1939 truly was a golden year for the studio era and for American film. Here is a bonafide classic filled with memorable musical moments, elaborate camerawork, a stunning juvenile performance from Judy Garland, and the whole thing runs so effortlessly and smoothly that it seems over just as it was starting. Not entirely surprising to discover this was MGM’s biggest money-maker of the year.
I’m sorry, did you think I was discussing The Wizard of Oz? Well, work on your surprised face because The Wizard of Oz was a notorious underperformer at the box office during its initial run, and Babes in Arms, Garland’s other great movie of 1939, is the one I’m settling in to talk about. While it doesn’t occupy the rarified space in the pop cultural landscape and collective imagination as Oz, Babes in Arms is a delightful classic in its own right.
The first of a series of Mickey and Judy’s “putting on a show” movies, and arguably one of the best simply for setting up the template and executing it so competently on the first try, Babes in Arms is a simple story told with economy. The children of retired vaudeville performers, Mickey and Judy are determined to prove that they can hold their own against their parents and maybe forsake getting sent to the state welfare home in the process. The old barn gets turned into a Broadway spectacle as two overachievers try to make their case as the brightest future stars of tomorrow.
Fact and fiction blur in that way here as Rooney was amid the Andy Hardy films and a Top Ten draw while Garland was slowly ascending from bit and supporting parts to leads and was primed for box office dominance shortly. If anyone’s plucky spirits could act as balm for the scarred national psyche, why not these two scrubbed clean nice kids?
Mickey and Judy’s fresh faces and can-do spirit are a prime symbol of American optimism as the Depression was ending. Don’t believe me? Check the final big number, “God’s Country,” where the stars softly, lovingly parody FDR and Eleanor and rattle off the virtues of Americana and the pop culture of the late 30s, including Greta Garbo and the Marx Brothers, as proof of exceptionalism. It’s far more charming and less jingoistic than that brief description would lead you to believe.
If there’s a flaw in Babes in Arms, it’s the blackface scene. E tu Judy and Mickey? Even in the context of times, it’s hard to reconcile the burst of joyful energy and happy-go-lucky spirit that pervades with such an ugly reminder of the nation’s troubled racial history. It would be inaccurate to do something about vaudeville without the presence of minstrelsy, but I have a hard time squaring the violent history of the act with Mickey, Judy, and company performing it all with typical MGM smiles and show pony training.
It is mercifully over quickly as even God can’t seem to take it anymore and brings down a violent storm to end it all and washes the makeup from Rooney’s face. It’s a reminder of how difficult it can be to reexamine art through our modern context when it was made and digested in an era that didn’t view these images as harmful or cruel in a wider cultural sense. It doesn’t hinder my enjoyment of Babes in Arms, but it is a sequence I tend to flinch through.
Best to focus on happier, better aspects of the film instead, and there’s a lot. For instance, there’s the pleasing lead turns. Judy Garland’s already demonstrating her quaking vulnerability, natural talent for drama, astonishing and emotive singing voice, and ability to make hysteria appear as effortless and hilarious as breathing. 1939, in retrospect, was the coronation of Garland as Hollywood’s newest princess of the movies.
While Rooney got his first Oscar nomination. On the DVD’s introduction, he mentions this and asks for us to not laugh at the fact. Why would we laugh? Rooney, at his worst, could grate with a tremendous amount of energy that threatened to blow away the scenery, but he could dial down it when asked. Babes in Arms allows him to play for big, broad laughs, do some mimicry (very credible turns as Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore), sing and dance, and get some big emotional scenes where he manages to dowse his gigantic flame to a low spark. Great acting isn’t always about appearing “naturalistic” on screen but finding the truth of any character. Rooney feels truthful to his character, and the line between actor and part is wonderfully blurry.
There’s relatively little to surprise you here plot wise, but who watches a studio era musical for the plot surprises? No, you watch something like this to watch two thoroughbreds in their element. Babes in Arms is buoyant, vibrant musical that finds two dewy youths displaying their considerable talents for your entertainment. Where their real lives end and their characters begin is a smudge line, and it’s all the better for it.