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A Damsel in Distress (1937) – George Gershwin, Fred Astaire and Burns and Allen

220px-A-Damsel-in-Distress-1937Fred Astaire has always been primarily known for his partnership with Ginger Rogers and the nine movies they made together at RKO (there was a tenth at MGM). After six of them, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers wanted to take a brief break, during which he made A Damsel in Distress, released in 1937. However, it was a total flop and many people believe it was because of the absence of Ginger Rogers or, in fact, very much romantic dancing at all between the central couple.

As a result, A Damsel in Distress has always been a bit of a neglected child, always dismissed as not being up to the Astaire and Rogers sublimity of dance. However, being a Fred Astaire completest (I am now three movies away from having seen every movie that Fred Astaire danced in – acting parts don’t count), in love with George Gershwin’s music and songs and a huge fan of P.G. Wodehouse I was very eager to see this one. I was not disappointed, either. The movie introduced several now classic songs by Gershwin, the dancing – even if it is not done romantically – is tremendous fun, George Burns and Gracie Allen are a hoot and the supporting cast is generally amusing and the humor droll that I found the movie difficult to resist.

The screenplay was written by P.G. Wodehouse and it was an adaptation of his own 1919 novel of the same name. In the original book, the main character is George Bevan, a composer, but the main character was changed to Jerry Halliday and his profession became that of an entertainer (which makes sense, since dancing and entertainment is what Fred Astaire did).

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Fred Astaire guards the taxi in which Joan Fontaine hides from the police and her butler, Keggs

The damsel who is in distress is Lady Alyce Marshmorton (Joan Fontaine). She is in love with a man she met in Switzerland the previous year but is being kept away from him by her family, primarily her aunt Caroline Byng (Constance Collier), who wants her to marry her step-son, Reggie Byng (Ray Noble). All Reggie wants to do is play his various instruments, like the trumpet, piano and bagpipe. And all Alyce’s father, Lord Marshmorton, (Montagu Love) wants is to be left alone so that he can tend his garden.

Meanwhile, the servants below have organized a sweepstake. All the names of the likely candidates for Lady Alyce to marry are put in a hat and each person draws. Keggs the butler (Reginald Gardiner) manages, through slight of hand, to draw the favorite, Reggie Byng. However, the footman, Albert, has more imagination and blackmails his way in to the sweepstake (he was originally excluded because he is still a child) and choses a “Mr. X” as his ticket.

Lady Alyce sneaks off to London, but is followed by Keggs and in an effort to get away from him, she hops into a random taxi, which happens to contain Jerry. He is delighted and immediately jumps to her rescue by fighting off Keggs. Albert sees the whole things and believes that Jerry is the Mr. X of Switzerland and sets out to encourage Jerry as much as he can. He sends him a letter supposedly written by Alyce, telling him how much she loves him. Jerry sets out for Belpher Castle along with his press agent George (George Burns) and his agent’s secretary, Gracie (Gracie Allen).

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Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine

Once there, all sorts of misunderstandings occur. Jerry moves forward with the utter conviction that Alyce is in love with him, while she just thinks he is here to assist her in her problem. Her family is convinced that he is the mystery man from Switzerland and Keggs is doing everything in his power to sabotage Jerry and prevent Albert from winning the sweepstake. Jerry mistakes Lord Marshmorton for the gardener and employs him to send a message to Alyce and finally, when Keggs realizes that Alyce is falling in love with Jerry, Keggs forces Albert to switch sweepstake tickets with him and suddenly Keggs is on Jerry’s side while Albert is seeking to sabotage him.

Gracie Allen and George Burns, although they don’t have a particularly central role to play, almost steal the film, especially Gracie Allen. She plays a not-too-bright secretary who takes things too literally and is only being kept on because her father helped George. Burns and Allen were known for their radio and TV show, but before, they had done vaudeville and you can see that in the film. They have several dances with Fred Astaire and although they were never known for it, they actually dance quite creditably.

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George Burns, Gracie Allen and Fred Astaire doing the whisk broom dance – George Burns isn’t quite up to Gracie and Fred’s dancing

The dances are quite fun. Fred Astaire dances in the street near the beginning of the movie, with cars and cabs driving behind him. Later, he dances with George and Gracie in his cottage near Belpher that they do with whisk brooms. Later, there is a rather extraordinary dance between the three of them in a fun house at a fair.

The one dance that is rather less that extraordinary, that is always commented on, is the one dance between Joan Fontaine and Fred Astaire. Poor Joan Fontaine was only nineteen and was cast, presumably, because she was British (it’s hard to imagine Ginger Rogers in the role), but she could not dance and it is very obvious. She later joked to Fred Astaire that A Damsel in Distress set her career back four years (it was in four years that she became a star and won an Oscar nomination for Rebecca) and she definitely heard about how bad her dancing was when the movie came out. She is probably the least adept of all Astaire’s partners, but fortunately the movie gives Astaire many other things to do, like introduce the song “A Foggy Day” and dance between a drum set.

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Burns, Astaire and Allen in the fun house

George Gershwin and his brother, Ira, had written all the songs before the movie began filming. During that time, Gershwin was feeling extremely ill, but no one really thought it was serious. However, tragically, while the movie was still in production it was discovered that he had a brain tumor an he died before the movie was even finished. He was only thirty-eight. It was devastating to his family and friends. Fred Astaire had known him for years and was greatly grieved and Ira Gershwin never really recovered from the loss. And although Ira Gershwin would go on to write lyrics for other songwriters – Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen – he had lost the zeal for it he had when he collaborated with his brother.

The songs they wrote are really excellent, though. The movie introduced two Gerswhin standards: “A Foggy Day” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” as well as some other good songs like “Things Are Looking Up,” “I Can’t Be Bothered Now” and “Stiff Upper Lip.”

Despite being a flop, the movie has a charm of its own; a unique Astaire film that is less romantic (in terms of dances), but more than makes up for it with it’s cast, fun dances and definitely by the presence of Burns and Allen.

As an example of the fun, here is the whisk broom dance by Fred Astaire, George Burns and Gracie Allen.

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2014 in Movies

 

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The American Musical – Happy 4th of July!

71392_t607I was going to show the unreal and completely amazing “Say It With Firecrackers” dance by Fred Astaire – from Holiday Inn – but it seems to have disappeared off the internet, which is a very odd phenomena. It was there recently. Perhaps it will be back again. It is from the movie Holiday Inn, as I said, which is a movie often viewed at Christmas time, but really has a song for every holiday imaginable. Fred Astaire stars with Bing Crosby and the music is by Irving Berlin. For holiday fare, you can’t get much better than Bing Crosby singing, Fred Astaire dancing and Irving Berlin’s music. In the firecracker dance, Fred Astaire’s character ad-libs a dance, using firecrackers that he tosses on the stage. They crack and pop and he dances in time.

But anyway, since I can’t show the dance, I thought I would mention a few musicals, that are the perfect way to celebrate the 4th of July, and remember the rich history of our nation…musical history, that is. They’re not very historically accurate.

Musicals are a uniquely American contribution to the musical world. Much of the early American popular music was taken from our musicals and revues in the 1910s-’30s. The American musical developed as a combination of European Opera, Negro Spirituals, jazz, Jewish music, American folk music, blues – in short, a beautiful blend of musical traditions. Here are some examples of uniquely American musicals.

yankeedoodledandy2Yankee Doodle Dandy – 1942, with James Cagney as George M. Cohan

I can’t think of a performer more associated with patriotism than George M. Cohan, a huge figure in the 1900s -1910s and in the musical theater world. Not only did he write songs – “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Mary Is a Grand Old Name,” “Over There,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” – but he produced musicals, wrote the stories and acted and danced. He is considered a pivotal and important figure in the development of the musical – a step up from vaudeville and revues, where he at least used the songs and dances as a part of the story.

In Yankee Doodle Dandy, James Cagney plays Cohan. It’s a biopic of his life, from childhood to WWII. I grew up watching this film and I loved it, especially for the dancing. Most people know Cagney for his gangster roles and are surprised to hear that he got his start as a dancer on vaudeville, but I was the opposite. I knew he could dance and was surprised to hear that he usually played tough, mean guys.

The movie was made during WWII, so it’s very focused on the flag and people cheerfully entering WWI and WWII. There is even a conversation between Cohan and an actor playing Franklin Roosevelt (Roosevelt was referred to, had his picture in, and portrayed by actors more than any president I know, and while he was president! Can you imagine that with Bush or Obama?). All the songs in the movie are the songs written by George M. Cohan (except one song at the end, “Off the Record” written by Rodgers and Hart). It’s a rousing, fun, inspiring, heart-warming film. It always leaves me with a glow and I hum the tunes all day long.

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Show Boat – 1936, with Irene Dunne, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, Allan Jones, written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein

The most famous version of Show Boat was made in 1951, with Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel and Ava Gardner, but the best one, I believe, is the version made in 1936 at Universal Studios, which has only just been released on DVD. It is based on the 1927 musical, by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. Coming a little before such composers as George Gershwin or Cole Porter, Kern had his start in the 1910s and 20s (though he went on to compose many more musicals, many of which were movie musicals) and is credited as being the one to most successfully bridge the gap between operetta and a more American style of song and paved the way for people like Gershwin with plots about people who actually lived in America.

Show Boat was based on a popular book at the time, about the riverboat life, racism, women loving their no-account men, endurance, sacrifice. It stars Irene Dunne in the lead, as Magnolia and she does an excellent job of playing her as the character ages through the story. There is Helen Morgan as Julie, the woman who is partly black, but passes as a white woman and breaks the listener’s heart singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill”. Perhaps the best part of the movie is the performance of the riverboat hand, Joe, played by Paul Robeson. You have to hear his version of “Ol’ Man River.” It’s powerful. Although he was not the first to play Joe, the part was written for him and Kern said that he got the idea from hearing Robeson’s speaking voice.

Show Boat is considered a turning point in American musicals and one of the only musicals of its time to actually be revived today.

thGMHTNUC9Meet Me In St. Louis – 1944, with Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Lucille Bremer, Mary Astor, Marjorie Main, Leon Ames

A combination of period songs (“Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Skip to My Lou” ) and originals songs written by Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin (“The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,”) Meet Me in St. Louis is a heartwarming, nostalgic story about a family from 1904, when the world’s fair is going to occur in their home city. Judy Garland is, of course, the star, and it is one of her finest movies (along with The Wizard of Oz and A Star Is Born).

It’s a beautiful movie, music, acting, costumes, sets, singing. I actually didn’t care for it much when I was younger, but recently I have fallen in love with it – the effervescent good humor and affection. It might be considered rather sentimental, but it is a lovely sentiment, about family and young love and belonging to a certain place – things we ought never to lose sight of. It struck a chord with contemporary audiences, too. It was made in 1944, during WWII, and people loved it. It was considered a small travesty that it wasn’t nominated for best picture (Going My Way won, another sentimental and popular film).

By far, the greatest hit from that movie was the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s one of the last great classic Christmas songs to be written. The movie is often viewed during Christmas time, but it actually begins in the summer, goes to fall, Christmas, then ends in the spring and I think makes wonderful viewing any time of the year.

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Annie, Get Your Gun – 1950, with Betty Hutton and Howard Keel, written by Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America,” “Easter Parade,” “White Christmas,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” He wrote more holiday music than any composer I know of. He was wildly popular, a celebrity himself, and his career lasted over a half a century, with his first hit in 1911. He is the ultimate immigrant success story. Born in what is now Belarus, he changed his name from Israel Bielin to Berlin. He could hardly play the piano, couldn’t read music, but become the most successful and durable (except possibly Richard Rodgers) of composers. He even wrote his own lyrics.

 Annie Get Your Gun was one of his later hit shows. Originally opened on Broadway in 1946, it was made into a movie in 1950. It encompasses that theme that has always been very close to America’s identify and idea of itself: the American west. The musical takes quite a few liberties with the Annie Oakley story, but that isn’t usually an issue in musicals. In life, Annie Oakley had a very good relationship with her husband and fellow sharpshooter, Frank Butler. He promoted her career and never once seems to have been jealous, knowing she was the better shot. However, in the musical, they have a rather more combative relationship.

There’s Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and it’s a tremendous spectacle. There is the fun song “I Can Do Anything Better Than You Can” and it was here that the song “There’s No Business Like Show Business” was introduced.

cF7UktShDq5wjD5Up7GqOrWhGkHAn American in Paris – 1951, with Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin

It’s not my absolute favorite movie, but An American in Paris is certainly memorable and an excellent introduction to some of the music of George Gershwin. Gershwin is the quintessential American composer. His “Rhapsody in Blue” was the first piece of music that was both classical and jazzy. He composed hit songs, an opera (Porgy and Bess), several classical works, and many musicals for both Broadway and Hollywood. He was brilliant, but tragically, he died when he was only 38, in 1937.

Not only is this an excellent showcase for Gershwin, but it is an excellent showcase for Gene Kelly. A dynamic and athletic dancer, he wanted to show that dancing and ballet was not sissy, but could be very masculine. He did all the choreography and it was his idea to do Gershwin’s piece “An American in Paris” as a dance where the characters go in and out of different, famous paintings. He received an honorary Oscar for his choreography and dance and the film won six Oscars, including Best Picture, which is unusual, since musicals traditionally have been looked down as a lesser art form than drama.

Personally, I think Americans should be proud of their musicals and musical and dance history. It is the combination of many musical and ethnic backgrounds, full of exuberance and joy and energy and feeling and, I believe, is unfairly overlooked in music history. From Scott Joplin to George Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Bing Crosby – there’s so much richness to be discovered and appreciated.

As a bonus, here is Paul Robeson’s version of “Ol’ Man River.”

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2014 in Movie Musicals, Musicals

 

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Porgy and Bess – George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, DeBose Heyward

I don’t live in Seattle, but I can catch a ferry and get to Seattle and make a day trip of it. We drive to the ferry, park, take the ferry over the Puget Sound and walk to wherever we’re going and, mercifully, The 5th Avenue Theatre is only a fifteen minute walk from the ferry.

There’s nothing like seeing live musical theater. I love movies, but there’s a thrill that comes with actually being there, the connection with the music, the performers and audience. Every time I sit in the audience and the overture begins, it such a thrill of anticipation and excitement, it’s electric and almost the best part of any performance. You can literally feel the entire audience’s anticipation. Several weeks ago, when I went to see Porgy and Bess, the conductor began his down beat and I watched his head pop up and down in the pit as the music soared out of it. Music was meant to be heard live.

Sometimes, getting to the theater can be an adventure. It’s rained once and my umbrella turned inside out, repeatedly, while I kept bumping my cousin in the head with it until we gave it up and let ourselves get soaked. The worst is when I was getting off the ferry and slipped on a wet spot. My right leg slipped forward and my left knee slipped down…onto the cement. When I got up, there was a lovely tear in the knee of my pants and I was bleeding. We had to trail around Seattle looking for a Bartell drugstore to get band aids. Hole in pants, bloodstains and all, we still saw the musical (it was Cinderella) and I still have the scar.

Fortunately, in Seattle people are very casual and you can literally show up at a musical in pajamas without raising eyebrows (though I don’t recall seeing pajamas).

Several weeks ago I saw Porgy and Bess, which first opened in 1935. It’s been called a “folk opera” and was written by George Gershwin, with lyrics by his brother Ira Gershwin and DeBose Heyward, the author of the book Porgy. It was meant to be an opera. It certainly sounds like an opera to me, musically. No one but operatically trained singers could perform the songs, though it is sometimes likened to a musical as well.The original opera, as performed in 1935, was apparently 4 hours long and had no spoken dialogue. The version I saw was the Broadway touring production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which was adapted in 2011. It has been made more like a musical, with dialogue, some dancing, and was shortened by at least an hour and a half.

Gershwin’s music is extraordinary, a blend of jazz, European opera, African-American music, Jewish music. Gershwin was incredibly prolific and wrote music for quite a few musicals (several of which Fred Astaire and his sister Adele starred in), several movies in the 30s and several classical works like his famous “Rhapsody in Blue.” His brother, Ira, always wrote his lyrics for him. Tragically, George Gershwin died young, in 1937, of a brain tumor and his brother never quite recovered. Ira provided the lyrics for several more movies (such as Cover Girl and A Star is Born, collaborating with Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen, respectively) but his heart was never truly in it.

The story of Porgy and Bess is fairly straightforward: about the inhabitants of Catfish Row, a small community in Charleston, South Carolina during the 1930s. Porgy is a crippled peddler and Bess is the former girlfriend of the local bully, Crown, who finds love and peace with Porgy and a degree of acceptance in the community. I can’t judge what the original opera was like, but the 2011 adaptation is part romance (and a very touching romance), but really is about the community, living through loss, a hurricane, hostile police, drug addiction (especially in Bess’ case) and still managing to find joy in life.

Catfish Row is interesting, because in a way, they administer their own justice. The police only pop in when something serious has occurred – like a murder – and questions people, but they don’t seem to be providing any real order, safety or justice. That is left for the community, which creates an “us versus them” mentality.

I was very impressed with the actors who played Porgy and Bess and the duets they sing together were lovely, such as “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” “Summertime” is always a standout and the character of Sportin’ Life (who sells drugs) sings his famous song “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” I do agree with one review I read that the dances (which I believe were not in the original 1935 version) were fun, but not quite as knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark wonderful to make it a great enhancement to the show – I was left faintly wishing for more.

Unfortunately, I had to catch a ferry – if I missed it I would have to wait an hour and a half for the next ferry, past midnight – so I had to rush out during the last scene, and I don’t quite know how it ends. My loss! My understanding is that it is very inspiring, with Porgy leaving for New York to find his Bess.

Many of the songs have become jazz standards, sung in a much lower register. The most famous is “Summertime.” Below is Leontyne Price’s version – she was an opera singer, who also played Bess, I believe, at some point – and then next is Sarah Vaughan’s version – a jazz singer, also known as The Divine Sarah Vaughan. Both versions are simply gorgeous.

 

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2014 in Musicals

 

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