Summer Stock (1950)
It’s almost summertime! So this week it’s Summer Stock (1950), starring Judy Garland as Jane Falbury, a dedicated farmer with prodigious but hidden musical theater talent, and Gene Kelly as Joe Ross, a kindhearted and driven musical theater performer and director desperate to get his show to Broadway. I wonder if there will be any singing or dancing, and if Jane and Joe will ever get together…
“Summer stock” refers to the tradition of theater companies producing shows in the summer that often reuse “stock” costumes or scenery, and sometimes take place outdoors.
This movie runs with that idea: Joe brings his struggling theater company to Jane’s farm to put on a show in her barn in hopes of eventually getting it produced on Broadway. Why Jane’s farm? Well, Joe is dating Jane’s little sister Abigail, and Abigail volunteered the family farm. But she didn’t tell Jane…Drama!
This movie is a delightful specimen of the fabulous 1950s MGM musical–it’s bright, colorful, buoyant, absolutely stuffed with talented performers, and filmed in shallow focus with nary a shadow in sight.
It’s notorious because it was Judy Garland’s last film for MGM, the studio where she had started working at age 13 in 1935. After Summer Stock, Garland was cast in Royal Wedding but replaced by Jane Powell, and her MGM contract was terminated in September of 1950. She wouldn’t make another movie until A Star is Born (1954).
Garland was having some very serious problems by the late 1940s. She was struggling with drug dependency, migraines, alcohol issues, etc., all of which made her extremely unreliable. She was often late and sometimes didn’t show up at all. When she did appear on set, her performances suffered.
Before Summer Stock, she had been fired from Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and suspended from MGM. Brassy Betty Hutton replaced her as Annie, and Garland spent three months in a hospital being treated for drug dependency. Then she returned to MGM. Summer Stock was her first film after her suspension.
June Allyson was the original choice for Jane, and producer Joe Pasternak wanted to cast Mickey Rooney as Joe, but Rooney was no longer the strong box office draw he had once been. So Kelly got the part, and MGM decided to give Judy Garland another chance.
The story goes that Gene Kelly and director Charles Walters weren’t wild about the script but did the movie as a favor to Judy Garland. Walters had worked with Judy on Easter Parade two years earlier, and this was Kelly’s third film with Judy.
Gene and Judy had worked together on Kelly’s first movie, For Me and My Gal (1942), and Garland, who by this time was a seasoned veteran, had been extremely helpful and supportive to Gene as he transitioned from stage actor to movie actor. They worked together again six years later on The Pirate (1948). Summer Stock was their last pairing. They are really great together.
I’ll talk more about Garland’s troubles and the difficulties of this movie later, but I don’t want to bias you or reduce this movie to Garland’s-problems-on-display, because it is more than that. So off we go!
The movie opens with a swooping crane shot through the barnyard and up to the second floor of the farmhouse.
The camera finds Jane (Garland) singing in the shower. It’s a very unglamorous first appearance…she showers, she puts on overalls, she makes her bed.
But through all of that quotidian nonsense she sings a cheerful song “If You Feel like Singing, Sing!” in that exuberant way of hers. You can watch it here. (The blurb about the clip on TCM.com notes that Judy Garland is “unusually stout;” she had gained weight and was very insecure about it.)
Fun Fact: When the film was released in Britain it was titled If You Feel Like Singing.
But all is not rosy on Falbury Farm. Jane’s devoted housekeeper Esme (Marjorie Main, who had worked with Garland a few years earlier on Meet Me in St. Louis and The Harvey Girls) brings bad tidings. The two farmhands have decided to leave. Turns out the farm is really struggling and Jane hasn’t been able to pay her employees, so they’re heading out for greener pastures.
She brings her idea to Orville (Eddie Bracken), that wimpy little guy in the bow tie. Besides helping his father run the general store, Orville is also Jane’s fiancé (they’ve been engaged for four years, so that tells you something). Eddie Bracken was so good at playing nervous, sweet guys. In this film he has terrible allergies, and he’s completely dominated by his overbearing father.
You can watch the scene here. Everything is sunshine and tractors until she arrives back at her farm where she is greeted by confusion and dismay.
Abigail (Gloria De Haven) neglected to tell Jane that she had offered the farm to Joe’s theater group for summer stock. Jane is terribly confused, as she didn’t even know that Abigail was working as an actress! In fact, Jane thought that Abigail was coming home to help out with the farm. (Jane is the responsible sister, and Abigail is pretty flighty.)
There’s a lovely scene in the barn when Jane shouts for everyone to be quiet so she can figure out what the hell is going on. She’s mostly hidden behind a piece of scenery, and even the cows are alarmed by her sudden shout:
Joe realizes who Jane is and tells her how thrilled they are to be there and how perfect the barn will be for their show. And Jane’s like, “What?”
Back to Summer Stock. This is a fun scene, and it starts a trend that continues throughout the movie. Even if you had no idea about the story or the characters, the costumes tell you everything you need to know. Joe and Jane match! It’s like they’re wearing the same pale blue shirt and they’re both in casual, muted tones. Now look at how differently Abigail is dressed in a fancy, bright, shiny, patterned frock. She doesn’t go with Joe at all.
Generally, Joe and Jane coordinate, Joe and Abigail clash, Orville and Jane clash, and Orville and Abigail coordinate. Guess who ends up together? Hurray for costume design! Walter Plunkett designed all the costumes except for Gloria de Haven’s, which were designed by Helen Rose.
Well, at first Jane is dead set against allowing the theater people to stay on her farm. But Abigail cries, and Jane is a big softy where her little sister is concerned. As Jane and Abigail argue, Joe and Herb (Phil Silvers) entertain the gang in a charming-tap-dance-on-the-table number. You can watch it here.
So Jane agrees to let Joe’s group put on their show, but only if they help out around the farm, too.
But eventually they figure it out. Everyone is chipping in, everyone, that is, except for Miss Abigail, who prances around in pretty dresses and high heels, and keeps kissing Joe at inappropriate times.
As the theater people discover their inner farmers, Jane discovers her inner theater person. She tap dances in the kitchen, for example, then lets it all hang out at the traditional barn dance.
You see, Jane had agreed to hold the Historical Society’s barn dance in her barn, but the townfolk disapprove of all the theater folk hanging around. But Jane promises that the theater folk will not attend the barn dance, so the dance goes on as scheduled. Can you guess what happens?
Joe is determined to fix it before Jane finds out, but two little boys see the mangled tractor and run to tell Jane at the barn dance. So Joe runs after them and tries to distract Jane by dancing with her.
Meanwhile, the theater troupe is watching it all from the hayloft. They see Joe…they assume that if he’s there, they can dance, too…and suddenly the quaint barn dance turns into a swinging dance party.
Jane tries to continue square dancing with Joe when all the other respectable farm people flee. She’s determined to keep the barn dance going.
Commence the dance duel. Look at Gene Kelly’s grin! You can watch the dance here.
The whole “surprise! Judy Garland can sing and dance!” plot is pretty wonky. Obviously she can; it’s Judy Garland. It would be like Esther Williams pretending she can’t swim and then suddenly becoming the greatest swimmer ever in a quick montage. Fortunately, Summer Stock doesn’t draw this “Jane as a musical theater whiz? Surely not!” out too long.
As you may have guessed, and as the costumes have been telling us this whole time, Joe and Jane develop feelings for each other, but they’re conflicted. Abigail is being a real spoiled brat, and her co-star in the production (Hans Conried), is a real pompous jerk who thinks all this summer stock stuff is beneath him. He’s never had to rehearse amongst cows, before.
Now Joe’s production has no leads. Joe can step in for Harrison, but who in the world can play Abigail’s role? It only takes Joe a little while to figure out that Jane is the only option! Because I guess none of the trained dancers and singers in the troupe could step into the part. It definitely makes more sense for an untested farmer to jump into the starring role with only a few days to rehearse.
And a famous dance by Gene Kelly where he crafts a number from a creaky board and a newspaper. I heard once that the prop people searched everywhere to find the perfect newspaper. It had to rip just right. After a great deal of searching and experimenting, they found the perfect one, down to the exact edition.
You can watch it here. It’s a a lovely scene, and very Gene Kelly.
It reminds me of the movie magic “You Were Meant for Me” number that he would do two years later with Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain. Something about that pink lighting behind him and an empty stage with helpfully placed props…
The choreography credits on this movie are a little confusing. Gene Kelly did his own choreography for the newspaper dance and the “All For You” (opening number of the show) and “Portland Fancy” (barn dance) numbers. But Nick Castle, who got choreography credit, choreographed the other dances, except for “Get Happy,” which Charles Walter choreographed. Whew.
It’s the day of the show, y’all. Jane is completely panicked and Joe comes to her makeshift dressing room to calm her down. Guess what’s hanging on the costume rack in the corner? The short pink dress that Judy Garland wore two years earlier in Easter Parade (1948), and that Lucille Ball‘s back-up dancers wore two years before that in Easy to Wed (1946).
We’ve got a reprise of “You Wonderful You” with a Victorian sweetheart theme, and little Liza Minnelli in a copy of her mom’s costume.
We’ve got this weird one called “Heavenly Music” that begins with lovely ladies in lovely sparkly dresses. It starts out almost like “Beautiful Girls” from Singin’ in the Rain, or “The Girl I Love is on a Magazine Cover” from Easter Parade, but things go sideways pretty quickly. Here come Herb and Joe as hillbillies with hobbit feet, and eventually the lovely ladies go away and we’re left with howling dogs, trick suspenders, and blacked out teeth. You can watch it here.
Fun fact: Judy Garland was supposed to be in this number, too, but she didn’t show up for filming that day and they couldn’t afford to delay production, so they did it without her. Later you see her in her “Heavenly Music” costume:
It’s famous because it’s awesome, and also because it was confusing for movie audiences. This number was filmed about three months after Garland had shot the rest of her Summer Stock scenes. Notice anything different about her? Between finishing the rest of Summer Stock and shooting “Get Happy,” Garland had lost about twenty pounds.
The weight loss made people think that this number had been taken from MGM’s archives. They didn’t believe that Garland had filmed it for this movie because she looks so different here than in the rest of the film. Also, her costume fed these rumors, because she had first worn it for a number in Easter Parade called “Mr. Monotony,” but they hadn’t used it in the film. It survives though; you can watch it here. With the weight loss and her now-iconic tuxedo jacket and fedora, people thought this was old footage.
It’s an incredible number; I can’t recommend it enough. You can watch it here. Garland just shimmers and it’s so cool. Here she is getting a touch up and filming this masterpiece:
Nothing can compete with “Get Happy,” but Summer Stock‘s actual finale is a variation of “Howdy, Neighbor!” with “unusually stout” Judy Garland back in overalls. You can see why switching from “Get Happy” to this confused people:
It’s a happy ending for all involved, though I do wonder what will happen to the farm. Jane has caught the show business bug! Abigail and Orville will probably be quite happy together, but I can’t see Abigail digging into farm work.
And now for the Judy Garland saga.
MGM took a risk casting Garland, and after filming began it seemed as though their plan had failed. She was erratic, late, sometimes failed to show up at all, and often she was just unable to work.
After three weeks, Joe Pasternak, the producer, tried to cancel the badly delayed movie because it was too expensive (and frustrating) to keep going with Garland, but studio head Louis B. Mayer demanded that the movie continue. He said: “Judy Garland has made this studio a fortune in the good days, and the least we can do is to give her one more chance. If you stop production now, it’ll finish her.” So they kept going.
Not only was Garland acting erratically and causing delays, but she had gained weight and was very uncomfortable with her appearance.
Walter Plunkett designed Garland’s costumes for this movie, and remembered how tricky it was: “We tried to make her look as thin as possible, but we weren’t miracle workers, and we didn’t succeed.” He did try some interesting strategies, mainly elaborate collars and details around the bust line to draw attention up towards her face:
As I mentioned earlier, Kelly did this movie because he was so grateful to Garland for her help early in his career. Everyone knew she wasn’t okay when they were filming, but he tried to help.
Apparently one day she was in a bad state, and so Kelly faked a fall to postpone the day’s filming to give her some time to recover.
Charles Walters later recalled how difficult it was to work with Judy Garland on this movie: “Gene took her left arm and I took her right one, and between us, we literally tried to keep her on her feet. But it wasn’t easy. Emotionally she was at her lowest ebb. Physically she was pretty unsure of herself as well.”
“There were even times when we had to nail the scenery down and provide her with supports so she wouldn’t fall over. Once, I remember, she had to walk up a few steps, and she couldn’t do it. So I had to cheat the shot, and shoot the scene from a different angle. The whole experience was a ghastly, hideous nightmare which, happily, is a blur in my memory.”
I wonder if this shot was blocked like this, with her leaning against the porch column, so she would have something to keep her upright? You can watch this beautiful song, “Friendly Star,” here.