Growing up as I did in the late 1940s and 1950s, I couldn't understand why my mother never wore a dress and a pearl necklace around the house every day and why my father didn't go to work in a suit and tie and why he didn't come home at noontime for a big family lunch and why we didn't live in a two-story house in a town like Springfield. That's what came of living with radio and TV sitcoms like "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" and "Father Knows Best."
I mention this because the MGM release "A Date with Judy" is one of the precursors of these spotlessly innocent shows. "A Date with Judy" started life as a radio program in 1941, moved to the big screen in 1948, and then went on to television in 1952. Although people have practically forgotten the radio and TV shows, we still have the motion picture to remind us of what the good ol' days probably were never really like.
The setting is Santa Barbara, a coastal city in Southern California. That is about the extent of the film's realism. The rest is pure fantasy, the teens in the film living in the same Hollywood dreamland in which David and Ricky Nelson grew up. There are no drugs here, no alcohol, no smoking, no profanity, and no sex in this ultra-sanitized make-believe world. The teens in love don't so much as hold hands, they're so chaste. If only.
The movie took the fictional characters from the radio show, used a few familiar movie actors to portray them, added a slew of musical numbers, and wrapped it all up in one of the most innocuous plots you'll find anywhere. The result is not so much annoying as it is bland. Fortunately, the music lifts the film above total mediocrity, and the scenes with Carmen Miranda have some degree of spark.
To be fair, though, there's much be said for the kind of wholesome family pictures Hollywood produced in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and "A Date with Judy" certainly beats most of today's ultraviolent, sex-and-drugs-laden TV shows and movies, at least for young people. One has to commend, for example, the Disney Channel for trying to maintain this squeaky clean if unbelievable image to this day.
Nevertheless, that probably won't make "A Date with Judy" any the more palatable for adults, who may find as its worst fault that it's vapid beyond hope. The plot involves teenager Judy without a date for the big dance when she happens to spot handsome Stephen Andrews, new in town and working at Pop Scully's drugstore and soda fountain. Ah, but it's not just Judy who has her eyes on Stephen but Judy's best friend, Carole, too, as well as most of the teenage girls in town. And that's about the size of the plot, which seems no more than a thirty-minute radio script padded out to almost two hours.
Jane Powell plays Judy Foster, and Ms. Powell is appropriately cute and spunky in the role, the quintessential girl-next-door. However, she belts out a song as if she's aiming for the upper balcony, and the director, Richard Thorpe ("Huckleberry Finn," "The Great Caruso," "The Student Prince," "Jailhouse Rock"), might have considered asking her to step it down a notch or two. Elizabeth Taylor plays Judy's best friend, Carole Pringle, a sexy, snobby, sophisticated rich girl, whose father owns just about everything in sight, including the local radio station.
Wallace Beery plays Judy's father, Melvin Foster, and Beery gets top billing, possibly because at the time of filming he was the oldest and most-recognizable name in the cast. Funny how times change. Now, most people probably wouldn't recognize Beery but know Powell and Taylor far more, as well as Robert Stack, who plays the new fellow in town, Stephen Andrews. Moreover, bandleader Xavier Cugat plays himself and Carmen Miranda plays Rosita Cochellas, the band's singer. Throw in a bevy of familiar character actors like Selena Royle as Mrs. Foster, Leon Ames as Mr. Pringle, Scotty Beckett as Oogie Pringle, George Cleveland as Gramps Foster, and Lloyd Corrigan as Pop Scully, and you have a pretty good roster of names to keep things afloat.
Mainly, however, you've got the songs to keep things going. Whenever it appears that the plot is heading nowhere, the producers throw in a song: "Love Is Where You Find It," "It's a Most Unusual Day," "Judaline," "I'm Strictly on the Corny Side," and many others. Not that the characters just stop everything, jump up, and start singing. The filmmakers include the songs as integral, if unnecessary, parts of the story line. For instance, Ms. Powell sings the opening number in a rehearsal for her school dance, the Cugat numbers occur during the entertainment at Cugat's nightclub, and so on.
Despite the film's banality being its primary drawback, there are some curiosities about it that nag as well. The first is that while Judy complains about her friend Carole having a butler and a maid and her own family having no such servants, Judy's family can afford a full-time cook and housekeeper. Worse, the cook-housekeeper is a black woman named, of all things, Nightingale (Lillian Yarbo), and she sings "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" as she goes about her chores. I thought at first the filmmakers might have intended this as a put-on, but apparently they meant Nightingale's character in earnest, a racial stereotype that modern filmgoers would hardly tolerate.
Then, too, there is the matter of ages in the film. Wallace Beery as the father of a teenager looks much too old for the part. In the story we learn that he married his wife when she was seventeen, and that that was twenty years earlier. So, presumably, the wife is thirty-seven. But Beery was in his mid sixties when he did the picture, and he always looked much older than his years. So for all intents and purposes, he appears to be about thirty or thirty-five years older than his wife and an unlikely candidate for a typical sitcom dad. On the other hand, Powell, who says she is sixteen in the film, was actually closer to twenty at the time. Taylor was in real life the right age for her character, sixteen, but, ironically, she looked at least twenty-five. Stack, though, is the most miscast of all. He was almost thirty when he did the part, and, frankly, he looks ridiculous romancing a pair of sixteen-year-olds.
So, that's it then. "A Date with Judy" comes off today as an old-fashioned, largely inoffensive, and mostly empty-headed musical comedy, notable for its stars and its music and little else. It's the sort of movie that "Pleasantville" (New Line) did so good a job parodying a few years back, which, now that I think of it, makes a far better viewing choice all the way around.
As usual, Warners started with what was undoubtedly a good vintage print and then cleaned it up considerably. The result looks pleasing, given the film's age. The image is very clean, with no visible age marks, scratches, lines, or flecks. There is a very faint, almost imperceptible pulsing of the Technicolor, but it's nothing to fret over. There is also a minor visible grain that imparts a slightly rough look to the picture, but it, too, is hardly worth mentioning. Colors look radiant, sometimes sparkling in their oddly pastel hues; and definition is reasonably sharp for an older film in standard definition.
The soundtrack reproduction is a fairly ordinary Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural. It's good in its own unassuming way, with an exceptionally clear and natural midrange, if not much else. There is no bass to speak of, a soft treble, no width or breadth, and little dynamic range. So, what did you expect?
Warner Bros. are good about providing extra materials even on some of their less-stellar releases. For "A Date with Judy" they give us a ten-minute vintage musical short, "Martin Block's Musical Merry-Go-Round #3," with singer Buddy Clark and Ray Noble and his orchestra; a classic Tom & Jerry Technicolor cartoon from 1948, "Professor Tom"; and a theatrical trailer. Things wind down with twenty-eight scene selections but no chapter insert, English as the only spoken language, French subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"A Date with Judy" is neither a good nor a bad movie, simply a bland one of a type that Hollywood and television once churned out by the score. Except for the stereotypes and vapid clichés, there is little about the movie that will seriously put off most adults. It's just that a few good tunes are not enough to turn this musical comedy into anything more than what it is: lightweight escapist fluff from a bygone era, depicting a version of America that never existed outside the mind of a Hollywood censor. Nonetheless, even mediocrity can sometimes be fun, and the youngest members of a family might find a modicum of enjoyment here. Or you could just use the fast-forward button to move through the musical numbers, which contribute little to the story line but remain entertaining in and of themselves.