Babes in Arms was Berkeley's first time working with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, both child actors who had been working since they were toddlers and who already had impressive filmographies. Judy had just finished working on The Wizard of Oz, which would earn her a Juvenile Academy Award, and would arrive to recording sessions before filming of Babes in Arms began still in her costume and makeup as Dorothy Gale (Berkeley choreographed a routine for the Scarecrow that was cut from the final film).
Nobody ever topped Judy and Mickey. I don't know any two kids who could be better than those two were. Judy...called me 'Uncle Buzz' and always wanted me right there when the camera was photographing her. She would not do a scene unless I stood by the camera, and afterward she would ask me how she looked and if she had done all right.Mickey Rooney remembered Berkeley as:
...a genius. He could be charming, with his flashing eyes and huge, expressive eyebrows and a smile that warmed everyone around him. But he had one small problem: he drank... [and] he had that alcoholic's perfectionism. He was tough on all of us. He was always screaming at Judy, 'Eyes! Eyes! Open them wide! I want to see your eyes!' To him her eyes were her greatest asset.The film, about the kids of vaudeville performers with dreams of staging a production of their own, featured impressive musical numbers. With Berkeley it was always BIG!
Here's a deleted scene with Rooney as President Roosevelt. The footage was removed and destroyed after FDR's death in 1945. Footage was found recently on foreign prints and someone put it on YouTube!
The entire film, which Rooney considered to be his best performance (he was nominated for an Academy Award) was shot in only eleven weeks and was a 'solid smash hit,' making it onto the Top Ten Box Office Hits list of 1939 - and we all know what a year THAT was!
Judy celebrating her 16th birthday on the set, with Rooney and Berkeley.
The film was quickly followed by another great success, Strike Up the Band (1940), with Rooney as a drummer who turns his high school band into modern dance orchestra with dreams of winning a nationwide band contest. Berkeley again directed, and left his unmistakable touch on the film's finale, "Do the La Conga," which he wanted to be "a huge number with about five minutes of Judy singing and every possible camera angle... AND he decided he wanted to do the entire song and dance number in one take." Everyone else in the production was dubious but after five days of rehearsals and careful laying out of every shot, Berkeley got what he wanted. Roger Edens, who wrote the song, remembered the atmosphere that enveloped everyone, saying it was "like the opening [night] of a Broadway show. There was the same great tension, because the number could only be shot once. When the morning came to shoot, the whole studio was down there. Everyone was very tense and keyed up-and the result was a real giving performance. The scene went beautifully, without a hitch. Even now it has an unforgettable something extra about it." You can watch it below.
Berkeley on the set of Strike Up the Band:
Why mess with success? The trio got together again for Babes on Broadway (1941), this time putting on a show for British war orphans to help realize their dreams of Broadway (I sang "Chin Up, Cheerio, Carry On" for our church's USO show a few years back - I was nowhere near as good as Judy though).
Busby Berkeley directs this sort of thing about as well as anybody.
Berkeley was also to direct Girl Crazy (1943), the fourth musical with Rooney and Garland but he was removed from the film at Garland fell ill from overwork. Berkeley, who had been ill himself, wanted a big splashy number, clashing with Edens and causing a situation where only one of them could stay. As both Judy and Mickey could no longer handle his militant dictated, directing was taken over by Norman Taurog. Berkeley's only contribution to the film, the "I Got Rhythm" number, was left in the film. You can watch it (in two parts) below:
Mickey and Judy
The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Musicals of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland
A History of the Four Garland/Rooney Musicals and a Guide to the Original Soundtrack Recordings