Jun 20, 2019

On Blu-ray: Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in Summer Stock (1950)

It feels appropriate that Judy Garland’s last MGM musical, the farm-set Summer Stock (1950) was one of those “Let’s put on a show” flicks, even if she was swinging with Gene Kelly instead of Mickey Rooney. Garland comes full circle in a performance made complex by her personal struggles and powerhouse talent. Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, the film looks and sounds great.

It’s a stretch, but Garland and Gloria De Haven are just about believable as sisters who run their family farm. They’re struggling to pay the bills, which leads the stagestruck De Haven to rent out the barn to a theatrical troupe that wants to put on a show there. Garland is skeptical, but of course is eventually seduced by the thrills of the performing life and the charms of Gene Kelly, the group’s leader.

Garland’s involvement with Summer Stock was tainted by drug use, illness, and absences so disruptive that she was fired by the studio when production wrapped. That she made it through at all has much to do with the support of Kelly, who reportedly even faked an injury to give her time off on a particularly rough day. He had always been grateful for the help she gave him when they costarred in his screen debut, For Me and My Gal (1942) and stayed loyal to her throughout the rest of her life.

It is heartbreaking the way Garland’s struggle translates to the screen. She doesn’t look well. However, it is a testament to her remarkable talent that despite being physically and mentally strained, she still manages to pull off the performance, giving the role emotional resonance which could have even been aided by her strife. 

The studio decided a livelier ending was needed for the film months after production wrapped. In a triumphant coda, Garland returned from a vacation slim, healthy, and fit to perform Get Happy, which was not only an improved ending, but one of the greatest numbers of her career.

Kelly has plenty of opportunity to innovate here, his best moment in the You, Wonderful You number where his dance partners are squeaky floor boards and a scrap of newspaper. He’s also good fun with Phil Silvers (who doesn’t get enough credit for his musical chops) in the delightfully silly Heavenly Music, where their backup singers are an increasingly growing ensemble of barking, howling dogs.

Summer Stock
is a vital piece of MGM musical history, imbued with some of its greatest triumphs and deepest tragedies.

Special features include a featurette about the film, the cartoon The Cuckoo Clock, a Pete Smith short, a theatrical trailer and the audio for the outtake song Fall in Love.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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