As I am writing to you on St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I would give you my own little pot o’ gold, an introduction and critique of that traditionally hard-to-find gem (though getting easier, it is now available on youtube and was just released on DVD!), everybody’s favorite little-known Judy Garland film, “Little Nellie Kelly!”
Released in 1940, it is the first of 2 films to team Judy Garland and George Murphy (actor and ahem…sometime governor of California), and one of a number, 3 I think, to team Judy and Charles Winninger, who really should be more well-known than he is because he is hilarious and adorable. In this movie he has a number of little motifs as Nellie’s father/grandfather (don’t worry, we’ll get to that in a minute!)–1) whenever he is angry at something, he drops his clay pipe, which promptly breaks, and 2) whenever something happens against his will, he pretends to have trouble with his heart, which is immediately cured with a swig of “medicine” (held in a very suspect flask). The film also stars the ill-fated Douglas McPhail, who looks a bit like a bonobo but we’ll forgive him because he had a hard time in life. In his day, McPhail was quite a good opera singer but never really made much out of it. He, of course, plays Nellie’s love interest. Hmmm. We know Judy’s taste in men was not the best, but MGM could have done a little better to help her out on this one.
The film begins in Ireland, at a time period we’re assuming to be sometime around 1920. A crotchety old man in a bar is yelling about work and how it is the curse of civilization. The other barflies agree with him and tell him how wise he is, and the scene makes very little sense. It does, however, introduce us to the character of Mr. Noonan, Nellie’s father (I know. Don’t worry.). He is a stubborn old Irishman who has never worked a day in his life, and is quite proud of it, much to the chagrin of his daughter, who is played by Judy doing a very unconvincing Irish accent. When he returns home he is lectured by his daughter’s bad Irish accent on the merits of working, and over the next few minutes it becomes clear that she has intended to marry a man by the name of Jerry Kelly (George Murphy). And, get ready–the man is looking for a job. OH THE HORROR. As her father refuses to have anything to do with someone looking for a job, especially when aforementioned job is in America, he tells Nellie that he cannot support this union and goes off to the bar for some more drinks.
A fine, upstanding member of society.
Of course, Nellie and Jerry DO get married, and the story begins. They move to America, as everyone seems to do if they are foreign in any movie before about 1960, and Nellie’s father ends up coming along too, even though he was insistent that he wanted to stay in Ireland, and still hates his son-in-law. They become American citizens, Jerry promptly gets a job as a policeman (after a very patriotic and somewhat awkward training scene), and Nellie promptly gets pregnant.
Ok now here is where things get interesting. Remember how I said I would explain everything with the Nellies and the fathers and the grandfathers? Here it comes. Nellie gets pregnant, has a child, and *SPOILER ALERT* (though not really because the story can’t really progress without this eventuality), dies in childbirth.
Now, people say that this film was really Judy’s beginning as a dramatic actress. Judy was only 18 when she filmed this scene, and it is incredibly powerful. She plays it as though she had the acting experience of someone twice her age–which is a recurring theme in Judy’s career, specifically in regards to her singing voice. Many people were dazzled and baffled as to how someone so young could have so much artistic power, and I think that almost dehumanizing of her led to some of her major problems in life. It is truly remarkable to see these dramatic scenes of hers so early in her career, and to remember that she was still a teenager.
Anyway, back to the movie. the daughter that Nellie has is also named Nellie (voilà). And if that weren’t confusing enough, when Nellie grows up, we can see that this is the movie in which Judy plays a dual role–she plays both Nellie AND Nellie. Good job, MGM, keep your viewers on their toes.
Nellie grows up and falls in love with a young man named Dennis Fogarty, with whom she sings the now-famous St. Patrick’s Day song, “It’s A Great Day For the Irish,” the movie version of which for some reason is not available on youtube, so I’m just going to post the version I found, from later on in Judy’s career:
The same basic story continues with Nellie as it had with Nellie (is your head spinning yet?)–yet this time little Nellie has the support of her father, who is so sweet and loving that he counteracts the temperamental grandfather. Eventually the grandfather is brought around and even gets a job! Cue musical happy ending.
The interesting thing about this movie is that it is indeed a musical, but there are a number of songs that are incidental. One of the more lovely songs in the movie is a simple lullaby, sung by the grandfather to baby Nellie, without any accompaniment. The token “Look at Judy, she can sing!” number that happens in every movie Judy did at MGM, this time occurs with a powerhouse rendition of “Singin’ In the Rain” performed as entertainment during a party. It is not by any means on the level of “A Star Is Born,” whose songs are pretty much entirely incidental (and thus may be disqualified from classification as a musical altogether), but “Little Nellie Kelly” does challenge a number of tenants of the traditional style. First off, there is rarely ever a tragic death scene in an MGM musical, and this one happens within the first 15 minutes. Also the tone is decidedly more somber than your average musical, which is accentuated by the black and white format. It is tempting to say that the black and white itself is not particularly a musical format, however I may remind myself and my readers that MGM churned out a lot of musicals in the early 1940s, and the vast majority of them were black and white because Louis B. Mayer was obsessed with saving money. However, it’s not unwise to notice that the colors on the screen do contribute to the overall tone of the film, and make it markedly more ethereal than your average MGM musical.
Then there is Judy in this movie. In my humble status as lifelong fan, I would say that this was Judy’s first stepping-stone toward real adult dramatic roles, and veritably the first film in which she actually played an adult. Many people cite “For Me And My Gal” (1942) and “Presenting Lily Mars” (1943) as her first grown-up roles, but this film tends to be overlooked by those who focus more on her second role, that which she plays for the majority of the film, of the young Nellie. Her dramatic intensity in the death scene packs a punch, especially for those used to her roles in the Andy Hardy movies and other light comedies of the 1930s. This little-known film paved the way for her work as a dramatic actress, an endeavor she achieved, notably, in “The Clock” in 1945 and the magnificent “Judgment at Nuremberg” in 1961.
If you would like to watch “Little Nellie Kelly,” it has just been released on DVD, but is not yet available through Netflix. The entire film, though of poor quality, can be found on youtube, and VHS versions are regularly for sale (averaging about $1 each!) on Amazon.com and eBay.