Early on in their careers, it was hard to separate Mickey Rooney from Judy Garland. Of course, as the years went on, Garland tended to eclipse Rooney in sheer star power, then died prematurely, while Rooney went on to one of the longest runs in entertainment history (307 films, starting in 1926, with three films in 2006, two in 2007, and another lined up for 2008). Capitalizing on the pair's continued popularity, Warner Bros. serves up four of their best films together in the "Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collection," a deluxe package that includes a bonus disc of extras, a hardbound collector's book of film materials, and a packet of studio stills. It's something of a Rooney-and-Garland fan's dream.
The four MGM films in the set are formulaic, high-spirited musical comedies, mostly covering the same ground with similar songs and characters. But that's exactly what audiences wanted then and now, so it's what they get. I hadn't seen them in years, but I remembered them as cheerful and bouncy, sometimes remarkably corny but spirited, too.
"Babes in Arms," 1939, produced by Arthur Freed and directed by the celebrated choreographer Busby Berkeley, stars Rooney and Garland with co-stars Charles Winninger, Guy Kibbee, June Preisser, and Margaret Hamilton (who the same year did the Wicked Witches in "The Wizard of Oz"). "Babes in Arms" is based on a Rodgers and Hart musical, freely adapted, with a lot of additional music and songs in one of those fund raiser-type shows to help the down-and-out. "Babes" is still lively and an enormous favorite with audiences. 7/10
"Strike Up the Band," 1940, also directed by Berkeley, co-stars bandleader Paul Whiteman, June Preisser, William Tracy, and Larry Nunn. A high school band hopes to compete in a nationwide radio contest, with Mick as the leader of the group and Garland as the lead vocalist. Best bits: an animated musical number concocted by George Pal; the Oscar-nominated song "Our Love Affair"; and Gershwin's title tune in the finale. 6/10
"Babes on Broadway," 1941, again directed by Berkeley, co-stars Fay Banter, Virginia Weidler, Richard Quine, and Donna Reed. Once more we get Rooney and Garland teaming up to help out the disadvantaged, this time to send orphaned children on holiday. Cute mimicking from the duo, lots of energy, but rather a been-there-done-that affair. 5/10
My favorite among them, though, is "Girl Crazy," a musical comedy from 1943, so I'll concentrate the rest of the review on this single, representative film. Arthur Freed returned as the producer, and for at least one number he again had Busby Berkeley as director. However, Berkeley only did the closing scene, filmed first, before Freed fired him, apparently for going over budget. Still, that closing number, "I Got Rhythm," is the best scene in the picture. Then Freed hired director Norman Taurog to finish the picture. Taurog had already directed Rooney in things like "Boys Town" and "Young Tom Edison," and he would go on in the fifties to direct Martin and Lewis and Elvis Presley.
The movie is helped by the fact that the screenwriters based it on a 1930 musical by Guy Bolton and Jack McGowan, with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin. Then Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra helped provide much of the music, along with The Music Maids and Six Hits and a Miss.
Rooney says in his introduction to the film that 1943 "marked the height of the big-band era, and this movie provides an excellent showcase for Tommy (Dorsey)." It does, indeed. The movie's plot may be slight and the characters silly, but the music and the music-makers are terrific.
The first fifteen or twenty minutes of the movie belong to Rooney, with Garland not entering the picture until later. Rooney plays Danny Churchill, Jr., a rich, spoiled young college student, the son of a New York City newspaper publisher. Young Danny is also a playboy, cavorting around the city's nightclubs with bevies of young women on his arm when he should be studying. Danny's father is concerned that the boy is wasting his time and neglecting his studies at Yale; therefore, he sends Danny out West to the Cody College of Mines and Agriculture, an all-male school. "There hasn't been a woman out there since the Civil War," he tells his despondent son.
Danny goes West and doesn't get but a few miles from the school before he meets a pretty girl, Ginger Gray (Garland), the school's post mistress, her car broken down in the middle of the desert. When he introduces himself, Ginger has heard of him and his reputation and finds it amusing. Their first meeting is anything but love at first sight.
Naturally, since they're out West, everybody is a cowboy and rides a horse. I've lived in the West my whole life and never met a cowboy or been near a horse. But it's the movies. And in the movies we've got to have a conflict for the hero to solve. Here, Danny finds the State is about to close down the college for lack of enrollment. So, what does he propose to do to rescue the school? He establishes an annual musical rodeo and gets the college dean, Phineas Armour (Guy Kibbee), to accept women students. The combination cannot lose.
Also in the cast are "Rags" Ragland as a loveable lug named, uh, Rags; Nancy Walker, in her first major screen appearance, is Ginger's cousin Polly; Gil Stratton is Danny's roommate Bud Livermore; Robert E. Strickland is a big cheese on campus, Henry Lathrop; and a young June Allyson plays a nightclub singer.
But as I say, it's the music that makes the movie. Here we find such Gershwin favorites as "Treat Me Rough," "Bidin' My Time," "Could You Use Me?," "Embraceable You," "Fascinating Rhythm," "But Not For Me," and "I Got Rhythm." You could hardly ask for more. 7/10
The picture quality in most of these films is quite good, although in "Girl Crazy" I noticed some slight flutter in the opening credits, and despite a high bit rate a few instances of moiré effects. Otherwise, definition is splendid, B&W contrasts are fine, and screen clarity is good, hardly anywhere betraying the film's sixty-plus years.
The WB audio engineers seem to have transferred the film's Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack to disc at an uncommonly low level, so you may have to turn up the volume more than usual. The sound is also a tad constricted, and most of it is concentrated in the midrange, with a forward midrange at that. Backgrounds are silent, though, and dialogue comes through cleanly.
All four of the movies in the set include new introductions by Mickey Rooney, commentaries by film historian John Fricke, vintage comedy and musical shorts, and Mickey and Judy radio appearances.
Specific to the "Girl Crazy" disc, we get the Rooney introduction and the Fricke commentary I mentioned, quite good, by the way. Next, there is a "Pete Smith Specialty" short subject, "Hollywood's Daredevils," nine minutes; a 1943 MGM Technicolor cartoon, "The Early Bird Dood It!"; a stereo remix of the song "I Got Rhythm," which sounds quite good; the audio-only bonus of "Bronco Busters" in an outtake; and a theatrical trailer. Things wrap up with twenty-four scene selections, English subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The bonus disc contains three more items: First, "TCM's Private Screenings with Mickey Rooney," a forty-minute, 1997 biography of the actor hosted by TCM's Bob Osborne; second, "The
Judy Garland Songbook," containing twenty-two songs from Garland's biggest musicals; and, third, a gallery of ten Mickey and Judy movie trailers.
Finally, the big box includes a portfolio of twenty behind-the-scenes photos and a Deluxe Collector's Booklet, hardbound and filled with rare promotional materials, illustrations, information, and chapter indexes for each film.
For the Rooney-Garland fan, this big boxed collection is a surefire treasure, although the non-fan may find the films a bit uneven. That said, the bonus disc and the photos alone should be enough to sell the set. Warner Bros. have given a class act a classy treatment.