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of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Crazy and Crazier, Part 3

By the time Girl Crazy came to the screen again, Hollywood's attitude toward musicals had changed diametrically, and with a will. A look at Clive Hirschhorn's comprehensive coffee-table book The Hollywood Musical tells the tale: 10 musicals in 1932, when the first woebegone movie of Girl Crazy came out, versus 50 of them in 1942, the year MGM decided to do it again, and 75 in 1943, when MGM's Girl Crazy was released. By now, musicals had become the jewels in Hollywood's crown. Even Universal's remake of The Phantom of the Opera had more opera and less phantom than the original silent version with Lon Chaney (sound gave Universal some wiggle room, and they decided to fill it with singing).

MGM bought the rights to Girl Crazy from RKO in 1939 at the behest of producer Jack Cummings. Cummings's original idea was to remake the movie as a vehicle for Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell, which presumably would have shifted the emphasis back to the songs and been more in keeping with the original show. Anyhow, nothing ever came of that, but Cummings held onto the property for several years. In the meantime, his MGM colleague Arthur Freed had produced a number of successful musicals, including three teaming Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland: Babes in Arms ('39), Strike Up the Band ('40) and Babes on Broadway ('41).

In mid-1942, Freed had designer-director John Murray Anderson, musical director Johnny Green, costumer Irene Sharaff and swimming starlet Esther Williams all under contract to develop a vehicle for Williams, but a workable script had never materialized and the project remained on a back burner. So Freed went to Cummings and proposed a swap: the whole Esther Williams package for the rights to Girl Crazy as a vehicle for Mickey and Judy. Cummings liked the idea, so did Louis B. Mayer, and the thing was done. (Cummings later produced Bathing Beauty, Esther Williams's first starring picture.) Girl Crazy went into production in January 1943 with Busby Berkeley (who had directed the three previous Mickey-and-Judy musicals) directing.

Today, Arthur Freed is considered synonymous with "MGM musicals", as if he were the only musical producer on the lot. Not so; there were also Cummings and Joe Pasternak (who had moved over from Universal, where he built his name on Deanna Durbin's pictures), and both got their share of the glory at the time. Still, Freed's unit was an awfully well-oiled machine, and Freed had a knack for attracting the best talent and getting the best out of it. His production of Girl Crazy reunited two men with a nostalgic stake in doing the thing right: Roger Edens and Georgie Stoll, both of whom had come far since their days in the orchestra pit of Girl Crazy on Broadway. Stoll is credited as musical director on the picture; Edens's credit reads "Musical Adaptation", but that hardly scratches the surface of what Edens really did. As I said before, he was Freed's right-hand man, much more than a "musical adaptor", and on Girl Crazy he was virtually what would later be called a line producer -- the guy actually on the set keeping an eye on things for the man in charge (i.e., Freed). And there was trouble almost immediately.

The first sequence Berkeley shot was the "I Got Rhythm" production number, which was originally planned to come about three-fourths of the way through the picture, and Edens didn't like what he saw. "I'd written an arrangement of 'I Got Rhythm' for Judy," Edens recalled, "and we disagreed basically about its presentation. I wanted it rhythmic and simply staged, but Berkeley got his big ensembles and trick cameras into it again, plus a lot of girls in Western outfits with fringed skirts and people cracking whips and firing guns all over my arrangement and Judy's voice. Well, we shouted at each other and I said there wasn't enough room on the lot for both of us." (Edens exaggerated somewhat; there were no gunshots going off over Garland's vocals. Otherwise, he has a point; the number begins to sound like the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.)

Berkeley's working relationship with Judy Garland was unraveling as well. This was the fifth movie he directed her in -- there had been For Me and My Gal ('42) in addition to the three with Rooney -- and under his martinet bullying her attitude had gone from "I don't know what I'd do without him" (on For Me and My Gal) to "I used to feel he had a big black bullwhip and was lashing me with it" (in conversation with Hedda Hopper, reported in Hopper's autobiography). Judy was close to hysterics on the set of "I Got Rhythm", her nervousness heightened by a stunt Berkeley designed in which she and Mickey were hoisted aloft by the ankles. The bit terrified Judy, just as a similar hoisting had when Berkeley put her through it in the "Minnie from Trinidad" number in Ziegfeld Girl ('40) -- this time, making things worse for her, the bit was accompanied by dozens of pistols firing over and over again around her. After "I Got Rhythm" was in the can, Judy's personal physician ordered her not to dance for three weeks.

To put the icing on the cake, Berkeley took nine days to shoot the number instead of the scheduled five, and he ran $60,000 over its budget.

So let's recap: After less than two weeks, Girl Crazy was behind schedule
and over budget. Judy Garland was frazzled, Roger Edens was furious.
Obviously, Berkeley had to go. Freed removed him from the picture
and replaced him with Norman Taurog.

Taurog hasn't made it into any of the history books, but his was a long
and useful career in Hollywood. He directed over 170 shorts and features
between 1920 and 1968. In 1931, age 32, he became the youngest director
to win an Academy Award (for Skippy, starring his nephew Jackie Cooper)
-- a record he still holds. Among his pictures at the time he took over Girl
Crazy were David O. Selznick's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Boys
Town (which got Spencer Tracy his second Oscar), Broadway Melody
of 1940 with Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell, Young Tom Edison with
Mickey Rooney, and Little Nellie Kelly with Judy Garland. Plus, remember,
he had directed Selznick's retakes on the first Girl Crazy. Now he was the
director of record for the new Girl Crazy, while the deposed Berkeley would
get screen credit for directing the "I Got Rhythm" number. (With Berkeley
gone, the remaining dances would be handled by Charles Walters.)

Things went more smoothly after that, though the shoot was arduous enough; Rooney and Garland were two of MGM's top stars, individually as well as together, and the studio kept them busy. Girl Crazy ('43) used six of the songs from the show, with a few others ("Sam and Delilah", "Bronco Busters", "Barbary Coast", etc.) either present in the incidental score or played by guest artists Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra. In addition, "Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!", "When It's Cactus Time in Arizona" and "The Lonesome Cowboy" were originally slated to be used, but they were eliminated in rewrites of Fred Finkelhoffe's script. Early plans to interpolate "I've Got a Crush on You" were also abandoned; in the end the only interpolation was an instrumental rendition of "Fascinating Rhythm" by the Dorsey band (more about that later).

The movie dispensed with all that nonsense about the $742.30 cab ride, but it still had playboy Danny Churchill (Rooney) making a spectacle of himself in New York. "Treat Me Rough" was the song used, performed by Tommy Dorsey's band and sung by June Allyson. (Allyson was an MGM newcomer, simultaneously filming this one-shot while recreating her Broadway role in the studio's movie of Best Foot Forward. By the time Girl Crazy was released, she had already made her splash in Best Foot Forward and was on her way to major stardom.)

This time, Danny's a college student as well as a tycoon's playboy son, and Dad (Henry O'Neill) cancels his return to Yale and sends him to his own alma mater "out west" (Cody College, the state unspecified). There, under the eye of Cody's dean (Guy Kibbee), he is the usual fish out of water, smitten with the dean's grandaughter, postmistress Ginger Gray (Judy). (I wonder: was the changing of the heroine's first name a wink to Broadway's original Molly, Ginger Rogers? How could it not be?)

From there Girl Crazy becomes a variation on the hey-kids-let's-put-on-a-show formula that framed all the Mickey-and-Judy musicals, the variation this time being hey-kids-let's-put-on-a-rodeo-and-save-the-school-from-closing. The plot is within hailing distance (just barely) of Bolton and McGowan's original book, but it's beside the point anyway, as it was on Broadway. In 1943, with Hollywood in general, and the Freed Unit at MGM in particular, operating at an all-time peak of efficiency and self-confidence, Girl Crazy was then what it remains today: an exhilarating series of musical highlights, one after another, bathing the screen in an embarrassment of riches. Clive Hirschhorn's succinct appraisal is oft-quoted because it's the plain truth: "Gershwin never had it so good."

At the risk of becoming monotonous, let us count the ways. First, of course, is that rambunctious version of "Treat Me Rough", which June Allyson invests with an innocent tomboy eroticism (she's like a less obnoxious Betty Hutton) that must have had the Hays Office wondering if this sort of thing was really okay, then shrugging and deciding it was all just good clean fun after all.

Judy's first number is "Bidin' My Time", which begins as the same lazy lope it was on Broadway (in one wry and witty touch, Judy steps away from her guitar for a moment and the instrument doesn't even have the energy to fall down). From there the song blooms into a rousing western hoedown, complete with one of Cody College's students (I wish I could identify him) doing a spirited cowboy two-step on a hot campfire griddle.

The quirky love-hate duet "Could You Use Me?" was something that Eddie Quillan and Arline Judge actually might have handled pretty well if RKO had deigned to include it in 1932. But they didn't, and it was left to Mickey and Judy to bring it to the screen. Filmed in punishing 112-degree heat on location on a desert road outside Palm Springs (with pickup shots in the relative comfort of a soundstage back in Culver City), it's a cheerful charmer in which Judy manages to suggest that Ginger's resistance to Danny's brash advances is already beginning to melt.

"Embraceable You" is presented at a party for Ginger, which includes the movie's only non-Gershwin interpolation: a chorus of "Happy Birthday to You" from Cody College's assembled student body. Judy sings to the boys, then dances with them all, one by one and in groups, with an extended pas de deux with dance director Charles Walters. Later, after graduating to full direction himself, Walters helmed Judy in Easter Parade ('48), Summer Stock ('50), and her triumphant one-woman show at
Broadway's Palace Theatre in 1951.

When Danny Churchill attends a party at the Governor's Mansion to lobby against the closing of Cody, he meets up with his old pal Tommy Dorsey, and that sets the stage for a nifty piece of Big Band Era history: Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra in a marvelous pop-concert rendition of "Fascinating Rhythm". It's a jumpin' arrangement, and features a solo by "Danny Churchill" on piano. In fact, Mickey Rooney's playing was dubbed by Arthur Schutt; still, as his keyboard fingering in the scene makes clear, Rooney was an accomplished pianist himself, and he still speaks of the thrill of getting to perform "Fascinating Rhythm" with Dorsey and his band. (No doubt, even though the number had been prerecorded on MGM's music stage, the band -- including guest soloist Rooney -- played for real on the set.)

That party leads to the inevitable misunderstanding when Ginger believes Danny has returned to his girl-crazy ways with the governor's daughter (Frances Rafferty). It all gets sorted out in time for a happy ending, natch, but not before Judy Garland gets the opportunity -- hallelujah! -- to redeem the tawdry vandalism of "But Not for Me" back in 1932. This is not only the high point of Girl Crazy -- it's the high point of Judy Garland's entire career. With all due respect to "Over the Rainbow", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", "The Man That Got Away" or anything else you care to name, this is Judy's best. Co-star Gil Stratton talked about watching the number being shot and said "it was something you ought to have paid admission to see." The simplicity of Taurog's staging, the delicate cinematography of William Daniels, and the combined artistry of Judy and and the Gershwin brothers all fuse into the kind of magic that the Hollywood of 1943 had led audiences to take for granted. Judy Garland was as good as it got, then or ever after, and here's the proof.

Originally, Girl Crazy was to end with a reprise of "Embraceable You", Mickey and Judy surrounded by the rest of the cast as the orchestra swells up and out. But Busby Berkeley's flamboyant staging of "I Got Rhythm", scheduled to come almost 20 minutes before the end, threatened to turn anything that followed into a dribbling anticlimax. There was some hurried reshuffling of the script and music, and Girl Crazy as it was released on November 26 ended with "I Got Rhythm". It must have positively galled Roger Edens; he'd gotten his way and had Berkeley canned from the picture, and now here was Berkeley literally getting the last word -- cracking whips, firing guns and all. But it was the right call, and, however grudgingly, Edens probably had to admit it.

The number, over the top as it is, is a slam-bang wow, with none of the strains and stresses on the set visible on screen. If we've been denied a permanent record of Ethel Merman singing "I Got Rhythm" in 1932, then at least having Judy Garland singing it in 1943, and dancing it with Mickey Rooney, is certainly a fair trade.

Inevitably, Girl Crazy was a boffo hit, the most profitable (as well as the last) of their four starring vehicles. It's also arguably their best (although I don't think the point is arguable at all; it absolutely is). A pity it wasn't made in Technicolor, but ah well -- at MGM in those days, Technicolor was still regarded as an expensive gimmick that the Mickey-and-Judy musicals didn't need; they were money in the bank no matter what. (Their only Technicolor appearance would be a specialty number in 1948's Words and Music; Judy played herself, Mickey played lyricist Lorenz Hart in a duet to "I Wish I Were in Love Again".) Girl Crazy is the product of the Hollywood factory at its smoothest and most assured, with two stars at the peak of their youth, charm, energy and mutual affection. Who could ask for anything more?

The next time Girl Crazy came to the screen, it would have the color (Metro-, not Techni-) that this version lacked, but that's about all. Still, considering the chaotic and uncertain atmosphere abroad in Hollywood at the time, it's remarkable that the third outing didn't turn out even worse than it did.

To be concluded...


Caftan Woman said...

Your description of "But Not for Me" actually made me a tad weepy.

I want to watch "Girl Crazy" again, and I want to watch it now!

DorianTB said...

Jim, I must agree with Caftan Woman; your description of "But Not for Me" made me weepy just looking at that poignant photo of teary-eyed Judy Garland, so I probably would have been bawling like a baby if I'd actually watched the film! I was utterly fascinated by your account of the making of the 1943 film version of GIRL CRAZY.

I have a dear friend who loves June Allyson, and even just reading about her scene in GIRL CRAZY and seeing that delightful photo makes me understand why he adores her. I especially got a kick out of your description of Allyson's "innocent tomboy eroticism (she's like a less obnoxious Betty Hutton)"

Having already read Part 3, Jim, I applaud your superb 3-part blog post! It's time well-spent, and has me wanting to give the 1943 GIRL CRAZY in particular my undivided attention!

Laura said...

Lovely post!

Chuck Walters, whom you mention, was a heck of a nice man...met him a couple times when he taught a class at USC I attended w/my parents when I was a teen.

Best wishes,

Jim Lane said...

Laura, I envy your having had the chance to meet Chuck Walters; everything I've ever read or heard reinforces what you say: a heck of a nice man.

Dorian, thanks for taking the time to double back and read my Girl Crazy posts, and to leave your kind comments. There were actually four parts, not three; did you skip over my post on the 1932 Girl Crazy? If so, I don't blame you; the picture itself is eminently skippable.

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