Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray Review: Summer Stock (1950)

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Coming right after Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's groundbreaking experiments with jump cuts and location shooting in On the Town, the last thing that actor, dancer, choreographer, and director Kelly wanted to do in 1950 was make the same old-fashioned Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland style "let's put on a show" musicals that MGM had produced with assembly line efficiency a decade earlier.

But with Mickey Rooney no longer the box office titan he was back in his Andy Hardy days and Kelly's friend and former co-star Judy Garland going through one of the most difficult personal and professional periods of her life, Kelly happily signed onto Summer Stock alongside director Charles Walters to support the actress.

Although producer Joe Pasternak tried to convince Louis B. Mayer to cut his losses and shut down production as Summer ballooned toward an eventual six months shoot, much like Kelly and Walters, Mayer held fast out of loyalty to the woman who had made their studio synonymous with its most successful genre.

And it's a wise decision indeed as, from the film's breathtaking first shot which travels from the exterior of a farmhouse on up into Garland's second floor bedroom where she belts a song to her most famous Stock number "Get Happy," (which has been paid homage to countless times over the years), Summer is much better than its reputation would have you believe.

A delightful yet admittedly thinly plotted trifle, the film finds Garland's headstrong Jane Falbury struggling to keep her late father's failing farm afloat.

When Jane's spoiled kid sister Abigail (Gloria DeHaven) arrives with an entire theater troupe in tow headed up by boyfriend Joe Ross (Kelly), Jane forms an uneasy alliance with the group by agreeing to let them stage their musical in her barn if they'll help out around the farm.

Filling her songs with startling emotion, Garland's vocals are heightened all the more by veteran cinematographer Robert Planck's floating camera that — in one mesmerizing shot — swirls around a romantically conflicted Garland only to reveal Kelly sitting nearby in a scene sure to appeal to fans of Russell Metty's work on Douglas Sirk's 1954 masterpiece Magnificent Obsession.

And it's the surprisingly lush visuals that command a great deal of our attention in this vibrant new Blu-ray transfer from the Warner Archive Collection, which serves up animated shorts and shortcuts to all of the film's songs right from the menu.

Yet while the film is known as a labor of love for Garland, in the end, it's the innovative Kelly that makes Summer Stock one of my favorite underrated musicals.

Unable to shoot with his costar as often as expected as she struggled both onscreen and off, Kelly worked on a handful of numbers sure to make jaws drop, starting with the physically demanding group tap number "Dig-Dig-Dig Dig for Your Dinner," which showcases his athleticism and ups the film's energy level when it needs it the most.

In one of the star's best solo efforts, "You, Wonderful You," the dancer doubles as his own choreographer to create the beat of the song — which will eventually ease into the background —  with only the sounds of his tap shoes, a creaky board, and a discarded newspaper onstage to guide him.

A great wistful Gene Kelly number, "You" is a reprise of an earlier scene with Garland. Beginning casually, much like his performance of "Singin' in the Rain," "You" eases into an awe inspiring middle section where it's clear to see how much joy he's getting out of blowing everyone's minds before he adds in a sentimental Chaplinesque close.

Yet although Kelly's "You, Wonderful You," number might look laid back, it required a painstaking search from the prop department to find a certain set of newspapers published several years earlier to achieve the precise sound and tear needed for perfectionist Kelly's musical execution.

Featuring fun supporting turns by Phil Silvers, Eddie Bracken, and Marjorie Main, while the last act of Summer Stock forgoes the plot by devolving into another great collection of mini numbers for its predictable big show finale, it's easy to overlook the contrivances when you have Kelly and Garland ready to keep things "Wonderful" and "Happy" in two of the strongest musical numbers of their careers.

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