Saturday, May 21, 2016

Stubs – Girl Crazy

Girl Crazy (1943) Starring: Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Gil Stratton Directed by Norman Taurog. Screenplay by Fred F. Finklehoffe. Produced Arthur Freed Runtime 99 minutes. US. Black and White. Musical, Comedy

I am a big fan of the music of George Gershwin. Perhaps best known for “classical” compositions like Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris and the opera Porgy and Bess, George also had a very successful career writing Broadway musicals with his brother Ira as his lyricist. Together they wrote Lady Be Good (1924), Tip-Toes (1925), Oh Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), Strike Up the Band (1927 and 1930), Show Girl (1929), Girl Crazy (1930), Of Thee I Sing (1931), Pardon My English (1933) and Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933) before bringing their talents to Hollywood.

RKO hired the Gershwin brothers to write music for the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical, Shall We Dance (1937), and another Astaire film, Damsel in Distress (1937). Gershwin died while working on the score for The Goldwyn Follies (1938). His music would continue to be used in Hollywood after his death. The film The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947) features some previously unpublished songs and, of course, An American in Paris (1951) makes a musical using various Gershwin songs. Similarly, Broadway has continued to make “new” musicals using his songs: Crazy for You (1992) and Nice Work If You Can Get It (2012).

I became aware of the Broadway musical Girl Crazy from a re-recording conducted by John Mauceri, formerly the conductor of The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. A series of recordings on Elektra Nonesuch recreated Gershwin musicals, including Strike Up the Band, Oh Kay! and Lady Be Good, as well as Gershwin playing via piano rolls.

I’ve previously written a little about the Broadway musical Girl Crazy in a biographical sketch about Ginger Rogers in a review of Vivacious Lady (1938), so pardon me if I cover the same ground here. The musical starred Ginger Rogers as Molly Gray, Allen Kearns as Danny Churchill, Ethel Merman as Kate Fothergill and Willie Howard as Gieber Goldfarb. The show featured fourteen Gershwin songs, including standards like Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm and But Not For Me, as well as Bronco Busters, Land of the Gay Caballero, Treat Me Rough, Could You Use Me and Bidin’ My Time. Playing in the pit orchestra were such future stars as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa and Tommy Dorsey. Gershwin himself sometimes conducted during the original run from October 14,1930 to June 6, 1931.

Ginger Rogers in the original Broadway production of Girl Crazy.

MGM’s 1943 film version is not the first. RKO originally made it as a vehicle for Wheeler & Woolsey, a popular comedy act in films and in vaudeville at the time. This film, which I have never seen, retained only three songs from the stage musical, Biding My Time, I Got Rhythm and But Not For Me. According to Richard Jewell, an expert on all things RKO, the film, directed by William A. Seiter, made only $555,000 on a budget of $532,000. I don’t think, in anyone’s book, it would have been considered a huge hit.

There would also be a later version made called When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965), also from MGM. Directed by Alvin Ganzer, this version starred Connie Francis and Herman’s Hermits. This version intermixed Gershwin songs with ones by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Herman’s Hermits, Liberace and other writers.

In 1943, MGM took on the musical as a vehicle for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The duo had already appeared together in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937), Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Babes in Arms (1939), Andy Hardy Meets a Debutante (1940), Strike Up the Band (1940; another Gershwin musical adaptation) and Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941). Both actors were extremely talented and very popular.

Mickey Rooney, born Joseph Yule, Jr., had been an entertainer since being fourteen months old, first appeared in films at the age of seven in the silent comedy Orchids and Ermine (1927), starring Colleen Moore. He played Mickey McGuire in 78 short films from 1927 to 1936. He signed with MGM in 1934, making his first appearance in A Family Affair (1937), the first in the Andy Hardy film series.

Judy Garland began life as Francis Ethel Gumm and was one of The Gumm Sisters in a vaudeville act before she was signed by MGM in 1935 at the age of 13. In addition to her work with Mickey Rooney, she had already, by the time Girl Crazy was made, starred in the perennial classic The Wizard of Oz (1939).

While the movie starts off with the general story of the stage musical, i.e. New York playboy Danny Churchill, Jr. (Mickey Rooney) makes scandalous headlines and his father, Danny, Sr. (Henry O'Neill), in the film a publisher, sends him out West. After that, the stories start to part ways. Danny, in the movie, is sent to Cody, a small mining college that only has male students.

Danny Churchill, Jr. (Mickey Rooney) is a New York playboy.

Upon disembarking the train in Cody, Danny discovers he must walk the eight miles to the school through the desert. Every eight miles he sees another sign telling him that it is eight miles to the school. One of the reasons his father has sent him to Cody is that there are supposedly no women there, but leave it to Danny to find one. Out on the desert floor, he meets young, attractive Ginger Gray (Judy Garland), whose car has broken down. Danny’s reputation precedes him, as Ginger, the local postmistress, is aware of his playboy persona and laughingly rejects his advances. Once he gets her car going, it uses a crank to turn over, she drives off without him.

Danny finally reaches campus and meets his roommate, Bud Livermore (Gil Stratton), who fills him in on the school's rigorous schedule, which includes getting up early and going to bed early as well. The following dawn, Bud manages to get Danny up and fellow students tell him about the day-long horse ride to a wilderness camp they are about to undertake. As part of his initiation, Danny is given Whitey, the school's wildest horse to ride. Whatever bravado Danny might have is quickly drained away as the horse takes off at full speed and eventually throws Danny down a steep embankment and returns to the school.

Danny is rescued by Rags ("Rags" Ragland), an ex-New York taxicab driver who now works for the college. Rags offers him a ride in his buckboard and delivers Danny to the camp. By that time, Ginger has arrived to cook steaks for the boys and once again snubs Danny’s advances.

One night in the wilderness is enough for Danny and the next day, he goes to see Dean Phineas Armour (Guy Kibbee), Ginger's grandfather, to announce he’s returning East. Ginger drives Danny to the village, and along the way, Danny resumes his flirtation, singing “Could You Use Me?” and sneaking in a kiss before parting.

Danny puts the moves on Ginger (Judy Garland) while she's driving him to the village.

It’s Ginger’s birthday and the students of Cody throw an elaborate party for the popular and only girl on campus. They give her a small white piano as a present, which leads into a big production number around the song Embraceable You.

Danny returns to campus and eavesdrops as Henry Lathrop (Robert E. Strickland) proposes to Ginger in a very unromantic way. Ginger gently turns him down. After Henry departs, Danny tells Ginger that he has decided to stay at Cody so he can be near her. As proof of his commitment, Danny offers Ginger his grandmother's locket. But she urges him to keep it.

Later, Danny gives Rags a message to wire to his father. When Rags hands the message to the clerk, he reads it aloud in front of Henry and other Cody students. In the wire, along with informing his father that he’s staying, he makes derogatory comments about Cody which infuriate the students. After Henry brings the matter up to the Cody student council, Dean Armour calls both young men into his office and orders them to make nice.

Soon after, Ginger hears a radio report that Governor Tait (Howard Freeman) will be signing legislation closing Cody because of low admissions. Anxious to help, Danny comes up with an idea for Cody to sponsor an annual rodeo and beauty contest to attract new students. And of course, a show, which Danny promises will bring back the old west.

Danny and Ginger then present the governor with the plan, and Tait agrees to delay signing the legislation for thirty days. To assure the plan's success, Danny attends the coming-out party of the governor's daughter Marjorie (Frances Rafferty) and flatters the attractive debutantes there into agreeing to enter the beauty contest at Cody. During the evening, Marjorie flirts openly with Danny and even snatches his locket from him, which she starts to wear.

Danny and Ginger convince Governor Tait (Howard Freeman) to delay signing legislation.

Later, at the beauty contest, Danny once again swears his love to Ginger. Ginger and Marjorie just happen to be the top vote-getters and Danny proclaims Marjorie the winner. It is then that Ginger sees Danny's grandmother’s locket around Marjorie's neck and assumes the worst. Ginger starts packing to leave.

Determined not to lose her, Danny presents her with the locket, which he had retrieved from Marjorie. He once again swears his fidelity. Danny’s idea has been a big success. With their personal life settled, Danny and Ginger show Dean Armour the two hundred enrollment applications from girls wanting to attend Cody, which convinces him to make the school co-educational.

Their personal problems resolved, Danny and Ginger sing and dance together accompanied by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra to the song I Got Rhythm, one of only six songs that made it from the stage musical. The rodeo show finale is directed by Busby Berkeley.

Garland and Rooney dance together as part of  the production number for "I Got Rhythm".

Berkeley was originally signed to direct the film, but he apparently had too many creative differences with Judy Garland. The elaborate ending is his only contribution to the final film. One wonders what the film might have been if he were allowed to direct the entire movie. I say this, because, despite the high wattage of the lead actor and actress and the music of Gershwin, the musical falls a little flat.

This is really a movie version of the stage musical in name only. Whole characters are dropped (Slick; Gieber Goldfarb) and the plot is changed significantly. From the start of the movie, songs are being juggled. Treat Me Rough, which appeared in Act II of the Broadway musical, is the first song to be featured. The song is part of a nightclub act, featuring June Allyson, making her feature film debut as a Specialty Singer. The arrangement is water downed to accommodate a chorus line singing much of it and, for me, the film really never recovers.

Tommy Dorsey leads his Orchestra in a rendition of  Fascinating Rhythm.

During Marjorie’s party, Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra play Fascinating Rhythm, which while written by the Gershwins was not in the Broadway production of Girl Crazy. It actually comes from another musical, Lady Be Good. Bidin’ My Time, an ode to procrastination, is used close to how it was in the original musical, except for the film interjects Garland into the number in what has to be one of the worst outfits I’ve seen in movies. But Not For Me appears at about the right place and what I would imagine is a similar circumstance as the Broadway musical. I Got Rhythm, which closes the movie, was actually used at the end of Act I of the stage musical. Seeing as the show is supposed to bring back the Old West, one wonders where I Got Rhythm fits into that concept.

While I admire Rooney’s talent, I have not seen very many of his films. In this one, he comes off as trying too hard at just about everything he does as if he alone could save the picture. This is typified by a bit he does while Danny and Ginger are waiting to meet the Governor. A radio crew leaves a microphone alone with the two and, in an effort to cheer up Ginger, Danny does an imitation of sports radio, including covering a tennis match and a mock interview with boxer Joe Louis after a bout and tells a rather lame joke about a man with a magnetized leg. Not sure if it was ad-libbed or was only meant to appear that way to show off Rooney’s versatility, but the bit went on too long and had literally nothing to do with the rest of the story.

An open mike is an excuse for a little "ad-lib" by Rooney.

Garland’s character seems to laugh at anything Danny does, sometimes at him and sometimes with him, but I couldn’t shake the feeling the laughs were more because it said to laugh in the script, not because the antics were particularly funny.

Even though I’ve never seen the stage musical, I feel that it got short shrift by Arthur Freed’s group at MGM. Instead of capturing the energy I hear on recordings, Girl Crazy ended up another let’s put on a show Rooney-Garland pairing and a flat one at that.

I watched hoping I would like Girl Crazy much more than I did. But, sadly, this adaptation is not for me.

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