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Archive for the ‘Singing & Dancng Musical’ Category

The Greatest Showman

09 Jan

The Greatest Showman – directed by Michael Gracey. Musical. 105 minutes Color 2017.
★★★★
The Story: An orphan boy, spurned by his betters, rises to prominence, wealth, and expression through an ability to amaze the public with the odd, the daring, the questionable, and the spectacular.
~
Hugh Jackman is an actor very hard to miscast. Tall, lithe, handsome as the day is long, geared to acting with a winning zest, he plays villains and rotters with the same dispatch as he played Curly in Oklahoma! He is the only principal actor in the world with the talent, background,and range to play the lead in a major film musical. He is the springboard of this film and he’s adept in all departments.

The problem is that some of the departments are not adept. You listen for a song in the songs that are sung and they sound just like other songs in other musicals that others have sung in just the same way, which is to say without distinction. Song, but no melody, song no one can hum, song that does not support the wit of the lyric.

And if the lyric has wit, you cannot tell because the sound recording of modern film musicals is atrocious. It’s partly mic-ing the actors. It’s partly the fault of melodies which do not support lyrics. When Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds dance together, you hear every word and every word connects with every note and every note tells the story required at that moment.

But here you cannot make out the words. All you are perhaps meant to get is a smear of the thing the characters are supposed to be feeling. Rushes of energy and sweeps of frenzy are meant to convey what? – enthusiasm? hope? a change of heart?

What a shame! Because a great deal of wit is evident in this show. Marvelous costumes, raves of choreography. Surprises and entertainment at every turn.

One of the difficulties with the Phineas T. Barnum story is that Jackman is too old to play Barnum when young. He is paired with Michelle Williams in the stereotypical role of the society girl (Alexis Smith) who marries hypogamicly below her class, but marries talent. Williams is an actor of sterling resources. Give her a scene with mundane demands, she always brings something from those resources that capture us with its counterpoint. But she is also too old.

To youthen things up the screenplay supplies us with handsome young Zac Efron as Barnum’s partner (in real life Bailey but here Carlyle, for some reason) and a mulatto trapeze artiste girlfriend played by Zendaya. Will Carlyle cross the color-line? It’s a cheap trick and an unworthy one, considering Barnum’s own bigotry.

All this detours our attention from Barnum himself and his wonder-working and leaves the film unfocussed. Miscegenation is touched on. Barnum’s snobbery is touched on. His workaholism is touched on. His fraudulence is touched on. Mob violence is touched on. Prejudice against the physically challenged is touched on. And the musical touches down on all this like a mechanical firefly, putting in cameo appearances of its own themes.

And yet you want the whole thing to succeed as well as the energy, color, vibrancy, magic, fun, and superabundant talent succeed in bedazzling us.

But the whole shebang is simply manufactured. Jackman and the director introduce the film by congratulating the audience for being in a movie theatre to watch it, and at the end we are told that 15,000 were given jobs in the making of it – dull remarks which P.T. Barnum would have exploited more vivaciously.

We’ve all seen spectacles about Barnum’ accomplishments – Rogers and Hart’s musical Jumbo, and de Mille’s The Greatest Show On Earth. And I have been to the Barnum and Bailey Ringling Brothers’ Circus in the ’40’s when the freak show which made Barnum’s name (Tom Thumb, Jumbo the elephant, and The Siamese Twins) still included a magical juggler of boxes, a fat lady, a thin man, a sword swallower, a tattoed man, a bearded lady, and Gargantua and Toto, gorillas who glowered. (That’s all they did but it was plenty.)

This was in the heyday of three-ring acrobats, aerialists, tight-rope walkers, the Wallendas, clowns including Emmett Kelley, dog acts, dancing elephants, and prancing horses, a tamer of lions, and a flight of hundred white doves released en mass to swarm through air of the Madison Square Garden and back again to the woman whose arms had a minute ago released them.

Showmanship!

Animal acts gone, side-shows gone, and Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus gone. Not forgotten.

But, like this film, soon to be.

 
 

La La Land

17 Dec

La La Land – directed and written by Damien Chazelle. Musical Dramedy 128 minutes Color 2016

★★★★★

The Story: A to-be actress and a to-be jazz pianist strive for their callings and their love for one another, both in the big-time.

~

How joyful it is to have a good old fashioned Hollywood musical to top off the Holidays, not the cherry on the sundae, but the sundae itself!

It may be observed that Ryan Gosling is more of a dancer than Emma Stone is and that Emma Stone is more of a singer than Ryan Gosling is, but put them both together and they spell why bother. They’re easy, they’re difficult, we want them to work it out. And will they?

As they go about their business in Los Angeles, where she is a barista on the Warner’s lot, and he is tinkling out dread pop tunes under the baleful gaze of J.T. Simmons, the piano bar restaurant owner, we are treated to massed production numbers played out around swimming pools and on the tops of stalled rush hour cars.

But there are two greater treats in the picture – three if you count Ryan Gosling ‘s miraculous spectator shoes – which he never takes off as the years roll by – and the first of these is a hill-top dance duet which is a masterpiece of simple choreography in concert with two performers caused to be willing to be in such concert that you leave knowing the story has told us, if they don’t quite know it themselves, that they are in love.

The second of these greater treats is a monologue Emma Stone does as an acting audition for a film. I say not one word more about any of this or these.

The film resembles New York, New York, with Emma Stone in the Lisa Minnelli part and Ryan Gosling in the Robert De Niro part, except that Gosling is more convincing as a musician, and, of course, De Niro is never convincing as A New York Jew, either there or in The Last Tycoon. He was and has remained a New York Lower East Side, Little Italy Italian. So, on the level of acting La La Land is the more satisfying picture.

Ryan Gosling is a cold actor. And I like him for it. It suits the cool, hip flat affect of a jazz person, because they’re a lot of them like that. But I like that quality in him anyhow. It reveals a certain ruthlessness of temperament which does not seek approval. Not too many actors get far as cold actors, but some do, and there are some I like a good deal. Barbara Stanwyck was one. Gosling’s face is a mask that reveals everything. Everything that belongs to his part, and nothing besides. I honor him for it every time.

So, do go to see La La Land. Waiting for the show to start, I nipped in to catch the end of Jackie. Six people were in the multiplex. All I can say of what I saw is that Natalie Portman has misconstrued the role and is not talented enough to play it even had she not misconstrued it, that the authors have misconstrued the picture, and that Billy Crudup is a top-flight talent no matter what. La La Land was mostly full and ended up, having gone through some interesting, and difficult passages, with an audience satisfied.

 

 

 

The Barkleys Of Broadway

23 Jun

The Barkleys Of Broadway – directed by Charles Walters. Musical. 109 minutes Color 1949.

★★★★★

The Story: A renowned Broadway dance couple bicker beautifully until she decides to act in a legitimate play.

~

Charles Walters was one of our best director of musicals. One would say he has no personal style, but his presence is effective in releasing performances in female stars. Judy Garland in Summer Stock, Girl Crazy, Ziegfeld Follies, and Easter Parade. June Allyson in Good News. Leslie Caron in Lili and The Glass Slipper.

What you have here is Ginger Rogers’ return to screen musicals, and this is her last. She’s 38. She’s been playing a lot of tennis. She’s no longer the girl of 22 when she started dancing with Astaire. She’d entered movie stardom as a teenager and she had made many movies; he only a few. She’d been an experienced vaudevillian and had a smash in Girl Crazy on Broadway. She did a great Charleston, but she had no tap, jazz, or comic dancing experience. But she learned so fast she got to make it look easy.

And she sure does so here. But what’s amazing about her is not just her beautiful and flexible back, and her finished porte de bras, or the fact that she had that perfect female movie star figure of broad shoulders and no hips.

What is remarkable about her here is how funny she is.

Keep in mind that musical comedy means that most of the dances and songs of a musical are going to be comic. We think of Rogers and Astaire as dancing those lyric masterpieces of ballroom romantic movement in which they were unsurpassed. But actually, most of the dance in musical is comic dance.

Such as we have here in Astaire’s playing a cobbler whose shoes come alive, in the manner of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and dance him almost to death. And we also have Rogers dancing with him two light comic numbers. First is taken in rehearsal clothes, and the second is the famous “My One And Only Highland Fling.”

Yes, watch her dance. But also take in her lightening responses to Astaire and to the situation. And watch this while she isn’t dancing.

Behind her skill as an actor is its basis, unusual in a top female star, which is that she is willing to look absurd, to make a fool of herself, to make herself odd. She enjoys herself doing this, and it’s infectious. As much as anything, her gaiety and fluidity of emotion carry the film – a film which is an MGM gem from The Freed unit, its book written by Comden and Green who gave us On The Town, The Bandwagon and Singin’ In The Rain; its music by Harry Warren and Ira Gershwin; and also by Khachaturian and Tchaikovsky – for Oscar Levant is found here for some reason playing The Sabre Dance and The First Piano Concerto.

It’s a wonderful part for Ginger Rogers, because she is playing a married woman, Astaire’s dancing partner and wife. This gives her comic latitude. She doesn’t have to play sardonic hard-to-get, which was the case with their first movies together. Here she is already gotten and so she is open to the wide range of comic response of a woman who knows her man as well as Rogers in their 10 movies together managed to get to know what she could dare with Astaire.

It’s a must-see musical, the only they ever did together in color. A delight.

 

Damn Yankees

30 Mar

Damn Yankees – directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen. Sports Musical. 1 hour 51 minutes, Color 1959

★★★★

The Story: A baseball nut sells his soul to the Devil so the lame Washington team can win the pennant against The Yankees but then the Devil must set a grande horizontale to sabotage the magical home-run hitter he created to achieve it.

~

In the theater, it was originally conceived by its choreographer as a dance vehicle for his wife Gwen Verdon, and it remains that in the film.

Verdon had phenomenal ability as a show dancer, and she also had the rarer ability of being able to sing while she danced.

In her big successes, Sweet Charity, Chicago, Redhead, and here and after, however, you see her playing women who are not quite real. That is to say, the delivery of their lines suggest that her acting ability is less than her ability to dance, and that its naïve emotional range is not personal, or rather, not normal.

As a dancer of comic and specialty numbers, Verdon is without parallel, however. She was never to be a movie star, because emotionally she is a stage star. Broadway is her true milieu, her nation, the land of her birth. Her acting style is too broad and too backstage for film. If you set her next to Betty Grable, who was herself a deft comic dancer, and who danced with Verdon in movies, you can see that Grable’s acting dimension is perfectly suited to film. In movies, you don’t have to have a large Broadway style, like Verdon’s, because the screen is already large. Screen size is its actor’s projection. On Broadway you excused such acting as Verdon’s as a musical comedy convention and because her dance feats were actually taking place before your very eyes at that moment.

The show of dance as an art is not subtle; its subtlety is always telegraphed; you cannot mistake it. So Verdon’s big projection as a dancer does not stand in our way. Unlike her acting, its excesses are natural to dance, and Verdon achieves the comic feat of the dances with a suppleness, naturalness, and ease that is amazing.

The dances of course, are garish. They are all by Bob Fosse, who choreographed Verdon’s Broadway shows, of which this was one. Tight, tense choreography is his earmark; whatever he has borrowed from Cole and Kidd has been given its dose of Novocain. And here he even appears dancing with Verdon in Who Feels The Pain When They Do The Mambo? – a famous duet from the Broadway show, brilliantly executed here. However, she is the one you will watch, because she is so alive. He is too, but she more so.

Many of the actors from the Broadway Show are here, too, and the film welcomes their experience and talent. The reason it does is that there are five important singing parts for performers over fifty, from Jean Stapleton to Ray Walston who plays the devil. Their abilities with these parts being already in place make them essential to the integrity of the film, and we are fortunate to have them brought over. They lend a coherence that the direction of the piece lacks.

George Abbott, its Broadway author and director, is also brought over, and one wonders what he thinks he is doing here. He directs certain numbers exactly as they were directed on stage; you can tell this because there is no other reason why a great song like Ya Gotta Have Heart should fall flat. Stanley Donen, director of Singing In The Rain fortunately is co-director, and one suspects he directed the only parts of the film that work. In addition, the directorial storytelling style is triply uneven because the movie is so much a dance musical and Fosse predominates. Three different styles. Nothing holds the film together.

But there is an element that carries the film – and that is the presence of Tab Hunter as the athlete of the devil’s doing. He is perfectly cast. First because he was a superb athlete in his real life. Second because his great physical beauty works as a devil’s creation. But most of all because his natural modesty about himself is so beguiling that you can easily get behind him as the focal point of the story.

Tab Hunter’s ability as an actor grew with time in the craft. He is one of the great learners. He learned voice-placement, projection, truth. By the time of Damn Yankees you have no trouble accepting him as a good actor. He, quite rightly, was the biggest star on the Warner lot at this time.

The film is the best record we have of the uncanny ability of Gwen Verdon as a dancer, and anyone interested in great dancing will have a lot of fun seeing her strut her stuff. Talk about facility! Talk about dance energy! Talk about technique. She was a national treasure and a wonder of nature. She was litheness incarnate.

 

Annie

16 Jan

Annie – directed and written by Will Gluck. Musical. 118 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: An orphan becomes publicizable as a prop to a politician’s election.

~

In silent film there was a lot of noise. People on the screen were talking all the time. The most famous film stars whose work we see nowadays were mimes: Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, but most films then involved dialogue. In dramas, melodramas, westerns, and straight comedies, there was lots of words exchanged, and always lots of music from the piano player in front of the audience, following sheet music written to ornament the scenes. Of course, you couldn’t hear a word anyone said.

Annie is just like that. When they are singing, you can’t hear a word anyone said. Oh, a word may drift into intelligibility from time to time, but for the most part, the singers are as mute as Mary Pickford. The orchestrations crush them. The booming sound system of the multiplex cooks them to death.

So what I did, and I counsel you to do the same, is to sit back into the inevitable and enjoy yourself.

For there is much to enjoy. Having to set aside the songs and the music, one expects to see a dance musical, but to call the dancing dance is to misapply strutting for choreography. It is not a dance musical. It is a prance musical.

But as such it is imaginative and entertaining. The prancing is original and daring and fun. Everyone is good at it. And once you get the gist of it from a song’s title, everything fits in real good. I would almost say it’s the most entertaining thing about Annie.

Except we have a couple of delightful players up there. Two people who belong in film work like anything! Two people the rest of us humans pay willingly to just to watch. Two humans we want to get close to because they have so much human juice available to them. Two naturally gifted entertainers.

The one is Mr, Jamie Foxx. The other is the inestimable Quvenzhané Wallis, whom we were privileged first to meet in Beasts Of The Southern Wild. She’s just entrancing. She is a great star. She will led the nation to freedom. But only if she never reads this. She is about 10.

 

Mame

04 Nov

Mame — directed by Gene Saks. Musical.  132 minutes Color 1974.

★★

The Story: A free-thinking New York sophisticate suddenly becomes the guardian of her eight year old nephew.

~

This is the musical version of Auntie Mame, a play which Rosalind Russell made her own and which she was too ill to make the musical of. A shame. Because Lucille Ball plays it here, and she is importantly miscast. Rosalind Russell had hidden weapons. Lucy’s weapons are pasted all over her. Auntie Mame is a highball. Lucille Ball is beer.

Lucille Ball is in her early sixties when she does this, which would have been all right, but, because she desired not to look what she is, she is horrible to behold! The plastic surgeons have mummified her. The wigmakers have stretched her skull skin up into a ponytail. The spectacle of her face, a puss which we have all found endearing, and which has been the chief tool of her outer clown, has resulted in Lucille Ball playing the entire part in a Lucille Ball mask. It’s so sad. It’s so unnecessary. And it is unwatchable.

When you look away from the star, which is the only sane counsel, you may notice Bea Arthur playing a sort of Tallulah Bankhead, as Mame’s best friend. But she isn’t given enough camera time, and when she is, the writing is too broad and the direction broader. The last part of the story doesn’t work. It never did work. It was too bad mannered.

It is pleasant to see Bruce Davidson as the boy grown up, and John McGiver as the stuffy guardian (we actually tend to sympathize with). And eventually the proceedings are given a shot in the arm by the zest of Robert Preston who sings and dances and steals the show, right and left. What investment he had, what wit, what genuine virility. He departs midway.

The songs are good but they are laid waste by over production, as are the sets and costumes. Beekman Place apartments never looked anything like Mame’s. They are much more interesting, and, had one of them been approximated, its confines would have lent pressure and force to the songs, which are pretty good. Beekman Place had taste. And a certain kind of taste, for it was and is a co-op for millionaires. Built in 1929 Beekman Place refers to this structure, rather than the neighborhood around it. The Rockefellers, Aly Kahn, and Huntington Hartford lived there. And, it was built after The Crash which takes place in all versions of Mame, the first of many anomalies, good taste being the first, from which the sets are eon light years away.

But never mind that. Never mind the movie either. I wish its composer had been better served. I wish we all had been better served. With a Manhattan, which was what was on order, instead of Blatz.

 

 

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.

 

Sweet Charity

15 Sep

Sweet Charity — choreographed and directed by Bob Fosse. Musical. 147 minutes Color 1969.

★★★★★

The Story: A good-time but naïve dime-a-dance girl hopes for a better life and falls into many comic and confusing situations.

~

Shirley MacLaine is not an actor I much like, and so I keep waiting for her make a misstep here, and then I stop waiting, because she is really remarkable as this cockeyed optimist girl who continually finds herself outclassed by the men she stumbles onto.

To perform it the actress might play off of her own innocence as Giulietta Masina did in the part which was written for her, in her husband Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and play it as a charming, ingrown, shy, child, which worked real well for Masina.

Or what Gwen Verdon did which was to play it with Broadway-patented false naiveté, which would have been workman-like and freed her for the dance marathon her husband Bob Fosse created for her in the part.

Or the actor would play her as a raving extrovert, dancing down the street with glee, and speaking her mind as she sees it wherever she lands. This it seems to me is by far the more dangerous of the two possible approaches. And MacLaine negotiates its perils easily.

She was at that stage in her work that she understood something about screen acting which she has since forgotten or dismissed, which is the virtue of being unforced. So everything that comes out of her mouth, onto her face, and off of her body registers as honest, sudden, unpredicted. Whatever she does is right, and often unexpectedly funny.

MacLaine was never a musical vocalist; one doesn’t go to her for that. But she more than sells the songs on the surfboard of her enthusiasm, projection, and physical investment. As a dancer, she is right up there with the phenomenal Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly.

The result of all of this is that she is highly entertaining throughout. And since the work is focused on her solely, since she is in every scene, both our eye and the camera are justified by being on her every minute.

Except for “Big Spender” Cy Coleman’s score lacks lyrical interest, but Dorothy Field’s lyrics supply the deficiency. Neil Simon’s book is drawn out unduly, and the choreographic showcase, which it is, extends the film even into the realm of a parody of New Age spirituality, with Sammy Davis Junior miscast as a guru and inadequately used even then. It’s cluttered and advances the story not an inch.

Nonetheless, Fosse is a master of sleazy choreography. And his directorial manner is striking. The film sustains itself with MacLaine, Fosse, and most important with Robert Surtees who filmed it so magnificently he proved that nothing can date a masterpiece.

 

Two Weeks With Love

10 Sep

Two Weeks With Love – directed by Roy Rowland. Period Musical. 92 minutes 1950.

★★★★

Jane Powell is 21 here, playing a 17-year-old who desires to grow up.

Up is where Powell would never grow, because she is 5’1” and doomed to play shrimps. Her perfectly convincing 12 year-old younger sister is so because she is 5’2” and is played by Debbie Reynolds, aged 19, also a shrimp.

Personettes. Movies are full of them. Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, James Cagney, Joe Pesci, et al: tiny dynamos all.

Most of the musicals of this era are somewhat flaccid of plot, but they each usually have one marvelous number in them. And this one has Debbie Reynolds singing “Abba-Dabba Honeymoon.” It’s the number that made her famous and funneled her into Singing In The Rain. She joins cheeks to duet it with Carleton Carpenter and knocks it out of the park. There is a lot more to be said about Debbie Reynolds’ gifts and give than her first name has so far permitted.

The story is the same old strain on our credulity as so many other Powell films in which she is a sweet young thing in love with a man way out of her age range and class.

Here he is played by Ricardo Montalban, who is only 30 but is a man of such aplomb as to be almost on the level of Louis Calhern who plays Powell’s father.

Ricardo Montalban was an actor who could turn a thankless role into an occasion for our gratitude. If you compare him to the ill-natured Edmund Purdom in Powell’s Athena, you will see why we are so lucky to have Montalban before us here. But the idea of his marrying Powell is as inconceivable as a nightingale wedding an elk. We swallow this pill in order to get to the good parts. And all the musical matter is delightful, as is the ice-cream soda style of the film as a whole.

It does not seem strange to me that these musical are on DVD now and that people are seeing them for the first time. It isn’t nostalgia that causes it, and it isn’t scholarship, and it isn’t because they are classic, because they’re not; they’re simply of their period. It is because they remain entertainments as simple and pleasing as they were ever meant to be. These are not musicals about the horrors, or social and sexual mores, or a moment of history, and they are not sophisticated musicals, although they often include highly talented and sophisticated people. They are as easy to take as the ice-cream soda mentioned above. You don’t need to remember them. They’re not meant to stick to your ribs, any more than an ice-cream soda is.

They’re popular because ice-cream sodas never go out of style.

 

Small Town Girl

01 Aug

Small Town Girl – directed by László Kardos. Musical. 92 minutes Color 1953.

★★★★

The Story: A small town girl acts forbidding to a passing socialite jailed for speeding, until she lets him out of his jail and herself out of her own.

~

Competent directors of musicals of that era were somewhat discounted, but this is a well directed picture. It tracks through a half dozen different movie musical modes, the night club, the town square ho-down, the smash Broadway production number, the jig on the street, the church solo, and so forth, yet all of them are cohesive with the film as a whole.

Jane Powell remarks in her autobiography: “I was mostly in pictures set in sunny climates…. It makes everybody look better, and more romantic, and it makes everybody happy, particularly audiences who live in cold climates.” There is a good deal of plain truth to her observation, and the hot lights Technicolor required in those days also work to produce that sunshine to illuminate a small town no larger than Culver City.

Duck Town is the town into which speeds a snooty socialite played by Farley Granger. His spoiled, lubricious face fits the part, a part which becomes more fun as he plays off the gullibility of Chill Wills, the local constable. We warm up to him.

Granger is affianced to the Broadway musical star Ann Miller plays. She spins about in circles like a mosquito, this time upon a carpet of disembodied musical instruments. It’s sensational. Busby Berkeley choreographed, of course.

Even more sensational is the dancing of Bobby Van. Van appeared and disappeared  like a mushroom overnight. And the reason is simple. He was a spectacular specialty dancer along the lines of Ray Bolger and Dan Dailey and Dick Van Dyke, gangly, lithe, and homely. He might have gone on to a career, but, when Louis B. Mayer left MGM, the new management was not interested in musicals any more, and, besides, Van spoke with a pronounced Bronx accent such that no fancy footwork could drown.

But whenever he is dancing we watch his talent with wonder and appreciation. At one point he performs a seven minute number in which he simply hops right through the town. What he wants to do is move onto the big time, although his father, S.Z. Sakal doesn’t see it that way. Perhaps because he might, like us, meet Nat King Cole singing there.

Powell sings with her usual gleam of eye and voice. Here she is no longer a teenager, but a proper young lady and about time too. Her underlying quality of righteous authority plays through the perky daisies of her doily, and gives a likeable because recognizable resonance and ground to her. Before Powell had always wanted to be liked, which didn’t quite work, because we already wanted to like her. Now things are simpler. And better.

It’s a bright accomplished musical suitable for the whole family, and anybody who might drift by.

 

Calamity Jane

05 Jul

Calamity Jane – directed by David Butler. Musical Western. 97 minutes Color 1953.

★★★★★

The Story: A wild and wooly hoyden from Deadwood, Dakota, plays superwoman to Wild Bill Hickock.

~
If ever a performer and role collided triumphantly it is Doris Day and Calamity Jane.

Here we have her notorious pep, deleted of her starchy virtue, and elevated to a jig on a bar.

Day began as a dancer, and she is a good one, and the choreography designed for her is perfect. She is game, athletic, and lithe. She can be tossed around like a kite. She is vigorous and full of fun. She hasn’t a vain bone in her body nor one that isn’t limber.

Day was an amateur with the uncanny ability to throw herself into a scene like there was no tomorrow. This means that the selection of her resources is narrow, since it consists only what full emersion offers to one in danger of drowning. Which is to say, tension or thrashing about. But not here. Here all this works for her. The foolish tomboy turns out to be just her speed, in a velocity generally reserved for Betty Hutton.

She opens her mouth and sings with a natural brass in her vocal chords that has big carrying power, and a catch of emotion she probably can’t help, but which would be better supplied by the listener than the singer. She has perfect diction at full volume, and it seems her displayed singing technique has no borders. She is different from many pop singers in being able to negotiate comic songs – different from Sinatra who was not good in musicals because he crooned, which means that he sings legato, everything is slowed down, and so comic songs, of which musicals mainly are constituted, fail with his voice around them.

Day is right on top of those comic songs, and every single song in Calamity Jane is one, but one. “A Woman’s Touch,” is an example of her ready attack on a song – this a duet with Allyn McLerie – but “Just Got In From The Windy City,” and “Whip-Crack-Away,” she sings with zest and a joy that is real. Calamity Jane came out when I was a soldier on the front in Korea, and “Secret Love,” played over and over, had a painful meaning for me, quite separate from the movie, the meaning being a declaration of something that could not be declared. Her version, her way with it, is to declare it. Wow.

Howard Keel, opposite her, is relaxed, confident, humorous about himself. He has a big baritone, and he means what he sings. Tall, dark, and handsome, Howard Keel fit perfectly opposite every single leading lady he ever played with: Betty Hutton, Kathryn Grayson, Jane Powell, Doris Day, for some.

For the sheer entertainment of two performers ideally suited to doing what they are doing, with one of the best lyricist/composer combos ever to make songs together, Paul Francis Webster and Sammy Fain, you’ll see there isn’t a single missed beat or one too many.

I saw it when it came out. It’s better than it was before.

 

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.

 

Footlight Serenade

03 Jun

Footlight Serenade – directed by Gregory Ratoff. Backstage musical. 80 minutes Black And White 1942.

★★★★★

The Story: A chorus girl is wooed by an egomaniacal prize fighter who won’t take “Not tonight, Joe,” for an answer.

~

Victor Mature is a gas as the prize fighter who is so full of himself, he can’t see that Betty Grable does not have eyes for him at all. It’s a wonderful piece of comic acting by an actor who at other times performed excellently with Grable, and certainly with Rita Hayworth, but here he takes the cake. The screen comes alive when he jolts into view.

And he is extremely funny.

Unlike Phil Silvers, who is a cactus desperately trying to flower. And he is also playing a cactus who is desperately trying to flower – but he does not have the chops to distance himself from the role sufficiently to see that it is exactly like himself. It doesn’t work.

But never mind that. He races around promoting the fighter for all he isn’t worth. And the fighter is opposed by the droolingly handsome John Payne, whom Grable really loves. Payne is always so at ease as this sort of curl-on-the-forehead hunk that you can’t take exception to him. His masculinity is a treat, and he strips down real good for fights with Mature and a jolly song with Grable on a parapet of an apartment roof.

James Gleason, Prime Minister Of The Slow Burn, is the producer hooked into the caprice of a prize fighter starring in a dance musical when the fighter can neither sing nor dance. And a blond Jane Wyman plays Grable’s sidekick. She supposed to be sardonic, but you feel she just wants to sing and dance, at both of which she was superb and alive! A missed chance.

But with Grable in the piece, we have no need for another female talent at all. Grable is a master of comic song and dance. People raved about her perfect legs and cute figure and she sure had ‘em, but Grable’s open face and delight in playing the fool, moment by moment, is one of her most endearing gifts. It’s an early musical for her, and her strokes are a little broad, but she lands her lines perfectly, and carries herself through the masher maneuvers of Mature with skill and smarts.

Grable was one of the great screen entertainers of all time, and I still find her so. She was unusual in that she had the strength of the chorine with the vulnerability of a custard. On screen, stage, or nightclub, she was dear to her audiences as long as she lived – because she was hard-working and you could see into her. The dances are by Hermes Pan, Astaire’s co-choreographer, and Pan dances with her here. He had great respect for her talent, and it is justified by what she does for us still.

She, like the others, were masters of that most essential of all dramatic modes – Frivolous Entertainment. They had the talent for it with every move they made, and the cast of this piece is crammed with them. Open The Fox Talent box and this is what you got!

 

Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe

02 Dec

Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe – directed by George Seaton. Musical. The female star of a celebrated New York nightclub falls in love with a man she is trying to con. 104 minutes Color 1945.

★★★★★

Pinup Girl was Fox’s top grossing film for the year. Betty Grable retired to have a baby. Then returned, high spirited as before and even slimmer.

William Gaxton is her co-star on stage, and his grown son, Dick Haymes is her co-star off. Gaxton , a seasoned vaudevillian, refuses to allow his son to enter show business, and Gaxton’s girlfriend Beatrice Kay is jealous of the father’s attention to his ambitious son. So she contrives to bribe Betty Grable with the lure of a mink coat if she can distract the son, whom Betty doesn’t like at all, from the father’s watchful eye, and keep the son on his path as a doctor of medicine.

It sounds like a bit of a stretch doesn’t it? Well, it is, for Dick Haymes had, of all the singers of his era, the most beautiful singing voice. He could have succeeded in show business without really trying. His singing makes your heart stand still; he’s a good actor; his face is interesting to watch. And we only go along with the plot against him because we are told to.

What works, as usual, is the abundance of comic dance and song numbers – which Hermes Pan staged and choreographed. And there is one in particular with Beatrice Kay and Betty Grable competing – modern songs against old-fashioned songs ­ that made me laugh myself silly. It is Beatrice Kay who does it: she is a high-priestess of camp. So if you ever wondered what camp really is, take a look at her in that number.

All this takes place in the crude backstage of the glamorous Diamond Horseshoe in New York, which we see very little of. The bristling Phil Silvers is around, as a stage manager, of course. The noble Margaret Dumont has a cameo, as does the suave pianist Carmen Cavallaro. In short, the whole affair is a pleasure feast, and, with the country at war, a war relief.

I saw this when it came out. I went to every Betty Grable musical when it came out. Everyone did. She was dessert served once a year, and if you don’t know what war-time rationing was, that’s all right. We were on less food, less gas, less clothing. We had rationing booklets. I still have mine.

And if you don’t know what it was to need wartime morale-boosting, well, good, but Betty Grable was the lady to do it. Why don’t you catch her act and see why?

 

 

Meet Me After The Show

01 Dec

Meet Me After The Show – directed by Richard Sale. Musical 87 minutes Color 1951. ★★★★.

The Story: A Broadway star gets amnesia when she get fed up with her husband’s controlling behavior.

What made Betty Grable the biggest star of them all?

She could two difficult things well which no other musical star could do: she could both sing and dance. Neither Judy Garland nor Rita Hayworth nor Doris Day nor Cyd Charisse could do both. They could all act, and each could do one other thing well, but could not do two things well. Betty Grable could.

She is also a true soubrette (in leading lady disguise) – meaning that she is a master at low comedy shenanigans and comic byplay, particularly in dance. She was always dolled up and presented as The Great Beauty, but most of her musical numbers were comic specialty numbers, and at them she is superb. As instanced by her number with a polar bear or dancing with two sixty year-old twins or with Gwen Verdon as juvenile delinquents or dancing with the beefcake boys (of which Jane Russell’s “Is Anyone Here For Love” from Gentlemen Prefer Blonds” is a reprieve. Russell leads with her pelvis; Grable with her eyes and ready wit). Her timing is impeccable and she understands and gives her own human folly to everything she danced. Her choreographer Jack Cole understood her well.

But the main thing about Betty Grable is that she is the most inherently optimistic human in the world, and anything that happens to contradict that hurts her in a way that hurts us.

This is a woman who is completely trusting. And you love her for it. Watch how she plays right out to the audience. No other musical star did that. Grable is playing to a “theatre” audience, but the effect is darling for the camera. She gives herself so innocently.

She is never hard or troubled. There is no neurotic edge to her. But she can contend. She is not without ways and means. She is never a victim long. She has background and resources. She is hard-working, and she plays hard-working girls. It’s always her ace in the hole. You respect her for it.

The plot of this picture is unusual for a Fox Betty Grable musical, which usually had Betty as an up-and-coming star, involved with two men at the same time. Here she is established and married, The second half, where most musicals fail, actually picks up color and pace, as Betty reverts to her vulgar down-South saloon beginnings and where she smooches on the beach with the dripping Rory Calhoun.

Arthur Arling shot it. Fred Clark and Eddie Albert lend good support. Cary Grant was set to do it, but couldn’t. MacDonald Cary, a really competent actor, does not have the sense of fun required for musical comedy style. But Betty carries the film. But more! When she appeared in Hello, Dolly! later in her life, no star who appeared in that show ever received the ovation she received when she entered. Why was that? Why did people love her? She gave it all she had – yes – but she was so open.

 

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.

 

 

 

Tonight And Every Night

26 Nov

Tonight And Every Night – directed by Victor Saville. Musical. Starring a loyal American girl drawn to leave by her romance with a Canadian flyer, still a London musical theatre stays open during the blitz. 92 minutes Color 1945.

★★★★★

Baz Lurhmann, in an Extra Feature, describes Rita Hayworth as a big tall girl.

Actually she weighed 120 and was 5 feet 6. She gave the impression of being tall because her male dance partners, Astaire and Kelly and others, were short, and because of her long, slender arms and legs, and because her rib cage was straight, and like many dancers, her hips were shallow. This gave her more of a long, tubular, model figure.

Jean Louis her designer at Columbia Pictures said of her, “She had a good body. It wasn’t difficult to dress her. She was very thin limbed, the legs were thin, the arms long and thin and beautiful hands. But the body was thick, She also had a belly then, [She was pregnant by Orson Welles.], but we could hide that.”

Jack Cole, who did her choreography, said, “She did not have a good figure, but she had beautiful breasts, beautiful arms and the most beautiful hands in show business …. As a young woman she was always a much more beautiful person than she photographed ‘cause they did really icky Columbia make-up for star ladies, with that too hard glossy mouth.

“She was a wildly good humored lady to work with, and she worked very hard. Not that she was wildly talented, but she was wildly suited to what she was doing at the time she was doing it. She was the sum total of a group effort – the way they dressed her, made her up, wrote for her, what she did with it, was a group job. What separates her from similar studio products is this inherent erotic thing of her own.”

So Sammy Kahn and Julie Styne will do the songs. Rudolph Maté films her in a way that gathers her up and continues to film her in a way that produces the Hayworth as we will come to know and admire. She will have a top supporting cast: that emerald lavaliere of an actress, Florence Bates will play the eventual Judy Dench part, Lee Bowman is the leading man, Marc Platt does a sensationally funny dance audition number, she has a couple of delightful cockney charwomen to give it a London lift. And Jack Cole will do her choreography, and go on to do it for her signature dance in Gilda. 

“You couldn’t treat her like a dancer – she could dance, but you couldn’t put that burden on her, she didn’t go to class every day .… I got to know what she could do facilely .… With Rita it looked like she really could do it, and more. There was the effect of ‘stand back I’m going to move now.’”

Since the dancer scheduled to do “What Does An English Girl Think Of A Yank” sprained his ankle on the day it was to be shot, Victor Saville asked Cole to dance it with her himself. He felt ill suited to the character, but there was nothing else to be done. “So I rehearse with Rita a couple of times around and we’re ready to start. Well, baby, I don’t know what hit me, when they turned the camera on. Monroe was the same way – when it was for real, it was like ‘look out.’ For this first shot …suddenly this mass of red hair comes hurtling at me, and it looked like ninety times more teeth than I ever saw in a woman’s mouth before and more eyes rolling, and … you know, she was the most animated object ever.

“Rita always did it for real – she always gave more than she got.

“We got along good, we liked each other, Rita knew I was very understanding of what she could and what she couldn’t do. She was very good humored and disciplined. If it was in her to do what you asked of her she’d do it very well and with energy, unlike some.”

These remarks by Jack Cole are from John Koball’s astute book on her work, Rita Hayworth, Portrait Of A Love Goddess: The Time, The Place, And The Woman”. I quote it because it helps tell you what you are looking at. Which is why I write these pieces for you.

Here we have Hayworth in a jolly good part in a book musical, shot in glorious 3-strip Technicolor. The color scheme is rich and quiet. The songs are light and the numbers odd. The plot is unusual. You’ll see.

For, all around, it is one of her most entertaining musicals. She is absolutely lovely.

 

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.

 

The Pajama Game

07 Aug

The Pajama Game – directed by Stanley Donen and George Abbott. Musical. The cute blond head of the grievance committee in a pajama factory butts heads with management led by the head of production. 101 minutes Color 1957.

★★★★★

Janise Paige who played it on Broadway was strictly show biz. Doris Day who plays it on film was not show-biz whatsoever. She was the lower working class girl next door. She was the most popular blond of her era, and was a paid a quarter of a million to make this film, which was finished in six weeks, and she is worth every penny. She is an actress justifiably denounced as a hot righteous maiden in most of her film roles, but here one can see the nature of a fine talent seldom properly used or understood, even by herself perhaps. Completely untrained as an actress, she can do anything as an actress. She is direct, clear, open, with zero subtext and perfect timing. Assiduity can do no more. She has a fine slim figure, excellent carriage, and moves well. Whenever she appears she is Somebody. Her defect is her taste, meaning her choices: for instance, her playing pain, which always comes out as self-pity. Immediate application is her strong suit technically. She never hesitates to engage. Here, her notorious pep is not played as her ace, thank goodness. Instead, really worth watching,  she is responsive, humorous, and unforced – except in her singing, for she always over-sung; that is to say she emotionalized. You can see this in her “Hey There,” version. Rosemary Clooney sang it simply, with her naturally rich intonation and perfect enunciation. Clooney has no brass in her voice; its power is introverted; you are inclined to move toward it. Day’s voice is extroverted; there is a lot of brass in it; its clarion force can penetrate steel; its inclination is to move toward you. Two different sort of voice, but Day emotionalizes; even when singing softy she is putting something into it which the words alone are sufficient to provide to us. She is a highly technical singer with a range of effects she is sure of and knows how to control exactly. There’s a lovely song, cut from the movie, given as an extra, mistakenly filmed, by the great Harry Straddling, through a screen door; watch it; she’s very good in it. From the point of view of acting, Pajama Game is Day’s best film. The Broadway cast, led by John Raitt in his only film, was brought in by Abbott who directed it on Broadway and who did not directed it here, but went out and played tennis, while Donen did all. The choreography was supervised by Jerome Robbins, and cries out for Agnes DeMille in the big “Once A Year Day” number which suffers from haste and from the difficulties of being filmed on the lumpy earth of an actual public park. The day is somewhat saved by Carol Haney: “Oh, she is a real dancers!” one says and leans back to enjoy the fact that in this dance musical she is the only principal person who is. Bob Fosse did the choreography, and his trademark minimalism is vivid in “Hernando’s Hideaway” and “Steam Heat,” which Haney does masterfully. Otherwise Donen handles the movement, and his gift for giving musical numbers personal registration is pronounced: how Day in “Small Talk” and picks up a newspaper perfectly; how she is shoved back and forth on a carton on a dolly in “I’m Not At All In Love.” Sometimes the natural settings work, and often the soundstage settings really make a convincing environment, the factory being one of them, a sewing machine hall in which Eddie Foy Jr. and Reta Shaw steal our hearts as a couple of stout middle-aged hoofers, singing and dancing to “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again.” If you love musicals, don’t miss it. It’s consistently entertaining, with the full Donen idiom in play, as in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Singin’ In The Rain, Damn Yankees, and On The Town.


 

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.

 

Swing Time

01 Apr

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.

* * * * *

Oh, you may say that Fred Astaire couldn’t act, and in one sense it’s quite true. He seems awkward and embarrassed saying lines. On the other hand, everything he does as an actor is apropos, and every move he makes is a dance, just as with that other Broadway hoofer James Cagney; like Astaire, Cagney is never not dancing. Which means that Astaire’s acting is always physically animated. If there is any problem with his acting, it may be that he is never still, never grounded in his lines. 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 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 shadow dance with 24 chorus girls 12 in black, 12 in white, and then dances to a triple black and white rear projection of himself. Minstrel shows embody and celebrate an exuberance which our negro entertainers alone possess: blackface gives performers freedom: that is what is being enlarged on 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 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. At the end Stevens directs them in the most beautiful romantic dance ever filmed. A valuable suggestion Mueller gives is to watch the dances in slow motion. What a treat! To actually see for oneself what went into these intricate, witty dances!  Astaire’s body was a genius. That body is the ur of American movie musicals.

 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

28 Dec

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — Directed by Howard Hawks. Musical Two showgirl broads abroad find love and money and fine songs to sing about them. 91 minutes Color 1953.

* * * *

A perfume is suddenly in the room and one cannot think clearly of anything else. That perfume is Marilyn Monroe. Translated to cinematic terms this means you can’t take your eyes off her. Whenever she is on camera she draws focus. She is not trying to steal scenes. But there is a level of vulnerability available to her in the character she always played that is riveting. One goes goo-goo-eyed, just like the men in the movie do. The men are Charles Coburn who had acted with her before in Monkey Business, also directed by Hawks, and who is lovely here, and Tommy Noonan in a badly conceived role, playing an infantile millionaire poodling after her. Lorelei Lee certainly deserved a grown man as her vis a vis. But Hawks was not interested in Monroe’s sexuality. He liked scaloppini dames like Lauren Bacall and Ella Raines, women who were forward, the seducers not the seduced, that is he liked women who chased men, not women whom men chased, like MM. Hawks directed this movie in his usual plain camera style, but he directed none of the musical numbers except for Bye Bye Baby. He also had a terrible time with Monroe, as did everyone else, and he had no idea how to talk to her while they were making it. He could not understand how this little chippie bit player from Monkey Business could have become this big star. But Hawks had directed Jane Russell in The Outlaw, liked her, and knew her to be a woman of common sense. And Jane Russell had made herself a pal to Monroe; they both were childless; they both had famous athlete husbands; they both were disrespected sex bombs; they both sang real well. So Hawks talked to Jane when he wanted to convey something to Marilyn and Jane talked to Marilyn, and thus the movie got made. The songs are wonderful. The costumes are wonderful. Sydney Guilaroff did Marilyn’s hair in a loose pageboy for the Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend number, which really pays off. Howard Hughes had Jane Russell under contract, but released her on the understanding that she would be given plenty to do, and she does it superbly and partners Monroe well. Russell had a remittance agreement with Hughes that if she stayed under contract to him, he would support her for the rest of her life, and he did. However, he was stingy in renting her out, so she made few movies, and she thus never thoroughly developed her craft. Monroe on the other hand is in full swing here, in her first huge role. She brings to the part exactly what Carol Channing brought to it, when I saw her do it at the Ziegfeld on Broadway, which is the intelligence of a young woman who is so ignorant she knows everything. Monroe glows with this ignorance. She even knows so little she even thinks she has to make her diction extravagant to cloak it: “Thanks ever so.”  And like Channing she brings to Lorelie Lee a vocal style that is legato, which is to say, slow of speech, as opposed to the gum snapping fast come-back type blonde, and is also unearthly. In Channing the voice is freakish. In Monroe it is a heavenly candy store. Monroe, like Garbo, made up her character in the shower. Out on the street, talking to her, she did not wear the sexual garment which she never doffs here. But the fact was that she had made it up, she had made it up not out of whole cloth but out of something real in her, something extremely painful and no older than twelve. It became her destiny. The utilitarian vulnerability combined with her dishy looks, figure, and voice released in her the instinct to know how to play a woman who didn’t know anything. But it also gave her the invitation to be taken advantage of. And to use every means at her disposal to counter the dismembering fear that gave her.

 

 

Starlift

26 Dec

Starlift. A smorgasbord of numbers to boost morale produced at Warners 1 hours 43 minutes.Black and White 1951.

* * *

The Travis Airforce Base stars in this pot pouri of musical and comedy numbers, designed to imitate Hollywood Canteen and This Is The Army. It is a scrapbook musical set this time not in WWII but in the Korean War, a War whose name, however, is never mentioned once during the entire film. Various superstars saunter through, among them James Cagney who is the best, and Gary Cooper who has a droll moment as a Dudley Doright cowboy in the skit narrated by the ever-bland Phil Harris. Doris Day sings whenever a bandaid appears on the arm of a returning vet. Gordon Macrae sings several numbers under his pompadour, and Virginia Mayo does a sweaty and effortful Polynesian dance in a blond wig, or perhaps the blond wig does the dance on top of Virginia Mayo. Everyone does their darndest anyhow. Jane Wyman sings, which is natural, as she actually began her career in musicals. Ruth Roman is the mother superior of  a mission to entertain the returning troops, airlifted in to Travis, (although I was in that war and we all went out by troopship from Camp Stoneman). Anyhow, the film is a actually about the movie star played by Janice Rule who is 19 when this was made. Here she is a dancer, as skilled as Gene Nelson who partners her, and she becomes involved with a forged romance, foisted off on the public by Louella Parsons who also appears. Janice Rule was to become one of the most accomplished and beautiful actresses ever to appear in film, and it is a loss that her career hadn’t more shape. She was powerful and mysterious with a beautiful speaking voice; she’s a later-day Howard Hawks sort of female, forward and humorous in her sexuality. The sides of her mouth curl up exquisitely, just as they did with that other dark-haired beauty, Cyd Charisse. What’s also fascinating is to see Doris Day in full force. Of course there never was a time when Doris Day was not in full force. She is always giving her all and it is always at the limit of her technique. Her application to the task and her daring make her look good. But she wasn’t about to play games; she was a single mother with a son to support; still, her work would appear more intelligent, were she not so eager to please. DoDo acts out of the power of a sure and certain instinct, and if you want to see instinctual acting, this is it. If you want to see instinctual acting with no discriminatory power attached, this is also it. She hits her mark every time; what is at question is the mark itself. The movie is lame, and slightly dishonest which the WWII anthology movies were not. What makes it lame is the faux naiveté of its sexuality combined with the obligatory leer of its males, wolf whistles being the shortest of all shorthands to romance.

 

 

 

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.

 

The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas

24 Oct

 

The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas — Directed by Colin Higgins.  Musical. The Madame and the local sheriff  and the football team and the girls of the night in a great big tumble. 114 minutes Color 1982.

* * * *

Dolly Parton’s bosom is a national treasure because such a big heart lies behind it. Wonderful to behold in all her amplitude and fun, she sashays through the piece with rare good humor, and in the end turns down Burt Reynolds proposal with simple and complete conviction. Reynolds is perfect as the good ol’ boy who can’t grow up, and his scene with Charles Durning as the Governor is staunch acting indeed. Durning does a delicious song-and-dance as a side-stepping politico. Jim Nabors does his yokel goon just fine. Dom De Luise is insufficient as the pesky puritanical scandal-monger TV personality. The piece is richly produced and shot and imaginatively directed. The songs are patter songs and specialty songs, and are jolly good, but none of them are up to, let’s say, the songs from Good News or The Bandwagon. Dolly Parton has brought in two of her own pieces, the “Sneaking Around With You” duet, which is witty and fun, and “I’ll Always Love You” in which she is very moving. Because the direction is so imaginative, and the costuming so right, the movie is perhaps more of a dance musical, which is just fine. The scene where the football team start in the locker room after the game and get undressed and are bare-assed in the shower, and get dressed again and get on their bus and head out to The Chicken Ranch and do a hoedown with the ladies in prom gowns who in turn strip down and they all end up naked in bed upstairs is an example of musical movie direction at its best and just one of several such sequences, all brilliantly edited. Colin Higgins deserves that feather he is wearing in his cap. The movie is a strawberry ice-cream sundae, enthusiastic, friendly, frank, and satisfying. A fine way to spend time without wasting it.

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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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The Kissing Bandit

30 Sep

The Kissing Bandit – Directed by Laslo Benedek. Musical. The milquetoast son of a famed Mexican bandit longs for his son to take up the gun, and become “The Kissing Bandit.” 100 minutes 1948.

* * * *

In Ann Miller’s picture book of her musicals, this one is described, by common agreement of all its principals, as The Worst Musical Ever Made. I don’t know what the worst ever made is, but this can’t be it. First of all it is a lot of fun! It’s a Latin American farce, so, if you like The Pirate as much as I do, you will find this picture has its own version of amusement. (True, it would have been better directed by Vincente Minnelli.) Much of that amusement is supplied by J. Carrol Naish who, with a light-bulb nose, plays the funniest bandito in the world, grumpy, greedy, and galumphing. He is abetted by Mildred Natwick who is super as a lecherous duenna. For its stars we have Frank Sinatra, who is in perfect voice, and Kathryn Grayson, the same. These two had made musicals together before this, and got along. Why?  As they are so oddly matched, they are perfectly suited to one another. For Kathryn Grayson with her valentine face and bosom and her operetta soprano and Sinatra with no body weight at all and his crooner’s baritone are a naturally funny combo and they both play their parts well in the style of light farce, with Sinatra as the fool and Grayson as the femme voluptueuse. None of Nacio Herb Brown’s songs (save Love Is Where You Find It) are hits, yet that is not the problem. The problem is that the costumes are lousy. They drown the performers and the performances. They are not just over the top, which would be fun, they are vulgar, and one is wrenched from what is going on by the distraction of their garishness. Only until Grayson gets into a black dress and then into a white one, do her scenes work. A neat pas de trois, with Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller and Ricardo Montalban, is almost demolished because of the gold shoulders the two ladies wear. (As an aside, I wonder – why it was Sinatra was always presented as sexually callow in his films, a boy with no passion, sexual experience, or drive. Was it to still milk his appeal to fifteen year old bobby soxers?) The great Robert Surtees filmed it, and it still works to entertain escape and beguile. See if you don’t agree.

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Pigskin Parade

08 Jul

Pigskin Parade – Directed by David Butler. Musical. A tiny rural Texas college takes on Yale in football and song. 93 minutes Black and White 1936.

* * * **

The two greatest musical comedy stars of the 20th Century appear for the first and only time together, Betty Grable and Judy Garland. Grable is mostly set decoration here; her sunny smile appears to be the same white as her hair; how fascinating. MGM lent out the 4’11” child Garland to Fox, to see what she could do. She’d made shorts from 1929 on, but this was her first real movie role. She sings three numbers and did just fine, and they never lent her out again. She plays the little sister of a rustic lummox, Stu Erwin, who is the star and who was awarded a leading Oscar nomination for this performance. He can hurl a football the length of a football field and land it on a dime. Everyone bursts into over-energetic song at the drop of a baton – which Tony Martin wavers about. He also sings, with his fine baritone, and otherwise is also set decoration. The raucous Patsy Kelly and the boneless Jack Haley bring their vaudeville funnypapers styles to the leads. They sing a little too. Who sings a lot are the Yacht Club Boys, a 40sh quartet, still in college, who brilliantly render a series of brilliant patter songs with which this zesty musical is laced. Dixie Dunbar does a dance. Even that wonderful actor, Elisha Cook Jr. does a dance; he plays a Communist student organizer, of course. The director had the wise idea to put the entire musical on locations, and it works like gangbusters. The finale takes place in a blizzard, and you wonder how the heck the game was staged, because it is clearly out of doors and it is clearly snowing like crazy. All this lends real interest and engagement to the proceedings, which are the usual adorable David and Goliath College Comedy hooey we’ve had in films for generations, ending with its grand finale in Good News.  The movie is like a swig of soda pop. You may burp once or twice at the goings on, but you’ll guzzle it down with pleasure. Good family fun.

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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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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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James And The GIant Peach

15 Feb

James And The Giant Peach – directed by Henry Selick – Fantasy Fairy Tale. A ten-year-old boy desires to escape from his ghastly aunts. 79 minutes Color 1996.

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Miriam Margolyes and the great Joanna Lumley play the venomous aunts in the live-action portion of the picture, the usual Disney horrible relatives which we all have. This story is a male version of Cinderella. In this case the little boy is worked like a slave by the wicked women, but salvation comes in the person a fairy godfather, played in the tattered uniform of a Napoleonic soldier by Pete Postlethwaite, a wonderful choice for the role, because you don’t know whether this is a poison pirate or a putative parent. For the pumpkin, which is the vehicle of salvation, we have a fruit of similar hue, a giant peach. Within this vessel and in animation now, our hero, well played by Paul Terry, is transported to The Ball, which in this male version is, of course, The Big Apple, a different sort of ball than a ball. He is accompanied by a gaggle of bugs: a centipede from The Bronx voiced by Richard Dreyfus, a seductive spider played by Susan Sarandon, Jane Leeves as Mrs Ladybug, Simon Callow magisterial as Sir Grasshopper, and David Thewlis voicing the Earthworm. They provide us with some merry songs and witty entertainment.  Whereas Cinderella is an important tale of sexual selection by a female assisted by no one, James And The Giant Peach, its male version, is the story of a resourceful boy headed for the commercial headquarters of the modern world and assisted by many. Make of that what you will, the piece is fine for anyone of any age, provided you are not a ten year-old boy who might take it to represent something true.

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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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