Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. William Powell and Myrna Loy. Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Doris Day and Rock Hudson. These are all popular movie couples from the Golden Era of Hollywood. One successful screen pair which is often overlooked, however, is Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
‘Babes in Arms’ (1939)“Babes in Arms” solidified Rooney and Garland as a winning musical team. It wasn’t their first film together, but it was the first time that the 18 and 16 year-old performers truly starred as the leads in a film. It also was an opportunity for Rooney to prove his acting skills outside of the Andy Hardy series. It was based on the 1937 Broadway hit of the same name by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, but the plot changed significantly. Only a few of the original songs made it to the screen. Several of the more famous tunes from this show are heard just as background music.
Among the supporting actors is Margaret Hamilton, who is best known as the witch who torments Dorothy and Toto in Oz. She makes life just as difficult for our young heroes in this film, which went into production right after Garland and Hamilton finished filming “The Wizard of Oz.” This movie was produced by MGM’s Arthur Freed unit and was the first film at the studio entirely directed by Busby Berkeley.
‘Strike Up the Band’ (1940)This film places a bigger emphasis on Rooney’s musical talents than any other. While he sings and dances in all his pairings with Garland, this is the only story where he’s an instrumentalist, rather than the producer or director. This gives us the opportunity to see what a talented musician Rooney was. He plays the drums very impressively, as well as performing a couple of tunes on the piano. He even conducts the band with convincing confidence.
Like “Babes in Arms,” this movie was produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Busby Berkeley. It again features Preisser as a spoiled rich girl who gives Garland’s character competition for the affection of Rooney’s character. It, too, was based on a Broadway musical of the same name, which debuted in 1930. It bore even less resemblance to its source material, with the only similarity being the title song.
‘Babes on Broadway’ (1941)As reflected by the similarity in title, “Babes on Broadway” is a true follow-up to “Babes in Arms.” Rooney is a more mature version of the character from “Babes in Arms,” but his drive to become a successful showman is just as strong. This is the only one of the three films in which he and Garland meet during the story, rather than being longtime friends. This allows them to have a more mature romance, instead of the playful, youthful flirtation of childhood sweethearts.
Although it was still produced by the Freed unit, this movie was not exclusively directed by Busby Berkeley. Vincente Minnelli, who would later become Garland’s second husband, was an uncredited director of some of the sequences. The songs included mostly original ones written for this movie, with music by Burton Lane and Roger Edens and lyrics by E. Y. Harburg and Ralph Freed.