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Archive for the ‘Backstage Musical’ Category

A Star Is Born 2018

01 Nov

A Star Is Born—directed, written, composed, produced by Bradley Cooper. Musical. 136 minutes Color 2018.
★★★
The Story: A catering waitress meets a singing star who helps to turn her into a singing star, while, because of his alcoholism, his own star fades.
~
A Star Is Born is a poor title for this material, since we never sense we are dealing with anyone close, in any sense, to their birth.

No actress who has ventured into this part has been a beginner, either in show business or in life. When Janet Gaynor did it in 1937 she was 31 and had already at 21 won an Oscar, Judy Garland in 1953 was 31, Barbra Streisand in 1976 was 34, and Lady Ga Ga in 2018 is 31.

They were all ten years too old for the role of an undiscovered beginner—particularly since musicians are generally discovered young, as each of those actresses in real life were.

Lady Gaga is up against some pretty memorable guns. She cannot match the charm of Janet Gaynor. She cannot match the lovability of Judy Garland. She cannot match the vocal prowess of Barbra Streisand. Although she is inherently a better musician than any of the singers, she is not young and from the look in her eyes, never was young.

As a show-woman she is in the line not of a pop singer but of Madonna (“madonna” means “lady) but is a better singer and musician than Madonna. As a show-woman, of the four women she is the most striking, daring, and original, but not in this part which has nothing to do with Lady Ga Ga on evidence on TV. Instead she remains a squat, olive skinned, Italian-American Joanne Germanotta with eyes that have already seen beyond everything they happen to be looking upon.

Keeping Lady Gaga in this incarnation, when everyone knows that Lady Gaga is at her most endearing, most real, and most vulnerable to our interest when she is most transvestited. Only when most artificial, most gotten up, most bewigged is she truly revealed.

Being a lump of ordinary neighborhood does not work for this material, even as a starting point. Garland, Streisand, Gaynor were never ordinary. But Inherently Joanne Germanotta is nothing special. What is special is her sense that something wild and bizarre must be constructed to frame and paint on its canvas that which can embody a soul for all to see and delight in as universal to us all. But this is not the story of the caterpillar, Joanne, drawing out of herself that true beauty and butterfly Lady Ga Ga. Therefore, alas, Lady Ga Ga is not in the film. Instead Joanne Germanotta is. And no one is born.

The only thing that carries her performance in A Star Is Born is that, as an actress, she is as good as any of the others who have played the part.

The film is misnamed also because her emergence as a star is not the real story of the film before us. The real story of this version takes place in the relations she has with her established singing star husband. That relationship begins and is played charmingly by her and by Bradley Cooper who produced, wrote its music, wrote its script, acted it, sang it, and directed it.

So, you would think he would take care to present his own character on camera properly and to ask someone to correct his acting choices

But for the last three quarters of the film, Cooper disappears. He disappears because the camera does not look at him full in the face. He disappears because he mistakenly plays Mr. Maine as inverted, introspective, reserved. He plays everything into his lap. But A Star Is Born is not a comedy in which shyness might be fun. Of course also, Maine is also an alcoholic, and alcoholism is an ocean in which one is invisible while standing right there. So the real story is lost in the disappearing act of its male star.

I made sure to see it in a picture palace, but the Dolby Sound drowns the voices of each singer, such that not a word they sing is discernable. Or else the actors speak in under-articulated whispers or in whispers their mikes could not articulate. You may as well be deaf as to attend.

If you want to see a marvelous movie about a singer who rises from ethnic obscurity to birth as a star, see Jersey Boys. It’s about Frankie Valli, and is a much better film as film. Better as to the approach to the music. As a musical. The music’s audibility. The thru-story of the characters. The relationships. The acting of everyone in it. And the ability of director Clint Eastwood in executing the material to slowly win the audience’s engagement such as to make our seduction into it part of the story as well.

None of this is true of A Star Is Born 2018. A star is stillborn is the obvious, unfortunate, bad joke finally required.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: AMERICAN REALISTIC, Backstage Musical, Bradley Cooper

 

Broadway Melodies of 1936 & 1938

08 Jul

Broadway Melody of 1936 & 1938 – directed by Roy Del Ruth. Musicals. Black And White.
★★★★★
The Stories: Where is the leading female dancer going to come from for the Broadway producer’s first show?
~
Robert Taylor.

We became allured.

Here he is in the plum of his youth, 1936, aged 24, a good actor and completely accessible – which establishes him as someone an audience wants to watch.

For what does an audience do to make a star?

In the audience it is the inherent desire to dive into somebody more admirable than themselves – or more noble, more detestable, more beautiful, more adept, more funny, more something. And to do that one must be allowed to stare at that person in a way real-life ordinary modesty never permits but that movies do.

This happens at virtually the first glimpse of Robert Taylor.

Wow! – what a beautiful male! – beauty – with its untouchable advantage – human survival made easy!

An easy masculinity, too – a passport which – male or female – we all all wish we could own.

And so we become fans. Which is to say we, unbeknownst to him, start going steady. We write fan letters so he shall know it. Or we don’t. We simply buy tickets to see how we’re doing around hm.

Soon we become enamored, we lose critical discretion, for we are engaged. We can’t help ourselves.

The unwitting habit of loyalty weds us to him in a sort of morganic marriage. Marriage. which means we put up with anything – any alteration, miscasting, loss of skill, or scandal. Old and beat up, our star still lodges, and, also inside us, a fidelity remains as a memento of an aspiration felt when both his body and our own were young.

For years our bodies will remain faithful to that first fresh impression, keep seeking it whenever we go to see him– that impression stamped not always in the first movie, but soon enough – Roman Holiday for Audrey Hepburn, A Place In The Sun for Elizabeth Taylor, his early comedies for Tyrone Power.

The movie-goers’ eye awakens, and our spirit reaches out for something true. As in Robert Taylor in Broadway Melody of 1936. Here, he is, more true than he will ever be again.

It’s partly the casting. He plays a Broadway producer – that is to say, no one with any ancestral ties – a free-floating, natural-born businessman with the easy self-assurance of a man used to himself, one with no particular fear of failure, his body relaxed and his responses spontaneous. His mouth, smile, eyes, gesture, emotional shifts are immediate, ready, unself-conscious, and devoid of vanity. His response to other actors is fresh and right. He a young man of breathtaking beauty, but one who knows how to husband it ethically and isn’t fooled by it. We like to watch its play across his face. To follow it we become a following.

All this would disappear from Robert Taylor’s instrument as he was cast in noble roles of he-man, hero, and morally elevated Westerner. The intelligence of his instrument quickly fled. So did his sense of humor. Five packs of cigarettes a day dissipated his looks. He will in l937, be miscast, for instance, as Garbo’s young lover in Camille, for the part requires, among others, the quality of a sexually fresh boy, which Robert Taylor probably never was. A 25-year-old male that good looking has long since not been a boy.

Nevertheless, here he is in Broadway Melody of 1936, an actor of 24 yet of such ease of being it is no wonder he entered the aesthetic souls of audiences his same age who stood by him through the years.

He was never a bad actor, but he became a lesser actor. Here, he is nothing of the kind, and the story – although Jack Benny, the radio humorist is starred – is about Taylor and his maiden effort to mount a Broadway show. It is backed by a rich tootsie who has eyes for him. But no dice! His gaze is fixed on dancer Eleanor Powell, whose maiden voyage into leading roles this is.

What can be negatively said about the film can be said about every female in the piece: Sydney Guillaroff has not yet been hired by MGM to do their hair. The women are hair-doed in skull-gripping sausage curlettes, unbecoming to all, particularly to Powell, whose Dracula dog-teeth, small features, and large flat face require international espionage to be properly revealed.

Everything else about Broadway Melody 1936 is neat! Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed do the songs, the same songs they will do again in Singing In The Rain and In Broadway Melody of 1938.

In Broadway Melody of 1938: same Broadway producer, same gal dancing her way to stardom. Same backing of a blond bitch. Same Buddy Ebsen galumphing around as a Vaudeville rube. Same writers, Sid Silvers and Jack McGowan. Same brilliant editing by Blanche Sewell. Same impeccable direction by Roy Del Ruth. Francis Langford and Robert Benchley and the stifling Sophie Tucker appear in one film or the other. Una Merkel with her pecking voice wittily plays the producer’s conniving secretary in 1936, while 1938 displays a fourteen-year-old Judy Garland full of hope and good will, and in great voice to woe Clark Gable.

In ’38, George Murphy dances with Powell in a spectacularly good singing-in-the rain dance that is not danced to “Singing In The Rain” – and what all this means is simply that one good thing follows another.

For the dance numbers and specialty numbers in both films are imaginatively introduced and wittily executed. An extended Murphy, Powell, Ebsen dance sequence in a boxcar with a horse, surprises with an imaginative use of camera in a small space. The premise of every number seems right and fresh and vivid, and we are spared the staginess of Warner musicals of this era.

The stardom of Eleanor Powell was different from that of Robert Taylor in that it never took place.

Two reasons for that. Maybe more. But one was that her dancing, while effective, was not graceful. She employs the high kicks and top-spins and cartwheels of the acrobatic dancer, which is to say, it is closer to a circus performance. When you see her en pointe, the elbows and knees are over-extended. The ballet dancers chorus behind her makes her look like a horse.

She had phenomenal speed as a dancer and an eagerness to please. Unlike Ruby Keeler, he didn’t have to look at her feet. There is a witty glee in her eyes while tapping that has miles to spare. She is above technique. It’s fun to see.

But none of this ever changed. She always does the same thing, the same kicks, the same spins, the same tommy-gun taps. Astaire and Kelly took great care, in each film, to present something new in dance. Eleanor Powell has a good figure, the right height, 5’5”, and she’s pretty. She is a passable actress, too. She’s not unlikable. But she’s not very open. She’d like to be, but she’s not. And you’ve seen it all before.

This may have come about because she was a female, and, in those years, males controlled movie choreography in a way that females would never be allowed to do. She may have been told, “Do what you did before, Eleanor!” Or, maybe that’s all she could do. Anyhow that’s what happened.

Monotony, and not being open, the audience could not dive into her, nor really could a leading man. You are absolutely convinced that Robert Taylor loves her – simply, directly, happily – but there is no chemistry between them, because, in her, love is not a cartwheel. In her, a cartwheel is a cartwheel.

Judy Garland in ’38, as a frumpy, unformed teen-ager, starts singing, and no matter what the song, you root for her. In you go! You take the risk. Wow! What is going to happen here?

I feel for Eleanor Powell. I admire her. But she does not become a movie star – not because she isn’t placed as one, for she is – but because she is supremely good at one thing and is less good at all the rest. Momentarily arrested, audiences turned away.

Here she is at her best, and so is everybody else. Foolish entertainment was a staple of Depression breadlines. This one is glitzy, light, and slightly fattening – although the costumes by Adrian will mask it and so will the lighting by William Daniels. He began filming Garbo and ended filming Elizabeth Taylor. All this brings you something beautiful, a diversion both working-class and classy.

I recommend it, not for a history lesson but for an evening’s innocent pleasant diversion. You won’t feel cheated by any of it but feel surprised by most of it!

Check it out.

 

Magic Mike

10 Aug

Magic Mike – directed by Steven Soderbergh. Backstage Stripshow. 110 minutes Color 2012

★★★

The Story: Experienced male strippers introduce a teenager to their chorus.

~

We haven’t got much story here. And the teenage lad is not a performer of much interest. But that’s not the problem.

The problem lies with the director’s penchant for dialogue improvisation, with the notion in his noggin that improvisation produces an effect, if not the reality, of natural spontaneity. What it actually produces is a baroque elaboration of painful discursiveness. The décor of the palace of Versailles is a final resting place for the over-complicated. Improvisation generally leads to splashing around in the shallows. Its effect is arch, longwinded, and spurious. It enervates drama. And it does not allow the audience to reveal human nature any farther than a raindrop’s circles in a puddle.

The effect on this material is that it attenuates the material beyond necessity, style, or stretching point. The result: so much time is wasted by the halting of scenes with their improvisation that there is hardly a story at all.

It doesn’t matter that a very good actor, Channing Tatum, is called upon to engage in it. In natural, real life people come into big dramatic scenes knowing their feeling exactly. Whatever hems and haws it takes to arrive at their utterance are over once over. Underlying the style lies a disgraceful bid for sympathy.

The annoyance of the inappropriateness of this style of directing – for which Soderburgh is renown – is remedied in part by the garish dancing of the men, particularly Tatum, whose métier this world once was. He is astonishing to behold.

It is also salvaged in part by the verve of Matthew McConaughey, playing the strip club owner.  As an actor, his application to the moment is admirable, and just what’s needed to play a character living on a racket. His seizure of every actor on stage with his attention enlivens every scene he is in. He is an actor of great wit, as well, which means he is quick enough and willing enough to play a character where he can make the joke be on himself.

The sequel, Magic Mike XXL, is better. For one thing, it has a story. It also has more interesting women. In Magic Mike all we have is Tatum’s leading leady, a pill. In Magic Mike XXL we have Andie McDowell and Jada Pinkett-Smith, both brilliant, both fascinating, both fun. The dancing more than carries both films, but in Magic Mike the only reason to revisit the film is the dancing itself. None of which is improvised.

 

Orchestra Wives

05 Nov

Orchestra Wives – directed by Achie Mayo. Back Bandstand Musical. 98 minutes Black And White 1942.

★★★★

The Story: A young woman marries a trumpet player with a touring band and lasts.

~

If you want to see The Glenn Miller Band in full force in one of the two movies Miller made before he died in WWII, here you have it and him. He’s a good actor, and the band is allowed to play their full versions of big hits such as “I’ve Got A Gal In Kalamazoo.” This is the grand finale, and it’s placed there because it is performed by a dance act which no other act ever could follow. That is to say, of course, that is danced by the Nicholas Brothers. Ann Rutherford, into her nineties, reminisces about the shooting of this sequence. She says you could not fit a sardine into the sound stage when they shot it; everyone on the lot came to watch. Fayard Nicholas tells how Daryl F. Zanuck would come down and watch rehearsals, and how Fayard was worried to show him an unfinished piece, but Zanuck said he wasn’t concerned because The Nicholas Brothers always did good work for him.

They sure do it here. And The Fox Contract Player Treasure Chest is opened up to reveal the presence of Gale Evans, Harry Morgan, and Jackie Gleason – none of them even credited, for some reason. Another group of contract players just above them at the time, Mary Beth Hughes, Virginia Gilmore, and Carole Landis play bitches, opposite the super bitch Lynn Bari. Cesar Romero in impeccable suits plays the smarmy but ever-affable piano player of the band chased by alimony-hungry wives, and that excellent actor Grant Mitchell plays the father of the heroine of the tale.

She falls under the spell of the trumpet playing and gorgeous masculinity of George Montgomery. He had a face, unlike Carole Landis’; his is filmable at any angle and in any light. To humanize his looks, they do have a character eccentricity to them, and he does not look well in hats.

Opposite him and playing the leading role is Ann Rutherford. She is not an actor who can carry a film any further than apple pie can carry a banquet. She plays her attraction to Montgomery as a form of coma. The sexual eagerness which all the other orchestra wives have for him is circumcised from her performance, and so the film sags when her character lies in the accustomed comforts of such a film.

But the film comes back to full life when the songs by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon are sung. They are wonderful songs: “Serenade In Blue,” “People Like You And Me,” “Bugle Call Rag,” and the really great, “At Last.” These are sung by the stars of the Miller band, Ray Eberle and the saxophonist Tex Beneke, The Mondernaires, and Marion Hutton, who looks so much like her sister Betty Hutton, you’d find it distracting were she not so good. If all this is not sufficient, adding one more notch to your collection of the Nicholas Brothers’ film work will be.

 

Nine

22 Oct

Nine – Directed by Rob Marshall. Soundstage Musical. 2009 COlor 118 minutes.

★★★★

The Story: A film director puts off everyone as his film goes into production, but he can’t admit he has no script.

~

Daniel Day-Lewis stars in this musical in which one cannot say he dances any more than a monkey might, for his strong body is put to musical acrobatic uses, and perhaps he has two left feet. The dancing and the singing are left up to the cherishable skills of Marion Cotillard, Penèlope Cruz, Fergie, Kate Hudson, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, and Sophia Loren. Who could ask for anything more?

Not I. The dances are super-duper and the songs are fun. Judi Dench is a musical comedy singer from way back, and does a wicked Follies Bergère number with a mile long boa. Fergie in a wilderness of hair that somewhat unnecessarily masks her interesting face reviews her philosophy of Italian love in a wild song and dance. Kate Hudson plays an American reporter who does a big witty number about Italian Cinema.

For the musical is about the block Day-Lewis has in writing his next musical. All the women pose delays, distractions, denials. And in the end Nicole Kidman writes his new film off because he cannot show anyone a script. He is impotent. She sings goodbye to him.

What starts with Penèlope Cruz performing a hot comic turn as his mistress winds up with Sophia Loren singing him a lullaby to reform – no two actresses have resembled one another in film history more than these.

One would not question the execution of this material. One might question the strength of the source of this material. For it devolves from Fellini’s 8 1/2, which is about a similar predicament for a director. It starred Marcello Mastroianni. Mastroianni is an interior sort of actor, the kind that doesn’t move much, and the story of impotence is too navel-gazing to move me much either. Both seem weak. And Day-Lewis is cast in and plays the part along the lines of Mastroianni also. His opening scene where he lies to the press is his funniest, and it also displays his Italian accent and manner ruthlessly.

No, it is neither he nor the story that carry the film, but the women, their exuberance, their talent, and the dances in which the choreographer has put them to use.

I liked it. I didn’t think I would. But I like it. Because I liked these women, their sauciness, their independence, their smart take, their beauty, their agility, their out-front-ness, and the talent in each of them whose bigness warrants their being up there before me. They gave me their all and I took it for the plenty it was worth.

 

Begin Again

11 Aug

Begin Again – directed by John Carney. Showbiz Musical. 104 minutes Color 2014.

★★★

The Story: A record producer hitting bottom discovers a singer of uncertain talent.

~

“Why doesn’t that young woman have her teeth fixed?” is my mantra watching Keira Knightley, and it comes up every time her acting fails her, which is half the time. Otherwise I watch her with surprise that she has any talent at all and with admiration for it when it arises.

The problem lies with over-writing, a common flaw with a writer/director. They never know when to cut the dialogue. There’s some very good stuff in this script, but every word is not a darling. A good example of this is a brilliantly directed scene brilliantly played by Knightley when her singer/boyfriend comes back to New York from a trip to LA and sings a song he wrote while away. It slowly dawns on her that he has been unfaithful. Without a word, the look in her eyes tells the story, and is the only story we need told. She boxes his ear. It’s enough. But no. The banalities start: “It just happened,” and so forth.

Another error is that this boyfriend returns to the story, too late to reengage our interest in him, if it was ever engaged, which it probably was not, because it is played by Adam Levine who is too perfectly cast as self-centered. Again, as the credits roll, the director continues the denouement of the story in a way that is both unnecessary and distracting from the honor owed to those on those credits.

Knightley’s character begins interestingly, as a diffident, sharp-tongued young songwriter, and at first this is so well rendered by Knightley, we actually imagine we are presented with a character. But the script fails her, and she is left, as are we, with an actress having to come up with something. Sometimes she’s pretty good at it. Other times not.

Eventually what she has to come up with is the singing of songs, which she does in a sweet small voice. The difficulty is that the songs by her and Levine are sung with such poor enunciation one cannot make out the words, and, the melodies being undistinguished, the words are where the action is supposed to be. For the punch of the story supposedly lies in the brilliance of these songs. It’s not my sort of music anyhow.

Mark Ruffalo’s acting contained his customary riffs and ruffs and a beard, which is an error of histrionics. He is a leading man whose face you cannot really see. Otherwise he is fine; the script supports him when he is, when it doesn’t he fails. But the ad hoc working up of the demo disc in New York locales is a lot of fun, and so is James Corden as Knightley’s sidekick, Cee Lo Green as an old crony of Ruffalo, Mos Def as his business partner, Hailee Steinfeld as his wayward daughter, and Catherine Keener as his diffident, sharp-tongued wife.

I liked the ending. There was applause when it came. But me? – I didn’t get no satisfaction. Try it. See what you think.

 
 

Nancy Goes To Rio

15 Jul

Nancy Goes To Rio – directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Backstage Musical. 100 minutes, Color 1950.

★★★★★

The Story: A great musical stage star’s daughter is given the part her mother is supposed to play, leading to many complications.

~

The costumes by Helen Rose which exploit The New Look, the settings by Gibbons and Smith, the hairstyles by Sydney Guillaroff, the set decoration by Edwin B. Willis are as fabulous as the makeup that pinks every pore of the leading ladies’ cheeks. Each production-value detail is given full focus, every color full registration, every sequin stardom. The dictum insisting that everything show is the earmark of true vulgarity. It is one typical to this studio. MGM, and it is mighty entertaining.

For the costumes are super-duper and the apartments are fabulous. As fabulous as the ever-sedate Carmen Miranda’s hat of 30,000 tiny open umbrellas.

The movie takes us to Rio, one supposes because Carmen Miranda was a contract player and she had to be used. She has red hair here and she is wonderful as always, with lightning-flash eyes and a smile as wide and gaudy as all Brazil. This was to be the last film in her MGM contract, and it was also the last in that of Ann Sothern, and the last film in which Jane Powell would contrive to appear as a teenager.

At twenty-one she is quite convincing as a seventeen year old hoyden. She plays and somewhat overplays one of those young thespians who performs real life as Drama. But she is very good to be with. She has that combination of a righteous center with a giving humor that Katharine Hepburn had her own version of. It gives Jane Powell’s playing solid ground – but with a playground on it. In her glassy soprano she sings Gershwin and she sings Puccini. She’s laid back as a singer, never forcing, focused on her tiny body and keeping that sparkle going in her generous blue eyes.

The film is a form of entertainment that probably killed MGM before long, reflecting as it did the dangerously influential unrealistic American family values of Louis B. Mayer — a continuation in Technicolor of the Andy Hardy/Judy Garland musicals of a few years before. It is a masterpiece of the expertise of artificiality.

I was also seventeen when this came out, and I took care not to go. Now, I sit back and enjoy the false virginity of MGM. Neat production numbers, a variety of songs, and a not-to-be-missed scene with Barry Sullivan and master actor Sig Arno as a waiter. Glen Anders is also on view. But one of my real reasons for watching it was the presence in it of that magnifico Louis Calhern. This was his year: he introduced Marilyn Monroe in Asphalt Jungle. (Monroe was best opposite much older men, and she had the greatest character actors in films to prove that true, Charles Laughton, Charles Coburn, and Calhern.) Calhern was an actor of insuperable finesse. The scene when Calhern’s and Sothern and Powell sing and dance to “Shine On Harvest Moon” is the most endearing musical number I have ever seen in a musical.

Now, That’s Entertainment! Catch it.

 

 

 

Springtime In The Rockies

04 Jun

Springtime In The Rockies – directed by Irving Cummings. Backstage Musical. 91 minutes Color 1942.

★★★★★

The Story: A Broadway star flees from the unsteady attentions of her fiancé and dances off with a cad to perform at Canada’s Lake Louise, which is somehow invaded by Brazil.

~

There are sixteen reasons for the focus on the Latin American market in this musical. The first one is the wartime need to confirm South-Of-The-Border friendly relations in order to keep the Axis out of the Western Hemisphere. The other fifteen are that island of repose, Carmen Miranda.

For here she is friends, in all her comic electricity, her big heart, her fanatical hands, her inexplicable and perfect enunciation, and her hips. She appears before us at all times on heels which are stacked as tall as she. She delivers her good natured malapropisms with zest and shrewdness and conviction. She brings every scene she is in to life, and she would exhaust us if she were in any more of them.

We also have Betty Grable at her best, and this is one of Grable’s best musicals. As usual she is better in her early scenes because the writing and direction is fresh, and because she was left to her own devices. But she is one of the most outgoing of performers – the most widely skilled of all the female musical stars of her era – generous and loads of fun.

As a dancer she is a power in a body. She moves with miles of technique around her. She dances with John Payne in a thunderstorm and is brilliantly inventive and right. In the finale, she appears with him in the most beautiful dance costume she ever wore – bare shoulders and turquoise sequins from her bust to her hips, then half fringed to her thighs and fully fringed to her calves. Take your eyes from her if you can.

She is essentially a comedy dancer. Cyd Charisse was one too, but Grable is quite different, so that, unlike the poker-faced Charisse, you cannot take Grable seriously in a solemn tango with Cesar Romero which Hermes Pan has choreographed for her in a misguided attempt to imagine she has the port de bras of Ginger Rogers.

Charlotte Greenwood does her usual high kick number she – which she has done in many musicals and whose merits I have never understood. Jackie Gleason has moments of his characteristic authority as the agent. Harry James, who married Grable, is mercifully whisked off stage when he is not playing the trumpet. And Edward Everett Horton plays the millionaire butler always so necessary for these musicals.

The Whitman Sampler plot of these Fox musicals is before us, and carries us in any direction that appeals to the eye. It does not much matter. For Grable is an actress of wonderful application, as witness her delightful scene with Miranda in the powder room.

Entertainment is the order of business – and why not? Sample it, whydoncha? It’s not fattening and it leaves no bitter aftertaste. Indeed, no after of any kind. And taste was never the issue to begin with.

 

Cover Girl

28 Nov

Cover Girl – directed by Charles Vidor. Musical. A hoofer in A Brooklyn nightclub becomes a fashion magazine cover-girl and a Broadway star, much to the chagrin of her buddies. 107 minutes Color 1944.

★★★★★

Rita Hayworth was a true dancer, which is to say she was born to dance, and if one could say she was a great dancer, it would have to be not because of her technical prowess and range. There were things she could not do, had not been trained to do, did not have the body to do.

But on the grounds of musicality, enthusiasm for the dance, and port de bras, she is one of the greatest dancers ever filmed.

By musicality is meant: is she just ahead of the beat? She is. This means that the music is a response to the dance, that the music comes out of the steps, rather than the other way round. That is what makes a dance a musical dance insofar as a dancer is involved. It gives something for the orchestra leader to follow. For it is the dance our attention is primarily on.

Enthusiasm is the sense that the dancer loves to dance. This comes off of Hayworth in every dance she does here. Dancing with Phil Silvers and Gene Kelly in “Make Way For Tomorrow” you see how dance gives her glee and glee her drive. You see she is the one of the three most enjoying herself. She does not intend it to, but this draws focus to her. You want to watch and stay with such happiness.

It also validates her being a dancer at all, for this enthusiasm makes clear that she is a born dancer as well as a trained one. It gives us pleasure in her confidence in her physical strength and in her natural power, as this enthusiasm releases the spectacle of her might to us. Which brings us to the question of port de bras.

By port de bras is meant how the arms, shoulders and upper back are carried – the sheer beauty and propriety of her arm movements, how they are held, where they are held, how they float. But in Rita Hayworth’s case, superb as she is at port de bras, she is also endowed with broad flexible shoulders, a back strengthened by practice, and the most beautiful arms and hands in the world.

Of course, usually Hayworth’s arms are held above her waist, but they work with a grace so rich and natural and skilled, that it constitutes a dance in and of itself. This comes out of nightclub flamenco where she danced as her father’s partner from the time she was twelve. So it is not the difficulty of the execution of steps that makes her dancing great, but the grasp of it with the flamenco fire-carriage of her arms, carried high above her diaphragm. This is flamenco-style; it gives her dancing duende. Watch her as she dances with Gene Kelly in the fashion showroom number. Look at his port de bras. And then look at hers. Gene Kelly was an agile dancer, good looking, and sexy, as was she, but she is the one you look at, and you can easily see why.

Rudolph Maté films her magnificently, as he was often to do. He discovered how shadow revealed her inner visage, and he knew how responsive she was. Watch for those lingering closeups on her subtly changing face.

Cover Girl is probably some kind of ur-musical, in that we get Kelly first doing the sort of work that would change musicals to an earthy, lower-class, non-backstage, jazz/ballet style. We have the first of his famous, midnight, city-street dances, which we find again in Singing In The Rain and It’s Always Fair Weather – dances where he uses trash cans, street lamps, and passing drunks as props; indeed we have two such dances. His dance to his own reflection in “Long Ago And Far Away” is probably the most elaborate and interesting dance he ever did, because he dances the truly neurotic.

Kelly, selfishly, loses the opportunity to properly dance “Long Ago And Far Away” with Hayworth. Is it Kern’s greatest ballad? Most of a musical’s numbers are comic numbers, and Jerome Kern is the least original of all the great composers at them; there are a number of them here; they are serviceable. But no one could write a more rapturous melody than Jerome Kern. “Long Ago And Far Away” is still with us.

Phil Silvers, Eve Arden, and Otto Kruger fortify the tale of a chorus girl from Brooklyn becoming a fashion magazine cover-girl and then a Broadway star. Apart from this, you might notice a certain treatment going on here: you might notice that Hayworth is becoming enshrined.

But never mind: here she is in all her grace and beauty and skill. Ask yourself the question: whom do you care about here and why?

Or don’t ask it. She doesn’t ask for analysis. She’s an entertainer. That’s what makes her happy.

So just treat yourself to her. She is receptive, she is talented, she is ravishing. She gives off sexuality like fire. And she is also that oddly rare thing among actors: she is touching.

 

 

 

My Gal Sal

22 Nov

My Gal Sal – directed by Irving Cummings. Period Musical. American songwriter Paul Dreiser struggles from the rural Midwest, through raree shows, and into the arms of a beautiful musical star. 103 minutes Color 1942.

★★★

Like Victor Mature, the movie is a big lug. It is also A Gaudy Fox Musical, first meant for Alice Faye, then for Betty Grable, but finally made with Columbia-import Rita Hayworth, and Gaudy doesn’t suit Rita Hayworth, because she is already gaudy enough, with her dazzling smile and power to seduce.

It is also true that Fox musical numbers were usually comic numbers, and they don’t work well for Hayworth, since they are not in her proper range.

Finally, while Hayworth lip-syncs her songs well, she is not actually singing them. Only two major musical comedy stars of that era actually could both sing and dance well: Grable and Garland. Ruby Keeler did neither well, though she did both continually, as though talent for one or the other would one day break through.

What Hayworth did better than any of them was dance her particular dances. Only one of them works at all well for her here, a ballroom number, choreographed and partnered by Hermes Pan, and even here the costume is a demerit. Still and all, watch her port de bras. Her arms are lyric. Pan said she had the most beautiful hands he had ever seen; her upper-body carriage is always emblematic; she had a goddess in her shoulders.

But she does not prevail over the stupidity of the musical numbers staged for her. A movie of the previous year, Strawberry Blond, at Columbia is a much more heartening film. Again, she plays the title role, and it is of the same period and features the same sort of barber-shop songs – although in Strawberry Blond, the music is a constant background, not hitting us in the face like a fly ball as it does here. Besides, that was directed by Raoul Walsh, and this wasn’t.

Phil Silvers, with his personality of a merry cactus, has a couple of good scenes, The lovely and talented Carole Landis plays an early girlfriend of Mature. James Gleason is the cheating music publisher Mature makes rich.

Indeed, as you can see, we are generally in the realm of Gilded Age con men, and all the males of the film, save for the constipated Bruce Cabot, fall into this category. Mature is the con man’s con man. And his playing two pianos at once in a medicine show he works is spectacular and fun and odd and endearing – indeed, an act of genius. Mature was a big hearted galoot and game, and these qualities were a fine foundation for his career in films. As an actor in his craft he is without particular interest. You might say that even interesting roles didn’t lend him interest. He could do it and do it full out, but he lacked the artistic intelligence and imagination to create something marvelous – unless playing two pianos at once is imaginative and marvelous – and you know something? – I daresay it is!

 

My Blue Heaven

08 Nov

My Blue Heaven – directed by Henry Koster. Musical Comedy. A famous couple want a baby. 96 minutes Color 1950.

★★★★★

If you are interested in musicals at all, My Blue Heaven is one of the breakthrough ones to see. For it is a Fox musical with the glare amputated. Formerly and for the most part, Betty Grable musicals were set in exotic settings or in The Gilded Age of vaudeville, and Grable would depict an unmarried star on the rise, being two-timed along the way by some handsome cad in a moustache. But here she is already well married and also already well established as half of the Lunt and Fontanne of musical comedy. And the color coding of the musical is no longer loud, vulgar and gaudy, but subdued and natural to its era, which is the ‘50s. The setting is modern, and the story has to do with Grable becoming a mother. Odd.

In 1929 when she was 12, Betty Grable’s mother dyed her hair blond, put her a G-string, and got her in as a chorus girl in the film Happy Days. By the time she made My Blue Heaven she is 33, earning $300,000 a year, Fox’s top star, and for ten years one of the ten top box office attractions in the world. What this has to do with this film is that she had three failures before she made it, and Fox musicals were very expensive to make: $3,000 a minute – partly because of the enormous time rehearsing the numbers. So on the one hand musicals had to succeed and on the other no one quite knew how to make them. But MGM had led the way, so now Betty Grable was made a contemporary American, which made sense, because nobody in the world was more so.

For this one Grable has again her most likeable co-star Dan Daily. He also was her only true co-star, because he was the only one who had big musical comedy chops. He is a gifted dancer, clown, and actor, as was she. Daily has an entertaining face, as did Grable, and they both liked one another enormously, you can see it on the screen. In all four musicals they made together, they are married from the start. But most important, for this film they used a script by Claude Binyon and Lamar Trotti, which is witty, cogent, and surprising, one of the best musical comedy books I have ever seen. Arthur Arling, who had filmed her often and knew now to do it, shot it. It is well-paced, plausible, and bright.

Also on board were oodles of musical numbers written for it by Harold Arlen. These consist of a series of light comedy satires, one of Rogers and Astaire, one of Rogers And Hammerstein’s South Pacific, one of Irving Berlin holliday songs, and the last, also of Ethel Merman and Bing Crosby in Berlin’s Anything GoesDon’t Rock The Boat, Dear, which was a hit in its day and is still a delight. The witty lyrics of this and all these songs were written by Ralph Blane. Mitzie Gaynor, David Wayne, Jane Wyatt, Una Merkel, Louise Beaver lend a happy hand.

Of all the movie stars in the world, Betty Grable is the one most easy to love. If you love loving someone, and I know you do, watch her. She’s a tonic.

 

Cony Island

21 Oct

Cony Island –– directed by Walter Lang. Period Musical. A vulgar saloon singer gets mentored into Broadway by a con man who loves her. 96 minutes Color 1943.

★★★★★

Betty Grable remains the greatest female “entertainer” of movies. She remained on the top ten box office stars list for ten years, one of the few actors and the only woman ever to do so.

It is easy to write her off. Oh, yes, she was all tarted up in spangles. Yes, her hairdos were mad confections and her costumes Technicolor flamboyant.  She played low-class dames from show-biz, and she was famous for her legs. She was the star of mere Fox musicals. She lacked class. MGM was more high-tone. Fred Astaire never danced with her.

Well, Hermes Pan, who choreographed Astaire’s sequences with him, choreographed this film and dances with her here. In his view, she and Rita Hayworth were the best of the female dancers. He could give her an elaborate sequence and was amazed that she could copy it immediately! “Honey, I’ve been doing this since I was eight.”

She was a good singer, she had a complexion that Zanuck demanded always be shot in color, she had a living-doll figure, with a subtle sensual hip action natural to her.

She is equaled only by Judy Garland, a performer of enormous actor-intelligence, who had many of the same qualities as Grable – one being, a wicked camp humor. Neither were ballroom dancers — those were Rogers, Hayworth, and Charisse — but Grable in her way was just as much fun.

Grable was a superb film actor in the Musical Mode, which has its own acting tropes and requirements. Within this mode, she clearly can do anything, and as such she is one of the greatest film actresses who ever lived. Oh how dare you, you might say, Bette Grable was not Garbo. But it would smarter to say, Garbo was not Betty Grable. Betty Grable  is fresh-as-a-daisy, highly responsive, giving, funny, emotionally susceptible. She could be frequently wrong-headed and often embarrassed. Fox gave her stories to suit her bent and nature, because she was unchallenged in her craft, talent, and appeal. In comic dancing, which most of her numbers were, she has no rival. Watch her for her speed, delivery, imagination, and self-parody.

Grable’s energy is essentially volatile but longing to settle down. She chases men, which Garland also did and which Monroe never did. Grable has a big open expression, is vulnerable to being hurt, is eager, and the most obvious thing about her is that she always plays someone hard-working. She’s in rehearsal; she’s got to step for a living; she’s a vaudevillian with a lot of shows to do a day. Betty Grable, unlike Alice Faye, has not got a lazy bone in her body. She’s a good singer, but can’t coast on the power of her singing, like Faye and Garland. But inside, she is naturally musical. She loves music; it’s so plain; it’s a treat to see it – it’s a physical entity with her like her cute figure and full lips. It’s in every dance she dances.

When she is on screen you cannot take your eyes from her. This is not just a result of the solo position of her numbers or that she is the lead. It is the inherent talent to draw focus. Her like-ability makes her a great star, and the fact that, behind the sequins and feathers, she is unpretentious, good-natured, innocent, accessible, and real. It makes her the pin-up of World War II and the top female star in the world. She deserved it and still deserves it.

Cony Island one her many hits, is a piece of Gilded Age froufrou.  It begins with four rowdy musical numbers in a row, topped by Charlie Winninger singing Who Put The Overalls In Mrs Murphy’s Chowder. No, it aint refined, but boy is it good! There are two kinds of vulgarity, one is empty and one is full; one is flaccid and one has vigor, one gives you a belly ache and one gives you a belly laugh. Neither type have any taste, but the second type, to which Betty Grable and her films belong, sure is tasty. Indulge yourself. She’s like an icecream soda. You’ll end up refreshed.

 

Broadway Melody Of 1940

19 Jul

Broadway Melody Of 1940 –– directed by Norman Taurog. Backstage Musical. 102 minutes, Black and White, 1939.

★★★★★

What is the critic’s job? Praise or blame? Curse or bless? Give credit or give frowns?

What difference does all that make now?

Perhaps it’s just to notice what is there.

So, in the case of a critic really interested in the craft of acting, when looking at a performer such as Eleanor Powell, what does one do?

Watching her dance is like watching a songbird sing. She does it with a technical zest that has miles to spare. Nothing that even approaches difficulty is what we appreciate while watching her perform the impossible. She would rather dance than eat. She is dance compulsion.

As an actor, is she in line with her costars, George Murphy, Fred Astaire and Ian Hunter?

You bet she is. And she is always in the mode of performance which light musical comedy prescribes, particularly as she is involved with a master of it, director Norman Taurog.

A friend of mine said to me today that Fred Astaire was a terrible actor. So wooden. I suppose that’s a common view, I don’t know, but if you think so, then give yourself the chance to be disabused and watch him, not as he is “acting,” but as he listening to someone else. Watch him in the best-friend relations he creates with George Murphy. What I see in Astaire here is a man virile, alive, and full of fun. He also had the most beautiful eyes.

Astaire was Mr. Finesse. If you imagine he is a bad actor, that may be because there is hardly a moment when he is not dancing when acting, such that his animation might tend to side-line his words and make them, because they are irrelevant, sound forced. But just take a look at what he does after the fatal telephone call, when he blurts out something he ought not to have.

Was Frank Morgan a good actor?  Here he is a staple of the absent-minded old hoodwinker, such as we just saw him be in The Wizard Of Oz. Can you figure out exactly what he is doing? Without imitating him, which would perhaps not be hard, can you do your own version of what he is up to?

Well, perhaps I sound scolding. See it, for the fun of it, as I just did. Astaire has a phenomenal solo – imaginative, acute, down to earth.

Eleanor Powell – she of the pleated skirts and pneumatic smile – dances on point here in a hideously costumed ballet, and she is not at her best. Alas, she was also an acrobatic dancer, which is dance at its most foolish because most contorted to amaze. But, when she and Astaire dance, they have done the choreography together, and she is just grand – never more so than the finale of Begin The Beguine (the whole score is by Cole Porter) – in what is the most astonishing, fun, celebrated and electrifying tapdance duet ever filmed.

Don’t miss it.

 

Gold Diggers Of 1933

19 Apr

Gold Diggers Of 1933 – directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Musical. Will three chorus girls land rich husbands? 97 minutes, Black and White 1933.

★★★★★

In writing a review of a movie I saw two days ago, I have to look up on Google to remind myself what the the heck the story was. Oh, yes, I remember now. It is, let us say, pleasingly forgettable.

For why should we not forget it? The point of the Warner Brothers Musicals is the appeal of the stark contrast of a striking presentation with the ordinariness of the story and the actors. At MGM Judy Garland was many things but ordinary was never one of them. Alice Fay and Betty Grable and Shirley Temple at Fox were lavishly unordinary. Rogers and Astaire frolic through the vast white telephone art deco concoctions at RKO, and you can mistake neither of them, together or apart, for anyone else at all.

But here at Warners we have the endearing Joan Blondell, someone leaning over the backyard fence for a good gossip. We have Ruby Keeler whose musical comedy talent verges on the indiscernible. She carefully watches her feet when dancing, and her singing voice makes a rusty bedspring glad it doesn’t sound worse. But she’s sufficiently pretty and has the correct specific weight to play opposite the collegiately cute Dick Powell, who does have talent, and also has the smarts to sing and act with such conviction as to completely elude embarrassing himself.

What we want is these perfectly accessible folks skirting around the sets and gesturing in odd counterpoint to them. For what is also going on is the Busy Berkeley kaleidoscopical monstrosities of choreography to give the lie to ordinariness at every glance. You think Warner Brothers is the out-at-elbows studio of the ‘30s? Nah. Here’s production values up the wazoo.

We return to the Warners musicals for the juxtaposition of the modest talents of the performers counterpoised against the immense immodesty of the regimental use of the females of the chorus numbers for which these musicals remain famous. Escapism knows no more distant exit than these deliriums.

Things start with the witty Ginger Rogers singing the great lampoon song, “We’re In The Money,” which was the Depression era mock-anthem. This in a movie which is to end in another production number, the funeral march of : “The Forgotten Man, ” the dirge of the impecunious.

Ginger is somewhat sidelined by the story of chorus girls eating beans while waiting for a part, for they are Aline MacMahon as the cynical funny one, Ruby Keeler as the star, and the one-in-between, Joan Blondell, who recites rather than sings the words to “The Forgotten Man,” and does so with enormous effect.

Probably the most popular songwriter American ever had was Harry Warren, and so the score also includes ”In The Shadows When I Sing To You.” That lovely actor Warren William injects a dose of realism as the out-of-town interloper, and a strain of actual elegance. But we don’t go to Warner’s movies for elegance. We go for the energy of the vulgar. It’s a great energy. Sometimes it frightens me. Sometimes I like it. Here, I like it.

 

Almost Famous

26 Jun

Almost Famous – directed by Cameron Crowe. Music Drama. A teenager becomes a stringer for Rolling Stone Magazine to cover the disintegration or rebirth of a famed Rock and Roll band. 124 minutes Color 2000.

★★★★★

Well, Frances McDormand is the best actress ever. Here she plays the pestering mom of the boy journalist, and each time she appears she is both dead on true and dead on funny. The boy is a gawky pubescent chap adopted by his journalist mentor played brilliantly, of course, by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a master of eccentric timing to allow a real life character to spring up through the cracks of his lines, as it were. The whole story is a dear adventure, based on the director’s actual experience as a fifteen year old kid sliding into the world of the big Rock stars, participating in their tours, being taken as an experienced journalist, and eventually filing the story. Crowe manages the mise-en-scene immaculately. He lived the boy’s story when young, and he brings it to life with relish and a loving eye. Billy Crudup is the target of the young journalist’s particular aim for a scoop, so we see a good deal of him. Crudup does not quite nail the inner life of the character, but depends on the story to do his work. In the crucial scene, when an apology is due from him to the boy, his failure to make it goes unregistered by the actor. But still, it is always a pleasure to see this fine actor, very beautiful twelve years ago, and in fine form as a Rock star, first deranged by modesty, then by drugs. Kate Hudson is the band-aide 15 Year old sex object of both the boy and Crudup, and she plays it out with remarkable presence. Anna Paquin is in it, but for some reason is not used properly. But Jason Lee is dynamite as the less-talented leader of the band, too full of himself to face the fact. It’s a good movie, even if you don’t, like me, care about Rock and Roll. A sort of open-heart surgery on the music world of that time, but the heart, while stricken, is sweet.

 

Rock Of Ages

16 Jun

Rock Of Ages – directed by Adam Shankman. Rock Musical. A launching pad of rock and roll legends is threatened with closure, as in it new stars arise and old ones rise higher. 123 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★

Rock and roll passed me by. I was too old for it at the time. So I know nothing of it. For this reason, I believe, I found this whole endeavor consistently entertaining from start to finish. The words to the songs are audible, mirabile dictu, which means that although they do lack distinction they do not lack distinctiveness. Everyone is good in it and everyone sings good, too. The young lovers give strong performances, as they must, for they really have to carry the picture. She jumps off the bus in L.A. from Oklahoma, and he is already bussing dishes in the venue where it mostly takes place. They come to one another’s rescue throughout, for this is a fairy tale set in The Palace Of Fame, or at least in one of the outbuildings of it, The Grange Of Celebrity, a grungier pleasance. The point of the piece is immediately established behind the credits, not as parody, but as serious comedy in which everyone is played not for comment but for real, with a funny inner hat. Starting with Paul Giamatti as the star-maker manager: his prevarication of the question, “Is it true?” is hilarious, both as played and as written; you must not omit to see it. But it is not just a question of particular scenes but of consistency and sustainment of tone that made me smile from the start to the finale. That glittering puma, Catherine Zetta-Jones as the righteous mayor’s wife who wants to shut down rock and roll forever struts her musical comedy chops with great humor and knowingness. As do Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin, the latter of whose humor is particularly telling as the superannuated hippy venue owner. The songs are energetic and the choreography is fortunate. There is a cast of hundreds. And into all of this saunters the always half nude figure of Tom Cruise as the rock and roll superstar pushing fifty – a sort of combination of Iggy Pop and Robert Newton, a walking Parnassus of Sex, his jewelled crown a codpiece of rubies, in an astonishing turn by an astonishing actor – who once again throws himself into a role hook, line, and sinker. He plays him as brain-damaged by fame. His joy in his craft is abounding. His actor’s imagination is unfathomable. For instance, his character’s seduction line is so used up that there is nothing further he can find to trade it in for, and he must repeat it, knowing it will succeed with any woman in question but not with himself. He makes his character a musical star so exalted that the view from his mountain top is wise beyond knowing, but perforce also hazy as to those who live so far below that he seems out to lunch, while the fact is that at all times he has already eaten lunch. It is a wonderful piece of work. He daringly develops this character into a full grotesque ,detail by detail; that is, his fingernails are painted aubergine and bitten to the quick, so that whenever we see his hands ten tiny eggplants flash before our eyes. Well, for all these wonderful actors, and because I like musicals, I smiled all the way through this one. See it in a theatre. It’s a big show. It doesn’t belong in your living room. You belong in its.

 

The Band Wagon – more

10 Nov

The Band Wagon – more — directed by Vincente Minnelli – a backstage musical in which a fading movie hoofer resumes his Broadway career, except with a director of Orson Wellesian pretension, except, as well, with a snooty ballerina! – 112 minutes 1953.

* * * * *

The Greatest Musical Ever Made? Don’t answer. I’ve been watching it again in the DVD re-release, color restored and in stereo now. Two discs of background and outtakes, and three versions all of which I could not help watching in one day, the other two being a commentary by Liza Minnelli and Michael Feinstein and a monaural version, which I actually preferred, because that’s what I saw when it first came out in 1953 while I was in basic at Fort Dix. Those soldiers who appear in the Shine On My Shoes number were like me, headed for the Korean War. I went back to the post movie house and saw it all over again, just as I did yesterday. The Lisa Minnelli and Michael Feinstein version is worthwhile because Michael Feinstein is a gentleman and has useful information about the musical contributions of Adolf Deutsch, Roger Edens, and the arranger Conrad Salinger, while Liza Minnelli jackasses herself with moronic sentimentality punctuated with a coarse laugh. Her nostalgia is not even her own — she is nostalgic not for her father but for his work, which, however, is before us, and which speaks for itself. Vincente Minnelli was famous for his color sense, and the colors are not modest. He hired two newcomers, Michael Kidd, to do the choreography, and Mary Ann Nyberg to do the costumes. Nyberg does two unusual things with Cyd Charisse. The first is to put her in green twice, not a forgiving color for humans, except her. The second is to frame the film with her costumes, red and green at the start, then red and green at the end. In It’s Always Fair Weather, Charisse, in the boxing match dance, will wear two almost matching greens, and she has already proven she can carry the color in the great Louise Brooks finale of Singing In The Rain where she wears a green flapper dress with short flyaway skirt. Now, first seen in the en pointe ballet, Charisse is in bright red. Next when she enters to meet Astaire, she is in a black spangled lace dress over midnight green petticoats so dark you can hardly see the green, with bright green gloves. At the end, Nyberg puts Charisse in the red spangled dress for the Girl Hunt ballet and then for the That’s Entertainment finale she puts Charisse in green khaki satin. For the simple and justly famous Dancing In The Dark number in Central Park, Nyberg, in a tour de force choice, has Charisse and Astaire both in white, he in three tones of white, she in a $22 shirtwaist with a trillion pleats. White, the color of truce – for, having come to a truce in life, they are out to discover whether they can find a truce in dance. The unity of their performance is created in part by the unity of that color, to make “Dancing In The Dark” the most moving romantic dance ever filmed. (Watch: Charisse actually leads it; the focus is actually given to her.) The other newcomer is Michael Kidd. You will find what he starts out to do in the “Louisiana Hayride” number he will not long after complete in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. But what he mainly does is remove Astaire from his usual tropes. So there are no great big tap dancing numbers and such. What we have is the amiable affair of the shoeshine dance and the jazz dance of “The Girl Hunt Ballet”. That is to say, Astaire’s dancing is technically simple, and this is rare for him, for it does not resemble even big splashy jazz numbers like “Stepping Out With My Baby” from Easter Parade. It’s a new Astaire, and it is possibly the most satisfying and relaxed he has ever been in dance. To make up for it, he sings a lot, and sings well. Watch also the chiaroscuro of Minnelli’s use of extras and bit players as they populate, move around, pass through, come forward, and then retreat into the background dark, as does Thurston Hall as the moneybags backer and the stagehands and manger. Compare “Girl Hunt” here with the similar but barely populated “Broadway Rhythm: Gotta Dance” finale of Singing In The Rain, to feel Minnelli’s genius as a colorist with chorus, with casts, with people, with extras, all of whom he instructed individually and personally as to their tasks and motivations. This makes it a musical of great warmth. Easy and essential. Singing In The Rain and The Band Wagon are the apogee of Hollywood musicals. Don’t miss them.

 

Tin Pan Alley

04 Jul

Tin Pan Alley – Directed by Walter Lang. Musical. An inconsiderate song plugger looses his mate who runs off to become a stage star with her sister. 94 minutes Black and White 1940.

* * * * *

Alice Faye has the most seductive upper eyelids God ever thought of. She is sultry, easy, withdrawn, and has a magnificent bust. It is interesting to see her paired with Betty Grable who is the opposite. Grable is outgoing, open, eager, and everything is in perfect physical proportion. Actually, neither of these fine ladies is the focal character of this picture. That falls to John Payne, who it is difficult not to look at with wonder and amazement. For he is the most beautiful male imaginable. He first appears in the boxing ring dressed in so little that one can see what a strapping physique he had, broad shouldered, slim, and muscular. In this picture he remains clothed for most of it, and looks good in his suits, which work better than the Edwardian rigs worn by the ladies. (His face resembles that of Lee Pace.) Payne is about 27 years old here and at the peak of his masculinity. He has the perfect patined hair of the era. He has a sensual and flexible mouth, with dimples when he smiles. A wonderful nose. A beautifully shaped head. And so forth and so on, but the reason one cannot take one’s eyes off him is that all of this is backed up by a technique that is fluid, full of fun, and highly responsive. Watch him and Faye and Oakie sing a trio, to see what I mean. The show looks really well rehearsed, and that counts for a lot with this sort of backstage musical. Billy Gilbert sings the Sheik of Araby while the Nicholas Brothers do another of their stupendous dance routines. Jack Oakie in his pie-in-the-face style of acting brings the elan of the died-in-the-wool vaudevillian to the scene, and it’s most welcome in all its silliness. Boy, can he put over a bad song well! I have a strong fondness for Fox musicals. I like their color, and their emotional values, and I rejoice in Betty Grable, who was shortly to replace Alice Faye, to become the top box office movie star for 10 consecutive years. Gosh, was she engaging! There is a certain energetic vulgarity to Fox musicals that I appreciate, so different from RKO’s white telephone musicals and the family-value musicals at MGM. Anyhow this is a good example of the Fox genre. A good film to watch with the whole family.

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The Cotton Club

18 Apr

The Cotton Club – Directed By Francis Ford Coppola. Musical. A jazz musician gets in Dutch with Dutch Schultz over his moll. 127 minutes Color 1984

* * * * *

Well, it’s terrific. It’s another Coppola masterpiece. What riches. What thoroughness. What a scene is Harlem in those bygone days. And the dancing Hines brothers are tops. Richard Gere is, as usual, cast as a badly spoken type and Diane Lane is perfectly cast as the moll – like Michelle Pfeiffer she only shines in lower class roles for some reason. They bring out the buzz in her.

And in me.

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Follow The Fleet

22 Mar

Follow The Fleet – directed by Mark Sandrich – musical comedy about a lower class gob who wants to pick up where he left off with his former romance. 110 minutes black and white 1936.

* * * * *

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire were often cast as sophisticates, but here, not so. Here he chews gum and is decidedly lower class, she’s just a goil in tap shoes. I liked that about this piece. Ginger Rogers won a Charleston contest at 14, and toured the country as a featured performer before ending up starring on Broadway before she was 19. She was a very experienced, hardworking, graceful, and talented musical performer. She had made 19 movies before, at 23, she made her first one with Astaire; he had made three. As an actress she had ease, wryness, and bite; as an actor he was shamefaced, but he was the favorite singer of all the songwriters he sang for, and she and he were in perfect agreement on the dance floor — so much so that in this picture they even do a parody of bad-dancing. Irving Berlin wrote the score and words here, so the standard is high. Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard (of Ozzie and Harriet fame) provide the glass in which this ice-cream sundae is served. Betty Grable is somewhere in the mix. And as everyone has said before me and as everyone will say after me, its finale, Let’s Face The Music And Dance — which has nothing to do with chewing gum and a goil — is one of the most beautiful dance sequences ever laid down on film.

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Three Little Words

22 Mar

Three Little Words – directed by Richard Thorpe — a musical in which two songwriters meet and part and meet and part. 102 minutes technicolor 1950.

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Vera Ellen maintains her nine-inch waist for us, which distracts from the fact she is taller than one would have thought, for she wears no heels with Astaire. She was not a graceful dancer, as were Rogers, Charisse, and Hayworth, but she was insanely accomplished. Her grace is always force-manufactured by her training, never inherent, for her dance category was the most vulgar of all dance modes, Acrobatic. She shines only in the comic dances, and fortunately there are three of them, and she does them beautifully. In her her romantic dances with Astaire, she is cold, even gelid. Of course, Astaire himself was cold, but he was also cool, so he carries himself enjoyably to himself and to us always, and his clothes, except for a certain hat, are a triumph of sartorial imagination. This is a bio-pic about Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, songwriters of “Nevertheless,” “Thinking of You,” and “Boop-boop-be-do,” all of which became re-hits when this film was released. This is Fred Astaire’s best acting job in a musical; he actually gets angry! Red Skelton plays Ruby as though he were a gem-stone, and the beauteous Arlene Dahl plays The Beauteous Arlene Dahl, and it is enough. Gale Robbins in Rita Hayworth figure and dresses has a number and so do Gloria DeHaven and Debbie Reynolds. The film never stalls with production numbers or plot because, mercifully, there are none. It’s a popcorn movie suitable for any occasion.

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Dancing Lady

18 Jan

Dancing Lady — directed by Robert Z. Leonard — a backstage musical in which a hodgepodge  vaudeville company is drawn into feasability. 92 minutes black and white 1933.

Here Crawford is  27 and already too old for the part of a naive beginner. Her makeup is a mask over her red-head’s freckles and her eyelashes are hugely destructive to her character. But boy, was she gifted. Not as a dancer, of course, for her dancing is gauche. She flings herself about with no mercy for any of us, always looking at her feet. Nonetheless she holds the screen like nobody’s business. She had this great face, with enormous eyes, strong nose, and broad, flexible mouth with a stunner smile. She is a tower of human will in a part that requires exactly that quality. And you cannot take your eyes off her. And you root for her. And she is a very talented actress, to boot. Gable is another matter entirely. Like her, he was born exquisitely gifted to be photographed. The beautiful shape of his head is a treat to see, the way his face moves, the way his dimples operate, how the mustache gives him an upper lip, his long neck and broad sloping shoulders and slim physique, his deep gnarled voice — all these are gifts of god. But, boy could he act! He’s so skilled that it’s easy to overlook his superb ability for honest forthright acting choices which animate the house he is. Unlike Crawford whose acting choices are always noticeable, Gable’s choice are more inherent and so less noticeable. Unlike Crawford, he could actually play comedy; he could actually play parts that made a fool of himself. The picture here is one of many these two made together. In real life they had a long affair. And on the screen it shows and shows well.  He is all impatient resistance; she is all desperate eagerness. What a perfect match. The film is a backstage musical with huge incoherent production numbers of the Busby Berkeley stripe, and, mercifully, very little of Joan’s “dancing” — certainly not with Fred Astaire who appears with her in a couple of numbers well organized to disguise her limitations. The songs are by Burton Lane, so that’s nice. And Franchot Tone (one of Crawford’s real-life husbands) does his insouciant sophisticate on one side of the stage while the Three Stooges cavort and bonk one another on the other. (There’s a Three Stooges extra, too, if you like them, and I don’t.) Robert Benchley brings his fumbling into several scenes and the deco settings are grand, though Crawford’s costumes are overdone. This is not high art. It fact it is not art at all. So, from the title, don’t expect Cyd Charisse to round the bend and astound us with her gams and class and talent. You don’t expect great art from a supermarket generic brand. That’s not what you go for. You expect something that is filling without being in any way nourishing. Such is the experience of Dancing Lady. And. by the way, she aint no lady.

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The Overture

04 Jan

The Overture – directed by Itthi-sunthorn Wichailak – a drama recounting the career of a fable Thai musician, through the conflicts caused by him radical style and his fears of public competition — 103 minutes color 2005.

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Rocky with xylophones!  The film is set in Thailand, where the playing of the rand-ek rises to national bouts, along the lines of the Rose Bowl. In this case, the Rose bowl is the imperial court, where the most accomplished players come to fence. They are the pets and patronees of the princes of the realm, much as our football games are the patronees of brewers. I only realized at the end that the old man was the same person as the child, the boy, and the young man, and that there were two parallel stories afoot. But this was probably due to me, rather than to the director who tells the story carefully and honorably and entertainingly. Apart from the tension of the competitions, the picture shows a world of Thai life, the homes, canals, slums, farms, palaces, and people. I loved seeing all this. It also does depict, loosely it admits, the story of the Babe Ruth of rand-ek xylophone players, the Lionel Hampton of his day, Luang Prodit Pairoh who was a daring innovator on the rand-ek, and whose daring we see still in place when the Japanese interlope Thailand in the 30s. Be careful watching this: you may come to love the rand-ek. This is a film the family will enjoy together –– at least those old enough to read the subtitles, which are as excellent as the film itself.

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Lady Of Burlesque

17 Dec

Lady Of Burlesque – directed by William Wellman – a backstage mystery comedy about a hooch dancer and a couple of murdered canaries. 91 minutes black and white 1943.

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Every student of film and every person fascinated by its craft could not do better than to watch William Wellman’s management of crowd movement in this back-stage whodunit. The set is spectacularly real in terms of its seediness, dusty props, crumby dressing rooms, and crowdedness. The film is alive with imaginative motion. Which stops dead when the inspector calls to examine the personnel and everyone has to gather in a dressing room that allows of scarcely any motion at all. So the movie lurches effectively between the hurly burly and hustle of the shows and the standstill of these scenes. Michael O’Shea plays the two-bit fool who woes the heroine and he is perfectly cast because he is lower-class at heart and so is Barbara Stanwyck, a Brooklyn girl from way back. She is not physically convincing as a Burlesque Queen; she does not have the aplomb or the powerful double-entendre of a Gypsy Rose Lee who wrote the story, but otherwise she is marvelous, for two reasons. She is a person of determination: her walk is like a naval destroyer moving across a duck pond. And she had the common touch. The burley-que life on stage was coarser than what we see here, but the casting of the girls with their snappy slang brings out the necessary, as do the costumes organized around their bodies not to reveal their sexuality but to astound by exaggerating it symbolically. A g-string tells less than a three foot hat!

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Burlesque

29 Nov

Burlesque – directed by Steve Antin – a musical about farm girl with hidden talent who comes to L.A and tries to break into Show Business – 118 minutes color 2010.

* * * * *

Cher is perfectly cast as a Burlesque Queen which is what she is and always has been. She is a National Treasure, so we must seize any opportunity that comes along to be in her presence. She is especially good in the first half of the picture in her relations with the extraordinary Stanley Tucci who has won so many Academy Awards it would not be fair to bestow another on him for this delicious performance, and the excellent Peter Gallagher, her former husband and present business partner. Cher declines in interest as the plot not just thickens but curdles around her, for she is in peril of losing her nightclub, oh dear, and Will Not Sell Out. The director should have told her that Tigresses do not weep. Otherwise the piece is very well directed and beautifully filmed, and one feels that a major musical is in hand. The duties of the plot eventually forbid this, of course, but at least we have Cher, in very good voice, singing two songs, the second of which is indecipherable because her enunciation is, as usual, blurred by her vocal production. However the principal player here is one Christine Aguilera, whose vocal quality is similar to Cher’s. She has one Big Number after another, and she is impressive, and these are set on a stage which it is conceivable could hold them. However they are show-off-edited, such that the cuts prevent any single number from registering, so you never can tell what the performer is actually accomplishing. One good part of that is that the off-stage stories are spliced into these numbers at times, which works for the stories if not always for the numbers. For by praising the feat, the editing distances us from experiencing the feat of such performances, and , by giving us canned admiration, forcing us out of  admiring it for ourselves. The dancers and singers are full of beans and beyond-talent, and that does satisfy. Burlesque, in the old days when there was Burlesque, was live-theater in which dirty-joke comics alternated with ladies who disrobed or almost avoided disrobing. In this version the numbers combine the dirty jokes with the witty songs and parodic dances, all of which is dandy. The only striptease is performed by Cam Gigandel who is our heroine’s beau, and who takes it off all the way at one point with great comic effect. He has a mighty fine figure and is a deft and imaginative actor and a good looking young man, perfect in his scenes, and perfectly cast. I hope he has a future. We need a great big smashing musical every year, and this year, this is it!

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