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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

The Band Wagon (1953) with Fred & Cyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5/5 Stars

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.

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.

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

Party Girl (1958): Sumptuous Visuals for a So-So Gangster Flick

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Party Girl is yet another sumptuous Metrocolor feast from Nicholas Ray though the circumstances were admittedly less conducive for another masterpiece. In need of money, Ray took the job but instead getting his accustomed input on the script, he found himself being partnered with a producer he had no history with (Joe Pasternak) and two musical numbers he had little control over.

For someone like Ray, used to taking such middlebrow fare and making it inherently more interesting, the only plane he could really play on was the visual. So Party Girl is a minor success continuing his forays in expressionistic color schemes.

The film sets the scene in 1930s Chicago falling a few tiers under the Warner Bros. gangster flicks of the 30s or a hilarious homage like Some Like it Hot (1959). In this particular scenario, worldly-wise dancing girl Vicky Gaye (Cyd Charisse) is always ready to impart wisdom, and she’s too tough to get hurt by love.

While it can’t necessarily keep company with Ray’s most captivating works in terms of personified emotion or intensity, there are still elements to be thoroughly enjoyed. Cyd Charisse for one is as sultry as ever and if it weren’t for their almost abrupt nature, crammed into the story as they are, her two dance numbers do immense justice to her iconically svelte form. She’s still extraordinary.

Robert Taylor for another is compelling as a defender of criminals, capable of getting mobsters off the hook and willingly working for a big-time kingpin named Rico (Lee J. Cobb). Tommy Farrell’s major calling card is a debilitating limp that forces him to use a cane. But it never feels like a mere gimmick.

Ray consequently praised Taylor’s commitment to the role, gladly studying up on his part so he could convincingly play a cripple. The director even said the older man was on par with any of the Method adherents he had ever had the pleasure of working with. There you have commendation enough.

In trying to categorize Party Girl, you quickly realize it’s a bit of a disconcerting hybrid of a film. Some might say discombobulating more than anything, as it plays at the crossroads of different genres, not to mention different eras.

Taylor and Charisse were purportedly the final two contract players signed to MGM in 1958 and so more than anything, the picture was a justified excuse to put them to use before their contracts expired. But all things considered, their chemistry isn’t bad per se, and they both look lovely under the gaze of the camera.

Meanwhile, Lee J. Cobb is capable as a thinly-veiled Al Capone facsimile. He’s not uninteresting, but the part seems to have nothing surprising to boast. By the finale, the story has run its course and most of the air has left its sails. Aesthetically, the harsh colors somehow don’t play against onslaughts of gunfire the way black and white did in the days of yore.

Maybe unfairly it’s easy to criticize the film because it doesn’t quite stand up to the gangster flicks of old and yet, there’s no way to call it a full-fledged musical. But for any aficionados of the director or his starring players, they might be reason enough to revisit this minor cult favorite. Be assured, it’s by no means a cardboard, cookie cutter piece of work.

3/5 Stars

Tension (1949): Between The Good and The Bad Girl

220px-TensionPoster.jpgBarry Sullivan has an absolute field day as a homicide cop, Lt. Collier Bonnabel, with very calculated methods of getting to the root of every crime. Whether it comes by pushing, cajoling, romancing, tricking, flattering — he’ll do whatever is necessary. What matters to him is to keep stretching them because everyone has a breaking point. You just have to know how to work them so they slip up.

It’s fitting because he remains as our narrator throughout this entire story. Between his fedora and voiceover narration, Tension easily earns the moniker of film noir. He picks up the story at Coast-to-Coast all-night drugstore in Culver City where the bookish Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart) maintains an unsatisfying but well-paying gig as manager.

His only reason for holding onto the job is not only security but it’s the only way to try and keep his girl (Audrey Totter). Because she’s a real horror — dissatisfied with the middling life he can give her — and constantly batting her eyes at anyone who gives her the time of day.

Quimby is such a passive and nervous husband; he’s always deathly afraid to walk into his room above the drugstore at night for fear the bed will be empty and she won’t be there waiting for him. You see, his entire worth and aspiration at a middle-class lifestyle are maintained through her. And yet when she scoffs at his attempts to buy them a house in the suburbs, its a rude awakening.

It turns out it doesn’t matter. She finds someone else and packs her bags. What follows is a sudden departure to shack up with the substantially wealthier Barney Deager. You see the same conundrum from The Best Years of Our Lives. They were youthful and on the high of WWII patriotism, but now settling into the status quo, he’s not as cute or funny as he used to be in San Diego. Everyday tedium is no fun for a girl like Claire.

Audrey Totter is easily a standout, and she even gets some saucy music to introduce her and the coda proceeds to follow her into just about every room. She’s almost in the mold of Gloria Grahame — another iconic femme fatale — except her eyes are more bitter, even severe. They burn through just about everyone.

Warren makes his way to the beach and has a confrontation with her brawny boyfriend, but what is an unassertive guy like him (now with broken glasses) suppose to do in the face of such an affront? His options seem hopelessly few. It leads to a needed trip to the eye doctor for new spectacles, and he reluctantly leaves with the year’s newest invention — hard contact lenses.

His soda jerk buddy behind the counter plants the other seed. It drives him to murder. Quimby then gains a whole new perspective, the doctor even touts that he with be an entirely different person, in the most literal sense; he takes on a new name as Paul Sothern. His entire temperament and level of confidence changes. It’s humanly unbelievable and all because of an optometrist. I should have gotten contacts sooner.

The newfound man sets up a residence in Westwood to put his plans in motion. He now has a cool, calculated dopleganger for the perfect crime, available to him at a moment’s notice.

Here we have the most roundabout and, dare we say, ludicrous way to premeditate and perfect a murder. Back in the days when taking on a new identity was a breeze. Erasing and vanishing was a matter of covering up a few loose ends and not leaving a forwarding address.

Basehart could easily be the father of Ryan O’Neal in What’s Up Doc? While not necessarily a taxing role, he is called on to play two characters as he plays opposite two very different women. Cyd Charisse is the sweet and shapely photographer who falls for Paul Sothern, despite knowing so little about him. She is oblivious to his double life, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

Still, as is the case in many film noir, the very overt foils are created and Tension extends them even further. The protagonist has a choice between two women and with them two distinct lives. One is represented by the decadent yet fractured China doll, the blonde spider woman who will not release him from her web.

Then there’s the simpler, sweeter pipe cleaner doll, the brunette good girl who is almost angelic in nature and totally available to help the hero realize their happy ending, which remains in constant jeopardy the entirety of the film.

The wrinkle that really spoils it is when Claire slinks back into his life once more, and he is implicated in a murder. All of a sudden the alternate reality he started carving out for himself is altogether finished. Sothern is quashed and Quimby is suffocating in a life he assumed would be gone forever.

The cops must come into the equation now, asking questions, poking around, and pressing on all the sore spots in hopes someone will break. All character logic aside, the picture does ascribe to a certain amount of tautness suggested in its name, but so could any number of movies — even John Berry’s next film He Ran All The Way.

But I found myself enjoying its contrivances more and more with time. Because each twist of the corkscrew made for another pleasure. Barry Sullivan takes great relish leaning on everyone. William Conrad, for once, is on the right side of the law and still gets to play a gruff character.

However, it is his partner who sets up some very convenient and slightly awkward interactions on a hunch. Quimby is forced to interact with his girl from another life as if it was just a piece of pure happenstance. Then, Claire and the purported “other woman” are somehow pulled together accidentally to churn up a little jealousy.

Bonnabel is like Columbo at his most nefarious, except slightly more conniving and less scruffily endearing. He nabs the dame because, being conveniently trapped in a lie, she confesses. Unlike most Columbo villains, she struts out as defiantly as ever. There’s no recompense or sense of somber civility. With the way she was going before, why bother? Thankfully Totter’s performance is not compromised; she remains icy to the end.

3.5/5 Stars

Silk Stockings (1957)

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In full disclosure, though I admire Ernst Lubitsch’s directorial eye and Billy Wilder’s trenchant wit, the Ninotchka (1939) premise alone never intrigued me. But as with all the great pictures, it’s not necessarily the main conceit but the execution of the story with its own unique digressions which matters most.

That’s why having screen goddess Greta Garbo paired with the two men mentioned above is of note. They ultimately created something delightful together. And as we draw the line all the way to Silk Stockings almost two decades later, the names attached are equally important.

We can probably start with Fred Astaire who was in a period in his career that constantly seemed to fluctuate between retirement and flurries of inspired activity. In this particular case, he would follow Silk Stockings out into the theaters with a second success in Funny Face (1957) pairing him with Audrey Hepburn for the first and only time.

Though he had his initial misgivings about the material and his director, Rouben Marmoulian proved to have quite the success with Silk Stockings, which would subsequently be his last effort in a generally underrated career. He took the successful stage play and transferred it to the screen, this collaboration even featured several more tunes from Cole Porter’s repertoire while writers such as Leonard Gershe (who had already penned Funny Face) and industry veteran Harry Kurnitz worked on the script.

Then, Cyd Charisse had the seemingly insurmountable task of inheriting the role owned by a larger-than-life star if there ever was one — Garbo herself. And yet maybe it’s a reflection of my own predilections in performers but I rather like Charisse in the part not because of the acting per se but for the moments where she’s able to shed the role and become the sentient ever dynamic being she is as a dancer.

The ball starts rolling when an American film producer, Steve Canfield (Astaire) tries to coax a brilliant Russian composer named Boroff (Wim Sonneveld) to compose the score for his next film. Simultaneously three of his countrymen have been enlisted as emissaries on Parisian soil to bring him back home before he gets polluted by capitalist dogma any further. The oafish louts are eclectic talents as diverse as Peter Lorre, Jules Munshin, and Joseph Buloff.

Of course, if you know anything of Ninochtka (1939) or retrospectively, Wilder’s similar One, Two, Three (1961) you’ll know that they too get seduced by the decadence of capitalism to humorous ends. It seems there is only one person who will not fail in her mission, that is Ninotchka (Cyd Charisse), an austere devotee of the party whose only interest is observing French trivialities on a purely academic basis while making sure her comrades remain diligent in their duties. She’s a tough case to crack. It’s bound to take time and yet at some point, Canfield gets to her with a little help from “The City of Lights.”

Janis Paige enters and wows the reporters and everyone else with a tornado of flirtatious vivacity captured in the number “Glorious Technicolor Stereophonic Sound.” Like It’s Always Fair Weather (1954) before it, the musical number manages a few jabs at the direction the industry was heading with the advent and subsequent cultural boom of television. And yet in his shrewdness, Astaire lobbied for the picture to be shot a very specific way and sure enough, it got made in Cinemascope and Eastmancolor with Stereophonic Sound.

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After shedding her dour exterior, Cyd Charisse gets arguably her finest starring spot in any film, playing opposite Astaire again following The Band Wagon (1953) and despite the constraints of her character, she fairly rapidly transforms into the free-flowing, immaculately graceful spirit we know her to be.

Fittingly, Charisse earns the film’s most emblematic scene where she exquisitely dons her first pair of silk stockings along with an entire wardrobe as she goes through her ideological transformation which subsequently transforms her very movements with carefree ease. She brings it to life moment by moment so effortlessly. In “Fated to Be Mates,”  Astaire and Charisse are featured together at their most lively as the leading man leads his partner in twirling carries and their dance devolves into a show verging on parkour and gymnastics.

Along with the amorous “All of You” to instigate his relationship with his repeatedly aloof leading lady, Astaire gets another contemporary showcase that simultaneously alludes to his rich legacy in the industry. “Ritz Roll and Rock” perfectly encapsulates this performer-extraordinaire who came out of a certain era and yet never seems outmoded even in the latest music craze.

He went out on top and continued to perform at that same level to the very end. Not every leading man can say that. Of course, the exclamation point at the end is the smashing of his top hat for all posterity. As we’ve all probably noted over the years, it’s a bit of a moniker for him and fittingly when he’s gone, it’s retired too. No one else deserves to wear the crown of the king.

3.5/5 Stars

NOTE: My entry in The FRED & GINGER BLOGATHON !

 

Something’s Got to Give (1962)

e3ac1-somethings-got-to-giveWell, this is a first for me, if my memory serves me right. I have yet to do a write up for a film without having a rating to go with it. Something’s Got to Give eventually and now it has.

I honestly was surprised that this “film” even existed. I knew about Marilyn Monroe’s last film project which ultimately was unfinished thanks to her tragic death. I assumed the project was ditched and never thought about again. I certainly did not give it a second thought then. Then, quite by accident I came upon it in all its 37 minutes of glory. Apparently others had given it a second glance and we have them to thank for this unfinished addition to Montroe’s filmography.

It looks like production quality with a few missing parts and quite the cliffhanger ending. We do not even quite know the extent of the cliff yet.
However, it was an interesting look at Marilyn Monroe in her final days. You also had a fun cast of handpicked players including Dean Martin, Cyd Charisse, Phil Silvers and Wally Cox. Not to mention one of Hollywood’s prominent directors in George Cukor. It seems likes all the makings for a light ’60s romantic comedy.

This certainly was not going to be a masterpiece (It was actually a remake of My Favorite Wife (1940) and was given a face lift for Move Over Darling). That’s okay. It is a interesting piece of history in its own way.

Rating: N/A

The Band Wagon (1953)

4c8bf-the_band_wagon_posterGoing into this film I must admit that despite hearing good things, I had zero expectations. I must say I was pleasantly surprised by this Minnelli musical because it was a deft and often beautiful production. Channeling the same vein as Singin’ in the Rain and The Red Shoes, this film is a spectacle in its own right. You have headliners Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse matched nicely. Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray act as wonderful comic relief as the wedded playwrights, who also do some song and dance. Finally, there is Jack Buchanan, as the stereotypical theater maestro Jeffrey Cordova.

It all begins with Tony Hunter (Astaire) a washed up has-been who is headed to New York for some relaxation. There is little fanfare during his arrival except coming from his friends the Martons, who have a new production for him to star in. They get the famed Cordova on board and next comes an up and coming choreographer and his girlfriend, who is none other than the young starlet Gabrielle Gerard (Charisse)

Following an initial misunderstanding, the leads finally clear up their differences and push forward to make The Band Wagon the smash hit it is destined to be. However, Cordova has turned it into a modern-day Faust and when opening night comes the after party is more like a wake.

All the players seem strangely nonchalant and then the idea hits! Make The Band Wagon over again and take it on the road. Everyone in the cast from the bottom up is excited for the second chance with Hunter at the helm. All that is except choreographer Paul Byrd.

Despite Paul’s departure, Gaby is still enthusiastic and they turn the Band Wagon into the production that the Martons had envisioned from the beginning. Tony is a success once again, and he receives a round of rousing cheers from his new family. Gaby speaks for all of them (and herself) when she says they love him and believe that the show will go forever.

I immensely enjoyed many of the numbers including: “Shine Your Shoes,” with the camera following Astaire as he frolics around at an arcade with a shoeshine man. The extras, the exquisite set, and Astaire himself all culminate in an often comical and always upbeat number that is great fun to watch. Then, of course, there is the ever memorable “That’s Entertainment,” which even spawned a series of musical documentaries, and for good reason. The words and melody are quite a catchy ode to the stage. Perhaps the most beautiful sequence in the film involves Astaire and Charisse in “Dancing in the Dark” where they positively glide through Central Park together in perfect cadence. They move not as individuals but as a poetic unit in motion. It is fitting that it was their first dance together in the film.

For never seeing Cyd Charisse in another film (except briefly in Singin’ in the Rain), I must say that I really did enjoy her performance opposite the always likable Fred Astaire. Furthermore, I am in complete agreement with her character, “I don’t think a dancer should smoke,” it’s bad for the lungs.

The cameo of Ava Garner was an odd surprise (especially due to her resemblance to Charisse). Furthermore, I never thought it could exist, but this film proved me wrong. There is such a thing as a film-noir musical! That’s The Band Wagon for you folks! That’s Entertainment!

4.5/5 Stars