Readers and writers: The story behind a classic musical, and the one behind sweet potato pie

Judy Garland and Gene Kelly for grownups, twins and pumpkin pie for the Littles. A good way to start a new month of reading.

(Courtesy of University Press of Mississippi)

“C’Mon, Get Happy: The Making of Summer Stock”: by David Fantle and Tom Johnson: foreword by Savion Glover. (University Press of Mississippi, $35).

The back story of how this film starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly in their third and final pairing was brought to the screen contains enough drama, heartache, and genuine selflessness to fuel the plots of a score of MGM melodramas. It took a herculean effort and the bottomless empathy of Kelly, co-stars Phil Silvers, Eddie Bracken, Carleton Carpenter, and director Charles Walters to “pull” a performance out of a drug-addled and emotionally spent Garland… — from “Summer Stock”

It’s 1950 and MGM Film Studios is the premier producer of musical films starring top talent such as Judy Garland and dancer Gene Kelly, who had starred together in “For Me and My Gal” and “The Pirate.” Now this winsome pair was to be reunited in “Summer Stock,” a simple story about actors who take over a farm. The film doesn’t rank with some more well-known MGM hits, but former Minnesotans David Fantle and Tom Johnson thought it important to tell the bittersweet story of how the film was made.

From the beginning, Garland and Kelly were on different career paths. Kelly was at his peak, having just come off filming “On the Town,” while Garland would be released a year later by the studio for which she had made so much money. Suffering from addiction to drugs given to her early in her career to keep her working long hours, Garland was also in the midst of a divorce from Vincente Minnelli while caring for 4-year-old daughter Liza. She was hospitalized twice the summer before shooting began on “Summer Stock” and during much of the filming a doctor was on the set reassuring her she could do her job

There were other issues. Garland worried that the project sent her back to the “let’s put on a show in the barn” films she did as a youngster with Mickey Rooney.

“Summer Stock” features Garland as Jane, owner of a failing farm whose sister Abigail, played by Gloria DeHaven, invites a group of actors to use the barn for rehearsals. Jane is furious to find her farm overrun with actors, including Joe, the boss, played by Kelly. Offering laughs are Phil Silvers as a member of the company, Eddie Bracken as the milquetoast who wants to marry Jane, and Marjorie Main as Jane’s housekeeper, who sleeps in a chair in the barn’s loft to be sure there’s no contact between the chorus girls and boys. Of course, Jane falls in love with Joe and vice versa, and although Joe is Abigail’s boyfriend, it all works out in the end.

Fantle, adjunct professor of film at Marquette University in Wisconsin, and Johnson, former senior editor at Netflix, spent four years researching this book. They were classmates at St. Paul’s Highland Park High, graduating in 1978. Neither had ever seen a movie star up close, but they loved the MGM musicals that made up the film “That’s Entertainment.” After selling hot dogs and malts at Minnesota Twins and Viking games to earn money, they hopped on a plane to Los Angeles to interview stars ranging from Steven Allen to Kathryn Grayson, Charlton Heston and Esther Williams, all of whom graciously agreed to talk to two star-struck strangers from St. Paul. (When they told Gene Kelly they’d like to make a living interviewing stage and screen stars, Kelly laughed and said, “Don’t quit your day jobs.”)

The first Fantle-Johnson book was “Reel to Reel,” featuring conversations with 60 stars, 25 of whom were Oscar winners. In 2018 they published “Hollywood Heyday: 75 Candid Interviews with Golden Age Legends.”

In “Summer Stock” the authors give short biographies of the main cast members as well as ups and downs in the production, often because of Garland’s illnesses and disputes among MGM bosses, including the legendary Louis B. Mayer, who backed Garland against the wishes of Dore Schary. Kelly supported her, too. Garland discovered Kelly when she saw him onstage in New York and championed him at the studio. For that, Kelly felt indebted to her and said he would do anything in his power to protect her. That was also the feeling among the crew, none of whom ever said a bad word about being idle while Garland recovered from her numerous physical and mental crises.

The book also includes reviews of the film, a production timeline and the journey from vinyl album to digital CD.

One of the most interesting chapters surveys the musical numbers, including Judy riding on a tractor, singing “Howdy Neighbor.”There are details about Kelly’s favorite solo dance on a squeaky barn floor with a newspaper, and Garland’s signature song “Get Happy.”

Even those who have never seen “Summer Stock” are familiar with Garland singing “C’Mon, Get Happy” dressed in a short black tuxedo jacket that shows off her great legs while surrounded by leaping young men also dressed in black. The costume is surprising, since in most of the film she’s wearing coveralls to hide the weight she’d gained between pictures. That led to rumors that “Get Happy” was from another never-used Garland film or shot before “Summer Stock” when she was slimmer. The authors show that Garland had pulled herself together, lost weight, and filmed the number after production ended. It was her last film for MGM, and she went out like the radiant star she was.

Fantle and Johnson will talk about their book, followed by a screening of the film, at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5, at St. Paul JCC, 1375 St. Paul Ave. The program, free and open to the public, is part of the Twin Cities Jewish Film Fest.

(Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society Press)

“Can’t Nobody Make a Sweet Potato Pie Like Our Mama!”: by Rose McGee, illustrations by Christopheraaron Deanes (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $17.95).

Does Mama have superpowers? That’s what twins Marie and Landon wonder ’cause their mama can fix Marie’s tiara and mend Landon’s superhero costume But most of all, their Mama makes the best sweet potato pie. The twins always look forward to helping their mother make the pies, buying brown eggs and fresh butter. and making a mess with flour.

“… then comes the best part. Mama needs her two favorite little Minnesota twins to test the pie batter. Of course they fight over who gets the first taste. ‘Yum! Yum!’ ”

When the kids leave the room after the pies are in the oven, they’re sure their mother adds a secret ingredient that makes her pies so special. Then they watch the pies bring love to neighbors, including a lonely widow and the homeless woman on the corner. Best of all, her recipe is in the book.

Rose McGee, who lives in Golden Valley, is founder of the organization Sweet Potato Comfort Pie and travels across the country to deliver pies and nurture relationships. She was featured in the 2015 PBS documentary “A Few Good Pie Places,” and after George Floyd’s murder in 2020 her caring community pie baking and delivery gained recognition from NBC Nightly News and publications such as Reader’s Digest. Illustrator Deanes, of Minneapolis, is an artist and educator working to build spaces that support and engage communities. He works in the administration offices at Fridley public schools and with communities of color around the Twin Cities.

On her web page McGee explains the importance of this sweet treat to the Black community. “Sweet potato pie is the ‘sacred desert’ of Black people, and it has power. Not only does it give us energy, the pie links us to history. It soothes our spirits and renews us for the much-needed work.”

McGee and Deanes will read their book in a cinnamon-scented free story hour at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, at Red Balloon Bookshop, 891 Grand Ave., St. Paul.


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