One of the many countless reasons we appreciate classic cinema is glorious Technicolor. Better yet, give me vibrant Technicolor that shows off magnificent costumes and beautiful faces and it won’t matter whether the story is good…though it does help. I use this to preface my new film discovery, 1948’s A Date With Judy. Directed by Richard Thorpe – better known to fans of this site for his work on several of Esther Williams’ films – A Date With Judy is a sweet and weirdly frisky ’40s romantic comedy. With the right blend of sentimentality and zaniness, A Date With Judy will make you want to have a date with her now (barring you’re age appropriate!).
Judy Foster (Jane Powell) is 16 going on 17. Desperate to find a man who sweeps her off her feet she sets her eyes on older soda jerk Stephen Andrews (Robert Stack). Unfortunately for Judy, Stephen is more interested in Judy’s best friend/worst enemy Carol Pringle (Elizabeth freaking Taylor). Couple that with Judy’s fears her father (Wallace Beery) is having an affair with a fiery singer (Carmen Miranda), and her on-again/off-again relationship with Carol’s brother Oogie (Scotty Beckett) and there’s far too much drama for Judy to handle.
I have to gush about the technical skill here. Robert Surtees is a cinematography legend, and rightfully so. Though the movie may lack the beautiful vistas or epic locales of movies that would necessitate Technicolor, Surtees treats the framing with just as much respect. The camera loves everyone here, from the ethereally beautiful faces of Taylor and Powell, to the craggy visage of Mr. Wallace Beery. Reds are deep, yellows are bright, even an dour office building looks like a lush and inviting place to do the rumba! On top of that you have wonderful costumes by Helen Rose, a costumer who I often feel gets forgotten because her name isn’t as sultry as the likes of Irene or Adrian. All the dresses Taylor and Powell wear compliment their personalities. Powell’s Judy dresses like an elegant take on Heidi, pastel colors, checkered prints, and bows in her hair. Taylor skirts the line between sophisticated woman and teenage girl with a yellow gown that will make you believe Disney stole the design for Belle in Beauty and the Beast (1991). This is one of the loveliest films I’ve seen and I can only imagine how breathless I’d be watching this on the big screen.
Now that’s out of the way the plot is a discussion all its own. A Date With Judy is part of a genre I lovingly referred to as “could only be made during the studio era.” Its plot follows Powell and Taylor’s characters as two 16-year-old girls on the prowl, navigating boys and their own personal family disputes. The funny thing is that Powell was 21 at the time, looking every bit of her character’s almost 17, while Taylor (who was actually 16 during filming) could pass for 25! This leads to much unintentional snickering, particularly when Stack’s obviously older Stephen starts dating Judy and innocently flirts with Carol. The guy better live it up because he’d probably go to jail at this point! Of course, all of this is non-threatening, and actually gives the film a naive charm that’s part of the whole reason we love these films. For their part the trio are fantastic, as expected. Jane Powell is an underrated gem, often marginalized in favor of big name song and dance gals like Ginger Rogers or, a name dropped in this film, Kathryn Grayson. Her big doe eyes moon over Stephen in a way that painfully reminds me of myself (without the nightingale voice).
Powell may be the lead, but Taylor steals the show, in spite of being billed third! Her take on Carol Pringle – a name I plan to employ as my alias – isn’t very different from her Amy March in Little Women (1949). She’s a selfish, spoiled young woman. However there’s a sadness to her character due to her acrimonious relationship with her father, played the ultimate “drama dad,” Leon Ames. Their relationship, which also has its weird share of creepiness towards the end, is relatable in how Ames’ Lucien Pringle just can’t understand his teenage daughter. Carol also transforms into a good friend to Judy, taking their competitive friendship through some fun territory where they ultimately realize they’re stronger together. Taylor never gets credit for her films where she forces female friendships, and her and Powell have a lot of fun banter back-and-forth. A scene where they interrogate Carmen Miranda for her supposed philandering requires some deft comic timing from the pair.
Since this is a Richard Thrope venture it wouldn’t be complete without the appearance of Miranda and band leader Xavier Cugat. I devoted a whole month to Miranda movies and I missed a role that’s one of her best! She plays Rosita, the star of Cugat’s band who teaches Beery’s Melvin Foster how to dance. I worried for Beery’s hips during the dancing, but it’s fantastic watching Miranda play a character that isn’t meant to just be herself. Speaking of Beery, there’s no way you’ll believe he and Selena Royale are the parents a teenager. In fact, Beery would die a year later. However, the two have a sweet relationship even if it lacks the emotional depth of a pairing like Mary Astor and Leon Ames in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).
A Date With Judy is everything you want in a classic era feature. It’s beautiful to look at, delightful fun to watch, and just downright entertaining. If you want to see Powell and Taylor at their peaks, you’re in luck! And one more shout-out to those magnificent Helen Rose costumes! I have a feeling I used way too many exclamation points in this review.
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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.