Summer Stock was Judy Garland’s final film at MGM, released in 1950. The film feels like one last grasp at glory, returning to the “let’s put on a show” format that made Garland a star early in her career alongside Mickey Rooney. This time though, there would be no Rooney, but instead Gene Kelly.
The story behind Summer Stock and how the musical numbers are executed is far more fascinating than the cookie-cutter plot of the film. Written by Sy Gomberg and George Wells, the film stars Garland as Jane Falbury, a struggling farm owner with an ambitious sister, Abigail (Gloria DeHaven). In the midst of severe financial trouble, Abigail comes back from New York with a full acting troupe led by director Joe Ross (Kelly). Joe and Abigail want to use Jane’s barn for an “out of town” performance. At first, Jane is reluctant, but eventually agrees (after all, this is an MGM musical!).
The romantic plot has to find some way to get Gene and Judy together. At the start, Joe is engaged to Abigail. When she storms off with the production’s “star” (Hans Conreid), that allows Joe to fall in love with Jane.
Like any fun classic musical, the non-singing supporting cast provides countless unique highlights. Majorie Main is simply outrageous as Esme, Jane’s housekeeper who sticks around even when she can’t be paid. (No one – I mean no one – could pull off that scene where Main wakes up the actors with a gunshot like her.) Eddie Bracken, just six years after his star-making turns in Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, takes the thankless job of playing June’s hapless local boyfriend Orville and runs with it. Then there’s Ray Collins coming out of nowhere playing Orville’s father, a parody of the typical fast-talking Ray Collins character you’d see in a drama.
Phil Silvers is just a bit over-the-top in this movie, but he does provide some of the biggest laughs sprinkled throughout. He also gets the “Heavenly Music” number with Kelly. Lastly, DeHaven doesn’t get too much to do, and unfortunately disappears because of the story, but she does the best to go toe-to-toe with Garland in their scenes together.
Summer Stock‘s production was difficult for almost everyone involved, but aside from Garland’s dramatically different look during “Get Happy,” it is unnoticed in the final film. That’s a testament to the underrated skills of director Charles Walters and producer Joe Pasternak. While “Get Happy” tends to overshadow everything else in this film, Kelly’s choreography, particularly for the “Portland Fancy,” is eye-popping candy. His solo performance to the “You Wonderful You” reprise is one of the most creative things he ever did, aside from dancing with his own reflection in Cover Girl.
But it does all come back to “Get Happy,” doesn’t it? The song, written by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen in 1930, was a perfect and exuberant vehicle to drive Garland’s MGM career off into the sunset with. Garland’s joy is infectious, her dance moves slick and sexy and the vocal performance top-notch. Garland filmed dozens of great scenes during her career, but “Get Happy” might be the best of them outside The Wizard of Oz.
While Summer Stock was a box office hit, Garland’s personal troubles were not instantly solved and she never worked with MGM again. Kelly’s career would only continue to climb, as his very next film was An American In Paris. Garland would not be seen on the big screen for another four years, when A Star Is Born was released.
With just a year to go before Summer Stock‘s 70th anniversary, Warner Archive Collection chose to release the film on April 30, 2019. It sounds like a broken record by now, but WAC remains one of the best in the business, and this transfer is no let down. While it’s clear the film hasn’t been treated with the same care as Garland’s established Technicolor classics, it still looks beautiful in motion and retains the look of film.
As its usual practice, WAC carried over everything from the original 2006 DVD release. The only big addition is a song selection feature, which WAC includes for almost all its musical releases (at least the ones I’ve encountered). So here’s what we get:
- Summer Stock: Get Happy! – This breezy, 16-minute featurette is essential viewing, taking audiences through the difficulties of making Summer Stock happen. It’s also noteworthy for including an interview with DeHaven, who died in 2016 at age 91.
- Shorts – As was the WBHV standard around 2006, we get two shorts from the MGM vault. The first is the Tex Avery cartoon The Cuckoo Clock, and the second is a Pete Smith Specialty called Did’ja Know?.
- “Fall In Love” – This is an audio outtake of a song with DeHaven, Silvers and Conreid recorded for the film, but dropped.
The other big change is the cover art. While WAC usually just re-formats the DVD covers for the Blu-ray dimensions, this time, they found a different theatrical poster to use. It looks much better than the original DVD, whose cover looked like a hasty Photoshop job (even if it was inspired by original art).
Summer Stock is by no means a great film, but the individual parts help make it an enjoyable, fun way to spend 109 minutes. It includes one of Judy Garland’s most iconic songs and one of Gene Kelly’s most creative dances filmed just before his creativity would explode in An American In Paris. It’s a total blast for fans of their work and WAC did a great job bringing it into high definition. There’s no way you won’t “Get Happy” watching it.