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.

Ziegfeld Girl (1941): See It For The Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

San Diego, I Love You (1944): Featuring Buster Keaton

12362-san-diego-i-love-you.jpgI came to this movie because it has San Diego in the title: my home away from home for some time. Taking stock of its assets is simple enough. It’s a B-grade film set during the War Years housing crisis. Judging by film output at the time like More The Merrier (1943) and Standing Room Only (1944), it seemed a very popular subject matter. But also crucial to this plot is the invention of a special one-man life raft. All the immediate details are of lesser concern.

It’s all an excuse for the “McCooley Republic” made up of patriarch Phillip (Edward Everett Horton), his eldest daughter Virginia (Louise Albritton), and four young boys, to travel down south toward the border. They pick up and leave behind pop’s monotonous job teaching the classics as a high school teacher in quaint Waterville, CA.

Spurred on by the prodding of his daughter, they look to get Phillip’s piece of ingenuity to the bigwigs in San Diego to see if they can land funding. One never knows what might be beneficial to the war effort (Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil’s Frequency Hopping anyone?).

What a lovely surprise we get not only Everett Everett Horton but also the ever huffy Eric Blore as Nelson the perpetually fired valet who is always left whimpering pitifully. Even “The Great Stone Face” himself turns in an extended cameo as a disgruntled bus driver who decides to break with the daily grind. Buster Keaton may have never reached the same apex of the 1920s, but it is unfair to say the rest of his career was pointless. He has a couple minutes of fun to offer us here driving his bus off-grid along the beach.

These are a few of the true nuggets of this picture, an obvious forerunner to many a run-of-the-mill TV sitcoms a generation later. What set many of those apart were not simply the situations but the casts they were able to wrangle together. Our romantic leads, by most accounts, are forgotten today. Louise Albritton is another perky girl-next-door for wartime audiences like a Betty Hutton (Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), Gale Storm (It Happened on Fifth Ave), or Jeanne Crain (Apartment for Peggy). Likewise, John Hall has a modicum amount of fame playing opposite Maria Montez in a string of exotic extravaganzas.

But the aforementioned veteran characters are enough to whet my appetite well nigh 10 years after their greatest screwball successes. The chance to see some dated footage of San Diego — a la Some Like It Hot (1959) — had me on the edge of my seat but alas, from what can be gleaned, most of the shots are on a studio backlot. Still, there are a few stray mentions of Balboa Park and sailing a raft to Point Loma and some scenes set at the San Diego Zoo. I guess I’ll have to be content with that.

3/5 Stars

Design For Living (1933): An Atypical Lubitsch Comedy

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“Immorality may be fun but it’s not fun enough to take the place of virtue and three square meals a day.” 

All director Ernst Lubitsch has at his disposal is a train compartment and three actors. Yet the opening scene of Design for Living positions itself as one of the most delightful moments in this entire picture. It’s a pure testament to bold visual filmmaking with nary a word spoken for at least 4 or 5 minutes. Few modern filmmakers would have the gumption to attempt it.

Lubitsch knows exactly what to do with such situations, and he was bred not only in sophistication but silent comedy. Because you see, the ultimate joke is when they actually start conversing with one another these three very familiar faces open their mouths and French comes out (Gary Cooper apparently was fluent).

Simultaneously, the director has also set up the relational dynamic of the film without a peep of dialogue. It really is a superb opener. However, this opening scene is almost too delectable for its own good. The film cannot possibly sustain such a  level of perfection. But more on that later.

When the three expatriates finally switch over to their native tongue, we have an uproarious discussion on art versus commercialism, Napoleon wearing a coat, and Lady Godiva riding a bicycle. Don’t ask for any explanation. In the parry and thrust of their conversation, we find out one is a painter (Cooper), the other is a playwright (Fredric March), and both are failures for the time being.

We are instantly reminded by a certain level of sauciness this is the Pre-Code era, though we are on the cusp of harsher censoring to come. For now, the picture is able to nonchalantly hang its hat on a central plot point involving our leading lady (Miriam Hopkins) and her two men embroiled in a menage a trois — a so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement.” Her conundrum is very male and libertine in nature. She has different men to try and she likens them to hats she wants to put on.

Yes, there is innuendo and some contemporary audiences might have shuddered at the admission they mention the word “sex” out loud on multiple occasions. And yet none of this titillating attraction speaks to much of the underlying allure of this picture.

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Look at who we have assembled on top of the acting talent. It sounds too good to be true. If the name Noel Coward doesn’t carry emphatic weight in your life, you might as well cross it out and consider this a Ben Hecht picture. He was, of course, one of the great purveyors of Americana through aphorisms and pervasive wit.

He famously scrapped all of Coward’s play aside from a single line of dialogue. Leaving a mark on the material in a way that was far more suitable to not only Lubitsch but an American audience.

All the gloriously tantalizing pieces are in place but the question remains, Is comedic cohesion possible? Understandably, Hopkins and Edward Everett Horton take up their allotted positions with ease invariably suiting them. Though their own personas aren’t on par with Chevalier or Herbert Marshall, the two American lads do their darnedest. The fact Cooper always feels so awkward in comedy somehow even plays a bit to his favor.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t take. Again, we are putting it up rather unfairly against the likes of Trouble in Paradise or even The Smiling Lieutenant. Those are high benchmarks indeed. Put simply, the buoyancy is not there frequently enough.

Instead, we have a residual wistful melancholy that feels atypical for your usual Lubitsch drawing-room comedy. Cooper and March become a pair of “Gloomy Gusses” as Hopkins winds up marrying Horton to save them all grief. Even before that, the trio has their share of disagreements simply sorting out their inevitably complicated relationship.

If anything, it suggests in more rational terms that such an existence, as bohemian and open-minded as it may be, also becomes one of the most emotionally taxing. Not to mention relationally murky. In real life that is.

But when you expect something effervescent and gay, Design for Living is a bit of a letdown as a movie. After such a strong charge out of the starting gates, the storyline feels wanting in the middle, sluggishly rolling into the final act. One could wager whether or not plucking more out of Coward’s play might have been the most prudent choice. It’s possible it might have made the setup even droller. I can’t say.

Then again, maybe my own comic proclivities range toward screwball and the overtly visual far too much. It is true it often takes finer sensibilities to appreciate ironies and an astute sense of perception to read between the lines. An appreciation for wit and not solely physical comedy is key.

At least in my estimation, the movie is aided by a final party crashing in an attempt to get their girl. These bookends at the front and back half of the picture are vitalized by our stars being brought together. In such close quarters, there’s this inherent possibility for inspiration.

Lubitsch or not, if you have Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Edward Everett Horton together in a room, it’s infinitely better than watching grass grow. The same might be said of Design for Living because if it speaks to anything, the final notes impart a lightness of camaraderie and lithe romance rather than any morose confusions. As it should be. Though it winds up being too little too late.

3.5/5 Stars

Lady on a Train (1945): A Pleasing Blend of Screwball and Noir

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The ever effervescent Deanna Durbin is sprawled out on the seat of a train car feverishly reading the pages of her thrilling mystery novel aloud. She happens to glance out the window only to stop and see a man bludgeoned to death with a crowbar! It was through the window shade, and we don’t see any blood, conveniently, but we do have a story.

Although it’s a corny hook, Lady on a Train goes with it full throttle. She’s left her loving daddy behind in San Francisco for the streets of New York City. H.G. has entrusted her to one of his most accomplished underlings, Haskell of the New York office. That’s all well and good, but the best part is the typically befuddled, huffing, stuttering shtick of the every reliable Edward Everett Horton.

Durbin brings her chipper energy into all sorts of scenarios beginning with her leaving her oblivious minder in the dust as she looks to get the word on the murder she witnessed. The police station is manned by an officer (William Frawley) who finds her story pretty thin and how could you blame him? It’s utterly ludicrous.

But always the fix-it girl, Nicki Collins goes sleuthing on her own, with a little qualified help that is. She resolves to track down the mystery writer of her new favorite page-turner, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), accosting him at work and following him and his put-upon fiancee (Patricia Morrison) to the theater, bugging him even more.

All these elements feel like well-trod screwball paces, which they are. Surely, this is the man who will fall for her persistent charms — eventually. Thankfully Lady on The Train is a mash-up, leveraging all of its assets. Because we never forget this is a mystery and yet set during the Christmas holiday as it is, we have dashes of yuletide cheer sprinkled in.  Of course, Durbin has quite the pair of pipes so we have to have a few token tunes thrown in. It always keeps us entertained.

However, it’s at the very same newsreel she crashes, Nicki realizes the man she saw murdered — Josiah Warring — shipping magnate and newsreel star. What else is there to do but go traipsing around the frozen grounds of the deceased in her heels — of course. She somehow wanders in on the reading of the will and finds herself conveniently dawning an alias as Margo Martin who just so happened to be the fiancee and rich new heir to the dearly departed.

His two dear nephews are present (Dan Duryea and Ralph Bellamy) as well as the scandalized Aunt Charlotte. She cannot stand such a harlot in her presence. Of course, other menacing characters are working behind the scenes. A thick-jawed chauffeur (Allan Jenkins) and a dubious man with glasses (George Colouris) always stroking his cat sinisterly, run things in the creaky old manor. Somehow Nicki gets out of quite the jam and even makes quite a convincing chair as well. Lucille Ball would be proud.

The music mentioned in passing arrives. It brings the story to a standstill with a version of “Silent Night” relayed over the phone to her father, melodious but completely out of left field. When you have Deanna Durbin it’s a must to have her sing. She does it later as well giving a knockout floorshow to keep her cover, conveniently locking her alter ego in a closet and getting everyone else to keep mum.

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The movie is continually piled high with bits of mischief comical and otherwise. Her mystery-writing partner-in-crime gets in a wine cellar fistfight as she looks to evade the men in pursuit of her. She conveniently holds the plot’s MacGuffin in her possession — a pair of bloody slippers — while also turning his girlfriend off for good. The final act keeps up the shenanigans as the murder plot is revealed in a pleasing fashion.

It’s true The Lady on a Train finds itself an agreeable niche between screwball and mystery drama. As such, it just might be about the perfect vehicle for Deanna Durbin’s talents, although she, regrettably, would leave Hollywood for good soon thereafter. The story is not afraid to get a little crazy — leaning into its wonkiness outright — and yet there are interludes of definite intrigue.

It comes down to the actors. Horton and Bellamy come off as screwball mainstays. The likes of Duryea and Coulouris couldn’t be more noir if they tried, with archetypes literally inbred into their character DNA. It’s Deanna Durbin’s charm that allows the picture to carve out its rambunctious path. She spearheads the wild ride with all sorts of plates spinning and bits of thread getting tangled, representing all the people and things she finds herself caught up in.

To its credit, what could have been a jumbled mess endears itself as a mixed-bag of all sorts of fun. It’s one of Durbin’s finest outings. Pleasant surprises, however small, are sometimes the most enjoyable.

3.5/5 Stars

Trouble in Paradise (1932): The Grift of Love

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Ernst Lubitsch made a name for himself and his “touch” in silents as well as leaving an indelible mark on the 1940s with the likes of Shop Around The Corner (1940), To Be or Not to Be (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and Cluny Brown (1946). But for me, no film better personifies his wit and sensibilities than Trouble in Paradise. It proves to be the most impeccable distillation of his directorial style.

The script is courtesy of Samson Raphaelson who would become a longtime collaborator with the director on future projects. Aided by uncredited edits by Lubitsch, the story is imbued with class in the guise of light comedy.

There’s a certain cadence to the cutting and the music. A constant winking that seems to be going on. And it’s simultaneously the height of refined elegance while being undercut with constant nudges and proddings of comic verve. What is noticeable is the economical sophistication of the filmmaking and a seasoned eye for how to tell a story by the best means possible. It’s not always what you would expect.

Consider the film in its early moments as a case and point. It could have started so many ways and yet Lubitsch chose something different. A trash heap, a shadowy fugitive, then a man knocked out on his floor and an almost incomprehensibly daring shot that moves us to another building entirely where we meet our protagonist. It’s all so very enigmatic and almost wordless aside from the bellowing of the gondolier. The man on the balcony rightfully asserts to the waiter attentively standing in the wings, “Beginnings are never easy.” So right he is.

Nevertheless, the film continues to put on a lovely charade concealing its finest secret until the perfect instant to milk the quarries of its humorous intentions for all they are worth. We are introduced to a tryst featuring two great romantics caught up in the rapturous trills of amour.

They sit down to a divine dinner that plays as an intimate tete-a-tete. But soon the curtain drops and they don’t skip a beat as she ousts him as the famed burglar Gaston Monescu and he comes back perfectly charming to accuse her of being a pickpocket herself. She tickled him when she nicked his spoils but her embrace was so sweet. He couldn’t help being touched.

In even these early interludes it becomes obvious that the talent couldn’t be better with Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins falling into their roles seamlessly with a certain amount of relish. Playing a romantic pair of thieves is a fine proposition after all. The world is their oyster and they’re in love. What could be better?

Meanwhile, Edward Everett Horton has an exchange with the police that I can’t but help compare with I Love Lucy’s famous language transfer. So much is lost amid the words and Horton always was an oblivious sort, God bless him.

However, the character who will prove to be the third in our triangle of cultured passion is Colet (Kay Francis) a glamorous heiress in control of a cosmetic empire. Francis embodies the ravishing role flawlessly even despite her well-documented speech impediment. It’s nearly imperceptible if you’re not looking for it.

Far from detracting from her performance it simply increases our sympathy for her. She may be rich — even out of touch with the world at large — but she’s hardly arrogant. She’s easily taken in and a bit cavalier with her money while two men are vying for her affection.

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Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles are both exemplary. I realized perhaps it was something moving deep within me telling me those voices were meant to go together. How right I was. Years later Rocky & Bullwinkle serials would have been a great deal less without them. Just as they make this picture that much better. Horton’s pitch-perfect quizzical look (tonsils, positively tonsils) is wonderfully matched by Ruggles own befuddled mannerisms. Still, I digress.

Of course, we see it already. It is Colet’s vast array of jewels that are of particular interest to a third man: Gaston. Except he’s a clever fellow. Instead of just stealing them at the theater he snatches them so he can give them back to her and in turn gain her confidence with his delicate preening of her ego and artful debonair flattery. He’s skilled and she’s a fairly easy mark.

Soon, he’s hired on as her secretary and it has little to do with his current resume, based on probably one of the films most remembered exchanges that pretty much sums up the tone:

“Madame Colet, if I were your father, which fortunately I am not, and you made any attempt to handle your own business affairs, I would give you a good spanking – in a business way, of course.”

“What would you do if you were my secretary?”

“The same thing.”

“You’re hired.”

His wife AKA his Secretary is getting antsy and a little jealous providing one of the film’s other perfectly inflected quips (If you’re a gentleman, I’ll kill you!). Still, her hubby reassures her all of Colet’s sex appeal is in her safe, 1,000s of francs worth of it. But he’s not as impervious as he would like to believe.

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Lubitsch has the finesse to film an entire extended sequence of only a clock with the dialogue playing over it. The romantic interplay is understood without visual cues. We nod in acknowledgment. They’re also almost more romantic when they don’t kiss than when they do, floating inches from each other’s faces, eyes closed in a reverie.  Gliding on air. We begin to suspect whether this is still a put on or if it is, in fact, becoming real. Gaston is good but his wife is getting anxious and she has every right to be.

The family bookkeeper (C. Aubrey Smith) is skeptical of his qualifications and his identity. But the kicker is that Gaston is finally remembered by Monsieur Filiba and only time will tell when his cover is blown.

It’s time to get out of there and yet something keeps him back. He feels compelled to fess up to Colet and yet there’s no calling of the authorities or any of that. She’s far too wealthy to care. It’s what could have been that she will miss and he knows it too. In the end, he still goes out the door and she lets him. No consequences. No real drama.

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There’s no need because that’s not what the film hinges on. It’s the love story and not just the love but how it plays out in this theater of refinement which Lubitsch has incubated to perfection. Undubitably there is trouble in paradise, even wistfulness sometimes, but that doesn’t mean things cannot be resolved.

Husband and wife go out much as they came in — not able to keep their hands off each other — or out of each other’s pockets. Try and put a name to it if you must. It’s the “grift of love.” How sweet it is.

4.5/5 Stars

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

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I’ll lay my cards right on the table. I’ve never been a huge fan of Robert Montgomery. He just doesn’t have a charisma or a delivery that I much care for so as far as carrying a whole picture I’m not quite sold.

Still, with Here Comes Mr. Jordan, it all seems to work and it’s funny and clever in ways that would cause Hollywood to strive for storytelling that looked to think outside the box. Of course, the irony is, a new box gets created for people to work inside — a new style or sub-genre — but there’s little question that Here Comes Mr. Jordan feels very much the first of its kind. If not, I stand corrected.

It’s a story effortlessly built around quirky inventiveness. There are fantasy elements here that feel very much akin to the likes of Stairway to Heaven (1946), Random Harvest (1942), and Heaven Can Wait (both films from 1943 and 78).

Heaven is depicted as a kind of celestial processing center where human beings are plucked away from their life on earth to begin a new afterlife. Through intervention, by angelic beings, lovers can all but forget one another only to have some deja vu feeling that they’ve been together before.

And further still, the ideas of the heavenly and angels entering into everyday life soon became a staple of 40s and 50s Hollywood much in part to this picture. Without it, there’s a possibility that classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and the Bishop’s Wife (1947) would not have been conceived in their most remembered forms. After all, what would those films be without Clarence or Dudley? Or what would this one be without Mr. Jordan for that matter?

Elaine May must have thought the story was ripe for more exploration too when she penned Heaven Can Wait which expanded a great many of these ideas only in a different context.

Unequivocably this rendition proves to be far from a one trick pony, taking a main conceit that admittedly seems absurd at first — even gimmicky — and turning it into a fantastical comedy with continual possibilities.

Imagine just for one moment that a feisty boxer, Joe Pendelton (Montgomery), preparing for his next big bout flies to the site of the fight only to have his plane malfunction en route. He looks like a goner but he’s pulled from the aircraft too soon by 7013 (Edward Everett Horton). In fact, it’s 50 years too early, his date with the afterlife is not until 1991 (In case you were wondering, Montgomery actually passed away in 1981). Being the bullish personality that he is, Joe’s not going to sit by when he had such a good thing going on earth.

The genial Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) grants his wish and inserts Joe back into life but they must find him a new body — you see his previous one has already been cremated which makes for added complications.

We plot his journey between two distinct individuals and their bodies and aside from the opening plane crash, a few puffs of smoke, and a few parlor tricks, the film doesn’t rely too heavily on any amount of special effects. For all intent and purposes, things are normal as they’ve always been. It’s just the parameters that have changed. Namely the fact that Joe can see Mr. Jordan and no one else can. First, he’s Bruce Farnsworth formerly a crooked magnate who was murdered in his bathtub by his wife and her lover.

Boy, are they surprised when he turns up again. Mr. Jordan and the audience see Montgomery but the others see and hear the man that they think they’ve done away with. Still, coaxed by Mr. Jordan, Joe or Farnsworth, turns this man’s life around, taking ownership of his past indiscretions and helping the father of a young woman (Evelyn Keyes) who was accused of fraud.

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Meanwhile, Joe, err, Farnsworth still has his sights on his previous shot at the boxing ring. It all comes off rather odd to those who used to know his alter ego but he calls up his old coach Max Corkle (James Gleason) and he’s finally able to convince him of his true identity due to his beloved saxophone always in tow.

Finally, it looks like he’s on the road that he wants but alas complications ensue. He finds himself falling for Ms. Logan and circumstances are such that he must find another body. He settles on a straight-arrow named Murdoch and subsequently gives the fighter a second chance in the ring while hiring on Max to be his coach so he can still actualize his dreams.

Mr. Jordan leaves Joe in this moment, seeing he has a version of the life he always wanted and the celestial being conveniently removes all of Joe’s memories of a previous life. Of being a man named Joe Pendleton. It makes for some goofy comedy with Corkle and supplies one budding meet-cute with Ms. Logan.

While the theology is probably sketchy at best, it’s a good-natured, comic interpretation of the afterlife that serves the world of the film well. The only thing in question is the ethical nature of angels removing human memories but surely Claude Rains knows what he is doing.

James Gleason is an absolute riot as the one human privy to the whole gag only to look like a complete nutcase when questioned by anyone else who is “normal.” He easily puts you in stitches and Edward Everett Horton has his flustered indignance down pat. He made a career out of it after all.

4/5 Stars

Review: Top Hat (1935)

tophat1Perhaps Astaire and Rogers most famous film together, Top Hat has them in top form once more, seemingly defying gravity at the full peak of their powers. The beauty of their partnership is that they’re able to tell the progression of a love story through dance, but they do it with such ease and grace it looks like so much fun. For a brief moment, you almost forget what the plot line of the movie is even about. It doesn’t seem to matter. All that matters is these two harmonious beings in perfect unison with each other.

But for those who take some interest in the plot, it is once more a simple screwball story of mistaken identity and romantic entanglements. Jerry Travers is supposed to perform in the show of one Horace Hardwicke, played impeccably by the stuttering Edward Everett Horton. However, Jerry gets smitten with the girl downstairs, but she gets the wrong idea. After all, he is staying in Horace’s suite. They rendezvous in Italy at a lavish gondola getaway where they meet up with Horace’s wife Madge, the always entertaining Helen Broderick. She’s playing matchmaker for Jerry because he has a girl named Dale Tremont (Rogers), who she wants him to meet. Of course, they already know each other, but again she mistakenly believes he’s Horace.

It’s all very awkward, however, all Travers knows is that he’s infatuated with this girl so he goes headlong after her. She’s aloof with him and eventually tries to marry the overly-honorable Alberto Beddini as a defense. Horace over the entire course of the film is bickering with his butler Bates (Eric Blore) and it seems like he’s constantly getting thrown under the bus. But this time Bates does something that makes everyone happy. All that matter is that Astaire and Rogers are back together because in their universe anything else would be unthinkable.

Astaire’s opening number “Fancy Free” is especially lively setting the tone of the story, while “Isn’t a Lovely Day” taking place under the gazebo in the rain is an important starting point for the love story. “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” honestly is not one of my favorite numbers, but it is worth it alone to see Astaire twirl around with his stick using it to develop rhythm and act as almost a third leg.

An American classic from Irving Berlin, “Cheek to Cheek” is undoubtedly the apex of this film, because by now our stars are in love and in this dance they have entered almost a suspended state of bliss personified by their floating forms. All the other players fade away and the dynamic dancing duo gracefully glides into heaven together.

The final number “The Piccolino” is rather decadently extravagant to match the flamboyant set, but again when all else fades away and we are left with only Astaire and Rogers, that’s when the scene truly feels magical. It’s as if within all the noise there is once again a moment of beautiful intimacy. But intimate in the sense of two wonderful performers being seemingly so connected in their art form. They hold the sinews of the screwball romance together if only through their exquisite dances.

Most opinion on film is essentially subjective, and in my opinion Swing Time (1936) from the following year is a stronger picture. It has a few more memorable numbers and it is perhaps a little more well balanced all around. Although you do lose Edward Everett Horton for Victor Moore, a lot of the other players remain the same. Also, Top Hat‘s script feels a little weaker, not that it’s of great importance. Because after all, most people don’t go into a film like this ready to analyze the script. We want to be dazzled by two of the great icons of Hollywood, as much now as during the Depression years, and they certainly do that to perfection.

4.5/5 Stars