I always thought Mickey Rooney made a terrific Puck, but now I’m not so certain. He’s appropriately spirited, to be sure—a 60-pound bundle of energy. But it’s an overly aggressive performance, played to the distant back row of a very large theater. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful film, with sets and cinematography by Anton Grot and Hal Mohr, respectively. And it’s full of star power—Olivia de Havilland in one of her first movies, Dick Powell as Lysander, James Cagney as Bottom and a wonderful Joe E. Brown as Flute, the Bellows-mender.
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Tom Drake dies of lung cancer in Torrance, California, 1982. A heart murmur kept the MGM contract player out of service during World War II and the studio kept him busy, making nine movies during the that time. He is best remembered as the boy next door to Judy Garland’s Esther Smith—a role originally meant for Van Johnson—in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Though stardom evaded him, Drake worked throughout his career alongside Elizabeth Taylor, Greer Garson and Spencer Tracy and played Richard Rodgers to Mickey Rooney’s Lorenz Hart in Words and Music (1948).
Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney prerecord the song “I Wish I Were in Love Again” for Words and Music, 1948. Ostensibly a biography of songwriters Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, the film became more of a showcase for MGM talent than a faithful account of the two acclaimed songwriters. After seeing the film, Rodgers reportedly liked only one thing about it—Janet Leigh as his wife. As it was, Words and Music represented the last time Garland and Rooney were on screen together. Ironically, “I Wish I Were in Love Again” was one of four songs that were cut from Babes in Arms when it came time to make the Garland-Rooney movie version of the Broadway show. As the two perform it, Garland in particular seems fresh, at ease and having a ball, and she looks terrific. This was to be her only number in the movie, but when preview audiences demanded another, she was called back to the studio to record and shoot “Johnny One Note.” Though both songs are performed at the same party in the movie, they were filmed four months apart, which accounts for changes in Garland’s weight and hair length.
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To make us all feel like underachievers, George Gershwin, arguably the greatest American composer of the 20th century, had his first hit song, “Swanee,” when he was 21 and composed “Rhapsody in Blue” at the age of 26. Soon thereafter, the Brooklyn-born artist made his mark on the New York stage with the musicals Oh, Kay! (1925), Funny Face (1927), Girl Crazy (1929), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Of Thee I Sing (1931) and the opera Porgy and Bess (1935). Migrating to Hollywood in the mid-1930s, Gershwin entered the lofty world of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with the score for Shall We Dance (1937), yielding a slew of songs—with lyrics by younger brother and frequent collaborator Ira Gershwin—that joined his already established songbook of national treasures: “They Can’t Take that Away from Me,” “They All Laughed,” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” to name three. “True music must repeat the thoughts and inspirations of the people and the time,” composer George Gershwin once remarked. “My people are Americans and my time is today.”
Here are ten Gershwin classics that graced the silver screen.
Busby Berkeley dies in Palm Springs, California, 1976. The director and choreographer was best known for his overhead shots of geometrically arranged chorus girls. In addition to this signature style, he also favored close-ups of many of the young women who populated his concoctions. "Well, we've got all the beautiful girls in the picture,” Berkeley explained. “Why not let the public see them?" After a string of successful Warner Bros. musicals in the 1930s, Berkeley worked at MGM on four movies starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and ended his directing career in 1949 with Take Me Out to the Ball Game, starring Gene Kelly, Esther Williams and Frank Sinatra. Reflecting on his contribution to the movies, Berkeley remarked, “In an era of breadlines, depression and wars, I tried to help people get away from all the misery...to turn their minds to something else. I wanted to make people happy, if only for an hour.”