Summer Stock in a Winter Storm
Before I even knew what a Broadway musical was (and it is hard to believe that there was ever such a time in my life), I spent my childhood waiting for old movie musicals to play on television. We lived in the country, and the odds of getting anything on your television outside of the three major networks, was pretty slim. Still, with my little black and white television, wrapped in aluminum foil, me with coat hanger in-hand and leaning out my bedroom window, I could sometimes pick up PBS and the occasional movie musical. I saw Kiss Me, Kate and Brigadoon this way.
The advent of the gigantic satellite dish in the 1980s changed the life of many a rural gay boy who could only imagine a world of musicals available to those lucky city and suburban dwellers with cable television. I remember the installation of the powder blue monstrosity on the grassy knoll near our tree line. It towered over me and looked ridiculous, but the eyesore was my key to Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly. A necessary evil of the modern world, bound to be condemned by Lettice Douffet in a spirited monologue disparaging such atrocities.
Soon after it's arrival, I discovered the Disney Channel. This was back in the day when the Disney Channel was equal parts classic Disney, original shows with educational overtones, and programming that drew from old Hollywood and television. It was a quieter, gentler time for a network that has now become overrun with high-spirited, pop-music driven shows for tweens. On Monday nights, the Disney Channel would offer a series that showed classics from old Hollywood. The series was inaugurated with the Judy Garland/Gene Kelly film Summer Stock. As an avid Judy fan, I had to tune in. Negotiating my bedtime with my mother was always a challenge, but a little kissing up and doing some extra chores secured me the extra hour and a half I would need to enjoy Summer Stock.
Okay, so maybe Summer Stock is not the greatest movie musical to come out of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but I (nevertheless) have a deep affection for it . It follows that tried and true formula of "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, boy and girl put on a terrific show in a barn." Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney had been doing it for years. I like to think Comden and Green are still doing it somewhere. It's formulaic, of course, but audiences love it. It just works.
So here we have Judy Garland as the emotionally repressed Jane Falbury, a rural farmer whose business is about to go under. Mickey Rooney must have been busy, so Gene Kelly comes to the rescue playing the Broadway producer Joe (Jane's sister's fiancée) who needs a place to rehearse a musical he wants to bring to Broadway. In exchange for help on the farm (in hilarious sequences of actors doing barnyard chores) Jane offers Joe the rehearsal space. Eventually, despite some very bitter arguing and sexual tension, Joe and Jane end up together, starring in the hit musical.
Summer Stock is so completely predictable, but features so many joyous moments, you go along for the ride. The energetic "Happy Harvest" positions ol' Judy atop a moving tractor while singing about seeds, and vegetables, and the money that will be rolling in come autumn. Despite the ridiculous premise, she gives the number all of the gusto she would pour into any emotional torch song, and makes it work. Gene Kelly performs two breathtaking dances: the athletic "Dig For Your Dinner," a high speed tap dance executed on a long dinner table full of dishes and food, and the elegant "You Wonderful You," a gentle whisper of choreography done simply with a piece of newspaper (ripped by Kelly's feet) and a creaking floor board to punctuate movement. Of course, the most iconic number from the film is Ms. Garland's sumptuously understated "Get Happy." Never looking sexier, Judy casually but confidently saunters through the piece, pulsing and throbbing with the orchestra at just the right moments. Heaven. Character actors Marjorie Main and Phil Silvers provide solid comic support, she as the crusty maid, he as the daffy theatre technician.
Summer Stock was the last film Judy Garland made with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer before her contract was terminated and she was sent on her merry way to reinvent herself as one of the greatest concert performers of the twentieth-century. She would go on and create one more iconic film musical performance, as the rising star Esther Blodgett in A Star is Born four years later.
On this cold winter day where we are awaiting 10 to 15 inches of snow, I thought it would be nice to harken back to summer and the pleasures of Summer Stock. If you have never seen Summer Stock (and I am surprised at the number of people who haven't), download it and watch it as you weather the storm. It won't change your world in significant ways, but it will warm your heart with nostalgia, good music, great performances, and top-notch choreography On days like this, it nice to reflect on simpler times: chicken soup for the heart, mind and soul.