By the time Girl Crazy came to the screen again, Hollywood’s attitude toward musicals had changed diametrically, and with a will. A look at Clive Hirschhorn’s comprehensive coffee-table book The Hollywood Musical tells the tale: 10 musicals in 1932, when the first woebegone movie of Girl Crazy came out, versus 50 of them in 1942, the year MGM decided to do it again, and 75 in 1943, when MGM’s Girl Crazy was released. By now, musicals had become the jewels in Hollywood’s crown. Even Universal’s remake of The Phantom of the Opera had more opera and less phantom than the original silent version with Lon Chaney (sound gave Universal some wiggle room, and they decided to fill it with singing).
MGM bought the rights to Girl Crazy from RKO in 1939 at the behest of producer Jack Cummings. Cummings’s original idea was to remake the movie as a vehicle for Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell, which presumably would have shifted the emphasis back to the songs and been more in keeping with the original show. Anyhow, nothing ever came of that, but Cummings held onto the property for several years. In the meantime, his MGM colleague Arthur Freed had produced a number of successful musicals, including three teaming Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland: Babes in Arms (’39), Strike Up the Band (’40) and Babes on Broadway (’41).
In mid-1942, Freed had designer-director John Murray Anderson, musical director Johnny Green, costumer Irene Sharaff and swimming starlet Esther Williams all under contract to develop a vehicle for Williams, but a workable script had never materialized and the project remained on a back burner. So Freed went to Cummings and proposed a swap: the whole Esther Williams package for the rights to Girl Crazy as a vehicle for Mickey and Judy. Cummings liked the idea, so did Louis B. Mayer, and the thing was done. (Cummings later produced Bathing Beauty, Esther Williams’s first starring picture.) Girl Crazy went into production in January 1943 with Busby Berkeley (who had directed the three previous Mickey-and-Judy musicals) directing.
Today, Arthur Freed is considered synonymous with “MGM musicals”, as if he were the only musical producer on the lot. Not so; there were also Cummings and Joe Pasternak (who had moved over from Universal, where he built his name on Deanna Durbin’s pictures), and both got their share of the glory at the time. Still, Freed’s unit was an awfully well-oiled machine, and Freed had a knack for attracting the best talent and getting the best out of it. His production of Girl Crazy reunited two men with a nostalgic stake in doing the thing right: Roger Edens and Georgie Stoll, both of whom had come far since their days in the orchestra pit of Girl Crazy on Broadway. Stoll is credited as musical director on the picture; Edens’s credit reads “Musical Adaptation”, but that hardly scratches the surface of what Edens really did. As I said before, he was Freed’s right-hand man, much more than a “musical adaptor”, and on Girl Crazy he was virtually what would later be called a line producer — the guy actually on the set keeping an eye on things for the man in charge (i.e., Freed). And there was trouble almost immediately.
The first sequence Berkeley shot was the “I Got Rhythm” production number, which was originally planned to come about three-fourths of the way through the picture, and Edens didn’t like what he saw. “I’d written an arrangement of ‘I Got Rhythm’ for Judy,” Edens recalled, “and we disagreed basically about its presentation. I wanted it rhythmic and simply staged, but Berkeley got his big ensembles and trick cameras into it again, plus a lot of girls in Western outfits with fringed skirts and people cracking whips and firing guns all over my arrangement and Judy’s voice. Well, we shouted at each other and I said there wasn’t enough room on the lot for both of us.” (Edens exaggerated somewhat; there were no gunshots going off over Garland’s vocals. Otherwise, he has a point; the number begins to sound like the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.)
Berkeley’s working relationship with Judy Garland was unraveling as well. This was the fifth movie he directed her in — there had been For Me and My Gal (’42) in addition to the three with Rooney — and under his martinet bullying her attitude had gone from “I don’t know what I’d do without him” (on For Me and My Gal) to “I used to feel he had a big black bullwhip and was lashing me with it” (in conversation with Hedda Hopper, reported in Hopper’s autobiography). Judy was close to hysterics on the set of “I Got Rhythm”, her nervousness heightened by a stunt Berkeley designed in which she and Mickey were hoisted aloft by the ankles. The bit terrified Judy, just as a similar hoisting had when Berkeley put her through it in the “Minnie from Trinidad” number in Ziegfeld Girl (’40) — this time, making things worse for her, the bit was accompanied by dozens of pistols firing over and over again around her. After “I Got Rhythm” was in the can, Judy’s personal physician ordered her not to dance for three weeks.
To put the icing on the cake, Berkeley took nine days to shoot the number instead of the scheduled five, and he ran $60,000 over its budget.
The movie dispensed with all that nonsense about the $742.30 cab ride, but it still had playboy Danny Churchill (Rooney) making a spectacle of himself in New York. “Treat Me Rough” was the song used, performed by Tommy Dorsey’s band and sung by June Allyson. (Allyson was an MGM newcomer, simultaneously filming this one-shot while recreating her Broadway role in the studio’s movie of Best Foot Forward. By the time Girl Crazy was released, she had already made her splash in Best Foot Forward and was on her way to major stardom.)
This time, Danny’s a college student as well as a tycoon’s playboy son, and Dad (Henry O’Neill) cancels his return to Yale and sends him to his own alma mater “out west” (Cody College, the state unspecified). There, under the eye of Cody’s dean (Guy Kibbee), he is the usual fish out of water, smitten with the dean’s grandaughter, postmistress Ginger Gray (Judy). (I wonder: was the changing of the heroine’s first name a wink to Broadway’s original Molly, Ginger Rogers? How could it not be?)
From there Girl Crazy becomes a variation on the hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show formula that framed all the Mickey-and-Judy musicals, the variation this time being hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-rodeo-and-save-the-school-from-closing. The plot is within hailing distance (just barely) of Bolton and McGowan’s original book, but it’s beside the point anyway, as it was on Broadway. In 1943, with Hollywood in general, and the Freed Unit at MGM in particular, operating at an all-time peak of efficiency and self-confidence, Girl Crazy was then what it remains today: an exhilarating series of musical highlights, one after another, bathing the screen in an embarrassment of riches. Clive Hirschhorn’s succinct appraisal is oft-quoted because it’s the plain truth: “Gershwin never had it so good.”
At the risk of becoming monotonous, let us count the ways. First, of course, is that rambunctious version of “Treat Me Rough”, which June Allyson invests with an innocent tomboy eroticism (she’s like a less obnoxious Betty Hutton) that must have had the Hays Office wondering if this sort of thing was really okay, then shrugging and deciding it was all just good clean fun after all.