Summer has always seemed like the perfect time for musicals, and this is a perfect musical for summer. It stars Gene Kelly doing his dancing best, and Judy Garland singing the heck out of her songs. It also has a stellar supporting cast, and it boasts a really fun script complete with a compelling story.
The film follows Jane Falbury, played by Judy Garland, she’s a New England farmer on the verge of bankruptcy. She goes into town and begs for a new tractor from her soon to be father in law and her nebbish weakling of a fiancé, played by Ray Collins, and Eddie Bracken respectively. When she returns home she finds her wayward actress sister has volunteered the family barn to be used by a ragtag theater troupe she’s gotten involved with. The troupe is led by the charismatic Joe Ross, played by Gene Kelly. At first reluctant, Jane sees the value in having helping hands around the farm and maybe finds that she likes the theater and the handsome man running the show.
A discussion of this film has to start with the two leads. Kelly and Garland are wonderful here. Kelly was hot off a success the year before with On the Town, and he was still a year away from his magnum opus An American in Paris. His energy and athleticism is on full display here. His dancing is impeccable and transcendent. What really caught me off guard here was his acting in the quiet moments. He has a lovely little moment with Garland where he shares his reasons for loving theater so much. It’s tender and wistful and he comes across as so authentic. I love it.
Garland opens the film with a lung blasting rendition of “If You Feel Like Singing, Sing!” Her voice is strong and powerful, and her performance is so joyful it’s infectious. She conveys all the harshness of a woman in a tough situation as well as the girl slowly falling in love with a boy. She is brash and charming at the same time. When she gets her tractor and drives it back home, she belts out the bouncy “Howdy Neighbor, Happy Harvest.” Which just lifts the spirits and makes me feel like anything is possible in the summer time.
These two have one of my favorite dances ever in which Garland is hosting a square dance with he locals and instructs those theater people not to interfere. However, Kelly finds himself interfering. He and Garland begin an antagonistic dance that shifts into a duet of sorts. They become partners before our eyes. Animosity melts away and turns into cooperation. A really nice touch is Garland’s dress. It has a pleated skirt with red panels sewn in. When she twirls and spins the red flashes bright. Not too read too much into it, but the red rebellion inside her shows forth both visually with the dress and in her performance as she cuts loose. It’s great stuff.
The supporting cast is phenomenal. What an amazing time this was, when you could get Eddie Bracken as a hilarious weakling and Ray Collins as his blowhard father. A perfect comedy duo. On top of those two, we are also treated to a brassy Marjorie Main as Jane’s housekeeper and sassy confidant. And don’t forget the over the top comic antics of Phil Silvers who makes a meal out of every line.
What I loved most about this one though is the story. It has real stakes and real human interest. Jane is in real trouble with her farm. She needs help to get through. Joe is struggling with his show. He has bet it all on this one, and he has nothing left if it’s a flop. When an accident leads to Jane’s new tractor getting damaged we feel it so much more knowing what it means to Jane and how much more difficult life is going to be for her. We worry for Joe when the show begins to go wrong. We know how much he loves the theater and how badly things could go wrong for him. All these elements make the joyous moments that much more joyful. It strikes a good balance and culminates in a satisfying conclusion. Unlike some musicals, this one actually tells a story with stakes.
Having done some research it is unbelievable this movie is any fun to watch at all. Judy Garland was just out of rehab and in the worst shape of her life up to that point. She was struggling with an addiction to the pills the studio had prescribed her since childhood to maximize her performance ability. She was weak, insecure, and erratic. The film was on the verge of not happening when Gene Kelly and director Charles Bracken stepped up and agreed to do the film for Judy. They both did everything they could to help her in the production and at times literally carry her through. Kelly always felt he owed Judy so much for her help with his career and worked hard to make sure he movie happened for her. She couldn’t keep a regular schedule, and the filming was shifted to the late afternoons to accommodate her. She was insecure about her appearance, and constantly tortured herself with the idea that she was letting Kelly and Bracken down. Knowing what a dark and desperate emotional place Garland was in makes her performance borderline miraculous. The fact that her inner turmoil, physical weakness, and emotional distress isn’t visible on her face in every shot is testament to her incredible skills as a performer.
All that said, this movie is just a fun time. It’s funny. It’s heartfelt. It has a good story. It has amazing performances. It has some beautiful dances. I forgot to mention Gene Kelly’s dance with the newspaper! Another classic. The movie is full of fun and joy. Please check it out. It’s worth your time and will give you a lift this summer.
It is my cup of tea A+