Rachel and The Stranger (1948): Indentured Servitude

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It becomes increasingly apparent Rachel and The Stranger is a peculiar little movie that would have no place in the modern landscape, and not simply because RKO Studios is no longer in existence. It feels like arguably its biggest star is off-screen more than he is on because he was probably in at least 3 or 4 other pictures in the same year. When he is present, Robert Mitchum is altogether jolly, always wandering into the story with a guitar and a song on his lips. It’s a slightly different iteration from the rogues he was normally called on to play.

Likewise, Loretta Young isn’t her usual effervescent self for much of the picture, made to look dowdy and such given the territory. These were the days before William Holden had yet to come into his own. He’s likable in a movie like Apartment for Peggy or here, but he hardly has a voice. There’s nothing alive and individual about what he brings to the part. He’s not yet a romantic heartthrob, and he doesn’t have his cultivated sardonic edge.

Mind you, this is all before even getting to the content at hand. Because Rachel and the Stranger concerns itself with subject matter we rarely see in Hollywood either. Rather than consider it a conventional western, it’s more of a colonial drama taking on the pioneering days of the likes of Natty Bumppo and Davy Crockett.

David Harvey has just recently lost his wife to some unnamed affliction. He is comforted by his friend Jim Fairways (Robert Mitchum), even as he is faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of raising his son Davy (Gary Gray) on the harsh frontier with some element of civility. To uphold the honor of his wife, he wants to impress upon his boy the importance of education, praying before meals, and such puritan disciplines.

He knows he’s not able to give that to the boy as his own know-how is all of a practical nature, about survival out in the wilderness. The only alternative is to find a suitable wife, not a romantic partner, but someone who might be a good maternal presence in young Davy’s life. As women are scarce, David finds the next best thing in Rachel.

Historically, a step before mail order brides, there was something even more archaic: indentured servitude. This is before the chattel system of African slaves when we had another outdated economy where people were beholden to others to pay off debts. So David buys Rachel from her previous owner so she might fulfill the surrogate duties of a mother. One is led to inquire, “How in the world did Loretta Young end up as a bondservant, to begin with?”

As is all but expected, there are growing pains and chafing as Davy is unimpressed by this woman who is a shadow of his own mother’s talents when it comes to shooting guns and running a home. But Rachel has a will to prove herself and earn their undying respect.

In one sense, it’s somewhat difficult to consider the story soberly, given how the material plays, but Susan is quite a unique character, especially given the time period. Her point of view is typically unsung and unseen. For this reason alone it’s a slightly intriguing proposition.

The story escalates gradually with the men fighting over the woman. Because when Jim drifts back into their lives as he has a habit of doing, he brings out contours of Rachel they have never seen before. Her love of music. The warmth of her smile. Laughter. David realizes she is far more than he gave her credit for, and her personality is far more intricate than he ever took the time to find out.

However, this ensuing battle also asks the implicit question, “What say does she have in the turn of events?” If we wanted to use more current vernacular, we would need to consider her personal agency. Thankfully, she has a moment to fight back with a few choice words of her own.

The tone changes completely with a midnight onslaught by some militant Shawnee out on the warpath. It’s as if we needed a reminder of where our setting is. It does its job by blowing over the tiff between friends. It puts it in perspective so they can start afresh with a new lease on life. For once, this is a story about husband and wife — not man and servant.

True, there’s a controversial verse from the Old Book that reads, “Wives submit to your husbands” just as another entreats, “slaves obey your masters.” But there is a flip side to these seemingly patriarchal ordinances. Husbands are told to love their wives, “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Then, “masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”

David Harvey without question is familiar with these words. This movie is an exercise of him grappling with the weight of their meaning, just as it is a tale of a woman coming into her own as a beautiful, unique individual.

3/5 Stars

Review: On The Town (1949): MGM’s New York Musical

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There is an immediate understanding that goes with the opening image of a construction worker arriving at the docks, still sleepy, as the world wakes up with him. And he does something that while still theatrical has roots in a very human urge, to bring in the new day with song.

If we look at the MGM catalog many of them have themes based around stage productions, film, or the arts. In their own way, such topics make completely logical sense as they make it much easier to transition into song and dance that feels pertinent to the performers in front of us. And yet when you think about it, at least for me, some of the most sublime of these old numbers are never connected with the big opulent stage productions being put on with giant routines.

Certainly, they are impressive for their scope and the intricacies of their execution, but where is the real magic? It’s Gene Kelly dancing in the rain because he’s in love and he’s got to articulate it. It’s Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling overcome with joy of his own in Royal Wedding (coincidentally directed by Stanley Donen). And so when three sailors burst into view, scampering off their ship gleefully, with a whole day to gallivant around New York City, those emotions come across as incredibly genuine.

Gabey (Gene Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra), and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) break into a chorus of “New York, New York” no doubt heard all across town. Their subsequent adventure, tailored by the dynamic duo of Adolph Green and Betty Comden, truly is the quintessential, streamlined MGM musical.

It was plucked from the stage play dream team of choreographer Jerome Robbins and eminent composer Leonard Bernstein. The film itself was directed by Kelly and Donen who would maintain a fruitful yet increasingly bitter partnership together until It’s Always Fair Weather (1955). It’s nearly impossible to assume where one man’s influence began and the other’s ended. All we have are the results that speak for themselves.

Maybe I’m simply a sucker for ambling films like this where the prospects seem endless. Because, after an initial clip show and a decent amount of on-location footage, taking them all over, the boys finally settle on the fact that they need to find some girls while they’re in the big city.

Kelly is especially girl crazy when he spies, “Miss Turnstiles” (Vera-Ellen), plastered all over the Subway on posters, only to run across her moments later, getting her picture taken nearby. She’s quick to head off to her next engagement, and yet he’s immediately smitten and intent on reuniting with this beautiful, cultured girl who seems way out of his league.

Meanwhile, Sinatra is the one intent on seeing the sights. Much like Take Me Out to The Ball Game, he feels miscast in the naive role as their lady cabbie (Betty Garrett) chases after him, all but chauffeuring them around town free of charge as long as she’s compensated in male companionship. Poor Chip finds himself forced into the front seat constantly subjected to the lady’s amorous assaults. He’s a goner.

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As the search for the local celebrity continues, Ozzie runs into Claire (Ann Miller), a woman conducting research at the Museum of Anthropological History, ceaselessly fascinated with prehistoric man,which Ozzie seems to be a perfect descendant of. It seems like everyone else is striking it rich as Gabey searches hopefully. And in its most movie-like moment, he’s rewarded for his tireless casing of the city. Sure enough, he wanders in on her as she balances on her head as nice you please.

It turns out that Ivy Smith is more of a girl-next-door than a big-name socialite and yet when Gabey finally tracks her down, she leads him on, playing the part to impress him. They solidify their chemistry with the winsome “Main Street,” personifying a universal portrait of small-town American, pretty girls, and light-hearted, good-natured romance. Later, their swiveling and maneurving on a ballet barre somehow manages to be seamless while further instilling their relationship.

Like all fated New York romances, a rendezvous for the top of the Empire State Building is planned. It’s a party! It also provides the backdrop for the deceptively romantic “You’re Awful,” allowing Sinatra to break out of his film persona for just one moment to croon as only he can croon. Betty Garrett proves she’s far more than a cab-driving clown, with tenderness to give as well.

Now everyone is together. You have the three sailors and their three All-American gals, each wonderfully color coordinated in bright Technicolor-worthy dresses and we finally feel as if things are complete.

The sense of camaraderie by this point is undeniable, and along with the New York setting, On The Town is bolstered by such a sentiment. Not only does it mean that we have a plethora of quality performers, but there’s a sense that they’re all in on this big beautiful extravaganza together, and they all have something to bring to the party. It makes for a delightful showing.

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“You Can Count on Me,” says as much even as Gabey’s Cinderella rushes off without an explanation and his friends find it necessary to cheer him up.

“A Day in New York — A Comedy in Three Acts” seems a rather strange aside, and yet here you see an instance where Kelly (and Donen) gets to exercise a specific vision, aided by dancer/choreographers Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne. Because this whole film is an ensemble piece and still, even this single scene shows glimpses of some of Kelly’s more inventive numbers ,which would come to fruition in the near-future. Again, deciphering the dividing line between Kelly, Donen, and the involvement of others is nearly impossible. But why bother with quibbling at this point? The results speak for themselves.

When the storyline wraps up and the three sailors have to bid adieu to their girls, the bittersweet melancholy of saying goodbye is unavoidable as is the continuity of life. Even on the way out, a new group of sailors is already bursting forth to see New York — the same crane operator observing their eagerness with a smile. The daily cycle begins again. What a city it is! Such a wonderful town. In fact, “Ol’ Blues Eyes” would sing about it again one day.

4/5 Stars

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

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

Station West (1948): Starring Dick Powell and Jane Greer

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First impressions suggest Dick Powell doesn’t fit the boots of a western hero as he did the fedoras of noir. Like Bogart or even Cagney, his physique isn’t imposing and yet he makes up for it with a wry wit. Running off his mouth as he often does fits the cynicism of noir.

Not that it can’t have a place in the old west as well, but with other actors, it feels like second nature and yet when he gets off the stagecoach, it really does feel like he has just entered western country for the first time.

As the film evolves, it plays a bit in his favor because this is a version of the West suited for his talents. Granted, The Tall Target (1951) is not a western, but in that film, Anthony Mann made a bit of a Civil War-era noir with a similar milieu. However, unfortunately, by reputation, Sidney Lansfield is no Mann so I’m not sure the material is ever injected with a similarly visceral and engaging energy.

Events simply happen, characters interact, and there is a resolution. Thankfully Station West serves up one major plot twist, suggesting there is more than meets the eye in this out-of-towner who all but picks a fight with a soldier boy in the local saloon.

Maybe Haven is more Phillip Marlowe than we were initially led to believe. Regardless, he’s immediately taken by the local lounge singer, since the quizzical look of Jane Greer does that to people. He is quite forward in looking to make her acquaintance and ends up having a run-in with the local muscle (Guinn Williams).

There are moments where the fighting between them feels genuinely frenetic blended with hokey shots that look horribly fake. I’m not sure what to feel but for the sake of the story, Haven is now a big shot and news gets around about him. It’s all just a smokescreen; he wants to investigate a suspiciously missing shipment of gold.

Still a few years away from his much-deserved starring stint on Perry Mason, Raymond Burr plays a relatively uncharacteristic Lilly-livered loser. I love Burl Ives as much as the next fellow, however, his ballad singing feels forced and frankly, inorganic. It breaks up the scenes in a strange way as he keeps his guitar handy, welcoming guests to his very stingy hotel.

What remains to be seen is the identity of Charlie, the person who has their hand in all the town’s major dealings. Our snooping hero has a feeling discovering this information along with staging another gold run might get him some much-needed leads.

It’s not quite a black pool forming around him, but he does get whacked over the head in the middle of a gold run. It’s another added complication in the mystery to settle who is masterminding these robberies. It might be a testament more to the cut of the picture I saw. Regardless, Station West winds up a bit disjointed.

The payoffs are barely satisfying, and there’s never much of a motor to the picture’s action even amid the burning of a warehouse and some gunfire. Qualms about Powell’s performance aside, the greatest disappointment was Jane Greer. It just never feels like she has anything interesting to do even as her part has inherent possibilities. The opportunities afforded feel wasted. Then again, it could come down to chemistry, and it’s hard to top what she was able to conjure up with Robert Mitchum in not only Out of The Past but The Big Steal as well.

3/5 Stars

Blood on the Moon (1948): A Robert Mitchum Horse Noir

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This is admittedly nitpicky, but the title cards of Blood on the Moon are a bit jarring as the white-lettered names all but disappear into the sliver of light stretching across the otherwise black canvas of the screen. Thus, I missed out on about a fourth of the names in the cast.

Opening credits aside, entering the world itself is an unmitigated pleasure as we are submerged straight into a rainstorm meeting us with a near tactile sense of tone. Against the dark slopes, a solitary rider sits aloft in wet hat and poncho. He’s seeking cover from the downpour.

Though he finds it,  his nice, warming fire essentially gets stampeded by a pack of steers, and a man with a gun comes to oust him. He comes in contact with a not too neighborly outfit led by a man name Lufton who is a part of a longstanding feud between two factions. The age-old animosity kicked up between cattlemen and homesteaders. Lufton is on the side of the cattle.

However, we have yet to know where this stranger — Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum) — falls along the gradient, if anywhere. He has his first run-in with a lady (Barbara Bel Geddes) and sends her packing into the adjoining stream with some nifty shooting. Then, he drifts into a town, which seems cloaked in a dubious conspiracy of its own.

A host of characters sit around a poker table — among them Walter Brennan and Charles McGraw — shooting the bull about the new man. They want to get a read on him through a bit of deception. He reads them like a book, and it still seems like all the thugs are coming out of the woodwork just to take a shot at him.

Finally, he reconnects with his old comrade Tate Riling (Robert Preston). Their past is all but unspoken yet we understand they’ve been through some times together. Thus, it’s no less jolting to learn this man Tate is on the other side of the feud. He has sided with the local ranches and a government agent (Frank Faylen) to push Lufton’s cattle off the land. An awfully crooked Preston is girded by that age-old charisma of his. He somehow still gives off an aura of likability in a not too trustworthy sort of way.

So Garry has been unwittingly been called upon as a de facto gunman to help make the transition stick. He initially goes along with it, because Tate used to be his pal. What makes the story an interesting one relies on the fact Garry has that age-old deficiency — a human conscience.

The plucky rancher he shot at before was one of Lufton’s daughters, Amy, who though sore at him, eventually warms up when his integrity becomes apparent. She realizes he is a different breed than the rest. However, her sister Carol (Phyllis Thaxter), as fearful as Amy is fierce, falls for another man, making for the most intriguing foil in the movie.

Walter Brennan’s place as one of the ranchers taken in by Tate’s promises remains relatively understated and minor next to all the greats he’s played (especially given my last picture of his was The Westerner). Likewise, Charles McGraw isn’t given much to do aside from being gruff though he was still in the nascent stages of his career.

The stakes have been set for a surprisingly complicated interplay even as the cursory beats of Lillie Hayward’s script look all too familiar. It seems Robert Wise has the right pedigree for the material as does cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca because whether deliberate or not, this 40s oater is cloaked by film noir sensibilities through and through.

While not the cleanest of prints, there’s no denying the scope of the terrain nor the layers of atmosphere they’re able to draw out of the scenery, between shadows and light. If it sounds familiar, these are the shades of noir embodied as much in the character of Robert Mitchum as any of the mise en scène. The iconic lazy-eyed indifference of Mitchum transfers seamlessly from Out of the Past (1947) — coincidentally, also photographed by Musuraca.

Again and again, we must fall back on Mitchum and in all the RKO pictures he made, the onus usually landed on him because fewer resources meant more was asked of him. Aside from being a workhorse, Mitchum has the gumption and the unflinching enigmatic cool to bear the story upon his shoulders. It relies on precisely this quality dwelling within him, shifting so easily between attributes of self-service and integrity.

As far as psychological westerns go, I find the compact punchiness of Blood on the Moon far more appealing than Pursued (1947), starring Mitchum and Teresa Wright whom I adore. However, this story is not simply an excuse for deep-suited psychological issues. What the picture doesn’t skimp on are fairly complicated human relationships. There it finds a heady weight to carry it through to the end even if it does falter a little.

Mitchum has it out with his old pal in a deserted bar with near Anthony Mann level fighting, verging on the fanatically crazed. It’s a beautiful piece of stylized brutality. There’s disheveled and then there’s Robert Mitchum’s appearance after the altercation.

He was never one to be an untouchable white knight, preferring shades of gray. It’s a brilliant moment of pitch dark adrenaline. The film never quite regains this same energy, but there is still work to be done.

Garry, Amy, and the rancher Kris Barden all have a personal reason for wanting to get rid of Tate for good. The inevitable showdown occurs after a snowcapped chase, leading to a shootout in a forest with a wounded Mitchum and his two compatriots looking to hold down the fort.

I already mentioned this picture heavily relies on Mitchum so what would the final moments be without him going after his adversary systematically, injured though he may be, to finish this business for good? A happy ending lightens the impact, but it’s a small price to pay for this underrated horse noir from Robert Wise. He surely could make a gripping movie.

3.5/5 Stars

Holiday Inn (1942): White Christmas and Blackface

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Let me put this out in the open. Christmas movies are some of the most difficult films to regard subjectively because the majority of them are either tied to our childhood and fond memories, which are as much a part of the experience, or the alternative; they were not a part of our traditions at all. White Christmas (1954) is a personal movie for me — one that I have known intimately for years — where all the lines and songs play like old friends.

Holiday Inn, not so much. It plays well on paper and I am usually a subscriber to the original always being the best. However, even in a highly subjective, not-so impartial way, it’s hard for me to go out on a limb for it. The one glistening asset it does maintain — fluffy and welcoming as Christmas itself — is the introduction of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” for the first time.

It’s slipped inauspiciously into the film within a quiet interlude, not a huge stage extravaganza, as Bing croons with Marjorie Reynolds sitting by his side. The little ditty, of course, would go from being just another Irving Berlin tune to the highest-grossing Christmas single of all-time.

It’s staying power never ceases to amaze because the yearning, the vocals, everything about it taps into something deep and resonant as the season itself. There’s one word for it: hope. It’s an expectancy in what is coming.

In music terms, it meant gold or rather platinum. Either way, it’s still with us today. If this was the only reason to see Holiday Inn, it would probably be worth it just to get a glimpse at history. So there we have it.

The picture sets would actually be reused 12 years later with White Christmas and we have a similar dynamic between Bing Crosby and his costar. There’s even an eerily similar dressing room scene in both. However, as much as I love Danny Kaye, a man of many talents, comedic and otherwise, he was still the second banana. He was really good at his role, but he’s the number two man.

Fred Astaire’s no supporting act. Because Bing Crosby might have been a hot commodity in the 1940s, but even if Astaire wasn’t quite as big as he had been even a couple years before with Ginger Rogers, he was still Fred Astaire. You do not lose his past histories and former glories in the blink of an eye. So the dynamic, if anything, is that of equal footing. It becomes a duel between the crooner and the virtuoso man on taps. It’s fitting their very personas are built into the plot.

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Bing wins out with “White Christmas” while Astaire gets a few jabs in himself. The drunk dance is the film’s best and the height of jocularity. According to legend, Astaire had some bourbon to get into the scene. It’s the age-old maxim, you have to be really good at what you do to make it look so bad — Astaire obliges by stumbling and bumbling his way around with perfectly choreographed precision.

Unfortunately, Holiday Inn, in all its seasonal gaiety, stops stone-cold with blackface. I knew it was coming, and it still repulsed me, effectively souring everything that comes in its stead. It isn’t made any better by the fact it functions as part of the plot — used as a disguise. It happens because Fred Astaire always ends up stealing his buddy Bing’s woman — leaving him heartbroken.

He already lost Lila (Virginia Dale), who wound up running off with a millionaire, so he’s not about to lose the effulgent starlet (Marjorie Reynolds) who found herself at his humble countryside establishment. Jim (Crosby)  even finds a very sneaky way to make sure she doesn’t make it to a floor show with Ted (Astaire)  in front of some Hollywood agents. She one-ups him when she gets wind of it and so Fred is forced into an “impromptu” firecracker solo.

The ending has a ball poking fun at the meta elements in this storyline. Linda is now a rising Hollywood starlet harboring hurt from a lost love — the usual hokum — as her director describes to her on set. This is the part she’s meant to play. Of course, we know she’s living it; there’s no need to act.

However, what better place for a refrain of “White Christmas” than a movie set. Because someone is waiting in the wings. Bing Crosby with his pipe, his tinkling of the bells, his whistling, and of course, his velvety voice. He ruins the take for the imaginary movie, but he makes the real movie that much better.

Holiday Inn is passable if only as a showcase for two of the greatest talents of the generation in Astaire and Crosby. They carry it valiantly with their song, dance, and ladlefuls of charisma. Thank goodness, as the plot and just about everything else, is thin.

3/5 Stars

San Diego, I Love You (1944): Featuring Buster Keaton

12362-san-diego-i-love-you.jpgI came to this movie because it has San Diego in the title: my home away from home for some time. Taking stock of its assets is simple enough. It’s a B-grade film set during the War Years housing crisis. Judging by film output at the time like More The Merrier (1943) and Standing Room Only (1944), it seemed a very popular subject matter. But also crucial to this plot is the invention of a special one-man life raft. All the immediate details are of lesser concern.

It’s all an excuse for the “McCooley Republic” made up of patriarch Phillip (Edward Everett Horton), his eldest daughter Virginia (Louise Albritton), and four young boys, to travel down south toward the border. They pick up and leave behind pop’s monotonous job teaching the classics as a high school teacher in quaint Waterville, CA.

Spurred on by the prodding of his daughter, they look to get Phillip’s piece of ingenuity to the bigwigs in San Diego to see if they can land funding. One never knows what might be beneficial to the war effort (Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil’s Frequency Hopping anyone?).

What a lovely surprise we get not only Everett Everett Horton but also the ever huffy Eric Blore as Nelson the perpetually fired valet who is always left whimpering pitifully. Even “The Great Stone Face” himself turns in an extended cameo as a disgruntled bus driver who decides to break with the daily grind. Buster Keaton may have never reached the same apex of the 1920s, but it is unfair to say the rest of his career was pointless. He has a couple minutes of fun to offer us here driving his bus off-grid along the beach.

These are a few of the true nuggets of this picture, an obvious forerunner to many a run-of-the-mill TV sitcoms a generation later. What set many of those apart were not simply the situations but the casts they were able to wrangle together. Our romantic leads, by most accounts, are forgotten today. Louise Albritton is another perky girl-next-door for wartime audiences like a Betty Hutton (Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), Gale Storm (It Happened on Fifth Ave), or Jeanne Crain (Apartment for Peggy). Likewise, John Hall has a modicum amount of fame playing opposite Maria Montez in a string of exotic extravaganzas.

But the aforementioned veteran characters are enough to whet my appetite well nigh 10 years after their greatest screwball successes. The chance to see some dated footage of San Diego — a la Some Like It Hot (1959) — had me on the edge of my seat but alas, from what can be gleaned, most of the shots are on a studio backlot. Still, there are a few stray mentions of Balboa Park and sailing a raft to Point Loma and some scenes set at the San Diego Zoo. I guess I’ll have to be content with that.

3/5 Stars