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Bitter Sweet (1940)

In the 1930s, there was literally a musical for every kind of musical taste: Bing Crosby and crooning; Fred Astaire and the great standards from Gershwin, Berlin, and Kern; classically-trained singer Deanna Durbin, swinging and ballad singing Alice Faye. And for operetta, there was Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

Bitter Sweet is the second to last of eight movies that Eddy and MacDonald made together. It’s definitely not in the same league as MaytimeRose-Marie, or Naughty Marietta, but I was once again struck with what beautiful chemistry they have while singing together. It’s like the singing equivalent of Astaire and Rogers. Astaire and Rogers have their sexiest chemistry while dancing and Eddy and MacDonald have their sexiest chemistry while singing.

In Bitter Sweet, the year is 1890 in London and Sarah Millick (MacDonald) is in love with her music teacher, Carl Linden (Eddy), though she is engaged to the stultifyingly dull Harry Daventry. She and Carl elope and return to his home in Vienna, but he has very little money. He is trying to interest anyone in his operetta while she inadvertently attracts the amorous attentions of Baron von Tranisch (George Sanders, in short-cropped hair and monocle).

With a title like Bitter Sweet, it’s not surprising that the film ends tragically, somewhat similarly to Maytime. Though not quite as successfully.

Bitter Sweet is an adaptation of Noel Coward’s 1929 operetta “Bitter Sweet.” He was inspired, he said, to write the operetta after listening to Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus” (The Bat), which is a satiric comic operetta about the wealthy and aristocratic in 1890s Vienna. Evidently, Coward’s “Bitter Sweet” was partly in the mold of a satire. The 1940s film, however, is squarely in the serious romance category.

The film is in color, the first film in color that I have seen with MacDonald and Eddy. Adrian designed the gowns and as is usual with Adrian, I sometimes have the impression that the gowns could get up and walk by themselves, such extraordinary creations they are. I always enjoy Adrian’s gowns.

But I have to bring up the topic of neckties and the power of suggestion via neckties. In the beginning of the film, when Carl and Sarah sing their first duet, he is wearing a bold blue necktie that matches her dress. Clearly, they are meant to be together. At the end of the film, after he is dead, a certain sympathetic Lord Shayne (Ian Hunter) is helping Sarah produce Carl’s operetta and is wearing a more subdued blue necktie. It occurred to me that perhaps it was a sign that Lord Shayne was destined to be part of Sarah’s future. I thought I might have been reading too much into the color of a necktie, but when I later read the plot of Coward’s original operetta, it turns out that she does indeed marry Lord Shayne.

One difficulty with the film, however, is that Jeanette MacDonald is a little too old for the role she is playing, though Eddy is not, since he’s supposed to be older. She simply appears far to knowing and mature a woman to be so naive in general, and especially about the intentions of Sanders. Even in her early days appearing in Lubtisch operettas, she projected intelligence, even when playing flighty women. It also doesn’t generate the same level of tragedy that Maytime does, with the death of Eddy coming a bit too abruptly.

Perhaps the most hilarious moment of the film, however, comes when both Carl and Sarah try, separately, to trade singing lessons for a chicken. The trouble is that they both try it on the same shopkeeper. Like the shopkeeper, if I encountered anyone in the streets who sang like either of them, I would probably consider myself lucky to trade a chicken for some lessons.

And for me, the most effective moment, though brief and unpretentious, is when Sarah (called Sari by her husband and now by everyone in Vienna) is climbing up the many stairs to her apartment after successfully singing in the opening of Carl’s operetta. It’s not a long moment, but it mirrors the moment earlier in the film when Carl carried her up all those flights of stairs. Despite the applause and music and success she just experienced, we know that when she reaches the apartment upstairs, it will be empty now. It’s poignant, perhaps even more poignant than the song she sings when she reaches the top and opens the window to reprise their love song.

I’ve been making it a point to see every film that Eddy and MacDonald made together and am now closing in on my goal. All that remains is I Married an Angel and Sweethearts. Thanks so much to Pure Preservation Society for hosting “The SInging Sweethearts Blogathon.” Happy Valentines Day!

 

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Posted by on February 14, 2018 in Movies

 

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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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Happiness Ahead (1934)

Dick Powell must have accomplished one of the more remarkable mid-career transformations of any actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I still experience a sense of cognitive dissonance whenever I try to think of the boyish, endearing, and dulcet tenor as the wry cynic of hard-boiled noir. He’s convincing in both manifestations, but it’s hard to think of him as the same person.

Happiness Ahead is squarely in the boyish tenor mode of his early years at Warner Bros. The film was released in 1934, around the time the Production Code was more strongly enforced, so there is little to set this film apart as a pre-code film, but it is simple, unpretentious fun.

Joan Bradford (Josephine Hutchinson) is the rich daughter of a wall street tycoon who is bored with her stuffy life and the financial pragmatism of her mother. Her father (John Halliday), however, is sympathetic to her feelings, especially since he worked his way up from newsboy. Her mother wants her to marry an equally rich man, but Joan rebels and goes out on the town to mingle with the masses.

At a Chinese nightclub, she meets Bob Lane (Dick Powell), office manager at a window washing firm and they are instantly attracted to each other. Bob and his party of friends think she’s poor and out of work (the women of the group even offer to help her find a job), so Joan decides to set up an apartment and pretend to be a working class girl like them, fearing knowledge of her wealth would change how they interact with her.

In a way, she’s trying to have the best of both worlds. The camaraderie and unaffected  pleasures of the working classes (roller skating rather than opera and polo) with the wealth to be able to afford to do and live however she chooses (she even rents a piano in her apartment so she can have her new friends over for a party). However, she doesn’t know exactly how to live as a working class girl. She forgets to turn off the lights in her apartment when she leaves (something no person counting their pennies would do) and is nonchalant when one friend breaks the window in her apartment kitchen. In various ways, the film contrasts the way the rich and the poor live, though it seems to want to have it both ways, too. The film ends up like a reverse Cinderella tale for Dick Powell’s Bob.

He works in the office, as well as a window washer (trying to inspire the men, who are being threatened by a rival window washing company – a side-plot that hovers on the periphery of the film). He has a scheme to go into business for himself and he has his sales pitch down pat. And once the misunderstandings that naturally arise when Joan’s deception is discovered are cleared up, you know that his association with her father will bring him unexpected wealth.

The film is a musical, with all the songs sung by Dick Powell (with one duet with Frank McHugh). None of the songs are especially memorable or became standards, but they are pleasant and were composed by Allie Wrubel (who is best remembered for composing the music for “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”).

The film also has Warner Brothers’ usual array of character actors: Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Allen Jenkins, Jane Darwell. I was a little surprised to see Jane Darwell’s name at the bottom of the cast list, but I don’t think she really achieved wide recognition until she played Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve seen her play a motherly sort so often, it was interesting to see her play the sour and irascible landlady in Happiness Ahead.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2017 in Movies

 

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