Rooney & Garland still have it: “Strike Up the Band” & “Girl Crazy”

Updated: Jul 27


BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS

Judy Garland as high schooler Mary Holden and Mickey Rooney as senior Jimmy Connors provides hot Latin dancing during the six-minute “Do the La Conga.”



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“STRIKE UP THE BAND: WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION”

Blu-ray, 1940, unrated

Best extra: Introduction by Mickey Rooney












AT FIRST, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were just classmates. Mary MacDonald was the hired teacher at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s bungalow schoolhouse for the hopeful child stars. Garland, the former Frances Gumm, had been on contract since she was 13, and Rooney was two years older.

During the studio’s peak of the 1930s and ‘40s, MGM boasted that they had “more stars than there are in heaven,” as Hollywood’s dream factory. Rooney’s career first took off in 1935, with his role as Andy Hardy, the son of a small-town judge. Theater owners and Depression audiences across America demanded more Hardy movies. MGM would produce 13 more over the next decade and Judy Garland eventually became Rooney’s co-star. The duo would also appear in a number of musicals, including “Strike Up the Band,” and “Girl Crazy.”

The teenagers were notoriously similar – including in their short stature – which made them a perfect on-screen match for singing and dancing. They also shared a history as performers on the stage, in their families’ vaudeville acts, from the time they could talk.


(1) “Strike Up the Band” made $3.5 million for MGM. (2) Jimmy Connors arrives home at 2 a.m. after practicing drums. (3) Mrs. Connors (Ann Showmaker) waits up for her son. (4) Jimmy recruits Mary Holden to sing vocals for his proposed high school swing orchestra.





Garland’s big break happened the night she sang “You Made Me Love You” to MGM’s biggest star, Clark Gable, on his birthday. After her performance, Gable gave Garland a kiss, and the 14-year-old ran over to studio tycoon Louis B. Mayer’s outstretched arms, and climbed into his lap.

It’s reported that the controlling and mercurial Mayer insisted his protégée sit on his lap on numerous occasions, while Garland and other “juvenile stars” were fed amphetamines to get through the studio’s long days, and to help control Garland’s weight. Sleeping pills were administered at night. The actress’ dependence on drugs would affect her health and career until her death at 47, from an overdose of barbiturates.

By 1939, when Garland appeared in the musical “The Wizard of Oz,” the Hardy movies were making half the studio’s yearly box office, while MGM pumped out 52 movies a year.

Rooney and Garland were sent on endless promotional tours and did dozens of live shows a week, with reportedly no days off. Garland developed a huge crush on the older Rooney, while he kept his distance romantically. As he hit his twenties, he became a loose cannon around Hollywood, attending wild parties and carousing with older women, including actress Norma Shearer, 20 years his senior. He eventually fell in love with new MGM starlet Ava Gardner. Despite Mayer forbidding the marriage, the couple had a small wedding, but it didn’t last long due to reports of his infidelity.


(1) Jimmy meets Marys mother (Virginia Brissac). (2) Jimmy and Mary go to Mr. Judds (Francis Pierlot) home, the school principal, to propose the modern dance orchestra. (4) Jimmy will conduct the swing band.





After the success of Rooney and Garland’s first “backyard” musical “Babes in Arms” (1939) from director/musical choreographer Busby Berkeley, MGM producer Arthur Freed and Mayer pushed for another onscreen union. This time it was “Strike Up the Band,” featuring the Gershwin brothers’ march-like song of the same name, which was rehearsed, filmed and premiered between March and September of 1940 with an $850,000 budget. Its box office hit $3.5 million.

During the Blu-ray featurette, which Rooney taped in 2007, he calls “Our Love Affair,” the duet he and Garland sang, by MGM composer Roger Edens with lyrics by Freed, “one of the most beautiful moments ever written.” Frank Sinatra, with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, recorded the song the same year and it reached No. 5 on Billboard charts. Rooney says the film gave them the opportunity for some comedy, recreating the “old melodrama” shows from the turn of the century. And they got a chance to work with some of their best friends, including uncredited actors Sidney Miller, Leonard Sues, and William Tracy, Larry Nunn, Margaret Early, and June Preisser.

Rooney’s love for the drums fits perfectly into the storyline, with his role as Jimmy Connors, a drummer in the Riverwood High School Band. He wants to create a school swing band and convinces his pal Mary Holden, played by Garland, to be the band’s vocalist. They hope to compete in a national radio contest organized by real-life bandleader Paul Whiteman, and his orchestra.

The six-minute musical number “Do the La Conga” is the film's high point, with Berkeley's trademark choreography, as Rooney and Garland sing and dance, showcased by dynamic camera movements and editing. Animator George Pal provides a short sequence with fruit playing instruments, an idea sparked by Garland’s future second husband Vincente Minnelli, who was a promising MGM director in waiting. Garland and Vincente would team up a few years later for one of MGM’s biggest musicals, “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), filmed in Technicolor — a rarity during World War II. During that production, Judy divorced her first husband, British composer and bandleader David Rose, and married Minnelli in June of 1945, with Mayer giving her away at the altar.




“Do the La Conga”

(1-5) The six-minute musical number “Do the La Conga,” with music and lyrics by MGM composer Roger Edens.



(1) Jimmy plays the drums for bandleader Paul Whiteman. (2) New student Barbara Frances Morgan (June Preisser) pursues Jimmy. (3) The way dad loved medicine, thats the way I love music, Jimmy tells his mother. (4) Jimmy and Mary visit their friend Willie Brewster (Larry Nunn) in the hospital.










“GIRL CRAZY: WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION”

Blu-ray, 1943, unrated

Best extra: An excellent commentary with film historian John Fricke











New York playboy Danny Churchill Jr. (Mickey Rooney) arrives in Codyville and bumps into Ginger Gray (Judy Garland), a U.S. Postal worker, whos a favorite with all of the male students at Cody College.




GIRL CRAZY” is another musical comedy with George and Ira Gershwin music from start to finish, based on an original 1930 stage musical that made Ginger Rogers into a star. An earlier RKO film adaptation from 1932 was unlike the Broadway play, but MGM’s version, written by the original writers Guy Bolton and Jack McGowan, became one of the top money-making movies from 1943 to 1944. It was also the ninth of 10 films Rooney and Garland co-starred in, and the fourth and final musical produced for them by Freed and company. “Arguably, it’s the best of those four pictures,” says film historian John Fricke during his commentary.

The storyline for “Girl Crazy” is more adult in tone, as Rooney plays New York playboy Danny Churchill Jr., the son of a newspaper publisher. He keeps getting into the headlines with his nighttime escapades, and his father decides to send Danny to Cody, a western mining college in the middle of nowhere.

The exterior desert scenes were filmed near Palm Springs, Calif., so Rooney could have a working vacation. Temperatures topped 100, and the two stars suffered sunburn and sandstorms, making the 10-day shoot not much of a holiday at all. Danny gets off the train in what looks like Arizona and starts walking eight miles toward the campus. He meets attractive Ginger Gray, played by Garland, whose old U.S. Mail car is broken down.



(1) Girl Crazywas the last Rooney and Garland musical, that finished production in the spring of 1943 and made $3.7 million. (2) Peppy actress June Allyson singing “Treat Me Rough” to Danny Churchill at a club in NYC. (3) Danny tells Ginger, “The government is making a big mistake. They oughtta...they oughta put your picture on the postage stamps.” On June 10, 2006, on what would’ve been Garland’s 84th birthday, the U.S. Postal Service honored her with her own postage stamp. (4) Danny gets a cowboy outfit and an oversize hat from his fellow students.





Garland sings five great Gershwin songs including the film’s finale, “I Got Rhythm,” which was originally scheduled much earlier in the film. Busby Berkeley was removed from his director’s chair after the sequence, when it skyrocketed from four to nine days, and $100,000 over budget. Add to that, endless shouting matches with MGM’s arranger Roger Edens and the two stars, and it was the final straw. Fricke tells how Rooney remembered those Berkeley numbers. “Bus was tough on all of us. He was always screaming at Judy, ‘eyes, eyes, open them wide; I want to see your eyes.’ To him, her eyes were her greatest asset and he wanted them to show up on screen, wide and sparkling.” Director Norman Taurog (“Boys Town,” “Adventures of Tom Sawyer”) took over the production.

Garland also sings “Embraceable You,” and the emotional ballad “But Not for Me,” while Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra are featured in four sequences. Rehearsals and filming lasted from November 1942 to May ‘43. The film also features a short showcase glimpse of peppy actress June Allyson singing “Treat Me Rough.” She and Garland would become close friends after the production.

“Arthur Freed knew if there’s no Judy there would be no picture. If they could have put Judy in every single movie they made, they would have. Because I promise you, she had more talent in one little finger, than all of us put together.”  - June Allyson, actress

Rooney ranked among the Top 10 box office stars every year from 1938 to 1943. He was No. 1 in 1939, 1940 and 1941. Judy placed three times on the same list 1940, 1941 and 1945.


(1) Danny’s roommate Bud Livermore (Gil Stratton) and Polly Williams (Nancy Walker) watch Danny crown the rodeo queen. (2) Bandleader Tommy Dorsey. (3) Danny entertains potential queens to the rodeo fundraiser to save Cody College from state budget cuts. (3) Ginger sings the emotional ballad “But Not for Me.” (4) Danny tells Ginger, “I feel in love with you under an old transmission.”





VIDEO

 Both films were mastered in 4K after scanning the best 35mm (1.37:1 aspect ratio) film elements possible. The original camera negative for Strike Up the Bandwas destroyed in a nitrate fire at the George Eastman House archives in Rochester, NY.


The gray-scale for both films are balanced from highlights to mid-tones to dark shadows. Overall clarity varies from excellent with Strike Up the Band to very good with Girl Crazy a product of not having the original camera negative. Facial expressions and costume textures are more defined with Strike Up the Bandand slightly softer with Girl Crazy.The wide shots from Berkeley’s orchestrated big musical numbers are razor-sharp, from the foreground to the background. The natural film grain is intact and dances across the screen most evident with Strike Up the Bandand slightly less with Girl Crazy.

AUDIO

The DTS-HD mono soundtrack has been restored, removing pops and noise, giving you the audience, a front-row seat for the musicals.

EXTRAS

Both discs include an MGM cartoon, a comedy short, and Rooney’s introduction, while “Strike Up the Band” includes the Lux Radio Theater broadcast with Rooney and Garland.

“The four Mickey and Judy musical movies have remained hallmarks of film history, both in terms of song, dance and versatile acting achievement and in terms of financial success…There are dated aspects to these films. They are in many ways of their time.” – John Fricke, film historian

– Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch, producer




“I Got Rhythm”

(1-4) The musical number was originally scheduled with four days shooting on the huge MGM soundstage. But, Busby Berkeley's orchestration expanded to nine days and $100,000 over budget. The director was fired after the sequence and replaced by Norman Taurog. Berkeley would scream at Judy Garland telling her, “eyes, eyes, open them wide; I want to see your eyes.”







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