The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon: Babes in Arms (1939)

Director: Busby Berkeley

The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Hey, kids, let’s read a review!

When Greg at Cinema Styles decided to throw a Spirit of Ed Wood blogathon, I had to do a lot of thinking. I tried to distill the essence of Wood in my mind to try to find a kindred spirit out there who displays those characteristics that make Ed Wood Ed Wood, who might even have been an inspiration to the indomitable Eddie. You know what I’m talking about—production values that are so dazzlingly bad they’re good, a script only a mother could love, and a dogged determination to look at the whole sow’s ear and proclaim it the finest, pearl-beaded silk purse ever to have been Made in Japan. And, although I admit that he doesn’t spring immediately to mind, I finally resolved that were Ed Wood alive today, he’d have evolved his movie-making to emulate perhaps the greatest purveyor of fantasmagoria ever to haunt a sound stage, Busby Berkeley.

Berkeley is best known today for his kaleidoscopic dance numbers of gargantuan proportions, true mutants that push the movie musical into the scifi country where Ed Wood hung his hat. When Berkeley worked his impossible-dream magic, his penchant for cheesy-looking floating heads, bubble-blowing mermaids, and deconstructed musical instruments swelled to accommodate a recital by King Kong made for a bit of hair-raising suspense. Was the Big Monkey going to show up and pull a few bananas out of Carmen Miranda’s 40-foot-wide fruit tiara?

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The Berkeley film that screams Ed Wood to me is Babes in Arms, a 1939 Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musical that captures all the enthusiasm of those crazy kids—Berkeley and Wood—who just wanted to make good in show business. I think Henry Hill as a Broadway producer named Maddox and Rooney as Mickey Moran, a young ham suffocating in greasepaint, said it best:

Moran: We’re going to make good for him, too.
Maddox: Yes, and you’re going to make good for a lot of other people.
Moran: Who?
Maddox: For the millions of kids who never had a chance. For the millions of kids without a wiseacre who’s telling them there’s no such thing as an American dream. Well, those kids have got their eyes on you because you’re being given your chance. And, by the Bones of Bacchus, you’d better make good.
Moran: Gee, it’s bigger than just a show. Say, it’s everybody in the country.

And everybody in the country was looking forward to beating up Hitler and Mussolini for destroying the economy, which “God’s Country,” the closing number of this musical, reveals to be Berkeley’s purpose all along.

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At first, the film looks like the usual younger vs. older generation story, pitting established vaudevillians against the swinging new guard who just happen to be their children. Mickey and Patsy Barton (Garland) are sweethearts who are trying to break into show biz to help their parents, whose prosperity in vaudeville has vanished with the defection of their audiences to talking pictures. While the old timers, led by Mickey’s pop Joe Moran (Charles Winninger), try to revive vaudeville with a tour, Mickey decides to write and produce his kind of show. He fires up all the other vaudeville kids who live in his town—a haven for show people thanks to Judge Black (Guy Kibbee), who fends off Elmira Gulch, I mean, Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton) from placing the kids in a home—and they march around the crummy-looking set to the rocket-launching “Babes in Arms,” gather wood, and build a bonfire.

Rehearsals hit a snag when Don Brice (Douglas McPhail) and Moran’s sister Molly (Betty Jaynes, McPhail’s wife) don’t put enough feeling into their love duet “Where or When.” Brice blames the suspended canoe Mickey’s put them in, but when they get out of it, it’s plain that this operatic duo can’t loosen up. It’s actually painful to watch Jaynes form her tones with a mouth so tight she looks about ready to pop. Berkeley, in his wisdom, sees no reason to do anything but shoot her close-up, full face—no flattering angles for him, no sir. A pint-sized orchestra provides scratchy-toned comedy for this touching scene.

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Patsy and Mickey’s love is tested when an angel for the show comes to the rescue—on condition she gets to play the lead reserved for Patsy. Baby Rosalie Essex (June Preisser) is looking for a comeback project and thinks this is it. Preisser is really quite funny as a Shirley Temple knockoff, pampered but not spoiled the way the script seems to suggest she should be. Mickey’s all business, but a stage kiss he gives Baby sends Patsy packing to see her mother on the road; at least, we get to hear Garland sing the beautiful “I Cried for You” in compensation for this lame lover’s quarrel.

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Mickey’s show goes on as scheduled (with an adult orchestra; I guess the munchkins had a shooting conflict on The Wizard of Oz set) and a Broadway producer shows up to see what the young turks of entertainment have to offer. He gets a minstrel show. I simply have no comment about that, but then, I don’t need one. The script offers up a hurricane to stop the show. I can see Berkeley putting on his angora sweater and spinning the over-the-top opera La Gioconda in his trailer right about now.

After his reverie, Berkeley remembers he has to tie up the loose ends. Of course, the Broadway producer wants to put the show on, and Patsy gets to play the lead after all. The vaudevillians give up the ghost to the future and everyone feels good about America. The end.

I think Berkeley was watching Oz being filmed while he tinkered with the script. Garland has that same scream of concern (“oOH! oOH!”) when Mickey faints that she has numerous times when her companions on the Yellow Brick Road run into difficulties. She picks flowers just like Dorothy Gale picked poppies. There are munchkins, a wicked “witch” played by Margaret Hamilton, and a hurricane in place of a twister. And all the money that was poured into Oz meant there was nothing left for Berkeley. This is the cheapest-looking MGM musical I’ve ever seen, making it impossible for Berkeley to fully realize his dreams, which I’m sure included making the bonfire outshine the burning of Atlanta and a minstrel show that would have had 1,000 pickaninnies in a vast field of cotton and Judy Garland singing atop a cotton gin.

But in the true spirit of Ed Wood, Berkeley works with what he has (including deadly lyrics by Arthur Freed) and creates something so offensively bad, it’s compulsively watchable. Hi dee ho!

  • Greg spoke:
    7th/07/2009 to 12:26 pm

    Rooney as Mickey Moran, a young ham suffocating in greasepaint,
    Yeah, that’s Rooney, pretty much throughout his career. And the number in blackface – Ouch! I remember seeing this for the first time a few years ago and just being stunned. I haven’t seen it since but I salute you Marilyn for putting this up. It would have never crossed my mind but after recalling it and reading your review it’s a perfect fit.
    And thank you for being so kind as to contribute. You’re a friend.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/07/2009 to 12:32 pm

    What gets me about the minstrel number is that the “kids” were trying to show that they had a new and different approach to entertainment that was going to appeal the way vaudeville no longer could. It’s so, um, retro in a bad way.
    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to play, Greg. This was a lot of fun, and having run a blogathon, I know how much work it is. So thanks for hosting.

  • fox spoke:
    7th/07/2009 to 10:10 pm

    Ahhh… if were still so easy as to just blame Hitler and Mussolini for a poor economy these days. It would make things so much easier on politicians and bankers! :)
    I loved this post Marilyn. OK, whip me for saying it (though I think Ed Wood would be ok with it) but you were really thinking outside the box with this one.
    And “a script only a mother could love” is a great line. I would love to use that in a review someday, but, of course, I would give you credit for that.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/07/2009 to 10:42 pm

    Thanks, Fox. I’m really not that familiar with Ed Wood’s oeuvre, so when Greg put out the challenge, I never considered doing an Ed Wood film. It seems I’m quite in the minority on that decision, which is fine because I’ve learned so much about him from the great entries in this blogathon.

  • Mykal Banta spoke:
    8th/07/2009 to 1:17 pm

    Marilyn: Very, very well thought out post and very interesting Wood analogy to the work of Berkeley. Hell, you had me from that first, wonderful line: “Hey Kids . . ” which somehow captures the enthusiasm of both film-makers.
    I had never thought about it (which is what makes this post so fine), but Berkeley and Wood certainly share a sort of sensational, can-do spirit. Ed Wood seemed to enjoy a good minstrel show as well, plopping one smack dab in the middle of Jailbait for absolutely no apparent reason.
    Great post and very thought provoking. I am sure Ed Wood would have been flattered at the comparison. — Mykal

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/07/2009 to 1:33 pm

    Mykal – I’m honored. Your post for the blogathon has me kneeling in supplication. I thought you put a lot of great insight and feeling into your beautifully written post. I’m glad you enjoyed my humble offering.

  • Greg F spoke:
    8th/07/2009 to 4:14 pm

    I never considered doing an Ed Wood film. It seems I’m quite in the minority on that decision.
    Yes, that’s true. You and Ed, who is doing daily posts on Jack Arnold, are the only two to do Non-Ed Wood movies and I’m so glad you two did. I’d love to see more people delve into other titles as well.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/07/2009 to 5:08 pm

    I actually considered doing Little Fugitives by Morris Engel. He just went out with a simple script and shot a film on Coney Island that’s absolutely wonderful. Not Ed Wood in the sense of being a “bad” film – quite the contrary – but it has the same attitude of “I’m going to do this because I want to.” Still, I didn’t want anyone to think Little Fugitives is a bad film, so I went with Babes in Arms.

  • Rod spoke:
    9th/07/2009 to 11:05 am

    Somebody’s comparing Jack Arnold to Ed Wood?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/07/2009 to 11:10 am

    Ed Howard over at Only the Cinema. The link is in the blogroll.

  • Jandy spoke:
    9th/07/2009 to 8:05 pm

    I’ve got to admit, I started to outcry a little bit when I saw you were going to compare Berkeley to Ed Wood, but once I saw your argument (and once my little-girl nostalgic tender spot for Berkeley musicals squared up with my grown-up enjoyment of cult films), I’m on board. Really interesting and unusual approach to the blogathon (which I’m only now starting to catch up on).
    I just rewatched 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 and again reveled in Berkeley’s insane musical direction – of course, he didn’t actually direct those in full. Still.

  • Bob spoke:
    1st/02/2011 to 5:49 pm

    Wait a moment — you’re comparing Busby Berkeley to Ed Wood? A movie with Garland and Rooney? I think your ability to view film should be surgically removed.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/02/2011 to 6:09 pm

    Bob – Obviously you know about this procedure, since it has happened to you. Clearly you have never watched Babes in Arms.

  • Bob spoke:
    1st/02/2011 to 8:10 pm

    Marilyn — are you one of those children who think movies started sometime in the 80s? Are you one of those children who think the only good movies are those in color? Could you actually tell the difference between a good film and a crap and anchovy sandwich?

  • Rod spoke:
    1st/02/2011 to 8:40 pm

    Why don’t you read some of the other reviews Marilyn has written on this site before asking such inane questions, you pig-ignorant clod?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/02/2011 to 8:58 pm

    Bob – The only child on this comment thread is you, with your trollish comments and assumptions about me and the quality of films pre-1980, that is, that every film that came out of the Golden Age was golden. In fact, a good many of them were crap, and if you read this review you will see that a minstrel show, stupid dialogue, cheap production values, and ripped-off performances and story lines from The Wizard of Oz equal a crap and anchovy sandwich.

  • Bob spoke:
    2nd/02/2011 to 12:51 pm

    “Read some of the other reviews Marilyn has written…?” Good God, I have. She has a complete and total lack of historical perspective (her comments on Things to Come were alternately hilarious or cringe-worthy), her ‘knowledge’ seems to be of the second hand sort heard on TMC commentaries, and all of her taste in her mouth. My favorite Marilyn line is perhaps this howler from her ‘review’ of Russell’s Valentino: “Valentino satisfied me like a chocolate mousse topped with three feet of whipped cream.” This is film criticism by the pound.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/02/2011 to 3:06 pm

    Bob – OK, you’ve just come here to insult me, and I know from where – the blog that linked to my Things to Come review. It never ceases to amaze me how much hate your side of the aisle has and how willing you are to foment it any and everywhere you see an enemy, regardless of the facts. Go back to your hole, Rumplestiltskin. You have no place here anymore.

  • Tom spoke:
    8th/02/2011 to 10:13 pm

    This is annoying. Busby Berkeley was an absolute genius, and was one of the best in his field; if not the best. Babes In Arms was a supremely good film. They don’t make stars like Garland and Rooney any more, and Berkeley had such a mathematically brilliant mind. The songs are quite good, in my opinion.

    I have watched several of Ed Wood’s films and I think they are consistently horrible. Do some research on Busby Berkeley; several books on him have been released, including one from this Winter. He is being completely misunderstood here.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/02/2011 to 10:18 pm

    Tom – I have never found Ed Wood’s films to be horrible, just kind of boring.

    Babes in Arms is not a supremely good film for all of the reasons I cite, and Arthur Freed’s lyrics are mind-numbingly bad. If you just want to love Berkeley no matter what, then fine. I don’t hate Berkeley – I love his dance direction in his classic films of the 1930s – but this is not a good film.

  • Tom spoke:
    8th/02/2011 to 10:29 pm

    This should be seen as an artist, not a politician or anything else… a visual artist who draws upon Dadaism and has an obsession with death and suicide. Berkeley’s musical numbers, especially in the early to mid-1930s, present coherent stories that draw upon deep emotional tides in the American psyche, unlike Ed Wood’s stories which are incoherent and look like they were slapped together in a matter of days. Here is what I believe, and what Berkeley himself has said is his masterwork. It is the “Lullaby of Broadway” number from Gold Diggers of 1935. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZws4r7IQPk

  • Tom spoke:
    8th/02/2011 to 10:34 pm

    Plot is not important in Busby Berkeley musicals. It is all about the songs. Berkeley said it himself. I have learned a lot of things leafing through the latest biography of Berkeley, which is why I suggested it. He said the songs were #1 in his musicals. So if you didn’t like the plot of Babes In Arms, that is understandable. The heights of feeling, and if you don’t get it, you don’t get it… but the heights of feeling and emotion, such as those in Babes In Arms, and Singin’ In The Rain, and other great MGM musicals has not been repeated today, which is why these musicals are invaluable, even if the lines get really corny. Berkeley didn’t write the lines, by the way.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/02/2011 to 10:40 pm

    Yes, I know he didn’t write the lines. You read those books, but did you read my review. The fact that he was all about the songs and didn’t care about anything else shows what an incomplete filmmaker he was. Singin’ in the Rain is probably the best musical every made BECAUSE it cared about EVERYTHING. Again, if you like this film, you like it, but it is still not very good.

  • Tom spoke:
    8th/02/2011 to 10:48 pm

    To defend Berkeley on another level, EVERY entertainer used blackface in those days. EVERY one did it.

  • Tom spoke:
    8th/02/2011 to 10:56 pm

    Ok, so you say all the songs were bad. Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown did not write all of the songs for the film. They did write “Good Morning”, but that is a great song! That song was wonderfully reprised in Singin’ In The Rain. So I’m already proving you wrong.

    What is good music to you, is the question.

  • Tom spoke:
    8th/02/2011 to 11:13 pm

    He cared about every aspect of his craft. He was called a visionary, and still is called a visionary, for a reason. His work is of supreme importance in many realms of art and also, American advertising. Don’t forget that the roots of the minstrel show are present in everything we consume in America today.

  • Tom spoke:
    8th/02/2011 to 11:39 pm

    I say it is good, regardless of what you say.

  • Rod spoke:
    8th/02/2011 to 11:54 pm

    Well, thank god we got that cleared up.

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