When I finished up my double feature viewing of the Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney films Strike up the Band (1940) and Girl Crazy (1943) (both newly available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive), I felt a familiar mixture of exhilaration and confusion. There’s so much to love about these classic musicals: the top-shelf tunes, entertaining supporting cast, uplifting production numbers designed by Busby Berkeley, and the transcendent marvel that is Judy Garland.
The everlasting point of confusion for me is Mickey Rooney. I wonder how many classic film fans appreciate Mickey Rooney more than they enjoy him? It’s clear that he had talent; I’m not entirely immune to his zest, but don’t think I’ll ever get him completely. I’m sure part of it is that some of his humor and vigor haven’t aged well, but it’s also hard for me to pay him much mind when Garland is there busting your heart open with those smooth tones and soulful brown eyes. He seems like a cheerful wind-up toy in comparison.
That confusion has always affected my feelings about Garland and Rooney films. They have an undeniable chemistry, but I’m always baffled that the miraculous Ms. Judy would be mooning over this self-absorbed, oblivious guy. I know it is very much of the times that she sits there cheering him on while sitting on her own monster talent and intellect, but knowing isn’t everything.
I suppose it says a lot for these films that despite all that, they always leave me happy. Strike up the Band is rightfully most famous for a dream sequence that features an orchestra of stop-motion figures with fruits and nuts for both their heads and instruments. The moment is the product of aspiring band director Jimmy’s (Rooney) imagination: he is using the contents of an overflowing fruit bowl to explain his musical plans to his friend Mary (Garland). The scene is full of bizarre images, like a walnut-headed figure playing a nutcracker like a harp and a line of pear-noggined musicians playing pear halves like violins. An early career George Pal designed the number, which could stand on its own as an entertaining short film.
This unusual scene happens early in a musical that is otherwise full of that “let’s put on a show” vigor. Thanks to Berkeley, the dance numbers really pop. His standard technique of using dancers to make mesmerizing patterns gets a burst of energy from his youthful dancers. They’re all adorable, though it is really something seeing all those white kids attempting Cuban flair in the Do the La Conga! number.
The then hugely popular bandleader Paul Whiteman (most famous now for his key role in King of Jazz ) appears with his orchestra and even acts opposite Rooney in a few scenes.
Though it also has its share of big production number flair, Girl Crazy (1943) is for the most part a lower-key affair. This is my favorite Rooney and Garland film because it is bursting with Gershwin standards. Having But Not for Me, I Got Rhythm, and Embraceable You in one movie would be enough to give it classic status, but the topper is the magnificently meandering Bidin’ My Time, with Garland and the The King's Men and chorus, and is practically an anti-production number with its easy pace and lanky cowboy dancers.
I also enjoyed the presence of character actor Rags Ragland, who shows his burlesque past in the way he adapts smoothly and easily to the performance style of his costars. He had an especially pleasing chemistry with Garland.
Tommy Dorsey and his band are lively presence throughout the film. Director Norman Taurog perfectly frames the fresh, joyful energy of the trombonist and his musicians. The group plays for June Allyson in the opening nightclub number as she croons Treat Me Rough. They are especially magnetic though in the Fascinating Rhythm number, where they all look like they are having the time of their lives.
Both discs feature introductions by Mickey Rooney and theatrical trailers. Strike up the Band also has a commentary by John Frick, the comedy short Hollywood Daredevils, the cartoon The Early Bird Dood It, a Stereo remix of I Got Rhythm, and audio of a Bronco Busters outtake. The Girl Crazy disc includes the Pete Smith comedy short Wedding Bills, the cartoon Romeo in Rhythm, a Stereo remix of Do the La Conga, and audio features including a Leo is on the Air Radio Promo, Millions for Defense and a 1940 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.