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Garland's personal and professional problems grew worse during the filming of The Pirate (1948) when she suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Easter Parade (also 1948) was a huge hit, as was In the Good Old Summertime (1949). But drug and alcohol problems forced her out of The Barkleys of Broadway, thus enabling Rogers as her replacement, and after shooting several numbers Garland was fired from Annie Get Your Gun (1950), with Betty Hutton replacing her in that role.
Many at MGM were aware that Summer Stock was Garland's last shot. Studio head Louis B. Mayer kept her on the picture, despite various problems, for old time's sake and Gene Kelly reportedly was generous with his support as well. Happily, except for the actress-singer's obvious weight fluctuation, the movie itself is charming and light.
Jane Falbury's (Garland) small town farm is in trouble after three seasons of bad crops and after two old farmhands up and quit. Desperate, she turns to druggist Jasper Wingait (Ray Collins), obtaining a loan to buy a tractor through his general store. Wingait is only too happy to oblige, believing it will put additional pressure on her to marry his son, Orville (Eddie Bracken), to whom she's been engaged for some four years.
Then, without warning, a theater troupe of two dozen struggling performers arrives to rehearse and preview their latest show. It turns out that Jane's kid sister, aspiring actress Abigail (Gloria DeHaven), has offered the farm for them to use without first consulting Jane. The older sister is initially appalled at the idea, but finally gives in, especially after meeting the show's handsome director, Joe D. Ross (Gene Kelly)*.
Summer Stock is, mostly, delightful. Predictably the film segues into a featherweight barnyard musical, with Jane inevitably falling under the spell of all that greasepaint. Abigail's prima donna antics finally force Joe into compelling a more compliant Jane to replace her, yet the movie is actually at its most charming watching Jane trying to keep her farm afloat, triumphantly driving home her brand-new tractor for "(Howdy Neighbor) Happy Harvest," the movie's most underrated number. A tough but reasonable host, she expects all her guests to earn their keep, though the troupe's ineptitude completing even the simplest of farm chores strains credibility.
Marjorie Main, fresh from The Egg & I as Ma Kettle, is on hand, and one of the picture's disappointments is that both she and the farm crisis gets so quickly shoved off to the sidelines in favor of the overly-familiar backstage musical material. Main never gets to do the kind of novelty song the script seems to anticipate, and the crisis about the farm's finances is totally forgotten about by the end.
Indeed, the movie's most famous number, "Get Happy," with Garland wearing a fedora, tuxedo jacket, and leggy black nylons, was shot three months after principal photography had ended. For that number Garland managed to lose 20 pounds (quite a lot considering she stood just under five feet), a marked contrast to the flabby Jane seen showering at the beginning of the story, and mostly hidden under coveralls the rest of the time. Other highlights include "Friendly Star," sung by Garland, the "Portland Fancy" tap duet between her and Kelly, and Kelly's memorable dance number where his partners, effectively, are but a squeaky floorboard and a sheet of newspaper.
The cast is very good. Beyond Garland's singing and Kelly's dancing, Eddie Bracken and Ray Collins generate some good laughs as the milquetoast suitor and his overbearing father, while Phil Silvers, still a few years away from his signature Sgt. Bilko role, is fine as the stage manager, a part echoing his earlier roles in ‘40s film musicals. Hans Conried has a small but flamboyant role as an arrogant, irresponsible "star."
Summer Stock proved enormously popular, earning $3.4 million, a considerable take for the time. But it also proved the end of Garland's 15-year association with MGM. Though cast in Royal Wedding (1951) opposite Fred Astaire, Garland failed to report to the set and was fired yet again. She again attempted suicide, but soon after made a long comeback, first on radio, then in concert appearances, and finally returned to films for A Star Is Born (1954), the best movie musical of the 1950s and, arguably, her greatest performance.
Video & Audio
A Warner Archive release, Summer Stock is presented in its original 1.37:1 standard aspect ratio. Filmed in three-strip Technicolor, the image is impressively sharp though I found the color a little subdued, much less garish than many MGM musicals of the period could be (a good thing), but also a bit washed out at times (a minor complaint). The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) is also very good, and optional English subtitles are provided.
Supplements consist of extras repurposed from Warner Home Video's earlier DVD release. These include the featurette "Summer Stock: Get Happy!" running about 16 minutes; the Tex Avery cartoon The Cuckoo Clock (apparently bumped-up to high-def from a standard-def transfer); the Pete Smith short Did'ja Know?, a "Fall in Love" audio outtake; a trailer, and the option of skipping the narrative and playing through the songs on their own.
Good, not great MGM musical, Summer Stock is an A- effort, Highly Recommended.
* Thankfully not Joe E. Ross. That would have made for a very different film.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.