Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why I Hate Musicals

Film: Babes in Arms
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.


  1. Star-spangled bukkake is a very apt description. Musicals belong on a stage and rarely make a successful transition to film. But one can forgive those cliches knowing that Broadway theater was the environment Busby Berkeley was born into - it was where he grew up. Those cliches were really a part of his life.

  2. Ah, the musical grump strikes again! LOL
    I'm a fan of musicals, but they could have left this one out of the book for sure.

  3. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I've been surprised by the number of musicals I've really liked. This one, though, manages to do everything that I dislike about musicals and do it with sparklers and fanfare.

    Sorry, but I have a real issue with shows that essentially have nothing to say but "People who put on shows are special!"

  4. I totally agree with you that this one stinks. My specific reason is how false everything rings, from the youth rebellion to the defiance of the children and the “hurrah, we go a show!” And of course most of the songs themselves. The crazy thing is that Busby Berkeley did actually make some good musicals, the List has some good examples from the early thirties, but this one is just unbelievably miserable

    1. And that's really my issue here. I don't see any real joy in this--it's all tinsel and greasepaint with no substance underneath. Even though I dislike musicals like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, I get why people like it, and I'm suitably impressed by the barn raising sequence. But I don't see why anyone likes this one.

  5. This is a perfect review of why I do not particularly care for most musicals.

    " such an intensity that it’s almost parody of itself," is really the best way I could think to put it. I've never seen Babes in Arms, but it sounds like I've seen a lot of flicks like it. I can dig on any kind of movie, musicals included, but sometimes, yeah, they're annoying as all hell.

    1. And this one is. I can appreciate the talent, but not the self-aggrandizing of "show people" that runs through this from top to bottom.

  6. How can you hate ALL musicals (or like a few "despite the genre")? They're all so different! You already mentioned Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (which I love); how about Fiddler on the Roof? Showboat (particularly Paul Robeson singing Ol' Man River - "I'm tired of livin, and scared of dyin.")? The Bandwagon, Brigadoon?

    You can find sweet and cheesy romps, somber historical themes, moving ballads with emotional and social relevance... it's just such a diverse genre to dismiss out of hand.

    Yes, some of these musicals were churned out by the numbers during their heyday; but that's because they were imitating wonderful, high-quality works that audiences turned out to see in droves, and that people still love today. Whether you love or hate them, you shouldn't view them as representative of the whole genre.

    1. I have a mental disconnect with musicals. They lack verisimilitude because something that purports itself to be the real world has people suddenly singing and dancing with full orchestration. It bothers me in a real way. I can forgive those that are really great, but most just strike me badly. However, I have the complete Astaire/Rogers collection at home, so I can't be all bad.

      Hey, I think the same thing when someone tells me they don't love horror films. I think, "There are so many different kinds! How can you hate them all?"

      As for representing the genre--well, the films on this list are supposed to be the most important ones. They're not only supposed to represent the genre, but transcend it. When they don't (musical or any other genre), I'm disappointed.

  7. TCM is showing Babes in Arms tomorrow and I'm excited that I'll finally see it. I should have seen it a long time ago! I'm not expecting it to be as good as 42nd Street or Shall We Dance or Footlight Parade but I love Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and I hope I'm not expecting too much thinking that there will be a few laughs and two or three wonderful crazy Hollywood musical numbers.

    1. That really is about it. I wasn't a fan of this one, but Babes in Arms isn't really made for me. It's an almost pure distillation of everything I don't like about the musical genre.

  8. I seem to have liked this quite a bit more than anybody else. Yeah, some of the songs were REALLY DUMB! Like the title song and God's Country, and I would be rolling my eyes and thinking "Here's the bad song." But then the camera would pull back and dozens or hundreds or thousands of these vaudeville kids would be building bonfires for some reason or creating a blackface swarm or dressing as Indians wearing spectacles. I couldn't find any fault with the production numbers. The minstrel-show number especially was OFF THE HOOK!

    Not to mention all the amusing bits of business like Baby Rosalie's weird acrobatics while warming up, Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch of the East River, Guy Kibbee, etc.

    I also like Old Hollywood's fascination with things like vaudeville and minstrel shows. They don't get much more minstrel-y than Babes in Arms! It is rather unfortunate that blackface, a form of entertainment based largely on making fun of black people) was so popular in America for the better part of a century. I've heard it called the first American pop music craze. (It started in New York in the 1820s.) The most popular blackface stars were popular enough to be compared to Elvis Presley by entertainment historians!

    There's nothing like a little old-timey Hollywood racism to liven up the proceedings.

    Babes in Arms certainly isn't Singin' in the Rain or The Harvey Girls or even Born to Dance. I don't think I'll ever watch Babes in Arms every New Year's Eve like I do with Shall We Dance. But I sure got a kick out of Babes in Arms while I was watching it last night. Oh, Mickey and Judy! They try so hard! They deserve to succeed!

    1. Well, I won't take you to task for being entertained by it. Howver, the title of this post certainly sums up my opinion of what I thought of it.

      There are some moments. I give it credit for "Good Morning," although that was certainly perfected in Singin' in the Rain. That said, there are too few charms here for me to want to watch it again anytime soon...or ever.