This feel-good musical comedy from MGM in 1950, was Judy Garland’s last hurrah for the studio, and despite several bumps in the road, she left the studio in triumph. Summer Stock is the story of Jane Falbury, a third generation farmer just trying to make ends meet when her two aging farm hands abscond for greener pastures. Desperate to keep the family farm running, she buys a new tractor from her future father-in-law, Jasper Wingait, who gives it to her as a pre-wedding present, (she’s been more or less engaged to his son, wimpy Orville, for 4 years). Orville looks forward to taking over on the farm, for after all: “Farming isn’t women’s work!”, but he’s reluctant to set a date.
Enter Jane’s younger sister, Abigail, a spoiled, and totally clueless Broadway starlet. Without any warning, Abigail has brought the entire acting troupe from New York to use the family farm for the production of their new show Fall in Love. Jane arrives home on her new tractor to finds a flurry of sets, costumes, and dancing extras flying around her barnyard. Incensed, she demands that they leave the next day, but after meeting the show’s director, (Abigail’s fiancé) Joe, she allows them to stay in exchange for earning their keep on the farm. The crew is willing to work, even if they are initially a bunch of incompetent boobs. But once they figure out their chores, they prove their mettle and are a lot more laid back than the constipated townsfolk, like Orville.
Jane, the devoted farmer, sees the theater as nothing more than play, hardly real work at all. But a little theater bug must have bitten her at some point because she soon finds herself playfully toe-tapping in the kitchen while drying dishes. Gradually drawn into the theater fold, she reluctantly grows attracted to the intense, athletic Joe, and him for her, but they’re ambivalent about their budding feelings until a crisis hits the show and forces them to join together to save it. It’s safe to guess who ends up with whom, but it’s fun to watch it develop.
It’s bittersweet for Garland fans to watch Summer Stock. In the year before, her erratic behavior had her fired from Annie Get Your Gun, and she was sent her into rehab for a nervous breakdown and dependence on psychiatric meds for three months. When production on Summer Stock began, she was not completely recovered, overweight, and still emotionally and physically fragile, making it take much longer than expected. With Judy often late or absent, director Joe Pasternak almost shelved it until studio head Louie B. Mayer convinced him to finish it, saying Garland had made gold for them in years past, they owed her one more chance. (How ironic since it was MGM that had doped and slave-driven her all these years in the first place). But with the support of loving cast members, and creative costuming to camouflage* her mildly zaftig figure, Judy completed the film, but it was a hellish journey. Her performance is mostly flawless; watching it you’d never know that she was insecure about the whole venture. Judy can still turn on the tears at the drop of a hat, as she so instantly does when she discovers what’s happened to her beloved new tractor. ( Very similar crying motions she did when Mrs. Gulch took away Toto.) But Judy’s tears, if only acted, always break my heart because I always get a sense of Garland’s real turmoil. When Judy sings with her tremulous voice, her whole heart is in it. She opens the movie with the sweet If You Feel Like Singing, Sing, starting her simple farm day with a shower and a song, and later joyously sings Howdy Neighbor, Happy Harvest! as she drives home on her glorious new tractor. When she sings Friendly Star, with her eyes tearing up in the moonlight, you really hope all her dreams could come true (in real life too).
Originally, Summer Stock was to be a reunion picture for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in a grown-up version of a “Hey-Kids-let’s-put-on-a-show!” kind of spectacular, but Rooney’s star power had weakened by 1949, so Kelly was called in to play Joe. It was frustrating for perfectionist Kelly to work with his troubled friend, but he helped her through it, just as she had helped him seven years earlier in his first MGM film For Me and My Gal. Kelly brings a slightly streetwise, dangerous, and sensuous edge to Joe, something I couldn’t see Mickey Rooney doing. He has several wow numbers, the gospel-esque Dig, Dig, Dig, for your Dinner!, and a solo soft shoe to You Wonderful You, with only a creaky board and newspaper as his accompaniment. But the best part is when Joe and Jane dance together –Watching Gene and Judy do a challenge dance The Portland Fancy, during the big barn hop, you can see the encouragement in his face as Judy matches him step-for-step in perfect synchronicity, just as they were in FM&MG seven years earlier. When they perform You Wonderful You it’s a precursor to in Singin in the Rain‘s You Were Meant For Me; soft, tender and romantic.
The supporting cast is perfect. Marjorie Main carries her role of housekeeper Esme with her usual bluster. Alternately shocked and joyful when called for, she’s a no-nonsense type who’s not above using a shotgun as an alarm clock. MGM vet Eddie Bracken as Orville is a perfect simpering nerd, at least until he feels competition for Jane’s affections. You just want to slap Gloria DeHaven as spoiled Abigail. Phil Silvers is loopy, silly sidekick to Kelly; their duet as hillbillies in huge rubber bare feet in Heavenly Music is delightfully dopey. Hans Conreid is deliciously snobby as a stuck-up ‘name’ actor who expects to be pampered.
Joe’s production of Fall in Love is just a bunch of unrelated musical numbers strung together. The actual show songs would never make it in a modern Broadway show. Mem’ry Island? Yeesh. But ‘Heavenly Music’ is hilarious and Judy brings down the house with the iconic “Get Happy”, looking miraculously more svelte than in the rest of the movie (truth be told, it was filmed a month after the production wrapped and she had shed the 20lbs she gained before it). Despite the hell of its production, Garland’s last musical number for MGM was sweet triumph—especially since she had the flu! But she did it in only THREE TAKES! Amazing.
*lots of vertical stripes and overalls.
Next time you need a taste of Summer, take stock in Summer Stock!