For Me and My Gal (1942)

I could almost single-handedly blame For Me and My Gal for getting me as obsessed, shall we say, with classic films as I am today. It started on a fall day in 1996. I couldn’t tell you the day, but I remember it so well. I was 14-years-old. I had already been raiding Blockbuster shelves in search for Judy Garland films as well as other musicals, so I was familiar with other Judy films, but on this particular night I think I just had For Me and My Gal. It only took the opening lines and the following Judy quip to catch my attention and hold it there for the whole film:

Jo: Who’s the want ad with the squirrel around his neck?
Jimmy: Single act, name of Palmer.
Jo: His act can’t be as funny as that coat.

I watched “For Me and My Gal” over and over again until morning. I had school the next day, but I didn’t care. I watched the “For Me and My Gal” number just about on repeat–if only DVD existed at the time, but we’re dealing with VHS. Along with “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” and “Ball in the Jack,” the tape got a lot of wear repeating the entire film again and again, but most certainly for certain numbers as well. It wasn’t abnormal for me to watch the same film back to back, but for whatever reason I was so emotionally drawn to this film at that specific moment in time more than any of the others I had seen to date (I suspect it might be the heightened sense of drama that is even attractive to the mildest of teenagers, such as I). I felt somehow connected to Jo Hayden and I really had nothing in common with her character other than a love of belting. I was taken on her roller coaster though and I empathized with her situation.

Jo Hayden (Judy Garland) plays a young vaudeville player who is in a troupe with Jimmy Metcalfe (George Murphy). They’re on the lowest rung of the vaudeville circuit and share the bill with hoofer Joe Palmer (Gene Kelly) who sees promise in a song that Jimmy had bought from the local music director and steals it right from under him. That song, “For Me and My Gal,” marks the beginning of the teaming of Palmer and Hayden. Throw in a brother who isn’t quite ready to be a doctor, World War I, and a champion draft dodger and you’ve got a complicated, compelling story.

Garland’s above title billing marked the first time she acknowledged as the top draw to a film. She played her part beautifully. One of her strongest moments in the film is when she sings “After You’ve Gone.” There’s a moment in the song where she breaks down just a little. Without missing a beat, you can see the recovery from that moment, see and feel exactly what she’s thinking, and that she culled the strength to go on–all within a few frames of film. Garland is completely underrated as an actress and there are several moments in this film where she is able to showcase how gifted an actress she was. Not only that, Judy was able to keep up with Gene Kelly in several dance routines astonishingly well, being the perfectionist Kelly was, that was something in itself.

This was Gene Kelly’s first motion picture. He always credited Judy to showing him the ropes in this film and was forever grateful to her. He met Judy while on Broadway in Pal Joey. Gene plays the part of arrogant showman with the best of them. As his character becomes more depraved while he tries to scratch his way to a Palace engagement, Kelly becomes less and less likable which is why audiences who screened the film believed that George Murphy should have gotten the girl. That was almost a requirement for a Murphy character in the late 30s, early 40s, though his character is so much more lovable. Instead of softening Kelly’s character, they gave him an extended scene that was supposed to be heroic and instead he comes off worse after lying to a commander—potentially he could have killed more people without specific training—essentially he gets lucky.

I am completely biased when it comes to George Murphy, so I am completely with audiences who believe he should have won the girl in the end. Love is blind, yes? Murphy turns in another charming performance as good friend with unrequited love. His character is always around at the right time. It’s a shame that he was also cut out as part of the trio in the last scene as well. It makes me bitter, actually. To share with you how it should be, here’s an original outtake of the finale.

 

 

See, it’s much lovelier. I say so. And it plays up the love triangle a little more and leaves you to guessing instead of knowing right away who she chooses.

At any rate, the dialog in this film is fairly fast-paced in a Stage Door sort of way. The cast is wonderful including Martha Eggerth, Ben Blue, and Richard Quine. Richard Quine is one of my favorites in these roles, I must confess this. I won’t speak more of this, because I’ve already given too much of the plot away.

I will say though, this film is not to be missed. It will frustrate you at times, you’ll be caught within melodies at others. The film runs through every color of emotion. I think my little 14-year-old self felt more alive when she watched this movie. There was something real about it even with all of it’s flourishes and I think Judy is the culprit for that. She is the heart and the center of the film. She takes us with her on the journey and does so unknowingly—over and over again on an old VCR at the command of a teenager.

Jo may have been relieved of her VHS tape (which I quickly gained a copy of), but she was then purchased and re-run on DVD, then brought to her computer desktop, but she’s still on demand. It’s amazing that we have these films at our fingertips and it’s a credit to those who restore and release classic films to realize their importance to history and younger generations such as mine who see them in a whole knew framework.

Oklahoma (1955)

I had Oklahoma on my original list of films to profile this summer, but it didn’t happen because I found out that I didn’t own the DVD. How this happened I do not know. I have now remedied this knowing full well that I will have to eventually buy a high definition copy. It’s just one of those films that should be as pristine as possible upon viewing.

Following the farmers and the cowboys of Oklahoma just prior to statehood, Oklahoma! weaves story, song, and dance into a mosaic of lightness against darkness and everything in between. The story centers around the niece of a on old maid who owns a farm. She finds herself caught in the middle of two men who battle for her affections–the cowboy she takes a shine to and the farm laborer who worships her from afar and whom she uses to exact her revenge on the callow cowboy who she deems more than little too sure of himself.

Oklahoma! hit Broadway like a tsunami. Hollywood clamored for the rights and when that failed, the bigger studios attempted to build musicals that could compete with it, but few could even come close. From the time the show opened on Broadway until the release of the film, 12 years had passed. Had the film been released much earlier, it would have competed with the original production which ran 2,212 performances and went on tour across the country and around the world.

Not only has Oklahoma! enjoyed continuous success since it’s original stage debut, but it has crossed generations and sprouts interest in upcoming generations and surely those to come. When I was little, my mom would sing, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” to me out of the blue and in doing so she helped plant the corn seed, so to speak, of my love of classic movies. It was one of my first memories of watching musicals to see Oklahoma! for the first time on television. Oklahoma! is definitely part of that well-known family of musicals including Rogers and Hammerstein productions like Carousel, The Sound of Music, and State Fair–as well as My Fair Lady and Oliver!, etc. It’s almost perfect, but there’s nothing sterile about it. Oklahoma has an edge that threatens to overtake the film, but never does–it has a balance that the Warner Bros. films of the 30s share with the added brilliance of Todd-AO color.

Rogers and Hammerstein had their hands in every aspect of production on the film and by the end Oklahoma! was the most expensive movie musical made to date. It was a huge risk to put an unknown in the lead role, but that’s what they did with Shirley Jones. Rogers and Hammerstein quickly helped Shirley build experience–from her first audition to a small chorus role in “South Pacific”–her rise was fast, but calculated. Shirley Jones under personal contract to Rogers and Hammerstein and as she says, she was the only person they ever held under personal contract. The producers auditioned hundreds of other girls for the role of Laurey Williams, but kept Jones in mind–she was just the age for the role, she looked the part, and most importantly she had natural talent that they saw could carry the motion picture version of their beloved production.

Gordon MacRae was familiar with Rogers and Hammerstein, he lobbied for the role of Curly and again with Billy Bigelow. I’m always struck every time by MacRae’s entrance with “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning” through the cornfields–almost as iconic as Julie Andrews’ entrance in The Sound of Music. It’s easy to dismiss Gordon MacRae when you see his films with Doris Day, still lovable, but often a little too purdy–that is, until you sit down and watch Oklahoma! or Carousel and get carried away into scenes beyond your control. That is–if you’re me. I can imagine that others are not easily swayed by MacRae’s charms much in the way that I’d rather leave than take Howard Keel.

The supporting actors are marvelous. It is no secret that I love Eddie Albert and to be quite honest, I didn’t realize until recently that the peddler man was Eddie Albert. Not sure how that made it past the radar, but there you are. Charlotte Greenwood is my hero. All she has to do is her high kicks and I’m in, but she plays Aunt Eller brilliantly. I know Rod Steiger was hesitant about certain scenes, in particular “Pore Jud is Daid,” but honestly he and Gordon MacRae appear to be having so much fun in that scene that it almost takes you out of it. I can’t help but smile prior to the first gun shot ringing out. He really is brilliant considering his background is hardly that of musical comedy. Gloria Grahame was an awkward choice for Ado Annie–I think even more awkward than Eddie Albert was as a Hungarian Peddler man, but it works. It truly does. It gives film a more earthy appeal and matches the slightly more sophisticated performance of Gene Nelson. At any rate, I’ve grown to accept her character–there’s more to that about me maturing than it is her performance. Oklahoma! also boasts James Whitmore, Jay C. Flippen as well as dancers Bambi Linn and James Mitchell. The ensemble of dancers was hand-picked by choreographer Agnes de Mille.

Rogers and Hammerstein stayed faithful to the original stage show with slight changes–all perfect for the film version, making the plot clip along just a little faster especially in the beginning, but the running time of the film is still 145 minutes. Surely if a studio had control of the production, a lot more cuts would have been made–specifically the ballet sequence. I admit to forwarding through said sequence. I’m terrible, however, when you do give it the time it is quite a beautiful piece of work, but it really adds little to the plot accept color and foreshadows a bit more than is necessary.

The songs are beautiful. The original cast album included Alfred Drake, Joan Roberts, Celeste Holm and Lee Dixon. Nelson Eddy also recorded an album in 1952. While Afred Drake had a wonderful voice, Joan Roberts hardly had the purity of Shirley Jones’ vocals. Nelson Eddy recorded a wonderful in album, too, but it hardly can compare to the fullness of the film soundtrack with well-rounded vocals of Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae–the loveliness of “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “Many A New Day,”–it’s wonderful. The music builds in all the right moments. Although it seems to verge on the side of saccharine, I never feel it ever gets there–it all melds together to create lightness against the more insidious climax of the film and lilts the plot softly down again to an all American type of camaraderie.

Oklahoma! is the all-American musical. Shortly after the publicity ended for the film and seas were calm again, Shirley was given the option to go on tour with one of Rogers and Hammerstein’s companies. She ended up doing “Oklahoma!” in Europe with future husband Jack Cassidy in MacRae’s role. The appeal of “Oklahoma!” Jones said, is in the promise of the west, in the cowboys and taming one’s own territory. Rogers and Hammerstein capitalized on this theme and made it real, they dissected a slice of Americana as simple as apple pie and made it rich and complex with layers that are just that–deceptively simple. Seems one can never get their fill of it.