Leonard Maltin was on hand with “Judycentric” expert John Fricke, who hosted “Judy Garland: A Legendary Film Career” earlier today and had plenty of stories about this film’s turbulent origins. Composer Irving Berlin (whose name is given a possessory credit as big as the movie title) agreed to compose eight new songs and reuse eight more preexisting one for this MGM project, which was originally slated to star Gene Kelly and Garland with her husband, Vincente Minnelli, directing. Costar Cyd Charisse tore a tendon and had to be replaced by Ann Miller, Kelly broke an ankle playing volleyball, and Minnelli stepped down when Garland’s shrink advised it would be better to work with someone besides her spouse. Fricke theorized that final change may have also been due to the protracted shooting of Minnelli and Garland’s The Pirate, which still hadn’t been released and would turn out to be a box office disappointment.
Sidney Sheldon (yes, that Sidney Sheldon) was brought in to turn the original screenplay into a brighter affair in 1947, as the original male lead character, Don Hewes, was a black-hearted jerk who bore a much more severe grudge against his former partner and didn’t get romantic until the final moments of the closing song.
Fred Astaire was brought out of retirement, which wasn’t hard since he was eager to work with Garland and found the entire production to be a happy and productive one. In fact, he was so pleased that he decided to stick around and make plenty of subsequent movies. What’s fascinating here is how much the character of Don sets the template for what would define his leads in several 1950s musicals, a charmingly arrogant pro who molds a younger woman to his own set of standards whether she likes it or not. (See Funny Face, Daddy Long Legs, or Silk Stockings to find out where this was all heading.)
Garland and Astaire are both in top form here, of course, with “A Couple of Swells” in particular coming off so well that Garland would turn it into a signature song for her live performances. No less impressive is Miller, who turns a potentially hateful character into a glamorous vixen enjoying every minute of her screen time, while an impossibly young Peter Lawford (looking every inch the matinee idol here) startles fans of his Rat Pack persona with his sunny but duplicitous romantic rival turn. As for the music… well, what else can you say? It’s Irving Berlin, it’s MGM in its prime, and it’s still one of the hottest musical tickets around this weekend.