July 17, 2012

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Singin’ In the Rain (1952) is 60 years young in 2012, a birthday which Warner Brothers is celebrating with a dazzlingly remastered Blu-ray that comes out today. Richly textured with popping primary colors, this is the best the film will look outside a screening of a new 35mm print. Last week, the boutique home video distributor Twilight Time released a Blu-ray of Cover Girl (1944), the first film in which Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen were given free rein to choreograph their own dance routines, under the auspices of director Charles Vidor. Licensed from Columbia Pictures, the transfer of this Technicolor film is dark with fluctuating color intensities – Rita Hayworth’s hair doesn’t quite blaze off the screen like it should. That technical quibble aside, these releases are a wonderful excuse to revisit the work of Kelly and Donen, and what struck me this time around was the violence of some of their routines, borne out of a melancholy that would come to the fore in their final collaboration, It’s Always Fair Weather (1955).

Cover Girl was promoted as the first musical to integrate its musical numbers into the plot, arising out of and advancing the story. There are sure to have been predecessors, but this was the biggest hit, and became the most influential. The story is a boiler plate backstage musical, with dancing girl Rita Hayworth rocketing to stardom after winning a magazine cover girl contest, and having to struggle with leaving her nightclub manager Gene Kelly for the bright lights of Broadway. The story arc is a predictable drag, but the film has some incredible compensatory pleasures, from its score to its choreography.

Rita Hayworth’s Svengali Harry Cohn was not enthused with the casting of Gene Kelly and his “tough Irish face”, and Columbia originally wanted to borrow Dennis Morgan from Warners to play the lead. Kelly was slated to appear in Dragon Seed (1944), but when that project was postponed, MGM extended his loan out to Columbia, and movie history was made.

It’s a film of firsts. It was Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin’s first pairing for a film production, writing the future standard “Long Ago and Far Away”. And then there is Kelly and Donen being granted creative control of their routines, a canny move by producer Arthur Schwartz. You can see the duo bursting with inventiveness, eager to break out of the stodgy confines of the story. The most famous is the “Alter Ego” dance routine, in which Kelly confronts his conscience over Hayworth stepping out with another man, dancing a duet with his super-imposed image on the dark studio streets of New York, the rage-filled inverse to the title Singin’ in the Rain softshoe. He chases himself across the street, each mirror-image seeming to pull the string on the other, until the “real” Kelly destroys the superimposed one by smashing his image with a garbage can. Cover Girl doesn’t dare play out the self-destructive impulses this sequence implies.

Singin’ In the Rain is such a contradictory pleasure, a film that parodies the artificiality of film construction, but in turn uses that construction to create one of the most giddily entertaining movies of the period. This is encapsulated in the “You Were Meant for Me” ballad, sung in an abandoned sound stage. We see Kelly arrange the set, flicking on the fill lights and industrial-strength fan, and watch Debbie Reynolds ascend a ladder and arch her back to appropriately catch the artificial wind and rays. But by the end of the sequence, as Jane Feuer wrote in her seminal The Hollywood Musical, “the camera arcs around and comes in for a tighter shot of the couple…reframing to exclude the previously exposed equipment. We regress from an expose of romantic duets to an example of a romantic duet.” I would quibble with her use of “regress”, but there is definitely some sleight-of-hand here, except we have already been shown how the trick works.

This trick also appears in my favorite number in the film, and one of the two original songs (along with “Make ‘Em Laugh”, “Moses Supposes”.The pleasure of the sequence comes out of the seeming sponteneity of their actions, from twirling a tie to using curtains as veils. But of course this sequence was meticulously planned out. It’s hard to make something look this easy. Violently anarchic, this elocution lesson ends up, as in the “Alter Ego” number, with up-ended trash cans and a feeling of ecstatic release. This is pitched in a comic rather than dramatic mode, with Kelly and Donald O’Connor parodying the nasal stuffiness of the teacher by inventing a nonsense rhyme and tap-dancing the room into submission.This introduces another favored Hollywood trope, that of upsetting the apple cart of “high art” with the more spontaneous, communal pleasures of the low arts; in Singin’ in the Rain, it’s vaudeville. This theme is brought to its apex in Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, but it’s present here too, most famously in the opening montage, in which Kelly’s gaseous voice-over about “Dignity, always dignity”, is replaced with the reality of his hoofing it as a vaudevillian and stunt man.

“Alter Ego” allowed Kelly to cut loose without the less schooled dancer Hayworth, and the same is true here, with Kelly paired with the astoundingly athletic O’Connor, and they end up stamping an office table, tapping on a pair of wooden chairs before trashing the room. When Kelly is paired with a classically trained dancer in Cyd Charisse for the “Broadway Melody” routine, it can only be done in a fantasy sequence, so the down-to-earth quality of Kelly’s character is not upset by the delicacy of his sublime work with Charisse. Her impossibly sharp angles and Kelly’s rounded movements melt into an inflammatory erotic reverie, punctuated by those delirium inducing ascending crane shots. It is another privileged moment when Kelly loses his grip, and it is moments like these that make up  It’s Always Fair Weather, in which army buddies reunite and realize their past friendship may have been a sham.  Kelly threatens to finally fall apart completely, but instead he simply loses his audience, and that film signaled the end of the classical Hollywood musical.


January 25, 2011


Two reviled flops from 20th Century Fox have finally made their way to DVD on the brave shoulders of the Shout! Factory label. Charles Grodin adapted and starred in the heist film 11 Harrowhouse after the  success of his turn in The Heartbreak Kid (1972), only to be met with critical and audience indifference. Lucky Lady is the more infamous failure, the product of agent-turned-producer Michael Gruskoff’s ability to game the Hollywood system (both DVDs come out next Tuesday, February 1st.). Formerly the representative for screenwriters Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, he bought the rights to their script for $75,000, and then sold it to Fox for $450,000. An impressive profit over the 10% he previously made from their services. By investing that kind of scratch, Fox had to inflate the story into a blockbuster, signing up Liza Minnelli, Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds to star, and Stanley Donen to direct. It received vitriolic reviews, many noting Gruskoff’s ploy, and failed to make a profit (although Jonathan Rosenbaum indignantly reported in Movie Wars that it came close, with $12,107,000 in rentals, a half-million less than its budget, due to Fox’s forcing theaters to keep it for extended runs if they wanted it at all.)

Despite all of these shady backdoor dealings, I rather enjoyed both of them, the “bumbling and stupid romp” (Pauline Kael, New Yorker) 11 Harrowhouse and the “mirthless trumpery” (John Simon, NY Mag) of Lucky Lady. Seeing them outside the torrent of negative publicity both received upon their initial release, it’s easier to judge them on their own limited but amiable merits.

11 Harrowhouse was based on a novel of the same name by Gerald A. Browne, for which Grodin received the ambiguous “adapted by” credit, while Jeffrey Bloom is named as the screenwriter. It’s unclear how much input he had into Bloom’s script, but it at least indicates his investment in the material. Directing duties were handed to Aram Avakian, who had filmed another comic heist, Cops and Robbers, in 1973. Harrowhouse is deeply marked by Grodin’s laconic personality, delivered through his sarcastic voice-over that coolly belittles the events on-screen. It’s an odd distancing device that was apparently removed from some home video releases, turning it into a more conventional thriller. The new Shout! Factory DVD contains the original voice-over, thankfully, and the video transfer is strong. The original film element shows some wear, and the colors are slightly faded, but it shows nice texture and sharpness, probably the best it could look with the material they had. The only extra is the theatrical trailer.

Grodin plays Howard Chesser, a small-time gem trader hired by business tycoon Clyde Massey (Trevor Howard) to steal an enormous cache of uncut diamonds in London. With the help of his scrappy heiress girlfriend Maren (Candice Bergen) and Watts, their man on the inside (James Mason), they engineer a robbery of Rube Goldberg-esque intricacy. The owner of the fleeced diamond exchange, the fastidious Meecham (John Gielgud), is understandably peeved, and Chesser and Maren try to escape with the jewels and their lives.

The material is not a good fit for Grodin’s deadpan sad sack routine, which is presumably why the caustic voice-over was added. But the narration is so cutting it undermines the usual genre pleasures of the heist film. When Chesser’s voice drops out and the narrative picks up, the jaunty tone disappears and we’re back inside the thriller mechanics, which Avakian runs through at a dulled pace. This tension between tones drains the film of any suspense, as we are now viewing the actions through Chesser’s retrospective disdain. It’s an odd, discomfiting viewing experience, an experiment in POV that implodes its own narrative.

But there is plenty to savor amid the debris (see the grizzled faces above). While Grodin and Bergen both seem cold and affected for their supposedly suave characters, the supporting cast is superb. The three Brits inject reptilian evil (Gielgud), blowhard narcissism (Howard) and a weary nihilism (Mason) into their preciously scant screen time. These are actors who can evoke entire backstories with an inching up of an eyebrow. Mason’s aging diamond appraiser quietly shuffles off with the film, secreting tragedy in the midst of the procedural. Watts has been under the employ of Gielgud’s Meecham and suffered his silent censures, whether dismissive hand waves or a skeptical lip curl, for a lifetime. Mason is a mound of regret, with a slightly haunched back and a slow-motion manner. The way in which he delicately eats a sandwich in a secret meeting with Grodin expresses everything about him – his professionalism and exactitude as well as his fatalism, as  might be the last lunch he ever has. (Reviewers of the time also singled out Mason’s performance, including Kael, Stanley Kaufmann, and the NY Times’ Nora Sayre).

No saving graces were allowed for Stanley Donen’s Lucky Lady:

Pauline Kael: “an agent’s picture – everybody’s rip-off” (compiled in When the Lights Go Down)

Jonathan Rosenbaum: “conspicuously overproduced and under-nourished.” (quoted in Movie Wars)

Vincent Canby: “it’s ridiculous without the compensation of being funny or fun.” (NY Times)

The ever-misogynistic John Simon:  “As for Miss Minnelli, she is herself a perfect menage a trois in which lack of talent, lack of looks, and lack of a speaking voice co-habit blissfully. Donen sensibly concentrates on her best feature, her legs, but he unfortunately can’t wrap them around her face.” (New York Magazine, Dec. 29th, 1975)

And yet, I found it companionable and amusing, despite the vaseline-gauzed cinematography and the cramped framings necessitated by shooting everything on real boats at sea (it is, in terms of press, the Waterworld of its time). According to one of the two promotional shorts included on the DVD, the production took “a full year to make”, because of the stars’ schedules and the endless problems of shooting on rocking vintage boats. Fox also required re-shoots to include a happy ending (as Joe Baltake outlines here). But as important as production history is to criticism, it is no substitute, and I found Donen’s disaster to be a rather fleet and funny (albeit over-designed) vehicle that teased out the idiosyncracies of his actors.

Liza Minnelli (as Claire, a flapper), Burt Reynolds (as Walker, the dandy) and Gene Hackman (as Kibby, the hobo wiseacre) start up a rum-running business during Prohibition, running their boats up from Mexico. This cuts into the mob’s market, and soon they’re in a shooting war over territory.

The script is slangy and self-conscious without being arch, a pastiche of Jazz Age argot that the actors are able to thrum to life. The set-design is overstuffed art-deco, suffocating the already cramped spaces Donen has to work in, and the decision to use heavy soft-focus filters throughout the film is a failed attempt to go nostalgic, ladling every image over with a soupy haze (the DP was Geoffrey Unsworth, who also shot Liza in Cabaret).

In and around these production snafus the actors excel. Minnelli, the critics punching bag, is quite touching here as the dizzy dame love interest of both leads. Minnelli plays Claire, the intended bombshell, more like an antic Jean Arthur than the Harlow clearly intended. She’s the feather boa-clad ball of energy bouncing off the deft comic work of Burt Reynolds, who exhibits his flair for self-deprecating slapstick (Another bizarre John Simon sidebar, on Reynolds:  “[his] face looks like an armored car made, inexplicably, out of meat.” If someone can parse this, please let me know). Hackman has the knockabout trickster role, the gruff kind of asshole he could play in his rum-induced sleep. Together they form an improbably fun trio, and form one of the few successful polyamorous relationships on film.

The DVD of Lucky Lady is a fine anamorphic presentation, the soft image resulting from the original material (it’s remarked upon in the original reviews). The two vintage featurettes feature interviews with the cast and crew, and there are three theatrical and TV trailers.


November 9, 2010


The Film Society at Lincoln Center is wrapping up its superb Stanley Donen retrospective this week, and beyond the established masterpieces like Singin’ In the Rain lie charming curiosities like 1978′s Movie Movie. I missed the screening, but fortunately it is available to purchase from Amazon On Demand for $9.99. Structured like a 1930s Warner Bros. double bill (the on-screen production company is “Warren Brothers”), it pairs two hour-long features: the boxing melodrama “Dynamite Hands” and the backstage musical “Baxter’s Beauties of 1933″. Scripted with loving exaggeration by Larry Gelbart (still cranking out MASH episodes at the time) and Sheldon Keller (a veteran TV writer who started with Sid Ceasar), it’s both a parody of and an homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Complete with faux flyboy trailer for “Zero Hour” (“War at its best!”), it’s a similarly nostalgia-soaked recreation of past movie-going experiences as Grindhouse, with an equally poor reception at the box office.

It received generally positive reviews at the time, from Richard Schickel at Time Magazine (“an expert send up”), Pauline Kael at The New Yorker (“a pair of skillful parodies”), Vincent Canby at the NY Times(“sweet, hilarious and very witty”) and Dave Kehr at the Chicago Reader (“clever, insightful and genuinely funny”). The only negative response I could find is from Variety (“a flatout embarrassment”). But after its limited release in November of 1978, it disappeared from cultural memory, existing as a marginal cult item (the VHS is selling for $55 on Amazon, and good luck finding any images on-line). But as with Quentin Tarantino’s vastly underrated Death ProofMovie Movie is ripe for re-evaluation.

The actors, led by a mis-cast but game George C. Scott, play everything with earnest intensity. There is no eye-winking to stifle the comedy. “Dynamite Hands” has Scott portraying grizzled boxing coach Gloves Malloy, who targets wide eyed, pretty boy slum kid Joey Popchik (Harry Hamlin) as his next star. Luckily for Gloves, Joey’s sister Angie needs $25,000 for eye surgery (Joey: “You know what they charge for an eye? An arm and a leg”), and the plot machinery clangs wondrously into motion. Subplots proliferate, including the schemes of a shady promoter (Eli Wallach) and the designs a mobbed up Barry Bostwick has on Angie. It even finds time to morph into a rapid fire courtroom drama. It combines and amplifies every cliche in the genre’s life, since The Champ kicked it off in 1931.

The dialogue is the star, a barrage of contorted working class argot, producing winners like, “Funny, isn’t it? How many times your guts can get a slap in the face.” Many of these, wrung out by Hamlin with an angelic straight face, wouldn’t seem out of place in a Zucker Brothers comedy – Leslie Nielson could wring similar effects from the lovingly absurd script. Another gem comes from the femme fatale, Troubles Moran (Ann Reinking, a dancer making her debut here, she appeared in All That Jazz the following year): “Joey, after a girl’s had a taste of mink, she can’t go back to pastrami.” Words to live by.

Donen pushes the pace relentlessly to mimic these Warner quickies, and is very sparing with close-ups, keeping the camera at the waist-up  distance favored by classical practitioners. It’s questionable whether his use of zoom-ins are truly authentic for the period he’s aping, but the effect is hoky enough, along with the irises in and out, to fit the overall light comic tone.

The “Zero Hour” trailer is a delirious bit of WWI propaganda, with George C. Scott’s heavily waxed moustache playing power games with Eli Wallach, as Art Carney’s “priest with a heart” gives bad advice at home.

Then the segue into a Busby Berkeley-esque backstage musical, 42nd St. spliced with Gold Diggers of 1933. Barry Bostwick plays the Dick Powell role with what Kael called Powell’s “candied yam cheerfulness”, and Rebecca York takes on the small-town aw shucks innocence of the Ruby Keeler part. Scott plays the Warner Baxter role of overtaxed, death courting director Spatz Baxter, a flamboyant character not really in his macho wheelhouse, but his caked on makeup carries him through. Art Carney’s doctor tells Baxter that he has “6 months to live…from your last visit 5 months ago.” Wanting one last hit to guarantee a future for his estranged daughter, he employs a promising unknown to write a score: Bostwick’s gangly klutz Dick Cummings. Replete with showgirls in undergarments, last minute catastrophes and a drunken, difficult lead actress, it has all the hallmarks of those snappy Busby Berkeley classics.

Bostwick does a fine bumbling job as Cummings, a slapstick version of the Powell character, all arms and legs careening through the frames. His voice isn’t as sturdy and true as Powell’s, but he makes up for it in pratfalling intensity. Troubles Moran gets a mini-nightclub number in “Dynamite Hands”, but Donen really cuts loose in the finale of “Baxter’s Beauties”, in which him and the great choreographer Michael Kidd (whom he worked with on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)) and DP Bruce Surtees do their version of a Berkeley routine, complete with a birds-eye view of a human roulette wheel. They bring back the impossible spaces of his routines, sets which could not fit on a stage and perspectives that audiences could never see. The cut-ins to the programs, supposed to connect one back to reality, only go to show how spectacularly unrealistic the dance sequences are. And in this, Donen and Surtees honor their subject admirably: an energetic erotic spectacle that any Depression-era viewer would gladly plunk down their money for.

For a negative take on the film, David Cairns wrote a straight up pan for his great Shadowplay blog.