The Archivist #143: Two Musicals for Judy Garland’s Centennial [ZIEGFELD GIRL & FOR ME AND MY GAL]

Two MGM movie musicals for the Garland completist

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory-pressed Blu-ray discs. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

Born in 1922, Judy Garland was only 19 years old when cast in Ziegfeld Girl and then 20 in For Me and My Gal at MGM. Both the 1941 dramedy and 1942 musical were released this month from the Warner Archive Collection. The movies take on the world of theater in different ways, although both involve elements of vaudeville and star the legendary Ms. Garland.

Unfortunately, I’d argue that while she has at least one stunning musical number in each film, she is underused in both. Her character is given a weak, barely-there backstory in For Me and My Gal, and the powerhouse performer is pushed aside to a supporting role in Ziegfeld Girl.

Hedy Lamaar, Judy Garland, and Lana Turner in ZIEGFELD GIRL.

Ziegfeld Girl

A cavalcade of stars are featured in this Broadway-set musical, a sequel of sorts to award-winner The Great Ziegfeld. Two of my favorite character actors in classic film appear here: Edward Everett Horton as a casting director for Mr. Ziegfeld, and smirking Eve Arden as a performer aging out of her role in the chorus, unafraid to dispense advice to her younger cohorts in the cast. A 20-year-old Lana Turner carries most of the weight of the film as Sheila, a department store elevator operator “discovered” by Ziegfeld.

The main drama of the work is based around her character and the working class fiancé (Jimmy Stewart playing a truck driver) she breaks up with to enjoy the high life. As this film was made under the Hays Code, you can bet Sheila will eventually be punished for letting a sugar daddy support her in style. When she turned down the first drink offered to her in the movie, I could already tell where her story was headed.

The always lovely Hedy Lamarr co-stars as Sandra, a dancer married to a controlling violinist who doesn’t want her onstage in front of other men. Garland rounds out the trio as Susan, a teen who has been raised onstage as part of a father-daughter act and receives her big break through Ziegfeld’s show. It’s confusing as heck that the main trio of “Girls” all have S names. Even with the too-long runtime, Sheila is the only character given a meaty story—and Turner is fourth billed at that.

The main job of a “Ziegfeld Girl” is to be a walking object on the stage, a glorified model for some zany costuming, mutely smiling as a man sings loudly in your ear. Certainly the story attempts to allow a few of these young women some personality and romance, but there’s not much to remain in a viewer’s memory besides Susan’s audition ballad, “Chasing Rainbows.” In contrast to that plaintive performance, the production on most of the musical numbers — choreographed by Busby Berkeley, who also directed For Me and My Gal— tends towards the obnoxious; one of the more egregious examples is “Minnie from Trinidad,” which features dancers in brownface and Garland in a phallic-looking hat.

For Me and My Gal

The filmmakers for 1942’s For Me and My Gal took what might have been a lighthearted musical in peacetime and turned it into a jingoistic melodrama. Garland has top billing in Gene Kelly’s cinematic debut, with George Murphy (who would later serve as a Senator for California) rounding out the cast.

Flirtatious Harry (Kelly) tempts vaudeville performer Jo (Garland) away from her troupe, headed by Murphy’s Jimmy, to join him as a duo. The age break here is fascinating, as each main cast member is 10 years older than the next, with Garland the youngest, then Kelly, then Murphy.

This remembrance of vaudeville days past is compiled of mostly forgettable music numbers (save for Garland’s slow version of “After You’ve Gone”), is rife with historical inaccuracies, and has lazy writing and plotting to boot. Once the film turns its reflective attention to World War I, the jingoism becomes overwhelming. It seems like they tried to throw in every WWI-era patriotic song that they could, from “Over There” to “Pack Up Your Troubles.”

Garland’s character has limited motivation and we know little about her except that she has a younger brother and a crush on Harry. Kelly is given far more to do and is effortlessly charming, although not quite natural in front of camera yet. If given a choice between this Garland/Kelly pairing and Summer Stock, my pick would be the 1950 musical.

For Me and My Gal and Ziegfeld Girl are both available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Archive.

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