Wednesday, March 16, 2011

For Me and My Gal (1942)

Judy Garland as Jo Hayden

Magic. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch For Me and My Gal; from the first chord of the title song I’m hooked. Gene Kelly is a two-bit comic vaudeville dancer, who has decided that a double act with Judy Garland is his ticket to fame and fortune. The fact that she is already part of a team doesn’t bother him much. “You had me pegged,” he tells her, “I’m never gonna win any blue ribbons for being a nice guy.” He’s right, too. Kelly’s character proves time and again in this film that he is pretty much a worthless cad. Fortunately, Kelly himself is likable enough to pull it off, so we root for him anyway.

It was Garland’s first starring vehicle-- newcomer Kelly was just along for the ride—and let me tell you, the camera worships her. When Kelly first sees her getting off the train at the beginning of the film, he gives a long, low whistle—“Hello, Springtime,” he coos, and the camera settles in for a lingering close up. She was nineteen years old, and never in her life did she look as lovely as she did in this film, the timeless black and white cinematography playing up her soulful brown eyes to perfection. After watching from offstage as she pours herself through a sultry little number called “Don’t You Leave Me, Daddy,” Kelly has to have her. Professionally, that is.

Garland as Jo Hayden and Gene Kelly as Harry Palmer

However, Garland has made it clear that she wouldn’t work with him “if they booked us in the Palace for fifty-one weeks a year!” So, he plays on her sympathies and gets her to listen to a new number he has lined up. Ironically, this is the same number that he has stolen from her current act, but she doesn’t know this. He tries to play the song for her, banging the notes mercilessly. She laughs, takes his place at the piano, and starts to play. Kelly leans against the side of the piano, watching her sing, admiring, plotting his next move. Remember, this is, in effect, his audition. He lets her sing a verse and a chorus by herself, and then joins in the second verse, and we are reminded that among Kelly’s many talents, he never had a particularly strong singing voice. Perhaps that is part of the genius of pairing him with Garland, whose voice is more than enough for the both of them. After a quick chorus, he takes her arm and leads her out onto the floor of the little café, and the real magic begins. Off-screen orchestration takes the place of the solo piano, and they dance a quick number, the café proprietor their only audience. It is a simple little tap routine, interspersed with lousy jokes and bits of conversation. The choreography could hardly have been a challenge to either of them, but the breezy fun of the number casts a spell nonetheless.

Oddly, it is not director Busby Berkeley who does the choreography here, but dance director Bobby Connolly, who also worked on one of my all-time favorite dance films, Broadway Melody of 1940. Actually, in many respects this number is a repeat of the café scene in 1940 with Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire breezing through one of the world’s most difficult tap routines like it’s a stroll in the park.

Garland and Kelly dance together for the first time.

“Say, do we click together or don’t we?” Kelly chirps as they take their seats. Boy, you said it. Would someone watching in 1942 have realized that they were looking at two of the brightest stars in MGM’s firmament? Maybe, maybe not. Although Garland was finally starting to get the recognition she deserved after years of doing time with Mickey Rooney, MGM had no idea what an asset they had in Kelly until they loaned him out to Columbia for Cover Girl two years later. In the meantime, they put him to work in war dramas and supporting roles. Although he would later be paired with Garland twice more in The Pirate (1947) and Summer Stock (1950), neither of these films gives me quite the same joy as For Me and My Gal.

Underneath its bubbly musical exterior this is a tense war-time drama, combining fervent patriotism with a gripping moral tale of love, ambition, sacrifice and redemption. It is a strong story that showcases the acting abilities of its stars, and proves (as if it needed proving), that Gene Kelly could captivate audiences even without his tap shoes. With veteran dancer George Murphy (Broadway Melody of 1940, This is the Army) along for the ride as Garland’s former partner, For Me and My Gal is a strong early work by two of the most dazzling musical performers of all time, and one not to be missed.

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