Monday, August 20, 2012

For Me and My Gal (1942)

As if we needed another reminder that the age we so greatly love and admire is gone from us forever, this week marks what would have been Gene Kelly's 100th birthday. The beloved character of Singin' in the Rain fame, the consummate actor who was equally capable of comedy and tragedy, he whose athleticism and grandeur in dance have never met their match, has been gone from us for 16 years, but he will never leave his place in film history.

I am honored to participate in a special blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association by reviewing For Me and My Gal (1942), one of a few films he made with Judy Garland and the first film in which he starred. For a full list of participants and dates, visit this link from CLAMBA.

For Me and My Gal was a fresh break for Kelly, a Broadway actor whom David O. Selznick snatched up on contract. Moviegoers saw Kelly as a fresh face that year, but one with which they were destined to become very familiar as he took the onscreen singing and dancing world by storm. The film made for a lovely pairing with fellow screen great Judy Garland, who by then had already made a dozen or so films and perfected her delivery of the zinging one-liners that make this film, and The Pirate (six years later), so fun. 

Like most others of its time, For Me and My Gal was a wartime pep piece, extolling the virtues of self-sacrifice, armed service, support to the troops, the purchase of Liberty Bonds, and the attitude that every individual, male or female, physically fit or impaired, is depended on by his country to make his own unique and valuable contribution to the war effort. 

Harry and Jo try out together for the first time "For Me and My Gal"
The film recalls another war, the Great War, and follows the development of a small time actor (Kelly) whose grand ambitions lead him both to the verge of greatness and the bitterness of disgrace. Kelly plays Vaudevillian Harry Palmer, a self-centered quick worker who initially alienates sweet-tempered angel of the stage, Jo Hayden (Garland). But Palmer is no less a salesman than an actor, and after having assessed Hayden as a top tier performer as well as "Springtime doll," cunningly wins her business partnership and her heart. 

George Murphy (Jimmy Metcalf) is the odd-man-out in this occasion, the all-around good guy whose feelings for Jo set him on to a life path of self-sacrifice and quiet guardianship of both Jo and Harry, whose brash, erratic behavior eventually crashes him in the pits. 

Jimmy Metcalf comforts Jo.

The ups and downs of the showbiz life are perpetual, but the frustrations of being stuck in the small time are nothing compared to the tragedy and drama of war. Jo's little brother is all set to become a doctor, but like other conscientious men, he decides that his studies should take a back seat to fighting alongside "the other guys" who have gone overseas to keep his country free. 

The war is, of course, troubling. It is there casting a shadow over the showbiz climb to the top. It unsettles the audiences and the day-to-day routines of greasepaint and bright lights. 
But it is simple enough to push aside and forget as long as the actors can continue to make their entrances and follow their dreams. Eventually, however, the war intrudes on even this sheltered enclave. 

Harry's draft notice introduces a full blown life crisis. 
Harry's draft notice arrives. 
On the brink of the Palace, the pinnacle of Vaudevillian success and the realization of all of his desires, Harry cannot contemplate his call to service as anything but the most unjust cruelty of fate. 

Even his theatrical agent can do little to delay the inevitable. After two physical exam delays, Harry simply must find a solution to his problem, or risk losing the Palace, and his girl, forever to the ravages of war. And so Harry, in desperation, in thinking of himself and his dreams and the one he loves, does the unthinkable. He deliberately disables himself in order to gain the temporary reprieve which will allow him to play the Palace and marry his girl. 

His selfish act couldn't have come at a worse time. The "good" news of his draft delay comes in the moments following Jo's receipt of the worst news she could have gotten - news from the front that every sister of a uniform dreads. With one look at Harry, his injury, his elation at being delayed, Jo knows instantly the truth that condemns Harry as an ungrateful coward. 

"You'll never be big time because you're small time in your heart."

After her bitter disappointment in Harry, Jo throws herself into entertaining "our boys over there."

At the loss of his girl, Harry's priorities are re-prioritized. What does the Palace mean if he doesn't have Jo? What does an audience mean when the boys are dying in the trenches? Suddenly, Harry's desperation is not for the Palace, but for the "Pass" from the draft medical board, not for the costumes but the uniform. 

But to his panic, Harry discovers that in "temporarily" disabling himself he has, in fact, done permanent and irreparable damage that now disqualifies him from any service. 

So it is that, grudgingly, Harry enlists himself in a second class service, touring France as a mere performer. He's "in the right army but wearing the wrong uniform." But it is only within the depths of his despair that Harry finally reconciles the man he thinks he is with the man he wishes he were, and finds that true greatness comes in living a little outside of oneself, in the deep and abiding concern for others, and the arms of the one he loves. 

Harry and Jo, together again.

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