RSS

Tag Archives: Arthur Freed

Broadway Melody (1929) and 42nd Street (1933) – Early Musicals

220px-Forty-second-street-1933download The Jazz Singer (1927), Broadway Melody (of 1929) and 42nd Street (1933) are the three most important early musicals of the talkie era. The Jazz Singer opened the floodgates of sound and song. Broadway Melody  seems to have set the template for later backstage musicals, won the award for Best Picture for MGM in 1929 and is considered one of the best movies from the movie musical bonanza that occurred in 1929. After audiences tired of musicals (they were static and stage-bound), 42nd Street came along to revive the movie musical and inject a strong dose of energy and relevance. It was particularly interesting to watch Broadway Melody and 42nd Street back to back.

I have to confess that Broadway Melody was hard to watch. Because it was one of MGM’s first all-talking picture and because producer Irving Thalberg considered it an experiment, it was made cheaply, quickly and with actors who are clearly not musical stars. Bessie Love and Anita Page (who both began in the silent era – Bessie Love in particular was a genuine silent star) play a sister act trying to break into Broadway, but both fall in love with the same man (Charles King).

I could never decide whether or not the audience is supposed to realize that their act is corny or if we are just supposed to overlook the fact that they really can’t sing or dance. Whatever the case, Anita Page’s character becomes a success (mostly because of how she looks), while Bessie Love ends up having to sacrifice everything so her sister can be happy with the man they both love. Fortunately, self-sacrifice is always the way to go as an actor and Love was nominated for Best Actress.

The songs were written by composer Nacio Herb Brown and lyricist Arthur Freed, who later was responsible for the famed “Freed Unit,” which produced Meet Me in St. LouisSingin’ In the Rain and many other great musicals. Even several of the songs from Broadway Melody make it into Singin’ In the Rain: “Broadway Melody,” “You Were Meant for Me.” The songs are good, but the dancing is less so. Everyone looks either game or flaccid. Arms are flung out carelessly, people do lazy cartwheels, leg kicks look kind of random. I’m not kidding. I’ve seen better from high school students.

Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily harsh. I’m usually better at trying to put myself in the shoes of the audiences of the time and trying to see what they saw. However, I frankly found The Jazz Singer more entertaining and expert. The dialogue is pretty stilted in Broadway Melody and for whatever reason, everyone sounds a bit trebly. The staging is pretty static and the dances look lethargic. It must have seemed like an extraordinary thing at the time, but there is a reason that movie musicals were regarded as somewhat defunct by 1933. A little goes a long way.

42nd Street, on the other hand, feels like a huge leap forward. The music, the stars, the editing, the dances, the wisecracks, the innuendos. It has so much more propulsion and zip, not to mention choreography by Busby Berkeley. And the music by Harry Warren and Al Dubin feels modern and exciting (and absolutely impossible to get out of one’s head). Both stories are backstage musicals, but 42nd Street is far less sentimental, with everyone pretty clear-eyed and pragmatic about work and love. It is also set firmly in the depression and has that freewheeling pre-code feel about it.

42nd-street-chorus-line-rehearsal

Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler and Una Merkel

The film benefits from a good cast. The film launched Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell as musical stars. Bebe Daniels (another silent star) can sing reasonably well and George Brent (a future Warner Bros. leading man) is suitably suitable. Warner Baxter is the larger-than-life director of the show and Una Merkel is on hand to exchange knowing wisecracks with Ginger Rogers in a pre-Fred Astaire role.

Watching 42nd Street after having been steeped in all the musicals that came later makes it feel a bit dated or cliched. However, watching it after seeing The Jazz Singer and Broadway Melody, suddenly it looks fast, modern and vital. Movie musicals are finally starting to look like movie musicals as we know them.

42nd Street was followed by a veritable musical craze that never seemed to let up until the 1950s. Warner Bros. continued to make musicals in the mode of 42nd Street during the 1930s (such as Gold Diggers of 1933), though they never seemed to quite capture the magic in later decades. RKO would introduce an entirely different kind of musical in the 1930s with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: grace, elegance, sophistication. It makes a nice contrast with the scrappier, more ensemble focused Warner Bros. musicals. Universal Studios had Deanna Durbin in the 1930s – who often sang classical songs – while MGM had by far the most polished and expensive musicals with Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald and Eleanor Powell. 20th Century Fox had Shirley Temple (and later Don Ameche and Alice Faye) while Paramount had Bing Crosby and Mae West. A little something for everyone in those depression years.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 13, 2016 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

“Girl Hunt Ballet” from The Band Wagon – parody of film noirs and detective stories

The_Band_Wagon_posterOne of my favorite movie musicals is The Band Wagon from 1953, with Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Jack Buchanan, Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant. It is one of those marvelous backstage dramas where the cast must overcome a variety of difficulties to put on their musical.

It shows you how narcissistic Hollywood is that their two greatest musicals are about entertainment: Singing In the Rain is about the transition from silent films to talkies and The Band Wagon is about the travails of putting on a musical play, as well as being a bit of a satire about entertainment folks. I suppose there’s nothing like doing what you know best and musicals are particularly suited to plots about entertainment, anyway.

The songs in the movie are a collection of songs written in the 1920s and ’30s by the songwriting team Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, who also wrote the songs for the 1931 revue “The Band Wagon” that starred Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele. Some of the songs in the revue were recycled for the movie, though the movie has nothing to do with the original revue.

bandwagon22

Fred Astaire did so many excellent movies, it’s hard to pick out a favorite, but this is definitely one of them. It’s a little different – he does less actual tap dancing in this one then he does in his earlier films, especially those done at RKO with Ginger Rogers during the 30s. There is more ballet in The Band Wagon and Astaire said he was uncomfortable with ballet, but he is still nothing short of elegant, a supreme dancer unlike anyone else. There is one beautiful scene, in the middle of the movie, where he and Cyd Charisse dance in the moonlight. The characters are trying to find out if the two of them can work together and dance together (her character was a ballerina and his was a hoofer, which sounds like art imitating life), blending her style with his. The song is called “Dancing in the Dark” and is one of the most lovely, romantic, elegant dances seen in the movies.

“Dancing in the Dark” is an easily accessible dance – there’s nothing to do but watch and enjoy. The last dance in the movie is a little different, because it’s actually a parody as well as a dance and I didn’t get it the first time I saw it. I wasn’t well aware of the source material they were parodying.

The dance is called “Girl Hunt Ballet.” It is around 12 minutes long and is a mini-mystery dance. Fred Astaire plays Rod Reilly, a private detective and he is narrating his story, which is unfolding in the dance, with Cyd Charisse playing both the innocent blonde and the brunette siren.

Cyd CHARISSE und Fred ASTAIRE in 'Vorhang auf!', 1953When I went back, however, and watched movies like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and read some hard-boiled detective fiction, suddenly it clicked and I got it. From then on, it’s been my favorite part in the movie. It’s crazy. It makes no sense. It’s hilarious and I love it – a highly stylish parody.

I could now see all the little clichés of the genre that the dance was playing on. For example, the plot. “Girl Hunt Ballet” makes no sense; things happen in the most random way, but that’s no problem because books and movies like The Big Sleep are known for making no sense. It’s about atmosphere, something Girl Hunt Ballet has in abundance. I do not, to this day, understand what is going on. There’s something about a trumpet, an emerald, some random clues like a bone, and various women dancing about, trying to get the emerald.

Cyd Charisse is the femme fatale, slinking around trying to seduce the hero. Actually, she is two femme fatales, managing to cover both variations that are found in detective stories: the innocent who is not really innocent but plays on the hero’s desire to protect her and the siren who merely plays to lower desires. Fred Astaire is the cool, cynical, hard-bitten detective who saunters around, getting into punch fights, following his instincts and looking cool and in control no matter what.

The voice-over that he provides is likewise hilarious. He gets to say stuff like “She came at me in sections. More curves than a scenic highway. She was bad, she was dangerous. I wouldn’t trust her any farther than I could throw her. She was selling hard, but I wasn’t buying.” It’s exactly the kind of stuff they say in those movies – the kind of picturesque dialogue that film noirs are known for; the kind of dialogue that always sounds so good but unlike anything real people say.

PhotoCharisseAstaireBandWagonGirlHuntI just about expire with laughter during the moment when he is having his romantic dance with the innocent femme fatale Charisse while gunman are fighting each other in the background, their guns going off, and falling down dead while Astaire and Charisse share a kiss.

Apparently it was meant to be a spoof of Mickey Spillane, a popular and slightly pulpy detective writer. There seems to be some confusion about who actually wrote the story for the ballet. Vincente Minnelli, the director, took credit, but so also did Alan Jay Lerner (of eventual My Fair Lady fame), without credit, as a favor. Even Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the screenwriters for the whole movie, are given some credit.

Whoever it was, it’s absolutely brilliant. Not only is it a great dance, but it is very funny. I’ve known some people who didn’t care for it because it seemed just a little odd, but it has to be approached with tongue definitely in cheek.

I cannot show “Girl Hunt Ballet” on this site, but click here to see the entire dance on youtube. Below is the trailer for the entire movie.

 
7 Comments

Posted by on July 2, 2014 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: