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

 

The Joker is Wild (1957)

Jokerwild.jpgIt required quite the journey to make it to this film, starting out with a different joker entirely. My introduction to comedian Joe E. Lewis happened because of the late, great Jerry Lewis. Revisiting his life and work I made the discovery that the comedian changed his name to avoid confusion with two men. First, Joe Louis the stellar boxer of the 1930s and then Joe E. Lewis the comedian.

I had never heard of the latter and if you’re in the same boat, here is a biopic that gives a little more definition to his life and times. It seems desirable to actually turn back the clock and see footage of the man himself but if anyone has to play him why not have Frank Sinatra and he does a fine job with a performance that finds time to crack the jokes, throw back a few tunes, while still revealing the inner demons that befall even a funny man. Yet again Ol’ Blue Eyes proves he’s an acting talent to be taken seriously.

Lewis’s beginnings were nearly tragic as he found himself under attack by one of Al Capone’s enforcers who slit his vocal chords and left him for dead after he walked out of his current contract to sing at another club. Except he fought back and even with a shaky voice he found his way to burlesque shows and then stand-up comedy followed.

All the while he was supported by his piano accompanist and best friend (Eddie Albert) and even finds time for love or rather it comes to find him in the form of Jeanne Crain. However, with obligations in serving the troops and his own insistence that a marriage would never work, he balks at popping the question only to regret it for years to come.

Soon his alcohol problem is even more of an issue — even affecting his work — and the marriage he got into with one of his precocious chorus girls (Mitzi Gaynor) was doomed to fail from the beginning.  The self-destructive tendencies seem present in this life as they often are for those in entertainment. And far from rewriting the ending to his story, we leave Brown in a very real state. He’s no longer married and he’s still trying to break his habit for the sauce. It’s a very honest place to be and that’s to the film’s credit.

I will forever be a pushover for Jeanne Crain who always plays the most charming romantic roles and here it is little different. Though she’s older, her beauty is still as striking as ever. Furthermore, Mitzi Gaynor slightly subverts her reputation here delivering in a couple of scenes that aren’t simply song and dance showcases.

Meanwhile, Eddie Albert just might be the greatest second banana known to man because he instantly makes his star all the more lovable acting as their faithful foil in all circumstances. He was just so phenomenal in those types of roles building something out of almost nothing.

There’s little left to do but let the lyrics of All the Way carry us away into to the evening with a bit of melancholy:

When somebody needs you
It’s no good unless he needs you all the way
Through the good or lean years
And for all the in-between years come what may

Who knows where the road will lead us
Only a fool would say
But if you’ll let me love you
It’s for sure I’m gonna love you all the way all the way 

3.5/5 Stars