When one thinks of a Busby Berkeley musical, what comes to mind is elaborate geometric choreography and obscene production value; see the earlier list films where he served as choreographer for examples. So, when it came time for him to sit in the director’s seat himself, I expected a Busby Berkeley film to be that and a bag of chips; basically everything that made a Berkeley musical to a degree that only free reign as the director could offer. Needless to say, this is not that; Babes in Arms is very much a standard Hollywood musical, and that’s about all.
The film stars Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland as teenage sweethearts in the musical theater business, trying to make it the way their parents had (or have). Unfortunately, with the advent of moving pictures, their parents’ vaudeville acts quickly become old hat, and the parents no longer want their kids to enter into what they view as a dying art. The kids, of course, won’t have any of that, and set out to write, construct, direct, and star in their own entire show to show their parents that they still have a future. Now, normally, a plot synopsis like that would have a few people, at the very least, nod approvingly at the story to come and its potential, but Babes in Arms doesn’t really make good use of its own concept. The titular number aside (which was actually a little scary to watch, at face value), this is very much a standard musical like the other list musicals of the 1930s, only this time, the only hook is that it pairs Rooney and Garland together, and that’s it. Granted, the two try and make the best out of what they have (though Rooney kinda goes overboard with it at times), but what they have wouldn’t stand on its own weight anyway. There were more than a few examples in the film that would single this out for me. That said, though, I couldn’t really call this poor, even with its numerous shortcomings. Rooney’s controlling demeanor during the rehearsals for the kids’ show got a little overbearing and tiresome after a while, but I could understand the necessity for it to keep the film barreling forward to meet its shorter running time. The same with the forced plot development of Garland running off after Rooney kisses another girl (as part of the production) only to come back a few minutes of screentime later after a heart-to-heart with her mother; it was forced, but I could see why they added it. What I couldn’t understand, and this is a complaint that has been voiced by damn near every reviewer I could find who talked about this film, was the blackface number; there seemed to be no point whatsoever to it, other than to get the actors in blackface for a musical number. It was gratuitous in the very sense of the word, and even with the film’s lack of strengths, it was the only time in the film that I was actively wishing it would be over so we could move on to the next bit.
Sure, this is mostly just an excuse to put Rooney and Garland up on the screen together and have them do their thing, but can you really blame the studio, especially considering that their little gambit worked perfectly? Many may argue, myself included, that this doesn’t stand the test of time very well at all, but to that, I would counter (even myself) with: it wasn’t supposed to. This is very much a film made for the moment, the time period and entertainment sensibilities that it was made in, and asking any more of it than that, in this case, might be asking a bit much. Of course, then one runs into the argument of why this was picked to be on the list (even with its removal in the 10th edition), and that’s an argument I won’t counter, as it is a valid one. But, for what everything is worth, I got a modicum of entertainment out of this one, which is more than I can say for a lot of other list films, musicals or otherwise. You don’t really need to see this one, but if you’re tied to a chair and forced to watch the film, I don’t think you would classify it as torture either.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10