October 16, 2023

Debunking the myths around a famous movie musical

Submitted Photo

Submitted Photo

Other than his friendly rival Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly was perhaps the person most synonymous with the golden age of the movie musical. Most everyone knows about “Singing in the Rain”, but one of Gene’s most technically difficult dance scenes is from another movie, “Summer Stock.”  That movie almost did not happen in part because of Gene’s very famous costar. The new book “Come On, Get Happy” is about the making of “Summer Stock.” The authors are film historians David Fantle and Tom Johnson. They spoke to WFYI’s Ray Steele.

RAY STEELE:  I mentioned Gene’s famous costar.  She just happened to be one of the most famous stars in the history of Hollywood. That would be Judy Garland.  “Summer Stock” came out in 1950. And by then, Gene was at a much different place in his career than Judy Garland was, certainly much different than when they first appeared together on the screen. That was “For Me and My Gal in 1942 I believe.

TOM JOHNSON: Yeah, Gene was at the apex of his career really. He had just done “On The Town”, his favorite movie musical, his own personal favorite, and he was ready to go into production on “An American in Paris.” So, you know, “Summer Stock” was sort of sandwiched between both of these gigantic career capstones.

DAVID FANTLE: And Judy had been of course since “Wizard of Oz” in ‘1939 and throughout the 1940s really money in the bank for MGM. But by the late ‘40s, when they started production on “Summer Stock in ’49, her personal problems were growing.  She had a growing dependency on prescription medications. Her marriage to the director Vincente Minnelli was for all intents and purposes over, and then she had the care of a three-year-old toddler named Liza Minnelli. But I think one of the things about our book, Ray, is that we make it abundantly clear that the reputation for the film and having a lot of problems and troubles and delays does not rest solely at the feet of Judy Garland. There were several other circumstances that caused the production delays.

STEELE: What were some of those problems, David?

FANTLE:  They had five core songs. And then the whole last sequence of the film is a show within a movie sequence where they're actually putting the show on in the barn. And they said, we don't have enough songs to get over the finish line. You can't just snap your fingers. Even if you bought a song off the shelf, like “Get Happy” was, you still have to arrange it, you still have to record it, you still have to orchestrate it and all the things that go into it. So, all of those things added significantly to the production window.

STEELE: Yeah. David, “Get Happy” itself. Wasn't that shot like two months after the rest of the movie or something like that?

FANTLE: No, that's the myth.

STEELE: Oh, that’s a myth?

FANTLE:  She was done with her work in about mid-February of 1950. She left for literally a couple of weeks. And they shot that in March. But again, talking about misinformation, Gene Kelly’s solo with the squeaky board and that old newspaper was actually the last thing filmed in April of 1950.

STELE: If people have not seen that dance number, it's remarkable. “You Wonderful You” is the song. Harry Warren tune,  Saul Chaplin lyric, the squeaky board and the piece of newspaper. You said it was the last thing that was done on the film. How long did all of that take to come together as we see it in the movie?

FANTLE: The conception originally came from the dance director on that film, Nick Castle. And Gene was at Nick's house and they were batting around some ideas. And Gene even enlisted his young daughter Kerry to start working with him to find the right newspaper that would tear that would score. But typically, these things were rehearsed at least three weeks prior. The taps that Gene did had to be dubbed in after the number was shot, which is an arduous and difficult task that Gene said he hated, but the result is art. It's just a show stopping number as is “Get Happy.” That’s all there is to it.

David Fantle and Tom Johnson’s book is “Come On, Get Happy: The Making of Summer Stock.”  They're giving a talk about the book and there's a screening of “Summer Stock” on Tuesday October 17 at The Palladium in Carmel.  Information is available at TheCenterPresents.org.

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