  This is the story of a middle-aged couple whose  marriage and whose lives in general are unfulfilled and unhappy. Shirley Booth had already won a Tony as best supporting actress for “Good Bye, My Fancy” in 1948, and she won the best-actress Tony for “Come Back, Little Sheba” in 1950. In 1952, she appeared in the film version of Inge’s play, and she won the Oscar for best dramatic actress. She won her third Tony for “Time of the Cuckoo,” again being named best actress in a leading role. She also won two Emmys as best actress in a comedy role for the TV series “Hazel,” which had its first run from 1961-1965 and was seen in syndication for many years afterwards. People who know Dolly Gallagher Levi only from the musical performances of Carol Channing and Barbra Streisand and wonder if that’s really what Thornton Wilder had on his mind, should get their hands on the 1952 film “The Matchmaker” in which Shirley Booth played the part, which was originated on Broadway by Ruth Gordon.

I met Shirley Booth in 1971 when she was appearing at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Paul Osborn’s 1930 play, “The  Vinegar Tree.”

On the cover of TV Guide during the run of her second TV series, "A Touch of Grace."

She was a little more formal than I am used to, but she was also thoughtful and witty.

I sought her input one a favorite subject of mine — the interaction between performers and live audiences, particularly the way the audience reaction affects the performer on stage. Ms. Booth told me she thought inexperienced actors sometimes put too much pressure on themselves if they feel that the audience isn’t reacting as expected.

“I say, ‘They’re not getting this; let’s slow down.’ I think you should beguile them instead of dazzling them.”

And when guile doesn’t work, she said: “All right. If they don’t want to have a good time, let’s have such a good time among ourselves that they’ll be sorry they didn’t come.”

Shirley Booth was an important figure in American entertainment and an exceptionally talented performer. Not everyone has forgotten. To visit a blog devoted to Shirley Booth, CLICK HERE.

Shirley Booth, Don DeFore, and Whitney Blake in a publicity shot for "Hazel."