Review: Cover Girl (1944): Hayworth and Kelly

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In the thick of the war years, Cover Girl stands as a beacon of unadulterated Technicolor lavishness permeating the screen. It proved a fine diversion from the day-to-day, which was wildly popular in its time as a vehicle for beloved screen star and Pin-Up, Rita Hayworth. Watching Cover Girl now, it’s become a fitting marker in the constellations of Gene Kelly’s career and the movie musical in general. We can easily use it to chart his course, culminating in later endeavors of the 1950s.

Because while Hayworth is the most substantial star in director Charles Vidor’s movie, going from Brooklyn chorus girl to rising starlet of  Variety‘s Golden Wedding Girl Edition, Kelly was simultaneously given almost complete creative control over choreographing his numbers. He brought on a young man named Stanley Donen to help with the process. Already we have the roots of a partnership that meant so much for the exploration of musicals as a cinematic genre.

We also have music and lyrics provided by the heralded Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin offering up “Long Ago (And Far Away,” one of the most mellifluous love melodies of the 1940s.

Rusty (Rita Hayworth) has a contented little life working at the hole-in-the-wall nightclub run by her boyfriend Danny (Gene Kelly). They work hard with rehearsals always at 10 am sharp, do their thing at night, and the after hours are theirs to wile away dreaming.

Her endearing pet name is “Chicken.” I’m not sure if we ever find out why. But their best pal, a goofy song and dance man, goes by “Genius” (Phil Silvers) and we know that’s in jest. Nevertheless, he’s their jovial third wheel as they always go to the same late-night hangout, order a heap of oysters, and go pearl diving. It’s a tradition and a habit but it also represents the dreams they haven’t quite reached yet.

“Make Way for Tomorrow” is a joyous romp preceding the palsy-walsy camaraderie of Don, Cathy, and Cosmo in Singin in the Rain (1952). It puts itself in line with all the great studio street corner numbers using extensive sets to create an indoor-outdoor world perfect for peppy outbreaks of dance. In his foresight, Kelly would have some of the set walls punched out so they could go about the number more or less uninhibited and it does wonders.

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So we see that Rusty is happy in this life and yet she still has personal aspirations. She tries her luck at a cover girl job. Cornelia “Stonewall” Jackson (Eve Arden with her usual verbal panache) is the executive tasked with culling through all the eligible hopefuls who walk into her office looking to impress. It’s a real cutthroat pack of wolves. On a side note, it’s fascinating to watch actual cover models from the era go from screen to pages of recognizable magazines. Oh, how things have changed in 75 years.

It’s Stonewall’s boss, magazine editor John Coudair (Otto Kruger), who picks Rusty as his newest star because she shares an uncanny resemblance to the girl he once loved in his youth, one Maribel Hicks. So there you have it! Rusty seems to have hit the big time. She puts Danny’s club on the map as their “Put Me to The Test” performance is a shining success and you’d think he’d be cheering for her.

But it’s his male prerogative to feel under attack. Suddenly she doesn’t need him and maybe she will leave him for the suitor and stage promoter (Lee Bowman) who is looking to move in.

Here we have an uncanny Deja Vu scenario as past and present overlap because by some strange coincidence Maribel Hicks was Rusty’s dear departed grandmother. Granted, it’s a weak piece of plotting but regardless, we have a spurned Gene Kelly on our hands. What it gives way to is the original shadow dancing although reflection dancing is more like it.

It was one of the earliest Kelly innovations allowing him to dance alongside himself, the devil on his shoulder telling him he’ll never get Rusty back. It’s this lovely melding of character progression through the art of dance. Proving it can function elegantly as both.

In the end, Rusty realizes what was good for her grandmother, who lived a satisfying life, is good enough for her and she runs off from her wedding day to get back with a woebegone Danny. It’s a happy ending as the gang’s back together. Consequently, Hayworth would elope with her next husband Orson Welles around this time. But the real-life results ended up being far more tumultuous.

Pal Joey, which Kelly had starred in on the stage, was to be the next pairing of Hayworth and Kelly but alas it was never to be. It finally came to fruition over a decade later with Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak, and Rita Hayworth but it lacks the magic this earlier proposed version might have coalesced. What I was left with is the fact that Hayworth has quite the distinction. She danced alongside the two greatest that film ever had to offer: Astaire and Kelly. She more than holds her own as a scintillating star in her own right.

3.5/5 Stars

You Were Never Lovelier (1942): Hayworth and Astaire

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Buenos Aires conjures up a very specific Rita Hayworth film — the one that remains emblematic of her career and also typecasted her — you probably know it too, Gilda (1946). Thus, when You Were Never Lovelier opens in the same city, there’s this instant evocation in the parallel worlds. Because if these pictures take place in the same location, in theory, then cinematically they are vastly different.

Our first introduction is a face wedged behind a pair of binoculars. Once they’re pulled away we see Fred Astaire looking glumly as his horse trots by to the finish in last place. It sums up his struggles with gambling. He is a loser. Why does it matter? Though he’s a famed dancer back in New York by the name of Robert Davis, in this foreign locale he’s just a hoofer in need of some cash.

Quite by chance, he runs into his old pal Xavier Cugat who forewarns him that local club owner Eduardo Acuna (Adolphe Menjou) is quite the disgruntled customer. He’s not very easy to please. His constantly harried personal secretary Fernando, a distant relation, proves a perfect example. Consequently, burlesque comedy veteran Gus Schilling just might be the most hilarious addition to the cast based on his huffy indignance.

But just as Cugat predicted Acuna isn’t impressed by Davis nor does he want to sign him. Right now he’s simply ecstatic that his eldest girl is just about to be married. Next, in line is his daughter Maria (Hayworth) who has her pick of all the boys in town, though she never commits to any of them nor shows more than mild interest in their advances.

It all almost feels too suffocating as an insufferably schmaltzy family drama. There was enough room in my heart for Three Smart Girls (1936) even Four Daughters (1938) but another such movie might be pushing it. Ingenue sisters bustling about, mothers providing sniggering inane conversation and the father is not even as lovable as Charles Winninger or Claude Rains, who instead holds onto a ludicrous tradition that daughters must be married off in order. Worse still, he manipulates his daughter into falling in love with someone who doesn’t exist. All in her best interest, of course.

Astaire and Hayworth couldn’t get together fast enough. But when they do its hard to take our eyes off so why bother getting stuck on all the various mishaps? For instance, the fact that Menjou is the hands-on father, he’s doing his best to manufacture a romance for Maria through boxes upon boxes of orchids filled with notes professing the love of a secret admirer. Its only function is offering a point of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

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Despite a less than cordial introduction, Hayworth sees Astaire with new eyes when she mistakenly believes him to be her mystery man. Father feels like he’s in a bind and so he orders Davis to play the part and let her down easy. He’s not about to let his daughter get married to HIM!

Astaire keeps his physical talents on ice for a time barring a few foot taps, getting his first real showcase at a wedding where he flexes his vocal cords. His pure tonality and diction made them perfect pipes for innumerable American standards. Though he doesn’t heat up his taps until 35 minutes into the picture.

His first substantial meeting with Ms. Acuna and her family turns out far differently than any parties planned, namely Mr. Acuna or Robert. “I’m Old Fashioned” sums it up as our two stars go out on the veranda for some quality one-on-one time and share a dance together.

Hayworth sports the most seductively saucy raised eyebrow leading Astaire in one exchange to ask her, half-jokingly, to turn around. Staring at her face — beautiful as it is — melts him to jelly. He can hardly get his thoughts together in her presence. There’s also the dissonance of what he’s been instructed to do by Mr. Acuna and how he feels for this girl.

Despite purposefully forgetting to invite Mr. Davis to a fancy dress Anniversary Gala, an invitation manages to find its way to Robert regardless, setting up the final act in this tempestuous matchmaking affair. Acuna is in dire straits. The game seems to be up and yet the suitor he had long wanted to get rid of, falls on his sword and helps the other man save face.

Never fear. We know that our two stars are fated to be together. Later Astaire comes clomping around in a suit of armor and promptly tumbles right off under the fair maidens bedroom window. And yet his girl gladly takes him anyway derailing her white knight complex and dancing off into the distance as nice as you please.

As much as the mechanisms of this story drive me up a wall, I cannot dismiss Astaire and Hayworth. Its a minor vehicle for both but a spotty delight nonetheless. The very fact that Rita Hayworth herself considered it a personal favorite is merit enough. One might imagine that it’s every young dancer’s dream to keep time with Fred Astaire. It was no different for Margarita Carmen Cansino. Gilda was passion twisted up in perverse contortions. You Were Never Lovelier allowed it to be innocently saccharine instead, like a dream of childhood. Sometimes we need those movies.

3.5/5 Stars

Footlight Parade (1933)

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Though it still came out in the middle of The Depression, there is a sense that Footlight Parade does not confront the contemporary issues head on and maybe that causes it to lose some potential power. Because, in a sense, it’s a period piece even if that period is only a few years prior when talking pictures were taking the world by storm. Of course, many audiences will be far more acquainted with Singin’ in the Rain (1952), which arguably did much the same and even a better job in its homage than this effort.

Likewise, a bigger bankroll for the pictures at Warner Bros. meant they got longer which is some ways isn’t all that advantageous. As far as stories go, this one is pretty much on par with its predecessors (42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933) though, rather surprisingly, the cast doesn’t run as deep.

Now we have James Cagney, of course, and what makes Footlight Parade deserving of a special side note is the fact that it would serve as the Warner Bros. gangsters first chance to hoof on screen. Because he wanted to prove that he was more than a thug and boy was he ever, even if the picture never really stretches him. Above all, he’s Jimmy Cagney, through and through.

John Wayne makes a picture-within-a-picture cameo in The Telegraph Trail which is shown to Chester as a demonstration of the imminent reality. Silent pictures are totally on the way out and this new attraction will grab audiences away from the stage. With the changing industry goes Chester’s livelihood. His galling wife isn’t too understanding calling for a divorce rather than wait around for him to be completely destitute.

However, Cagney’s able to capitalize on his newest doozie of an idea that comes to him after a mundane visit to his local drugstore. He translates it to talking pictures. He pitches it to his two boob bosses and they bite on his vision to develop live “prologues” that can then be showcased in movie theaters all around, making them lots of money. It’s a good idea but their closest rival Gladstone has already jumped on the wagon. It’s no small coincidence that Chester’s longtime assistant jumps ship and conveniently leaves behind another parasite to swipe ideas.

The one person who stands by him through everything is his loyal and lovestruck secretary Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell), who nevertheless uses her acumen and street smarts to keep the utter insanity of his current work life tolerable. With the wolves primed to devour him, she’s just as feisty, out to protect his interests (and hers as well).

In the end, Chester smells a rat and puts the studio on lockdown as they race against the clock to churn out the three numbers they need to showcase to their potential backer, Mr. Apolinaris, who, despite ongoing indigestion, is a generally agreeable audience.

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Ruby Keeler is hidden behind a pair of specks to play up unwarranted stereotypes in a generally uninteresting role. Meanwhile, Dick Powell and his huffy patron have little to do. You understand why Powell wanted a different career trajectory because there’s nothing to stretch him.

His patron’s bubble-headed brother, played by Hugh Herbert calls to mind later types paraded in front of the screen by Billy Gilbert. He relies on her sway, otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to hold onto his position as the resident content watchdog who constantly badgers Chester only to get the brush. Frank McHugh cultivates his gray hairs exasperated as the dance choreographer continually bombarded by incoming stressors on the eve of the big performances. He’s teetering dangerously on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

When the first line of an audition is, “show me your legs” and obviously it’s only for the gals, it just rubs the wrong way. There’s also an inherent sense that there needed to be more dancing and less plot, as much as I would follow James Cagney to the moon and back, figuratively speaking. Even “Honeymoon Hotel’s” repetitive cadence gets tedious and it feels more cutesy than a prime showing of Berkeley’s usual visual inventiveness. It’s the same issue I had with earlier numbers like “Pettin’ in the Park.”

However, the subsequent waterfall number gets us back to his element, by some unimaginable feat, we end up at a lavish pool gilded with finery. In an instant synchronized swimming was born (or at least promoted) and for some inexplicable reason, those overhead shots capturing the unified motion and shapes of the swimmers still blow my mind even today like a huge crowd creating shapes at a football game. What we receive is sensory overload of gestalt principles executed beyond what could possibly be imagined in terms of meticulous intricacy.

With “Shanghai Lil” Cagney gets in an excuse for a choreographed brawl which he handles ably and we do see him dance. It’s difficult to put into words completely but it seems a very sturdy approach with his feet working hard while his torso remains all but inert. It’s like there’s business on top and a party going on down below which gives him a fairly unique mechanic on the floor, resurrected from his earlier days in vaudeville.

What comes last is an ending meant to rival Gold Diggers fo 1933, still impressive but not nearly as meaningful. The “Shanghai Lil” trades out the stirring nationalism and triumph of the human spirit to cater to a number about a Chinese streetwalker played by Ruby Keeler in yellow face. Even with a turn toward the patriotic, it just can’t quite compete. But as always, it’s hard not to simply fall back on Cagney and praise him for guiding the picture with that surehanded tenacity of his that sees us through to the end.

4/5 Stars

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

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With the opening number “We’re In The Money,” this musical sticks it to The Great Depression and gives their audience a respite from the poverty waiting outside the theater doors. The tone is set as Ginger Rogers, surrounded by rows of scantily clad coin-covered women, sings out one of the song’s lines in Pig Latin. It’s one in a million.

Like its predecessor, the smash hit 42nd Street (1933), this is yet another hybrid of backstage drama and semi-extravagant production numbers. An incoming rapid-fire line of close-ups featuring Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, and Ginger Rogers all giving the camera a mouthful is a delightful portent of all that it to come from this bevy of talent. The sass meter goes through the roof.

But we never forget that it’s the Depression, though it would be an unnecessary reminder for audiences already living through the reality. As Carol quips when she hears the timeliness of their newest project, “We won’t have to rehearse that.” Because they’ve been living through it along with everyone else.

It means that they share a measly flat together. Get by from swiping milk bottles from the upstairs neighbors and fighting over clothes to make at least one of them look presentable for the prospect of an audition. There’s a lightness to it all as much as there is a camaraderie. They’re all in it together and that allows the picture to work. Otherwise, it would be too depressing. There needs to be that assurance and resolve driving our characters. They never get too low.

Ruby Keeler has time to fall for Dick Powell yet again, this time by simply sticking her head out the window to swoon over his piano ballads. Of course, things hit the pits when they find out that despite a swell idea, their backer and potential savior Barry (Ned Sparks), still is broke and so his visions of a showstopping triumph are all for naught. The insouciant joking of Powell has everyone a little hurt until he actually comes through in shelling out $15,000 just like that. He was never more serious.

So there we have it. Another stage production is in the works. Everything is coming together dandily but in a role reversal of 42nd Street, it is Powell’s Brad who is called upon to fill a void in the production when he’s needed most.

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The original juvenile lead is not able to make the cut due to lumbago and so despite his continuous rejection of the part, he finally folds realizing so many folks are counting on him. We’ve already said it and we’ll say it again. The show must go on!

Their first number, “Pettin’ in the Park” is a near-surreal exhibition in sauciness utilizing a midget dressed as a baby, a studio orchestrated rainstorm, and women donning metal garb to foil their male suitors. Weird but it’s an unequivocal smash.

So big in fact that news gets out. Brad’s family hears he’s been moonlighting in the theater and is appalled. Because you see, he comes from a well-to-do family. Such a line of work would never do. Cavorting with chorus girls and acting is out of the question. He returns home but to no avail as his older brother Lawrence (Warren William) and the family’s lawyer Fanueal H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) agree to come out to put an end to Brad’s career — not to mention his romance. After all, showgirls are reputed to be parasites, chiselers, gold diggers…

They get far more than they bargained for when a bit of mistaken identity causes them to get whirled away by the streetwise sauciness of Carol and Trixie who have these rich boys pegged and know exactly how to capitalize. It’s like taking candy from two stuffy, overgrown babies.

Beyond being Fred Astaire’s supremely talented collaborator on taps, it’s easy to rate Ginger Rogers as a first-rate comedienne even in this earlier juncture of her career. However, it’s Aline MacMahon with the juiciest part and the greatest showing which ultimately upstages Rogers and gives the picture its greatest buoyancy of sing-songy opportunism.

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Joan Blondell does herself proud in her own right romancing Warren William. For the first time, I actually feel sympathetic toward the poor fellow. He’s got no defenses. Peabody is simply putty in the hands of a woman — especially someone as delightfully conniving as Trixie. But remember it’s all for a good cause as Brad and Polly are able to stay together and that’s just the beginning…

It’s almost a misnomer to call Gold Diggers of 1933 a musical outright. The way that Warner Bros. ran things, there were two units one for the romantic drama led by Mervyn LeRoy and then another headed by Berkeley for the choreography of his decadent visions. So what we have is the quintessential Depression-era drama filled in with some song & dance routines. It could be completely disjointed in its execution. But on both fronts there or moments of undoubted noteworthiness. It begins with a cast that does oh so much and the baton constantly gets passed between players who readily play their part one after another.

Then, the rest is pure Berkeley first taking his dreams and turning them into a reality. “In The Shadows” in an exquisite gift to the audience showcasing swirling hula hoop dresses with showgirls gracefully flitting this way and that. Then the lights go out leaving behind the contours of violins dressed with fluorescent light,s which make for another entrancing dance of shape and light. Here we have art where the result is so much more than a mere sum of its parts.

Once again it makes the pretense of a stage performance but right away Berkeley throws off those shackles and lets his camera fly to whatever vantage point it wants proving itself essentially unencumbered and subsequently reworking how musicals could and would be staged.

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But in truth, it’s a back-to-back show stopper and Berkeley sees the film to its crescendo by completely changing his tune with the help of composer and lyricist duo Harry Warren and Al Dubin. They all come through to deliver what can only be considered a timely eulogy to the universal figure alluded to in its title.

“The Forgotten Man” is emblematic of this entire picture and Gold Diggers of 1933 is very much an offering of thanks to the everyday American. The men who stand in breadlines scrimping over cigarettes. The men who fought in the Great War. The women who maintained the diligence and rectitude with which the country could battle poverty. The same people who line up to go see movies every day.

In the end, the movie pulls off this startling balancing act — a tightrope walk of comedy, tragedy, and above all pathos. Gold Diggers is the real deal and I cannot begrudge anyone who would deem it the pinnacle of the Hollywood dream factory sent to reach those in the throes of desperate times. Granted, some might question the merits of fantastical escapism but this effort looks to be more than a diversion — moving beyond that to be a hardy rallying cry of hope.

4.5/5 Stars

42nd Street (1933)

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“Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” – Warner Baxter to Ruby Keeler

42nd Street essentially feels like hallowed ground even today because it single-handedly gave an entire generation of films plentiful ammunition for tropes while jumpstarting Warner Bros.’s cottage industry of musicals. These included Footlight Parade, Dames, and a whole slew of Gold Digger movies among many others. Not to mention many heirs apparent from Stage Door (1937) to Cabaret (1972).

There are several angles from which to approach this film. One of them has to do with Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), an acclaimed theater director who is nevertheless broke thanks to The Crash and warned by his doctor that the undue stress of such a rigorous career is taking a toll on his health. He knows the clock is ticking for him and he deems that this will be his last Broadway show and it will his best even if it kills him. It probably will.

Meanwhile, the shining star of the forthcoming production Pretty Lady is one Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) who keeps the picture’s lascivious financial backer (Guy Kibbee) onboard while never letting him get too familiar with her. Because you see, she has a secret romance going on the side with a young man (George Brent) who used to work with her in vaudeville. Now he’s jobless.

With all his reputation and finances dependent on the show’s success, Mr. Marsh quickly turns into a berating taskmaster, first, in casting calls and then through the grueling rehearsal regimen.

Three girls who manage to finagle their way into the show through some insider influence are Lorraine (Una Merkel), Anytime Annie (Ginger Rogers) and the wholesome newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). She knows next to nothing about the tooth and nail competition and so the two old pros gladly take her under their wing.

It just happens that she finds a romantic interest in the baby-faced crooner Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) as they both have parts to play. Meanwhile, the higher-ups catch wind of Dorothy’s male friend Pat (Brent) and he soon is paid a meeting with an influencer — someone to rough him up a bit and keep him from gumming up the show. To a degree, it works as he heads off to Philadelphia and Marsh continues to drive his stock company mercilessly. He doesn’t just want it good, he wants absolute perfection, and despite his greatest efforts, he’ll never be completely satisfied.

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The first number we’re acquainted with is “Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and with it soon comes the opening strains of Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscope choreography — a mere taster of all the fine abstractions to come. But there must be a quarrel to further ignite the already bumpy proceedings. It starts when Dorothy gives it to the biggest sucker Abner Dillon (Kibbee) who is about as insufferable as they come, a buffoon as only Kibbee can play.

But the same night, in the process of blowing off steam, Dorothy is stricken with a fracture the day before her big debut. Things couldn’t be any worse with the pompous buffoon threatening to pull out his funding and Marsh is sunk without his leading lady. However, if you’ve seen any of the movies that this musical inspired, you already are well acquainted with the fact that “The show must go on!”

That same timorous yet sprightly chorus girl, Peggy has her chance at the big stage. Marsh drives her mercilessly through song, dance, and dialogue. Never praises her and essentially tells her that the entire weight of the hopes and dreams of all the cast is on her shoulders. Her quivering shoulders must carry the brunt of the production. That’s a terrible amount of pressure to place on one human being but the true miracle is that, of course, the new starlet manages brilliantly. The crowds want to love her and when she’s through with them they do.

In the latter half of 42nd Street, the dramatic elements give way to the actual musical numbers. “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” is a fine introduction full of romance and cheeky innuendo, spearheaded by Merkel and Rogers consorting in a compartment, chomping away on fruit. The camera is on the move as well, scanning across the train facade between faces hidden behind curtains and the shoes that ultimately get left out for the porter.

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Then, Dick Powell takes the lead in “Young and Healthy” opposite a nameless platinum blonde (Toby Wing in a memorable bit role) which is elevated by more novel shot selections. Namely, the fact that the bench our two performers are romancing on promptly sinks into the floor with them now sprawled out together. We get a signature Berkeley pirouette right after that which still never ceases to amaze me, followed by a tracking shot through a tunnel of legs. It succeeds in being far more cinematic than stagebound and that’s the key.

“42nd Street” is the tip-toppest number of them all by breaking away from any confinement with the sheer scale and mass of humanity that it puts forth. Only a few camera setups in and one realizes we are no longer a theater audience, unless we transition from sitting in the balcony to the ground level, and finally end up in the rafters looking down on the entertainment with the most impeccable of overhead views.

The final extravaganza is great fun to behold with a plethora of dancers performing in what feels like all but perfect cadence, constructing a cutout city of their own by turning around in unison. Then, they pull away and the camera gives us this wonderfully curious illusion that we are looking up the full length of the Empire State building, our two beaming starlets popping up at the top of the towering heights. The asbestos curtain drops and they have all but sealed the success of their show and the film.

While the musical ends on a rather inconclusive note, it in no way neutralizes the effervescent numbers and performances that bloom out of an otherwise theatrical backstage drama. 42nd Street is still important to us because it is the origin of so many musical traditions but it subsequently still manages to enrapture with even a few feats of artistic ingenuity. It deserves its place among the seminal musicals even if its staying power is moot.

4/5 Stars

Help! (1965)

Helponesheet.jpgWhat can I say? I am one of the proud and the many who loved The Beatles before they loved any other type of music. So when I watch Help! I look for all the best in it because that’s all that I can do.

However, if you are familiar with this follow-up to the frenzy and the success surrounding A Hard Day’s Night (1964), then that picture will feel like a serendipitous accident where everything came together for 90 minutes of magic. Help! is more of what one might actually expect from distributors trying to capitalize on The Beatles fandom before “the fad” ran its course. It’s less inspired and hammered out with what seems like little forethought at all. Because that’s what it was. Except previously a better job was done to fake it.

Though a quality filmmaker, Richard Lester was hampered by time constraints even going so far as to edit his daily footage while he was making the film. The ending results showcase a purposely disjointed narrative with a ludicrous script following a Far Eastern cult’s attempts to swipe Ringo’s prize ring for their human sacrifice. There’s not much more to it than that. It would prove ample fodder for many an episode of The Monkees which made no qualms about being a Beatles knockoff.

The rumor mill even provides accounts that the Fab Four were to have made a western picture with the lads all fighting for the affection of a rancher’s eligible young daughter. Maybe it’s the novelty of an idea never realized but I would have liked to see that picture in lieu of this one. However, we must content ourselves which what we have.

Stacked up against some of its more forgettable contemporary spoofs and scatterbrain comedies, Help! could have done a worse job blending the exoticism of Bond with its attempts at comedy. There are numerous Eastern influences and if anything the film facilitated Harrison’s introduction to the sitar. We even hear a version of “Hard Day’s Night” on the Indian instrument.

Otherwise, the boy’s flat is decked with Tati-like contraptions and coloring that evoke the Frenchmen’s work in Mon Oncle (1958). The lines of disparate gags owe a debt to Peter Sellers (especially The Goon Show) and act as a less inspired precursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

These are the only reference points I can manage and yet this suggests that Help! might have been so much more. Instead, fueled by their new infatuation for marijuana, the boys are in a bit of a garbled haze and it reflects the mess of the film full of flubbed lines and absurd non-sequiturs.

Nevertheless one could argue that much of it feels akin to the world The Beatles were finding themselves adrift in. Their fame had blown up to outrageous proportions that were almost laughable. It would make someone go batty. Perhaps they needed a trip to the Alps and the Bahamas, play acting with tigers and then tanks on the Salsbury Plains. For a few stray moments, they were not a commodity. They could muck about and be themselves.

That gets down to one of the primary takeaways. We still have The Beatles. True, John Lennon later commented that it felt like the boys were sideshow attractions in their own movie. I get the sentiment but I would disagree it in the sense that I’m hardly drawn to any of the other characters. There’s little interest in their antics because I’ve seen countless more inspired takes on the same material.

But we have Richard Lester directing The Beatles’ music so we have something iconic to grab ahold of. It’s not a total loss. What you gain an appreciation for, especially in this effort, is how Lester has almost single-handedly invented the language of the music video whether he meant to or not. At its best that’s what this manic comedy is — an early exhibition in the music video — using spliced together standalone sequences showcasing the boys in various situations most memorably attempting to ski or playing curling.

“Ticket to Ride” in the snow, “I Need You” out in the brisk British air, and “Another Girl” shot in the Bahamas are able to bottle just a little bit of The Beatles because it’s their music that stands the test of time meshed with those playful personas.

While it’s momentarily amusing for flashes of humor and memorable for the unparalleled tunes, in many ways, it pales in comparison to its predecessors.  It lacks the perfect docudrama zaniness of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and the pure animated invention of Yellow Submarine (1968). Instead, Help! slates itself as an often shallow even dopey picture.  But, I’ll say it again. We still have The Beatles. Surely that is enough for most of us.

3/5 Stars

 

 

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

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One thing that can be said of Meet Me in St. Louis is that it captures the milieu of an era while simultaneously being quintessential Vincente Minnelli. Every man, woman, and child is dressed to the tee and enraptured by love and the grand promises of the World Fair full of dancing the Hoochie-Coochie with their special Tootsie Wootsies.  It’s cheerfully opulent in such a fashion that some might consider it almost garish and others will deem it the height of turn-of-the-century elegance.

There’s no doubt that the director had one of the most phenomenal palettes of any filmmaker from any time period. Certainly, this extends to the mise en scene and the costumes adorning his stars — pulled right out of Sears Roebuck circa 1900. But the other crucial aspect is that Minnelli seems to handle his talent with kid gloves or at least he creates an environment for them to flourish.

Of course, front and center of the Technicolor extravaganza is Judy Garland who would marry her director the following year and you get the sense that she had fallen in love with how beautiful he was able to make her on film. It’s true that she’s a striking sight to behold, only magnified by the world she traipses through, surrounded by her kin and singing to her heart’s content.

Still, if the set design is such a grand expression of the film’s potency and visual appeal, it’s necessary to point out again that this is far from a Judy Garland show; there is an ensemble component even if she’s the scene-stealer.

Margaret O’Brien is a riot because she plays little Tootie in the most ingratiatingly precocious way possible. Though it must be admitted she has a bit of a morbid side too. We meet her on an ice wagon telling a man how she’s going to give her doll a nice funeral and later on, of course, she takes the heads off all the snow people.

However, there’s also a whole Halloween interlude starring Tootie and their sister Agnes that feels more like a ghoulish Guy Fawkes day than its modern incarnation of door-to-door candy grabbing. Maybe Halloween has gotten tamer than we give it credit for. Put up against the film’s more mirthful moments, it comes off a tad alarming.

But then again, the story continually goes back to its roots in the centrality of the family unit. Its very integrity is in jeopardy of being disrupted when Father (Leon Ames) drops the news that they will be moving to New York from St. Louis. It comes off horrifically. It’s imperative to remember that in order for those heights to be so gay there must be a steady stream of romantic heartbreaks and personal roadblocks which the picture gladly provides.

There’s a lovely scene staged around the piano between Mr. and Mrs. Adams (Ames and Mary Astor) where like in so many other instances song becomes the perfect expression of the current mood. Based on where the camera is situated, the stairwell in the back is visible and you see the shadows of figures before they inch back into the frame and subsequently back into the family room. It’s a visual representation of the family staying rooted together even after a spat — constantly retracting — then contracting back together in continuous motion.

Without question, the well-remembered “The Trolley Song” is a giddy number that outshines any of the others but that’s because it is the summation of romantic euphoria that Esther (Garland) is feeling for her beau (Tom Drake). Meanwhile, “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas,” though hauntingly melodious, is quite easy for me to rip out of the context of this film.

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Meet Me in St. Louis has never been a yuletide film for me in a similar fashion to how Holiday Inn (1942) is not so much attached to “White Christmas” or holiday cheer as the Michael Curtiz picture from 1954. Perhaps its influence isn’t as deeply rooted in my childhood recollections as some of its contemporaries. But then again, Meet Me in St Louis evokes Christmas in the same way that some of the cinematic adaptations of Little Woman (1933, 1949, or 1994) conjure up the season in the context of family. Perhaps that’s how it should be.

In its day, the film was a smash hit only to be outshined by that prior behemoth from David Selznick Gone with the Wind (1939) and it’s easy to draw up parallels if not simply visually speaking. Both films boast breathtaking imagery and extraordinary color photography for the era that even today can rightfully be considered landmark stuff. Still, that doesn’t mean that everything else has improved with age. Make the concessions where you will and the film can be a good-natured classic or even a Christmas perennial favorite. In my estimation its middling in both categories. Still, that can’t completely detract from its finer attributes. Namely Minnelli’s striking color scheme which remains second to none.

4/5 Stars

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