Musical Monday: Strike Up the Band (1940)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Strike Up the Band (1940) – Musical #301


Busby Berkeley

Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, June Preisser, William Tracy, Larry Nunn, Margaret Early, Ann Shoemaker, Virginia Brissac, Sidney Miller, Harry McCrillis (uncredited)
Themselves: Paul Whiteman and Orchestra

Bored with his school’s dance band, Jimmy Connors (Rooney) tries to organize a dance orchestra with his friend Mary Holden (Garland) as his singer.

-Vincente Minnelli was the brains behind the stop-motion fruit orchestra sequence. Minnelli thought of the idea and animator George Pal executed it.
– Produced by Arthur Freed
– Made in response to the success of “Babes in Arms” (1939). This film followed, using the same “backyard musical”/”let’s put on a show” plotline. Following this was “Babes on Broadway” (1942) which also used the same theme

-Fruit orchestra scene with fruit playing instruments

Busby Berkeley filming the fruit orchestra sequence

Notable Songs:
-“Our Love Affair” performed by Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney
-“Do the La Conga” performed by Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and the chorus
-“Drummer Boy” performed by Judy Garland and the chorus

My review:
Contemporary film watchers may seek out “Strike Up the Band” (1940) because they are Judy Garland fans. But the storyline in this film revolves around Mickey Rooney.

Rooney’s character is a high school drummer who wants to have his own successful dance band. His mother, played by Ann Shoemaker who is in a constant state of wistful suffering, wants her son to become a doctor and not waste his time with music. Judy Garland’s character is his female sidekick, rueful that she is his “pal” rather than his girl.

But while Judy Garland’s character may not be the focal point of the story, when she starts to sing, she is who you watch and not Mickey Rooney. Especially in their number “Our Love Affair.”

“Strike Up the Band” (1940) was made in response to the success of “Babes in Arms” (1939), pairing the two together in a musical for the first time. “Babes in Arms” (1939) wasn’t Garland and Rooney’s first film together. Prior to that, they co-starred in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937) and Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938).

“Babes in Arms” (1939), starring Rooney and Garland, was about teenagers gung-ho to put on their own musical show.

The concept of teens wanting to put on a show became a common theme for MGM. It started a theme and Garland and Rooney continued to play roles in similar stories in “Strike Up the Band” and “Babes on Broadway.”

Originally their second musical was going to be a collegiate musical, “Good News.” But Louis B. Mayer changed his mind and decided to go with “Strike Up the Band,” which sounded patriotic.

“Strike Up the Band” is an entertaining and fun film. Not only do you get to see the talents of Rooney and Garland, but it’s fun to watch other teenager actors, like June Preisser, William Tracy, Larry Nunn and Margaret Early.

The most unique feature of the film is the fruit orchestra sequence. In one scene, Mickey Rooney is describing to Judy Garland his ideal orchestra and lays it with fruit that was in a bowl on the dining room table. Mickey Rooney starts directing and the puppet-like fruit comes alive, playing little instruments.

The idea came from Hollywood newcomer Vincente Minnelli (who had not yet directed a feature-film), when producer Arthur Freed asked Minnelli to come on the set to help with a scene. Minnelli wrote in his autobiography I Remember it Well that he came up with the idea and Louis B. Mayer later called him, “the genius who took a bowl of fruit and made a big production number out of it.”

The fruit orchestra scene now probably seems commonplace to contemporary audiences who grew up seeing puppet and stop-motion features like “Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer” (1964), but in 1940 and at MGM, this scene is innovative. The scene was also executed by animator George Pal.

“Strike Up the Band” is an energetic musical with wonderful music. While the plotline is similar to many MGM “backyard musicals,” it is still lots of fun and unique in its own way.

Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and “the band” in “Strike Up the Band” (1940)

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