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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Metro's Accent On Youth

Performing children can (often do) annoy adults, no matter how capable and talented. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland came nearest to universal acceptance, captivating mass followers for a near decade playing kid/adolescents. She was 20 and he 22 when Girl Crazy concluded their co-star teamings. For monies these two generated, it might have gone on forever but for cruelties of time and aging. The latter came hardest for Rooney, but more of that anon. I've watched pieces of something called High School Musical to gauge then and now barometers of youth in the spotlight. Disney manufactures teen idols today like Krispy Kreme cooks donuts, and their public seems untroubled by resolute sameness among casts shifting, then falling through trap doors back to presumed obscurity from which most came. I’m no fair judge of such industry, but who’d not smell rats when singing/dancing "talent" seldom does so for more than three seconds of exposed film (or video tape)? Looking at Girl Crazy made me realize anew how badly we’re cheated by modern musicals constructing each recital out of film strips less than an arm’s length, with dances executed not on stage, but in the editor’s hovel. I timed Rooney and Garland at sixty-nine seconds of sustained hoofing with not one cut. When have we seen that lately? Technology allows us to fake most anything now, including musical/dancing ability. As to that wider audience net MGM cast in 1943, I don’t wonder at grownup acceptance of Girl Crazy (extended runs and one million in profits), as adults are woven into the narrative and do participate throughout. The divide and conquer your fragmented public was years away then. It's almost startling to observe Mickey and Judy in such relaxed negotiation with old-timers initially bemused by, but ultimately accepting of, young ideas. As with other Metro celebrations of adolescent energy, teens are respectful (Rooney unfailingly addresses elders as ma’am or sir), while dress codes are observed by way of neatly tailored suits and junior miss outfits. Parental conflict is minimal with always the promise of reconciliation and never a suggestion of teen mischief beyond harmless (read likeably spirited) levels. Metro wisely chose not to challenge the viewer nor make anyone feel excluded or uncomfortable. To damn old Hollywood for such cunningly applied social science is really just shooting fish in a barrel for enlightened observers lamenting admitted hypocrisies of these films, but would MGM have profited so confining Rooney and Garland to the sort of kiddie ghetto High School Musical occupies? The more baloney I sense in these forties fairy tales, the more I admire the sheer audacity of putting forth such skewed reality and making it pay across demographic landscapes unknown to programmers today.

Girl Crazy opens on a close-up of beaming Mickey Rooney. Such was his popularity at the time that it was enough to kick start on that puckish face and engage the people's delight with grosses assured. I’ve sympathized with Rooney’s ongoing effort to convince youngish interviewers that he really was the Number One boxoffice attraction in the United States for several years running during the early forties. So many of those who loved and laughed with Andy Hardy are gone or going. Mickey will be 88 in a few months. Another year and he will have outlived Judy Garland by four decades. I wonder how many of their old pictures he actually sits down and watches now, and what specific memories he still has. There’s an extended routine in Girl Crazy where Mickey plays ring announcer for an imaginary boxing match. I’d assume those are dead-on impressions he’s doing of various sports commentators of the day, but who’d remember names, let alone voices, so obscure? Rooney was noted as well for wicked mimicry of Lionel Barrymore. I wonder when they last prevailed upon him to do that routine. Sands have shifted so as to make Girl Crazy seem like something that was made two centuries ago. It’s hard to imagine people still with us being involved in it (any left other than MR?). Mickey’s the sort of quadruple talent threat I can’t imagine seeing today. Being a child of vaudeville and silent comedies (!), you’ve got to assume he could do anything by 1943, so it’s no shock to see him blazing over the keys as piano accompanist to Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra. Rooney mentions that signal honor in a newly-filmed intro for the Girl Crazy DVD, but I’d like knowing if he’s aware, or has forgotten, that his playing was eventually dubbed by Dorsey veteran Arthur Schutt (although Mickey’s finger work is every bit as accomplished as Tyrone Power’s would be in The Eddy Duchin Story). Rooney still figures he was shafted by paymasters at Metro. Based on earnings from his films, I’d say he’s got more than a good point, but who told him Girl Crazy grossed more than forty-seven million worldwide? His autobiography also reports $68,166 in compensation for doing the feature (to Garland’s $28,666), and neither of us got a dime’s worth of royalties from all those great songs we recorded. It never takes Rooney long to get around to topics of money he didn't receive for work performed so many years ago. I can see him sidling up yet to Warner hands to inquire if a few dollars shouldn’t be had for introducing his and Judy’s old musicals on DVD. 

No sooner would MGM develop one singing/dancing prodigy than they’d go in quest of his/her successor. Judy Garland’s potential replacement shows up in Girl Crazy before she does. June Allyson was talent well and good unless you put her on a stage with Garland, which Metro wisely never did. Judy’s instability created urgency to locate other girls who could do what she did at something like her level of efficiency. That never happened, of course, and self-aware pretenders understood the hopelessness of their commission. June Allyson spoke later of executive efforts to pit her against Garland, though the former had but to compare her own spirited, but ultimately conventional trouping, against unique gifts of the latter to know there was just no competition. Nothing was so humbling for singing ingenues at Metro than being held to impossible Garland standards. Shirley Temple (here with Louis Mayer, Garland, and Rooney) came over from Fox at twelve and found her once applauded song and dance skills cruelly diminished by arrangers indignant over her seeming inability to do it like Judy. She’d be stripped of confidence and badly used in a single misjudged vehicle (Kathleen) before being let go. MGM continued in the grip of youth madness inspired by runaway Rooney/Garland profits. Here was an ongoing brand that sold --- imagine what multiple teams of kid performers could bring? There were efforts toward that remembered by few today. Born To Sing was Ray McDonald and Virginia Weidler in Mickey/Judy disguise --- an experiment not repeated. Youngsters just off Broadway hit Best Foot Forward have supporting bits in Girl Crazy, bits being the operative word as most of Nancy Walker and Gil Stratton wound up in editor wastebaskets. No one in authority wanted to admit the impossibility of duplicating Rooney and Garland. With growing realization of that, Mickey and Judy began swinging weight around on Girl Crazy and though other factors entered into it, a negative cost at $1.4 million did show marked increases over Babes On Broadway ($955,000), Strike Up The Band ($854,000) and Babes In Arms ($748,000).

Busby Berkeley directed the number for which Girl Crazy is best remembered and then was fired off the picture. He’d gotten edgier and more belligerent (according to arranger Roger Edens, who became his arch-enemy of sorts). Berkeley was one of those enormous talents you had to make many an allowance for. He yelled at everybody and made them work until three in the morning(s). I Got Rhythm was seven minutes plus he contributed that made the rest of Girl Crazy look punk by comparison. No wonder they decided to close the picture with it. Warners found multiple recorded tracks and wedded them to give stereo effect to Berkeley’s spectacle. That multi-channel version is an extra on the DVD and it’s stupefying. Internal frictions led to Busby’s ouster, though fan presses would be stealthily informed it was Judy Garland’s power play that got him canned in favor of lower-keyed journeyman Norman Taurog (shown here on Palm Springs location with Rooney and Garland). Hedda Hopper visited the set and broke columnist protocol with a barbed account of directorial abuses she observed. Was this part of a neat frame MGM was putting Berkeley in? Hopper described a wild gleam in the director’s eye as he pushed Garland close to hysteria. The star added helpfully that she felt lashed by the figurative big black bullwhip Berkeley carried. The set photo here shows Judy holding her director’s hand and looking attentive. Was Hopper’s column the pulpit chosen for captive Trilby to declare her liberation from tyrant Berkeley and thereby grease wheels for his exit? Effects this wound-tight genius achieved weren’t possible short of endless rehearsal and back breaking effort. At a point where feeling their oats Rooney and Garland were bent on slowing their workday tempo, Busby seemed intent upon increasing his. The ultimate victors in such a contest was a foregone conclusion, though posterity would be served by BB’s resulting loan-out to Fox and The Gang’s All Here, perhaps the best known musical for which he received director’s credit. Aforementioned Taurog, for whom the label "journeyman" seems unduly dismissive in view of his previous directorial work, would complete Girl Crazy. He began by acting kid parts in 1912, and was writing and directing comedy for Larry Semon by the time he was twenty-one (the two of them were pallbearers, along with Babe Hardy, at Virginia Rappe’s funeral). Later there were two-reelers he guided for Lloyd Hamilton, one of those neglected funnymen whose output mostly burned up in warehouses. Thanks to good offices of Looser Than Loose and their prodigious catalog of silent comedies on DVD, I saw two of Taurog’s laffers with Hamilton --- Careful Please and Nobody’s Business. Both were howls and showed this writer/director to be a top hand with sight gagging (a five-disc Lloyd Hamilton set is available from L.T.L. and comes highly recommended). Taurog’s legacy got a raw deal when writer Peter Biskind used him to lead off a scabrous account (in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) on doddering old-time directors kept working as young Turks were held at bay, the book’s sympathies clearly with those outsiders looking in. Some veterans were admittedly too long at the party. Taurog might better have retired sooner, but then we’d not have enjoyed that inimitable retro touch he brought to Sergeant Deadhead, Spinout, and Dr. Goldfoot and The Bikini Machine.


Blogger Buzz Stephens said...

Speaking of Judy Garland, this week over at The Judy Garland Experience on Yahoo, they are featuring a recording of the 1998 Carnegie Hall salute to Judy. Lorna Luft sings and co-hosts the event with Robert Stack. other performers include Gogi Grant, Jerry Herman, Vicki Carr, Wesla Whitfield, Nancy Dussault, Jerry Maren, Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Morse, and others.
Everyone performs and offers up their memories or feelings about Judy.
Next week the second night of the concert will be posted (with a whole new all star line up).
And of course, the experience features all sorts of other aural rarities and treats.
The Judy Garland Experience is one of the largest and most exciting Judy Garland groups on the web. There is always an interesting discussion and game going on (some of the games even have good prizes). Our photo section features some of the rarest and most candid pictures of Judy anywhere, many of the taken by group members.
Please stop by and check out The Judy Garland Experience.
Here is the link:

1:38 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Buzz --- I've just been looking at your site. Fantastic! A lot of those images I've never seen. I'll be going back to listen to some of the sound links for sure. Thanks for sending the link.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Devlin Thompson said...

A couple of years ago, Robert Osborne showed BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S here in Athens, GA as part of the film festival that bears his name. I really have no love for that film , but the celebrity guest was Patricia Neal, and there was no way I was going to miss her! Anyway, after conducting his interview with her, Mr.Osborne unexpectedly introduced his surprise guest, Mickey Rooney. The Mick gave a crowd-pleasing performance, though nothing particularly revelatory or off-script (and at no point did anyone rush to discuss his cringe-inducing performance in the film at hand), but one aspect of the presentation that is still vivid in my memory was when he started doing impressions, with his pitch-perfect Lionel Barrymore being the standout.

3:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've got the most fantastic blog or webpage about classic cinema in the whole net. Incredible, very rare pictures and great writing. I just hope You've got enough material to update regularly.


6:25 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I really appreciate your nice comment, Enrique. Yes, there's plenty more material to keep Greenbriar going, time and health permitting. Very glad to know you're enjoying the site.

2:04 PM  
Blogger Buzz Stephens said...

Glad you like the group. Stop by anytime. This summer along with all the Judy rarities, we will also be hosting The Vicki Lester Shakespeare Festival, which features more old time Hollywood stars than there are in Heaven (Edward G. Robinson, Tallulah Bankhead, Marlon Brando, Orson Welles, Rosiland Russell, James Mason etc).

3:56 PM  

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