My Interactive Summer Holiday
All that work and it's wrecked in the end. That's not a quote, but it's what comes to mind when I see Foolish Wives, The Red Badge Of Courage, or lately viewed remnant, Summer Holiday. Those beaten down by its failure ... director Rouben Mamoulian, composer Harry Warren ... bore scars to the end. As with all doomed projects, this one has defenders. Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg hailed Summer Holiday in their 1968 book, Hollywood In The Forties. I'd seen Meet Me In St. Louis shortly before reading, and imagined Summer Holiday might be that favorite's equal. Years spent looking for MGM's 1948 musical would not be rewarded by discovery of a new favorite. The disappointment others so keenly felt would be mine as well. What goes wrong when Hollywood's premiere song and dance factory commits two million dollars along with seasoned talent to a venture so unsatisfactory in its outcome? Metro released Summer Holiday after a year and a half spent fussing and cutting. By then, they thought it stale bread. Mickey Rooney and Gloria De Haven as co-starring leads were eighteen months less appealing than when they'd done shooting. An "integrated score" that wouldn't stand tampering was diced by nearly half. Was a potential classic ruined by misguided executives supplanting creator's judgment with their own? That's an oft-told tale in movies. Hindsight permits heaping of scorn on those who savage artists' effort, though in the case of Summer Holiday, surviving tracks (on Rhino's CD) and a newly released DVD from Warner Archive offer insight into both sides of the argument. Listening (CD), then watching (DVD), then listening again was like sitting alongside jittery decision makers in MGM's panic room.
They wanted another Meet Me In St. Louis, as did New York's sales division, exhibitors through the land, and some millions of consumers. The hope of duplicating previous hits was what drove this company in postwar decline. When Summer Holiday began filming in a boom summer of 1946, there were dollars pouring out of St. Louis and The Harvey Girls, seeming proof that whatever money you invested toward musicals could be easily got back. Summer Holiday was entrusted to (presumed) magic wand waver Rouben Mamoulian, late of Broadway's Oklahoma and not to be questioned as to one-man-bandsmanship. He assumed responsibility and lived with it --- Summer Holiday would be Mamoulian's last sole director credit for nine years. And yet what he did with this musicalized remake of Eugene O' Neill's Ah Wilderness was departure even from innovation Vincente Minnelli brought to Meet Me In St. Louis. Unlike Minnelli though, Mamoulian's effects seemed more eager to be noticed, and set pieces he staged for Summer Holiday merged less easily with narrative than highlights Minnelli finessed in St. Louis. Press and critics expressed reservation from August 1946 when Mamoulian reported Summer Holiday's near-completion, their knowing of Eugene O' Neill as source and doubtful that forever-Andy Hardy Rooney would do it justice. Mamoulian found himself defending insertion of song and dance to sacred text. The function of the music is to enhance the drama and not to interfere with it, said the director. He told columnists of having brought O'Neill around to possibility this adaptation would be worthy of the author's original. There would be all of 1947 to push promise higher for a bigger fall. An observing trade had to know something was amiss for all those months passing with no announcement of release. Studio previews in the meanwhile were followed by cutting which was followed by more previews/cutting, and all got the same response ... tepid.
Summer Holiday's problem seems (again hindsight) basic from the start, but who was going to speak up and admit the songs weren't terribly good? As had been done and would be again, a doomed ship was permitted to make sail. I played the CD ahead of watching, so heard the four songs they dropped ... and frankly would have done the same given authority. None contributed beyond slowing a pace already leisurely. These had been costly to stage, including ambitious Omar and The Princess wherein Rooney and De Haven dream and dance of scenes inspired by poetry of Omar Khayyam. I could picture Mayer and committee scotching this at inception had they been apprised, but many were the misguided ideas allowed to go forward on extravagant MGM stages, correction of same generally delayed until too late. Little wonder that visiting artists like Mamoulian were traumatized by seeming hack jobs in post-production. Shears were applied even to numbers remaining in Summer Holiday. The Stanley Steamer was closest they had to a show stopper, but that didn't save it being trimmed. To be fair, I gave discarded songs several listens, as did, I'm sure, Metro's deciding committee. Do the same, and you'd feel their pain. By dawn of 1948 and Summer Holiday's final editing pass, Leo was a lion in distress. An overrall $6.5 million was lost in 1947-48. Unprecedented pressure was on to shape up completed merchandise for profitable release. Any man's job might be sacrificed to guessing wrong. The Freed unit was protected preserve, but had no right to final cut. A team that shed life's blood to create what they'd hoped would be the year's outstanding musical now stood by as front office pragmatists studied preview cards and recut Summer Holiday in accordance with them.
What went out in April 1948 ran 93 minutes, well short of closer to two hour length of most Metro tune-fests. Reviewers pounced Rooney's broad playing and a cast given too much to types in support (too old Frank Morgan, too unappealing Butch Jenkins --- the only face missing was customary pater familias Leon Ames). Long delaying found Summer Holiday at the mercy of a changed marketplace. Old ways that once worked were at the least suspect and more often reviled. Urban jungles shot on location had replaced Andy Hardy's sunny neighborhood (Summer Holiday reused the Hardy house for its family residence). Even Mickey was eventually persuaded he'd blown the lead performance (I tried too hard, his latter-day verdict). Domestic rentals skidded at $1.2 million, but foreign was the deal-breaker with a miserable $401,000, demonstrating (once again) folks across the pond care not about our rose-hued Americana. A loss of $1.4 million was less noteworthy only because so many other MGM offerings spilled ink as red. People just weren't going to the show like they used to. Comparison of the CD and now the DVD really brings all this home, providing valued insight as to how and why Summer Holiday jumped the track. Great as certified musical classics are, sometimes it's failed and frustrated ones that teach us the most.