Over a year and a half ago, when Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari was still in its infancy, I reviewed the classic Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical comedy Swing Time. I loved the movie and it was this close to being an almost perfect classic musical when a last minute black face number in the film nearly derailed the whole production. I understood that minstrel shows were an acceptable part of that era’s entertainment but that didn’t make it any less uncomfortable for this modern, ultra-liberal viewer. My first Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film for the blog, 1939’s Babes in Arms was proving to be an enjoyable (although not nearly as great as Swing Time) children’s musical when another climactic, ridiculously lavish black face number reared its ugly head to remind me yet again of our nation’s virulent racist past.
When his down-on-his luck parents decide to take their once popular vaudeville show on the road in a hope to reclaim their glory days, Michael Z. Moran (Mickey Rooney) and his fellow stage children friends are left behind. With the help of his best friend Patsy (The Wizard of Oz‘s Judy Garland), Michael enlists the other kids to put on a lavish vaudeville revue to make it big time to prove that they’re just as talented as their washed up parents. With the threat of being taken away by the state hanging over their heads, Michael and Patsy have to raise the money to put on their show. Patsy is supposed to play the lead and Mickey wrote the songs just for her, but when former child-star Rosalie Essex (June Preisser) offers to pay the show’s expenses as long as she can play the show’s lead, Mickey has to choose between his feelings for Patsy and his desire to finally make it big.
Mickey Rooney received an Academy Award nomination for this film and as weird as this may sound, I totally get it. When I first started watching the film, I thought he was around his character’s age (early teens), but nope. Mickey Rooney was 19 when he made this film. I was incredibly impressed when I thought he was 13 or 14. Still, even at 19, he already had the timing and comedic chops of a seasoned veteran and Rooney was easily the best part of the whole film. His presence controlled every scene and it’s easy to see why he was one of Hollywood’s biggest child stars of the era. His impressions were spot-on and hilarious. He had the manic but controlled energy of a pro like Donald O’Connor. In terms of how comedy worked back in the 1930s, he was as good as much of the established talent of the time.
Judy Garland on the other hand wasn’t as impressive. I can’t entirely blame her though. Her singing voice was as beautiful as ever and she had the girl-next-door appeal that made her such a beloved star. And it’s 1939. It’s the same year as The Wizard of Oz. She’s at the peak of her career. But, it was also terribly clear the entire film that she was stoned out of her gourd. The studio was feeding both her and Mickey Rooney amphetamines and barbiturates like candy to keep them going during their endless film production schedule, and it seems like Rooney got all of the amphetamines and Garland got all of the barbiturates. She just seemed dazed and completely out of it for the entire film. Perhaps, I’m reading something into her performance that isn’t actually there, but that was simply the impression I got the entire time.
The musical numbers fluctuated between lovely and utterly forgettable. “Good Morning, Good Morning” would be performed to greater effect by Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain but it made a great premier as one of the opening numbers of Babes in Arms. One can’t blame Garland’s lovely contralto. Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers almost always seem cookie-cutter to me (yes, I know that’s heresy to classic musical fans. I’m not a fan of that pairing though). But, there was something wonderful in the choreography and the spectacle of a film that was being performed by an almost all-child cast (even if the two leads were actually adults playing much, much younger than their characters). The film often managed to achieve an epic feel that made the material transcend into the charming side of “camp” that captures something innocent and hopeful about the era it was made (at the tail-end of the Great Depression).
Which makes the terribly racist, overly long blackface number at the end so incredibly uncomfortable. I had to get my computer out and look at Facebook and Twitter as that number ran on and on and on. I didn’t think it was ever going to end. But, much like Swing Time, if you can get past that awful relic of our nation’s vaudeville past, the film is ultimately enjoyable. The racism is a huge mark against it, but much like Gone With the Wind or the Tom Sawyer, it’s something you have to get past in order to understand our nation’s past historic outputs. It’s not pretty but it’s there and we can’t pretend like it never happened. So, if you enjoy these old school musicals, I wouldn’t rank Babes in Arms among the all time greats, but if you’re looking for something to pass the time, Mickey Rooney’s star turn is enough to justify a viewing.
Final Score: B