For Me and My GalFor Me and My Gal
(Busby Berkeley, 1942)
is as sentimental as they come. It stars Judy Garland and Gene Kelly as vaudeville actors who take up together and try and make it big. They fall in love, things happen (like, uh, WWI), and Kelly must prove himself before the world. However, let’s look at Kelly’s introduction to the cinema.
The movie introduces him through this line of dialogue, “Say, he looks like an actor!” to which Berkeley cuts to Kelly exiting the train; he’s an actor and a remarkably confident one at that.
Kelly gladhandles the gentlemen and greets the dames with an utmost confidence, only to be met with indifference. His greeting to Judy Garland’s character is not particularly subtle. As soon as he sees her, he whistles, looks her up and down, approaches with a smile and ready to tip his hat.
Not only is he confident, he is aggressive. Even after being made fun of by Garland, he stands there amazed by her.
Kelly’s character is kind of a douche. He’s all smiles, sure, but when it comes down to it, he just acts like one. Some of the girls that are traveling with him want to use his dressing room since it’s closer to the stage, but since Kelly’s character is the top bill, he has rights to it. He makes all the girls get out of his dressing room and tips his hat to them as they leave. He’s the star. He’s a schemer, too. As soon as he gets wind of another acts’ plans to buy a new arrangement, he buys it before they do.
Kelly follows Garland to the train station and after she says goodbye to her brother, hits her up, all smiles and shit, with more smooth talk. He’s definitely condescending in the way he talks to her saying that sooner or later she’ll end up calling him “pet names.” He tries to talk her into dumping her act and joining him. Next to him, she’ll look like a “million bucks in nickels and dimes.” All of his words are calculated. He even fakes some self-pity and gets her to have some coffee with him. It’s all part of his plan to get Garland to realize that she should be partners with him. The scene/dance that follows is one of the most charming moments of the film but it’s made complicated by the duciplitious nature of Kelly’s character (something he later admits to, but you can’t be sure if he does it to be good or if it’s another scheme).
Kelly comes first in the film’s opening numbers. He gets out on the stage looking like a bum with clown shoes and greasepaint making himself ugly before the audience (not unlike his character offstage). He doesn’t share the spotlight with anyone, just like he likes it. Berkeley mostly lets Kelly overtake the stage and let him dictate how the scene plays out. The only time there’s a reaction shot of the audience is of Judy Garland critiquing him, once again showing his low standing with everyone else. He wins the audience over as can be assumed from the hollers in the soundtrack, but he doesn’t get far with Garland. I love those little weird pseudo sideways flips he does. I love how they’re kinda sloppy, playing up the tramp aspect. I’m pretty sure in later films, those flips are all done with finesse and style.
I spend time on these early moments in the film because it makes for such an interesting start for Kelly whom I think is extremely likable. Even though he’s kinda douchey in these moments, I can’t help but like him. However, he as a dramatic actor, he doesn’t particularly convince me. One of the film’s pivotal scenes and one of the more dramatic moments concerns Kelly getting the news that he’s being drafted. All throughout the film we’ve seen warnings of the upcoming war (WWI). Garland’s brother has even signed up to go. He receives the card just as soon as things start to look up for the couple. He grips the card, shuts the door, and hits one of the trunks unconvingly. His line delivery gets much quicker. But Kelly never really manages to convince. I think his face betrays him. Maybe I just can’t think of him as sullen.
The film is obvious propaganda. Kelly hurts his hand in order to get out of the draft so he can keep on being with Garland and get married to her, but this act causes Garland to leave him. After that, everyone starts hating on Kelly. Sure, Kelly had his reasons but that’s still no excuse for not fighting for Uncle Sam. He keeps on trying to sign up for the army in order to make it up to Garland (and redeem himself). Eventually, he ends up joining the war effort as an entertainer. And, of course, he gets the chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the audience and everyone else by actually participating in a dangerous mission.
By fighting for Uncle Sam, Kelly is able to win back the heart of Garland and win back the affections of the audience.
While this post is mostly about Kelly, the real start of the picture is Garland. The number is “After You’ve Gone” and in it she finds herself against a wall, swallowed up by her emotions. Berkeley cuts closer to focus on Garland’s face that reveals all of her feelings for Kelly. In this moment, she finds the strength to confront her inner fears and admit her love for Kelly that will set up the following scene with the singer that Kelly’s been running around with.
I know that sounds pretty trite and cheesy but until you’ve heard Garland just barely get out “Or more” at the end of this film, well, you won’t understand what I mean when I say that this is totally her film. She’s weird to me. I hated her in The Wizard of Oz way back when, I loved her in The Pirate (because she was playing insane in that one), was in indifferent to her in Meet Me in St. Louis. But, in here, she gets to shine much more than Kelly does. Kelly may go through the transformation but he never gets anything as sublime as “After You’ve Gone” which is a shame. That said, this still is a powerhouse of old-timey emotion. I have to say I loved it.