Babes in Arms

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Aug 28 07:28:06 MDT 2000

As you can well imagine, this recent bit of nastiness involving my free
speech rights has left me feeling stressed out. So, taking a break from my
usual Saturday night routine of poring through leftist journals while
listening to Bel Canto opera on my stereo, I turned on the 1939 film "Babes
in Arms," starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, based on the Rogers-Hart
plan and directed by Busby Berkeley. This film combines Busby Berkeley's
"rags to riches" ethos and popular front sentimentality. Anybody who wants
to understand the 1930s through the prism of popular culture should rent
this garish little jewel without delay.

Mickey Moran (Rooney) is an adolescent songwriter and aspiring director
whose vaudevillian father is unemployed. His girl friend is Patsy Barton
(Garland), who likewise comes from an impoverished show business family.
All of their friends are in the same boat. The film opens with Moran and
Barton performing the great Rogers-Hart tune "Good Morning" to a couple of
stony-faced music publishers, who are trying to make up their mind whether
they will buy the song or not. When they tell the boy that they will pay
$100 for it, he faints. After coming to, he rushes home to turn the check
over to his desperate parents.

His parents have figured out a scheme that will solve their financial woes.
They will go on the road again with an old-time vaudeville show. When the
kids suggest that they be brought along as part of the act, they are turned
down. Their role would be to stay at home to watch over things.

This sets in motion the basic plot of just about every Rooney-Garland
vehicle. They decide to put on their own show, which will be called "Babes
in Arms." Late at night, after the youthful crew of singers and dancers
have embraced Rooney and Garland's proposal, they march down main street
singing and dancing, while carrying torches. Their excitement culminates in
a bon fire in a deserted square. Since this scene was shot at the same time
Nazi torch-light parades were a daily occurrence in Germany, one might
surmise that the film-makers were subconsciously reflecting the kind of
warped sense of "volkish" optimism at work in the Third Reich. We do know
that the director Frank Capra, another quintessential depression era
popular front figure, was an admirer of Mussolini, who had managed to get
the trains to run on time. Oddly enough, the original inspiration for
Hitler's torch-light rallies were American football pep rallies that he
learned about from an aide, who had been educated at Harvard.

After the cast is assembled, Moran makes the decision to use Dody Martin
(Leni Lynn), a new arrival in town, for the lead female role instead of his
girl-friend. Dody is a stand-in for Shirley Temple, and a risible figure in
the film. She is surrounded by a retinue of butlers and handlers. When
Moran has dinner with her at her mansion, the audience sees the opulent
settings from his point of view. The class differences are palpable as the
boy apologizes for his squeaky shoes.

When the show debuts on an outdoor stage, we see another side of 1930s
popular culture, which was unfortunately on display almost universally. The
opening skit is "Oh Susannah" performed in blackface. This kind of racist
"humor" was a stock element of many 1930s musicals and comedies, including
those made by the leftist-leaning Marx brothers. Fortunately a rain storm
comes along and forces the show to close in the middle of the "coon show."

After a few trials and tribulations, the youthful troupe receives some
funding and they present a show which provides the climax of the film. It
is a rather grotesque but musically effective production number featuring
Mickey Rooney as FDR and Judy Garland as his wife Eleanor. They sit on what
amounts to a throne in the middle of a stage, while various characters
plucked from the fabric of American society plead their case. A "hillbilly"
needs to be rescued from bankruptcy. You shall receive it, says FDR. An
unemployed worker demands a job. He too shall receive it. The curtain falls
with flag waving and patriotic high spirits. Despite the reputation 1930s
films enjoy as being socially aware, this was the extent of it far too often.

Louis Proyect
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