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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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Movie Adaptations of Books

"Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned 
into bouillon cubes" - John Le Carre
"Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy"

“Now An Epic Motion Picture Trilogy”

Ever since reading about Mary Poppins the movie and Mary Poppins the book and how there are a certain group of people who considers what Disney did to P.L. Travers’ book to be nothing short of artistic rape – that is the very phrase used – I have been curious. Being a person who likes both the book and the movie and who came to the book through the movie, it got me thinking. I used to be quite a snob about how movies absolutely had to follow the book exactly or else you would hear about it, but then I realized that I was only applying that standard to books I liked. Books I didn’t like or hadn’t read didn’t matter. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it and here are some of by observations that I’d like to offer up and see what people think.

Observation OneA movie is not a book. Complaining that a movie does not stay true to the book is like complaining that a painting does not stay true to a character in a book. It can’t. A movie needs to make sense by itself and not assume that the audience has read the book. A movie is a different medium and often what reads well does not look good on screen. At the end of the book Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain, they are going to commit a double suicide by leaping into the water with sharks. This would have looked silly on screen and the ending they came up with for the movie was simply amazing. Even the author liked it.

Observation Two – When people say that they don’t like a movie because it is not like the book, this is mere dissimulation. When we like the movie, we forgive. Not staying true to a book does not mean the movie is bad. I recently watched two versions of Anna Karenina. The first version was with Greta Garbo from 1935 and the second is with Vivien Leigh in 1948. The one with Vivien Leigh is quite a bit more accurate, but somehow the direction is uninspired; it’s dull. The one with Greta Garbo takes quite a different interpretation of the book, but it is a more internally consistent movie and is more interesting to watch.

And I’ve finally had to come to grips with the fact that it is not because Peter Jackson is unfaithful to The Hobbit that I dislike his movies so much. It is because I really dislike how he directs. To me, his movies are bloated. That is not an issue of inaccuracy, it is an issue of editing.

Observation Three – A bad movie or inaccurate movie cannot really hurt a book. The book remains, no matter what, especially if it is a good book. If it’s a bad book or just a popular book, it will fade away no matter how good or bad the movie. But a movie can keep a book alive long after it has ceased to be popular. This has always been the case. How many people have heard of Olive Higgins Prouty or Edna Ferber, both very popular in their day. But I have discovered these authors through the movies. I’ve discovered many good authors like Sinclair Lewis, Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler.

Besides, a book should be able to stand on its own and I don’t think it’s fair to blame a movie for the memory or lack of memory of a book. Nor do I feel that it is fair to say that because of a movie, no one is reading the book. People who watch the movie might not watch it if it were more accurate, so you haven’t necessarily lost anything, anyway.

Observation FourThe best books, the classics, the books that endure, can handle multiple movie remakes. In fact, the best books do have multiple movie remakes: Pride and Prejudice, Sherlock Holmes, Anna Karenina, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Moby Dick. Even classic comic books have multiple remakes. Some books, like Jane Eyre, have over ten remakes. The Maltese Falcon was made three times in ten years. Spider Man has been made into two series and five movies in the last twelve years. The books and characters are so vast and so vital that no movie can encompass them. There are two television series about Sherlock Holmes running right now: Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch, and Elementary, with Johnny Lee Miller. Some versions are more accurate than others, but that’s okay. There’s so much richness in books, they can handle multiple interpretations.

Observation Five – Unless a book is a great classic, the further away the movie is made from its publication date, the less the movie has to try and follow the book. If a book is turned into a movie in order to capitalize on a book’s popularity, generally the filmmakers try to follow the book to a certain degree in order to please the fans. This was true even during the silent era. Scaramouche and The Sea Hawk, both adaptations of popular books written by Rafael Sabatini, were turned into movies only a few years after the books were published. They are also quite faithful. However, the remakes of The Sea Hawk and Scaramouche, made in 1940 and 1952 are not nearly as close. In fact, The Sea Hawk retains only the title and the time period. 

Sometimes, I’ve even watched old movies that were based on contemporary, popular novels and wished they had departed more from the books than they did. Examples of this are two Bette Davis movies, The Great Lie and Now, Voyager. I could so see the possibilities that these movies had, but they were oddly hampered by having to stay faithful to the story. This is what happens when a popular but flawed book is turned into a movie with excellent actors. The book is forgotten and the movie is remembered, but the movie could have been even better if they had departed more. Ironic.

None of this is to say that I think directors and producers shouldn’t try to follow the book. It is a wonderful thing when somebody who truly values the book makes an effort to capture what it is about the book that is so good and transfer it to the screen. I love those kinds of movies and they can enrich my appreciation of the book. I guess I’m really just saying that a movie isn’t bad just because it isn’t faithful.

Books and stories have always provided the inspiration of movies, operas, plays, musicals, poetry, paintings, songs. This is partially how stories are transmitted down the ages. I think the real question is not whether it is accurate, but whether it is well done.

 
 

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