Do you remember when you first realized you may have found your favorite actor? For me, that happened just over five years ago now, in early March 2017, and I wasn’t in any way prepared for it. A then-recently established Russian distributor of re-issues of classic world cinema had announced that, on the second weekend of March, they’d be screening three touchstones of the Hollywood musical: Singin’ in the Rain, The Sound of Music and Cabaret. When I know in advance I’m going to be watching a movie, I like to prepare for it — if I can — by catching up with earlier work of the filmmakers involved; sometimes this immediately enriches my experience of the film they lead up to, sometimes it doesn’t (and there’s always something to be said for coming to an artist and their sensibility cold), but, if nothing else, I’ve always found it a reliable way of narrowing down my options of older movies to watch in my free time, one that would let me avoid freezing up in front of the ocean of possibility. In this case, I’d actually seen Singin’ in the Rain before, but I happened to have a week ahead of me, and the key creative figure associated with that film who had the most notable film career leading up to it happened to be Gene Kelly. And that’s how I found myself pressing “play” on his film debut, the not-quite-obscure, not-exactly-canonical Busby Berkeley-directed 1942 musical melodrama For Me and My Gal.
I started thinking I’d made a mistake almost immediately. From the get-go, this felt too much like homework I’d assigned to myself for no particularly important reason, and by the time the “you never know, there might be something worthwhile in there” part of my brain won out, it was already the dead of night. The film, which announced itself as being about vaudeville performers in 1916, started out alternating between bland and irritating, the latter quality exemplified by a dubious stage performance of ragtime standard “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” featuring young women as life-size dolls for men to ogle and by Kelly himself in ultra-smug mode as Harry Palmer, a slick bottom-rung go-getter chasing every opportunity to break into the big time. Worse yet, the only copy I could track down looked a lot worse than I’d anticipated; it appeared to be a transfer from a VHS tape, and a worn-out one at that. I virtually never bail on movies, but a voice in my head kept insisting I just cut my losses on this one.
And then, at the 20-minute mark, this happened:
As Jo Hayden, a fellow vaudevillian Palmer instantly becomes smitten with and attempts to get to join his act, Judy Garland — who was born 100 years ago this past Friday — does something here that’s both seemingly obvious and unexpected: she actually performs the number naturalistically, taking every opportunity to signal that she’s experiencing it in character. Granted, the set-up encourages that: the characters are neither performing on stage for an onscreen audience nor using the song to express hidden feelings, they’re just spontaneously trying out a piece of material (and finding themselves more attracted to each other in the process). They are still performing for us, though, and both actors would be forgiven for sticking with a more broad, efficient, polished kind of ebullience that would still communicate everything necessary, and would itself not be out of character for two professional actors.
That’s more or less what Kelly does in the scene, to my mind, and it works for his caddish character, whose candor in the beginning of the scene is both sincere and a tactic to win Jo over. Garland, however, goes above and beyond the call of duty and really does appear to live her way, as Jo, through every moment of the performance, telling a story with body language: the way she starts shooting excited glances at Kelly (then rushes to turn back) after taking over the piano, lightly indulges his interjections with a poised turn of the head and a half-smile, begins performing the song more earnestly to match his more pronounced showbiz energy, and yet does so with a more clearly knowing, just-having-fun air. Her dancing, too, is all the more entrancing for never giving off the impression that she’s putting any more energy into it than she feels she needs to at this moment and in this setting: she’s engaged the whole way through (love her quick nod at Kelly spinning his finger as an invitation to resume dancing, immediately punctuated by a cut) but also appropriately casual, nonchalant one moment, playfully over-the-top the next. The number itself doesn’t take long to dispense with realism — that solitary piano turns into an orchestra even before the characters leave it behind, and the whole thing was obviously strenuously rehearsed — but, within that framework, Garland never sacrifices the moment-to-moment nuances, the vivid, constantly shifting mix of professionalism, joy and semi-controlled flirtation.
That sudden rush of behavioral detail — coupled with sheer charisma — is not something I recalled seeing in a musical number before For Me and My Gal, and it knocked me for a loop. This wasn’t my introduction to Garland, either — I had seen The Wizard of Oz, but, “Over the Rainbow” aside, had no strong feelings about her work in it. All that’s not to say that she went ahead and introduced a whole new style of performance here. (Ironically, part of what strikes me as her achievement in this scene may have been a consequence of her not being as accomplished a dancer as her co-star; Kelly stated that he had to help her out on that front, though he also credited her with teaching him to adapt his own dancing to the camera.) Going through her filmography later, I discovered that she had in fact done something like this scene — in a broader but still remarkable fashion — in the previous year’s Babes on Broadway: a 6-minute performance of “How About You?” where she and Mickey Rooney sing and dance for themselves, each other, and an imagined audience all at once. And in Broadway Melody of 1938, made a few years earlier and incidentally featuring a 15-year-old Garland in her breakout film role, Eleanor Powell had likewise pulled off acting-while-singing in a romantic scene with a very similar initial set-up to this. Very likely there are other examples I am either forgetting or remain ignorant about.
Rewatching For Me and My Gal (which is newly out on Blu-ray — and which does become more rewarding from this point on, a rare dramatization of a true story that makes speeding through the plot compelling) for the first time in a few years, though, I am still struck by this sequence, and it occurs to me that scenarios like this, which invited an actor to move between layers of performance, were particularly well-suited to Garland, who performed for the public for 45 of her 47 years and whose life and work would always be so interlocked, forever reinforcing each other’s poignance. Viewed that way, this scene is a precursor to every musical number in A Star Is Born (and most of all, of course, to “The Man That Got Away,” another impromptu performance by Garland’s character in a similar setting), to the ownage-by-acting in The Pirate, and to a number of other films and moments in which she not only performed but performed in character. What exactly does “in character” mean, though, for someone who always seems so exposed, so direct, so unbelievably present? She was a natural talent who brought a unique emotional immediacy and force of conviction — and ever-growing personal history of great triumphs and great struggles — into the heart of show business artifice, bringing it to life in a way that was singularly hers. Her gift and all the places that it took her may make her, in the end, the performer who most fully embodies the pull, the scope, the sheer madness of 20th-century show business.
In the meantime, it’s that natural quality that keeps me coming back to her performances — a presence and energy that Marlon Brando, who knew a thing or two about onscreen authenticity, deemed “closer to magic, a supernatural power.” It enlivened all of the innocent, girl-next-door performances MGM kept relegating her to during the teenage years the studio took away from her, in movies ranging from the most turgid to those that, like For Me and My Gal, finally let her do some real dramatic acting. Exploring her range, she played no-nonsense in Girl Crazy, stepped away from musicals to portray an ordinary woman getting caught up in a 48-hour wartime romance in The Clock, parodied a diva’s image in all-star extravaganza Ziegfeld Follies, was hysterically funny in The Pirate and sweet and sardonic in Easter Parade. A Star Is Born became the fullest cinematic showcase for and examination of everything she had to offer; her final film, the 1963 British drama I Could Go on Singing, an opportunity for self-reckoning. Like all the greats, she remains an artist of compelling tensions and paradoxes: the little woman with the big voice, the larger-than-life personality who honored every bit of the truth of what she played, fragile and enduring, natural and supernatural. She invites and rewards hyperbole, but then the thing about hyperbole is that it’s ultimately inadequate, and that’s true in Garland’s case, too. I know this much: intense, long-lasting fascination with her could be sparked by something as simple as a few minutes of her singing and dancing to a corny old ditty in a diner in a little-known movie from 1942.