Quite a pair of showstoppers

Times Staff Writer

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were a couple of swells -- energetic, even frenetic, they had marvelous comedy timing, and of course danced and sang their hearts out. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the two made a series of “barnyard musicals” produced by Arthur Freed at MGM.

This Tuesday, Warner Home Video is releasing four films in the tune-filled “Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland Collection.” And what captivated audiences 60 years ago is as fresh and endearing today.

Born in 1920, Rooney began his career in vaudeville when he was 17 months old. Garland, born in 1922, also was a vaudeville baby, singing with her sisters when she was just a toddler. By the mid-1930s, both were teenagers being groomed for superstardom at MGM. Studio head Louis B. Mayer first cast them together in the forgettable 1937 “Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry” and reunited them the following year for the charming “Love Finds Andy Hardy.”

But the studio hit pay dirt with 1939’s “Babes in Arms,” for which Rooney was nominated for a best actor Oscar. Among his competitors were Laurence Olivier for “Wuthering Heights” andClark Gable for “Gone With the Wind.”


Rooney was the No. 1 box-office draw of the year, which was also a pivotal one for Garland. Besides “Babes in Arms,” she starred in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Directed and staged by Busby Berkeley, who created those surreal musical numbers for “42nd Street” and “Golddiggers of 1933,” this musical drama stars Rooney and Garland as the offspring of vaudevillians who decide to put on a show featuring all the kids of old vaudevillians living in Seaport, Long Island. But they have to do the show before narrow-minded Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton of “Wizard” fame), the head of the welfare board, sends them to work school. Naturally, in the Mickey and Judy universe, everything turns out fine.

“Babes in Arms” was loosely based on the hit Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart Broadway musical but only retained three of the show’s songs, -- the title tune, “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Where or When.”

Freed added a few of his old compositions such as “You Are My Lucky Star” to the mixture and wrote the charming “Good Morning” with Nacio Herb Brown. Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, who penned the songs for “Wizard,” wrote the patriotic finale “God’s Country.”

The musical numbers -- save for an embarrassing black-faced minstrel number -- are high-spirited fun.

The film was such a hit that Mayer got Freed to quickly reunite Mickey and Judy for another “Let’s put on a show!” musical, 1940’s “Strike Up the Band.” Once again, it’s the chemistry between the stars and the songs that make “Strike” watchable. This time around, Rooney plays a high school band drummer who persuades the school’s principal to let him turn the band into a swing orchestra. The orchestra is such a hit that Rooney decides to put on a show in order to raise money to get the young musicians to Chicago to enter bandleader Paul Whitman’s school band contest on the radio. Garland plays Mary Holden, the singer in the swing orchestra, who loves Rooney though she nearly loses him to a new student, a rich and precious young blond bombshell. (June Preisser).

Though Garland shares top billing with Rooney, “Strike” is really a showcase for his talents -- comedy, drumming, singing, playing the piano and dancing.

Garland, though, does get her chance to glow, singing “Nobody” and the infectious “La Conga.” And the two are adorable performing the Oscar-nominated “Our Love Affair.” The film ends with a lavish, flag-waving “Strike Up the Band,” brilliantly staged by director Berkeley


In 1942’s “Babes on Broadway,” Mickey and Judy play struggling New York performers who stage a benefit show to raise funds for children living in a settlement house, so the orphans can go to the country. Freed hired Burton Lane to write music; brother Ralph Freed and Harburg were brought in as lyricists, though it was Arthur Freed and Lane’s “How About You?” that received an Oscar nomination.

One of Garland’s future husbands, Vincente Minnelli, came up with the clever sequence that takes place between Mickey and Judy in an old vaudeville theater in which the two re-create famous moments from the theater’s past.

A lot was going on with the stars in real life during the film’s production. Garland was a newlywed, having just married composer David Rose, the first of her five husbands; Rooney was wooing Ava Gardner, who pops up as an extra and would become his first of eight wives.

Their final musical together with Freed was 1943’s “Girl Crazy,” which features the great score by George and Ira Gershwin including “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You” and “But Not for Me.” Rooney plays a rich college playboy who is sent by his father to a small men’s mining college out West. Garland plays the feisty granddaughter of the college’s dean (Guy Kibbee), who delivers the mail to the school and keeps shunning Rooney’s advances until he ultimately wins her over.


Yes, they do put on a show -- make that a rodeo -- when the governor decides to close the school due to lack of admissions. Charles Walters, who would later become one of MGM’s top directors, was brought in as the film’s dance director; he and Garland perform the lovely “Embraceable You” number. Rooney gets his big solo number when he plays the piano with Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra’s rendition of “Fascinating Rhythm.”

A fifth disc in the set includes more than 20 of Garland’s best-loved musical numbers and Rooney’s installment in the Turner Classic Movies series “Private Screenings.”