Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Mickey Rooney

I had despaired ever again of finding any new issues of Hollywood Golden Age musicals in A&B Sound. Since being bought out by a computer maker, Victoria's best source of good music and DVDs has drastically downsized. And they wonder why customers have been turning to online sources. I wouldn't go in there that often anymore if it wasn't just across the street from my bus stop.
But on Sunday I hit the jackpot. They had a nice boxed set of Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musicals at under 50 bucks. I only hesitated a minute before running down to the bank to refresh my wallet. Didn't even miss my bus.
I have only watched two of them so far, "Babes in Arms," and "Girl Crazy." Bookends, the first and the last of that collaboration. Early on in the first film, Mickey is sitting at the piano while Judy sings "Good morning, good morning...it's great to be out late...good morning, good morning, to you." It's a cheerful, upbeat ditty written by Arthur Freed, producer of the movie, and his song writing partner Nacio Herb Brown. I think Judy was seventeen when she made the movie. Standing by the piano she is dressed demurely, looking perky, neat and stylish, with a wicked little sparkle in her eye. She and Mickey are in a music publisher's office trying to sell this, Mickey's latest song. Toward the end of the song Mickey sees he has caught the interest of the music publisher and he looks at Judy and says, "Hit it, mama!" And boy, does she hit it. Judy Garland could deliver more smoldering sexuality by just arching an eyebrow than Paris Hilton can dream of by spreading her legs.
The plot sounds corny. Judy and Mickey are both children of vaudeville parents who have been put out of work by 'talking pictures.' A social worker threatens to put the children of all the out of work performers into reform school so they can learn honest trades. While all the adults are on the road trying to restart their careers, Mickey decides to organize a show using the talents of all the kids left behind and put it on in a local barn.
It isn't so corny when you know that both Mickey and Judy were children of vaudeville performers, and that when Mickey became MGM's top star he persuaded Louis B. Mayer to hire his father, who was playing in a run down L.A. burlesque house, for the studio. One of the threads of the movie plot duplicates this real life experience of the real Mickey Rooney.
Judy Garland I have always been in love with, but I have never known that much about Mickey Rooney. The more I know about him, though, the more I like him. He made his stage debut at the age of 17 months, and he worked constantly from then on. It was work he loved, not really distinguishing his life from his work. He could do everything: dance, sing, play piano, play drums, write songs. Many of the big stars who knew him said he was the most talented movie actor ever. A bonus disc in the set replays an interview he did as an old man for TV that really helps to give a sense of what it was like to be Mickey Rooney, and I envy him. All that exuberant youth erodes inexorably into old age and death, but what a life to look back on. I'm absolutely certain he was in love with Judy, has been in love with her all his long life, and not even Ava Gardner, to whom he was married for three years, was a satisfactory substitute. Mickey Rooney was definitely a guy with little man's syndrome who punched above his weight! Everyone was above his weight! Even Frank Sinatra had trouble handling Ava. Now that I do know more about what kind of a person he was, I have developed a real fondness for him, and the more I see of his work, the more respect I have for him. Singing and dancing,and kissing some of the most beautiful women who have ever lived...it was a tough job, but somebody had to do it. And what a gift to the world these performances are. When you watch his movies you can see that Mickey was often better than his scripts. By the way, Mickey did his duty and went to war when his country called, earning a few medals in the process.
"Girl Crazy" was an an adaptation of a Gershwin Broadway production and has a lot of great songs. As with all Hollywood adaptations it's a mixture of good and bad. Hollywood had trouble just leaving things alone without adding overblown spectacle. Sometimes it works and you just have to accept it on its own terms, like Busby Berkeley's infatuation with Art Deco effects. But when Gershwin's music is involved any embellishment amounts to gilding the lily, and we have just a little too much embellishment in this production. At least Arthur Freed didn't try to shoehorn one of his own songs into it. He wrote good songs but he was no Gershwin. However, many of the songs were over orchestrated, and some good songs were removed from the score. But believe me, Mickey and Judy could rescue any song from maltreatment and they make the movie a delight all the way through.
For anyone who loves music and great singing and dancing, this set is highly recommended. I know I'm going to be able to enjoy watching these movies over and over again.

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