Sunday 4 May 2008

A Bevy Of Musical Moments

This post is part of the Invitation To Dance Blog-a-thon happening over at Ferdy On Film.

I've been delving into classic Hollywood musicals the last little while...I think it's partially due to having had the chance to catch both "Umbrellas Of Cherbourg" and - in particular - "The Young Girls Of Rochefort" on the big screen with audiences very happy to go along for the ride.

Of course, Hollywood muscials were quite different in many ways to both those films, but I was looking to further quench my thirst for the joyful spirit imbued throughout Jacques Demy's "Young Girls" - the spontaneous breaking into song, the extended dance sequences (many with props) and some damn catchy music. So I've been randomly exploring the stacks at my local video store.

One thing to note first though...As much as women were peers to the men when it came to participating in the singing and dancing, they weren't quite given that same respect in the storylines. Not that they were treated shabbily, but a few cases spring to mind:

  • Cyd Charisse in "Silk Stockings", who plays a tough minded Russian coming to America for the first time and falling for Fred Astaire, actually sings: "But with love, what is a woman? Serene contentment, the perfect wife, For a woman to a man is just a woman, But a man to a woman is her life."
  • Jane Powell plays Fred Astaire's sister and dance partner in "Royal Wedding" and even though she's an integral part of the act and terrifically sassy, if she chooses to marry the Brit she has fallen for she must - MUST - quit her career and move to England. Apparently there is absolutely no other option...
  • Gene Kelly's painter character in "An American In Paris" upon walking into an older rich woman's house says to her "how did you come by all these worldly possessions? A rich husband or a rich father?". Those are the only two ways she could possibly have done it?
  • The final musical number in "The Taste Of New Orleans" informs us that essentially women want the man to force himself on them. Manners, charm, style and respect in a man are apparently kind of boring.

It's that last one that kinda sticks in my craw a bit more..."Taste Of New Orleans" was the one musical of the bunch that I actively disliked - even before that scene came up. I'm not much of an opera fan, so it didn't help at all that Mario Lanza was the male lead. But it wasn't so much the music, but Lanza and his character that brought everything down. Lanza plays a Bayou fisherman who brings his Uncle to the big city of New Orleans when a touring company stumbles on Lanza's big voice. He's supposed to be a rough around the edges simple man, but the character was boorish and annoying and Lanza didn't help matters any in the way he played him. He may have a big voice, but I didn't see any of the sparkle that most musical stars typically had. His Uncle in the film was even worse - a selfish and mean person who I guess was supposed to be comedic relief. Kathryn Grayson seems to give it her best shot as the love interest, but there's not a speck of chemistry between them. A charmless movie overall.

Fortunately, nothing else I saw reached those low points. An example of one that doesn't quite work, but certainly had moments is "Silk Stockings" - a re-working of Ernst Lubitsch's 1939 comedy "Ninotchka" (which starred Greta Garbo in the lead role). The problems are many, but let's start with the main reason to watch the film - Cyd Charisse. Even though she's playing a tough Russian (with a shaky accent), her beauty and grace just can't help but come through. Her dances with Astaire, a wonderful solo dance section and the terrific ensemble number near the end ("The Red Blues") is enough to recommend the film.

My problems with the film are, I guess, simply personal taste - the comedy was dull, the songs were frankly unmemorable or slightly aggravating (yeah, I'm calling you out on this one Cole Porter...), Fred Astaire's acting seemed weak as he relied a lot on mugging and the look of the film was very drab. Perhaps that last one was intentional, but it sure didn't help matters.

But let's move on and stay positive..."On The Town" is what some might call "sprightly" (uh, if indeed anyone actually still uses that word). Its three female leads have energy to spare and bring alive the film whenever they are present. My favourite section of the film, though, is the short ballet sequence near the end that combines lighting, colour, beautiful dancing and a creatively told story. The rest of the film was fine, but this section notched it up for me.

Though "On The Town" is know as one of the grand-daddy's of musicals, my two favourites so far have been: "The Belle Of New York" and "Royal Wedding" (both conveniently available in a single double disc set).

I expect both of these films have been called "slight", but that's OK. They are both warm, charming, fun and filled with bright colours and terrific dancing. And maybe a smidge hokey.

"Belle" was my introduction to Vera-Ellen (also in "On The Town" - she made only 14 movies in a 12 year span) and she radiates a girl next door freshness that I couldn't resist. This helps when you're working through some of the rougher spots of the thin plot. Fred Astaire's playboy meets her mission house worker and love ensues with standard complications. Astaire plays his usual role and though I've never been overly keen on his acting, he is smooth as silk in the song and dance sequences.

OK, the dancing on air sequences are a bit, what was that word again, oh yeah...hokey. But it still works fine for me because it adds an element of the fantastical to the love story. The special effects are hugely dated, but otherwise the look of the film is almost painterly. Particularly in a long sequence showing the progression of their love affair through the seasons:

The best dance number is near the end of the film when Astaire does a solo to "I Wanna Be A Dancin' Man". Initially shot in front of a red curtain with no special lighting, a reshoot was called for and the resultant scene with a bare stage bathed in blue came about. In "That's Entertainment III" they do a split screen comparison between the two dances - and it's quite amazing to see how closely Astaire matches the moves in each.

Tops on my list of recent viewings is "Royal Wedding" though. Why?

  • Two of Astaire's greatest dance routines with props (the coat rack and of course the dancing on the ceiling sequence).
  • Jane Powell.
  • The deep rich colours throughout the film.
  • Jane Powell.
  • Some great songs including "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I've Been A Liar All My Life".
  • Another light and fun storyline.
  • Jane Powell.

Powell is just radiant through most of this film - whether she is being carefree with her male relationships early on, glowing in love with Peter Lawford or bouncing around in several great dance routines taken from the stage act of the characters in the film (Astaire and Powell are a brother/sister dance team).

And Astaire is in great form. My favourite routines of his typically pull in some kind of prop or other element that he can incorporate into his dancing. I suppose that this can take away somewhat from the purity and smoothness of his trade, but I find it stretches the creativity and usually results in highly entertaining moments.

But by far my favourite moment of the film is the song and dance routine for "I've Been A Liar All My Life". It's one of the catchiest tunes I've heard from any musical (I'd heard it before, but never knew where it came from) and when it kicks into a higher gear while Powell's gum-snapping tough girl breaks into a wide grin it becomes completely infectious. Here's the entire routine, but note (in comparion to one of the screenshots above) that the colours are washed out here. Just imagine this popping off your screen.

"How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I've Been A Liar All My Life"

A few more videos to end with...Both of them from "Easter Parade" and both focusing on Astaire. The first is yet another example of props adding a great deal of fun and imagination to the craft. The second is a great example of the filmmakers putting their own creativity into the mix - an extended slow motion shot of Astaire while the background dancers are all in normal speed.

"Drum Crazy"

"Steppin' Out"

One of the most interesting aspects to note with all three of these videos (and many of the dance sequences in the films from this period) is that there are very long takes and not much editing. This really brings alive the tremendous skill that Astaire, Charisse, Powell and the many others brought to these pure entertainment vehicles. I wish we had more of that these days...

Oh, and one final note...Cyd Charisse had great legs.


Anonymous said...

Bob - What a great rundown of some of the classics (and a couple of the duds) of movie musicals. I'm afraid I'm going to have to correct you about one of my favorite dancers and the one with the smallest waist on screen - Vera-Ellen (not Vera Lynn). I love her as Miss Turnstiles in On the Town.

Yes, Jane Powell and everything else about Royal Wedding is luscious. My personal favorite of Fred Astaire is Swing Time, but it's certainly got nothing on that brilliant Technicolor Donen production.

Ah poor Mario Lanza. He coulda been a contender on the grand opera stages. His voice and career were managed very badly, and the film you discuss I couldn't even finish.

Thanks again for participating!

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks for the correction Marilyn. Sloppy of me...I even had her IMDB page opened when I wrote that up. I blame it on my allergies.

Lanza sure had a booming voice, but yeah, I had to struggle through that film and didn't even try the other one that came with it ("That Midnight Kiss"). From the little I've read about him, it does sound like he had a rough slide down after his peak.

Anonymous said...

Yes, indeedy ... Cyd Charisse had fabulous legs.

It's telling these days that the dances are often highly edited, with lots o' cuts. Rarely is the skill and perfectionism of an Astaire or Kelly seen any more; they just cut together a full sequence out of the pieces.

Great post.

Greg said...

Lanza and his whole family were doomed. Have you ever read up on him? Jeez, dead at 38, his wife died a few months later, two of their children died before 50 (one at 37). A sad life. I've never been an opera fan and have only seen one Lanza film, The Great Caruso which underwhelmed me. I thought Lanza was good but there was nothing in the film that made me want to see him again.

My favorite Astaire/Charisse film is The Band Wagon. But Silk Stockings still has some good pieces, and Charisse putting on silk stockings, so there's that. But if you haven't seen Band Wagon I'd give it a look.

Excellent overview Bob.

Bob Turnbull said...

Hi Rick,

It certainly does seem like the fast cut editing is more the style these days, but I suppose there aren't really that many examples from the last 20-25 years to choose from (short of videos)...Marilyn had a couple of good ones in her post and both contained long shots. But it does seem to be a lost art...

Bob Turnbull said...

Hi Jonathan,

You bet I've seen The Bandwagon (what, you don't keep up to date on all of my Esoteric Picks posts? B-) ). It's a fave of mine as well - in particular the terrific Girl Hunt sequence towards the end. When Astaire slides into the club (after those other entrances by the gangsters in black) in his white suit, hat down and sneer on his face, it just ratchets it way up. At least I think he's supposed to be sneering - it looks more like a huge grin on his face.

I've only read a little on Lanza's life, but it sure did seem to spiral down fairly quickly after rising to what was apparently huge fame in the early 50s.

Thanks for the kind words (to you too Rick - forgot to mention that).

Lisa said...

Glad to see that you enjoyed the charming Belle of New York which doesn't get quite the buzz it should. It's just plain adorable, and Fred doing the "Dancing Man" number is a truly sublime treat, and rather haunting, too. I have always thought it completely sums up his appeal.
Great post!

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks Lisa...

I was frankly stunned when I looked up Belle on IMDB and saw some absolutely scathing reviews - some calling it Astaire's worst (or almost worst) film. Oh well...For whatever reason, I too was quite charmed by it. The dancing next to the moving street car was another favourite moment (though the dancing on the horse may have been a bit too much). They both just had such elegance and smoothness as they hopped between the moving platform and the ground.