On a trip to New York City in 1950, Judy Garland ducked into a late-night screening of Summer Stock, her third musical co-starring Gene Kelly, at a Times Square theater. “After the film, she exited the theater to thunderous applause,” says film expert David Fantle. “Cheering fans followed her to her car, which had to give her a warm feeling because she’d been away from the screen for over a year.”
Summer Stock, which included Judy’s showstopping number “C’mon, Get Happy,” might never have made it to the big screen without the support of her great friend Gene. Now, a new book, C’mon, Get Happy: The Making of Summer Stock by Fantle and Tom Johnson, tells the story behind the film and shares new details of Judy and Gene’s special friendship.
Judy first laid eyes on Gene singing and dancing in Pal Joey, which debuted on Broadway in 1940. She was very impressed. “She recommended Gene to the studio before anyone knew who he was,” Johnson says.
Gene would make his movie debut opposite Judy two years later in 1942’s For Me and My Gal, where she took the film novice under her wing on set. “She would never take credit for any of Gene’s success. She just thought he was fantastic and should be given a shot in movies,” Johnson explains.
The two powerhouse performers became off-set friends, too. “They went out pub-crawling in Montana when she was there on a short vacation,” says Johnson, who adds that Judy became a frequent guest at the Beverly Hills home Gene shared with his first wife, Betsy. “She spent a lot of weekends playing volleyball and singing [with them] all through the ’40s and into the ’50s,” he notes.
Gene and Judy’s third movie together, Summer Stock, a variation of the let’s-put-on-a-show musical, was initially intended as a vehicle to reunite her with Mickey Rooney. “They all thought [Summer Stock] was a throwback,” Johnson says. “Initially, when they were doing it, they all thought it was a piece of crap — even Judy.”
Meanwhile, the star’s personal problems had begun to mount. By the start of production, Judy’s marriage to Vincente Minnelli was in tatters and her dependency on prescription drugs was impacting her health, emotions and weight, which visibly fluctuated in the film. Gene, along with director Charles Walters and several other longtime friends at MGM, vowed to help her complete filming. “Gene famously said, ‘I don’t care if it takes a year. I will stay here and be here for her,'” Johnson recalls.
That generosity might surprise fans who only know of Gene’s reputation as a perfectionist taskmaster, but Judy brought out a different side. “She wouldn’t suffer fools, and you also couldn’t bully her,” Johnson says. “With Judy, Gene was trying to prop her up, trying to help her, trying to reassure her that when it was done, she would be great.”
Summer Stock would be Judy’s final film for MGM, her home for 15 years. It would also be her last pairing with Gene and provide her with one of her great signature songs, “C’mon, Get Happy.” “Both Gene and Judy thought the final product, the musical numbers, were really great,” Johnson says. “The camaraderie and the love among Judy and Gene elevated it more than anyone expected.”