Directed by Robert Z. Leonard (with un-credited assistance from Buster Keaton), In The Good Old Summertime is a Technicolour musical reworking of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around The Corner (1940), starring Judy Garland as Veronica Fisher, and Van Johnson as Andrew Larkin, the shop workers who do not realise they are each other’s anonymous pen pal.
Veronica needs a job – and she gets one after she manages to sell one of Mr. Oberkugen’s hard-to-shift harps for more than the asking price – but not before she has her entire outfit ruined by Andrew’s clumsiness, in the first of many unfortunate encounters the two will share. Both are thoroughly in love with the unknown person with whom they have been exchanging letters, but cannot stand one another; they bicker frequently, and Andrew is constantly criticising Veronica about everything from her clothing to her personal life. When their true identities are revealed, both have trouble reconciling their dreaded colleague with their beloved pen pal, but love soon wins out, and the film ends with them strolling the summer streets hand-in-hand with their daughter (a three-year-old Liza Minelli in her on-screen debut).
Van Johnson joined MGM in 1942, and had built a healthy career throughout the 1940s, bolstered by his ability to continue working in Hollywood through the war. Injuries sustained in a 1943 car accident preventing him from serving, and so he became part of a handful of actors who were available for roles in the middle of the decade. His on-screen image was that of the genial, reliably all-American boy, and he was kept extremely busy by the studio during this period.
His career (somewhat inevitably) slowed post-war, but he continued to work steadily, and In The Good Old Summertime was his third musical remake of an earlier picture; he had previously made Weekend At The Waldorf (1945) and Easy To Wed (1946), reworkings of Grand Hotel (1932) and Libelled Lady (1936), respectively.
In The Good Old Summertime was released on July 29, 1949 to enormous acclaim from critics and audiences alike, and it turned a profit of over $600,000 for MGM, who were understandably pleased with its performance. It’s the perfect vehicle for Johnson, who’s great fun as both curmudgeon and star-crossed lover, and he bounces off Garland’s radioactive charisma wonderfully. Buster Keaton – who, to me, it always seems strange to see (and hear!) in a sound picture – was originally brought in as a gag-writer, but also puts in a typically masterful comedic performance as hapless straight-man Hickey. Whilst I love Lubitsch’s original film, as well as its most recent reimagining You’ve Got Mail (1999), I have to say that I think In The Good Old Summertime may be my favourite iteration of this story. It might be mostly set in the depths of December, but this film has all the lightness and warmth of a sunny summer afternoon.