2020, a year of viruses, shutdowns, protest, political turmoil, and economic stress. What began in January as a hopeful and prosperous decade, now casts a gloomy unpredictability. Industries have suffered – retail, entertainment, insurance, realtors, but as local and state economies begin to trickle back to some sort of normal behavior in the coming weeks and months, despite uptick in COVID-19 cases, there is something to celebrate this year. Film anniversaries.
Major milestones this year include “Back to the Future” which celebrated 35 years on July 3rd, and Disney classics “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” celebrate 80 years. There is another film which was released via the Warner Archives, that also has an 80 year milestone anniversary: “Strike Up the Band”.
The Arthur Freed produced musical starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and directed by legendary cinematographer Busby Berkley, opened on September 27th, 1940 to wonderful reviews with three Academy Award nominations the following year (Best Sound (won), Best Original Song, “Our Love Affair”, Best Original Score). The film follows Jimmy (Mickey Rooney), a high-school drummer with dreams of making it big, and his high-school sweetheart Mary (Judy Garland)… well, sweetheart is to put it lightly, Jimmy is oblivious to Mary’s obvious advances, and the film is formulaic in its handling of romance – boy and girl are friends, girl wants to take the relationship to the next level but boy is oblivious to her, boy mistakenly is involved with another girl who likes him, boy eventually wises-up and reveals his true feeling for our main girl, yada, yada, yada (I yada, yada, yada-ed over the best part), but what this film does perfectly is a showcase of dance sequences.
Berkeley, who is no stranger to musicals, immortalized the use of cinematography to showcase movement in unique and interesting ways. The Berkeley Shot for instance, is a bird’s eye view angle – which nowadays can be achieved through a drone, but back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, that was done using a crane and a very steady hand – sometimes, Berkeley would be thirty to forty feet in the air hanging on a ledge. While “Strike Up the Band” doesn’t have those beautiful overhead shots, it contains a fluidity of movement that allows the dance numbers to feel that they are more alive than they actually are.
“Strike Up the Band” can be viewed on HBO Max.