Busby Berkeley’s BABES IN ARMS (1939)

Teenage angst has been the focus of motion pictures since the medium’s early days. The teenager’s life is often complicated by the trials and tribulations of finding their place in the world, trying to find their passions or simply by the struggle to remain anonymous. Most of us remember the stress all too well, the stress of being successful in these endeavors while also being judged or scorned for crossing over lines it is their place to test. Imagine how much more difficult these times are for teenagers who have entertainment in their blood. Busby Berkeley’s Babes in Arms spotlights these types of teenagers, the unique young people for whom a stage and a spotlight signify survival.

Mickey Moran (Mickey Rooney) was born on a stage. Literally. His parents, Joe and Florrie are Vaudeville performers and during the 1921 season the proud father announces the birth of his son, an announcement that surely sets Mickey’s destiny in motion. Fast forward a few years. Vaudeville has fallen victim to talking pictures and the Morans find themselves unable to work the circuit as is the case with their friends and neighbors who are also former vaudevillians. Mickey, now a teenager, has a talent for writing songs interpreted by his girlfriend, Patsy Barton (Judy Garland), who also stems from a performing family.

Mickey Rooney (as Michael C. ‘Mickey’ Moran), Grace Hayes (as Florrie Moran), Charles Winninger (as Joe Moran), Judy Garland (as Patsy Barton)

Having secured the sale of his first song, Mickey is dead-set on a show biz career when he learns that his parents are going back on the road to revive their act sans the children. Mickey and the kids perform for their parents in an impressive impromptu in the Moran living room, but the elders don’t cave. Mickey’s heartbreak doesn’t last for long, however, as he has the same exuberant energy as actor, Mickey Rooney. With Patsy and the other young talents in tow Mickey decides to put on his own show and prove that he and the other kids have a lot to offer and in the process kick starting their careers. The Babes in Arms are determined to win this generational war and they illustrate it with a musical march through the neighborhood.

Douglas McPhail, Betty Jaynes, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney as the new entertainment guard in a promotional photo for BABES IN ARMS

In the meantime there’s drama behind the scenes. As the older vaudevillians are away on tour concerned citizen, Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton) and her nephew, Jeff Steele (Rand Brooks), submit a formal complaint to Judge Black (Guy Kibbee). The Steeles feel that the “vaudeville kids” have been abandoned by their parents who’ve raised them as show biz charlatans. Mickey’s violent (by MGM Mickey-Judy standards) encounter with Jeff Steele at the soda shop doesn’t help matters. The Steeles demand that the Judge remove Mickey and the show biz kids from their homes and place them in the care of the state, but the Judge is friendly with Mickey and gives him a chance to make things right.

Complicating matters even more is movie star Baby Rosalie Essex (June Preisser) who has a name famous enough to help Mickey’s show immensely. And money! Mickey visits Baby Rosalie in her home and she not only agrees to star in the show, but also pays the $200-plus needed for the production. It’s more than Mickey could have hoped for. Unfortunately, Baby’s joining the show means a demotion for Patsy and a strain on her relationship with Mickey. But don’t worry, everything straightens itself out – even the generational problems. Mickey’s show, a much more elaborate affair that the $200-plus would suggest, is a smash and upon its conclusion he is compelled to share the joy with his father whose career resurgence flopped. It’s an example of the sentimentality strewn about the movie, a sentimentality we welcome as audiences did in 1939.

Babes in Arms was well received by critics who hailed it a top musical from any era. Audiences loved it making Babes MGM’s biggest grosser of 1939 beating such current hits as Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever, The Women, Boys Town and that movie about a girl who ends up in a far away land thanks to a tornado. Judy Garland was hailed for being (mostly) just her talented self, which, as The Hollywood Reported noted, is enough for any ticket buyer. Mickey Rooney, however, was appropriately recognized as a standout by everyone including Academy members who honored his versatile performance and contagious exuberance with a nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role, one of the film’s two nods. Mickey’s impersonations alone merit the honor. The other Oscar nomination the film received was for Best Music, Scoring for Roger Edens and George Stoll. For the record, Edens and Stoll had a wonderful repertoire of songs to work with and a voice for the ages to interpret many of them. By that I mean Judy Garland who does credit to several songs including the enjoyable “Good Morning,” which was written for this movie, but better known from Singin’ In the Rain. 

Rooney and Garland met in 1935 and worked together for the first time in Alfred E. Green’s Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937). That was the only time that Garland was billed above Rooney in the ten films they made together. By 1939 Judy Garland was still considered an up and comer while Rooney was one of the top box office draws in the movies. According to Rooney he’d already made over 50 pictures by 1939 and had only been at MGM for about five years. He had six movies released that year alone. Mickey’s Andy Hardy movies were responsible for nearly half of MGM’s profits so to say he was a valued commodity would be to understate his prominence at Hollywood’s biggest studio. And if you think of the stars MGM had in its cannon at the time, several of which are mentioned in Babes in Arms, that Rooney statistics looms larger yet.

Things were about to change for Judy Garland, however, with the release of her other 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz. The prominence of Mickey and Judy changed a bit in the 1940s with Garland becoming the more important asset for MGM thanks to such classics as Meet Me in St. Louis, The Harvey Girls and Easter Parade. It was Babes in Arms, however, the simple coming-of-age story based on a Rogers and Hart stage musical, that gave birth to one of the silver screen’s most talented starring couples. This was also the first musical Mickey Rooney made, which gave him the opportunity to show off yet another facet of his talent. For those reasons alone Babes in Arms deserves a place among other important movies and many fans and historians recognize it as  such. Most importantly, however, is the fact that Babes in Arms is still a lot of fun to watch.

One of the reasons I enjoy Babes in Arms so much is because it reminds me of how closely some aspects of the movie resemble real life for some of the players. Mickey Rooney referred to this movie as autobiographical for him and Judy because they both were virtually born on a stage thanks to their early starts in vaudeville. In truth vaudeville roots run deep in the entire cast. Aside from Rooney and Garland, producer Arthur Freed, Grace Hayes who plays Mickey’s mother in the picture, and Charles Winninger who plays his father all had roots on the vaudeville stage. Others include Margaret Hamilton who, like Judy, was fresh off The Wizard of Oz, Guy Kibbee who made several pictures with Busby Berkeley, and June Pressier who’s terrific as the former child star in this. Rounding out the main “Babes” in Babes in Arms are operatic talent, Betty Jaynes who plays Molly Moran and Douglas McPhail as Don Brice, who supplies the baritone.

Babes in Arms also holds the distinction of kicking off the producing career of Arthur Freed who headed one of MGM’s musical units. Freed went on to produce three of the Garland-Rooney sequels as well as notables such as For Me and My Gal, Cabin in the Sky, The Harvey Girls, On the Town, Show Boat, An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain and Gigi. It was Freed who brought Busby Berkeley to MGM and ultimately led to this post, which honors Berkeley for The Busby Berkeley Blogathon hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood.

I chose Babes in Arms for my tribute to Busby Berkeley because his more prominent works were already spoken for. In fact, I had even forgotten that Berkeley directed Babes in Arms because I, like most other people, remember his outstanding kaleidoscope-style choreography in some of the best pictures of the 1930s made at Warner Bros. These include 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade. Had Berkeley remained solely a choreographer he would have gone down in history as one of the greatest, most distinctive talents in movie history. But he didn’t. Instead, he became a full-fledged director at Warner Bros. in 1935 and his work continued to stand out in pictures such as Gold Diggers of 1935 for which he earned the first of his three Academy Award nominations for Best Dance Direction.

Busby Berkeley

If you’re familiar with the work Berkeley did at Warner Bros., you could certainly argue that his work at MGM as of 1939 was less innovative. I would have argued that myself just a week ago, that the production numbers in Babes in Arms are elaborate and energetic, but can’t compare to the meticulously choreographed sequences of Berkeley’s 1930s movies. However, after watching Babes in Arms again after not seeing it for quite some time I have changed my position. There are the lesser entertaining black-face minstrel numbers I could do without, but the final production sequence is fantastic. The sets are made to look like the U.S. Capitol with an impressive number of dancers arranged on the steps when Rooney and Garland appear as President and Mrs. Roosevelt. The sequence begins with references to FDR’s Fireside Chats, which I’ve listened to numerous times and Mrs. Roosevelt’s “My Day” columns, which are must-reads for students in my class. Rooney is provided another opportunity for an impersonation as FDR and Garland is charming as Mrs. Roosevelt. The sequence was deleted and thought lost for decades after President Roosevelt’s death in 1945, but thank goodness it was found because it serves the patriotic finale well. The Berkley signature dance girls put their heads to radios in unison as Rooney begins the discourse as the President. That leads to an extravagant dance sequence, which – if I may say – rivals any number of Berkeley routines if only thanks to the people on the screen.

Before you protest know that Busby Berkeley himself considered Babes in Arms and the two subsequent Rooney-Garland pictures he directed, Strike Up the Band (1940) and Babes on Broadway (1941) a peak time in his career and, if we measure by box office results, he was right. Berkeley was also correct if we measure by history and lasting appeal. Two of the greatest talents to ever emerge from Hollywood to delight small town America made a lasting mark with Babes in Arms. The ripples are felt eight decades after Mickey and Patsy put on that show and proved that American kids can do good for themselves when they put their minds to it and make people happy in the process. That’s pretty darn impressive.


Be sure to visit Hometowns to Hollywood and The Busby Berkeley Blogathon to read more about one of Hollywood’s truly unique talents.


7 thoughts

  1. I had forgotten that Busby Berkeley directed “Babes in Arms”. Now that I’ve read your thoughtful analysis, I’m going to watch this one again – for the first time in about 10 years. (!)

  2. In 1939, “Babes in Arms” made more money at the box office than “The Wizard of Oz”. One can’t argue that Berkeley’s work at Warner Bros. was one of the peaks of his career that had many. Those “Gold Digger” pictures allowed Berkeley to create his numbers indifferent from the films’ plot lines. They were islands unto themselves. At MGM, he followed a more traditional course where the numbers followed the story in sequence, yet still you can see his imprimatur in many imaginative numbers, my favorite being the catchy and bouncy “Do The La Conga” from “Strike Up The Band”.

    Jeffrey Spivak, author, “Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley”

  3. This is one of my absolute favorite Mickey-Judy movies! I love June Preisser in these films, as well. The musical numbers are just so fun and well-executed. Thank you so much for participating in the Busby Berkeley Blogathon!

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