On The Town (1949)

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A Grand Day Out

On The Town is a unique beast of movie musical as MGM never followed up on it in one of the most noteworthy uses of location filming in a Hollywood movie up until that point. On the Town captures New York City circa 1949 in beautiful Technicolor as three sailors on leave spend 24 hours tearing up the town. When three men on board a ship without female interaction have leave, then dames become the ultimate aim. On the Town is also another example of Old Hollywood’s idealisation of the navy, particularly in musicals. Did movies like this affect recruitment? They sure make the navy look fun and even explicitly state it during the On the Town number, “Travel! Adventure! See the world!”. Likewise, MGM musicals really aren’t given the credit of just how funny they are, especially those penned by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. “It’s 9:30 already. The day’s gone and we haven’t seen a thing yet.” – Just right after that montage of you exploring the entire city?

Many shots in On the Town, particularly in the opening montage have an un-staged feel to them which give an insight into the world at the time, full of regular people getting on with their lives. The sets here are more on the realistic side and less artificial compared to other MGM musicals, allowing for the transitions between locations and sets to go by largely unnoticed.

Vera Ellen couldn’t be more girl next door, very pure and innocent (as reflected in the number Main Street). Ann Miller and Betty Garret on the other are the opposite to this, which gives the movie characters of both the innocent and then the sex-crazed variety. Betty Garret’s nymphomaniac tendencies are on full display as soon as we meet her character of Hidly Esterhazy; she really wants to get Sinatra back up to her place, really badly.

Ann Miller, however, plays by far my favourite character is the film as the most unlikely of scientists, Claire Huddesen; a sex goddess with the personality of a weird girl – ah the best kinds of contradictions. In her own words, she states she was running around with too much of all kinds of young men and just couldn’t settle down. Her guardian suggested that she take up anthropology and make a scientific study of man thus becoming more objective and getting them out of her system and being able to control herself; I love this character! Yet this has caused her to have a thing for prehistoric males over modern men. I can relate to being attracted to those alive decades ago but Ann Miller takes this further to hundreds of thousands of years.

Prehistoric Man is one of the odder musical numbers in the film history both in terms of lyrical content/themes as well as the number itself. As the caveman dancing, bongo bashing, Ann Miller being pulled along the floor by the hair madness proceeds, you have to ask yourself “what the hell am I watching?”. The soundtrack of On the Town is one of the finest in the MGM library; you know a musical soundtrack succeeds when you’re humming multiple tunes from it for a week after watching. The only track which falls flat for me is You’re Awful; with the absence any hook it’s not awful but mediocre.

The first ballet sequence in On the Town which introduces Vera Ellen’s Miss Turnstiles has a similar concept to Leslie Caron’s introductory sequence in An American In Paris; full of contradictory statements to describe her character. The two ballet’s in On the Town are much more humble than what would come in the MGM musicals over the next few years, nor do they have the eye-popping colour and appear more washed out. The A Day In New York ballet, for example, is bound to only two modest sets but these still serve as a nice warm-up for the magnificence of what was to come.

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Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

That’s Entertainment!

What is about Singin’ in the Rain that even the film elite hold it in such high regard and has even appeared on a previous Sight & Sound poll as one of the ten greatest films of all time, ranking among traditional highbrow films? Singin’ in the Rain is not just a great musical but also a film with a great story. It is not as harsh a critique on Hollywood as Sunset Boulevard but who would have still believed the content of fan magazines to be genuine after this film. Singin’ in the Rain has a cynical side as it pulls apart the Hollywood myth; beginning with Don Lockwood’s back-story as to how he rose to fame, which the movie comically shows us is full of crap. “Dignity, always dignity” but not if you want to make it to the top but at the end of the day  Singin’ in the Rain is a movie for movie lovers which celebrates Hollywood as much as it makes fun of it.

The film is set in 1927 albeit a very colourful 1927. In 1952 Technicolor films were in their final years of production and would soon become a thing of the past. The movie is a tribute to MGM producer and songwriter Arthur Freed – head of the MGM Freed unit – the producers of some of the greatest film musicals of all time. Although the days of the studio system where coming to an end in the early 1950’s as films from different studios started becoming homogenous and not containing unique aesthetics to each studio, the MGM musical still remained its own unique beast that no other studio could replicate. Likewise, the film studio in Singin’ in the Rain is a fictional studio and not MGM itself, I guess that would have been too much of a self-endorsement.

The soundtrack itself has entered the pop culture lexicon for good reason. I’ve had no shortage of listening to my CD soundtrack; glorious corn and camp topped with beautiful orchestrations, all of which never leaves your head and contributing to making Singin’ in the Rain one of the go-to anti-depressant films. Few other songs can lift my mood more than Moses Supposes or the film’s title number: could there be a greater expression of joy? After all, it is in the title; he is singing in the rain; turning the dreary rain into carefree joy, finding joy in despair. As for Make ‘em Laugh, even though it is a plagiarism of Cole Porter’s Be a Clown from The Pirate (1948), I considering Make ‘em Laugh is a superior rendition. There is also that disorienting fashion parade sequence which could be removed and have no effect on the plot but I do love me some 50’s fluff. But they do save the best for last in the form of the Broadway Melody Ballet. A number of MGM musicals had a lengthy ballet sequence, and to say they outdid themselves here would be an understatement as Gene Kelly dressed as Harold Lloyd with the go-getter attitude of the 1920’s celebrates a simple notion, “gotta dance!”. The visually asserting array of bright colours and impressionistic backgrounds is aided by Cyd Charisse; what a talent, what a figure!

Singin’ in the Rain presents a light-hearted and comical look at what actors and studios went through during the transition to sound. Few other scenes in cinema are as entertaining as Lina Lomant’s failure to understand sound recording technology. This scene not only showcases the problems with the technology in its early days by picking up unwanted sounds (complete also with the classic angry movie director) but it perfectly captures the relatable frustration that comes with filmmaking. I can tell you there is nothing more frustrating than out-of-sync sound. Likewise, the star’s difficulty in adapting to talkies and being laughed at by audiences parallel the legend of audiences being in howls of laughter as actor John Gilbert’s attempts to deliver dialogue on screen. Jean Hagan playing the dumb broad Lina Loment does a comedy act similar to Judy Holiday but in my view better than Holiday ever did. Donald O’Connor on the other hand surely isn’t human with his vaudeville-style act his facial and body movements and ability to walk up walls. Just name me a film with a more astounding display of talent. Here’s to you Singin’ In the Rain, I bow humbly to your cinematic and musical perfection.

It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)

Stormy Weather Ahead

Its Always Fair Weather will go down in history as the film musical which “could have been”. If It’s Always Fair Weather had been made a few years earlier it could have been in the same leagues as Singin’ In the Rain and On the Town but some shortcomings prevent it from being so. The movie was originally conceived as a sequel to On the Town, reuniting Gene Kelly with co-stars Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin. However, by 1955, Munshin no longer had box office and credibility while Sinatra was too big a star that the studio was unwilling to work with him. In their place, we get Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd, both of whom get the job done but lack the chemistry Kelly’s On the Town co-stars possessed. Frank Sinatra in particular I find is sorely missed as I loved his three-picture partnership with Kelly in which they made an excellent comedic duo. Although I find It’s Always Fair Weather’s biggest drawback are the sections of the film which are uneventful. The film could definitely benefit from the trimming or removal of whole scenes; there is a faster paced, snappier film in here.

Yet the film does showcase some of the best moments of any MGM musical. The musical numbers themselves are fantastic, all written for the film itself, while the majority of MGM musicals took their songs from back catalogs and stage musicals. The five-minute opening dance number showcases the then-new cinemascope format by having three dancers occupy their own third of the screen. I feel widescreen technology came too late the MGM musicals which could have used it to great advantage but by 1955 musicals had already lost most of their economic viability due to the rise of television. The soundtrack of the movie is great enough that I even bought the soundtrack. ‘Once Upon a Time’ is one of the most emotional numbers I’ve heard in any film but the centerpiece of the film is Gene Kelly’s number ‘I Like Myself’, featuring him tap dancing on roller skates, no trickery! This is of my very favourite musical numbers of all time, his title number from ‘Singin’ In the Rain’ may be more iconic but this is friggin’ epic and an unbelievable display of talent if I ever saw it. The movie’s only crime in the song and dance department is the lack of a dance number between Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, despite one actually being filmed.

The movie’s other notable aspect is being one of the earliest movies to satires television and its vacuousness. This may seem hypocritical of Hollywood but unlike other Hollywood musicals, Its Always Fair Weather actually has a dark and not very uplifting story of three war buddies who are reunited ten years later to find out they can’t stand each other.
Despite its shortcomings, I do have a lot of love for’ It’s Always Fair Weather’, largely due to its fantastic soundtrack and simply because of its gorgeous aesthetic as seen in MGM musicals, a world of beautiful, bright colours and welcome artificiality. As a musical enthusiast, I am forgiving of the movie’s flaws but others may be less patient with its uneven pace.

The Band Wagon (1953)

Fred Astaire 1953!

The Band Wagon is the film Fred Astaire’s career was culminating to: his best film in my view. Like Ninotchka with Greta Garbo or A Star Is Born with Judy Garland, this was the role he was born to play; one catered to his on-screen persona. Fred Astaire is Tony Hunter! An ageing hoofer who no longer is the star he once was. The Band Wagon contains little references to Astaire’s past: from Bill Bojangles Robinson to the opening credits feature an image of a top hat and cane, to the mentioning of a fictional movie “Swinging Down to Panama” perhaps a reference to Swing Time and Flying Down to Rio (although I do wish there could have been a little reference to Ginger Rogers herself in there).

The Band Wagon provides Astaire with some of the best musical numbers of his career. However, the film also allows him to showcase other avenues of his talent, such as his outburst scene over his dissatisfaction over rehearsals – a fine example of the acting prowess he possessed. While Ginger Rogers is obviously Astaire’s greatest partner Cyd Charisse is his most accomplished; could there be a more graceful figure?

Was I gullible that when I first watched The Band Wagon that the movie manipulated me into thinking the pretentious and egotistical stage director Jeffrey Cordova’s (Jack Buchanan) idea of a musical inspired by the Faust legend was a good idea? This isn’t the same old backstage musical plot; The Band Wagon is a thinking person’s musical. Likewise, Charisse’s Gabrielle Gerard has a mature subplot of her own involving her trying to deal with her dominating boyfriend and her feeling towards Tony; giving the film that extra mature edge.

Not only is there a great story, but there is also great comedy with a cast gels so well together. Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray as a bickering couple and their hysterical fanboy reactions to meeting Tony Hunter, to Jack Buchanan’s over the top histrionics and his terrible ideas for a stage musical. My favourite moment in comedy in The Bandwagon is the scene in which Jeffrey Cordova manipulates Gabrielle’s boyfriend from being dead set against allowing her to be cast in his stage production to then begging him to allow her to be in the show. It’s like a Bugs Bunny-Yosemite Sam type moment but on a much more subtle level and made even more impressive by occurring in an uncut shot. Likewise, the sets in The Band Wagon have an astounding level of detail that scenes near the beginning of the film taking place on the street had me wondering where they sets or real-world locations.

Up until The Band Wagon, it was uncommon for a film musical to have a soundtrack entirely composed for it rather than having songs and compositions taken from other sources; which makes it all the more impressive that the entire soundtrack to The Bandwagon is superb. If I was to choose my three favourite musical numbers of all time, in terms of epic scope they would be The Broadway Melody Ballet from Singin’ In the Rain, The Lullaby of Broadway from Gold Diggers of 1935 and The Girl Hunt Ballet from The Band Wagon in all its 13-minute glory. Here noir meets musical, with Astaire at his most badass. His line delivery could be in an actual crime film itself, plus it inspired the music video for Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal. There’s also the Shine on Your Shoes number, one which I could watch again and again just to look at all those gizmos in the background and the genuine reactions on people’s faces at seeing Fred Astaire dance; while That’s Entertainment has become a semi-official anthem for Hollywood. Oh and there’s the Triplets number; one of the weirdest musical numbers ever filmed and they’re actually dancing on their knees!

The early to mid-1950’s where a phenomenal period for the musical genre. Hollywood produced some of its finest musicals in these years before television brought this era of film musicals to an end. Films like The Band Wagon elevated the genre to new heights. A Fred Astaire musical which has everything and more!

Auntie Mame (1958)

Live! Live! Live!

It’s hard for me not to be complete enamoured by a movie and a character like Auntie Mame. Two and half hours of zany histrionics with a central character who is a free-thinking, non-conformist and constantly has a joyous, optimistic outlook on life; oh, and did I mention she is a total screwball. Few other fictional characters seem to lead such an exciting life that I as the viewer am actually is jealous off (“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are just starving to death!”). If I ever amass a huge fortune then perhaps I can try to emulate the lifestyle of Mame. Ok even with a huge fortune that probably wouldn’t be possible in this mundane realm that is reality but I can at least try.

Auntie Mame is one of the most liberal movies to come out of the 1950’s. Mame’s carefree, flamboyant, free thinking and non-conformist lifestyle clashes with a decade which is thought of as being the most conformist of the 20th century. It should come as no surprise this movie has a huge gay following as the title character is essentially a drag queen. At the beginning of the movie, we see Mame throwing a party full of bohemians, intellectuals and champagne socialists (“Karl Marx, is he one of the Marx Brothers?”), essentially the predecessors to the modern day hipster. During the first 50 minutes of Auntie Mame the liberals are the ones having fun while the stuffy, puritan conservative Mr Babbock is being driven mad by Mame’s antics and instance that her nephew be sent to a be sent to a progressive school over a conservative prep school, a school with ancient Greek principles, has no uniforms and as the movies implies, teaches sex education in a very odd manner.

However, Auntie Mame isn’t a total demonisation of conservatives. In the middle portion of the movie she does end up getting married to a southern gentleman and an oil tycoon of whom lives on a plantation and goes fox hunting, which does show you that love can overcome ideology. Likewise, when Mame returns to her apartment after the death of her husband, the next few incarnations of her constantly redesigned apartment as well as her outfits are not as camp, possibly suggesting her husband’s influence on her. Well at least until the second last incarnation of her apartment which is very avant-garde.

With the movie’s references to sex and homosexuality among other things, Auntie Mame falls into the category of “how did they get away with that?”. Yet as liberal as the movie is for its time (and in many respects still is), the liberal of today is the conservative of tomorrow. Some of Mame’s actions wouldn’t rub with the modern left such as her desire to settle down with a man and her motherly instincts.

The Kaleidoscope opening credits set the stage for a film which is a feast for the eyes and ears. They really put effort into these early widescreen era title sequences in one of many attempts for a film to compete against television. Likewise, Mame’s lavish apartment is a masterpiece of set design as it evolves throughout the movie, with each incarnation being as impressive as the last. The movie doesn’t lose its stage roots which each act ending with the dimming of the lights with the spotlight on Mame before completely going to dark.

I am a huge Rosalind Russell fan and I know it’s a cliché expression but it usage couldn’t be any more adept here: this is the role she was born to play! How is it possible of a human being to talk at such a voracious rate? I do wonder how long the script for Auntie Mame must have been. There are probably more words in this movie than the Encyclopedia Britannica. Whenever there is a moment free of any dialogue I have little think to myself, “Oh yes, silence, I forgot what that feels like”.  When Roz’s motor mouth isn’t running, she’s pulling at my heartstrings; there are times when I wish I could just go into the screen and hug her. I can’t stress enough my love for the actress, the performance and the fictional character. Auntie Mame is an encapsulation of pure unmitigated joy. When I’m feeling down, I know what movie I’ll be turning to.