Babes in Hollywood: Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland

In this installment of Comparing Cinema Classics, we meet two young stars who put on a show.
Babes in Hollywood: Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland
Mary Holden (Judy Garland) and Jimmy Connors (Mickey Rooney), in “Strike up the Band.” (MGM)
Tiffany Brannan
2/6/2024
Updated:
2/6/2024

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. William Powell and Myrna Loy. Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Doris Day and Rock Hudson. These are all popular movie couples from the Golden Era of Hollywood. One successful screen pair which is often overlooked, however, is Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

As two of MGM’s most popular adolescent stars in the late 1930s, Garland and Rooney became fast friends offscreen as well. They made nine movies together over a period of over 10 years. Of these, three are backyard musicals, which are often affectionately dubbed “let’s put on a show” movies.

‘Babes in Arms’ (1939)

“Babes in Arms” solidified Rooney and Garland as a winning musical team. It wasn’t their first film together, but it was the first time that the 18 and 16 year-old performers truly starred as the leads in a film. It also was an opportunity for Rooney to prove his acting skills outside of the Andy Hardy series. It was based on the 1937 Broadway hit of the same name by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, but the plot changed significantly. Only a few of the original songs made it to the screen. Several of the more famous tunes from this show are heard just as background music.
(L–R) Baby Rosalie (June Preisser), Mickey Moran (Mickey Rooney), and Patsy Barton (Judy Garland), In “Babes in Arms.” (MGM)
(L–R) Baby Rosalie (June Preisser), Mickey Moran (Mickey Rooney), and Patsy Barton (Judy Garland), In “Babes in Arms.” (MGM)

Among the supporting actors is Margaret Hamilton, who is best known as the witch who torments Dorothy and Toto in Oz. She makes life just as difficult for our young heroes in this film, which went into production right after Garland and Hamilton finished filming “The Wizard of Oz.” This movie was produced by MGM’s Arthur Freed unit and was the first film at the studio entirely directed by Busby Berkeley.

Mickey Moran (Rooney) and Patsy Barton (Garland) are childhood sweethearts who live in a community full of former vaudevillians. Mickey is an aspiring composer, and Patsy is a singer, and his biggest fan. When their parents decide to stage a comeback by performing a traveling show, Mickey and the rest of the children are very upset that their parents refuse to take them along. To prove their talent, the youngsters plan to put on their own show while their parents are gone. Meanwhile, Mickey needs $287 to get the show off the ground, so he solicits rich blonde glamour girl Baby Rosalie (June Preisser) for the funds.

‘Strike Up the Band’ (1940)

This film places a bigger emphasis on Rooney’s musical talents than any other. While he sings and dances in all his pairings with Garland, this is the only story where he’s an instrumentalist, rather than the producer or director. This gives us the opportunity to see what a talented musician Rooney was. He plays the drums very impressively, as well as performing a couple of tunes on the piano. He even conducts the band with convincing confidence.

Like “Babes in Arms,” this movie was produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Busby Berkeley. It again features Preisser as a spoiled rich girl who gives Garland’s character competition for the affection of Rooney’s character. It, too, was based on a Broadway musical of the same name, which debuted in 1930. It bore even less resemblance to its source material, with the only similarity being the title song.

Jimmy Connors (Mickey Rooney) and Mary Holden (Judy Garland), in “Strike up the Band.” (MGM)
Jimmy Connors (Mickey Rooney) and Mary Holden (Judy Garland), in “Strike up the Band.” (MGM)
In “Strike Up the Band,” Rooney plays Jimmy Connors, a talented young drummer who dreams of starting his own band. Jimmy’s two biggest supporters are his mother, a hard-working widow (Ann Shoemaker), and his singer sweetheart, Mary Holden (Judy Garland). Bored with the typical music the high school band plays, Jimmy and his friends talk the principal, Mr. Judd (Francis Pierlot), into letting them start a jazz band to play at school dances. The dance is very successful, and Jimmy has big dreams for his musical career.

‘Babes on Broadway’ (1941)

As reflected by the similarity in title, “Babes on Broadway” is a true follow-up to “Babes in Arms.” Rooney is a more mature version of the character from “Babes in Arms,” but his drive to become a successful showman is just as strong. This is the only one of the three films in which he and Garland meet during the story, rather than being longtime friends. This allows them to have a more mature romance, instead of the playful, youthful flirtation of childhood sweethearts.

Although it was still produced by the Freed unit, this movie was not exclusively directed by Busby Berkeley. Vincente Minnelli, who would later become Garland’s second husband, was an uncredited director of some of the sequences. The songs included mostly original ones written for this movie, with music by Burton Lane and Roger Edens and lyrics by E. Y. Harburg and Ralph Freed.

Penny Morris (Garland) and Tommy Williams (Mickey Rooney), in “Babes on Broadway.” (MGM)
Penny Morris (Garland) and Tommy Williams (Mickey Rooney), in “Babes on Broadway.” (MGM)
Tommy Williams (Rooney),  Ray (Ray McDonald), and Hammy (Richard Quine) are a musical trio called the Three Balls of Fire who are trying to make it big on Broadway. During a performance one night, they attract the attention of Broadway talent scout Jonesy (Fay Bainter), who invites them to a private audition. Meanwhile, Tommy meets another young Broadway hopeful, Penny Morris (Garland). Penny’s father teaches music at an orphanage that can’t afford to send its children to the country for the summer. Tommy realizes he has found the perfect cause to give his group the publicity it needs.

Three Delightful Films

These movies are absolutely delightful. Each is different, yet they all celebrate young talent. Besides the amazing Rooney and Garland, each features many talented adolescents and young adults who sing, dance, and act with impressive polish. The stories are all about youngsters who have the courage, creativity, and determination to make their own opportunities, put on productions, and help their artistic friends show off their talents, and a wonderful inspiration for the young people of today.
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Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.
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