My recent posts about Gene Kelly and Judy Garland got me thinking about the three movies they costarred in: For Me and My Gal (1942), which was Kelly’s first film; The Pirate (1948), which, despite a Cole Porter soundtrack, a number with the Nicholas Brothers, and direction by Vincente Minnelli, is one of the worst musicals ever made; and Summer Stock (1950).
Summer Stock was the last movie Garland made for MGM. By that point, her addiction to prescription pills was pretty much out of control. She’d been replaced in Annie Get Your Gun by Betty Hutton, after which she spent three months in a Boston mental hospital to try to get off drugs. Upon her return to Hollywood, she started working on Summer Stock, a movie originally intended to reunite her with Mickey Rooney in a reprise of the “hey, let’s put on a show” story the pair had specialized in when they were both young uns. Rooney was deemed to be an insufficient box office draw, however, and Kelly was cast as the male lead.
Garland was surrounded by friends on the movie. Kelly did it as a favor to her, as did the director, Charles Warren (who replaced Annie Get Your Gun director Busby Berkeley — and who, by the way, was the director of Torch Song). Despite the support, and the change in working hours (11 a.m to 7 p.m., to accommodate her sluggish start in the morning), her behavior was erratic during the filming; she’d show up late or not at all. For instance, she was supposed to be in the “Heavenly Music” number with Kelly and second banana Phil Silvers, but wasn’t. (Can’t say I blame her taking a pass on that — the pair were dressed in hillbilly costumes, including clown-shoe-sized bare feet, and the titular “heavenly music” was provided by a passel of barking dogs.)
Despite the problems, studio head Louis B. Mayer insisted they finish the movie. He told producer Joe Pasternak, “Judy Garland has made this studio a fortune in the good days, and the least we can do is to give her one more chance. If you stop production now, it’ll finish her.”
The story is pretty formulaic. Jane (Garland) and her younger sister Abigail (Gloria de Haven) had inherited a farm, which Jane tried to keep going while feckless Abigail went and pursued her dreams of some kind of life in the arts. She returned unexpectedly with an entire theatrical troupe in tow, having told them they could use the family barn to put on the show that her boyfriend Joe (Kelly) had written. Abigail ends up running off with the Broadway star originally slated to appear (Hans Conreid), and Jane finally dumps her milquetoast fiancee Orville (Eddie Bracken) when she and Joe fall in love.
The movie wouldn’t really be worth watching, except it has two of the best numbers of the MGM era in it.
In a reprise of the love song “You, Wonderful You,” Kelly dances a solo one evening alone in the barn. It’s just him, a squeaky floorboard, and a sheet of newspaper — and it’s brilliantly choreographed (by Nick Castle) and brilliantly danced.
And then, of course, the socko finish is Garland’s second-best-known song ever, “Get Happy.” It’s completely out of place to the rest of the movie, but presents in three short minutes the central irony — and thus the source of the iconic power — of Garland’s career.
After an hour and a half as the same kind of wholesome, tremulously plucky small-town girl she’d been playing at MGM for the last 15 years, Garland is revealed wearing a fedora, a tuxedo jacket, and black stockings. The woman who struts through that number has little to do with the girl she was in the minds of the audience and the studio. Little, but not nothing: her trademark “on the verge of tears” vibrato is present, and the lyrics limn the battles she fought all her life:
Forget your troubles
Come on get happy
You better chase all your cares away
Come on get happy
Get ready for the judgment day
“Get Happy” — originally written for Ruth Etting in 1930 — was added a few months after the rest of the movie had been shot, when it had become clear that the the movie needed … something. Garland had been up in Santa Barbara with a hypnotist during the interim. While there, she’d lost about 20 pounds, and regained her confidence. The number, choreographed by her pal Warren, was filmed in only three takes. The originally planned final song, a “[Howdy Neighbor] Happy Harvest” reprise (with Garland, Kelly, and Silvers in straw hats with frayed brims) is, in fact, the last number in the movie, but it’s an emotional afterthought.
Garland was slated to do another film after this: when Royal Wedding star June Allyson got pregnant, Garland was to be her replacement. Her behavior had became completely erratic, though, and she was in turn replaced by Jane Powell. At that point, Garland and MGM ended their relationship, “by mutual agreement,” after 15 years.
[Bonus trivia: Summer Stock featured Carleton Carpenter as Joe’s assistant, Artie, in a series of small bits throughout. Recently signed to MGM, Carpenter appears in the chorus in a couple of numbers, but neither his singing nor his dancing is showcased. Later that year, Carpenter went on to be in Two Weeks with Love with Debbie Reynolds in one of her first films. The pair did two songs together in that film, one of them the blisteringly fast “Aba Daba Honeymoon.” ]