“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.

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Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941

“I hate it,” Charlie Brown once said, “when there are two sides to a story.” Actually, Charlie, there are at least two sides to every story, and none more certainly than the story of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, probably the most complicated First Couple in American history. The sorting out of their relationship still goes on 65 years after FDR’s death, most recently in Hazel Rowley’s book “Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage.”

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT in1898

This is not the story of how the insatiable FDR cheated on his wife, leaving the pair in a marriage maintained only for the sake of appearances and finances. It’s a lot more complicated and — in Rowley’s view — a lot more important than that. It is well established by now that in 1918 Eleanor discovered love letters written by her secretary, Lucy Mercer, to FDR, and that the incident had a permanent impact on the marriage. It is also known that FDR promised never to see Lucy Mercer again and that he broke that promise — in fact, that Lucy was among those who were with him in Warm Springs, Ga., in 1945, when he suffered the cerebral stroke that resulted in his death. It is also known that Franklin Roosevelt was an incurable flirt, and that he highly valued his relationships with women who were both charming in their own right and — this was essential — who were charmed by him. Rowley explains that this tendency often irritated Eleanor, but that she came to understand and accept the importance of certain women in her husband’s life.

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT

But the author explains that there was much more to the story than that. Physical intimacy disappeared from the Roosevelts’ marriage, but Rowley writes that Eleanor, who had six children in relatively rapid succession, thought of her sexual relations as a necessary but unwelcome burden. But Eleanor, like most human beings, had needs of her own with respect to affection and intimacy. She fulfilled these needs in more than one way, with both women and men, though how intimate these relationships were is largely a matter of conjecture. Rowley recounts that Franklin encouraged his wife’s friendship with a lesbian couple to the point of helping the three of them build a house and a workshop on property he owned near his mother’s home in Hyde Park, N.Y.

LORENA HICKOK

Eleanor also had an intense tie to Lorena Hickok, a pioneering Associated Press reporter who became so close to the Roosevelts that she herself decided she could no longer report on them objectively. By the time FDR was elected president for the first time, in 1932, Rowley writes, “Everyone in the political press corps knew that Lorena Hickok was a lesbian. By now most of the reporters had figured out that she was passionately in love with Eleanor and that her feelings appeared to be reciprocated.”

Whatever relationships Franklin and Eleanor forged outside their marriage, Rowley maintains, the two of them continued to love and support each other, and they formed a partnership whose vigor helped carry the nation through the Great Depression and the Second World War. At times they seemed to constitute a single person, as Eleanor traveled to places at home and abroad that were beyond her paralyzed husband’s capacity. Although Eleanor’s activism occasionally embarrassed the politically sensitive Franklin, they shared many of the same ideals of social justice.

LOUIS HOWE and FDR

In the process of describing the marriage of these two gigantic historical figures, Rowley draws portraits of many of the interesting characters in the Roosevelt clan and entourage — a crowd that FDR liked to think of as a big, happy family. Not the least of the players was Louis Howe, a disheveled ex-journalist who was one of FDR’s closest advisers for most of his political career, the tireless battery behind the campaigns that made Roosevelt governor of New York and president of the United States. Some of the people around Roosevelt — including his patrician mother, Sara — disapproved of this little man with cigarette ashes on his rumpled clothing, but Eleanor wasn’t one of them, and Rowley describes how it was Howe who repeatedly encouraged Eleanor to make herself heard on the issues that were important to her — a visionary attitude in that male-dominated era.

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT


When I was growing up, I couldn’t wait for Andy the Mailman to bring the monthly magazines my mother subscribed to — especially Better Homes & Gardens, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, and McCall’s.

Mostly, I liked the one-panel cartoons, and I looked forward to reading the humor column on the last page of BH&G, which appeared under the byline of Burton Hillis, which I learned only a couple of years ago was a pen name for Bill Vaughan.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT

My favorite feature, though, appeared in McCall’s. It was Eleanor Roosevelt’s Q&A column, “If You Ask Me.” She started writing that column in 1949 and continued until she died in 1961. I don’t know how old I was when I started reading it. I was only seven years old in 1949, so it might not have been then, but I must have been pretty young, because I can still recall my mother asking me why a boy my age wanted to read that column. I don’t know what answer I gave, but I remember being fascinated with Eleanor Roosevelt long before I fully understood who she was.

As I grew older, of course, I came to appreciate her character and the many contributions she made to American life.

My mind is on Mrs. Roosevelt just now because I recently reviewed Robert Klara’s interesting book, “FDR’s Funeral Train,” which is a chronicle of the transport of Franklin Roosevelt’s body from Warm Springs, Ga., where he died in April 1945, first to Washington, D.C., for a service in the East Room of the White House and then to Hyde Park, N.Y., for a funeral and burial at the Roosevelt home.

Klara provides a lot of details about the logistics of this enterprise — everything from the preparation of the president’s body and the selection of a 700-pound copper casket to the history and features of the engines and cars that made up the trains.

LUCY MERCER RUTHERFERD

Woven into this account, however, are the human stories — including the culmination of Franklin Roosevelt’s long liaison with Lucy Mercer Rutherferd. Mrs. Rutherferd had been Eleanor Roosevelt’s social secretary when FDR — with the presidency far in the future — began his affair with her. Eleanor Roosevelt discovered this relationship in 1918 and ultimately agreed to an arrangement in which she and FDR would remain married but would live separately, as it were, and he would not see Mrs. Rutherferd. The second part of that bargain didn’t last very long, and he continued to see Mrs. Rutherferd literally until the day he died. In fact, she was present when Roosevelt suffered the cerebral hemorrhage that caused his death.

Taken by surprise by her husband’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt traveled to Warm Springs and was, to all outward appearances, the picture of composure and dignity as she planned and participated in the rituals that led to the grave.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT

During this sad trip, however, Mrs. Roosevelt not only confirmed what she had suspected — that FDR had continued to see Mrs. Rutherferd and that Lucy had been at Warm Springs when he died — but also that the visits between the two had been arranged with the connivance of various members of the president’s  official and personal household — including the Roosevelts’ daughter, Anna.

Klara also relates in this book how the death of FDR affected Harry Truman, who had not been a member of FDR’s inner circle and had not been informed of important matters of state, including the fact that scientists in New Mexico were at that moment developing what they believed would be the most destructive bomb ever produced.

HARRY TRUMAN

However unprepared Truman may have been for his new role, Klara describes him as  a man who kept his wits about him and did what had to be done. Roosevelt died in Georgia on a Thursday  afternoon, and he was buried in upstate New York on the following Sunday. Truman planned to address a joint session of Congress on Monday, and he spent his time on the train from Washington to Hyde Park and back again working on that speech with his advisers. It was, Klara reports, a hit with Congress and with the public, as Truman promised to pursue Roosevelt’s policies, including FDR’s demand for unconditional surrender by both Germany and Japan. In a few months, Truman, who hadn’t been trusted with the secret of the bomb, would make the lonely decision to use it against Japan in order to put an end to hostilities in the Pacific.

Klara includes some detailed descriptions of the awkward political atmosphere on the trains as one administration was passing out of existence and another was taking control. The author also discusses the controversial security risk taken by organizers and participants in the Hyde Park funeral, as virtually the whole government traveled together on the train while the country was at war. The risk wasn’t far fetched; Klara notes that among the passengers — despite the high level of security — was a government operative who was a spy for the KGB.

A woman weeps over the death of Franklin Roosevelt. The president's widow said she never realized until she watched the crowds along the funeral train's route the dimensions of the public's devotion to FDR. / Life magazine photo