Wednesday, December 30, 2009

For Me and My Gal (1942)

A musical dramedy set around vaudeville's heyday before the outbreak of WWI, For Me and My Gal is Gene Kelly's screen debut, so I've been interested in seeing it for some time. Kelly plays overconfident small-time hoofer Harry Palmer, a comedian and dancer who dreams of playing the Palace Theater. He sees talented singer Jo Hayden's (Judy Garland) performance with an unsuccessful troupe and convinces her to join him as a double act, traveling around the country playing small venues and hoping to catch a break. Of course after a time she falls in love with him, but when Harry meets the famous classical singer Eve Minard (Mártha Eggerth), Jo is afraid of losing him. And as the war looms nearer, the possibility of being drafted puts a shadow over their up-and-coming career.

For Me and My Gal feels like two separate stories slapped together into one, with the first half of a vaudevillian love triangle sort of awkwardly transforming into a more serious wartime story. It's a romance, but we don't really see a lot of the romance happening- Jo falls in love with Harry offscreen after a montage of them performing together, and talks to a friend about it, so it feels a little abrupt. The second half is heavy on the patriotism and forced heroism, as Harry tries to avoid going into the army so that he can stay on the stage. I understand that many films were war-related at this time, but the theme just wasn't done very well.

I was surprised to see that this was directed by Busby Berkely, because it's fairly demure in its musical numbers, and I've only seen his 30's films with unbelievably splashy and large-scale scenes. Here most songs take place on the stage, with fairly simple production to give the feel of actual vaudeville numbers. The music is pretty good, and I especially enjoyed the title song when it's first performed by Harry and Jo in a little cafe.

While the story is so-so and not put together very well, the cast makes the film worthwhile. Somehow I forget how truly beautiful Judy Garland's voice is- when she sings, I just want to stop and listen. She's a decent dancer and a good actress, and I liked her performance a lot because she's so darned likable. Gene Kelly is his usual charming self, singing softly to counter-balance Garland's vocals. He doesn't get to dance enough, though. I enjoyed George Metcalf as Jo's former stage partner, and Mártha Eggerth is lovely and surprisingly empathetic in her small role as Eve Minard, though the poor woman has her cleavage distractingly blurred out during her only musical number.

For Me and My Gal is by no means a great musical, but these early performances from Garland (it was her first big adult role) and Kelly plus some good tunes make it worth watching for a fan like me.