Strike Up the Band is a Golden Age Hollywood movie about the singing and dancing young people. Framing the story as a Depression story of high schoolers playing music in national competitions makes it feel far fetched. Hell, add onto the notion that Paul Whiteman floats them money to make it to Chicago for the competition. If you want to learn more about Whiteman, pick up the recent Criterion release of King of Jazz.
Mickey Rooney is one of the most bizarre figures in Hollywood history. His wholesomeness helped to cover up that fact for ages, but you have to realize his rise to fame lasted a short amount of time. Then, he fell out of favor by the 50s and was doing a variety of genre films. Serving as one of the pioneering child actors, he represented stalled development vs. what Garland would morph into before the 1940s ended.
Judy Garland is one of those figures that embodies Hollywood, yet shows everything wrong with it. Strike Up the Band was released right on the heels of Wizard of Oz, but plays closer to the kind of movies Garland made in the 30s/early 40s. Why did Garland get to transition to adult acting in a far more profitable matter than Rooney? Well, it’s simple…she stayed cute.
The direction from Busby Berkeley is not the best of his career. However, it was neat to see him place his adult musical theatrics straight into the teen flick realm. Strike Up the Band is a simple movie that allows its key partners to do basic things. However, so much of it relies on the two teen actors staying cute enough for the audience and the chance for crossover audiences. For two hours, it’s a light extended musical show that is ultimately about nothing.
I got about halfway through the film, before something struck me odd. This is a movie about a teenage bandleader running a full show as a kid. Given that it was the Depression and the kids of Strike Up the Band are handling the Depression better than most, something true remains in the subtext of the film. Hell, a generous portion of the final act is about a kid that almost his loses his livelihood upon needing surgery.
There comes a time when Depression era melodramas start feeling a little too close to the modern age. Read into Strike Up the Band with your own politics, but keep an eye on the timely truths. Teen cinema is about music, good looks and getting from Point A to Point B. Strike Up the Band does this all in spades.
Warner Archive loads the Blu-ray with special features. I love it when Warner Archive brings back these special features that help to rebuild what it was like to see the film in theaters. Vintage exhibition appropriate cartoons and comedy shorts are present. Plus, you get the Lux Radio broadcasts presented on disc. It’s a stellar offering and one that demands your attention.
Strike Up the Band was the second of the musical series directed by Berkeley and headed by Rooney and Garland. I think WB did a DVD box set of those musicals back in the day, but I keep thinking about an angle that I never hear being discussed. What was it like for Berkeley as an aging musical director to be working with the faces of shifting youthful music?
The master musical director began the 30s defining what it meant to make music on film. Now, he’s slapping together shoestring plots about kids that just want to put on makeup and sing. Historically, it’s the equivalent of getting Bob Fosse to do an episode of Fame or Quincy Jones to stage an episode of Glee. It’s great for the newer shows, but the shine seems like it would be lost on the old masters.