Review: Busby Berkeley’s “Babes on Broadway,” Starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in “Babes on Broadway”
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in “Babes on Broadway”

In the early forties, MGM didn’t make a franchise out of a superhero or small cartoon animals—it made a franchise out of Mickey Rooney. In addition to his wildly popular Andy Hardy series, Rooney starred with Judy Garland in a series of “backyard musicals” directed by Busby Berkeley. Babes on Broadway was the third picture made, following Babes in Arms in 1939, and Strike Up the Band in 1940.

The film opens with a radio broadcast from famed columnist Alexander Woollcott as himself, instructing young talents to never give up their dreams of making it to Broadway. Tommy Williams (Rooney) and Penny Morris (Garland) follow that advice, working hard to put on an extravagant show to both raise money for a group of underprivileged children (led by Virginia Weidler) and hopefully get the attention of theatrical producer Thornton Reed (James Gleason), who can launch them to fame.

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in "Babes on Broadway"
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in “Babes on Broadway”

Babes on Broadway is much more of a showcase for Rooney than Garland, which is a shame, as his fast-talking antics are no match for her charming songs. This dynamic is best exemplified in a fantasy musical number wherein both appear as various historical figures; while Rooney does a hackneyed comic bit as Sir Harry Lauder, Garland sings a lovely song as Fay Templeton.

Throughout the film, the numbers are all over the map; while some small early moments are delightful, the later large numbers replace the inventiveness of the best Berkeley films with lazy and offensive elements like blackface and drag. Yet, despite its failings, Babes on Broadway was MGM’s third highest–grossing film of the season, after Mrs. Miniver and Honky Tonk.1

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD as part of the “TCM Greatest Classic Legends: Rooney & Garland” Set

Rent it on iTunes / Amazon / Google Play

Stream it on Warner Archive

For More on Babes on Broadway

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Listen to the soundtrack on iTunes

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Mark H. Glancy, “MGM Film Grosses, 1924–1948: The Eddie Mannix Ledger.” Historical Journal Of Film, Radio And Television 12, no. 2 (1992): 127-44.