Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)

Broadway_Melody_of_1940_Poster.jpg“The more you know about women the less you know about women.” It’s the story of my life and also a marvelous entry point for this film because it really is a throwaway line. It’s referred to several times thenceforward but really means nothing more. Anyways, if we came to this film simply for the plot it would have been buried under heaps of other more elegant or frenetic comedies over the years. But the reason to revisit this one for all those eager thespians out there is solely for the dancing and what dancing it is.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be tantamount to cinematic blasphemy to say that Fred Astaire belonged beside anyone else rather than Ginger Rogers on the dance floor but maybe it’s the novelty of the situation that makes me quite thoroughly enjoy this effort that paired him with his contemporary, the premiere dancing star Eleanor Powell.

Though working at a different studio now  (MGM instead of RKO), the plotline could have easily followed in the footsteps of many of Astaire’s earlier pictures. It’s pure cotton candy fluff about mistaken identity since he gives the name of his best buddy to a man he thinks is a collector. Is he surprised when he finds out days later that the man actually had connections with a big stage production starring the one and only Clare Bennett?  By throwing out the name of his chum King (George Murphy), he unwittingly paid his best friend the biggest favor of his life and he takes it in stride willing to sink into the background.

Still, he can’t help but harbor a crush for the divine Ms. Bennett and he starts getting a little peeved with how the fame is going to King’s head which leads him to get pig-headed and worse yet completely swacked before his grand opening. Obviously, someone else needs to fill in and wouldn’t you know it, we just happen to have Fred Astaire waiting behind the curtain to step in. The rest you can probably figure out for yourself. Meanwhile, Frank Morgan and Florence Rice appear intermittently providing a bit of comic background noise to fill in the idle moments with some mild buffoonery.

But the dancing, the dancing is as sublime as it’s ever been and it’s breathtaking watching Powell’s solo numbers as well as some of the other stunts, some comical and others mindboggling for their precision (Plate throwing and ball balancing come to mind). A few Cole Porter tunes still have their allure namely the famed “Begin the Beguine” number as well as the peppy “I’ve Got My Eyes on You” elevated still further by the dancing that goes with them.

Watching Astaire and Powell is enough. Because dancing done well by Astaire, Rogers, Kelly, Cagney, Powell, O’Connor, Charisse, any of those names, transcends the plotlines they find themselves in and captures us in a moment of sheer euphoric joy. This is coming from a man with two feet so far left that they’re practically right, so perhaps I’m too easily impressed, but I’d like to believe that every time they thrill me with their taps I’m getting my socks blown off by something sensational. Others can judge it as they may but I’ve said my peace.

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 !

 

Royal Wedding (1951)

royalwedding1The Wedding of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip was a once in a lifetime experience. They’re still together to this day and yet when they got married she was not even queen yet. It’s hard to believe. It’s only fitting that a momentous occasion like that would get a film, and Stanley Donen‘s musical is a bouncy little dance fest that uses the wedding as its backdrop, hence the title.

The story follows the brother-sister dance team extraordinaire of Tom (Fred Astaire) and Ellen Bowden (Jane Powell), who after a smashing opening weekend of their show Every Night on Sunday, get a call to perform in London in the wake of the big occasion. So they get aboard the first ocean liner available and head abroad. Tom is more interested in work than love, and Ellen leaves behind a string of beaus behind, but none of them meant much to her. She finds a budding romance with Lord Brindale (Peter Lawford), and it looks like it might actually amount to something. Quite by chance, Tom finds out a woman he meets on the street happens to be part of their production, the dancer Anne Ashmond (none other than Winston Churchill’s daughter Sarah). So of course, we have these two budding romances forming as the show gets into high gear and siblings must balance their obligations with love. It’s not always easy or without heartache, but it ends up just as glorious as the Royal Wedding.

Fred Astaire is an ageless wonder looking as spry as he ever did, and his individual numbers are probably the film’s best. His coat rack dance in the gym seemingly pays homage to his friend Gene Kelly and shows his brilliance at breathing life and vitality into inanimate objects. They become his partners in the dance. His inspiration for expression.

royalwedding2Furthermore, his dance on the ceiling looks as remarkable now and feels just as magical as it probably was back then. It’s a marvel because we look for any sign of a trick, but everything looks so fluid. Thus, it’s so easy to quickly forget the technical aspect and simply be blown away by the inventiveness of Astaire.

Jane Powell is a wonderfully bright young beauty and a lovely co-star for Astaire in both song and dance. It was refreshing not to have them playing romantic leads opposite one another and the brother-sister dynamic fittingly mirrored Astaire’s own longtime real-life partnership with his sister Adele. All in all, it’s a light and elegant bit of fun that’s an exuberant delight. It does what it sets out to do and that’s about all you can ask for.

3.5/5 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

Review: Swing Time (1936)

swingtime1I wondered to myself, after watching Swing Time once again, if anyone else might have easily taken Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ places as films greatest dancing couple, and then I quickly discarded this heretical idea. They appeared in 10 films together with this film directed by George Stevens being there six pairing. By now they’re a well-oiled, beautifully elegant dancing machine.

As with many of their films the genre is a hybrid of a screwball comedy and a musical which of course most importantly showcases their legendary dancing prowess.

Astaire is the carefree gambler and hoofer “Lucky” Garnett who gets duped out of his marriage by his buddies and must head to New York to prove himself to his fiancees’ father. He goes off with his faithful friend “Pop” (Victor Moore), who also has a penchant for card tricks. They have nary a penny in their pockets and he meets a pretty young dance teacher (Ginger Rogers) over a stolen quarter.

From her point of view, he just won’t stop leaving her alone and he just wants to get the chance to dance with her. Astaire and Rogers’ first number together, “Pick Yourself Up,” is a peppy piece that sets the bar for the rest of the film. They swivel, glide, and sway, perfectly in sync, orbiting one another. And for the rest of the film whenever they dance together they never seem to lose that innate connection.

As far as the screwball aspect goes, Lucky is tight on money resorting to gambling for some new duds, but his chance to dance with Penny is his big break. They just need an orchestra to accompany them. The only problem is someone else owns the orchestra and the orchestra leader Ricardo is also madly in love with Penny. In a shady set-up all across the board they draw cards for the contract and “Lucky” wins. He and Penny have a growing connection, but he still feels guilt based on his attachment to his fiancee Margaret. And of course his life catches up with him and Penny finds out while simultaneously the orchestra is taken away from him.

It must happen this way so they can realize how much they mean to each other and share one final dance together. Out of all the misunderstandings comes a lot of big laughs and in the end, everybody thinks it’s funny. Since Ricardo loses his pants, Penny decides to marry Lucky after all and everything is right in the world of Astaire and Rogers.

You don’t necessarily watch a film like this for the acting, but thanks undoubtedly to the studio system we have a colorful supporting cast including the two-timing but lovable Pop, Mabel is a wisecracking riot in her own right, and although his screen time is short, Eric Blore is enjoyable as the hissy dance studio boss Mr. Gordon.

“The Way You Look Tonight” is an absolute crooner classic and aside from the initial number it can be heard throughout the film in refrains. The same goes for “A Fine Romance” which feels antiquated, but it still manages to be thoroughly enjoyable in all of its reprises. But the main attraction is, of course, the dancing, from the personified joy of “Waltz in Swing Time” to the graceful gliding of “Never Gonna Dance.” If you set aside the unfortunate blackface for a moment the Bojangles shadow dance is a stroke of creative genius that gives off an amazing result while showcasing Astaire’s individual skill.

From someone with two left feet, this film makes me want to at least attempt to dance because Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers turn dancing into an almost mystical experience. How does he prance and twirl so effortless on the floor? How does she do it equally as beautifully and in heels no less? It looks like they’re having so much fun and yet, in reality, they practiced for hours upon hours to get it right.  Amazing stuff.

4.5/5 Stars

Shall We Dance? (1996)

shallwedance1Shall We Dance is a film with important ties to American culture such as the King and I and The Drifters, but it has far more important roots in its native Japan. Thus, its remake starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez undoubtedly loses some of the cultural significance of the original film.

Because Japan is a nation of etiquette, good manners, and the like. They act as a whole society, not as individuals. They care about honor, modesty, and how others will perceive them. They work hard for long hours. Men bring home the bacon and wives faithfully serve their husbands and families. Ballroom dancing in a culture like that is about as compatible as oil and water. Men and women are not to show affection — sensing it instead — and holding hands or saying “I love you” is out of the question. Thus, a mode of expression where men and women are meant to be so close and intimate has a stigma attached to it.

When a seemingly successful businessman, Mr Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho) spies a girl in the window of a dance studio, he has no intention of learning the art form. All he wants is to get close to this mysterious beauty. Of course, he has a wife, a daughter, and a good job, but he feels trapped in his life. He has nothing to give him joy, nothing to make him feel alive, just the monotonous rhythms of office life.

shallwedance2In fact, his first jaunts in the dance studio are rather comical, because his ineptness is magnified by his two classmates, one rather rotund and the other short and squat. It’s as if he’s learning to dance with Laurel and Hardy by his side. In fact, a great many characters have tremendous personality on the whole. Ms. Tamura is Shohei’s sagely teacher, who constantly builds him up with encouragement. Mr. Aoki is one of the work colleagues, who also moonlights an extravagant aficionado of the rumba. They are only a few in a vast company of supporting players.

But of course, this is a sort of faux-love story. Think Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire and you get the idea. Except in the Japanese society, the only place you dare talk about dance is in the men’s room with no one around. Stripping away everything else this film is about finding self-expression, especially in a society that has a complex relationship with such an idea. Mr. Sugiyama eventually revels in his chance to dance, practicing steps on the platform waiting for the subway, improving his posture in the rain, or even conspicuously tapping his feet on the ride home.

Mai the beautiful object of his desire is aloof, with glassy eyes, and often feels like the antithesis of Japanese women in many ways. She is strong, straightforward, and physically imposing in a graceful way. As an audience we know essentially the road this film will traverse. Mr. Sugiyama must go through a transformation just as Mai must because they are not the same two people we first met looking out from their prospective windows.

shallwedance3What became most interesting to me was this idea of the affair. Mr. Sugiyama’s wife feels like she has been cheated on and her husband agrees with her openly. However, as an American audience, we look at this plotline and see no sex or anything like that. In essence, it depends on how you define an “affair.” For instance, if we look through the lens of an Astaire & Rogers film, their musical comedies were romances, but they could never show characters sleeping together due to the production codes. So the evolution of a relationship had to be illustrated through dance – the courtship, the conflict, and ultimately the passion. Perhaps Shall We Dance is a little different, but if we look at dance in this symbolic way, this was a film about an affair.

More importantly, however, it is a film about reconciliation, self-expression, and really breaking out of the status quo. Those are themes that ring true, although they might be easier to swallow in an American society.

4/5 Stars

The Best Films of Fred Astaire (1899-1987)

1. Swing Time
2. Top Hat
3, The Band Wagon
4, The Gay Divorcee
5, Funny Face
6. Easter Parade
7. You Were Never Lovelier
8. Shall We Dance
9. Holiday Inn
10. Flying Down to Rio
11. Royal Wedding
12. Three Little Words
13. Carefree
14. Broadway Melody of 1940
15. The Towering Inferno

I have no desire to prove anything by dancing. I have never used it as an outlet or a means of expressing myself. I just dance. I just put my feet in the air and move them around.

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

 

Funny Face (1957)

c8b15-funny_face_1957Although not a tremendous musical, Funny Face is a fun film that is worth a watch because it pairs Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn.

My main purpose for watching this film was to commemorate what would have been Audrey Hepburn’s 85th birthday today. This was a great film to go to in that respect, because it features many iconic shots of true Hepburn fashion. The film facilitated it since Hepburn was the newest model for a fashion magazine and Fred Astaire was the photographer who brought her on and ultimately fell for her.

So much color, style, and a good deal of relatively entertaining song and dance courtesy of Gershwin. Although this is no American in Paris you still have some of the Parisian allure.

I must admit that Audrey Hepburn certainly does not have a “Funny Face” in my opinion, but I will say that she always was a pleasant and charming beauty to watch. She is one for the ages as an actress, a fashion queen, a humanitarian, and an all around beloved lady.

Happy Birthday Huckleberry Friend

3.5/5 Stars

Swing Time (1936)

0c747-394px-swing-time-1935Starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with director George Stevens, this light film is like a screwball romance with a lot of added dancing. Astaire is a man who has missed his wedding and he agrees to go off to the city with a friend so he can make money to bring back. There he meets a fiery dance teacher accidentally and then they begin to perform together. As “Lucky” (Astaire) and his friend try to survive by gambling with the little money they have, he begins to fall for Penny (Rogers). However, she does not find out until later that he already has a fiancee. When she realizes the situation she goes to marry another. In the end everything is all a big mistake full of laughter and of course everything is made right again. There is no denying that Astaire and Rogers are not only good dancers but good performers. Many of the numbers they dance and sing are memorable like “The Way You Look Tonight,” Pick Yourself Up,” and of course “Waltz in Swing Time.”

4.5/5 Stars