Three Little Words (1950) and Tin Pan Alley

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Here is a tale of Tin Pan Alley and the ensuing partnership of real-life songwriting duo Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. The cast was what had me deeply intrigued because, in this day and age, my only connection to the two songsmiths is “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” memorably performed by Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot (1959). In this film, it’s given a cutesy performance by an up-and-comer named Debbie Reynolds.

However, that’s not much of a background to go off of, but boy, do I enjoy Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen. Having them together is a tantalizing proposition indeed. Red Skelton always struck me more as a mainstay of Ed Sullivan Show reruns than an actor and Arlene Dahl was a relatively recent discovery. Still, each performer contributes to the overwhelming appeal.

Three Little Words immediately introduces an opening number with Astaire and Vera-Ellen which starts things off on the right foot with its toe-tapping assets. They are a close-knit song-and-dance pair with talk floating between them about getting married. She’s in love with him. He’s in love with her…and his work.

Their next performance of “Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer at Home” might be the film’s finest hour as far as the dance numbers go, showcasing the technical expertise of its stars who make it look delightfully effortless. I could not help recalling first Keaton’s One Week (1920) and then a bit of Chaplin from Modern Times (1936) in his dream house with Paulette Goddard.

Because here we have the continuation of the same motif as articulated this time around by Astaire and Vera-Ellen. The novelty is taking something so integral to American life, that is the home, gender roles, and the cult of domesticity as it were, and personifying it visually through metaphor and movement. It works wonders in such a colorfully abstract space.

It’s no coincidence that Keaton and Chaplin were comics of a very physical nature. Likewise, the dance of Astaire with his leading lady is equally silly, in a sense, but also so very inventive in how it expresses the mundane rhythms of life many of us experience every day. It’s my favorite out-and-out moment in the picture.

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Because I’ve always maintained a fairly conflicted relationship with musical biopics. The prime example might be Yankee Doodle Dandy, which has spectacular moments thanks to the indelible James Cagney, but it also comes off rather flat and insipid in other patches. The agenda is complicated by the fact that we are taking a real person’s life and trying to dress it up. We can hardly look at it like fact and yet we are often dealing with real names and real places. It’s this odd brand of authenticity that feels sanitized and in some ways totally fake.

But if we take it for what it is, enjoy the dance numbers, and disregard the dubious guises that men like Astaire and Red Skelton are putting on, it’s easy enough to enjoy their charms. There are glimpses of how the musical creative process works and a vaudeville nostalgia wafts over the picture, which no doubt endeared Astaire to the project. One slight nod I picked up on was Gloria De Haven playing a character (I think) named after her father, Carter De Haven, though her mother was on the Vaudeville circuit as well.

It’s a fluke knee injury that finally leads to the unlikely pairing of our two down-and-outers. It begins down a contentious road and never quite rights itself, but along the way, they crank out such well-received hits as “My Sunny Tennessee” and “So Long Oolong” both unquestionably catchy.

You begin to understand more deeply the culture of the time when every family had a piano in the living room to gather around and radio had yet to take over the country. In such a period, sheet music and tunes crafted by the likes of Kalmar and Ruby were all the rage.

Because they could be reprinted and replayed time and time again. Thus, it wasn’t so much about the artist, unless you had the good fortune (and the money) to see them live. It was about the writers and lyricists who could pen catchy tunes agreeable to a wide audience. That was the way the industry went. We were a long way off from rockability, disc jockeys, and record sales.

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While Kalmar finally gets it into his skull to marry Jessie thanks to her prodding, Ruby continues to pick the wrong girls, starting with a flirty nightclub dancer (Gale Robbins) who has about a million beaus at her disposal. His friends watch out for his interests, and he ultimately winds up with a beautiful actress (Dahl as the real-life Eileen Percy), under hilarious circumstances. She’s a big deal now, but Ruby doesn’t remember that they’ve met before…

The creative output continues in spurts from more songs, then distractions, then Animal Crackers with the Marx Brothers, and more songs. Ultimately, a spat breaks up the partnership for what seems like the last time. Though Ruby is now married and equally happy, the wives know their men need to get back together.

With a certain amount of forethought, both missuses strike up a reunion between their husbands by giving them a bit of a helpful push instigated by Phil Regan’s popular radio show. In one regard, nothing has changed. They’re still as ornery as ever, but they retain that same glimpse of brilliance — smiles breaking over their faces one last time.

Three Little Words was probably more true to life than some biopics of its day and amid what is dressed up or relatively accurate, the most interesting ideas on the table have to do with the creative collaboration between two men. It’s true that in such instances, opposites attract. One is usually musically-inspired, coming up with tunes just like that, and the other able to tinker with words to make them fit perfectly with a melody. On their own, they would be nowhere, and yet together, they’re able to literally create music to our ears.

But the other side of such a partnership is the invariable disagreements that arise. There’s the inevitable conflict that comes from two personalities with personal vision and diverging personalities. The most iconic examples I always go back to were The Beatles because by the end you had three leads with John and Paul and George. Although Harrison was the third-fiddle, after the breakup, he would release arguably the greatest album of any of their solo careers: All Things Must Past.

However, sometimes there’s also a lack of interest and then a desire for a change of pace. In this story, Bert is obsessed with being a magician and even tries his hand at playwriting. Meanwhile, Harry has always held onto the aspirations of being a big-league ballplayer. The real miracle is that they stayed together for so long, crafting such a bevy of classics.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Fred Astaire

In our ongoing series of Classic Movie Beginner’s Guides, we focus on a single person from Classic Hollywood for those who want an overview.

This week let’s look at one of the preeminent film dancers of all-time: Fred Astaire! After starting out on the stage with his sister Adele, during the 1930s Astaire tapped his way toward cinematic immortality thanks to his coruscating partnership with Ginger Rogers.

They were paired in a number of screwball-infused musicals that still rank among the best pictures the Hollywood dream factory put out during the 1940s. What set Astaire apart was his tireless choreography, the graceful elegance of his figure, and his often underrated singing voice introducing the world to a bevy of classics.

Top Hat (1935)

The Movie Projector: Top Hat (1935)

The romantic rebuttals are only a pretense for this glorious extravaganza replete with Art Deco stylings and a stupendous screwball cast loaded with the likes of Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. Astaire introduced a pair of Irving Berlin classics in “Cheek-to-Cheek” and “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” as he and Ginger dance away off toward perfection.

Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time (1936) directed by George Stevens • Reviews, film + ...

A worthy successor to Top Hat, Swing Time assembled the talents of George Stevens and Jerome Kerns offering Astaire yet another immortal classic, “The Way You Look Tonight.” However, the splendor of Fred & Ginger together is magic with number after number feeling like an absolute knockout including the likes of “Pick Yourself Up” and “Waltz in Swing Time.” They balance charm with elegance divinely.

Easter Parade (1948)

Easter Parade (1948) directed by Charles Walters • Reviews, film + ...

Fred Astaire finally got paired with Judy Garland in this Holiday-themed looker blooming with glorious Springtime Technicolor and luscious costuming. “Happy Easter” and “Drum Crazy” start him off on a particularly jovial note, and he never looks back. The compositions of Irving Berlin are swell as is the easy-going rapport of Astaire and Garland carrying the picture away into loveliness.

The Band Wagon (1953)

Howard Hampton on Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953 ...

As his finest late-period work and an impeccable companion to Singin’ in The Rain, Fred is partnered with the always elegant Cyd Charisse as they dance their way through the sartorial splendor of Vincent Minnelli’s picture. Astaire gets one of his peppiest numbers with “A Shine on Your Shoes.” The real showstoppers are “That’s Entertainment as well as an epic film noir finale.

Worth Watching

Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Follow The Fleet, Shall We Dance, Broadway Melody of 1940, You’ll Never Get Rich, You Were Never Lovelier, Three Little Words,  Royal Wedding, Funny Face, Silk Stockings, On The Beach, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, etc.

Easter Parade (1948): Judy & Fred Together At Last

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There’s a slight disclaimer that must go with Easter Parade. It has very little to do with Resurrection Sunday. More so, it’s a premium excuse for a lavish musical. At least in this regard, it thoroughly accommodates its audience.

The show starts off gloriously, not with dialogue, but with song, reminiscent of the great operettas of old or the future works of Jacques Demy where the film is buoyed by a range of voices imitating the joyous chorus of life. Here we have the seemingly ageless Fred Astaire strutting down the street greeting folks, doing some window shopping, picking out a hat as models file by and everyone chimes in with “Happy Easter!”

What becomes immediately apparent, even as we are thrust right into song, is the immaculately colored world, bright and cheery, personifying the holiday festivities and simultaneously satiating audiences who come to expect such glorious decadence from Technicolor movie musicals of the age. It rarely disappoints in terms of pure opulent set design.

When Astaire spies a bunny in a toy store window, it inspires his finest number in the picture, a worthy precursor in fact to his shoeshine number in The Band Wagon (1953). Because what sets it apart is how alive, lithe, and playful it is. Gene Kelly was imbued with this ability too, but you have to witness it to completely understand the magic when environment and inspiration coalesce.

They could animate the world around them by taking lifeless objects and turning them into tools to personify emotion. Like all the preeminent performers, they take the tirelessly rehearsed and make it feel like the epitome of the organic, in a way that suggests we are discovering something precisely at the same moment they are. We are part of the magic born out of the moment.

Astaire banging on drums and xylophones. Twirling sticks and tossing toys like, well, a kid in a toy store. The story hasn’t even started yet, and he’s already made Easter Parade into something special. It’s when you’re reminded that these lavish musicals were at their best when they momentarily lost their plotlines through acts of artistry and inspiration that still managed to somehow advance the narrative.

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At some point, the exposition must arrive and with it a plot. It comes in the form of Don’s ravishing and vain dance partner. Nadine (Ann Miller) is intent on striking out on her own and commanding a larger audience. In fact, she’s already made up her mind and signed a contract with Ziegfeld, leaving Don to start from scratch with a new partner. Regardless, there’s no denying the chemistry they had together. Astaire and Miller absolutely light it up in “It Only Happens When I Dance With You.”

However, now feeling betrayed and saddled with a bit of a Pygmalion complex, he convinces himself that he can turn any second-rate performer into his costar, and he just happens to pick Hannah Brown (Judy Garland). The unassuming starlet splits her time as a waitress at a local bar while struggling to differentiate her left foot from her right. She looks like a hopeless case. Not so!

Fresh off his quality success in MGMs Good News (1947) from the year prior, Peter Lawford is inserted in the storyline as the close friend of Don and Nadine, caught in the middle of their personal and professional squabble. When he meets Hannah in the rain, it only makes things more complicated. One could wager that the handsome and youthful Lawford is partially miscast, but he has a good-natured charm that makes us disregard any of that. We like him as much as we’re supposed to.

From their initial encounter, the Astaire and Garland relationship is front and center, evolving into the film’s most important dynamic. So far the movie is coming through on its promises. Again, we’re not all that interested in their acting per se, unless I’m just speaking for myself.

What actually strikes my curiosity is seeing them perform in tandem because they were consummate professionals who knew the Hollywood circuit like the back of their hand by now. Astaire, though still looking so spry, had years already logged with Ginger Rogers and others, not to mention stints on Vaudeville and the stage. Garland of course, though still quite young, had, since adolescence, been trained up and groomed in the ways of Hollywood. The shining examples early on, of course, being The Wizard of Oz and then her onscreen partnership with Mickey Rooney.

“Couple of Swells” endears itself as a delightfully corny number with our stars ruefully ditching the fine attire for artful dodger, tramp-like garb. Buying into their affectionate relationship by this point is no difficult task. They’ve made us believe in it.

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In truth, Garland had never met Astaire before their teaming though she had purportedly wanted to work with him for many years because he was the tops — the best of the best.

The rest of the production’s background is tumultuous, and the actual details sketchy at best. Scriptwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were initially called upon only to have their draft touched up by Sidney Shelton. Vicente Minnelli was removed as director at the behest of Garland’s psychiatrist, deeming it better for her to work without her husband.

We might also call it an odd chance of serendipity as Gene Kelly (Garland’s co-star in many MGM musicals) was also slated for this project until he broke his ankle playing volleyball (right before production commenced).

Who was coaxed out of retirement to take on the role instead? Only the best: Fred Astaire. And Astaire would retire numerous other times thereafter, but you just cannot keep a man who was born to dance like he was away from the floor. Thank goodness he would come back for numerous more efforts. His successes in the 50s are too innumerable to count.

Simply put, he makes every movie he’s in worth watching for the mere chance that you will glimpse something spectacular. Paired with Garland, a world-class performer in her own right, there’s no missing, even if both have more iconic pictures. That’s probably more a testament to their iconic careers than the merits of Easter Parade. Because it all but delivers on everything you come to expect from the two names written above the title.  There’s a good chance you’ll be left with a broad smile on your face.

4/5 Stars

The Harvey Girls (1946): The Painted Desert Meets The Musical

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It was during a pit stop along a cross-country trip through the Petrified Forest that I first became aware of The Harvey Girls. Because you see, The Painted Desert Inn is a bit of a relic of the past, and it preserves a history of the famous waitresses who helped pave the way for a certain brand of civility in the Southwest. They brought the sensibilities, respectability, fine china, and world-famous sirloin steaks from back east to forsaken lands normally ruled by saloons and brothels.

So while The Harvey Girls (1946), a cheery musical directed by George Sidney, does not have the same mythological quality in the taming of the West as a John Ford picture, the same process is being captured, albeit in more practical (and more musical) terms.

We get a taste of where all these girls come from thanks to the very catchy, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” which suggests the vital importance that the transcontinental railroad played in such an endeavor. The recording would prove a viable hit for star Judy Garland and many others, taking on a subject akin to “The Trolley Song” out of Meet Me in St. Louis.

In that regard, Garland is out of sorts residing on the pioneering prairie with their dive saloons and floozies of ill-repute. But that’s exactly her charm. She traveled to this far-off, unknown destination as a mail order bride; her only correspondence with her future matrimonial partner is through letters.

He’s quite eloquent with a pen and yet she meets the colloquial but good-natured H. H. Hartsey (Chill Wills) and receives the shock of her life. All of a sudden they’re both a bit flustered and decide to dispense with the marriage on amicable terms.

As a result, Susan decides to join The Harvey Girls in their newly formed restaurant to bring entertainment and quality diversions to this godless territory of Sand Rock. Their main competition comes from a man named Ned Trent (John Hodiak) who runs the local watering hole replete with gambling, drinking, a whole host of dancing girls. One of them, Em (Angela Lansbury) is deeply in love with him, and it shows.

Trent conveniently has a partnership with the local Judge who has made it a practice to scare off anyone with a smidge of decency. He even ran a preacher out of town and his scare tactics include a gunshot fired into the Harvey Girl dormitory.

Though only a recent recruit, Susan soon mobilizes the women who are trained up by (Majorie Mann) ready to fight back against their opposition. Her distaste and inexperience with guns are endearing just as her plucky fearlessness gains her a certain amount of admiration.

Trent proves to be a far more complex man than he’s given credit for even as he tries to distance himself from the Judge and push the Harvey Girls out fair and square. It’s still a competition, but at least it’s honorable. Simultaneously, Em begins to see the twinkle in his eyes as he becomes enamored with Susan. Her principles and feisty nature are attractive, but Ems not about to lose him without a fight nor does Susan particularly fancy Trent. The romantic triangle is firmly in place.

In one sense, Lansbury feels poorly miscast, no fault of her own because they all but dubbed her singing voice to make her seem American. Her charm has to do precisely with the fact she is not one of us. And yet remarkably, she does a fine job as a sympathetic antagonist, if you will, that we grow to admire.

John Hodiak is easily clumped with actors of the 40s like Brian Donlevy or Cornel Wilde who are not quite buried in obscurity. However, because there is nothing that can be deemed electric about them, it’s easy for them to get lost in the fray. All that being said, I rather like Hodiak opposite Garland. He’s both slightly antagonistic but genial when he has to be.

“It’s a Great Big World” provides a fine showcase for Garland and her companions to dream together. On her own, Virginia O’Brien provides a comic aside singing “Wild Wild West” and giving the town’s jumpy new blacksmith (Ray Bolger) a capable helping hand. I must say I hardly recognized the young Cyd Charisse who earned her first speaking role to kick off a shining career in Hollywood as one of its preeminent dancers.

The most comedically gratifying scene has to be when the two rival factions resort to physical catfights to exert their dominance and show that they have a right to stay. The Harvey Girls also throw a party where Bolger’s length on taps is positively charming. It’s the old story that a dancer must be highly skilled to make their style look so very idiosyncratic, and I kept on thinking how I would never in a million years be able to pull of such a routine.

What follows is a Waltz that has everyone dancing even as the town is plagued further by arsons and a heated fistfight to right a few wrongs. We are getting down to the wire. However, with the outbound train about to leave, decisions must be made and one could wager that our leads make the right one, though fate and Em give them a helping hand in the end.

The Harvey Girls, produced by the Arthur Freed unit, and blessed with the song-smithing of Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, delivers a repeatedly delightful western musical experience, despite the very fact that it was not initially supposed to be. However, a drama earmarked for Lana Turner got a facelift and pulled Judy Garland away from working with Vincente Minnelli and Fred Astaire to score her a low-stakes, lightweight hit.

To make things even better, she would finally get her chance to work with Astaire two years later in Easter Parade (1948). For now, let’s relish this one for the frothy pleasures it affords. My sojourning through the painted desert was almost 10 years ago, so it’s a pleasure to finally get around to see The Harvey Girls. 

3.5/5 Stars

5 Favorite “Classics for Comfort”

With the CMBA Spring Blogathon being themed around classic movie comfort, I busied myself considering the types of movies that act as comfort films.

Here before you, without too much deliberation, are five classics I would gladly share with anyone. They are movies that I own and return to for any number of reasons, perfect for lounging around on a Saturday afternoon.

Also, as it worked out, they all just happen to represent five separate decades of cinema.

Please enjoy!

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Gawky, wide-eyed Jimmy Stewart reflects all that is good and decent about Classic Hollywood. Frank Capra’s political drama is a time-honored story of the little guy going up against a political juggernaut. It’s full of humor and geniality, romance and patriotism, and heart-wrenching drama. Stewart’s staggering filibuster on the Senate floor, as Harry Carey looks on wryly and Jean Arthur coaches from the cheap seats, is an iconic showcase.

Far from simply giving us the kind of Hollywood catharsis, replete with happy ending and romance, it reaffirms the virtues of humanity in the face of corruption. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

It’s a sprawling film and yet it never seems lengthy because I always fall into the storyline and the sense of community created within Boone City. William Wyler’s direction with the immaculate photography of Gregg Toland is glorious, and once more, the cast is one of the most amicable.

I’ve long enjoyed Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews. Frederic March and Myrna Loy make a lovely couple. Harold Russell turns in, arguably the most sincere, undoctored performance as the double-amputee. We even get Hoagy Carmichael plonking away on the piano. It gets to the point where relationships are actually being formed with the characters. We care deeply about their happiness and well-being in the wake of WWII.  Even as the world changes and we must come to terms with it, there is still hope in making something out of life, wherever it may lead us.

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Rio Bravo (1959)

Before there was any sort of sub-genre, Howard Hawks feels like the king of buddy movies. John Wayne, Walter Brennan, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson are a joy to hang out with. There’s no question this is a western — with a sheriff sticking by his guns — and there’s certainly conflict drummed up.

But for the sake of our discussion, this movie is all about the camaraderie. These very purposeful lulls in the action and even an intermission just so Dino can sing “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me.” It brings all the necessary components together, including action and humor, while instigating a quality time at the movies.

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It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

There are a couple reasons I have a lasting fondness for Mad, Mad World. This goes beyond the wall-to-wall goofballs squished into the caper comedy. (I’m talking to you Jonathan Winters.) One of the other touchtones involves the iconic palm tree becoming a symbol of Inn-N-Out burger, a favorite watering hole of mine.

Likewise, my dad often tells stories of riding off to summer camp only to see the crew filming the chase sequences up in the mountains. It’s these small anecdotes that make it feel all the more familiar. And so many friends come to the party: Don Knotts, Peter Falk, even Buster Keaton. It’s always a pleasure to see them.

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American Graffiti (1973)

There’s something instantly satisfying about the tableau American Graffiti offers up. It’s one night in 1962. The scenarios are lightweight and life-changing all at once, between cruising cars, fleeting high school romances, and some of the most iconic tunes of yesteryear. For me, very few films evoke a milieu as well as George Lucas’s picture, and it still remains one of the preeminent coming-of-age movies generations later.

For one evening, we get to step back in time and enjoy an evening on the town with a soundtrack supplied by Wolfman Jack. It’s an immersive, totally delightful experience cruising around with the likes of Toad, Milner, and Curt. In the age before JFK’s assassination and the escalation of Vietnam, it somehow spells simpler times for all.

Wishing everyone the best of cinematic comforts!

 

Stormy Weather (1943): Bill Robinson and Lena Horne

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Stormy Weather, as a musical, is nearly unprecedented, and to my knowledge, there is only one other film to truly rival it as a spectacular showcase for African-American talents during this same period. That would be MGM’s Cabin in the Sky (1943).

But it’s not simply the case that this is a gathering of an all-black cast. Often we look at a film or a director based on extenuating circumstances. Sometimes it feels like we’re starved for certain types of portrayals and that can be the same for many minority representations. Thus, when you get anything passable, you’re bound to turn a blind eye to mediocrity because simply in discovering its existence, you have found a valuable cultural artifact.

If you can bear with my explanation, Stormy Weather might have been such a film since it is fairly unique among the seas of its contemporaries. But its individual uniqueness should not obscure the fact that these are some truly fantastic performers put on the stage, and they are deserving of more people singing their praises. People did back in the day, despite the racial intolerance, and they continue to deserve the recognition, so that’s what I’ll try to give them.

However, another interesting point of discussion is the production itself given the fact, behind the scenes, it was undoubtedly business as usual, with mostly whites calling the shots and pulling the strings. They have sculpted a bit of a faux reality where everything is fine and dandy in a segregated society and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson sits on a porch with all the neighborhood children regaling them with tales of his life thus far. And what a life it was!

He of course famously danced down the steps with a precocious Shirley Temple and got a dubious nod in Top Hat (1935) from Fred Astaire somewhat marred by blackface. In other words, Bojangles rightfully deserves this showcase, out of the shadow of other performers, with the limelight shining brightly on him for once.

In this highly fictitious and glossy rendition of his life story, he returns home from The Great War with his buddy Gabe Tucker (Dooley Wilson) who’s always trying to make himself out to be bigger than he is. Meanwhile, Bill looks to put his penchant for toe-tapping to good use.

He’s reunited with Selina Rogers (Lena Horne) the grown-up little sister of a childhood friend, and they hit it off. Little does he know she’s on the rise as a nightclub singer because besides having talent, she’s a class act, a first-rate personality, and really a knockout.

Somehow you lose track of the massive age difference between Robinson and Horne as they play so affably opposite one another and anyway we’re hardly hanging around Stormy Weather for the plot. It’s a musical. Let them dance.

Following suit, for the rest of the film, Robinson is bouncing around, meeting a minstrel show on a riverboat as he does a sand dance before they pogo around on their taps together. It was the first moment that feels truly electric.

Then, he’s pinch-hitting as a waiter at a little joint run by Ada Brown with the jovial Fats Waller yammering away to accompany his piano. Time has passed and Selina is doing well, calling in a favor to get Robinson a gig so he can get away from his menial existence. He gets a rousing round of applause soft-shoeing over big barrel drums only to get fired for hamming it up.

But the film goes out on top with the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Horne sings the title number, which in itself is a fine rendition, but Cab Calloway brings his scat singing, baggy pants-swishing energy into the picture followed by the apogee of it all.

The last 5 minutes or so are pure magic highlighted by one of the most spectacular numbers you’ll ever lay eyes on, and I’m trying my best not to exaggerate. The Nicholas Brothers are that extraordinary. Fred Astaire has already been mentioned due to his admiration for Bojangles, but he was equally quick to laud “Jumpin’ Jive” as the most spectacular of numbers. I won’t dare spoil it. Regardless, The Brothers do it all with their legs. Their skills are jawdroppingly dextrous. It verges on the superhuman.

Even as the comedy isn’t that hilarious and there are some jarring visuals like bonnets featuring golliwogs and the like, that’s not what this picture leads me to dwell on. More than anything, I marvel. As a viewer, I’m reminded that predominantly African-American urban centers really were places of immense culture and expression, as underrepresented as they might be on the silver screen.

Stormy Weather takes that Reinassance and a vast collection of talent from vaudeville and Broadway to Hollywood and lets it shine. Despite its share of flaws, what remains is a phenomenal array of artists, performers, and visionaries. Stormy Weather is an important remembrance and historical document, lest we forget how diverse and rich American culture really is.

4/5 Stars

Ziegfeld Girl (1941): See It For The Stars

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Thank you HOLLYWOOD GENES for having me in the Ziegfeld Blogathon!

Few would claim Ziegfeld Girl to be anything close to a landmark masterpiece, but it’s got star power in spades thanks to MGMs robust lineup during the war years and that alone, followed up with a few spunky numbers, backstage melodrama, and minor laughs, is a fine starting point.

Ziegfeld was wildly popular with Hollywood in that day and age from The Great Ziegfeld and Ziegfeld Follies, both bookending this musical extravaganza.

In this particular tale that shares beats with any number of backroom industry dramas from 42nd Street to Valley of the Dolls, three women from very different walks of life find themselves given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of the biggest revue in the land: Ziegfeld’s Follies.

Though Ziegfeld himself goes all but unseen, he has a couple talent hounds sniffing around and more important than talent are beautiful girls. Edward Everett Horton is one of the men who follows up on a pretty elevator operator who made a striking impression.

Pretty soon Sheila (Lana Turner) goes from obscurity, living in her family’s humble home with a boyfriend (James Stewart) trying to eke by as a trucker, and all the sudden she’s hit the big time with a salary and a new class of men calling on her. At first, life seems like the best of both worlds until the glamorous one wins out and Sheila begins to be completely disenchanted with the old ways. Gilbert diagnoses her problem; she’s trying to be two places at once and winds up not being any place at all.

She watches her loving boyfriend distance himself as he joins the company of bootleggers at first to hold on to her and then just to make the money that comes with such a life. But the stakes are high, and he winds up in prison. Whether you buy Stewart taking on such a seedy vocation is slightly beside the point.

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Susan Gallager (Judy Garland) was born and bred on the Vaudeville circuit, trained up by her journeyman father (Charles Winninger) and part of their inseparable family act. The thought of breaking up the team plagues her even as the bright lights of the Ziegfeld Follies beckons her on. Her stirringly melodic rendition of “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” all but seals the deal, without her father attached.

Figuring out what to do with Pop is of utmost importance to her as she knows full well he would do everything to promote her success even if it means failing out on the road by himself. Her struggle is balancing the dreams that she has always aspired to with a proud father she wants to support as best as she can.

Our final star, Sandra (Hedy Lamarr), is compelled to take a role not from want or desire but out of necessity as her husband (Phillip Dorn) is a struggling violinist who is too skilled for the gigs he’s trying to win. He needs to be in Carnegie Hall not some saucy song and dance routine with a menagerie of pretty girls. To provide for them and keep his beloved violin from being hocked she joins the Follies. Her beauty is unsurpassed and it brings with it the friendly advances of another man. It’s relative fluff. The best moment comes when she meets the man’s loving wife. They both realize they love their husbands and they leave it at that. There’s no homewrecker between them.

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Sheila undergoes a stunning downfall into drunkenness that finds her tipsy on stage and ultimately canned for good. It’s a decline that feels all too real because we know that the same meteoric rise and subsequent demise plagued numerous such figures.

A subsequent reunion with Gilbert follows at the family homestead. There’s something about Stewart feeding Turner soup that’s endearing with the gangly fellows textbook brand of nervous muttering called upon to fill the space. She’s just looking up into his eyes and seeing the person that she once loved — the person she still loves.

This is not an offering that will earn new converts to the glories of the classical Hollywood system but for those already firmly engaged with its stars, its nevertheless a treat. Lana Turner is perky, Judy Garland proves as sweet as ever, and Hedy Lamarr remains dazzlingly aloof masking an inquisitive brain well on the way to inventing frequency hopping which would provide the framework for WiFi. No big deal.

However, look at the real lives of each lady and there are obvious strains of personal tragedy that present themselves in each case. It’s the undeniable undercurrent to the movie that cannot be ignored.

Though it seems like it’s really the gals who own the picture, rightfully so, James Stewart still garners top billing and it makes partial sense given his latest forays included Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Philadelphia Story. However, he was getting WWII fever as well and after joining the military that same year, he would not be back to moving pictures until a little box office flop called It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946.

Although the nation was on the cusp of an event that would redefine human history and inject a patriotic tinge into all film productions, Ziegfeld Girl seems content to hang onto the opulent nostalgia just a little bit longer. It’s far less appealing now, but if any of the many names on the marquee catch your fancy, then give it a watch, and enjoy it heartily for what it is.

3/5 Stars

National Classic Movie Day Blogathon: 6 Favorite Films of the 1960s

Thank you to the Classic Film and TV Cafe for having me!

Following-up last year’s ode to the 1950s, I secretly relished the addition of another film to make already tough decisions even a little bit easier. But let’s be honest…

All my intellectual posturing and punditry must go out the window. This is not about the best movies alone. It is about the favorites — the movies we could watch again and again for that certain je ne sais quoi — because they stay with us. They always and forever will be based on highly subjective gut reactions, informed by personal preferences and private affections. As it should be.

Drum roll please as I unfurl my picks. Each choice says as much about me as the decade they come out of. Here we go:

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1. Charade (1963)

Charade has always been a highly accessible film and not simply because it’s fallen into the public domain. Its elements are frothy and light calling on the talents of two of Hollywood’s great romantic charmers: Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. Their rapport is lovely, and the spy thrills are surprisingly cogent for a romantic comedy thanks to Peter Stone’s script.

Last year I acknowledged the loss of Stanley Donen, but this picture reflected his range as a director, taking him beyond the scope of musicals. By this point, it’s positively twee to acknowledge his movie verged on a Hitchcock thriller like To Catch a Thief. I am also always taken by the supporting cast. Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy all had more prominent performances throughout the 1960s, but they supply a lot of color to the story.

Likewise, as amiable as the chemistry is to go with the blissful French streetcorners and Henry Mancini’s scoring, there is a sense Charade represented the dawn of a new age. It came out mere days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The happier times were snuffed out, and we could never go back. The decade would be forever changed in its wake.

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2. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

The Beatles were the first band I could name at 4-years-old. A Hard Day’s Night was probably the first album I could sing along to. So already I have such a significant connection with it, recalling bumpy roads in the British Isles on summer vacations. And that has little to nothing to do with this film. It only serves to evoke what the Germans might aptly call sehnsucht. Warm, wistful longings for the exuberance of youth. At least that’s what I take it to mean. But we must get to “Komm gib mir deine Hand!”

Because, all levity aside, A Hard Day’s Night is the best Beatles “documentary” any fan could ever ask for. Not only does it showcase some of their greatest music, but Richard Lester’s style also keeps the story feeling fresh and free. Even as the schedule and hysteria of Beatlemania look to suffocate the boys in their own stardom, the film is the complete antithesis of this rigid mentality. It goes a long way to showcase their individual personalities, real or mythologized.

What’s more, it’s simply loads of fun, packed with Liverpoolian wit, shenanigans indebted to the Marx Brothers, and a certain lovable cheekiness helping to make the Beatles into international sensations. Again, it’s a film on the cusp of something new. They would kick off the British takeover of American music and usher in a cultural revolution up until the end of the decade. When they disbanded in 1970, the world had changed, and they were arguably 4 of the most influential cultural catalysts.

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3. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Jacques Demy began as a revelation for me and quickly evolved into one of my most treasured directors. What makes his film’s magical is how they truly are incubated in their own self-contained reality influenced by near-Providential fate and unabashed romanticism. They too can be wistful and heartbreaking, but equally spry and joyful — maintaining a firm, even naive belief in humanity and love.

The Young Girls of Rochefort is no different. In fact, it might be the great summation of all his themes. Umbrellas of Cherbourg shows the tragedy, but Rochefort is merry and light in a way that’s lovely and intoxicating. The palette is a carnival of color, and real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac are incomparable in their title roles.

As someone who appreciates contextualization, Demy populates his films with footnotes to film history among them Gene Kelly, who was a beloved figure in France, then Michel Piccoli and Danielle Darreux who might as well be considered national institutions for the substantial bodies of work they contributed both domestically and abroad. Even his wife, 21st-century celebrity Agnes Varda, helped choreograph the movie’s action from behind the scenes. It’s a positive delight.

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4. Le Samourai (1967)

If I have a deep affection for Jacques Demy, my affinity for Jean-Pierre Melville runs deep for entirely different reasons. Like his fellow countryman, he had an appreciation for a subset of American culture — in his case, the pulp crime genre — so it’s a fitting act of reciprocation for me to enjoy his filmography.

Le Samourai is without question his magnum opus, at least when his noir-inspired crime pictures are considered. Like Demy, his images are distinct and particular in their look and appeal. Cool grays and blues match the clothes, cars, and demeanors of most of his characters.

Alain Delon (along with Jean-Paul Belmondo) was one of the great conduits of his methodical style, clothed in his iconic hat and trenchcoat. Anything he does immediately feels noteworthy. While it’s never what you would call flashy, there’s a self-assured preoccupation about Le Samourai.

You can’t help but invest in both the world and the story of the characters — in this case a bushido-inspired assassin: Jef Costello. With hitmen, gunmen, and gangsters given a new lease on life in the 1960s, Delon’s characterization still might be one of the most memorable.

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5. The Odd Couple (1968)

Here is one that’s stayed with me since the days of VHS. I’ve watched it countless times and always return to it gladly like time away with old friends. It just happens to be that one friend is fastidious neat freak Felix Ungar (F.U. for short) and the other a slobbish couch potato Oscar Madison.

Despite being one of the great onscreen friendships across a plethora of films, The Odd Couple is Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau’s most enduring film together from purely a comedic standpoint. They bring out the worst in each other, which subsequently supplies the conflict in Neil Simon’s smartly constructed tale, as well as the laughs.

I must admit I also have a private fascination with cinematic poker games. The Odd Couple has some of the best, bringing a group of buddies around a table, with all their foibles and eccentricities thrown into a room together to coalesce. John Fiedler and Herb Edelman are great favorites of mine and The Odd Couple has a lot to do with it. That Neal Hefti score is also just such an infectious earworm. I can’t get it out of my head, and I hardly mind. What better way to spend an evening than with Felix, Oscar, and oh yes, the Pigeon sisters…

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6. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid

You can tell a lot about a person depending on what western they pick from 1969. There’s True Grit for the traditionalists. Then The Wild Bunch for the revolutionaries. And Butch Cassidy and Sundance for those who want something a bit different.

Because out of all the westerns ever made, it doesn’t quite gel with any of them. William Goldman writes it in such a way that it feels like an anti-western in a sense. His heroes are outlaws, yes, but they are also two of the most likable anti-heroes Hollywood had ever instated. Whether he knew it or not, Goldman probably helped birth the buddy comedy genre while the partnership of Paul Newman and Robert Redford fast became one for the ages.

My analysis of the film has waxed and waned over the years and not everything has aged immaculately. However, at the end of the day, it’s one of the most quotable, rib-tickling good times you can manage with a western. I’ll stand by it, and when we talk about endings, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid is as good a place to end as any: immortalized on tintypes for all posterity. What a way to go.

Thank you for reading and happy national classic movie day!

The Love Parade (1929): Ernst Lubitsch’s First Talkie

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Looking over it now, The Love Parade just might be one of the finest pre-1930s musicals, capitalizing on the rising trend thanks to the success of The Jazz Singer and Broadway Melody. Whereas many of its contemporaries are mainly interesting as historical relics, this Lubitsch comedy still has some inspiration to offer, riding on its own merits alone.

The acclaimed German director’s first sound project shows no signs of a needed learning curve all but translating his command of the medium into the sound era with ease. Yes, the set-ups appear choppy due to the editing of sequences.  True, the action is often static because the camera was yet to be truly mobile. But this is also part of Lubitsch’s deceptive skill in incisively drawing our eye to whatever will give us the clearest visual cue to the jokes that he’s staging.

It’s rarely a cluttered experience though Chevalier adds to it by breaking the fourth wall, even intermittently speaking in French and English. In fact, a separate cut of the picture was made in the French-language. Also, much of the sound design was synced afterward. Both are realities of the changing times and what talkies meant for the evolution of a global industry.

But what is most striking of all is, again, Lubitsch’s impeccable handle of the visually comic because that’s something that translates from the silent days exquisitely and far from using dialogue as a mere crutch or idle chatter, in its very best applications, it’s used to punctuate the scenes with a gag.

The same goes for noises and sounds. Far from oversaturating our ears, Lubitsch almost uses them strategically giving each more import whether a whistle, a song, or erupting cannon fire. There’s a cadence in the use of noise to underscore scenes, and it feels succinct and genuinely artful.

It’s true that it’s difficult to go backward, but sometimes you wonder if filmmakers should.  Allow me to explain. The likes of Lubitsch and Hitchcock had substantial success in the modern era of filmmaking and yet they never lost their early sensibilities. It goes allow with this innate principle suggesting moviemaking was a visual medium above all else. Of course, for Hitch that meant he was the master of staging thrillers. Lubitsch will always be remembered as the king of sophisticated comedies of manners. The Love Parade is little different.

Sylvania is a country with marriage on the mind. It seems like everyone from subjects to royal courtesans are constantly obsessing over who is to be married and when. Most important of all is their Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald) who has yet to tie the knot. It’s very much an unfortunate circumstance for the honor of the kingdom.

However, their savior just might come in the form of Count Alfred Renard who resides as the military attache in the Sylvanian embassy in France. But he also happens to be quite the lady’s man. It is true that the somehow deeply-rooted stereotype of Frenchmen as witty, suave romantics must at least, cinematically, start with Maurice Chevalier, before making its way through Charles Boyer and later generations.

He and the Queen gladly trade repartee in the winking song “Anything to Please the Queen” and the comic conundrum proceeds from there. He is sent before her to be reprimanded for his indiscretions, and she finds she rather likes him.

Their first dinner together carries the rapt attention of many invested onlookers from all walks of life and any number of perches, from ladies in waiting to cabinet members, and then lowly servants played uproariously by Lupino Lane and the ill-fated Lillian Roth.

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However, an onslaught of bad luck comes in full force on the wedding day including whistling, mirrors, and the piece de resistance: a cross-eyed man. Chevalier shudders at the thought until his worst nightmares come true in the form of a palace guard (Ben Turpin). The vows are spoken with a twist as the minister confirms, “I pronounce you wife and man.”

It’s summed up succinctly by one of the portly advisers (Eugene Pallette) as such, “Man is man and woman is woman. No man can be a wife.”

Perhaps it seems a silly bit of conflict and yet even now, it feels cutting-edge for the day because men still feel emasculated for such a thing. We are still so used to being the breadwinners and in positions of power almost a century later. Yes, it’s played for a certain comic effect, but the fact is MacDonald has the position of true influence as ruler of the kingdom, while Chevalier is brought up to her station in life by the title bestowed upon him when he becomes her husband.

Jacques and Lulu revel in the fact that they can get married without the complications of class in “Let’s Be Common,” backed by some stellar physical acrobatics verging on vaudeville-style slapstick. And still, marital discord exerts itself behind the palace doors. Renard is unhappy with his pointless life. Meanwhile, downstairs the male and female servants quarrel over whether or not “The Queen is Always Right.”

Is it a spoiler to admit that some concession is arrived at in the end, for the sake of love? I don’t think so, and Chevalier and MacDonald shine in the first of several pairings together. What we are left with is that unprecedented blending of sauciness and sophistication afforded to Lubitsch, particularly at this time in history, without the harsh enforcement of production codes for a few more years. What is more, the films arguably only became richer over time from The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) to Rouben Marmoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) and finally The Merry Widow (1934).

3.5/5 Stars

Maytime (1937): Starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy

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The arrival of a local May Fair celebration brings back a flurry of bittersweet memories for elderly Miss Morrison (a made-up Jeanette MacDonald). She fondly recalls some past romantic dreams that we have yet to discover, which color how she sees the young lovers before her, caught in a quarrel.

There is the young woman who has aspirations for a career in the big city and the faithful boyfriend she looks to leave behind. The spat between them looks to be the end of it, but in her tranquil way, Miss Morrison finally opens up about her earlier years, setting up the flashback composing much of the picture.

Once she was living the dream as a pupil to a well-respected member of the French cultural elite Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore) who was, in one sense, an exacting individual but also a highly knowledgeable mentor for her. His shrewdness quickly trains her up in the ways of the art world and soon enough an opera is being written specifically for her. Marcia is on her way to stirring success.

In truth, she’s heavily indebted to her voice teacher, grateful for everything he has done for her, and so when he proposes marriage, she excepts not out of romantic love but due to a certain amount of gratitude and platonic affection.

In another life, it’s easy to imagine that Maytime might have been a precursor to Gone with The Wind (1939). Actually, the production was meant to be shot in color initially though this was later overhauled in deference to black and white.

Still, the costuming and lavish sets carried over, and we do still have the contemporary star power of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, who did so much for the modern popularity of opera, channeling it through the medium of film. To put it another way,  what Astaire and Rogers did for dance, these two did for operettas.

Previously, I never gave much respect to MacDonald, but somehow the winsomely attractive appeal she exudes is more evident now, even as she wows with her vocal talents. However, part of this newfound geniality is also due to Eddy who makes a stirring impression from the get-go in a rousing role that bowls you over not only in song but with the outright fervor he takes to every moment on screen. It’s infectiously disarming.

I indubitably do our stars a major disservice because I’m no musical protege or deep opera aficionado. Regardless, they certainly have a pair of pipes. My word! Together there is something deeply affecting coursing through them (purportedly both onscreen and off). But now’s the time to mention Paul Allison (Eddy) who doesn’t show up until well into the picture.

The first time she sets eyes on him, following a restless jaunt to clear her mind, his passionate charisma sweeps her up along with everyone else in the local tavern she finds herself frequenting. Of course, she has her career ahead of her with rehearsals and the like, and he’s only a lowly singer, but he also happens to be a very persistent gentleman.

He inquires about her coming to lunch with him — a connection made between two Americans in a foreign land — and she reluctantly agrees, partially to assuage him. But that’s not the end of it. He finagles any way he can to possibly be close to her, and it earns him another outing.

Together they share in a May Day carnival conjuring up images of not only the Naughty Nineties but the Rococo confections of Fragonard. There’s certainly something lovely in the air, full of gaiety and amusement, underscoring the time spent between the two singers. They top off a glorious day with a lovely rendition of that beloved standard “Santa Lucia.”

It becomes increasingly obvious that Barrymore has a bit of a thankless part. He’s part tyrant, part taskmaster, and yet strangely affectionate and thoughtful at times. It’s at the crossroads of such a life as his where you find such individuals who prove complex characters indeed.

He is the lover scorned by the most benevolent woman who ever lived so it seems and still somehow, we cannot bring it within ourselves to hate him. Because he hardly did anything wrong and yet he is getting the short end of the stick. His reactions are understandable if not completely prudent.

It’s a heartbreaking albeit touching sentiment that the film obliges with as we return back to the present. It almost makes you forget the somehow implicit moral of the story: It seems to be saying that, for a woman, the love of a man surpasses any aspirations of career advancement. There’s a dichotomy.

One is good and the other inevitably leads to tragedy. But why get caught up in that? Maytime has some lovely moments of genuine repute. MacDonald and Eddy were a big deal during the 1930s for reasons made obvious herein. Song and romance were rarely this passionately elegant, and they make it continually rapturous, even as it ultimately turns tragic. One could wager that it, in some ways, mirrored life.

3.5/5 Stars