May 20, 2019
Available via Warner Archive;
Stars Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Eddie Bracken, Gloria DeHaven.
Judy Garland’s last movie at the studio whose heyday she helped establish may be even more interesting to talk about than it is to see, but there are enough evenly sprinkled golden moments in MGM’s Golden Age Summer Stock to make me think it’s a somewhat better movie than I recalled. The “let’s build us a barn and put on a show” musical has never been one of my favorites — and you’re speaking to one who’s even gone full-route enough to have once seen Rufe Davis (CBS’s future Floyd Smoot) in Republic’s Barnyard Follies from 1940 — which is probably more than you can say for any member of the Algonquin Round Table. But even beyond some standout numbers in 1950’s Stock, it’s worth footnoting that there are one or two where Garland looks pretty close to being a co-equal dancer with her jock-ish co-star, no kidding.
Kelly began his screen career with Garland in 1942’s For Me and My Gal, which instantly put him over in the movies (post-Pal Joey on Broadway) and even gave the two a couple of Billboard charters with Decca duets. Later, they co-starred in The Pirate, a Vincente Minnelli’s flop d’estime with cultists (I love it myself), and by the end of the ’40s, it was payback time. Kelly held Garland’s hand throughout Stock’s troubled production, filmed after her firing from Annie Get Your Gun, whose production stills and surviving footage show Garland to be gaunt and at the end of her tether. By Stock time, the weight had come back and then some, which can easily happen when you’re only about 4-foot-11. It was not unpleasing on her but certainly made for a striking contrast to her lithe appearance in, say, Presenting Lily Mars — almost like seeing a different person.
The plot here, such as it is, finds Garland trying to run an inherited farm by herself, aided near-exclusively by the longtime cook (Marjorie Main, as ever an invaluable supporting cast presence). To negate this, she is aided not at all by her flighty, coop-flown sister (Gloria DeHaven) who changes career aspirations every five minutes and now wants to be an actress. To this end, the latter brings in 20 or so of her closest work associates to use the old family barn as a musical revue stage, and you can just see DeHaven going up to Main and saying, “I know that the farm may soon go under, but see what you can do for two dozen extra mouths for all three meals, and indefinitely.” And this at a time when Garland is only trying to score a tractor for survival and cool down the advances of a local merchant’s son played by Eddie Bracken in a thanklessly whiny role as a sneezing doormat to his overbearing father. This is an unusual project in that two comic performers who on occasion could be exceptional — Bracken and Phil Silvers — are borderline unbearable here.
One of the invaders is, of course, the director (Kelly), who has hocked everything to bankroll this out-of town tryout and has nothing to his name but a station wagon and apparently some unknown angel on retainer to provide the costumes galore that materialize once the show gets off the ground. Meanwhile, the gifted tractor basically ends up suffering indignities not all that unkind to the title mule’s in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, while DeHaven elects to bolt the show (we said she was flighty. The latter move leaves it to sis Garland to take over the role, just as would happen, of course, in real life. But fortunately for the movie, if not credibility, Garland turns out to be a player.
Right off the bat, Stock opens with a good Garland number (“If You Feel Like Singing, Sing”) followed quickly by a great one (“[Howdy Neighbor] Happy Harvest”), though at the end of it, someone might have told director Charles Walters that the overhead closeup of Garland’s mouth doing her concluding high notes had to go. As mentioned, the stars’ duets are felicitous, while Kelly’s solo shots include a newspaper dance that’s something of a classic and a good example of how a resourceful performer can get a lot out of the most minimal props if he has the stuff. There’s also a smile-inducer where Kelly dances on a long kitchen picnic table that seats just about everyone now on the farm, though you wonder how much the scuff marks will be appreciated the next time Main is spooning out parsnips or something. I’m always impressed by dance routines in confined or even claustrophobic settings, and here Kelly has not just the narrow table to navigate, but a slew of secondary players who barely have enough room to stay out of his way.
The Blu-ray is very easy on the eye, even though the chicken seed setting doesn’t offer too much in terms of natural beauty the way other MGM musicals do. Little extras carried over from the 2006 DVD include a Tex Avery cartoon from around the same period, a Pete Smith short (saw a lot of those in theaters as a kid) and a production history featurette where Garland archaeologist John Fricke (who would know) is among those who talk about how everyone had fingers crossed while sweating it out whether Garland would be able to finish the picture due to health and mental swings. Production shut down, and upon her return, as many know, she filmed the classic climactic “Get Happy” number, where she was maybe 20 pounds thinner.
The transition is jarring, but what a loss it would be if it didn’t exist — and besides, it excerpts well. Garland’s appearance in black (headgear included) accentuate her great legs, which is something my mother noted to be pretty early in life. This in part makes up for the studio excision of the “Mr. Monotony” number from Walters’ Easter Parade, where she wore the same outfit. To me, “Monotony” is far and away the best thing about Parade, which didn’t keep it from ending up on the cutting room floor. Meanwhile, Stock has a late-in-the-game number with Kelly and Silvers whose three or four minutes of torture is the stuff of fast-forward buttons, and it made Stock’s final release print. Maybe some day, someone can explain all this to me.