Joe: “We’re trying to tell a story with music, and song, and dance. Well, not just with words. For instance, if the boy tells the girl that he loves her, he just doesn’t say it, he sings it.”
Jane: “Why doesn’t he just say it?”
Joe: “Why? Oh, I don’t know, but it’s kind of nice.”
Jane Falbury (Judy Garland), part of a long and proud lineage of Falbury farmers, struggles to make ends meet: the farm is not doing as well as in years past, and her farmhands have decided to leave for better-paying jobs. One day, her aspiring actress sister, Abigail (Gloria De Haven) comes home with a full theater troupe in tow. Abigail has promised her beau, Joe Ross (Gene Kelly), the director of the group, that they could use the barn to rehearse and stage their new musical production. Despite Jane’s better judgment–and the objections of her housekeeper, Esme (Marjorie Main), her longtime fiance Orville (Eddie Bracken), and his overbearing father (Ray Collins)–she allows them to stay, provided the members of the troupe help out around the farm.
In the wake of a disastrous barn dance overrun by the theater troupe–and after Joe’s buddy, bumbling Herb Blake (Phil Silvers), inadvertently destroys Jane’s new tractor–she decides to order the group away. But Jane is touched when the actors pool their meager funds and Joe sells his station wagon to buy her a new tractor. She again agrees to let them stay, and gradually finds herself falling in love with Joe, even though he has an understanding with Abigail, and she remains reluctantly engaged to Orville. But when Abigail develops a diva-like attitude and runs off to Broadway with the musical’s star (Hans Conried), Jane is thrust into the starring role opposite Joe, and the two of them can no longer deny their feelings as the show goes on …
Summer Stock (1950) was a notoriously difficult and troubled production, but as a product of the MGM musical dream factory, naturally none of this turmoil showed onscreen. As filming commenced, Judy Garland had just left rehab (which she had entered in an effort to quell her drug addiction), and was still considered something of a risk–with good reason, as her erratic behavior and habitual lateness had previously cost her roles in films such as The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) and Annie Get Your Gun (1950). The shoot eventually ran overlong (a total of six months). The movie marked her final film for longtime home studio MGM; she was fired from Royal Wedding (1951) later that year, terminating her contract.
In completing Summer Stock, Garland was fortunate to have the support of her friends, including studio head Louis B. Mayer (who kept her in the role despite the troubles she presented) and her male lead, Gene Kelly. The film marks the third and final onscreen pairing for Garland and Kelly; the two first appeared together in Kelly’s screen debut, 1942’s For Me and My Gal, and then co-starred in The Pirate six years later. By most accounts, Garland and Kelly got on well; according to Garland biographer John Fricke, Kelly (who remained grateful for the help seasoned film actress Garland gave him on the set of Gal) agreed to do the film primarily as a favor to the actress, and in the process brought his own touch to the production. Though Nick Castle was credited as the dance director for the film, some of the best numbers from the film (notably “You, Wonderful You” and its reprises) were very obviously choreographed by Kelly.
“You, Wonderful You” is the cornerstone musical piece of the film, marking the evolution of the love story between Jane and Joe. Its initial appearance in the film occurs as Jane first begins to open up to Joe, and its staging is quite similar to “You Were Meant for Me” in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)–the two characters on an empty stage, lit by soft spotlights as the male lead sings of his love, before segueing into a delicate pas de deux. It’s lovemaking, set to music–beautiful, heartfelt, emotional–and Kelly’s relatively soft, romantic performance here is nothing short of mesmerizing (let’s face facts: the man’s a veritable dreamboat).
Kelly revisits “You, Wonderful You” (sans lyrics) in the famous “newspaper number,” a dance that demonstrates the full depths of the actor’s charm. Accompanied at first only by the squeak of a floorboard, the scratch of a newspaper on the floor, his own tapping shoes, and an intermittent whistling reprise of the tune, Kelly constructs an intricate solo ballet.
Initially, he makes his own music through the motions of his body and the instrumentation of his props, but as Kelly gives himself full over to the sheer joy of movement, the orchestra creeps in, rising into a crescendo of sound that mimics the increasingly frenetic pacing of the dance. This number perfectly captures Kelly’s innate understanding of the importance of lighting and staging in conveying the meaning of the dance to the audience; when Kelly jumps atop a stack of boxes and dances alongside his shadow cast on the nearby wall, the lovely contrast between light and dark, man and shadow, reflects Kelly’s inner turmoil over his growing feelings for Jane (in this way, it could be said that Kelly’s dance with the newspaper is at least somewhat reminiscent of his dance with his own reflection in 1944’s Cover Girl).
The other memorable number from Summer Stock (one which was not designed by either Kelly or Castle, but instead by the film’s director, Charles Walters), “Get Happy,” had been added to the film three months after shooting was completed, as a showpiece for a magically slimmed-down Garland. And yes, though it’s been harped on repeatedly over the years, one must admit that the actress’ appearance in this scene is a little jarring, considering she was noticeably heavier in her previous (and subsequent) scenes. Still, Garland’s performance in “Get Happy” has become legendary in its own right, and marks one of the best musical numbers of her career (which is saying something, considering how many iconic moments she has given us).
Admittedly, Summer Stock is largely a Judy Garland vehicle–it was designed that way, after all, as a kind of comeback after a couple of trying years for the actress. But Kelly’s contributions are equally important–if not more so–to the film’s success. Had Garland’s original intended co-star in the film, Mickey Rooney, played the part of Joe, we might not now remember this movie as one of the great classic musicals. It took the extra-special touch of Gene Kelly’s brilliant, bold choreography (not to mention his delightfully cheeky grin and … other endowments) and that sparkling chemistry with Garland to make Summer Stock the wholly entertaining film that it remains to this day.
This post is an entry in the Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Visit the CMBA site for a full list of participants.