Crazy and Crazier, Part 1

 

 
This post has grown in the planning, to the point where I’m putting it up in two parts (maybe more; we’ll see how things shake out). I have an epic tale to tell, nothing less than the rise and fall of the Hollywood musical, as reflected in the screen career of a single property: Girl Crazy, the 1930 Broadway hit with songs by George and Ira Gershwin, book by Guy Bolton and John McGowan.

 

Girl Crazy has been made into a movie more times than any other Broadway musical. There’s a remake of My Fair Lady in the works even now, and talk of remaking Gypsy with Barbra Streisand. Musical remakes have never been entirely unheard of, especially with early sound titles as talkie technology inproved (Good News 1930 and ’47; The Vagabond King ’30 and ’56) or when a studio like MGM couldn’t think of anything better to do with its talent pool (Rose Marie ’36 and ’54, The Merry Widow ’34 and ’52 — that one with Lana Turner, no less). Plus, of course, there have been any number of TV versions of  musicals — live, taped and filmed — over the decades. Still, in Hollywood one-musical-one-movie has pretty much been the hard-and-fast rule. In that environment, Girl Crazy is unique — three movies, at three distinct stages of Hollywood musical history. I’ll come to each one in turn, but first a few words about the show itself.

 

Girl Crazy opened on Broadway on October 14, 1930 and was an immediate smash; the buzz had been terrific ever since its out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia. Much of the buzz — and nearly all of it after the New York opening — was about a 22-year-old stenographer-turned-cabaret singer from Queens making her Broadway debut in one of the show’s secondary roles: Ethel Merman (that’s her with William Kent, who played her gambler husband). Merman didn’t sing a note for most of the first act, and the audience had about decided she was just a comic support with good timing and a way with a snappy line. Then in the last scene of Act I she came out and launched into “Sam and Delilah”, the Gershwins’ bluesy pastiche riff on “Frankie and Johnny”. The audience was knocked back in their seats. Then almost immediately she hit them again with a song George and Ira might almost have written with her voice in mind (though they didn’t): “I Got Rhythm”. That one set the crowd roaring loud enough to bring down the ceiling of the Alvin Theatre. There was an encore, then another, and another — more than anyone would be able to remember later. It was one of the most amazing one-two punches in Broadway history. By intermission that first night, Ethel Merman was the new queen of the American musical, a position she wouldn’t relinquish for 36 years.
 
 

Merman’s debut alone was enough to make Girl Crazy‘s opening a Broadway landmark, but there was more. Others present that night wouldn’t make it big until later, but the fact that they were there at all is enough to make you pray for time travel. For starters, there was the man who put together the pit orchestra: Ernest Loring “Red” Nichols, age 25, one of the busiest musicians in town. He was an accomplished cornetist who could play equally well “hot” and “straight”, and he had already made hundreds of Dixieland recordings for Brunswick Records, usually with an ad hoc band billed as Red Nichols and his Five Pennies. 

Nichols was a good judge of talent, too, and was well-suited to the jazz-flavored music George Gershwin was writing for Broadway. Nichols had found the musicians to play the previous Gershwin show, Strike Up the Band, and he did the same for Girl Crazy. In the pit on opening night under George Gershwin’s baton (standing in that one night for conductor Earl Busby) were, among others, Nichols and Charlie Teagarden on trumpet, Georgie Stoll and Glenn Miller on trombone, Benny Goodman and Larry Binyon on sax, and Gene Krupa on drums. Midway through Girl Crazy‘s run, Goodman had a falling-out with Nichols and was fired, replaced by Jimmy Dorsey. All these men would be in demand, even famous, during the Big Band Era — Goodman and Miller would become legendary. Georgie Stoll went on to become a key man in the MGM music department (winning an Oscar in 1945 for Anchors Aweigh). So did Roger Edens, who moved from the pit to the role of Ethel Merman’s on-stage pianist when her keyboard man Al Siegel became ill on opening night and had to drop out of the show. Later, at MGM, Edens would be producer Arthur Freed’s right-hand man and a formative influence on the great MGM musicals of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.

Record producer Warran Scholl attended Girl Crazy several times, not only to see the show, but to hear the orchestra jam between acts. “During the intermissions,” he recalled, “they’d really turn the band loose, and you should have heard the hot stuff they played. It wasn’t like a regular pit band — more like an act within an act.”

 
Playing Girl Crazy‘s lead was 19-year-old Ginger Rogers, fresh from making her Broadway debut in Top Speed and creating a sensation purring “Cigarette me, big boy” in her first movie, Young Man of Manhattan. She had two of Girl Crazy‘s most enduring songs, “Embraceable You” and “But Not for Me”, and by all accounts handled them quite nicely. But lacking what Cole Porter later called Ethel Merman’s “golden foghorn” voice, she had to stand helplessly by while Ethel stole her thunder night after night; it would take the intimacy of the movie camera to coax her star into full bloom. (And here’s a fun fact: During rehearsals one of her dance numbers was not working exactly right, so producers Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedley asked a dancing star they knew to step in and refine the choreography as a favor, and he coached Ginger on the routine in the lobby of the Alvin during rehearsals. Yep, it was Fred Astaire.)

Rounding out the principal cast of Girl Crazy were its two nominal stars, comedians Willie Howard and William Kent, and juvenile lead Allen Kearns. (Understand, “juvenile” was a relative term in the theater of the day, denoting a romantic character type rather than age; think Dick Powell with Ruby Keeler. In fact, Kearns was 37).

With George and Ira Gershwin providing the songs; Ethel Merman, Ginger Rogers and 35 beautiful chorus girls on stage; and Red Nichols, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, Roger Edens et al. supplying the music, Girl Crazy — over and above the hit it made with audiences at the time — represents to us looking back an almost mind-boggling nexus of the burgeoning American pop music scene. If anyone ever does invent that time machine, the Alvin Theatre between October 14, 1930 and June 6, 1931 (when Girl Crazy closed) is liable to wind up bulging with millions of time-travelling buffs eager to experience the magic for themselves.
 
The magic act did have its flat spots, mainly in the form of the book by Guy Bolton and John McGowan — a weakness recognized at the time by even the most rhapsodic reviewers. The “integrated” musical, where the songs grow out of a show’s plot and characters, wasn’t unheard of then (e.g., Show Boat), but it was far from the gold standard it would become in the age of Rodgers and Hammerstein (and remain ever after). More common was the musical comedy, where the book consisted mainly of a series of elaborate, even labored, set-ups for the next song. So it was with Girl Crazy: the music presents one show, the book another, in which (as historian Ethan Mordden aptly put it) “songs drop in like guests at an open house.” In 1991, when Broadway director Mike Ockrent undertook a revival of the show, he found the book so irrelevant (and by then so dated) that a new one was commissioned from playwright Ken Ludwig. Then, figuring that since they were writing a new book they might as well embellish the score as well, they imported a raft of other Gershwin songs and came up with a whole “new” show, Crazy for You. It was another smash, running just short of four years.
 
Ockrent and Ludwig could afford to ignore Girl Crazy‘s book, but I can’t; you’ll need a grasp of the show’s original plot (such as it was) before we fall to discussing the various tweaks and prods it got once it went to Hollywood. So, as quick-and-painless as I can make it, here goes:
 
Act I opens in the sleepy village of Custerville, Arizona, where the only excitement comes when somebody shoots the sheriff, which happens about every other week. Into this rides New York playboy Danny Churchill (Allen Kearns), in a taxicab driven by Gieber Goldfarb (Willie Howard) with $742.30 on the meter. Danny’s tycoon father, appalled at his girl-crazy Manhattan hijinks, has banished him to Custerville, where there isn’t a woman for 50 miles; Danny is to stay out of trouble by managing Buzzards, the family ranch. But there is a woman in town: Molly Gray (Ginger Rogers), the local postmistress, and Danny falls for her on sight. Homesick for the fast life, he decides to turn Buzzards into a dude ranch, and soon it’s a hot spot; among the tourists it attracts are gambler Slick Fothergill (William Kent) and his wife Kate (Ethel Merman). But it also brings Tess Harding, Danny’s old girlfriend, and Sam Mason, the guy Danny beat out for Tess’s affections. Sam decides to get Danny back by wooing Molly away, which, after the typical misunderstandings, he does, persuading her to go over the border with him to San Luz, Mexico. Meanwhile, another sheriff has been assassinated, and Gieber Goldfarb runs for the vacant office against local tough Lank Sanders. When he wins, he opts to decamp to San Luz himself to flee Lank’s wrath; Slick joins him, bringing two visiting girls along to keep them company. The Act I finale finds Danny dejected at his rift with Molly, Kate consoling him (not yet knowing that her husband has gone philandering to Mexico), and everybody else on their way to San Luz.
 
Act II finds half the population of Custerville in San Luz. Danny finds Molly, bids her farewell and wishes her all the best with Sam; only after he leaves does she realize her true feelings for him, and now she fears the knowledge has come too late. But when she learns that Sam has registered them at the local hotel as husband and wife, she realizes what a cad he is and runs to Danny’s arms. Outraged, Danny blurts a threat against Sam that returns to bite him when Sam is assaulted and robbed and Danny is accused of the crime. Meanwhile, Kate confronts her cheating husband. Eventually — jeez, let’s cut to the chase — Gieber exposes Lank and his henchman Pete as the men who robbed Sam, Kate and Slick reconcile, Danny and Molly are reunited, and everybody presumably lives happily ever after back in Custerville.
 
 
 
 
Girl Crazy was still going strong when it closed on June 6, 1931; producers Aarons and Freedley had been unable to persuade Willie Howard (who for some reason they considered indispensible) to sign on for a second season. In the meantime, the movie rights to the show had been sold to RKO Radio Pictures for $33,000. 
 
And I think that’s about enough to digest for one session. When we come back, we’ll look at what happened when the show, like Danny Churchill himself, went west — not to sleepy Arizona, but all the way to the bustling environs of Tinsel Town. 
 
 
  
 

To be continued…

 

Crazy and Crazier, Part 2

 

I have this fantasy in which I imagine that a scout from RKO Radio Pictures early in 1931 is told to go see Girl Crazy on Broadway and to report back about its potential as a movie. In his report, does he say, “The score is amazing; George and Ira Gershwin have written some songs that will be sung as long as singers sing”? Or “This Ethel Merman is dynamite; she electrifies an audience and she can put a song over like an artillery barrage”? Or “Ginger Rogers is a real charmer who has already shown that she photographs well; with care she could be groomed into a major star”? Does he say any of this? He does not. Instead, this brilliant showbiz oracle tells the front office, “This might make a good vehicle for Wheeler and Woolsey.”

Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey — unlike, say, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, or the Marx Brothers — are largely forgotten today, but they still have their fans among film buffs even now. So perhaps I should let you know right up front that Wheeler and Woolsey are my personal nominees for the worst comedy team in movie history. But no matter what I think, they were hugely popular in the 1930s. Their output alone shows that audiences could hardly get enough. The Marx Brothers, for example, made 13 pictures in their entire career, from 1929 to ’49. Wheeler and Woolsey made 22 features — plus one short of their own and guest appearances in five others — just between 1929 and ’37. And they only stopped then because of Woolsey’s failing health (he died of kidney failure at 50 in 1938).

Wheeler and Woolsey were never a team in the standard showbiz sense of the day, as Woolsey was careful to point out when the two split up (briefly) after the release of Girl Crazy: “I wish it understood that Wheeler and I never really formed a team at any time. He had his manager and attorney and I had mine.” Wheeler had started in vaudeville with an act that, in retrospect, sounds like a forerunner of Andy Kaufman’s schtick: he would come out on stage with a joke book and announce that he was going to read some jokes from it, then proceed to read one corny joke after another, in such a manner that the audience would wind up roaring with laughter. Woolsey, who stood just under five foot six, had started out as a jockey and exercise boy, but when he broke his leg in a fall from a horse his racing career was over. The horse, Pink Star, went on to win the Kentucky Derby in 1907; Woolsey went into show business.

Bringing the two together was Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.’s idea; he cast them as comic supports to Ethelind Terry and J. Harold Murray in his 1927 musical extravaganza Rio Rita. When RKO bought the movie rights to Rita, they replaced the stars with John Boles and Bebe Daniels, but they brought Wheeler and Woolsey west to recreate their stage roles. Already the team dynamic was in place, and it would vary little in their following match-ups: wide-eyed naif Wheeler is bamboozled and manipulated by the fast-talking, cigar-chomping Woolsey. The two made such a hit in Rita that RKO teamed them up again (The Cuckoos) and again (Dixiana), over and over — a new picture, on average, every three months. (“They were pretty bad,” Wheeler later recalled, “but they all made money.”) Girl Crazy was their tenth, in two-and-a-half years.

 
 
Almost a third member of the (not really a) team was diminutive Dorothy Lee; she appeared in 16 of Wheeler and Woolsey’s pictures. A good physical match for Wheeler (he was five foot four, she five foot exactly), Lee served as a romantic partner for him, giving Wheeler (and the audience) a little relief from the obnoxious blowhard Woolsey always played. So it was in Girl Crazy, in which Wheeler took the role played on Broadway by Willie Howard (whose intransigence had killed the show before its time). The cabbie’s name was de-ethnicized from Gieber Goldfarb to Jimmy Deegan, the character divested of the comic Yiddish persona that was Howard’s stock in trade, and Lee brought in as Patsy, “the gal of the golden west”, to duet with Wheeler in one of only four musical numbers in the movie.  
Musicals, a novelty in the late ’20s, had worn out their welcome by 1932 and become a drug on the market; theater owners were known to reassure audiences in ads and posters that their current offering was “Not a Musical!” (The big revival with 42nd Street was still a year away.) In this atmosphere, no one at RKO was in a mood to look twice at the Gershwins’ songs in Girl Crazy. Instead, taking their cue from Willie Howard and William Kent’s being the ones with star billing on Broadway, the studio jettisoned most of the score and refashioned the book — the weakest thing about the show — to suit their hot new team. So it is that in the movie, it isn’t Eddie Quillan’s Danny Churchill who takes a taxi from Manhattan to Arizona, it’s the gambler Slick (new surname: Foster) who hops into Jimmy Deegan’s cab for the trip out west. (The lady in the back seat with Woolsey is Kitty Kelly, playing what’s left of Ethel Merman’s role.) Two huge chunks of the picture’s modest 74-minute running time are eaten up by (1) Wheeler and Woolsey’s misadventures on the road to Arizona and (2) further misadventures later, when the action adjourns to Mexico. 
 
As for those four songs, only three were from the show. The movie opens promisingly with an amusing, if abbreviated, rendition of “Bidin’ My Time”, with four singing cowboys moseyin’ along on the back of the same overburdened horse, while the camera moves through the Custerville cemetery from the grave of one luckless sheriff to the next, and the next.
 
After a cursory introduction of Danny Churchill and Molly Gray (Arline Judge), the scene switches to Wheeler and Woolsey as they set out for Custerville. Much later (or so it seems), at about the one-third mark, Girl Crazy springs briefly and unexpectedly to musical life with Kitty Kelly’s game rendition of “I Got Rhythm”, the picture’s only real production number. Like every other human being ever born, Kelly doesn’t have Merman’s voice — the idea of her repeating Merman’s feat of holding that C-above-middle-C for a full 16 bars while the orchestra rips through an entire chorus is clearly out of the question. But she belts out the song with real pizzazz (though she insists on singing “I’ve Got Rhythm”) and has an infectiously good time with it. Then the audience in the dude ranch night club joins in (oddly enough, they sing the title line correctly) for another rousing dash through the song as spotlights sweep the room back, forth, up and down. And the audience aren’t the only ones joining in: before the number is over, everything within earshot is fervidly bobbing and swaying to the music. And I mean everything — a buffalo head mounted on the wall, the bartender’s toupee, an owl in a tree, the cacti in the desert outside. Exactly who is responsible for this sequence remains a mystery that I’ll explore a little further down the page. In any case, for these 2 minutes and 47 seconds, Girl Crazy gives a tantalizing hint of the movie we might have had if things had gone…well…very differently.
 
A few minutes later comes “You’ve Got What Gets Me” a new song by George and Ira written for the movie. (In point of fact, it wasn’t entirely new; it was a reworking of another song, “Your Eyes, Your Smile”, which had been cut from the Broadway production of Funny Face before it opened in 1927.) This is a light romantic duet between Wheeler and Dorothy Lee (already a staple of their pictures together), followed by a sprightly tapdance in which they’re joined by little Mitzi Green as Wheeler’s pesky sister. Toward the end of her life, Dorothy Lee remembered Girl Crazy with bitter disgust as the movie where they photographed her behind a post (“I saw it once,” she said. “I couldn’t look at it again.”), and this frame from the dance shows she wasn’t being hypersensitive — you can just about make out her elbows (she’s dancing to the left of Wheeler). Why would anybody bother to stage a tapdance on a set dominated by an enormous vine-covered wishing well right in the middle of the floor (and seemingly taking up half of it)? It’s hard to comprehend — but then, the songs simply weren’t a priority. 
 
The absolute nadir of RKO’s Girl Crazy — lower than any of Wheeler and Woolsey’s comedy — comes with the disgraceful treatment accorded “But Not for Me”. What on Broadway had been a wistful solo of lost love by Ginger Rogers was revamped as a trio for Eddie Quillan as Danny, Arline Judge as Molly, and Mitzi Green trying to patch things up between them. Ira’s lyric was twisted around to say the exact opposite of what he wrote (“Beatrice Fairfax, don’t you dare/Ever tell me he won’t care…”), and George’s tempo was speeded up until the song sounded like a merry-go-round hurdy-gurdy. Quillan and Judge were hardly singers (which may explain the breakneck tempo, always easier for non-singers to handle), and they rush through the song as if they have to be someplace; Quillan darts off-camera before the music even tinkles to a stop. The song comes off like a playground argument between two petulant kids. It’s followed by a reprise in which Green tries to cheer Judge up by using the song to do impressions (and pretty good ones, too) of Bing Crosby, Roscoe Ates, George Arliss and Edna May Oliver. This plays oddly today, especially with audiences who never heard of Ates, Arliss or Oliver, but at least it had a counterpart in the original show: Willie Howard was famous for his impressions, and the book incorporated them by having the cabbie try to cheer Ginger Rogers’ Molly with a reprise a la Rudy Vallee and Maurice Chevalier — but only after Ginger had already given the song its full soulful due. This movie never bothers to do that.
 
That, with 16 minutes left to run, is the end of the road for the score of Girl Crazy; there are no more songs — in fact, no music at all — until a brief reprise of “I Got Rhythm” under the closing credits. “Embraceable You” was reportedly filmed (with Quillan and Judge? Really??) but didn’t make the final cut. 
 

As it happened, the final cut wasn’t final after all. Girl Crazy had begun under the regime of RKO studio chief William LeBaron; by the time it finished shooting, LeBaron was gone (though he retained screen credit), replaced by David O. Selznick. The picture’s first preview in Glendale was not well received, and Selznick ordered retakes — enough to add another $200,000 to the $300,000 already spent. Exactly what was reshot isn’t clear, but the figures alone suggest a full two-thirds of the picture as it stood. In any case, director William A. Seiter wasn’t available, so the retakes were directed (without credit) by Norman Taurog.

And this is where we run into the mystery of the “I Got Rhythm” number. Selznick may have ordered the reshooting of the song, in whole or in part (the paper trail isn’t clear), and the sequence may have been staged and directed by Busby Berkeley, who was already at RKO to stage the native dances for Bird of Paradise. Berkeley himself never said anything about it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything — after all, Dorothy Lee didn’t like to talk about Girl Crazy either, and she’s on screen. On the strength of what we can see, my own opinion is that “I Got Rhythm” is Busby Berkeley’s work lock, stock and barrel. Later, after Berkeley had made his name over at Warner Bros., dance directors at other studios would prove that Berkeley’s style was easier to recognize than to imitate, and “I Got Rhythm” is his style to a “T”; there are images and motifs that would reappear in some of his most famous routines at Warners. Besides, this number is by far the most elaborate and complex sequence in the entire picture, and could easily account for much of that extra 200 grand. Until someone shows me conclusive evidence to the contrary, I’ll continue to believe that “I Got Rhythm” is Busby Berkeley at work. Whatever the case, Berkeley, like Taurog, got no screen credit for the retakes Selznick had ordered.

The retakes didn’t help, and may have hurt; Girl Crazy failed to turn a profit. After Selznick’s tinkering, it had cost nearly twice as much as the typical Wheeler and Woolsey picture (and almost as much as King Kong); it never had a chance. It probably never had an artistic chance either; coming at exactly the moment when even mentioning a musical around Hollywood was in bad taste, Girl Crazy was a movie that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. It waffled a little, then came down on what looked like the safe side as a straight cornball comedy. RKO decided to play up the one feature of the show (the book) that Broadway audiences had tolerated only for the sake of what came with it, leaving just a skeleton crew of songs that were either inconsequential, mishandled, or too little too late. 

 

 

The following year would come the game-changer: Warner Bros. (and Busby Berkeley) with the spectacular hat trick of 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade to put musicals back in vogue again, where they would remain for decades — even Poverty Row studios like Republic, Monogram and PRC would regularly try their hands at them. But all that came too late to help RKO’s Girl Crazy. It was born before its time; the studio didn’t appreciate the property it had, and didn’t have the wit, confidence or foresight to do what should have been done with it.

All was not lost, however. Better times were coming for Girl Crazy, though it would take another 11 years. Oddly enough, Norman Taurog and Busby Berkeley would be back. And this time they’d get screen credit.

 

 

To be continued…

 
 

Crazy and Crazier, Part 3

GC-43-Poster03WBy 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.

 
So let’s recap: After less than two weeks, Girl Crazy was behind schedule and over budget. Judy Garland was frazzled, Roger Edens was furious. Obviously, Berkeley had to go. Freed removed him from the picture and replaced him with Norman Taurog.
 
Taurog hasn’t made it into any of the history books, but his was a long and useful career in Hollywood. He directed over 170 shorts and features between 1920 and 1968. In 1931, age 32, he became the youngest director to win an Academy Award (for Skippy, starring his nephew Jackie Cooper) — a record he still holds. Among his pictures at the time he took over Girl Crazy were David O. Selznick’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Boys Town (which got Spencer Tracy his second Oscar), Broadway Melody of 1940 with Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell, Young Tom Edison with Mickey Rooney, and Little Nellie Kelly with Judy Garland. Plus, remember, he had directed Selznick’s retakes on the first Girl Crazy. Now he was the  director of record for the new Girl Crazy, while the deposed Berkeley would get screen credit for directing the “I Got Rhythm” number. (With Berkeley gone, the remaining dances would be handled by Charles Walters.)
 
Things went more smoothly after that, though the shoot was arduous enough; Rooney and Garland were two of MGM’s top stars, individually as well as together, and the studio kept them busy. Girl Crazy (’43) used six of the songs from the show, with a few others (“Sam and Delilah”, “Bronco Busters”, “Barbary Coast”, etc.) either present in the incidental score or played by guest artists Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra. In addition, “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!”, “When It’s Cactus Time in Arizona” and “The Lonesome Cowboy” were originally slated to be used, but they were eliminated in rewrites of Fred Finkelhoffe’s script. Early plans to interpolate “I’ve Got a Crush on You” were also abandoned; in the end the only interpolation was an instrumental rendition of “Fascinating Rhythm” by the Dorsey band (more about that later). 

 

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.

 
Judy’s first number is “Bidin’ My Time”, which begins as the same lazy lope it was on Broadway (in one wry and witty touch, Judy steps away from her guitar for a moment and the instrument doesn’t even have the energy to fall down). From there the song blooms into a rousing western hoedown, complete with one of Cody College’s students (I wish I could identify him) doing a spirited cowboy two-step on a hot campfire griddle.
 
 
 
 
The quirky love-hate duet “Could You Use Me?” was something that Eddie Quillan and Arline Judge actually might have handled pretty well if RKO had deigned to include it in 1932. But they didn’t, and it was left to Mickey and Judy to bring it to the screen. Filmed in punishing 112-degree heat on location on a desert road outside Palm Springs (with pickup shots in the relative comfort of a soundstage back in Culver City), it’s a cheerful charmer in which Judy manages to suggest that Ginger’s resistance to Danny’s brash advances is already beginning to melt.
 
 
 
 
 
“Embraceable You” is presented at a party for Ginger, which includes the movie’s only non-Gershwin interpolation: a chorus of “Happy Birthday to You” from Cody College’s assembled student body. Judy sings to the boys, then dances with them all, one by one and in groups, with an extended pas de deux with dance director Charles Walters. Later, after graduating to full direction himself, Walters helmed Judy in Easter Parade (’48), Summer Stock (’50), and her triumphant one-woman show at Broadway’s Palace Theatre in 1951.
 
 
 
When Danny Churchill attends a party at the Governor’s Mansion to lobby against the closing of Cody, he meets up with his old pal Tommy Dorsey, and that sets the stage for a nifty piece of Big Band Era history: Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra in a marvelous pop-concert rendition of “Fascinating Rhythm”. It’s a jumpin’ arrangement, and features a solo by “Danny Churchill” on piano. In fact, Mickey Rooney’s playing was dubbed by Arthur Schutt; still, as his keyboard fingering in the scene makes clear, Rooney was an accomplished pianist himself, and he still speaks of the thrill of getting to perform “Fascinating Rhythm” with Dorsey and his band. (No doubt, even though the number had been prerecorded on MGM’s music stage, the band — including guest soloist Rooney — played for real on the set.)
 
 
 That party leads to the inevitable misunderstanding when Ginger believes Danny has returned to his girl-crazy ways with the governor’s daughter (Frances Rafferty). It all gets sorted out in time for a happy ending, natch, but not before Judy Garland gets the opportunity — hallelujah! — to redeem the tawdry vandalism of “But Not for Me” back in 1932. This is not only the high point of Girl Crazy — it’s the high point of Judy Garland’s entire career. With all due respect to “Over the Rainbow”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, “The Man That Got Away” or anything else you care to name, this is Judy’s best. Co-star Gil Stratton talked about watching the number being shot and said “it was something you ought to have paid admission to see.” The simplicity of Taurog’s staging, the delicate cinematography of William Daniels, and the combined artistry of Judy and and the Gershwin brothers all fuse into the kind of magic that the Hollywood of 1943 had led audiences to take for granted. Judy Garland was as good as it got, then or ever after, and here’s the proof.
 
Originally, Girl Crazy was to end with a reprise of “Embraceable You”, Mickey and Judy surrounded by the rest of the cast as the orchestra swells up and out. But Busby Berkeley’s flamboyant staging of “I Got Rhythm”, scheduled to come almost 20 minutes before the end, threatened to turn anything that followed into a dribbling anticlimax. There was some hurried reshuffling of the script and music, and Girl Crazy as it was released on November 26 ended with “I Got Rhythm”. It must have positively galled Roger Edens; he’d gotten his way and had Berkeley canned from the picture, and now here was Berkeley literally getting the last word — cracking whips, firing guns and all. But it was the right call, and, however grudgingly, Edens probably had to admit it.
 
The number, over the top as it is, is a slam-bang wow, with none of the strains and stresses on the set visible on screen. If we’ve been denied a permanent record of Ethel Merman singing “I Got Rhythm” in 1932, then at least having Judy Garland singing it in 1943, and dancing it with Mickey Rooney, is certainly a fair trade.
 
Inevitably, Girl Crazy was a boffo hit, the most profitable (as well as the last) of their four starring vehicles. It’s also arguably their best (although I don’t think the point is arguable at all; it absolutely is). A pity it wasn’t made in Technicolor, but ah well — at MGM in those days, Technicolor was still regarded as an expensive gimmick that the Mickey-and-Judy musicals didn’t need; they were money in the bank no matter what. (Their only Technicolor appearance would be a specialty number in 1948’s Words and Music; Judy played herself, Mickey played lyricist Lorenz Hart in a duet to “I Wish I Were in Love Again”.) Girl Crazy is the product of the Hollywood factory at its smoothest and most assured, with two stars at the peak of their youth, charm, energy and mutual affection. Who could ask for anything more?
 
 
The next time Girl Crazy came to the screen, it would have the color (Metro-, not Techni-) that this version lacked, but that’s about all. Still, considering the chaotic and uncertain atmosphere abroad in Hollywood at the time, it’s remarkable that the third outing didn’t turn out even worse than it did.

Crazy and Crazier, Part 4

The 1960s were, in a literal if not a figurative sense, a golden age for movie musicals; they made more money (a total of over $250 million, real money back then) and won more awards (four best picture Oscars, plus a more-than-respectable smattering of acting awards) than they ever had before or would again. There were West Side Story, Gypsy, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, Funny Girl, Oliver!…

But there were also Star!; Doctor Dolittle; Camelot; Hello, Dolly!; Paint Your Wagon…huge (even bloated), expensive productions that contributed to that quarter-billion box office, but not enough to turn a profit for themselves.

There were other signs that, literal golden age or not, the figurative Golden Age (the real one) had passed. The industry had spent the entire 1950s staggering from the double blows of the advent of television and the U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust suit that broke up Hollywood’s efficient production/distribution/exhibition system. Desperate to balance the books, studios sharply curtailed or even eliminated the infrastructure that made musicals (always an expensive proposition) at least viable on a regular basis: music departments, rosters of contract players, in-house writers, orchestrators and dance directors. At MGM, for example, the Arthur Freed, Jack Cummings and Joe Pasternak units all withered on the vine. Freed produced his last musical, Bells Are Ringing, in 1960, and it barely broke even; after two more pictures (The Subterraneans and Light in the Piazza) he had pretty much retired. (He nursed a forlorn hope through the late ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s of producing Say It With Music, an epic biopic of Irving Berlin’s life and songs, to no avail.)

Tastes in popular music had also changed, and Hollywood’s old guard, though game to try, was ill-equipped to cope. In a metaphorical but very real sense, Hollywood was torn between West Side Story and The Sound of Music on one hand, and Jailhouse Rock and A Hard Day’s Night on the other.

 It was in this atmosphere, right smack in the middle of the decade, that Girl Crazy emerged in its third and final screen incarnation. It was planned as a vehicle for pop chanteuse Connie Francis. Her popularity was just beginning to wane under the onslaught of the Beatles-led British Invasion, but we can see that only in retrospect; at the time she seemed as popular as ever. And she was very popular indeed — the first female to have two consecutive number one hits (“Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” and “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own” in 1960) and the youngest entertainer to headline in Las Vegas and at New York’s Copacabana (that same year). Also in 1960, Francis made her screen debut in MGM’s Where the Boys Are (and had another big hit with the title tune). It was the custom in those days, when a singer had a hit song, to make the follow-up single as much like the hit as possible, so MGM and Francis followed Where the Boys Are with Follow the Boys. And that’s why, when the studio decided to revamp Girl Crazy for Connie Francis, the show got a new title (and a new song for Connie to croon): When the Boys Meet the Girls.
Connie’s co-star was Harve Presnell, a veteran of the opera and concert stage who had made a splash on Broadway in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, then won a Golden Globe for the movie version opposite Debbie Reynolds. At that stage of his career he was tall and handsome, with a lush baritone voice — a slightly younger, blonde version of Howard Keel. But his timing couldn’t have been worse: By 1965 not even Keel was getting enough work to keep him busy; he hadn’t made a musical since Kismet in 1955, and had segued into straight acting roles. Presnell would have a tougher time of that; as a screen actor he was a little stiff, without Keel’s comfort in front of a camera. He made one more major movie, stealing Paint Your Wagon from Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin with his rendition of “They Call the Wind Maria”, then it was back to regional theater and Broadway tours until he returned to movies as a character actor in his 60s and 70s. Things worked better for him then; the stiffness that had looked a bit wooden in his youth seemed more like patrician dignity in his senior years, and he had a distinguished second career in movies (Fargo, Saving Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers, Evan Almighty) before dying of pancreatic cancer at 75 in 2009.
 
But all that was still decades in the future in 1965. For now he was Danny Churchill, following in the shallow footsteps of Eddie Quillan and the much heftier ones of Mickey Rooney. Danny is a grad student this time (Presnell was 31, after all) at an all-male eastern college, and he creates a scandal by smuggling a troupe of spangled showgirls into the annual college show. Banished to Cody College near Reno, Nev., he meets and falls for postmistress Ginger Gray (Francis) and hatches a plot to turn her property into “a dude ranch for divorcees” as a way of keeping Ginger’s ne’er-do-well father (Frank Faylen) too busy to blow the family savings at Reno’s crap tables.
 
On balance, When the Boys Meet the Girls isn’t really a hopelessly bad movie. Personally, I find it easier to take than 1932’s Girl Crazy, though someone with a higher tolerance for Wheeler and Woolsey might disagree. But its handful of pleasures are fortuitous, not deliberate. The picture is undone — or more precisely, much of it is left undone — by two major factors in its production.
 

First of all, there was what we shall charitably call the movie’s “creative team”. They were, almost to a man, a gaggle of second-rate hacks — from producer Sam Katzman through director Alvin Ganzer and writer Robert E. Kent to musical director Fred Karger. Katzman has a handful of memorable “B” titles (It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), some low-camp legends (Rock Around the Clock, Cha-Cha-Cha Boom!) and a couple of lesser Elvis Presley vehicles on his shoddy resume, but by and large, we’re slumming even to mention his name. Ganzer directed only two features besides this one — The Girls of Pleasure Island (’53) and Three Bites of the Apple (’67) — in a career devoted almost exclusively to undistinguished piecework on this or that TV series.

In addition to the mediocrity of the men in charge — and perhaps because of it — When the Boys Meet the Girls has the air of a movie that simply doesn’t know why it is being made, who its target audience is, or even what it is selling. For example, compare the three posters with which I began my post on each Girl Crazy picture: 

 

The poster for Girl Crazy (1932)
knows exactly what it’s selling:
For better or for worse (and it
seemed like a good idea at the
time) the big draw is Wheeler
and Woolsey; their faces and
names dominate the graphics
completely, suggesting
hilarity unrestrained.

It’s the same with Girl Crazy
(1943): Mickey Rooney, Judy
Garland, and a bonus plug for
Tommy Dorsey and his band,
with a cartoon bucking cow
(a cow??) offering the
promise of a barrel of
rollicking fun.

Now When the Boys Meet
the Girls. I’ve reproduced
each poster small, deliberately,
to show that for the ’32 and
’43 posters the main idea still
comes through. But with this
one you can barely even make
out the title.

 

Now give your eyes a break and scroll back up to the larger version of the When the Boys poster. Can you even guess what that poster is selling? Herman’s Hermits? Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs? Or what? Connie and Harve get top billing under the title, and two figures meant to represent them dominate the poster, more or less, but only in closed-off profiles that barely resemble them; Presnell’s image doesn’t look like him at all.

And say, how about that lineup of featured acts? Did you ever imagine you’d see them all together in one place? Besides Connie and Harve to carry the boy-meets-wins-loses-and-wins-girl-back plot, you have…

 
 
 
…Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs at the beginning of their brief mid-’60s vogue, here singing “Monkey See, Monkey Do” (not one of their hits) at the college show, flanked by two of Danny Churchill’s buddies dolled up as the ugliest go-go dancers in history…

 

 

…Herman’s Hermits, with special “Also Starring” billing, no less. Here they’re singing “Listen, People”, which was one of their hits, and the only hit to come out of the movie that wasn’t already a Gershwin standard. Peter Noone (“Herman”) even had a few lines of dialogue, and the Hermits also delivered “Bidin’ My Time”. But more on that later; for now, back to the lineup…

 
 
 
 
…Louis Armstrong, supposedly headlining at the bad guys’ casino in Reno. Here he’s performing one of his own compositions, “Throw It Out Your Mind”. Satchmo’s always a pleasure, of course, but it’s a pity he doesn’t give us something by Gershwin — Merman’s old number “Sam and Delilah”, for example; he would have had fun with that. Anyhow, moving right along, we come to…
 
 
…Davis and Reese. (Who????) That’s Pepper Davis (left) and Tony Reese, one of those cocktail lounge comic-and-crooner duos that hooked up in those days hoping to duplicate whatever it was that made Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis the kings of showbiz for a while. Here, they’re doing an interview-the-punch-drunk-boxer routine that was stale even before they cribbed it from Allen and Rossi. Davis and Reese did a few TV spots but never really went anywhere; this was probably the pinnacle of their joint career…
 
 
GC-65-Fr10-Liberace02W…and finally (drum roll, please), Liberace! No, he doesn’t play “Rhapsody in Blue” or reprise the Mickey Rooney/Arthur Schutt solo on “Fascinating Rhythm”. He performs “Aruba Liberace”, his own Latin-beat concoction sampling Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” (and probably other classical pieces that I couldn’t identify). Say what you will about old Lee, he knew how to put on a show (“Well, look me over; I didn’t get dressed like this to go unnoticed.”). He has fun at the keyboard, and he shares it with the audience.
 
What a roster, eh? To think poor Mickey and Judy had to content themselves with just Tommy Dorsey.

Seriously, can’t you just smell the sweaty desperation behind this kind of programming? This isn’t a vaudeville or a variety show, it’s Sam Katzman and his henchmen throwing everything they can think of at the screen, all the while hoping to God someting will stick.

 

Does any of it stick? Well, Liberace is a hoot, for starters. But there are other rewards on hand. Both Harve Presnell and Connie Francis have a quite creditable go at “Embraceable You” — starting with Harve, on the occasion of Danny Churchill first setting eyes on the winsome Ginger…

 

 

…then later Connie, on a moonlit night after Ginger has gotten to know Danny and started to fall for him.

Later still, after the inevitable misunderstanding — prompted this time by the arrival of Danny’s gold-digging ex-girlfriend Tess Raleigh (Sue Ane Langdon) — Harve and Connie do very nicely indeed on “But Not for Me”. It’s a sort of separate duet with each taking a verse, first Ginger in her bedroom, then Danny in his, then the two together, joined by a split screen — the movie’s one creative use of the Panavision frame. True, Connie Francis and Harve Presnell don’t measure up to Judy Garland on either of these songs, but there’s no shame in that — nobody could. On both numbers, Connie and Harve are in their element and entirely at ease; as a result, their performances of the songs are simple, heartfelt and effective. Liberace’s number may be the most fun in When the Boys Meet the Girls, but “Embraceable You” and “But Not for Me” are the most Gershwin. If you saw only the clips of these two songs, you would come away with the impression that When the Boys Meet the Girls is a lot better than it really is.

Things are a little rockier on “I Got Rhythm”, here as in 1932, the movie’s one major production number. Once again, they sing “I’ve Got Rhythm” — an annoyance, but a recurring one where this song is concerned. More troublesome this time is the pace and style of the number, a laid-back, casual approach that tries for a kind of ring-a-ding hipster cool, like Frank Sinatra in his finger-snapping-loose-collar-narrow-tie-sportcoat-slung-over-the-shoulder phase. No disrespect to Old Blue Eyes, but it doesn’t exactly make for an energetic musical delivery:

“I’ve [beat! beat!] got rhy-(beat!)-thm (beat! beat!)…” 

 
 
 
When the number moves to the construction site where Danny and the Cody College students are building their dude ranch, Connie and Harve make an awkward dance couple; she doesn’t even come up to his shoulders (a problem Mickey and Judy never had to deal with).
 

 

 

 

So naturally the boys… 

 
 
 
 
 
 
GC-65-Fr09-Rhythm04W…and the girls take over the dancing chores. There’s nothing wrong with all this, exactly, but it’s too self-consciously smooth and loosey-goosey to whip up any excitement on the wide screen. The number is like something pulled together in a few days to back up a guest star on The Andy Williams Show. You find yourself longing to hear Tommy Dorsey and his blaring, driving brass and to see Busby Berkeley’s caffeinated choristers with their whips, guns and stomping military precision.
 

This lackadaisical rendition of “I Got Rhythm” brings us to the man who was probably the most resolutely second-rate personage involved with When the Boys Meet the Girls. His name was Fred Karger, and his on-screen credit is “Music Scored and Conducted By”. Karger had spent years in the music department at Columbia Pictures making hardly a ripple; his biggest coup to date had been writing the tune for “Gidget”. On When the Boys Meet the Girls, besides scoring and conducting, he wrote the song “Mail Call” (with Ben Weisman and Sid Wayne), which did not add to Connie Francis’s string of hits.

It’s safe to assume that Sam the Sham, Louis Armstrong and Liberace all handled their own music without any interference, so Karger’s work here probably boils down to the treatment of the five Gershwin songs. He neither helped nor hindered Connie and Harve with his arrangements of “Embraceable You” and “But Not for Me”, and his pointless rewriting of “Treat Me Rough” didn’t keep Sue Ane Langdon from squeezing a little fun out of it with her kitten-with-a-whip delivery. Otherwise, Karger was careless, even downright sloppy.

I’ve already mentioned Karger’s mushy, low-watt arrangement of “I Got Rhythm”, which offered scant inspiration to choreographer Earl Barton and his dancers. Karger was also careless with Ira Gershwin’s lyrics, beyond the addition of that “ve” to the title of “I Got Rhythm”; he fiddled with almost every line Ira wrote, either killing the rhyme (“There’s no regrettin’/When I’m set-ting“) or killing the sense (changing “Although I can’t dismiss” to “And yet I can’t dismiss” in “But Not for Me”) time and time again — then repeating the mistake, as if to prove he did it on purpose.

 

But one of Karger’s bright ideas really goes beyond the pale, and that’s in his treatment of “Bidin’ My Time”. The number is given to Herman’s Hermits, sitting on and around a flatbed truck while the rest of the young cast gets busy building Ginger’s dude ranch. At first things seem to go well with the song: it’s an almost witty idea, handing this lazy cowboy lullaby to these slightly nerdy lads from Manchester. Peter Noone’s wispy tenor voice slides nicely into the verse, then the refrain moves into a ricky-ticky soft-samba rhythm similar to the Beatles’ version of “Till There Was You”. Then, trouble. Now as just about everybody but Fred Karger and Peter Noone knew by 1965, the song is supposed to go like this:

“I’m bidin’ my ti–ime
‘Cause that’s the kinda guy I–I’m…”

But no. Instead we get: 

“I’m biding my ti–ime
‘Cause that’s the kind of guy I…am…”

If there is such a thing as lyrical tone-deafness, this is surely it. It not only kills the rhyme, it kills the whole joke of the song. It’s like that old comedy routine of the clueless singer tackling the Gershwins’ “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” for the first time: “You say ee-ther, and I say ee-ther / You say nee-ther, and I say nee-ther…” Only here it is, so to speak, with a straight face. After that clunker, nothing Herman or the Hermits can do will save the song; we just have to cringe our way through to the end. Fred Karger was about as far from Roger Edens and Georgie Stoll as anyone could get and still be able to read music; this proves it.

On that sour note I’ll close this look at When the Boys Meet the Girls. As I said, the picture’s not a total loss, thanks to the talents of Connie Francis and Harve Presnell, plus a certain amount of blind monkeys-and-typewriters luck. Twenty years earlier, both Connie and Harve might have left a stronger legacy. Especially Connie; with the guidance of a Roger Edens, and with more directors like Henry Levin and Richard Thorpe (on her first two pictures) and fewer like Alvin Ganzer (on this one), she might have had the nurturing that Doris Day got over at Warner Bros., and might have made more than the four movies she did (When the Boys Meet the Girls was her last). Harve would still have had to contend with Howard Keel, but there was room for a deep talent pool at MGM in the ’40s and early ’50s. By the time Harve showed up in 1964, or even Connie in 1960, the support system just wasn’t there.

*                         *                         *

Well, friends, there you have it, just as I promised at the beginning of this series — the full arc of the Golden Age of the Hollywood Musical, encapsulated in the fortunes of one legendary Broadway show:

 

Girl Crazy (1932) was the product of a time when musicals looked passe, so the deathless Gershwin score was shouldered aside to make room for a brand of verbal comedy that looked like the coming thing. But the musical was poised on the cusp of a Great Revival; the talent was present and in good working order, though it hadn’t found its footing yet, and the techniques that would make the Hollywood musical something distinctly different from its Broadway cousin were still being discovered and developed.

 

A scant third-of-a-century later came When the Boys Meet the Girls — a movie not without talent, but with a vacuum at the top occupied by humdrum nonentities who simply didn’t know what they were doing — and at mighty MGM, no less. It was as if Arthur Freed, Roger Edens, Jack Cummings and Joe Pasternak had cleaned out their offices, tucking the studio’s only copies of How to Make a Movie Musical into their briefcases before turning out the lights.

 

 

But in between those two — that was a whole other story. The stars (in every sense of the word) were perfectly aligned, and the final product could hardly miss because it was designed not to miss. Designed by producer Arthur Freed, who had come to movies with sound and stretched his producer’s muscles first on The Wizard of Oz; designed by Roger Edens and Georgie Stoll, who had been with the show on Broadway and knew in their bones and fingertips the vitality of the Gershwin score; designed by Busby Berkeley, who had jump-started the Golden Age and still knew a trick or two, whether Roger Edens liked it or not. And it was designed for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, just about the most talented individuals who ever faced a camera. Girl Crazy (1943) was what happened when the factory’s mechanisms were all in place and well-tended:  the vehicle came off the line humming like a top, and if it had to fly, it soared.