A clogged LA freeway on a winter’s day, “Another Day of Sun,” cars backed up for miles on either side. Suddenly a spasm of frustration manifests itself not as shouting or horn-blowing, but as song, and the traffic jam erupts momentarily into carnivale, the humans caged in their rolling steel egoverses momentarily joining in shared celebration of the dreams and less glamorous reality that defines their lives. It’s the sort of absurdist set-piece I’m sure that has occurred to just about anyone who’s ever been stuck in such a traffic jam, and it retains a certain spiritual connection to the early dream sequence in that eternal touchstone of artistic self-appraisal in cinema, 8½ (1963), and even to the music video for REM’s “Everybody Hurts.” Damien Chazelle ultimately follows those models arcs towards melancholy reckonings with the gap between private passion and the dismay of modern living, but for the moment goes for big, raucous this-is-going-to-be-a-ride showmanship. It’s the sort of opening gambit that will surely split an audience right down the middle, between those who will be instantly swept up in the cued excitement and those who might uneasily gird themselves for what’s coming. I was amongst the latter. Not because ebullient outdoors production numbers annoy me per se, but this one did. Chazelle’s camera spins and twists and cranes with showy, athletic mobility. But the showiness of the camerawork is overtly strenuous, technique without actual purpose, distracting from the fact that what it’s filming isn’t actually very well staged or choreographed; it is in fact rather a hymn to its own existence, a “wow, can you believe I’m pulling this in 2016?” statement. People stand on their car bonnets and throw their hands up and down and fling themselves about in conga lines. This immediately lays down a template that the rest of La La Land follows studiously: approximation of classic musical style served up like the coup of the century, but which on close examination proves to be all sizzle and no steak.
Chazelle believes that the school of hard knocks is the path to greatness. This thesis he already explored in his scripts for Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano and his own Whiplash (both 2014), which purveyed the gym-coach mentality to artistic development: no pain, no gain, and never mind your pantywaist sensitivities. La La Land, his latest, depicts the exasperated romance of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), two Los Angeles wannabes. Grazing each other on the freeway at the start – he blasts his horn at her, she flips the bird at him – they soon find their paths repeatedly crossing, not always in the best of circumstances. Mia wants to be an actress, and works as a barista in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. studio lot. As such, she’s surrounded by the legends of filmmaking past but entrapped within early 21st century economic impositions, pecked at by her boss and forced to watch actual famous people parade by whilst she develops contempt for the roundelay of fruitless auditions that is the rest of her life. Encouraged to attend a party by her roommate friends, Mia finishes up departing the disappointment and is forced to walk home when she finds her car has been towed. A salve for such sorrows comes as she passes by a restaurant and hears a beautiful tune being played, drawing her inside. The player is Sebastian, a talented pianist, whose love of classic jazz approaches religion: unfortunately he’s just violated the restaurant manager’s (J.K. Simmons) injunction to only play strictly timed Christmas tunes, and he’s fired summarily for this, leading Sebastian to furiously barge past Mia as she tries to thank him for the beautiful performance. Some weeks later, she runs into him again, this time playing keys in a ’80s pop cover band. Her chosen method of revenge is to request the band play A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran.” The duo’s grazing, sniping humour and Sebastian’s tendency to turn most encounters into some kind of confrontation gives way to sparks of attraction.
This moment was the only one in La La Land that really entertained me, although it treads terribly close to Saturday Night Live-style shtick, in large part because it’s one of the few vignettes that taps both Stone and Gosling’s ability to play comedy, and also because it offers a combination of joke and character moment that revolves around the cultural attitudes of the two characters, the disparity between Seb’s semi-messianic sense of duty by his chosen art form and the pop culture around him, and the infuriating way his and Mia’s attraction continues to manifest through apposite impulses. Stone and Gosling are both accomplished neo-wiseacres, and Chazelle arms them with a small arsenal of zingers and prickles to make them convincing as representatives of a knowing and chitinous modern breed. But once their surfaces are scratched, both characters are revealed as deeply, almost suffocatingly earnest. Sebastian’s dedication is seen first as monklike as he subsists in an apartment barely furnished, with a stool once owned by Hoagy Carmichael as object of veneration or seating depending on the moment’s need. His sister (I think) Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt) appears for one scene, offering La La Land a jolt of call-bullshit sarcasm that cuts through the single-mindedness of Seb and Mia’s obsessions. One quality La La Land badly lacks is a major secondary voice or voices to lend depth to the palette, the kind they used to get people like Oscar Levant or Thelma Ritter to offer, pipes of sarcasm to put some smog in the airiness. When the few alternate voices that do come in Chazelle’s script, they’re nearly strictly pitched as rhetorical devices to push our characters about, like Simmons’ cameo as the asshole manager who prevails upon Seb not to play “the free jazz,” and, later, John Legend’s Keith, a successful band leader who seduces Seb into playing with his band with a get-behind-me-Satan spiel about the need for jazz to evolve.
Part of this might be explained by the fact that both Seb and Mia bring their own snark, but only long enough to be halfway convincing as contemporary types before we get into more traditional romanticism. But the course of true love and successful lifestyle maintenance never does run smooth. Mia lives with three other young women (Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, and Sonoya Mizuno) at the start who form both her posse and chorus line, dragging her into action at the Hollywood party where the stage seems set for a good production number. Except no real production number arrives, just more of Chazelle’s spinning camerawork and background dancers throwing their hands in the air again. After a certain point, Mia’s pals vanish from the party, and then from the film. Her moment of transcendent bliss overhearing Seb’s playing, is his moment of self-indulgence for which he pays an instant price. I can handle the notion of a restaurant manager so oblivious that anything but straight-up tunes to wheedle diners’ ears will piss him off, even if I don’t really believe it, and I sense it’s just a device to set up Seb’s humiliation; what I can’t quite buy is the interaction of writing and vision we get here, the manager’s quip about free jazz and the slightly pompous but pretty anodyne piece of improvisation that costs Seb his job but charms Mia. It’s like the music supervisor had a slightly different copy of the script to the director and actors. Mia is suddenly seen to be saddled with a Chad Cliché yuppie boyfriend who turns up just in time for her to run out on him, heading instead to meet up with Seb at a screening of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a venture that segues into a tour of the Griffith Observatory where rapture blooms and the heavens open, a lovely moment that nonetheless seems to come out of a different film. Later, Seb tries to explain to Mia the value of jazz as active expression of America’s melting pot brilliance, the product of the constant shunt and shove of multiple voices.
This vignette is irksome on several levels, not least because Chazelle makes Mia the easily schooled avatar of an audience he presumes associates this beloved musical style with smooth jazz bilge, not the rocky, high-stakes art form he worships. And it’s not just the fact that the film turns into an NPR essay here. It’s that Chazelle backs away from finding any interesting conceptual way of exploring Seb’s love cinematically. In the end, the movie that proposes to revitalise certain classical precepts in the musical is just another contemporary film where someone talks too much. And it’s on this level that La La Land repeatedly and conspicuously fails, in weaving its use of the form with its subject, until one climactic sequence towards the end, in which Mia’s audition for a crucial role becomes a song number. There’s no pervading sense of jazz as the informing art here, nor of any other strong contemporary pop music form, although Chazelle evidently sees a connection between his understanding of jazz and his pursuit of giving new meaning to an old aesthetic in the musical form. His visual approach offers sublimation of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1966) insistently, aiming to recreate Demy’s skilful, deceptively rich blend of casual realism and stylisation, usually accomplished through careful redressing of real locations and employment of strong, colour-coded costuming and lighting. Sometimes, Chazelle succeeds, particularly in the shots of Mia and her gal-pals striding out to battle in their coloured frocks, her and Seb’s tentative shuffle before the mauve-hued sunset in the Hollywood hills, and a nicely quiet diminuendo scene where Seb sings to himself and dances on a pier at sunset, stealing away an old man’s wife for a moment of bewildered, good-natured dancing. Chazelle at least suggests schooling in the musical and its craft, avoiding the cut-on-the-beat style informed by music videos that’s infected the form since the early ’80s, instead going for long, lateral shots in the traditional musical manner to drink in physical context and the performers’ actions. And Linus Sandgren’s photography really is excellent.
Demy’s approach had hardly been forgotten to film history; in fact it was rather quickly assimilated and built upon by an array of American New Wave and Movie Brat filmmakers, many of whom tried their hand at fusing together the outsized fantasias of musicals with the kind of ragged, woozy, rough-and-tumble authenticity of their ethos. The 1970s and early ’80s produced a sprawl of gutsy crossbreeds in the wake of the musical genre’s official collapse as a mode following a string of huge-budget bombs. Some of these were deliberately frothy, like Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975), but more often these were sharper, grittier critiques of the genre’s usual detachment from the reality of love and coupling as well as society. Hence Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) and Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart (1981) focused on fractious romances raddled by human feeling in all its livewire anxiety, and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) turned Fosse’s own life and experiences as a choreographer into the subject of a superlatively sarcastic variation on the genre. One thing all of these had in common was their spiky, anti-populist emotional intensity, which made them the opposite of what musicals have come to be considered as the genre languishing in a permanent pop culture demimonde. In the past 20 years or so, every now and then we get a film that’s going to make the musical great again, be it synthetic pizazz like Chicago (2002) or full-on blazing shit like Les Miserables (2012). And if one apostatises with any of these, one will be told one just doesn’t like musicals. Or not as much as another person, who wants the form reborn in all its old glory and will greet any new, major, proper version of it as manna. In the same way, the new-wave musicals aren’t real musicals, because they’re not pretty and escapist and nostalgic. And of course, let us not speak of what happened to the disco musical.
Never mind the far more interesting examples of the oddball explorations of the genre in recent years, from the Outkast-scored and starring vehicle Idlewild (2006) to John Turturro’s suburban karaoke tragedy Romance and Cigarettes (2005), Jacob Krupnick’s On the Town rewrite Girl Walk // All Day (2011) and Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (2015), which commit the sins of using pop music and foregrounding artifice, and have moments your grandmother won’t like. La La Land has been quickly celebrated as a new-age musical blending frivolity and melancholy, but I find on many crucial levels it hit me as a betrayal of the legacy of the gritty musical, one that quietly gelds this movement even whilst proposing to revive it. Particularly considering that its storyline and basic themes represent a filch not on Demy but on Scorsese. In La La Land, as in New York, New York, the theme is the fractious love of a couple joined by mutual admiration but torn apart by diverging career intentions, revolving around the disparity between jazz performance and mainstream pop celebrity, climaxing with an extended restaging of the basic plot as a stylised, more pure kind of old Hollywood fantasy designed to illustrate the contrast between the way things turn out and the way we’d like them to. La La Land is squeaky clean in spite of its attempt to talk about some mildly distressing things as relationships that don’t work out and the pressures of money that make people do things they don’t want to, as opposed to the classic musical where, as Gilda Radner once memorably phrased it, people never had to work or buy food.
La La Land’s moments of bruising, disillusioning conflict are entirely contrived – the set-piece dinner table sequence where Mia and Seb first fight over Seb’s compromised artistry and Mia’s looming date with destiny, where mild peevishness substitutes for unforgivable words, and the subsequent scene where Seb misses her show, a moment that could have been avoided with the newfangled invention call the telephone. Compared to the scene in New York, New York when Robert De Niro gets dragged out of the club in a rage of stoked jealousy, this is so wet it would barely pass muster as dramatic development on a Chuck Lorre sitcom. Chazelle’s nominal assault on musical tradition is not to give a traditional happy ending where love conquers all. But he leavens the experience by giving his characters everything else they want, which just happens to be a successful LA nightclub, a period recording and touring with a popular musical outfit, and becoming an international movie star. Wow, some takedown of the Hollywood dream. Instead, La La Land is an ode to hermetic qualities. Chazelle turns the urbane strangeness and sprawl of modern LA into a depopulated stage for weak song-and-dance numbers featuring two cute but underutilised white-bread stars, replete with odes to bygone pleasures that often reveal a crucial misunderstanding about what those pleasures work. There’s nothing witty or sly or sublime or even particularly sexy about Chazelle’s approach, in spite of his mimicry of the styles he sets out to recreate. La La Land is a bright neon sign describing its own facetious charm.
This wouldn’t count for much if the film was successful simply on the level of musical experience, but this is where it’s most disappointing. The music score for La La Land is so brain-numbingly banal that apart from Gosling’s oft-repeated refrain (“City of stars, are you shining just for me?”) I couldn’t remember two notes from the film minutes after it finished. It bears no inflection of any musical style apart from the most flat-rate off-Broadway stuff—least of all the sinuosity and rhythmic complexity of jazz. Perhaps La La Land represents the total victory of the last decade or so of shows like American Idol and Dancing With The Stars, shows that have carefully trained audiences to whoop and holler wildly when blandly talented neophytes and familiar celebrities who can barely sing or dance make a show of their mastery of a few soft-shoe steps. I felt a certain empathy for Sebastian in many regards: like him, I’m a jazz fan, particularly of the genre’s heights from the 1940s to the early 1970s, and I have violently mixed feelings about what’s happened to it since then. Seb however never feels like a real person – neither does Mia, but for slightly different reasons. Even the more interesting modern branches of jazz fusion don’t seem to have registered with Chazelle – Euro electroswing for instance, which, with practitioners like Caravan Palace, is a vibrant and utterly danceable wing of the genre, and would have made a great pedestal for this project. Whilst the indictments of Seb as some kind of white saviour figure with his obsession with putting his talents to best use sustaining and helping reinvigorate jazz very quickly reach the end of credulity (the limit of his ambition in this regard is to open a jazz club, and thus provide a platform for artists like himself, rather than to become the king of all jazz musicians), it’s hard to ignore the strident, rather strained aspect to the dramatic development whereby he becomes a member of Keith’s ensemble and finds roaring success in a band that offers a squishy melange of pop, soul, and jazz.
Chazelle offers one major performance scene for this outfit, during which Mia glances about in bewilderment over the crowd’s enjoyment and Seb’s apparent selling out. Although this song isn’t anything particularly special either, it reminded me a little of the scene in Dreamgirls (2006) when “One Night Only,” the unctuously meaningful ballad, was restaged as disco schlock: the “bad” song is more entertaining than the “good” ones. Which might even be Chazelle’s point — I just don’t know. La La Land drops hints to a cultural thesis that it then keeps swerving to avoid stating in any depth. What it is officially is a bittersweet romance where Seb and Mia are pulled together and then apart by their aspirations, their mutual understanding of each other as artists who feed on creation and fade when caged but also knowing that life means compromise. Seb’s commitment to Keith’s band sees him forced to hang about for a publicity photo shoot whilst Mia performs the one-woman stage show he encouraged her to write, which seems to bomb badly, leaving Mia distraught enough with the state of her life to flee back to her home town. Seb tracks her there when he learns a casting agent saw her show and wants her to audition for a major part: Seb’s coaxing draws her back into action, and her audition piece is a testimony to the example of her bohemian relative whose life in Paris has inspired her ambition to be an actress. It’s a big-ticket moment that goes for all the feels and finally seems to flesh out aspects of Mia as a character even as it actually underlines how generic she is, and how carefully calculated this scene is.
Gosling and Stone’s chemistry, which first manifested in the otherwise dreadful Gangster Squad (2012), here at least gets some space to stretch its legs: they’re both very good at making you like them even when playing faintly insufferable parts, a gift that’s vital in selling Seb and Mia, particularly from Stone in her portrait of Mia’s squall of apocalyptic feeling following her seeming humiliation in staging her play. Whatever else it does, La La Land understands what movie stardom is about, its facility in transmuting loose ideas and assortments of emotional reflexes into creations of great power on screen. And yet I’ve seen other films that make far better use of both stars – take for interest Gosling’s other film of 2016, The Nice Guys, which allowed him to reference a host of classic comedic actors whilst also stitching together a dynamic portrait of a man lagging slightly out of reality’s time frame from a mixture of grief and booze. By comparison Seb never moves out of the status of a kind of human placard. The issue at the heart of the film, one that’s relatively original and specific, is slightly removed from the more familiar making-it concerns; it’s actually the attempt to delve into the problems that beset many show business relationships, the time spent apart enforced by asymmetric professional demands. This is the one theme attacked by Chazelle that doesn’t feel done to death. What’s interesting is that La La Land offers a kind of calculus to the modern audience about what it would find the hardest to deal with – career failure or romantic failure. The answer is given as both Mia and Seb gain everything they want except each other. So Chazelle skips forward a few years to when Mia is a success and married to some dude and has kids, and one night fate directs them into a club that proves to be Seb’s, his apparently very successful showcase for old-school jazz. Seb, spotting Mia in the crowd, plays the same piece that enticed her into the restaurant all that time ago, thus sending the film off into an extended fantasia that re-enacts their relationship more perfectly, to the point where they’re married with kids themselves.
This sequence finally blew my tolerance fuse with this film, as Chazelle here rips off the “Happy Endings” sequence at the end of New York, New York, in offering an upbeat restaging of the narrative as a full-bore, total-style facsimile of classic musical method. Except it’s been shorn of all the ironic meaning Scorsese offered his climax with, for “Happy Endings” converted the messy stuff of life into a vision that would seem joyful to some and a sour mockery to others, and also commented on the way Hollywood mines and distorts life, questioning the ways and reasons why we tolerate convenient lies. There’s no such subtext to what La La Land offers, in part because it’s avoided any dialectic between the false and real. For Chazelle, this is just another facet of his showmanship, sleight of hand pulled to suggest there was actually some depth to this coupling and to work his audience over. Meanwhile La La Land ultimately has nothing actually bad to say about Hollywood, the cult of celebrity or the problems of dreams deferred, except for the fact that the film industry tends to be so forward-looking that it has no time for the past – not a fault I’ve noticed besetting the Academy voters lately. Somewhat amazingly, although not a word was spoken in it, Girl Walk // All Day managed to say far more about the uneasy relationship between personal art and joy and capitalism and society, building to the wonderful moment when its heroine realised her seduction by consumerism was erasing her identity and she kicked off her store-bought finery, all scored to music that captured the vibrant clamour of modern pop culture’s manifold dimensions. By comparison, La La Land remains wedged in its comfortable, rather smug niche, challenging nothing, reinventing nothing.
The United States is a young country with an old history. Rising to the highest heights of power in the blink of an eye through rapid expansion across a broad land rich in natural resources, achieving unity more than 100 year before the much more ancient Europe even made a start at it, and now prematurely gray as it struggles to adapt to a global economy and a shattered self-image, the American story has been a tough one to tell. The mirrors held up to Americans have often been fractured and one-dimensional, and perhaps with the exception of the Great American Novel, Huckleberry Finn, no work of art has broken through as a wide-ranging reflection not only of who we want to be, but also of who we really are. So it may be a bold declaration to make, but if I had to pick the one work that has been and will continue to be the greatest telling of the Great American Story, it would be West Side Story.
The enduring legacy of West Side Story could not have been predicted based on its reception when it premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York in 1957. It garnered generally good reviews and had a respectable initial run of 732 performances, but that was nowhere near the 2,717 performances of My Fair Lady during the same Broadway season. Its hold on the imaginations of an international audience would not be secured until it was in a form that could be disseminated widely. When the film, codirected by its theatrical director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and Hollywood veteran Robert Wise, came out in 1961, it was a smash hit, earning the equivalent of $300 million in today’s dollars in the United States alone and winning 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. The huge audience for the film has made WSS a perennial favorite of school, amateur, and professional theatrical companies the world over. What is it that has attracted so many admirers across time and continents to this musical?
The extremely high standard of the classical/popular score spanning styles from mambo to opera, the tight choreography that comes from life itself, and the sarcastic/tragic lyrics that offer not platitudes, but truth, place West Side Story in a class by itself. However, WSS’s power does not come from its technical virtuosity alone. Riding on the timeless popularity of tragic love as rendered by William Shakespeare in Romeo & Juliet while delivering that play’s crucial message about the costs of hate, West Side Story also poses a direct challenge to the complacent belief in the American Dream and the elusive principle for which it stands, “liberty and justice for all,” through the most American narrative of all—immigration. Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, book writer Arthur Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim—all members of despised and persecuted groups in American society—crafted a coming-of-age tale for America itself and those who would lose themselves in its myth through its focus on adolescents struggling to mature and find a place for themselves in the world.
Some people may be familiar with WSS’s original working title, “East Side Story,” as the musical was first conceived by Robbins in 1948 as a tale of rival Jewish and Irish-Catholic gangs on New York’s Lower East Side. However, it would take eight years for the embryonic idea to come to fruition, during which time the team would jettison their outdated conflict for an updated approach that would reflect the sharp rise in Latino gang violence in America’s big cities. The creative team centered the rivalry among the children of poor European immigrants precariously established in New York City and those from the American territory of Puerto Rico arriving during “The Great Migration” of the 1950s. As Sondheim’s lyrics to “America” ironically suggest (“Nobody knows in America/Puerto Rico’s in America”), the members of the Sharks might have an earlier claim to being American than do the teens who make up the Jets. This conflict already distinguishes WSS from Shakespeare’s blood feud of two aristocratic families as a pointedly American concern.
Laurents, who was brought in to write the book based on the strength of his treatment of anti-Semitism in the play Home of the Brave, quickly took to the new focus. Robbins made exploratory trips to Spanish Harlem to study the dance styles of Puerto Rican youths, and Bernstein’s love of Latin rhythms fed his creativity as the men continued to work on an array of projects before they were free to turn all of their attention to their theatrical masterpiece. When Bernstein realized that he would be unable to write lyrics for WSS while under pressure to compose Candide (interestingly, another musical that tracks, albeit satirically, with WSS’s themes of true love and striving for success in an Enlightenment version of the American Dream), up-and-comer Stephen Sondheim was contacted and persuaded to join the team despite his misgivings about this “step down” from composer to lyricist.
The film version of West Side Story features a magnetic cast of dancers and actors, with George Chakiris and Rita Moreno as standouts. Natalie Wood was put in the unfortunate position of being an Anglo playing a Latina and disliking costar Richard Beymer, the man she was supposed to be passionately in love with, but her professionalism (if not her dismal Puerto Rican accent) carried the day. All of the singing was dubbed, with veteran singing double Marni Nixon taking on Maria’s songs and Jimmy Bryant taking on Beymer’s. This is understandable considering the difficulties of the Bernstein score and does not, in my opinion, detract from the overall effect. The film takes few liberties with the stage version, with the notable and welcome exception of moving the panicked “Cool” from before the fateful rumble between the Jets and the Sharks to just after it, thus bumping the comic “Gee, Officer Krupke” to an earlier, more appropriate location after the first encounter the Jets have with the cops. In addition, Wise opens up the otherwise soundstage-bound film by shooting the opening “Prologue” on location in New York, thus creating a mise en scène of the contested turf that lingers in the audience’s mind as the rest of the film progresses.
Robbins, comfortable with stage choreography, manages to combine the best of both worlds throughout the film. He opens up his choreography in the “Prologue” to illustrate the Jets’ exuberant dominance of their turf. The ultimate gesture of cool—finger snapping—begins the “Prologue,” as the Jets survey their domain. Robbins moves them wordlessly from playground, to street, to basketball court in a combination of random, everyday movements by individual Jets that build to a coordinated dance. Jets leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) whoops happily as some children run past on the street and leaps joyfully with his gang, only to run immediately into Sharks leader Bernardo (Chakiris). Bernardo handles their taunts, only to strike an obviously symbolic red stripe on a wall with his fist. Robbins dances Bernardo and two Sharks down a narrow gangway, snapping their fingers in a show of their own cool as they run over the word “JETS” painted on the street. Small gestures again build, only this time aggressively, and the “Prologue” ends in an all-out brawl. Camera cuts, overhead shots, close-ups of smug and resentful looks form a dance of their own, one the dancers assault by running directly at the camera lens, forcing it to cut away. Robbins may have been a novice filmmaker, but his dancer’s understanding of space and how a frame can open and choke it is second only to Gene Kelly’s.
Against the sense of belonging gang life provides to kids whose untethered home lives are mentioned in passing (“Gee, Officer Krupke”: “Dear kindly Judge, your Honor/My parents treat me rough/With all their marijuana/They won’t give me a puff./They didn’t wanna have me/But somehow I was had.”), the possibility of a real connection between Bernardo’s sister Maria (Wood) and former Jets leader Tony (Beymer) is hopelessly fragile. Tony and Maria fall in love at first sight during “The Dance at the Gym”; in an otherwise statically shot dance sequence (Wise, left on his own when Robbins was fired during the shoot, conservatively follows Fred Astaire’s philosophy of full-frontal framing), the lyric “I saw you and the world fell away” from the enthralling love song “Tonight” is produced visually, as all but the lovers fade into a white haze.
Another superb sequence is “Cool,” in which the Jets struggle to regain their composure after the murders of Riff and Bernardo. The song and dance take place in a dark, low-ceilinged parking garage to mirror the very dark turn of the plot and how trapped the gang is. First, Ice (Tucker Smith), a new character added to fill in for Riff as the Jets’ leader once the song had been moved, sings in barely covered shock at the harm they have just witnessed about how the Jets need to keep cool “‘Cause, man, you got/Some high times ahead/Take it slow and Daddy-o/You can live it up and die in bed!” The gang struggles to contain their emotions, doing a parody of the polite dancing they engaged in earlier at the community dance where Maria and Tony met. Finally, the gang moves in crouched unison like a soft crab hiding in its hard shell, their solidarity reinforced, their desire for vengeance deferred but not defused. Belonging is more important than living, and so the cycle of violence is doomed to repeat itself.
One of the great challenges for Robbins and his terrific crew of dancers was to hit their beats to the multiple time signatures contained in Leonard Bernstein’s majestic symphonic score. Moreno, who played Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, said that dance coordinator Betty Walberg had to count the beats out loud for the dancers as the music played. Since I’m no music expert, I will quote from Misha Berson’s valuable book Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination about some of the hallmarks of the score:
1) The frequent use of minor chords
2) Melodies that don’t neatly resolve but hang suspended
3) Fingers snaps and claps, as prominent percussion elements
4) Driving rhythms from a trove of percussion instruments (including trap drums, xylophone and vibraphone, timbales, and bongos)
5) Cross-rhythms that overlap two signatures to create a sense of agitation and unease
6) Swiftly cascading and ascending string lines
7) Jazzy bursts of brass and winds
8) Latin accents
In addition, many music scholars have commented on Bernstein’s use of tritones—playing a key note followed by a note three whole tones away from the key note—which is an important method of introducing dissonance in Western harmony. Berson comments that during the Middle Ages, tritones were considered diabolus in musica (“devil in music”) for being hard to sing in tune. While many people consider “Maria” one of the most beautiful songs in the score, it is sobering to realize that its first two notes form a tritone; considering that Maria’s admonishment to Tony to stop the rumble ends in the deaths of her brother, Tony’s best friend, and Tony himself, she certainly does seem to have done the devil’s work, however unwittingly.
Bernstein’s operatic elements are my favorite parts of the score. Anita and Maria’s duet “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” is a cry of anguish, one for a lost love, the other for a love she is helpless to deny. Anita’s minor-key “A boy like that wants one thing only/And when he’s done he’ll leave you lonely/He’ll murder your love/he murdered mine” counterpoints with Maria’s “I hear your words/And in my head/I know they’re smart/But my heart, Anita/But my heart/Knows they’re wrong.” Reminiscent of Mozart’s operatic quartets, the “Tonight Quintet” offers musical variations on “Tonight” with lyrics that cleverly interweave the word “tonight” with the expectations of each party—the Sharks and Jets getting ready to rumble, Anita dolling herself up for a post-rumble tumble with Bernardo, and Maria and Tony planning for an endless future.
Again and again, the songs and characters of West Side Story communicate the need to belong. “The Jets Song” affirms “You’re never alone/You’re never disconnected” when you’re a Jet. The Shark boys and girls are torn between their longing for their first-class status in Puerto Rico and their newfound opportunities in “America.” The girls assert “Here you are free and you have pride,” to which the boys respond “Long as you stay on your own side.” “Life is alright in America/If you’re all white in America.” Maria and Tony, caught in the ethnic divide, find their sense of place in each other, which they affirm in the moving “Somewhere,” a place that is destroyed when Tony is gunned down by Maria’s formerly gentle suitor Chino (Jose De Vega). And a very interesting character nicknamed Anybodys (Susan Oakes) exemplifies a different kind of exclusion; dressing and acting like a boy, she rejects her sexual identity and is, in turn, rejected by the Jets. But she refuses to go away or give up on being a part of the action.
In the end, when violence has claimed three lives and ruined Maria’s, Anita’s, and Chino’s hopes and prospects, the creators of West Side Story decided that shame would bring the Sharks and Jets together to carry Tony’s lifeless body away. This note of hope may seem unrealistic. But it does recall another American Dream, one elucidated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that, in fits and starts, has started to come true. Perhaps West Side Story helped Americans find a new and more worthwhile image for a more mature and realizable Great American Story.
Incredible as this will sound, this week I watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show from beginning to end for the first time. Oh, sure, I’d seen most of it in bits and pieces before going right back to when I was a kid. Thanks to growing up in a pop-culture world inflected with its legacy, I was long familiar with its characters, plot, and, of course, its soundtrack—who hasn’t heard “The Time Warp” or “Sweet Transvestite” in our day and age? This very familiarity made seeing the whole thing seem a bit superfluous, but finally, I made myself sit down and take it all in.
Rocky Horror was, of course, struggling English actor Richard O’Brien’s brainchild, composed, he said, to keep himself busy on long winter evenings of unemployment. O’Brien’s off-the-wall musical play mashed up his fetish for classic scifi and B horror movies, the trappings of the faded ethos of showmanship and glitzy-tacky Hollywood pizzazz, and the milieu of post-Swinging London and the age of sexual liberation—all entirely in keeping with a music scene ruled over by Mick Jagger and Ziggy Stardust. Australian theatrical director Jim Sharman, who had gained some respect for his staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, knew O’Brien from his one-night stint playing Herod in the show, and O’Brien snagged his interest with his kooky project.
Sharman’s showbiz pedigree was unquestionable. His father had been famous in Oz for running a travelling boxing show and carnival, and he grasped the potential in O’Brien’s project. He had already directed a film in Australia, 1972’s Shirley Thompson vs. the Aliens, built around much the same mix of nostalgia, camp, music, and satirical reference. Sharman staged O’Brien’s show in the 64-seat Royal Court Upstairs Theatre with a cast of virtual unknowns, including star Tim Curry, an actor O’Brien knew from around his neighbourhood, and Sharman’s pal from down under, “Little” Nell Campbell. The show was an instant success, and soon became the fixture it essentially still is. Two years later, Sharman brought it to the big screen for 20th Century Fox, importing for the sake of a larger budget two American actors, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, to play the nominal leads, as well as one talent who had made an impression in the LA production, Marvin “Meat Loaf” Aday. The film version initially failed to find an audience, and was written off as a misbegotten flop, but this was the golden age of cult films, with midnight screenings of cinematic oddities attracting large audiences of college kids and hipsters. An enterprising distributor saw the potential in marketing the film to the same audience, and soon a whole subculture formed around the movie, with audiences creating a ritualised script of comment and response and live performers mimicking onscreen action.
It’s easy to see Rocky Horror’s specific appeal, particularly in the milieu of the mid-1970s. Above all, the rock ’n’ roll score accomplished something nothing, not even Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar, had quite pulled off so effervescently and effectively before (or, really, since, perhaps not until the recent Hamilton)—contextualising the stage musical in the pop era in a way that made it fit. O’Brien tapped into an audience steeped in both a love of flimsy fantasy and New Age mores, creating a variation on a niche of gay culture just acceptable enough to lodge itself in the mainstream. The plotline, whilst strutting through a mocking pastiche of B movies, essentially describes a mass cultural experience, portraying a pair of hopeless squares being exposed to the stranger side of life and finding themselves, if not necessarily better off, certainly wiser—a Sadean narrative rendered in a light, fun, mostly harmless manner. At the same time, Rocky Horror has undoubtedly helped a lot of gay, bisexual, and just plain fabulous people come out of the closet and wield its fantasy as a weapon.
All that said, though, is The Rocky Horror Picture Show any good?
As a record of this peculiar cultural artefact, certainly. The movie, like the stage version, opens with the song “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” an ode to the pleasures of cinema from yesteryear, the stuff of O’Brien’s youth, referencing stuff like Tarantula (1955) and Day of the Triffids (1962). The film is littered with references to the glory days of Hollywood filmmaking, and there’s an interesting contradiction in there somewhere, this creation of fringe art celebrating a lost Eden of commercial art—although in the context of the mid-’70s, that legacy had faded and the same studios were trying to reinvent themselves by making stuff like, well, stuff like Rocky Horror. Moreover, such referential gambits feel like a miscue to me, as the project never really settles for pastiche or lampooning, and, least of all, for straight-up genre thrills, but instead subjects those tropes to a transmutation, turning subtext inside out and exploring less the ideas of classic genre cinema than camp culture’s take on it. Sharman’s expanded cinematic scope and the production circumstances allowed him to directly evoke the glory days of British cinefantastique, particularly Hammer horror, which was in its death throes at the time. Much of the film was shot around the decaying Oakley Court mansion, a popular location for horror film shoots. The central scene of monstrous creation directly references the laboratory scenes of Fisher’s Frankenstein films.
One of the cleverest touches of the film adaptation was casting Charles Gray, consummate player of villains in such films as Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967) and the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971), as a “Criminologist” whose introductions and narration evoke the likes of Edgar Lustgarden, the crime writer famous for hosting true crime TV series in the ’50s, and Boris Karloff’s hosting of the anthology show Thriller. Some of the film’s truly killer vignettes include the cutaways to him lecturing on how to do the Time Warp, and casting away his dryly portentous dignity to dance on a table top. Drive-in movie fare isn’t the only subject for satirical mirth: Brad and Janet overhear Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, symbolic fall of the establishment about to be mirrored by the young couple’s impending date with subversive elements.
An early sight gag unsubtly, but pertinently lampoons the couple representing middle American values, as Grant Wood’s famous “American Gothic” painting looms over protagonists Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) and their friends at a wedding. The inference is obvious, the lurking spectre of parched, repressed, cheerless conformity the legacy behind their white-bread, upright, uptightness, and several of the church congregants watching the wedding revels with parsimonious intensity are, in fact, the very same perverts who will later turn the couple’s lives upside down. Brad and Janet are citizens of the Texas town of Denton. After they bid farewell to their just-married friends, Brad finally confesses his love for Janet via the song “Dammit Janet,” and they set off for a night of celebrating their smouldering blandness. But the couple’s journey is complicated by a storm and strange motorcyclists, and their car busts a tyre after they take a wrong turn. Luckily for them, there’s a castle nearby where they can ask for help.
Brad and Janet immediately stumble into an asylum of weirdness, greeted by a cabal of partying oddballs attending the “Annual Transylvanian Convention,” overlorded by pansexual, transvestite scientist Frank-N-Furter (Curry) and his fake servants, hunchbacked butler Riff Raff (O’Brien) and his sister and maid Magenta (Patricia Quinn), as well as hanger-on and former lover Columbia (Campbell). Frank has gathered the cabal together to celebrate the culmination of a great experiment: he is about to bring life to a man he’s constructed, dubbed Rocky (Peter Hinwood). Frank’s creation emerges from the vat as a perfect Aryan vision, ready and willing to flex his physique to the amazement of the audience even as he wonders what strange situation he’s been plunged into. But Frank’s road to triumph has been paved with his sins, including frozen biker Eddie (Meat Loaf), who busts out of cold storage in a dizzy rage. A delivery boy who was ensnared by Frank’s lustful attentions but who gravitated to Columbia, Eddie’s been partly harvested to provide Rocky’s brain, and he careens through Frank’s lab on his motorcycle until the vengeful host dispatches him gorily with an ice pick. Having disposed of this momentary distraction, Frank sets Rocky to building up his body to ever greater heights of masculine glory before chaining him to his bed. Rocky Horror revolves around this one central, inarguably brilliant premise—though the film doesn’t do much interesting with it—turning the classic Frankenstein figure into a freak who wants to create not just a human being, but a perfect male love object and then doubling down on this joke by having the monster’s traditional rebellion be that he is resolutely and helplessly heterosexual.
Curry inhabits the role of Frank-N-Furter with such total ease and charismatic verve that it seems like he was born in his lofty stilettoes and garters, credibly locating jolts of pathos and flickers of melancholy under the surface of a creature otherwise defined by totally shameless hedonism and dedication to his own outsized talent and ego. From the moment he enters the film dressed like Dracula, only to throw off his cape and reveal his very masculine body swathed in burlesque-ready underwear, Frank-N-Furter commands the proceedings. Later, as he acts as impresario mad scientist at Rocky’s revival, he sports the pink triangle of gay pride (adapted and reversed from a Nazi designation), but doesn’t stop at any polite or merely political limits of gender orientation. The figuration of Frank and Rocky could well have been originally inspired by Z-Man and his lust object, Lance Rocke, in another hugely popular camp relic, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970); Frank very strongly recalls Z-Man as the imperious host of debauched revels and jealous creator with not-so-secret peccadilloes. There’s also a strong whiff of Cabaret’s (1972) Emcee to him, and Bob Fosse’s sleazy-sexy sensibility pervades the film as an influence.
Sharman’s theatrical talent mostly works once Brad and Janet reach Frank’s castle and are confronted by an the alternate-universe rock’n’roll party as a moment of revelation. The Transylvanians line-dance, and Riff-Raff, Magenta, and Columbia regale them with “The Time Warp,” that most insistently catchy and seemingly nonsensical of songs with lyrics that bespeak a defining obsession with nihilism countered with a sense of freedom and release found in remembered pleasures. Frank enters from a cage elevator and struts through the scene with carelessly convivial enthusiasm laced with erotic potency. The movements here obey their own warped logic, the mood of having stumbled through veil into a strange zone of reality, true in its way to many a classic horror film with the twist of discovering not horror and madness—although there is some of that—but rather the strangely alluring invite of a secret society dedicated entirely to making life a trifle less dull. Of course, it’s the songs here that tie this act together: “The Time Warp” segues into “Sweet Transvestite,” and, a little later, “Hot Patootie,” all musical bits that roll on with driving force, the first and the last perfect floor-fillers and the middle song an impudently sexy declaration of Frank’s wont that burrows deeply into the ear.
The stage is set for wild and shaggy times, and some do actually happen. Very much the pivotal sequence of Rocky Horror and its mystique comes at the halfway mark in a sequence that plays as an omnivorous replay of the health clinic scenes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), except whereas James Bond was fox in the henhouse with a bunch of horny ladies, here Frank-N-Furter revels in having a couple of ripe, young dweebs to make a tilt at. Frank first pretends to be Brad visiting Janet and then Janet visiting Brad, with both squares letting him have his way with them on the assurance the other won’t find out about it, climaxing, literally and figuratively, with the silhouetted, but still declarative shot of Frank fellating Brad, a moment that does still feel gutsy and unique in the context of such a work of broad appeal.
Riff Raff and Magenta’s general program of torment and sabotage sees them drive Rocky crazy with fire and cause him to escape, and then make sure Janet can see through the house’s TV monitors that Brad and Frank are together. Janet stumbles out in an anguished delirium and meets Rocky. She succumbs immediately to his boy-man virility, a spectacle that, in turn, shocks both Frank and Brad. Eddie’s father, a scientist named Everett Scott (Jonathan Adams) and a rival of Frank’s, reaches the castle in search of his son, necessitating a very uncomfortable dinner that climaxes with Eddie’s dismembered body being revealed in a glass coffin under the banquet table.
Unfortunately, Rocky Horror leaves itself no particular place to go after Frank’s bout of bed-hopping, and in the above-described scenes, retreats into shtick that, frankly, could be in any average dinner theatre show (“Or should I say Von Scott?” Gimme a break). The odd witty line does drop throughout the film—I got a good laugh from Brad’s question, “So, do you any of you guys know how to do the Madison?” after “The Time Warp”—but too often there’s a surfeit of true wit or even good wisecracks. A late swerve for a note of pseudo-pathos as Frank-N-Furter faces his downfall doesn’t come off in part because his divaish final song is the dullest tune in the film, and besides, who wants to take Frank seriously? His wonderful line, “It’s not easy having a good time—even smiling makes my face ache,” gives the character a signature facet that doesn’t need underlining. Such flailing probably didn’t matter so much on the stage, where the compulsive energy of the performers and the tunes can carry the material along, but the film finally suffers from a lack of a real cinematic invention. Part of this surely stems from the general decision to make the film as a road-show version of the stage production rather than striking out as a genuinely expanded vision. It’s tempting to wonder what a real filmmaker would make of the material. Ken Russell, who had made The Boy Friend (1971) a genuine cornucopia out of the same kind of material, and released Tommy (1975) the same year as Rocky Horror, could perhaps have conjured something really extraordinary. Ditto Fosse or Richard Lester, filmmakers who might have developed a real visual counterpoint to the material’s obsession with movie history. Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974), which the film was paired with on a double bill for a time, lacks Rocky Horror’s hoofer bravado, but far excels it for originality and vigour in filmmaking.
In this regard, Rocky Horror ran upon a reef that often lies in wait for stage-to-screen adaptations: how far can you go in revising a project before it ceases to be the thing people liked in the first place? Not that the film lacks cinematic values. Cinematographer Peter Suschitsky, who had worked with Kevin Brownlow early in both their careers and would go on to shoot The Empire Strikes Back (1980), gives the film a rich, vivid palette of colour and lensing, one that cranks up the loopy garishness of the material to 11 in places, particularly during Eddie’s madcap terrorisation of the assembled on his motorcycle, and gives the sequence when Brad and Janet approach the castle singing “Over at the Frankenstein Place” a strange, elegiac beauty. But frankly Sharman, whatever his gifts as a stage director and his real hand in creating Rocky Horror as a theatrical entity, was an annoying filmmaker. A couple of years later he tried to film Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick White’s The Night, The Prowler, a story with a not-dissimilar theme to Rocky Horror of a repressed young women being assaulted and finding a certain sick liberation in the experience, but the film is just as leeringly overacted and unsubtle as this one. At least here, overacting and unsubtlety are part of the point. But the superficial energy of the filmmaking and performing can’t ultimately cover up the fact that Rocky Horror loses its mojo badly by the end. Scott’s arrival at the castle sets the scene for some really lame slapstick comedy, with Scott’s wheelchair being attracted up a staircase with a giant magnet and the rebellious guests and flesh toys being zapped with a “Medusa” ray that turns them to stone. The finale is particularly weak and feels like a missed opportunity, as Frank forces his posse of lovers to join in a kick-line chorus in front of the old RKO Radio Pictures logo.
Here Sharman could have gone nuts and expanded the staging and conceptualism, but settles merely for replaying the stage show’s climax with Rocky going nuts and carrying Frank on his back in a limp King Kong (1933) spoof. In spite of the overt desire to pay tribute to the cheesy glories of classic scifi and horror, Rocky Horror never really gets a chance to engage with them. Maybe it’s because the previous year’s Young Frankenstein had already beat it to the punch on so many jokes. At least there is a gaudy nod to Busby Berkeley as the camera surveys Frank floating in a life ring from the Titanic in a swimming pool with Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” at the bottom. Moreover—and now we’re edging into the realm of pure personal taste here, I admit—Sharman’s work presented a blueprint of freaky style not just to the burgeoning Punk and New Wave scenes (particularly Sue Blane’s costuming), but also to every terrible fringe theatre group and art-pop wanker around for the next two decades, and what was fresh was quickly beaten into the ground; just looking at the chorus line of Transylvanians makes me feel a little stabby as a result. Of course, it’s churlish to critique such a project for a lack of story cohesion or dramatic heft; in fact, the lack of both probably explains the popularity of Rocky Horror, its ultimate rejection of deep meaning as well as the kind of rigour that might have made for a more genuinely funny, tighter experience, which then wouldn’t have allowed the same room for an audience of adherents to write in their own amusement.
Admirably, too, Rocky Horror never backs down from its joy in transgression even as it tries half-heartedly to locate a deeper meaning. The shots of Frank, Rocky, Columbia, Brad, and Janet exulting in a moment of orgiastic sexuality in the pool weirdly echoes the climax of David Cronenberg’s Shivers, also released that year, purveying a similar sense of the blurred distinction between the elatedly liberated and the genuinely freakish. Frank-N-Furter is soon delivered a comeuppance by Riff Raff and Magenta, two fellow aliens who have been oppressed playing his servants and now take command, but far from being representatives of any controlling order, they’re an incestuous couple who just want Frank’s foot off their necks. Curry’s extravagance, matched to his character, tends to drown out rivals, but just about everyone still brings something great to the table: O’Brien’s bug-eyed, yawing-lipped rock’n’roll face, Quinn’s plummy pseudo-Lugosi accent, Campbell’s look of irritation after falling over at the end of her “Time Warp” tap dance, Bostwick’s shows of facetious charm, and Sarandon right at the beginning of her career, with her big eyes and ditzy-lustful smile suggesting Betty Boop before she reached for the hair dye and went to the dark side. By its end, it must be said, I was left frustrated, even disappointed by Rocky Horror, as its moments of invention, even genius, are balanced by just as many that don’t work or run in circles. Yet I’m still glad I finally watched it, and moreover, I’m glad that it exists, if just for the sake of the fabulous.
Director/Coscreenwriter: Robert Woodburn
Coscreenwriter: Robert Altman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When artists disavow and try to bury their juvenilia, there’s usually a good reason. Often, such works are half-baked and embarrassing, or may be a work product far from the output the artist considers representative of her or his work. Robert Altman’s early career in film largely took place in his home town of Kansas City, where he wrote and occasionally directed a wide variety of educational and industrial films for the Calvin Company, the leading producer of such fare in the United States at the time. Shortly before he left Kansas City for good to start making films in Hollywood, he wrote the screenplay for a country-western musical produced by Crest Productions. The film was intended to be more affordable for Midwestern exhibitors to screen than the high-priced Technicolor epics Hollywood was bankrolling at the time to compete with television. Corn’s-A-Poppin’ is a part of Altman’s oeuvre that represents the spirit of independence he so exemplified and that is so appropriate to discuss on this Fourth of July.
Altman never cared to acknowledge this cornpone musical, and that’s a shame. It has been many a day since I have been as entertained as I was at the recent screening of the restored Corn’s-A-Poppin’. The briskly paced, 58-minute Corn’s-A-Poppin’ was funded by the Popcorn Institute, and as it has been for funders through the years, product placement was all important. Altman, never shy about sliding a little social commentary on the evils of capitalism into every commercial venture, centers his story around the efforts of a corporate spy, Waldo Crummit (James Lantz), to drive Thaddeus Pinwhistle’s (Keith Painton) popcorn company to the brink of bankruptcy so that the competitor Crummit works for can buy it for a song and corner the popcorn market.
As was popular at the time, Pinwhistle sponsors a musical television show, the half-hour long “Pinwhistle Popcorn Hour,” as a means of promoting his product. Crummit sees to it that he hires a tone-deaf soprano named Lillian Gravelguard (Noralee Benedict), plucked from calling her hogs to answer the call of fame and fortune. To further his nefarious cause, Crummit arranges for Pinwhistle to buy kernels that won’t pop. During the commercial portion of the show, smooth announcer Johnny Wilson (Jerry Wallace) tries to convince a bored audience that Pinwhistle puts the pop in popcorn as a stagehand tips the popper filled with unpopped kernels into the scooping tray.
As with many musicals, the story of Corn’s-A-Poppin’ is just a background on which to stage the musical numbers, but I have to say that the regional actors they found to play the various parts are pretty good. My hat is off to Keith Painton especially for creating a likeable company president—think Arthur Carlson in “WKRP in Cincinnati” or another Altman creation, Col. Henry Blake in MASH (1970)—who realizes that he has trusted the wrong person but is always willing to give people a second chance. The musician/actors cast to play the singers who save Pinwhistle also show some major chops.
First among them is Wallace, who sings well and plays some engaging, if predictable, love scenes with Pinwhistle’s savvy secretary Sheila Burns, performed unevenly by Pat McReynolds. Of course, the couple must be kept apart until the final clinch, and this job is more than in capable hands. Little Cora Rice plays Johnny’s sister Susie, both the woman of the house—though she only knows how to cook spaghetti—and the moral arbiter of Johnny’s love life. The camera loves Rice, and she knows how to sing, act, and steal a scene; she could have had a real career in Hollywood.
Hobie Shepp and the Cowtown Wranglers, a group that has left no easily traceable mark, back up Wallace and Rice in some nicely done musical numbers. I particularly liked the up-tempo “Running After Love,” which featured a couple of times in the film. Other tunes included “Patches on My Heart” (Jimmy Carlyle); “Achin’ Heart” (Hobie Shepp); “Mamma, Wanna Balloon” (Eve Monroy and Jean Andes), a sweet showcase for Rice; and “On Our Way to Mars” (Leon and Rafael René), a cute duet between Wallace and Rice.
The production values are beyond cheap, so provisional that I wondered whether Pinwhistle’s executive suite was doubling for the Wilsons’ apartment. The flimsy walls looked like they might collapse at any second, and the artwork and props seem to have been fugitives from a Salvation Army store. When a high-performing strain of popcorn comes to Pinwhistle, saving the day by showing audiences that the popping is beyond first-rate, stagehands must have been throwing buckets of the stuff at the performers. The only lavish prop, the popcorn machine, was probably on loan from Charles T. Manley, a Kansas City native and owner of Manley, Inc., the “biggest name in popcorn.” According to Kyle Westphal, late of Eastman House and current vice president of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, which spearheaded the restoration, “A photograph featuring the junior Manley hobnobbing with Wallace, Woodburn, and Rhoden on the set strongly suggests the Pinwhistle character was meant as an affectionate tribute to a local legend.”
It is with great thanks to the National Film Preservation Foundation, which funded the restoration of this orphan film—a great example of regional filmmaking and, in my opinion, a worthy addition to the Altman filmography—and Kyle Westphal, who recognized the value of the film when he first saw an imperfect print of it a few years ago, that I present this trailer for the unique Corn’s-A-Poppin’:
As a diehard fan of television playwright Dennis Potter, I have endeavored to view as many of his works as humanly possible. While some of his plays remain hard to secure, I had no explanation for the shamefully gaping hole in my Potter completism that comprised the TV and film versions of Pennies from Heaven. The 1978 miniseries starring Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Crawford as the marginalized losers trying to find happiness in 1930s London continues to elude me, but I don’t have to see the six-part, 450-minute miniseries from the BBC’s golden age of television drama to suspect that it is richer in story and characterization than the 108-minute film, even as adapted for the big screen by Potter himself. And thank heaven for that! Although MGM and Herbert Ross seem fairly obtuse about how Potter used pop music to increase the bitter irony of his plays, Potter’s story and sharp edges remain.
It’s not hard to imagine the meeting that led to the greenlighting of this project. Coming off the surprise success of the indie film The Jerk (1979), Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters must have attracted the bean counters at MGM. Executive producer Rick McCallum was relatively untested, though this first taste of Potter would lead to many more creative projects with the writer, including Dreamchild (1985) and the miniseries “The Singing Detective” (1986) and “Blackeyes,” (1989). Herbert Ross had had a string of successes working with material from playwrights, like Arthur Laurents (The Turning Point ) and Neil Simon (The Sunshine Boys , The Goodbye Girl , and California Suite ), so working with a TV playwright must have seemed a great fit. Finally, the musical aspects of Pennies from Heaven must have been irresistible to “house of musicals” MGM.
Whether or not you love the film Pennies from Heaven may depend upon your relative affinity with the Potter worldview. A man tormented by psoriatic arthritis, a condition that began in his 20s, Potter had an overweaning nostalgia for his childhood in the rural mining community of the Forest of Dean, in Glouchestershire, from which he was culturally separated by attending Oxford. He escaped from his physical pain and deforming condition through writing that drew on his life’s preoccupation with romantic fantasies surrounding women other than his wife, a longing for the idealized world portrayed in many popular songs from the 1930s, and a savage disappointment in the corruption and failures of those in whom he put his trust. Despite the particularity of Potter’s obsessions, his idealism and, as he put it, “tender contempt” for his naïve youth are touching, and his willingness to expose the sizeable warts on his own, as well as other people’s, bums offers an arresting honesty that’s fairly rare.
The Ross-MGM Pennies from Heaven doesn’t completely jettison Potter’s critique of an immoral, delusional, sheet music salesman and the corrupt society in which he lives. In a twist on the usual New York setting for such films, Chicago is the town where traveling salesman Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) makes his home. This choice may have been a way to tap into Chicago’s “city on the make” image as well as the Midwestern provincialism that would cause Arthur’s wife Joan (Jessica Harper) to hate sex and his mistress Eileen Everson (Bernadette Peters) to be fired from her school-teaching job in the hinterland Arthur visits for becoming an unwed mother-to-be. Arthur being Arthur, he threatens Joan with an abandonment he would never consider due to her sizable inheritance and promises Eileen that they will be together forever while giving her a fake address to keep her from finding him. Arthur gets the money he wants to start his own music store, as well as the lipsticked nipples Joan reluctantly reveals to him, as her peace offerings. Eileen gets a new name (Lulu), an abortion, and a new career in prostitution in the big city, where she and Arthur eventually reconnect. Pile on a mentally disturbed religious fanatic listed only as the Accordion Man (Vernel Bagneris) and a blind girl who gets murdered (Eliska Krupka), and the stage is completely set for a cynical night at the movies.
That’s not what we get, however. Potter’s plays are not musicals; they only use musical interludes of lipsynching and simple dancing to suggest the state of mind of the characters—and usually only one character—that does not necessarily reflect the rosy lyrics of true love, prosperity or naughty flirtation contained in the period songs. The Ross-MGM Pennies from Heaven largely transforms Potter’s very dark tale into a literal homage to 1930s musicals, with 17 different musical numbers. It has the economic misery of the Great Depression in common with its most obvious model, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Ross stages numerous Busby-Berkeley-inspired production numbers; the title tune “Pennies from Heaven” is outlandishly choreographed, with the chorus girls sporting the penny hats from the “We’re in the Money” number in Gold Diggers of 1933. If only some of these production numbers approached the poignancy and bitterness of Gold Diggers’ “Remember My Forgotten Man.” Alas, the film adopts the strategy of using the lyrics to tell the story, a technique that postdates the period Ross is recreating.
I found the musical interludes confusing. In a modern musical, it makes sense for Arthur to lipsynch “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” when he first sees the beautiful Eileen. But whose fantasy is “Let’s Misbehave”? Is it Eileen’s, when she first meets Tom (Christopher Walken), a pimp who does a striptease to reveal a tattoo heart on his chest with “Lulu” scrawled across it? Or is it Tom’s, who might be trying to entice Eileen to come into his stable? Maybe it’s both, as when Arthur and Eileen mimic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” on the stage of the movie theatre where they are seeing Follow the Fleet (1936). Frankly, I don’t think it matters all that much to this film, and thus, the consequences Arthur faces for a crime he didn’t commit—or the sense that perhaps he deserves to be punished on general principle for his boorish, lying behavior and business failure—don’t come into focus. When Joan screams, “Cut his thing off and bury it,” we can’t share her sense of rage; indeed, by 1981, more people would be angry with Joan for being such a frigid bitch than would blame Arthur for cheating on her and pushing her to give in to his kinks and dreams.
I don’t think Steve Martin was ready to play this role. He has considerable acting chops, but he was still very new to dramatic acting when Pennies from Heaven was made, and was still afflicted with the comedians’ curse, the need to please, that kept the savage fires safely below the grate. There are moments when Arthur is cruel and dangerously lascivious, but Martin is helped neither by Ross nor the tame approach to the material to bring them roaring to life. Better cast are Bernadette Peters and Jessica Harper, who burrow deep to bring out some interesting shades in their characters. The scenes with the blind girl and the Accordion Man are confusing as to location and timing, and I blame these miscues on bad editing forced by the studio. The one completely unmitigated joy in the film is Christopher Walken. We all know he can play crazy mean, but who knew he could do a striptease that even Gypsy Rose Lee would envy. He is perfect, but with only one scene, the pleasure is short-lived.
I think it’s rather telling that the go-go 80s started with a mixed-message musical that seems prescient about how the socioeconomic fortunes of the country would go. The blind brutality of a narcissistic schemer, the moralizing vengeance of a rich woman, and the mostly willing descent into prostitution of a small-town girl are redeemed by lavish costumes and sets, perfectly executed production numbers, and a mandated happy ending—which, of course, Potter wrote himself as the measure of denial toward which we were heading. Even if the film had gotten everything right, it was destined to be the flop it was. We just didn’t want to know.
Think hiring bankable actors to star in musicals and teaching them to sing and dance started with Baz Luhrmann and Rob Marshall? Think again. At the beginning of the 1930s, when motion pictures started to talk, dance, and sing with a vengeance, Hollywood studios scrambled to hire Broadway singers and dancers to meet popular demand for musicals like the ground-breaking The Jazz Singer (1927). The Fox Film Corporation, however, made the decidedly modern move of taking their most popular team, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, and training them to be musical comedy stars. Their maiden voyage as a musical duo was 1929’s Sunny Side Up, and the great success of that picture almost guaranteed a repeat performance.
Delicious reteamed Gaynor and Farrell with David Butler, a director who has not been rediscovered by the cinephile community despite having a solid career that included helming several Shirley Temple pictures in the 1930s, the stellar Hope/Crosby/Lamour vehicle Road to Morocco in 1942, and a number of Doris Day films in the 1950s. Butler’s way with musicals offered audiences diversion, but he also brought an edge to Delicious that makes it of a piece with light entertainment of that decade that offered slices of reality from the Great Depression along with crowd-pleasing spectacle. Interestingly, Delicious is a film that must have had a direct influence on the ballet sequence in the classic Vincente Minnelli musical An American in Paris (1951) 20 years later. And why not—both films offer a magnificent suite by George Gershwin; indeed, Delicious boasts an entire score by George and his brother Ira, their first done especially for the movies.
The social issue discussed in Delicious is immigration. As economies collapsed around the world, hopeful immigrants set sail for the rumored gold-paved streets of the United States of America. Of course, with Americans falling out of work and into poverty in record numbers, too, immigrants had to prove they would not be a drain on the economy before they would be allowed through the gates of Ellis Island. Our heroine, Heather Gordon (Gaynor), is a Scottish lass who expects to live with her uncle in Idaho, which she imagines is close enough to visit her newfound friends in steerage, a musical troupe from Russia set to work at a nightclub in New York City. The composer of the troupe, Sascha (Raul Roulien), is in love with Heather, but once she meets Larry Beaumont (Farrell) in the onboard stable that holds his horse Poncho, there’s no doubt about who will be in the final clinch.
The film’s comedy is a little flaccid, relying heavily on the dubious skills of Swedish impersonator El Brendel as Beaumont’s servant Chris Jansen to bridge the complex plot. A little of El Brendel’s mugging goes a long way, and it is a small crime that he was allowed to introduce the wonderful Gershwin tune “Blah Blah Blah” to the world. He even gets an encore. The direction and editing are often sluggish. A scene of Detective O’Flynn (Lawrence O’Sullivan), an Irish immigration officer, chasing an escaped Heather around the ship after she is denied entry into the country is interminable, neither funny nor suspenseful. O’Flynn pops up more often than Inspector Javert in Les Misérables to dog poor little Heather as she tries to prove she can pull her own weight in America as a member of the Russian troupe. Fortunately, as a consequence, we get treated to the delightful “Katinkitsha” at the Russian nightclub, which plays on the Gershwins’ own heritage as the children of Russian Jews and gives Gaynor a chance to show off her dancing skills while made up to look like a Russian nesting doll.
It’s interesting to see Virginia Cherrill, the sweet, blind girl in Charlie Chaplin’s miraculous City Lights (1931), as insincere socialite Diana Van Bergh. She toys with Larry’s affections, schemes with her granite-minded mother (Olive Tell) to keep Heather away from him, and even calls the cops on the lassie while pretending to help her, making her one of the more hissworthy villains I’ve seen in recent times. Hollywood always tended to side with virginal innocents, and despite the fact that Diana looks more Larry’s type and Gaynor plays Heather like a 12-year-old Kewpie doll with the worst Scottish accent I’ve ever heard (that is, when she even tries to put the accent on), there is no denying how magnetic Gaynor and Farrell are together.
The immigrant experience is treated both realistically and somewhat offensively. On the boat, each ethnic group gets a short vignette singing and dancing in their native garb, a caricature that telegraphs the setting to the audience with ease, but also one that reinforces stereotypes. The humorous, hopeful dream Heather has early in the film, “Welcome to the Melting Pot,” offers an equally unrealistic image held of America, as a cohort of Uncle Sams shake her hand, an imagined Mr. Ellis steps into the ocean from Ellis Island and emerges dripping wet to welcome her, and the Statue of Liberty boogies on her pedestal and rains money on her.
However, the chain blocking the stairs between steerage and the higher classes brings it home that the divisions in American society are not easily breached, and that guardians of the ruling order like O’Flynn, though they be immigrants themselves, are always available. The spacious, luxurious Beaumont estate and the one-room flat that houses the Russians contrast realistically, and the furtiveness of being an illegal immigrant is more than well documented. The best scene in the film, which clearly presages Gene Kelly’s dance through Paris, comes near the end, when Heather is on the run in the streets of New York facing the rush of the crowds from the subway and seeing the skyscrapers loom and turn into the long-nailed hands of ghouls swallowing her up while Gershwin’s “New York Rhapsody” scores her journey. The special effects may be a little old-fashioned even for 1931, but the expressionistic horror remains shocking nonetheless.
Delicious isn’t the greatest musical to come out of the 1930s, but it’s a fascinating look at how marketing mechanisms Hollywood still employs today meshed with the social consciousness of the time. Further, it shows how the Gershwins told their own story on the silver screen through song. Although it is not any more fleshed than the Gershwin film biographies that came later, it does offer their unfiltered wit and vision in a vehicle that was truly a part of their own time.
The night after Election Day 2012, the Northwest Chicago Film Society came up with a topical screening that was the perfect way to end a brutal election season—the campaign-centered musical confection Thanks a Million. Written with exceeding wit by Nunnally Johnson and starring Dick Powell at his most adorable, Thanks a Million was exactly the balm this classic movie fan needed to shake off the anxiety of recent weeks.
The plot for Thanks a Million is simplicity itself. A traveling troupe of unemployed performers alights from a bus in “New Town,” where they are faced with a two-hour layover before they can catch their connecting bus to New York. Some of the troupe head into the town hall to get out of a torrential rain and witness the “Commonwealth” candidate for governor, Judge A. Darius Culliman (Raymond Walburn), lull the audience to sleep with his uninspired rhetoric. Troupe leader Ned Lyman (Fred Allen) meets with the party chiefs and offers his performers as the paid entertainment at Culliman’s election rallies to encourage voters to attend. The scheme is successful, but when Eric Land (Powell) wows the first audience with his singing, he is fired for pulling focus from Candidate Culliman. But when he saves the day by speaking in place of the drunk candidate at what was to be Land’s last rally, the election committee persuades Land to run for governor instead. The rest of the film chronicles his candidacy.
Like many a musical comedy whose first purpose is to entertain, Thanks a Million offers huge helpings of gags, songs, and dance. Powell, of course, made his mark in the fairly plotless extravaganzas produced by Warner Bros. earlier in the decade. As Eric Land, he outgrows his male ingénue type and takes on a more mature and far more sexy persona as he carries on a romance with dancer Sally Mason (Ann Dvorak) and simultaneously plays along with the amorous Mrs. Kruger (Margaret Irving), the wife of the party chairman (Alan Dinehart). The suggestion that he and Sally share a bed at the end of the evening and that Mrs. Kruger has arranged an adulterous liaison with him don’t seem to have bothered the post-Code Hays Office. Powell doesn’t forget to romance the movie audience either, as his sparkling close-ups are dotted with suggestive winks that must have thrilled his adoring fans, and boy, does he look good in a double-breasted suit!
Musical interludes include the singing/dancing sister act of Sally and Phoebe (Patsy Kelly), who don’t get much time to show either their terpsichore or acting skills. But they are a lot of fun to watch, and their blousy 30s clothing is a hoot. The Yacht Club Boys (James V. Kern, Charles Adler, George Kelly, and Billy Mann) get a couple of chances to harmonize, again with director Del Ruth favoring inviting close-ups. A gag involving Paul Whiteman and his band in which the “New Town” bus driver (Herbert Ashley) tries to drown out Lyman reading aloud (“I can’t hear myself read!”) using the radio broadcast of their music is broadened to a live concert of Whiteman, his orchestra, and featured singer Ramona playing for the opposition party. In this case, fighting musical fire with fire does the incumbent governor (Charles Richman) no good, but it’s fun to listen to Ramona’s 30s jazz phrasing of “New O’leans.” Violinist Rubinoff must have had a very good agent, because he gets a lot of screen time, including a gag performance where he pokes the bus driver with his bow repeatedly as he plays; far from amusing me, he had me frantic about the bus crashing in the driving rain.
The revelation of the film is radio star Fred Allen in his first movie role. I have heard his various shows many times on a local nostalgia radio show, but this was the first time I got a chance to see him in action. An early gag about his initial skepticism about the future of radio, which would have had a 1935 audience splitting their sides in laughter, was lost on our audience, but nothing else about his genius comic timing or acting abilities could escape notice. He delivers a fully realized character, making the most of the clever dialogue Johnson provided. For example, he signals his character’s relative poverty by referring to his cheap suit: “The last time I got this suit wet, the vest disappeared.” His confidence in the deal he struck—tearing up the bus tickets to New York—seems somehow justified by his bearing and rock-steady relationship with wisecracking Phoebe. I was more than thrilled to see him hold this loose cavalcade together and but for Powell and a very funny supporting turn by Walburn, Allen would have walked off with the picture.
In the only overt political statement in the film, Land eventually reveals the patronage appointments he was directed to make after the election and asks voters to choose Gov. Wildman. After a crazy car chase that sees Land try to outrun more than 100 motorcycle cops in a dizzying process shot, the now governor-elect is delivered to a rousing victory celebration for him and his party, which has morphed into the Square Deal Party (an allusion to the Democrats) despite the original candidate looking all the world like the wealthy banker in the game “Monopoly.” It would be churlish to complain about the confused politics, however, as no real-life political horse race would ever be as painlessly entertaining as Thanks a Million. If you’ve not been as lucky as we were to see what appeared to be a virgin print from the Twentieth Century-Fox vault, talk to your local art house about booking it. This film is just too enjoyable to stay locked in the dark.
Pity poor Alice White. With a face, a body, and a vivacious manner that make comparisons with Clara Bow easy and accurate, she was the ideal silent-film star. Sound destroyed all that. Suddenly, studios looking to duplicate the sensation generated by The Jazz Singer (1927) were filling their screens with musicals. White couldn’t sing and couldn’t dance. Even worse for her long-term prospects, she couldn’t act. She even took two years off to take acting lessons, but the ship had already sailed by the time she came back. Reduced by an industry that waits for no one and tarred by a sex scandal, White saw her screen credit sink to the bottom of the line and finally disappear altogether. So, while A Show Girl in Hollywood, White’s second talkie, predicts a happy ending for former silent stars, the more interesting and true story is watching White and company flail to the new demands of sound.
The film opens backstage at a New York theatre where the cast and crew of “Rainbow Girl” are lamenting the show’s closing after only two weeks. Jimmy Doyle (Jack Mulhall), the writer and producer of the show, comforts his girlfriend Dixie Dugan (White) by saying the show would have been a hit if she had been playing the lead. The pair goes to a nightclub where Dixie used to sing and dance to party their blues away. The nightclub owner prevails upon Dixie to sing, and she catches the eye of Hollywood director Frank Buelow (John Miljan). He offers her the lead in his next picture and lures her to Hollywood with promises of a studio contract.
Not only is there no contract waiting for her, but producer Sam Otis (Ford Sterling), tired of Buelow’s trips to New York to scavenge starlets (and, as it turns out, steal scripts), fires Buelow. A crestfallen Dixie sends a telegram to Jimmy to wire her money so she can return home, but Otis, feeling sorry for her, decides to cast her in the film Buelow was going to make: Rainbow Girl. When Otis learns that Doyle actually wrote the script, he buys the rights and brings Jimmy out to Hollywood to supervise the production. Jimmy and Dixie reunite, but a little more trouble with Buelow ensues—he gets Dixie to “go Hollywood” with script demands, thus fulfilling Buelow’s ulterior motive of having the film shut down, costing Otis a bundle of money. Dixie comes to her senses, the picture gets made, and she and Jimmy are destined for Hollywood success and matrimonial bliss.
It’s hard to get around the big lump of awful that is Alice White—the endless close-ups of her Kewpie-doll face in her odd cloche hats start to cloy as much as the very odd turns of phrase she uses—but there is actually quite a lot of great in A Show Girl in Hollywood. For starters, the rest of the cast is wonderful. For example, Ford Sterling makes the most of the snappy script, the delights of which I can barely scrape at here, and delivers large doses of perfectly timed comedy with a dash of realism. When Dixie storms Otis’s office to tell him she has come all the way from New York, he merely walks to a door and opens it, revealing a waiting room full of young women who have done exactly the same thing. When provoked, he very understatedly pulls out a piece of paper and pen to write the note informing Buelow, and then Dixie, that their services are no longer required (“it is as if you never existed”). Shortly thereafter, the only man (Billy Bletcher) whose job is assured at the studio—the man who paints on and removes employees’ names from their doors—comes by and makes the characteristic and humorous scraping noises that signal a change in the air.
The best performance by far is by Blanche Sweet as former movie star Donny Harris. Even as Buelow, an enormous heel who is revealed to be Donny’s husband, tells his assistant director (Herman Bing) to have her thrown out and kept out of the studio, Donny befriends Dixie, his latest object of desire. Dixie is a big fan of Donny’s and can’t fathom that the beautiful star has been tossed on the ash heap. Donny reveals the ugly side of Hollywood—she’s a has-been at the ripe old age of 32 and refuses to sell a mansion whose furniture she has sold bit by bit to pay her bills because that would really mean throwing in the towel. She sings “There’s a Tear for Every Smile in Hollywood” rather well and with a meaningful pathos, winning not only Dixie’s loyalty and friendship, but also ours.
Where this film is of particular interest to those with an interest in film history is in its depiction of the mechanics of filmmaking at the dawn of sound. A Show Girl in Hollywood was made using a Western Electric imbedded sound track, but it depicts the making of a film using the Vitaphone record-synching system (see the interview conducted by the Northwest Chicago Film Society, which arranged the screening of A Show Girl in Hollywood I attended), and since Vitaphone was a coproducer of this film, their product is advertised prominently. In one scene, Dixie stands in front of an early soundstage door that warns people not to go in when the red lights are on because they indicate that “Vitaphoning” is taking place. The Vitaphone process is further advertised on the theatre marquee at the premiere of Rainbow Girl with a shortened version of the famous “All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!” line that heralded MGM’s 1929 talkie The Broadway Melody to the world, and it is mentioned by the radio announcer interviewing the stars making their way into the theatre. (Fun cameos of Loretta Young, Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, and Noah Beery Sr. and Jr. walking the red carpet are a bonus feature; also marvel at the sight of a very young Walter Pidgeon introducing Dixie for a curtain speech after the film.)
We also go inside the recording and filming booths during the filming of the wacky “I’ve Got My Eye on You” production number of Rainbow Girl and see the protective booths used on set to muffle the sound of the cameras and an operator watching the recording disks to ensure there are no skips. It seems fairly clear to me that tap dancing got a boost because it was needed to further drown out the sound of the multiple cameras used in these early musicals. The musical number itself is pretty interesting, as some dance characteristics that seem patented by Busby Berkeley, such as formation dancing and the use of three half-moon walkways seen to best effect in the “Remember My Forgotten Man” number in Gold Diggers of 1933, were commonly used by other choreographers, in this case, Jack Haskell. And while White’s difficulties can be seen on her unsmiling, concentrated face as she blunders her way through the choreography, her jazzy singing is rather enjoyable.
Sadly, the big splash LeRoy and company planned for the final reel—two-strip Technicolor for the “Hang onto a Rainbow” production number—is lost, though it’s not hard to imagine the impact it must have had on audiences of the time. Just think about the change from black and white to color in The Wizard of Oz, and the flowering of the new age of sound married with color, nicely mirrored by Dixie’s announcement of her impending marriage and two-week honeymoon (“Make it one week!” bellows Otis), becomes a wonder to behold.
Dancing isn’t considered a very manly thing to do among a lot of regular guys. So when I beat the drum to get more cinephiles—of whom the majority are male—interested in dance in movies, not many respond. Well, if you won’t listen to me, will you listen to Mr. Badass Yakusa himself, Takeshi Kitano, aka, Beat Takeshi? He’s not fooling around here.
It’s time for Ferdy on Films to send a meme out into the world and watch it grow! Everyone knows how much I love dance. I’m here to tell you who my top 15 dancers in the movies are. And I’d like to know yours as well. Simply come up with a list, put your link in the comments, and link back to this post on your blog. I’ll link up everyone who participates. And don’t forget to tag four (4) more blogs. (I tag Pat at Doodad Kind of Town, Greg at Cinema Styles, Rick at Coosa Creek Cinema, and Nathaniel R at The Film Experience.)
In no particular order:
1-2. Cristina Hoyos/Antonio Gades
This smoldering couple from Spain mesmerize movie audiences, most significantly in the dance films of Carlos Saura. Each dances individually to great effect, but together they put the flame in flamenco:
3. Cyd Charisse
This tall drink of dynamite from Texas brings a ballerina’s grace to every type of dance style she’s called upon to perform. I like this clip because it shows how beautifully she adds an extra-long train on her costume to her performance. It looks easy, but it ain’t.
4. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
This legendary duo is really a single entity. Fred had a great career as a dancer with other partners and when dancing alone, but he and Ginger formed that perfect union on film everyone remembers best. Here’s a favorite dance from my favorite Astaire-Rogers film, Swing Time.
5-6. Gene Kelly/Donald O’Connor
Both of these dancers have energy and personality cubed. I give just a slight edge to Kelly for technique, and a small lead to O’Connor for being more fun to watch. Together, they can’t be beat.
7. Moira Shearer
This lovely prima ballerina was enticed into pictures when Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger hinted that they really wanted someone else to play the lead in The Red Shoes. She liked it so much, she came back for more. Here she is in their The Tales of Hoffman in a simply charming role that shows she was a great actress through her dancing.
8-9. George Chakiris/Rita Moreno
George Chakiris is one of the most technically accomplished dancers in musical theatre and movies, as well as being a handsome and compelling presence. Rita Moreno is life itself on a stage. Together, they make West Side Story’s “America” the most electrifying number in a film full of them.
10. Eleanor Powell
A whirling dervish with the fastest feet I’ve ever seen, Powell “laid ’em down like a man,” according to the dancer she most compares with, Fred Astaire. This ego-free dance shows she’d even dance with a dog; in fact, she trained him and is performing in her own living room.
11. James Cagney
There was nothing James Cagney couldn’t do, and that includes dancing. He didn’t get many chances to do it, but when he did, sparks flew off his feet just as strongly as they came out of the barrel of his gun. His eccentric dancing style is quite a bit more controlled than Bob Hope in the duet at the end of this clip.
Hines always invests his tap dancing with a lot of emotion. In this scene from The Cotton Club, we feel the intensity of Hines’ thoughts as he performs a tricky dance sequence that is intercut with his own memories.
13. Leslie Caron
Leslie Caron was a lovely ballerina whose greatest gift was the feeling she put into her dance. I chose this clip to show that dance can be great without all the pyrotechnics we’ve become conditioned to expect.
She of the tiny waist, Vera-Ellen has a lightness to her dancing that makes tap dancing on her toes seem a logical extension of her comfort in the air. Every move she makes is finished, the mark of a flawlessly trained and dedicated dancer.
15. Bob Fosse
Fosse’s film career saw him move from an accomplished dancer, to a budding choreographer evolving his style, to this: Fosse fully formed in The Little Prince.
See Ryan Kelly’s list of favorite dances here at Medfly Quarantine.
Doug Bonner from Postmodern Joan is a new visitor here, and I have a feeling he and I are going to be hanging out at each other’s blogs from now on. Here is his inspired list of dancers/choreographers. Thanks, Doug.
When Greg at Cinema Styles decided to throw a Spirit of Ed Wood blogathon, I had to do a lot of thinking. I tried to distill the essence of Wood in my mind to try to find a kindred spirit out there who displays those characteristics that make Ed Wood Ed Wood, who might even have been an inspiration to the indomitable Eddie. You know what I’m talking about—production values that are so dazzlingly bad they’re good, a script only a mother could love, and a dogged determination to look at the whole sow’s ear and proclaim it the finest, pearl-beaded silk purse ever to have been Made in Japan. And, although I admit that he doesn’t spring immediately to mind, I finally resolved that were Ed Wood alive today, he’d have evolved his movie-making to emulate perhaps the greatest purveyor of fantasmagoria ever to haunt a sound stage, Busby Berkeley.
Berkeley is best known today for his kaleidoscopic dance numbers of gargantuan proportions, true mutants that push the movie musical into the scifi country where Ed Wood hung his hat. When Berkeley worked his impossible-dream magic, his penchant for cheesy-looking floating heads, bubble-blowing mermaids, and deconstructed musical instruments swelled to accommodate a recital by King Kong made for a bit of hair-raising suspense. Was the Big Monkey going to show up and pull a few bananas out of Carmen Miranda’s 40-foot-wide fruit tiara?
The Berkeley film that screams Ed Wood to me is Babes in Arms, a 1939 Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musical that captures all the enthusiasm of those crazy kids—Berkeley and Wood—who just wanted to make good in show business. I think Henry Hill as a Broadway producer named Maddox and Rooney as Mickey Moran, a young ham suffocating in greasepaint, said it best:
Moran: We’re going to make good for him, too. Maddox: Yes, and you’re going to make good for a lot of other people. Moran: Who? Maddox: For the millions of kids who never had a chance. For the millions of kids without a wiseacre who’s telling them there’s no such thing as an American dream. Well, those kids have got their eyes on you because you’re being given your chance. And, by the Bones of Bacchus, you’d better make good. Moran: Gee, it’s bigger than just a show. Say, it’s everybody in the country.
And everybody in the country was looking forward to beating up Hitler and Mussolini for destroying the economy, which “God’s Country,” the closing number of this musical, reveals to be Berkeley’s purpose all along.
At first, the film looks like the usual younger vs. older generation story, pitting established vaudevillians against the swinging new guard who just happen to be their children. Mickey and Patsy Barton (Garland) are sweethearts who are trying to break into show biz to help their parents, whose prosperity in vaudeville has vanished with the defection of their audiences to talking pictures. While the old timers, led by Mickey’s pop Joe Moran (Charles Winninger), try to revive vaudeville with a tour, Mickey decides to write and produce his kind of show. He fires up all the other vaudeville kids who live in his town—a haven for show people thanks to Judge Black (Guy Kibbee), who fends off Elmira Gulch, I mean, Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton) from placing the kids in a home—and they march around the crummy-looking set to the rocket-launching “Babes in Arms,” gather wood, and build a bonfire.
Rehearsals hit a snag when Don Brice (Douglas McPhail) and Moran’s sister Molly (Betty Jaynes, McPhail’s wife) don’t put enough feeling into their love duet “Where or When.” Brice blames the suspended canoe Mickey’s put them in, but when they get out of it, it’s plain that this operatic duo can’t loosen up. It’s actually painful to watch Jaynes form her tones with a mouth so tight she looks about ready to pop. Berkeley, in his wisdom, sees no reason to do anything but shoot her close-up, full face—no flattering angles for him, no sir. A pint-sized orchestra provides scratchy-toned comedy for this touching scene.
Patsy and Mickey’s love is tested when an angel for the show comes to the rescue—on condition she gets to play the lead reserved for Patsy. Baby Rosalie Essex (June Preisser) is looking for a comeback project and thinks this is it. Preisser is really quite funny as a Shirley Temple knockoff, pampered but not spoiled the way the script seems to suggest she should be. Mickey’s all business, but a stage kiss he gives Baby sends Patsy packing to see her mother on the road; at least, we get to hear Garland sing the beautiful “I Cried for You” in compensation for this lame lover’s quarrel.
Mickey’s show goes on as scheduled (with an adult orchestra; I guess the munchkins had a shooting conflict on The Wizard of Oz set) and a Broadway producer shows up to see what the young turks of entertainment have to offer. He gets a minstrel show. I simply have no comment about that, but then, I don’t need one. The script offers up a hurricane to stop the show. I can see Berkeley putting on his angora sweater and spinning the over-the-top opera La Gioconda in his trailer right about now.
After his reverie, Berkeley remembers he has to tie up the loose ends. Of course, the Broadway producer wants to put the show on, and Patsy gets to play the lead after all. The vaudevillians give up the ghost to the future and everyone feels good about America. The end.
I think Berkeley was watching Oz being filmed while he tinkered with the script. Garland has that same scream of concern (“oOH! oOH!”) when Mickey faints that she has numerous times when her companions on the Yellow Brick Road run into difficulties. She picks flowers just like Dorothy Gale picked poppies. There are munchkins, a wicked “witch” played by Margaret Hamilton, and a hurricane in place of a twister. And all the money that was poured into Oz meant there was nothing left for Berkeley. This is the cheapest-looking MGM musical I’ve ever seen, making it impossible for Berkeley to fully realize his dreams, which I’m sure included making the bonfire outshine the burning of Atlanta and a minstrel show that would have had 1,000 pickaninnies in a vast field of cotton and Judy Garland singing atop a cotton gin.
But in the true spirit of Ed Wood, Berkeley works with what he has (including deadly lyrics by Arthur Freed) and creates something so offensively bad, it’s compulsively watchable. Hi dee ho!
My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.
So ended the popular vaudeville act of The Four Cohans, who entertained audiences across the country with their singing, dancing, and clowning around in the late 1800s. So, too, did those words burn into my impressionable adolescent brain and remain with me to this day as perhaps the most memorable line of that traditional 4th of July movie, Yankee Doodle Dandy. It’s not Independence Day yet, and Yankee Doodle Dandy is now only a traditional offering on Turner Classic Movies, but I’d like to put this movie out there for consideration by a new generation of film buffs, particularly those who might like to get a handle on films of the 40s, a rich and often misunderstood era.
James Cagney won his only Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of showbiz phenomenon George M. Cohan. Did he deserve it? Compared with the other nominees (Ronald Colman in Random Harvest, Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees, Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver, and Monty Woolley in The Pied Piper), I’d say that he probably did. Cornball and boisterous he was indeed, but that is exactly how Cohan was always described. Cagney was also charged with that special something he always got when he had the rare opportunity to perform in his favorite kind of film—a musical. Here was the intensity he brought to his gangsters—Tom Powers, Cody Garrett, Martin Snyder—in service of a tour de force performance of pure joy. His singing (not so hot, but expressive), his dancing (eccentric and strange to modern eyes, but masterfully entertaining and done in Cohan’s style), and, of course, his acting, which could turn from bravado to playful to soulful in just the right measure, all came together like a force of nature to tell perhaps the ultimate showbiz story.
The film opens in 1940, recounting the historic awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Cohan for writing the patriotic song “Over There,” an unofficial fight song for military men who fought in World War I and then in World War II. Cohan, the ultimate flag waver, is intimidated as he follows the Negro footman (the frequently working but often uncredited Clinton Rosemund) up a winding staircase to meet President Roosevelt (voice of Art Gilmore). In broad tones, with his back to the camera, Roosevelt reminisces about The Four Cohans, and Cohan launches into a full-blown flashback, with voiceovers from time to time to connect the scenes.
We go all the way back to George’s father, Jerry (Walter Huston), on stage and waiting to hear word about his wife Nellie (Rosemary DeCamp), who is in labor. When the baby who would grow up to be George M. arrives, Jerry rushes through a 4th of July parade to Nellie’s bedside. Jerry suggests they name him George Washington, but must settle for George Michael. An unironic shot of baby George shows him with an American flag in his tiny fist.
We move swiftly through the birth of George’s sister Josie, who, grown-up, is played by Cagney’s real sister, Jeanne Cagney; stints on the vaudeville stage; and on to a production of “Peck’s Bad Boy,” with young George (Henry Blair) as star. George’s ego gets the better of him backstage when the Cohans get word that an important scout for a top vaudeville circuit wants to speak with them. He offers them a contract, but George fouls up the deal. He receives a spanking (“here’s a part without any talent”) after Nellie warns Jerry not to hit him in the mouth (“he has to sing”) or the hands (“he has to play the violin”).
The Cohans appear in a regional play, with George in white beard and wig playing his mother’s father. An 18-year-old girl named Mary (Joan Leslie) comes backstage to ask the advice of the wizened professional. She thinks she has talent and demonstrates her dancing abilities to George, who playfully gives her contradictory advice about her dancing style and then assures a beautiful chorine who sticks her head into his dressing room that their date for the evening is on. Mary, confused, asks if she’s his granddaughter. George replies, “Well, I do have to make up older than I really am,” and starts peeling off his whiskers and erasing his greasepaint wrinkles. When he pulls off his wig, Mary screams. He drops the wig to the floor, stomps on it, and says, “Got it.” Mary becomes part of the Cohan troupe.
George has begun writing plays. Our introduction to Cohan’s long-time partner Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) is a humorous meeting in the offices of theatrical agents Dietz & Goff (George Tobias and Chester Chute). Harris is trying to sell them a melodrama with Indians and flames and stampeding horses. George is pitching “Fifty Miles from Boston,” with Mary along to sing “Harrigan.” Dietz & Goff don’t like either of them. Both budding playwrights go separately to a tavern to drown their sorrows. Harris tries another pitch to German theatre angel Schwab (S.Z. Sakall). Schwab says he wants pretty dancing girls. George, overhearing their conversation, pretends that Harris is his partner and tells him Dietz & Goff may be interested in his musical. Schwab, disconcerted that Harris has been sitting on a musical, asks, “Why is Dietz’s wife’s money better than my wife’s money?” With a covert introduction and a handshake, Cohan & Harris is born, with one hit after another backed by the creative team. This scene is pure hokum and very far from the truth about the formation of the team, but it is extremely well-written and performed with the razor-sharp comic timing Cagney perfected with Pat O’Brien in Boy Meets Girl (1938) and Joan Blondell in Footlight Parade (1933).
Cohan moves on to court Broadway star Fay Templeton (the marvelous Irene Manning) to headline his new musical. Templeton’s agent is urging her to hitch her wagon to the hottest thing on Broadway, but Templeton finds Cohan too vulgar for her refined image. When Cohan comes to call on her, she openly scorns him, but is won over by a song he wrote while she was on stage, “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway,” which becomes the name of the show. She debuts the song “Mary, It’s a Grand Old Name,” in the show, while the real Mary, now Cohan’s wife and for whom the song supposedly was written, watches adoringly from her theatre box.
In 1904, Cohan opens the musical “Little Johnny Jones.” I think it’s interesting what a critic of the time says of this musical:
At the Providence Opera House last evening George M. Cohan, one of “the Four,” with a good-sized company, began a week’s engagement in his latest musical offense, “Little Johnny Jones.” The production still has “four Cohans,” although Josephine has deserted the fold. Father and mother are still with the show and so is Ethel Levey, who is Mrs. George M. in private life. The combination shows its familiar styles of varied talents neither better or worse than when last seen in this city and the entertainment is about of the usual Cohan standard, although there are features in this offering that have never been seen on any stage before. The extremely large audience present left no doubt as to its hearty approval of the whole affair. The applause was frequent and there were curtain calls and a speech by the “author actor.” All of which was in sad contrast to the comparatively slim and indifferent greeting extended to Miss Eleanor Robson, week before last, as well as to many of the previous attractions of marked artistic merit.
Now take a look at the Warner Bros version of this musical offense.
Certainly, we can see the cornball to which the reviewer objected, but this is a magnificent entertainment made even moreso by Cagney’s cocksure charisma.
The dramatic moments in the film are generally fine, though Leslie and Cagney generate the fire of a wet match. Even a wholesome musical ought to make marriage look like a pleasure, not something you retire to. Some moments, however, are quite poignant. For example, Josie and George talk at the family farm, and Josie tells him she is getting married and retiring. This scene actually took place between Jeanne and James, who were a vaudeville team, and thus, there is a personal note that I find moving. In another scene, George, walking alongside some soldiers getting ready to ship out during World War II, is chided for not singing their marching song: “Don’t you remember it?” “Seems to me I do,” he answers, and joins in singing “Over There.” Most moving of all is when George rushes to his father’s death bed. His father is delirious, talking about the early days of the act, and George plays along. When Jerry finally expires, George tries to say the act’s closing line, “My mother thanks you…” but breaks down into tears. He’s the only one of the Four Cohans left.
The flag waving goes into overdrive for the final musical number that ends the film, “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” from “George Washington, Jr.,” ensuring the kind of show-stopping pleasure Cohan always loved to give the crowds. I’m a pretty well-developed cynic when it comes to patriotism, but the dedicated craft of all of those involved in creating Yankee Doodle Dandy never fails to put a smile on my face. I’m sure that in an America embroiled in war, this film, like so many others made at this time, helped ease the pain of parted loved ones, wartime rationing, and social uncertainty. James Cagney holds nothing back in portraying an American patriot who wasn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. Give it a try. You just might feel a little bit better about America afterward.
Life in the United States is getting pretty squirrely right now. The election season is in full bloom, and partisans for the various presidential candidates still in the race are getting more wild-eyed, offensive, and addle-brained by the minute. I fully expect to hear claims of miracles or evidential documents showing that a candidate’s soul belongs to Satan. Compared with the fool’s circus going on around me, Happiness of the Katakuris, a domestic comedy/musical/horror flick that dabbles heavily in claymation and natural disaster, seems almost mundane.
Takashi Miike has a reputation as a director of ultraviolent films, but in fact, he has made many different types of films within the studio-like system of the Japanese film industry. Interestingly, Happiness of the Katakuris is a remake of the dark Korean comedy called The Quiet Family (Choyonghan kajok, 1998), and from reading the synopsis of The Quiet Family, it appears to be a faithful one.
Household head Masao Katakuri (singing star Kenji Sawada) and his job in shoe sales part company. Rather than feel miserable, Masao feels freed to pursue his dream of family togetherness. He hears about plans to build a major road near a volcano in a remote part of Japan. Masao thinks it’s time to get in on the ground floor of the tourist industry that is sure to explode, and moves his wife Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka), his delinquent teenage son Masayuki (Shinji Takeda), his divorced daughter Shizue (Naomi Nishida) and her daughter Yurie (Tamiki Miyazaki), and grandfather Ojîsan Jinpei Katakuri (Tesuro Tamba) to the area to live in and run a bed and breakfast called the White Lover’s Inn.
Unfortunately, work on the road is delayed, and the venture seems doomed. One evening, however, the Katakuris greet their first guest, a deranged-looking man who stumbles in and asks for a room. The entire family moves in well-rehearsed unison to register him and tend to his every need. The next day, they find he has paid back their hospitality by stabbing himself in the neck and dying on their clean floor.
Worried that guests will shun the inn if they hear it was the site of a suicide, the family decides to bury the body themselves. After a time, a new pair of guests, a sumo wrestler and his underage girlfriend, check in for some extremely vigorous and loud sex—Miike signals what’s on the Katakuris’ mind in a shot of the full moon with craters shaped like two bunnies humping. The next morning, the wrestler is face down on the bed—dead—and his girl nowhere to be found, that is, until they lift the heart-attack victim and find her smothered below him. Out come the shovels again.
There is one more death and hurried plans to dig up the corpses and move them when the road construction starts with the bodies in its path. Eventually, the family, brought together through adversity and shown to be better than they thought they could be dance in a Sound of Music style meadow and sing about the true meaning of happiness.
In between, absurdity reigns supreme. A woman tries to drink soup. Her spoon keeps hitting something and then pulls up a claymation figure that looks like a sea monkey. She turns into a claymation figure and screams. The sea monkey grabs her uvula and tears off the end, which looks like a heart. We are then spun into a love song of sorts in a claymation world. Other wonderful moments include Grandpa’s skill knocking crows out of the sky by flinging pieces of wood at them, a glamorous nightclub duet in which Masao and Terue sing of their love, a song-and-dance number by the Katakuris and the corpses, and the family weeping over the bloody body of Masayuki, stabbed by a crazed wife murderer, and then discovering he has suffered only a flesh wound.
The funniest part for me is when Shizue goes into town and meets a very scruffy looking man who claims he is Richard Sagawa (Kiyoshiro Imawano), an American naval pilot and also a captain in the Royal Navy of Great Britain. Shizue falls for his cheap flattery and imagines a rainbows-and- daffodils wedding. When Miike returns us to reality, Shizue is writhing on the floor in happy delirium, while onlookers back away from her. Richard shakes her from her reverie, but the two are parted. He later turns up at the inn, much to Shizue’s delight, claiming that he would like to marry Shizue, but that he needs permission from his aunt Queen Elizabeth. They walk though a dump near the property, where Richard speak bitterly about the royal family and how they were unfair to Princess Diana, and then tries to hit Shizue up for plane fare back to England. Grandpa moves into action, and claymation Richard ends up going over a cliff and splashing into the river far below.
The story has brief moments of narration by an older Yurie. The fantasies of the tale remind me of when I was six and turning a Chinese restaurant I ate at with my family into a mandarin’s palace for my playmates. It’s fitting that the last, heroic act Yurie remembers is of claymation Grandpa rescuing Yurie’s dog Pochi, who is floating on a river of lava from the just-exploded volcano in the distance. Hanging by his knees from a tree limb, Grandpa yells to Pochi to reach up his paws and whisks the mutt to safety. In the end, the lava flow covers all the land around the inn, but leaves the structure standing—a real tribute to the durability of the family.
It’s an odd combination of horror, comedy, fantasy, and romantic musical Miike juggles. If you can go with the absurd tone, you’ll find that this film really has a heart. There are many kinds of loving families in the movies including, I suppose, the vomit-inducing, murdering Fireflys of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. One might have supposed that violence-prone Miike would have turned to this film as a model for the Katakuris. But he’s more interested in how people are brought together and stick by each other through disaster, death, and disappointment. The Happiness of the Katakuris is the kind of circus I love. l
It’s not often that a director like Tim Burton can shop for a script on the ready-to-wear rack. It’s kind of a shame that Sweeney Todd, a 1979 Broadway hit that won eight Tony awards, seemed to have anticipated Burton’s career to the letter. I saw this audacious musical when it first hit the boards in New York—more Metropolitan Opera than Tin Pan Alley—and remember what a shocking sensation it was. If this campfire horror story hadn’t been such a natural fit for Burton to bring to the big screen, he might have tried harder to differentiate it from his other works, not that any Burton/Depp/Harry Potter fanboys will mind. For musical theatre fans and most of the rest of the moviegoing population, Burton and his alter ego, Johnny Depp, get in their own way far too often to make this film anything near the diabolical happening the stage version was. Nonetheless, the glorious music of Stephen Sondheim on the glorious sound systems most theatres have these days manage to create, all on their own, an emotionally satisfying journey to the heart of hell.
Horror films do opening credits exceptionally well, and Sweeney Todd weaves us through them with a luscious stream of blood, like Jackson Pollock dripping a trail of crimson red across a canvas of words. Todd was an artist of sorts in the art of murder, drawing a straight line with impeccably sharpened razors across the lumpy landscape of his victims’ throats, so I was very intrigued by this opening.
In the preamble, we meet Sweeney Todd (Depp) on a ship closing in on its last port of call, London. He thanks a young seaman, Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), who spotted him floating on the open ocean and secured his rescue. The boat-docking scene is a beautiful composition, almost like a JMW Turner painting. When Anthony asks Sweeney if he may look the older man up after they are both settled, Todd says he is likely to be found in the vicinity of Fleet Street. At this point, a dizzying animation ripped off from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and giving the impression that we’re about to watch The Corpse Bride speeds us through the dingy back alleys of London to a haunted house of a shop on a corner. Lovett’s meat pies are advertised on the sign below a slope-roofed second story, the scene of many future crimes to come.
Todd cringes in Mrs. Lovett’s (Helena Bonham Carter) filthy shop as she nonchalantly sings of her talents in making “The Worst Pies in London” and smashes gigantic cockroaches in 3/4 time. It is then that Todd inquires about the availability of the space above her shop. “It’s available,” she says. Nobody wants to rent it. “They says it’s haunted.” She takes him up the outside staircase and shows him a threadbare room. In “Poor Thing,” she tells of the misfortunes of the Barker family—poor Benjamin, a simple barber, convicted on trumped-up charges and transported to Australia by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), his beautiful wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) raped by the judge and driven to swallow arsenic, and their baby girl Johanna adopted by the judge. Lovett catches a look in Todd’s eye and exclaims, “It’s you! Benjamin Barker!” “No,” he says, “that man is dead. The name is Sweeney Todd.” He removes some floorboards and lifts out a fancy box. In it are several beautifully crafted razors. He intends to open his shop again where he will give one future customer—Judge Turpin—the closest shave of his life.
Mrs. Lovett helps Todd gain recognition as a barber of excellence by taking him to the square where the current barber of choice, Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), holds forth. Pirelli’s young assistant, Toby (Ed Sanders), sings “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” to hawk Pirelli’s bogus hair-growth tonic. Todd accuses Pirelli of selling the rubes piss and challenges him to a shave-off. Judge Turpin’s slimy partner in crime, Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall), will judge who gives the fastest, closest shave. While Pirelli preens and sings “The Contest,” Todd easily bests him with lightning speed. Bamford, having seen his skills, talks Todd up to Turpin, who has decided to marry Johanna (Jayne Wisener) to prevent someone younger from taking her away. He has already had Bamford thrash young Anthony, who has fallen in love with Johanna after watching and listening to her sing “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from the second-story window of Turpin’s home. Anthony has learned her name from a beggar woman in the street and sings the beautifully haunting “Johanna,” vowing to make her his.
In the meantime, Pirelli arrives at Todd’s shop, revealing himself to be a phony through and through. He’s a native Londoner who used to work in Todd’s shop and, realizing that Todd must be an escaped convict, threatens to go to the authorities if Todd doesn’t give him half his earnings. Enraged, Todd beats Pirelli senseless with a tea kettle and stuffs his body in a trunk. Toby comes up to look for his master, whose twitching hand is sticking out of the trunk. Todd persuades him to go down to Mrs. Lovett; he then finishes the job with his razor. Right after this “rehearsal,” Todd is gleeful as he spies Turpin coming up the stairs.
Johanna motivates Turpin’s entry to Todd’s shop, where Sweeney is poised to carry out his revenge. The pair sing “Pretty Women,” a song so beautiful that it manages to triumph over Rickman’s croakings. Johanna also motivates Anthony to burst in on Todd at his crucial moment of revenge, declaring he is set to take Johanna away that very night. Turpin vows never to return to the shop and to make sure Anthony never sees Johanna again. The shock of losing his chance to kill Turpin and see his daughter again sends Todd off an edge to which he was always very, very close. He sings “Epiphany,” announcing the arrival of the demon inside him set to wreck vengeance on all humanity: “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit/And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit/And the vermin of the world inhabit it./But not for long…”
In a macabre act of economy, Mrs. Lovett decides not to “waste” Pirelli; she and Todd sing the hilarious “A Little Priest” to illustrate the various virtues of different types of men as meat pie fillings. The film bounds through one gruesome, random murder after another in Todd’s chair, now rigged to flip up and deposit corpses down a shaft to Mrs. Lovett’s oven room for butchering and grinding. Predictably, the shop thrives. Suspicions are aroused in Toby (now Mrs. Lovett’s helper), an apparently crazed street person, and eventually, the authorities. Events move swiftly to a just and murderous end for many of the major players.
Despite an extremely lurid plot, marvelous music, and cleverly descriptive lyrics, Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd often plays flat and lifeless. Compare “A Little Priest” by Depp/Bonham Carter with the Broadway version by Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. The movie version is a good deal shorter—not necessarily a flaw in my mind—but Bonham Carter puts absolutely no personality into her interpretation. Burton puts the humor into the song visually by turning his camera on a priest, a poet, and other characters mentioned in the lyrics. Ironically, Bonham Carter gives the most emotionally connected performance in the cast, but in a sung-through piece like Sweeney Todd, not being able to emote lyrically puts a real strain on visual interpretation for the bulk of the movie and highlights the limitations of casting stars who aren’t trained singers or dancers to boost box office.
In another bit of irony, Johnny Depp is very good at interpreting lyrics—perhaps because he is a musician as well as an actor—but has a catalog of three facial expressions for Todd: diabolically polite, distractedly brooding, and angrily brooding. The sequence in which Mrs. Lovett imagines a quaint, middle-class life with an unfailingly morose Todd in “By the Sea” would have been funnier if we hadn’t already seen Depp locked in a brood of epic proportions for two-thirds of the film.
The look of this film is very inconsistent. We’re all familiar by now with Burton’s blue/gray palette, but Sweeney Todd stretches this to very close to monochrome in several scenes. It’s most glaring in the scene where Todd challenges Pirelli, whose flamboyant blue satin creates a staggering visual contrast that the plot does not yet warrant; Todd isn’t in full demonic mode, and Mrs. Lovett is very much alive, with a passion for Todd that leads her far astray. It’s rather a relief for the eyes when geysers of blessedly red blood flow from the necks of Todd’s victims in the second half of the film. I was starting to think Burton had to ration his color film stock for the couple of fantasy/flashback sequences that are supposed to let us know that happiness is always in color. Honestly, Tim, we’re not that dumb.
Sweeney Todd is a musical for grown-ups, but I could never escape the fact that this film was really made for fanboys, particularly with the casting of Harry Potter alumni Timothy Spall and the unfortunate Alan Rickman, who used to have an interesting career before he started playing villainous characters. I had a few moments respite when the superb voice and melancholy air of Jayne Wisener, in her screen debut, reminded me of why I went to see the picture in the first place. Jamie Campbell Bower had an oddly right period look to him and projected a decent singing voice as well. Ed Sanders also was excellent as Toby. It’s a shame Wisener and Campbell Bower had so little screen time.
I am a fan of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp—quite a big fan, actually. But they bit off more than they could chew in tackling Stephen Sondheim’s macabre masterpiece.
Before Jeanette MacDonald paired up with Nelson Eddy to define boring, sexless romance on the big screen, she made several films with that prototype of French bon vivants Maurice Chevalier. Most of these films were made with the fabled touch of director Ernst Lubitsch; the final mating of this threesome, capped by the great operetta compositions of Franz Lehar, is the most sublime of them all—The Merry Widow (1934). Somewhere in the middle, Rouben Mamoulian, whose knockout debut as a director was the melodrama Applause (1929), was given his chance with these appealing stars and fashioned one of their stock stories of an aristocratic woman and her common courter. While Mamoulian falls short of the waltzlike grace and romantic sensuality of Lubitsch, his comedic moments more than make up for it.
The famous opening scene gives a panoramic view of the Paris skyline and then moves in to listen to the rhythms by which the city wakes up—a woman beating a rug, some men cobbling shoes together, smoke stacks churning, and so forth. Finally, the camera moves to Maurice Courtelin (Chevalier), a Parisian tailor readying for his day while singing of the noise of Paris in “That’s the Song of Paree,” the first of several delightful—and some memorable—songs by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers.
Maurice reaches his shop as his fellow shopkeeper Pierre (George Davis) comes by to pick up the tuxedo Maurice has made for his wedding. Pierre forces a 2,000-franc fee on the reluctant Maurice, who prefers to give him the suit as a wedding gift. As Pierre goes off to try it on, Maurice welcomes the Viscount Gilbert de Varèze (Charlie Ruggles), for whom he has created an entire wardrobe. The Viscount, dressed in his underwear after escaping the arms of a woman whose husband had unexpectedly appeared, needs a suit—fast. Maurice quickly shoos another underwear-clad man—Pierre—out of the dressing room to make way for the Viscount, on whom Maurice is pinning the hopes for his fledgling shop. The Viscount emerges, pleased with the fit. Maurice asks him about the bill. The Viscount, a freeloader notorious throughout Paris, promises to pay him—he is headed to his uncle the Duke’s chateau that very evening for financial refreshment. On the way out, the Viscount touches Maurice for 500 francs. Maurice offers 1,000, pulling out the two 1,000-franc notes Pierre gave him. “Let’s just call it 2,000,” says the Viscount, snatching the bills before Maurice can figure it out. It’s an old gag, but Ruggles is such a master of timing that it works.
All is forgotten when Pierre emerges looking like a king himself. His and Maurice’s delight spins into the classic tune “Isn’t It Romantic,” which carries from the shop to the people along the street, through the countryside by train and horse-drawn wagon. Each singer tailors the lyrics to his or her individual circumstances in a symphony of clever, particular rhymes. Finally, it reaches Princess Jeanette in her country chateau, who sings the standard lyrics while lounging sensuously in her satin-sheeted bed. In this way, Mamoulian brings the lovers together, letting the audiences know they can expect exactly what they hoped for.
Maurice, spurred on by the other clothiers to whom he referred the Viscount, heads off to the chateau to demand his money. On the way, he hears a woman singing (“Lover”). It is the princess. When she stops he declares his love for her in song, the impertinent and naughty tune “Mimi” (“I’d like to have a little son of a Mimi by and by!”). We watch her full face assume an insulted but gauzily romantic look in the camera of Victor Milner, who shot several films for Lubitsch and knew how to get just the right touch. A small flash of humor crosses Jeanette’s face, but she’s soon slapping Maurice and running back to the chateau—where she passes out cold. The diagnosis? Dr. Armand de Fontinac (Joseph Cawthorn) says, “You’re not wasting away, you’re just wasted.”
We spend the rest of the film getting to the inevitable clutch in most entertaining fashion. Maurice is passed off as a baron by the Viscount to prevent his uncle Duke d’Artelines (C. Aubrey Smith, whose chipper rendition of “Mimi” in one of the film’s pass-around song sequences is wonderful) from learning of his debts. The Viscount’s sister, the man-hungry Countess Valentine (Myrna Loy) (“Do you ever think of anything but men?” “Yes, schoolboys.”), chases Maurice at every opportunity. Count de Savignac (Charles Butterworth), Jeanette’s nebbishy suitor, spends hours pouring over geneology books, suspecting there is no noble family named Courtelin. He also arranges to trip up Maurice on the stag hunt by choosing a challenging steed named Thunderbolt for him. Jeanette, appalled to find Maurice at the chateau as her cousin’s guest, says that she has chosen one instead—Solitude. Maurice, encouraged by the name, gladly agrees to it over the deadly sounding Thunderbolt. Unfortunately he learns that Solitude is so named because he always comes home alone. The gag showing the stall where Solitude is kept—danger signs, loud whinnying, and cowering stable hands—is corny, but funny, particularly when we get Maurice’s reaction shot. Another funny sight gag is when the princess, 22 years old and a widow for three years, shows Maurice a photo of her late husband, a comically posed elderly man (Tom Ricketts). The timing of the edit is perfect, and drew a big laugh out of me.
For a pre-Code film, this one’s attempts at suggestiveness are pretty tame. Maurice insults Jeanette’s seamstress for building her a dowdy riding habit. He makes a bet that he can do it better. Then we get to see him remove Jeanette’s unfinished riding jacket and take a tape measure to her every body part. It could have been sexy, but Mamoulian plays it safe. Maurice is all efficiency, and Jeanette doesn’t melt even a little at his ministrations. In fact, Jeanette is pretty stiff throughout this film—including her singing—a portent of what was to come with Nelson Eddy. Seeing her flirty, womanly performance in The Merry Widow was, for me, like seeing an entirely different actress, and again, with Chevalier. Thus, I blame Mamoulian for the tepid romance.
Nonetheless, there’s not too much wrong with this romantic comedy that’s sure to put a smile on your face. The Kino DVD also includes among its extras Chevalier singing his signature song “Louise” with all his cabaret charm.
When the hubby and I came out after seeing Once, he insisted we go to the ticket taker and surrender the half of the ticket the theatre needed; we had taken in a double feature (Away from Her, more on that in the next review) and theatre-hopped at the multiplex. The ticket taker offered to dispose of the entire ticket, but we said we like to keep the stubs. “Movie geeks, huh?” “Yes. She’s a film critic,” the hubby offered. “What did you think of it?” the young man asked. “Loved it!” “You going to review it? I guess it doesn’t need another good review. It’s got lots of those,” he offered.
Well, I’m sorry to say, this film needs all the great reviews it can get. Here it was, opening weekend for the film, Saturday of a holiday weekend, and the movie was not sold out, not even close. WAKE UP, PEOPLE! Change your plans, get off your couches, go see Once. Then buy the DVD.
I can’t remember the last time I felt so thoroughly touched, entertained, and surprised by a film, and at the same time enjoyed a theatre filled with wonderfully memorable music from the opening to the closing credits. As has been said by other reviewers of this film, this is a musical for people who don’t like musicals. It is a musical that takes the creating and performing of songs out of the realm of fantasy and makes it a real endeavor by real people who love what they are doing. That is the central love affair of this film, made completely believable by pairing The Frames’ lead singer/guitarist Glen Hansard with classically trained Czech pianist Markéta Irglová and putting it all under the direction of former Frames member John Carney.
Our two main characters are a young man (Hansard) and woman (Irglová), both unnamed, who live in Dublin, Ireland. The opening scene shows the man playing a beat-up guitar on the street for change. He catches a young punk (Darren Healy) out of the corner of his eye standing near the alley. He’s sure the punk means to rip him off. This scene plays out in such a humorous and realistic way that the film grabs you instantaneously. You say to yourself, “I recognize these people.” At the end of the scene, the man says to the punk that he didn’t have to steal the money; if he’d asked, the man would have given it to him. In a less honest film, this conversation would have made the punk regretful and behave better. In this film, the punk asks him for the money and, backed into a corner, the man gives it to him.
The young man meets the young woman one night when he’s out playing to a mainly empty street. She stops, listens, and tells him how much she likes the song he just sang. “Did you write it?” “Yes,” is his answer. “I see you every day on the street, and you never sing songs like this.” People don’t pay for original material, he says, and then complains that she only gave him ten cents for it. “People pay for songs they know.” She asks him if he has a regular job. Yes, he fixes Hoovers—vacuum cleaners—at his father’s shop. Great, she cries. “I have a broken vacuum. If I bring it tomorrow, will you fix it?” Yes, he says, and they say good night.
In the morning, the woman shows up at his spot on the street with her vacuum cleaner. Begging off repairs for lack of tools, the man agrees to accompany the financially struggling woman to a music store where she is allowed to play their pianos. So, vacuum cleaner in tow like a small, blue dog, they’re about to start their adventure. She plays a fragment for the man. He humorously asks if she wrote it. She laughs. “No, Mendelssohn.” Almost apologetically, he offers, “It’s good.” With slightly sarcastic good humor, she says, “Oh yes, it’s good.” She asks him to play with her. Reluctant at first, he pulls out his notebook of lyrics, gives her musical cues for the song, and they feel their way through the magnificent “Falling Slowly.” The title signals the ties that are being forged between the pair.
After a rocky start, prompted by the man’s invitation to the woman to spend the night with him, the relationship progresses. The woman invites the man to her home in a rundown section of Dublin. He is greeted by a little girl and an older woman—the woman’s daughter and mother (Danuse Kretstova). He’s plunged into a world of another language and bare-bones living that an Irish lad like himself might have endured 20 years ago but that is now foreign territory in an Ireland with a robust economy. He stays for dinner, hears a polite “No, thank you” from the mother to her daughter’s plea that she try to speak English, and watches as three Czech men walk in the unlocked front door to watch the only TV set in the building.
The dramatic elements complement the musical scenes in which the growth of the collaboration between the man and the woman is beautifully realized. For example, the man gives the woman a CD of his songs, including one for which he can’t seem to write lyrics, and asks her to write them. She listens on a portable CD player he gives her that quickly runs out of juice. Breaking into her toddler’s piggy bank with a promise (“I’ll pay you back.”), she goes to the nearest store, reloads with fresh batteries, and writes the lyrics in her head as she walks back home as we are treated to the lovely musical interlude, “If You Want Me.” This is such a brilliantly orchestrated scene, true to real life, true to the creative process, and cinematically coherent.
A conventional musical would have the man and woman fall in love by the final frame. This film doesn’t exactly break that convention, but it puts it in its proper place. The man is still in love with a woman he broke up with when he caught her cheating on him. The woman is married—a marriage resulting from her pregnancy—but her husband is back in the Czech Republic. Nonetheless, the perfect harmony of the creative partnership the pair have forged leads to a kind of love affair, one in which they share their lives, private thoughts, and well of their creativity. One scene in which the woman plays a song she wrote for her husband is a genuinely gut-wrenching experience that left me breathless. The pair helps each other break through the blocks that have put their lives in a holding pattern and gives them a chance to pursue what is really important to them.
Most of the songs in the film were written by Irglová and Hansard, who collaborated previously on Hansard’s solo album “The Swell Season,” from which some of the songs on the soundtrack are taken. Many people consider The Frames—not U2—the great Irish band. I don’t know much about music, but I do know that I love these songs in a way I have never loved the music of U2. The fact that they are paired with a wonderfully realized film by a relative rookie director who clearly always loved movies (one of The Frames’ albums in named “Fitzcarraldo,” after the demented masterpiece about opera by Werner Herzog) makes for a perfect experience.
This film would be a fine double-feature with the wonderful Alan Parker film The Commitments, in which Hansard also plays a street musician. Both give rich views of life in Dublin, with Once updating the scene to include immigrants to Ireland. There is so much to recommend this celebration of music and community that you’ll want to watch Once again and again. l
In 1933, Warner Bros. Pictures provided audiences with three classic movie musicals with almost identical creative teams. The first was 42nd Street, the second was Gold Diggers of 1933, and the third was Footlight Parade. All three films featured Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, the reigning ingenue couple of the 30s; all had dance numbers by Busby Berkeley; and all included memorable music by Harry Warren. But Footlight Parade is by far my favorite, and the most accomplished of the three films. Here’s why.
Although Warner Bros. was the leader in talking pictures and had the first music synched with the images on screen (1927’s sensation The Jazz Singer), MGM was the gold standard in movie musicals. MGM, specifically producer Arthur Freed, understood the importance of weaving music and dancing into a story, a technique epitomized by such MGM gems of the 1930s as TheMerry Widow, Monte Carlo, The Great Ziegfeld, and culminating in the timeless The Wizard of Oz.
Many 1930s Warner Bros. musicals tended to have an odd structure—frontloading the film with a big production number, filling a lengthy middle with a conventional feature film, and ending with a couple more show-stopping production numbers. 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade all fit this format. Part of the reason for this structure had to do with the fact that Busby Berkeley was the director of the musical portions, and there is simply no way a Berkeley production number can have any bearing with reality. They are short films in themselves, and excellent ones at that, particularly in each of these films.
So what’s so different about Footlight Parade? Ruby Keeler’s acting and dancing skills improved measurably from her debut in 42nd Street to her featured, but secondary role in Footlight Parade. Her break-the-floor slapping and tapping took on a little more lightness and precision, and she danced better in combination with other dancers.
While each film has a showbiz theme, Footlight Parade has one that sheds a lot of light on the history of films, and particularly on the adaptation of stage performers to the silver screen. In 42nd Street, we have a standard story about putting on a show in distressed circumstances. Gold Diggers gives us a good idea of the high unemployment during the Depression, particularly among show people, but spends the majority of its time focusing on a flip story of how three showgirls land wealthy husbands. Footlight Parade gives us a context for the production numbers that actually helps make sense of how lavish (though certainly unrealistically so) they are.
The most important difference between the three films, however, is that Footlight Parade stars James Cagney and Joan Blondell. These two wonderful actors—Cagney, a bonafide star, and Blondell, an underrated actress of enormous warmth and appeal—had a history together, beginning on Broadway in the hit play Penny Arcade and continuing to Hollywood, where they reprised their parts in this play in its film version, Sinner’s Holiday (1930). Their chemistry and timing help define and flesh out their characters’ relationship in Footlight Parade of career-driven boss Chester Kent and Nan Prescott, dedicated secretary in love with Kent. Their line readings are never clichéd or throwaway. For example, in this exchange:
Chester Kent: Sometimes I get the feeling you don’t like anybody. Nan Prescott: If you only knew.
We catch Nan’s longing look, which Kent misses, and it’s a real heart-tugger.
The film tells the story of a writer of stage musicals (Kent) who can’t get them produced anymore because audiences have been abandoning the legitimate theatre for the movie theatre. Two producers, Al Frazer (Arthur Hohl) and Silas Gould (Guy Kibbee), take Kent to a nearby movie house and show him that live dance productions called prologues, which show between screenings of the film, satisfy an audience’s craving for live theatre. The prologues, however, are costly to produce. Kent gets an inspiration to create a factory-like setting (inspired, no doubt, by the type of movie factory in which Footlight Parade was made) for the production of prologues. Stock routines could be taught to a unit of dancers and singers and then sent on the road. With numerous units able to fill the demand, success should be assured.
Keeler plays super-efficient production assistant Bea Thorn, dressed as all super-efficient women should be in round, horn-rimmed glasses, matronly clothing, and sensible shoes. Dick Powell is Scott Blair, a new protégé of Si Gould’s wife Harriet (Ruth Donnelly) whom Kent is forced to take on. Fortunately, Scotty can sing. He also inspires Bea to stop being sensible, fall in love, and return to her roots as a hoofer. There are several intrigues, including a romance Kent starts with Vivian (Claire Dodd), a down-and-out gold digger who is staying with Nan; a mole in Kent’s organization who is feeding his ideas to a competitor; and Kent’s mercenary ex-wife (Renee Whitney) returned to claim her share of his good fortune—which he doesn’t have because his partners have been cheating him. The story is told briskly, with sparkling dialogue and equally sparkling stars to speak it. Cagney is having a ball doing what he always loved best—singing and dancing.
And speaking of singing and dancing, feast your eyes on the production numbers. “Honeymoon Hotel” has Keeler and Powell getting married and spending their first night together in a hotel filled with honeymooners. In true precode fashion, the sex is more than alluded to, the women are scantily clad, and Billy Barty, the most successful midget in movies, plays a not-so-innocent child who follows the chorus girls around the corridors. “On a Waterfall” has to be seen to be believed. From a simple stage duet by Keeler and Powell, an entire soundstage full of water slides and an enormous pool emerge. Berkeley’s famous overhead camera shots show the mermaids move into the kaleidoscopic formations for which he was known. The cameras take us underwater, too, for some sexy shots. Clearly, these prologues cannot be justified by the story. Only the magic of movies can present these types of images to a large audience at one time. They simply are their own source of wonder. The final production number, “Shanghai Lil” features my favorite dance by Keeler. Her eccentric tapping style perfectly fits Cagney’s, and they carry this number off beautifully. You can see it here.
Footlight Parade combines screwball comedy’s wisecracking, scattershot dialogue with the psychedelic fever dreams of Busby Berkeley and some of the best actors of the 1930s to produce a film of enduring appeal and subtle social commentary. This film is essential viewing for every film enthusiast.
In my review of I’ll Cry Tomorrow, I mentioned that the 1950s were the heyday of classic women’s films. The ’50s were also the Golden Age of the musical. Gene Kelly was the reigning lord of the dance in these grand entertainments, and several female dancers fluttered around his flame, including Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, and a charming young ballet dancer named Leslie Caron, whose debut in films was starring opposite Kelly in the renowned An American in Paris (1951). Caron went on to star in the popular but tough-minded Lili (1953), her first collaboration with director/choreographer Charles Walters. When MGM decided to film another version of the story of Cinderella, it hoped to strike gold by again teaming Caron, Walters, and screenwriter Helen Deutsch.
I am a big, big fan of musicals, but some of the best ones of the ’50s seemed to have vanished without a trace. Give a Girl a Break (1953), starring Marge and Gower Champion, is one such musical that I recently caught on Turner Classic Movies and have been praising ever since. Now (again courtesy of TCM) I add The Glass Slipper to the list of Golden Age musicals that the public should rediscover.
The Glass Slipper is a fairytale film that, for the most part, provides everyday explanations for the magical occurrences with which we are all familiar. Its most radical departure from fairytale scripture is to make Cinderella a belligerent outcast in her small village rather than a beautiful flower cowering in a corner, waiting for a magical messenger to free her from bondage to her stepmother and stepsisters. When we first meet Ella, she is being taunted by villagers for her filthy appearance with their nickname for her—Cinder-Ella. She sticks her tongue out and in all other ways makes herself as unappealing as possible while proclaiming that it has been prophesied that she will live in the palace one day. She reserves her sweetness only for an organ grinder’s monkey.
When Cinder-Ella returns to her home, she is beset by demands and insults from her stepmother (Elsa Lanchester) and stepsisters Birdena (Amanda Blake) and Serafina (Lisa Daniels). Again, contrary to fairytale convention, the vain stepsisters are beautiful on the outside. Director Walters has his fun, however, by showing a flawless Birdena look into her mirror and bear her teeth like an animal. It is in similarly understated visuals and clever scripting that we grasp the fuller stories of these characters and their potential fates. When Cinder-Ella runs off to be alone in her special place in the woods, narrator Walter Pigdeon cautions like a cousin of Dicken’s Spirit of Christmas Present, how her rebellion will be silenced if she is subjected to a few more years of oppression by her stepfamily and eventually she will be turned to timid servitude for the rest of her unlovely, unloving life. This observation lets us know that we are living in a real world where a “happily ever after” may not be a slam-dunk.
Cinder-Ella meets an eccentric old woman, Mrs. Toquet (Estelle Winwood), at her secret place. Toquet has a reputation in the village as a lunatic who lives in the woods and only comes to the village at night to steal. Even Cinder-Ella has heard the rumors and is wary of her. But Mrs. Toquet offers her friendship and declares that she likes the sound of the word “Cinder-Ella” as much as she does “elbow” and “windowsill”. Along with such nonsense, she offers wisdom to Cinder-Ella, and Cinder-Ella begins to feel less alone. She looks forward to the next day, when she will meet Mrs. Toquet again in the woods.
Prince Charles (Michael Wilding) has his own longing for the woods. He confides to his friend Kovin (Keenan Wynn) that he feels most alive in nature and further confesses a weakness for tragic, weeping women, developed when he saw a 5-year-old girl crying inconsolably in the village over the loss of her mother. Naturally, he meets that girl—Cinder-Ella—at her secret place, and pretends that he is the son of the palace cook to gain her confidence. She pushes him into the pond when she detects that he may be laughing at her. As they watch her run off, Charles tells Kovin that she has “a tender heart half afraid to love.” Despite her fear, Cinder-Ella meets her young man again the next day. He apologizes and presents her with an invitation to the palace ball. When she protests that she doesn’t know how to dance, he teaches her. The prince impulsively kisses Cinder-Ella. That’s it. Cinder-Ella feels energized by what might be the beginnings of love.
Cinder-Ella’s household is all aflutter when rich cousin Loulou comes to visit. Cousin Loulou came by her fortune by seduction, and, the narrator notes, Serafina and Birdena look forward to the day when they can be ruined in just such a profitable manner. Later that evening, Cinder-Ella dutifully helps her stepsisters get ready for the ball, though she is wracked with envy that she cannot go, too, because she lacks the proper attire. After her stepfamily leaves for the ball, she falls asleep, only to be awakened by Mrs. Toquet, who brings her into the garden to show her a wedding cake gown pilfered from cousin Loulou’s house. She helps Cinder-Ella dress, doing her best with the short, jagged hair that Cinder-Ella was left with when she cut her hair in a fit of pique, and sending her into a carriage Mrs. Torquet has arranged for her. The carriage driver’s real customer is attending a party of his own and must be picked up at 1 a.m. So Cinder-Ella must leave the prince’s ball at midnight. This is a clever turn on the usual fairytale explanation for the curfew.
When Cinder-Ella arrives at the palace, she tries repeatedly to escape to the kitchen where she thinks she will find her beloved slaving over a hot stove. Indeed, she has daydreamed him in the kitchen during one of the two ballet sequences in the film. Cinder-Ella becomes the most popular girl at the ball, but none of her ardent dance partners can get her to say a word. Finally, when Charles joins her on the ballroom floor, she is more bewildered and desperate to keep cousin Loulou and her stepfamily from seeing her than she is in rejoicing over her good fortune. At midnight, she flees.
Rumors circulate that the prince intends to marry the bewitching dark-haired girl at the ball, thought to be an Egyptian princess who doesn’t speak the language. Despairing, Cinder-Ella runs away from home, back to her secret place, where Mrs. Toquet appears but fails to comfort her or, indeed, to make any sense at all. Perhaps she is just a daft old kleptomaniac. Cinder-Ella falls asleep, and awakens to Charles telling her he is looking for the foot that will fit the glass slipper left behind at the ball. She says, “I have the other!” It is tied inside her satchel. He fits the glass slipper onto her foot in full view of the villagers. We are told that Mrs. Toquet was indeed her fairy godmother and that they “lived happily ever after.”
This film is wise about human motivation and compassion shown in easily recognizable ways. While we are made to loathe the stepmother and stepsisters, they are not made as ugly on the outside as they are on the inside. The attractive frequently get ahead regardless of their deservedness. Cinder-Ella was on her way to being a friendless freak beyond help, tracking much more closely with the idea that all human beings reach milestones of development that will determine their course in life forever. Even Prince Charles (Charming) falls for Cinder-Ella because he has a certain fetish that originated in his glimpse of her at the age of 5. As I finished watching this film, I thought that the marriage of Cinder-Ella and Charles may well be doomed. Once he gets over the fetish that attracted him, what will he have to say to a girl who is ignorant, probably illiterate, from a vastly different walk of life from his?
It is not inappropriate to ask these questions of a film that posits its fairytale characters as real people and its tricks not as enchantments but as business arrangements. Perhaps this a fatal flaw and one of the reasons this film has sunk below the horizon of the more famous canonical versions. Nonetheless, as an adult, I appreciated the cleverness of this story, its humanity, the artisty of its beautifully rendered sets and costumes, its sweet music and dancing, its strong supporting cast, and finally, the vulnerable, winning performances by Leslie Caron and Michael Wilding. This is one glass slipper that fits adults beautifully. l
If the movies had not had Busby Berkeley, they certainly would have had to invent him. The medium of film was made for visual dazzle, and nobody dazzled them like this spectacle-loving director and choreographer. I can just imagine him as a boy, twisting the end of a toy kaleidoscope he had just received for his birthday, lifting his eye above the spyhole, and visualizing the room around him cracking and tumbling in on itself in gay abandon. Indeed, in The Gang’s All Here, a late entry in Berkeley’s oeuvre and his first film in Technicolor, the final hallucinatory musical number, “The Polka Dot Ballet,” breaks into a kaleidoscopic image that prefigures the psychedelia of the 1960s.
Before we reach this ultimate abstraction of human form, which I will elaborate on later, Berkeley weaves some of the most over-the-top musical routines of his career into his soldier boy-meets-chorus girl story. Alice Faye plays the sweet Edie Allen, who, while doing her patriotic duty dancing with soldiers on leave at the USO canteen, falls for Andy Mason (James Ellison), a sergeant with a fiancee he neglects to tell her about. He ships out the next day and when he returns a hero, his rich father (Eugene Pallette) arranges for the entire floor show from the Club New Yorker—where Edie works—to do a welcome-home show for Andy at the estate of the Potters (Edward Everett Horton and Charlotte Greenwood), the parents of Andy’s fiancee Vivian (Sheila Ryan). Of course, a misunderstanding ensues, but it all comes right in the end. And boy, what an end!
This solid cast, led by the luminous Miss Faye, takes delight in the comic moments that serve as just a bit more than matchbooks fitted under the off-kilter legs of Berkeley’s fever dream. An especially good moment occurs when the wife of straightlaced Peyton Potter reveals herself to be former chorus girl Blossom Murphy upon encountering the director of the nightclub show, Phil Baker, playing himself. They go from the most proper formality to a dance that ends with Potter catching them doing a suggestive dip.
More comic relief is provided on and off the dance floor by Carmen Miranda at her fruity best. Her midriff is bared (but her belly button discreetly hidden by flesh-colored cloth) and her head is piled high with fruits and baubles as she shuffles through a series of forgettable songs. Miranda seems comfortable embodying the stereotypical Latina, whose words never match and whose wardrobe and elbow-high bangle bracelets seem likely to topple her off her skyscraper platform shoes. She is oddly sexless, almost a screaming drag queen. She wears thin fast.
Alice Faye could sing the Federal Register and bring you to an emotional peak. She has three numbers in this film, all forgettable songs made memorable by her delivery, particularly “No Love, No Nothin.” She’s a fabulous movie star whose shine has faded considerably over the years. It’s a shame. She deserves to be better remembered.
But, of course, the screaming star of the show is Berkeley’s choreography. “Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” must boast the largest collection of bananas ever committed to the silver screen. As is typical of Berkeley, why hire 10 dancers when you can have 50, or start a musical number with one organ grinder and monkey, unless you end it with a dozen? In between, put a banana-clad Carmen Miranda among the bevy of chorus girls, have her play a banana xylophone, and finish with her standing in front of a backdrop that shoots an enormous fan of bananas out the top of her head. What could be more obvious?
Believe it or not, “Tutti-Frutti Hat” is a more traditional number for Berkeley. When he reaches the final production number, he passes through the looking glass. He begins with Faye performing “The Polka Dot Polka” among a group of dancing children dressed in polka-dotted clothes. Almost ominously, Faye sings “The polka is gone, but the polka dot lives on.” We then watch the chorus girls slip in and out of neon circles and then move like a synchronized swimming team with gigantic polka dots as props. Berkeley runs their movements in reverse at one point, a favorite trick of musicals directors. Just when we think the acid trip is over, he has the diembodied heads of all the principal actors appear one at a time in the middle of a polka dot singing the movie’s signature love song, “A Journey to a Star,” starting hilariously with the bullfrog voice of Pallette. We learn that Faye and Ellison are together when we see them in the same polka dot at the very end. In this way, Berkeley cleverly avoids the cliched final clinch, while turning the entire cast into his version of the night sky to parallel the song lyrics.
The songs in the film have among the worst lyrics I’ve ever heard. The Benny Goodman Orchestra is featured prominently, and maybe Berkeley thought he was doing Benny a favor by letting him sing a couple of songs. Although I was interested in hearing Goodman’s singing voice, heretofore unknown to me, did he really have to say, “Paducah, Paducah, if you want to, you can rhyme it with bazooka”? He fares a bit better in “Minnie’s in the Money,” and I enjoyed watching the dancers do the jitterbug for all it’s worth.
This movie has a lot of so-bad-they’re-awful moments, but you can’t help but laugh. This is not a good musical, but it is still a must-see. You won’t really believe it until you see it for yourself. l
When Fred Ebb wrote those lyrics for John Kander’s catchy celebration of the immorality of the Jazz Age, “Nowadays,” for the stage musical Chicago, he likely was making an ironic statement about America in the 1970s. I don’t know if his lyrics for that song, “You can even marry Harry/But mess around with Ike,” had anything to do with the landslide victory Richard Nixon, Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower’s Vice President, received in the year the play premiered (1972), but I do know that Kander and Ebb sounded an early warning of the cynicism and lawlessness to come. Their message fell on deaf ears, and their musical was a flop.
In the 1990s, Chicago returned in triumph to stages all over the world, and the film won the Best Picture Oscar for 2002. I wonder sometimes what the success of Chicago today says about us. In 1972, we still thought of ourselves as liberal, warring on poverty, and peacing on war. By the 1990s, bloody war on others was still the rage, and bloodless war on the poor was well underway. Everyone could understand and many aspired to be like Chicago’s greedy, amoral lawyer Billy Flynn. We also had just experienced a media frenzy over a celebrity murder case that would have pushed Velma Kelly’s and Roxie Hart’s headlines out of the papers altogether. This clearly was a musical for our times.
The show opens in a backstage frenzy of nightclub performers getting ready for their acts. One such performer rushes to her dressing room amid questions about where the other half of her sister act is. Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones) answers flatly, “She’s not herself,” and deposits her things, including a gun, in her vanity. She rushes on stage to perform her act alone, amid the writhing chorus boys and girls that Chicago’s choreographer Bob Fosse is known for. At a climactic moment in the dance, Velma transforms into a glamorous blonde. It is Roxie (Rene Zellweger), an aspiring singer and dancer imagining her heart’s desire. Reality intrudes on them both, as furniture salesman Fred Casely (Dominic West) hustles Roxie back to her apartment for the horizontal tango, and the cops come to take Velma away for murdering her two-timing husband and sister.
This opening sets up the structure of the film beautifully. It uses quick cuts to shorthand the story to us and pulse the film with energy, as well as establish a relationship between Velma and Roxie that will fill the frames of this story. The use of music and dance to telegraph fantasies and underlying motivations also is established, undercutting one of the main objections people have to musicals—they can’t believe a story in which people leave the plot to break into song and dance. In Chicago, we don’t have to take these intrusions literally and, therefore, can enjoy the interludes (which, in fact, comprise almost the entire film) without worrying about the logic of them.
A month passes in the wink of an eye. Casely has decided to end things with Roxie and does so in particularly rough fashion. This does not seem to bother Roxie as much as the fact that Casely lied to her about being able to get her into show business. She does what any self-respecting woman in this film does—she plugs him full of lead. After unsuccessfully trying to pin the murder on her doltish husband Amos (John C. Reilly), she arrives at Cook County Jail to take her place among the other women murderers and learn the ropes of self-preservation through self-promotion.
It’s a merry ride Chicago takes us on. Roxie deposes Velma as the flavor of the month and shows her cunning in holding the spotlight for the duration of her incarceration. Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) is a master manipulator, illustrated by the superb “We Both Reached for the Gun” number, in which Roxie is a dummy on ventriloquist Billy’s knee, and in the spin-control cross-examination at Roxie’s trial, “Tap Dance.” The film has a happy ending, if you want to call it that, with our two ladies of larceny making a comeback on the stage of the Chicago Theatre. F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, but our endless fascination with celebrity has proven him wrong.
Rob Marshall’s choice to cast actors with limited or no background in musical productions in the leads was an interesting one. In a story obsessed with celebrity, choosing to cast some of Hollywood’s biggest stars adds to the irony of the story. At the same time, I think that the first-class acting chops of these performers, particularly Zellweger, add depth to the portrayals. The stage production used no realistic scenery and was close to being sung through, which heightens the unreality of the proceedings. The convincing performances of the cast ground this film and add to the power and poignancy it offers.
I’m sorry Marshall chose to cut “Class,” the duet between Velma and Mamma Morton (Queen Latifah), the prison matron/fixer. The deleted scene is on the DVD and deserved to be in the final cut. Who knows why it wasn’t. I also quibble with his decision to cast Christine Baranski as obsequious reporter Mary Sunshine. Baranski is a favorite of mine, but the phoniness of the news coverage would have been better highlighted if he had stuck with the strategy of the stage production and depicted Sunshine as a very masculine-looking drag queen.
Still, Chicago makes few mistakes. It is masterfully crafted and enormously entertaining. And it still manages to throw a pie at the audience and strike them right in the kisser. Grand, isn’t it?