Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 14, 2020)
One of Hollywood’s most successful duos, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland pair for 1940’s Strike Up the Band. Along with famed director and choreographer Busby Berkeley, the film brings the expected mix of music and comedy.
Famous bandleader Paul Whiteman (Paul Whiteman) organizes a contest to find new, young talent. High school pals Jimmy Connors (Rooney) and Mary Holden (Garland) organize a musical revue with the hopes they can compete in this affair.
They use a variety of methods to raise the funds for transportation, and a serendipitous encounter with Whiteman allows them to get the money to push them over the top. However, potential tragedy interferes and threatens Jimmy and Mary’s showbiz dreams.
Do movies like Strike really need actual plots? It seems to me that audiences sought light comedy, some melodrama and a mess of singing and dancing – who cares if the movie brings a story as well?
I guess the producers figured they should attempt at least some stabs at a narrative to differentiate Strike from other movies that offered nothing but a litany of musical numbers. That makes sense, but the plot of Strike really does feel superfluous.
Given their immense success, the basic combo of Mickey and Judy probably felt like enough back in the 1940s, but it seems more questionable how well the duo holds up 80 years later. I don’t mean that as an insult to their talents, as Rooney and Garland earned their status as Hollywood legends.
However, Strike feels much more “of its era” than the best Golden Era musicals. The absence of a strong plot places more emphasis on the production numbers, and those fail to offer much zing.
As we know from Dana Carvey’s borderline mean-spirited Saturday Night Live impersonation, Rooney enjoyed a few years as Hollywood’s biggest box office draw. 80 years later, this seems utterly perplexing.
I mean no offense to Rooney, of course, but it remains befuddling that a tiny, average-looking guy turned into such a star. Rooney had talent, but based on the evidence of Strike, it feels confusing that audiences so adored him back then.
Though only 19 during the shoot, Rooney looks closer to 40, and whatever boyish charm he possessed doesn’t elevate the part. Jimmy seems like the kind of go-getting dreamer often seen in this sort of movie, and Rooney can’t add enough personality to the thin role.
Mary feels no more fleshed out than Jimmy, though her unrequited love for him at least gives her a stronger arc. Garland brings a better performance than Rooney, as she shows superior acting skills.
Rooney mainly substitutes spunk for character, whereas Garland actually attempts to develop a personality and some range. While she doesn’t save the movie, at least Garland gives the flick signs of life.
Unfortunately, Garland’s talents can’t redeem this slow effort. As I went into Strike, I figured it’d probably span about 90 minutes, as such a thin tale like this wouldn’t seem to need an extended running time.
Imagine my surprise when my Blu-ray player told me the film clocked in at two hours on the nose. That’s easily 20 to 30 minutes too long, and much of it feels like filler.
Boy, does this flick move at a snail’s pace! We wait until nearly one-third into the flick’s running time to even learn of the big contest, and it burdens us with pointless plot points such as Mary’s rival for Jimmy’s affections.
If the musical numbers excelled, they might balance out all these plodding parts, but the tunes seem relentlessly forgettable. None come across as memorable, and some feel borderline embarrassing.
For instance, “Do the La Conga” fills six minutes and clearly intends to act as a showstopper. Unfortunately, it seems absurd, as the sight of the white-bread cast’s take on Latin American music prompts unintentional comedy.
“Conga” doesn’t even become the film’s worst offender, as the “Gay Nineties” sequence threatens never to end. The stage performance the kids use to raise funds, it runs almost 15 minutes, a mind-numbing amount of time that causes the film to grind to a halt.
If you maintain a tremendous affection for Rooney and/or Garland, you will likely get more from Strike than I did. To me, it ends up as a slow, forgettable musical.