Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Holiday Inn (1942)

Bing Crosby croons Irving Berlin's "White Christmas,"
a song written for this 1942 holiday classic
Whoever though of putting Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby in the same film was a genius. The most popular dancer and the most popular singer of their generation made for the ultimate musical because they could compensate for each other's weaknesses. As if this were not good enough, however, the score by Irving Berlin features several classics including the first appearance of the song "White Christmas," which makes this holiday outing one for the ages.

The thin sliver of a plot goes something like this: Bing Crosby is a night club singer who's tired of his harried life of show business, and plans to marry and retire to a farm in the country. Even after his fiancĂ©e bales on him to be with his former partner Fred Astaire instead, Crosby remains determined to make his rural life a success. He quickly discovers he has no pleasure in farming, so he decides to turn his house into a night club that's open holidays only, appropriately to be named Holiday Inn, He quickly makes a hit of it, and falls for his new leading lady, but Fred Astaire shows up steal her away just as she and Crosby get engaged. Is history doomed to repeat itself again or will Bing's new love endure the debonair dancer?

Astarie gets three great dances to show off his twinkle-toes in this film. Perhaps the most iconic, however, is his solo number "Say It with Firecrackers," in which he taps and throws down small firecrackers to create a secondary rhythm. Not only is it a feat of musical timing, but  when Fred throws down a whole string of cracklers and lights them all at once, it becomes a stunning display of his fleetness of foot to watch him dance around them. The token romantic couple dance comes in the form of "Be Careful, It's My Heart," which is sung by Bing. Not surprisingly, the combination of Bing's velvety voice and Fred's graceful turns on the dance floor make for a breathtakingly beautiful combination. There's another wonderful number in which an inebriated Fred stumbles around the dance floor trying to dance with his partner. Fred does a spectacular job flailing about as if he were not in control of his faculties and adds just enough flourishes to make us think that even a completely sloshed Fred Astaire would still be quite a sight to behold,

As mesmerizing as Fred Astaire can be with his feet, though, the heart of this movie lies with Bing Crosby's character. Crosby was great at conveying the impression of being an average Joe just trying to get by in a hostile world. He does so well that this marks the only movie in which I do not want Fred Astaire to get the girl. Although he does not dazzle us as much as Fred does, he does get the honor of being the first person ever to sing the classic "White Christmas," and there really has never been a better rendition since then. He also gets to croon most of the other selections for the other holidays on the calender, many of which are quite memorable in their own right, and all of which are quite different from each other.

In the 1950s, someone had the bright idea to make a sequel to this film and entitle it White Christmas. Astaire and Crosby were to reprise their original roles, but when Astaire wasn't available, they replaced him with Danny Kaye. The new cast does a credible job with the script they are given, but neither the writing nor the music feels as inspired as the original. Likewise, since Fred Astaire is the apex of cinematic dancing, any film's dances when compared to his are bound to feel less graceful and elegant. Also where the situations in the first film feel scripted but earnest, there's a conscious corniness in the sequel that impedes my ability to believe the characters or suspend disbelief in the same way. It's not that White Christmas is a bad film. On the contrary I find it quite enjoyable on occasions, but it just doesn't hold a candle to the original.

I rate this film a solid 8 out of 10, purely joyous musical holiday entertainment at its finest.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fitzwilly (1967)

For the rest of the month, I intend to review Christmas films, and while Fitzwilly isn't a traditional feel-good holiday movie, it does take place entirely at Christmastime, so I figured I'd put it in, especially since Turner Classic Movies was featuring it on their lineup of Christmas movies. This film is so rare, moreover, that it deserves to be reviewed while it's still fresh in my mind.

This charmer stars Dick Van Dyke as the butler Fitzwilliam, affectionately known to his employer Miss Vicki as Fitzwilly. The son of a butler, Fitzwilly was taken  in by Miss Vicki when his parents died suddenly and was given an Ivy League education to complement his considerable mental faculties. Out of filial devotion to Miss Vicki, he looks after her as both her butler and the steward of her estate.

Unbeknown to Miss Vicki, she has gone broke giving away her money to charities, so in order to support her in the manner to which she is accustomed, Fitzwilly starts pulling elaborate heists and scams, all of which Miss Vicki remains in ignorance. Ironically, almost all the money Fitzwilly makes gets given by Miss Vicki to charities, so he can never amass enough capital to give up the life of crime. In addition we get the feeling that Fiztwilly enjoys the thrill of heist, so it's not much of a sacrifice on his part.

The whole arrangement comes into jeopardy, however, when  Miss Vicki hires a secretary named Juliet--played by Get Smart's Barbara Feldon--to edit the book she's writing. At first she loathes Fitzwilly's controlling ways, but sensing a deeper story hidden underneath his unorthodox way of running the houshold, she soon finds herself falling in love with the cunning butler. Her investigations, however, nearly prove fatal to the gang's thieving operations. When she learns the truth of the source of Miss Vicki's income, Juliet makes Fitzwilly promise to give up his life of crime before they get married, so he plans one last grand heist to ensure that Miss Vicki will never have to worry about money again.

Being a simple face, this film doesn't need a believable premise to be enjoyable, and it succeeds in providing us with plenty of amusing situations and some really ingenious heists. It's a not laugh-out-loud funny movie, but it certainly holds our interest for an hour and a half. Barbara Feldon and Dick Van Dyke prove themselves to be just as entertaining on the big screen as they were on the small, and I especially appreciate that there's no estrangement between their characters when she finds out the truth about his job because that's such a cliche. In addition the character actors never fail to delight, especially Edith Evans as Miss Vicki and John McGiver as the butler Albert.

I give this film a 6.7 out of 10. It's not brilliant, but it's smart enough to be one of Blackadder's cunning plans.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Mr. Skeffington (1944)

Every once in a while you come across a film which you cannot decide to like or not. It's not that the movie doesn't have parts that you greatly admire, but there are enough problems to diminish both its enjoyability and rewatchability. Such, of course, is the film Mr. Skeffington, or I would not employ such words to describe my chagrin. Parts of this film are absolutely brilliant, but an almost equal portion of it is a drag.

Covering a span of twenty-five years from 1913 to 1938, the story chronicles the lives of Job and Fanny Skeffington, one of the richest men and one of the most beautiful women in New York, respectively. Most of the scenes focus on Fanny, whose vain and frivolous ways blind her to the things that are really important in her life until she almost loses them all. That makes the film very difficult to watch especially since Fanny is such an unlikable character for much of the film and makes no progress towards growth until the very end. Actress Bette Davis usually brings wonderful nuances to her roles, but for this performance she seems like a straight coquette out of the Scarlett O'Hara mold without out any of the aforementioned character's deep passions or ambitions. Fanny does start out with some humanity since she marries Job Skeffington in order to save her brother from embezzlement charges, but once her brother dies in World War I, she becomes almost like a caricature until the end of the film.

The strongest part of this movie is Claude Raines in the title role. He portrays the self-made, fabulously wealthy Jewish banker Job Skeffington, who falls in love with Fanny Trellis, the prettiest girl in New York, a girl who's already turned down dozens of eligible men. Surprisingly enough, she consents to marry Skeffington, and even though he knows it's not for love, he's content to wait for her to learn to love him. Not surprisingly, the marriage is a rough one, and the couple eventually divorces, leaving Skeffinton to raise their daughter alone. He end up moving them to Europe to look after their business interests, but their Jewish ethnicity makes them the target of Nazi aggression. Eventually Job makes it back to America, but not before having his fortune confiscated and being tortured and blinded by the Nazis. We only hear about this abuse after the fact, but it doesn't detract from the statement about the war and antisemitism .Raines as always does a wonderful job at playing the complex emotions of the character he is given and breaks our heart as he suffers and broods in silence.

Of course we get a semi-happy ending despite these complications. Fanny loses her beauty to diphtheria and has a crisis when she realizes that her days of being an object of desire to men were over forever. Just after all this happens, she hears about Job's plight and that he's willing to reconcile with her, unaware that Job is now blind, she manages to overcome her vanity and agree to meet with him only to discover to her joy that he will never know of her disfigurement. This ending feels a bit of a cop-out because I think it would have been much more character growth for Fanny if Job had been able to see her in her altered state and she could have learned that true love exists regardless of looks. Of course there's a certain poetic beauty in the fact that he will always see her as the beautiful young woman he feel in love with, but I don't know if that's worth the reduction in payoff we get after watching over two hours of Bette Davis being a shallow coquette.

One last thing I would like to note is that this film is quite explicit about dealing with issues of prejudice against Jewish people, which was extremely rare for the 1940s, and I applaud it for that. At the same time, though, they didn't turn this into a race film but kept the reality tragically understated, as if there were nothing to be done for it.

I give this film a 6.5 out of 10. It has great potential and wonderful moments, but it ultimately falls flat from the lack of progress from an unlikable protagonist.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My Top 9 Most Emotionally Scarring Disney Animated Movies

I admit that I was a wimpy little kid, especially when it comes to Disney movies. Just about every one of them had a scene that I had to fast forward because I found it too intense. Some of these scenes I look back on and laugh to think that they used to bother me that much, but I still feel that there's a lot of Disney movie moments that are legitimately not kid-friendly. Thus I now create my list of the films that bothered me most as a child to honor the suffering of all the children who had to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous Disney movies. I realize that I don't include a lot of Disney Renaissance films on this list, and that's not because they don't have their disturbing moments but rather because I was too old when they came out for them to affect me as deeply as the ones I saw in my preschool days. Also I really feel that Disney had learned at that point to tone down their villains in comparison to their early work, so the level of terror in the newer films will never again reach the level that their forerunners possessed--although The Princess and the Frog seems to have made a decent attempt at it.

Of course fear isn't the only factor that puts movies on this list. Some of my deepest mental scars do not come from the villains themselves but rather from the suffering of the good characters. Deaths and unfairly cruel situations can be just as unsettling to children as the image of a scary monster. In fact I will contend that they are inherently more frightening than monsters because in the case of monsters at least parents can tell their children that they aren't real whereas suffering and death cannot be explained away because they are an inevitable part of every person's life.

There's a lot of people who are of the opinion that these kind of films toughen kids up and prepare them for the real world, but I think that's not necessarily true for all children. Honestly, some children just can't take that kind of brutality at a young age, and exposing them to it before they're ready will only result in more neuroses than if they'ed worked up to that level of intensity gradually. And unfortunately I fell in that category as did my brothers and many of my acquaintances. So in honor of all these casualties, here is the list of Disney movies I condemn as unsuitable for little kids:

Even the flowers in this film are ready to kill Alice
at a moment's notice.
9. Alice in Wonderland (1951)
This movie disturbed me as a kid because nothing in it made sense, and everyone, even the Cheshire Cat, seems vaguely menacing. The other awful thing about this film is that even though Alice is in distress, no one seems to even care, let alone try to help her. Also they all have sharp tempers and fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. Probably the worst point for me is when the walking pencil erases Alice's path and strands her, making her sit down and cry about never getting home. So even though the main villain of this film, the Queen of Hearts, doesn't seem that threatening, this remains a movie that's not at all designed to be comforting to kids. That's what you get from a movie written by a junkie while doing opium.

8. The Little Mermaid (1989)
I was only three when this movie came out, which meant I was still young enough to have my psyche injured by it. Ursula's lair is a profoundly dark and evil place, and when she gains the power of the trident, she's just as cruel and vindictive as any villain you can name. Surprisingly, though, I found one "good" character to be almost equally disturbing. The way King Triton flies into a rage and destroys all of Ariel's things scared me almost as much as Ursula herself. Talk about sending mixed signals to a kid. Still, I have to admit that I liked the music in this film so much that I continued to watch it despite the scary elements. So while this movie may be scary, it's not quite unwatchable most of the titles on this list.

These cats practically exude evil even in this picture.
7. Lady and the Tramp (1955)
I haven't seen this movie in many years, but reading a review of it recently reminded me why I could never sit through it as a child. I hated how Lady gets neglected and mistreated after her owners have a child. I think this feeds into children's fears that their parents might stop loving them or that something might supplant them in their parents affections. Then there are some other dogs and dog-catchers who are scary, and Trusty's accident in the end is disturbing, especially when it looks like he could be dead. I haven't even touched on the Siamese cats yet, who are both cruel and calculating. And somehow I found their song really disturbing as a kid even though I didn't really understand what the were saying. Still, they make a bunch of trouble and plot for Lady to take the rap, which I found deeply unfair and unesttling.

6. Fantasia (1940)
For those of you who don't remember, the "Night on Bald Mountain" segment is about the devil. 'Nuff said. I can appreciate it now that I'm an adult, and realize how well they matched their imagery to Mussorgsky's music, and the fact it gets defeated by Schubert "Ave Maria" (Schubert for the win!!!!). But especially since I've believed in the devil since I was taught the concept, seeing such a depiction was horrifying, and the music feeds perfectly into the terror. I can understand why that segment was banned in many countries in its initial release. Fortunately I escaped without bad mental scarring by not being exposed to this film until I was six or seven. The fact that it still makes the list, though, tells you just how powerful the effect is. Also there are parts of the dinosaur "Rite of Spring" segment, especially when the T-Rex kills and eats a stegosaurus that made me want to run for cover. Little Foot's mom eat your heart out; that's a gruesome scene.

Maleficent is doing nothing in this frame, and she still
is frightening.
5. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
All I really have to mention is Maleficent and her army of orc/demons to get my point across. Man, is that a scary combination! Especially when she transforms into a large, toothy dragon. She definitely gave me more nightmares than any other Disney villain by far simply because of the physical design of her character. Her image literally became seared into my brain as the personification of pure evil. The fact that I was first exposed to her image at the impressionable age of three doesn't help either. I think Maleficent seems particularly menacing because she's so powerful, with seemingly limitless stores of malice and dark magic. The decent into her realm is literally a descent into hell on earth.

4. Pinocchio (1940)
This movie is just dark and disquieting. There's so many things I can complain about, but I'll confine myself to two instances primarily. The first is the part where all the boys turn into donkeys, and the second is Monstro the whale, who swallows all the characters except the good fairy. That thing was so huge with such monstrous teeth that there's no wonder he's been frightening children for generations. In addition I find the Pinocchio's whole world to be generally creepy. Think about it: does he actually meet any nice, kindly people on his whole adventure? If Pinocchio's world really existed, I would never want to leave my house. Then there's the suffering of Geppetto, who not only has the pain of thinking he lost his "son," but then gets eaten by a whale in his attempt to find him.

3. Snow White (1937)
I've already been pretty explicit about why I think Snow White is a horrible movie for children, but just to reiterate briefly, the evil queen really lives up to her name. The scene in which she descends into the dungeon to make her potions frightened me beyond belief with its symbols of death and evil. I remember being viscerally frightened by that scene to the extent of having a panic attack, and having to leave the room. I also find the queen's death to be excessive and cruel. Not only do they show her falling off a cliff, but she's then crushed by a boulder, and we see two vultures swooping down towards her remains, which is quite gruesome. Then there's our heroine in a coffin with everyone mourning her death. This is a case of a classic fairytale in which you know the ending going in, but they still play on your heartstrings so much that you end up crying in spite of yourself.

2. Bambi (1942)
Even though the Nostalgia Critic ranked this as number one on his list saddest kids' movies because of Bambi's mom's death, it comes in second on my list because it doesn't have the sustained angst of Dumbo. Really, Bambi is a mostly joyful movie apart from three instances: encounters with MAN, the death of Bambi's mom, and the forest fire. And while the death thing is really bad, feeding into children's fears of losing their mother on whom they depend for so much, it's not dwelt upon at all, so we really get only one scene of Bambi suffering from it. The rest of the movie he's fine. So it's a traumatizing moment, yes, but it's nothing compared to the tear-fest film released by Disney the year before.

1. Dumbo (1941)
I absolutely revile this movie because of the scars it left on my psyche. It is without a doubt the cause of unquantifiable anxiety in my early childhood. Most of the film is actually a double tragedy. First it's the tragedy of a deformed, mute baby elephant deprived of his mother and forced to be mocked in front of a live audience every night. Then it's also the tragedy of Dumbo's mom, Jumbo, who gets locked away from her child because she tried to defend him. How horrible is that? What always reduces me to a quivering puddle even to this day is the scene where Dumbo sneaks out to see his mother, but all he can see is her trunk, and she proceeds to cradle him in that appendage and sing him a lullaby. And if all that weren't enough, I haven't even touched the "Pink Elephants on Parade" part. Oh yes, this is the charming part where Dumbo gets his trunk on some alcohol and proceeds to have a really disturbing nightmare, complete with scary voices and weirdly morphing, threatening dream shapes. If you still don't get what I'm talking about, I invite you to go back and watch this movie again, and imagine it through the eyes of a three-year-old child. Horrible.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

**except of my final post in the Disney Princess series for Worthy of Note. For the full article, please click here

Being a lover of the Art Deco Era in which this movie is set, I absolutely could not resist reviewing it. Like most Disney animated films, it's not without it's problems, but I still find a lot to admire in The Princess and the Frog. Pixar head honcho John Lassiter had a large part in the restart of the Disney hand-drawn features, and his influence shows clearly in the quality of this film, which is higher than that of any Disney animated film since Mulan (I'm not counting Enchanted since it was mostly live action). It also features an earnestness in storytelling that recent Disney fare seems to have forgotten in the din pop culture references and cheap humor, and I think that quality will make this film stand the test of time.

Perhaps the most enjoyable element of this film is the characterization, especially of Tiana and Prince Naveen. Ironically both are extremely materialistic, though Tiana doesn't realize how much that aspect of her personality has affected her. I feel like with Prince Naveen we get our first realistic depiction of royalty from Disney: a prince who's a selfish, womanizing spendthrift and plans to marry for money. This is an improvement because it shows young girls that having a royal title doesn't necessarily make a man a desirable mate. Whereas Charlotte is prepared to marry Naveen purely to become a princess, Tiana won't even consider him until he has a major change of heart. I also find Naveen's chagrin at being raised to be "decoratively useless"--i.e. having no life and survival skills--to be quite believable, a common complaint of coddled children. Tiana's simple act of teaching him to cook, therefore, empowers him to take control of his own life instead of remaining a sponge. In fact his fulfillment in learning that skill reveals to us that his whole previous lifestyle was really what Pascal would call "diversion," a ploy to distract him from his meaningless existence. Once Naveen finds a purpose in helping Tiana achieve her dream, everything else takes is proper place in the order of importance for his life. He can still have fun playing the ukulele on occasion, but fun is no longer the point of his life.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Enchanted (2007)

**Except of an article for Worthy of Note. For the full review, click here

Ten years after they made their first film questioning the princess archetype, Disney would revisit these problems with their hilarious parody Enchanted. I have to hand it to Disney for making a film that satirizes its bread-and-butter, especially when it was the first traditionally animated feature (or at least partially so) they'd produced in the better part of a decade. Of course admitting that their starry-eyed optimistic take on life is wrong would be shooting themselves in the foot, but they do a good job mocking the over-the-top nature of some of their stories anyway.

...One essential problem with the Disney princess character becomes abundantly clear when Giselle meets Robert. After he catches her when she falls off a billboard, she tells him her story, in which she mentions getting to New York by falling down a well. Catching the irony, Robert asks her, "Is this a habit of yours, falling off things?" Giselle responds, "Well, usually someone catches me." Giselle, you see, relies on other people to get her out of scrapes instead of learning to take care of herself. That kind of attitude is a flatly unhealthy. Of course there's nothing wrong with having your friends help you out in a pinch, but that's no excuse for staying helpless yourself. After all, you can never tell when you'll be alone and need to get by on your own abilities. You can't always count on even the best of friends being there for you every time. I'm sorry for spelling out something that should be completely self-evident like this, but it needs to be said for the sake of rhetoric. Because it's the rightly-noted problem with the old school Disney Princesses.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hercules (1997)

**This is an except of an article I published for Worthy of Note. For the full article, please click here

Although I believe this movie qualifies for Disney Princess status--heck, marrying a demi-god beats marrying a lousy old prince any day--it's usually not included on the list because a) it wasn't that successful in theaters, and b) Megera isn't technically a princess in Disney's version of the story, though she certainly was a princess in the Greek myth. I also really think she should be included because she was the very first anti-princess character in a Disney movie, and it always speaks both to the influence and weaknesses of the type when an anti-type is produced.

Obviously the most appropriate person to review a Disney film making fun of Greek mythology would be a Greek-American, and fortunately I am both genetically and culturally qualified for the daunting task. As a child I was both strangely attracted to this movie by my ethnic ties and repelled by the subject's dark moments. In fact, when I first heard that Disney was going to make a children's movie out of a Greek myth, I thought it an impossible task considering everyone short of the two virgin goddesses is promiscuous in those stories. Somehow Disney manages to alter the narrative in order to weed the gratuitous sex out, and they make everything look and sound superficially Greek,  neither of which is any mean feat. Still, the movie is so blatantly anachronistic in order to put in pop culture references that we can never suspend our disbelief and think it's really Ancient Greece. But I must admit that I enjoy the mention of food like pita and mousaka enjoyable along with the casual mention of other myths. It's not Greek, but it's a very pleasing imitation, especially since Greek Mythology is such a ripe subject for satire.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

**excerpt of a review written for Worthy of Note. For the full article, please click here

Although I found this movie far too scary to watch as a child, I enjoy it greatly now that I'm older. One of the key reasons for this is because they used the music from Tchaikovsky's magnum opus, The Sleeping Beauty for most of the score. As an admirer of Tchaikovsky, therefore, I'm already hooked on that point. Sleeping Beauty, however, is a very different film from anything Disney made before or since. While some of the innovations are positive, and it proves to be a beautifully lyrical production, fans of the older style Disney production may find this film lacking.

One major point in which this film differs from the rest of the Disney oeuvre is in the animation. The incredible animators at Disney tried their best to make the art look like illustrations in a medieval tapestry, and they succeeded to a large extent. So we are treated to the bright colors and flat, angular style of the Middle Ages, which certainly renders a fairytale aspect to the proceedings. Until that point, Disney had tried to do their full-length films in a semi-realistic style with some cartoon-ish shapes and flourishes reserved for comic relief characters. Animation aesthetics started changing in the 1950s, however, and Disney had been slow to adapt. In Sleeping Beauty, however, Disney proved that the new taste could be catered to while paying homage to the great illustration traditions of the past.

In addition to these aspects, Sleeping Beauty also lacks the great quantity of musical numbers that we tend to see in the other films--though Disney had been straying from that model in the '50s as well. That tends to make it less appealing to young children. Combined, moreover, with the fact that the cast of characters is so small and the only real comic characters are the three good fairies and the two kings, it doesn't seem to paint with as broad a brush as the other princess films.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cinderella (1950)

**Excerpt of a post I did for Worthy of Note. For the full article, please click here**

Unlike yesterday's review, this film is a true pleasure to review because it was one of my favorites as a young child. First off, it doesn't contain anything scarier than a mean stepmother and a fat old tomcat.  It's also got plenty of cute songs and anthropomorphic animals along with a comically violent king and inept stepsisters. So yes, this is a truly kid-friendly Disney film. How rare are those? Well, at the time this film was made, they were non-existent.

Unfortunately this movie's very popularity and watchability has made it the target of relentless over-marketing and shameless sequels. The marketing may be distasteful, but it doesn't bother me nearly as much as the sequels. Call me simplistic, but when a movie ends with the words "and they lived happily ever after," that should be the final word. If you want the "happily ever after" concept challenged, let me refer you to a lovely little Preston Sturges movie called The Palm Beach Story, which opens with a wedding and the caption "and they lived happily ever after--or did they?"Please don't do that to Cinderella unless it's a satire. Legitimate sequels ruin the whole point of a fairy tale.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

***Except of an article posted on Worthy of Note. Check out the full review here***

Welcome to the first entry in our Disney Princess Series. We will be going through all the entries on this list in chronological order for the rest of the month, culminating with Alex's review of Disney's new take on the story of Rapunzel, Tangled.

When I was asked to do this review, I realized that I really needed to go back and watch it again because I hadn't actually seen it in nineteen years. There's a reason for that, too, namely that it was way too frightening for a wimpy kid like me. I really wanted to like this film when I was little, especially since it has many charming moments, but quite frankly it scared the pants off me. And when I went back to watch it again recently, I still found it profoundly creepy. Not only is the sorceress/queen frighteningly evil, but our princess gets put in a coffin, and there's disturbing, dark imagery throughout the film.

One thing I'll say about for this film, however, is that it hasn't been overly marketed with shameless sequels, which is good considering it would probably make Walt Disney's ashes spontaneously combust. Incredibly popular at the time of its release, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is all but overlooked by the current generation, and even classic Disney fans seem to find the film unpalatable compared to other old Disney movies like Cinderella and Peter Pan. So why is this former classic now such an ugly stepsister (pun intended)? I mean, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were seen openly weeping with delight during the premiere, which opened to unanimously raving reviews. Why doesn't it touch us the same way anymore?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Best-of-the-Decade Series: the 1950s

As reluctant as I am to re-hash an overused Dickens quote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," really does seem fitting for this decade in cinematic history. Whole new frontiers were opening their doors, and at the same time studios were facing their most dire financial crises as their audiences were being stolen by television. Of course those two media would learn to get along eventually, but for the moment they were each other's worst enemies. The sad part about the conflict was that movies started getting gimmicky to draw people in instead of relying on the tried-and-true methods of good acting and storytelling. This Cole Porter written for 1957's Silk Stockings lyric describes the situation perfectly:

"Today to get the public to attend the picture show
It's not enough to advertise some famous star they know
If you want to get the crowds to come around,
You gotta have glorious Technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope, and stereophonic sound!"

Despite this, there were still plenty of good films made in that decade, and some even rank among the greatest of all time. I could probably fill this list just with memorable Hitchcock films made in this decade, but that would be unfair to the many other great movies that came out. I'm going to forget honorable mentions this time and simply list the films that have the greatest merit and watch-ability in my book. Please do not be offended if you think I've left out one of the many memorable films from this decade. I'm most likely aware of them, but they're not to my taste.

11. The Quiet Man (1952)
When John Ford made a sort of romantic comedy set in his beloved Ireland and decided to film it on location, everyone thought he was nuts. But he made it anyway, and 50 years later, it's still a great movie. John Wayne stars as an Irish-American prizefighter who hangs up his gloves and returns to his ancestral village in Ireland. He instantly falls for the local beauty played by Maureen O'Hara, but runs afoul of her surly brother, the town squire played by Victor McLaglen. Wayne's character has problems adjusting to this backwards, honor-based culture where fistfights are the only way to settle disputes, women can't marry without their guardian's permission, and dowries constitute a wife's self-respect. When Maureen's brother refuses to pay hers, John Wayne must either seriously reconsider his stance on renouncing violence or risk losing the woman he loves. Despite the seemingly dramatic plot, this move is quite funny, and all of the character actors are completely charming, especially Ward Bond as the parish priest, and Barry Fitzgerald as the town bookie and drunk. The brawl at the end was the longest fight every recorded for a movie, and it's hilarious. I really love this movie. The dialog is witty, the actors are great, and Ireland lives in all its verdant beauty.

10. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Based on an Agatha Christie play, this movie boasts a stellar performance from one of my favorite character actors, Charles Laughton. He plays an aging lawyer suffering from severe heart problems and takes on a case of an innocent man who seems to have a hopeless circumstantial case mounted against him. Marlene Dietrich is coldly brilliant as the defendant's wife who appears as a witness for the prosecution. This film made waves when it was released because of its shocking twist ending, and audience members were actually forbidden to tell anyone what happened, something that was parodied on an episode of The Honeymooners. The reason that this movie doesn't rank higher on this list is mostly do to Tyrone Power's hammy performance as the defendant.

9. An Affair to Remember (1957)
Being a woman, I had to include this film. I know it's sappy, but I cry every time I see the ending. Why is this film so great, though? What keeps people coming back to it despite its faults? Well, first of all Cary Grant breaks our hearts, especially in that final scene. The writing is really good. The script is witty and touching, and the music strikes all the right chords. Really the funny, charming beginning of the romance only highlights the tragedy that occurs in the middle and the glimpse of healing love we get at the end. Leo McCarey originally wrote this for Cary Grant and Irene Dunne back in 1939 but was unhappy with the result because he couldn't get Grant for the role. There's a lot of argument about the two films' comparative merits, but I like this one better because Grant does a much better job capturing our pathos, and since his character is the reformed rake, if that doesn't ring true for us, the rest of the film won't work.

8. North by Northwest (1959)
One of Hitchcock's most iconic films, North by Northwest follows the story of an innocent man who accidentally get implicated in a spy conspiracy, and must chase across the country to avoid their assassins. The two scenes that everyone remembers are the scene where Cary Grant gets chased by a crop-duster in a cornfield and the scene where he's hanging off Mt. Rushmore. It's certainly one of the best examples of the plotting and suspense for which Hitchcock is so rightly famous, but it falls down my list because Eva Marie Saint is such an abysmal actress in this film. She's just completely wooden, and it doesn't come off as being from her spy training. Also I feel like character is sacrificed in this in favor of action, and that's never something I can stomach. Still, it's a really good movie.

7.Some Like It Hot (1959)
I'm not much of a Marilyn fan, but I love this movie with Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis. People who don't think that guys and drag are funny have obviously never seen this film. After witnessing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, two jazz musicians in 1920s Chicago go into hiding as women musicians bound for Florida. Situations just keep getting funnier as Tony falls for Marilyn and Jack finds himself with a rich suitor. We also get to see Curtis' famous Cary Grant impersonation when he pretends to be a millionaire in order to woo Marilyn but still maintain his female cover. "Well, nobody's perfect," it ends, and I'll leave you to find out why that line's so funny.

6. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Apart from making Passepartout Spanish instead of French, it's really a fairly good adaptation of Jules Verne's famous novella about a rich Englishman who embarks on a journey to go around the world in less than three months during the Victorian Era. David Niven is delightful as the punctilious and unflappable Phileas Fogg, and the film features the best array of cameos ever assembled. Old movie fans will be delighted to see Ronald Coleman, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer, Buster Keaton, Ceasar Romero, Peter Lorre, Charles Coburn, John Mills, and countless other famous faces flit across the scene in bit parts. And it's just fun to see the characters go everywhere from Bombay to San Francisco and back.

5. High Noon (1952)
There's a lot of cliches in the western genre, but none more iconic than the showdown at high noon. Gary Cooper and Grace Kelley star in this classic gunslinger filmed in real-time. That's right: all the action in this two-hour film takes place in the two hours leading up to the duel at high noon. There's 5something poignant about this situation where everyone in town is too frightened to stand up and do the right thing except one man. Even Cooper's wife is opposed to his fighting because she's a Quaker.  But in the end, there are things worth fighting for and sacrifices worth being made, and this film affirms that so well that most other westerns pale in comparison.

4. Ben-Hur (1959)
This is probably the best movie of the epic genre that was popular in the '50s and early '60s. It is not, however, a particularly faithful adaptation of the novel by Lew Wallace. It won Best Picture, and Charlton Heston took home the Oscar for Best Actor on the strength of the compelling narrative and the sweeping ultra-widescreen in which it was filmed. The journey of Judah Ben-Hur from wealthy Jew to Roman Slave to nobleman, and ultimately from revenge to forgiveness for the false friend who betrayed him had captured imaginations of of people for it to be made twice as a silent movie, the latter of these by DeMille, but this is the one that most people remember. It certainly doesn't let us down in capturing the emotion of the character as well as a spectacular visual tour of the known world of the time. And then there's the chariot race. That scene has inspired countless homages including the pod race scene in Star Wars: Episode I, which is pretty much a moment-by-moment recreation of the scene, especially at the finale.

3. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

I've only recently discovered the brilliance of this film, but I don't hesitate to tout its merits. Sir Alec Guinness won an Oscar for his role as the ranking British officer in a Japanese POW camp, forced to build a railroad bridge in Thailand to aid the enemy. Guinness struggles to maintain dignity for himself and his men while forced to labor under inhuman conditions. At first he refuses to do the labor himself, since it's against the Geneva convention for officers to do manual labor, but eventually he decides to go along with it if only to help his men, and his example grants them a modicum of self-respect needed to survive. Meanwhile William Holden and a band of Allied saboteurs trek across hostile territory to destroy the bridge before it's completed. Truly a fascinating film about how two men on the same side of a war can each be doing the right thing yet end up fighting each other. It really challenges our notions of what duty and honor mean.

2. Rear Window (1954)
This is without a doubt my favorite Hitchcock film, and arguably his finest of the decade--although people make cases for Vertigo and North by Northwest. James Stuart plays an invalid who believes he witnessed the murder of one of his neighbors from his apartment window, but his evidence is purely circumstantial. Thelma Ritter steals the show as Stuart's wisecracking nurse, and Grace Kelly is devastatingly beautiful and spunky as his girlfriend. Perhaps what makes this film so good is that it's got so many subplots in the lives of the many neighbors on whom Jimmy Stuart spies. In order to appreciate these nuances, though, this  movie requires a large screen preferably with an HD setting,

1. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
What can I say that hasn't been said or that I didn't already say last week in my Top 10 Movie Musicals? It's the greatest musical ever made, it made the top 10 of AFIs 100 Greatest Movies of All Time both the original time and for the 10-year anniversary. In fact it got bumped up five slots when it was re-assessed. The dancing is beautiful, the songs are great, the script is corny but really entertaining, and Donald O'Connor is way too funny for his own good. Jean Hagen is unbelievable as Lina Lamont and really fun to imitate with her squeaky, nasal voice. I just want to reiterate once more, however, that Gene Kelly is an inferior dancer to Fred  Astaire because he makes his audience feel how hard his dances are instead of making them free and effortless as the best dancers do.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Special Book Review: Remake

As a reviewer of Golden Age Hollywood films, I find myself among the countless people who look back longingly at the films of the mid-20th century and lament the loss of the "purity" of those films. Whether or not we're deluding ourselves remains to be seen, but it can certainly be argued that older movies had just as many problems as contemporary ones, albeit in different areas.

Apparently one of my favorite authors is among this group of rabid old movie fans. Connie Willis wrote a novella called Remake in the mid-'90s that was a love song to the Golden Age of film, and particularly the movie musical. I've known about this book for a while, but I found it difficult to procure a copy because it was never very popular. I finally read it recently, though, and since it fit in so well with my recent themes of musicals and Fred Astaire in particular, I thought I should include it.

In the near future, Willis envisions a Hollywood where CG rules the day. New live-action movies are a thing of the past, as it's much easier to place CG renderings of famous actors into new movies or remake old movie with an all-star cast of your choice. And if you don't like the ending to Casablanca you can change it on demand. It's a sort of post-modern dystopia where everything is simulated from sex to movie stars to feelings via designer drugs.

Inside this mess, we meet our main character, a college student named Tom who CG edits remakes in order to get through college and fuel his drug habit. His current project is to edit all the addictive substances out of classic films--a job he hates because virtually all of them contain alcohol, and cutting it out basically ruins great films like The Thin Man, The Philadelphia Story, and Casablanca.

At a party one night, Tom pops the wrong pill and rushes off to find a girl to have sex with because that's basically all the drug is good for. To his dismay, however, the party seemed to be entirely populated by Marilyn Monroe impersonators except for a single girl named Alis (pronounced Alice) who is simply there as herself. Alis is a starry-eyed newcomer who dreams of dancing in the movies, and is impressed by Tom's seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of classic Hollywood films. In an effort to get her into bed, he offers to CG her into a movie with her favorite dancer Fred Astaire, but Alis doesn't want a fake dance. She wants the real thing.

Alis represents a purity of intent and a repudiation of the status quo which Tom has reluctantly accepted, and this bothers him. Although he has already sold his soul to the system, he fights violently to ensure Alis avoids the same fate, even when it means breaking her heart to make her see the truth. And it seems to work: Alis disappears, and Tom sinks into an alcohol-and-drug induced stupor for several months as he ironically tries in vain to edit the addictive substances out of the classics of the silver screen.

Then in one serendipitous moment, he sees Alis again--not CG edited, but actually in a classic musical dancing to her heart's content. This inspires Tom to sober up in order to make sure what he sees is true. Sure enough, she's actually found her way to take part in dance sequences from old musicals in a real, physical sense. Realizing that Alis has found a way to fulfill her dream, Tom searches desperately for her, and when he finds her, he also finds the secret of her seeming "time travel."

What Alis had done in reality is used the movies as her dancing coach and replicated their moves so perfectly that she fooled the computers into thinking hers was the original image. Tom tells the oblivious Alis what she has accomplished, she realizes that her impossible dream of dancing with Fred Astaire can finally come true. In order to to get up to that level, however, she needs to go to China, the only place left where they still do live movies, and thus the only place where she can find a real dance instructor. Before she leaves however, Tom finally has a chance to admit his feelings for her and remind her that "We'll always have Paris." A few years later as Tom is looking through old musicals, he sees Alis dancing "Begin the Beguine" with Fred Astaire, her ultimate goal, and knows he made the right decision in letting her go.

Although he doesn't realize it right away, Tom takes a parallel path the the character Rick from Casablanca. He's someone who's lost his his will to fight and instead is out just for himself--until the love of a women awakens his heart. She reminds him of all the reasons he used to have a passion for classic film while highlighting how much he has lost. Like Rick, Tom initially acts out of frustration and cynicism, but eventually becomes inspired to pick up the fight again. Then finally he must give up the one thing he loves best.

One of the reasons I don't find this book as charming as some of Willis' other entries is because the protagonist is such a reprobate and unashamedly so. Especially in the beginning when all he's trying to do is take drugs and have sex with women, I find him very hard to relate to, kind of like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, whom we watch with a kind of dark fascination as he sinks into nihilism. Of course Tom changes his tune as the narrative progresses, but you have to wait a long time for the payoff. Since the theme of the novel is hope infused into a world of darkness, however, the end might be worth the wait, especially in our postmodern world where everything seems fake and ultimately controlled by the law of entropy. Still, it's just not my style of book.

I have to say, however, that if you're an old movie buff, you will definitely enjoy all the references that get made and the honest reckoning of the comparative talents and merits of old musicals and movie stars. I personally love Alis's comment that the reason Fred Astaire is a better dancer than Gene Kelly is because he makes his work seem fun and effortless whereas Gene Kelly wants everyone to see exactly how difficult his routines are--something I've always felt myself. I did not, however, appreciate her implication that Casablanca has a lousy ending. I love the ending to that movie, and I don't think I'd enjoy it nearly as much if Rick and Ilsa got together because it wouldn't involve the brave sacrifices in order to do the right thing.

Still, if you want to find a book that pays homage to the great films of the past while dealing with modern cynicism in an intelligent hopeful manner, you can't go wrong reading Remake. Just keep in mind that it's not one of Connie Willis' strongest outings.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Astaire and Rogers Series: Prologue for the Epilogue

So now you know about all the films Fred and Ginger starred in together. I do not count Flying Down to Rio because it's so abysmal and they're barely in it. Really, if you're curious, or you're a rabid enough fan of Astaire and Rogers to want to watch everything they've been in, just watch this video of the Carioca, the dance they had as bit players in that film that rocketed them to stardom. I would not want you to suffer through the rest of the movie.

As a final farewell to this series, I thought I might provide a little biographical background on Fred and Ginger. Let's start with the great Fred Astaire, shall we? Fred's screen immortality very nearly didn't happen. The son of Austrian immigrants, Fred had a successful vaudeville act with his very pretty older sister Adel as a child, and in the wake of Vernon and Irene Castle, they became the dancing couple of the 1920s, dancing on Broadway and in the West End to scores by Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter. Unfortunately for Fred, the partnership with Adel came to an end when she married an English peer in the early '30s and retired from the stage forever.

Before that point, nobody really payed attention to Fred, the skinny, balding, unattractive younger brother, considered a mere suit, on stage purely to twirl his lovely sister. Little did the public know that behind his sisters twirling skirts stood the greatest male dancer of the 20th Century, and with his sister retired, it was Fred's turn to shine. After making a hit of The Gay Divorce on Broadway, Fred went to Hollywood, and was systematically rejected by every studio except the tiny RKO. Somebody had the bright idea to team him with Ginger Rogers for a dance in an otherwise forgettable Dolores Del Rio vehicle, and the rest is history.

In 1939 the cash-strapped RKO jettisoned Astaire's costly contract, which set him up for a brilliant solo career that would last the next 18 years. He made Broadway Melody of 1940 with Eleanor Powell, which marked the only time that he would be paired with a dancer as talented as he was, and co-stared with Bing Crosby in the Christmas classic Holiday Inn in 1942. In addition he made two movies with Rita Hayworth that were enjoyable and quite successful: You Were Never Lovelier and You'll Never Get Rich. Once the war really got started in the '40s, however, Astaire's career flagged, and he had actually retired after 1946,'s Blue Skies with Bing Crosby. Fortunately for the world, though, Gene Kelley--Fred's heir apparent--injured himself while filming Easter Parade, and Fred was called in to replace him opposite Judy Garland and Ann Miller. After that he made Royal Wedding with the famous bit in which he dances up the walls and ceiling, and three years later appeared in what was perhaps the greatest film of his late career in The Band Wagon. Astaire's last movie as a romantic lead was 1957's Silk Stockings with Cyd Charisse.

In his personal life, Astaire was fairly stable. He was married twice, but that was only because his first wife died tragically of lung caner in 1955, and he had two children: Fred Jr. and Eva. Interestingly enough he wrote a clause into his will that stated he could never be portrayed by another actor on film, which I greatly appreciate because there can only be one Fred Astaire. Both he and Ginger--being mid-westerners--were committed Republicans all their lives.

Ginger's life was much more complicated. She came from a broken family, made it to Hollywood at 19, and was propelled to stardom by dancing with Fred Astaire at the ripe old age of 22. As I mentioned in my other reviews, she enjoyed a career as a dramatic actress, winning the Oscar for Best Actress in 1942, and did a lot of work both in Hollywood and on Broadway after that. Some notable appearances include getting the title role in Roxie Hart, based on the same story as Chicago, and she co-starred with Cary Grant in the classic screwball comedy Monkey Business. On stage she portrayed the title character in Mame and Hello, Dolly! and nabbed the role of the queen in the film version of Rogers and Hammerstein's Cinderella.

Sadly, Ginger's personal life was not nearly as happy as Fred's. She was divorced five times, never had any children, and died alone at the age of 83. But, at least we have her films to remember. And she's not by far the only great talent to have a miserable personal life.

In the end, though, these little details are not the things we remember Astaire and Rogers for. We remember them for incredible dancing and genuinely convincing on-screen chemistry. We remember the Art Deco elegance and classic songs by famous composers. Every time we watch their films, they live again and live as they should be remembered. For when when someone dies, when a partnership ends, we recall them at their best, and when we do that, we will always be looking to these movies. The beauty, grace, and humor they embodied will remain as long as the film medium continues to live.

So Fred and Ginger, to steal a catchphrase from one of your contemporaries, "Thanks for the memories!" In less than ten years, you treated us to some of the finest dancing ever to be recorded by the motion picture industry. You entertained the nation through one of its darkest times. And you indelibly won our hearts.

Buy it on DVD:

Roxie Hart,Chicago (Widescreen Edition),Broadway Melody of 1940Holiday Inn (Special Edition),You Were Never Lovelier,You'll Never Get Rich,Birth Of The Blues/Blue Skies - Double Feature,Easter Parade (Two Disc Special Edition)The Band Wagon (Two-Disc Special Edition)Royal WeddingSilk Stockings

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Film Review: Dracula (1931)

I just want to start this by saying that there's never been a really good film adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, but this one is probably the most famous. Like the version of Frankenstein that would be released two years later, this production is set in the '30s instead of the Nineteenth Century, but that point is only a minor consideration compared to other inaccuracies that appear in movie. Dracula pretty much made the career of Bella Lugosi, but how does this formerly iconic film hold up today?

To start off, let me tell you about the title sequence. Do you know what music they used for the opening credits? The theme from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Being a fan of ballet and particularly of that renowned Russian composer, I was appalled that such a beautiful piece should be used as mood music for a horror movie. Classical music appreciators the world over associate that piece of music with beautiful dancing and tragic lost love. Not vampires. It just doesn't fit. I'm sorry.

On to the plot. It's very loosely based on the novel in that it follows the plot on these specific points: there is a vampire named Count Dracula from Transylvania who relocates to England in order to prey on its much larger population, Lucy gets turned into a vampire by Dracula, Mina almost gets turned into a vampire, and Dr. Seward has a sanitarium. Seriously, just about everything else is just plain wrong, and the characters retained are cardboard cut-outs.

Actually one interesting thing to note about this production is that you never actually see Dracula's fangs or Dracula biting anyone. Of course all his victims have the telltale bite marks on their necks, but just like in the book, the actual vampiric act is elusive. It's still a very creepy movie, just as the source material demands, but it's certainly not terrifying the way that modern horror pictures are.

That brings me to Bella Lugosi's performance as Dracula. I know the iconic status of this movie, but I was frankly unimpressed with his performance. And this isn't just my disapproval of the adaptation coloring my view on his performance. I thought Lon Cheney was truly frightening as the Phantom of the Opera even though that film completely destroyed the ending. Honestly, though, I just don't think Lugosi's Dracula is menacing enough. With Dracula you need an actor who can convey a sense of unbridled power and cunning.  He needs to show no fear to his adversaries, and convey the impression that he's three steps ahead of them and could crush them at a moment's notice. Lugosi's Dracula is aristocratic and threatening, but you never get the sense that our heroes' chances of besting him are slim to none, and without that, there can be no deep suspense or terror,.

So if you're a fan of vampire flicks or horror in general, you probably will still enjoy this movie, but because I compare it to the book and because I was not impressed by Lugosi's performance as the title monster, I cannot embrace this movie the way I way I wanted to,

I give this film 6 out of ten, but that's mostly for the source material and the cultural significance of the film. It's certainly not horrible, but it doesn't live up to the book upon which it's based.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Film Review: The Phantom of the Opera (Silent, 1925)

Lon Cheney as Erik, the Phantom
of the Opera from the 1925 film.
With Halloween fast approaching I thought I should review a few classic horror films, and when speaking of horror icons, who better to start with than Lon Cheney? (Bella Lugosi and Boris Karloff will have their turns later). Known as "The Man with a Thousand Faces" Chaney became famous for playing movie monsters and pioneering more realistic make-up techniques. He only made one talking picture because he died tragically of throat cancer in 1930, so to appreciate his genius you have to make the foray into the world of silent film. Today, therefore, I bring you his 1925 smash adaptation of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera.

Now I know most of you are thinking: "how can you do a credible version of Phantom as a silent movie?" I mean, it takes place in an opera house and the main character is an aspiring prima dona, so one would assume you would need to have some vocals in there. Amazingly, though, this film works remarkably well considering the limitations of the medium.  One of the reasons for this is that most movie theaters used an organ to accompany silent films, which perfectly suited for the scenes when the Phantom is playing that instrument. I won't deny, however, that it is slightly awkward, however, when the opera is supposed to be in progress and you can't hear any vocalists. They try to compensate by showing mostly the ballet scenes from the operas, but when Christine is supposed to be performing, the limitation becomes more obvious.

One thing I will give this film credit for is actually having the Phantom deformed the way Leroux originally wrote it in the novel unlike the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. I also give them credit for not altering Christine and Raoul, unlike subsequent film versions. Really the only thing I can seriously fault them for is destroying the ending. Christine never has her moment of compassion/desperation that ultimately "kills" the Phantom. Instead the Phantom grabs Christine and attempts to flee, only to be caught by the mob and lynched. So that's not nearly as poetic of an ending, and I can't like it for that. But up to that point, the whole scene was extremely accurate to the book, and I give it major points for that.

The rest of the film, however, shortens and simplifies much of the plot, making Christine into a simple damsel in distress, the Phantom into a simple predatory monster, and Raoul into a one-dimensional hero--well, I suppose he didn't have much depth to begin with, but this is worse. In terms of horror, however, Lon Cheney is truly frightening as the Phantom, and since this is a Halloween review, I will give him points for that as well. Of course the make-up was revolutionary during the day, and it actually still looks good 85 years later, and the character is seen doing truly terrifying things.

So as a horror film, this movie is still good, but as an adaptation of the novel, it leaves much to be desired. Overall I'm going to give it a 7 mostly for Lon Cheney's sake. It entertains, but it might fail to satisfy fans of the book or musical.

The Top Film Musicals of All Time

Catherine Zeta-Jones dances the Cell Block Tango in the
Oscar-winning production of Chicago.
Musicals are one of the chief joys of my cinematic and theatrical experience, so of course I'm very particular in judging their merit. I could go on for a while about what Aristotle said about music and its effect on the soul, but we'll suffice to say that the power of music was extremely evident thousands of years ago. Even before it was possible to reproduce stage musicals for the silver screen, the power of music in tandem with motion pictures was obvious. Once the talking picture was invented, wonderful screen musicals became inevitable. In fact the first talking picture ever was a musical, The Jazz Singer.

While there are plenty of wonderful stage musicals, many of them have either never been adapted for the silver screen (Les Mis) or have been the victims of horrendous cinematic treatment (Camelot, and Guys and Dolls come to mind). At the same time, there have been some absolutely stellar works that never saw the footlights of Broadway or West End theater, but were made specifically for film. I'm here today to honor the musicals that made the best contributions to the motion picture industry, regardless of their origins or stage record.

Honorable Mention:

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
This one gets an honorable mention despite being, like The Wizard of Oz, a bit too scary to be really good children's fare. This is due almost entirely to the music, which I absolutely love. "Pure Imagination," "Golden Ticket," and "Candy Man" are particularly good tunes, and the "Oompa Loompa" refrain just gets stuck in your head. I also feel that despite the liberties taking with the novel--including the title--the chocolate factory is a spectacular feat of fancy, truly a magical place for which kids long to be real.

The List:

10. The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
I know this is a controversial call because the film took a lot of liberties with the stage show, but I really like the vision they created for it. The original show was easily one of the best productions of the late 20th century. It's also the only Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical which I can embrace with complete adoration. In fact the music is so good that it makes this list almost purely on that strength. I liked all the performances in this film except Patrick Wilson as Raoul. I thought both his acting and signing lacked conviction, and his wig made him look effeminate. Gerrard Butler got a bad rap for his portrayal of the Phantom, but I adore his performance. I think he injected so much depth into the role, and even though his voice isn't classically trained, it has both a power and breathiness to it that fit with the Phantom's passion and madness. I also really like the slightly surreal, Gothic-fairytale feel of the sets and costumes. It does a perfect job of evoking the feeling of late-Victorian Paris while having scenes that feel universal instead of period.

9. The Band Wagon (1953)
While this film doesn't get as much attention as Singin' in the Rain, it still has tremendous merit. The year after that aforementioned smash, producer Arthur Freed and writers Betty Comden and Adolf Green again teemed up to do a musical. For the final time they did a compilation of hit songs by a single composer, and once again the dancing was superb in the hands of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Aside from being quite funny, the plot serves as a sort of ars poetica for the musical genre. At the time the industry seemed to be floundering, unsure of where to go with itself. During the Great Depression and the war years, people wanted light, happy fare to take their minds off the dismal and dangerous reality. Now that peace and prosperity reigned, more dramatic musicals were beginning to be popular. Roger's and Hammerstein would have a whole series of hit melodramas from the later '40s through the '50s, and in just a few years, Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story would revolutionize the industry. But are dramatic musicals really superior to light-hearted ones? This film will delve that question.
Fred Astaire plays an aging film star--which he was at the time--whose musical comedy career seems to be fading. His friends all tell him that his song-and-dance routine has become stale and that he needs to reinvent himself. With the help of a pretentious director who's a thinly veiled portrait of Jose Ferrer, the musical comedy for which Fred Astaire signed up to do is about to be transformed into a modern version of Faust. But neither Fred or the writers have ever done a tragedy before, and their leading lady is a ballerina who's never acted before. So yes, it's a very bad idea. The effort is a bust, and even the director realizes that it's better to do a really good comedy than a half-baked drama. The show is converted back to its original format, and everybody lives happily ever after. "That's Entertainment!"

8. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
I pretty much put this on because of it's iconic status. I have to admit that the music is pretty good, and Judy Garland does give us that lovely rendition of "Over the Rainbow," but I never liked the film as a kid, so it holds no appeal for me as an adult. Honestly, the Wicked Witch of the West scared me half to death, and it got no better as I got older. I couldn't stomach it until I was a teenager, and by then the magic was gone. The sepia coloring at the beginning and the end, however, is the source of this blog's name, so it's noteworthy for that. I also love singing the different verses of "If I Only Had a Brain," at appropriate moments.

7. Chicago (2002)
I think it's the imaginary musical numbers that wins me over for this one. Maybe that or the great jazz-age sound of the score. I mean, how can you help humming tunes like "All That Jazz," "Cell Block Tango," "Mr. Cellophane," and "Razzle Dazzle"? It's odd for me to like a movie in which we root for the protagonist to get away with murder, but it's so slick that it becomes a pleasure to watch just like the caper in Ocean's 11. Had the characters been likable, this film probably would have ranked higher on this list, but I can only stand to watch these depraved characters for so long before it becomes tiresome.

6. The Blues Brothers (1980) 
"We're on a mission from God." Supposedly that's to save an orphanage, but I think the real mission is to be one of the most entertaining films of all time. It has a record number of car crashes; Carrie Fisher wielding bazookas, flame-throwers, bombs, and machine guns; a bunch of Neo-Nazis trying to kill them; and celebrity musical numbers by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, and James Brown, along with the fabulous Blues Brothers themselves. I think my favorite scene still has to be when they accidentally end up at a cowboy bar with people throwing beer bottles at them through a chicken wire cage, and they improvise by playing any country song they can think of, including "Rawhide," and "Stand by Your Man." Really, this movie just has to be seen to be believed because it's just that insane. And that good.

5. My Fair Lady (1964)
Lerner and Lowe's masterpiece gets a lavish treatment in the hands of producer Jack Warner and director George Cukor. One thing I really appreciate is that the set for the opening scene did such a good job copying the real Covent Garden that when I visited London for the first time, I felt like I had been there before. Really the only fault I can find with this movie--and it's a very serious one--is that Jack Warner famously snubbed Julie Andrews for the role in favor of the better-known Audrey Hepburn. Big mistake. Hepburn's music all had to be dubbed, and she would lose the Best Picture Oscar to Andrews for her work in Mary Poppins. Julie has my permission to sing Gershwin's immortal "They All Laughed" now. I must say however, that despite it's not having Ms. Andrews, I actually prefer the renditions of "Get Me to the Church" and "On the Street Where You Live" in this film to the original London cast recording.

4. The Astaire/Rogers collection (1933-1948)
The entire oeuvre of America's Dancing Sweethearts deserves a mention here because while the individual works are great movies, they would not make the list on their own. Viewed collectively, however, their accomplishment is truly staggering. No fewer than nineteen jazz standards were introduced in their films, and some of the most iconic couples dances of all time include "Night and Day" and "The Continental" from The Gay Divorcee "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" from Roberta, "Cheek to Cheek" from Top Hat, all three dances from Swing Time, "Let's Face the Music (and Dance)," from Follow the Fleet, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" from Shall We Dance, and "Change Partners" from Carefree. Not only were these films wildly popular, but they also changed the way that dance sequences were filmed, with Fred Astaire insisting that the footage be shot from one camera and in one take so as to give the audience the feeling of watching a great dance performance on the stage instead of on film. On a lighter note, their partnership was so iconic that during the feminist movement the expression was coined that "Everything Fred Astaire did, Ginger Rogers had to do backwards and in high heels."

3. The Sound of Music (1965)
Do I really even need to justify this one? I know it suffers from a lot of overexposure, but that's because it's so good. Fresh from her success in Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews got recruited to play with kids again for the screen version of this Rogers and Hammerstein classic. Perhaps one of the reasons that this film works so well is because many of the scenes were shot on location in Salzburg, Austria. Since I've purchased a widescreen DVD of this movie, I can 't help sometimes just staring in awe at the lovely scenery of that country. But of course scenery and Julie Andrews don't guarantee a good film. Rogers and Hammerstein wrote their magnum opus with this score. Only two of the songs didn't go on to be classics, and those two are still pretty good in themselves.

Not only was Mary Poppins a great musical, but also one
of the greatest Disney movies of all time.
2. Mary Poppins (1964)
Walt Disney's swansong is--like the title character--"practically perfect in every way." We all know the story about Julie Andrews' snubbing for the part of Eliza Doolittle which led her to take the title role for this movie and in doing so beat out Audrey Hepburn's non-singing Eliza for the Best Actress Oscar that year. That makes her performance here particularly sweet, of course, but it's only a drop in the bucket of what makes this film great. There's so much to admire in this movie apart from Dick Van Dyke's inconsistent cockney accent. We even forgive him that because he's just so lovable and entertaining as Bert the chimney sweep and jack-of-all-trades. Of course this movie would not have made the list if the music had been bad. What needs to be said about this movie, however, is that the composers had done no previous work of this kind. Yes, it was their first production--stage or screen, and it's just perfect. Drawing on inspiration from English folk songs, rag-time marches, music hall, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the polio vaccine, the Sherman brothers not only created a score with no bad numbers, but the songs they pitched and were rejected got recycled into Disney movies for the next ten years. The most memorable songs are probably "Feed the Birds," the Oscar-winning "Chim-chim Cheerie," "A Spoonful of Sugar," and "Jolly Holiday." I personally love the "Fidelity Fiduciary" number mostly because I was completely oblivious to it's meaning and merit as a child. This movie is just so imaginative and whimsical that I can't help loving it for that too. I mean who doesn't want to hop into chalk pavement paintings, ride merry-go-round horses in the derby, and have tea parties on the ceiling? To say nothing of the dancing chimney sweeps.

1. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
You know a musical must be good when I rate it #1 despite absolutely despising all the women's fashions of the era in which it's set. I think this movie works so well because it's corny, and purposely and unashamedly so. Really, this movie is the distilled essence of what it means to be a musical comedy. It has a light but well-crafted script with great comedic lines and situations; it has a score of hit songs from the '20s and '30s, so all of the songs are memorable; and it has the visual spectacle and escapism we expect from a musical. Technically dancing isn't necessary for a musical, but this one has it in spades, with some of the best dance routines ever committed to film. Had Gene Kelly never made this movie--he choreographed it and co-directed it with Stanley Donen--his name would never be mentioned with Fred Astaire as vying for the best male dancer of the silver screen. Donald O'Connor definately deserves a ton of credit for the "Make 'Em Laugh" number, which was written into the show purely to display his incredible comedic  talents. Perhaps the greatest travesty committed against this film is not that it failed to garner the Best Picture Oscar that year but rather that Jean Hagen did not receive a Best Supporting Actress nod for portraying Lina Lamont, the dim-witted, selfish blonde bombshell with the voice that could shatter glass. Seriously, though, this film is the most fun you could ever have with a 2-hour musical film.