Stop a second and consider this title. “Babes in Arms”. What associations does this conjure up in your mind? I immediately thought of a C-movie about half-naked women in battle armed to the teeth. Sex and violence, the magic formula to sell a movie. As low as that sound I think I would have been happier with that than what I actually got.
“Babes in Arms” is a Busby Berkeley musical and there are neither half-naked women nor any violence except for a slap on a cheek. In fact this is about as harmless as it comes.
I believe this must be the fourth Busby Berkeley musical on the list. The quality has been mixed with “Footlight Parade” as the high point with James Cagney as the engine and beautifully choreographed pieces. “Babes in Arms” however marks the low point. Even Judy Garland cannot save it.
Early in the movie we get “Good Morning”, a classic song that I had no idea came from this musical. The jazzy swing style made my hope soar. A jazz musical? Now that would be something! Unfortunately that is practically the only swing or jazz we get. The rest of the pieces are somewhere between classical musical and opera.
In a musical we often skirt the story part, knowing it is only the vehicle of the show, and go right to the show. Good songs, spectacular show, good dancing or all of the above like in Top Hat. Here we get none of the above, except for “Good Morning”. I believe the black-face stunt will infuriate some to boot.
Well, maybe the other way round, maybe the story and the characters are the real attraction?
The theme is youth rebelling against their parent’s generation. A very common theme with many excellent and famous movies using it. But this is 1939 and there are no James Dean or Marlon Brando or hippies for that matter. Instead it is the story of a bunch of kids who are left at home when their parent go on tour with their show and who set up their own show to show their parents that they can do it and to keep them out of state school. Nice. You would then think there is a nice youthful twist to their show and performance? Nope, it is exactly the same as their parents would do, the same as all the other musicals are setting up and the only youthful about it is the orchestra made up of pre-teens.’
Teenagers marching out with torches to show the world that times have changed are NOT doing it to opera!
Judy Garland is her usual sweet self but Mickey Rooney, apparently a youth icon of the time is totally obnoxious. Screaming and shouting in self-pity or self-righteousness he is really no James Dean. Instead he looks like a very bad case of ADHD. The fire that burns in him is very shrill indeed. In that sense they seem like an odd couple, Mickey and Patsy, and I do not feel much chemistry between them.
I know times have changed and each time their own rebellion, but this is no rebellion and it does not feel honest at all. Maybe it is the way conservative parents would prefer their children’s inevitable rebellion will act out? Wishful thinking of parents in 1939?
Well, I think I would have preferred a movie about half-naked women armed to the teeth.