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Archive for the ‘Essential Musical’ Category

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.

 

Swing Time

04 Oct

Swing Time – Directed by George Stevens. Musical. Two dancers and their lovers at cross purposes. 103 minutes Black and White 1936.

* * * * *

Swing Time is accompanied by a terrific commentary by John Mueller, who takes us through a good deal of what went on to make this piece the greatest of all Rogers/Astaire musicals — which has to do with Astaire’s grueling rehearsal work, freedom from chance in the dances, his staff Hermes Pan, and the nature of the picture itself. It is directed by George Stevens who was one day to direct The More The Merrier, Woman Of The Year, Shane, and A Place In The Sun and who brings to the picture an angle of vision which unifies it by personalizing the performances. Of course, it is a white telephone musical, which means that it is essentially a film in which only the dances are serious art: the rest is flip. This is as it should be, because Astaire is interested in discovering and firming up the essential musts of movie dance. His discoveries rule to this day. The film contains wonderful numbers of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, and at one point Astaire applies blackface and does a shadow dance with 24 chorus girls, 12 in black 12 in white, and then dances to a black and white rear shadow projection of himself. Minstrel shows celebrate an exuberance which our negro entertainers alone possess: blackface gives performers unheard of freedom: that is what is being celebrated here, and, because it is respectful at heart, it would be offensive to be offended by it. “Never Gonna Dance” is considered to be the greatest dramatic-romantic dance ever filmed, and Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields won the Oscar for “The Way You Look Tonight,” and we are also treated to “A Fine Romance,” “Pick Yourself Up And Start All Over Again”. Rogers, beautifully dressed for all her numbers, is liquid itself in Astaire’s arms. She had a wonderful figure, graceful arms, strong square shoulders, a flexible back. And of course she could actually act, so she moves the spoken drama along while Astaire moves the dance drama along. Dancing he led her; not-dancing, she led him. The most valuable suggestion Mueller gives is to watch the dances in slow motion. What a treat! To actually see for oneself what actually went into these intricate, witty dances! Astaire’s body was a genius. That body made American movie musicals! Excellence upon excellence was his credo, never more so than here.

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One Hour WithYou

09 May

One Hour With You – directed by Ernst Lubitsch – Musical. Two ladies vie for the bedroom of M. Chevalier, one of them is married to him, one isn’t.  80 minutes Black and White 1932.

* * * * *

Lubitsch’s perpetual sense-of-humor-cigar is that sex is a jest that people inevitably loose their sense of humor over. The one who loses it here is Jeanette MacDonald just as Florence Vidor lost it in Lubitsch’s 19245 silent version The Marriage Circle. Now, I want you to listen very carefully to what I am about to say, for no matter what you may think of “old” films, especially this old, they possess a quickness of wit and heart to be found no place else. You may adore or despise the hairdos and the decor. You may find the music and the tone to be “Viennese” and dated. You may dismiss the frivolity, but you’d be a suicidal killjoy to miss any movie that begins with a line like this: “She was a brunette when I married her, and now I can’t believe a thing she says.” Again, in this piece we have the light-operetta style so suited to the non-singer. I speak of Maurice Chevalier. Chevalier appeared to sing. Of course he didn’t sing; he never sang a note his whole life long. He simply appeared to. So do we care whether he will jilt his wife and spend the night with that most forward of minxes, Genevieve Tobin? Perhaps not, but that is the entire point. Neither should his wife, Jeanette, care. Sex is a cocktail glass from which anyone may sip, provided there is fresh martini in it. Why not? If sex is not a cocktail, then how can you make a movie about the folly of sex? And what we mean by sex is sexual attraction. The act itself is best left to closed lids. Your drama could never entertain points about that attraction unless your setting was frivolous. For, when the frivolous becomes the essential, you have something worth looking at. And Lubitsch provides you with this. You, with him, have a way of seeing. You have a way of penetrating. With point of view, you have a chance of latitude of view. You have a fixed position around which you may gaze in all directions. With Lubitsch’s films one is complicit. Why in drama and in life does infidelity seem far more momentous than fidelity? It is because we have made what is unimportant important, and it is important to see that we have. Lubitsch gives us that permission. A respect. A distance. A stepping back. Provided, of course, that you are not actually experiencing sexual attraction at the moment. Otherwise you can relax. You can see that sexual attraction is droll and endearing and that infidelity is simply a beguiling possibility. You don’t have to worry about making the rent. You can laugh. And, best of all, you can breathe like a human being once again.

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Swing Time

22 Mar

Swing Time — Directed by George Stevens. Musical Comedy. A runaway-groom meets up with a dance instructor who wont give him a tumble. 104 minutes 1936.

* * * * *

Swing Time is accompanied by a terrific commentary by John Mueller, who takes us through a good deal of what went on to make this piece the greatest of all Rogers/Astaire musicals — which has to do with Astaire’s grueling rehearsal work, freedom from chance in the dances, his staff, and the nature of the picture itself. It is directed by George Stevens who was one day to direct Shane and A Place In The Sun and The More The Merrier and who brings to the picture an angle of vision and an allowance for acting excellence in the principals which unify it. Of course, it is a white telephone musical, which means that it is essentially a film in which only the dances are serious art: the rest is flip. This is as it should be, because Astaire is interested in discovering and firming up the musts of movie dance. His discoveries rule to this day. The film contains wonderful numbers of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, including a most endearing version of “The Way You Look Tonight” which you will never forget. And at one point Astaire applies blackface and does a black and white shadow dance with 24 chorus girls 12 in black 12 in white, and then dances to a black and white rear shadow projection of himself 3 times. Minstrel shows project and celebrate an exuberance which our negro entertainers alone possess: blackface gives performers unheard of freedom: that is what is being celebrated here, and, because it is respectful at heart, it would be offensive to be offended by it.  Rogers, beautifully dressed for all her numbers is liquid itself in Astaire’s arms. She had a wonderful figure, graceful arms, strong square shoulders, a flexible back. And of course she could actually act, so she moves the spoken drama along while Astaire moves the dance drama along. Dancing he led her; not-dancing, she led him. — so to say. The most valuable suggestion Mueller gives is to watch the dances in slow motion.  What a treat! To actually see for oneself what actually went into these intricate, witty dances!  Astaire’s body was a genius. That body made American movie musicals!

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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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Easter Parade

14 Nov

Easter Parade –– directed by Charles Walters –– a famous hoofer chooses a bistro chorus girl to turn into his next dance partner –– 103 minutes color 1948.

* * * * *

Even with Edith Head doing the things, Judy Garland proved impossible to costume properly, a doom of her entire career. This was partly to due to the fact she not only was devoid of urbanity but she was also devoid of any show biz cache and she was short waisted and very tiny. What she exuded was The Rural, a quality that did not lend itself to haute couture or any kind of couture, vis the ghastly green velvet dress with the mink stole and all the others. Her best costume is a rust bathrobe with no makeup. Or the costumes for her comic numbers. From The Wizard Of Oz on she is rural, not because she was in that movie but because she is devoid of guile. She was very intelligent and quick and a lot of fun and talented beyond reason. Her gifts as an actress were remarkable: she is present, even when her deep brown eyes seem absent, responsive, imaginative, physical, ready, and always with a wellspring of humor about to burst forth. And with that rich hungry voice. Her acceptance of Peter Lawford as a pick-up in the charming song, A Fellah With An Umbrella, is a model of good naturedness, an actress’s choice that can’t be beat. The only element  defying this is an eyebrow make-up, here and always, unreal. Astaire is made in the first part of the picture to look like Stan Laurel because of a bowler and because he actually does resemble Laurel. His dancings are phenominal, as he sets the pace with a terrific number with drums in a toy store. Stepping Out With My Baby is a great song, perfectly orchestrated, yes, but take care to watch his footwork still on the stairs after his entrance. He is dressed in red and white, and while the second half of the dance is sabotaged by the costumes of the other participants and the dances they have to do in them, his dance is not elaborate, but his body is vitality itself. The picture is best in its first third, at which time you think it is one of the greatest musicals ever made. But that’s because all the jolly Garland and Astaire dances are there, but one: We’re a Couple of Swells, which is a parody of The Easter Parade itself. (If you ever wanted to know what Camp actually means, this song is it.) The musical stalls somewhat as it grows over-responsible to the plot of Astaire’s vindication regarding Ann Miller, his former partner. Miller, who is Olive Oyle in tap shoes, dances like a Tommy gun and is quite good as the vainglorious diva. Watch Garland, the most generous of actors, as she listens to Jules Munshin make the salad, and how her responses just naturally help that scene build. Pay attention to her separate and particular relation to the bartender played by Clinton Sunderberg, and the camera isn’t even on her. Very well directed by Charles Walters. Wonderful Irving Berlin songs. Astaire and Garland marvelous together. An Easter Bonnet!

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You’ll Never Get Rich

19 Oct

You’ll Never Get Rich –– directed by Sidney Lanfield –– a musical in which a song and dance man escapes his boss’s wrongdoings by joining the Army and tangling with a lovely lady. 88 minutes black and white 1942

* * * * *

Rita Hayworth was Fred Astaire’s favorite dance partner and you can easily see why. She was a professional dancer since she was eight and had the true dancer’s carriage. Her elegant long arms and hands, held perfectly, moved like fronds. The torso, still or in motion, is proud and graceful. Technically there is nothing she cannot do within her range –– which is the same range as his. In addition, she brings to this a perfect and well earned confidence, great speed, ease of attack, humor, and, best of all, joy in the dance. Astaire is at his very best here –– imaginative, lithe, funny, and ready for anything. His dance in the Army jailhouse is a masterpiece. (There is a funny sequence of double-talk; if you’ve never seen one, this one is good.) The story is no more memorable than an ice cream cone, but it is just as diverting as one, and sometimes an ice cream cone is required. Astaire was brought in to Columbia to make this picture with Hayworth. It made Hayworth, aged 23, a star, and it was a huge hit, so they made another one –– You Were Never Lovelier –– equally as good. These two pictures contain the finest dancing of its kind ever put down on film. Watch her move –– you cannot take your eyes off her. Astaire was a very great dancer and never luckier than with Rita Hayworth as his partner.

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You Were Never Lovelier

19 Oct

You Were Never Lovlier –– directed by William A Seiter –– musical comedy of a Taming Of The Shrew father who will not allow his younger daughters to marry until the eldest does. 97 minutes black and white 1942.

* * * * *

Rita Hayworth was Fred and Astaire’s favorite dance partner. From the time she was thirteen as Margarita Cansino she was working in nightclubs with her father as her partner. Dance was in her body and her being and was her joy. Astaire has at times a bit of a push to keep up with her here, so easy is she, so happy, and with such breadth of technique. She had a perfect bust and torso, straight back, beautifully shaped and held head, thick mobile hair which she used as a female force, and, for dancing, long lovely arms and the most elegant hands in the world. There was something just innately decent and even noble about Hayworth, at once prim and enticing. And of course she was a raving beauty. She came to life dancing! It’s just amazing to see her vim and wit, and how happy she is to be dancing with Astaire –– perfectly matched in abilities. For the title dance, by Jerome Kern/Johnny Mercer, she wears a gown which is clothed moonlight. You wonder how on earth… You would drool were you not so agog. The story is a dubious piece of fluff, and we could do with less of the Adolph Menjou plot, but never mind. She does a number with Astaire in a tennis outfit that’s super duper. And Astaire has a dance in a fancy art deco office in front of Menjou that may be the most brilliant sequence he ever performed. Replay it if you cannot believe your eyes. Yes, he actually does those things! Replay it if you cannot believe your eyes. Yes, he actually does those things!

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The Bandwagon

16 Oct

The Bandwagon – 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

* * * *

I just slightly prefer Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly, so I barely prefer this to Singing In The Rain as my favorite musical of that era. Astaire performs phenomenal feet feats and especially with a negro shoeshine man in the opening sequence. (It’s well worth hearing Lisa Minnelli tell the story of that man in the Extras.) Astaire dances beautifully with Cyd Charisse, whose long waist bends back in his arm like an osier. Setting Ginger Rogers aside, Cyd Charisse was one of the two greatest dancers he ever danced with (the other being Rita Hayworth), because Charisse’s power, attack, musicality, and joy in dance were even greater than his own. Charisse was essentially a comedic dancer, a quality clearly shown in Black Tights, Singing In The Rain, and here. Her humor is embodied, reserved, and always in play. A member of The Ballets Russe from the time she was a child, she is less a prima ballerina assoluta than a character dancer, and this is why films were so right for her. She was a great physical beauty, with a slender, swift, lithe body, and those legs that go on forever, don’t they? So the Mickey Spillane take-off at the end is perfect for her. She never tips her hand as a satirist, and what’s so entertaining is how sexy she is in succeeding in doing that. The script is full of fun, and Nanette Fabray is full of beans as the better half of the script-writing team putting on the show, and Jack Buchanan is full of himself as the director of the turkey. Minnelli organized color schemes and Oliver Smith’s sets to give absolute support and humor to the whole — a masterpiece of tone in every department. Wonderful songs! Just a delight! An essential movie and an essential musical! Aw, shut up, Bruce; like Jack Buchanan, you might be overselling it.

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