Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Film Review: For Me and My Gal

"For Me and My Gal" ** (out of ****)

Busby Berkeley's "For Me and My Gal" (1942) is suppose to be a dedication to vaudeville. Sadly it is not much of a dedication and worst yet, not much of a film.

If I told you the film was directed by Berkeley and starred Judy Garland, George Murphy and Gene Kelly(making his screen debut) you might expect something good. And the film has found a large following which have secured it a spot among the great musicals. But "For Me and My Gal" feels pretty flat to me. Instead of being a celebration of vaudeville filled with cheerful song and dance the film becomes very patriotic considering the U.S. had enter WW2. The political message is a bit too forceful and undermines all the fun the film could have had.

Busby Berkeley was known as one of the great choreographer. He did amazing work for Warner Brothers musicals in the 1930s including "42nd Street" (1933), "Footlight Parade" (1933), "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933) and "Dames" (1934). His extremely imaginative set pieces for tunes like "42nd Street", "I Only Have Eyes For You", "We're in the Money", "Remember My Forgotten Man", and "Lullaby of Broadway" rank among the greatest spectacles Hollywood has ever given us. They have inspired countless musicals since. But there is nothing in "For Me and My Gal" that comes close to be as memorable as that. There are no extravagant musical pieces here. Not one over the head shot dance sequence. Nothing which would suggest the famous Berkeley touch. Even his other films which starred Judy Garland were much more fun to watch. He directed "Babes on Broadway" (1941) one of the films Garland did with Mickey Rooney. His "The Gang's All Here" (1943) with Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda, while not a great film either, is still a heck of a lot more fun to watch than this.

The best thing about the film is Judy Garland. She is able to milk every scene for every bit of sympathy she can. Watch her sing "After You've Gone" when she realizes the man she loves will not love her back. She gets caught up in the lyrics and forgets she is on stage performing. It is an attempt to pull at our heart strings. It is a little too transparent for me, but others may find themselves becoming weepy. That is the mark of a good performer. She can make us care about her despite ourselves. We see how contrive the situation is but she has a way of bringing us in. That is star power. Is it a shame the film is not better. It doesn't deserve Judy Garland. Judy Garland is too good for a movie like this. Maybe when she was younger, starting out but, by the time this film was made people had taken notice of Garland. She of course had great success with "The Wizard of Oz" (1939). And she would appear in countless other films which were much more suited for her talents. I prefer "Easter Parade" (1948), her sole film with that other great song and dance man, Fred Astaire, and a terrific Irving Berlin score. She was in a better movie with Gene Kelly, Cole Porter's "The Pirate" (1948), though the score is not one of Porter's most memorable. And she would go on to earn two Oscar nominations for "A Star Is Born" (1954) and "Judgement at Nurumberg" (1961). So there are plenty of other films for you to see with her.

As for Gene Kelly, I actually never really warmed up to him the way I did Fred Astaire. Kelly never really seemed as welcoming to me. Others have said that Astaire was the more off putting one because of his style and grace. He was always above everyone else while Kelly was suppose to be one of us. But I just didn't always relate to his characters. I'm not saying he wasn't a good singer and dancer. I just don't personally like him as much as I do Fred.

Kelly is one of the major problems I have with this movie. It is not so much him personally but what the movie does with his character. First of all he becomes a very unlikable character and than the film goes through great, great lengths to get us to like him again in the name of patriotic honor. But I didn't feel the film needed to go in these directions. A much better WW2 musical set during a historical settings ("Me and My Gal" starts off in 1916 and goes up to America's involvement in WW1) is "Yankee Doddle Dandy" (1942) with James Cagney. There is a movie about America. "For Me and My Gal" is a weak and unnecessary attempt.

The movie has Kelly play Harry Palmer, a solo act, who has been headlining several engagements in various small towns. In one town he meets Jimmy Metcalf (George Murphy) who has an act with Jo Hayden (Judy Garland). Harry doesn't think much of their act but does think Jo is very talented and would like to take her away from Jimmy. Jo is very tempted but feels a certain obligation to Jimmy. But once Jimmy figures out what is going on he makes up an excuse so she can go with Harry.

Harry's dream has always been to place "The Palace" in New York. It was also the dream of every other entertainer at that time. To place "The Palace" meant you hit the big time. You were a "somebody". But things haven't been going the way Harry and Jo had planned. Their act just doesn't seem to be catching on and then the war comes.

Without revealing too much. Harry and Jo finally get a shot at "The Palace" but Harry is enlisted in the draft. What will he do? Harry doesn't want to miss his big chance at fame and fortune. If there was only some way he could postpone his enlistment. Harry will go through great ends to meet that goal. So he injures himself. This is set against Jimmy volunteering to join the army to defend his country and all that other nationalistic talk. Harry now looks like a heel. He wouldn't go and serve his country. He was too selfish. Movie audiences at the time had a very bad reaction to these scenes. They had loved one fighting in Europe and here is a guy will to go to great extremes to avoid serving. So the movie must restore Harry in our eyes and make him engage in some sort of heroic act. I find Kelly's characters were always trying to prove themselves as men. And that's what "For Me and My Gal" becomes. Instead of a tribute to vaudeville it is a story about masculinity and male pride. If I wanted to see that I would have watched "Patton" (1970) not a Judy Garland musical!

George Murphy is actually another highlight. Today's movie audiences probably won't know him but he was a star back in the day and a very good song and dance man too. He appeared with Fred Astaire in the Cole Porter musical "The Broadway Melody of 1940" (1940) and made another film with Garland, "Little Nellie Kelly" (1940), in fact Murphy was originally set to play the lead in this movie before Kelly was casted. Murphy is also good in his screen debut, the Eddie Cantor vehicle "Kid Millions" (1934). He later quit acting to enter politics serving as California's Senator. He was a devoted Republican and was chairman of the Republican Party.

Of all the great musicals you could watch I would say skip this one, at the very least wait to see it and see some better ones to watch then this. In some ways this is a good example of the kind of American nationalism you could find in musicals during the war years even though they don't mention the current conflict.

If you want to see Kelly at the top of his game watch "Singin in the Rain" (1952) which I have reviewed. That is probably the most famous of all movie musicals. And many would probably say it is the greatest musical of all time. Kelly was also in "An American In Paris" (1951) which actually won the Oscar for "Best Picture", something I could never understand. Still both are iconic pictures. Other good musicals with Kelly are "Cover Girl" (1944) with Rita Hayworth. It has a score by Jerome Kern and is where the song "Long Ago & Far Away" debuted. He also did a trilogy of films with Frank Sinatra starting with "Anchors Aweigh" (1945) for which he was nominated for an Oscar and "On the Town" (1949) also with Sinatra which Kelly and Stanley Donen co-directed.

It is sad "For Me and My Gal" isn't a better picture picture especially with all this talent involved. Still, you can see these people in much better films so you shouldn't worry. The film did get one Oscar nomination for its musical scoring. Such old time standard as "Oh, You Beautiful Doll", "By the Sea", "Ballin' the Jack", "After You've Gone" and the title tune can be heard on the soundtrack.