Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

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With the opening number “We’re In The Money,” this musical sticks it to The Great Depression and gives their audience a respite from the poverty waiting outside the theater doors. The tone is set as Ginger Rogers, surrounded by rows of scantily clad coin-covered women, sings out one of the song’s lines in Pig Latin. It’s one in a million.

Like its predecessor, the smash hit 42nd Street (1933), this is yet another hybrid of backstage drama and semi-extravagant production numbers. An incoming rapid-fire line of close-ups featuring Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, and Ginger Rogers all giving the camera a mouthful is a delightful portent of all that it to come from this bevy of talent. The sass meter goes through the roof.

But we never forget that it’s the Depression, though it would be an unnecessary reminder for audiences already living through the reality. As Carol quips when she hears the timeliness of their newest project, “We won’t have to rehearse that.” Because they’ve been living through it along with everyone else.

It means that they share a measly flat together. Get by from swiping milk bottles from the upstairs neighbors and fighting over clothes to make at least one of them look presentable for the prospect of an audition. There’s a lightness to it all as much as there is a camaraderie. They’re all in it together and that allows the picture to work. Otherwise, it would be too depressing. There needs to be that assurance and resolve driving our characters. They never get too low.

Ruby Keeler has time to fall for Dick Powell yet again, this time by simply sticking her head out the window to swoon over his piano ballads. Of course, things hit the pits when they find out that despite a swell idea, their backer and potential savior Barry (Ned Sparks), still is broke and so his visions of a showstopping triumph are all for naught. The insouciant joking of Powell has everyone a little hurt until he actually comes through in shelling out $15,000 just like that. He was never more serious.

So there we have it. Another stage production is in the works. Everything is coming together dandily but in a role reversal of 42nd Street, it is Powell’s Brad who is called upon to fill a void in the production when he’s needed most.

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The original juvenile lead is not able to make the cut due to lumbago and so despite his continuous rejection of the part, he finally folds realizing so many folks are counting on him. We’ve already said it and we’ll say it again. The show must go on!

Their first number, “Pettin’ in the Park” is a near-surreal exhibition in sauciness utilizing a midget dressed as a baby, a studio orchestrated rainstorm, and women donning metal garb to foil their male suitors. Weird but it’s an unequivocal smash.

So big in fact that news gets out. Brad’s family hears he’s been moonlighting in the theater and is appalled. Because you see, he comes from a well-to-do family. Such a line of work would never do. Cavorting with chorus girls and acting is out of the question. He returns home but to no avail as his older brother Lawrence (Warren William) and the family’s lawyer Fanueal H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) agree to come out to put an end to Brad’s career — not to mention his romance. After all, showgirls are reputed to be parasites, chiselers, gold diggers…

They get far more than they bargained for when a bit of mistaken identity causes them to get whirled away by the streetwise sauciness of Carol and Trixie who have these rich boys pegged and know exactly how to capitalize. It’s like taking candy from two stuffy, overgrown babies.

Beyond being Fred Astaire’s supremely talented collaborator on taps, it’s easy to rate Ginger Rogers as a first-rate comedienne even in this earlier juncture of her career. However, it’s Aline MacMahon with the juiciest part and the greatest showing which ultimately upstages Rogers and gives the picture its greatest buoyancy of sing-songy opportunism.

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Joan Blondell does herself proud in her own right romancing Warren William. For the first time, I actually feel sympathetic toward the poor fellow. He’s got no defenses. Peabody is simply putty in the hands of a woman — especially someone as delightfully conniving as Trixie. But remember it’s all for a good cause as Brad and Polly are able to stay together and that’s just the beginning…

It’s almost a misnomer to call Gold Diggers of 1933 a musical outright. The way that Warner Bros. ran things, there were two units one for the romantic drama led by Mervyn LeRoy and then another headed by Berkeley for the choreography of his decadent visions. So what we have is the quintessential Depression-era drama filled in with some song & dance routines. It could be completely disjointed in its execution. But on both fronts there or moments of undoubted noteworthiness. It begins with a cast that does oh so much and the baton constantly gets passed between players who readily play their part one after another.

Then, the rest is pure Berkeley first taking his dreams and turning them into a reality. “In The Shadows” in an exquisite gift to the audience showcasing swirling hula hoop dresses with showgirls gracefully flitting this way and that. Then the lights go out leaving behind the contours of violins dressed with fluorescent light,s which make for another entrancing dance of shape and light. Here we have art where the result is so much more than a mere sum of its parts.

Once again it makes the pretense of a stage performance but right away Berkeley throws off those shackles and lets his camera fly to whatever vantage point it wants proving itself essentially unencumbered and subsequently reworking how musicals could and would be staged.

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But in truth, it’s a back-to-back show stopper and Berkeley sees the film to its crescendo by completely changing his tune with the help of composer and lyricist duo Harry Warren and Al Dubin. They all come through to deliver what can only be considered a timely eulogy to the universal figure alluded to in its title.

“The Forgotten Man” is emblematic of this entire picture and Gold Diggers of 1933 is very much an offering of thanks to the everyday American. The men who stand in breadlines scrimping over cigarettes. The men who fought in the Great War. The women who maintained the diligence and rectitude with which the country could battle poverty. The same people who line up to go see movies every day.

In the end, the movie pulls off this startling balancing act — a tightrope walk of comedy, tragedy, and above all pathos. Gold Diggers is the real deal and I cannot begrudge anyone who would deem it the pinnacle of the Hollywood dream factory sent to reach those in the throes of desperate times. Granted, some might question the merits of fantastical escapism but this effort looks to be more than a diversion — moving beyond that to be a hardy rallying cry of hope.

4.5/5 Stars

42nd Street (1933)

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“Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” – Warner Baxter to Ruby Keeler

42nd Street essentially feels like hallowed ground even today because it single-handedly gave an entire generation of films plentiful ammunition for tropes while jumpstarting Warner Bros.’s cottage industry of musicals. These included Footlight Parade, Dames, and a whole slew of Gold Digger movies among many others. Not to mention many heirs apparent from Stage Door (1937) to Cabaret (1972).

There are several angles from which to approach this film. One of them has to do with Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), an acclaimed theater director who is nevertheless broke thanks to The Crash and warned by his doctor that the undue stress of such a rigorous career is taking a toll on his health. He knows the clock is ticking for him and he deems that this will be his last Broadway show and it will his best even if it kills him. It probably will.

Meanwhile, the shining star of the forthcoming production Pretty Lady is one Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) who keeps the picture’s lascivious financial backer (Guy Kibbee) onboard while never letting him get too familiar with her. Because you see, she has a secret romance going on the side with a young man (George Brent) who used to work with her in vaudeville. Now he’s jobless.

With all his reputation and finances dependent on the show’s success, Mr. Marsh quickly turns into a berating taskmaster, first, in casting calls and then through the grueling rehearsal regimen.

Three girls who manage to finagle their way into the show through some insider influence are Lorraine (Una Merkel), Anytime Annie (Ginger Rogers) and the wholesome newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). She knows next to nothing about the tooth and nail competition and so the two old pros gladly take her under their wing.

It just happens that she finds a romantic interest in the baby-faced crooner Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) as they both have parts to play. Meanwhile, the higher-ups catch wind of Dorothy’s male friend Pat (Brent) and he soon is paid a meeting with an influencer — someone to rough him up a bit and keep him from gumming up the show. To a degree, it works as he heads off to Philadelphia and Marsh continues to drive his stock company mercilessly. He doesn’t just want it good, he wants absolute perfection, and despite his greatest efforts, he’ll never be completely satisfied.

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The first number we’re acquainted with is “Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and with it soon comes the opening strains of Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscope choreography — a mere taster of all the fine abstractions to come. But there must be a quarrel to further ignite the already bumpy proceedings. It starts when Dorothy gives it to the biggest sucker Abner Dillon (Kibbee) who is about as insufferable as they come, a buffoon as only Kibbee can play.

But the same night, in the process of blowing off steam, Dorothy is stricken with a fracture the day before her big debut. Things couldn’t be any worse with the pompous buffoon threatening to pull out his funding and Marsh is sunk without his leading lady. However, if you’ve seen any of the movies that this musical inspired, you already are well acquainted with the fact that “The show must go on!”

That same timorous yet sprightly chorus girl, Peggy has her chance at the big stage. Marsh drives her mercilessly through song, dance, and dialogue. Never praises her and essentially tells her that the entire weight of the hopes and dreams of all the cast is on her shoulders. Her quivering shoulders must carry the brunt of the production. That’s a terrible amount of pressure to place on one human being but the true miracle is that, of course, the new starlet manages brilliantly. The crowds want to love her and when she’s through with them they do.

In the latter half of 42nd Street, the dramatic elements give way to the actual musical numbers. “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” is a fine introduction full of romance and cheeky innuendo, spearheaded by Merkel and Rogers consorting in a compartment, chomping away on fruit. The camera is on the move as well, scanning across the train facade between faces hidden behind curtains and the shoes that ultimately get left out for the porter.

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Then, Dick Powell takes the lead in “Young and Healthy” opposite a nameless platinum blonde (Toby Wing in a memorable bit role) which is elevated by more novel shot selections. Namely, the fact that the bench our two performers are romancing on promptly sinks into the floor with them now sprawled out together. We get a signature Berkeley pirouette right after that which still never ceases to amaze me, followed by a tracking shot through a tunnel of legs. It succeeds in being far more cinematic than stagebound and that’s the key.

“42nd Street” is the tip-toppest number of them all by breaking away from any confinement with the sheer scale and mass of humanity that it puts forth. Only a few camera setups in and one realizes we are no longer a theater audience, unless we transition from sitting in the balcony to the ground level, and finally end up in the rafters looking down on the entertainment with the most impeccable of overhead views.

The final extravaganza is great fun to behold with a plethora of dancers performing in what feels like all but perfect cadence, constructing a cutout city of their own by turning around in unison. Then, they pull away and the camera gives us this wonderfully curious illusion that we are looking up the full length of the Empire State building, our two beaming starlets popping up at the top of the towering heights. The asbestos curtain drops and they have all but sealed the success of their show and the film.

While the musical ends on a rather inconclusive note, it in no way neutralizes the effervescent numbers and performances that bloom out of an otherwise theatrical backstage drama. 42nd Street is still important to us because it is the origin of so many musical traditions but it subsequently still manages to enrapture with even a few feats of artistic ingenuity. It deserves its place among the seminal musicals even if its staying power is moot.

4/5 Stars

Bachelor Mother (1939)

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Of course, Bachelor Mother is a blatant oxymoron and it’s a perfect summation of that vestige of a genre the screwball comedy — a genre that’s about marriage and divorce and the gray areas in between conveniently skirting past issues such as adultery or people “living in sin” as it were. The norm was not a genre of divorce but of remarriage.

As such this Ginger Rogers vehicle has her playing a woman who doesn’t actually have a child out of wedlock but it’s assumed as much and that’s where the roots of the comedy get their traction. Because therein dwells so many societal taboos that are subsequently turned into marvelous fodder for misunderstanding though no actual moral statutes have been broken. It’s that line of dramatic irony that the rom-com, in general, has always needed in order to survive.

Just think how perfectly it all happens. In one moment Polly Parish (Ginger Rogers) finds herself laid off from her department store gig just in time for Christmas and between the unemployment agency and home she happens upon a lady leaving a cute little bundle of joy on the doorstep of the local orphanage. She says it’s not hers. She found it somewhere and now she’s leaving.

But Ginger Rogers being our concerned heroine can’t just let the baby sit there so she takes a course of action, delivering the child inside and enlightening the staff about the situation. Of course, they all believe she’s simply shirking her maternal responsibility and running out on her child and they pass the news along to David Merlin (David Niven), one of her former employers.

By now, Polly is already long gone. She’s agreed to take part in a dance competition at the local hall the Pink Slipper. There’s $50 in it for her and her partner Freddie (Frank Albertson of It’s a Wonderful Life prominence) if they can win. Waiting, babe in arms and valet in tow, Mr. Merlin tries to rectify the situation and get Polly to take back her child.

If the film was born on the steps of the orphanage, then it is solidified right here as a full-fledged screwball comedy of motherhood and misconstrued circumstance. Polly finds herself called into Mr. Merlin’s office and is offered her old post as long as she takes her child back. Still, they don’t listen to her renunciation so she has no course but to become a mother, after all, babies are cute. They can’t be that much work…

The fact that this is a screwball and not so much a domestic comedy is made clear by the fact the baby is more of a plot element than an actual character and Rogers and Niven find time to fall in love even with the added strain of motherhood.

What seems to do it is a lovely night together on New Year’s Eve which is highlighted by an extended gag where Niven introduces Rogers as his date from Sweden who conveniently does not speak a lick of English. It’s punctuated by the definitive punchline of the film. Simultaneously, Rogers struts her stuff all night long (though we miss Fred Astaire) in a reverie of pure joy.

But that’s not all that’s capped off amid the pandemonium of the festivities. Love Affair is far from just the movie up on the nearby theater billboard. It’s also something coming to fruition between our two stars. However, if this was the end it could hardly claim the name screwball. That’s when the baby comes in. J.B. Merlin (Coburn) finds his son with this single mother and draws conclusions of his own and…he’s very happy to be a grandfather and not so happy with the spineless conduct of his son.

What follows is a mad dash by our two leads to try and conjure up other stand-ins for a game of Who’s the Father? Three eligible contenders are brought in to play the charade. We already know Merlin, then there’s the dancing fiend and disgraced floorwalker Freddie, and the landlady’s bespectacled son.

In the end, everything is squared away nicely and the corkscrew comes full circle. Though Charles Coburn plays a very small part it proves to be a crucial one. Meanwhile, I adore Ginger Rogers and once more following Stage Door and Vivacious Lady, she proves in yet another film her genuine skills as an actress of immeasurable smarts and humor. Sometimes I’m admittedly unfair to David Niven — he’s never been the most compelling actor — but he’s fine in this picture.

This film also shares much the same world as the Devil and Miss Jones (including Charles Coburn) and the toy store environment provides the perfect arena for a terrifically comical shoplifting sequence full of excitement. It’s this movie to a tee. Positively quacking.

3.5/5 Stars

Vivacious Lady (1938)

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The first moment Pete Morgan (James Stewart) actually catches sight of alluring nightclub singer Francey (Ginger Rogers), the gangly botany professor proceeds to knock over a drink cooler. He’s enamored. In the movies, it’s that magical trope called “love at first sight.” For other pictures that’s where they go to die as the two loved birds get wrapped up in the throes of romance exploring New York City together. With Stewart and Rogers as our guides, there’s no place we’d rather be. Soon they are married and on their way to meet the parents in the idyllic town of Old Sharon.

Except they never get there or rather they get to the town but Pete never gets to the part about telling his parents he’s married. Charles Colburn is bullish as Peter Morgan Sr. the obdurate, overbearing intellectual who will not allow his son to get in a word edgewise. That’s aggravated by the fact that in his typical manner Stewart is always beating around the bush, never quite able to get the words out and so the happy news never finds an audience.

Besides Mr. Morgan has his sights on his son marrying the prim and proper Helen (Frances Mercer) while he turns his nose at the blonde woman that his nephew Keith (James Ellison) is traipsing around with it — that undoubtedly unsophisticated creature who also happens to be his actual daughter-in-law!

Thus, begins the film’s longest digression as wife becomes a student for the sake of being close to her husband and Pete tries his darndest to break the news to his parents while still getting time with his wife. But the guise of student and teacher isn’t helping much. They probably broke the whole code of conduct book on student-teacher relations circa 1938.

One of the favorite hot spots for late night extracurriculars just happens to have an outboard motor right next to it and it can make quite the din if accidentally pulled. Otherwise, Pete has an awful time trying to see his wife as the lobby clerk (Franklin Pangborn) is a real stickler and so the only access to her room is of a clandestine nature up the fire escape.

And still his father won’t listen to him and his former fiancee is still trying to nab him. It’s getting so hopeless that Francey thinks it might be best if she leaves Old Sharon behind for good. A memorable dance party with the parents in Francie’s room proves the kicker. Though she forms a bit of a rapport with the kindly but frail Mrs. Morgan (Beulah Bondi in 1 out of her 5 turns as Stewart’s mother), an indignant Mr. Morgan will have none of this tomfoolery.

Soon enough Francey decides to leave town of her own accord.  But even at the cost of his professorship if need be, good ol’ Jimmy Stewart won’t let her get away that easily. Whether or not this film drags a bit in the latter half is beside the point because you couldn’t have two more likable stars than Stewart and Rogers nor a Hollywood director more competent than George Stevens in balancing the breadth of slapstick comedy and romantic drama.

If the material is simply adequate enough, they are the type of talents that take us along and we will willingly be their audience through every complication. It’s our privilege.

In case there was any doubt whatsoever Ginger Rogers is awesome and it’s put on full display when she has a slap fight with her archnemesis before taking her in a headlock. If you liked her before simply for dancing prowess, she proves to be a savvy cat fighter as well.

Jimmy Stewart was still in the fairly latent stages of his illustrious career but Rogers recommended him for the role and he provides his homespun charm and length to every frame like we are accustomed to seeing from him. Not to mention his forays in home brewing. They’re quite impressive.

The only major blot on the film is an appearance of the prolific Willie Best playing his typical googly-eyed waiter — the walking stereotype that always feels like a cringe-worthy addition to any picture of old as does a cameo by Hattie McDaniels. At least there weren’t any chinamen. Not that there’s much consolation in that. Shall we just say that Rogers’ vivacity and Stewart’s universal affability make for a quality viewing experience and leave it at that?

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

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

Stage Door (1937)

Stage_Door_(1937)Watching Stage Door illustrates one of the pleasures of film because it’s an unassuming classic that very easily could be overshadowed by other films. Its main stars are Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn, who both have numerous films more well known than this one.

However, this story about a boarding house for aspiring stage actresses is a light piece of sassy fun while still finding moments for poignancy. Rogers is a cynical dancer named Jean, and she is not too pleased to be getting a new roommate. The last one moved elsewhere after constant fighting. But the new girl, Terry Randall (Hepburn), is different. She is from a well to do family, but she is pursuing a career in acting so that she might stretch herself.

The other girls look on with an air of contempt thanks to her fine clothes and pristine manners. She doesn’t fit the mold of many of the other struggling actresses looking for their big break. Many spend their evenings trying to grab hold of a sugar daddy such as famed theatrical producer Anthony Powell (Adolph Menjou). Several of the girls have their eyes on him as they try and land a role in his next big production.

Kay Hamilton is the most well-liked girl in the house and arguably one of the most gifted performers. She opened the year before in a production that won her rave reviews, however, a year later she has yet to get another break, and she is running out of funds. Powell’s show is her last big chance. Thus, when Powell cancels her audition last minute for a trivial reason, Kay faints and an irate Terry bursts into his office to confront him. He is initially turned off, but then he chooses her for the lead role of the upcoming Enchanted April.

Although the girls were beginning to warm to Terry, Jean has trouble forgiving her as tragedy strikes. In fact, Terry almost refuses to go on stage altogether, and yet she goes out and gives an emotional performance that is hailed by critics. In the end, Terry and Jean are reconciled which is far more important than any type of fanfare.

In many ways, Gregory La Cava’s Stage Door feels similar to The Women (1939). Both films have casts with women in the primary roles and the stories are at times volatile, with so much drama and many zinging comebacks. Some of this was courtesy of the supporting cast which included such legendary comediennes as Lucille Ball and Eve Arden. Ann Miller is even present, but at its core Stage Door is Ginger and Katharine’s film. Pardon my curiosity, but did Fred and Spencer ever do a film like this?

4/5 Stars

Monkey Business (1952)

monkeyb5I always was under the assumption that the screwball comedy died off in the 1940s with homages coming out years later. Is there such a thing as neo-screwball comedies? Anyways, after watching Monkey Business I feel it is necessary to reevaluate that general conclusion. Here is a film from Howard Hawks that channels a great deal of the madcap craziness that you see in his earlier works like Bringing up Baby (1938). For lack of a better term, it is very screwy indeed. Right from the opening credits, you have the voice of God (Hawks himself) breaking the fourth wall and calling Cary Grant by his real name.

Then the film actually opens, and we meet the quintessential absent-minded genius Barnaby (Grant) and his loving wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers). They are meant to go to a social gathering and yet he is so caught up in his work that they stay behind. You see he is trying to develop an elixir of youth. His experiments are of interest to the business-minded and much older Oliver Oxly (Charles Coburn), who only sees the positives of such a discovery. Barnaby tries to explain to him that it’s not so cut and dry. In fact, his work could have dire effects if careful precautions are not taken.

Little does Dr. Fulton know that one of his lab chimps got loose in his lab and tampered with some chemicals, dumping them in a water cooler. After this absurd moment, Barnaby unknowingly consumes the rejuvenating concoction and his whole demeanor takes a turn.

Soon he’s out buying flashy clothes, getting a flamboyant car, ice skating, and driving like a speed demon down the thoroughfares with an astonished secretary Ms. Laurel (Marilyn Monroe). Cary Grant even shows off his impressive acrobatic skills, performing a cartwheel and a few other tricks.

monkeyb3Only when the concoction wears off does he figure out what happened, and he resolves to be more careful next time. Except next time turns out to come sooner than he was expecting when Edwina willingly drinks some of the substance so Barnaby can observe her. Just like that, she is a prank-pulling schoolgirl with insatiable energy.

Once more Barnaby takes the elixir while Edwina is sleeping off the effect. However, when she wakes up a misunderstanding leads to more mayhem as she tries to get help from Mr. Oxly. What develops is a spiral into more hilarity. Barnaby and Edwina are reunited, Edwina’s old flame is incensed, Ms. Laurel is petrified, and chimps and man alike are taking part in some Monkey Business. If none of this makes much sense then I did my job!

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