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

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Gene Kelly

As the site takes a look at some of Classic Hollywood’s most prominent musicals, it seemed like an auspicious occasion to focus on some of the most well-regarded performers of the era.

For our latest beginner’s guide, we look at Gene Kelly, the man who combined his muscular athleticism with graceful hoofing to transform the movie musical like never before. He would become the greatest hoofer since Fred Astaire and then ultimately enter movie immortality alongside his idol. Here are some of his greatest films well-worth checking out.

On The Town (1949)

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While Gene Kelly isn’t quite calling the shots, he’s front and center in this MGM extravaganza alongside the likes of Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen, and Ann Miller, just to name a few. Regardless, it’s an exuberant offering showcasing much of the magic and music that made the studio’s musicals so popular.

An American in Paris (1951)

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Paired with the glorious mise en scene of Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly tapped his affections for France and showcased the waifish talents of Leslie Caron to envision one of the finest achievements of his career. Between the music of the Gershwins and his top-class dancing, he makes the dreamy final third of An American in Paris into pure cinema.

Singin in The Rain (1952)

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If there was ever a benchmark for what the Hollywood movie musical could be, it’s encapsulated by Singin’ in the Rain. It boasts so much quality from Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor to commentary on the silent era to sterling direction by Stanley Donen. All you need is Kelly’s tour de force in the rain to understand what makes this movie transcendent. It’s emotion personified.

Always Fair Weather (1955)

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This one is a bit of an oddity reflecting signs of the changing film landscape. Yet Gene Kelly still shows his prowess with a particularly thrilling dance on roller skates. Likewise, the story blends a post-war commentary with a satire of modern media which proves surprisingly lucid. Regardless, it was the beginning of the end of the musical’s golden years.

Worth Watching

For Me and My Gal, Cover Girl, Anchors Aweigh, The Three Musketeers, Take Me Out To The Ballgame, Summer Stock, Brigadoon, Les Girls, Inherit The Wind, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and more.

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

Three Little Words (1950) and Tin Pan Alley

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Here is a tale of Tin Pan Alley and the ensuing partnership of real-life songwriting duo Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. The cast was what had me deeply intrigued because, in this day and age, my only connection to the two songsmiths is “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” memorably performed by Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot (1959). In this film, it’s given a cutesy performance by an up-and-comer named Debbie Reynolds.

However, that’s not much of a background to go off of, but boy, do I enjoy Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen. Having them together is a tantalizing proposition indeed. Red Skelton always struck me more as a mainstay of Ed Sullivan Show reruns than an actor and Arlene Dahl was a relatively recent discovery. Still, each performer contributes to the overwhelming appeal.

Three Little Words immediately introduces an opening number with Astaire and Vera-Ellen which starts things off on the right foot with its toe-tapping assets. They are a close-knit song-and-dance pair with talk floating between them about getting married. She’s in love with him. He’s in love with her…and his work.

Their next performance of “Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer at Home” might be the film’s finest hour as far as the dance numbers go, showcasing the technical expertise of its stars who make it look delightfully effortless. I could not help recalling first Keaton’s One Week (1920) and then a bit of Chaplin from Modern Times (1936) in his dream house with Paulette Goddard.

Because here we have the continuation of the same motif as articulated this time around by Astaire and Vera-Ellen. The novelty is taking something so integral to American life, that is the home, gender roles, and the cult of domesticity as it were, and personifying it visually through metaphor and movement. It works wonders in such a colorfully abstract space.

It’s no coincidence that Keaton and Chaplin were comics of a very physical nature. Likewise, the dance of Astaire with his leading lady is equally silly, in a sense, but also so very inventive in how it expresses the mundane rhythms of life many of us experience every day. It’s my favorite out-and-out moment in the picture.

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Because I’ve always maintained a fairly conflicted relationship with musical biopics. The prime example might be Yankee Doodle Dandy, which has spectacular moments thanks to the indelible James Cagney, but it also comes off rather flat and insipid in other patches. The agenda is complicated by the fact that we are taking a real person’s life and trying to dress it up. We can hardly look at it like fact and yet we are often dealing with real names and real places. It’s this odd brand of authenticity that feels sanitized and in some ways totally fake.

But if we take it for what it is, enjoy the dance numbers, and disregard the dubious guises that men like Astaire and Red Skelton are putting on, it’s easy enough to enjoy their charms. There are glimpses of how the musical creative process works and a vaudeville nostalgia wafts over the picture, which no doubt endeared Astaire to the project. One slight nod I picked up on was Gloria De Haven playing a character (I think) named after her father, Carter De Haven, though her mother was on the Vaudeville circuit as well.

It’s a fluke knee injury that finally leads to the unlikely pairing of our two down-and-outers. It begins down a contentious road and never quite rights itself, but along the way, they crank out such well-received hits as “My Sunny Tennessee” and “So Long Oolong” both unquestionably catchy.

You begin to understand more deeply the culture of the time when every family had a piano in the living room to gather around and radio had yet to take over the country. In such a period, sheet music and tunes crafted by the likes of Kalmar and Ruby were all the rage.

Because they could be reprinted and replayed time and time again. Thus, it wasn’t so much about the artist, unless you had the good fortune (and the money) to see them live. It was about the writers and lyricists who could pen catchy tunes agreeable to a wide audience. That was the way the industry went. We were a long way off from rockability, disc jockeys, and record sales.

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While Kalmar finally gets it into his skull to marry Jessie thanks to her prodding, Ruby continues to pick the wrong girls, starting with a flirty nightclub dancer (Gale Robbins) who has about a million beaus at her disposal. His friends watch out for his interests, and he ultimately winds up with a beautiful actress (Dahl as the real-life Eileen Percy), under hilarious circumstances. She’s a big deal now, but Ruby doesn’t remember that they’ve met before…

The creative output continues in spurts from more songs, then distractions, then Animal Crackers with the Marx Brothers, and more songs. Ultimately, a spat breaks up the partnership for what seems like the last time. Though Ruby is now married and equally happy, the wives know their men need to get back together.

With a certain amount of forethought, both missuses strike up a reunion between their husbands by giving them a bit of a helpful push instigated by Phil Regan’s popular radio show. In one regard, nothing has changed. They’re still as ornery as ever, but they retain that same glimpse of brilliance — smiles breaking over their faces one last time.

Three Little Words was probably more true to life than some biopics of its day and amid what is dressed up or relatively accurate, the most interesting ideas on the table have to do with the creative collaboration between two men. It’s true that in such instances, opposites attract. One is usually musically-inspired, coming up with tunes just like that, and the other able to tinker with words to make them fit perfectly with a melody. On their own, they would be nowhere, and yet together, they’re able to literally create music to our ears.

But the other side of such a partnership is the invariable disagreements that arise. There’s the inevitable conflict that comes from two personalities with personal vision and diverging personalities. The most iconic examples I always go back to were The Beatles because by the end you had three leads with John and Paul and George. Although Harrison was the third-fiddle, after the breakup, he would release arguably the greatest album of any of their solo careers: All Things Must Past.

However, sometimes there’s also a lack of interest and then a desire for a change of pace. In this story, Bert is obsessed with being a magician and even tries his hand at playwriting. Meanwhile, Harry has always held onto the aspirations of being a big-league ballplayer. The real miracle is that they stayed together for so long, crafting such a bevy of classics.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Fred Astaire

In our ongoing series of Classic Movie Beginner’s Guides, we focus on a single person from Classic Hollywood for those who want an overview.

This week let’s look at one of the preeminent film dancers of all-time: Fred Astaire! After starting out on the stage with his sister Adele, during the 1930s Astaire tapped his way toward cinematic immortality thanks to his coruscating partnership with Ginger Rogers.

They were paired in a number of screwball-infused musicals that still rank among the best pictures the Hollywood dream factory put out during the 1940s. What set Astaire apart was his tireless choreography, the graceful elegance of his figure, and his often underrated singing voice introducing the world to a bevy of classics.

Top Hat (1935)

The Movie Projector: Top Hat (1935)

The romantic rebuttals are only a pretense for this glorious extravaganza replete with Art Deco stylings and a stupendous screwball cast loaded with the likes of Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. Astaire introduced a pair of Irving Berlin classics in “Cheek-to-Cheek” and “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” as he and Ginger dance away off toward perfection.

Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time (1936) directed by George Stevens • Reviews, film + ...

A worthy successor to Top Hat, Swing Time assembled the talents of George Stevens and Jerome Kerns offering Astaire yet another immortal classic, “The Way You Look Tonight.” However, the splendor of Fred & Ginger together is magic with number after number feeling like an absolute knockout including the likes of “Pick Yourself Up” and “Waltz in Swing Time.” They balance charm with elegance divinely.

Easter Parade (1948)

Easter Parade (1948) directed by Charles Walters • Reviews, film + ...

Fred Astaire finally got paired with Judy Garland in this Holiday-themed looker blooming with glorious Springtime Technicolor and luscious costuming. “Happy Easter” and “Drum Crazy” start him off on a particularly jovial note, and he never looks back. The compositions of Irving Berlin are swell as is the easy-going rapport of Astaire and Garland carrying the picture away into loveliness.

The Band Wagon (1953)

Howard Hampton on Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953 ...

As his finest late-period work and an impeccable companion to Singin’ in The Rain, Fred is partnered with the always elegant Cyd Charisse as they dance their way through the sartorial splendor of Vincent Minnelli’s picture. Astaire gets one of his peppiest numbers with “A Shine on Your Shoes.” The real showstoppers are “That’s Entertainment as well as an epic film noir finale.

Worth Watching

Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Follow The Fleet, Shall We Dance, Broadway Melody of 1940, You’ll Never Get Rich, You Were Never Lovelier, Three Little Words,  Royal Wedding, Funny Face, Silk Stockings, On The Beach, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, etc.

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

5 Favorite “Classics for Comfort”

With the CMBA Spring Blogathon being themed around classic movie comfort, I busied myself considering the types of movies that act as comfort films.

Here before you, without too much deliberation, are five classics I would gladly share with anyone. They are movies that I own and return to for any number of reasons, perfect for lounging around on a Saturday afternoon.

Also, as it worked out, they all just happen to represent five separate decades of cinema.

Please enjoy!

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Gawky, wide-eyed Jimmy Stewart reflects all that is good and decent about Classic Hollywood. Frank Capra’s political drama is a time-honored story of the little guy going up against a political juggernaut. It’s full of humor and geniality, romance and patriotism, and heart-wrenching drama. Stewart’s staggering filibuster on the Senate floor, as Harry Carey looks on wryly and Jean Arthur coaches from the cheap seats, is an iconic showcase.

Far from simply giving us the kind of Hollywood catharsis, replete with happy ending and romance, it reaffirms the virtues of humanity in the face of corruption. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

It’s a sprawling film and yet it never seems lengthy because I always fall into the storyline and the sense of community created within Boone City. William Wyler’s direction with the immaculate photography of Gregg Toland is glorious, and once more, the cast is one of the most amicable.

I’ve long enjoyed Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews. Frederic March and Myrna Loy make a lovely couple. Harold Russell turns in, arguably the most sincere, undoctored performance as the double-amputee. We even get Hoagy Carmichael plonking away on the piano. It gets to the point where relationships are actually being formed with the characters. We care deeply about their happiness and well-being in the wake of WWII.  Even as the world changes and we must come to terms with it, there is still hope in making something out of life, wherever it may lead us.

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Rio Bravo (1959)

Before there was any sort of sub-genre, Howard Hawks feels like the king of buddy movies. John Wayne, Walter Brennan, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson are a joy to hang out with. There’s no question this is a western — with a sheriff sticking by his guns — and there’s certainly conflict drummed up.

But for the sake of our discussion, this movie is all about the camaraderie. These very purposeful lulls in the action and even an intermission just so Dino can sing “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me.” It brings all the necessary components together, including action and humor, while instigating a quality time at the movies.

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It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

There are a couple reasons I have a lasting fondness for Mad, Mad World. This goes beyond the wall-to-wall goofballs squished into the caper comedy. (I’m talking to you Jonathan Winters.) One of the other touchtones involves the iconic palm tree becoming a symbol of Inn-N-Out burger, a favorite watering hole of mine.

Likewise, my dad often tells stories of riding off to summer camp only to see the crew filming the chase sequences up in the mountains. It’s these small anecdotes that make it feel all the more familiar. And so many friends come to the party: Don Knotts, Peter Falk, even Buster Keaton. It’s always a pleasure to see them.

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American Graffiti (1973)

There’s something instantly satisfying about the tableau American Graffiti offers up. It’s one night in 1962. The scenarios are lightweight and life-changing all at once, between cruising cars, fleeting high school romances, and some of the most iconic tunes of yesteryear. For me, very few films evoke a milieu as well as George Lucas’s picture, and it still remains one of the preeminent coming-of-age movies generations later.

For one evening, we get to step back in time and enjoy an evening on the town with a soundtrack supplied by Wolfman Jack. It’s an immersive, totally delightful experience cruising around with the likes of Toad, Milner, and Curt. In the age before JFK’s assassination and the escalation of Vietnam, it somehow spells simpler times for all.

Wishing everyone the best of cinematic comforts!

 

Stormy Weather (1943): Bill Robinson and Lena Horne

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Stormy Weather, as a musical, is nearly unprecedented, and to my knowledge, there is only one other film to truly rival it as a spectacular showcase for African-American talents during this same period. That would be MGM’s Cabin in the Sky (1943).

But it’s not simply the case that this is a gathering of an all-black cast. Often we look at a film or a director based on extenuating circumstances. Sometimes it feels like we’re starved for certain types of portrayals and that can be the same for many minority representations. Thus, when you get anything passable, you’re bound to turn a blind eye to mediocrity because simply in discovering its existence, you have found a valuable cultural artifact.

If you can bear with my explanation, Stormy Weather might have been such a film since it is fairly unique among the seas of its contemporaries. But its individual uniqueness should not obscure the fact that these are some truly fantastic performers put on the stage, and they are deserving of more people singing their praises. People did back in the day, despite the racial intolerance, and they continue to deserve the recognition, so that’s what I’ll try to give them.

However, another interesting point of discussion is the production itself given the fact, behind the scenes, it was undoubtedly business as usual, with mostly whites calling the shots and pulling the strings. They have sculpted a bit of a faux reality where everything is fine and dandy in a segregated society and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson sits on a porch with all the neighborhood children regaling them with tales of his life thus far. And what a life it was!

He of course famously danced down the steps with a precocious Shirley Temple and got a dubious nod in Top Hat (1935) from Fred Astaire somewhat marred by blackface. In other words, Bojangles rightfully deserves this showcase, out of the shadow of other performers, with the limelight shining brightly on him for once.

In this highly fictitious and glossy rendition of his life story, he returns home from The Great War with his buddy Gabe Tucker (Dooley Wilson) who’s always trying to make himself out to be bigger than he is. Meanwhile, Bill looks to put his penchant for toe-tapping to good use.

He’s reunited with Selina Rogers (Lena Horne) the grown-up little sister of a childhood friend, and they hit it off. Little does he know she’s on the rise as a nightclub singer because besides having talent, she’s a class act, a first-rate personality, and really a knockout.

Somehow you lose track of the massive age difference between Robinson and Horne as they play so affably opposite one another and anyway we’re hardly hanging around Stormy Weather for the plot. It’s a musical. Let them dance.

Following suit, for the rest of the film, Robinson is bouncing around, meeting a minstrel show on a riverboat as he does a sand dance before they pogo around on their taps together. It was the first moment that feels truly electric.

Then, he’s pinch-hitting as a waiter at a little joint run by Ada Brown with the jovial Fats Waller yammering away to accompany his piano. Time has passed and Selina is doing well, calling in a favor to get Robinson a gig so he can get away from his menial existence. He gets a rousing round of applause soft-shoeing over big barrel drums only to get fired for hamming it up.

But the film goes out on top with the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Horne sings the title number, which in itself is a fine rendition, but Cab Calloway brings his scat singing, baggy pants-swishing energy into the picture followed by the apogee of it all.

The last 5 minutes or so are pure magic highlighted by one of the most spectacular numbers you’ll ever lay eyes on, and I’m trying my best not to exaggerate. The Nicholas Brothers are that extraordinary. Fred Astaire has already been mentioned due to his admiration for Bojangles, but he was equally quick to laud “Jumpin’ Jive” as the most spectacular of numbers. I won’t dare spoil it. Regardless, The Brothers do it all with their legs. Their skills are jawdroppingly dextrous. It verges on the superhuman.

Even as the comedy isn’t that hilarious and there are some jarring visuals like bonnets featuring golliwogs and the like, that’s not what this picture leads me to dwell on. More than anything, I marvel. As a viewer, I’m reminded that predominantly African-American urban centers really were places of immense culture and expression, as underrepresented as they might be on the silver screen.

Stormy Weather takes that Reinassance and a vast collection of talent from vaudeville and Broadway to Hollywood and lets it shine. Despite its share of flaws, what remains is a phenomenal array of artists, performers, and visionaries. Stormy Weather is an important remembrance and historical document, lest we forget how diverse and rich American culture really is.

4/5 Stars