Review: Busby Berkeley’s “For Me and My Gal,” Starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in “For Me and My Gal”
Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in “For Me and My Gal”

After finding success playing the disreputable title character of Pal Joey on Broadway, in 1942 singer and dancer Gene Kelly brought his talents to the big screen for the first time.1 In For Me and My Gal, Kelly plays another unsavoury character, Harry Palmer, a charming and ambitious vaudeville performer, who another character in the film calls “an opportunist, an egotistical actor who will do anything to get what he wants.”

Director Busby Berkeley’s musical is part romance and part war propaganda. The former involves Jo Hayden (Judy Garland), Harry’s performing partner. They fall in love and decide to get married right after they achieve their dream of finally performing at the Palace Theater on Broadway. But just weeks before their performance, Harry gets drafted, ruining what may be their only shot. Impulsively, he slams his hand inside a trunk so that he’ll fail his medical exam and remain on the homefront. But his plan backfires in more ways than one. Jo’s brother (Richard Quine) dies fighting in the war, so when Jo finds out Harry intentionally dodged the draft, she leaves him. Harry is left wanting nothing more than to fight, but he discovers that his self-inflicted wound has become a permanent injury and the army won’t take him.

Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, and George Murphy in “For Me and My Gal”
Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, and George Murphy in “For Me and My Gal”

This is where the war propaganda comes into play. Jo’s brother was studying to be a doctor but sacrificed his life for his country, while Harry is just a struggling vaudeville performer who purposefully avoided his duty. Harry’s “mistake” is treated as an abomination, an unspeakable horror that leaves him alienated and shamed. The message is hammered home clearly: there is nothing more despicable than shirking your duty to your country.

Clearly most Americans agreed, since after initial screenings audiences overwhelmingly wanted Jo to end up with her former vaudeville partner Jimmy Metcalf (George Murphy) instead of Harry, who they saw as an irredeemable coward. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer ordered reshoots in order to humanize Harry and minimize Jimmy’s role in the film.2 Mayer’s reshoots did the trick; while somewhat of an anti-hero, Harry is certainly charming and apologetic enough to be a successful romantic lead. When the two meet again after their breakup, Harry tells Jo, “My only claim to fame: you were once my girl.” He goes on to say, “You have to tell me that I’m not a coward and that you don’t hate me. That’s the medal I want to win in this war.”

Often male protagonists are characterised as unkind, abrasive, and unchanging, and usually are played by an actor who is noticeably older than their female counterpart, giving a strange father-daughter vibe to the romantic pairing. Kelly’s Harry avoids both pitfalls. Despite a 10 year age gap, Kelly’s boyish charm manages to make him a suitable partner for Garland. And, in part because of the reshoots, Harry is a fully realized character as opposed to a broad shouldered one dimensional manly stereotype. Early in the film, Harry manipulates Jo into becoming his vaudeville partner by acting, but soon comes clean. It’s unusual and refreshing that Harry gets to be fully human, mess ups and all.

Kelly and Garland are an incredible duo, with their charisma and talent working well together. But watching Judy Garland in her first role playing an adult is both joy and a tragedy. It’s hard to forget Garland’s tragic life, especially when her character’s life parallels her own. At one point in For Me and My Gal, Garland as Jo says, “I’d rather sing and dance than, well, eat.” Throughout her career, studio executives who wanted Garland to be unhealthily thin gave her pills to control her appearance, which began an addiction that would last until Garland’s death from an overdose in 1969 at age 47.3 But when Garland is at her best, singing and playing the piano alongside Kelly for the film’s titular number, all that falls away leaving only her immense talent.

With Berkeley in the director’s seat, the film does not feature any of the complex, geometric choreographies that elevated his films during his prime in the 1930s, like 42nd Street and Footlight Parade. But Berkeley frequently employs real war footage, tightly edited montages, and dynamic camera movements to make his film compelling. Although the film often pushes the propaganda element too far, For Me and My Gal is a cute and compelling film regardless, in large part because of Gene Kelly and Judy Garland.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

Rent it on iTunes / Amazon / Google Play / YouTube

For More on For Me and My Gal

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Geoffrey Block, The Richard Rogers Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 273.
2. Frank Miller, “For Me and My Gal,” Turner Classic Movies, accessed on August 21, 2017.
3. Karina Longworth, The Lives, Deaths and Afterlives of Judy Garland, podcast audio, You Must Remember This, MP3, June 9, 2014.