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Category Archives: Movie Musicals

Show Boat (1936) – A Celebration

Poster - Show Boat (1936)_01In 1951, MGM released their film version of Show Boat, starring Ava Gardner, Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, and it remains the version most known today. However, there was another, superior version made in 1936 at Universal Studios. It was directed by James Whale – director of FrankensteinThe Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man (and the excellent 1931 Waterloo Bridge) – and the film does display many of the themes that he explored in his earlier films: alienation, otherness. But Universal’s Show Boat, although successful, has virtually disappeared from popular consciousness. In the 1940s, MGM bought the rights to the musical from Universal and removed it from circulation in favor of their own version. It was not until the 1980s when it was shown again on television.

For years I’ve been cherishing my old VHS copy in lieu of a DVD. However, I am delighted to say that several years ago it was released on DVD. There are no extras or captions or anything, but at least I can finally retire my fading VHS.

The musical “Show Boat” was adapted by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern from the popular 1926 novel. The musical was released in 1927 and marked a new phase in the American musical. It was the first musical to successfully use songs to further the plot, a cohesive story that was not simply a series of dance and song numbers.

The novel is quite expansive – from the 1880s to the 1920s – and goes from the Mississippi River to Chicago and with its three generations is not an easy story to corral into a musical. I read in Jerome Kern (Yale Broadway Masteries Series) by Stephen Banfield, that the plot is so unwieldy and the ending so difficult to achieve effectively that every incarnation of the musical – the original musical, the movie versions and the revivals of the musical – trie a different ending each time.

The story is about racial prejudice, enduring love, and the nostalgia for the old days in the South and the almost mystical river contrasted with the modern and slightly disinfected North.

The show boat is Cotton Blossom, run by Captain Andy Hawks and his wife, Parthenia (Charles Winninger and Helen Westley), with stars Julie LaVerne and Steve Baker (Helen Morgan and Donald Cook) and their daughter Magnolia (Irene Dunne). Parthy is determined that Magnolia have as little do with show business as possible and does not approve of her friendship with Julie. But when a jealous would-be lover tells the sheriff that Julia is actually half black – miscegenation is illegal in the state  – Julie and Steve are forced to leave the boat, leaving Magnolia to take her place with charming ne’er-do-well gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) to replace Steve. Everyone tells her Gaylord is no good, but Magnolia marries him anyway. They leave for Chicago, but when he is unable to provide for her, he leaves her and she must earn her own way.

The cast is superb. Irene Dunne – though rather old to be playing an eighteen year old – actually does a very good job. She captures her naivete and is perfect as the character grows up and ages during the story. Charles Winninger and Helen Morgan were in the original 1927 musical and are also good, especially Helen Morgan, who can break your heart with a song. Allan Jones isn’t all that interesting in the role, but Gaylord is rather feckless anyway. Also standouts are Hattie McDaniel and, of course, Paul Robeson. If for no other reason, Show Boat deserves to be seen for Paul Robeson. This is one of the few opportunities for a modern audience to see him act. He did not originate the role of Joe in the musical, but the character and the song “Ol Man River” were written with him in mind. Jerome Kern reportedly said the song was inspired by Robeson’s speaking voice.

Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel and Helen Morgan

Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel and Helen Morgan

When it comes to racism, Show Boat is all over the place, though the story intended to transcend stereotypes and racial prejudice. That’s what makes it so fascinating and so much a product of its times and extremely useful for discussion. Julie LaVerne’s mother was black, but she can pass for white. Her husband does not care, nor even the man who is rejected by her (he is merely using the fact that she is black as a means of revenge) but the sheriff tells Captain Andy that Julie will have to leave because if people found out that a black woman was passing herself off as white, there would be trouble (i.e. a lynch mob?).

Show Boat also contains a scene where Magnolia does a song in black face while a segregated white and black audience look on. It’s a startling portrayal of black stereotypes, though by no means anachronistic of the period and it’s unclear whether Whale was making an ironic statement or simply wanted a dance in black face to reflect the period.

Another example of the film both reinforcing and eroding racial stereotypes at the same time are the characters Queenie (Hattie McDaniel) and Joe (Paul Robeson), who work on the Cotton Blossom. She represents the black mammy and he the lazy, shiftless black male. But both McDaniel and Robeson do a remarkable thing in transcending those roles and playing real people who have a real, affectionate relationship and they even have a fun and affectionate duet: “Ah Still Suits Me.” Robeson plays Joe less as a lazy man than as a man moving at the pace of the river who as figured out what matters in life. He often seems like the wise one, like the river, looking on compassionately.

In the character of Julie, however, the two themes of the story overlap: racism and the enduring love of women who must make their own way in life. Magnolia assumes at the beginning that if she discovered that the man she loved was no good, she would stop loving him, but Julie knows better. Once you fall in love, it’s too late, she says. That’s why you have to be careful who you fall in love with.

The story is filled with women who love weak, undeserving or irresponsible men, even Parthy and Queenie have men who seem irresponsible (Captain Andy – a negligent father if ever there was one – and Joe – though he does make more of the character). But unlike Julie, who falls to pieces after Steve leaves her and becomes an alcoholic (sadly reminiscent of Helen Morgan’s real life, who died from alcoholism when she was 41), Magnolia manages to keep on with life, despite her undying love for Gaylord after he deserts her. The irony is that Magnolia is even more successful without Gaylord and Julie would have been if she hadn’t started drinking.

Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Helen Westley

Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Helen Westley

I’ve always been attracted to stories that show the interconnectedness of life and the thread of family history that goes into making people as they are. The film ends with Kim – Magnolia and Gaylord’s daugter – following in the footsteps of her mother, though she has left the river far behind her. The ending has been criticized as weak, but I like how Kim’s life is seen as the culmination of all that has come before. If her grandparents hadn’t run a riverboat, if Julie hadn’t been forced to leave, Magnolia wouldn’t have taken her place, wouldn’t have married Gaylord.

There is a heartbreaking scene when Julie, now an alcoholic singer at a nightclub, hears Magnolia singing the song that Julie taught her years before: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” She learns that Magnolia is desperate for a job, since Gaylord has left her. Without ever speaking to her, Julie gives up her job so that the manager will be forced to put Magnolia in the show. Another chain in the link that makes Magnolia’s, and later Kim’s, success possible. it is fitting that the entire family should gather to see Kim in her debut as a musical leading lady.

This musical has always had a special place for me among all the musicals I love. The story was glamorized and simplified for the MGM version, which provides an unabashedly happy ending, shortens the length of time covered in the story, removes Magnolia’s career, and removes much of what is provocative about the racial subplot, though it does retain one excellent song (“Why Do I Love You?”) that was removed from the 1936 version.

Jerome Kern score is, for me, one of the loveliest musical scores. Kern stands between European operettas and the distinctly American flavor of popular music of George Gershwin and he was one of the first to begin to bring a uniquely American sound to popular music. He’s less jazzy than Gershwin, but his melodies are unmatched. “You are Love,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and the song that has taken a life of its own, “Ol Man River,” are the three most memorable songs, but the entire score is beautiful. I believe it is one of the great American musicals.

Paul Robeson sang what I consider to be the finest, most powerful version of “Ol Man River.” For some reason, in MGM’s version, all the songs were slowed down, including “Ol Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” The idea seems to be that a slower song packs a bigger emotional punch, which doesn’t necessarily work. Every time I hear the 1951 soundtrack, I get antsy wanting them to speed up. This is the tempo, faster than most people sing it, that I believe it really should be sung at.

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2015 in Movie Musicals

 

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Born to Dance (1936) – Eleanor Powell, Cole Porter, and Jimmy Stewart sings and dances…sort of

Born_to_Dance_-_1936-_PosterMy admittedly limited experience with Eleanor Powell musicals from MGM is that they are a mishmash of music, comedic routines, dancing numbers, general extravaganza and a dash of plot just to keep things interesting. Born to Dance, made in 1936 with songs by Cole Porter, is fairly typical of the genre. It was the second movie Eleanor Powell made with MGM and her first starring role, with her name above the title, even.

Eleanor Powell is possibly one of the finest tap dancers to appear in any Hollywood musical, ranking up there with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in sheer skill, though perhaps less adept as an actress. However, like Kelly and and Astaire, she did all her own choreography. As much as I enjoy her dancing, however, I’ve found that since she can’t be dancing all the time, my enjoyment of an Eleanor Powell vehicle depends somewhat on who the side characters are and the cast in Born to Dance is quite good: James Stewart, Una Merkel, Buddy Ebsen, Virginia Bruce, Sid Silvers.

Eleanor Powell is Nora Paige, who’s come to the city to find work as a dancer. She stumbles upon the Lonely Hearts Club, run by Jenny Saks (Una Merkel) who feels sympathy for a fellow female struggling in the big city and lets her stay…if she’ll do a dance or two. Also arrivning in New York City is a submarine with sailors Ted Barker (James Stewart), Mush Tracy (Buddy Ebsen) and Gunny Saks (Sid SIlvers), who’s married to Jenny Saks but hasn’t seen her for four years since he’s been in the navy and doesn’t know that Jenny has had his child.

Frances Langford, Buddy Ebsen, Eleanor Powell, James Stewart, Una Merkel, Gunny Saks

Frances Langford, Buddy Ebsen, Eleanor Powell, James Stewart, Una Merkel, Sid Silvers

All three men come to the Lonely Hearts Club and romances generally ensue, though Jenny doesn’t tell Gunny about his child yet because she is still not really sure if she wants to take him back after a four year absence. Ted and Nora fall in love, but complications come into their life in the shape of a Broadway star named Lucy James (Virginia Bruce), who sets her sights on Ted. And of course, Nora gets a job as Lucy’s understudy and one can see where this is going.

Having just seen James Stewart in Vertigo, I can’t think of a more different film than Born to Dance. Cole Porter chose Stewart for the role. He’d never been a leading man in an MGM film before – he wouldn’t be a star until Frank Capra’s 1938 You Can’t Take it With You –  and Porter thought that he could play the role well. And although Eleanor Powell’s voice was dubbed, surprisingly, Stewart does his own singing in the film and even introduces the great standard “Easy to Love.” He has a pleasant enough voice, though somewhat inadequate for Porter’s song. He can’t exactly dance, either, but at least he’s enthusiastic and good-humored in his attempts. Still, it was rather fun to see him at the beginning of his career in a genre that you don’t usually see him in.

Eleanor Powell

Eleanor Powell

The movie introduced two songs that would go on to be standards in The Great American Songbook: “Easy to Love” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and also other catchy ones like “Hey, Babe, Hey.” It seems that Cole Porter not only wrote the songs, but also the score for the film, though there were other people around to orchestrate and and arrange. The 1930s was an extremely fruitful decade for Porter, where many of his greatest songs were written.

The dancing and the songs are where the movie really shines. The plot’s a bit corny, but it’s never dull. And if you like dancing and songs, this is a good film to find it in.

This first video is of Frances Langford, Buddy Ebsen, Eleanor Powell, James Stewart, Una Merkel, and Sid Silvers singing and dancing in “Hey, Babe, Hey.” Buddy Ebsen and Sid Silvers are encountering more resistance than James Stewart in their attempts at wooing.

And a clip of Eleanor Powell dancing. She is still the understudy at this point, but one can tell she won’t be for long.

And James Stewart introduces “Easy to Love.” Cole Porter said, “…Stewart came over to the house and I heard him sing. He sings far from well, although he has nice notes in his voice, but he could play the part perfectly.”

Ella Fitzgerald sings “Easy to Love” a good deal better.

And Frank Sinatra singing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” which was introduced in the film by Virginia Bruce, who sang it to Jimmy Stewart

 

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“Pick Yourself Up” – from Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

1083_RS19_S012P120.jpgI’ve read a little bit of debate, though not a pressing amount, on who Fred Astaire’s best dancing partner was: Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, Vera-Ellen. They’re all wonderful (though Rita Hayworth is a bit stiff for me, like she had an iron bar for a spine when dancing), but they’re also different, so perhaps it’s not fair to compare them

But for utter joy in dancing, no one beats Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. No one makes dancing look more spontaneous than those two, so effortless and so fun. You almost think you can get up and do it, too (I never think I can dance like Cyd Charisse).

Swing Time (1936) was their sixth movie together and has some of their very finest dances. The songs were written by Jerome Kern (of “Show Boat” renown) and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields (who writes some of the wittiest lyrics I’ve heard, like “A Fine Romance”).

In the story, Fred Astaire is a gambler gone out to seek his fortune so he can marry his sweetheart. However, once he gets to New York City, he runs into Ginger Rogers. She is a dancing instructor and he pays for a lesson, pretending to be absolutely awful. They then sing a song:“Pick Yourself Up.” She is disgusted with him, but when she then gets fired by her boss (Eric Blore) he pulls her back onto the dance floor to demonstrate how much she has “taught” him while the incomparably funny Blore looks on.

Part of what made Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire unique is how they used their dances to further the plot. In this case, you can see Ginger Rogers undergo a complete metamorphosis of feelings towards him in only two and a half minutes and it is wonderful to watch her expressions throughout. First she looks exasperated and annoyed, but as soon as he begins dancing there is a complicated mixture of surprise, hope, pleasure and excitement. There’s also hesitancy, as she’s not quite sure where this is going, but gradually changes as she allows herself to fully get into the dance when she realizes the extant of his prowess. By the end, they have become one, demonstrating a complete comfort and ‘rightness’ that is truly unique to them.

In Puttin’ On The Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache, A Biography, the author Peter Levinson writes about how Fred Astaire always had his dances shot in one long, continuous shot. He never broke it up or wanted the dance viewed from different angles. He felt the dance should be viewed as a whole, with the whole body of each dancer in view at all times.

 

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