ABOUT THE FILM:
Little Nellie Kelly is another one of those "little" musicals that was, in the MGM tradition, equal or better than most "big" musicals from the other studios. The film is based on a 1922 George M. Cohan show although it bears little resemblance to it, retaining only the title, the song "Nellie Kelly, I Love You" and some elements of the plot, such as it is. According to Hugh Fordin's book "The World of Entertainment" (aka "M-G-M's Greatest Musicals - The Arthur Freed Unit"), producer Arthur Freed, who purchased the play from Cohan for $35,000, ran into Cohan at an ASCAP dinner in San Francisco. Cohan said "I hope you didn't keep any of my terrible play?" to which Freed responded "No, I just kept the title and little Nellie Kelly being a police captain's daughter." Cohan was evidently satisfied.
Little Nellie Kelly is significant in Judy's career for several reasons: It's part of MGM's grooming of Garland for adult stardom; it's a vehicle centered around her talents without frequent co-star Mickey Rooney; and it's the only film in which Judy has a death scene. The mother ("Nellie Kelly") dies giving birth to "Little Nellie Kelly." Roger Edens later said "Mr. Mayer didn't like the idea of Garland growing up - 'we simply can't have that baby have a child.'" This has often been embellished with Mayer having a tantrum and screaming statements like "We can't let that baby have a baby!" If there were any doubts at MGM as to whether Judy had the acting versatility to pull off an adult (however brief) role, this scene surely erased them. George Murphy, who was in the scene with Judy, later stated that he'd never seen such incredible acting: "...this was one of the greatest dramatic scenes that I have ever witnessed. It took me longer to get over it than it took Judy!" He later wrote that the scene was very emotional for everyone on the set: "When it was finished, the complete set was empty, with the exception of the director, Judy and myself. All these so-called hard-bitten workers were so affected that they had to get away so that their sobs would not disturb the soundtrack."
In spite of the slight story and a rather cartoonish characterization of Little Nellie Kelly's grandfather by Charles Winninger, the film was enormously popular and turned a huge profit. It also gave Judy several great songs to sing. Both "A Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow" and "It's A Great Day For The Irish" would stay in her repertoire for the rest of her life. Years later Judy joked about "A Pretty Girl" being "an obscure folk song that fit the picture well. And we did it, and they released the picture, and the song became...an obscure Irish folks song!" The other musical highlight is her rousing rendition of "Singin' In The Rain" that is only equaled by Gene Kelly's iconic performance 12 years later.
Also of note, and a staple of future MGM Records soundtrack compilations, is the outtake of Judy's beautiful rendition of "Danny Boy." Two separate takes of this song have survived and have been released in various audio formats over the years. The song was a replacement for "The Stars Look Down" (unrecorded) that was to be Judy's first song in the film. "Danny Boy" was then replaced by a quick chorus of "A Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow."
Also planned for the film was "By Killarney's Lakes" which was replaced by a reprise of "A Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow" this time sung by the daughter "Little" Nellie Kelly. The confusing shuffling of the songs makes sense dramatically. The mother sings it to George Murphy's character then the daughter sings it to him years later, bringing it full circle.
An early version of the script included another song, "Rings On My Fingers" that Judy, again as the mother, would sing to the other immigrants on the ship to America. The scene was deleted before filming.
One of the delights of the film is the "Nellie Montage" sequence showing Little Nellie Kelly growing up. MGM used actual photos of Judy from her childhood, giving the sequence an authenticity and providing a pleasant surprise to unsuspecting Garland fans - especially during late night television showings.
True to Judy's popularity and back-breaking schedule at the studio during this time period, Judy began production while still shooting Strike Up The Band. Just after she completed a looping session for Little Nellie Kelly on October 1, 1940, Judy was taken to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital for a tonsillectomy. The studio (and the public) let out a sigh of relief that the procedure did not effect Judy's voice.
Future Broadway and movie star John Raitt (star of "The Pajama Game" and father of singer Bonnie Raitt) has a small role as a hospital intern.
TIMELINE AT A GLANCE:
June 11, 1940: Production begins.
June 12 through July 19, 1940: Judy worked on Strike Up The Band, squeezing in some tests on June 17th.
July 30, 1940: Wardrobe tests.
July 31 through August 5, 1940: Filming. Interiors and exteriors of "Noonan's Cottage."
August 5, 1940: Filming. Interior of "St. Katherine's Vestry" and the scene walking to the cliff top.
August 6, 1940: Filming. Top of the cliff.
August 7, 1940: Judy was out sick.
August 8, 1940: Filming. More on the cliff top and the exterior deck of the steamer.
August 9, 1940: Judy recorded "It's A Great Day For The Irish" (for Kelly).
August 10, 1940: Strike Up The Band retakes (exteriors of the Holden Home and the street).
August 12, 1940: Judy finished Strike Up The Band by completing several scene retakes.
August 13 through September 9, 1940: More Little Nellie Kelly filming, including the filming of "It's A Great Day For The Irish" on August 23 & 24.
September 9 & 10, 1940: Pre-recordings and dance rehearsals. Most sources list Judy recording "Singin' In The Rain," "A Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow" and "Danny Boy" as September 10th.
September 11 through 19, 1940: More filming, including the completion of principal photography (sans retakes) on the 19th. The notes for September 18 state that Judy was released at 6:30 p.m. to appear on a radio broadcast that night. It's unclear what show Judy performed for. On most days filming lasted anywhere from 9 or 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and after.
September 24, 1940: Judy appears on the radio show "Cavalcade of American Music" broadcast from the Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island in San Francisco. She sings "Over the Rainbow."
September 25, 1940: Judy's new MGM contract is filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court. The new contract raises her weekly salary from $600 to $2,000 with options over the next seven years bringing the weekly amount to $3,000.
September 27, 1940: Final day of filming for Kelly consists of some retakes.
October 1, 1940: Judy enters Cedars of Lebanon Hospital to have her tonsils taken out.
Early October: Judy begins rehearsals for Ziegfeld Girl.
Behind the scenes: Judy with make-up man Charles Schram and producer Arthur Freed
A Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow
Nellie Is a Darlin'
It's a Great Day for the Irish
Happy Birthday to You
A Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow (reprise)
Singin' in the Rain
Nellie Kelly, I Love You
You Remind Me Of My Mother
NOT FILMED/NOT RECORDED:
The Stars Look Down
By Killarney's Lakes
Rings On My Fingers
Judy Garland as Nellie Kelly/Little Nellie Kelly
George Murphy as Jerry Kelly
Charles Winninger as Michael Noonan
Douglas McPhail as Dennis Fogarty
Arthur Shields as Timothy Fogarty
Rita Page as Mary Fogarty
Forrester Harvey as Moriarity
James Burke as Sergeant McGowan
George Watts as Keevan
Almira Sessions as Nann
Uncredited: John Raitt as "Intern" and Pat O'Malley as "Mounted Cop"
Produced by: Arthur Freed
Directed by: Norman Taurog
Screen Play by: Jack McGowan
Based upon the Musical Comedy Written, Composed and Produced by George M. Cohan
Musical Program: "Nellie Kelly I Love You" (by) George M. Cohan, "Singin' in the Rain" (by) Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown
Musical Adaptation: Roger Edens
Musical Direction: Georgie Stoll
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons
Associate: Harry McAfee
Set Decorations: Edwin B. Willis
Women's Costumes by: Dolly Tree
Men's Costumes by: Gile Steele
Make-Up Created by: Jack Dawn
Recording Director: Douglas Shearer
Director of Photography: Ray June
Film Editor: Fredrick Y. Smith