Gene Kelly and Judy Garland? Two of Hollywood's greatest talents paired up together on screen?For Me and My Gal marked not just this duo's first pairing together, but was just as individually important to both lead actors' careers. For Judy Garland it marked her move to a billing above the film's name, and her first real adult role at age nineteen. A decade older, Gene Kelly made his film debut starring opposite her in this film. However, the movie had quite the transformation from page to celluloid, in ways that would benefit both actors.
This film was initially sought as a way to promote Garland as a leading lady- rather than as a leading girl- but initially it called for not one, but two female leads, a singer and a dancer. Luckily, her acting coach, the famous Stella Adler (she brought Method Acting to the US from Russia), pointed out that since Garland could do both, the roles might be combined to better showcase her. Meanwhile, Gene Kelly had made a name for himself on Broadway in the smash hit My Pal Joey. He had been signed on by producer David O Selznick (of Gone with the Wind fame), but after a year had still not been cast in a movie. Selznick had planned to feature Kelly in dramatic roles, but those working on Me and My Gal had noticed the great similarity between their leading role Harry Palmer, and Kelly's Joey from My Pal Joey. So at the urgings of producer Arthur Freed, and of Garland, MGM head Louis B Mayer got Kelly's contract from Selznick, and made him Garland's leading man. This was not without controversy. The man previously slotted to be the lead, Joseph Murphy, was shunted into the "schnook" role of the love triangle, something he resented. He almost had the last laugh too; when previews were shown to test audiences, those audiences felt Murphy's character was the one who should have gotten the girl. Twenty-one retakes were needed to make Kelly's part more sympathetic to a very patriotic audience. But why were they so unsympathetic to Kelly's Harry Palmer in the first place? Because the world was at war.
With a story about World War I that was designed for World War II audiences, it should be of little surprise that For Me and My Gal is rife with patriotism and sentimentality. Yet, the fact is, the story was actually based loosely on real life events. Henry Palmer (portrayed here by Gene Kelly), is a vaudeville actor whose solo act becomes a double after meeting talented Jo Hayden (Judy Garland). With a large ego and even larger dreams, Palmer desperately wants to make it, to play the Palace in New York- the epitome of vaudeville success. There are some romantic entanglements, they mostly sort themselves out just as success seems to be on the horizon. But a draft notice could end things just days before finally achieving success. Palmer to injure himself to avoid active duty, and it is unclear whether Palmer and Hayden's partnership can withstand what is seen as an unforgivable act of cowardice. As all try to do their duty for the troops, it becomes a question, not of whether the allies will win, as even when the film was made this war was history, but of whether all our heroes can make it home alive and redeemed.
Despite the sometimes cloying sentimentality, this was a moving film to watch. Not for the large moments (though Kelly's acting when Palmer chooses to deliberately injure his hand was well done). But for the small moments. Despite liking a number of Gene Kelly films, the man has never been my favorite actor. His film persona of the charming egotist rubs the wrong way all too often, but here seems to fit just right. Perhaps it is because, in the script, other characters call him on it, and you can see how they slowly build to liking Kelly's Palmer in spite of moodiness and swelled head. Kelly and Garland also seem to have fantastic chemistry together; it is clearly he admires her, and this is perhaps at least partially their off-screen relationship leaking through to the characters. Kelly recounted later that, "She pulled me through. She was very kind and helpful, more than she even realized, because I watched her to find out what I had to do. I was amazed at her skill; she knew every mark and every move.... She was a relaxed, marvelous person... the most talented performer we've ever had." Garland also backed Kelly in conflicts with director Busbey Burkley (ironically, Burkley would later state this was his favorite film, despite not having any of the big dance numbers was is remembered for today). Garland's performance too was stellar, not only for the singing and dancing, but for the acting, which was, at times, some of the most subtle I've seen from her. As befitted her "adult" part, she was also very lovingly filmed in a way that made her look gorgeous and a bit ethereal- a step away from the more earthy, "girl-next-door" persona normally crafted for her (but only a small step. This is the first of two films where a man asks Garland, "Why didn't you tell me I was in love with you?")
So, drink in those small moment, and enjoy the partnership of two such consummate performers as they sing and dance their way through their troubles. You'll definitely want to find out what is in store For Me and My Gal.