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.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Astaire and Rogers Series: The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)

Ten years after their historic partnership ended, Fred and Ginger teamed up for one last dance in MGM's The Barkleys of Broadway. A lot of people really like this movie because of the verisimilitude and the fact that it was shot in Technicolor, but I personally find it insipid. The dances are fairly good, and Fred and Ginger have four together, which is more than the usual three, but that doesn't make it one of their best. In my previous review, I stated that The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle reminded us of everything we lost with the dissolution of the Astaire/Rogers partnership. This film, however, only seems to intensify that feeling because we see Fred and Ginger when they're older, and because of the lack of quality in the other aspects of the film. MGM as usual makes a lavish production of it, complete with interludes of classical piano by Oscar Levant, but it rings hollow in our ears. In the end it feels like "a tale told by an idiot, full or sound an fury, signifying nothing," to quote the Bard.

Speaking of bards, the real reason this movie falls flat is the movie. Even though they composed several new tunes for this production, the only one that's worth a dime is the reprise they do of "They Can't Take That Away from Me" from from their previous film Shall We Dance. I'm sorry to say this, but even great dancers can't be at the top of their game unless the music is worthy of their talent. I mean, Singin' in the Rain features some of the best dance sequences ever recorded on film, but it wouldn't have been remembered if those dances weren't to a score of hit songs from the '20s and '30s. That being said, the music in Barkleys is still palatable; it just isn't memorable the way songs from other Astaire/Rogers films are.

I also have to say that despite the fact that the plot line is art imitating life, I don't find it to be that good. Yes, I appreciate the irony of  Ginger playing the song-and-dance girl who yearns to be a dramatic actress--Rogers would win a Best Actress Oscar for Kitty Foyle in 1941--and Fred playing the one who gets all the credit for being the genius in the duo, their relationship just isn't enjoyable. I realized while watching the movie again for this review that I don't want to see Fred and Ginger playing a bickering married couple. I want to see Fred as the ardent young lover pursuing his great flame Ginger. But the two of them were too old for that when this film came out--Fred was 50, Ginger was 38 but not aging well. Still, it's more enjoyable to see these two as lovers fighting to overcome misunderstandings and bad luck than an embittered couple ready to abandon their failing marriage. It's the difference between the optimism of young love versus the cynicism of experience. Fred and Ginger are far more suited to the former.

Now let me talk about the dances. Fred does a really nice solo number in "Shoes with Wings On," and the "They Can't Take That Away from Me" reprise is a solidly good routine as is a tap routine without lyrics that Fred and Ginger do, but they're not enough to make up for the badness of the other elements of the film.

So in the end MGM can't really recapture the magic that Astaire and Rogers had in the '30s. It's not a bad movie, but it can't help paling in comparison to its predecessors.

I give this film a 6.9, tied with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle for the lowest of the Astaire/Rogers films.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Astaire and Rogers: The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)

Glamor icon Ginger Rogers portrays former glamor icon
Irene Castle in the only biopic she and Fred did together.
You may not think Fred and Ginger are quite suited for a biopic, but when it's a biopic about a dancing couple, you can understand why the heads at RKO didn't think twice about casting them in it. This was also the last film they made in the '30's, and the last one they would do until 1949's The Barkleys of Broadway.

Before Fred and Ginger became America's dancing sweethearts, that title was held by Vernon and Irene Castle. Dancing during the 1910s until Vernon's tragic death in an airplane crash, the Castles popularized many of the different social dances of the era including the tango and the foxtrot, and their celebrity status was unmatched in their day. In fact Irene Castle became such a fashion icon that practically everything she wore became a fad--as Connie Willis  notes in her hilarious study of fads and the herd mentality Bellwether. So yes, as you can see, Fred and Ginger were indeed the perfect choices for these roles.

Largely fictional like most biopics of the day, this film shows how Vernon and Irene met, their rise to stardom, and Vernon's death in a freak plane crash during World War I--that isn't a spoiler; it's historical fact. That's right, folks, you've found the only film out there that dares to kill Fred Astaire.

So why isn't this film fondly remembered by Astaire and Rogers fans? Well, if the ending of the last paragraph didn't make one reason abundantly clear, there's a lot of ways in which it's different from the others they made together. And in straying from that formula, the film loses its charm. For one thing Fred Astaire and his best friend Hermes Pan, who had done all the choreography for the other movies, were stellar and meticulous choreographers, but their influence was restrained in this film do to the fact that they were re-creating other people's work. Secondly, there were no original songs for this film, thus it's the only Fred and Ginger film of the '30s that did not introduce a Jazz standard. While these are the two most important elements, I also think it's important to note that it lacks the Art Deco elegance and the fun boy-chases-girl plot structure that people loved from earlier films too.

Because of these elements, I almost never watch this movie, and really had to study it before my review. One thing I will say is that the supporting cast is strong with Walter Brennan and Edna May Oliver leading it up. Like it's predecessor Carefree however, this film lacks the corps of actors that re-appear in the earlier films, which means that we lose the pleasure that we get of seeing the familiar faces in the other ones. Interestingly enough, we see a scary echo of WWI and a vision of WWII near the end of the film when Vernon, a British citizen, joins the RAF. While countless British soldiers are dying in the trenches of Flanders, Vernon Castle pleads in vain for the Americans to join the war. The irony is that this movie was released in 1939, at the outbreak of WWII where once again Britain would be in dark and desperate straits and once again America would be tragically late joining the fight (Continental Europe completely overrun, and 30,000 civilians killed in the London Blitz, to say nothing of the millions of Jews who lost their lives to the Holocaust).

There's something plaintively tearful about this movie in another way too. Not only does it mark the end of an era for Astaire and Rogers, but it doesn't even send us out with a bang. Instead of reminding us of all the great films that came before it, instead of one last hurrah for the witty banter, the inspired songs of Irving Berlin, Gershwin, and Jerome Kern, and the fabulous dancing of Fred and Ginger, we're left with our favorite dancing duo effacing themselves by doing other people's dances and pointing back at the horror of a conflict past while reminding us of the trials still to come. The innocence of the other films has been lost forever--they are as dead as Vernon/Fred is at the end of the picture, and the final shadowy images of Fred and Ginger dancing into the background as Ginger weeps for her lost love only serve to enforce the feeling of bereavement.

I give this movie a 6.9. It's the lowest score for any film which stars Fred and Ginger, but I still think that fans of the duo should see it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Astaire and Rogers: Carefree (1938)

Ginger Rogers tries to find out if dancing with Fred Astaire
in reality can be as good as it was in her dream in Carefree.
A standard Astaire/Rogers plot can be summed up thusly: Fred chases Ginger.  It's refreshing, therefore, to see a movie in which she chases him as she does in this film, Carefree. This is also without a doubt the strangest movie they made together, a screwball comedy almost worthy of Preston Sturgess. Actually it's a good thing that the comedy works so well because the only song from this movie that was good enough to become a jazz standard was "Change Partners," and the dances leave you wanting much more.

Let's focus, then, on that wonderfully silly little plot, shall we? Fred Astaire plays Freudian psychiatrist (yes, you read that correctly) Tony Flagg whose old college roommate Steve asks him to psychoanalyze his fiancé Amanda (Ginger Rogers) because she keeps getting cold feet. Of course Amanda is insulted by the notion that she needs a shrink, and feels even worse when she overhears Tony complaining about how sick he is of dealing with "silly, maladjusted females." She gives him the run-around until they finally mend fences and decide to cooperate. Tony voices his concern that Amanda doesn't dream when she sleeps because it makes it impossible to analyze her subconscious. So after Tony makes her gorge herself on rich foods to induce dreams, she has one--a dream of dancing with him!

That dream convinces Amanda that she's really in love with Tony, but she's too embarrassed to tell him that when he asks about her dream in his professional capacity. Instead she makes up a beautiful plethora of neuroses that will ensure her being in therapy for a long time. But when she tries to explain to Steve that she's in love with Tony, he misunderstands her and thinks she's cured and wants to marry him now. Amanda then goes to Tony and confesses that she loves him but doesn't know that to do. His solution is to hypnotize her to love Steve and hate him. But he regrets it immediately afterwards  when he realizes that he's in love with her too. Before he can reverse the process, Amanda escapes while still under hypnosis and tries to go after Tony with a shotgun. He brings her out of the trance, but her conscious self won't let him get anywhere near her to reverse the process. But you figure a guy with a PHD could figure something out. Maybe a dance would help?

I really can't tell you how clever some of these comedic situations are. There's a judge lurking in the background ready to prosecute at the slightest provocation, and Ginger uses this to her advantage to get Fred to do what she wants. There are also two wonderful scenes when Ginger is "under the influence," first of an anesthetic and then of hypnosis, and does come crazy things. Those devices are definitely milked for all their worth, but their not run into the ground, either.

Now onto the dances. Really, they aren't bad in this one, but they all seem short somehow, and unlike the other films they have together, this one boasts no memorable numbers that are simply sung and not danced in order to add more music. The first dance "I Used to Be Colorblind," is quite enjoyable, showing that Fred and Ginger look just as impressive and graceful in slow motion as they do at regular speed, which is more than may be said about most people. Then there's "The Yam," which despite being a horrible name for a song, proves to be a solid number because although it's a group number, it focuses almost exclusively on Fred and Ginger instead of digressing with crowd shots, a major fault of the early Astaire/Rogers films. But the best number has to be "Change Partners," where Fred hypnotizes Ginger with his dancing.  It's beautifully choreographed, with Ginger doing a wonderful job of swaying under his power, and Fred working his arms like a puppet master. At the same time, though, it's very romantic like the rest of their dances.

 So in the end this is a very enjoyable film, making up for what it lacks as a musical with what it has in the way of comedy. Fred and Ginger do not fail to entertain nor to disappoint with their dancing. Even when the music is lacking, they are still memorable.

I give this film a 7.8, a treat for fans of the Astaire/Rogers teaming.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Astaire and Rogers: Shall We Dance (1937)

Fred and Ginger dance on roller skates to
"Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," a song
they inspired by their different ways of
pronouncing the word "either."
Fred and Ginger dance to Gershwin in this 1937 outing. How can you not get excited about the greatest dance team of the 20th century performing to music of the greatest American composer of the 20th century? I personally cannot help loving a movie that features the songs "They All Laughed," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me," but there are a lot of other things to admire as well. Not only did Gershwin write all the show tunes in this picture, but he also composed all the incidental music as well, all of which is quite wonderful.

Fred Astaire plays Petrov, the "Russian" ballet star (whose real name is Pete Peters). Petrov scandalizes his impresario--played by Edward Everett Horton--by falling in love with musical comedy star Linda Keene--played by Ginger Rogers. Sick of being chased by men, Linda refuses even to consider Petrov's advances. Instead she plans to marry a dull millionaire friend of hers and retire from the stage forever.  In the typical style of these films, however, Fred Astaire's good humor and persistence eventually win her over.

Since celebrity romances were even more a subject of gossip back then than they are today, the two dancers soon find their names plastered all over the papers. And it only gets worse when a rumor surfaces that the two are married and that Linda is pregnant. This does not sit well with Linda's rich fiancé, and when trumped-up evidence is produced for her marriage to Petrov, she realizes that the only way she can silence the papers is to procure a divorce from him. That, of course, requires a marriage, so the two elope for a marriage in name only, but Petrov wants to convince her to make it real. Can he do it? I really can't tell you what a great screwball comedy it is, full of absurd situations and great one-liners. I think it's the best-written movie they did together.

Now, about the dances. First off I have to say something about the "Lets Call the Whole Thing Off" roller skate number. It truly is a sight to behold, a combination of dancing and skating the caliber you'd be likely to see in the Olympics. The trouble is that all the other dances seem to be a let-down after that. "They All Laughed," is a great tune, but the dance is unspectacular, though it does get better near the finale. The only other dance number is this weird ballet hybrid featuring an odd contortionist/ballerina. Although this is a marathon chorus number with several different permeations, Fred and Ginger only dance together for less than thirty seconds, which leaves me feel cheated in that respect.

Despite the comparative lack of dancing, however, everything else in this movie is so strong that I can't help loving it anyway, and it remains one of my favorites in the Astaire/Rogers collection. And if I haven't pressed the point hard enough already, the roller skating number is incredible.

I rate this movie an 8 of 10. Had the dances been better, it could have easily been a 9.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Astaire and Rogers Series: Swing Time (1936)

Fred and Ginger reached the pinnacle of their dance
partnership with the number "Never Gonna Dance"
from 1936's Swing Time
Astaire and Rogers devotees love to argue the respective merits of Top Hat vs. Swing Time when trying to decide which is the best film in the screen couple's prolific partnership. All the dance aficionados, however, concur that Swing Time is by far the superior film in terms of choreography. I believe that should be the deciding factor in the question because after all, isn't the dancing the primary reason we watch those movies? I further support Swing Time's bid for best Astaire and Rogers film because I feel it has great songs, a cute plot, strong acting, and good costumes for Ginger. What else do you need for one of these pictures?

Once again Fred and Ginger get to dance to the superb music of Jerome Kern, and three of the songs in this picture that would go on to become Jazz standards. The plot also doesn't rehash the same mistaken-identity trope used in Top Hat and The Gay Divorcée, even though it does use some elements of mistaken identity. So it gets some points for originality. As always, the supporting cast is memorable with the wisecracking Helen Broderick as Ginger's friend Mabel, and Victor Moore as Fred's compatriot adept at slight-of-hand.

Fred Astaire plays a dancer and high-stakes gambler, who gets tricked into missing his own wedding. Now his fiancé's father refuses to give his consent unless Fred can prove his stability by earning $25,000. So off he goes to New York to seek his fortune. On the way he runs into the lovely dance instructor Ginger Rogers and is instantly smitten. In order to get to know her, he signs up a private lesson with her, pretending to be hopelessly clumsy on the floor. She gets fed up with him, however, and tells him off, resulting in her manager firing her on the spot. Of course the gallant Fred steps in and gets her job back by showing her boss all the fancy steps she "taught" him. This results in the gleeful "Pick Yourself Up" duet, the first of their three historic team-ups in this movie. It's an energetic tap number in which Fred and Ginger famously leap over a short a wall for the finale.

So Fred and Ginger decide to team up for a dance act at a club where Ginger knows the band leader, but Ginger still doesn't trust Fred entirely until he sings her the classic ballad "The Way You Look." Unfortunately the gig still doesn't run smoothly because the band leader at the club is in love with Ginger and incensed at the thought of her dancing with any man but him. In order to get him to play for them, Fred must use his gambling skills to win the band's contract from a mobster and compel their performance, resulting in the "Waltz in Swing Time" number, the second great dance in this movie, which also features quite a bit of tapping, but the moves are more sweeping and lyrical as fitting with a traditional waltz.

Now Fred and Ginger are riding high and have obviously developed feelings for each other, but Fred refuses to pursue her because he's engaged--though he doesn't tell her this. Ginger then memorably expresses her frustration with the song "A Fine Romance (With no kisses)." Things come to a head when Fred's fiancé shows up for the opening night of his new act with Ginger. Fred spots her as he performs his tribute to famous African-American dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the only black-face routine I've ever seen that doesn't feel demeaning because it's not cartoonish and Fred's demeanor remains extremely reverent. It also boasts a then-amazing feat of special events with Fred dancing with three shadows projected on the wall. It's a beautiful work of symmetry and timing, still mesmerizing seventy-five years later.

At the same time that Fred comes face-to-face with his fiancé, the mobster who formerly owned the band accuses Fred of cheating and demands a re-match to win them back. Of course Fred loses, and when Ginger finds out about that and that sees that Fred intends to honor his engagement, she walks out on him. Before Fred can explain things to her, Ginger gets engaged to the band leader, and her partnership with Fred seems to be ended forever. But before Ginger leaves, Fred lets her know that she is the woman he would have chosen if he'd been free. He sings the mournful "Never Gonna Dance," and then the culmination of their storied partnership occurs seemingly organically as Fred tries to prevent her from walking away. The dance starts slowly, the two of the walking side-by-side, hardly a dance at all until Fred gracefully turns her. A reprise of "The Way You Look" plays, and they are in unison, sometimes an intimate romantic embrace, sometimes apart but so much in unison that it feels like they have a psychic link. The song swells and ends, and Ginger tries to leave, but Fred stops her. The power of their emotions changes the tempo to one of mounting passion and abandon. They dance with wild flourish to a medley of "Waltz in Swing Time" and "Never Gonna Dance," ending with a spectacular series of pirouettes up a grand staircase and Fred twirling Ginger so fast that her skirt flies up nearly to her hips. It's Hollywood lore that this dance was so intense that it made Ginger's feet bleed through her shoes while filming. Seeing as how this was her favorite number from her favorite picture that she made with Fred, I'm sure she thought it was worth it.

I give this film an 8.5 of ten. One of the best dance films ever created.

Buy it now:
Swing Time,Astaire & Rogers Collection, Vol. 1 (Top Hat / Swing Time / Follow the Fleet / Shall We Dance / The Barkleys of Broadway)

Friday, October 8, 2010

Pride and Prejudice 1980: A Review

**As with the last post, this is an excerpt for Pride and Prejudice week. Check out the full review at Worthy of Note**

For sheer accuracy to the book, I still maintain that you can't beat the 1995 BBC version, but surprisingly enough there's a contingency of people that prefer an early BBC adaptation from 1980. I honestly have very mixed feelings about this version. Although they did many things correctly--there's a lot to admire--I still feel like it's not as good as it's successor.

Elizabeth Garvie looks the part of Elizabeth Bennett better than any other
actress to take the role, but she lacks the sparkling personality though she's
certainly wise and reflective enough to fit the changes Elizabeth goes through.

Still, as this film remains largely unknown, I feel compelled to give a fairly detailed review. To start with, the opening credits of this miniseries are a delight to watch because they are a scroll over cartoon renditions of scenes from the episode. The cinematography is not very good, but it beats other Austen adaptations of the era substantially. The music also is unremarkable without being bad, and there's not much of it, either.

First let me talk about the Lizzie in this version, played by Elizabeth Garvie. I think she certainly had the look of Elizabeth, but she lacks the animation and cynicism central to the character. Instead we get a very quiet, reflective Miss Bennett, which makes her transition to greater self-awareness and love for Mr. Darcy more plausible than I've seen in any other version. Despite this I cannot get over how much she feels like of a pale imitation of the vivacious character we know and love in the first half of the film, so the performance ultimately falls flat for me.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pride and Prejudice Week Special: The 1995 BBC Miniseries, A Response

***As usual, this is an excerpt of a response I did for Alex's blog. to see it in its entirety, go to Worthy of Note ***

Those of you who are regular readers of my blog Seeing Sepia will remember that this adaptation made #1 on my list of Top 10 Most Faithful Movie Adaptations from Novels of All Time. I did not give that award out lightly as a film buff and lover of classic literature. Of course I realize it's not perfect, since no adaptation can be, but I still don't think some of the charges Publius has made against it are entirely fair. Please bear in mind that he esteems it almost as much as I do, and he should by no means be lampooned for daring to find fault with it. It is not my intention to question his right to find fault with it, as indeed he is correct in saying that is overall stellar quality gives us license to concentrate on the minutiae. In that spirit, therefore, I mount my defense.

British-American actress Jennifer Ehle handles the complex character
of Elizabeth Bennett with just the right amount of sweetness and cynicism.
I will start with his slight objection to Jennifer Ehle's portrayal of Elizabeth. In it he says that Elizabeth's cynical streak had been softened somewhat, but I don't think that's so. I think she gives plenty of looks in the film that show just how weary she is of hypocrisy and injustice, especially when Lydia's elopement comes up. Consider during that episode when she hears that Lady Lucas has given assistance several times: "Assistance is impossible and condolence insufferable! Let her triumph over us at a distance and be satisfied!" I think that's about as cynical as you can get. Also, you don't want Lizzie's cynicism to be too prominent, lets she lose the mirth for which we love her.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Pride and Prejudice Week Special: Pride and Prejudice, A Literary Perspective

A 19th-century engraving of
the pivotal "letter scene" by
artist C.E. Brock
**Since my friend and compatriot Publius is doing a whole week devoted to Pride and Prejudice, one of the greatest novels in the English language, and since it happens to be a personal favorite of mine, I've decide to put my two cents in. Check out his reviews at Worthy of Note**

Jane Austen has the distinction of being a classic author who's exceptionally fun to read. This makes some critics dismissive of her merits, but I beg you not to sell her importance in the literary world short just because she only wrote romantic comedies. Her works both transcends that genre and in doing so becomes its canon to the point that most romances today are just different iterations of the plots she formed. To use a food analogy, if ordinary romantic comedies are like Dreyer's brand ice cream, full of artificial flavors and high-fructose corn syrup, then Jane Austen is two scoops of organic Sicilian lemon cheesecake gelato.

Popular but never wildly so in her day, Jane Austen would win respect among the literati for her realistic depictions of characters and situations as well as her creation of the "free indirect" narration, in which the omniscient narrator melds with the character's thoughts to form a semi-unreliable representation or reality presented as fact (a technique which gets perfected in Mansfield Park and Emma). That respect for Austen's innovation remains firmly in place today, but there is a deep gulf between those who appreciate Austen on an intellectual level and those who look at her just for her considerable entertainment value.

But why does it have to be that way?

Austen has had a huge impact on my life. Her humor and grace went a long way to keeping me sane during six long years of illness, so I have a deep appreciation for her charms. At the same time, however, I am passionate about sharing parts of her genius that take study and critical thinking to uncover. This not only stems from the fact that I am an aspiring novelist myself but also from my longing for the correct historical and cultural context in which to view her novels. It's precisely because Austen's novels are so wonderful that it becomes imperative to understand them as best we can. The best way we can pay homage to Austen's genius is to attempt to find their original context, to see as much as her vision as possible even 200 years after the fact.

Of course Pride and Prejudice remains my undisputed favorite, as it does for most people on this earth. As a woman, I cannot help but admire Elizabeth Bennett for several reasons. It's not just that Lizzie is an intelligent, outspoken woman, it's that she finds a way to live up to her considerable potential with grace, love, and prudence, even in the restricted circles of Regency England. At the beginning of the novel, Elizabeth is charming but flawed. She her acute perception has led her to see all too well the many hypocrisies and foibles in her society, and she is in great danger of becoming jaded by them: "There are few people in the world I love, and even fewer of whom I think well. The more that I see of the world, the more I am dissatisfied by it," she tells her sister Jane, highlighting the depth of her cynicism: it means that she has affection for people due to family ties, but still doesn't respect either their personalities or mental faculties, and thus had less people about whom she "thinks well" than people she loves out of familial duty and friendship.

Lizzie is teetering on the brink of becoming another Mary Crawford, a character who possess Lizzie's wit and vitality but is jaded into moral apathy. Although Elizabeth's quickness in judging character is usually spot-on, it almost proves to be fatal when she misjudges Mr. Darcy. Lizzie has the opposite problem of her sister Jane, who would rather come up with a convenient way to excuse people's questionable behavior than to think critically about their motives. As befits for a child of the Enlightenment, however, Austen tries to suggest something in between those two extremes. The way Lizzie turns out in the end of the novel represents those two elements thoughtfully combined. We see Lizzie's change not only in her attitude towards Mr. Darcy but towards many people in the end of the book. Instead of blindly condemning she learns to temper her judgments with compassion and prudence. So while she can still tell off Lady Catherine in spectacular fashion, she's also able to be reconciled with that formidable lady along with Miss Bingley in the final chapter. That makes her one of the most ideal heroines in fiction and truly worthy to be mistress and co-runner of one of the greatest estates in England.

One of the things that makes the book so funny in terms of plot is the dramatic irony of knowing that Mr. Darcy is in love with Lizzie while she herself is completely unaware of this. It makes some of the moments when she tries to assign motives to his actions absolutely priceless. Austen's works deal a lot with the disconnect between what we can tell about people and how they really are. This difference was especially heightened in Austen's day when society people pretty much only spoke in niceties to each other, and most of their feelings had to be decoded by tone and body language. Of course this trait would be exploited to the fullest in Emma, where the protagonist constantly miss-assigns her friends motives in order to conform with her hopes and wishes, but it remains a source of humor in all of her works. Consider Mr. Collins' mistaking Elizabeth's motives for turning him down, everyone's trust of Wickham, Jane's misconstruing Miss Bingley's friendship, Mr. Darcy not being able to see that Lizzie's impertinent remarks are displays or contempt, not flirtation. Nearly everyone in the book is a victim of this sad truth that people tend to be inscrutable.

Austen is a very terse writer. She doesn't do much physical descriptions at all--in fact Lizzie's "fine dark eyes" are about as specific a detail about someone's looks as she'll give you--preferring instead to concentrate on emotion and dialog, two things she does exceptionally well. She also is not a didactic writer, going off for pages at a time on treatises on morality or a diatribe on farming conditions in Russia. Everything she puts on the page is important to the plot, which holds the reader's interest like nothing else. Nowhere, moreover, is this more apparent than in Pride and Prejudice where she drops us down in media res (Latin for "in the middle of things"), and fills in the history of the Bennett clan as she goes along. I remember distinctly reading the book for the first time when I was fourteen and being immediately ensnared by the hilarious situation, and wanting to learn more about the characters from seeing them in action instead of being introduced to them in a dry page of prose. Austen was way ahead of her time in that regard.

These are just a few of the comments I could make about P&P, but I don't want to keep you here all day. I may write some more by popular demand, but for now think of this as something to whet your appetite for Austen scholarship.