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Category Archives: Movie Musicals

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

download (1)Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was made in 1953, a movie adaptation of the 1949 musical of the same name. The musical was an adaptation of a play, which was adapted from the novel, written in 1925 by Anita Loos (a prominent screenwriter of ’20s). The original book was a satire of the flapper culture in the 1920s. The movie has none of that satire, mostly being an excuse for catchy songs sung by Hollywood’s leading sex icons of the era, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, in glorious (occasionally gaudy) technicolor.

However, I found it a very entertaining extravaganza. What I really enjoyed about it most was the great camaraderie between Russell and Monroe as they sail through the film, making mincemeat of the men, all the while having each other’s back. There’s none of the usual Hollywood female cat-fighting in this film.

The film follows the exploits of two showgirls, Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw. Monroe is Lorelei, the blonde ditz and dedicated gold digger (diamond digger, really). Jane Russell plays Dorothy, her fun-loving, snarky, but utterly loyal friend. Lorelei has managed to ensnare the hapless Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan), the son of a millionaire. However, Gus’ father is determined to prevent their wedding and when Lorelei and Dorothy make a transatlantic crossing to Europe, Gus’ father sends a private detective along to watch Lorelei.

Lorelei, meanwhile, meets the very rich Sir Francis Beekman (Charles Coburn), who owns a diamond mind, but is also married. Dorothy meets the detective, Malone (Elliott Reid), not knowing he is a detective and they mutually fall for each other while he still tries to spy on Lorelei. His vigilance pays off, too. Sir Francis has traveled a great deal in Africa and while he demonstrates to Lorelei how a python wraps up a goat, with Lorelei as the goat, Malone manages to snap some pictures. But Dorothy catches him taking pictures and between her and Lorelei, they swipe the pictures back. Lorelei gives the pictures to Sir Francis to destroy and in gratitude he swipes his own wife’s diamond tiara (that Lorelei has been coveting) and gives it to Lorelei at her request.

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell

This proves to be her undoing as Malone gets wind of it, who passes the information on to Lady Beekman and Gus’ father. Gus breaks up with Lorelei and Dorothy breaks up with Malone, leaving the two girls broke in Paris; down, but by no means out. Through more machinations, the girls manage to get everything they want, including Gus and Malone.

The film is often characterized as being about two gold diggers, but there is actually only one gold digger and that is a big reason why these two women can be such good friends in the film. They are not competition for each other. They want different things out of life and they both get what they want.

Lorelei Lee, as played by Monroe, personifies the blonde ditz, but nevertheless has a razor sharp streak of pragmatism and smarts. She may not know that you wear a tiara on your head, but she certainly knows how to get what she wants and has a surprisingly well developed philosophy on the matter.

Movies and novels have always popularized the notion that you can’t help who you love, but Lorelei earnestly believes that you can chose who you fall in love with and there is no reason in the world why you shouldn’t find a millionaire that you can also love. And nothing in the film contradicts this belief. She is not made to fall in love with a poor man or repent of her scheming for money. In fact, when Mr. Esmond says that she only wants his son for his money, she admits that money is a factor. Being a rich man is like being a pretty woman, she says. Men don’t marry women just because they are pretty, but “my goodness, doesn’t it help?” If he had a daughter, surely he would want his daughter to marry a man with money, too.

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Dorothy and Lorelei ponder a problem

Dorothy, unlike Lorelei, is not a ditz and gets to deliver some of the films funniest and snarkiest lines. She also has a completely different philosophy in life. She likes “a beautiful hunk of man” and she likes to have a good time and she can’t stand playboys. When Gus wants her to chaperone Lorelei while they are on their trip to Europe, she is very excited to see that the whole US Olympic team will be on board. Gus is worried (he needn’t have been; athletes are too poor for Lorelei to glance at), but Dorothy replies that “the chaperone’s job is to see that nobody else has any fun. Nobody chaperones the chaperone. That’s why I’m so right for this job.”

The film is generally regarded as being Monroe’s film, but I have to say I really enjoyed Jane Russell. She brings an intelligent good humor to the character, with staunch loyalty to Lorelei. Russell has always had a reputation for not being the most versatile actress, but I like her low-key, comfortable persona and how she has a way of looking as if she’s really there with the other actors, instead of just using them as a prop, as Monroe can occasionally do.

The iconic song is, of course, “Diamond Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” sung by Marilyn Monroe, in pink dress with red background and dozens of men dancing in tuxedos, offering her dozens of diamonds. It’s a very catchy song, but my favorite songs are from the first half of the film. There is “Bye, Bye Baby,” which I absolutely cannot get out of my head, “A Little Girl from Little Rock,” and the song that Dorothy sings when she learns that the entire Olympic team has to be in bed by nine, “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love.”

Notes

Lorelei, Dorothy and Gus

Lorelei, Dorothy and Gus

I have always had a lukewarm opinion of Marilyn Monroe’s singing abilities. She has a way of breathing through a song instead of singing. However, Monroe does a fairly good job in this. She still manages to whisper/sing many of the lyrics, but she studied hard for the film and she’s better than usual. For the really high, operatic notes in “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” however, her voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, who also dubbed Deborah Kerr’s voice in The King and I and Audrey Hepburn’s in My Fair Lady.

The director, Howard Hawks, is best known for films like Bringing Up Baby and Only Angels Have Wings. He did not get along with Marilyn Monroe at all. He didn’t like that she had her acting instructor on set all the time or that she wanted many retakes. However, Jane Russell was evidently a very easy going person and was able to intercede between Hawks and Monroe.

All the songs were written by Jule Styne, with lyrics by Leo Robin. However, two additional songs were written by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson: “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” and “When Love Goes Wrong.”

Here is “Bye Bye Baby.” The first woman you hear singing is Jane Russell. Later, when you hear somebody crooning breathily that is Marilyn Monroe, singing to her fiance, Gus.

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2015 in Comedy, Movie Musicals

 

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Movie and Book and What If It Was I Who Had Traveled Back in Time?

A_Yankee_in_the_Court_of_King_Arthur_book_cover_1889Some time ago, I read Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and recently watched the 1949 film of the same name with Bing Crosby. The movie is quite a bit more light-hearted than the book, with Bing Crosby singing his songs with his trademark easy-going humor. The book is oddly serious at times; it starts out as a biting and often hilarious parody of chivalrous fiction, specifically the Arthurian legends, only to end with an exceedingly bleak indictment of modernity.

In the book, the man who goes back to King Arthur’s time, Hank Morgan, is from Connecticut and was a supervisor at a weapon’s factory. In the movie, Bing Crosby’s Hank Martin is a blacksmith. What both these men have in common, however, are some basic skills, the ability to build modern devices, often weapons, but also other useful devices (like a safety pin). And in both versions, Hank is handy with a lasso and can bring down a knight in a joust without having to resort to actually wearing armor and using a lance. They also both use their special knowledge of an approaching eclipse to pretend that they are wizards who can make the sun cease to shine and Crosby’s Hank has matches and a piece of glass to create fire.

Mark Twain wrote his book in 1889 and in his book Hank Morgan is clearly more enlightened than King Arthur and his knights. He introduces baseball, democracy, shows the king his realm and the suffering and slavery within. But all his knowledge is ultimately of no use. He restructures the kingdom, only to have it all undone when he takes a trip and Arthur discovers Lancelot and Guinevere’s love affair and the kingdom disintegrate into war. When Hank comes back, the people have deserted him and he and a faithful few are besieged by knights. He puts up electric wires all around his refuge and every last knight is electrocuted en masse (because of their armor). The besieged are surrounded by a wall of fried knights and cannot get out because of their own electric fence and the electrocuted men. It is truly an appalling end and although the war was brought about by medieval ignorance (a big theme in the book), it seems as if Twain negates his parody with such utter destruction, which critics have often likened to what was to come in the trench warfare of WWI. Superstition and ignorance versus soulless machines, but it is the final scene that really stays with the reader.

connecticutyankee2The movie, made in 1949, completely omits the bleakness and is sheer good-humored, Technicolor fun – the kind of film where people seem so happy to be living that they have to sing.

Bing Crosby’s Hank Martin is still more enlightened than the medieval people, but mostly because he’s more cool (Bing Crosby generally plays people who are very cool and sing cool songs). Crosby sings, woos Alisande (Rhonda Fleming – known as The Queen of Technicolor for how well her red hair filmed in color), shows the musicians how to play cool music, has a wizard battle with Merlin, hangs out with Sir Sagramore (William Bendix), lassoes Sir Lancelot, takes King Arthur (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) on a trip to see his kingdom and makes a gun. He does die at the end, but he is translated back to the future and meets Alisande’s descendent (or possibly her reincarnated self).

I watched it with my Nana, who remembers seeing it when it first came out. She was walking to school the next day and met her friend, who had also happened to see the film that weekend. She recalls that there was no one on the street and the two of them walked to school, all the while singing the film’s most infectious song “Busy Doing Nothing.”

In some ways A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court makes me think of The Court Jester in its medieval comedy, jousts, and fun with medieval language, though Bing Crosby’s character has things a little more together than Danny Kaye’s.

I was also rather struck by the fact that they chose to set the beginning of the film in 1912 as opposed to the 1940s. I think they did this so that he could reasonably be a blacksmith and therefore have some useful skills when he was sent back in time. And that got me thinking. Many people in American have such specialized and specific knowledge that if we were to be sent back in time, we might be of no earthly use in the past. I wondered, if I were sent back in time, what could I do? I could never build a gun, let alone a safety pin.

Bing Crosby at his blacksmith's ship, sharpening a sward with William Bendix

Bing Crosby at his blacksmith’s ship, sharpening a sword with William Bendix

I can play the piano, but pianos hadn’t been invented yet. Not even the harpsichord was in use (which wouldn’t be until the fourteenth century). And I couldn’t build one. I could, possibly, explain our modern musical notation to them and musical theory. Music in the 6th century (when Arthur was king) was monophonic, which means a single line of melody, and was generally vocal. I suppose I could try to scare the living daylights out of people with my harmony, though I am not sure if I would survive such a performance.

One thing I’d have is my phone. (Bing Crosby had matches on him when he was sent back, I would probably have a cellphone). I could play alarming music and shine the screen at people until my battery died.

I could also teach sanitation, washing hands and such, but I couldn’t really help with the plague or other diseases. Nor do I think writing or blogging would be especially useful. My best bet might be to employ my mediocre juggling skills and become a court jester.

What would you do if you were sent back into King Arthur’s day?

For anyone interested, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court can be seen on youtube.

 
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Posted by on November 14, 2014 in Fiction, Movie Musicals

 

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Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell Dancing to “Begin the Beguine”

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Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire dance in Broadway Melody of 1940

Broadway Melody of 1940 was the fourth Broadway Melody movie made at MGM, with the last three starring Eleanor Powell. The first she was in was Broadway Melody of 1936, her first starring role, and Broadway Melody of 1938. She is joined in 1940 by Fred Astaire and George Murphy and although many people have commented that Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire do not even remotely have the chemistry of say, Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger, they are both, without doubt, two of the finest tap dancers of their era and it is sheer joy to watch them dance together.

I don’t really remember much of the plot – it seems to me it’s pretty weak – but there is an absolute glut of dancing and the finest example is near the end, when Powell and Astaire dance on a floor that is actually a mirror, with a mirror behind them with light reflected in them. It is completely breathtaking. The song they dance to is called “Begin the Beguine,” written by Cole Porter.

Apparently the beguine is a dance, described as a slow rumba and a cross between French ballroom dancing and Latin folk dancing. It was popular in the ’30s and ’40s and, I read, came from places like Guadeloupe and Martinique. Cole Porter seems to have had his geography a little off, because he composed the song while on a cruise between Indonesia and Fiji. I have also read that it was while on the cruise that he heard a native rhythm that inspired the song.

The song was for his 1935 musical, “Jubilee,” which was extremely popular when it debuted and also contains the great song, “Just One of Those Things.” A fun bit of trivia: the “Jubilee” cast list contains such unexpected names as Melville Cooper (The Sheriff of Nottingham in Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood) and Mary Boland (Mrs. Bennett in the 1940 Pride and Prejudice) and even Montgomery Clift. I wonder if they sang?

“Begin the Beguine” is perhaps most famously played by Artie Shaw and his band, though the song has been recorded numerous times and is one of the great songs of the era. And without further ado, here is Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire dancing to “Begin the Beguine.”

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2014 in Great American Songbook, Movie Musicals

 

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