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Girl Crazy (1943)

Songs by George and Ira Gershwin, a dance choreographed by Busby Berkeley, an appearance by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra, an early appearance from June Allyson, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland doing what they do best? Who could ask for anything more!

George and Ira Gershwin’s 1931 musical “Girl Crazy” is transformed plot-wise, but many of the songs are kept, most notably “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” Fascinating Rhythm,” and “But Not For Me,” all songs that have become standards.

Danny Churchill (Mickey Rooney) is the playboy son of a wealthy publisher who is sent out west to an all boys agricultural and mining school (not that we see much agriculture, mining, or school…just horse-riding and singing). There is, however, one girl present. The granddaughter of the dean (Guy Kibbee). She is Ginger Gray (Judy Garland), who is in charge of the school’s mail and drives the rickety car.

She is not, however, impressed by the east coast playboy, though he is more than impressed with her. He has to prove his love and prove that he’s not a quitter at the school and save the school from closing down by attracting applicants…by staging a musical rodeo. They thus manage to get the “let’s-put-on-a-show” plot line into the story.

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were amazing and seem to be able to do pretty much anything. Mickey Rooney sings and dances and plays the piano with Tommy Dorsey and does physical comedy and is a wonder to behold. He also has a sweet chemistry with Judy Garland. It seems like in so many of Judy Garland’s movies, she is pining away for her wayward man, it is nice to see things reversed with Rooney trying to win her.

Judy Garland was twenty-one in Girl Crazy and she looks fresh, alive and lovely. She had a hard life and in many of her later movies you can see it on her face, but in Girl Crazy she still looks as if she has the whole world before her as she enters womanhood. She just about glows.

She also could seemingly do anything: comedy, drama, sing, dance, etc. She always had a good sense of comedic timing, but could then turn around and rip your heart out with a song. In Girl Crazy, the song is “But Not For Me.”

The musical “Girl Crazy” in 1931 is the musical that made Ethel Merman a Broadway star. Judy Garland’s role was played by Ginger Rogers, but Ethel Merman introduced “I Got Rhythm”and blew everyone away. In the movie, the song becomes a Busby Berkeley choreographed western extravaganza with Garland, Rooney, Tommy Dorsey and many others. It’s a rousing way to end a film.

I’m always rather in awe of Judy Garland’s dancing. It’s not that she’s Cyd Charisse or even Eleanor Powell, but she always gives the appearance of total ease and rightness. It’s a joy to watch her dance and she always makes it look good. So often, now, I feel like singing and dancing is all about making it look like the performer is working hard, but Judy Garland looked as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

My sister and I have often talked about how comedians and people with good physical comedic timing often seem to be able to dance. It’s not that they are the most technically proficient, but that they have a physical lightness and adroitness that translates well to dance. Judy Garland has that same ability. For me, not only could she never sing too many songs, but she could never dance to much.

This is my contribution to “The Judy Garland Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. To see all the posts for this blogathon, click here.

Judy Garland breaks one’s heart.

Mickey Rooney fails to make an impression on Judy Garland.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2017 in Movies

 

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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.

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2016 in Movies

 

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Hollywood Musicals: The 101 Greatest Song-and-Dance Movies of All Time – Ken Bloom

downloadThe title Hollywood Musicals: The 101 Greatest Song-and-Dance Movies of All Time gives the wrong impression of this book. Although author Ken Bloom says he’s writing about the best movie musicals, I’m not sure that’s entirely what he’s doing. His selection is too idiosyncratic.The Muppet MovieBeach Blanket BingoSunny Side Up (1929)?

Many of the musicals he writes about do deserve to be considered the greatest, but he’s less interested in writing about what makes these musicals work and more interested in exploring the many facets of the movie musical and seems to have chosen his films to allow him to cover as many facets as possible. Dubbing. Adapting a successful Broadway show to the screen. Why studios interpolated songs from their own songwriters into already popular musicals. Disney musicals. Musical biopics. The differences between a slick MGM musical and an anarchic Paramount musical (think Judy Garland vehicles vs. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope movies). His coverage is far reaching: rock musicals, animated musicals, country musicals, even disco (Saturday Night Fever) and stop motion animated musicals (The Nightmare before Christmas).

If you are looking for plot synopses or behind-the scenes explanations about the making of musicals, this is not really the book to read. There are little bios of actors and also – a great strength – bios that highlight overlooked directors (Charles Walters), songwriters (Mack Gordon), musical arrangers (Kay Thompson) and choreographers (Michael Kidd). He also discusses the usual suspects, like Bob Fosse, Busby Berkeley and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

With each musical, Bloom takes the opportunity to discuss one topic. For example, for Pajama Game, he talks about when Hollywood replaces the stage actor who created the role  with a movie actor and the reasons behind this. One of the most notorious examples occurred when Ethel Merman was replaced with Rosalind Russell for Gypsy.  However, because Doris Day was a huge star – and a genuinely gifted musical star – no one complained when she replaced Janis Page. It seems to depend on how well it works out. Another example is Julie Andrews being replaced by Aubrey Hepburn (I’m not sure if people will ever get over that one).

The strength of the book (apart from the mini-bios and the fun behind-the-scenes pictures, often with actors making peculiar faces) are the little nuggets of observations about musicals (and other things) and what makes them work or not. Here are some that I found most intriguing.

download (1)Fantasy is not easy to do – this observation does not only pertain to musicals, but fantasy in general. He believes that one of the secrets of a good fantasy (like The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) is that the people within the fantasy world must take their world absolutely seriously. There can be no winking at the audience, self-referential humor. The protagonist can find the world a little odd, but the people in it must notice nothing odd at all. Bloom actually believes the same thing about many comedy (he highlights farce).

He also believes that a good children’s fantasy (think Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Wizard of Oz) needs to have genuinely frightening villains. Otherwise, there is nothing at stake (he’s not a fan of funny villains from Shrek) and there’s no genuine tension.

Broadway musicals should not necessarily be adapted to the screen too reverently – this is a big pet peeve of his. He finds My Fair Lady far too static and reverential, like a museum piece. I kind of know what he means. There’s a spark missing from the movie that evidently was present on the stage, a liveliness and sense of fun. The film feels a bit stodgy to me.

The Music Man is another example of a film that seems to him too lifeless. His problem with the film version of The Music Man is a little different, however, than that with My Fair Lady. The main trouble, he believes, was that the movie was filmed like a stage play, unimaginatively and statically, often with the camera simply facing the action. He believes that a film director like Stanley Donen (who helped direct The Pajama Game) should have been brought in to help with the camera work and making the film more cinematic.

Bloom also mentions several musicals that he believes were better on film than on the stage, such as The Sound of Music and West Side Story. Apparently in West Side Story, several songs were shifted around and one song – “America” – was changed so that instead of just the girls singing, the boys join in, too.

Academy Award for Best Original Song has seriously gone down the tubes – it used to be that the song nominated for Best Original Song came from a musical and there were plenty of musicals to choose from. In the fifties, that began to change and more and more songs were sung during the opening credits. Now, the songs that win are often sung during the closing credits! Ah well…apparently there have been thoughts that this category should be removed, though I would be mildly surprised if they did any time soon.

63e282b70406b372d51ef4f13e79ae4aPeople actually got tired of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers! – this seems incredible. How could you ever get tired of those two? Nevertheless, it seems to have happened. Not just Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but eventually of musicals. In What The Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, Brian Seibert wonders the same thing about tap dancing. Could people have simply been over-saturated with tap dancing after the fifties? After all, it was everywhere: stage, movies, even TV. Now, as Bloom points out, even many B musicals (though certainly not all) seem like “mini masterpieces” because of the professional know-how and talent that went into them, but they seem to have eventually wearied people.

Though not my grandmother. She didn’t leave musicals in the 1950s; musicals left her. They were her favorite genre (along with Hitchcock), but gradually there were less to see.

Many racist films were not meant to be racist – Many movies that contain racist material were actually trying to be progressive. There were several all-black musicals made (Cabin in the SkyStormy Weather) and given an A musical budget, but lack of understanding prevented them from fully ridding themselves of stereotypical portrayals and even cemented some.

But for me it is a reminder not to condescend to people with “benighted” views. It’s easier today not to be racist because it is not considered socially acceptable to be racist and it’s easier to rid ourselves of stereotypes because people of different ethnicities and backgrounds are much less segregated. Through the internet and social media and even movies and shows, we are less isolated in our own respective cultures. As Bloom pointed out, in the 1930s, most black and white people did not intermix socially. Now, we are even more familiar with how people live in other countries.

It’s doesn’t mean there isn’t racism today, but that it is easier not to be racist. However, at least these people were trying, even if they didn’t fully succeed (though there are numerous examples in films were people didn’t even try).

Here is a quote from Hal Johnson, a black musician and director who was asked by Cabin in the Sky’s associate producer to review the script for possible offensive material.

At the moment, the dialect in your script is a weird but a priceless conglomeration of pre-Civil War constructions mixed with up-to-the minute Harlem slang and heavily sprinkled with a type of verb which Amos and Andy purloined from Miller and Lyles, the Negro comedians: all adding up to a lingo which has never been heard nor spoken on land or sea by any human being, and would most certainly be “more than Greek” to the ignorant Georgia Negroes in your play.

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Musicals as spectacle – I’d like to end this post with a quote by Bloom that ticked my funny bone. He wrote this while discussing the seriously psychedelic The Gang’s All Here, with bananas, almost no plot, Carmen Miranda, Busby Berkeley and floating stars. Seriously, if you have not seen this one, you really should.

The great dramatic spectacles such as Ben-Hur, El Cid, and Lawrence of Arabia were astounding in their scope but they had to be, given their plot. Movies such as the 1997 Titanic may amaze us for their sheer scale but they do not provoke that perfect mixture of awe, astonishment, glee and guilty pleasure boasted by the spectacular movie musical of the past.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2016 in Books

 

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