Sunday, November 29, 2009
Well November is coming to an end and with it comes an end to my month long celebration of the movie musical. I have discussed a lot of great films in the past month and hopefully introduced readers to movies they hadn't seen before and mentioned movie stars you never heard of. That's the whole point of this blog. To try to inform readers of the great films from Hollywood's past. Back in the days when movies were actually entertaining and not the waste of time modern cinema so often is.
For those of you that like good old fashion entertainment "Hollywood Revue of 1929" (1929) is going to turn out to be a true treat. The film actually has no story, it is literally a revue. There is lots of singing and dancing and humor. The film is just a collection of sketches spotlighting a major MGM star. It is believed every major star under contract with MGM appears in this movie with the exception of Greta Garbo and Lon Chaney. Though Chaney is mentioned. The stars we do see are; Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, Joan Crawford, Jack Benny, Conrad Nagel, Lionel Barrymore, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Charles King, Cliff Edwards and Marion Davies among others. It is an all-star cast.
The appeal of the movie will rest on how many of those names you know. If you aren't familiar with these movie stars, you're probably not going to enjoy this, unless, of course, you are anxious to learn about great cinema. If you are familiar with these stars then "Hollywood Revue of 1929" becomes movie Heaven. A terrific treat for any true movie buff.
In the film Jack Benny (making his screen debut) and Conrad Nagel are both Master of Ceremonies for the revue we are watching. Everyone performs on a stage, which is where the entire film takes place. The camera usually keeps a distance so it can keep the stage and the performers in frame. Giving us a theatre experience.
There are a few innovative techniques on display. There is some trick photography but by today's standards they seem rather primitive. However, in 1929 I'm willing to bet the film impressed audiences. "Hollywood Revue of 1929" was in some ways a follow-up to MGM's first all talking picture, the Best Picture Oscar winner, "The Broadway Melody of 1929" (1929), which I have included in my Masterpiece Film Series. The actors even directly mention that movie as the three leading stars appear in this movie as well; Charles King, Bessie Love and Anita Page.
Because this is one of the first talkies, the movie has some fun with sound and the invention of the new genre; the musical. One humorous skit deals with King making fun of Nagel, telling him actors like him are finished now that King is around and the musical a big hit. King informs Nagel that acting is not enough. The romantic lead now has to be able to sing and woo the female with his voice. Nagel tells King he should watch what he says as he calls Anita Page onto the stage and sings to her the same song King sang to her in "Broadway Melody", "You Were Meant For Me". To King's surprise Nagel does a great job.
Other humors moments come from Benny, going over his routines between acts and when introducing them. While other comics like Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy are able to perform. "The boys" play a couple of magicians who manage to screw up their act in various ways. One trick will involve Oliver making an egg appear out of nowhere, but when he grows frustrated with Stan, he kicks him from behind, thus cracking the egg in Stan's back pocket. They also managed to ruin their trick to make a cake disappear.
Keaton on the other hand does his skit in drag, pretending to be a princess of the sea who is released from a pearl. He attempts to do a seductive dance.
And finally Norma Shearer and John Gilbert are on a movie set filming an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet with Lionel Barrymore directing. However the movie studio demands the language be updated since people have a hard time understanding Shakespeare's words. So Gilbert and Shearer do the famous balcony scene in 1920s slang. It is a clever idea.
Some of the memorable musical numbers involve Cliff Edwards, who gets a lot of screen time. He is sadly forgotten now, but, he appeared in several comedies, including some of Keaton's early talking comedies. He might be best know as the voice of Jiminy Cricket. He was a very good singer. Here he sings "Singin' in the Rain" and "Nobody But You". The "Singin' in the Rain" number is an absolute highlight and to me, remains the definitive version of the song and that includes Gene Kelly's rendition. It is one of my all time favorite musical numbers.
Joan Crawford shows off her singing and dancing skills in an opening number, "Gotta Feelin' For You". While Charles King sings "Your Mother and Mine" and "You Were Meant For Me".
But these are the highlights of the movie. Sadly not every routine is memorable. Many could have been completely eliminated. As much as I love Marion Davies her dance number is a complete waste of time. It isn't fun to watch and doesn't show off Davies great comedic skills. Marie Dressler was never really a favorite of mine. She does her usually shtick, which I can take or leave. A bizarre musical number involves Lon Chaney (who does not make an appearance) called "Lon Chaney Is Gonna Get You". It makes no sense at all. It is one of the low points of the movie.
But for every low point there are enough high points to make the film well worth watching. Film buffs should take great delight in being able to see all these stars in one movie together. Where else could you see such talent together? And imagine how much better the movie might have been if it had a story. Still, you cannot deny the great charm the movie has.
The movie was directed by Charles Reisner. I have reviewed one of his movies already, "Chasing Rainbows" (1930), which was his follow-up film, which also starred Jack Benny, Charles King and Bessie Love. Reisner also directed the Abbott & Costello comedy "Lost in Harlem" (1944). He is not very well remembered today and nothing in any of his movies really suggest a major directing force like Clarence Brown or King Vidor.
The movie was nominated for one Oscar, "Best Picture". I don't think this is a great movie but it does have certain pleasure which audiences should take delight in. I love a lot of the comedy sequences. It is great seeing Laurel & Hardy and Jack Benny and I love hearing Cliff Edwards sing.
I don't know if many of today's younger movie fans are going to enjoy this but for some classic movie buffs "Hollywood Revue of 1929" is a real winner and puts on one entertaining show.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
*** 1\2 (out of ****)
There are moments when watching "Red Cliff" (2009) I felt I was in the presence of an epic, grand-scale master-piece. It has some of the best and most beautiful visuals I have seen all year. It has several amazing fighting sequences, probably the best I've seen this year as well. Yet, somehow "Red Cliff", a film which I greatly looked forward to seeing, managed to feel a bit like a let down to me.
The film was directed by John Woo. It is his first film in Chinese in more than a decade, his last was "Hard-Boiled" (1992), perhaps one of his most popular films. I must admit I've never really thought very highly of Mr. Woo. Back in the 90s, when he started making American Hollywood films, there was a time he was all the rage. Many Americans had never seen his ultra-violent, highly stylized action films, but he hit the mainstream in a big way with blockbusters like "Face/Off" (1997), "Broken Arrow" (1996) and "Mission:Impossible II" (2000). And it is these films which I have seen by Mr. Woo.
At the time when "M:I 2" was released I wrote about it on amazon.com and said I don't find Mr. Woo to be a great director. I feel he is more of a choreographer, who can set-up some nice action sequences, stealing or borrowing, if you prefer, the old Sam Peckinpah device of slow motion violence. But his films usually leave me cold. And that is the major problem, in fact it is the only one, I have with "Red Cliff".
In some regards "Red Cliff" belongs in a class with the work of Zhang Yimou and his martial art films such as "Hero" (2003), "House of Flying Daggers" (2004) and the vastly underrated "The Curse of the Golden Flower" (2006) as well as Chen Kaige's "The Emperor & the Assassin" (1999) and the film which seemed to have opened Americans' eyes to this genre, Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000). Each one of those movies I would argue is a masterpiece. Nearly every single one of them made my "Top Ten" list in their respected years. But Mr. Woo doesn't have their sensitivity. Mr. Woo seems to feel the center of his story is the action sequences, I feel it should have been the characters. I left the theatre wanting to know more about these characters. I never felt I really knew who they are. In the other films I have mentioned the stories where also about historical events, "Red Cliff" is about the Three Kingdoms, but they focused on the people and drama. Many people, for instance, went on and on about the action sequences in Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers", but, for me, it was the relationship between the characters which made the film work. The drama is what kept me interested. The fighting scenes were an added bonus.
In "Red Cliff" the best scenes for me where the non-fighting ones. I enjoyed the scenes where the characters speak and plan out strategies or some of the more tender moments between the warriors and their wives. These scenes help us attempt to understand who these men are. It makes the film richer if it paints a portrait of the characters and why we should follow their story.
Of course, I suppose not all of this is Mr. Woo's fault. I should inform readers that in China "Red Cliff" was originally a five hour epic. It has been divided into two parts. In America we have been given a condensed version which combines these two parts into a 2.5 hour film. Of course this is not fair to Mr. Woo and not fair to us. We deserve to see Mr. Woo's vision as he intended audiences to see it. If the film was truly good I don't think audiences would mind sitting through it. I personally enjoy Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny & Alexander" (1983) which also runs five hours (though originally released in a three hour version) or his "Scenes From A Marriage" (1974) and what about the more recent "Best of Youth" (2005)? These movies are generally considered masterpieces by those that have seen them. Does the running time scare off some viewers? I'm sure it does. But these films probably wouldn't appeal to those people in the first place. The U.S. distributors have done us a great dis-service. All one can hope for is a proper DVD release when we can finally see Mr. Woo's film as he envisioned.
As the film stands now it follows Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi). A diabolical, ego-maniac, who has more control than the Emperor. Cao Cao has persuaded the Emperor into allowing him to lead a army against Zhou Yu (Tong Leung) and Liu Bei (Yong You), whom he has labeled as "rebels". Cao Cao wants to reach the Red Cliff with his army which vastly outnumbers Yu and Bei.
In some ways "Red Cliff" is like watching a chess game. These two men, Cao and Yu, are so skilled at the art of war that they can actually predict what their opponents next move will be. Rarely have I seen a movie so intelligent. These characters actually have brains and use them. You get the feeling the plot does not dictate them but rather they dictate the plot.
The best moments in the film deal with Yu and his wife, Xiao Qiao (Chiling Lin). She has studied the art of tea. We see a couple in love and with an equal understanding. They both have a voice and express their feelings. The movie tries to draw a link between the preparation of making art and the battle scenes. Both involve discipline and an understanding of nature and the elements.
Still there aren't enough of these moments in this U.S. version. The movie nearly wore me out with all the sword fighting sequences. I actually forgot why these people are fighting in the first place. The movie throws a lot of characters at us and once in a while I forgot who was who. This reminded me of a negative review Roger Ebert wrote for Chen Kaige's "Temptress Moon" (1997). Ebert observed "Temptress Moon" was a "hard movie to follow" because of all the characters and continued to write the movie was "so hard, that at some point you may be tempted to abandon the effort and simply enjoy the elegant visuals." Ebert, like many critics and some of the public refuse to give Kaige his due credit and refuse to acknowledge he has made anything worth while since "Farewell My Concubine" (1993). By the way, both films are masterpieces and you should see them.
However back to "Red Cliff", I almost felt the same way watching "Red Cliff" as Ebert did watching "Moon". It's not so much that the film is hard to follow, but, rather, is doesn't seem to be doing enough. As I have said before, in this U.S. version the main emphasis is the fighting. That is the primary point of focus.
Still should audiences even bother with this condensed version? I suppose so. The visuals are breathtaking and the action sequences are impressive. It may be the most pleasure I've had watching a Woo film. And because it has been such a pathetic, worthless year for movies, it does stand as one of the better ones I have seen this year. I'd love to see what Woo originally intended but until that time, whether we like it or not, this version will have to do.
Monday, November 23, 2009
I thought maybe we should take a break from all that singing and dancing. So today I'm going to write about a pure comedy.
One of the great things for me as a movie buff is to discover new things. To find out about new movies and movie stars. At the very top of my list is discovering new comedies and comics. As I have said before comedy is my favorite genre. I'm always interested in informing readers about the "forgotten" comics and that is where the comedy team Olsen & Johnson come in.
I have written twice before about this team. I reviewed their film "50 Million Frenchmen" (1931) and perhaps their most popular comedy, based on a smash hit stage play, "Hellzapoppin'" (1941). I am fairly unfamiliar with the team. I have not seen as many comedies with them as I have say Wheeler & Woolsey, Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello, whom Olsen & Johnson are sometimes compared to.
"All Over Town" (1937) feels like the start of something big. It seems to be a typical, broad, outrageous comedy which they became known for. Their style of humor was called "nut" humor. They thrived on chaos. Their pictures had gunfight, chase scenes, puns and physical humor. This film has nearly all of those elements. In many ways you can compare the film to "Hellzapoppin'". "All Over Town" was made one year before the team went on stage with "Hellzapoppin'" so I honestly wouldn't be surprised if this was some sort of inspiration.
In "All Over Town" the boys are a struggling vaudeville team trying to push a new act which involves a musical seal. They try to get a job at the Eldridge Theatre, but, find out the theatre has been abandon for years. There hasn't been a show produced there in two years, ever since a performer died in the theatre. Now people believe it is haunted.
This part of the movie resembles another Olsen & Johnson comedy made later in their career called "Ghost Catchers" (1944) which has them inside a haunted house.
As "All Over Town" continues a misunderstanding lands the team in hot water. It is falsely believed Olsen & Johnson have come into a million dollars. This isn't true. The boys have come into money, but only to the amount of $150. When a struggling composer approaches them with an idea for a musical program for their seal to star in the boys agree. But the composer, Don Fletcher (Harry Stockwell) only wants to involved them since he thinks they can back the play. And they agree to premier it at the Eldridge Theatre, which is run by Joan Eldridge (Mary Howard), who is in financial trouble and in debt to Mr. Bailey (Eddie Kane). So a lot is riding on the show.
To make a long story short, the boys have to come clean and admit there has been a misunderstanding. They never told any one they had a million dollars. But soon there is a murder, Bailey is found dead. Who killed him? Could it have been Olsen & Johnson's seal, which has been trained to shoot a gun? That's what the boys think.
In order to try and turn a bad situation into something good Olsen & Johnson try to convince a radio sponsor, Mr. MacDougal (James Finlayson) into putting up money for their show, on which they promise to reveal who the killer is, despite the fact, they have no clue who it is.
If you've never seen "Hellzapoppin'" that film had the boys trying to produce a movie version of their stage play. Here they are trying to produce a radio program. "All Over Town" though has more of a plot. "Hellzapoppin'" really had no story. It simply went from joke to joke. In some ways I felt that hurt the movie a little. Both are funny and worth seeing but because "All Over Town" has more of a plot I think it is a bit more involving. But don't kid yourself neither film has a great story. My own feeling however is that comedy doesn't really need a great story. Just a mildly interesting one. As long as it has funny jokes the picture will succeed. All viewers expect when walking into a comedy is laughs. "All Over Town" has some funny moments.
Those moments concern a musical duet between Olsen and Johnson. The team in reality got their start on vaudeville as a musical act with Olsen on the violin and Johnson on the piano. I wonder if their stage act was similar to what we see in the movie. Think if Chico Marx and Jack Benny had gotten together. That is what we have here.
Another good routine deals with an almost Abbott & Costello wordplay as Olsen attempts to convince Johnson into pretending he was the one who killed Bailey. But Johnson is unable to properly repeat what Olsen tells him to say.
And finally the ending has the insanity we have come to expect from the team. It is a cops & robbers chase scene but done to Olsen & Johnson doing a play-by-play of the action as if it was a sporting event.
Also spot the boys attempt to recreate one of Buster Keaton's most famous visual gags from his comedy "Steamboat Bill Jr." (1928). Here Olsen & Johnson are standing in front of stage prop of a house. The front exterior of it falls forward as the boys are standing in the position where the open windows are. It isn't as cleverly executed here because it happens too fast and doesn't allow enough set-up.
Classic movie fans should keep their eyes open and spot famous character actors in supporting roles such as Franklin Pangborn, James Finlayson, best known for working with Laurel & Hardy, Fred Kelsey as an inspector, he too worked with Laurel & Hardy, and Stanley Fields, who once again appeared with Laurel & Hardy as well as Wheeler & Woolsey.
The film was directed by James W. Horne. He directed one of my favorite Laurel & Hardy comedies "Way Out West" (1937) which I have included in my "Masterpiece Film Series". He also directed the boys in "Bohemian Girl" (1936). But "All Over Town" doesn't feel like a director was involved. I'm starting to think directors had very little input into an Olsen & Johnson vehicle. Each film looks pretty much the same even though different directors were behind the camera. And unlike say Wheeler & Woolsey, no big name directors seem to have worked with them. George Stevens for instance directed two comedies with Wheeler & Woolsey.
I think I'm starting to become a bigger fan of Olsen & Johnson than I am of Wheeler & Woolsey though. Olsen & Johnson have better defined characters and simply make me laugh more. I go in for their style of humor more. I wouldn't say "All Over Town" is a great comedy but it is a light and pleasant diversion. It is only 60 minutes so it moves pretty quick. If you've never seen an Olsen & Johnson comedy this might be a good introduction. I think when they have more of a story the team works better because at least we a something to keep us involved instead of joke to joke because not all of the jokes work and feel kind of dated. This however, I am warning you, is in complete contradiction to what most fans of Olsen & Johnson believe. Many feel their humor had to be "watered down" for movies. They were allowed to be as spontaneous as they were on stage were they could ad-lib more and feed off of a live audience.
This may or may not be true. I never saw Olsen & Johnson on stage. But the one thing I believe any movie needs is a story. Sure, I like the wild and zany comedy of films by the Marx Brothers and such. I have no problem if a movie sacrifices a story for a punchline. Though I still believe something needs to link everything together. "All Over Town" does a moderate job of that.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
"Kid Millions" (1934) is a great movie for us old-timers. Here is a movie with plenty of song and dance, humor and lots of familiar faces.
The movie stars the legendary comedian Eddie Cantor. I've never discussed Cantor on here before. He is not very well remember (he may very well be completely forgotten) by younger audiences. But in his day he was a major talent having appeared in vaudeville, radio, stage, television and film. He was known for several reasons, first was his musical ability, he was the first to sing the song "Makin' Whoopee" in the Florenz Ziegfeld show "Whoopee" and later the film version in 1930. He was known for his bug eyes, which came to be known as "Banjo Eyes". He was also known for his blackface routines and even his personal life became known to his fans. He was married to the same woman for more than 50 years and together they had five daughters.
Growing up I watched a lot of Eddie Cantor, because as I have explained before, comedy is my favorite genre. So I always wanted to become familiar with all the famous names of the past. The first time I saw Cantor was in "Whoopee". I'm not sure how old I was but I know I wasn't old enough to attend school. Cantor never became a hero of mine. His comedy was firmly based on vaudeville routines in the Jewish tradition. Sometimes his jokes seems a little corny to me, even by a child's standards (!). His biggest appeal was his singing, at least to me. He wasn't a great singer in the sense Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra was but Cantor could sell a song, mostly comical songs.
I haven't watched "Kid Millions" in years. I actually forgot how much fun it is to watch. The movie's delight never seems to end. For me it was impossible not to have a smile on my face and hum along with the songs. The movie's good nature becomes infectious and we end up having as much fun as the characters seem to be having.
Cantor plays Eddie Wilson Jr. an abandon orphan who grew up in a family with three brothers, two of which are played by Edgar Kennedy, a famous comic known for playing a foil to Laurel & Hardy and Stanley Fields, whom I'll always think of as the Sheriff in the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Way Out West" (1937). Eddie is not happy living with his step-father and brothers. They mistreat him as they have never accepted him as one of the family. The brothers rough-house him and Eddie has the bruises to prove it. But everything is about to change in Eddie's life in an almost Cinderella fashion. Eddie's father, a famous archaeologist has passed away. The father was a millionaire and has left his entire fortune of $77 million (imagine what that meant in 1934!) to his son. In order to claim the inheritance Eddie has to go to Egypt.
The death of Eddie Wilson Sr. becomes a front page story and everyone seems to think they are the rightful heirs to the money. One woman, Dot Clark (Ethel Merman) feels she is because once when she met Eddie he went around saying he was married to her (in reality they weren't). But she thinks she can pull a scam and say she was his common law wife, at least that's what her boyfriend Louie (Warren Hymer) thinks. Next there is Colonel Larrabee (Berton Churchill) who is also headed to Egypt. He funded Eddie Wilson's last expedition to Egypt and feels he is entitled to the fortune.
But a lawyer, Jerry Lane (George Murphy, making his screen debut) refutes both men's claim citing Eddie Wilson Jr. is the rightful heir. This puts Jerry in a spot as he is in love with Larrabee's niece, Joan (Ann Sothern).
Events take a comical turn when everyone tries to trick Eddie into giving them the money. Dot and Louie's plan is to pretend Dot is really Eddie's mother and have him sign over the fortune to her. But when that doesn't work Louie tries to kill Eddie.
The film is actually pretty funny for a musical comedy. It could have succeeded as a comedy alone. Dot and Louie's banter is humorous as she throws out wise-cracks questioning Louie's intelligence. Eddie has a child-like innocence, who may known more than he leads others to believe, and calls Dot his "mommy" throughout the picture. He too gets in some good remarks.
And of course no musical can be made without a love story and that's why we have Murphy and Sothern. But that is really a sub-plot, lucky for us. The main emphasis is Cantor and the comedy. So we don't have to sit through mushy, predictable love scenes. But even if we did, Murphy and Sothern are such likable actors we probably wouldn't mind anyway.
None of the songs have really become part of the classic American songbook and are recognizable however they are all pretty good and get you tapping your feet. The score was written by a variety of composers. The most songs were written by the team Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn, here they wrote "An Earful of Music" sung by Merman and "When My Ship Comes In" sung by Cantor. Listen to the playful innocence of the lyrics. They have a child's imagination and resonate with Depression era audiences. Other songs were by Irving Berlin, his tune "Mandy" is given a nice showcase and Burton Lane has "I Wanna Be A Minstrel Man". Now if you known music pretty well, pay attention to the melody. Lane would re-use it for Fred Astaire in the film "Royal Wedding" (1951) and change the lyrics to "You're All The World To Me". That's the tune Astaire sings when he dances on the walls and ceilings. In "Kid Millions" however it is the Nicholas brothers; Fayard and Harold who dance and sing to the song. And there is one very pretty ballad, "Your Head on My Shoulder" sung by Murphy and Sothern.
I suppose I should say some modern, liberal, PC audiences may become offended by some of the material. Cantor does go into his blackface. He has one funny joke and preparing his make-up a black man is helping him. As Cantor puts the make-up on he looks at the black man as says "you don't know how lucky you are". But will everyone find it funny? Probably not. The introduction to the "Your Head on My Shoulder" will offend some with its Southern theme and mention of "darkies". But you must remember this was a different time. These gestures were seen as playful innocent fun. And don't go thinking Cantor was a racist. He shares the screen with the Nicholas Brothers and doesn't steal the spotlight. He could have because he was a star. But no, he allows them to steal the scene. Years later when he had his television show he gave a young Sammy Davis Jr. a break, which even caused some controversy and threats to end the show. But Cantor stood by Davis. So don't judge him so quickly or the movie.
As I said the cast is filled with faces movie buffs will instantly recognize. Ethel Merman was a major name on Broadway, where she appeared in several musicals and became a favorite of composers Cole Porter and Irving Berlin due to her singing range. She appeared in both the stage play and movie adaption of Porter's "Anything Goes". She was the first to sing "I Get A Kick Out of You". Some younger audiences might know her for her performance in the comedy "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (1963). She was also in the Irving Berlin musical "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1954) with Marilyn Monroe singing "Heatwave" and in the Ritz Brothers' comedy "Straight Place and Show" (1938).
Ann Sothern had quite a career on television, which is how I know her best. She starred in "Private Secretary" (which ran from 1953-1957), where she was nominated for several Emmy nominations. She even won an Academy Award nomination very late in her career for her performance in "The Whales of August" (1987). And she was in other screen musicals like Cole Porter's "Panama Hattie" (1942).
I've written about George Murphy before. I reviewed two movies he was in; "For Me and My Gal" (1942) and "Step Lively" (1944). He is very good in both. He was also in a couple of the "Broadway Melody" films, "The Broadway Melody of 1938" (1937) and "1940" (1940). He was a very good song and dance man who sadly isn't as well remembered as Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. Here he seems a little uncomfortable to me though. As I said this was his first screen appearance.
In the end though "Kid Millions" is really Eddie Cantor's show. He carries the film from beginning to end. That is usually the case with his films. His energy makes you watch the movie. If you find that you enjoy watching him try "Roman Scandals" (1933) and "Whoopee". You also might get some fun out of "The Kid From Spain" (1932), but that isn't a favorite of mine. Neither is "Strike Me Pink" (1936).
The film was directed by Roy Del Ruth. You'll notice his name attached to a lot of musicals like the now lost "The Gold Diggers of Broadway" (1929) or the Cole Porter musical "Du Barry Was A Lady" (1943) with Lucille Ball and Gene Kelly. He also directed the original "The Maltese Falcon" (1931) with Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. Most people forget about this version and think the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart version is the original.
The script was by Nunnally Johnson who wrote "Thanks A Million" (1935) with Dick Powell and funnyman Fred Allen. He also adapted John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940). The other writers were Nat Perrin, who had a long career in comedy writing. He wrote the Olsen & Johnson comedy "Hellzapoppin' (1941), which I have reviewed, the Marx Brothers' comedy "The Big Store" (1941) and the Abbott & Costello comedy "Pardon My Sarong" (1942). And Arthur Sheekman, who wrote another comedy for Cantor, "Roman Scandals" and the Joe E. Brown picture "The Gladiator" (1938).
I would strongly recommend "Kid Millions". You might have to have a bit of an old-fashion streak in you to really appreciate it and soak in all the film's charms but regardless this is good nature fun. The music and humor should please even some of the most modern minded movie fans.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
If you read this blog regularly you know through out the month I have paid special attention to the movie musical. When I think of the great musicals I tend to think of the ones made in the 1930s and 40s which starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. But I haven't paid any attention to more modern musicals. I've been a big fan of some; "Moulin Rouge!" (2001) and "Chicago" (2002), which I have reviewed. And I look forward to Rob Marshall's upcoming "Nine" (2009). But the "problem" with these more modern musicals is a lot of the charm of old Hollywood is missing. These movies are technically well made but sometimes jarring with the rapid edits and MTV dance sequences. It feels like too much emphasis is placed on the budget and not enough on the story, acting and songs. But Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You" (1996) has a lot of old-fashion charm. For that mainly it works.
I remember when this film was first released. It was the second time I went to see a Woody Allen film in the theatre (the first time was "Mighty Aphrodite" (1995), I was just becoming a fan). I had somewhat stumbled across it. I had no idea it even existed. I remember hearing about it on "Siskel & Ebert" in their special "Note to the Oscars", where Ebert felt the film should win some nominations. In his written review he declared it Woody Allen's best film. Though some years later when "Match Point" (2005) was released Ebert said that film ranked among Allen's best film but left "Everyone Says I Love You" off the list. Has his feelings changed? Siskel on the other hand didn't like the movie to Ebert's surprise and disgust.
When "Everyone Says I Love You" was released it was a bit ahead of the curb. Musicals had fallen out of fashion. Though "Evita" (1996) was in release, and the much bigger money maker, musicals were a "dead" genre. And because it was a Woody Allen film, a large part of the audience was going to stay away because of their personal feelings towards him. And honestly, who would expect a musical from Allen? But, after watching this film you have to admit the old master pulls it off. He loves old Hollywood and is familiar with these movies. Because of that he knew exactly what the standard to reach should be. Someone with less film knowledge might have a more difficult time.
"Everyone Says I Love You" though doesn't try to be a "dated" musical, it's not a period piece. It takes place in contemporary times and that gives it a certain edge. Match the musical formula with Woody Allen's humor and you've got something. The movie plays like a typical Allen comedy. It is a love letter to the movies and New York. We are dealing with a wealthy, upper East side Manhattan, liberal family. Many of them are neurotic and searching for love. There are plenty of wise-cracks (provided by Allen himself) and amusing life observations. The difference though it is all done to music. And Allen doesn't waste his time with a modern score, he knows better than that. Instead he gives us classic songs from the 20s and 30s including "Just You, Just Me", "My Baby Just Cares For Me", "Makin' Whoopee", "If I Had You", "Looking At You" and the song that almost becomes the movie's theme, "I'm Through With You", which nearly every character sings at least a verse of.
Allen plays Joe Berlin, a former New Yorker now living in Paris. I guess you can call him an American in Paris. He is a writer who has just gotten dumped (yet again) by his French girlfriend. For support to heads back to New York to his ex-wife, Steffi (Goldie Hawn) who has since re-married to Bob (Alan Alda) but they all get along (only in the movies right?). Joe and Steffi had a daughter together, nicknamed "D.J." (Natasha Lyonne). And Bob had two children of his own; Skylar (Drew Barrymore) and Scott (Lukas Haas) who has become a conservative Republican to the outrage of his father. Allen's explanation for why this happened is priceless. Finally Steffi and Bob had two daughters together; Lane (Gaby Hoffmann) and Laura (Natalie Portman).
Each of these characters, except Steffi and Bob, are all searching for love. Skylar is about to get engaged to Holden Spence (Edward Norton, who almost plays a "Woody Allen" character), while Lane and Laura have both fallen for the same young boy and D.J. simply keeps bed hopping from one guy to another as Joe sights his sights on a married woman, Von (Julia Roberts).
Needless to say some of these relationships work and other don't. Hearts get broken and some repaired. Such is life. But along the way these characters become overcome with joy and break into song. Some set-piece include Holden buying an engagement ring for Skylar at Harry Winston and singing "My Baby Just Cares For Me" or a group of nurses breaking into "Makin' Whoopee" or a group of spirits giving life lessons to the living warning them "Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)".
With these songs and set-pieces though Allen has a gimmick. No one was allowed to sing "professional". The idea was ordinary people singing in their ordinary voices. Everyone loves music and everyone love to try to sing ("American Idol") and even if they can't that doesn't stop them from trying. "Everyone Says I Love You" is not so much about the songs but rather, why we sing in the first place. When our emotions become so strong mere words cannot express them.
Of all of Allen's films I think it is worth pointing out this one gave us an unusual amount of "first glimpses" at some future stars. Edward Norton was relatively unknown. All in the same year he appeared in "The People vs Larry Flynt" (1996) and "Primal Fear" (1996). Natalie Portman had not gone on to become Queen Padma in "The Phantom Menace" (1999), Natasha Lyonne scored big in "American Pie" and Robert Knepper as Von's husband, Greg would go on to star in action movies such as "Hostage" (2005) and "Hitman" (2007). Tim Roth even turns up as Charles Ferry, a convicted felon, who has lust in his um, heart, for Skylar.
I have written about Allen before on here. Mostly for his recent titles like "Whatever Works" (2009), which I didn't like and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (2008) which I liked a lot. The only older title I reviewed was "Sleeper" (1973), regarded by some as Allen's funniest film. Allen is my favorite contemporary filmmaker working today and I would argue the second most influential comedy director behind Chaplin. Personally I never bought into the mainstream thinking that Allen was all washed up after the 80s with films like "Crimes & Misdemeanors" (1989) and "Hannah & Her Sisters" (1986). I felt the 90s was a very strong decade for him. I don't think "Everyone Says I Love You" is his best film or even in the same league as some of his best but he did make some films I regard as masterpieces during the decade; "Husbands & Wives" (1992), "Deconstructing Harry" (1997) and "Sweet and Lowdown" (1999).
Here Allen doesn't seem at the top of his game. The film feels like a lark, a light and pleasant diversion. But even I can't deny some truly magical movie moments like Goldie Hawn's rendition of "I'm Through With Love" and her dance with Allen. Just like Hawn the viewer is swept off their feet.
"Everyone Says I Love You" could be the Woody Allen movie for people who don't like Woody Allen. The film doesn't primarily focus on Allen and there are movie stars the public likes like Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore and Edward Norton for them to cheer on.
In case you wondered about the movie's title, it comes from the Marx Brothers' comedy "Horse Feathers" (1932), which I included in my "Masterpiece Film Series". There is even a group of Groucho impersonators singing "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" which Groucho sings in "Animal Crackers" (1933). In fact at the start of "Whatever Works" Allen's uses Groucho singing "Hello, I Must Be Going" over the credits. Allen is a strong admirer of the Marx Brothers, Groucho in particular.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
In general I would argue musicals are an escape from reality. They don't show the world as we know it. My personal favorite musicals were the ones made in the 1930s and 40s. Several of the musicals from the 30s, which I enjoy, make little to no mention of the current social or political environment from which they emerged. "Top Hat" (1935) my pick for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers best film, is a movie where everyone is wealthy, the characters fly to Europe, they face no real problems other than finding true love. But "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933) is much different. Don't confuse what I am saying. I'm not saying the film doesn't have flights of fancy. I'm not saying it isn't good natured. But the movie acknowledges there is a Depression. The characters aren't wealthy, well, not all of them anyway. The Depression has hit them too.
By the time the film was made President Franklin Roosevelt had been sworn into office. His election of course signified "hope" and "change" (gee, where have I heard that before?). That may account for the film's opening musical number, "We're in the Money", sung by Ginger Rogers behind a very lavish art-deco set and somewhat risque costumes. The women are dressed up as dollar coins with see-through material. Besides that optimistic number the film does offer us a reality the audience can relate to on some level. This is a Hollywood musical so the picture couldn't be too bleak.
And because it is a Hollywood musical the film does have a happy message. The Depression won't last forever. These characters will find themselves "in the money". Though the ending is bittersweet. The characters are married and wealthy, but, America hadn't recovered. The film's finale has Joan Blondell sing "Remember My Forgotten Man", a song about how we treat our veterans during this economic crisis. It is a strong reminder that while movies can offer us some comfort they can't solve our problems.
I'm afraid though I'm making "The Gold Diggers of 1933" sound really heavy and depressing. It isn't. On the surface the film is a playful musical comedy. There is some cynicism and the political/social messages are subtle.
The film follows a group of chorus girls; Polly (Ruby Keeler), Carol (Joan Blondell), Trixie (Aline MacMahon) and Fay (Ginger Rogers). Just like the rest of the country, they cannot find employment. Their last job was for producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks), but, his backers pulled out as the Sheriff has come to closed down production. Now the girls are out of work and luck.
Three of the girls; Polly, Trixie and Carol all live together and have fallen behind on the rent. Every theatre is shut down. No one seems to be putting on shows except when Fay calls them to inform them Barney is putting on a new shows and wants all the same people he had before. His big idea is a show about the Depression. After the girls get excited about the prospect of a new show, Barney lowers the boom on them. He says he has the show, the theatre and the cast but no money. He says all he needs is $15,000 and he can start rehearsals.
The girls' have a next door neighbor, a struggling musician, Brad Roberts (Dick Powell). While practicing a new song he has written Barney over hears him playing and decides he wants him to write the score for his show. And Brad agrees to put up the $15,000. But how? Who is Brad really and how can he come up with so much money when he seems to be living just like the girls. But somehow he gets the money and wins Polly's affections.
I really don't want to give too much of the plot. Brad's major secret is revealed as his brother, J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William) and the family attorney Fanuel H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) want to stop Brad from not only producing and acting in the show but to stop seeing Polly. Through a miscommunication J. Lawrence confuses Carol for Polly and demands she stop seeing his brother. But Trixie and Carol have a plan. Why not take these guys for all they are worth. Trixie sets her sights on Fanuel hoping to marry him for his money. That is probably the most cynical aspect of the movie. People don't marry for love but for money. When a woman is desperate she will in a way "sell herself" to a wealthy man.
Some have said the film was a remake of the very popular "The Gold Diggers of Broadway" (1929) which was for 10 years one of the highest grossing films until "Gone With The Wind" (1939) knocked it out. Sadly that film is now considered lost so I don't know how much of it was used in this film. But the general idea does appear to be similar.
"The Gold Diggers of 1933" was also Warner Brothers way to capitalize on the success of "42nd Street" (1933), which I have just included in my "Masterpiece Film Series". That film was a big hit for Warner Brothers. It managed to win an Oscar nomination for "Best Picture" losing to the screen adaptation of Noel Coward's "Cavalcade" (1933), which I have also reviewed. Many of the same people appear in both films; Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee and Ned Sparks. Plus both movies have a musical score by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. In this movie we hear such songs as "We're in the Money", "Shadow Waltz", "Remember My Forgotten Man" and "Pettin' in the Park".
The "Pettin' in the Park" number is the most risque number in the film. It is extremely suggestive. Although the film as a whole is pretty suggestive. One moment has the ladies tricking a man into believing he slept with one of them as they demand he pay for it. One dialogue exchange has Fay modeling a new dress saying if "Barney could see her in clothes" while another lady interrupts "he wouldn't recognize you".
The film was directed by Mervyn LeRoy. I read he was the original choice to directed "42nd Street" and having him direct this number would seem to confirm that. Since Warner Brothers couldn't get him for that one they wanted to get him for their next big musical. However I don't associate his name with the musical. He directed a pretty broad range of films from gangster movies, "Little Caesar" (1931) to drama, "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang" (1932) to romance "Random Harvest" (1942), one of my all time favorite movies. Still he does a good job here. And credit must be given to Busby Berkeley for his work on the musical numbers.
From the entire cast it is Joan Blondell who is really the star of the movie. She wasn't a singer or dancer but did appear in several Warner Brothers musicals. She was in Dames (1934), "Colleen" (1936) and another "Gold Digger" movie, "The Gold Diggers of 1937" (1936) which co-star her husband Dick Powell (Powell also appeared in the other mentioned movies). Warren William is given top billing. He might be best known for his role in Cecil B. DeMille's "Cleopatra" (1934). Aline MacMahon was in another movie I reviewed, the Marlene Dietrich comedy "The Lady Is Willing" (1942). And of course I've discussed Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers in the past. Rogers would get her big break though when teamed with Fred Astaire the same year in "Flying Down to Rio" (1933), which I have also reviewed. And Keeler made her debut in "42nd Street" she a very good tap dancer who appeared in several movies with Dick Powell.
"The Gold Diggers of 1933" has one of the best musical scores I've heard in a movie. Fans of the classic American songbook will enjoy the movie just for the music. And classic movie fans and film buffs will enjoy it just because the movie is so good and entertaining. The movie has a lot of interesting ideas about love and society. It isn't a dumbed down musical. There is a commentary being made here. Whether or not you chose to pay attention to it is entirely up to you. But just be aware it is there. You can still enjoy the movie however because of the music.
Monday, November 16, 2009
As I have explained before, what makes a great musical is a great musical score. A musical should be a celebration of song and dance. All I feel a musical needs is a decent enough storyline built around some great songs. The better the songs the more I'll enjoy the movie. The real star of "42nd Street" (1933) is the score by Harry Warren an Al Dublin.
On the surface "42nd Street" will probably seem pretty cliche to today's movie audience. It will have a "been there done that" ring to it. And even by 1933 standards I'm willing to bet none of this was really that new and fresh. It is suppose to be a gritty back-stage look at what goes on leading up to a Broadway show. All the hard work the actors go through in learning the songs and dance routines and all the personal drama going on in their lives. But that personal drama doesn't mean a thing once that curtain goes up and the show begins.
The film follows Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) seen as one of the great directors of musical comedy. He has fallen on hard financial times due to the Depression. He needs his latest show "Pretty Lady" to be a smash. Julian is having some health problems, so it is likely this will be his last show. His doctor advises him against directing because of all the stress involved but it is a gamble he must take. He wants to retire from the business.
The star of the play is going to be Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels). Her sugar-daddy, Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) is going to produce the show. But what Abner doesn't realize is Dorothy has a lover whom she sees on the side, a washed-up actor, Pat Denning (George Brent). The two used to be a team on Broadway, their act broke up when Dorothy went on to greater fame. She has a soft spot for Pat, because without him, she feels, she never would have made it. But Julian is afraid once Abner finds out about Pat he will pull his money out of the show. Something will have to be done about Pat.
In another movie that would probably be enough plot to hold a movie together. Not here. The other performers in the play also have background stories. We have Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler, in her feature film debut), a young wanna-be dancer. She is trying out for the chorus but manages to catch the eye of the leading man, Billy Lawyer (Dick Powell). Other chorus girls include "Anytime" Annie (Ginger Rogers) and Lorraine (Una Merkel).
Old timers, like myself, will recognize all these people. The film has an amazing all-star cast and manages to give everyone an opportunity to appear on-screen and do their stuff. Ever character has a story and is essential to the plot. It is a pretty difficult task to juggle but the film pulls it off. Though I do question some storylines. The one I have the biggest objection to is Julian Marsh's storyline. Why mention the fact he is dying? Nothing is really mad of it. My guess is the writers felt this added some human drama, but, did they have to go to such extreme and include death? What about saying he is washed up and desperately needed money to retire. He had lots of debt. What's wrong with that idea?
The soundtrack includes songs like "You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me", sung by Bebe Daniels, "42nd Street" sung and dance by Keeler in an amazing finale. Here I think Keeler shows us some of her best steps. The ending was the product of Busby Berkeley and it is in itself a mini movie. Viewers should be impressed. There is also the very suggestive "Shuffle Off to Buffalo", a song about a couple's honeymoon and what they expect on the big night. And Dick Powell gives us a rousing rendition of "Young & Healthy".
The film was directed by Lloyd Bacon who was behind a few other memorable musicals. He directed "Footlight Parade" (1933) and the Al Jolson vehicle "Wonder Bar" (1934). He also did "Knute Rockne All American" (1940) a film for some reason people think of as a Ronald Reagan picture. He actually has a small role. It is Pat O' Brien's film all the way. And he also directed the comedy/mystery Erroll Flynn movie "Footsteps in the Dark" (1941).
Of all the actors Baxter and Daniel's had been around the longest at that point. Baxter had been in movies since 1914. Though personally I am not familar with much of his work. Daniels on the other hand I've seen in more movies. She appeared in a lot of two-reelers with Harold Lloyd. She was also in two Wheeler & Woolsey comedies (actually she gets top billing) "Rio Rita" (1929) and "Dixiana" (1930). She was said to have a good singing voice and was considered to be a beauty.
George Brent did a lot of movies with Bette Davis; "The Great Lie" (1941), "Jezebel" (1938) and "In This Our Life" (1942) and a movie I like very much "Tomorrow Is Forever" (1946). He was a leading man type but did have the macho appeal of a Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable.
The film also started the wonderful collaboration with Powell and Keeler. Together they would appear in "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933) which would also bring back various other cast members and "Colleen" (1936) along with "Dames" (1934). I would recommend seeing all of those movies. Each is charming and delightful. I should review every single one of them. But we'll see. Unfortunately Powell would stop appearing in musicals in the 1940s. He did some comedies like the Rene Clair's "It Happened Tomorrow" (1944) which I have reviewed, and "Murder, My Sweet" (1944) plus the Preston Sturges' comedy "Christmas in July" (1940).
These kind of stories usually require a little comedy and for that we have Guy Kibbee and Una Merkel. Kibbee was a Warner Brothers regular. Usually playing well to do older gentlemen who would become suggar-daddy types. His role here is that much different from his role in "The Gold Diggers of 1933". He was also in a Joe E. Brown comedy "Earthworm Tractors" (1936) a decent comedy effort. Merkel on the other hand usally played smart smart, wise-cracking gals. She was in the W.C. Fields comedy "It's A Gift" (1934) and did some work with Harold Lloyd. She gets in a few good shots here too. Pay attention to her dialogue.
"42nd Street" is a real treat to watch. Other than the Julian Marsh sub-plot I can't think of anything wrong with the film. It does so much right. And as I said the songs are show-stoppers. The film was actually turned in a Broadway musical. A few years ago I saw a revival on Broadway. I didn't like it as much as I did the movie, mostly because they change a lot of the story and added some new songs, like "Lullaby of Broadway", which originally appeared in "The Gold Diggers of 1935" (1935). Still the story has an almost timeless appeal about the up and comer becoming a star. On Broadway everyone has a shot at being a star.
For the amazing musical charm, endless charm of the actors, and sheer delight the film is able to spin "42nd Street" is one of the masterpiece of cinema.
Friday, November 13, 2009
Watching a film like "Chasing Rainbows" (1930) makes me angry that most people don't take film preservation more serious. Movies deserve to be preserved. When we lose movies we are losing a part of history. It makes me sad to think how many films are considered lost. How many film masterpieces have audiences been robbed of? How many great performances will we never see?
"Chasing Rainbows" is an MGM musical which was made on the heels of "The Broadway Melody of 1929" (1929) which won a "Best Picture" Oscar and "The Hollywood Revue of 1929" (1929). It stars quite a few of the same people and was MGM's latest effort to cash in on the success of the movie musical. The film became part of American history because it was the film which featured the song "Happy Days Are Here Again". That song has become the stuff of legend. Written in 1929 it has been debated when the song was actually written. Many have claimed the song was written after the stock market crash of 29. That it was suppose to represent hope. But the song was actually written before the market crashed. The song was recorded by Leo Resiman & his Orchestra back in November of 1929, a month before the Great Depression began. And even with that economic downturn the song somehow became a symbol of the times. It enjoyed immense popularity during the 30s. It even took on a political life during the 1932 Presidential Election when the Democrat candidate, Franklin Roosevelt chose it as his theme song.
And that is what makes me sad about "Chasing Rainbows". Portions of the film are lost. The film's finale where Charles King sings "Happy Days Are Here Again" is gone forever. We will never be able to see that iconic moment. Luckily there is audio available and we can here King sing the song but the visual is lost. And that's not the only missing footage in "Chasing Rainbows". A few other musical numbers are gone. The film was originally released as a two-strip Technicolor film but that print is gone. What is available is a black & white version.
"Chasing Rainbows" also signaled the decline of the movie musical. Musicals were extremely popular when the movies began to talk. One of the most successful films of the early sound era was "The Gold Diggers of Broadway" (1929), which is also considered lost except for a few surviving moments. With that Hollywood went into a frenzy releasing one musical after another. It got so that audiences simply grew weary of them. This caused studios to actually re-edit films which were intended to be released as musical and eliminate all the songs. This was the case with "50 Million Frenchmen" (1931), a Cole Porter musical which I have reviewed. It was released as a straight comedy starring the team of Olsen & Johnson. There was also "Top Speed" (1930) a Joe E. Brown comedy. The musical score was scratched there too. So "Chasing Rainbows" came at a time of transition. The film was completed in 1929 in fact, but, was withheld until 1930 because of the public's feelings towards musicals.
As it stands now the film is primarily a sappy romance melodrama with a plot that resembles "The Broadway Melody" which starred Charles King and Bessie Love, both appear in "Chasing Rainbows" too and are playing characters facing similar problems.
Here King and Love play a song and dance team; Carlie (Love) and Terry (King). They have been together for years but secretly Carlie is in love with Terry. She has become his second mother figure. She prepares his costumes, folds his clothes and makes sure he eats. Without her Terry would be lost. But he doesn't seem to appreciate all she does for him. Meanwhile the theatrical troupe they are traveling with, headed by Eddie (Jack Benny), feels Carlie is too good for Terry.
What is most disturbing to Carlie is Terry's love life. He always falls for the leading lady of the show and eventually has his heart broken. And then hints at suicide, mostly to gain sympathy. And he tells his problems to Carlie who must sit and wait patiently for Terry to come to his senses.
This leads Eddie to select a new leading lady for the company, Daphne Wayne (Mita Martan) who once dated one of the other actors, Don Cordova (Eddie Phillips). But Terry once again falls for the leading lady. But Daphne has a plan. Why not date Terry to advance her career and see Don on the side? When Carlie over hears this plan and tells Terry it is interpreted as jealousy.
You can pretty much guess what will happen. The film doesn't have anything surprising in store for us. Everything goes according to plan. Still there are some flaws. Terry does have a sudden change of heart concerning Carlie. He realizes that he does love Carlie but the change happens all of a sudden. There is no lead up to it. Usually a film will offer us some subtle hints. We will gradually see a change in the character. Here it just happens at the start of the next scene.
And then there is all those missing scenes. This is not the fault of the actors or director but it does make "Chasing Rainbows" a somewhat disappointing experience. It offered a challenge for me on how to rate the movie. The film isn't even really a musical. Two songs have survived. Terry singing "Lucky Me, Loveable You" to Carlie and Daphne singing "Do I Know What I'm Doing?". The songs that are lost are "Everybody Tap" performed by Carlie, "Love Aint Nuthin' But the Blues" sung by Terry and "My Dynamite Personality" by Bonnie (Marie Dressler) a comedienne traveling with the show.
For me the most enjoyable person to watch was Jack Benny. Benny is best known for his work on radio and his long running television. He is one of my favorite comedians and in my opinion the king of comedy timing. Shamefully I have never reviewed any of his film work. I promise to do so in the future. So I won't go into a bio of who he was. Benny's primary role in the film appears to be to tell jokes. He almost plays the same kind of character he played in "The Hollywood Revue of 1929", where he played "himself", as a Master of Ceremonies. That is sort of what he is doing here. He is just giving us his routines. Sometimes his character he suppose to be talking to the troupe but the camera just stays on him as Benny practically looks into the camera telling jokes. As for as the story goes Benny's character isn't essential. If someone else had played it, it probably wouldn't have made an impression on me. But it is fun to see such as early role for Benny before he became the cheap, vain penny pincher.
Charles King and Bessie Love are enjoyable as well. I honestly prefer Love this time around. She was a good actress. She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in "The Broadway Melody of 1929". She was able to bring the viewer in and care about her character. I suppose on one level we can relate to her situation, being in love with someone who doesn't notice her. King isn't as sympathetic. We wonder what is wrong with him? Why doesn't he realize how wonderful Carlie is?
"Chasing Rainbows" is a bit of a tough sell in my opinion. The only reason I wanted to watch the film was to see the "Happy Days Are Here Again" number. When I realize all the musical numbers were lost I became very disappointed. But at the end of the day I'm telling you to see it. Why? The film has a historical significance. Film buffs will be interested in watching it. And those starting to develop a more serious interest in cinema will want to see it as well. "Chasing Rainbows" is no masterpiece. It is not even a great musical. It is a decent, by the numbers, melodrama. The films works because of the charm of the actors. It is fun watching Benny and Bessie Love and it is nice seeing King sing his one remaining song. If that sounds good enough for you than I'd say see "Chasing Rainbows".
Thursday, November 12, 2009
With "Ready, Willing and Able" (1937) I get the opportunity to discuss a very talented song and dance lady, Miss Ruby Keeler. Her name might not be as well remembered to casual film fans as perhaps Ginger Rogers, but, Ms. Keeler made quite an impact on audiences in her Warner Brothers musicals where she was frequently paired with crooner Dick Powell.
"Ready, Willing and Able" sadly isn't one of her collaborations with Powell but it is nonetheless an entertaining, sweet, old-fashion musical with one great American standard as part of the score, which was written by the brilliant Johnny Mercer.
This film is not as fondly remembered as some of Ruby Keeler's other films such as "42nd Street" (1933), her first major role, after a short named in 1929 titled after her name, or even "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933). In those films Ms. Keeler shared the spotlight with a variety of other talents such as Powell, Joan Blondell and a very young (and may I add beautiful) Ginger Rogers. In "Ready, Willing and Able" all the weight is on Ms. Keeler's shoulders. She does a good job, but, that might be why the film isn't more of a knockout. There simply isn't any great outstanding talent here. There isn't anyone in the cast that really has star making ability. There are some good character actors, like Allen Jenkins, who was in "42nd Street", but whenever a film gives top billing to a slightly known character actor you know something fishy is going on.
But that may seem harsh and imply I don't think "Ready, Willing and Able" is a good movie. It is a good movie with a decent storyline which to be honest could have succeeded perfectly fine as a pure comedy without all the song and dance. Though if that were the case then we would miss out on hearing Mercer's song "Too Marvelous for Words" and the absolutely charming and highly inventive set-piece built around it. It is one of the major reasons to watch this film. It is something which could have come from the mind of Busby Berkeley. I was so surprised when I found out it didn't. I thought all these years that it actually did come from his mind. I hadn't seen this film for a couple of years. In fact, when I decided to devote this month to the movie musical, this was one of the films which instantly came to mind that I had to review.
In the film "Pinky" Blair (Lee Dixon) and Barry Granville (Ross Alexander) are a couple of struggling, starving artist. They have written a screenplay which they hope to get produced. A musical comedy entitled "Fair Lady", which will also have music written by them. They find a backer but with one hitch. The play will be produced and Barry can even star in it, but, because he is not a well known name it is felt a "name" actress will be needed for the lead. If Barry can get a new singing sensation from Britain, Jane Clarke (Wini Shaw) to appear in the play, the backer will put up $50,000. But, Ms. Clarke has never performed in the U.S. no producer has been able to persuade her. But "Pinky" and Barry are determined to try.
As this is going on an agent, Katzmeyer (Allen Jenkins) finds out about this, and her proposed salary, $1,500 a week, and decides he wants to represent her. But first he has to meet her. The problem is no one has ever seen what Ms. Clarke looks like. And because of this a case of mistaken identity ensues.
A young wanna be singer and dancer also named Jane Clarke (Ruby Keeler) is travelling with her school's musical group headed by Clara Heineman (Louise Fazenda) a one time dramatic actress. Clarke has big dreams one day about making it on Broadway. If she doesn't however she will have to marry Truman Hardy (Hugh O' Connell) a wealthy, stuffy, older gentlemen who has had his eye on Jane for years. But Jane doesn't love Truman and would jump at the chance to get rid of him.
You can probably guess where a lot of this is going to go. Katzmeyer signs the American Clarke to a contract who then agree to star in Barry's musical, which is now considered to be a sure-fire hit as everyone await Ms. Clarke's American stage debut. Jane never wanted to deceive anyone but her best friend, Angie (Carol Hughes) talked her into it telling her this is her big chance to become a star and dump Truman. The two ladies immediately realize they are in over their heads. But when Jane sees Barry it is love at first sight for the both of them.
The film has some fun with the mistaken identity angle but I felt didn't really explore all the possibilities it could have. Still there are some very funny moments like when Jane meets some fellow countrymen who claims to know some of Jane's friends. Of course she has no clue what these people are talking about and makes the situation worst. At the stage rehearsals she is reluctant to sing, saying she caught a cold on the trip to America and plays some of the English Ms. Clarke's records in her dressing room to be the illusion she is singing.
Also for humor there is Jenkins whose agent character is a sneaky con-man, always looking for a way to make a buck and Fazenda's pompous Ms. Heineman with her grand tales of her successful stage career, which we suspect was never all that impressive to begin with. She also performs an old comedy routine concerning her trying to sing a song while asking one of the stage hands for their opinion. The stage hand though is preoccupied and is giving orders to someone else about the set, shouting things out like "lower", "higher", "to the right". Ms. Heineman thinks the directions are for her. If you are a fan of comedy you might know Abbott & Costello for performing this routine. But this movie came out first.
"Ready, Willing and Able" is perhaps the only film I can think of where the two top billed stars are not the romantic interest. Lee Dixon, who didn't have a long lasting career. Is given second billing but is not the love interest. Strangely Ross Alexander is the love interest and is given a much lower billing but he has just as much screen time as Dixon, who was a tap dancer. Plus it is Alexander who sings "Too Marvelous for Words".
Warner Brothers must have thought they had something great in Wini Shaw. I never really thought too highly about her. She sings the big finale in "The Gold Diggers of 1935" (1935) which is the song "Lullaby of Broadway". She was an adequate singer, admittedly probably better than Keeler, but, didn't have a star's personality. She never became a big star.
As for Ruby Keeler she was hardly a great actress but there was something inviting about her. She had a sort of girl next door look to her which would make an audience warm up to her. Her dancing was good but to me wasn't as good as Ginger Rogers or Eleanor Powell. Still she is fun to watch. As I said already, because she wasn't a better actress it kind of hurts the film. There are no great actors here helping Keeler out. Some movie fans might be interested to know she was married to Al Jolson for 12 years between 1929-1940. After the two divorced Keeler quite show business but did return to the stage in the 1970s.
The movie was directed by Ray Enright who had directed several comedies and musicals. Of the comedies he directed I saw the ones with Joe E. Brown; "The Tenderfoot" (1932) and "The Circus Clown" (1934) among them. But it directed some decent musicals as well, which were also with Ruby Keeler like "Dames" (1934) where Dick Powell sings "I Only Have Eyes For You" to Keeler and "Gold Diggers in Paris" (1938), the final film in the "Gold Diggers" series.
"Too Marvelous for Words" is the best song in the movie though Keeler sings a catchy piece in the beginning called "Handy with Your Feet". Here Keeler can demonstrate her dancing skills. Alexander also gets to sing another song "Just A Quiet Evening" which is not memorable.
"Ready, Willing and Able" is a lot of fun to watch. It has some good comedy and a really impressive musical number at the finale to "Too Marvelous for Words" plus Ruby Keeler gets in some good dancer routines. The downside is she doesn't have the right personality to head a movie and isn't surrounded by better actors. Still, fans of musicals and of classic movies will get some pleasure out of this movie. It is no "42nd Street" but it still has its moments.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
"The Gang's All Here" *** (out of ****)
"The Gang's All Here" (1943) was one of the first movie musicals I ever saw. It left quite the impression on me. At least 20 years has past since I first saw it and I still remember it. I remember the good natured fun of it. The bright colors, the lavish costumes, the dancing and Carmen Miranda! She was always an important figure in my family. She was one of my grandmother's favorite stars. Why? I have no clue. But she took great delight in watching her sing and dance. And I guess she transferred those feelings on to me.
Despite my background with the film you might think there would be a part of me which would give the film a pass for the sake for nostalgia. Actually, and perhaps surprisingly, that's not the case. My rating for the film has nothing to do with sentimentality. In fact, I'll even discuss what I feel are flaws with the picture.
"The Gang's All Here" is some ways has something in common with another musical I reviewed this month, "Down Argentine Way" (1940). Both were made at Fox. Both feature music written by Harry Warren. Two members of the cast are the same; Miranda and Charlotte Greenwood. Both have a Latin American feel to them. This actually was part of a political agenda. During President Roosevelt's term in office he established something known as the "Good Neighbor Policy", which is even given direct mention here. It was to improve relations between the U.S. and Latin America, especially within time of war. You will be pretty pressed to find musicals made during this time which were set in Europe. Audiences knew what was going on, so you'll notice a lot of movies dealt with Latin countries. It was exotic enough for viewers to be interesting.
There's a lot of politics and subtle social messages floating around in this film. It is in some ways a typical WW2 musical. It deals with the soldiers and patriotic pride. Audiences couldn't escape that. But the film also touches upon a "dilemma" which was starting to become more public. With the war going on morals concerning pre-marital sex were loosening. Consider this. Men were off in other countries away from girlfriends and wives. No one would know what they were up to and since we are all human we all get the same basic human urges. And women are no different. What were they suppose to do while their loved ones were away? Attitudes became more relaxed under the guise of "for the boys". A woman would show a man a good time because it was the least she can do to show her gratitude for what the boys were doing over-seas. In the most extreme cases this would result in pregnancies with young girls a) not being married and b) not knowing who the father was. Humor was found in this situation in the Preston Sturges comedy "The Miracle of Morgan Creek" (1944). "The Gang's All Here" doesn't find much humor in the situation and it doesn't give us a moral sermon on it either. But, it at the very least, subtly acknowledges that this type of behavior was going on.
The film is about a solider, Andy Mason (James Ellison). He is suppose to be a good looking, ladies man type. He hasn't met a girl he couldn't pick up. One night, at a club in New York, he meets a singer/dancer, Edie Allen (Alice Faye). At first a friend, Phil Baker, as himself, tells Andy she is out of his league but that doesn't stop Andy from trying. After some rough patches Andy manages to wear her down. In the course of one night she has agree to meet him at a train station the following day and see him off not to mention she promises to write to him everyday. Not bad for a first date.
Besides singing at a club Edie also does volunteer work at another places where she dances with soldiers. They all hit on her, dropping her line after line about how beautiful she is but she says she puts up with it because, wait for it, it's for the boys. This is how she meets Andy.
Andy wasn't completely honest with Edie. You see, he never told her that he is engaged to Vivian (Sheila Ryan). Her father, Peyton Potter (Edward Everett Horton) and his father, Andrew Manson Sr. (Eugene Pallette) are best friends. Both families have long suspected and encourage the two to get married. The kicker is, Vivian knows Andy has a wondering eye but doesn't get made at him because he is a solider and she knows the way they are. She'll do her part for the boys by turning a blind eye. But will Edie feel the same way?
When Andy is shipped off to the south pacific he is award a medal (for what is never made clear) and upon his return Peyton and his father have decided to throw him a party. There plan is to get the performers at Andy's favorite nightclub to come to their estate and put on a show. And, so as not to lose money, they will promote it as an event to buy war bands. But the problem is Edie works at Andy's favorite nightclub and will come to the estate. But Vivian will be there too.
I imagine that's how the film arrived at it's title and after the gang shows up the big question is when will Vivian and Edie find out they are both in love with the same guy?
"The Gang's All Here" tries to have a lot of fun with this premise and in some ways it does succeed. The story has some good comedic possibilities. It is good enough to keep our attention. And as I have said before that is all I require from a musical. A decent plot and a great score. And that's one of the problems. The score is by Harry Warren. At one time a great composer, who wrote several scores for Warner Brothers musicals. Here however, the score is lackluster at best. There isn't one stand out song in the entire score. That is what stops me from giving the film a higher rating. A better score would have made the film more memorable. Warren has written some great songs like "There Will Never Be Another You", "Lullaby of Broadway", "I Only Have Eyes For You", and one of the big hits during the war years (and personally one of my favorite songs ever written) "You'll Never Know", which is best know for being sung by the star of this film, Alice Faye in the movie "Hello Frisco, Hello" (1943). But there is not one song in this film which can make any of those. The prettiest song in the film is probably "A Journey to a Star", which Faye sings, but, I'd hardly call it one of Warren's great melodies.
The other songs include Carmen Miranda singing "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat", a comment on Miranda's wild costumes. It is a pretty strange dance sequence which was choreographed by the film's director, Busby Berkeley. It was considered at the time a bit risque even. I wonder if it served as an influence for a dream sequence n the Coen Brother's cult hit "The Big Lebowski" (1998). It has lovely ladies holding giant bananas over their heads.
The final song in the film is "The Polka Dot Polka". This is an extremely weak song to end the film with. Usually the finale is done to a big, show stopping tune which Berkeley would create an extravagant set piece for. But here the song is no show stopper and his ideas don't really seem to match the song at all. If you want to see Berkeley at his best check out his work in "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933) and the "Remember My Forgotten Man" sequence or the "Lullaby of Broadway" finale in "The Gold Diggers of 1935" (1935) or even the "Shanghai Li" piece for "Footlight Parade" (1933). Those set pieces were mini-movies. None of Berkeley's pieces here match the magic of those earlier days.
As for the performances in the film they aren't that bad. Alice Faye was quite the big star at Fox. Never given much credit for her acting though, she was very capable at it. She was mostly just known for her singing. It is said she had more songs on the hit parade than any of her rivals. During the 1930s and 40s Faye was a major movie attraction appearing in films like "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938) with Tyrone Power and "On the Avenue" (1937) with Dick Powell. "The Gang's All Here" was made during the end of her reign as Fox's favorite musical lady. She would be replaced by none other than Betty Grable. But Faye gets in some good acting moments here were require her to be a bit sappy.
For comedy we have Horton, Pallette (who I mentioned in my "Step Lively" (1944) review) and Greenwood as Horton's wife with a wild past. Horton plays his usually "sissy man" character. The wealthy gentleman who is under the thumb of a woman. And sly references are made that he is a homosexual. And Carmen Miranda is given the "Ricky Ricardo" treatment. Her broken English is used for laughs as she mangles American expressions.
I wrote about Berkeley's "For Me and My Gal" (1942) which I didn't like but I didn't want to leave it that way with Berkeley. He is probably the best known director of musical comedy. "The Gang's All Here" does have flaws, like not even allowing the audience the opportunity to see the lovers make up and kiss (!), that is standard movie practice, however, it is fun to watch. Here is another musical where the humor is the added attraction and not the songs. Horton and Pallette score big after Faye. I don't know if younger more modern audiences will like this, I have a hunch they won't, but if you like musicals you'll probably find something about "The Gang's All Here" to enjoy.
"Step Lively" (1944) was the first film in which Frank Sinatra received top billing, after making cameos in previous films. His first "significant" role came a year earlier in "Higher and Higher" (1943). Here ol' blues eyes seems like a natural. Though he is not playing the kind of character he would play in the Gene Kelly musicals, which I have reviewed, like "Anchors Aweigh" (1945) and "On the Town" (1949). He is mostly playing a variation of his public persona. A kind of heartthrob with a voice that can make the ladies melt. As you might recall in his films with Kelly, it was he that was the ladies man. Sinatra was the insecure kid afraid of the opposite sex. In "Step Lively" Sinatra knows exactly what he wants.
A lot of people damn "Step Lively" because they like to compare it to other sources. The film is based on a Broadway play entitled "Room Service" which was filmed once before in a Marx Brothers' comedy in 1938. It was the first film the Brothers did which wasn't written exclusively for them. However Marx Brothers fans will say this movie is not as good as that one. But they are missing the point. "Step Lively" isn't trying to compete with "Room Service". These are two different movies with two different agendas.
In this musical adaptation George Murphy plays Gordon Miller (in the role Groucho played) as a Broadway producer a bit down on his luck. He has been struggling to find a backer for his latest musical comedy. Meanwhile he has been living at a hotel, at the expense of his brother-in-law, Mr. Gribble (Walter Slezak) who is the hotel manager. Miller currently owes $1,200 to the hotel. He has even allowed the cast of the production (22 actors) to live in the hotel as well. This allows for some funny jokes about their eating habits. There is an old joke that actors eat like animals. Here whenever Gribble hears the actors are in the dinning room eating, he starts to cry, complaining "they're eating again".
But Miller thinks his luck is about to change because a new backer is suppose to come in town, Mr. Jenkins (Eugene Pallette). If he can only get Gribble to leave him alone and fight off the financial examiner, Wagner (Adolphe Menjou) for a few days until Jenkins hands over a check for $50,000.
As happens in most musical comedies though, more mayhem is added. Glenn Russell (Sinatra) also wants to see Miller. Russell wrote a play, "God's Speed", which he wanted Miller to produce. He also sent Miller $1,500 for a percentage of the play's profits, which Miller accepted. Problem is Miller had no intention of ever producing Russell's play and only said he would for the money. But now Russell wants to know what he going on with his play or else he wants his money back. But there is a light at the end of this tunnel. Russell, it turns out, is a great singer and Miller thinks if he can get Russell to act in his play, it will turn out to be a big hit. But Russell doesn't want to act in a musical comedy. All he is interested in his producing his drama.
I suppose reading all of this it sounds like "Step Lively" has a lot going on but it all moves smoothly. The script movies very briskly, the whole running time, is 88 minutes, and that includes musical numbers.
The movie was directed by Tim Whelan. He got his start working in comedy, mostly for Harold Lloyd, he wrote two of Lloyd's best known films, "The Freshman" (1925) and "Safety Last" (1923). He also wrote scripts for Wheeler & Woolsey; "Peach O' Reno" (1931) and "Hook, Line and Sinker" (1930), both of which I have reviewed as well as "Safety Last". As far as his directing credits go he directed the comedy "The Divorce of Lady X" (1938) with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberson as well as "Higher and Higher".
Fans of comedy teams may get a little mad at me for not mentioning Wally Brown and Alan Carney are in this film. They play Harry (Carney) and Binion (Brown) best friends of Miller. I have written once before about Brown & Carney when I reviewed their most popular comedy "Zombies on Broadway" (1945). They were considered RKO's answer to Abbott & Costello. Between the years 1943 - 1946 they appeared in 12 comedies. Though I like to bring attention to the great forgotten comics, like Harry Langdon and Wheeler & Woolsey, I never really liked Brown & Carney. They weren't "really" a comedy team in the traditional sense. They didn't have set routines and defined characters. Here however they are quite amusing and a pleasure to see on-screen. The reason for this is because they are supporting players. The stars of the film are Murphy, Sinatra and Gloria DeHaven as Christine Marlowe, Miller's girlfriend whom Russell has set his eyes on.
The script only allows Brown & Carney to speak when they have something funny to say. They don't do any routines here and aren't presented as a "team", they are really just two individuals. But it all works to their advantage. Those not familiar with them probably wouldn't think much of their appearance here, at least in terms of thinking of them as a team, but they might make an impression on you. And I'd say it is one of the best movies they appeared in together.
The rest of the cast is filled with great actors. The film is really Murphy's show. He was a great song and dance man. I wrote about him when I reviewed "For Me and My Gal" (1942). Here though he has more to do musically. But it is his acting and humor which is on display here. Surprisingly the studio didn't get a comic for the role but Murphy is very charming in the role and pulls it off. I just wish there was a little more singing and dancing for him. We have to wait until the end of the film.
Eugene Pallette is a famous character actor. He was never a leading man but you'll recognize him. He was also in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), Ernst Lubitsch's "Heaven Can Wait" (1943) and Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve" (1941). Walter Slezak might be best known for his performance in Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" (1944) a truly great film which is often overlooked in Hitchcock's cannon of films. If you want to see him do more comedy check him out in the Bob Hope comedy, "The Princess and the Pirate" (1944). And finally Adolphe Menjou was at one time a very big star known for his looks and dressing style. He was often voted one of the best dressed men in Hollywood. He use to be playboy types, watch him in the highly controversial and extremely entertaining "Morocco" (1930) with Marlene Dietrich. But as the years went on he did do more comedy, like the Harold Lloyd picture "The Milky Way" (1936) and the Gershwin musical "The Goldwyn Follies" (1938).
"Step Lively" does a lot of things right but the reason I mostly like it is because of the humor not the songs, which were written by Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne. But none of the songs are really memorable. None of Sinatra's hit songs are presented in the film. One interesting musical sequence is at the end of the film but it has nothing to do with he song. It is the technical qualities of it which make it interesting with a lot of trick photography.
I wouldn't say "Step Lively" is as much fun to watch as "Anchors Aweigh" is for example but "Step Lively" is a good old-fashion Hollywood musical with a lot of charm. Sinatra and Murphy make the film fun to watch.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Although "Anchors Aweigh" (1945) was released at the end of the WW2 it plays like a sentimental war romance and a very patriotic one at that. The first image we see in the film is of the U.S. Navy while patriotic music plays in the background, while in a Busby Berkeley style, we get an over the head shot of the sailors who form an anchor and later spell out the word "navy". We are suppose to feel proud and given the time of the film's release, perhaps even a sense of gratitude is in order. These brave men kept America safe.
On this day two important events are happening the famous pianist-conductor Jose Iturbi (playing himself) is on ship to conduct the Navy's march band and pay his respect to the sailors. There will also be an award ceremony as Joe Brady (Gene Kelly) and Clarence Doolittle (Frank Sinatra) are given medals for their valor and bravery. They remained on ship after all their ammunition had run out and Brady saved Clarence's life, who had fallen overboard (I told you before Kelly always had to play masculine brave heroes). And because of their acts they will be allowed a four day leave in California.
Joe immediately plans on heading straight for Hollywood were a sexy bombshell named Lola is waiting for him. Joe is considered the Navy's biggest and best ladies man (see, what did I tell you!). And Lola is ready to do stuff to him we can only dream about. But Clarence doesn't have such luck. There is no bombshell waiting for him. He reveals to Joe that he always strikes out with women. He becomes shy and doesn't know how to talk to them. So he trails Joe and hopes he can teach him a few tricks.
At first Joe wants nothing to do with Clarence since Lola is waiting for him but reluctantly agrees. Events become more complicated when a police officer (comedian Rags Ragland) brings them do down to the station as a young boy has run away from home trying to find a Navy recruitment center (clearly another pro-American, "everyone should do their part" signal). The police hope the sailors can get the boy to give them his address so they can take him home. And they do. Waiting for the boy is his young and beautiful Aunt Susan (Kathryn Grayson), a wanna be singer hoping to one day meet Jose Iturbi and audition for him. Immediately Clarence becomes taken with her and wants Joe to help him pick her up. Joe's plan. Tell Susan that Clarence knows Iturbi and has set up an audition for her. Of course it is all a lie and now the boys have to actually make it come true once everyone Susan knows finds out about it. Plus there is the possibility that Joe is starting to fall for Susan.
My own theory when it comes to musicals and comedies is you never should walk in expecting too much. To me a great musical or comedy only needs a decent enough storyline, just something to keep us interested but needs to compensate with a great musical score or lots of laughs. If it does that then I have no problem praising the film as great. "Anchors Aweigh" is such a movie. The plot isn't deep or complex. That was a staple of the film's producer, the famous Hungarian producer Joe Pasternak, who felt you should never make a movie where the audience has to think. But the musical score, with many songs written by the songwriting team of Sammy Cahn and lyricist Jules Styne, is memorable. Cahn would become one of Sinatra's favorite composers writing many of his hit songs. Thus "Anchors Aweigh" is a great movie. I'd put it in a class with "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), "Top Hat" (1935) and "42nd Street" (1933) as one of the all time great Hollywood musicals. It is an awful lot of fun to watch. It doesn't take itself too serious and understands all it is suppose to do is entertain us with song and dance.
The film marked the first time Kelly and Sinatra appeared in a movie together, beginning a trilogy of films they would do. In their last film, "On the Town" (1949), which I have already reviewed, they would go back to playing sailors, only they would be on a one day leave, but Sinatra and Kelly would basically be playing the same characters. Kelly the ladies man, Sinatra the shy kid afraid of girls. But of their three films "Anchors Aweigh" works the best. It seems to be having more fun. The story is a little better here and Kelly and Sinatra are a bit more charming. Plus it has that nice, sentimental 40s charm to it. It feels more old-fashion to me than "Take me out to the Ballgame" (1949) or "On the Town".
Though Kelly had been in more movies than Sinatra, at the time, he was the raising star and would get top billing. During the war years he really broke out with the Tommy Dorsey band. He became the favorite singer of young girls with hits like "All or Nothing At All", "I'll Walk Alone" and "If You Are But A Dream". And in "Anchors Aweigh" Sinatra gets to sing another big hit that us old timers remember, "I Fall In Love Too Easily".
Other songs heard in the film were previously written but were also quite popular. The film showcases Iturbi piano playing allowing him to perform three songs; a nice latin, jazzy version of the war time hit "Donkey Serenade" and then to show he was a serious pianist some classical pieces one by Tchaikovsky, which they have a little fun with when Sinatra, not knowing it is Iturbi, hears him play, mistakes it for "Tonight We Love", which the song was based on. But my favorite sequence is probably his performance of the second Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt.
Iturbi appeared in a couple of movies during the 40s and into the early 50s among them "Two Girls and A Sailor" (1944) and "Holiday in Mexico" (1946). I never thought he had much of a screen presence. He can be fun to watch but wasn't the performer or personality that Oscar Levant was. Levant was a very witty and comical guy not to mention a terrific pianist.
Kathryn Grayson is probably best known to movie buffs for her work with Howard Keel in musicals like Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate" (1953), Jerome Kern's "Show Boat" (1951) and "Lovely To Look At" (1952), a remake of the Fred Astair/Ginger Rogers musical "Roberta" (1935). She hadn't had much film acting experience prior to this, she did appear in the Abbott & Costello comedy "Rio Rita" (1942) which was a remake (some say in title only) of the stage play back in 1928, of the same name, which was made into a film a year later starring the comedy team Wheeler & Woosley.
Grayson had a very good voice and was a pleasant enough actress. Here she sings a nice rendition of "Jealousy". And though it says nothing of her acting, does look very beautiful here. I forgot just how attractive she was.
Comedy fans might also get a big kick out of this movie as several funnymen make cameo appearances. I already mention Rags Ragland, who made a lot of films with Red Skelton such as a pair of Cole Porter musicals "DuBarry Was A Lady" (1943) also with Gene Kelly and "Panama Hattie" (1942). Then there is the chief of police played by Edgar Kennedy known for his slow burn and often played foil to Laurel & Hardy and well us Grady Sutton who constantly played simple-minded fools in films like "The Bank Dick" (1940) with W.C. Fields, which I have reviewed and the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Pack Up Your Troubles" (1932). And though he isn't given much to work with spot Billy Gilbert as a cafe owner. Once again Laurel & Hardy fans will recognize him as the professor who absolutely does not want a piano in "The Music Box" (1932).
"Anchors Aweigh" was nominated for five Oscars including "Best Picture" and "Best Actor" (Kelly), it lost both categories to Billy Wilder's "The Lost Weekend" (1945), which I have reviewed. But it did win one award for "Best Musical Scoring".
The director of the film was George Sidney who directed a lot of musicals ranging from "Bye Bye Birdie" (1963) to an Esther Williams musical "Bathing Beauty" (1944) and films with Grayson; "Kiss Me Kate" and "Show Boat". The script was by Isobel Lennart who also wrote an Esther Williams musical "Shirts Ahoy!" (1952) and another movie with Sinatra "It Happened In Brooklyn" (1947) with Jimmy Durante.
Normally I would have put the film in my "Masterpiece Film Series" but it is too soon for another entry. Still "Anchors Aweigh" is a lot of fun to watch. It has some social significance to it as well. It was made during the bridge of WW2 and post-WW2 and I think reflects a little bit of both mentalities. We have that sentimental war time mentality as well as the hope of a bright tomorrow. The film has an ending which may be a bit too perfect. Everything works out down to the tee. But given what the country went through, I suppose people were entitled to a kind of fairy tale ending. Hollywood, at one time, was suppose to be a place which made you forget your trouble. Films like "Anchors Aweigh" did just that.
And finally there is no way I could have written about this movie and not mention what has become the most famous sequence in the film the duet between Gene Kelly and Jerry the Mouse of the"Tom & Jerry" cartoons. Children will recognize the bit and adults may take just as much delight in watching it. For its time the effects are pretty good. We wouldn't see anything this accomplished until "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988), the first movie I ever saw in a theatre (that I can remember).
"Anchors Aweigh" is a bit of movie Heaven. If you are a bit weary of musicals, for some strange reason a lot of people are, this is a good one to start off with. It is charming and funny. As I said, it has a pretty good story and terrific songs. And any movie that has Hungarian music has to be good. Right?