Musical ESP: On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)

January 31, 2017

ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (1970)

From the rubble of the studio system came On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970), a past-life regression musical that was somehow hoped to do Sound of Music-level box office. Vincente Minnelli’s penultimate film was severely recut by Paramount before its release, turning an idiosyncratic film into a nonsensical one, and it soon disappeared from consciousness. It is now one of Minnelli’s film maudits, a cursed film during which Minnelli learned that his wife was leaving him and that his first spouse, Judy Garland, had passed away. Watching it on FilmStruck now under the Icons: Yves Montand theme, I was wowed by Minnelli’s unerring eye for production design that illustrates the manias of his characters, while Barbra Streisand turns in a dynamic performance that ranges from her modern day neurotic to a psychic seductress in Regency-era England. So while there isn’t much music for a musical, and major subplots are ditched halfway through, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (streaming through May 12, 2017) is valuable viewing for admirers of the Streisand or Minnelli arts.

Minnelli was working on a stage version of the story of Mata Hari, which flopped and never made it beyond previews, when Paramount approached him with the idea of adapting On a Clear DayIt was a Broadway musical with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady) and music by Burton Lane. It was nominated for three Tony awards in 1965, but according to Minnelli’s autobiography I Remember it Well, it “hadn’t been a huge success on Broadway.” Not surprising with such a loopy concept, about a college girl with ESP who, when hypnotized by her psychiatrist to help quit smoking, regresses back to her past lives. The doctor ends up falling in love with one of her older selves, while Daisy wishes he would keep his eyes on her in the present.

ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (1970)

It would be Minnelli’s most expensive production to date, with a budget of $10 million, as he had to shift back and forth between period settings and the present. The key was finding the right actress to play the girl, named Daisy Gamble in the film. After Audrey Hepburn turned them down, they landed Streisand, a serendipitous bit of casting. Streisand, as quoted in Mark Griffin’s A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli, thought she was perfect for the part: “I am a bit coarse, a bit low, a bit vulgar, and a bit ignorant. I am also part princess, sophisticate, elegant and controlled.” She had seen the show on Broadway and declared it to be “just heaven,” and that the “two parts are close to my schizophrenic personality. They appeal to the frightened girl and the strong woman in me.”

Though she clashed with William Wyler on the set of Funny Girl, she had no such problems with Minnelli, who had nothing but kind things to say about her in his autobiography: “I listened to what Barbra suggested, and implemented some of her suggestions. I found her creative and bright, and we got along beautifully.” This comfort translates to the screen. The modern day Daisy is bumptious and scatter-brained, honking away with a thick Brooklyn accent. When regressed to her past lives, she turns into the mellifluous and cultured Lady Melinda Winifred Waine Tentrees, a psychic from Regency-era England who is on trial for espionage and treason due to her unnatural psychic gifts. Streisand softens and lengthens her delivery, a performance of flexible chameleonic glee. Streisand is marveling in every second of it, getting to go high and low in the same film.

ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (1970)

The role of skeptical psychiatrist Dr. Marc Chabot was given to Yves Montand, after flirtations with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Richard Harris. He is suitably professorial and befuddled, though he is merely a scratching post for Streisand to scratch.  The film’s second assistant director John Poer recalls a harmonious set, “Streisand was then and is now a prickly person to deal with but not a foolish one. She’s a very intelligent person, and everybody quickly learned that even though she often had opinions about the way things should be done that conflicted with what was going on with the show, she was very often right.”

The movie as it exists today consists of a seres of past life regressions that the doctor performs in his study. He is still too embarrassed to admit that he is fascinated with the possibility of reincarnation, and that he might be falling in love with a centuries-dead past life of Daisy’s. His classroom is minimalist space-age, except for a teak-wood looking desk tucked up on stage – it’s something that could have been a re-purposed game show set. Chabot’s office is warm and seemingly endless, a cavern of books and shag carpeting. These two spaces show off Chabot’s thirst for fame and the academic legitimacy he seeks. Daisy enters the classroom as if she’s in a Laurel & Hardy bit. Chabot is hypnotizing a student on stage, but she passes out instead, and starts enacting the hypnotic suggestions unbeknownst to him. She is profusely apologetic for her hypnotic suggestiveness – she keeps passing out until class is adjourned and she has the whole room rolling with laughter. All she is there for, she tells the doctor, is a trick to quite smoking. She’s hoping hypnosis can set her free and please her fiancé.

But when she sits down for a session, Daisy begins to find hidden items for the doctor and predict when the phone will ring. Expecting that this was some sort of parlor trick, he invites her back, but instead she continues to show immense psychic abilities. It is then that he hypnotizes her and learns of her prolific past lives. The shift to Regency-era England is when the film gets gaudy and gauzy, and Streisand gets to show off her decolletage in Cecil Beaton gowns. These past life regression sequences were heavily edited, and Lady Melinda’s story gets horribly truncated – there is no resolution to her tale of seduction and accused treasonous behavior. Instead the movie abandons that for the concerns of the present day and Daisy’s growing awareness that Dr. Chabot is using her to get to Melinda. It all feels very unfinished, but like a room undergoing renovation, you can construct the final ideal product in your mind, and it is one of strange beauty.

A Poet’s Life: Pyaasa (1957)

January 10, 2017

PYAASA (1957)

Guru Dutt is a tragic figure in Bollywood history, a tremendously talented actor and filmmaker who committed suicide at the age of 39. He was able to direct eight films before his passing, the most famous of which is Pyaasa (1957), an intensely moving melodrama about a struggling poet, Vijay (played by Dutt). It is a movie about failure, as Vijay’s poems are roundly rejected, while his vagabond lifestyle alienates him from his immediate family. Broke and depressed, Vijay wanders the lower depths of the city and finds the first honest people he’s ever met, they just happen to be prostitutes and hucksters. As proper society would rather he disappear, Vijay pursues his art anyway, to destructive and unpredictable consequences. Filmed with a delirious mobility, the camera is always dollying from long distances into huge closeups, the distance between two unrequited lovers closed by the lens. With sinuous, unforgettable music by S.D. Burman and evocatively nihilistic Urdu poetry by Sahir Ludhianvi, FilmStruck is streaming Pyaasa as part of its “Classic Bollywood” package, and if you are looking to start exploring Bollywood cinema, this is a wise place to begin.

Guru Dutt was trained as a dancer before switching to acting, joining the Prabhat studio in 1944 as an actor, choreographer and assistant director. He would eventually set up his own production company, making everything from adventure films to comedies. He began writing what would become Pyaasa soon after the Partition of India in 1947, which was originally titled “Conflict,” and in which Vijay is a painter, not a poet. The script was finished nearly a decade later by Abrar Alvi, when Dutt had the clout to produce it on his own. It opens with Vijay lounging in a meadow, declaiming verse to the natural world around him, at least until a fellow park goer stalks by and kills a bug. His solitary life of solitude and meditation is constantly getting interrupted by these godforsaken humans. This is the bitter Vijay we meet at the beginning, already a failure, with publishers only accepting his book of poems if they can use it as scrap. When Vijay at least gets an officious publisher to hire him as an assistant, it turns out he is married to Vijay’s first love. Meena (Mala Sinha) is stranded in a loveless marriage with Ghosh (Rehman), an opportunistic owner of a book imprint who might be keeping Vijay around just to make him miserable. During his nightly wanders, Vijay runs into Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), a prostitute who has been collecting his poetry unbeknownst to him. All of Vijay’s plans collapse – he loses his job, his family, and all of his savings, forcing him to live on the streets. His poetry is starving him, and Vjiay grows ever more bitter, showing up at a school reunion to sing a dark song about failure, which includes the lines: “I confess I have been crushed by life’s sorrows.”  The indignities pile up until Vijay would rather disappear than endure another day as himself.

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Dutt was an enigmatic, quiet personality, and something of a perfectionist on the set, reportedly trashing two-to-three reels of footage that were already edited, re-casting some parts, and starting over from scratch. Character actor Mehmood recalled how many reshoots Dutt insisted on, “when he himself was acting, he would shoot take after take. He should be in the Guinness Book of World Records for giving retakes.” This was not just some vanity move, however. Dutt was trying to nail down certain moods for each sequence, and his patience gives the film its melancholic pull. Waheeda Rehman explains the reasons for the retakes: “He would not okay a shot if just one actor got it right, he’d make sure we all performed to his satisfaction. If we didn’t understand something, he would enact the whole scene. Because he understood rhythm and music and he understood the film medium very well, he knew how to get us to act in the right way.”

PYAASA (1957)

DP V.K. Murthy, who would execute Dutt’s vision on the set, told Nasreen Munni Kabir (for Guru Dutt: A Life in Cinema) that, “It’s the Indian method of working. We constructed the sets all right, but we conceived the shot on the set.” These are remarkable improvisations which play with different POVs and registers. Waheeda Rehman plays the prostitute Gulabo, who falls for Vijay’s words before doing the same in person. The first time she meets him she is unaware of his identity, but she is still drunk on the power of his poems. So instead she treats him as a john in a bracingly erotic sequence. Rehman follows him through a park, her eyes greedily devouring him in an invitation for her services, the camera following the direction of her gaze at Vijay’s quizzical visage. There are any number of heart-stopping sequences, including a shot inside a nightclub (with a baby crying in the back) where tears run down the camera lens. This is a deeply sad movie with a qualified happy ending, one not originally included. Guru Dutt’s brother Devi recalls: “The end of Pyaasa was changed. He changed the ending because of the way the distributors reacted. They felt the ending was too heavy. The financiers requested, ‘Why don’t you have a happy ending?’ It now has a sort of happier ending.”

That “sort of” is instructive, because Vijay’s character is so profoundly disillusioned in humanity that no ending to that film could feel truly “happy.” Instead, it ends now with something like an exile and identity wipe, anything to escape the grips of the family, friends and community that had driven him to thoughts of suicide. It isn’t explicit, but there is a languorously slow sequence of Vijay walking over a bridge and on to a train depot, both possible sites of self-annihilation. Eventually a train car does bear down on him, to catastrophic consequences. Vijay lives in a reduced state, a martyr to his art, and he departs “to a place from where he shall not need to go any further.”

PYAASA (1957)

Pyaasa was a massive success, and one that Dutt could never replicate. He wrote about his creative isolation in an article entitled “Classics and Cash”:  “In the formula-ridden film world of ours one who ventures to go off the beaten track is condemned with the definition which Matthew Arnold used for Shelley: ‘an angel beating wings in a void.’” Dutt would continue to produce and act, but would only direct one more feature. Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), the first Indian film shot on CinemaScope, was his A Star is Born, a gorgeously doomed tale of an actress’s rise and her director’s fall. It ends with Guru Dutt dead in his director’s chair. He would overdose on sleeping pills five years later.

OPIATE OF THE MASSES: SILK STOCKINGS (1957)

August 9, 2016

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Silk Stockings (1957) is remembered less for what it is than what it represents – the end of the Golden Age of MGM musicals. It was adapted from the last musical Cole Porter wrote for the stage, contains Fred Astaire’s final leading performance, and was director Rouben Mamoulian’s farewell feature film. Viewed outside of that melancholic context, the film is a peppy Cold War burlesque that turns the ideological battle of Communism and capitalism into a decision between cold logic and effortless entertainment (guess what wins). Astaire reunites with his Band Wagon co-star Cyd Charisse to solve East-West relations through dance and expensive undergarments. An enormous hit in its time, it was the highest grossing musical to ever play Radio City Music Hall, but its reputation has suffered since. Silk Stockings deserves a better fate than to be an answer to an end-of-career trivia question, and  Warner Archive is helping by releasing it on Blu-ray. It will also screen on TCM this coming Sunday, August 14th, at 6PM.

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Since 1939 Arthur Freed had run a musical production unit inside MGM that made the studio famous, but at the time of Silk Stockings he was no longer under contract. He formed Arthur Freed Productions, and Silk Stockings was the new entity’s first film, to be distributed by MGM. They had invested in the 1955 Broadway musical of the same name, which had a book by George S. Kaufman, Leueen MacGrath, and Abe Burrows and music by Cole Porter. It was itself based on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 film Ninotchka and Melchior Lengyel’s story that inspired it, pitting Hollywood producer Steve Canfield  (Astaire) against strait-laced Russian commissar Ninotchka (Cyd Charisse). In the film she is sent to Paris to retrieve composer Peter Boroff (Wim Sonneveld), a Russian icon who Canfield is wooing to write the music for his next film, a “loose” adaptation of War and Peace to star Peggy Dayton (a loopy, wonderful Janis Paige). Canfield has to convince the straitlaced Communist to allow Boroff to participate in this capitalist enterprise, and perhaps open her eyes to the pleasures of the decadent Western lifestyle.

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It essentially transposes the high-art/low-art divide of The Band Wagon onto the Cold War. The pretentious Faust opera of The Band Wagon is now the Russian symphony of Boroff’s “Ode to a Tractor”. Both need to bow to the easy spontaneity of Astaire’s more approachable, personable art. There is little difference in the Freed Unit’s conception of high art and Communism, both are depicted as self-obsessed ideologies that ignore pleasure in favor of sterile, elitist thought.

The character of Ninotchka is broken down from a fiercely independent bureaucrat into a silk-stroking, conspicuously consuming wife. The flirtation that leads to this point is awfully entertaining, including her come-ons like: “The arrangement of your features is not entirely repulsive to me.” Ninotchka trades in her mind for more awareness of her body, most spectacularly in a sinuous pas de deux with Canfield during “All Of Me”.

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The Broadway tunes by Cole Porter were deemed “unacceptably vulgar” by the production code and had to be cleaned up for the film, robbing the meta-Hollywood parody “Stereophonic Sound” of the lines: ““If Zanuck’s latest picture were the good old-fashioned kind, / There’d be no one in front to look at Marilyn’s behind.” Porter would pen two new songs exclusive to the feature: “Fated to be Mated” and the fascinatingly lame rock pastiche”The Ritz Roll and Rock”. Freed had the songs, but he had some difficulty convincing Astaire to return to the screen. The debonair actor was concerned he was too old to play a leading man (he was 57, Charisse was 35), and he had never met Mamoulian before. Freed made the unpopular choice of hiring Rouben Mamoulian to direct, who had done groundbreaking work in the musical at the start of his career with the sound collages of Applause (1929) and Love Me Tonight (1932). But those were long ago, and he hadn’t directed for nearly a decade, not since the Mickey Rooney flop Summer Holiday (1948).

July 1957: Film star dancers Fred Astaire (Frederick Austerlitz) (1899 - 1987) and Cyd Charisse (Tula Ellice Finklea/Lily Norwood) as they appear in 'Silk Stockings' which opens at the Empire Theatre on August 1st 1957.

Freed still had enough weight to push his choice through, and Astaire, was initially reluctant until Mamoulian met him in person. Mamoulian told Astaire that (as quoted in Hugh Fordin’s M-G-M’S GREATEST MUSICALS: THE ARTHUR FREED UNIT), “I see all the young actors today on the screen and none of them can match you in charm or romantic appeal. So, for heaven’s sake get off that peg – you’re not too old!”. He also sketched out his vision for the film to the actor, “I think we can introduce a new element-pantomime-in place of extended dialogue. We’ll have high comedy with the three Russian commissars and a love story that is believable and touching.” Astaire was convinced, writing to Freed that, “I’m so pleased with his viewpoints on the picture.” With star, subject, and director locked in, the film was shot entirely in Culver City from November 1956 to January 1957. Astaire’s dances were choreographed by Hermes Pan, the rest of the Broadway show choreographer Eugene Loring.

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One of the “Three Russian commissars” that Mamoulian mentions is Peter Lorre, on the downswing of his career but still a pungent screen presence. His apparatchik has fallen hard for the Western lifestyle, and is a regular customer at the Folies Bergeres, his froggy face lighting up at its mention.  It is remarkable to watch Lorre’s uncanny features and lumpen legs work their way through a musical sequence – with Loring giving him one little joke to work wit – he does the Russian Cossack dance (the squatting kicks) – but only when propped up on two items (tables, chairs, pianos). He goes at it with a deadpan stare and mechanical efficiency, and is hilarious. I would advise keeping your eyes on Lorre in the long shots inside the CinemaScope frame, he’s always reacting, flinching, or rearing.

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Silk Stockings is a bizarre, fascinating, and perversely entertaining, a film where Cyd Charisse belts out the phrase “bourgeois entertainment” during this most bourgeois of entertainments. It presents Charisse at her most cutting and funny when she is at her most anti-capitalist, and at her most beautiful and free when she has caved to the pleasures of the flesh. The only way out is to go into the movies, as one of the loveliest dances, “Fated to be Mated”, which Porter wrote for the film, has Astaire and Charisse twirl through a series of backlot sets. The song title sounds like a threat, but in the dance and in Mamoulian’s framing they are given balanced space on screen. Equality at last, only in the movies, only until the end of the song.

APPASSIONATA: I’VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU (1946)

July 7, 2015

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“The color overshadows the plot.” – Frank Borzage on I’ve Always Loved You (’46)

In 1945 Frank Borzage signed a lavish five-year deal with the penurious Republic Pictures, and it granted him unusual autonomy over his projects.  I’ve Always Loved You was the first film he made for Republic, and he invested it with the full force of his religious romanticism, where love is the one true savior. Limited only by the restraints of the Production Code, the film has the barest of plots, its three main characters floating around each other on a plane of pure feeling, their shifting passions expressed through music and color scheme – it was the only film ever shot in three-strip Technicolor for Republic. Set in and around the classical music world of Carnegie Hall, the most impassioned contact occurs during cross-cutting between separate renditions of Rachmaninoff’s “Second Piano Concerto”. If you give yourself over to it (and you can on the Olive Films Blu-ray, out now), the last act miracle achieves an emotional intensity akin to that of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. French filmmaker and critic  Luc Moullet wrote it was “perhaps Borzage’s masterpiece….The excess of insipidness and sentimentality exceeds all allowable limits and annihilates the power of criticism and reflection, giving way to pure beauty.” In Film Comment, Kent Jones described it as an “extreme film brought to the brink of madness.” Beauty and madness are the son and the Holy Spirit in Borzage’s trinity, in which God is love.

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Republic Pictures was born as a conglomeration of six smaller Poverty Row studios, making money off of adventure serials and quickie B-pictures that cost little and turned modest profits. But as they grew they experimented with A-features, bringing in top talents for a couple of “Premiere” pictures a year, which were budgeted around $1 million. A few years later John Ford (The Quiet Man) and Orson Welles (Macbeth) would sign with studio head Herbert J. Yates. According to Herve Dumont’s biography Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic, Borzage’s five-year contract called for him to make one Premiere picture a year, “conceived in complete artistic freedom”, with a maximum budget of $1.5 million. He would be given his own production unit, with his choice of actors and technicians (he hired Tony Gaudio as DP, whom he last worked with on 1924′s Secrets), while his brother Lew Borzage was named associate producer. The most amazing part of the deal is that Borzage had an opt-out at the end of each year, so Yates had plenty of incentive to keep him happy. The first project Frank Borzage was attached to was the John Wayne Western Dakota, intended to be filmed in three-strip Technicolor. That project was eventually downsized to B&W and was directed by their “Deluxe”($300,000 budgets) filmmaker Joseph Kane.

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Charles Vidor’s A Song to Remember (1945), a biography of Frederic Chopin, was a recent hit for Columbia, so Yates and Borzage settled on a story set in the classical milieu. They also trucked $40,000 to Arthur Rubinstein to curate and play every piano performance heard in the film (he is credited as “The World’s Greatest Pianist”). They chose to adapt a short story by Borden Chase, entitled “Concerto”, first published in 1937 for American magazine. A former Brooklyn cab driver, Chase had written some WWII screenplays (The Fighting Seabees) and would go on to write classic Westerns like Red River (’48), so he was an unlikely chronicler of high culture. But it was personal for Chase, as he based the story on his wife, pianist Leah Keith, who had performed at Carnegie Hall at the age of eight. Borzage hired him to adapt his story into a screenplay – his advice was to “make me cry.” Concerto was the working title of the film late into the production, but in October 1945 Borzage and Yates decided to change it because, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, the majority of exhibitors polled “were afraid the public wouldn’t know what ‘concerto’ means.”

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The story concerns Myra Hassman (Catherine McLeod, plucked from MGM bit players), a beautiful young piano prodigy who is discovered by the revered maestro Leopold Goronoff (Philip Dorn, a pre-WWII star in Germany), who whisks her away from her rural American home to the capitals of Europe with his mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) and assistant Nikolas (a fastidiously hilarious Fritz Feld). Eventually the sexist Goronoff becomes threatened by Hassman’s talent, and humiliates her at her Carnegie Hall debut. She is thrown out of Goronoff’s circle, and she returns home to marry her childhood sweetheart George (William Carter), a sympathetic slab of All-American blonde beef who recognizes that Goronoff – and her professional dreams – will always have a place in her heart. Their daughter Georgette (Vanessa Brown) shows some talent at the keys, and so Myra is thrust back into the classical world, ready for one last duet with Goronoff and a resolution to her divided self.

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The majority of action in the film are men and women standing in rooms and auditoriums either standing next to or caressing a piano. When they are not playing the piano they are eyeing it ravenously. It is the only means of communication – in the film it replaces speech as well as sex. Goronoff is entranced by Myra at an audition after she rejects his suggestion to play Rachmaninoff, and performs Beethoven’s “Appassionata” instead. She wears a light blue frock over a white blouse, her attire blending into the similarly colored wall. Their attraction is never stated, but envisioned as a combative creative union on stage, when at Carnegie Hall Goronoff drowns Myra out with his orchestra. He demands submissiveness, and Myra’s brilliant performance challenges his authority. As critic David Phelps noted to me, there is something of Dracula in Philip Dorn’s florid, hypnotic performance (and in the way Nikolas repeatedly refers to him as “Master” in a Renfield-ian manner). In this initial battle Myra is wearing blossoming pink chiffon against a wall of dark green. She literally stands out, and for one night becomes a star.  But she still yearns for approval, the sequence a series of desperate close-ups of Myra staring at Goronoff, desperate to know what set off this rage. After her split from Goronoff, his mother says of Myra, “her voice is the piano.” Borzage then cuts back and forth between Goronoff performing the Rachmaninoff Concerto on stage with Myra playing the same composition at home, their two renditions blending into one temporary bliss. That is, until George grabs Myra’s hands, and the link is broken. Goronoff is a shadow who only has power through his art, while George is artless but physically present – in the non-professional William Carter’s performance, he’s almost nailed to the ground.

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In the final performance, Myra once again joins Goronoff in the Concerto. Her hair is piled high, setting off her cheekbones, above a pink form-fitting gown. No more girlish chiffon. When Goronoff stares her away, she focuses on her hands or the crowd, communing with the music herself, secure in her own talents for the first time. Goronoff is humbled, and defers to her through his posture and orchestration. The concluding scenes, in which Myra actualizes her pianistic talents and declares her true love are intensely moving. She who could only speak through music, finally finds the words.

THE SHOW MUST GO ON: 42ND STREET (1933)

May 12, 2015

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When sound came to cinema, the musical came along with it. The tremendous box office returns of The Jazz Singer (1927) had producers reeling, and the market was soon flooded with song and dance. But the Depression-era audiences began tuning them out,  preferring the patter of William Powell to the tapping of another chorine. By 1931 the studios had slashed musicals from their slates and were brainstorming what went wrong. In the May 1931 issue of the Motion Picture Herald, Paramount’s Jesse Lasky was optimistic about the future of the genre:

A gradual but inevitable return of music to the screen is predicted by Lasky. He believes the future will bring a sprinkling of operettas, a reasonable number of musical comedies, dramatic pictures with backgrounds of symphony orchestras. Citing the public’s attitude toward musical comedies, he contends that picture audiences were given something before they were prepared for it. “There is merely a need of a little more skillful technique and a better understanding on the part of the public”, explained Lasky. “The public was not prepared for the license of the musical comedy. For years we had trained the public to realism. The stage naturally had a dramatic license which was impossible in pictures. Audiences could not get used to music coming from nowhere on the screen. Nevertheless, musical comedies will come back and the public will become accustomed to that form of entertainment. In the next two or three years they will have forgotten that there ever was any question about musical comedies.”

In 1933 all questions were dropped after the massive success of WB’s 42nd Street, a snappy, streetwise backstage musical that introduced the world to the symmetrical spectacles of Busby Berkeley’s dance choreography. Now out on a sparkling Blu-ray from the Warner Archive, it’s clearer than ever why this was the film that brought the musical back into the spotlight.

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Warner Brothers hitched itself to to the coattails of FDR, and in the publicity for 42nd Street declared the film “A New Deal in Entertainment!”.  The studio pitched their films at the working class, with James Cagney their pugnacious stand-in (he would star in WB’s next musical, Footlight Parade (’33)). These films depicted musicals as acts of labor, as groups of dancers, actors, singers, stagehands and directors worked together to make the show sing. Every character in the movie is looking for work, even the show’s star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) who remarks early on how the Depression has ruined her career. On the opposite end of the class spectrum is “Anytime Annie” (Ginger Rogers), who dresses up as an upper class twit, monocle and all, in order to fool the casting directors into hiring her (they see through her ruse – but cast her anyway).

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Darryl Zanuck was the man who set it in motion. Studio head Harry Warner was still opposed to the musical genre after a series of flops, but Zanuck convinced him to take a chance, and assigned Rian James and James Seymour to adapt Bradford Ropes’ unpublished novel into a screenplay. Daniel Eagan suggests, in America’s Film Legacy, that Zanuck may have “fooled Harry and his other brothers into thinking the film would be a drama without songs and dances.” Whatever his rhetorical tricks, he was able to get the project greenlit. The story was about a director who risks his health to mount an expensive Broadway production. For the role of the hard-driving director Julian Marsh, Zanuck borrowed Warner Baxter from Fox, who had won the Best Actor Oscar in 1930 for In Old Arizona. The rest of the cast was filled out by WB contractees. Marsh’s leading lady Dorothy Brock was played by Bebe Daniels, who grew up on the stage, while the young ingenue role of Peggy Sawyer was given to Ruby Keeler, who was then married to talkie pioneer Al Jolson. Keeler had been offered the lead alongside Jolson in Fox’s Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, but turned it down because Jolson, according to Keeler, “would be worrying about my part as well as his own.” There was no such concern with 42nd Street, which made her a short-term star. Familiar, welcome faces like Guy Kibbee, George Brent and Dick Powell lent their inimitable support.

Julian Marsh is a sick man, but powers through a fraught rehearsal period to get the musical revue “Pretty Lady” into shape for the opening. But when star Dorothy Brock gets into a spat with the producer and source of cash, the whole production grinds to a halt. It’s up to fresh-faced newbie Peggy to step into the leading role, and it’s up to her whether “Pretty Lady” ever gets beyond previews.

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The director was originally intended to be Mervyn LeRoy, but he got ill like Julian Marsh, after exhausting himself on the set of I Am a Fugitive on a Chain Gang (1932).  Lloyd Bacon sat in the director’s chair instead. One of Zanuck’s cost-cutting maneuvers was to split up production – Bacon would handle all the dialogue scenes, while Busby Berkeley would get his own production unit for the musical sequences that would close the film. They worked different days on different stages, but both shared DP Sol Polito. Berkeley was coming off a trio of films choreographing dance numbers for Samuel Goldwyn, but it was at Warner that Berkeley would develop his soon-to-be famous style of overhead shots of abstracted gams moving in patterned unison. His routines in 42nd Street are fairly tame compared to what came later in his career, staying tethered to stage musical reality. Though he and Polito manage to wend a camera through the legs of a throng of lined up models, and in the final “42nd Street” number recreates the fabled NYC block with a cutout skyline and a remarkably realistic apartment block, complete with stabbings.

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The movie was a huge hit, and though it is filled with enthusiasm and sunny can-do spirit, there is an undertone of resignation veined throughout, present in the character of Julian Marsh. In one of the biggest downers in backstage musical history, instead of wrapping up with the triumphant opening night performance, it ends with a slumped over Marsh, sitting half dead on the back stairs, listening as the theater goers praise Peggy and demean him, crediting her with the show’s success. Future entries in the backstage cycle always sync the culmination of backstage romance with the on-stage performance, with both narrative strands uniting in a super-happy climax. But in 42nd Street there’s a disorienting disjunct between on and off stage, admitting that during the Depression hard work might not get you anything.

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT: THE BAND WAGON (1953)

March 3, 2015

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Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse stroll through Central Park together without saying a word. Their silence continues past a bustling outdoor dance floor, but their steps begin to sync in rhythm. Then there is an orchestral swell on the soundtrack, and they twirl individually. It is test of compatibility, a flirtatious movement to see if their bodies can work in unison. Astaire scratches his lip, gauging their chances. Once the melody of “Dancing in the Dark” eases onto the score, though, they move as one organism in a dance of light, joyful communion. It is an expression of love by other means, and, as choreographed by Michael Kidd, is one of the glories of the Hollywood musical.  The Band Wagon (1953) is an overwhelming sensorium of movement and color, and one of the more convincing arguments in justifying Hollywood’s existence. It is finally out on Blu-ray today from Warner Brothers (bundled with KISS ME KATE 3D, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and CALAMITY JANE in a desert island Blu-ray “Musicals Collection”) and the result is a near-flawless transfer of the three-strip Technicolor.

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The Band Wagon was originally a 1931 stage show put on at the New Amsterdam Theater starring Fred Astaire and his sister Adele, with music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Howard Dietz. In 1952 MGM was looking for a new project to assign Vincente Minnelli after he had put nearly a year of pre-production into a musical version of Huckleberry Finn that had just fallen apart (it was to star Dean Stockwell, Danny Kaye and Gene Kelly). So they tried to conjure that old Singin’ in the Rain magic by assigning Betty Comden and Adolph Green to whip together another screenplay around a revue. This time, instead of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, they were to create a narrative around the songs of Schwarz and Dietz. And just as Freed was a producer for MGM while Singin’ in the Rain was made, so Howard Dietz was the studio’s publicity manager when The Band Wagon went into production. They liked to keep things in house.

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Comden recalled that the original Band Wagon, “was a revue in the real sense of the word. There was no plot. There were just some wonderful performers and charming numbers, but it was not a musical that had any kind of linear story that you could base anything on. It was just a revue. Needless to say, we had our work cut out for us.” What they did, in collaboration with Minnelli, was to incorporate the real-life personalities behind the scenes into a boilerplate backstage musical. As Minnelli writes in his autobiography, I Remember it Well, he thought “It would be delicious to base the characters on actual people. Why not base his [Astaire’s] part on the Astaire of a few years back, who’d been in voluntary retirement? Why not develop the situation further by suggesting that fame had passed him by?”

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Astaire plays Tony Hunter, introduced with his trademark top hat and tails going for pennies on the dollar at an auction house. With his career permanently “between movies”, he takes a train back east to New York to hear a pitch from his old friends Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray, respectively), who promise him the lead in a light musical comedy on Broadway. The idea is he would play a children’s writer who makes money cranking out Mickey Spillane-esque pulp on the side. Lester and Lily are thinly veiled stand ins for Comden and Green – the only difference being that Comden and Green were never married. But Lester and Lily are seduced by the theatrical wunderkind of the moment, Jeffrey Cordova (British music hall star Jack Buchanan), who instead tries to turn their comedy into a portentous, inflated version of the Faust legend. Minnelli name drops Orson Welles and George S. Kaufman as the model for Cordova, while Comden and Green place him as a Jose Ferrer clone. In any case, this exaggerated amalgam is a pompous whirling dervish with loads of talent but no common sense.  Hunter is an old-school entertainer put off by Cordova’s airs, and Hunter is equally intimidated by his co-star, the ballet-trained Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse). He’s scared by her pedigree as well as her height. As a hoofer on the silver screen, Hunter never had the time or interest to court highbrow respectability, but now he’s working for it. But when Cordova’s ambitious gambit goes bust, the whole production crew decides to put on Lester and Lily’s original toe-tappin’ revue, in which the performers don’t have to worry about meaning but can just entertain.

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Film theorist Jane Feuer, in her essay “The Self-Reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment”, calls this “the myth of spontaneity”. She writes that “the primary positive quality associated with musical performance is its spontaneous emergence out of a joyous and responsive attitude toward life.” In  The Band Wagon, the Cordova production is depicted as stiff and overdetermined. If fact, we never see a full number from that show – they are always cut short by mechanical malfunction or actor temper tantrums. High art is restrictive and stifling. It is only when Hunter is alone that he can dance naturally, whether coming off the train (“By Myself”), or exploring a Times Square arcade (“A Shine on Your Shoes”) . And it’s only after the “Faust” Band Wagon flops, and Hunter parties with the young cast and crew afterward in a joyous bacchanal of old popular songs, that the pretentious can be overthrown for what the people really want. Which in this case are the phantasmagoric collection of sets and tunes connected with “Triplets”, “New Sun in the Sky”, “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan”, “Louisiana Hayride” and  the angular, knifing Spillane parody “Girl Hunt Ballet.” I don’t know if the people want it, but it’s certainly what I desire. Feuer again:  “The myth of spontaneity operates to make musical performance, which is actually part of culture, appear to be part of nature.”

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Though Feuer intends this as a critique of the conservatism of the Hollywood musical, this is exactly what I value from these extraordinary films. They make the magical look natural, prying open the possibilities of the visible. What is even more remarkable about The Band Wagon is how troubled the production was, in comparison to the ease and joy on-screen. Minnelli was in the process of divorcing Judy Garland. MGM fired director of photography George Folsey halfway through production because of his slow working speed. Oscar Levant had just been released from a mental hospital. Fred Astaire’s wife Phyllis was dying of cancer. Nanette Fabray remembered, “It was a very cold atmosphere.” Dancer James Mitchell recalled, “It wasn’t a pleasant experience, Minnelli kind of trod on Cyd.” Everyone seemed to be taking their annoyances out on everyone else, and yet the end product is near seamless, in which, as the closing number exclaims, “The world is a stage, the stage is a world of entertainment!” It is a lie, but a lie to aspire to.

JOHNNY MERCER GOES HOLLYWOOD: OLD MAN RHYTHM (1935) AND TO BEAT THE BAND (1935)

February 24, 2015

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Johnny Mercer is one of the finest lyricists the United States has ever produced, contributing “Moon River”, “Fools Rush In” and “Days of Wine and Roses” to the Great American Songbook. Before he wrote that string of immortal hits, he tried (and folded) his hand at movie stardom, appearing in some sprightly B musicals for RKO starting in 1935. In the early 1930s Johnny Mercer was just another hard working lyricist, with his steadiest paycheck coming from the Paul Whiteman Orchestra as both writer and singer. He had made a name for himself in 1933 with “Lazybones”, written with Hoagy Carmichael, which attracted the attention of the aging but still popular “Pops” Whiteman. The hope was that Mercer could replace the recently departed Bing Crosby in his touring road show. The Savannah-born Mercer was paired with legendary Texas trombonist Jack Teagarden, and they formed a kind of Southern comedy duo, interpreting Fats Waller and “Harlemania” for the white masses. Their routines were enough to get the attention of Hollywood, and RKO lured him West. Mercer had dreams of contributing songs to major musicals, but he had to prove his mettle in the Bs first. The Warner Archive recently released a DVD of Mercer’s first two silver screen forays, the irresistible college comedy Old Man Rhythm (’35) and morbid farce  To Beat the Band (’35). These cheap B pictures are enlivened by the spectacular talents RKO had at its disposal, including  choreographer Hermes Pan, production designer Van Nest Polglase and director of photography Nicholas Musuraca (Cat People, Out of the Past). They are Bs that look like As, and though none of Mercer’s tunes in these films became standards, there were no duds. Billie Holiday agreed, and would record “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo” and “If You Were Mine” from To Beat the Band later in ’35.

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Johnny Mercer had previously worked with RKO composer Lewis E. Gensler, who was the connection that got Mercer hired at the studio. Mercer was ignominiously assigned to Zion Myers’ production unit, which was the cheapest setup on the lot. Old Man Rhythm was Myers’ first feature as a producer, having just graduated from overseeing the parodic “Dogville” shorts, in which live canines parodied the top box office draws of the day (sample title:  The Dogway Melody). The experienced Edward Ludwig directed, and though he would later make fascinating films with John Wayne at Republic Pictures (like Wake of the Red Witch), there just wasn’t time to do more than shoot as quickly as possible, though he allows his talented collaborators to to go wild (the Hermes Pan dance numbers are uniformly a delight). Eight writers got their hands on the project as it went from treatment to story to script, but the plot couldn’t be simpler. Baby doll magnate John Roberts, Sr. (George Barbier) is concerned about his son Johnny’s (Charles Buddy Rogers) declining grades at University. He’s convinced Johnny’s latest girlfriend Marion (Grace Bradley) is distracting him from his studies, so the senior citizen decides to enroll at his son’s school as a freshman in order to meddle. He wants to break up Johnny and Marion, and re-direct his son’s gaze towards the “good” girl Edith (Barbara Kent).

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Interspersed are six songs with music by Gensler and lyrics by Mercer. Mercer also appears in the film as “Colonel”, a Southern layabout who memorably performs a soft shoe to “Comes the Revolution, Baby”  with Evelyn Poe, followed by the then unknown Betty Grable doing a remarkable en pointe tap routine (Lucille Ball is also credited as “College Girl”, but I didn’t spot her). The movie is an excuse for the musical sequences, and they are effervescent fun. Choreographer Hermes Pan was developing the gliding, naturalistic style he would perfect in the Astaire-Rogers films, and here you can see his preference for displaying the dancers’ full bodies – as opposed to the mechanical breakdown of body parts in Busby Berkeley sequences. Pan biographer John Franceschina (Hermes Pan: The Man who Danced with Fred Astaire) elaborates on anti-Berkeley bias:

On 6 June, Hermes struck another blow against the Busby Berkeley method of staging when he was quoted in Robin Coons’ syndicated column Hollywood Sights and Sounds saying that the showgirl as glamorized by Ziegfeld was virtually useless in a Hollywood chorus. Pan added that he would rather have a homely girl that could dance than a beautiful girl who cannot. “For close-ups, the beautiful dancer gets the call, but beauty without rhythm can spoil a routine more quickly than the one bad apple spoils the barrel.

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The final dance sequence is a complicated number set on the quad, in which paired off dancers wind their way through the fantastical set while sewing up the madcap plot. The Polglase sets imagine college as an isolated resort town, with dorm rooms as massive loft spaces that emerge atop winding staircases. The main quad is an artificial, fantastical bit of twisting turf that could have come from Oz. The kids spend their time roasting weenies and serenading each other under the moonlight, with the only lecture coming from administrator/butler Eric Blore on fleas. After a tremendous bit of slow-motion jitter demonstrating a dog’s reaction to a infestation, and an impassioned plea for understanding their role in the circle of dog life, Blore deadpans, “I’ve been waiting to say this to someone for fifteen years.” Blore is hilariously, defiantly odd throughout the entire film, every scene destabilized by his jowly sarcasm. But when he cuts loose and sings in the opening number, a joyful smile creeps across his face, the kind of fugitive moment the movies are made for.

To Beat the Band is far less memorable, with Hermes Pan no longer on board, and a tiresome Hugh Herbert taking the lead role. Without Pan, the inventive dance routines are replaced with simple nightclub sequences of band performances. And though funny in short bursts as a character actor, Herbert’s shtick as a star, a panoply of neighing exhalations, quickly becomes grating. Herbert plays Hugo Twist, an undesirable bachelor pursuing the lovely young blonde Rowena (Phyllis Brooks). His rich aunt passes away, but in order for him to earn the inheritance, he has to marry a widow. His plan is to convince a suicidal friend of his to marry Rowena and then kill himself. Then Hugo will waltz in, marry the newly widowed Rowena, and get his millions. It is an astonishingly morbid plot for a farce, and would seemingly be impossible to render boring, but this project found a way. Neither director Ben Stoloff or any of the cast can seem to care much for the material, and they just went through the motions to get this B material into theaters on time. Mercer, however, was still intent on carving out a career as a Hollywood lyricist, and he wrote five more songs for the production. The film wrapped in August, but Mercer kept shopping his tunes. In October, Billie Holiday recorded “If You Were Mine” and “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo”, thereby justifying the existence of To Beat the Band.

HOLLYWOOD JAZZ HISTORY: SYNCOPATION (1942)

February 17. 2015

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“The kind of jazz we know is dead. Count me out as a pallbearer.” – Johnny (Jackie Cooper), in Syncopation

Syncopation (1942) tells the history of jazz through the story of two white kids, so its limitations are obvious. But it is a fascinating film for how aware it is of the histories that are being left out. The film acknowledges  the music’s roots in black America, and begins with a pocket history that traces its path from Africa through slavery and the development of jazz that began in Congo Square in New Orleans. A Louis Armstrong avatar, here named Rex (Todd Duncan), seems to be a leading character, his friendship with the jazz-mad white girl Kit (Bonita Granville) the early focus of the story. But his character is essentially erased as it moves along, focusing instead on Kit’s relationship with struggling (white) hot jazz trumpeter Johnny (Jackie Cooper).  Johnny learns from Rex, co-opts his music, and starts the swing music fad. But Johnny is extremely self-conscious about his artistic debt, worrying that what he is doing inches from influence to theft. The film forgives and endorses his actions, but the fact that this doubt is opened up at all is unusual for such seemingly whitewashed material.

The Cohen Media Collection released Syncopation in a beautiful Blu-ray last week, restored in 2K from an archival fine grain 35mm from the Library of Congress. What makes this an essential purchase for jazz fans are the bonus features – classic shorts previously available in muddy prints on YouTube, here now in HD, including Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan (1929), Bundle of Blues (1933), and Symphony in Black (1935, with an appearance by Billie Holliday), as well as shorts featuring Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Hoagy Carmichael, Jack Teagarden and Artie Shaw.

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Director William Dieterle had just completed The Devil and Daniel Webster, which he developed with his own production company, and had distributed by RKO. On Syncopation Dieterle again had a producer credit, indicating some manner of control over the material. A competing project was already underway, with Bing Crosby’s The Birth of the Blues being made at Paramount, directed by former composer Victor Schertzinger. It was a loose biopic of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and was a success after opening in November of 1941, while Syncopation was still shooting. There was a market for pop biopics, it seems, and RKO must have been encouraged by that films returns. Syncopation originated as the story “The Band Played On” by Valentine Davies, who would go on to write and direct The Benny Goodman Story (1956). Dieterle brought on his own people, getting Philip Yordan and Frank Cavett to write the screenplay. Dieterle had seen Yordan’s first play, the off-broadway Any Day Now, and invited him to Hollywood. Yordan would go on to have a remarkable career in Hollywood, writing scripts for The Man From Laramie and The Big Combo, while also agreeing to be a front for many Blacklist-era writers.

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During the scriptwriting process, the German Dieterle would send his scripts for notes to his friend Max Horkheimer, the famed philosopher and sociologist of the Frankfurt School. According to David Jenemann’s Adorno in America, Dieterle sent an early draft of the Syncopation script to Horkheimer, who then passed it along to their mutual friend (and fellow member of the Frankfurt School) Theodor Adorno. Adorno’s comments on the Syncopation script survive, and Jaenemann reports that he wrote, “My private opinion that it will be a flop again because of lack of clarity of music issue. Praise basic idea of advocating jazz in its boldest form.” He argued for further prominence of the Rex character, and that he should win the jazz contest that closes the script (not in the finished film). Adorno was antagonistic to jazz in his published writings, but here pushes the improvisational approach represented by Rex.

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The movie begins with Rex, a poor black trumpet prodigy in  New Orleans sick of learning Bach in school, so runs off with juke joint elder King Jeffries (Rex Stewart, a cornetist for Duke Ellington) instead. While he hits the steamboat circuit, his jazz-mad white friend Kit (Bonita Granville, the first screen Nancy Drew) moves to Chicago, where she is set to marry Paul, the son a family friend. She finds a local white juke joint with the help of struggling musician Johnny (Jackie Cooper), where she introduces them to the New Orleans style of swing. She hooks Johnny up with Rex, who teaches him how to play hot. At this point Rex disappears from the plot, cut out by the antsy RKO editors. It’s clear that Johnny’s anxiety of influence should build to a battle of the bands between Rex and Johnny, one that legitimizes Johnny’s talent — but it never happens. Instead WWI comes and robs Kit of her fiance, and she takes up with Johnny, and they bite and claw their way through the white jazz establishment, battling against the “sweet”, popular stylings of “Ted Browning’s Symphony of Jazz”, a clear swipe at the Paul Whitemans and Guy Lombardos who tried to give jazz classical airs to make it palatable to middle class white America. The film has something to say about passionate, talented white musicians earning their way into the black jazz community, but it’s all left on the editing room floor. The film doesn’t build to anything so much as smash cut to an all-star jazz band chosen by the Saturday Evening Post, said to represent the future of jazz. They are the very talented and very white group of Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Jack Jenny, Gene Krupa, Alvino Rey and Joe Venuti.

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There is a distinct possibility that a much more interesting movie was left in the editing room. Early reviews cite the appearance of Robert Benchley as a kind of narrator (absent from the final cut), and early drafts of the script posit Rex as a competitor to Johnny through the final scene. An early assembly of the film was 146 minutes, and the one released by RKO was 88. This was an A-picture chopped down to programmer status, costing over half a million, but released on a double bill and buried, taking a loss of $87,000. Critics were understandably unkind. At the New York Times Bosley Crowther called it “shoddy, stylized pretense….A bang-up film about early jazz has yet to be made.” While Billboard magazine’s Dick Carter said “it fizzled like a soggy firecracker”, and the stinging closer, “Birth of the Blues was better.” Syncopation was released into theaters on May 22nd, 1942. That month Dizzy Gillespie recorded a solo with Les Hite’s band that did not follow chord changes. At the same time Charlie Parker was playing with Jay McShann’s band, after inventing bebop at after hours clubs across New York City. The music was changing yet again, and Hollywood would have even less of a clue of what to do with it.

SHALL WE DANCE: STEP UP ALL IN

August 12, 2014

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“I wanted to show great dancing and inventive choreography without too much cutting, without chopping it up too much. Good dancing should speak for itself. Watch old Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly movies – a loose head-to-toe shot and very few edits. It’s so restrained and elegant!” -Trish Sie, director of Step Up All In

The durable Step Up franchise released its fifth entry over the weekend, a giddy 3D extravaganza subtitled All In. In these Rob Marshall-marred times, the series is the closest thing we have to the spectacular musicals of the classical era. That is, they hire people who know how to dance…and let them dance. No celebrities here, just kids who can move. Producer Adam Shankman said, “What’s nice about these movies is, they don’t need stars. They just need people who can do everything.”  This keeps costs down and has the added benefit of promoting young talent. Channing Tatum started off his career in the first Step Up, and Summit Entertainment is now placing their bets on Ryan Guzman, a Mexican-American actor who comes from a modeling and MMA background. Guzman adapted his cage fighting agility to the dance floor, and while he may never develop Tatum’s natural charisma, he has effortlessly meshed with the pro hoofers on the set. And the directors have respected their movements. All In was directed by Trish Sie, a dancer and choreographer who has worked for Pilobolus and those OK GO music videos (the lead singer’s her brother). She takes a distanced approach, allowing the performances to take place almost entirely in long master shots, privileging the dancers and the choreography of Dondraco Johnson, Christopher Scott, and Jamal Sims. Sie shows great faith in her dancers and collaborators, as well as the intelligence of her audience. The result is a joyous mix of old-school craft and angular modern dance styles.

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The story is packed with as much incident as a ’30s backstage musical. Guzman returns from the previous Step Up Revolution with his dance crew The Mob. They are struggling to make a living in Los Angeles,  rejected in auditions in increasingly humiliating and racially charged ways (it’s the most diverse cast this side of the Fast and Furious franchise). On their last attempt they are done up in stereotyped Mexican outfits, in sombreros and mariachi garb. The crew wants to give up and move back to Miami, while Guzman is obsessed with “making it” in Hollywood. He sees a way in the VH1 reality show “The Vortex”, a hipper So You Think You Can Dance? hosted by Lady Gaga clone Alexxa Brava (a very funny Izabella Miko). With The Mob departed, he sets out to build a new crew with Step Up series standby Moose (Adam Sevani). This provides an opportunity to gather a bunch of actors from previous iterations, including co-lead Briana Evigan, who returns to the dance floor after her turn in Step Up 2 the Streets (2008). Everyone has a loaded backstory. Evigan is insecure about her bum knee, Guzman alienates his best friend because of his hyper-competitiveness, while they are both dealing with traumatic break-ups. There’s also inadvertent adultery, reality show rigging, and a wordless love story between two dancers who specialize in the robot. The supporting cast is thick with exuberant performances, especially that of “World Class B Boy” Kid David, who plays dance instructor Chad as a hilariously foul mix of Warren William and Pepe le Pew.

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Step Up Revolution had stunningly elaborate set pieces, though it was a slog to get through the exposition in between them. With All In, Trish Sie has scaled everything down to human size, developing natural transitions between plot and performance, and imbuing the characters with an inner life. While Revolution is Busby Berkeley razzle dazzle, All In opts for the naturalism of Astaire and Kelly. One of the more irresistible numbers emerges out of a rehearsal in the dance studio of Moose’s parents. Guzman’s crew is preparing to shoot an audition video for The Vortex, while Chad leads a children’s class at the other half of the room. The routine emerges organically, as Chad joins Guzman’s team, followed by the kids joining in, creating the illusion of spontaneity. The whole film exudes this loose charm, as Sie focuses more on the dancers than the dance: ”  I wanted to lighten things up. I wanted to make a movie about young people and their daily lives – the drive to dance, the realities of how tough that world can be”.

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It is a film of touching sincerity about making ends meet as a member of the creative working class. The thematic arc of the film traces how Guzman learns to accept his failure to become a star, and simply enjoys his art for art’s sake. The inspirational speech before the climactic dance battle is about lowering your economic expectations if you want to pursue a career in the arts. I found it all to be very moving, but it would be all for naught if the dance sequences didn’t deliver. But they do, and in a variety of moods and tones. I was most taken with the pas de deux between Guzman and Evigan at a Las Vegas amusement park, a flirtatious push and pull that twirls around a tea cup ride set to Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step”. In its teasing lightness it reminded me of the sublime Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse “Dancing in the Dark” duet from The Band Wagon. That’s not to say it’s all restrained elegance. There is a whole Frankenstein’s monster routine with electrical bursts, while the finale is a dystopic steampunk routine with twirling fireballs. Sie mostly shoots the latter in a wide low angle, capturing the ecstatic waves of undulating bodies. Shot natively in 3D, the added depth gives background dancers as much of the frame as the leads. It’s an egalitarian musical, and a great one.

ROMA MUSICAL: CARAVAN (1934)

October 22, 2013

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Poaching European talent has always been a popular Hollywood pastime, from Murnau to Lubitsch to Lang. Not every import had such an impact however, as proven by the reception of Caravana lavish 1934 roma musical directed by one Erik Charell.  Charell and his leading lady Lilian Harvey had become a hot commodity after the international success of their German film operetta The Congress Dances (1932). Fox decided to make Caravan a “super-special” with a budget over a million dollars, importing French heartthrob Charles Boyer as the male lead. It was a financial and critical disaster, with the NY Times moaning that it was  “an exceptionally tedious enterprise”.  Charell’s professional career was over – but what a way to go out (Harvey also flamed out in Hollywood after four films). Fully utilizing the emerging mobile camera technology, Caravan is a perpetually moving marvel, pirouetting through the romani like a fellow reveler. The average shot is thirty seven seconds long, so even expository conversations become epic journeys through the cavernous sets – providing an anarchic sense of freedom. Screening as part of MoMA’s “To Save and Project” series of film preservation, Caravan is a major re-discovery.

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Caravan was based on an original story by Melchior Lengyel, a Hungarian writer who later wrote the scenarios for Lubitsch’s Ninotchka and To Be or Not To Be. Clearly hoping to generate some of that Lubitsch magic, Fox packed the creative team with Europeans, from Charell and Lengyel to art director Ernst Stern and composer Werner Richard Heymann. The story is a mistaken identity farce, with shades of Ninotchka, as Countess Wilma (Loretta Young) will inherit her family’s vineyard on her twenty-first birthday – as long as she is married. She has been promised to a dashing young Lieutenant (Phillips Holmes), but instead she grabs fiddling roma Lazi (Boyer) and gets him to sign on the dotted line. After Wilma takes on Roma garb, the Lieutenant falls for her, not realizing it is the Countess.The social structure is set on its head when the Countess marries Lazi, and then invites his whole clan to stay in the mansion. Through an increasingly manic series of reversals, soon the roma people occupy the mansion while the upper crust are out on the street (getting the cops, but still).

In a scene as subversive as The Last Supper sequence in Viridiana, the romani traipse into the marble be-decked mansion and proceed to turn it into their personal nightclub, shocking the waitstaff and sending the Countess’ wedding party guests home in a huff. With respectable civilization ousted, the libidos come unsheathed, hilariously so in the case of the Countess’ beloved governess (Louise Fazenda, a slapstick veteran and a thorough delight here) who makes eyes with a strapping, bare chested lothario. The cast is filled with brilliant character actors, including Fazenda, Eugene Pallette, C. Aubrey Smith, Charley Grapewin and Noah Beery. Pallette’s turn as a bewigged, nigh-criminal roma pops off the screen with its brazen idiosyncracy.

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Charell uses a combination of crane and tracking shots to wend his way through this chaos. In a dream of revolution, armed guards arrive to roust them out, but they too get caught up in the music, and the rousing dance begins again.  Historian Tino Balio supposed he used the proto-Steadicam “Velocilator”, a Fox studio update of the Bell & Howell Rotambulator. The Rotambulator used a central column on a turntable, which could set the camera at any height between eighteen inches and seven feet. The camera could raise on the column for crane-like shots, and hydraulics could be used to control panning and tilting. The Velocilator reduced the weight of the machine, and replaced the column with an angled boom arm that could raise or lower the camera. No Hollywood feature fully explored the capabilities of the moving camera since Paul Fejos’ Lonesome , another European director whose experimentation shortened his career.

Charell was experimenting not just with camera movement though, but with editing in the midst of movement. In elegant flashback sequences, he cuts seamlessly from the present-day Countess and governess’ POV of her master bedroom to the entrance of a little girl – the Countess as a toddler behaving badly. When the camera swings back to the governess, there are tears in her eyes, remembering the days of youth. All this is accomplished without gauzy dissolves or other obvious markers of shifting time. It takes only a few seconds of screen time, but establishes the deep emotional bond between Loretta Young and Fazenda. It’s this offhand mastery that is so striking about the movie – every detail has been thought through to achieve maximum expressiveness.

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Caravan was presented in a print restored by MoMA, but I only saw it because Dave Kehr recommended it at the end of his preview piece on the “To Save and Project” festival. In a bit of serendipity, Mr. Kehr has been hired as the new Adjunct Curator in MoMA’s film department. He told Scott Foundas at Variety that:

“My real concern in the last 10 years has been that, as much as we’ve made progress on the preservation and restoration of films, access to those films has really been slipping away,” Kehr said by phone Monday afternoon. “I hope one of the things I’ll be able to accomplish is to work on that idea, both at the Museum and elsewhere, and explore other ways of getting those films to the public, other kinds of distribution that don’t involve going to a nice auditorium on 53rd Street.”

So while it is difficult to see Caravan today, it sounds like Kehr is eager to get these titles back out into circulation through digital channels, or otherwise. While I will miss my weekly routine of reading his Sunday NY Times DVD column, it sounds like Kehr will be doing even more valuable work at his new position at MoMA.

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