Kiss Me Kate (1953): A Musical and Meta Entertainment

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The film version of Kiss Me Kate, helmed by MGM’s perennial musical director George Sidney, is a translation of Cole Porter’s rousing Broadway success. We must play a game of two degrees of separation because the stage smash was itself a comical backstage adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of The Shrew. I cannot necessarily attest to where one begins and the other ends, between stage, film, and original play, since my own knowledge is shoddy at best. So I will contain my thoughts to the story at hand.

At its core are the strained relations of a formerly married couple composed of two prima donna stage performers: the devilishly handsome, barrel-chested baritone Fred Graham (Howard Keel) and his equally strong-willed, alluring, and talented ex Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson). In all regards, a match made it heaven. They undoubtedly deserve each other.

The undisputed peppiness of Ann Miller, as she bursts in on them and Cole Porter (Ron Randell), is an immediate jovial assault on their relationship as she flaunts her attributes in “Too Darn Hot” and gets a little lovey-dovey with the self-absorbed leading man. I’m not sure if any audience member is shocked when she’s seen playfully prancing about with her other boyfriend (the always impressive Tommy Rall) in  “Why Can’t You Behave?”

To needlessly mix metaphors, the production is nearly sunk before it gets off the ground. And yet a mixture of persuasion, jealousy, and the quality of the material coaxes Grayson’s character into the fragile reunion. Wunderbar!

Lilli’s rendition of “I Hate Men” proves a blatantly pointed number where on stage sentiments are mirrored in her life; she doesn’t mince words raging through the set, flinging props to her obvious satisfaction.

In fact, she’s far more suited for the flaming red wig she wears on stage than her actual modest cut. The 3-D qualities come to bear thanks to the tossing of beer steins and flower bouquets. It’s one of visual cues to suggest this very purposeful sense of the off-stage and on-stage lives merging and colliding with one another.

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We have the backroom interludes and then the continuous sequences of the performance photographed straight on until little discrepancies come into play to make everything run afoul.

Breaks in characters. Personal vendettas playing out on stage with each minor slap and smack in the stage directions supplied with ample fury from years of pent-up rage. Deviations in the actual production also come to pass. Namely, a cringe-worthy spanking as the midway curtain drops.

It’s in the intermittent period where Kate utters that immortal Shakespearian retort, “Thou Jerk.” In fact, there’s great fun to be had with this conscious collision of Old English prose and the contemporary vernacular. The number “Brush Up On Your Shakespeare” suggests as much.

Keenan Wynn and James Whitemore are brought on to thoroughly liven up the second act as a pair of neighborly enforcers sent to visit Fred in his dressing room. They go so far as becoming a part of the production as it continues to go off script and off-the-rails. Because Kate is intent on running off with her rich boyfriend Tex (a Ralph Bellamy-type), and Graham connives to keep her around, pulling the heavies into his plan.

It feels strikingly like a His Girl Friday (1940) deal as we see our leads gravitating toward others while never finding it within themselves to completely forsake their former spouses, in spite of the mutual distaste. It’s indisputable, but it also suggest the fire still kindling between them.

Hermes Pan adds to his illustrious body of work while Bob Fosse’s choreography is almost a blip on the radar. Even then,  it’s strangely singular and expressive, charting his course toward The Pajama Game and many, many more projects to come.

Meanwhile, Ann Miller’s dancing reminds us that she’s the purest performer on taps within this picture and when given free-range, she follows up her first routine with continued verve. She does feel all over the place, but that can mostly be attributed to her character. In fact, one could affirm that she rightfully earns some of the most memorable screen time based on the uninhibited vivacity she showcases.

In its waning moments, it looks like the fictional production has finally met its inevitable end: a crash-and-burn finale, as the understudy has to rush on to take the place of the departing Catherine. In an off-the-cuff moment, playing opposite his future father-in-law’s question of where his daughter might possibly be,  Fred mutters, “Right now she should be flying over Newark.”

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Thus, Kiss Me Kate, at its most inventive, is hyper-aware of its meta qualities; this story-within-a-story tracing the line between the artificial and the reality projected up on the screen that is itself a fabrication of light and images. It reaches out further than most films of this type because its original release in 3-D, while admittedly a gimmick to snag the TV generation, also accentuates this razor-thin dividing line between the cinematic space and the space that the viewer occupies.

However, ultimately the production though laced with humor and vengeful lovers, quality choreography, and flamboyant set design and costuming, comes off strangely hollow in its landing. Because the ending feels false and inherently wrong.

Here is a man who is conceited and has no sense of self-sacrifice or concern for others, as farcical as he might be. Again, we could argue that Kiss Me Kate is solely entertainment, only occupying cinematic space. And yet we brushed up against everything thus far. How are we to make distinctions? In the real world, even in the 1950s and especially now, there is no excuse for Graham.

Surely, like any person, he deserves a second chance and the grace that comes from a person willing to forgive. However, one might question the way in which Lilli flies back to him. There seems to be no regard for his past indiscretions just as there’s no conversation to be had about the flings they’ve both been having on the sides. Because Kate is herself a bit of an entitled snob. And there you have this falseness most fully realized.

Life is a lot more complicated than film reality. Kiss Me Kate cannot quite pull it off because it inserts the uncluttered, picture-perfect Hollywood framing on the storyline.

Ironically, it’s actually the performance that gets continually disrupted while so-called real-life falls into place nearly seamlessly. So in the end, it matters whether you care about making a distinction between the stage and what happens backstage in the purported reality.

Because at least we can all agree that none of it is actually before us in the flesh where real lives are at stake. We can keep it at an arm’s length and laugh along with it without allowing it to influence our perceptions of this world.

Taken as such, Kiss Me Kate is a coruscating delight bursting forth, rather agreeably, with comedy and song. It can be absorbed merely as diverting Technicolor entertainment for sure. However, when we allow it to reach out and influence our worldview in other ways that’s where we might falter.

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

Ziegfeld Girl (1941): See It For The Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

Maytime (1937): Starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

Shall We Dance (1937): Fred, Ginger, and The Gershwins

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The name Gershwin is synonymous with “The American Songbook” and part of the draw of Shall We Dance is how it included two of them: both the brothers, George and Ira Gershwin. Ira would tragically pass away that same year. However, together they provided the compositions and lyrics for the film which, in some sense, feels like an atypical Astaire and Rogers vehicle.

While Mark Sandrich is in the director’s chair once more following The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Follow The Fleet (1936), there are some unprecedented deviations from the normal foolproof formula. Namely, Astaire plays Peter P. Peters, an American who trades in his taps for a Russian ballet company. He’s certainly will always be a hoofer in most people’s eyes, and it does feel oddly out of character.

What hasn’t changed is his instant infatuation with Rogers, a famous tap dancer in her own right, named Linda Keane. But he must contrive some sort of gimmick and thusly takes up the persona of the touchy Russian dancer “Petrov” to antagonize her on the road toward love. Meanwhile, he tries his very best to evade the flirtations of his former dance partner Denise (Ketti Gallian) who looks to snatch him up.

Of the earliest offerings, Astaire gives us the treat of his cane dancing like he did in Top Hat and then there’s a fine boiler room number, “Slap that Bass” supported by a host of African-American performers thrumming with a healthy dose of character.

The film’s most catastrophic mix-up comes when the newspapers begin promoting a secret marriage between our two stars, thanks to a cockamamie story Peters cooked up on the spot to keep his former suitor at bay as he leaves on an ocean liner.

Petrov and Keane develop some chemistry dog walking together on the deck of the ship only for the gossip swirling about to reach a fever pitch. Astaire’s bumbling boss, Mr. Beard (Edward Everett Horton) uses it as the perfect chance to get rid of her for good. Meanwhile, Eric Blore as his ever-huffy hotel clerk tries his best to figure out the marital status of Petrov and Ms. Keane when preparing their rooms. They leave him ceaselessly befuddled.

Then, a second nefarious scandal is cooked up by Keane’s road manager (Jerome Cowan feeling out of place with the screwball elements), who does his best to kill the upcoming marriage his star has embarked on.  Thanks to some late-night photography and a mannequin bearing a striking resemblance to Linda, the news spreads like wildfire. What are his motives, you ask? He’s got his own reasons.

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Not surprisingly, the closest thing we get to the Astaire and Rogers numbers of old are also the film’s finest entries, including the comic tune “They Laughed at Me” sung by Rogers before being joined in a routine by Astaire. After they sneak out to get away from the publicity hounds, “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” proves a handy follow-up number.

The extended sequence purportedly took a plethora of takes, upwards of 100, while the final fall into the grass left Fred and Ginger with black and blue backsides. They suffered and yet as the audience, we no doubt reap the benefits, especially because Shall We Dance hardly has their traditional big numbers like a Top Hat (1935) or Swing Time (1936) so seeing them on skates together is nearly consolation enough.

They show everyone by getting married, making it easy enough to get divorced so Linda can marry the man she’s meant to. Since their movies always took a page out of screwball comedies anyway, it makes sense this picture is another riff on the comedy of remarriage, which could be a sub-genre all its own.

Ultimately, two shows are merged in an instance of inspiration and yet that doesn’t mean that Petrov’s got the girl. An oddly disconcerting final number follows as Astaire dances with a host of gals all donning Ginger Roger’s face, disrupted by a shushing war instigated by our favorite misfits Blore and Horton. Though the picture could have used a feisty female like a Helen Broderick or Alice Brady, there’s also never enough of Blore and Horton to suit their faithful fans. They make every film a little more colorful, and it would hardly be an Astaire-Rogers picture without a stellar supporting cast of veteran jokesmiths.

Surveying Shall We Dance, it’s certainly not at the top of the pantheon of the movie musicals that these two icons made together, but it’s ripe with some of the usual delights in spite of a laborious plot and a different brand of dancing than we’re used to. It’s hard to complain too much about the results. There’s no doubt the entertainment value for true aficionados still remains.

3.5/5 Stars

The Gay Divorcee (1934): The Astaire & Rogers Foolproof Formula

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The plots to the Astaire and Rogers musicals are usually deceptively simple. Thus, thanks be to their dancing transcending it all. The affair opens in some posh corner of Europe where the always dithering Edward Everett Horton is sitting with Fred Astaire who has to prove his identity to get out of paying a check. They’ve both conveniently misplaced their wallets. After a routine complete with pretty girls and dancing fingers, he gives an impromptu performance of his own bringing down the house and proving he really is world-renowned performer Guy Holden.

Later on, at the docks, a fellow American, arriving in England (Ginger Rogers), is meeting her lovably fatuous aunt (Alice Brady) only to have her dress accidentally caught in a travel trunk. The man who comes to her aid and subsequently rips her garment is, of course, Astaire. Being a gentleman and genuinely taken with her, he gives her his coat to cover up, but the damage has already been done. She finds him a bit bothersome. You can tell it instantly by every look of disdain she throws him. Meanwhile, he eats up any pretense to talk with her, though she dismisses his advances. It’s how the story always goes.

He turns his resolve to find the girl, matched with the everyday occurrence of getting dressed to go out on the town, into the number “Needle in a Haystack,” which has Astaire exuding his typical elan on taps. Of the millions of women around, he’s looking for one very particular needle, and he’s not above canvassing the streets, even if it’s an insurmountable task, made increasingly apparent through montage. It goes to all this trouble only to very coincidentally rear-end her as he’s rubbernecking (adding yet another reason for her not to like him much).

Meanwhile, Egbert (Horton) is looking to make his father proud of him in the family law firm, though he’s never seemed to have much gumption or stomach for the trade. His worst nightmare, Hortense (the same Alice Brady) comes back into his life also bringing with her the proposition of a case that just might be his opportunity to assert himself. Mimi, the same woman constantly harried by Holden, is looking to get out of a loveless marriage and so the inept lawyer suggests setting up a rendezvous with a professional gigolo to end the union for good.

He invites Guy along for the ride knowing the sunshine, gaiety, and girls might do him good as a distraction for his lovesickness. He needs to forget this girl he’s so taken with. However, they’ve failed to compare notes. It doesn’t take extra-sensory perception to read where the picture will go from here, in fact, there’s hardly a need to continue. The human mind might do a finer job in its vivid imagination to derive what complications will arise from such a premise.

It’s a pleasant surprise to see Edward Horton doing a little saucy jig, “K-nock K-nees,” which also proves an early showcase for 40s wartime superstar Betty Grable if you’re able to recognize her. Likewise, in the subsequent scenes, Eric Blore is delightful as ever, this time as a waiter with his typical crisp & snooty delivery, ably sparring with the comic foibles of Horton.

Fortuitously, he turns up in several more instances to serve up the tea things along with idle chatter to anyone who will lend an ear. Astaire and Rogers’s first number together is the Cole Porter standard “Night and Day,” only to birth further misunderstands thanks to one ironic code phrase, “Chance is the fool’s name for fate.” Don’t ask for an explanation.

“The Continental” is an impressively glossy number that until Gene Kelly conjured up his American in Paris (1951) dream sequence, clocked in as the industry’s longest continuous dance number. Some of it involves our leads, but not the whole thing. It feels much more like a Busby Berkeley extravaganza.

And yet right there you understand the exquisite nature of Astaire and Rogers because they made dancing into something intimate and personal. It was between two people as much as it was a lavish production number, and that’s what resonates with us even after the curtain falls and we’ve been wowed by the expansive nature of the staging.

Yes, the geologist husband finally makes his token appearance as expected and the hired romancer Tonetti (Erik Rhodes) continues to bumble along in an effort to play his raffish role. Of course, Astaire proves far more convincing in the part of the lover finally getting the girl as expected.

Does any of this matter? Hardly. But it’s one final opportunity to get Astaire, Rogers, Blore, Horton, and everyone else in a room together. That’s surely enough to recommend this frolicking trifle of gaiety starring everyone’s favorite couple on taps. There’s nothing better to lift your spirits than Astaire and Rogers.

4/5 Stars

The Story of Adele H. (1975): Starring Isabelle Adjani

L'histoire_d'Adèle_H.I didn’t think about it until the movie began, but the only person I’ve ever known to only go by the initial of their last name was for the sake of keeping their anonymity. If you’re a nobody, it doesn’t matter who knows your name.

In this case, if you’re the great Victor Hugo’s daughter, they stand up and take notice. Especially if you run off to Halifax Nova Scotia to pursue a British soldier named Albert Pinson of some dubious repute. Hence Adele H.

This is her story based on the diaries she left behind. It’s during the American Civil War. It’s still left to be seen if the Confederacy will be able to succeed. Adele’s father is currently exiled from his homeland, and she is intent on receiving the invitation of marriage from the man she once rebuffed.

When she lands in the new environment, there’s a timidity furled about her to go with her obvious affluence. She picks up a coach and converses in impeccable English with the driver looking for adequate lodging for someone like herself.

The place settled upon is a boarding house run by a Mrs. Saunders, and there she finds a welcoming albeit humble abode, the perfect home base to begin her inquiries. It seems a noble mission in the service of love.

I’ve come to like Francois Truffaut’s brand of economical period piece. Because usually we come to equate them with ballooning budgets and grand narratives, but Truffaut seems more interested in the character studies. If The Wild Child and now The Story of Adele H. are any indication, it’s the personal relationships he’s invested in and this allows the director to step into the cultural moment and still somehow make them highly resonate with us in an altogether different era.

Isabelle Adjani is the portrait of youthful innocence and she is so young, so beautiful, and full of emotional fervor. It’s hard not to be carried away by the passion of her performance.

Her first meeting with her beloved Lt. Pinson (Bruce Robinson looking like a British incarnation of Alain Delon) blooms with this candor even as it becomes obvious he’s moved on — he no longer has feelings for her, if he ever did — and what’s even more heartbreaking is how madly she still desires to be with him.

Even as the film cuts back and forth between French and English, one is reminded how French really is a romance or romantic language. English sounds so blunt and harsh, at times, in comparison. Maybe as a native French-speaker Truffaut’s not attuned to his actor’s tones in English. Maybe he’s playing off these very elements. No matter, the French is quiet, melodious, and even rapturous in the most passionate declarations.

I don’t understand the literal translation (without subtitles) but the underlying feelings are crystal clear and devastatingly powerful. Her zealousness, the pleading professions of love, met by a soldier whose stoic aloofness only draws out her urgency even more.

One is reminded of a scene where she enters a party — dressed in the hat and tails of a gentleman — but she doesn’t seem to bother hiding the fact she’s incognito, and she gets inside. We see in through the glass as someone goes to fetch Pinot, and he’s forced to make a show of the whole thing by pulling Adele outside and trying to make her listen to reason. Through Nestor Almendros’ fluid cinematography and Truffaut’s intentionality, we understand the whole dynamic without hearing the words spoken.

Or there’s another instance where Adele is presented with a couple volumes of her father’s works by a bookkeeper who is more than a bit smitten with her. But her eyelashes flutter in the most mesmerizing manner, and she proceeds to lash out at him. She doesn’t want to be reminded of who she is and where she comes from.

By now Adele has crossed over to the point of desperation, tears, and, ultimately, obsession. The story begins to sink and devolve into something else entirely. For the first time, we realize what might really be going on.

This might be the most propitious time to insert a morsel about the real Adele Hugo. She most certainly would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Truffaut doesn’t actually make his film about mental illness per se, and that is problematic if we are clamoring for a wholly authentic biopic.

Instead, we must watch Adele’s descent without much explanation. At night she’s overtaken by terrors and during the day she doggedly pursues any means to bring her eternal back to her. First its vague thoughts of hypnotism, then deceit, and character assassination, effectively besmirching her lover’s reputation with anyone else who tries to wed him.

It’s these interludes which somehow evoke the possessiveness of Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven and yet far from being vindictive, Francois Truffaut casts them in the most pitiful of lights. The film is spellbinding for much of the outset, and Adjani remains steadfast through it all. She carries it along based on her immense graces alone.

However, as the dirge-like rhythms drag on, it can hardly maintain its running-time, following Adele through events that feel like foregone conclusions as she becomes more dismal and delusional. It feels like most of the ideas have been expressed to their full potential, and now we must wallow in her trail of unrequited love.

Finally, she follows her man to Barbados only to be left as a shell of her former self escalated by her complete and utter deterioration. When the film ends it feels like a courtesy to all parties. To Adele because she needn’t suffer anymore and for the audience because we could hardly be more woebegone.

If anything, The Story of Adele H. touches on the darker caverns of Truffaut’s creativity, and yet maybe it’s simply because we always remember the youthful giddiness in his pictures instead of the forlorn aspects. More than anything it makes one appreciate how eclectic his body of work is and the through-line connecting every picture is authentic humanity — even humanity unhinged — in some way, shape, or form.

It just so happens Adele Hugo’s humanity was a bit more depressing. The sad thing is, probably few people actually know her name or, frankly, care about it. In spite of this, Truffaut manages to cast her as a creature of unwavering love on the scale of Wuthering Heights or other comparable works.

At 20 years of age Adjani already had completed a role for a lifetime. If you didn’t get the impression already, she has a magnificent aura about her, half spectral beauty, half tragic heroine.

4/5 Stars

The Cheat (1915) and The Story of Sessue Hayakawa

405px-The_Cheat_FilmPoster.jpegEast is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.

The cinema landscape was still in its utter infancy in 1915. Thus, beyond the monumental impact of D.W. Griffith, The Cheat is another subsequent landmark production for a couple of the talents it helped align.

There would be no Cecil B. DeMille without The Cheat. It was his coming-out party with the viewing public, slating him as a craftsman of delicious dramas gorging themselves on all sorts of sensual themes and pleasures. It meant bang-bang box office receipts and kept DeMille inexorably at the top of Hollywood for years to come.

Sessue Hayakawa must also receive a nod not only as a groundbreaking pioneer in an industry that still doesn’t boast too many Asian performers but also as one of the most important stars of his day. Period.

Simply comparing his style of acting with many of his peers during the silent era bears telling results. In an age, of not only discrimination and stereotypes but also extensive overacting for the camera, his parts are almost reserved in comparison. No doubt this understatement derived from the Japanese attempt to strive for the so-called absence of doing or “muga,” when it came to performances.

Because the teleplay on its own is fairly rudimentary. A well-off wife (Fannie Ward) is pouting because her husband (Jack Dean) won’t give her the funds for a new dress. He needs his investments to pay dividends first.

In being so impatient, she resolves to leverage the red cross funds she’s been entrusted with by her woman’s group  — $10,000 of assets — and hands it over to an acquaintance who promises a sure thing in return. Of course, no one needs to be told it doesn’t bode well and as a result, the wife is out $10,000. She’s willing to turn anywhere, even her regular companion the suave foreigner Prince Haka Arakau (Tori in the original release).

Although gentlemanly and innocent enough at first, the lascivious prince looks to press his advantage, agreeing to give her the money — with strings attached. Extramarital drama and blackmail ensue with the tyrant putting his literal stamp on her as a sign of ownership. It’s actually quite perturbing, especially in a modern world finally looking to cast light on the sexual predation of women.

Beyond this caveat, The Cheat no doubt accentuated contemporary fears of the Yellow Peril as much as it titillated with the handsomeness of its foreign star. So while it’s playing into the long-accepted narrative including diatribes against immigration, it’s also taking advantage of the situation for pure entertainment value. There’s little discounting the purpose.

There’s a shooting that the husband admits to and a subsequent court trial full of sordid scandal-worthy confessions. The problems are ultimately amended and a happy ending found, making for an abrupt denouement meant to satisfy the masses. Given the customary, even archetypal trails the story takes, it feels much more rewarding to consider The Cheat most specifically from its place as a crucial historical time capsule outside the realm of mere plot.

Accordingly, Sessue Hayakawa was such a lucrative star during the early 20th century, it’s almost ludicrous to consider. He was making millions of dollars a year as one of the highest-paid actors of the age to rival the likes of Douglas Fairbanks or even Charlie Chaplin!

The fact that he is barely known in this day and age is a shame though it makes some sense given the cultural climate then and now. He became a screen idol in an age wrought with racial discrimination. His place as a box office smash was based mostly on his foreign allure and attractiveness as a forbidden lover. He was the toast of the town with white audiences as a fantasy character though he was rarely ever allowed to break out of the mold created for him in films like The Cheat.

We are presented with this perplexing dichotomy of this world-renowned actor who feels like an outlier in a tradition that normally emasculated Asian characters, and yet there’s still problematic perpetuations in Hayakawa’s own characterizations. It’s a two-sided issue that, regardless, is nothing short of intriguing given how early in the nascent stages of film he became a star. Dig into his history even a little bit and you are met with a continually fascinating career. For one, he entered acting on a near fluke.

After arriving in Chicago to study to become a lawyer, he was waiting for a tanker to take him back to Japan from California only to bow out and take up with a local theater. He subsequently caught the acting bug. One of the crucial figures in his early breakout was fellow countrywoman and future wife (anti-miscegenation laws forbid cross-cultural marriages), Tsuru Aoki.

Eventually, Hayakawa would emigrate back to Japan in the 1920s and slogged through WWII in occupied France of all places. After the war years, he experienced a resurgence and came to be known to a new generation of audiences for the likes of Tokyo Joe, Bridge on The River Kwai, and Hell to Eternity. For this body of work, he deserves an audience, even today, because there’s no discounting the crucial part he played, not simply in Asian representation, but in the very fabric of Hollywood history itself.

3.5/5 Stars