Thursday, July 22, 2010
Summer Stock - 1950
Summertime will always carry for many of us the intangible essence of freedom, the pursuit of dreams, and a sense of suspended work for play. There are plenty of tangibles that go along with this: the hot weather mainly. But if the livin’ is not always easy, the vague promise of a better life even in just a lawn chair or hammock for a handful of weekends seems like Shangri-la compared to rat race we’ve chosen for ourselves the rest of the time. I don’t know if we can really catch the idyll of summers of our childhood, but the memory of them, perhaps romanticized, is what probably pushes us to think we can.
Judy and Gene are grown ups, but this is the old “let’s put on a show” formula Judy had been playing since she was in pigtails. Her next musical four years later, “A Star is Born” would be much more grown up, if still from well-worn material.
The farm is struggling. Judy’s two ancient farmhands are leaving her to go down to “Hartford way” in their Sunday suits to get jobs in factories. But, all is not lost, because kid sister is finally coming home to help on the farm. And Judy has a new tractor to help with the harvest.
The plot thickens. Spoiled kid sister brings home her boyfriend, Gene Kelly, and Mr. Kelly’s crew of actors and stagehands. He is a hopeful young director, and spoiled kid sister has promised him the use of Judy’s barn to put on his show.
We mentioned in this recent post about “A Stolen Life” (1946) how old movies depicting rural New England frequently demonstrate our apparent love of square dancing. But, as we see here, barns in New England (uh, that’s b-a-a-h-n-s), have another use. No, not for housing cows. That other use, summer stock, which is often called The Barn Circuit.
New England Travels blog about the scrapbook of a young girl, you see a dance card from the early 1920s, on the back of which lists the dances to be performed. One is the Portland Fancy.
Before too long, however, this b-a-a-h-n dance turns to be-bop, as the rowdy acting company takes over, and this is only a small bit of havoc they wreak on the farm. Ray Collins is mostly incensed at their presence just because they are, well, actors. You know what theater people are like.
At some point in the 20th century, old prejudices died out enough for rural New England communities to take visiting actors as guests in their homes when they played at the local summer stock theater. There weren’t a whole lot of Ramada Inns or quaint B&Bs back in the day, so the theatre folk relied on a spare room where it was offered.
The women are separated from the men, of course, in the dormitory hay loft, with ever-vigilant Marjorie Main guarding their virtue with a double barreled shotgun. Yes, sir, all the comforts of home.
Back to Judy’s troubles. Wanting to support spoiled kid sister, she allows the show to go on, provided the actors help with the farm chores. Never ask Phil Silvers, who plays Gene Kelly’s inept and brutally annoying sidekick, to do anything for you.
And Judy and Gene fall for each other. Nobody wants to hurt anybody, but this is a musical, and everybody gets hurt.
Judy Garland was what many called a triple threat: she could sing, she could dance, and she could act. Anything she turned her hand to on stage, she did well, and often brilliantly. Here we see her precise comedic timing. She could do more with a look or a gesture than the other comics could do with pages of the best material.
She displays swift and sudden sadness, brittle disappointment, and her eyes tear as she speaks. She makes you believe her. Then she does the “Get Happy” number, filmed after the rest of the movie was in the can, having lost some extra pounds and looking fabulous. How many times had she pulled a rabbit out of the hat?
The acting company names itself “Falbury Farm Players” and their show is called “Fall in Love.” About the second most vague title in play-within-a-movie history, losing out to “Playing Around”, which was the show Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye produced in “White Christmas” (1954). Which was put on up the road in Vermont. In a b-a-a-h-n.
This film was made in 1950. For more on Hollywood actors appearing in real New England summer stock in the summer of 1950, have a look at yesterday’s post in my Tragedy and Comedy in New England blog.
Below, have a look at the trailer for “Summer Stock”, and also for Judy’s “Get Happy” number.