The 1937 Rodgers & Hart Broadway musical BABES IN ARMS became the 1939 M-G-M film BABES IN ARMS, although curiously minus many of the Rodgers & Hart songs, most notably JOHNNY ONE NOTE and MY FUNNY VALENTINE.
BABES IN ARMS was lyricist Arthur Freed’s first effort as a producer. It was also Busby Berkeley’s first effort as a director at M-G-M following his years of success with musical spectacles at Warner Bros. BABES IN ARMS, however, was a new kind of musical for Berkeley. It was a vehicle for the youthful enthusiasm and exuberance of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and initiated a cycle of spirited lets-put-on-a-show musicals, three more of which (including BABES ON BROADWAY) that Freed, Berkeley, Rooney and Garland would collaborate on.
In his second autobiography (of three), Mickey Rooney said that Berkeley was “impossibly demanding….He was a genius, but he had one small problem. He drank.
“He was always screaming at Judy, ‘Eyes! Eyes! Open them wide! I want to see to your eyes!’ To him, her eyes were her greatest asset.”
On Jack Paar’s TV program, Judy recalled Busby Berkeley as a severe taskmaster. “I used to feel as if he had a big black bullwhip and he was lashing at me with it,” she said. “Sometimes I used to think I couldn’t live through the day.”
Diet and pep pills were supposed to help. They also provided the nervous energy necessary to keep pace with the incredible performing vitality of Mickey Rooney.
He was only 5’3″ and she was only 4’11” and each was the other’s best pal during these years.
According to Rooney, during shooting, the 17 year-old Judy told Mickey she had a painful crush on 28 year-old, twice divorced band leader, Artie Shaw. Trouble was, he never knew about it, Judy told Mickey. She could never tell Artie. Apparently he treated her like the kid next door. In BABES IN ARMS she played the kid next door.
In darkened theaters around the country in 1939, what did young men wonder, watching, this kid, this girl next door?
Some of the musical numbers for BABES IN ARMS were pre-recorded by Judy while she was still completing work for her previous picture, a troubled remake of an old property called THE WIZARD OF OZ. Mickey remembered that Judy would dash over to do a recording with him while still in OZ makeup and pigtails. Picture that.
Mickey Rooney was nominated by the Academy as best actor for BABES IN ARMS. He was paid $23,400 for this role. That was important money for 1939. Judy earned $8,833 for her performance.
Principal photography lasted 32 days, and final negative cost came in at $940,069. By 1946 the picture had grossed $3.85 million.
Opening scenes feature stock clips from M-G-M’s BROADWAY MELODY (1929). The original ending featured a production number spoofing President and Mrs. Roosevelt but was cut out for a 1948 reissue out of respect for the by then deceased president. It has since been restored to prints.
But all in all, still great escapist, though dated, entertainment.