Two For The Road (1967): A Rom-Com for a New Era

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“If there’s one thing I despise it’s an indispensable woman.” – Albert Finney

The world seemed a very different place in 1967. It had changed and with it, love and the romantic comedy underwent a transformation of its own. Because, in some sense, humanity had reached a new tipping point. It’s easy to make assumptions: to cite Vietnam, social unrest, student protests, racial violence, any number of issues. There was this underlying implication the 50s and the early 60s (before November 22nd, 1963) were a time of hope and promise — surplus naivete.

Even the films had changed. Just look to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde. Then, there was a new batch of progressive works like In The Heat of The Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Two for The Road must fit into this puzzle as well, though it’s place is more difficult to explain and thus, we might wager a guess why it’s not often voiced in the same company. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with it being a weaker movie. Still, because it doesn’t capture the “moment” as much, it cannot easily be rewarded for being cutting-edge.

And yet, in its own way, it was of its time and representative of this ongoing form of change. Because it is a mature romance. Audrey Hepburn — the movie-watching world’s darling — has had her heart broken, been trampled on, and done some irreparable damage of her own.

This was not just make-believe, mind you. Reality and the theatrical overlap closer than we probably realize (Hepburn’s marriage to Mel Ferrer was sadly on a fast decline). However, Stanley Donen, coming from his pedigree as a musical maestro, never quite lost the sense of romanticism — his belief in magical things.

You could say Audrey Hepburn was one of the perfect embodiments of his beliefs because she was so sweet, demure, and beautiful. We can all imagine her at the center of romances galore — she was in some of the most iconic, after all. And yet amidst the lingering illusions of Hollywood, there is this sense of something more heart-wrenching and hard.

Albert Finney might be the finest vehicle to acts as an opposite force of nature — larger-than-life, barrel-chested, and in many ways the utter antithesis of Audrey. He came of age in the resurgence of Britain’s gritty kitchen sink dramas. He was by no means a counter-cultural figure, but he has the gusto of a Brando and his disciples — a bit of the cocky bravado that’s nevertheless disarming. In no small way, they make the perfect couple in cinematic terms, sitting at the crossroads of the decade. Somehow they’ve met and found themselves on near equal footing.

The story itself, by Frederic Raphael, is ambitious as it skips and jumps through a love story, a constant exercise in cuts and whip-fast transitions. In fact, you might say Two For the Road is won in the editing room even more so than most films because it builds peaks and valleys with both a frenetic pace and constant changing snapshots of life. It resonates on these levels without ever feeling turgid. If it does turn on a dime, then it gives the freedom — the necessary space — for leeway and visual connections between past and present.

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It commences at the beginning of the end. The husband and wife slump in a car, watching cynically as a pair of newlyweds walk out of a church. They see their youth reflected back at them. But there were happier times once, what now seems like many eons ago.

The adolescent days full of sun-soaked afternoons and equally idyllic intentions. The French countryside was ripe with promise. Open-air automobiles and “thou” was all that necessitated a contented life. Of course, those were the days when “thou” meant a happy companion. Riding in the MG with a persistent “donk” in the engine only facilitated moments to look back on and laugh.

Finney is constantly mislaying his passport, chomping through apple scruff, and doing his Bogart impressions. One of his finest hours is strolling into a ritzy hotel that they can’t afford, his coat bulging with the edible spoils from the outside — only to drop them all over the lobby.

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Hepburn is clothed in red, hair free, and alive on so many levels. Picking up a ride as a hitchhiker a la Claudette Colbert. Seeking shelter from the rain or frolicking in the shallows without a care in the world. It’s an extension of her earlier personas from Roman Holiday and Funny Face.

Then come the spirals charting the bitter dissolution of a marriage as it crumbles into fractured pieces of apathy. Affairs follow on both sides, involving a cajoling lady motorist and a supremely confident French romantic. We cannot help but feel they are pale imitations of the real thing. They are only a momentary antidote. They cannot truly satisfy and repair the wounds.

The paradoxical aspect of love is evident with time. Yes, the honeymoon is over, the nagging begins, the arguments, raised voices, life gets in the way. And yet somehow it seems true that you often only know you love somebody else after the speed bumps and roadblocks. Closer still, you love them in spite of them.

Henry Mancini’s score is one of his most lastingly melancholy, striking the notes back and forth between a whirly gig warmth of summer carnivals and then the summers after when you’ve fallen out of love. The repeating string motif continually reinforces this feeling even as he reaches out for lingering bits of nostalgia.

Because there’s a playfulness dancing within the frames just as there is elegance. How can it not be with Audrey Hepburn? So, while we have a sense these are movie stars — glamorous, richly-attired, all the superlatives — their love affair is besieged with the slings and arrows aimed at each of us.

Petty squabbles. Tedium. Poor communication. Evaporating memories. Jobs and families. Reprioritized lives. Most important of all, falling back in love — even if it’s only the hint of a spark — sometimes it’s enough. So have Audrey and Donen grown into a new decade? We must admit they are different, wiser, wounded even, but the great gift is how Two for The Road still leaves some space for love to exist.

In the midst of a myriad of distractions and messy lives between flawed people, it really is a miracle. It is romance coming to terms with changing times and yet not quite giving up on the ideals of romantic commitment.

4/5 Stars

Indiscreet (1958): In Honor of Stanley Donen

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Note: This post was written soon after the passing of Stanley Donen.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman on adjacent title cards is all you should need to watch the movie. Although I came for an entirely different name because this past spring we lost Stanley Donen — the last remnant of Hollywood’s Golden age — and it seemed necessary to pay him the highest tribute I can. It’s not with words, no, but by actually sitting down and enjoying one of his films.

Ingrid Bergman is one of the sweetest screen stars. She’s not altogether impervious to vengeful thoughts, but you never see her taking it too far.  We always want the best for her, and it’s little different here. Her preexisting life is utter humdrum. Everything about it is just too immaculate.

As a well-to-do, internationally acclaimed actress, she is, nevertheless, a woman who comes back from a tour abroad totally dissatisfied with the men she’s been able to come across. It’s not that they aren’t handsome, rich, good dancers, or the like. But she wants someone interesting, an intellectual equal, and a little old-fashioned charm wouldn’t hurt. Her usual circles don’t appear to be a ready breeding ground for such types.

Anna’s emotionally involved sister — married to a high-ranking official — questions why she has never settled on a man. Perhaps her standards are just too high (don’t listen to her Ingrid!). No matter, it looks to be another dull evening out on the town at a foreign dinner. The speaker is no doubt a snooty new candidate for NATO. It’s a high-class bore.

However, the stuffy ordeal all of a sudden gets a lot more swoon-worthy for everyone involved when Cary Grant walks through the front door. We’ve all but been guaranteed a diverting evening. So Margaret, ever prying into her sister’s affairs, gets set to play a bit of a matchmaker, relishing the setup, and the predictable outcomes. We have our story. Grant being charming and Bergman enjoying his company while still remaining aloof. He’s almost too good to be true. What of skeletons in his closet?

Dare I say, it’s all inconsequential, lest you get the wrong impression? Because there’s no doubt about it. The plot is facile. The conflict is thin. On the other hand, the tete-a-tete is most agreeable. One would habit a guess, without our stars, the picture would be quite flat. With them, all of a sudden, characters and the subsequent story is given texture. Their chemistry is present before the picture begins, and it exits with them after the final curtain. This is one of the keys.

Stanley Donen doesn’t have to do too much touch-up around his already spectacular talent, but he does utilize a split-screen to conveniently mollify the production codes, with the two lovers sharing a telephone conversation in their respective beds. Nora Ephron purportedly loved this movie thus, When Harry Met Sally got much the same treatment. It can be seen as another homage just as Sleeping in Seattle came out of the tradition of An Affair to Remember.

In Indiscreet they occupy themselves talking about the mundane things from the weather, to playing the violin, elder statesmen, and lamb chops. We don’t care all that much because the bottom line is spending time with Cary and Ingrid. There is Grant’s mild reveal. He’s got a big secret. Well, it’s not too big, but I’ll avoid spoiling it all the same.

If Fred Astaire’s dancing is immaculate, then Grant’s is equally so for entirely different reasons.  It’s not from any amount of meticulous choreography, but his spry and innumerable graces. He always walked this phenomenal thin line between suavity and comic pratfalls, no doubt learned in his early days as an acrobat.

His physical prowess hasn’t atrophied, aiding him splendidly on the dance floor in Indiscreet, through every step of his flailing, jumping jig. What’s more, Bergman, eyeing him with an unfettered look of disdain, is equally important. There’s no question it’s a defining scene in an unassuming trifle of a rom-com.

The final act is consumed with Anna’s attempt at a bit of friendly revenge. She puts on a pitiful charade to get back at her masquerading lover, engaging the services of her in-house help. The final punchline is a genuine amount of sincerity coming over the man as the clock strikes 12. Why you ask? Because we want a happy ending.

It’s a strange sensation to see Cary Grant’s profile in an embrace, with Ingrid’s head nestled on his shoulder, smiling off past the camera. I felt like I’ve seen this all before somewhere. Was it in Notorious, An Affair to Remember, North by Northwest, Charade? Maybe it was all of the above. It never gets old. When the greats get together, it’s not always perfection; sometimes all we’re looking for is diverting entertainment.

It seems apt to call upon a line Cary Grant sneaks into the end of the film. He’s harried. It seems like he’s being laughed at for being vulnerable. He hasn’t understood the underlying joke.

So pacing around in front of his giddy romantic partner, he surmises men are the true romanticists. I cannot corroborate if this is true or not, but there’s a sneaking suspicion that Stanley Donen might believe this as well. It’s hard to dispute when you watch his movies, as buoyant and propelled by romantic fancy as they are. Indiscreet is little different. It’s a fitting testament to one of the unsung greats. He will be dearly missed.

3.5/5 Stars

Port of Shadows (1938) and The Face of Jean Gabin

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“Like the movies. I see you. I like you. Love at first sight.” – Jean Gabin

Jean Gabin has one of the great visages of the cinema. But in making such a statement you immediately run the risk of giving the wrong impression. To actually see him on the big screen is to know what I mean. He is not classically handsome in the Hollywood sense, fitting somewhere in between Spencer Tracy, Bogart, and Fonda when Hank had a chip on his shoulder. And yet set off in black and white as Gabin always was during his most prolific periods, there is something unmistakable about his face.

It is worn with the grooves, contours, and the residual sadness that come with life. He gives the impression of seeing the world, having his heart ripped out, being battered and bruised, while still choosing to press on anyway. You could say he has the entire French experience of the early 20th century on his brow. He’s simultaneously a projection of their best self in the face of hardship.

Historically, the cultural mood and the looming world war to come were ill-omens, as far as the release of the film was concerned. It was far too portentous to be met without some amount of resistance

In Port of Shadows, Gabin fittingly plays a jaded soldier who catches a lift to the nearby port town of Le Havre. In an opening act of clemency, he keeps his truck-driving benefactor from quashing a mutt masked by the billows of fog. It’s an instant flag. We know this man. His emotions are not obvious, but they are there; he concerns himself with the well-being of others. There is a heart under there somewhere. Scene after scene his constant companion is the runty little dog, a continual reminder of who he is as a man.

Along with setting up its star, we soon learn director Marcel Carne cares about his characters and takes care of them. Not that the environments are unimportant. Between the pitch darkness of the highway or the smoky and garish interiors of the club, there’s atmosphere aplenty. But Carne is focused on his players; their faces and distinct movements, allowing them to be focal points of scenes in a generally clean, uninterrupted fashion.

Between the instantly palpable world and the menagerie of players cycling in and out, Port of Shadows cannot help but feel like a prototype for everything from Casablanca to the entire film noir movement with its smoky brand of realism.

I don’t know much about the time frame of when the picture takes place. In all honesty, I’m not all that concerned with that so much because instantly you are pulled into a world’s depth of field with its shadow and fascinating figures. There’s a compulsion to fall into the story and be as fully involved as possible.

He’s in town, flat broke, and there’s an unspoken understanding he’s not looking to get noticed by the local gendarmerie — most obviously a deserter. This is one of those picturesque places where you can fall in with drunken vagabonds and find yourself on the receiving end of neighborliness.

As is, everyone who is down-and-out or in trouble seems to go to Panama’s, though it serves as little more than an old shack with a couple of rooms.  A sorry excuse for a hangout and yet it has far more life than the fancy club in town. It’s the people there who truly make it worthwhile.

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Jean (Gabin) is given a meal by the ragged proprietor, gets some fancy talk from an amiable artist, before meeting the most important person: Nelly (Michele Morgan). She’s young but precocious, mature beyond her years. The same might be said of Morgan who assuredly holds her own against all her male costars. She’s thoroughly outnumbered yet she handles it poise.

It’s a testament to the strength and varied colorfulness of the characters that the illustrious Michel Simon almost becomes of less interest as Nelly’s despicable godfather, especially compared to the peculiar sots he was tasked with portraying in Boudu and L’Atalante. His big scenes come near the end of the picture anyway.

Mostly this is a love story. In a rare moment of self-reflexity, Jean mentions how theirs is a movie romance. It’s this heightened sense of romantic reality. If we put it up against anything we experientially know to be true, it’s poppycock, but between the eyes and embraces of Morgan and Gabin, it just feels right.

We also learn more about Jean. Not only is he capable of deep measures of love, but he has no tolerance for lowlifes and scum — those lacking a sense of honor or principle. You have it out with a man face-to-face with fists, not from behind. One of his main targets is the local gangster Lucien who is nothing more than an arrogant rich kid with too much time on his hands. He wants his hands on Nelly. Jean is having none of it. He cuts directly through the artifice, slapping him around for his impudence.

The story comes to a head on the docks and again, of all places, at the bumper cars in the middle of a carnival. You do not mess around with Jean Gabin when a girl is involved. This could be the movie’s ending; the romance would be the euphoric and the hero would remain triumphant. However, it is a movie and so a greater, darker, more wistful avenue of drama is in order.

Because Jean knows he is not safe, though he has gratefully taken another man’s identity. It is better for him to leave on the latest vessel shipping out to Venezuela the following day. His love for Nelly is great, but there is a need to move on, to let her be while also keeping her away from the trouble that would come from knowing him. He does the selfish or heroic thing (depending on how you look at it), in cinematic terms, and he doesn’t tell her. He holds off as long as possible.

One fine sequence is at the waterfront bar with kegs of alcohol lodged right outside the door. There’s a conversation at the bar between the bartender and an old acquaintance we’ve already met. At a distant table, our protagonist, with his new identity bequeathed him by the philosophizing painter, charts his course for Venezuela aboard the freighter now sitting in the harbor.

These seem like mundane enough scenarios, but instead of a normal cut, Carne rides an extra with his camera, acting like the seamless segue between the two conversations. It’s a classy and efficient way to keep the scenarios fluid even in a seemingly sedentary state.

These lulls lead up to what can only be seen as the film’s inevitable tragedy. Like the most sublime expressions of cinema, Port of Shadows is a visceral, emotive experience capable of so many things. It’s a piece of art: humorous, tragic, brooding, and searingly romantic. In short, a sheer pleasure to take part in.

4.5/5 Stars

Floating Clouds (1955): Capturing Japan’s Post-War Zeitgeist

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The Odyssey to finally get to Mikio Naruse has been a long and arduous one. I must admit, like many before me, his name carries none of the recognition we commonly lavish upon Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, and a select few. So, for the longest time, there was no pursuit. His name was totally unknown.

However, as you begin to familiarize yourself with Japanese cinema (and I must admit to still being a relative novice), there are certain names that you keep coming back to. Masaki Kobayashi and Kon Ichikawa fall right behind the illustrious trifecta. Certainly, you have the Japanese New Wave directors like Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, and Hiroshi Teshigahara.

However, for some reason, I just could not stop thinking about Mikio Naruse. It seemed like I was always being reminded of him. Whether it was Kurosawa praising his writing or Hirokazu Kore-eda saying his style was more akin to the lineage of Naruse and not Ozu. Again, it reflects an oversight on many film aficionados. We do not pay Naruse much respect because, frankly, there’s not much access to his work in America.

In fact, because I am so fortunate to come of age as a cinema lover in a world that is so globalized, with content so accessible, it is not a form of helplessness that I have felt too often. It’s not simply a matter of his film’s being hard to come by; it felt like only a few were readily available.

This absence of his work made it all the more imperative to reach him. Finally, I can attest to dipping into his filmography and finding myself deeply fortunate to have made his acquaintance. If it’s allowable to use a German word to describe a Japanese condition, Floating Clouds captures the zeitgeist of Japan in the aftermath of WWII.

The film’s structure feels as fluid as its title. It trusts the audience to follow along without voiceover cues of any kind, drifting in and out of the present and flashbacks set before the war had ended. This is the fashion in which we get to know our two “destitute expatriates” now reunited in 1946.

They met for the first time in Indochina. It’s a world we can contrast with another romance like Red Dust. An outpost out in the forests of Asian proves a far more bearable place to pass the war.  If you recall, the earlier film is made by the red hot chemistry between Clark Gable and Jean Harlow (and with Mary Astor).

Except in such a patriarchal society, like Japan, it always seems to be the man who has the say. Tomioka (Masayuki Mori) begins his acquaintance with Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) with slight jabs at her, all but solidifying his gruff character for the entirety of the film. These rocky foundations give way to passionate romance and Naruse does something dynamic by cutting right between a kiss in the past to one in the present. So much has changed and yet nothing at all. Much of Floating Clouds is about this reconciling this past with the present.

The pensive serenity is one of the unifying hallmarks of the picture. This is another point of departure with a Hollywood romance like Red Dust. This, paradoxically, feels like a grand statement — choosing a tranquil path in a medium that is so often filled with noise and a world full of constant turbulence.

Even in considering his countrymen, Kurosawa is often more dynamic in composition and action. Thus, it seems most obvious to contrast Naruse with Ozu. However, whereas Ozu heralds his presence within the frames through the meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail, you do not necessarily see this to the same degree in Floating Clouds.

It is stripped down to a near Verite approach, which still cannot be mistaken for shoddy work. In fact, it boasts beautiful interludes between two people on par with a picture like Late Spring. It’s not a perfectly ordered fabrication of reality where human drama plays out. The spaces feel rich with the impoverished and worn layers of Japan as it lay. The people are much the same, unadorned yet imbued with truth.

Hideko Takamine is extraordinary for how she is able to manage a spectrum of emotions — exuding an inner strength and individuality — while still giving way to honest feelings of regret. She can be the adulterer, the nagging lover, the broken heart, all of the above , as they cycle through time.

No less important is Masayuki Mori as he acts as her perfect counterpoint. He gives her nothing, or at least very little. Every potentially thoughtful action is dismissed and any form of commitment is avoided doggedly. There is even so much about their preferred temperaments putting them at odds. It seems like circumstance and they’re own interactions together all but destined them to part ways and move on with life. He returns to his wife “nobly,” while she is supported by the brother-in-law who formerly took advantage of her. Every relationship is riddled with these personal dilemmas.

There is another brief snapshot that resonated with me — both in its mild humor and how it proved indicative of the times — when Yukiko is walking down a street alone. In the periphery, we see what looks to be a Japanese woman with an American G.I. He seems to be at least a head taller than everyone else. Then, almost on cue there comes a voice, speaking my native tongue: English.

It’s a second G.I. looking for a date, and he affably asks her in broken, bastardized Japanese (rather like what I’m capable of speaking), if she’s alone and where she’s going. She simply smiles and moves on, either to brush him off or resign herself to a superficial evening of companionship. He exists as more of an archetype than a fully defined character even given that his name is “Joe.”

However, what it provides is a fascinating counterpoint to what we are used to in our little universe, where everything commonly revolves around the western world, if not America. Pictures like House of Bamboo, Sayonara, Teahouse of the August Moon, they all give us a very specific and tailored experience.

It’s somewhat strange and fascinating to feel like the “other.” The soldier here is the sailor in Lola (1961) or the soldier in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). In fact, they all serve much the same function. They come to represent a different type of relationship and with it a diverging life, even if it’s only meant to be a momentary fleeting fancy. 

This is not a picture where we see the chaos and the bloodshed. After all, these two were the “lucky ones” stationed in Indochina. And yet we see the shadowy imprint of a former life involving suffering, poverty, and the ignominy of surrender. It doesn’t seem too farfetched to claim Floating Clouds somehow channeled the thoughts and feelings of a generation. The Best Years of Our Lives might be similar to a generation of Americans.

Consequently, as a viewer in this contemporary moment and an American on top of that, there is a realization of how much I take for granted in this story. I am more like the American soldier than I am this couple. It proves a humbling observation, carving a path toward some sense of empathy.

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 Eventually, her lover turns up again — still as brusque and egocentric as ever, looking around at her plain surroundings and commenting on how well she’s doing. These types of evasive, indirect proclamations are all she ever gets. So she’s hanging on his words, getting whisked this way and that with partial promises and empty hopes, never going anywhere. Later on, he has his eyes on the pretty young wife (Mariko Okada) of an acquaintance (even soaking in the public bath together). After all, in superficial terms, she is much more “desirable.”

To consider the American soldier again, he was on leave for two months before shipping home. Even in the short amount of time, he was overflowing with geniality. If we take Floating Clouds as indicative of all of Japanese society, it proves a telling portrait. There is no affection or sense of vulnerability within men. Endemic to the society and more so a holdover of the war. It’s not simply about women being overly emotional, though this is often the cultural expectation. More emphatically so, the men lack any type of emotion. They are ingrained with this stoic (sho ga nai) mentality.

There are numerous walk-and-talks, and the scenery and setup might as well be interchangeable, but the subtext and junctures in their lives are starkly different each time. So we have all these snippets wedged in between their life events as they orbit in and out of each other’s lives.

It’s easy enough to juxtapose it with Citizen Kanes dinner table scene where a relationship is seen crumbling in a matter of minutes. Stretched out as it is, within Floating Clouds, these walks continue this metaphor of progression. It is the progress of life, of a relationship, and of the world existing around us. Because while the steps might remain the same, the circumstances are different around every bend. Time marches on with each footfall.

It’s not about being ships in the night either — that they missed out on one another’s company — simply put, they are abrasive together. Their traits and identities are constantly causing them to attract and repel each other again and again.

The lasting image is a bent head, but this is not one of Ozu’s quiet forlorn scenes where a father has just made the honorable decision to give up his daughter. These are ugly, bitter tears. He is weeping. And this man, for the first time in his life, is providing physical acknowledgment of how much another individual human being meant to him. In a Hollywood picture, the action would be meaningful, but not unprecedented. In this movie, it feels heart-wrenching because we have yet to anything so transparent.

It’s an evocative final note in a work rarely prone to this kind of overt outpouring. It’s the cathartic release in a bittersweet tragedy. All we can do is bemoan the fact this man was never vulnerable enough to admit the depths of his love during life. Unfortunately, in this particular life, there is no resurrection.

4.5/5 Stars

It’s Love I’m After (1937): In Honor of Olivia De Havilland

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There is a very significant reason to be watching It’s Love I’m After at this time. Her name is Olivia de Havilland, and by some brilliant piece of Providence, she has just recently turned 104 years old! She, of course, was in her early 20s when this movie came out and what a charmer it is.

A few years before To Be or Not To Be, here is another movie hamming up Shakespeare on the stage. This time it’s Leslie Howard and Bette Davis as they act out their version of Romeo and Juliet for a rapt audience. What makes the sequence is the dueling couple whispering snide asides to one another mid-performance. Barbs about garlic breath and upstaging come out because they’re both conceited and jealously in love.

But where is Olivia in all of this? She’s up in the balcony swooning over the sublime eye candy down on the stage. She’s seen all of his performances and is positively devoted to his very essence. Her boyfriend (Patric Knowles) looks on with frustration as he’s having to compete with a rival who has never even met his girl before.

This is soon remedied when she promptly goes backstage to pay her respects. It’s all quite innocent. Basil and Joyce continue their incessant bickering from their adjoining dressing rooms, still at each other’s throats, despite the wall between them.

Then, Marcia West presents herself positively agog by the image of her idol thoroughly in the flesh before her. He’s flattered but he hardly knows what he’s doing when he accepts her compliments. Worse still, Joyce sees the young woman on her way out. Harmless or not, it adds further fuel to their relational fires.

What a delight it is to see such beloved thespians and titans of dramaturgy like Howard and Davis doing comedy, of all things, and doing it quite well in the screwball vein. After all, this would be their third picture together following Of Human Bondage and Petrified Forest. There’s no comparison.

The movie is totally overtaken by bipolar swings in fortune. First lovers’ quarrels — it’s the worst New Year’s Eve ever — then there are marriage proposals, and finally, Basil resolves to help a young fellow out.

They do have some handy support. There were few better in this department than Eric Blore, and he has a readily available supply of birdcalls and advice on his master’s matrimonial habits on the “precipice,” as it were.

Being your typically theatrical, philandering type, Basil resolves to shirk his impulses and pursue his own moral salvation. In this case, his good deed is for a lovesick fellow whose best girl is smitten with the stagebound Romeo. The actor doesn’t know it’s the same girl. How can he? No one in these movies ever stops to compare notes.

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Still, he resolves to turn up on her doorstep and rudely ruffle her illusion of him. He and his man Digges (Blore) pay a late-night housecall to the West residence. Their shouts of “ire” soon become “fire” and brief pandemonium sets in as an impromptu round of “We’re here because we’re here” comes out sounding a lot like “Auld Lang Syne.”

He schmoozes his way into the house, making himself at home in the company of the avuncular father, befuddled mother, and a gossiping sister (Bonita Granville) always peeping through keyholes. But in Marcia’s eyes, he can still do no wrong. Now he’s got quite the prompting audience, and he’s all but ready to do his part.

His bit of showmanship has him playing up his image as an egotistical malcontent tearing through the guests and their breakfast table with ferocity (and some help from the Bard). Digges does his best to complain about the lack of kippers and other inadequacies. None of it congeals as they were hoping, in fact, it has an adverse effect. Marcia agrees with his every word.

As someone fed on a steady diet of P.G. Wodehouse and Jeeves and Wooster, there’s something familiar and comforting about the picture’s comic situation. Basil is no Bertie Wooster. Digges is no Jeeves, but they are stuck in the same madcap realm of romantic entanglement mixed with comedic hijinks.

Whatever Basil tries is quite unsuccessful in quelling the ardor or the affection of Ms. West. The best-laid plans all too quickly go awry and poor Digges can do little to stop the inevitable. Joyce makes her reappearance at precisely the most inopportune time. She catches her man in the arm of another. The jealous boyfriend feels affronted as he watches his girl be ripped away from him, albeit unwittingly.

The story couldn’t look bleaker and further from its agreed-upon happy ending and yet, eventually, it comes, like any good rom-com. Don’t ask me how it happens. Maybe it’s the youthful fickleness of De Havilland’s ingenue. Perhaps cinematic serendipity gets in the way. Regardless, the partners shuffle around only to get back together with their ordained.

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis are, again, madly in love, then yelling and screaming and pushing each other across the room. Digges is busy packing the suitcases only for the contents to come tumbling out as future husband and wife make up and share a passionate embrace. What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East and Juliet is the sun! End scene.

3.5/5 Stars

 

It’s Always Fair Weather (1955): A Musical For The TV Age

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Conventional wisdom tells us you don’t make a musical quite like this. It’s a bit of a nostalgia piece and already it seems like American was ready to move on with life after WWIII.

It’s relatively straightforward to assume that It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) was a harbinger of a change in appeal with the general public because if we look back to Good News (1947), that’s arguably where the run of great MGM musicals began and they could hardly be stopped. There’s nothing drastically different about the foolproof formula or the players behind the scenes, for that matter. We still have Arthur Freed, Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, Cyd Charisse, Adolph Green & Betty Comden, as well as any number of integral folks I failed to mention.

Well, we do have one primary demarcation, deserving some acknowledgment. Here is a musical with a cynical streak — something that feels incongruous, like oil and water almost. In the opening minutes, I don’t mind saying that I was of the same sentiment. It doesn’t seem like a musical.

We have three boys marching home: Ted (Gene Kelly), Doug (Dan Dailey), and Angie (Michael Kidd), victorious from the war and frequenting the bar they always called home before. But at some point, reality hits — the emering complications at home in a drama such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) or an insidious film noir a la The Blue Dahlia (1946) or Act of Violence (1948).

But you see, this picture sets up its premise when the three inseparable war buddies bet the hard-bitten bartender, come rain or shine or sleet, they’ll get back together in 10 years, because they’re the real deal. Time won’t dampen their friendship.

They share a drunken cab dance, escalating in a garbage can crescendo that’s got that same panache of old. However, the merriment dies dow,n and they realize they’re civilians now. The inevitable parting arrives, and they go there separate ways. Only time will tell what happens next…

The production itself shows parallel issues involving the passage of time to mirror the plot. Even in casting. Initially Green and Comden envisioned this project as a spiritual sequel to On The Town, reteaming that film’s stars. They got Kelly, but with new leadership at MGM headed by Dore Schary, Sinatra was out and Munshin wasn’t a big enough name. Thus, we got the underrated pair of Dailey — a quality dancer in his own right, and Kidd, a workhorse choreographer, who blessed audiences with the Barn raising scene in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, among other efforts.

Still, undoubtedly, times have changed. Behind the scenes, Kelly was chafing with Donen. I suspect because the younger man had proved he could handle a highly successful picture on his own (Seven Brides with Seven Brothers), and he would continue to do so. The cracks in the collaboration were beginning to show.

And yet even as the film settles into the contemporary era, the ensuing themes become surprisingly resonant. The day is October 11th, 1955: 10 years to the day they split up, and things couldn’t be more different.

Ted never got married after his best girl dumped him and has stayed in Chicago working the crap tables, romancing dames, and recently winding up in the boxing racket with a young bull named Kid Mariachi. Doug has done well for himself, despite giving up his passion for painting, becoming a highly lucrative television advertising man. His sponsor spots for Molly Mop (voiced by the ubiquitous June Foray) are currently all the rage.

However, though married with a comfortable life, it doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to tell the years have left his stomach soft and his heart hard. Meanwhile, Angie’s married too with a whole house of kids and a loving wife who helps him run his burger joint: The Cordon Bleu.

The miracle is that they all keep there promise to be there! But as the euphoria subsides, they realize they have nothing in common. Beyond that, they can’t stand each other now, and it begins to gnaw at them. They’re ready to get on with their lives and accept this is how it goes when time marches on. Fate has other ideas.

It’s one shrewd advertising executive (Cyd Charisse) who spots an opportunity to reunite the boys on live television in the popular segment featured on Madeline Bradyville’s (Dolores Gray) nationally syndicated program. Ms. Jackie Leyton takes it upon herself to get Ted to the showing and enlists her colleagues to do the same with the other men.

She really is a marvel. Heading off any of his initial amorous advances and then taking on the male initiative to his complete bewilderment. On top of that, her Encyclopedic knowledge of any number of subjects has him speechless and wows the crowd at his boxing gym. Charisse doesn’t get too much time to flaunt her skill, but nevertheless, “Baby You Knock Me Out” is a comically upbeat number that does the trick.

Though the picture was shot in widescreen, it doesn’t necessarily lead to revolutionary musical numbers. However, much like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? the canvass is used on multiple occasions to draw out the limitations and satirize the “idiot boxes” fast becoming all the rage in the American household.

Meanwhile, things are just not going Ted’s way. Not only is he getting emasculated by this beautiful, befuddling woman, he learns from a dumb lug that a local gangster (Jay C. Flippen) has fixed his match. Kelly fails to have a truly singular moment until he pops on a pair of roller skates. We know it when he does the same charming shoulder shrug from Singin in the Rain that we are in for an indelible moment.

Sure enough, he goes gliding around studio street corners with ease, rolling and tapping his way along gayly until his curbside antics bring everything to a standstill — the masses cheering him on. It’s one of the first signs that fortunes might be turning.

It’s Always Fair Weather gets better and better with every passing minute maybe because it doesn’t ride the disillusionment all the way to the end. Even with commercialism, advertising, corruption, and whatever else, when we get out on the other side there is an underlying satisfaction to the ending.

Dolores Gray’s humorous “Thanks but no Thanks” complete with trap doors and rocketing male suitors off the stage, is another outrageous comic aside. Then, the three old buddies are brought together as part human interest story, part ratings gimmick. We think we know how it’ll go. It spells trainwreck in big, bold letters.

Well, that’s not quite right. Instead, we get a brawl captured by the candid cameras and broadcast the country over, complete with a confession by a top-level thug. It’s uproarious, fatuous, and far-fetched, but it’s also the exact catharsis we were begging for.

It reinforces values that we desperately hoped to be true, and it does it with a wink and a smile (along with plenty of broken tables and chairs). When friendship actually meant something. There was no Facebook or Skype or any faceless form of communication. To be with those people in the same space and share memories and go through galvanizing experiences together. That was all you had and sometimes, I would take one of those types of days over a boatload of the internet age’s connections.

Because I think most of us have gotten over Television. The medium has become status quo even quaint. It’s not killing us slowly (or maybe it already has), but the web is the new frontier just waiting to be eviscerated by a musical such as this. I would gladly watch that, but of course, such a project wouldn’t have names attached to it that mean so much to me: from Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen to my new favorite star Cyd Charisse.

Maybe It’s Always Fair Weather spelled that the classical Hollywood musical, as such, was dead, but even if contemporary reception was not stellar, it comes off today as a regularly insightful musical and satire. By now, I’d probably follow Kelly and Charisse to the moon and back again anyway.

4/5 Stars

The Band Wagon (1953) with Fred & Cyd

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Some may recall the opening titles of Top Hat (1935). They play over a man’s hat only for the head under it to move as the names subside, and we find Fred Astaire under its brim in his coat and tails. Now, well nigh 20 years later, the same imagery is being called upon.

There’s an auction going on, including the sale of, of all things, a top hat evoking the same Astaire and Rogers musicals of old. It’s not in much demand as the man who formerly wore it, to much acclaim, is now a has-been. In fact, the biographical aspects of the picture are striking even when we can’t quite discern the fiction from the half-truths. Maybe that’s the key.

Already Fred Astaire himself had announced retirement several times, though one could hardly concede his career had stalled. In another bit of fitting parallelism, Adolph Green and Betty Comden penned a husband and wife duo for the storyline much like them (sans marriage). The head maestro character had some inspiration in Jose Ferrer who at the time had at least three shows on Broadway and was starring in a fourth.

The dashes of authenticity are all but undeniable as is a minor cameo by fawned-over heartthrob Ava Gardner. Consequently, I always thought the actress shared some minor resemblance to Cyd Charisse who was promoted to leading lady in this movie.

Out of these details blooms a picture that’s a fascinating exercise in touched-up reality because we see the ins and outs of a production with a behind-the-scenes narrative akin to Singin in the Rain. It makes us feel like we’re a part of something on an intimate level.

The early “Shoeshine” number with Astaire checking out a penny arcade, shows the inherent allure of a Minnelli-Astaire partnership. Because it was Astaire who made film dancing what it is, intent on capturing as much of the action in full-bodied, undisrupted takes. The focus was on the dancers, and there was an examination of their skill announcing unequivocally that there was nothing phony about them.

But as technology began to change and more complex camera setups became possible, this newfound capability was seen as an aid to the art rather than a detraction. Gene Kelly was of this thought as well. With the combination of sashaying forms and a dynamic camera, there was a greater capacity to capture the true energy that came out of dance. One could argue reality was lost, but some other emotional life force was gained.

And we see that here with Astaire grooving around past fortune-tellers and shooting galleries with the world tapping along with him. He and the real-life singing shoeshiner, Leroy Daniels, build an indisputable cadence through a momentary collaboration. It proves infectious.  Minnelli who himself had a background in set design seems most fully in his element surrounded by extras, colors, and any amount of toys to move around and orchestrate.

When Jefferey Cordoba (Jack Buchanan) finally signs on to direct and joins this dream team, he brings an endearing brand of histrionics with him. At his most quotable, he says, “In my mind, there is no difference between the magic rhythms of Bill Shakespeare’s immortal verse and the magic rhythms of Bill Robinson’s immortal feet.”

“That’s Entertainment!” captures his pure enthusiasm for the industry, giving anyone free rein to tell a story, where the world and the stage overlap and as the Bard said, all the various individuals are merely players.

However, this show previously envisioned as a happy-go-lucky musical hit parade soon takes on a life of its own, morphing into a retelling of Faust. We see Tony Hunter stretching himself as an actor, something Astaire himself was probably uncomfortable with. Likewise, he’s equally nervous about starring with Gabrielle Gerard who is a rapidly rising talent, thanks to the controlling nature of her choreographer boyfriend (James Mitchell).

Aside from her skill, her height is also something that the veteran dancer is self-conscience about. He smokes incessantly. She never does. So they each bring their insecurities and nerves to the production, erupting in a series of miscommunications during their first encounter. Still, the show charges onward regardless.

Even as the production proves to be a trainwreck and opening night approaches, it is the joint realization that they’re both out of sorts helping Tony and Gaby right their relationship. They take a ride through the park and wind up in arguably their most integral dance together.

Because it says, with two bodies in motion, what every other picture that’s not a musical must do through romantic dialogue or meaningful action. And it’s like the Astaire and Rogers films of old. Similarly, dance is not simply a diversion — something pretty to look at —  but it becomes the building blocks for our characters’ chemistry.

I find their forms marvelous together, both equally long and graceful side-by-side and in each other’s arms. The movements are so measured, effortless, and attuned, leading them right back into their carriage from whence they came.

Cordoba gets progressively carried away with his vision in what feels like tinges of The Red Shoes. Pyrotechnics and an excessive amount of props mask the core assets of the show, which are the performers themselves. What was purported to be a surefire success, just as easily becomes a monumental flop as the social elites walk out of the preview like zombies leaving a wake. Even if the image is laughable, it also acts as a reminder that all great forms of entertainment start with human beings.

“I Love Louisa” is a kind of musical reprieve as the whole gang, from the stars to the bit performers, try to shake the shell shock. The fun is put back into the players, their art, and this whole movie as Tony resolves to take their production in a new direction — as a musical revue.

I couldn’t help watching Cyd Charisse, for some reason, during the song. No, she’s not the focal point, but there she is prancing about and having a merry old time with all the extras in the background. They’re all a community of people enjoying their failure together. Bonding over it. It’s bigger than one individual. It’s easy to acknowledge The Band Wagon might be thoroughly enjoyable for these periphery elements alone.

There are a couple, dare I say, throwaway placeholders to follow. Certainly, not the best of musical team Schwartz and Dietz. But “Girl Hunt — A Murder Mystery in Jazz,” is a labyrinthian sequence capturing the essence of the dark genre through voiceover and stylized visuals being interpreted through muscular dance. There are dual roles for Charisse as the deadly female. The action culminating in a seedy, smoke-filled cafe complete with a final showdown with a femme fatale in drop-dead red.

In this redressed form, they’re a stirring success. We are reminded sentimentally that the cast has become a family and Tony is their unlikely head. There’s one rousing reprise of “That’s Entertainment!” and Fred and Cyd (not Ginger, sorry folks) share a kiss.

The Band Wagon is a testament that Astaire was far from washed up and Charisse proves herself ably by his side as one of his best co-stars.  What imprints itself, when the curtains have fallen on this backstage musical, is just how congenial it is. There are few better offerings from MGM, capable of both exuberance and something even more difficult to find these days: bona fide poise. Singin in the Rain is beloved by many and yet The Band Wagon is deserving of much the same repute, whether it’s won it already or not.

Just watch Astaire and Charisse together. Her beauty is surpassed only by her presence as a dancer. He might be 20 years older and yet never seems to break a sweat, pulling off each routine with astounding ease. Look at his elasticity in the shoeshine chair as living proof. And when they strut, extending their legs with concerted purpose, it’s immaculate. We call them routines but they are not, imbued instead with a gliding elegance that looks almost foreign to us today. There’s nothing else to be said. It’s pure class personified and they make it deeply enchanting.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: An American in Paris (1951): Gene Kelly’s Love Letter to France

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It’s no secret that Gene Kelly had a deep abiding affection for France. He was fluent in the language also becoming the first American ever bestowed the honor of arranging a show for the Paris Opera. He would be honored with the Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur in 1960 and, of course, made a memorable appearance in Jacques Demy’s Young Girls of Rochefort (1967).

Without deep knowledge of his life, I cannot attest to whether or not this affection has roots in An American in Paris or sprouted earlier. But watching the film it’s easy to surmise it captures the unrealized dreams of Kelly’s heart. No, he was never a painter named Jerry Mulligan, but in his lifetime, he was an artist.

When we first hear his instantly placeable voice, providing genial narration, it’s not difficult to believe. Images of Parisian romantce are brought to the screen, and he recounts how he, Jerry Mulligan, went from being a G.I. to a struggling painter in love with France. He’s not the only one, as his pianist friend (Oscar Levant) is in much the same boat, though a little less jovial.

There’s an incessantly bouncy theme playing intermittently at any time our protagonist walks down an avenue with a spring in his step. Does it get a bit tiresome? Emphatically so. Still, we are reminded that Kelly is constantly on the move like a giddy schoolboy.

However, it’s a woman named Milo (as in Venus duh) who spots his work out on the street and takes an immediate liking in it. He’s not quite buying what she’s selling. First of all, no one’s ever given him a break before and secondly, she proceeds to invite him to a party that winds up being a very cozy affair: just the two of them. It’s not the type of patronage Jerry was hoping for, but her money is real enough, and he needs it.

And yet in this Parisian backlot as evoked by director Vincent Minnelli, it’s easy to envy such a carefree life full of benevolent locals, lazy cafes, and a plethora of song and dance to brighten any day. If hardship is spoken of, it’s very rarely seen in the flesh. People speak flippantly of their lack of funds or food because they always seem to get by. There’s an agreeableness to the facade.

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Gene Kelly with the kiddos is priceless. He becomes their impromptu English teacher playing a game of “Repeat After Me,” which is in the toolkit of anyone who has ever taught a language. His pupils are eager and so what’s next but introduce an American song: “I Got…Rhythm.” Though the Gershwin tune wasn’t born in An American in Paris, it became fully rejuvenated in the hands of Kelly — arguably reaching a new apex.

He makes it more than a song — a malleable plaything for he and the kids to have a bit of fun with — goofing off and prancing about like cowboys and soldiers, then swirling like airplanes for good measure. The most important artistic movement in the picture might be its finale, but the most delightful one is found right here. Because we feel our own childhood antics rushing back.

As his relationship progresses with Milo (Nina Foch), it becomes more complicated since he’s not about to be a live-in companion even as the prevailing need for money remains in the front of his mind. One evening, in particular, he spies the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen (Leslie Caron), an enchanting vision, and immediately drums up some pretense to dance with her. He comes off too strong and alienates her in the process. Not to mention the lady he came with.

One might gather that in the real world Mulligan would be rather problematic and yet Kelly’s characters never seem to exist in the real world, and so his romantic diversions are easy to dismiss. That irascible Kelly charm comes in handy.

Meanwhile, we have the stunning paradox of Leslie Caron, that talented waif-like creature with the cherub face. Effervescently youthful in one moment and yet composed with an undoubted maturity about her even as Kelly comes off as the boyish suitor. She is initially showcased in a sequence meant to describe the contours of her personality as a ballerina, and each moment fittingly paints her in contradictory shades and subjects. She is all things and then none of them.

The most formative number, in terms of the blossoming of their love, is the Gershwin classic “Our Love is Here to Stay” danced gracefully at the water’s edge of the Seine, soaked in soft lamplight. But alas, it was not meant to be. There are too many obstacles in the way, and Mulligan fades into his fantasies — Kelly’s pride and joy — a 17-minute extravaganza.

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Minnelli’s roving camera is in tandem with Kelly’s choreography. An apt illustration of how much Kelly’s work differs decidely from Fred Astaire. Ballet takes precedent in his work as much as inflections of jazz, and he was not averse to such cross-pollination as it were.

The sets are brimming with constant kinetic energy, splashes of color, and elaborate costuming with tones inspired by French masters. It devolves into a dazzling cornucopia carousel of dance, freely flowing against Gershwin’s title composition. All efforts are to elicit the French landscape with cafes, fountains, and chambers full of mirrors.

But it’s not simply a substantial musical routine dashed off or cut together from various interludes. Or if it is, then we can concede there is a certain purpose to its ebb and flow, like a dream existing in some ethereal world both of love and bittersweet uncertainty.

Kelly’s greatest gift to us as an audience is probably putting some form of physical expression to very human emotions, and he did it in a way that feels genuine and to a small degree, attainable for all of us. The love story onscreen is a fairy tale, but he is just the man capable of suspending our disbelief and charming us into fully enjoying the experience.

Perhaps he tries too hard in An American in Paris. How can you not like him? Perhaps Minnelli’s camera dances too much and Kelly and Caron, not enough. I’m not sure. But there are specific instances exceeding the constraints of straightforward narrative fluff. When it enters into the momentarily euphoric, mirthful, or even the deeply regretful. Those emotions stay with me indelibly and this is what the most earnest, most evocative movies are capable of at their best.

4/5 Stars

Summer Stock (1950): MGM on a Farm

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Idyllic imagery with dogs barking, chickens clucking, and trees rustling in the wind introduce the setting. Judy Garland can be found singing in the shower or helping in the kitchen, alongside the faithful Esme (Marjorie Main). After their hired help pulls out expectantly, the brunt of the work falls on the industrious Jane Falbury (Garland), who is not about to let their crop go unpacked, even if she has to do it herself.

The local store clerk Orville Wingait (Eddie Bracken) has harbored feelings for Jane since youth, and it’s all but settled that one day they will be betrothed. Once more the actor plays a variation on the small-town schmuck he always seemed to do for Preston Sturges in his heyday.

Except for, this time, he’s constantly being scolded and pushed around by his exacting father Jasper (Ray Collins). The elder Wingait pulls some strings to get Ms. Falbury a tractor so she can work her land without any assistance. Being the proud individual she is, Jane’s not about to let the debt go unpaid. She’s not married yet and so she’s not seeking out unsolicited favors.

The mirthful “Howdy Neighbor (Happy Harvest)” is an ode to all farmers toiling for an honest day’s work. Waving on locals with her rousing tune, Garland decked out in bibbed overalls piloting the tractor, looks the picture of a Midwestern farm girl. She’s grown up a tad since her days as Dorothy the Kansas farm girl. You would think that, apart from the marriage proposal that might be coming her way, Jane’s settled into her life.

Inevitably, something breaks into her newfound reverie. There would be no mother otherwise. Her preening sister, Abigail (Gloria DeHaven), bred at finishing schools and a little too prissy for her farm roots, comes back bringing in tow a whole troop of performers.

She’s promised them the use of her family’s barn as a home base for their roadshow. It’s just that she never thought to give her family any notice. Jane’s in for a colossal surprise when Joe Ross (Gene Kelly) and his players move in on the land as if they own the place. His cohorts include the rowdy goofball Herb (Phil Silvers) and the slightly entitled professional actor (Hans Conried), who was hired on to star opposite Abigail.

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To mollify her sister’s schoolgirl pleading, Jane finally relents letting them stay, if only they pull their weight around by helping with the daily chores. Kelly gives the gang a rousing pep talk in the kitchen after the dishes have been cleared with “Dig-Dig-Dig Dig For Your Dinner.”

It can’t be that hard. After all, many hands are meant to make light work. But Jane doesn’t have a bunch of cowhands, and the out-of-towners make a shambles of their daily tasks. Namely, Herb with his typical antics not only losing a basket full of the day’s egg crop but also managing to completely decimate Mrs. Falbury’s pristine new tractor.

With the new lodgers, there’s also an obvious conflict with the town at-large. The beloved Country Dance with rich traditions in the community’s historical society is their pride and joy. Nevertheless, the town has long forbidden theatrical performances in their backwoods society since eons ago for some unknowable, arbitrary reason, aside from the fact that they are all uncultured country bumpkins, of course.

The culture clash commences as the unwelcomed outsiders bring their hot jazz to a prim and proper barn dancing affair, with Jane caught between the factions. Her boyfriend and huffing father on one end, and the magnetic Joe on the other.

Summer Stock agreeably gives itself over to the urges of the music, culminating in a giddy dance-off between Kelly and Garland breaking any of the tension they might have on-screen for a momentary jolt of peppy All-American goodness. They’re having a grand time together, indeed, we all are, until we must return to the mechanisms of the storyline.

The pressures of Orville’s marital intentions are now full force even as Abigail quarrels with Joe over their show as he tries to bring all the pieces together. Garland belting out a love song as Kelly sits unseen in a chair, taking it in on the porch, about sums up the dynamic.

The poles are drifting apart in the form of Orville and Abigail, even as the lovers in the middle begin to feel their own form of electricity. If the film is to right itself, the change must happen right there. I’ll allow you to fill in the rest.

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A moment that many remember, for good reason, is so very simple. Kelly stands on the stage, alone, lights low, contemplating, and in those moments, he integrates the sounds around him. Soon the creak of a floorboard, an old newspaper, melded with his own whistling, taps, and a few meager piano notes, take on a life all their own.

He synthesizes them into a rhythm and out of those comes a primitive dance, seemingly built from the ground up right in front of our eyes. I’m not sure if people called Kelly a genius at this point, we still had yet to get An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, but wowee he’s sure struck on something.

And what truly reveals itself is not only his cinematic charm, in such a moment, but the visible relish he seems to be having with every successive revelation. Whether he liked it or not or whether it was easy for him or not, for a suspended instance, we believe we could do this too and get the same joy.

Garland’s most iconic number “Get Happy” finds her dressed in fancier duds in a sequence that was actually shot much later and finds a trimmer and fittingly livier singer delivering one of her trademark anthems. It was the end of an era. Garland would agree to terminate her contract at MGM, and she and Gene Kelly would never work on another picture together. I gather that’s show business. It’s not quite the same as a farm.

3.5/5 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