At once an ode to the vaudeville days of the early 20th century and a propaganda project promoting America’s involvement in World War II, 1942’s For Me and My Gal also manages to be a galvanizing musical and a stirring love triangle. Not bad for director Busby Berkeley, better known for arranging lines of showgirls in complex geometric patterns.
Of course the stellar cast deserves credit too. Judy Garland gets one of her meatiest roles as Jo Hayden, a struggling vaudeville performer who dreams of exchanging small-town venues for big-city theaters. When she hits it off with Harry Palmer (Gene Kelly, making his screen debut), another dreamer on the circuit, they team up to form a new act they hope will take them to the top. But their aspirations—artistic and romantic—are disrupted by the arrival of World War I.
For Me and My Gal has real affection for the vaudeville world it depicts, no doubt partly due to the fact that Garland and Kelly both came from it. Much of the movie is believably rooted in professional details and routines: finding dressing rooms, negotiating creative partnerships, hitting cues, catching trains. When Jo and Harry first test out the title tune together in a coffee shop—“You better let me do it,” she pointedly says after he bungles the opening notes—their chemistry is immediate and their joy infectious. (Her perfectionism is also nicely counterbalanced later in the number when a wayward curl breaks free on her forehead and starts to have its own fun.) Throughout, For Me and My Gal captures both the hardships of a performing life on the road and the artistic electricity that makes it all worth it.
Though it took him a while to get there, Kelly seems born for the screen. It’s not so much the effervescent ease of his singing and dancing—the man doesn’t walk, he slides—but the way he plays the movie’s many close-ups. Few actors were as good at watching their costars as Kelly; when Harry gazes at Jo as she performs, he’s an adoring audience surrogate.
Not that Harry is a dream. As an opera singer (Marta Eggerth) says to Joe at one point, trying to talk her out of her infatuation: “He’s an opportunist.” And, indeed, we see a hint of that in the eager gleam in his eyes, as well as in the way he’s so easily dazzled by the opera singer’s fame. Count Me and My Girl as one of those romances in which you’re not entirely sure that the woman ends up with the right guy. George Murphy also appears as Jimmy Metcalf, Jo’s former partner. Jimmy lets her leave early on to team up with Harry, but he reappears as a wise counsel whenever they cross paths on tour. For much of the movie, the solid, sincere Jimmy seems to be the real catch (there’s a great moment where he counsels a distraught Harry as well).
Garland gets one of her best pure acting scenes opposite Murphy, when Jo tells Jimmy that she’s fallen for Harry but doesn’t think he feels the same way about her. Leaning back against Jimmy, Jo protests, “I’m not in love,” even as her far-off eyes say the exact opposite. “It’s no good,” she eventually admits, those eyes welling up, an eyebrow unloosed from its furrow. “Gee, what do you do when you love somebody so much, and they don’t even know you’re around.” It’s one of the great, close-up expressions of unrequited love.
Harry eventually comes around, but by the time the two commit World War I arrives to separate them. Harry attempts to avoid being drafted (a clear ploy to guilt the men in the audience to sign up for World War II), but the ploy causes Jo to lose her faith in him. She leaves to perform for American troops in France, where Berkeley stages a fantastic climactic moment matching music and mood. “Where do we go from here, boys?” Jo belts out for the crowd, just moments after unexpectedly crossing paths with the estranged Harry backstage. You can see the conflict crossing Jo’s face, even though she tries to mask her distress with a showbiz smile. It’s complicated, as is For Me and My Gal.