It’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 actors 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.
Despite 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 and 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.