Cast: Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Charles Winninger, Guy Kibbee, June Preisser, Grace Hayes, Betty Jaynes, Douglas McPhail, Margaret Hamilton
Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Mickey Rooney), Best Music, Scoring (Roger Edens, Georgie Stoll)
SUMMARY: In 1921, Joe Moran (Charles Winninger) and his wife Florrie (Grace Hayes) are headlining vaudeville performers; to add to their success, their son Mickey (Mickey Rooney) is born that same year. Mickey soon joins his family in the vaudeville business, but things get tough after the birth of the “talkie” in 1928. Vaudeville begins to lose its popularity, and by the time Mickey is a teenager, it is all but dead. This makes for a serious hit on the family’s finances, as both parents are entertainers. Mickey and his sister have also grown up with these talents: Mickey writes songs, while his sister Molly (Betty Jaynes) is a singer. Mickey has tried to sell several songs to a publishing company, with no success, but finally manages to make a sale with his song “Good Morning”. This song, which was performed for the publisher by Mickey’s girlfriend Patsy Barton (Judy Garland), nets a $100 profit for Mickey. Mickey believes that this gives him credit as a true entertainer, like his parents, but they disagree. Instead, they announce that they are getting together all the old vaudeville stars and going on a revival tour — without any of their children. Mickey, Patsy and the others all argue strongly against this, and Mickey, Patsy and Molly even perform an original act, but their parents are unswayed. Mickey decides that they will have to prove their talent and drawing power to their parents, and decides to write a new show which will be performed by the other kids.
Meanwhile, local woman Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton) is campaigning to have the vaudeville performers’ children sent to reform school. The local authority, Judge Black (Guy Kibbee) refuses to force the children into school, but Martha is still determined to force the issue. At the drugstore later on, Mickey and Patsy run across former child star “Baby” Rosalie Essex (June Preisser). Baby is interested in making a comeback, and Mickey sees the opportunity to secure a big name for the show; when she invites him over for dinner that night, he readily agrees. The same day, Mickey learns that his parents’ great revival tour is a flop. He has already got the neighborhood kids (including everyone from older teenagers to very young children) rehearsing in his yard, but doesn’t have the necessary money for a theater, costumes, etc. When Baby offers to foot the bill that night during dinner, Mickey agrees to give her the lead in the show. This is a bitter disappointment to Patsy, who was supposed to play the lead; instead, she becomes the understudy. However, when she sees Mickey kiss Baby while directing a scene, Patsy abruptly leaves the show and travels to see her mother (who is with Mickey’s parents on tour). However, Patsy’s mother urges her to put aside her personal feelings, and return to the show as a matter of professionalism. Luckily, Patsy gets back just in time for the first show, because Baby’s father has arrived and pulled her out of it. Patsy goes on in Baby’s place before a large audience, only to have the show interrupted by a huge rainstorm. Not long after this failure, Mickey’s parents return home, and his father gives up show businesses and gets a job running an elevator. He also agrees to send them to the reform school promoted by Martha Steele. However, Mickey gets a letter from a producer (and friend of the family) named Maddox, who wants to produce Mickey’s show on a real stage. At Mickey’s insistence, Maddox also hires Joe as a coach for the kids. Some time later, the show goes on before a huge audience.
MY TAKE: The year this movie was released, 1939, is regarded as the best year in movie history: it produced Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Gunga Din, Ninotchka and Wuthering Heights, among others. As such, the fact that this movie got two Oscar nods, for Best Actor and Best Score, is pretty impressive. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel that this movie lived up to that reputation. Mickey Rooney’s acting is really overdone, and frankly irritating at times. Considering that famed choreographer Busby Berkeley directed the movie, the songs are not that impressive, in content or presentation. Consider the song “Good Morning”: it’s sung with Mickey at the piano and Judy singing and doing a really slight dance bit, and it’s boring. This same song was used in the movie Singin’ in the Rain, and it was a big hit — it’s this performance that everyone remembers. Quite frankly, the songs drag; their redeeming factor is that Judy Garland is frequently singing them. I was also a little confused by the show Mickey wrote. The inspiration for this show was to demonstrate to the parents that the children were just as talented, and that they offered fresh perspective on the old standards. As such, I was expecting him to create more of a musical, with a cohesive story line — after all, as demonstrated by the older generation, vaudeville revues didn’t work any more. However, this seems to be pretty much what Mickey wrote, and for some reason it was a big success. The opening number of the original show (the one that gets rained out) was even performed with everybody in blackface, which was a really old vaudeville technique (beginning in the mid-1800s, blackface wouldn’t really stop being used until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, shockingly). This seems to suggest that simply by using new songs, the children are better vaudeville performers than their parents, which I find hard to believe. The whole backyard-Broadway is a fun idea, but it could have been developed a lot better.
P.S. Recognize Martha Steele? That’s Margaret Hamilton, aka the Wicked Witch of the West. And Judge Black is played by Guy Kibbee, whom you may remember from 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Big year for the these two, and for Judy Garland.