After Babes in Arms’ (1939) rampant success MGM thought, “Hey, those crazy kids have something special.” The eventual follow-up, Strike Up the Band sees Mickey and Judy go bigger with a larger budget and runtime. Mickey and Judy move out of the barn and into the world of small-town America with a script that ironically lampoons the entire Mickey and Judy formula, as well as Victorian melodrama.
Jimmy Connors (Rooney) has dreams of being a drummer and leading a band. When he’s offered a chance to audition for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, and collect prize money, Jimmy enlists the help of his best gal Mary (Garland) and a gaggle of other talented kids. But the group hits the skids when life lobs them some unforeseen curveballs.
The successful trio of director Busby Berkeley, Garland and Rooney return (along with the ultra-limber June Preisser), but this time there are added issues that need fixing before Garland and Rooney can succeed. John Monks Jr. and Fred F. Finkelhoffe’s script give the children additional complications outside of just the old “getting out of our parent’s shadow” business they had in Babes in Arms.
Babes in Arms’ acting troupe has a plight that isn’t relatable to everyone, but Rooney’s Jimmy suffers from the same issues as many teens, past and present – to figure out whether his mother’s dreams are his.Jimmy asks Mary if she sees him as a doctor and the audience laughs right alongside her. Dr. Kildare Mickey Rooney is not! Jimmy tiptoes around his family, in the hallway late at night and in their conversations, for fear of upsetting her with his own desires that don’t jive with those of his mother and deceased father. When Jimmy’s mother, sensitively played by Ann Shoemaker, gives Jimmy her blessing after his acquiescence, it is anticlimactic. If all it took was Jimmy’s placating her, why didn’t it happen earlier? And being almost two hours, the thread winds up around the 50-minute mark.
Like Babes in Arms, Jimmy Connors is the Goofus with the worst time management. Rooney once again plays a boy whom, shall we say, isn’t thinking in the right places and is easily swayed by June Preisser’s Barbara Frances, a wealthy girl with absentee parents, (Hey, her parents aren’t around but we don’t see her belly-aching!) Though Mary keeps the ship upright, we’re never shown her actively succeeding in pulling anything off. No, Garland’s true expansion comes through music and there are some great performances from her; “Do the La Conga” and “Our Love Affair” are highlights.
Garland and Rooney knew each other as well as they did themselves by this point, and their communication boasts a natural ease. You see Garland anticipate Rooney’s thoughts, free of the script, and react accordingly. Rooney recounts his mother’s dreams for him and it has all the authenticity of two average teens talking without the camera recording them. “Our Love Affair,” a song that sounds like it inspired “The Boy Next Door” four years later in Garland’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), demonstrates the appealing Garland and Rooney chemistry. A medium shot places us right on the piano as Garland’s Mary croons about a love affair fraught with quarrels and true romance. Occasionally she glances at Rooney’s Jimmy, hoping the music will churn up those long-boiling feelings of lust he has….right? Mary rolls her eyes as Jimmy looks at her, invisibly chastising her to focus on the music, foiled again. It’s a brilliant moment that owes little to Berkeley’s direction, but everything to the two teen stars. They loved each other as friends and had no problem expressing their mutual appreciation and annoyance.
Berkeley gives the movie little asides that aren’t reliant on choreography. Jimmy and Mary envision scenes; one involving a concert with food items (meats, vegetables and fruits) becomes the most unique sequence in the film without any of the actors. Animated by cartoonist George Pal, the food concert has pineapple cellos, baby grand pianos made of cake, and more for a visual delight with all the magic of something out of Disneyland, fifteen years earlier. Mary and Jimmy’s show-within-a-show is a masterpiece of Victorian melodrama, with Mary fending off attacks from a mustachioed baddie who ties her to the railroad tracks – accompanied by the “Rodrigo” music from Little Women (1949) – and the spirit of their deceased little boy. Someone obviously watched a lot of silents and read the Colleen Bawn!
The heart of the story lies in Jimmy’s realization that life often defers one’s dreams. Everytime he gets ahead, financially or an opportunity arises, something he can’t have foreseen derails it. Babes in Arms explored the financial responsibility teens find themselves in to help their families, but the issues of high school are nothing compared to the futile attempt to change your life only to find yourself stymied by financial obligations or unforeseen tragedy. What starts as simple but effective becomes as ridiculously madulin as the fictional play they’re using for comedic lampooning. Right when Jimmy gets the band’s ticket out of town, young runt Willie (Larry Nunn) gets what I term “death disease” from a broken arm. You know, the rather innocuous injury that would ordinarily be fine in anyone else, but instantly turns to death for dramatic purposes. He needs surgery, but the only surgeon is operating out of town! I’m fairly certain the term “life or death” would have gotten the surgeon there on the double. All’s well that ends well, of course, but the third act didn’t need to resort to such theatrics.
With high energy (only partially aided by some illegal substances, I’m assuming) and effortless natural acting, Strike Up the Band is the Mickey and Judy formula at its most ambitious.
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