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Strike Up the Band (1940)

It was 1940, and Louis B. Mayer had two things on his mind. He wanted patriotic titles to capitalize on a growing wave of nationalism, and he wanted to reteam Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland with Busby Berkeley following the huge success of Babes in Arms (1939). After considering a remake of Good News, which didn’t seem all that patriotic, he settled on a George and Ira Gershwin musical with a great title: Strike Up the Band. Of course, the original show was a satire of war and militarism, and he was only interested in the title song (leaving “The Man I Love” and “Soon” by the wayside). But the MGM writing and music departments could take care of the rest, which they did with their usual skillful mix of energy, comedy, and just enough schmaltz to keep the box office happy.

Rooney is a high-school drummer who dreams of heading his own big band. When he hears of a contest for high-school music groups sponsored by band-leader Paul Whiteman, he goes all in, even if that means neglecting his girlfriend (Judy Garland) and ignoring the injury sustained by one band member during a fundraising performance. Can he make up for his mistakes and still make it to the top? If you know your MGM musicals, you know the answer to that.

Although the focus throughout is primarily on Rooney, who had succeeded Shirley Temple as the nation’s top box-office star a year earlier, Garland was front and center in several musical numbers. Her mentor, Roger Edens, wrote two songs for her, “Nobody,” and the hit “Our Love Affair,” which brought Edens and lyricist Arthur Freed an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. As usual, Berkeley worked his young cast mercilessly on production numbers like “Do the La Conga,” “Drummer Boy,” and the title song. This was the fourth collaboration of Garland and Rooney, and the pair would go on to costar in Life Begins for Andy Hardy, Babes on Broadway (both 1941), and Girl Crazy (1943). They remained lifelong pals, with Rooney appearing on Garland’s television show in 1963.

d. Busby Berkeley, 120 minutes, 35mm

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Classics and Park Circus LLC. Print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive