Format: DVD NetFlix on big ol’ television.
The more I go through all of these movies, the more I find ones that don’t fit my expectations, or that I like despite the genre. That’s one of the joys of doing this; I find a lot of movies I’d have never watched on my own that I end up being happy I watched. Sadly, this is not the case with Babes in Arms, a film that manages not only to strike every bad musical cliché in the book, but proceeds to jump up and down on said clichés until there is nothing left of them but a damp patch on the ground.
So think of your typical musical. Take a minute or two and think of every possible cliché you can, from the plucky youngsters, to the star too wrapped up in his or her stardom to realize their own ridiculousness to the person who sees no value in the plucky entertainers treading the boards. Think of the songs arising spontaneously out of nowhere. Think of the fact that everyone involved is always talented to a degree of insanity, and that all they need is a chance, just one chance, to knock ‘em dead. Everything I just said appears in this film and at such an intensity that it’s almost parody of itself.
Mickey Moran (Mickey Rooney) is literally born in a theater to Vaudevillian parents, and he grows up in the act. So too do a number of other kids including Patsy Barton (Judy Garland) and Mickey sister Molly (Betty Jaynes). Our group of Vaudeville performers eventually all move to the same town, a sort of base of operations from which they go out on the road. But Vaudeville is dying, and the crowds are going to talkies instead. However, the kids want to make a go of it on the stage. They’ve got talent, they’ve got pluck, and nothing’s going to stop them. Mickey, who has dropped out of school, spends his time writing songs for Patsy to sing, and manages to sell one (a little number called “Good Morning” that plays prominently in several films until the definitive version in Singin’ in the Rain) for $100, which feels like validation, and looks like it causes a massive stroke based on his reaction.
And here comes the conflict. Mom (Grace Hayes) and Dad (Charles Winninger) decide to give the road one last try and gather up their friends for another tour. The kids, though, need to stay at home, where they run afoul of Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton) and her son Jeff (Rand Brooks), who thinks that the performers and their kids are nothing but riff-raff. She wants the kids rounded up for their own good and sent to a state work home where they can learn a trade. The kids, of course, claim they have a trade and to show her, they immediately decide to put on a show, written by Mickey and starring Patsy. That’ll show ‘em. It helps that the kids have the emotional support of the local judge (Guy Kibbee)
Things immediately become complicated with the arrival of Baby Rosalie (June Preisser), a former child star looking to make a comeback. She decides that she’ll back Mickey’s show (and there are indications that she’d like to back Mickey himself) if he allows her to star in it. This causes butthurt and grief for Patsy, but she’s a trouper, deciding eventually that the show must go on after plenty of whining to her mom.
And, well, shit. It’s a musical. You know they’re going to put on their show. You know there will be problems. You know that something will happen at the 11th hour to make everything all better just when everything is at its blackest and even Mickey’s father wants to quit the business and get a straight job. If you didn’t know this, you’ve never seen a musical from this era before, which is in and of itself sort of amazing. Frankly, I’m a little jealous.
So let’s talk about the show they put on. First, there are either dozens and dozens of these performing families or there is definitely something in the water, because there are enough kids to create a full orchestra. And I mean a full orchestra. There are six-year-olds scraping on violins but sounding like the Boston Pops. And the first show the kids put on is…there’s no polite way to say this. It’s done completely in blackface. It’s a minstrel show, complete with every possible stereotype you can think of, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland taking center stage with all of those good old down home racist jokes and mannerisms. I get that this is a product of its time, but this is the sort of thing that’s harder and harder to forgive despite when it was made. You can argue that this is done as a sort of homage, but not when it appears that the entire point is to create the impression that everyone with a skin tone darker than, say, light tan is a simpleton.
The final show, like most musicals, consists of a single number. This one is a giant gush of patriotism, a star-spangled bukkake (don’t Google that if you don’t know the term. Ask someone who has tact). And then it’s over, and I suppose we’re led to believe that it’s a massive success. Hooray for the kids with pluck and spunk and talent.
Look, straight through, the humor in this is the sort of exaggerated, over-the-top hijinks that always remind me of entertainment made for children. Every joke is telegraphed, and then after, it’s pointed at with almost a look at the audience to make sure they got the joke. It’s almost insulting. Part of this is that the film comes from 1939, but that’s not responsible for all of it.
In other words, Babes in Arms reinforces everything I hate about musicals and does nothing to change my mind about them. Damn shame, really.
Why to watch Babes in Arms: Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in their natural element.
Why not to watch: Because it’s unbelievably annoying.