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.
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.
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.
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.
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.