Rebecca Deniston of Taking Up Room hosted her first blogathon, The Broadway Bound Blogathon, from June 1 to June 3. I am unfortunately late with my contribution, but Rebecca has been very understanding about my delays. I am joining this joyful celebration of the mergers between the Silver Screen and the Great White Way with an article about Babes on Broadway, an MGM musical from 1941 starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
“Broadway! They call it the Great White Way, but it shines with a radiance no electrical company can inspire. It comes from the lights of you.” These inspiring words are part of a radio broadcast by Alexander Woollcott which opens the picture. The famous Broadway radio commentator finishes his advice to young aspiring performers by telling them to take any chance they get. “Act in hallways, sing in doorways, and, if you have to, dance in cellars.” Meanwhile, Tommy Williams (Mickey Rooney), Ray Lambert (Ray McDonald), and Morton “Hammy” Hammond (Richard Quine) are doing just that. They are the Three Balls of Fire, and they’re dancing up a storm in a basement spaghetti restaurant, even though their audience consists of only three customers. These three young men decided four months ago to dedicate their lives to the theater, so they went to New York City to pursue their dreams of being hits on Broadway. However, prospects look less encouraging when the proprietor tells them after the show that he has to close the restaurant. However, they are happily shocked to find a five-dollar bill in their kitty! Tommy realizes that the kind woman who attentively watched their show must have given it to them. Assuming that she must have mistaken it for a one-dollar bill, he goes to return it to her. The kind woman, who introduces herself as Miss Jones from Wisconsin (Fay Bainter), tells him that she meant to give them that much, since she enjoyed their show and considered it to be as good as some she’s seen on Broadway. Tommy is greatly encouraged by her praise and generosity, and he promises to send her tickets to their Broadway opening.
The next day, the Three Balls of Fire go to their favorite drugstore for a meager lunch, having unsuccessfully “made the rounds” that morning. Shorty (Will Lee), the soda jerk who greatly reminds me of Harold Lloyd’s Speedy from 1928, informs them the office of Thorton Reed, the famous Broadway producer, called and asked them to report there at once. The boys hurry there in ecstatic disbelief. Imagine their surprise when they realize that Miss Jones of Wisconsin, their kind benefactress from the previous night, is the famous Jonesy, Thorton Reed’s assistant! She wants to give the boys a chance, so she tells them to report to the Old Amsterdam Theatre tomorrow morning for a private audition with Mr. Reed, warning them not to tell anyone. Unfortunately, the excited hopefuls can’t help sharing the news of the audition with a choice few friends at the drugstore, warning them in turn to keep the secret. The next day, the Three Balls of Fire can’t understand why half the aspiring actors in New York City have turned up at the “private audition.” Little do they know that their own generous consideration for their friends led to this mass meeting. As a result, the flustered Thorton Reed (James Gleason) dismisses them with most of the other actors at first glance. Jonesy tries to convince him that these boys are wonderful, and Tommy says, “We’re the Three Balls of Fire. Once we get started, you can’t put us out!” “No, but I can put you out before you get started!” Mr. Reed replies. The unlucky boys never seem to realize that they brought the destruction of their private audition upon themselves.
Tommy Williams never seems to be out of ideas, but now he is discouraged. He says that he’s tired of trying to be an actor and that he’s fed up with producers. He’s going to drive a truck, dig ditches, or take any other job he can find. In exasperation, he asks his two friends how long they have to stay in hock to a bunch of producers. Ray replies, “Till you become a producer yourself.” This joke gives Tommy the solution to all their problems. Why should they wait to find a show in which they can appear? Why shouldn’t they build their own showcase? They have plenty of talent and ingenuity. The only thing they don’t have is money. However, Tommy says that they don’t need money. Instead, they can use a cause. “A great, big, beautiful cause.” Their next problem is to find a suitable cause for which to give a showcase. “America is cause-crazy,” Tommy declares. Causes abound for foreign countries, but no one has thought of a cause right in America! Having determined the country to support, the boys have to think of the right group to support. When one of the boys suggests a charity for eatless actors, Tommy says in disgust, “No! Nobody cares about actors! It’s got to be something substantial.” Mortarman and mailmen lack glamor, and all Hammy can suggest is chorus-girls. Tommy goes out to get some air, saying he’s “a little flat.”
The day before, right after learning about their audition, a very cheerful Tommy heard a girl sobbing at a nearby booth in the drugstore. The chivalric youth deserted his friends to seek the damsel in distress. The crying maiden turned out to be Penny Morris (Judy Garland), who was crying behind a newspaper because she was “just a failure.” She reluctantly confessed to Tommy that she had a beautiful part in a play, but she just didn’t have any talent. She had three beautiful words to say, “The telephone, madame,” but she couldn’t remember anything after, “The telephone.” Tommy, who immediately tok a liking to the pretty girl, offered her his handkerchief and several words of advice. He told her that she was just full of talent, eventually convincing her that she was acting right then, since she was making herself believe she was unhappy! His vibrant personality and indefatigable optimism eventually cheered her up and won her over. He escorted her home, where they shared some cake, dreamed about their future career of “dancing on top of the world,” and sang a charming rendition of “How About You?”
Back to the present, Tommy keeps his promise of visiting Penny at the settlement house where she volunteers. She is waiting to hear about his success with Thorton Reed, which he had happily predicted to her the day before. As he is mounting the steps, he sees an orphan he met the previous day, Barbara Jo (Virginia Weidler), sobbing pathetically on one of the steps. She tells him that the board of trustees has removed the funding for a two-week trip which the children were supposed to take to the country. Through her heavy sobs, she says, “We were going to see cows – and brooks – and milk ‘em and everything!” Tommy begins to offer some consoling words about them having plenty of time in the future. Suddenly, he realizes that he and the other two Balls of Fire have found just the cause they need! As Penny comes out, Tommy energetically tells her with pretended indignation that the poor children have never seen the beauties of nature. He says that he won’t stand for it! He asks to see the “head guy,” and she directs him to see Mr. Stone (Donald Meek), the superintendent. The persuasive young man convinces the superintendent to give his consent to Tommy and his friends giving a showcase to raise money for the children to go to the country. However, the auditorium isn’t big enough. When Mr. Stone jokes that they need a whole city block, he gives Tommy the idea he needs! He says that they’ll throw a block party, give a sample performance, pass the hat, and raise enough money to rent a theater and give a real show! However, Mr. Stone informs him that he’ll have to get a permit to give a block party. The man he must see is Simon L. Bush, “a very tough customer.” Nonetheless, Tommy is determined to “cut him down to their size.”
After the meeting, which we don’t actually see, Barbara Jo recounts the incident to Penny, and Tommy tells his two friends about it at the drug store. Barbara Jo says that Mr. Williams was just wonderful. He told Mr. Bush that, if they didn’t go to the country, they’d all get the pickets! Penny realizes that she means the rickets. Barbara Jo says that all she could think of was Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves! Penny tells her how noble Tommy is, since he gave up a great opportunity to be in a Broadway show so that he could help the children get to the country. Obviously, he falsified the facts about his unsuccessful audition with Mr. Reed. Barbara Jo, noticing the admiration in Penny’s tone, says, “You know, Penny, if it were anyone but you, I’d be jealous.” Looking seriously at the younger girl, Penny replies, “If it were anyone but him, you could have him.” Meanwhile, Tommy tells his friends that he tried to appeal to Mr. Bush’s sense of chivalry, but the latter couldn’t even spell it. Then, he reminded him of his own school days, but he never went. Then, with Barbara Jo doing her famous crying act at full force, Tommy “went right into the theme song.” He told Mr. Bush that he couldn’t believe that he would keep all those babes from the birds that sing and the babbling brooks. He wouldn’t let them wind up with the rickets. “’Oh, no,’” he recounted. “’Not you, Mr. Bush. Not a man who reminds me so much of Thomas Jefferson!’ So then I have to tell him who Jefferson is.” Mr. Bush’s hard heart was melted by this, and he gave them the permit. Tommy happily tells his friends that it will be no time until they’re on Broadway with $4.40 written all over them, dancing on top of the world.
It seems that the Three Balls of Fire are on their way. They have “a great, big, beautiful cause.” They have plenty of talent between themselves and all their friends at the drugstore. They have lots of ideas. They have a block party scheduled and the great possibility of a showcase in a theater. The only problem is that Tommy’s concern for the wellbeing of the children at the settlement house is a ruse. To him, getting the children to the country is only a means of getting himself to Broadway. Meanwhile, Tommy is growing increasingly fonder of Penny, and they both are dreaming of dancing on top of the world together someday. She feels great admiration and affection for him, and perhaps something more. Would she continue to like him if she knew that he is only really interested in advancing his own career? Can the cause succeed with a leader who is only using it for his own purposes? Will the cause catapult the Three Balls of Fire to Broadway? Will Tommy be able to achieve true success if he only cares about himself? Watch the movie to find out!
This picture is filled with great musical numbers. The opening number is performed by the Three Balls of Fire in the basement spaghetti restaurant. The rousing number is a catchy song about success called “Anything Can Happen in New York.” The three boys sing, tap dance, and interact with the audience while performing the witty lyrics. When Tommy first goes to Penny’s apartment, he asks her to sing him a song, declaring that he knows she can sing because she sings while she talks, when she walks, and even with her eyes. She plays the piano and sings the classic tune, “How About You?” She sings the recognizable first verse, which my sister and I used to sing. Tommy joins her in the second verse, which is about preparing for being a star. As they continue to sing imaginative lyrics, they begin to do a cute dance around the apartment, which includes some clever gymnastic moves. Their fun is interrupted when the tenant below begins tapping rhythmically on the radiator pipe to tell them to stop stomping on his ceiling! Later, Tommy, Penny, Ray, Hammy, Barbara Jo, and several other young people from the drugstore practice a rousing group dance for the block party, “Hoe Down.” This barnyard-themed musical number displays Busby Berkeley’s great direction while showcasing the talents of the various singers and dancers.
One of my favorite numbers is “Chin Up, Cheerio, Carry On!” which Judy Garland sings at the block party on the Fourth of July. The settlement house is hosting some British children who are staying in New York City as refugees from World War II, since their native London is being bombed. The song is an inspiring song encouraging a British soldier, Tommy Atkins, to not give up. First, Judy Garland sings the haunting introduction, then she goes into the upbeat, militaristic theme. After she has sung the song, the St. Luke’s Choristers, a charming boys choir, repeats the refrain. Meanwhile, the camera pans over the faces of the British children who have been torn from the arms of their parents because of the horrible effects of war. The camera starts with a beautiful little girl with tears pouring down her face. Over her face, shots of famous buildings in London are super-imposed in transparent, ghostly images. The camera pans over the other children as the shots continue to change. The song ends with a rousing chorus. This has been acknowledged as one of the first instances in which a musical film acknowledged World War II. This movie was released in New York City on December 31, 1941, just twenty-four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although the war had been raging in Europe for years, America had just joined. Thus, this number was extremely relevant for the times. I can’t help wondering if MGM added this number after production had finished to add a patriotic feeling to the film. I think it is a wonderful number, whether or not it was an after-thought. When I watched the movie again a few days ago, I cried as the camera panned over the faces of the British children. I suppose I was in a rather emotional mood, but I find it to be very moving every time. Busby Berkeley had a great talent for creating inspiring patriotic scenes in his movies. Our country could use direction like that in its modern films!
A very magical sequence occurs as Tommy and Penny first enter an abandoned theater. Penny says that it’s sort of like a haunted house, and Tommy replies, “Penny, every theater is a haunted house.” He tells her that it’s filled with ghosts in greasepaint and memories of all the shows that have ever been performed there. In a whimsical reverie, he relives the moment of the curtains rising in the theater. A dream sequence begins in which Tommy and Penny imitate many famous actors in their iconic roles. First, Tommy is Richard Mansfield as Cyrano de Bergerac with a very funny prosthetic nose. Then, Penny imitates Fay Pendleton in “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway,” singing “Mary’s a Grand Old Name” in a beautiful late-Victorian dress. Next, Tommy imitates Harry Lauder as he sings “She is Ma Daisy,” wearing a kilt and sideburns and doing an excellent and very amusing Scottish accent. He is followed by Penny singing “I’ve Got Rings on my Finger” in imitation of Blanche Ring. Next, she delivers a dramatic monologue in French, imitating Sarah Bernhardt as she is dressed as a French soldier; she has an excellent French accent, by the way. As a finale, they perform “Yankee Doodle Dandy” together, Tommy giving a brilliant imitation of George M. Cohan. This brings the dream sequence to a dramatic finish.
The rest of the musical numbers are impressive showcases of the many talented performers who are featured in the cast. One thing I really love about this movie is the large amount of young talent it showcases. The cast is replete with young dancers, singers, and actors who are dedicated to their art forms. There even is an unidentified little boy who plays a short piano piece by Beethoven. He doesn’t say a word. He simply walks up to the piano, sits down, plays the tune very impressively with a look of pouty concentration, then gets up and walks away, stopping to glare back at the piano. More than any other studio, MGM gave opportunities to a lot of prodigious actors, musicians, and dancers. It is charming to see clean-cut, wholesome young people performing with dedication and precision.
This movie is very close to my heart because I can really relate to Tommy Williams and his friends. They are energetic, hopeful, enthusiastic young performers who are determined to make their mark in the world. They don’t let anything get them down. When they realize that they aren’t getting anywhere with the producers, they decide to become producers themselves and put on their own show! My sister, Rebekah, and I are aspiring opera singers, but the opera world considers us to be too young. Since competitions don’t understand us, we created our own singing duo on May 15, the L. A. Soprani Sisters, just like Tommy, Ray, and Hammy. The Three Balls of Fire have a cause, raising money to get the children in the settlement house to the country so they won’t get the rickets. The L. A. Soprani Sisters have a cause, trying to reform the arts, starting with bringing back the Code to Hollywood. Finally, the Three Balls of Fire decide to put on a show to display their talents and raise money for their cause. We’re doing the same thing. On July 15, we are giving our showcase, “The Story of the Code Through Classical Song at Hollywood and Western.” We aren’t trying to improve young America’s physical well-being; we want to strengthen the morals, sensibilities, and minds of our country’s youth. If all young people grew up watching wholesome Code movies, as we have, we wouldn’t have shootings in our schools practically every week. Hollywood needs a new Motion Picture Production Code to create a clean, wholesome, safe society again. Right now, the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society is a pretty small organization, but every supporter we gain brings us closer to our goal. If you live in Southern California, we would love to see you at our event on July 15. Through twenty-one classical songs, my sister and I are going to tell the story of the Code from the transition to talking pictures in 1928 to the present. You can buy tickets here. “You wouldn’t want young America to grow up in a bad environment like we have now. Oh, no. Not you. Not someone who reminds me so much of Thomas Jefferson!”
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