San Francisco (1936)

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There was a time when San Francisco was synonymous with the earthquake. Before Rice-A-Roni, The Golden Gate, Bullitt, or heaven forbid, The Giants. For me, it’s hardly a major spoiler to say this film revolves around this tragic date back in 1906 (a strikingly recent 30 years before the film came out).

What the film does for most of its runtime is stack the bricks of the foundation while developing some kind of connection to the material through the world of that age. Because for destruction to mean anything there must first be context.

Clark Gable is Blackie (a name he also carried in Manhattan Melodrama), a man who runs a club in the dubious Barbary Coast sector of the city. It’s not a ritzy joint by any means but due to his outspoken nature, he’s a beloved pillar of society — especially when the society is a difficult place to live in.

Similar to the earlier film, it’s about people on the opposite side of the railroad tracks at least when their vocational calling is concerned. You see, Blackie can at best be called a saloon keeper moonlighting as a gambler and his best bud from childhood just happens to be a priest — Father Mullins (Spencer Tracy) — who runs the local parish.

An up-and-coming Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) is hired on to sing San Francisco honky-tonk by Blackie because she needs work bad. Despite the prominence of the male actors, this was actually meant to be a vehicle for MacDonald and though she is no doubt vocally powerful, she’s not my favorite, blasphemous as it might be. Clark Gable didn’t like her much in real life for some reason.

Their relationship within the film proves to be a complicated one because she is a preacher’s daughter and her style of singing cannot find its true audience in Blackie’s place. She has the training of an opera singer who is far above the trash that’s she’s expected to peddle. But she is loyal to him and the favor he has shown her. She becomes a fan favorite.

That doesn’t make the tantalizing glow of the opera any less seductive nor her relationship with the man who made her any less difficult. Father Mullin tries to reform his good friend and he sees Mary as the perfect figure to help him in his crusade and yet in the same instance, he wants her to get away from Blackie’s influence. There are some happy times dancing in the park (“Would You”) but ultimately it seems she can find nothing but heartbreak in his presence.

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Meanwhile, Blackie is coaxed into making a run at the position of local supervisor to finally get some reforms including fire regulations. Father Mullins has long been trying to scrimp and save for an organ to have at the church. Without batting an eye Blackie donates one to his old pal. And that’s what makes this character fascinating given his paradoxical qualities.

He’s a tremendous force. He lives by a code and always has. But to him, religion is just a bunch of hocus-pocus making monkeys out of everyone. He’s a relativist. If that’s what you believe it’s alright by him. He won’t hold it against you for being a sap. But in his world, Blackie is number one.

Now that the context is set, the forthcoming impact is inevitable and it’s one of the great setpieces of its day. In fact, it’s a sequence so overwhelming even today and that import is placed on it because we have been so conditioned; it leaves us feeling truly shaken to the core. Yes, it’s a visual feat, to be sure, but there’s an equally crucial understanding to be had. There are consequences to this horrendously devastating disaster. It matters deeply. Not just the damage from the earthquake but the ensuing rash of fires that broke out all over town too.

I must admit I balk slightly at the film’s finale, however, as we see Blackie fall to his knees and pray to God after all the destruction he has experienced first hand. I want this transformation to be true as much as the next person but I couldn’t help thinking that this is often not how the world works or at least based on the little I know of humanity. Would a man who has no belief in a God all of a sudden drop to his heels and be made prostrate?

If anything he would seem more likely to lash out in anger. How could a loving God let this happen? How could He be silent with so much suffering? Those are the questions that ring out within me. Those are the burning thoughts that need an answer. And usually, I get them but in my own way. Still, what do I know?

Each person processes through grief and tragedy in different ways. I’ll begrudgingly give the film San Francisco its happy Hollywood ending. That might speak truth to somebody. There’s no doubt powerful emotions course through the scene based on all we have already witnessed thus far. I’ll willingly concede that. The emotional resonance in the wake of the visual horrors is unparalleled. It actually does make me feel something. That alone is something to marvel at. Not whether or not those emotions are logical or so-called correct. They very rarely are. I’m realizing now that that is okay.

Although I must admit it’s rather strange that MacDonald belts out a few rallying lines triumphantly as Clark Gable holds onto her and he just walks forward silently. Somehow it lacks camaraderie. It was as if he was implicitly saying, “You can sing but you won’t get me to do it in a million years.” However, don’t let this completely detract from the moment.

3.5/5 Stars

Good News (1947)

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The title Good News means next to nothing to me but it does suggest a certain sunny disposition we tend to equate with MGM musicals of the period. That assumption is fairly well-founded. Furthermore, I am well aware of Adolph Green and Betty Comden, that screenplay dream team, an integral part of Arthur Freed’s unit that had so many quality pictures to their name.

Most obvious inclusions include Singin in the Rain (1952), On the Town (1949), and The Band Wagon (1953). And here they are working in the realm of retro nostalgia pieces, their forte, a light comedy scattered with quips and a substantive lineup of tunes. But the important differentiation here is that this was the first one. This is where it all began, in theory at least, making them into a screenwriting mainstay. While the picture has long since been overshadowed by its successors and was never a huge box office success, there’s no doubting the unassuming charms still present in Good News.

Like Singin in the Rain (1952), the year is 1927 but instead of film sets in a Hollywood back lot, we are met with the world of Flappers and Sheiks — the names for boys and girls on college campuses across Middle America. On this particular campus, good ol’ Tait University, the boys are batty about football and girls and the girls are batty about boys — at least on a very basic level. So nothing is all that different.

And yet for anyone born in the latter half of the 20th-century, you can’t help and look at the depictions and think that everything is different.  Whether its styles of clothing, social rituals, colloquialisms, practically everything. Granted this is a musical.

Still, the school’s All-American running back Tommy Marlowe (Peter Lawford) shimmies, shakes, struts, and sings with his buddies about the necessity of being a ladies’ man on campus. Because when they’re not on the field the subject of utmost importance is girls. Obviously. Thus, when a new girl fresh off of finishing school brings her refined manners, stuffy French vocabulary, and flamboyant dress, all the boys heads start turning including Tommy’s.

But as is often the case, not everyone is so infatuated or completely distracted by the opposite sex. For instance, we meet Connie Lane (June Allyson) as she calls for a wrench to remedy a leaky sink and she’s dressed to the nines. She’s a good student and pays her way through school at the local library. Boys are not her main concern though that’s not to say that romance doesn’t tickle her fancy.

So the film is a frolicking and invariably cheesy examination of the mating rituals of college kids. It’s crazy stuff sometimes but be assured we are in for a light and breezy good time — a squeaky-clean version of what college life is if you will.  It’s also short on plot but what is there proves to be a springboard for song and dance. For the most part, that’s promise enough.

A highlight is the familiar velvety fog of crooner Mel Torme as well as the rather dorky but endearing wiles of Joan McCracken who feels much in the same vein to parts Betty Garret would ultimately play. Of course, this is really the Lawford and Allyson show as they must come to know each other, show genuine feelings, get confused about it all, and fall back together again. That’s the way the story has been told since the dawn of time. This one is little different.

A formative number comes off as a musical French lesson as Tommy goes under the tutelage of Ms. Lane to land the new girl in town who is giving him the cold shoulder. Meanwhile, Allyson imparts her knowledge and delivers a warm rendition of the tune, “All The Best Things in Life Are Free.”

“Pass the Peace Pipe” at the local soda fountain — a song that feels doubly archaic coming from the 1920s through the 1940s to the present day — is no less a lively foot-tapping number to be sure. But be relieved that the football scrimmage is not turned into a giant musical number of its own. Football is football and dance is dance. Each gets its own arena and there are plenty of theatrics in both. The cherry on top is a stellar large-scale dance number, “Varsity Drag,” to sum it all up in a rousing fashion much as it began.

3.5/5 Stars

For Me and My Gal (1942)

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Here is a good old-fashioned American musical that effectively acts as an homage to the vaudevillian circuit that saw many performers realize their talents including numerous future Hollywood icons. At the core is a musical dream team in Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.

Behind the camera is the much revered Busby Berkeley who made musicals into gargantuan extravaganzas thanks to how he managed to capture human forms from above like no one before him. Ironically, here he’s working in a somewhat more conventional and dare I say, informal setting where we get to share the mundane spaces with our stars.

Kelly is Harry Palmer, a man who makes a living clowning around on stage. The arm spinning pirouettes and the athletic moves that defined his style of hoofing are obvious from the outset as are his infectious charm and winning smile. He’s still in the latent stages of his genius but that’s okay. There’s still time.

Judy Garland at this point in her career already had sizable stardom and it was Kelly the Broadway up-and-comer featured in his film debut. But in the ensuing decade, there was no doubt about it whatsoever. They both became quintessential musical stars of a generation along with a select few.

Jo Hayden (Garland) is a song and dance gal who while not having made “The Big Time” yet, still has a noticeable amount of talent. She partners with the good-natured Jimmy Metcalf (George Murphy) who harbors an obvious crush on her. She thinks he’s sweet.

Harry Palmer on the other hand, always seems to be making a fool of himself. A genuine person like her can see right through his come-ons. While her gangly brother (Richard Quine) agrees to finish up his med school, Jo is following her ambitions to get somewhere. She subsequently realizes she does have a bit of chemistry with Palmer on stage after an impromptu performance, if not for the fact that she is already a part of an act.

Jimmy does the noble thing and lets her go as they all have their sights on the Palace Theater in New York City.  You see, it’s the holy grail for vaudeville performers. It means you’ve made it. Palmer is ecstatic when he meets a singer (Martha Eggerth) who already performs there, thinking she might be his in. But he remains true to what he has going with Jo. Still, time and time again they’re playing small towns and their aspirations never seem in reach.

Even when it is right there in front of them and their manager (Keenan Wynn) has seemingly pulled through, Harry is torn up to find that he’s been drafted to head over to France to help the doughboys in putting the Kaiser to rest. He’s no draft dodger but he wants his dream so much and they are so close to being realized. He takes a plan of action that Jo misconstrues as cowardice. She’s ashamed that he would do such a thing especially since her brother is overseas fighting already.

Thankfully that is not the final word. Life sometimes has a curious way of bringing people back together and in the case of this cinematic world, we get a cheering finale courtesy of the MGM dream factory. While For Me and My Gal revels in its star power and the intimate chemistry built between them on the stage and in dressing rooms or in train compartments, we are soon reminded that this film has an ulterior motive. It’s a musical, it’s a romance, but it’s also a product of the American homefront.

Like a Sergeant York (1941) or a Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) this effort was made with a higher purpose to act as a kindling rallying cry for nationalistic fervor going into WWII. However, just like its contemporaries, the reason we’re still watching it today isn’t necessarily due to those aspirations but the emotional connection elicited from its stars. This is what makes For Me and My Gal truly swell with sentiment. Thankfully Judy Garland and Gene Kelly got together on two more musical efforts to keep it going. Because they help elevate this above the spectrum of a run-of-the-mill propaganda musical with their palpable charisma that transcends any maudlin patches.

4/5 Stars

It Started With Eve (1941)

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We enter a newsroom that feels like it could be ripped out of His Girl Friday (1940). The editor is lining up his copy for the following day with a big front-page spread on the renowned millionaire Jonathan Reynolds (Charles Laughton). They just need him to die and they can print it.

Of course, at this point, it looks like it’s all but in the books. He’s a very sick man, on his deathbed, straining at what look to be his final gasps of air. His son (Robert Cummings) is rushing away from his vacation to be at his father’s side before it’s too late. The doctor fears the worst but his son makes it back from Mexico City in time to catch his father.

They share some tearful exchanges. Then, comes the fateful moment where his dad asks to meet his new fiancee. Wanting to honor his father’s last wish, Johnny goes pell-mell to his fiancee’s hotel but she can’t be found anywhere and he tries everything.

In a frantic moment of duress, the man makes a decision that will forever alter the course of his life. A hatcheck girl at the hotel (Deanna Durbin) becomes the perfect stand-in for his fiancee on a dime.

Frantic, he promises her 50 bucks and takes her to his father’s bedside. They share a poignant exchange and Johnny thanks her for her services and thinks that is the end of it — of his father and his relationship with this woman — but he’s terribly mistaken on both accounts.

Against all medical opinions of the family doctor (Walter Catlett), Mr. Reynolds makes a miraculous recovery and is back to his old ways craving cigars and steak for breakfast. It’s joyous news until he wants to have breakfast with Gloria Pennington whose actual name is Anne Terry.

Now his son is in a jam and he pulls Anne away from her train to Ohio to keep his father happy by maintaining the charade. Now he’s in deeper than he wants with one “fiancee” hitting it off with his father and the other with her mother waiting to be introduced to Mr. Reynolds. Needless to say, the local bishop (Guy Kibbee) gets the wrong idea about the boy he has known from youth who has become a degenerate philanderer supposedly keeping company with two different women.

Johnny could care less. He’s still in a bind and his main goal is to get everything patched up by paying off this girl again and enlisting the help of the doctor to introduce his fiancee into their home very naturally before the big party his father is throwing. It’s easy enough to tell his father that they have a lover’s quarrel and the “engagement” is off.

And yet, Anne doesn’t let it go that easily and she returns to profess the error in her ways and make up. Because now she has a larger stake in this new relationship. She’s a struggling musician who has heaps of talent. It’s just that she’s never gotten a chance to share it with someone important. This is her one shot at a big break. But far from being an opportunistic girl, she also adores this man and to some extent likes his son for a certain amount of sensitivity that he has.

Durbin and Laughton are brilliant fun together because he remains the crazy glue that holds this “romance” together. While things look like they have run their course and Johnny has salvaged everything the way they were originally meant to be, Mr. Reynolds goes off script and does the unanticipated, he drops everything at his gathering to see Ms. Terry.

But of course, we already know they aren’t a real couple and so it makes for an initially awkward and then a surprisingly jovial evening, finished off with a lively round of the conga. Mr. Reynolds succeeds in almost giving his good doctor a heart attack and sends his son for a real loop. In another fit of Deja Vu, Johnny races after Anne’s departing train to catch up with her once more. This time for good.

Charles Laughton is undoubtedly the M.V.P. of the picture providing a delightfully grouchy yet lovable turn hidden behind a mustache and a happy old boy persona which channels a bit of a naughty schoolboy at that.

Cummings has a knack for the clumsy, flustered comedy that comes as a result of his initial bumblings. He and Durbin work through the hilarious miscommunications that ensue beautifully as standard procedure in such a screwball musical. Instead of kissing like normal people they giggle, cackle, pinch, bite and do about everything else including play fight around the interior study. But if that isn’t love then I don’t know what is.

4/5 Stars

 

Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939)

Three_Smart_Girls_Grow_Up_poster.jpgThe Universal dream team of Deanna Durbin, producer Joe Pasternak, and director Henry Koster are back at it again in this follow up to the wildly popular comedy that propelled Durbin to international stardom.

The Craig sisters are back too and this one begins with a unique and rather hilarious opening title sequence as our three girls now grown up, as the title suggests, prepare their salutations for meeting the governor.

Most things haven’t changed as Penny (Durbin) is precocious as ever. The family seems joyous given the previous film reunited their estranged parents once more. But for some reason, it seems the men they were engaged to didn’t remain (conveniently for the sake of the sequel).

So the film proposes another slightly maudlin very straightforward problem that Penny puts it upon herself to solve: Her big sister is in love with one man, the young man who is just recently engaged to be married to their other sister. There’s nothing for it but to find another man who will be a distraction. Never one to be outwitted, Penny introduces an eligible man into the equation, an older musician (Robert Cummings) from the conservatory she practices at under her teacher (Felix Bressart).  But her concerned parents get the wrong idea with her bringing an older man around the house for dinner.

They forbid their daughter from going to her music lessons now. By the time she figures out what has happened, the fateful day of the wedding is almost upon them and so she does the only thing she can think of — go to her father — the same father who has been drowning in work as of late. Like any good father, he comes in clutch when it counts. The happy ending kept fully intact.

Ironically, Robert Cummings makes a passing remark about how he has no girlfriend and he’s waiting for Penny to grow up. Funny because he and Durbin would be paired in It Started With Eve (1941) just two years later as romantic interests.

Durban, on her part, was christened “Little Miss Fix-It” for these roles and though she was beloved for such fare there’s no begrudging her for wanting more meatier and mature parts. By and large, she wasn’t all that successful in getting the type of roles she wanted and it led to her retirement from acting in 1949. She would never make another picture after that and proceeded to live a life of relative seclusion with her husband in France.

It’s easy in this specific instance to make parallels with Greta Garbo’s own trajectory from top of the world to self-prescribed anonymity.  Except Durbin did it at an even younger age. There’s no overstating her importance to an entire generation of filmgoers. There’s no greater compliment than the attributed fact that Winston Churchill so loved Durbin’s films he would play them following British victories during the war years. She certainly does give you something to stand up and cheer about with her voice and a sparkling countenance alone.

3/5 Stars

Three Smart Girls (1936)

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Here is a comedy born of a certain time and age when they made such trifles. It’s the kind of plot where you can read it off in a single sentence but it’s further cushioned by cutesy moments and musical asides. Where growing girls say “Mummy” and “Daddy,” always fussing and screeching and bickering over this or that.

It could all get tiresome and too sugary if it weren’t redeemed by how very pleasant it is in reflecting adolescence. Yes, you could even call it absolute claptrap but there’s something special thrown into the concoction: Her name is Deanna Durbin.

Perhaps I am overstating her significance and making her stake larger than it possibly could be but I’d like to think on the contrary. Deanna Durbin is presented as “Universal’s newest discovery” and what a find she was. Beginning a run of many successful box office hits continuing up on through the war years, she was a beloved part of Americana.

Here was a teenage girl who with a voice and a carefully groomed persona helped salvage an entire studio and became so well-known and admired that by 1941 she would be the highest paid woman in America and the entire world, bar none, at the age of 21 (Look it up for yourself but don’t quote me).

Three Smart Girls is a film that means the very best and Henry Koster guides it along this path of sunshine and cheerfulness. There are numerous moments that say as much as Penny (Durbin) floats along with her two sisters (Barbara Read and Nan Grey) on a lake riding lazily on their sailboat in Switzerland while she knocks out a tune. Maybe it’s the girls squealing as they make use of their father’s exercise equipment and we watch Durbin repeatedly swing toward the camera until her face completely fills up the frame.

But I’ve put it off long enough. Here is my one sentence of exposition. The Three Craig girls make it their mission to go to New York and break of their father’s (Charles Winninger) engagement to a young gold digger so he can get back with their mother (Nella Walker). It’s a noble project and it also has the touches of an early Parent Trap (1961) which takes obvious inspiration from this picture.

The girls bring their flurry of teenage drama into their father’s bachelor lifestyle as well as subsequent heartbreak and tears that do finally give way to marital bliss (of course they do).

There seems to be a paradox to Deanna Durbin’s appeal. She had the feisty sass of a younger girl and the voice of an older one that sweeps you off your feet. It’s the kind of voice that I must admit sounds dubbed at times. That cannot conceivably be her singing!

She makes a line of hardened cops do a double take when she breaks out into an opera number in the police station trying to pull off a little white lie that’s she’s a Parisian songstress. It almost works too.

Ray Milland is wonderfully witty as the rich young gentleman who finds himself pulled into the girl’s charade on a miscommunication. In fact, it’s easy to prefer him in these lighter roles to his more dramatic turns that sometimes leave him looking like a stuffy cad. He can be quite charming actually. Mischa Auer also shows up but unfortunately isn’t given much to do.

But in the end, this evolved very much into Durbin’s film anyways and she does well to oblige the audience while her sisters are happily saddled with eligible young men and her parents get back together. They’re all a happy family again and there Penny is standing at the center of it all smiling broadly.

3.5/5 Stars

Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)

Broadway_Melody_of_1940_Poster.jpg“The more you know about women the less you know about women.” It’s the story of my life and also a marvelous entry point for this film because it really is a throwaway line. It’s referred to several times thenceforward but really means nothing more. Anyways, if we came to this film simply for the plot it would have been buried under heaps of other more elegant or frenetic comedies over the years. But the reason to revisit this one for all those eager thespians out there is solely for the dancing and what dancing it is.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be tantamount to cinematic blasphemy to say that Fred Astaire belonged beside anyone else rather than Ginger Rogers on the dance floor but maybe it’s the novelty of the situation that makes me quite thoroughly enjoy this effort that paired him with his contemporary, the premiere dancing star Eleanor Powell.

Though working at a different studio now  (MGM instead of RKO), the plotline could have easily followed in the footsteps of many of Astaire’s earlier pictures. It’s pure cotton candy fluff about mistaken identity since he gives the name of his best buddy to a man he thinks is a collector. Is he surprised when he finds out days later that the man actually had connections with a big stage production starring the one and only Clare Bennett?  By throwing out the name of his chum King (George Murphy), he unwittingly paid his best friend the biggest favor of his life and he takes it in stride willing to sink into the background.

Still, he can’t help but harbor a crush for the divine Ms. Bennett and he starts getting a little peeved with how the fame is going to King’s head which leads him to get pig-headed and worse yet completely swacked before his grand opening. Obviously, someone else needs to fill in and wouldn’t you know it, we just happen to have Fred Astaire waiting behind the curtain to step in. The rest you can probably figure out for yourself. Meanwhile, Frank Morgan and Florence Rice appear intermittently providing a bit of comic background noise to fill in the idle moments with some mild buffoonery.

But the dancing, the dancing is as sublime as it’s ever been and it’s breathtaking watching Powell’s solo numbers as well as some of the other stunts, some comical and others mindboggling for their precision (Plate throwing and ball balancing come to mind). A few Cole Porter tunes still have their allure namely the famed “Begin the Beguine” number as well as the peppy “I’ve Got My Eyes on You” elevated still further by the dancing that goes with them.

Watching Astaire and Powell is enough. Because dancing done well by Astaire, Rogers, Kelly, Cagney, Powell, O’Connor, Charisse, any of those names, transcends the plotlines they find themselves in and captures us in a moment of sheer euphoric joy. This is coming from a man with two feet so far left that they’re practically right, so perhaps I’m too easily impressed, but I’d like to believe that every time they thrill me with their taps I’m getting my socks blown off by something sensational. Others can judge it as they may but I’ve said my peace.

3.5/5 Stars