Saturday, February 19, 2011

Coney Island (1943)

Walter Lang's Coney Island manages to weave two overused plots into one fun musical that has more twists and dips than a ride on the famed Cyclone. It's basically Pygmalion meets the old movie trope 'boy meets girl / boy loses girl because her rising stardom hurts boy's ego / love conquers ego as boy reunites with girl'. This hybrid is essentially a rehash of Alexander's Ragtime Band (and scores of other movies), set in turn-of-the-century New York. Throw in an on-going Ziegfeldian rivalry between two old showmen partners that morphs into a love triangle, and you've got this 1943 musical. Despite its recycled plot, Coney Island manages to dust off these old standards, with the help of a strong cast and an Oscar nominated soundtrack, to give it a new sparkle. All this in magnificent, magical Technicolor!

Betty Grable herself seems to be an amalgamation of other cinematic beauties; she sort of reminds me of a blonde Rita Hayworth, and her mien seems to have just a touch of the winsomeness of Marilyn Monroe. Apparently, most of Grable's fans spent their time admiring her legs, which were famously insured by Lloyd's of London. However, I set my sights on the architectural wonder of her hairdo. I feared the entire thing would topple over in some of her more animated dance routines! The cast also included Cesar Romero (years before he became a quizzical Batman villain) and George Montgomery as his adversary and the winner of Grable's heart. Phil Silvers is the comedic support who steals every scene!

The movie starts out in the wonderful chaos of Coney Island when Eddie Johnson (Montgomery) pays Joe Rocco (Romero) a visit at his popular nightspot along the midway. They had been boyhood chums and rivals whose long relationship was marked with schemes of trying to cheat each other out of business opportunities, power, and money. Eddie has tracked his ex-partner down at Coney Island to get what he felt was his due, but Joe doesn't see it that way. Through another bit of trickery, Eddie manages to blackmail his way into a job at the club where he gets to oversee the nightly entertainment, namely Kate Farley (Grable), the star of the nightclub's burlesque act (and Joe's girl). Eddie sees Kate as star material and complains about her garish costumes and titillating dance numbers. He begins to mold her into a high class act by training her to be more of a chanteuse than a screecher and polishing her appearance. At first, Kate resists the modifications that her new boss imposes on her, but soon the audience goes wild for her new act and fame goes to her head. As soon as she learns to trust his instinct, Kate and Eddie find themselves falling in love. Meanwhile, Joe decides that he doesn't care that he's raking in the money because he's losing his girl. Joe concocts a new plan to break up their burgeoning love affair. He succeeds at splitting Kate and Eddie up, but Kate soon learns about the men's competitive relationship and chooses the man she truly loves.

While Coney Island may not be the most familiar musical, you might recognize some of the standard songs, including 'Beautiful Coney Island,' 'Cuddle Up A Little Closer' (courtesy of navydoctrinidad), and 'Pretty Baby.' 'There's Danger In A Dance' was, for me, the highlight of the entire movie. Betty Grable completists take note: she also starred in this movie's 1950 remake, Wabash Avenue.

Watch Coney Island's trailer (courtesy of captbijou).

More information and pictures at Dr. Macro. See also: Betty Grable: The Girl With The Million Dollar Legs.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Can't Help Singing (1944)

As I'm sure many fans of classic movie musicals are aware, TCM is one of the best resources out there for some of the rarer gems of the musical world. Just last month, I happened upon a Deanna Durbin musical on the channel. Now, I had never seen anything related to Deanna Durbin except for the segments she shared with Judy Garland in that movie about musicals, That's Entertainment. The documentary didn't have much to say on her contribution to musicals except for the the fact that she started around the same time as Judy, and Judy was the one who made it big. So, when TCM dug up an old Deanna Durbin title called Can't Help Singing.. well, I couldn't help tuning in!

Boy, was I happy I did! Can't Help Singing is a surprisingly delightful musical from 1944 starring Deanna Durbin and Robert Paige with music by Jerome Kern. It's essentially the basic premise of It Happened One Night reimagined as a musical about pioneers heading west during the gold rush. Deanna Durbin plays the headstrong daughter of an east coast politician who is determined to marry her sweetheart, a lieutenant, of whom her father disapproves. Durbin runs away to join her fiancé out west, but, despite her attempts to get there as quickly as possible, she meets with many obstacles. Like Claudette Colbert's would-be bride in It Happened One Night, Deanna Durbin is also blessed with the twin virtues of naivete and stubbornness. She meets Robert Paige, a grifter and card shark (and, well, the Gable of this picture), in Kansas after she's swindled out of her money and her broken-down transportation. Paige takes her under his wing as they travel together out to the magical, mythical land of California, but they predictably fall in love along the way.

Durbin's father races after her, and, when he finally manages to meet up with them, he approves of the criminal card shark who has been traveling with his daughter unchaperoned. (Unlike It Happened One Night, there was no good reason for her father to dislike her first fiancé). However, after they reach California, Durbin almost loses her new beau when he learns that she had been hiding the fact that she was going out west to marry another man, but in true musical fashion, everything wraps up with a grand reprise of the title song and any hard feelings are tossed away with a wardrobe change.

Musically, this was an absolute delight! Fresh-faced Deanna Durbin had a sweet Shirley Jones appeal, and her classically trained operatic voice is one of the best kept secrets of the movie musical world. Robert Paige's character was in the same mold as the Gordon MacRaesque 'strapping young man', but while he was enjoyable, he certainly didn't live up to MacRae. This musical is sure to be a hit for anyone who loves Oklahoma! and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.

There were two major song highlights: The title song, 'Can't Help Singing,' is still in my head over a month after I watched the movie. And, let me tell you, she sure couldn't help singing! She sang the same song the entire time she traveled out west! Amazingly, no one ever told her to stop singing. No one ever asked why she couldn't help singing. No one ever asked her to sing something else. Still, the title song is a catchy tune, and with her lovely voice, I guess it's not too hard to believe that no one bothered to tell her to stop.

My favorite number, though, was 'Californ-I-Ay', an ode California that instantly reminded me of the song Oklahoma!. The song itself was great, but what you need to see are the comically GIGANTIC vegetables that accompany this song. Yup, forget the gold, there are plums the size of boulders in California, which makes corn being as high as elephants' eyes seem a little less impressive, I think.

Here's an interesting bit of trivia from the ever insightful Robert Osborne, god of TCM: the two stowaway swindlers who end up traveling with Durbin and Paige were originally sleighted to be played by Abbott and Costello. The famous comedy duo pulled out of the picture over billing or salaries, but the characters were left in despite the fact that the replacements seemed a little out of place.

And, now for the videos! The embedded video above should be a medley of three songs from the finale: Californ-I-Ay, More and More, and Can't Help Singing (reprise). However, it looks like you may be able to watch Can't Help Singing in its entirety on YouTube! Here are the links, as far as I've pieced them together: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven, part eight, part nine (?), part ten, and the finale. Videos are courtesy of ddurbinfan, and I wholeheartedly recommend their entire selection of videos.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Carousel (1956)

Think of a few of your favorite musicals. Consider what makes those musicals special to you. Do they have clever lyrics and zippy melodies? Are you entranced by the bright and glamourous costumes: the billowing skirts, gorgeous gowns, and dapper tuxedos? Is it the hopeless romanticism? The thrilling flights of fancy? The dancing spectacles? Do you like your musicals footloose and fancy free? It can't be any coincidence that musicals have been, historically, one of the most popular genres of cinema during troubled times. How, then, does that explain for the relative popularity of the single most maudlin musical ever made: Carousel?

Before my recent reassessment of Carousel, I hadn't seen it in twenty years. I remember that I had not been too impressed by it, but I couldn't remember much else. Carousel is a Rogers and Hammerstein musical that was released in 1956, a year after one of their most popular musicals, Oklahoma! And, in fact, it boasts the same amiable stars, Gordon MacCrae and Shirley Jones. How could that go wrong?

Unbelievably, it starts out bad, and it just gets worse. A popular carousel barker, Billy Bigelow (MacCrae), meets a naif named Julie (Jones). Billy has a reputation as a ladies' man. It was said that he had promised many girls he would marry them, and then, after he gets some of their money, he disappears. After the fair closes for the evening, Billy meets Julie in a nearby park. Both Billy and Julie are fired because their meeting was forbidden by both of their employers.

The two confirm that they're not in love with each other through song ('If I Loved You') which, of course, inevitably leads to their immediate marriage. However, Billy soon discovers that he isn't happy being married. He has trouble finding steady employment, and he and Julie live off of Julie's Cousin Nettie. Billy knows that everyone considers him a no-good bum, but he is too proud to take jobs when they're offered to him. Julie is very much the image of the meek wife, and, allegedly, Billy takes his frustration out on Julie by beating her. Plotwise, Carousel is already treading some murky waters. Right before the big bacchanalia that is the Clam Bake, Mrs. Mullins (Billy's former boss and owner of the titular carousel) comes to the wharf, looking much like a madam from a burlesque house, making eyes at Billy and offering him his job back. He nearly relents and leaves Julie, but Julie has a perfectly-timed bombshell of her own: she's going to have a baby! All of a sudden the impetuous, pig-headed Billy is the perfect husband, and he goes off to the beach to explore his newfound feelings of paternalistic pride through booming song ('Soliloquy').

Julie's pregnancy cements their failing marriage once and for all, but one problem remains: they still have no money. In the end, Billy seems convinced that they might have a girl and that he'll need a lot more money to take care of her. Instead of getting a job or figuring out some kind of achievable means of saving money over the next nine months, he goes off with one of his ne'er-do-well buddies to rob someone at knife-point. Unfortunately, Billy and his genius friend choose someone who fights back, and Billy ends up stabbing himself with his own knife while he's trying to make a get-away. And he dies. And everyone sings 'You'll Never Walk Alone'.

The action of the movie is technically a flashback. When the movie opens, Billy is up in heaven polishing stars when he is told that his wife and daughter are having problems without him. He tells his story in order to be granted a short visit. At the end of the film, he returns to earth, watches his daughter frolic on the beach (in a Twyla Tharp-choreographed ballet called the 'Starlight Carnival'), and watches her graduate from high school. There's also a creepy scene where Billy actually meets his daughter, Louise, and he hits her. Louise asks her mother if it's possible for someone to hit you and for you not to feel anything, and Julie gets this dreamy, faraway look in her eyes, and says yes. Ick.

Plotwise, Carousel is a real clunker. Musically, it is, perhaps, unfair to compare this to the far superior Oklahoma!, but I can't help it. The songs were very well sung (I certainly would never say that Gordon MacCrae and Shirley Jones can't sing!), but the tunes are unmemorable. I suppose the three big numbers were: 'If I Loved You,' 'June Is Bustin' Out All Over,' and the sappy 'You'll Never Walk Alone'.

Perhaps my greatest complaint is that the characters aren't fleshed out very well, so it's difficult to really feel anything towards them. I'm fairly certain that this movie is meant to be a tearjerker, and while I usually comply wholeheartedly, this movie leaves me cold. I don't know if it's because of Billy's brutishness or just the general lack of character depth. After all, what could be more tragic than a nice young woman being married to an unlikeable brute who dies while she's pregnant, leaving her to raise their daughter on her own? I generally forgive more likeable, fun musicals for being short on characterization and plot, but since this was such a downer, I don't feel that there was proper closure to the story. I'm happy that I gave it a second chance, but I don't think I'll ever need to see this one again. Perhaps the most positive aspect of watching Carousel was being reminded of what a fine voice Gordon MacCrae had. Why couldn't his character be a little less miserable?

(YouTube video links are courtesy of cendrillon325 and Anjaxo)

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

The Great Ziegfeld, starring William Powell as Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., is a magnificent biopic detailing the life and loves of the innovative showman. The lush tale opens at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, where Ziegfeld shows off his latest attraction, Sandow the Strongman. Ziegfeld and his lifelong competitor, Jack Billings (Frank Morgan), vie for audience attention with the wily Ziegfeld finally winning out and setting a precedent for all their future competitions. Ziegfeld's story is one of overcoming obstacles to create some of the most spectacular, over-the-top stage shows ever. No matter whether the hitch was attracting an enthusiastic audience, scrounging up financial backers when he was completely broke, or discovering the right stars for his shows, the determined and charming Ziegfeld always seemed to be successful in the end.

Ziegfeld leaves the sideshow of Chicago for the Great White Way. He starts to make a name for himself among the vaudeville and burlesque shows of New York City through his work with some of the most popular acts of the day, including Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, and Fanny Brice (who appeared in the movie). And, of course, a neverending bevy of showgirls. Ziegfeld establishes his signature spectacular stage shows with the introduction of French singer Anna Held (Luise Rainer), whom he steals right out from under Jack Billings' nose. Soon he has the pretty French coquette under contract and under his spell. They marry, and he begins a string of Broadway hits with his new bride in a starring role. Ziegfeld's popularity peaks with the Ziegfeld Follies, featuring song and dance numbers that glorify beautiful women. Many of his spectacular song and dance revues are recreated for the movie, and they are truly a feast for the senses. The sets shimmer and spin like runway models. The costumes sparkle in a fantastic sea of gossamer skirts, sequins, glitter, and feathers. The symphonic pitter-patter of (seemingly) hundreds of tap dancing girls is absolutely spine-tingling. Each number is more extravagant than the last. It seems as if everything he touches turns to gold.

While his Broadway hits keep his name in lights for many years, Ziegfeld always seems to have financial issues. The more lavish his stage shows become, the more money he has to borrow from his lenders. His old competitor, Jack Billings, often ends up finding him backers and money. Ziegfeld also experiences some unexpected flops as Hollywood's influence begins to eclipse that of Broadway. In his personal life, his appreciation of pretty girls eventually dooms his marriage, but Ziegfeld's divorce from Anna Held facilitates his next marriage to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). Perhaps it's my excitement at seeing one of my favorite cinematic duos together again, but Billie Burke seems like the love of Ziegfeld's life. Personally, I found the dramatic aspects of the movie really picked up once Loy entered the scene and Rainer wasn't on the screen so much. Ziegfeld's story has a relatively happy ending, as he is happily married with a child and has some late-career success back on Broadway, including a show about the circus that is reminiscent of his sideshow beginnings in Chicago.

Although I generally enjoyed the movie, I was surprised to discover that it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Luise Rainer won best Best Actress for her portrayal of Anna Held. I suppose I thought the overlong movie was good but not quite that good! The film was directed by Robert Z. Leonard and produced by Hunt Stromberg for M-G-M. The scriptwriter (William Anthony McGuire), the set designer (John Harkrider), and the choreographer (Seymour Felix) for the movie had all worked previously for Ziegfeld. There's a lot more information on the movie at Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of clips from the film online. My two favorite numbers from the movie were 'You've Never Looked So Beautiful Before,' which is like a fashion magazine come to life and the Ziegfeld Follies showstopper, 'A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,' which I managed to find on the website, Dailymotion. It's like a gigantic rotating wedding cake! That's Entertainment shows about half of the number, but you have to watch the movie (or head over to Dailymotion) for the full clip.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Patti Lupone & Mandy Patinkin (2010)

This past weekend I saw "An Evening with Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin" at Proctors Theater in Schenectady. I was overjoyed when I saw this program on the schedule and bought tickets months ago. Finally the day arrived! The weather cooperated and I wasn't even sick (almost everyone I work with had a stomach bug).

The first disappointment came when we found our seats. They were close to the stage (row H) and had a good view although they were off to the side. The problem was that they were narrower than the seats in the center section! By about three inches! My husband took the aisle seat (his reward for being dragged there) while I was squashed between him and the woman next to me, who apparently felt she didn't have to limit herself to just her seat, but could lean into my space as well.

The program contained the full song list, and I was happy to see a large dose of Rodgers and Hammerstein in the form of a South Pacific medley (great - my favorite!) and a Carousel medley (actually my least favorite R & H musical) tempered by a generous helping of Sondheim (which I like even less than Carousel). There were some other random songs, too, including two of my favorites, Frank Loesser's "Baby It's Cold Outside" and Irving Berlin's "You're Just in Love." I was sorry to see that "I'd be Surprisingly Good for You" from Evita was not on the list. Although this was not a Lupone/Patinkin duet in Evita, I had hoped they would sing it.

Then the show started and the disappointment continued. I wanted to love the show. Maybe my expectations were too high. Evita was 30 years ago, after all. Anyway, the set was simple and there was a pianist and a bass player. Patti and Mandy were dressed in simple black costumes (Patti in pants for the first set and then a dress). There was no introduction or any dialogue directed at the audience. In fact, it was really more of a play than a concert with all the songs connected.

The South Pacific medley was a bit disappointing. They actually performed an abbreviated scene with dialogue from the play and sang "A Cockeyed Optimist," "Twin Soliloquies," and "Some Enchanted Evening." The singing wasn't bad, but they definitely were not the best renditions I've heard of those songs. I think the thing I objected to most was the fact that the scene was played for laughs. Sure, there are some humorous elements there, but it's just not particularly funny. In fact, the whole show was played for laughs. And people laughed. Including the woman next to me who was braying like a donkey into my ear. It got so bad that I was eagerly anticipating the Carousel medley - there's no way to make that funny, and thankfully the braying subsided for a few minutes.

Patti sang a solo "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" before the intermission and "Everything's Coming Up Roses" after. She can still belt them out, but other songs didn't fare as well.

The "Baby It's Cold Outside" duet, which has clever lyrics, was sung so fast that it was impossible to hear it clearly. Although recording is prohibited at shows like this, I did find someone on YouTube that recorded a different performance. Here it is:

Courtesy of Squeegeebeckenheim on YouTube

Here's "You're Just in Love:"

Courtesy of Squeegeebeckenheim on YouTube

This performance is actually worse than I remember. I think I could sing it as badly as this.

The audience also contributed to the negative experience in other ways. Naturally there was the interminable rustling of candy wrappers after the intermission (Proctors allows food and drink in the theater). Also a woman in front of us began to shake violently at the start of every song. My first thought was a grand mal seizure, but no, she was just enjoying the music. Whatever happened to quietly tapping your toe? And then the guy next to me began complaining loudly at the intermission about how bad the performance was. First about how their voices were shot and then about Patti Lupone's enormous posterior. While I agreed with these statements, I wouldn't have voiced them in public during the show. But my husband just couldn't keep it to himself.

Sadly, I found myself wondering if it was worth attending this show. Was there any benefit to seeing it live? I had to conclude no. I would have enjoyed it more as an episode of "Great Performances" from the comfort of my living room. The only benefit was seeing it at all, and had a I seen the clips on YouTube first, I might have concluded it wasn't worth it at all, that it was better to just let Mandy and Patti live on as Che and Eva on my record where they still sound wonderful.

Stage Door Canteen (1943)

I recently watched 1943's star-studded Stage Door Canteen again. I've seen this movie a few times over the years, and when I found a DVD at the dollar store not long ago I decided to get it. The plot of the movie is simple: three GIs on leave in New York go the the Stage Door Canteen, a real USO club staffed by real stars and pretty young women. The GIs fall for some girls while being entertained by the likes of Benny Goodman, Xavier Cugat, Ray Bolger, Edgar Bergen, Kay Kyser, Guy Lombardo, Freddy Martin, Gypsy Rose Lee, etc., etc. There were some great songs and hot lindy hopping. Strangely, the one song that's not in this movie is "I Left my Heart at the Stage Door Canteen."

Here's Peggy Lee singing "Why Don't You Do Right" with the Benny Goodman Orchestra:

Courtesy of John1948Ten on YouTube

This isn't my favorite song from the movie. That happens to be "The Machine Gun Song" by Gracie Fields, but I don't see a clip of that (and I haven't figured out how upload something myself yet). This movie is definitely worth watching if you like big band music, swing dancing, or World War II. Pick it up from the dollar bin today!

Enchanted (2007)

I've fallen behind in posting again, so I'll just have a few brief updates. First, I finally watched Disney's Enchanted from 2007. This worked its way to the top of the Netflix queue last month. I didn't think about it being a musical when I sat down to watch it, but being a Disney movie it does make sense. It featured songs with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz.

This was a delightful movie, and the musical numbers were quite enjoyable. Amy Adams was lovely as Giselle. The only thing I didn't like about the movie was Patrick Dempsey. It's beyond me what's "dreamy" about him.

My favorite scene was the "Happy Working Song:"

Courtesy of DisneyEnchantedMovie on YouTube