For Me and My Gal (Busby Berkeley, 1942)

Just editing this posting to say that the Summer Under the Stars blogathon is currently running all through August, and today (August 23) is Gene Kelly’s special day. Please visit to read lots of great postings on his films.  

Judy Garland and Gene Kelly starred together in three movies. The best-known is undoubtedly The Pirate, a lavish Technicolor production which I’ll admit leaves me cold. For Me and My Gal, made by Arthur Freed’s famous production unit at MGM,  is in black and white and on a much smaller scale altogether, despite having Berkeley as director. Its tightly-constructed musical numbers bear little resemblance to those in his breathtaking pre-Code extravaganzas. The film as a whole is a strange mixture between musical comedy, melodrama and wartime flag-waver, with an intriguing flawed hero. It is set during the First World War, but clearly the scriptwriters were thinking of the Second, and there are scenes urging characters to buy war bonds, echoed in the final frame with an appeal to moviegoers. The fashions also look contemporary for the 1940s. I saw the film on TCM in the UK (it is also due for a showing on the US TCM at 6am (ET) on August 23, 2012), but it is available on DVD in both regions 1 and 2.

Even if it doesn’t always completely hang together and is occasionally corny, I found the film riveting to watch and enjoyed the chemistry between Garland and Kelly, as well as the array of great songs – highlights include the title song and the song-and-dance dance number Ballin’ the Jack –  many of which date from the First World War or earlier.  It’s just a pity that, in a film with Berkeley as director and starring Kelly, there is relatively little dancing overall – co-star George Murphy, in particular, gets very few scenes where he is able to show his tap-dancing prowess.  According to TCM’s article on the movie, 40-year-old Murphy was originally intended as the male lead, but the part was instead given to Kelly, who was 10 years younger and making his movie debut fresh from his success in Pal Joey on Broadway.  A disappointed Murphy was demoted to a support role. Another change was that originally the film was supposed to have two leading ladies, a singer and a dancer – but both these roles were combined to give Garland, who was only 19, her first fully grown-up role, with her name as the only one above the title. Looking at the posters for the film, Garland’s name and image dominate and it was clearly seen as her movie all the way. However, Kelly certainly shows his power and charm as both dancer and actor, in a role which made him a film star – while Murphy is also impressive in the few scenes he does get.

Judy Garland and Gene Kelly

The film is based on a story by Howard Emmett Rogers called The Big Time, which, according to an entry on Wikipedia, was inspired by the lives of a real vaudeville couple, Harry Palmer and Jo Hayden. However, the article gives no sources and I haven’t been able to find anything else out about them online, except that Palmer died in 1972. In any case, the film powerfully evokes the days of vaudeville, opening with the characters arriving by train at yet another slightly down-at-heel venue and arguing over who goes where on the bill and who gets which dressing room. They all dream hopelessly of playing bigger venues, in particular New York’s Palace. (This section of the film reminded me of Fred Astaire’s autobiography, where he writes of his early years as a child star with sister Adele and of what hard work it was on the road, endlessly travelling from one town to the next.)

Judy Garland’s character, Jo Hayden, is part of an act organised by Jimmy Metcalf (Murphy),  also involving other singers and dancers – there is a good number performed by Murphy including the song Oh, You Beautiful Doll. Meanwhile, conceited loner Harry Palmer (Kelly) has his own solo act, doing a clown dance which shows the way forward to Be a Clown in The Pirate. All these sketches look great to me, but apparently don’t impress the vaudeville audience much! Harry hears Jo singing and decides he wants to work with her in a double act. She at first resists, but when he tricks her into working on the film’s title song with him at a coffee shop, she quickly falls under his spell. Jo doesn’t want to let down Jimmy – who is secretly in love with her – but he nobly pretends he was planning to break up the act anyway and leaves the way open for her to form a new partnership.

One of the film”s tender moments

Jo is soon madly in love with Harry, something that comes across in her heartbreaking performance of the song After You’ve Gone, sharing the emotion of  later Garland torch songs. However, Harry is still mainly in love with himself and his ideas of showbiz stardom – and he is flattered by the attentions  of a famous singer, Eve Minard, played by Austro-Hungarian operetta star Mártha Eggerth. I don’t think Eggerth’s high-pitched voice is very well suited to the music of the film, but her character has warmth and charm. For once, Eve isn’t the typical back-stabbing “other woman” – instead, she sympathises with Jo and tries to prove to her that Harry is selfish and unreliable. This plot twist is a remnant of the original storyline with the two heroines, and clearly inspired by the two-timing character of Joey in Kelly’s stage hit. (Kelly plays another ambitious artist tempted by a rich woman’s power to help his career in An American in Paris, the plot of which was also partly inspired by Pal Joey. Athough he didn’t play the character in the much-delayed film version, which of course went to Sinatra, Kelly seems to have kept playing variants of Joey.)

There are spoilers in this next bit – and, perhaps unusually for a musical, there is at least one plot twist you probably won’t see coming!

Harry at last realises that he loves Jo – he has the line “Why didn’t you tell me I was in love with you?” (interestingly also said by Astaire to Garland in Easter Parade, where he plays a role intended for Kelly.)  The couple get engaged, and, with an invitation to perform at the Palace finally arriving, their happiness seems complete. However, then Harry is drafted – and, furious at losing his big chance, deliberately injures himself by slamming his trunk lid down on his hand in an attempt to delay the date when he has to go to war. The scene comes as a real shock, especially in a film which has mainly been a romantic comedy up to this point. The camerawork becomes much darker and we are suddenly almost in noir territory, with the music building to breaking point. I’m not sure if I’d ever seen a hero deliberately injure himself  like this in a film, even though I know “shooting yourself in the foot” happened often enough in real life.

The couple meet up in France

Unfortunately for Harry, it turns out that he has injured himself much more seriously than he intended to – his hand is now useless for good, meaning he can’t serve in the war at all and, ironically, he has harmed his vaudeville career too. With even more devastating, if predictable, irony, Jo hears that her brother has died in the war – and turns on Harry for his apparent cowardice, telling him she never wants to see him again. As with many propaganda films, it is a flaw in this movie that it presents a rather softened version of war at times – the scenes in France towards the end of the film are a case in point. But, in the blows of Danny’s death and the Harry’s injury to his hand (something we don’t actually see, as the camera pulls away at the key moment), the  violence and mess of the conflict do break into the musical and pull its mood apart.

Entertaining the troops

The upbeat tone returns as Jo goes on to perform to the troops, just as Garland herself had been doing in real life, and becomes a national celebrity. There are some all-too brief shots of Garland singing various First World War classics. Meanwhile, Harry is in despair, but eventually picks himself up and also starts entertaining the troops and selling war bonds. Originally, the ending of the film was that he returned from being a wartime entertainer and the couple were reconciled – but preview audiences disapproved of the “draft dodger” living happily ever after, and thought that Murphy’s character should win Garland. In any film where there is a character like Jimmy, loving the heroine hopelessly in the background, there is always a risk that some of the audience will prefer him to the hero. This danger was exacerbated by making Kelly’s character so flawed.

Because of this, there was some extensive re-shooting to make Harry find redemption as a war hero – with an unlikely sequence where he risks his life to save an army ambulance in France – so that he can earn his happy ending. Also, some of Murphy’s scenes were cut to make him less appealing. The whole war hero bit does feel tagged on somewhat, but at least it gives a glimpse of the horror in France underlying all those flag-waving musical scenes. (According to that Wikipedia entry, the real Harry Palmer did indeed injure his hand to avoid active service, but then became an ambulance driver in the First World War and was wounded – if this is accurate, it seems odd that this element wasn’t included in the first place.)

In any case, Jo’s love for Harry has been built up so strongly all through the film that it is unthinkable for her to suddenly turn round and marry someone else, and would betray the power of Garland’s singing in After You’ve Gone in that earlier scene.

All in all, I enjoyed this film a lot, both for its musical numbers and for the mix of humour and often poignant acting from both Garland and Kelly. I suspect the film often gets overlooked because it was made in black and white and didn’t have the huge budget of some other musicals from around this period, but it is a must for fans of these two.

Murphy, Kelly and Garland

Garland and Murphy

Garland and Mártha Eggerth

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26 thoughts on “For Me and My Gal (Busby Berkeley, 1942)

  1. Pingback: Links 8.07.12 « Speakeasy

  2. R. D. Finch

    Judy, I watched this a few months back and had even more mixed feelings about it than you seemed to express. Judy and Gene are wonderful together (it was interesting to see Kelly playing a flawed character that, as you say, was probably inspired by his character in “Pal Joey”), those classic songs of the post-turn of the 20th century are great. But the plot, which starts out as corny but acceptable, starts to go downhill towards the middle, its twists seemingly dictated by the need to keep spirits up during wartime. As you also pointed out, the shift in tone at this point seems strange. And I’ve never much liked George Murphy. I did find fascinating your description of the changes made to the film after previews. Anyone who likes its stars will find this film interesting, but others will probably be more aware of the flaws you describe.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      R.D., it sounds as if I enjoyed this film more than you did – I could see that it wasn’t perfect but the power of the performances, together with the great music, had me hooked. I was interested to see the claim in the Wikipedia article that the self-inflicted injury was based on a true story – it certainly leads to some desperate plot twists later to try to redeem Kelly’s character, but I must say I enjoyed seeing a less-than perfect character at the centre of the film. I haven’t seen all that much of George Murphy’s work but love his dancing in the roles I have seen, and thought it was a shame he didn’t get a chance to do more of it here. Thanks very much for your comment.

  3. Grand Old Movies

    Poor George Murphy seems to have been the Ralph Bellamy of musicals. In 2 MGM musicals he made with Eleanor Powell, in which he gets to partner her beautifully, he later drifts out of the picture while she ends up with either Robert Taylor or Fred Astaire. I can understand Astaire, but non-dancing Taylor?

    I like ‘For Me And My Gal,’ which is a sweet musical, and Garland is tremulously adorable in it. Though you’re right, Kelly’s war heroism does seem tacked on. There was always a hint of the soulless charmer in Kelly’s persona – it’s one’s of the reasons why ‘The Pirate is so unsatisfactory to me (another being it has a cold, cold heart).

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      G.O.M., must admit I haven’t seen many Murphy films as yet, but his great dancing certainly made an impression on me in ‘Broadway Melody of 1940′, where I agree he partners Eleanor Powell wonderfully, even though you can understand Fred Astaire stealing her away! It’s a pity that some of Murphy’s best scenes were apparently chopped out of this film to avoid his character taking sympathy away from Kelly.

      “Tremulously adorable” is a great description for Garland’s performance in ‘For Me and My Gal’, which has a lot in common with her part in ‘Easter Parade’, one of my favourites out of her films. I see Kelly as charming rather than soulless, though – for me he does usually have an underlying warmth, though we are agreed on ‘The Pirate’ having a cold heart. I’m increasingly becoming a big fan of Kelly – it’s his centenary this year and I’m hoping British TV may take the opportunity to screen some of his lesser-known movies. Thanks very much!

  4. Sam Juliano

    “The film as a whole is a strange mixture between musical comedy, melodrama and wartime flag-waver, with an intriguing flawed hero.”

    Indeed Judy! That pretty must sizes it up, but as usual you have gone far beyond to indulge a marvelous examination of a war period musical that features two of the screen’s most beloved icons. This role of course could be seen as Garland’s first adult role, and there is an immediate chemistry between the stars, something I just again re-discovered looking on some you tube clips on my PC. I do agree with you that THE PIRATE is emotionally problematic, though I do feel the duo again worked their magic years later in SUMMER STOCK, which features ‘Get Happy’ and a spectacular dance duet ‘Portland Fancy.’ I had read somewhere that preview audiences in the day were unhappy with the way the film ended, preferring Garland and Murphy to pair off, so Louis Mayer made some character revisions. In any case you have again written with marvelous authority and enthusiasm Judy, and you have me humming a few tunes to myself. My own favorite is the beloved title song.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Sam, ‘Summer Stock’ is one that I haven’t seen as yet, but definitely hope to do so before too long. Glad you enjoyed watching those clips of ‘Me and My Gal’ and I agree that there is plenty of chemistry there. I forgot to mention that it was said to be Louis Mayer who insisted on the changes, and apparently accused Murphy of ruining the film by being too good. I do agree that the title song is wonderful. Thanks so much for your comment!

  5. Ellen Moody

    Musicals are a kind of movie all their own. The songs, dancing, music can transcend the rest of the movie and carry the meaning of the movie on their own. There are a number of basically very silly Astaire-Rogers movies where the best thing to do is ignore the story until the serious business of the film resumes — the dancing and his kind of patter singing. I do think Kelly magical as a dancer and no one comes near Garland — at age 19 no less — for beauty and emotional power of her songs. But the content of these semi-biographical partly war movies can’t be ignored as it’s clearly not silly. I’m trying to say there’s another disjunction in the genre beyond the divagations you outline, or the genre is inherently problematic. Nonetheless I wish we had musical movies nowadays — the ones we get are usually Broadway or stage musicals which have been adapted for film. Stage is much less realistic seeming again. This was an interesting thorough analysis which put the movie before me. I was fascinated to see that the film-makers would try out an ending on a group of people and modify accordingly. Not much loyalty to their work in its own right here.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Ellen, thank you for this – I definitely agree that the musical numbers within a movie can carry the meaning on their own and indeed tell their own story quite separate from the surface plot. As you say, several of the Astaire/Rogers musicals are perfect examples of this, where the real story is in the to and fro of their dances and songs (which I love) and not in the sometimes farcical plot twists. I sometimes tend to prefer movies like this semi-war biography one where the plot is interesting in itself, even if it doesn’t sit so well with the songs and leads to a different type of disjunction – but, anyway, I’m very interested in what you say about this and would like to read more about musicals and how they work. I think there have been quite a few films where the endings were altered after preview showings and I believe this still sometimes happens nowadays, but agree with you that it can mean betraying the work in its own right.

    2. Judy Post author

      PS I meant to say that I also wish movie musicals were still made now, rather than just adaptations of stage hits, and dance movies aimed at youngsters.

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  7. Helen

    It’s been years since I saw this (like, 20), but I clearly remember I couldn’t get past the shifts in tone around the “draft dodger to hero” plot. The scene where Kelly’s character crushes his hand is the one scene I remember vividly, which is not really a compliment as it stood out to me, then and now, as much too intense and dark in comparison with the film up to that point.

    However, I expect I would enjoy re-watching it nevertheless, as your review reminded me of the good points, like the vaudeville setting and the stars’ performances.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      I must agree the shifts in tone come as a shock – the hand scene is definitely very dark compared to the rest of the film up to that point, as you say. However, I found the film all the more interesting for its uneven quality and I do think it brings in the violence of war through that scene and what follows. Anyway, we are agreed on the brilliance of the stars’ performances and the vaudeville setting. Thanks very much for commenting, Helen.

  8. John Greco

    Great review Judy but as you suggest the film is a bit on the corny side. That said, Kelly and Garland are wonderful and as R.D. mentioned it’s good to see Kelly play a flawed character.

    Reply
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  13. Sean Gallagher

    Despite the plot twists (which admittedly didn’t mean as much to me when I was younger and saw this), I still enjoy this movie because of the musical numbers (particularly the title number) and the chemistry between Garland and Kelly. You’re right about Kelly having a darker persona (which also was in some of his movies at the time; if you ever saw “Christmas Holiday”, which to me is an interesting failure that came out around the same time, that’s a real dark role that Kelly plays well), and he always makes it work. It’s interesting Murphy’s scenes were cut, but while I thought he was a good dancer, I always found him a rather bland actor, so I don’t mind him getting shunted aside in favor of the more charismatic Kelly. Great write-up!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Sean, thanks very much. I haven’t seen ‘Christmas Holiday’ but have heard quite a bit about it and hope to do so in the future – it will be interesting to see Kelly in a dark role. I think Murphy had some dancing cut from this as well as some acting, which is a pity. Must agree on the great chemistry between Garland and Kelly.

    1. Judy Post author

      Margaret, I’m a Garland fan too and think she makes a great combination with Kelly in this. I’m not a big fan of ‘The Pirate’, but agree it does have some good song and dance numbers. Haven’t seen ‘Summer Stock’ yet, as it isn’t available in the UK, but I’m hoping it will turn up on TV here some time – I would love to see it. Thanks for your comment; I will be over to look at your posting.

  14. The Gal Herself

    You’re right about For Me and My Gal, it’s not a successful movie. But it’s very watchable. Garland is always fascinating and I like how natural Kelly is before the camera. For a Broadway transplant, he’s refreshing non-theatrical. As an actor he reminds me Spencer Tracy — he can have big moments but he’s charismatic, never hammy. Poor George Murphy suffers so by comparison.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      That’s an interesting comparison between Kelly and Tracy – I’d never thought of them as similar actors, but agree that they are both very natural in front of the camera. And yes, despite coming straight from Broadway Kelly does not seem stagey in this. Thanks very much for your comment.

  15. Ellen Moody

    Belated comment: yes, the movie-makers don’t make genuine musicals any more. Once in a while you’ll get a film adaptation of a stage musical but unless it’s reconceived, they work differently. Ellen

    Reply

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