Updated: May 28, 2019
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
“SUMMER STOCK: WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION”
Blu-ray, DVD; 1950; Not Rated; streaming via Amazon Video/Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: “Summer Stock: Get Happy!”
THERE’S a darker story lurking behind MGM’s sunny musical “Summer Stock” starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.
The two had become great friends after co-starring in Kelly’s first movie, 1942’s “For Me and My Gal.” Garland, the star, had shown the newcomer kindness and lots of support. He never forgot it. Together, they made five more musicals for MGM: “Thousands Cheer,” 1943; “Words and Music,” 1943; “Ziegfeld Follies,” 1945; “The Pirate,” 1948, and “Summer Stock,” 1950.
The film was originally intended for Garland and her old co-star Mickey Rooney. They had made several hit teen musicals together centered around “We’ve got a barn – let’s put on a show!” But Rooney’s box office appeal had diminished, and the studio wanted someone big. Kelly, just off "On the Town," didn’t want to do “Summer Stock,” but agreed to support his friend.
Garland plays Jane Falbury, who runs the New England family farm while her sister pursues acting. Character actress Marjorie Main, who became known as Ma Kettle in a series of popular comedies, plays housekeeper Esme. Ray Collins ("Citizen Kane") and Eddie Bracken play Jasper G. and Orville Wingate, father and son bankers.
Garland was in trouble. The studio was always trying to turn her into a waif, but she simply wasn’t built that way. Even critics liked her "more natural" in films such as “Meet Me in Saint Louis,” 1944, but the studio image system would not be stopped. Garland got down to 90 pounds for “Annie Get Your Gun” under a diet of pills and pressure, but couldn’t keep going. She was fired from “Annie” and replaced by Betty Hutton.
“Summer Stock” was her last chance. She jumped into it after a long rest, happy to be working with her old friend. But Garland was dancing on eggshells. A few weeks into filming, health issues began to torment her again and she asked to be released. The studio refused. She did her best to keep going, but was blindsided by depression, mood swings and paranoia. She was afraid of losing her job, but unable to show up; her weight fluctuated up and down the scale. It’s even noticeable on screen, although wardrobe did its best to hide it. Note the overalls and high-heeled loafers in early scenes. Still, Kelly did whatever he could to help her. On one bad day he took a fall, feigning an injury so she could take the day off. Scenes were filmed around her or without her. Initially meant as a trio, “Heavenly Music,” was filmed with Kelly and co-star Phil Silvers.
TCM reports that in Clive Hirschhorn’s biography of Gene Kelly, Director Charles Walters (“Lili,” 1953; “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” 1964) said it was clear Garland was in no position to work. “Gene took her left arm, and I took her right one, and between us, we literally tried to keep her on her feet. But it wasn’t easy. Emotionally she was at her lowest ebb. Physically she was pretty unsure of herself as well. There were even times when we had to nail the scenery down and provide her with supports so she wouldn’t fall over.”
Gene Kelly shows up as Joe D. Ross, producer and manager of the summer stock troupe that's about to take over Jane's farm. Jane argues with her sister Abigail (Gloria DeHaven) about allowing the actors to use the farm without asking her.
Kelly shows off some of his dancing moves as Joe.
Today, doctors would recognize Garland’s illnesses and provide better and proper medication, and therapy. But ‘40s Hollywood definitely represented the bad old days of mental health care.
“Once, I remember, she had to walk up a few steps, and she couldn’t do it. So I had to cheat the shot, and shoot the scene from a different angle. The whole experience was a ghastly, hideous nightmare which, happily, is a blur in my memory.” — Director Charles Walters
“Summer Stock” finished shooting after six long months and went on to be a success in theaters. Thanks to the behind-scenes teamwork and Garland’s own tenacity, it is impossible to tell there were any problems. She never wanted to let anyone down. The story is based on classic Garland/Rooney flicks. Garland plays Jane Falbury, keeping the family farm going while her younger – and spoiled – sister Abigail (Gloria DeHaven) strives to become a star of stage and screen. Joe D. Ross (Kelly) and his troupe of summer theater players show up one day to take over the farm, primarily the barn, to put on a musical play. Jane, who was never consulted, prepares to throw them out, but caves under her sister’s pleas setting the stage – in the barn and outside – for a series of song and dance numbers, and broad comic antics. The actors must help out on the farm, but no one knows how to milk a cow or collect eggs. They wreck the new tractor in a goofball stunt. There’s extreme silliness about fiancées, and the bank, and the straight-laced community vs. actors.
Musical numbers are, like the story, entertaining, but mostly forgettable created by a mix of five different composers. “Howdy Neighbor/Happy Harvest,” where Garland drives a tractor and sings along with the town is a stunner. Not so much in a typical musical way; it’s just weird and unforgettable. Then there’s a great dance-off challenge between Garland and Kelly, in which no one would guess there was off screen trouble at all.
There are two musical standouts, classics that make “Summer Stock” a must-see. That would be Gene Kelly’s stand alone “Newspaper” dance, where he performs a terrific soft-shoe/tap in the old barn using a creaking floor board and a double page sheet of newspaper. Then there’s the final number with Garland, “Get Happy,” written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. Arlen himself wrote “Over the Rainbow,” “Stormy Weather” and “That Old Black Magic,” all great! Koehler, who partnered with Arlen, wrote the lyrics.
Although Jane is engaged to Orville, she and Joe begin to have romantic feelings for each other in a good, old fashioned musical way.
Six months after shooting ended, MGM decided the movie needed a show-stopper finale. Garland, who had dropped 15 to 20 pounds according to TCM, was called back to preform “Get Happy” in black fedora, tights and fitted tuxedo jacket. It is one of her best numbers ever and the last she would perform for MGM, who fired her.
The new 2019 remaster from Warner Archive looks great in its 1080p (1.37:1 aspect ratio) transfer. Clips found on disc among the featurette and trailer show what an amazing restoration they did. The picture is clean and clear, with excellent saturated color and detail. We’re talking three-strip Technicolor here! It is a remarkable difference, paying homage to Garland, Kelly and Walters. Texture, contrast and background detail are also very good. The wash of consistent film grain gives “Summer Stock” fresh, cinematic appeal.
The DTS-HD 2.0 mono soundtrack is also terrific, clearly delivering well-balanced dialogue and gags, songs and dance in its classic format. Subtitles are available for those who like to sing along.
Extras include the making-of feature and critical commentary, “Summer Stock: Get Happy!” There is an audio-only outtake, “Fall in Love,” and two shorts providing a Warner Night at the Movies: the classic cartoon “The Cuckoo Clock” about a cat and an annoying clock, and a “Vintage Pete Smith Specialty Short, ‘Did’ja Know?'”
Sometimes the history behind a film is as fascinating as the movie. “Summer Stock” is a find, an enjoyable musical, and a tale of how good friends helped each other … a noble deed in any decade.
— Kay Reynolds