Summer Stock (1950)

dorojaneIt’s somehow both twisted and touching that Judy Garland’s last film for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is set on a farm. Garland’s first feature film appearance was for Fox and she debuted as Sairy Dodd, catching watermelons heaved like footballs from her backwards brother on the family farm. Then, of course, there is Garland’s iconic role as Dorothy. Never noticed it until just now, but the outfit Jane wears in the beginning of the film is oddly reminiscent of Dorothy Gale’s gingham dress–a 50s update, perhaps? Intentional or not (and I would wager not), it’s one of many elements of Summer Stock that can be way over-analyzed. For instance, Jane pulling off a page of her calendar to June 22, the date of Garland’s untimely death. Never ceases to be a bit spooky to see that scene.

Summer Stock centers on Jane Falbury (Judy Garland) trying to keep her family farm after losing workers that had been with the family for years. She gets a tractor on loan from her fiancee’s father to try to do the work herself. This seems perfect for Jane, vowing to pay down the tractor so she brings no debts to the marriage. Unfortunately, Jane’s plans go awry when her little sister (Gloria DeHaven) promises a troop of summerstock120actors that they can rehearse on the farm. Jane lets them stay if they can help with the farm work, but one of the actors (Phil Silvers) spins out of control while using the tractor. Everything seems at a loss.

This is the last of the dubbed ‘barnyard musicals’ that Garland appeared in. Mickey Rooney was no longer a fraction of the box office draw he once was. Gene Kelly was then called in for the role much to his chagrin. Gene always said he did the film for Judy in thanks for what she had taught him during the filming of For Me and My Gal. He appreciated Judy’s talent and you can see in the dance numbers he really played to her strengths. She really seems comfortable in her dance routines with him. They really didn’t dance together in their second film, The Pirate, but they did have a couple short dance numbers as well as two charming knock-out routines in For Me and My Gal. Summer Stock, because of the simple way it was scripted, gave them both the opportunity to revisit the basics.

summerstock058Despite the low expectations for the film and the flimsy script, Kelly and Garland did salvage a lot of lovely moments in the film to make it pleasant to watch. Gene Kelly took on the philosophy of his character,

“Look, the way I see it, the farm needs a tractor–me, I don’t need a station wagon. It got us up here, that’s all that matters. When the show’s a hit, I’ll buy two to take us home in.”

The script provided a station wagon. It was a means to an end. Kelly could help Judy Garland and make opportunities for himself to do numbers that brought the simple story line a bit more substance. Not only was Kelly in a position to humble himself to the task, his character was humble, too. Kelly’s Joe Ross may have been his most humble screen persona.

As Jane Falbury, Judy Garland does a lot of yelling, a lot of hoofing, and a lot of pondering under the harvest moon. She has five dance numbers, quite a lot for a Judy Garland film. She sings six numbers as well. The highlights though are when she dances “The Portland Fancy” along with Gene Kelly, plays the love interest summerstock208and does a bit of a soft shoe in “You Wonderful You,” sings a ballad seeking a “Friendly Star,” and last but not least there is “Get Happy” which feels out of place for many reasons, but couldn’t possibly be replaced in the film or omitted. It wouldn’t be Summer Stock without it.

Gloria DeHaven is deliciously annoying as Jane’s little sister. One feels the need to slap her. I’ve never figured out why her hair had to be dyed. Were they trying to make her less appealing to give Judy a little more gloss in comparison? It’s hard to say. DeHaven sings “Mem’ry Island” and sadly doesn’t appear in any more numbers. Her character has the job of leaving Joe’s show and apparently that was enough to satisfy director Chuck Walters or the powers that be.

Marjorie Main makes her third and final screen appearance with Garland–the other two films were Meet Me in St. Louis and The Harvey Girls. She’s so much fun in this film. She’s a little more like Ma Kettle in this one than the two previous films with Garland. Main said she loved working with Judy and it shows in the chemistry between the two of them.

With a grand supporting cast, Garland and Kelly make the best of a dull premise. Summer Stock is one of those films that grows on you.  You may not like it the first time, second time–fifth time, but eventually it sneaks up on you and becomes lovely and familiar like an old friend.

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

heavencanwait00007What if you could choose whether or not you belong in heaven or hell and had to interview either above or below for the opportunity of the lodgings? A New York playboy who loves chorus girls as much as he does avoiding work chooses hell without reservations for a string of life long misdemeanors–literally, which gives him the opportunity to share his life story with the figure he  politely calls His Excellency.

Heaven Can Wait boasts ‘The Lubitsch Touch,” making the playful roaming eye of Henry Van Cleve seem absolutely reasonable for his character and the understandable nature of the devil himself quite logical in the world he spun. The film is a feast for the viewer in technicolor, gorgeous sets, and period settings. Everything feels realistic, but at the same time with the narration of Henry Van Cleve you’re transported to another place and time. A place that’s a little simpler, a little more sincere, and often more colorful than our everyday mundane world.

heavencanwait00163Don Ameche plays the man who is sure of his place, Henry Van Cleve. This is by far one of Don Ameche’s most endearing film roles. Through his narration, the film takes us through his life from infancy to death allowing us to see the relationships he had with the women in his life as well as that of his grandfather and son. Like His Excellency, Henry Van Cleve doesn’t seem to have many redeeming qualities except for his charm, but he’s lovable because of the things he does and the high regard he has for people even if he doesn’t always do the right thing.

Henry’s personality is contrasted with that of his cousin Albert (Allyn Joslyn). Cousin Albert can do nothing wrong. He plays by the book, finds and becomes engaged to the girl of Henry’s dreams, and is a genuine stuffed-shirt tattle tale. It drives home the issue of how one should live their life–conform as Albert was perfectly comfortable with doing often at the expense of others or make the most life trying to keep those who love you happy. And by bringing Strable family into the Van Cleve family, Heaven Can Wait delves into how one makes their fortune. Martha Strable (Gene Tierney) is considered a good match for Albert by his parents because she comes from a well-made respectable family. His grandfather

heavencanwait00085(Charles Coburn), on the other hand, can’t help but pick on the Kansas-based in-laws. Henry changes everything when he falls in love with Martha Strable caring little about where her family came from. The contrast makes for many amusing scenes in the film with Grandfather Van Cleve always choosing to help Henry over Albert.

Laird Cregar does a brilliant job as the devilish lord of the underworld. He’s lovable. He truly is. And that smile and the flash of his eyes seal the deal. He is a devil. It’s extremely unfortunate that his career was cut short by his untimely death, because he really could have mastered many more character roles.

And of course there is Gene Tierney, the lovely Martha (Strable) Van Cleve, the girl Henry takes away from his cousin.  Tierney is particularly strong in her portrayal of the later years of their marriage. She plays a lovely, wistful mature old woman for her 22 years of life. Her film career picked up fairly quickly, starting in 1940 when she was fresh off Broadway.

heavencanwait00135Other stand out performances came from Spring Byington as Henry’s mother and Mr. and Mrs. Strable played by Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main. Spring nearly steals every scene, but it’s Main and Pallette who quickly gain validity to their characters over a long dining table, a bit of silent treatment, and curiosity about how the hero of a comic manages to get out of a barrel. It’s brilliantly done. You see within a few seconds exactly how the relationship works–and not only do you see the dysfunction, you see the dysfunction as advertised by Martha. It says so much about how wealth may buy an extraordinarily long dinner table and a butler, but it won’t buy you peace of mind.

A classic, an essential, Heaven Can Wait is a grand film with lovable characters, beautiful backdrops, and a lot of heart. A must watch for any film fan.