From the strains of “The Irish Washwoman” in the opening credits, to the final bars of “It’s A Great Day for the Irish”–I’ve always been oddly drawn to Little Nellie Kelly. Perhaps it’s because I’m about a quarter Irish and I’ve a bit of the blarney myself, but this film has always held a special place on my list of favorite films.
Little Nellie Kelly is often overlooked simply because it’s barely in circulation. Turner Classic Movies plays itonce or twice a year and it’s been out of print for a number of years. It’s a shame, because although it doesn’t have the polish of the Mickey-Judy vehicles and The Wizard of Oz which have ensemble casts, it does have grand character actors and a lot more story line than the other roles she was given. Nellie also allows Garland to play a character who may not be as worldly-wise as Patsy Barton or Betsy Booth, but the emotional range she contends in the dual role is a bit more substantial.
Looking back at Garland’s career as a whole, one would probably not consider the film of any note except for her first and last death scene, however, it was a substantial film for Garland at the time. MGM placed a lot of responsibility on Garland to carry the plot–the dual roles of mother and daughter. It was the first film where Garland had solo billing under the title (there wouldn’t be another until For Me and My Gal two years later where she had above title billing). There was a lot riding on the success of the film.
The love of Ireland is the setting and backdrop of the beginning of the film. Nellie (Judy Garland) falls for Jerry Kelly (George Murphy), a man of ambition and hope who wants to leave Ireland to make a better life in America. Torn between her father and the man she loves, Nellie must make the decision to marry Jerry or stay in Ireland with her shiftless father (Charles Winniger). So starts the pull between the two men, as all of them immigrate to America to find a better life.
Garland carried the film beautifully and kept the cast and crew amazed and amused. In his autobiography, George Murphy described the set during the death scene of Nellie Kelly, Sr. saying there wasn’t a dry eye in the sound stage.
Despitethe film’s darker elements, like the death scene, the tone of the rest of the film is consistently joyful. Garland sings “A Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow” as a ballad with the joyfulness and maturity of a woman many times Garland’s years. Though it’s legendary that Garland was the ‘little girl with the big voice’ from her early years, the reprise of the song allows for a grand contrast and marked swing into the youthful, contemporary version Garland sings as little Nellie Kelly. The scene is touching–she takes the scarf her mother once wore, slips onto the piano bench beside George Murphy and takes the song up in tempo when she notices how far off and lonely he appears. Garland singlehandedly changes the tone of the film within a few frames. The song was so beloved by fans, that it was one of the few film songs Judy Garland consistently kept in her concert programs.
The original George M. Cohan play took place entirely in New York. Instead of a love triangle between family and young Irish callers, the play had Nellie torn between a millionaire and a boy from her home in the Bronx. Throw in a stolen necklace and you have a completely different entity. Like many successors of Broadway shows, the film was of little resemblance to the play. The Broadway show introduced “Nellie Kelly, I Love You,” the sole song that survived in the film.
Little Nellie Kelly keeps in line with director Norman Taurog’s other juvenile films, specifically the early films of Deanna Durbin. In the same year, Taurog directed Young Tom Edison with Mickey Rooney and Broadway Melody of 1940 which co-starred George Murphy as well.
One of the historical highlights of the film is the rare appearance of the Pledge of Allegiance without “under God.” We also get a glimpse into a Naturalization ceremony. And–we get to see Garland sing “Singin’ in the Rain” long before Gene Kelly did–made a bit iconic by the introduction to That’s Entertainment.
Sweet, goofy, heart-wrenching–Little Nellie Kelly may be overlooked, but it has all the qualities and the richness of Irish Americans. It also more than manages to overflow with the patriotism of George M. Cohan. It’s a happy journey that I can’t help but take over and over again.