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Easter Parade (1948)

Easter_Parade_posterPeriodically, I need to watch a musical, especially one with dance in it. Listening to those taps, feeling the thrill of movement and rhythm, walking around the house singing loudly – it like coming awake after hibernation. And although we’ve already passed Easter, it still seems appropriate to review Easter Parade. It always represented to me not only Easter, but spring, as well.

Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) and Nadine Hale (Ann Miller) are a successful ballroom dance team in 1912. However, just before Easter, Nadine tells Don that she is breaking up the team. She is going to join the Ziegfeld Follies and become a star. He’s in love with her and utterly crushed, but she loves a friend of theirs, Jonathan Harrow III (Peter Lawford), a wealthy young man they call Professor because he’s currently in law school.

Hurt and angry, Don gets very drunk indeed and talks wildly of how he doesn’t need Nadine. He made Nadine who she is, he asserts. He made her and he could train another person to take her place as easy as that. To prove his point, he grabs a random chorus girl in a cafe show and tells her to meet him the following morning. She’s going to be his new dance partner.

The random girl is Hannah Browne (Judy Garland), who initially doesn’t take him seriously until she realizes that he is Don Hewes. Awed and a bit star struck, she quits her job and shows up the next morning, much to the disappointment of Don, who immediately regretted his rash invitation after he had recovered from his hang-over. But he’s too proud to admit it and he sets out to remake Hannah Brown in the image of Nadine. He renames her Jaunita (“Well, if you wanted a Jaunita, why did you pick me? Hannah asks him) and chooses the clothes she will wear and generally treats her as if she is not really a person.

The results are disappointing to Don. Hannah is not Nadine. Meanwhile, Hannah falls in love with Don while the Professor falls in love with Hannah. We end up with a love square. Don loves Nadine, Nadine loves the Professor, the Professor loves Hannah, and Hannah loves Don. Fortunately, they are pretty civilized about it, all things considered. They mostly wait patiently and suffer silently (and maybe sing a song about it, if you’re Judy Garland) until they get who they want (in the case of the women) or realize who they really want (in the case of the men).

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The movie is actually in color

In Easter Parade, Nadine is portrayed as the unsympathetic one, but I realized that she actually has some very good reasons to break up her act with Don. She was undoubtedly the junior partner, he is the one who imposed his image on her (the clothes, the graceful dancer), but perhaps she really just wants to break loose. She’s like a red hot mama incognito (as evidenced by her tap dance, “Shakin’ the Blues Away”). He could have been smothering her personality. Also, since Don is in love with her and she doesn’t love him back, a separation seems eminently sensible.

Don obviously has a tendency to impose on his partners some inner image he has. He finally learns his lesson with Hannah. He has to let her be herself and when he does, their act comes together brilliantly.

I love Judy Garland as Hannah Brown. It’s not talked about as often, but she was a fine comedian – her facial expressions, reactions to people, the way she delivers her lines, the general awkwardness of her persona, only to start singing and become perfectly self-assured in her movements. When Judy Garland is on the screen, you can’t help watching her. In some ways, she overwhelms Fred Astaire rather than complements him because she has such a strong presence (which is interesting, because she’s also fragile). But I think Astaire is deferring to her, as well, while they dance, letting her…well, do what she does best. She’s not his most skillful dance partner, but she is more than skillful enough and they are a joy to watch. Judy Garland could be hard to work with, but apparently the two of them got along very well.

Originally, Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse were to be in the film as Don and Nadine, but both were injured prior to filming and had to be replaced. The idea of Cyd Charisse as Nadine actually makes a lot of sense, considering how much emphasis is placed on Nadine’s grace and elegance. Ann Miller, as I noted, has a more red hot mama persona. But in a weird way, it adds to the sense that Don is shaping his dance partners in an inner image of his own.

I have much more trouble seeing Gene Kelly as Don. It’s difficult to imagine him as the kind of guy who would transform a woman into a graceful fashion icon of grace and sophistication. He seems more like the kind of guy who would be trying to reach the top himself then trying to train people to join him at the top. But perhaps things were rewritten slightly to accommodate the casting change.

Dance, songs by Irving Berlin (the film features a menagerie of his songs written previously for other musicals and revues – like Harry Warren, I can never get his songs out of my head!), it’s one of my favorite musicals by Fred Astaire (though I admittedly have an awful lot of Fred Astaire favorites – I think half his films are my favorite). It’s not to everyone’s tastes.It is considered a slightly weaker MGM musical, but I’ve always had a great weakness for this one.

The red hot mama incognito is incognito no longer.

I love how the mother of the boy is smiling while Fred Astaire cons her son out of a stuffed bunny – of course if someone paid me to stand in a room were Fred Astaire was dancing I’d be smiling, too

Hannah Brown finally being allowed to be herself and do what she does best.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2016 in Movies

 

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Everybody Does It (1949) – A James M. Cain Comedy about Opera

Everybody_Does_It_FilmPosterJames M. Cain may be best known for hard-boiled tales of lust and murder, but he also liked opera (which, if you think about it, are pretty much hard-boiled tales of lust and murder) and wrote several comedic stories. One of them is Career in C Major adapted for the screen twice (well, once – the second film is a remake of the first): Wife, Husband and Friend (1939) and Everybody Does It (1949).

Leonard Borland (Paul Douglas) co-owns a wrecking company with Mike Craig (Millard Mitchell). Business is not so good, but he’s married to a very wealthy socialite and doesn’t want to live off of her family wealth. Doris Borland (Celeste Holm) has always dreamed of becoming a professional singer. The trouble is that she’s not all that good and no one’s ever told her this. According to her father, Major Blair (Charles Coburn), Doris comes from a long line of “frustrated sopranos.” Doris tried to become a singer five years previously, without outstanding success, but it seems to have caused marital difficulties and she gave it up. But after attending an opera, her ambitions seize her again and she starts vocal training and plans to give a concert.

Leonard flat-out says she won’t do it and is a “lousy singer” and she responds that if it hadn’t been for him making her give up her career before, she could have been a star already. Doris is encouraged by her fawning teacher, her friends and her mother (Lucile Watson). Utterly defeated, Leonard makes plans to rent a hall and he and Mike Craig beg, bribe and blackmail all his costumers and friends into attending.

Everybody Does It (1949) Directed by Edmund Goulding Shown: Linda Darnell, Paul Douglas

Everybody Does It (1949)
Directed by Edmund Goulding
Shown: Linda Darnell, Paul Douglas

But also attending is a real opera star, Cecil Carver (Linda Darnell), who is on the hunt for a tall baritone (she complains that all the baritones seem to be shrinking) and when she sees Leonard – definitely a hulk of a man – she likes what she sees. Leonard is anxious to hear a professional’s opinion about his wife’s chance of success and Cecil offers to give him one, in her apartment, in a slinky gown. She admits that his wife has a perfectly fine voice, but not the kind that will amount to much. But just before he leaves she discovers, quite by accident, that he is the one who has a perfectly splendid voice, though he never knew it and he takes quite a but of convincing. His singing tends to cause glass to break and her mirror does not survive the evening.

She convinces him that she could teach him how to sing with the argument that it would be the best lesson in the world for his wife to learn that it is actually her husband who has the great voice and could have the career. He goes along with it out of desperation, but his plan is, to say the least, pretty hapless and guaranteed to cause mayhem.

It’s not a bad comedy at all, but the best part of the film is by far the ending, with laugh-out-loud slapstick meeting opera as Leonard makes his operatic debut. He’s got a bad case of stage fright and everyone – Cecil, the acerbic conductor who always is making snide comments, the stage-manager – separately give him pills and various forms of calming medicine until he’s as high as a kite. His entrance on stage is, to say the least, unforgettable.

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Paul Douglas and Celeste Holm

The cast is fun. Celeste Holm plays more of a bubble-brain than usual, a socialite in need of a dose of reality. Douglas is her well-meaning, but hapless husband who looks like a mug and sings like a Greek god. Linda Darnell vamps it up in a remarkably persistent attempt to woo Douglas. And Charles Coburn is a somewhat desperate crank, hiding in the pantry to get away from his wife and daughter’s music talk and issuing dire warnings to Douglas about letting women have their way.

Celeste Holm is the only actor who does her own singing. Douglas and Darnell are dubbed, but they do a creditable job of lip syncing. This film actually offers an excellent example of something I think modern movie musicals could learn from: the difference between a pretty voice and a spectacular one. All you have to do is listen to Holm and the opera singer dubbing for Darnell (Helen Spann) to hear the difference…though one wonders if Holm had to do anything to keep herself from sounding too good or if she just knew that her voice would not be up to operatic standards.

At the beginning of the film, I did have some reservations about the fact that Leonard is apparently trying to keep Doris from having a career, but ultimately it’s not about that. It’s about delusion. But, of course, if Leonard had just supported his wife and kept quiet, she would have found it out for herself and all would have been well much earlier. At the beginning of the film, they are a couple at cross purposes who both end up letting their singing get in the way of their marriage.

When Leonard sees himself in costume, he complains that he looks like a goat

When Leonard sees himself in costume, he complains that he looks like a goat

Everybody Does It was made to capitalize on the spectacular success of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives in 1949, which starred Linda Darnell and Paul Douglas are one of three married couples. Celeste Holm, ironically enough, provided the voice for the never-seen Addie Ross, who tries to steal Douglas away from Darnell.

Trivia

The opera that Leonard and Cecil star in is called “L’Amoure di Fatima,” which is actually a fake opera with key songs and one scene composed by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, best known for his music for classic guitar.

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2015 in Movies

 

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Singing, Acting and Les Miserables

anne-hathaway-new-les-miserables-postersSince the beginning of the American musical, actor/singers have never garnered the critical appreciation that they deserve, especially in film. Perhaps it’s a holdover from theater. Musicals on stage have always been considered lightweight compared to serious drama. Admittedly, many musicals are not serious, but it does not then follow that it is any easier to perform. How many people can act with their voice? It’s one thing to act with your body while singing adequately, but an entirely different thing to use your voice as the primary instrument of communication and still be visually compelling.

Though Anne Hathaway did win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Fantine in Les Miserables, which should have comforted me. I am always complaining about how it is not properly appreciated how difficult it is to star in a musical. Doris Day (how was she not nominated for Love Me or Leave Me?), Judy Garland (how did she not win for A Star is Born?), even Julie Andrews is not fully respected for Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Author Tom Santopietro observed in his book, The Sound of Music Story, how difficult the role of Maria is: to sing, to act, to dance, to make it all look natural, to bring so much joy into her performance without seeming cloying; it’s not easy. But it looked easy.

Perhaps that is why Anne Hathaway won. She looked like she was working at it.

Perhaps I just could not get over how Les Miserables sounded to appreciate anything else. The singing can best be described as an assault on the ears. There was much talk about making the musical more cinematic, but a musical is not purely a visual art. Sure, they’re acting. But the point of doing a musical is to express in song what you cannot express in words or even visually. It bugged me no end that Tom Hooper never really let his singers sing out (they spent a great deal of time whisper-singing or talky-singing) and that much of the time their voices were strained, off key and generally punctuated with sighs, tears, panting, sobs, grunts, pauses (the melodic line disappeared somewhere along the way), lip biting, saliva and facial contortions. One wonders, with so much visual acting going on, why they needed to sing at all, especially since their chief mode of communicating emotion through song was to break down and sob in the middle of it.

Many people have defended the film by citing its realism, but if you want realism so much, why make a musical?

But below are examples of woman who demonstrate what I mean about acting with their voices primarily, and still use their face and body language.

In 1954, Judy Garland starred in A Star is Born with James Mason. Mason is an alcoholic movie star whose career is fading. He discovers Garland, gets her career started, they fall in love and marry, only for her career to take off while his dies completely away. “The Man That Got Way” was written by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin. It is the first song that Mason hears her sing, which convinces him that she could be a star, but is also prescient of her future with him. Judy Garland was nominated for an Oscar and fully expected to win, but lost to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl.

This performance really should be seen in conjunction with all the other songs Doris Day sings in Love Me or Leave Me, demonstrating how she’s come from hopeful and excited singer to jaded and world-weary. Her entire character arc is portrayed through her songs. Each song has some relevance to what she is doing, but also expresses her current mental and emotional state. She even makes love to another man through song when she cannot say it because she is married. “Ten Cents a Dance,” by Rodgers and Hart, song is simply fantastic: jaded, angry, fatalistic, defiant, world-weary. Singing was her character’s dream and this is what she’s come to, the words of the song accurately expressing a sense of violation by her husband, the gangster Marty (James Cagney, who was nominated for an Oscar). She should have at least been nominated!

Now here’s a woman who did win an Oscar with her singing. “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins is completely different from Love Me or Leave Me, but no less an example of unparalleled skill. Simple? A child’s song? Not expressing complex emotion? I defy anyone else to sing this song like Julie Andrews did or to move people more strongly. Her voice is so much a part of her, it’s as natural as talking, but infinitely more beautiful. Transcendent.

Even people who did not like Les Miserables admitted that Anne Hathaway was brilliant, laying bare her soul in a startlingly emotionally naked moment. And I don’t mean to disagree with that assessment. My complaint is that the camera is so close and her face is doing so much and her voice breaks down so often that I find that instead of actually listening to what she is singing, I am watching her face. It’s a matter of too much going on and the mind can only process so much. The words she sings become unimportant, even the song itself; it’s the emotion she’s expressing visually. To simply listen to the song without seeing her is not very compelling.

Perhaps it’s a new and perfectly valid hybrid of musical and visual art. After all, one cannot sit for three minutes and make faces unless there is a song to justify it. But the song definitely becomes secondary. And to be honest, it really is stressful for me to listen to people singing who aren’t quite making it: melodically choppy, so it never quite builds to that vocal emotional high point, vocally strained and unsupported and because of that, not always on pitch. It makes me tense up rather than let myself become submerged in what is being expressed.

Just for fun, here is Ruthie Henshall’s performance as Fantine from the 10th Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables. As a vocal performance, it is stunning. I can hear the same pain in her voice that you can see in Anne Hathaway’s face.

Incidentally, “I Dreamed a Dream” occurs at a different place in the movie than it originally did in the musical. Anne Hathaway sings it after she’s slept with her first man as a prostitute and Ruthie Henshall is singing it after she’s been fired, but before she’s resorted to prostitution. She can still dream of the past, but know’s it’s not coming back.

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2015 in Movies, Music

 

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