For Me and My Gal (1942)

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Here is a good old-fashioned American musical that effectively acts as an homage to the vaudevillian circuit that saw many performers realize their talents including numerous future Hollywood icons. At the core is a musical dream team in Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.

Behind the camera is the much revered Busby Berkeley who made musicals into gargantuan extravaganzas thanks to how he managed to capture human forms from above like no one before him. Ironically, here he’s working in a somewhat more conventional and dare I say, informal setting where we get to share the mundane spaces with our stars.

Kelly is Harry Palmer, a man who makes a living clowning around on stage. The arm spinning pirouettes and the athletic moves that defined his style of hoofing are obvious from the outset as are his infectious charm and winning smile. He’s still in the latent stages of his genius but that’s okay. There’s still time.

Judy Garland at this point in her career already had sizable stardom and it was Kelly the Broadway up-and-comer featured in his film debut. But in the ensuing decade, there was no doubt about it whatsoever. They both became quintessential musical stars of a generation along with a select few.

Jo Hayden (Garland) is a song and dance gal who while not having made “The Big Time” yet, still has a noticeable amount of talent. She partners with the good-natured Jimmy Metcalf (George Murphy) who harbors an obvious crush on her. She thinks he’s sweet.

Harry Palmer on the other hand, always seems to be making a fool of himself. A genuine person like her can see right through his come-ons. While her gangly brother (Richard Quine) agrees to finish up his med school, Jo is following her ambitions to get somewhere. She subsequently realizes she does have a bit of chemistry with Palmer on stage after an impromptu performance, if not for the fact that she is already a part of an act.

Jimmy does the noble thing and lets her go as they all have their sights on the Palace Theater in New York City.  You see, it’s the holy grail for vaudeville performers. It means you’ve made it. Palmer is ecstatic when he meets a singer (Martha Eggerth) who already performs there, thinking she might be his in. But he remains true to what he has going with Jo. Still, time and time again they’re playing small towns and their aspirations never seem in reach.

Even when it is right there in front of them and their manager (Keenan Wynn) has seemingly pulled through, Harry is torn up to find that he’s been drafted to head over to France to help the doughboys in putting the Kaiser to rest. He’s no draft dodger but he wants his dream so much and they are so close to being realized. He takes a plan of action that Jo misconstrues as cowardice. She’s ashamed that he would do such a thing especially since her brother is overseas fighting already.

Thankfully that is not the final word. Life sometimes has a curious way of bringing people back together and in the case of this cinematic world, we get a cheering finale courtesy of the MGM dream factory. While For Me and My Gal revels in its star power and the intimate chemistry built between them on the stage and in dressing rooms or in train compartments, we are soon reminded that this film has an ulterior motive. It’s a musical, it’s a romance, but it’s also a product of the American homefront.

Like a Sergeant York (1941) or a Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) this effort was made with a higher purpose to act as a kindling rallying cry for nationalistic fervor going into WWII. However, just like its contemporaries, the reason we’re still watching it today isn’t necessarily due to those aspirations but the emotional connection elicited from its stars. This is what makes For Me and My Gal truly swell with sentiment. Thankfully Judy Garland and Gene Kelly got together on two more musical efforts to keep it going. Because they help elevate this above the spectrum of a run-of-the-mill propaganda musical with their palpable charisma that transcends any maudlin patches.

4/5 Stars

The Three Musketeers (1948)

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The Three Musketeers is a luscious Technicolor swashbuckler done in the fashion of the luxuriant Hollywood costume dramas of the time as we are no doubt accustomed to seeing. Fittingly, they’re also easily subject to classic stereotypes. It’s positively bloated with top-tier talent and whether or not it takes on its source material faithfully is generally beside the point.

Its aims are not those of authenticity and if they were it would be laughable. Maybe it is still laughable but it proves to be made for enjoyment as much as it is made up of cliches. Because in one single package it sums up all that is marvelous and to some, all that is tawdry about such productions of old.

It’s a cinematic “Illustrated Classic” courtesy of George Sidney who provides a film that’s precisely to his proclivities as we might expect even if it’s not so much a musical. It’s meant to be gobbled up voraciously by the children and enjoyed with unbridled enthusiasm by their parents. No more, no less.  And how can you not at least admire its sheer gaudy decadence and the way it chooses to slice a path through the material?

Where there’s no pretense to mask any of the actor’s normal speech patterns or any discernable patois. I think mainly of Van Heflin and Vincent Price sounding like they always have and who nevertheless are both generally enjoyable. We also have the pleasure of a cutthroat Lana Turner, an angelic June Allyson, and a various number of others including royalty played by Frank Morgan and Angela Lansbury and a lovestruck maidservant played by Patricia Medina. Undoubtedly there are still others lost under facial hair and plumage but, again, that hardly matters.

Initially, it also felt like a royal pity that Gene Kelly (playing the lead of D’Artagnan) was not dancing but then being the athletic performer that he is, it soon becomes obvious that his sword fighting utilizes many of the limber movements his dancing has and he really is well suited for such a role. If there was ever a genesis for “The Dueling Cavalier” look no further than right here.

Beginning with the opening duel with Richelieu’s men that sees the formation of the famed partnership as we know it, the picture proves to be ripe with thoroughly gripping and lightly comic fight sequences. They prove to be the highlight of the film on a spectrum of entertainment.

The best part is that they keep on coming at us with rip-roaring wreckless abandon, sabers at the ready, though it begins to fizzle out, in the end, overcome by a plodding narrative that seems no fault of Dumas but rather the adaptation itself. If I were to choose favorites I for one would single out Richard Lester’s adaptation but then again, maybe even that film is not for all.

3/5 Stars

Les Girls (1957)

220px-Les_Girls.jpgClassic Hollywood musicals usually have a very common framework that they rarely seem to deviate from. There’s almost an accepted unwritten rule that they will function like so. Typically, there is an overarching story being told and yet the narrative is conveniently broken up by song and dance routines that not only provide immeasurable entertainment value and give an excuse for talented performers to strut their stuff but also serve to move our movie forward comedically, romantically, dramatically, whatever it may be.

Thus, Les Girls is a generally absorbing musical simply in terms of its mechanics. They stray slightly from the set formula. It’s a bit of a Rashomon (1950) plotting device. If you will recall, Akira Kurosawa’s film famously told the same turn of events three times over from three differing perspectives. That’s what happens here, in a sense, with the action being set partially in a courtroom (a first for a musical) and then the rest on the road with theater performers.

It all comes into being because of a libel suit that has broken out between two former colleagues who used to be a part of Barry Nichols’ Les Girls act that was a smashing success in its day. But following the publishing of a tell-all memoir and suggestion of a supposed suicide attempt, blood is boiling between Frenchwoman Angele Ducros (Taina Elg) and British-born Sybil Wren (Kay Kendall) who had the gall to publish such a story.

Of course, there are actually three ladies in question, the third being the peppy American Joy Henderson (Mitzi Gaynor) who rounds out the act and, of course, Barry finds himself romantically linked to each one though he specifically makes a habit of never falling in love with his fellow dancers. It proves a hard rule for him to keep but for the audience, it gives us a good excuse to see Gene Kelly share at least one moment on the dance floor with each of his talented costars individually.

This proved to be the final film score of America’s beloved songsmith Cole Porter and he provides a few moderately memorable numbers including the title track. Kay Kendall is thoroughly convivial to watch as a comedienne and performer throughout with her number “You’re Just Too, Too” being one of the most playful in the picture.

Meanwhile, the final number with Kelly and Gaynor is a blast full of romance around table and chairs. But the real kicker is feisty Mitzi Gaynor letting Kelly have it over the head with a picture frame, deservedly so, I might add. But in the end it all comes to naught, the court case is dropped and we are left with an open ending that’s winking at us. At least everyone’s happy.

Though he is not often remembered as a musical director, in some sense, George Cukor seems well within his element with the material at hand always adept at bringing together stories of behind the scenes antics and goings on between women and their men. That’s precisely what we have here.

This would prove to be Gene Kelly’s final film with MGM after an illustrious run. You also get the sense that perhaps this character is closer to the real Gene Kelly — the man who was constantly called a perfectionist and recounted later by Esther Williams to be a terror to work with. And here he still has a dose of his winning charm but there are also signs of that dancing slave driver working his girls to the bone and unwittingly romancing them at the same time. Still, there’s no doubting his inspired screen presence that underlines nearly every picture he was ever in.

It’s true that a previous iteration of the film was to have included Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, and Jean Simmons. That would have been an interesting combination to be sure but what we got here instead is still a stunning and at times thoroughly unconventional musical.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Take Me out to The Ball Game (1949)

Take_Me_Out_To_The_Ballgame_(MGM_film).jpgThere’s something perfectly in sync between Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor so I could never choose another duo over them but Kelly and Frank Sinatra are such wonderful entertainers that they help make this period baseball number a real musical classic even if it has to fall in line behind a row of other quality contenders.

It’s easy to half expect to see Stanley Donen’s name on the marquee as director in part because of his prestigious partnership with Kelly but instead, we get an equally renowned name in Busby Berkeley. In fact, at this time Berkeley was a veteran of musicals. However, it’s true that Donen did help with crafting the narrative on this one with Kelly and would pick up directing duties with On the Town (1949).

America’s original Pasttime (before being challenged by Basketball and Football) is ripe for a musical homage as MGM seemed to take aim at all the popular arenas of entertainment. Set during the golden years of baseball, this story, in particular, takes interest in the fictional Wolves who share some resemblance to the famed Cubs of the early 1900s with the double-play combination of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance. In this film, the archetypal slogan, “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” is adapted into a giddy tune “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg” with the trio of Kelly, Sinatra, and Jules Munshin taking the leads.

Esther Williams even gets her obligatory dip in the pool while still showing her prowess as a baseball player, a desirable heartthrob, and a club owner with a certain amount of business acumen. Because she really is at the core of the story’s plot.

You see the boys, O’Brien and Ryan, are having a grand old time coming off a stint in vaudeville during the offseason and now spring training is upon them and they are reunited with their clubmates along with the scintillating prospect of another league pennant. That is until they find out that they’re under new ownership, and they suspect it’s a stuffy nobody named K.C. Higgins.

Are they surprised with what meets their eyes? K.C. Higgins turns out to be a “she” instead of a “he” and a very attractive one at that. But that doesn’t detract from the bottom line. She’s a woman who expects that she knows the game better than they do. Thus, it’s a slight musical riff on the old battle of the sexes dilemma.

Their plan of action entails setting up their buddy Denny (Sinatra) with Ms. Catherine so they can keep her occupied and off their backs. Kelly is the fast-moving playboy ballplayer who also has a complicated relationship with Katherine Catherine (that’s what K.C. stands for). While the forward Shirley Delwyn (Betty Garret) is out to snag herself a man and sets her sights on poor helpless Dennis.

There’s a bit of a black sox scandal type thread that’s grafted in at the end with Edward Arnold playing his usual corrupt businessman who is looking to ruin O’Brien’s reputation and make a killing off betting against the Wolves. Thank goodness in this case Kenesaw Mountain Landis does not come in and expulse Gene Kelly who instead is allowed to dance another day this time with all his costars.

Aside from singing the game’s most revered song on screen, (which is a relief given its name), the film also has adequate room for some of the other important aspects of baseball namely antagonizing umpires, trash talk, clowning, and brawls. After all, what would America’s game be without those finer points?

Gene Kelly even gets around to putting another feather in his dancing cap with an Irish jig proving him to be yet again a master showman and virtuoso performer on taps. He’s also probably the first baseball player in history who carried two careers as a ballplayer by day and a hoofer by night. All in all, this was the kind of Technicolor spectacle that MGM was accustomed to offering up in the 40s and 50s and it’s satisfying stuff, if not quite their best.

3.5/5 Stars

4 Star Films’ Favorite Movies: 21-25

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One of the reasons film is so engaging and fascinating is the discussion that it evokes from all people. Every person, no matter their age or knowledge, can have their own subjective opinion on a film and why they liked it, or better yet why they hated it so much that they wanted to throw up.

But I’m going to cut the discussion short and put my cinematic life on the line by being completely vulnerable with some of my admittedly subjective picks for my favorite movies. Any agreement is highly encouraged. All dissenting opinions will be disregarded without a thought. Enjoy #21-#25 in this ongoing series:

21. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

This first title was love at first sight. All the things I love about a great comedy. Completely lacking sophistication and full of hilarious insanity. Also, Mad…World has arguably the greatest ensemble every assembled for one film. Everyone shows up for the party and it’s wonderful. Jonathan Winters was my favorite discovery from this film because he truly was a comic gem of a man.

22. Some Like it Hot (1959)

Jack Lemmon will always and forever be one of my favorite actors. Maybe it’s because he reminds me of my Grandpa because my Grandpa is a funny man. But that’s neither here nor there. Some Like it Hot stems from the genius of Billy Wilder, always ready with a funny storyline (two cross-dressing musicians fleeing Chicago gangsters) and a rapier wit. Of course, there’s Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe too, and the Hotel Del Coronado makes a memorable appearance filling in for Florida. Boy, oh boy, am I a boy!

23. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Now this one might seem kind of random. But I quickly fell in love with the fateful whimsy of Jacques Demy. His love of American musicals is evident with the casting of both Gene Kelly and George Chakiris, but this is also undeniably a French production starring sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac. Michel Legrand’s music is surprisingly catchy and the fact that the film’s exposition is all given through song intrigued me from the beginning.

24. Laura

Film-Noir became a favorite genre, movement, style (whatever you want to call it) early on and Laura was one of the reasons why. I think I was smitten with Laura (Gene Tierney) much like our protagonists, and the film’s core mystery was gripping in more ways than one. David Raksin’s haunting score adds yet another layer to the drama as does Otto Preminger’s direction through the film’s interiors.

25. To Kill a Mockingbird

By now Harper Lee’s novel and Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch are almost intertwined in my mind, so much so, it becomes difficult to separate the two. And since I loved the book growing up, it’s only fitting that the film adaption would also hold a special place. Its set of sentiment and moral uprightness is hard for me to disregard, even when I’m at my most cynical. Mary Badham does a wonderful job as does Brock Peters — the perfect foils for Peck’s monumental portrayal.

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

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

rochefort1If the Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a piercing operatic drama, The Young Girls of Rochefort is pure, unadulterated escapism at its finest. 

Directed by Jacques Demy and starring an ensemble cast including Catherine Deneuve, Francois Dorleac, Gene Kelly, Michel Piccoli, Gerochefort9orge Chakiris, Grover Paul, and Danielle Darrieux, this is a whimsical French musical that has no equal. 

The film opens with a group of performers coming into the town of Rochefort to get ready for a big outdoor show. They become acquainted with the local hangout that includes a kindly matron (Darrieux) and many locals including an idealistic artist and sailor who is searching for his ideal lover. Nearby her two adult twin daughters hold piano and ballet lessons as they too get their little prodigies ready for the big show. Delphine (Deneuve) is fed up with her suitor and desires a new love, while Solange (Dorleac) on her part hopes to advance her career as a pianist. She goes to the proprietor of a local music store to see if he can introduce her to a prestigious American Friend.

A great deal of dramatic irony sets in and the plot is constantly moved forward through song. Yvonne at the café is still depressed over a split with a lover 10 years prior, because he had an unfortunate name. Solange has a chance encounter while stopping to pick up her kid brother Booboo, and Delphine becomes curious about an artist who painted a portrait that looks strikingly like her. All of these events reach their apex on the Sunday of the big performance, and in need of some performer, the carnies enlist the help of the twins. They are a huge success and things wind down.

The nextrochefort4 morning the performers get ready to leave for Paris and the girls decide to follow suit. However, Solange has another encounter that changes her plans and then Yvonne is united with her love. That leaves only Delphine to go with the boys to Paris, but not to worry, she would be united with her painter soon enough.

The light and very French-sounding tunes are hard not to like, but that is only the very beginning. Demy pays homage to Hollywood musicals of old going so far as casting Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain) and George Chakiris (West Side Story) in his film. He undoubtedly owes a debt to Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen with some striking moments reminiscent of An American in Paris (1951). It makes sense. Demy uses the pastels and costumes of a Hollywood musical extravaganza while also including dashes of French style.

Rocrochefort2hefort takes place in a real location, but it truly is a fantasy world that the characters inhabit, full of perpetual dancing and dialogue that is delivered through song. The real-life sisters do a wonderful job in this film and there is something reassuring about seeing Gene Kelly. Rather like an old friend who gives comfort in a whimsical, but altogether new experience. The story arc of dashed, renewed, and ultimately new found love allows Demy to once more explore the issues of fate and chance that always seem to enchant him.  His partnership with Michel Legrand is once again bountiful including the enduringly memorable “Chanson Des Jumelles,” an infectiously bouncy, trumpet-laden number performed by the sisters.

There’s nothing much else for me to say except The Young Girls of Rochefort is one of those under-appreciated gems that is thoroughly enjoyable and chock full of all sorts of fun. It delivers a serving of something with a familiar flavor while giving it a little extra panache. It’s about as playful and fluffy as you can get which in this case is not a bad thing at all. 

4.5/5 Stars

Cover Girl (1944)

5fff5-covergirlmpRusty Parker (Rita Hayworth) is a chorus girl at Danny McGuire’s place (Gene Kelly), however she has the chance of a lifetime to be the cover girl of a major magazine. She is going places with a rich suitor who wants to hire her and then propose marriage. Rusty neglects her old job and it leaves Danny dejected and angry. He knows that Rusty has a great future in front of her but he cannot stand to break up their team that includes their mutual friend Genius (Phil Silvers). At first Rusty does not understand her true feelings and rashly decides to get married. However, much like her grandmother before her, Rusty realizes in the nick of time how she feels.

This Technicolor film has one or two decent numbers and I was surprised how nimble Phil Silvers is on his toes. He dances well with Kelly and Hayworth. As always Eve Arden is as humorous as ever and Gene Kelly used his artistic control fairly well.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

f7d3a-singin_rain I always seem to get goosebumps during Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” number, because each time I see and hear it, there is still a new magic to it every time. You see when I was young, before I knew all the classics, first and foremost, I knew this gem of a film. It is such a wonderful buildup to that moment with such personal favorites as “Make em’ Laugh” and “Moses Supposes.” Then you have the always popular “Good Morning” with not only Kelly but Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds performing. Great stuff! There’s tireless choreography that goes into many of those sequences but it comes off so effortlessly and it brings us into the moment. There those wonderful, brief instances when you lose yourself in the music, the magic, and so on.

As the story goes, the three friends save the failing “Dueling Cavalier” by losing the simple “talkie” gimmick and making it a musical by dubbing the squeaky-voiced Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen). Cathy (Reynolds) no longer is a bit player, and she gains the acknowledgment that she deserves. Then Don Lockwood (Kelly) gets the girl who burst out of a cake. Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) is along for the ride staying with Don through thick and through thin, even calling him a cab when necessary. He’s a true friend in a million.

Although Kelly had a career with other high points (arguably never as high as this one), I am always slightly saddened that O’Connor and Reynolds never reached another apex like this in their subsequent careers. But they were both so great here, we must simply cherish this film for what it is.

Even to this day, the film holds up, and that is a tribute to the writing of Betty Comden and Adolph Green highlighting the infant Hollywood and the advent of talkies. In the same breath, it’s both a satire of the movie star culture and still a love letter to that same cottage industry. The only film with a similar dissection of Hollywood’s Golden Age is another 50s classic in Sunset Boulevard. The big difference is that Wilder’s film is chock full of drama and darkness. Singin’ in the Rain will always and forever be a light, fun musical with a lot of laughs.  It is constantly quotable whether it is “dignity, always dignity” or “I CAN’T stand it!”

Jean Hagen is always the butt of everyone’s jokes, but she is indeed very funny with the most annoying voice in the history of cinema (She can’t act, she can’t sing, she can’t dance. Triple threat). You also have other fine performers like Millard Mitchell as studio head R.F., and then appearances by Cyd Charisse and Rita Moreno who made a name for themselves as dancers in the ensuing years. And is it just me or does Donald O’Connor remind others of Danny Kaye? He not only cracks the jokes, but he is a wonderful all-around performer. Although O’Connor was undoubtedly a better dancer.

All in all, this is a timeless classic and it will undoubtedly keep that title for as long as people watch movies. Now I hope it starts pouring buckets of rain so I can go outside and stomp around in the puddles. I will let you know if I come down with pneumonia. But until that happens I’ll enjoy every minute of it. I entreat you to do the same.

5/5 Stars