Judging by its lofty pedigree on paper, For Me and My Gal should really be one of cinema’s most enduring and classic musicals. Not only was it directed by Busby Berkeley and produced by Arthur Freed, but it was Judy Garland’s first “adult” role, and, furthermore, Gene Kelly’s film debut.* And yet it remains one of the more underseen Garland and/or Kelly and/or Berkeley pictures of the era, in part because, well… it’s a bit dark.
Filmed and released during World War 2, but set at the cusp of World War 1, war is a constant presence in the film. Newspaper headlines keep us updated on the timeline of the build up to the first world war, and newsreel footage is periodically spliced in to illustrate the points visually. War isn’t the focus though, at first–as the audience, we know what comes next, but the characters continue to sing and dance and bicker and kiss as though they’re in a standard, happy-ending musical, blissfully unaware of history. It’s a bit like Hitchcock’s bomb under the table, and as the movie progresses, the characters’ seemingly trivial matters begin to take on a more important historical context.
Anyway, we start out with Jo Hayden, played by Garland, who’s part of a moderately successful vaudeville troupe that does sweet, if cloying, numbers like “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.” Kelly plays Harry Palmer, who’s a talented but self-serving vaudeville act in the same show. Harry hasn’t quite reached the level of success he so desires either (he specifically defines “success” as “performing at The Palace,” in New York), and, recognizing Jo’s great talent, brushes aside an initial rivalry to ask her to partner up with him. She falls for him, as anyone would, after an intimate song-and-dance number in an empty café, as they sing the title song in duet. Thus, Jo and Harry begin their career together, schlepping away to a variety of exotic locales in middle America: Moosehead Falls, Chipmunk Junction. They soon receive a telegram from their booking agent though, informing them that he’s gotten them a place on stage at the Palace New York. Elatedly, they decide they’ll get married after that first matinee, and life, for a moment, seems grand.
When they arrive at The Palace though, things quickly turn foul. They meet Jo’s old dance partner, Jimmy Metcalf (played by George Murphy, who was originally supposed to have the Gene Kelly role), who is also there for a gig at The Palace. But when Jo and Harry inquire about the Palmer & Hayden dressing room, the stage manager has no idea who they are, and no record of them ever being offered a spot. Their agent arrives to explain that, no, no–he meant the Palace Newark, in far-off, and markedly less prestigious, New Jersey. It’s an intense blow to their egos, particularly to Harry, who was offered a chance to ditch Jo and play The Palace with a seductive opera singer, but stuck around–largely because they received this Palace offer.
Their situation picks up a bit, as they dust themselves off and put on the best show Newark’s ever seen–and as luck would have it, the Palace New York booker is in the crowd and offers them a real spot in a few weeks time. Unavoidably, of course, this is the high point at which the war really starts encroaching on the narrative, throwing wrenches into best laid schemes.
Indeed, the war leads to two important things happening at around the same time: Harry gets notice that he has been drafted, and that he must report before the scheduled Palmer & Hayden Palace performance; and Jo receives word that her beloved brother, Danny, has been killed in action overseas. Desperate, Harry literally breaks his own hand to get his reporting date pushed back, so they can still perform at the Palace in the mean time. When Harry excitedly tells Jo that he no longer has to report (moments after she has told him her brother is dead, which is an incredible misread of the room on his part), she is furious and calls off the act, and their relationship, entirely. Harry tries to enlist in the army, navy, anything, to win her back, but he finds out that he has permanently disfigured his hand, and now no branch of the military will accept him–and neither will Jo.
This whole situation really heightened my interest in the film, which, up until this point, had been a fine, serviceable backstage musical. It’s an incredibly bold move to have a draft-dodger as the romantic lead in a film released in the midst of World War 2. While millions of people were heading out to serve in various arenas throughout the world, here we have a protagonist who willingly self-mutilates himself to avoid that service. Sure, he ultimately regrets that decision, and sure, it was based on the true story of an actor who actually did this to himself, but it was still a crazily dramatic moment given the lightness of the preceding scenes. And, certainly, it was evidence of the drastic measures and unclear thinking that war can invoke in anyone–especially one already prone to selfishness, cowardice, and misguided actions.
The character of Harry was so problematic that, after initial test screenings, Berkeley had to complete about three additional weeks of filming to make him seem a bit more heroic and sympathetic–test audiences thought Jo should have gone back to Jimmy instead of Harry at the end. He does ultimately prove himself a “hero,” but his initial cowardice is just one of those things that, I think, is near insurmountable for American sensibilities to view as sympathetic.
As advertised in the title card, For Me and My Gal is, mostly, a film dedicated to vaudeville and the vaudeville lifestyle. But it’s more than just a romantic, behind-the-scenes musical–it’s a movie that captures the anxieties and occasional ugliness of a society in turmoil. I love musicals that have a dark current running beneath their shiny veneer, and For Me and My Gal just might be one of the bleakest. In any case, it’s certainly much more than the “boy, a girl, and a song” promised in the trailer.
*Despite a lack of real focus on the love triangle in the movie, MGM contract hoofer George Murphy appears in most of the publicity materials for the film to make up for lack of widespread audience recognition of Kelly, who was “only” a celebrated Broadway star at the time.