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Cocoon (1985) – Remembering James Horner Blogathon

download (2)Two days ago – June 22nd – marked a year after the tragic death of composer James Horner in an airplane crash and in honor of his memory Film Music Central is hosting the “Remembering James Horner Blogathon.” Be sure to check out the other great posts here. For my contribution, I am focusing on James Horner’s score from Cocoon, a sci-fi/fantasy that was directed by Ron Howard in 1985.

As a fan of Don Ameche, I’d been curious to see the film for some time after I’d read that he earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. I’m not usually very familiar with actors from the 1980s, but Cocoon is actually full of familiar faces. Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Gwen Verdon, Maureen Stapleton and even Tyrone Power’s son, Tyrone Power Jr. (who looks like his father, but has none of his charisma).

The film begins with three friends – Art (Don Ameche), Ben (Wilford Brimley), and Joe (Hume Cronyn) – who live at a retirement home, but sneak into an empty neighboring mansion to swim in the pool. But after four mysterious strangers rent the mansion and charter a boat captained by the somewhat awkward Jack (Steve Guttenberg), they start bringing cocoons up from the ocean and putting them in the pool.

The three men discover that the pool suddenly has regenerative powers. They feel more alive and vital and Joe’s cancer goes into remission. Ben and Joe’s respective married life suddenly comes alive and Art starts going out with fellow retiree Bess (Gwen Verdon). Soon all six of them are swimming in the pool, recapturing the romance and excitement of their youth.

There are no villains in Cocoon. The four strangers are revealed to be aliens who used to live on earth thousands of years ago and are trying to rescue their friends, who are in the cocoons. The aliens seem to have remarkable healing abilities and do not experience old age or death by natural causes. Their leader, Walter (Brian Dennehy), agrees to let the six of them continue to swim in the pool (since Joe will die if he doesn’t), but only if they keep it a secret, which isn’t easy to do because all the inhabitants of the retirement home have noticed their remarkable rejuvenation and want to share in it.

Cocoon

Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Wilford Brimley

The movie is a meditation on life, death and love and although the beginning seems like more of a comedy, ultimately there is a melancholy and gentle vibe to the film which James Horner’s score perfectly captures, or rather, frames. His music is as much a star as the excellent cast. I was crying at the death of a green and shriveled alien. That had to be the music. The music is at times whimsical, melancholy, but also full of wonder and I was unexpectedly moved by the beauty of the score.

(plot spoilers ahead)

The wonder is reserved partly for the aliens, with their unique ability to make people feel good when they are around. They are the friendliest, most normal aliens one will ever encounter, who can empathize with the frailty of the humans, even though they do not experience that same frailty. But when Walter is unable to save a few of his friends, he too learns what it feels like to grieve, feel helpless, and he offers to take all the members of the retirement home back with him when he leaves earth.

Its like the adventure of a lifetime for many of these people who thought they were going to live out the remainder of their days in increasing illness as they watch those they love die, but it is still hard not to see their leaving with the aliens as partly a metaphor for life after death.  A new adventure, leaving earth behind forever. The wonderment and difficulty of imagining what that will be like is present…as well as the regret of leaving behind the life that is known. This isn’t as much of a problem for most of the people, who do not seem to have family, but Ben (Wilford Brimley) and his wife have a daughter and grandson, who they are particularly close to, and it’s hard to say goodbye, especially to their grandson.

the alien (as they really look when not wearing their human skin) welcomes them to the pool

the alien (as they really look when not wearing their human skin) welcomes them to the pool

One man believes that the aliens and their cocoon are cheating death and the natural passage of time and prefers to stay “home” on earth. His decision is sympathetic, too, especially after his wife dies. You can see that he and his wife were a couple essentially satisfied with life, with no regrets, and now that she’s gone, he’s ready to go, too.

(end spoilers)

Cocoon provided the first opportunity for James Horner to work with director Ron Howard and they would collaborate on seven films, including Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. But his score for Cocoon is particularly poignant. There is a gentleness to it, a transparent simplicity that also gives space for reflection.

What was also fun about the soundtrack was the inclusion of many songs from the 1940s. As the retirees recapture their youth, they sing and we hear the songs of their youth. Don Ameche sings “I’m in the Mood for Love” and goes down on one knee to sing “Some Enchanted Evening” to the woman he’s wooing. We also hear “Dancing in the Dark” and “You’ll Never Know.” There is even a contemporary eighties song called “Gravity,” which Ameche (and his stunt double) dances to demonstrate the level of his rejuvenation.

This post was part of the “Remembering James Horner Blogathon.” I want to thank Bex at Film Music Central for hosting this wonderful event!

james-horner

On the website James Horner Film Music, the soundtrack is discussed for Cocoon, pointing out the piano and guitar used during the song “Rose’s Death,” which is a scene guaranteed to have you bawling. To quote the article, “The composer recently said that he wants to look for melancholic colors echoing the past with certain instruments that are the key to unlocking the heart”.

James Horner repeats the theme in “First Tears,” when the alien dies, this time using horn and oboe. I defy anyone not to cry during this scene.

And here are the end credits, which encapsulates the entire score, the entire theme of wonder, awe, longing, loss and love. It’s a remarkable accomplishment.

And just for good measure, here is the trailer.

 
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Posted by on June 24, 2016 in Movies

 

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Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938)

Alexandersragtimeband1938Alexander’s Ragtime Band is all about the music; specifically Irving Berlin’s music. 20th Century Fox producer Darryl Zanuck wanted to make a biopic of Irving Berlin, but Berlin wasn’t interested, so instead they made a film about the fictional Alexander (Tyrone Power) as he goes from violin student who conducts a small band in bars to up-and-coming bandleader to respectable bandleader who gives a concert at Carnegie Hall. The music Alexander plays is all written by Berlin.

The plot is pretty thin: Tyrone Power pines for Alice Faye, Alice Faye sings and pines for Power, Don Ameche sings and pines for Faye, while Ethel Merman sings and pines for Power. Poor Merman and Ameche. No one seems to pine for them. But at least they can sing. Tyrone Power primarily spends the movie waving his arms about, pretending he’s conducting a band.

Actually, it’s not as bad as I make it sound. The actors are all engaging (with the possible exception of Tyrone Power, who I usually like, but not as much here) and excellent singers (except Power). The music is sensational and worth anything: infectious, buoyant, joyous; I could not get some of those songs out of my head. There’s the title song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which Irving Berlin wrote in 1911 and was his first hit. Another knockout song is “Heat Wave,” sung by Ethel Merman.

Tyrone Power is bit of a callow stick-in-the-mud (though a handsome one) as Alex, a man who’s first priority is the music he loves. His band consists of Charlie (Don Ameche), a good friend who plays the piano and composes songs. Davey (Jack Haley) plays the drums. The band also picks up Stella Kirby (Alice Faye), a brassy, vulgar loudmouth who quickly morphs into an elegant and classy lady. She and Alex clash frequently, initially in relation to what she’s wearing (she likes feather boas, he doesn’t). Charlie falls in love with her as she is, but after she becomes a lady, Alex suddenly discovers that he loves her, too. Stella even sings the love song Charlie wrote for her to Alex, but Charlie is very gracious about it (he’s practically a sucker for martyrdom in this film).

Irving Berlin, Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche

Irving Berlin, Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche

But Stella and Alex have another row, she leaves the band and Alex goes to war (WWI – an opportunity to sing “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” which Berlin wrote in 1918 after he was drafted). The story begins to drag a little as Stella, Charlie and Alex all feel sorry for themselves (though Charlie’s still very brave about it), but fortunately Ethel Merman arrives like a breath of fresh air and sings a few knockout songs, though she too joins the pining club, but she remains practical about it. She and Charlie both know that there really will be no one for Alex and Stella but Alex and Stella.

I must confess that the romances did become a bit tedious. I thought Ameche and Faye actually have better chemistry (they made five movies together) than Power and Faye. In The Rose of Washington Square, Power and Faye work as a couple because she seems more mature than him and mothers him a bit, which is not exactly what Alexander’s Ragtime Band calls for. Also, I thought Ethel Merman was a better fit for Power; she’s a nice contrast of personality and loosens him up. I guess I’m just a sucker for rooting for the wrong romantic couples. I have this problem a lot.

Other problems with the script abound. At the beginning of the film, a plot thread involving Alex’s disproving aunt (Helen Westley) and music teacher (Jean Hersholt) is introduced only to have it disappear until the end, where they suddenly reappear and are very proud of him.

Ethel Merman on stage

Ethel Merman

I’ve kind of trashed the plot, but I really do like the movie. It’s a frustrated kind of like, but I still like it. It’s the music and the performers. There is no skimping on the songs, which seems to come at a pace of every five minutes. It’s almost a music video. The music is supposed to range from 1911 to the late 1930s, but it’s all played like ’30’s swing, but that’s not a complaint. It’s wonderful. And it’s fun to hear the contrast between Faye and Merman, one with a warm, intimate voice (Faye got her start on radio) and the other knocking it out of the ballpark (Merman is Broadway all the way).

I also like the general aura of the film. It’s not historically accurate, but it’s fun and I love films about bandleaders and musicians from that era. And as I said, the music is worth anything.

This scene is from the beginning, when both Stella Kirby and Alexander’s band are seeking a job at a saloon. Alexander’s forgotten his music, so they use a score sitting on the bar, which turns out to be Stella’s. Indignant, she joins the music and the manager likes how they work together so well that he hires them both, as long as  they perform together.

Here’s Ethel Merman singing “Heat Wave,” which was written in 1933 for the revue “As Thousands Cheer.” It was introduced by Ethel Waters.

Here is both Ethel Merman and Alice Faye singing “Blue Skies” in Alexander’s Ragtime Band. “Blue Skies” was actually written in 1926 for a Rodgers and Hart musical called “Betsy.” The musical wasn’t a success, but the song certainly was.

“Now It Can Be Told” was one of the few new songs Berlin wrote for the movie and was nominated for Best Song, though it lost to Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s “Thanks for the Memories.”

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2015 in Movies

 

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Girl Trouble (1942) – A Wartime Screwball Comedy

girl-trouble-affiche_463166_16938Hollywood has always liked stories about rich people pretending to be domestics, usually not successfully; though William Powell was an exception as an unsurpassed butler in My Man Godfrey. There is often overcooked toast involved in these kinds of tales. Merrily We Live (Constance Bennett and Brian Aherne) and If Only You Could Cook (Herbert Marshall and Jean Arthur) are also lesser known entries into this genre. However, what all three movies have in common is that it is the man who is pretending to be a domestic when he is, in reality, quite wealthy.

Girl Trouble takes a different tack, in that the domestic is a woman and she’s no longer rich. Without being a war propaganda film, the movie is firmly set during WWII and much of what the characters are doing are the result of the war. There is June Delaney (Joan Bennett) who has lost all her fortune because, for some reason, she can no longer get her money out of London (presumably due to the war). There is also the South American playboy, Pedro Sullivan (Don Ameche), who has come to America to negotiate a loan for his father’s rubber plantation so that they can start selling rubber to the Americans. It is a loan that the US government very much wants, partly because they are in desperate need of rubber and partly to cement good relations with South America – both rubber and South American relations really being genuine concerns of the US at that time.

And then there is Mrs. Rowland (Billie Burke), who is the ultimate in fluttery women, always organizing charities (usually for the war effort) and red cross meetings. And June seems to have an awful lot of spoiled, rich friends (some in uniform) who go from home to home, participating in these meetings. Even the fluttery and spoiled must help the war effort.

1407210366_3Because June is now broke, she must rent out her apartment and Pedro Sullivan (his name is explained by the fact that his father came from America) must stay in New York for a while, so he rents her apartment and mistakes her for the maid because she is dressed like a maid and running the vacuum. June’s friend Helen (Helene Reynolds) thinks it’s all very funny and is glad that June will no longer be in competition for the men now that she is poor. However, when Pedro asks June to stay on as his maid, June says yes and she has the advantage over her friend in that, though he thinks she’s the maid, it allows her to be on the spot where he is most of the time.

Joan Bennett is by far the calmest screwball comedienne I have ever seen. No matter what happens, like burnt toast, a vacuum that spits dust all over her dog, Mrs. Rowland taking Pedro’s clothes away with her for charity (she believes they are June’s father’s clothes), she always remains calm and never visibly reacts. There is no making faces, wringing hands, screaming or looking frazzled. She simply moves on, unflappably, with whatever she is doing, finding some way out of her difficultly or coming up with some sort of lie when necessary. She even takes the news about her impoverishment relatively philosophically and never utters one word of complaint. Perhaps complaining would have seemed unseemly during the war.

It’s not the greatest comedy ever made; it’s only 81 minutes and there’s not a tremendous amount of character depth, but it’s cute and I especially enjoyed Joan Bennett’s comedic style. I was also fascinated with how effortlessly WWII grounded it is. Even the decision to have the romantic lead be from South America is partially war related since South America was about the only continent that didn’t have most of it’s young men in uniform or off fighting

girl-trouble_478199_47588June also has the cutest little black terrier (I think it’s a Scottish Terrier) who is always frisking about and accompanied by lively Scottish (or Irish) music. What is also pretty funny is how blithely unaware Pedro and June are of the massive impropriety of having a female maid living in the same apartment with her male employer. Whenever people hear about the arrangement, they are shocked, but June and Pedro don’t seem to notice.

The irony is that he is a playboy and isn’t all that good at his business. It is June who seems to display business acumen. She reads his papers and asks him intelligent questions that he can’t answer and is also the one to resolve his business difficulties. For being a spoiled, rich young lady, she turns out to be pretty competent, except she can’t make toast.

 

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