The final week of the July Four gets musical with those lovable scamps Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. The third film the two musical dynamos made, Babes in Arms was Warner Bros. biggest moneymaker for the year, beating out the other Judy Garland movie out, a little film called The Wizard of Oz that was released only two months prior. One of the reliable “let’s put on a show” features the two would be known for, Babes in Arms has a lot of ideas in the stewpot but still leaves a tasty surprise for you.
Mickey Moran and Patsy Barton (Rooney and Garland) are one of many children growing up with parents trodding the boards of a dying vaudeville circuit. Hoping to secure a bit of financial breathing room for their folks the two gather up their community of children to put on a show, and cement their names in the process.
Based on a successful Broadway show by Rodgers and Hart, the music includes several compositions by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, including “Broadway Melody,” and “Good Morning,” more famously known for their inclusion in another film about the segue from one form of entertainment to another – where this segues from vaudeville to movies, the other is silent pictures to talkies – Singin’ in the Rain (1952). As much as I love Debbie Reynolds singing about how “I don’t want to say goodnight,” there’s something even more chipper when young Judy Garland sings.
The Rooney/Garland formula is evident, regardless if you’ve watched any of their past or future features. Rooney is the scrappy, won’t take no for an answer genius, while Garland is the pie-eyed girl who could do WAY better but, for some reason only known to her, she thinks there’s something special in him. You also have a separate girl, in this case a child star looking for a comeback played by June Priesser, who threatens to break up Mickey and Judy for good (and she’s usually a blonde). This is my first Mickey and Judy movie and I’m pretty sure I hit the nail on the head.
It’s not to say the formula doesn’t yield positive results. The two scrappy teens are great joy to watch, but Garland, maybe because her performance isn’t showy outside of the musical sequences, possesses far more intrigue than Rooney. The examination of vaudeville kids and their lifestyle eerily mimics Garland and Rooney’s own lives, more outright thievery than imitation. Rooney’s Mickey, other than utilizing his first name, is literally born in a theater, working since he was a child. “Do you ever feel older than your folks,” Mickey asks Pat, and I can only imagine how 1939 audiences would have responded. With the benefit of hindsight, Pat’s desire to avoid worrying like an adult, while providing for her family, probably hit close to home for Garland…although far from where she’d eventually end up.
Because we’re dealing with kids, things take a turn for the dramatic as they refuse to A) let their parents think they’re babies and B) attend school. Leading the brigade in the latter cause is good ole Miss Gulch herself, Margaret Hamilton! I’m assuming they just let Hamilton film in the same wardrobe from Oz. You see, these kids don’t need snooty things like school or college. “You couldn’t teach us a trade. We got one!” When the group of children sings the title song, proving they’re “babes in armor,” you’re left to wonder if these kids are going to put on a show or man the barricades. No, they actually have flaming torches and a bonfire, Les Miserables style.
With Busby Berkeley as director, it’s surprising how nonexistent the choreography is. Then again, Berkeley wasn’t the best at multitasking, so he probably didn’t have time to navigate shots and teach Garland when to shuffleball change. The set pieces in the finale are great, especially as they look far bigger than the barn and, later, the Palace theater. Outside of an unfortunate blackface number, the “God’s Country” performance leaves audiences on a rousing high note that, later, would be sadly prescient. Not even Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo could stop the tide of the Fuhrer.
Side performances, especially from the cherubic June Priesser are solid. I’ve never watched Preisser in anything previously, but her acrobatics are good enough that she probably should be the lead – sorry, Judy! And, much like Garland, she’s just too good for someone like Rooney.
A fun, patriotic feature with two luminous leads, Babes in Arms isn’t the best musical work, but Garland and Rooney prove they’re a match made in musical heaven.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.