Ahhh, there’s nothing like watching a good ole’ fashioned MGM musical during the summer months. Funny enough, the perfect musical for this season has the word “summer” in its title.
It isn’t necessarily about rainy days or hot summer nights, but when you watch it, you’ll definitely feel compelled to go outside and experience the great outdoors, or in this movie’s case, a farm.
Directed by Charles Walters and co-starring Judy Garland, Gloria DeHaven, Phil Silvers, Marjorie Main and Gene Kelly, Summer Stock is a lovely little film about love, farms, and stage performances.
In the film, Garland plays Jane Falbury, a headstrong Connecticut farmer who has a religious dedication to her craft. Even though she’s worked hard to make sure that her property runs like a well oiled machine, three years of bad crops has seen her farm go to ruin.
Unfortunately, with no crops, comes no revenue.
Despite going bankrupt, Jane still manages to pay for her sister Abigail’s acting lessons in upstate New York. To add to her list of problems, two of Jane’s farm hands quit to take office jobs in Hartford.
As if things couldn’t get any worse, she is forced to beg her boyfriend’s father (played by Ray Collins) for a loan to buy a tractor to kick-start the effort to try to revitalize her farm. Asking for a favor from her future father-in-law knocks her ego down a peg, but, she swallows her pride and gets it done.
When Jane returns to her property, she finds it being overrun by a group of troupe performers. Frustrated and confused about what’s happening, she demands to speak to the person responsible for this.
After a couple minutes of looking around, she runs into her sister, Abigail (played by Gloria DeHaven). Abigail explains that she invited the troupe down to Connecticut so they would be able to have a space to put on their stage play.
Naturally, Jane doesn’t take the news too well.
She tells Abigail to send these people packing, but before Jane could really get worked up, Abigail’s boyfriend, Joe Ross (played Gene Kelly) steps in to diffuse the situation. His attempts to sweet-talk Jane work, however, there’s a catch. In order for them to stay, they must put in their fair share of farm work; in other words, they must help Jane with her daily farm duties.
The troupe agrees, and Jane proceeds to split them into groups of three, showing each trio how and what needs to be done around the farm.
Later that day, after an exhausting few hours of showing actors how to manage a farm, Jane lends her housekeeper a hand by washing dishes from the previous night’s dinner. In an attempt to lighten the mood, Jane decides to do an impromptu tap dance for her own amusement, but in actuality, it was to poke fun at Abigail’s boyfriend, Joe.
Unbeknownst to Jane, Joe was standing behind her the entire time. Embarrassed, she swiftly apologizes, but he didn’t mind. To her surprise, Joe was impressed that she could even dance in the first place. Fast forward a couple of days and, somehow, word gets out that Jane is hiding an acting troupe in her farm.
Because of this, she is concerned about what the local townsfolk might think when they encounter a bevy of stage performers in a relatively small, quiet town. Unfortunately, her fears come true when she’s summoned to explain herself in front of the town leaders.
While she’s gone, an actor back at the farm thought it would be a good idea to take Jane’s tractor out for a joy ride.
In true classic Hollywood fashion, something bad has to happen, right? Absolutely! The guy ends up wrecking Jane’s tractor and has no quick way to fix it before she returns home from her meeting. By the time a solution to the problem has been found, Jane has already returned.
She finds out what happened, and angrily tells Joe that his troupe needs to return to where they came from. Panicked, Joe tries to maneuver his way out of another sticky situation.
Before anything gets too out of hand, Joe reveals that he and his troupe members pulled together some cash to buy Jane a new tractor.
Jane reconsiders her decision, and changes her tune. While all of this is happening, however, Abigail disappears from the farm. This is a problem, considering that the play is about open in a few days time. Joe, Jane and the rest of the troupe try to search for her, with no use.
Instead of going to search for Abigail, Joe gets another ‘bright’ idea. He suggests that Jane takes her sister’s place in the show. Well, Jane’s boyfriend overhears this, and staunchly objects. Jane, sick of his act, threatens to call of their engagement. Orville takes offense to her tone, and storms off of Jane’s property.
As the film progresses, we see Jane and Joe rehearsing, laughing, singing, and eventually falling in love.
A couple of days pass, and opening night for the musical finally arrives. Just before Jane and Joe are about to take the stage, Orville returns, this time he has Abigail with him.
When Abigail confronts Joe and Jane, she instantly expects her sister to relinquish the role that she had before she went rogue. Obviously, Jane flat out tells her no, and when she sees that her sister and Joe, clearly have feelings for each other, she quits harassing them.
At the end of the film, we see Jane and Joe get on stage to perform together, but before they do, Joe proposes marriage which Jane, happily, accepts.
Perhaps, Summer Stock is better known for its antics off screen than the acting that you see on screen.
Judy Garland was going through a rough time making this film- and it shows. In certain scenes, you see Garland looking pretty overweight and tired. Now, I don’t have an issue with this, a Judy Garland movie is still a Judy Garland movie to me, but at the time Summer Stock was released, it was very noticeable.
This was the period where Garland‘s drug addiction was spiraling out of control. According to Gene Kelly, he tells film producer Joe Pasternak that he was only doing Summer Stock as a favor to Garland because he, “had every reason to be grateful for all the help she had given me.”
It was a well known secret that Garland had a problem with psychiatric medications, going all the way back to her Wizard of Oz days, and unfortunately, the problem lasted well into her adult years.
Luckily, for Garland who was hoping to get her life back on track, the script for Summer Stock happened to land right onto her lap. Fresh out of rehab, and ready for a new start, MGM offered Garland the lead role with the hopes of getting her to work consistently again.
During production, however, it proved to be a difficult problem.
There were multiple instances where Garland couldn’t work due to depression. This inevitably caused delays in the movie’s schedule, which frustrated the cast and crew. Emotionally, physically, and mentally Garland was gone. But somehow, someway director Charles Walters and company got through the difficult shoot, and created a pretty decent movie.
Despite the behind the scenes hubbub that Summer Stock is known for, the movie manages to be incredibly entertaining.
With it’s high flying dance scenes, interesting plot, and a hilarious supporting cast of actors like Phil Silvers, Marjorie Main and Eddie Bracken, Summer Stock is certainly a classic movie musical. Even though the movie had some issues off camera, it never showed. In fact, it added to the movie’s enjoyability.
When watching it, you appreciate Judy Garland even more, just due to the fact that she went through all of that and still managed to put out the performance that she did. If you haven’t seen this movie, I recommend that you do. Not only is it a fantastic musical, it also gives you a chance to appreciate how much of a professional Judy Garland was.