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Tag Archives: Ann Miller

Hit the Deck (1955)

220px-Hit_the_Deck_posterI’ve always thought that certain movies ought to be watched at certain times of the year…and in certain weather. Horror belongs in the fall, during a storm or at least some rain. Fog and gloom are especially preferable. Film noirs can also be watched in the fall, but definitely all winter. But musicals belong in the summer. I’ll watch a musical around Christmas and New Years…but for me a musical truly is at home in the sunshine and warmth of a summer evening.

Musicals can also be watched during the day, unlike horror and noir, which is best viewed in the dark. But a musical during the day can stick with you as you go about your daily tasks.

Which is to say that I’ve been watching a lot of musicals recently. This week I watched MGM’s 1955 Hit the Deck with Jane Powell, Tony Martin, Debbie Reynolds, Ann Miller, Vic Damone, Russ Tamblyn, Gene Nelson and Walter Pidgeon. It’s a very full cast. A slight musical, but a full cast.

Three sailors – Bill Clark (Tony Martin), Rico Ferrari (Vic Damone), and Danny Smith (Russ Tamblyn) – are trying to get a transfer from the Arctic to someplace like Hawaii by baking a cake for the Admiral’s birthday. Their baking skills are less than impressive, however, and they are transferred to a swamp. Eventually, they do get a 48 hour leave in New York.

Bill visits his girlfriend of six years, nightclub performer Ginger (Ann Miller), who is tired of waiting for Bill to propose and dumps him. Rico and Danny – as in all sailor musicals – are also looking for a date. Danny is the son of Admiral Smith (Walter Pidgeon), but he likes to keep it quiet because he doesn’t want preferential treatment. He has a somewhat distant relationship with his busy father, as does Danny’s sister, Susan (Jane Powell), who is looking to bust out of her proper and circumspect lifestyle as the admiral’s daughter by going out with actor Wendell Craig (Gene Raymond), a smarmy performer currently starring in a musical who offers to give Susan an “audition” at his apartment.

When Danny learns about Susan’s escapades from Wendell Craig’s fellow performer in the show, Carol Pace (Debbie Reynolds), he and his buddies break in on the audition and give Wendell Craig a black eye, much to the chagrin of Susan. Soon the sailors are on the run from the shore patrol after Wendell Craig lodges a complaint. Meanwhile, Rico falls for Susan, even though she still half thinks she’s in love with Wendell, while Danny and Carol Pace go for each other and Ginger proves how much she loves Bill, even though everyone tells Bill he’s a sap for not for seeing how much Ginger loves him and marrying her.

The entire cast at Rico's home, where his mother leads the singing

At Rico’s home, where his mother leads the singing

It’s a fairly familiar story. Hit the Deck was originally a play, then a Broadway musical in 1927, then a movie in 1930. The songs were composed by Vincent Youmans, with lyrics by Clifford Grey and Leo Robins. It’s a fun musical, worth seeing if you enjoy musicals, but I have to agree with many people that the film lacks a certain spark. One doesn’t quite feel the emotional investment in the characters.

I was in awe, however, at the the kind of top-notch resources, talent and professionalism that MGM could effortlessly toss off, even in a mediocre musical. MGM was extraordinarily slick, which I don’t think I appreciated until I watched some of their lesser efforts.The cast is talented, the songs are catchy, the dancing is first rate. Tony Martin and Vic Damone sing well, if not terribly dynamic as actors. Russ Tamblyn and Debbie Reynolds are adorable, high energy, and get to do a fun, inventive acrobatic dance together in a fun house that doubles as a kind of chamber of horrors with demons and fire. Debbie Reynolds character gets almost nothing else to do besides perform in a few dance numbers. Jane Powell’s character has probably the most to do of all the women, but the role of Susan feels like a slight reversion after her more mature role in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers the year before.

And MGM knew how to keep people from looking ridiculous (in the words of Rod, from the publicity department in Singin’ in the Rain, “The studio’s gotta keep their stars from looking ridiculous at any cost”). Tony Martin and Vic Damone can’t dance? Have them sing and put them in group settings where they can move around and look fluid without looking strained. Ann Miller can dance? Give her several knockout dances. Russ Tamblyn and Debbie Reynolds provide the energy and the cuteness. Jane Powell sings the songs and gets the majority of the character arch – perhaps because she is one of the better actors of the six leads. Everyone looks good, an absolute absence of strain, very slick. It’s pretty awe-inspiring.

Hermes Pan provided the choreography for all the dances in the film, which is definitely a highlight in the movie. Here is Ann Miller in “Lady from the Bayou.”

Tony Martin, Vic Damone and Russ Tamblyn sing “Hallelujah” at the beginning of the film instead of baking the cake, which might be just as well since they sing better than they bake. Russ Tamblyn also demonstrates his superior juggling and acrobatic skills.

Hermes Pan worked closely with Fred Astaire during his years at RKO, which might explain the influence of Astaire’s dance in Follow the Fleet (which can be viewed here) – where Astaire dances while a troop of sailors keep time behind him with their feet – on the ending tap dance with Ann Miller where the entire cast reprises “Hallelujah.”

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2016 in Movies

 

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Easter Parade (1948)

Easter_Parade_posterPeriodically, I need to watch a musical, especially one with dance in it. Listening to those taps, feeling the thrill of movement and rhythm, walking around the house singing loudly – it like coming awake after hibernation. And although we’ve already passed Easter, it still seems appropriate to review Easter Parade. It always represented to me not only Easter, but spring, as well.

Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) and Nadine Hale (Ann Miller) are a successful ballroom dance team in 1912. However, just before Easter, Nadine tells Don that she is breaking up the team. She is going to join the Ziegfeld Follies and become a star. He’s in love with her and utterly crushed, but she loves a friend of theirs, Jonathan Harrow III (Peter Lawford), a wealthy young man they call Professor because he’s currently in law school.

Hurt and angry, Don gets very drunk indeed and talks wildly of how he doesn’t need Nadine. He made Nadine who she is, he asserts. He made her and he could train another person to take her place as easy as that. To prove his point, he grabs a random chorus girl in a cafe show and tells her to meet him the following morning. She’s going to be his new dance partner.

The random girl is Hannah Browne (Judy Garland), who initially doesn’t take him seriously until she realizes that he is Don Hewes. Awed and a bit star struck, she quits her job and shows up the next morning, much to the disappointment of Don, who immediately regretted his rash invitation after he had recovered from his hang-over. But he’s too proud to admit it and he sets out to remake Hannah Brown in the image of Nadine. He renames her Jaunita (“Well, if you wanted a Jaunita, why did you pick me? Hannah asks him) and chooses the clothes she will wear and generally treats her as if she is not really a person.

The results are disappointing to Don. Hannah is not Nadine. Meanwhile, Hannah falls in love with Don while the Professor falls in love with Hannah. We end up with a love square. Don loves Nadine, Nadine loves the Professor, the Professor loves Hannah, and Hannah loves Don. Fortunately, they are pretty civilized about it, all things considered. They mostly wait patiently and suffer silently (and maybe sing a song about it, if you’re Judy Garland) until they get who they want (in the case of the women) or realize who they really want (in the case of the men).

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The movie is actually in color

In Easter Parade, Nadine is portrayed as the unsympathetic one, but I realized that she actually has some very good reasons to break up her act with Don. She was undoubtedly the junior partner, he is the one who imposed his image on her (the clothes, the graceful dancer), but perhaps she really just wants to break loose. She’s like a red hot mama incognito (as evidenced by her tap dance, “Shakin’ the Blues Away”). He could have been smothering her personality. Also, since Don is in love with her and she doesn’t love him back, a separation seems eminently sensible.

Don obviously has a tendency to impose on his partners some inner image he has. He finally learns his lesson with Hannah. He has to let her be herself and when he does, their act comes together brilliantly.

I love Judy Garland as Hannah Brown. It’s not talked about as often, but she was a fine comedian – her facial expressions, reactions to people, the way she delivers her lines, the general awkwardness of her persona, only to start singing and become perfectly self-assured in her movements. When Judy Garland is on the screen, you can’t help watching her. In some ways, she overwhelms Fred Astaire rather than complements him because she has such a strong presence (which is interesting, because she’s also fragile). But I think Astaire is deferring to her, as well, while they dance, letting her…well, do what she does best. She’s not his most skillful dance partner, but she is more than skillful enough and they are a joy to watch. Judy Garland could be hard to work with, but apparently the two of them got along very well.

Originally, Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse were to be in the film as Don and Nadine, but both were injured prior to filming and had to be replaced. The idea of Cyd Charisse as Nadine actually makes a lot of sense, considering how much emphasis is placed on Nadine’s grace and elegance. Ann Miller, as I noted, has a more red hot mama persona. But in a weird way, it adds to the sense that Don is shaping his dance partners in an inner image of his own.

I have much more trouble seeing Gene Kelly as Don. It’s difficult to imagine him as the kind of guy who would transform a woman into a graceful fashion icon of grace and sophistication. He seems more like the kind of guy who would be trying to reach the top himself then trying to train people to join him at the top. But perhaps things were rewritten slightly to accommodate the casting change.

Dance, songs by Irving Berlin (the film features a menagerie of his songs written previously for other musicals and revues – like Harry Warren, I can never get his songs out of my head!), it’s one of my favorite musicals by Fred Astaire (though I admittedly have an awful lot of Fred Astaire favorites – I think half his films are my favorite). It’s not to everyone’s tastes.It is considered a slightly weaker MGM musical, but I’ve always had a great weakness for this one.

The red hot mama incognito is incognito no longer.

I love how the mother of the boy is smiling while Fred Astaire cons her son out of a stuffed bunny – of course if someone paid me to stand in a room were Fred Astaire was dancing I’d be smiling, too

Hannah Brown finally being allowed to be herself and do what she does best.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2016 in Movies

 

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