Babes in Arms (1939)

Vaudeville’s dyin’ and only Mickey Rooney’s got the will to defibrillate the death-rattling corpse. He’s a bundle of peppy energy who’s clearly meant to be charming (and perfectly paired with neurotic-even-at-17 Judy Garland). But mostly he comes off as a pint-sized dictator holding onto a bullshit dream (everything’s gonna be all right, America—just keep on keepin’). The best scene is also one of the most troublesome, as he leads a group of next generation performers in a vigorous march through town to the title song. The Nelson Eddy manqué at his side lends just the right amount of authoritative baritone, and when they reach the square, director Busby Berkeley pulls out all the rigid-patterning stops. Everyone marches in lock-step rhythm, girls seesaw and swing as if under the taskmaster spell of a metronome. And then…a bonfire so eerily evocative of a Nazi book burning (but suffused with let’s-put-on-the-show conviction) that I couldn’t help but wonder if Berkeley was inspired by newsreel footage of Germany the way a number of our current filmmakers are by 9/11 videos. Exploit and scare? Keep the populace in their place? I wouldn’t put it past Busb, which doesn’t dilute the troubling brilliance of the scene—ideologically muddled, yet strangely subversive. That’s more than can be said for the penultimate minstrel show number, which is crass, cruel and skin-crawlingly endless (casual racism peppered with golly-gee smiles). It’s fitting that the performance is interrupted by a torrential downpour, as if God himself was offended by these militantly animated juveniles as much as local meanie Margaret Hamilton (of course), whose send-the-little-shits-off-to-school spiel becomes more sympathetic as the film goes on. Rooney does Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore and President Roosevelt impressions. “Führer” is rhymed with “Shearer” (as in Norma). And it all ends with the kids selling a simplistic version of the American dream to a rapt audience while aligning themselves in individuality-shattering arrangements. Risking the reader’s ire, I ask in all sincerity: Could Berkeley be our Riefenstahl?

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