Saturday, September 21, 2013

Viewing Notes: FOR ME AND MY GAL (Berkeley, 1942)

For Me and My Gal, 1942, d. Busby Berkeley
scr. Sid Silvers, Fred F. Finklehoffe, Richard Sherman
with Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, George Murphy

For the most part For Me and My Gal is a by-the-numbers vaudeville backstage musical tracking the romantic travails of up and coming singer Jo Hayden (Judy Garland) and born-in-a-trunk Harry Palmer (Gene Kelly); he's a smoothie and she's guarded, and they make a natural team, see?! The Good Ol' Days of Vaudeville shtick takes a turn for the bleak/weird/propagandistic when WWI breaks out and Harry is drafted, and rather than proudly march off to war like a God-fearing American patriot, he turns draft dodger and has to deal with the consequences. The consequences are everyone thinks he's a piece of shit! Obviously the point is that no matter what the circumstance, fighting for your country when called upon should take all precedence over career and romance. So in the last act Harry needs to face that at various points he's been an opportunist with no loyalty to the ideals of nation, love, and Judy, and scrape together some small measure of dignity. Anyway, in the cinematic highlight Busby Berkeley winds up much flinch-baiting suspense as Harry works up the courage to mutilate his hand so he'll fail his military physical. Will he use his dressing room door jamb? Nah, it's gotta be the obligatory steamer trunk, it's got to be, case… CLOSED. Yikes!

Otherwise, Berkeley stages the production numbers as realistically small-scale and sedate (our heroes are on the route to the big time, so in these sub-palatial theaters we're not going to be craning up into geometric starbursts of kicking legs). In his first screen role, Kelly does one athletic baggy pants comic dance, and in their first pairing he and Garland do peppy renditions of a handful of jazz standards, mostly can't miss material like "Ballin the Jack" and the title number.

The musical highlight is Garland's rendition of "After You've Gone," and, of course, no disrespect to Sophie Tucker, Jolson, Nina Simone, or Fiona Apple, for that matter, but Judy milks it dry. "Owns It," I believe they say. The text is already in the "Some of These Days"/"96 Tears"/you'll-be-sorry family. Judy's singing it just as her character has both figured out that she's in love with her vaudeville partner and also he's, er, breaking up the act and plus he doesn't know how she feels about him. So holy shit, she's got story material to work with, and right in the middle you can feel the moment she realizes what she's Really Singing About and instead of crumbling, channels it into the song. Then she kind of spookily makes with the Get Happy right in time for the big finish and turns it back into something bombastic and cheerful. So the performance effectively encompasses every possible reading of the lyrics, save for blind rage and threat. Judy is a magnifying glass for concentrating a song's emotional rays and frying any ant in her path alive.

Viewed on: 9/21/13 — DVD (Warner/TCM; Region 1)

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