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.