From 1939 to 1943, the musical comedy team of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland exemplified what most adults wanted to think America's youth was all about: energetic, enthusiastic, confident, happy, impetuous, loyal to family, ready to pitch in and help whenever needed. In a world about to be rocked by the forces of evil (Germany and Japan), it was reassuring to know that the young people of America were decent folk with plenty of good will and good intentions.
If Mickey and Judy were alive and well, Americans had nothing to fear. The future was secure.
Fifty years later, the Rooney-Garland films still make for energetic entertainment. With all of their silliness, unforgettable anachronisms and inane plots, these films are fun to watch and they leave an aftertaste of good feelings.
Rooney was at his prime. He was No. 1 at the box office, the star of the popular "Andy Hardy" series. Garland had just won a special little Oscar for "The Wizard of Oz" and was one of the top moneymaking stars. Together they were dynamite.
Their first film together Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937, not yet on video), was Rooney's vehicle. He was a jockey involved in crooked racetrack dealings. Garland was along for the ride. She was still second to Rooney in the three "Andy Hardy" pictures she made playing sweet, reliable, platonic Betsy Booth: Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938, 90 minutes, MGM/UA tape); Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940, 86 minutes, MGM/UA tape) and Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941, 100 minutes, MGM/UA tape). Rooney, with all his precociousness, mugging and overacting, owns these films. Garland and Judge James Hardy, played by Lewis Stone, usually bring him down to earth.
In 1939, Mickey and Judy created the definitive Rooney-Garland vehicle, the energetic, we'll-do-anything-to-put-on-a-show blockbuster musical: Babes in Arms (96 minutes, MGM/UA tape and laser video disc). With anyone else in the starring roles, the film would have been a disaster.
The film worked because it was an all-Mickey and Judy extravaganza that gave Rooney an Oscar nomination (he was up against Jimmy Stewart, Laurence Olivier, Clark Gable and Robert Donat, who won for "Goodbye, Mr. Chips"). This home video edition restores the original production number spoofing Mr. and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, later removed for a 1948 reissue. It also includes an embarrassing minstrel number integral to the plot.
Strike Up the Band (1940, 120 minutes, MGM/UA tape and laser video disc) was directed by Busby Berkeley and it's a tour de force including "Our Love Affair" with an amusing and innovative musical fruit sequence; a Gay Nineties mini-production of "The Drunkard" redefined for Mickey and Judy with Rooney pulling out all stops (Berkeley must have been too busy creating interesting camera angles to rein him in); a dazzling "Drummer Boy" number (Rooney and his high school band members upstage Paul Whiteman and his band), and the overdone patriotic finale "Strike Up the Band." The laser disc includes the original theatrical release trailers for "Babes in Arms," "Strike Up the Band" and "Broadway Melody of 1940" as well as a terrific 1937 cartoon "Swing Wedding.
Babes on Broadway (1941, 118 minutes, MGM/UA tape and disc) is an obvious Mickey and Judy vehicle showing off their immense talents: Rooney's impeccable impression of Carmen Miranda stops the show; Garland's "F.D.R. Jones" is one of her best. Throw in more impersonations and those impossible-not-to-like grinning faces, and you have the perfect diversion for audiences reeling from World War II. But, again, the minstrel number is hard to accept.
The last major Mickey-Judy vehicle was Girl Crazy (1943, 99 minutes), which features a vintage George and Ira Gershwin score largely left intact ("Embraceable You," "I've Got Rhythm," "But Not for Me"). What becomes obvious in "Girl Crazy" is how much better Garland is becoming. The Gershwin songs were perfect for her voice. Rooney is still lovable, funny and talented Mickey, but compared to Garland he seems trapped in a personality that he has outgrown. Berkeley staged the rousing finale.
In 1948, Garland made an appearance in Rooney's Words and Music (MGM/UA tape and disc), a mostly fictitious biography of Rodgers and Hart. Rooney is Hart and Judy Garland plays herself. Their duet "I Wish I Were in Love Again" is filled with that old energy. It would be their last movie appearance together.
Watching these two on screen in 1991 puts the viewer at a disadvantage. Unlike the movie audiences of 50 years ago, today's audience knows everything wasn't sweetness and light. Rooney and Garland were forced to work days and nights on end. They were given uppers to keep them going when they were exhausted. After filming, they were taken to the studio hospital and knocked cold with sleeping pills-each sprawled out on a bed until the next day's shooting.
When Rooney hit his late 20s, the golden days were over. At least he survived. When Garland hit her late 20s, there was a suicide attempt. The rest of her life reads like a bad soap opera.
Rooney and Garland paid a mighty price for those brief years of fame. Mickey and Judy, however, never suffered their indignities on screen. Watching them on the screen, they remain forever young, forever fun, forever the personification of youth, American style.