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Summer Stock

by Glenn Erickson May 04, 2019

I don’t know if Garland fans still go around chanting ‘Judy Judy Judy’ at her every appearance, but they do have a timeless song ‘n’ dance number to celebrate here. Her last MGM movie is only a so-so vehicle but Gene Kelly and the studio’s top music & dance talent work hard to put it over the top. Garland’s lack of stability is still an issue. For much of the movie she looks visibly overweight, yet in the showstopper ‘Get Happy’ she suddenly slims down to the best — maybe not the healthiest — look of her career.


Summer Stock
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1950 / Color / 1:37 flat Academy / 109 min. / Street Date April 30, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Eddie Bracken, Gloria DeHaven, Marjorie Main, Phil Silvers, Ray Collins, Nita Bieber, Carleton Carpenter, Hans Conried, Jeanne Coyne, Carol Haney, Almira Sessions.
Cinematography: Robert H. Planck
Film Editor: Albert Akst
Original Music: Conrad Salinger
Written by George Wells, Sy Gomberg from his story.
Produced by Joe Pasternak
Directed by
Charles Walters

 

The last MGM musical starring Judy Garland shows her talent undiminished. The studio’s powerful music & dance experts float four or five excellent production numbers in a story that plays like something meant for Judy and Mickey Rooney, because that’s exactly what it is. By 1950 Rooney was no longer a big name draw and Gene Kelly was enlisted to take his place. As anyone exposed to Judy Garland lore knows all too well, by this time her career was in a shambles after her aborted attempt to film Annie Get Your Gun through obvious health issues and a nervous breakdown. MGM seems to have undertaken Summer Stock as a financial gambit, extracting one last big payday out of the talented lady before letting her go.

It’s almost better not to know these things, but even when seen in ignorance there’s something a little ‘off’ about Summer Stock. Most of its humor is flat to all but those in denial, as is the dated ‘let’s put on a show’ plotting. Yet a handful of superior numbers advance the production far into favorable status.

 

About to lose her farm, country girl Jane Falbury (Judy Garland) talks the father (Ray Collins) of her spineless long-time fiancée Orville Wingait (Eddie Bracken) into advancing a tractor to make her work easier. But the Falbury barnyard is invaded by a summer stock company invited by Jane’s spendthrift sister Abigail (Gloria DeHaven). Before she knows it Jane is trading farm chores for barn space to put on a show. Jane also finds herself attracted to the show’s director-producer Joe Ross (Gene Kelly). That’s a problem, because Joe is Abigail’s boyfriend.

I have a feeling that the debacle of Annie Get Your Gun did not filter down to the average ticket buyer, who by 1950 likely still identified Judy Garland as that cute girl on The Yellow Brick Road. She still enjoyed public approval and affection, as audiences responded enthusiastically to Summer Stock. But a curse hangs over the movie: after fourteen years sacrificing her youth and health to MGM, the studio decided it could no longer work with with it’s once-brightest star. Weighing almost a fourth more than when she was booted from Annie / Gun, Garland was probably at a healthy weight. MGM showed its panic by dressing her farmer character in ‘fat clothes’ — plenty of loose work shirts and rustic overalls. Judy’s dark dresses cannot hide the fact that she’s no longer the unhealthy skinny wreck she’d been for the second half of the 1940s.

 

This immediately becomes evident in the concluding “Get Happy” number, a showstopper that puts Summer Stock into must-see classic status. Across a cut, the tiny Ms. Garland suddenly sheds at least fifteen pounds, recovering the lean look and cute figure that plays so well on screen. The crazy thing is that when the show continues, Judy looks plump and healthy again, with even a tiny double chin. She certainly was trying to bounce back with Summer Stock, which doesn’t flatter the studio’s actions, at least not in the published versions of MGM history. With the pressure from New York to streamline the factory and cut costs, I would imagine that the brass had it in mind all along to relieve themselves of Garland’s hefty contract salary.

Summer Stock would be easy to imagine as a 1943 Garland and Rooney production, and that’s its main fault. Its mechanics are even simpler than a show like Babes on Broadway: aave the farm, put on a show, ditch the loser love interests so the leads can get together. Neither dedicated pro showman Joe nor farm hayseed Jame have any intention of being the stars, no sir … events force them to rise to the occasion. Why, Jane Falbury’s aunt was a wild entertainer, you see, and darned if Jane isn’t some kind of natural dancer. She’s kept her voice in shape by singing in the shower!  We can see Ma and Pa Kettle losing their sense of humor over these creaky plot ideas.

 

Part of the lack of enthusiasm for Summer Stock is the lazy way the George Wells – Sy Gomberg script abuses the supporting players. Amusing personality Eddie Bracken and perky MGM contract player Gloria DeHaven are tasked with playing unfunny, unpleasant jerks so as to make Garland and Kelly seem all the more virtuous for dumping them. Marjorie Main and Phil Silvers are allowed screen time when an easy laugh is needed. Hans Conreid is a one-note Broadway snoot, and the very talented Carleton Carpenter is shoehorned into doing minor expositional duty, as if the studio no longer had an interest in him and just plunked him into the first open slot. Jeanne Coyne and Carol Haney are said to be in the stock company — I wish I were better at spotting them.

The music in general fares much better, with a short list of numbers making Summer Stock well worth checking out. The show kids break up the locals’ stuffy square dance, a move that seems mean-spirited until Kelly and Garland face off in sort of a dueling dance challenge that’s both simple and refreshing. Kelly and Phil Silvers’ dumb-hicks song routine Heavenly Music has them wearing blacked-out teeth and oversized Hobbit-like feet, and bumbling like the country wolf in the Tex Avery cartoon. Kelly does his own version of one of Fred Astaire’s minimalist novelty numbers, the ones in which Fred dances with an inanimate object like a hat rack. Alone on the stage, Kelly finds a squeaky floorboard and a noisy newspaper and uses them to add percussion enhancement to his impromptu tap-shuffling.

 

Naturally, on the night of the big do-or-die show the rather primitive-looking revue of the rehearsals is transformed into a flashy extravaganza. The stage has grown a slick floor, the costumes are suddenly elegant and elaborate scenery sprouts from nowhere. Carleton Carpenter’s one-man lighting turns into a full MGM crew effort. The show looks more like the Follies Bergère than Yahoo, Iowa.

The Get Happy number really looks like it belongs in a different movie. On a higher plane both stylistically and musically, it’s yet another Judy Garland miracle that comes across as effortless perfection. Even the chorus boys seem to have individualized looks and personalities, and Garland moves among them like the most polished performer that ever was. Instead of leaving MGM as a failure who fell apart and couldn’t finish a movie, she goes out on a career high. Indeed, Get Happy’s altered tuxedo look with a jazzy hat over one eye would become Garland’s chosen image for fifteen more years of stage and television appearances, as well as key numbers in A Star is Born.


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Summer Stock is the expected improvement over the DVD from thirteen years ago. The color dazzles and small imperfections seem to have been cleared up. Most of the show plays out on interior sets, where a barnyard tree at 6 a.m. throws five shadows on the ground. But Judy does quite well driving a tractor down a real country road.

The extras have been recycled from the older DVD. To keep a positive ‘authorized’ spin on everything, the unattributed making-of featurette has to walk on eggshells where Garland’s condition and studio politics are concerned. In the course of one year she goes from skeleton weight to almost plump and back down to bantam heft, yet we’re told only than that she ‘got tired’ and had to take a break in filming. Most of the interviewees tell us how marvelous Judy was, the expected gush that even TCM no longer pushes so strongly. Since nobody wants to hear dirt being dished, we’re stuck with Gloria DeHaven telling us her character’s motivation, while the narrator assures us that ‘everyone on the set was there to support Judy.’ I’m sure they were, but we’re never told why the help was needed.

The featurette does stress Gene Kelly’s well-documented loyalty to the star who helped him get his start just eight years earlier. This older NTSC featurette was formatted in DVD widescreen, which for Blu-ray has been reduced to a box floating in the middle of a widescreen frame. If you happen to watch this on an old flat television, sit close: the widescreen image may be in a flat frame inside a widescreen frame inside your flat TV frame. Write your congressman.

Also from the older DVD are several short subjects from 1950, none remastered for HD. The very funny Tex Avery cartoon The Cuckoo Clock is a cat vs. bird violence-fest that begins with word gags like those in Avery’s earlier Symphony in Slang. A Pete Smith Specialty short subject is also included, plus a trailer for the main feature. An outtake song called Fall in Love is offered as an audio-only extra. I think we’re hearing Gloria DeHaven and Hans Conried. To me it sounds like Conried’s own voice, as opposed to the dub job heard when he sings in the movie proper. Or can I trust my ears?  Musical director Saul Chaplin became the king of voice replacement in ’60s musicals.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Summer Stock
Blu-ray rates:
Movie:
Good with an Excellent two or three musical numbers.
Video:
Excellent
Sound:
Excellent
Supplements: New featurette Summer Stock: Get Happy!, MGM cartoon The Cuckoo Clock, Pete Smith specialty short Did’ja Know?, Audio-only bonus: outtake song “Fall in Love”, Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed:
May 2, 2019
(6001summ)

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.