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Archive for the ‘Fred Astaire: Screen God’ Category

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.

 

Ziegfeld Follies

13 Jun

Ziegfeld Follies – directed by lots of people including Vincent Minnelli. Song and Dance Musical Scrapbook. 110 minutes Technicolor 1945.

★★★

The Story: None. Flo Ziegfeld in heaven reminisces into being a last great follies. When it is over, he reappears as the other slice of the sandwich. The filling is a compendium of talent then under contract at MGM.

~

Some of these acts lie dead in the water. Others dogpaddle around. All of them are with Olympic grade performers, including Esther Williams who actually was Olympic grade. She tumbles under water smiling valiantly amid the kelp in a piece that feels forced, and, of course, is just that, as we are forced to believe that when she swims off-camera she wouldn’t dream of taking a breath of air there.

Judy Garland plays The Great Movie Star giving an interview, but the chorus boys have more life to them than the piece. Not even Garland, full of vaudeville fun as she was, can energize the flaccid material. For once, though, she is properly costumed and it’s good to see her looking so grown-up, cute, and soignée.

Red Skelton’s immediacy is funny as a TV pitchman for a brand of gin. And Victor Moore brilliantly convinces himself and each of us watching that he is being reduced to desperation by his blowhard lawyer, well played by Edward Arnold. It looks like an old Orpheum Circuit skit, and it probably was one. As does the piece with Fanny Brice playing a housewife who has to recover a winning sweepstakes ticket given by her husband to the landlord, William Frawley. The skit was must have been funnier on the stage; Brice must have been funnier on the stage, she probably relished her audiences, they in turn enriching her. Hume Cronyn surprises you by his deftness as the comic husband in this piece.

The one solid dud in the collection is Keenan Wynn in the telephone sequence. Directed by the famous acting teacher Bobby Lewis, one would have thought something might have been made of it, but it would have been better played by his father Ed Wynn, or at least by someone with natural funny bones, like Durante or Hope or Raye. Keenan Wynn could be funny as a character but not as a stand-up single. He is suicidally bad, poor guy. Let’s sink down into our seats and spare him further shame.

This being MGM, everything is over-produced, including Lena Horne’s solo, the wonderful song “Love.” With her hot eyes and powerful arms and elbows, Horne moves through the song’s genius in a costume wrapped around her like a wound.

Another singer, James Melton, sings the waltz scene from Traviata. And Kathryn Grayson sings the finale, in which Cyd Charisse twirls about as the ballerina, as she does in the opening, briefly with Fred Astaire.

Astaire dances four times in this film. And he sings. And there is no one like him, and, without meaning to, he really puts everyone else in the piece outside the pale. He is the one who’s worth the ticket of admission.

One of his dances is with Gene Kelly, in a frivolous duet, “The Babbit and the Bromide,” and Astaire opens the entire show with a turn or two in which Charisse dances and Lucile Ball appears wielding a whip as a dominatrix. Except for two sideways glances she asks us to take this hysteria seriously. No one with hair that particular color could possibly be serious.

But Astaire dances twice with the stony Lucile Bremer, once playing a society dame at a ball being wooed by a cat burglar, and in the second with Bremer as a Chinatown doxie being woed by Bobby Lewis, terrifying as the ganglord, and by Astaire as a Chinese peasant.

Bremer was a talented dancer, with good carriage, and a fine figure. She dances beautifully with Astaire, but as a screen personality she is meaningless. Astaire is dancing with a mummy, and it is odd that this was not found out sooner, when all Astaire needed to do was turn to Cyd Charisse who was standing there right next to him. Bremer’s face is cold; she can’t help it, but it is just awful to look at. She had made Minnelli’s Yolanda and The Thief with Astaire and Minnelli, another failed film, and these two pieces, one suspects, are left-overs from that film. Bremer was Arthur Freed’s mistress. He is the producer. Indeed, “Raffles” – an upper-crust dance at a satire ball – is an exact duplicate of the plot of Yolanda.

“Limehouse Blues” is fan dance, and is especially interesting as Astaire retains a poker face, his slant eyes expressionless, while they both wield four fans in startling metronomic display. It is actually a ballet, such as Gene Kelly would mount, and it works like all get out. Astaire’s cooperation with a partner on the dance floor is meritorious. The more you look at him perform the less you believe your eyes. Credulity is inapt to a miracle.

Both pieces seem to have been augmented by Minnelli’s set designs, décor, and color sense – with big corps de ballet. And certainly by his desire for fantasy-dance and dream-dance, of the kind he would put into play at the end of The Bandwagon, also with Astaire.

Why sample this smorgasbord?

Because Fred Astaire had the greatest body ever to appear in film.

One looks at all the Rembrandts one can.

 

 

 

Let’s Dance

05 Jun

Let’s Dance – directed by Norman Z. McLeod – Backstage Musical. 117 minutes Color 1950.

★★★★★

The Story: A song and dance girl marries into a Boston High Society family, and her dance partner tries to keep its matriarch from taking her child away.

~

Jaw-dropping – the possibility that the most vulgar star in movies could be partnered with the most elegant star in movies. Betty Hutton and Fred Astaire together?

Jaw-dropping – the absolute fact that they work beautifully together.

What a team! And why? It’s partly because Betty Hutton is so willing to throw herself into the work and enjoy herself so thoroughly. She does more than keep up with Astaire; she matches him step by step. She is game. She is imaginative. She is the Bette Davis of comediennes: she is willing to look grotesque to do her work. In fact she likes to do that.

But the real reason for the success of these two together is that Astaire, unlike Gene Kelly, throve as a partnered — particularly a clown-partnered dancer. The reason for that was the habit, established and by the public expected, since the days when he and his sister Adele danced on Broadway together.

But the reason also is that Musical Comedy as a medium requires most of the music to be comedic. Most musical numbers in most musical comedies are funny. Fred Astaire could be funny in solo dances – and this movie has one of his great works of comic dance: the jaw-dropping solo piano dance. But Fred Astaire also needed a partner who could dance funny. Every single song in this movie is comical, so is every dance. Astaire’s dancing plays off Hutton’s zest, just as she plays into the Hermes Pan-Astaire choreography’s zest. He matches her vulgarity with his race-track swindler strain: they come alive together and are a gas.

So while we may miss a great lyrical dance such as Astaire did with Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, or Cyd Charisse, it doesn’t matter. Hutton would have been ridiculous in lyrical dance. She is too rowdy. But what she does with Astaire is grand. Her vulgarity is full of life energy – which gives it great audience access. She was the biggest star Paramount had in those days, and you can see why.

The movie begins better than it ends, because the antagonist played by the dowager Lucille Watson is the pivotal figure, but her pivot needs to turn on a musical entertainment hub – a number that convinces her to stop trying to get Hutton’s child. The case should never be in court; it should only threaten to go there. The story hinges on Watson’s loosening up, but it uses a horse race, whereas it should use something Hutton and Astaire dance.

The writing of the last act is over-detailed and too complicated and therefore drawn-out. But never mind. The piece is beautifully produced at Paramount, perfectly cast, and played.

Where nowadays can you find as blithe a genius as Astaire’s? Nothing like it came again. Well, you don’t have to go far. Go to the lode itself. He’s still here. Up-to-date as ever.

 

Broadway Melody Of 1940

19 Jul

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

★★★★★

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

What difference does all that make now?

Perhaps it’s just to notice what is there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t miss it.

 

A Damsel In Distress

03 Apr

A Damsel In Distress — directed by George Stevens. Musical. A fan-plagued hoofer seeks refuge in an English castle with two chums and falls for the lady of the manor. 93 minutes Black and White 1937.

* * * *

Everyone badly wanted Joan Fontaine fired from this, and one wonders why they cast her to begin with if she could not dance, but George Stevens put his foot down, and he was right. Fontaine was young and vulnerable, only 19, and she and her career would have crumbled. As it is, she said that the film set it back four years. Actually she dances well enough in the one number she has with Astaire, but it is carefully staged on woodland turf where Hermes Pan’s choreography has an excuse to be limited. Otherwise she’s rather dear. The difficulty is that Astaire’s partners always needed to dance comic turns as well as romantic ones because that’s where the love-drama was stated and resolved, and this could not happen with Fontaine or later with Joan Leslie or Paulette Goddard. Comic dance was Astaire’s forte. He had come from many Broadway years in a brother/sister act whose dances were not romantic but comic. When you look at Astaire’s solo turns in film you can see that most of them are humorous in energy and, when partnered, necessary to the love story. Recall how Ginger Rogers supplied the dance argument that set up the dramatic foundation of their courtship. With Rogers and Astaire, romance begins with comic dance bickering. George Stevens had already directed Rogers and Astaire in Swing Time, their best musical, but Astaire wanted to make a musical without her. He was tired of and afraid of fixed partners, such as his sister Adele had been and Rogers was becoming, and Rogers wanted to do her own films too, so Astaire made Damsel, and it was a financial failure, his first. but it’s too bad it is not more often seen. It failed perhaps because it needed an American girl: Rogers is ur-American but Fontaine is English; Rogers also is classless because she is show-biz, while Fontaine is clearly UC.  Also the love plot is thin, made up for by excellent supporting people, including Reginald Gardiner who at one point hilariously sings grand opera.  The Gershwins wrote the score, which gives us  “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and “A Foggy Day In London Town,” and spiffy comic numbers. These Astaire dances with two very experienced vaudevillians, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and the three of them are super together, particularly in a production number in an amusement park, which won Hermes Pan the Oscar that year for Dance Direction. Gracie Allen was that punned combination of innocence and an empty head that produced unintended wisdom, such as would later become Marilyn Monroe’s stock in trade, and George Burns is the studio couch on which she bounces. Stevens’ skill in direction is seen right away in the most exuberant dance Astaire ever filmed, actually performed in moving traffic – and later in the moving traffic of a party as Astaire and Montagu Love sit on castle stairs strategizing the love-plot. P.G. Wodehouse wrote the book, for in those days he did libretti (even, if you will, that for Showboat). The most interesting aspect of the picture in a way is the most relaxed and natural performance of Astaire’s career. This means that he is more internally visible and does less mugging, a holdover from his long-installed stage technique, such that his presence on the screen is humanly comic. Stevens had a way with actors, which was mainly to leave them alone and let them do what they really wanted. This gave all his many comedies a free-and-easiness priceless to this day. The movie is a charmer. Give yourself a treat.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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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Holiday Inn

26 Mar

Holiday Inn — directed by Mark Sandrich — a songwriter starts up a country inn open only on holidays. To it comes a lovely young lady and his old vaudeville dancing chum and competitor for females. 1942 black and white 101 minutes.

* * * * *

With one exception, there is not a single dance in this piece which Astaire performs up to his standard, partly because his female partners are not on his level and partly because the dances are ill conceived. The firecracker dance is raggedly choreographed, and the dance in 18th Century wigs would have been better performed by Bob Hope. The one outstanding dance is the drunk dance, in which he is not so much partnered as accompanied by the lovely Marjorie Reynolds. This is to be watched, studied, and prayed before. The cast is top-heavy because the Paramount superstar Bing Crosby is in it. (They wanted Rita Hayworth to play the girl, but, with Astaire, that would have cost too much.) Crosby is a remarkable actor: everything he does and says looks improvised: nothing is: he is following the script to the letter. He had a droll insouciance and the amiability of the perpetual fraternity boy. He was a truly humorous person. And very cool. However when he sings, all this is cunningly wrenched into a song-style, and all the songs become subordinated to that style. So he never really sings to the actor or actress opposite him. Instead he produces this style and sings to that — out to the camera — out to his popular front. This means he is never really singing the words to the song: he is only singing to his way of singing a song; he sings renditions. Still, he is truly pleasing company, and the renditions are indeed winning and meritoriously skillful. The film is very well directed by Mark Sandrich, a really fine director of musicals, who had directed five of Astaire’s best RKO films with Rogers. Irving Berlin wrote or revived all the many songs — all barely serviceable — with three exceptions: Easter Parade, Careful, It’s My Heart, White Christmas. This where they come from and first appeared.

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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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Three Little Words

22 Mar

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

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

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Dancing Lady

18 Jan

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

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

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Easter Parade

14 Nov

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

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

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You Were Never Lovelier

19 Oct

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

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

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The Bandwagon

16 Oct

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

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

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