American Cinema

Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Kate Saccone on Charles Walters’ ‘Summer Stock’

Approximately an hour into the MGM musical Summer Stock, Gene Kelly’s Joe, a performer, explains to Judy Garland’s Jane, a farmer, the essence of musical entertainment. “For instance, if the boy tells the girl that he loves her,” he says, “he just doesn’t just say it, he sings it.” “Why doesn’t he just say it?” she asks. Kelly ponders this and replies: “Why? Oh, I don’t know, but it’s kind of nice.” If you are not a fan of the musical genre, this may seem impractical; if you are an enthusiast, like myself, this rings true. And I’ve always had a soft spot for Summer Stock — it may not be the most innovative or exciting of Kelly’s films, but it’s an unpretentious movie that delights in the pure pleasure of musical entertainment, from the outright silly to the romantically sincere.

Summer Stock, directed by Charles Walters and released in August 1950, revolves around a culture clash between a conservative, rural farming community and a visiting urban theatrical group in need of a performance space. Jane’s younger sister Abigail (Gloria DeHaven) is part of the show and promises the use of her sister’s barn to Joe, the director and her boyfriend. After some initial hesitation, Jane allows the group to stay, provided they help out on the farm. This troubles Jane’s fiancé, an emasculated asthmatic (Eddie Bracken), and his bullying father (Ray Collins). Of course, like most Hollywood musicals, Joe and Jane’s differing worlds and priorities are reconciled by the end, as they swap their respective, ill-fitting partners and put on the show in the barn together.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few forgettable musical numbers in this film, all of which try to nostalgically capture the outmoded “putting on a show” vibe of earlier Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals. (Summer Stock was initially imagined with Rooney in mind.) Some of the more engaging sequences include Garland’s emotional “Friendly Star” and Kelly’s energetic dance “Dig-Dig-Dig for Your Dinner” that he performs alongside his theatrical troupe. However, the most memorable number, perhaps tied with Garland’s iconic rendition of “Get Happy,” is Kelly’s squeaky floorboard and newspaper dance solo. Not only does he appear at perhaps his light, playful and athletic “everyman” best, but, in its beautiful simplicity and intimacy, this number epitomizes the underlying contradiction of the Hollywood musical: an incredible amount of effort — technological, musical, choreographic — goes into generating a sense of effortlessness. Or, as Jane Feuer wrote in her 1995 essay “The Self-Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment,” “the musical, technically the most complex type of film produced in Hollywood, paradoxically has always been the genre that attempts to give the greatest illusion of spontaneity and effortlessness.”

At the point in the narrative when the solo occurs, Joe is beginning to develop feelings for Jane, while growing increasingly frustrated with her sister. After an argument with Abigail during rehearsal and a scolding from Jane, Joe is left alone in the barn. Meditatively whistling (reprising “You Wonderful You” from an earlier duet with Garland) and walking across the stage, he happens to step on a squeaky floorboard. (He is, of course, clad in his usual loafers, slacks and tight tee-shirt, an important part of Kelly’s proletariat athleticism.) The dance proper emerges from this situation, as Joe begins to tap around the space, using the squeaky board and then an abandoned newspaper lying on the stage (and later a wooden stand). Toward the end of the number, he uses his feet to rip the newspaper spread into separate pieces. Moments later, one of the squares grabs his attention and he stops dancing to pick it up. As Joe walks off the stage toward the wings reading, he steps on the squeaky floorboard one final time. It all feels quite natural — Kelly’s character is an entertainer, so it’s not strange that he would playfully experiment with the sounds in his surrounding environment. The squeak and the newspaper “just happen” to be there, allowing for a spontaneous-seeming moment of joyous, creative expression that ends as seamlessly as it began.

The reality of making this dance — reportedly Kelly’s personal favorite — is documented in Gene Kelly: A Biography, where author Clive Hirschhorn recounts how Kelly, waiting for Garland to show up to work after one of her many relapses during Summer Stock’s extended and difficult production, met with choreographer Nick Castle who suggested the idea of a newspaper dance. Kelly liked the idea and went straight into a studio rehearsal room, where he experimented with the different sounds he could produce. Eventually, deciding that he needed another noise, he played around with numerous objects — cans, pebbles — before settling on the squeaky floorboard, which came out of his desire for a sound that would seem natural in the space of the scene. Following this, Kelly spent days testing out different types of newsprint — newer newsprint tended to not rip — and tap shoes, before discovering, thanks to a prop man, that the right newsprint had to be at least three months old. After what Hirschhorn deems a “lengthy process of elimination,” Kelly found the right newsprint and the right shoes and the number was ready to be filmed.

While Kelly’s duet with an animated mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945) or his dance with himself via superimposition in Cover Girl (1944) are more overtly technologically-innovative numbers — and thus perhaps make the effort needed more apparent — Kelly’s solo in Summer Stock downplays its complexity, both in terms of creating the dance and filming the scene, to celebrate the creative process itself. It’s a number that is about the construction of a dance, foregrounding the dancer’s curiosity, pleasure, training and physicality. In other words, Kelly’s choreography plays out the compositional act itself, suggesting that it’s a blend of decisions, skill, creative risks and pure luck. It’s not necessary for the larger narrative of the film, but, to return to Joe’s quote above, it’s kind of nice to see an effortless-seeming number develop before our eyes.

Earlier in Summer Stock, a Garland-Kelly duet called “Portland Fancy” captures a similar sense of joyous spontaneity and is also, in some sense, about the act of creating a dance. There, however, it’s about dance as dialogue, as Kelly first challenges Garland with a series of steps, that she mirrors, before they come together in unison for the rest of the sequence. The number is more integrated into the larger narrative than Kelly’s solo and plays out Joe’s surprise and joy to discover that Jane is musically inclined. Summer Stock would ultimately be Garland’s last MGM film and Kelly, who had no interest in doing Summer Stock, joined the production as a favor to his friend Judy who was facing both professional and health difficulties. Watching them dance together, years after Kelly’s film debut with Garland in For Me and My Gal (1942), their mutual respect and friendship are evident.

Summer Stock is an often-charming tale about the mishaps and victories in both farming and show business, as well as a celebration of the communal nature of both ventures. (It’s no surprise that Rick Altman labels Summer Stock a “folk musical,” a type of Hollywood musical rooted in the collective and a mythic sense of Americana.) Still, the community that the broader genre of Hollywood musical itself celebrated was a white one and was dominated by dancer-choreographers like Kelly and Fred Astaire, while other performers, such as African-American artists like Fayard and Harold Nicholas, were marginalized in the space of the specialty act. While I am very excited that Summer Stock, one of Kelly’s lesser-seen films, is available on FilmStruck, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that it’s still more visible in mainstream culture than the Nicholas Brothers’ dazzling feats. And that may be one value of Summer Stock and of Kelly’s impressive solo today: they force viewers to not only consider the beauty of the choreographic act in the Hollywood musical, but also impel one to think about whose body claimed agency, visibility and pleasure within the community and who routinely could not.

Watch ‘Summer Stock’ at FilmStruck.

Kate Saccone (@ks2956) is based in NYC. She’s the Project Manager of the Women Film Pioneers Project at Columbia University.

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