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How I learned to love The Great American Songbook

away-1“They can’t take that away from me…”

It began with Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger in Shall We Dance. Fred Astaire was singing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and I thought it was beautiful. I wanted to know who wrote it and where I could hear more songs like it.

It wasn’t the first time I had heard such songs. I grew up watching musicals, but as a child I found all “slow” songs boring. I wanted dancing, comedy and funny, upbeat music.

More accurately, it really all began after my grandfather died. One thing that happens when you lose a person close to you is that you don’t know what to do with yourself. Do you sit and cry? Think? Try to forget? Is it okay to do an enjoyable activity? Is that a betrayal? If you have immediate work to do, all the better. But I didn’t have pressing work and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I wanted to watch a movie. But I didn’t want to watch just any movie.

This was because my grandfather was such a good man. He was kind, gentle, strong, and always there for you; and it felt wrong to watch the kind of movie he never would have watched. So I watched a musical. And another musical. And another. It all began with a rediscovery of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I’d never before appreciated what a genius Fred Astaire was. Or Ginger Rogers. In truth, it was the beginning of my love, not just for Astaire, Rogers and The Great American Songbook. It was the beginning of my love for old movies.

But the song that started it all was “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” The music was by George Gershwin and the lyrics by his brother, Ira Gershwin. It was the last completed film by George Gershwin before he died at 38 years of age. Ira was devastated, as was Fred Astaire, who had known Gershwin for many years.

But at the time of first hearing the song, I knew nothing about it. All I knew was that there was something both touching and enduring about the song and the lyrics: “The way you wear your hat – The way you sip your tea – The memory of all that – No, no, they can’t take that away from me.”

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George Gershwin

Many people – including Fred Astaire himself – did not care for the fact that the song was sung briefly, on a ferry boat no less, with no dance. However, I rather like the setting for the song and there is something poignant about the fact that they do not dance at that moment. How the movie messed up was by not having them dance together at the end of the film to “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” instead of the rather bizarre pseudo-ballet they have instead, with the imitation Ginger Rogers, Harriet Hoctor and very little dance between Astaire and the real Rogers. The lack of a dance, however, did not prevent the song from becoming popular.

I looked up the song and found that the best way to introduce myself to Gershwin’s work was to get my hands on a collection of his songs, sung by Ella Fitzgerald: Oh, Lady, Be Good! – Best Of The Gershwin Songbook. I read a book by Michael Feinstein called The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs, which also proved an excellent way to get started.

Since then, I’ve moved on to Jerome Kern (and the sublime 1936 film Show Boat), who has remained an especial favorite, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (one of the great lyricists of his day), Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren… They are composers who wrote songs that – no matter how trite the plot of the movie or musical – transcend and endure.

The Great American Songbook refers to popular songs (often overlapping with jazz songs) that were composed during the 1910s-1950s and have since been considered standards. They are mostly romantic songs, 32 bars, but the variety and emotional range is amazing. I was once reading about Byzantine art. I don’t remember much about the book, but the author talked about how great intensity of feeling and brilliance can be achieved when artists mine an art with very specific, confined rules. It’s not that one cannot break rules (not all songs were 32 bars), but the very confinement can yield greater intensity and creativity.

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Jerome Kern

The other thing that fascinated me about the standards is how they blend African-American music, Jewish music (most of the composers were Jewish and Cole Porter used to say that his goal was to write “Jewish tunes”) and European operetta with American vernacular. I never used to know much about American music (I mostly studied western classical music in high school and college), but I have come to the conclusion that it should be given much more general attention. In fact I have the somewhat radical idea that American music AND movies should be taught in American schools. There is so much to learn and appreciate and it has been one of the best ways for me to look at  the American melting pot, racism, prejudice, the blending of traditions, creativity and resilience…and simply what it was like to be alive then.

I’ve wandered from my original point. But perhaps that is my point. To see what can start with a movie and a song! They can’t take that away from me…

This post is part of The Things I Learned From the Movies Blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Ruth of Silver Screenings and equally wonderful Kristina of Speakeasy. Be sure to check out the rest of the posts for Days 1, 2, and 3.

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Fred Astaire introduces “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” in Shall We Dance (1937). The plot is a little shaky, but the songs are sublime. In this scene, Astaire and Rogers have just married, but are planning on an immediate divorce. This plan, however, unaccountably makes them sad.

And one of several of Ella Fitzgerald’s interpretations. She sang one version with Louis Armstrong, but this version is from her Gershwin Songbook.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2016 in Music

 

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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.

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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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Romance in Manhattan (1935) – A Fairy Tale

11223225_oriRomance in Manhattan is a little known, but endearing film starring Ginger Rogers and Francis Lederer; a fairy tale romance that still manages to touch on depression era highlights (highlights that are actually still highlights of today): illegal immigration, strikes, unemployment, a single woman raising a child.

Karel Novak (Francis Lederer) is from Czechoslovakia and has come to America to become a farmer. He believes that the entry fee is $50, but it was recently raised to $200 to keep immigrants from coming in and taking jobs from people already struggling to find work. But Karel has worked years to come to America and knows that if they send him back it will be years more before he can return. In desperation, he jumps ship and swims ashore to New York.

Initially full of wonder and excitement about the new country, soon he’s starving, until a chorus girl helps him out. Sylvia Dennis (Ginger Rogers) doesn’t even bat an eye to find a hungry and disheveled man partaking of the chorus’ donuts (probably not an uncommon sight during the time), and instead offers him more as they sit and talk. Like all Ginger Rogers’ characters, Sylvia is street smart, but warm on the inside. He is naive, eager, enthusiastic and extremely grateful to her and the two of them feel drawn to each other almost instantly. When he won’t take any money from her, she lets him sleep on the roof of her apartment and her younger brother gets him a job as a newspaper boy.

But Sylvia is under a bit of pressure herself. She is the sole guardian of her brother Frank (Jimmy Butler), who keeps skipping school so he can work selling papers, and several members of the school are concerned that Sylvia is not able to raise him properly and want to send him to an institute for orphans. When the show she’s in closes, the pressure mounts. Meanwhile, Karel moves up from being a newspaper boy to a taxi driver and what money he is not giving to help Sylvia he is saving so he can pay the entrance fee and become an American citizen.

Karel loves New York and Sylvia is trying to figure out why

Karel loves New York and Sylvia is trying to figure out why

But even his job evaporates when the taxi drivers go on strike. The school women are concerned that not only is Frank still skipping school, but she has no work and appears to be living with a man and the judge agrees to send Frank to the institute. He says that if Sylvia were to be married, that would be a different thing.

Karel, of course, is desperate to help her, but is powerless because he has no money and is not even a citizen. What he really wants to do is marry Sylvia and so he goes to a lawyer, Halsey J. Pander (Arthur Hohl), who says he can make Karel a citizen, but really plans to turn him in to be deported and collect a reward. Meanwhile, Karel returns to work even though the strike is not yet settled.

And despite all these bleak circumstances the film remains upbeat and optimistic, even though the situation is so bad we need a deus ex machina (a police deus ex machina) to resolved everything.

Francis Lederer and Ginger Rogers are an adorable couple. Lederer began work in German theater and then German silent films (Pandora’s Box) and Romance in Manhattan is one of his earliest films in America. He never became a star and actually seems to have played quite a few villains (and Nazis…though he’s not actually German), but is probably best remembered by classic movie fans as the playboy Jaqcues Picot in Midnight with Claudette Colbert.

Ginger Rogers is clearly not yet the star she would become in the late 1930s and early ’40s. The film largely belongs to Lederer rather than her. She is a bit softer in this one, not quite as sassy as in her later films. But she’s always a joy to watch in anything she made in the 1930s and I have a goal to watch every one of her films in that decade.

I’m always delighted to see Donald Meek in any role and in Romance in Manhattan he plays a much put-upon minister (which feels like I role I’ve seen him in before). J. Farrell MacDonald is the very Irish Officer Murphy, who befriends Karel, though there are a large quantity of very sympathetic policemen around. The wedding at the end is one of the more unusual that you will ever see in a film.

What Romance in Manhattan ultimately is is a fairy tale of urban life, immigrants (Officer Murphy still has his Irish accent) and the depression. Very sweet and enjoyable.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2016 in Movies

 

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