I’ve chosen to spotlight movie musicals this March, a subject as big and broad and boisterous as the classic era of Hollywood filmmaking in which they flourished. From the geometrical choreography of Busby Berkeley and the Art Deco elegance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to the Technicolor loveliness of MGM and the widescreen wonders of Twentieth Century Fox, right up through the CinemaScope callback to its filmic forbears which opened last year’s La La Land, musicals have endured numerous changes in public taste to appear and reappear with each successive year as fresh and fun as a broadening smile glowing bravely through the spirit-dampening deluge of a torrential downpour. Yes, if any image seems to best evoke the special qualities of the Hollywood movie musical, it’s undoubtedly Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – and, while we’re at it, “Dancing in the Dark” (from the following year’s The Band Wagon), too.
My own admission beyond this month’s Admission – a line I’ve used on these pages before, so I apologize for that – is that my own spirits could use a little undampening these days, along with a few clouds lifting from the darkling plains ahead, so one hopes the little knots of anxiety tied deeply within will loosen a bit under the lightening influence of Meet Me in St. Louis, Babes in Arms, The Love Parade, 42nd Street, The Music Man, On the Town, Shall We Dance, It’s Always Fair Weather, and all the other black-and-white visions and primary-colored dreams I’ve revisited this melancholy March. Possibly our contributors have also revisited, or are visiting for the first time, some of the selections mentioned above, or will be describing musical wonders yet undreamed of in the spaces below. To find out, keep reading past this sentence and hopefully you too will uncover a tonic or two for what ails you in the singing-and-dancing fantasies of Hollywood at its brightest and dreamiest.
– Justin Mory
Show Boat (1936 & 1951)
by Oscar Jackson III
Show Boat has its fair share of controversy, and like most controversial musicals, it is due to its treatment of one of the genre’s favorite subjects, race. I think maybe only sex rivals as far as controversial topic matter. Set in the 1880’s, Show Boat touches on issues of racism, mixed relationships, addiction, and abandonment. The original 1927 musical by Joseph Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II was an adaptation of a popular book of the same title and was similar in tone. Two major film adaptations would be made, in 1936 and 1951, barely resembling one another except in a few songs, the former ably handling the difficult subject matter and the latter abandoning it for a lighter star vehicle.
The titular Show Boat is the Cotton Blossom, a floating show run by Captain Andy Hawks, and the films revolves with varying degrees around the family, performers, and workers on the boat (and there are a lot of them). Jubilantly floating into a Mississippi town, things take a turn when one of the performers, Julie LaVerne, is exposed of being of mixed race. At the same time, Gaylord Ravenal, a well-meaning gambler meets Captain Hawks daughter, Magnolia. The loss of Julie allows Magnolia and Gaylord to step onto the stage which sets in motion their romance, hardships, and redemptions that follow.
(1936, Universal Pictures, dir. James Whale)
With Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, Helen Westley, Hattie McDaniel, Queenie Smith
Simply put, the 1936 is superior in almost every way. It treats the stories with more gravitas and respect. It has the benefit of the roles of Joe, the black stevedore, Julie (Morgan), and Magnolia (Dunne) being reprised by actors from the stage. Paul Robeson as Joe, sings the musical most popular song “Ol’ Man River,” and the film doesn’t shy away from the content of the song. A lamentful combination of sorrow and longing, the song still retains all its emotional impact. Interspersed into the song are visceral shots of slaves in the field and behind bars that highlight the injustice that had been and was being perpetuated against a race of people. Other songs by Joe and his wife, Queenie (McDaniel), are accused of belittling blacks because their manner of talking and acting comes close to caricature, but the film’s feelings towards Julie’s ouster, the humanity and dignity present in Joe, Queenie and the other African-Americans all argue against such accusations.
This version was made alongside Kern and Hammerstein and its story adheres closely to the stage show with some exceptions. It unfolds over the course of 40 years and is really a poignant view of humanity throughout. Ravenal’s (Jones) gambling is destructive, but his love for Magnolia is real and Jones does a great job mixing those two things. When he leaves, it is a failed attempt at caring for Magnolia and not just an all-out abandonment. Late in the movie, Julie returns in a subtle but wonderful display that even though life has been hard on her, she’s retained her humanity and sense of sacrifice. Even Cap’n Hawks (Winnegar), who is mostly comic relief, has some nice moments.
The ending shows that the film is ultimately about redemption. The hurt, trials, and mistakes along the way are real, but that is what makes the film’s ending work. The emotions feel genuine. As an aside, my wife–a drama teacher and actress herself–had somehow missed this version, and having seen it, declared it superior. And she actually knows what she is talking about.
(1951, MGM, dir. George Sidney)
With Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, Joe E. Brown, Marge Champion, Gower Champion, Agnes Moorehead, William Warfield
This is the more popular version, and it is probably closer to what you think of when you think of Hollywood musicals. It is big and bright (unlike the b&w of the 1936 version) and, for all its Technicolor, it’s mostly empty. Most of the emotional umph has been lost for spectacle, making it a bit of a star vehicle. Much of Hammerstein’s dialogue was thrown out and rewritten. Queenie’s role is reduced to almost nothing, and the role of Julie was increased to give it more depth and move her closer to the forefront. She also happens to be played by Ava Gardner at the height of her popularity, so that probably had a lot to do with it.
The issue of race is almost completely absent except for when it is required for the story, as in when Julie is revealed to be of mixed heritage. It cheapens the whole film and, watching it after the 1936 version, I felt kind of cheated and angry. Those characters and their stories matter and this film doesn’t even care.
The film also makes the decision to change it from a 40-year span to one closer to eight. This makes so many mistakes, failures, and triumphs feel like so much less. Julie has only been gone for a few years, instead of a lifetime, when she makes her sacrificial act. Magnolia is still young and beautiful rather than a woman having lived her life and achieved success but still unable to let go of her feelings for Gay.
When it was released, it was third in box office sales for the year. I’m glad it had a good run all those years ago, because time hasn’t been kind to it. Catch it if you want a comparison to the other version or you just love this era of musicals, but odds are this is the type of musical that turned off a lot of people.
Meet Me In St. Louis
(1944, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, dir. Vincente Minnelli)
by Krystal Lyon
I’ve grown cynical in my movie watching. I’m drawn to dramas, dark comedies and hard-hitting documentaries and the last thing I want to watch is a sing-song musical. So when I saw that this month’s Film Admissions was devoted to musicals I was a teensy bit bummed. I picked Meet Me In St. Louis because I knew that in it Judy Garland introduced the world to the beautifully sad Christmas jingle Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. Any movie with that tragic tune in it has to be dramatic and not too cheery, right?
Well, there is drama but it’s the most charming drama you’ve ever seen. It’s 1903 and the St. Louis World’s Fair is just a year away. You instantly meet the Smith family, father Alonzo, mother Anna, eldest son Lon, daughters Rose, Esther, Agnes and Tootie and there’s a chivalrous grandpa and snarky maid too–so many strong ladies with gumption under one roof! Garland’s Esther Smith is in love with the boy next door and her older sister Rose, the radiant Lucille Bremer, gets long distance calls from college boys in New York. These two sisters along with their brother are the rabble-rousers of St. Louis, a place they love. They are particularly excited about the World’s Fair and that the entire world will be brought right to their wrap-around front porch. But just as romances are blooming and the Fair is in sight, their father announces with more drama than all those ladies combined that they are moving to New York! But the reactions to that twist are far from your normal drama.
I started watching Meet Me In St. Louis with a horrible attitude. I just wanted to be done with it. But this darling story captured my heart. Sure, the family initially reacts horribly to Mr. Smith’s New York news but they are drawn back together with slices of hazelnut cake and a song with mom and dad around the piano. The Smith family’s love is the centerpiece of Meet Me In St. Louis. It might sound idealized, it is, but it’s beautiful and hopeful all the same. To witness how the father sacrifices for his children, how Agnes celebrates in Tootie’s bravery at Halloween and how Rose and Esther are genuine best friends is splendid! Meet Me In St. Louis is a wonderful family story with some catchy songs sprinkled in and I believe it’s a balm for this cynical film fan.
America is pretty cynical as well. In days filled with negative Twitter and Facebook feeds, we all think the worst of each other. So why was La La Land was such a hit in 2016? Because we all need to hope and sing and dance and love in order to deal with these pessimistic days. We need a little lightness to float above reality. That’s why La La Land struck a chord and why Meet Me In St. Louis is so “Ginger Peachy”! And maybe, just maybe, we can hope with Esther that “Next year all our troubles will be miles away.”
The Band Wagon
(1953, MGM, dir. Vincente Minnelli)
by Dean Treadway
It’s far from news that Fred Astaire was no great shakes as an actor or singer; dance, of course, is his master realm. As a result, though I naturally love the films he did with eternal partner Ginger Rogers, his later musicals are very much an unknown quantity for me (the finest Astaire dance, in my opinion, is his utterly incredible “Begin the Beguine” opposite the exquisite Eleanor Powell in Norman Taurog’s Broadway Melody of 1940; Stanley Donen’s 1957 film Funny Face is a masterpiece, too, and a lovely vehicle not for Astaire, but for his sneaky co-star Audrey Hepburn). Fred Astaire captivates me when moving gracefully, but frankly bores me on every other level. I know I’m not alone here.
Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon has long been considered one of MGM’s consummate musicals, often lumped in with Singin’ in the Rain as the genre’s most dynamic entry (the two films share screenwriters in Betty Comden and Adolph Green). But am I a heretic to say that it only works in fits and starts? Singin’ in the Rain has a spicier story, a finer score, well-heeled direction, and a more charming cast. Meanwhile, The Band Wagon, while sensually stunning in its bright Technicolor pizazz, has mostly unmemorable songs and ho-hum laffs delivered by a cast that largely irritates with their goosed-up comedy “antics.” When the movie’s over, you’re definitely ready for some peace and quiet after all that yelling and warbling. That’s not a nifty feeling to have after seeing a musical.
The film’s story is its first problem: it’s a terribly overdone premise, which would be okay if it weren’t infected with such hair-pulling attitude. Astaire, basically playing himself, is an aging hoofer whose Hollywood career is on the down swing. He needs a major hit, on screen or on Broadway, in order to wheedle himself back into the public’s hearts. Enter the rather hideous Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant, clearly (over)playing the real Comden and Green, as a writing team who’ve come up with a simple idea for a stage revue. They approach Astaire to star and he’s tentatively onboard, though things get heated when a foofy director (extra-annoying Jack Buchanan, perhaps based on Minnelli) seizes on an idea to convert this revue into a large-scaled musical version of Faust, with garish costumes, onstage explosions, and entirely too many moving parts. I do appreciate the movie’s meta approach to its subject, nudging rather than fully breaking the fourth wall. I just wish it were all genuinely funnier and less embarrassingly madcap (though the final on-stage stab at Faust is enjoyably chaotic; in its firey hellishness, it reminded me of that godawful stage abomination John Travolta’s Tony Monero finds himself starring in–“Satan’s Alley”–in Sly Stallone’s Saturday Night Fever sequel Stayin’ Alive).
Second problem: the songs. Again, like Singin’ in the Rain, which took its score from the back catalog of songwriters Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, The Band Wagon utilizes the past hits from Tin Pan Alley vets Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. And their work just isn’t as memorable. Of course, the one original song they contributed to the film is a classic: “That’s Entertainment.” But that tune is hammered onto the soundtrack so incessantly that it makes you realize there’s not much to it melody-wise; it endless ascension gets under your skin, and not in a pleasurable fashion. It, too, reeks of desperation (perhaps by design; these characters are furiously trying to save their skins).
But let’s talk about the things that certainly make The Band Wagon worth watching. First of all, there’s long-legged Cyd Charisse, who’s absolutely stunning as the ballerina nabbed for Astaire’s female lead in the show. Of course, they start off on a bad foot, but end up falling for each other, though the considerable age difference between them is now more noticeable than it was back in the ’50s. She’s fine in the dialogue scenes but, man, she makes our eyes pop out of our skulls in her grapplings with Astaire (all devised by MGM house choreographer Michael Kidd). Their tentative, beautifully timed steps in the middle of Central Park, to a wordless “Dancing in the Dark,” catapult the sequence into its standing as the film’s highlight. With its dusky backdrop of a lamppost and a park bench, you can easily see its marks on Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. Also, there’s the incredibly influential grand finale, a stage version of a film noir saga that rather bravely becomes more cinematic as it advances. Astaire is a detective, and Charisse his blond femme fatale, and if this sequence feels familiar while you’re watching it, it’s because an adoring Michael Jackson faithfully rejiggered it for his “Smooth Criminal” video, right down to the costume choices.
I do have to mention the costumes by Mary Ann Nyberg as another of the movies major pluses (particularly every dazzling, sparkly outfit Charisse is decked out in; there no better model than a woman with THAT impossibly luscious figure, and rail-thin Astaire looks pretty dashing throughout, too). The art direction by MGM stalwarts Cedric Gibbons and Preston Ames, and the cinematography by Harry Jackson each follow suit with comparable excellence. The searing threads and colors of The Band Wagon keep us nourished long after its unamusing screeching and bland tunelessness has left us wanting. Burn me at the stake, but this is a movie that works better cut up into YouTube clips. By the way, on DVD and Blu-ray, the picture comes with a gushing commentary by Liza Minnelli (who still has memories of being on the film’s set at age six) and superfan piano man Michael Feinstein.
A Star is Born
(1954, Warner Brothers, dir. George Cukor)
by Taylor Blake
Norman Maine’s star is fading. The longer his career in showbiz, the more he’s known for drunken episodes that delay film shoots and inspire bad press. When an intoxicated Norman (James Mason) barely makes it on stage for a performance, Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) saves the day filling in for him. Wowed by her talent, he offers to get her an audition at his studio, and soon she’s Vicki Lester, one of America’s most popular singers and actresses. But as Esther’s stardom brightens, Norman’s only dulls, challenging their relationship and both of their careers.
A few thoughts ran through my head as I watched A Star is Born…
1. Holy cow, Judy Garland is great.
Yes, it’s probably one of the most Captain Obvious things I’ve ever written, but to watch her is to remember how gifted she was. She can transition from laughter to tears without blinking; she sells big emotions and the subtle; and she can do it all in one scene. (Mild spoiler alert!) When Vicki wins an Oscar in the film, it reminds you how Oscar-worthy Garland’s performance is. (End mild spoiler.) Somehow, she and this movie left the real 1955 Oscars empty-handed despite six nominations. Who the heck is this Grace Kelly girl who took the statue from her, anyway?
2. Later movie musicals owe a lot to this one.
The movie I couldn’t stop comparing this one to? History’s only 3-minute Best Picture winner, La La Land. Esther’s journey is a preview of Mia’s (Emma Stone) after she tells us the story about her aunt who used to live in Paris. (Another La La Land parallel: My jaw dropped during a cringeworthy Oscars gaffe.) Not that A Star is Born was the first to deal with artistry, fame, and the tension between them—see Singin’ in the Rain and the original 1937 A Star is Born to start—but this version makes the struggle intensely personal and still feels relevant six decades later. Its characters and plot points feel like templates for the cognitive dissonance between the perfection of craft and professional pursuits. This film is now the exception to my conviction that excellent movies should’t be be remade. Hollywood’s appearance changes constantly, but its core never does, which is why this story needs to be remade every few decades. I’m hoping the potential Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga version finally starts production to give us its take on the celebrity-obsessed 21st century.
3. This isn’t just a Great Musical, but a Great Film.
George Cukor’s picture balances moments of familiar reality (like Norman trying to stifle a breakdown when he realizes how he’s ruining Esther’s career) with moments of magic (like the vivid costuming and the bright lights of LA against the dark nighttime activity). Similarly, there are long, uninterrupted shots that make it feel like we’re an audience watching a stage show contrasted with sepia stills show the passing of time.
4. Why did I wait so long to watch this?
Some questions never find satisfying answers.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
(1954, MGM, dir. Stanley Donen)
by Jim Tudor
This month, as we find ourselves goin’ courtin’ to remedy having missed our biggest unseen movie musicals, I knew it was finally time to go sack myself Seven Brides. Actually, one bride is plenty for me; it’s because of her that this movie took on such prominence in my mind. My wife Sylwinn was quick to name this 1954 Stanley Donen barn-raiser as one of her favorite films. Before we were even married, I bought her a copy of the DVD. She watched it without me. Later, I bought her the vastly upgraded two-disc deluxe edition DVD, which has two separately shot versions of the film to accommodate the rapidly evolving different screen formats of the day. Again, I somehow wasn’t around each time she watched it. All of our kids have seen the film multiple times, yet it eluded me. One might think that this was deliberate, but as a fan of musicals, 1950’s MGM musicals in particular, I knew of the significance of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Before I met my wife, I traveled to London and spent a day in the glorious museum of the British Film Institute. One of the most memorable of its elaborate exhibits featured a small mid-1950s TV playing the barn-raising dance number in sinful pan-and-scan format while the same scene played out on a vast movie screen in vibrant CinemaScope beside it. No comparison.
As most every shot features at least seven people in the frame, Seven Brides is a film that had to wait until the innovation of CinemaScope to be made. For those of us who derive much of our cinema euphoria from a well-composed frame and the color and movement therein, Seven Brides is a treasure trove. Donen, still a very young wunderkind whom, alongside Gene Kelly, helmed Singin’ in the Rain only a few years earlier, demonstrates seminal early adaptation to the brand new CinemaScope format (it being one of the handful of mid-1950s theatrical innovations that stuck, all of them desperately concocted to counter the rapid onset of home-binding television and air conditioning).
The real hero here is choreographer Michael Kidd, known for his masculine and kinetic dance arrangements. No “girlie man” accusations can be made of these ruggedly singing, hot-footed mountain men. Sure, Seven Brides falls safely within the light-comedy “squeaky clean” niche that moms everywhere have adored for over half a century. But the camaraderie, roughhousing and even synchronized ax twirling are rooted in recognizable male loneliness and longing for female partnership.
Once elder brother Adam reads the younger ones the ancient Roman tale of apprehended “Sobbin’ Women,” they decide to emulate it, riding off to town and collecting all the single ladies. A farcical sequence of sacking ensues. Kidnapping wouldn’t be this sort of light fare until the Coen brothers made Raising Arizona in 1987.
There there, dears–Stockholm syndrome will set in soon enough. And sure enough, it does! The apprehended ladies take a sexy liking to their kidnappers, at the last possible minute. Win-win! It’s the darndest thing. As far as its gender politics go, from a 2017 filter, it’s as cockamamie lunky as it is often refreshingly progressive, offering decided moments of empathy for the put-upon women folk. Howard Keel and Jane Powell head up a fantastically talented cast, which includes Julie Newmar and Russ Tamblyn.
The Music Man
(1962, Warner Brothers, dir. Morton DaCosta)
by Sharon Autenrieth
Great Honk! I should have given The Music Man a try much sooner! It’s not quite accurate to say I’d never seen The Music Man before. I’d seen a high school production, but had been avoiding the movie over the years, because (and I say this with shame) I didn’t like the look of Robert Preston. Beaming out from the movie poster he seemed too middle aged and craggy to be the charismatic huckster at the center of this very American tale.
I was wrong about Preston, of course. As Harold Hill, a traveling salesman/con artist, he radiates energy. He’s fast-talking and quick on his feet, the sort of person who is always three steps ahead of the people who think they’re one step ahead of him. He finds his next mark in the people of River City, Iowa, convincing them that moral decay lurks at their doorstep in the form of the town’s new pool hall. What can save their young people from carnality? Joining a marching band. Hill is soon taking money hand over fist in orders for instruments and uniforms (which he doesn’t really intend to deliver, of course), and promising to teach the children of the town to play by the “think method.”
The female lead in The Music Man is Shirley Jones, already a star from movies like Oklahoma and Elmer Gantry. Jones played Marion Paroo, the town’s prim librarian and piano teacher, a paradoxically no-nonsense idealist. Marion sees River City as hopelessly provincial and seeks to broaden the horizons of her library patrons, scandalizing the local women with books by Chaucer, Rabelais, and “BAL-ZAC”. She is initially skeptical of “Professor” Hill, but seems to fall for his story soon enough. Or does she? Eventually the cautious Marion the Librarian will cast off her spectacles, let down her hair, and agree to meet Harold Hill at the footbridge (wink, wink–there’s a lot of barely repressed sexuality in River City).
Meredith Wilson was an established musician, playwright and composer when he wrote both the music and story for The Music Man. It was a smash hit on Broadway before being adapted for the screen. A native Iowan, Wilson said that The Music Man was his attempt to pay tribute to his home state. It’s simultaneously affectionate and mocking: these are respectable, patriotic Midwesterners, but they’re also terrifically gullible. Hill uses fear to wrap them around his finger and (as the one who will save their children) becomes the most popular man in town. When his secrets are exposed, those same kindly folks will turn on a dime, becoming a torch-bearing mob out to tar and feather their fallen hero. Given the moment in which we find ourselves, it’s hard watching The Music Man to avoid thinking about how easily “decent” Americans can be manipulated by fear– even irrational fear–and what ripe pickings we are for an amoral con man. But let’s not dwell on that too long. I like Harold Hill to much for this to be a comfortable line of thought.
Meredith Wilson clearly loved wordplay: even the spoken words in The Music Man sing. Characters feature names like Zaneeta, Winthrop Paroo (played by the young Ron Howard), Amaryllis, Marcellus Washburn; and then there’s the deliciously named Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn (the superb Hermione Gingold). Much is made of the “phraseology” used by the young folks, of which “great honk!” is but one example. The song lyrics are often packed with unexpected twists and turns. How could you not appreciate “Marion” being rhymed with “carrion”? Like the lyrics, the music itself is often surprising in its structure. I’m so glad I overcome my superficial bias against this movie musical. Professor Hill won me over as completely as he did the people of River City.
Fiddler on the Roof
(1971, Mirisch Production Company, dir. Norman Jewison)
by Robert Hornak
On the one hand, as Tevye might reason, the movie is three hours long. But on the other hand… who am I to say I can’t still enjoy a movie this beloved, even if its length rivals sitting shiva? Luckily, it grabs you right away, almost solely on the strength of Tevye’s clomp-stamp, wiggle-snap dance and his deep-bellied laughter and love of life. He’s an honest dairyman who breaks the fourth wall to set up all the exposition we’ll ever need, and breaks the ceiling to ask God why he sends him such grief as he does. That grief is in the form of, mostly, a house teeming with daughters, three of which are of marrying age, and who, one-by-one, defy the strict traditions of Tevye’s faith in their method of procuring their betrotheds. With each daughter, Tevye is set further and further into the past, entombed in the amber of tradition until, at last, the movie reveals itself as a kind of grinder, showing how a man of rigid beliefs can ever so loudly and begrudgingly find a wider definition of God.
But that personal growth is almost inevitable–Tevye happens to be the standard bearer in a world that’s bursting at the seams with change. The movie drops you into 1905 Ukraine and describes the slow-then-quick encroachment of social revolution into a small, all-Jewish village, where the national tide of anti-Semitism has yet to crash. The family struggle, tradition wise, parallels the effort of the Russian government to enforce the “tradition” of their rule, until the two parallels cross and spark like live jumper cables with a pogrom that descends on the village during the wedding of Tevye’s oldest daughter–violent change intruding on the most sacred of traditions. That a pogrom would descend at all in a movie musical makes this, for me–decidedly not a broad connoisseur of musicals–one of the most reality-rooted musicals I’ve seen, one unafraid to sidestep the usually glib treatment of a dark outside world with the straight-up heft of a historical drama.
The movie’s length, at first foreboding, is necessary to build out of the family dynamic and into that bleak political predicament. By then we’ve settled into Tevye’s brand of placating wisdom, from which rushes of fatherly impatience spasm outward, until we’re sure he’s the man who will always be as right as he says he is. But eventually our perspective, and especially the radicalized youth perspective of the time of its release, can only glance back at his religious stubbornness with a more skeptical eye, realizing that it’s as much a root of the kind of political fundamentalism as the Tsar’s own pride-driven, power-preserving mandate. In the midst of scenes depicting senseless destruction and masses of Jewish refugees made to wander once more, the only hope we can find for the future is a quick moment of inner spiritual concession, as Tevye murmurs to the third of his three tradition-busting daughters, “And God be with you.” It’s the kind of small grace moment that can allow an entire generation, born in tradition but beset by turmoil, to keep a piece of the old world in their pocket for safe keeping while the world around them burns.
At Long Last Love
(1975, Twentieth Century Fox, dir. Peter Bogdanovich)
by Justin Mory
As long as we’re unburdening ourselves of movie-related regrets, I might further mention that at one point I had planned – and have now abandoned – a rather long piece on movie musicals of the 1970s: an era rife for critical evaluation on the subject and genre here under discussion simply because they seemed so out-of-step, so out-of-tune, so to speak, with the movement and tenor of their times. The grit-and-grime period of Dirty Harry, The Last Detail, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia would not seem at the surface level of appreciation to successfully co-exist with the likes of Fiddler on the Roof, Funny Lady, and The Wiz.
Or did they? Along with re-inventing time-honored Hollywood genres such as the gangster movie, film noir, and sci-fi in movies like The Godfather, Chinatown, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one might also argue that the so-called Film Brat generation of Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Robert Altman tried their own hand at “updating” movie musicals in films as varied, and as variously successful, as New York, New York, American Graffiti, and even Nashville.
Among the most eccentric of these attempts at recapturing old movie musical magic, however, came courtesy of film critic and historian-turned-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich who, in having previously evoked Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and John Ford to no small success in, successively, The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc?, and Paper Moon, next turned his attention to the Ernst Lubitsch of One Hour With You and Design for Living for his Cole Porter-scored, Cybill Shepherd and Burt Reynolds-starring, romantically-charged musical comedy. A resounding failure at the box office, and a since-notorious movie bomb, I nonetheless came away enchanted from my first-time viewing of this Depression-era fantasy of coat-tails and bow-ties, cocktail dresses and improbable hats, along with its witty and innuendo-laced dialogue, lyrics, and dialogue-less and lyrical-like passages of lovelorn longing.
A swooning sigh of a movie as delicate as its title, At Long Last Love might have proven as successful in its day as the recent La La Land, if only ’70s-era audiences had been able to see past the notable deficiencies in its stars’ singing and dancing abilities. (But then, a similar charge could be made against the latter film as well.) As it stands, however, At Long Last Love should have popped out — but, unfortunately, somehow did not — as a welcome relief from nightly reports of Watergate and Vietnam just as La La Land has been so successful in diverting viewers from the relentless onslaught of far worse.
(1984, Warner Brothers, dir. Albert Magnoli)
by David Strugar
After the death of Prince last year, I felt shock at his early passing, and sympathy for everyone mourning him, but the only connection I had was to the weirdly inserted songs he created for Tim Burton’s Batman.
Since I’ve already seen a ton of musicals, this month’s Film Admissions provided me the chance to catch up on culture in a different way—to experience one of the early milestones of the artist who influenced so many.
I have to hand this to him—if I was making a semi-autobiographical musical about my early career, I’d make myself look a lot nicer.
Visually, Prince looks great in Purple Rain. Along with David Bowie, he’s one of the masters of the androgynous rock star look. He woos girls from a motorcycle and shreds a guitar while wearing purple and lace and a carefully curled ‘do.
When he’s not owning the stage, though, Prince (or “The Kid” as he’s simply referred to in the movie) abuses his girlfriend and dismisses his bandmates, especially the female ones. I wasn’t sure at first if Purple Rain meant for me to accept this as the mysterious behavior of an artistic genius, but repeated scenes of his father’s violence at home made the tragic connection more and more blatant (and, to be honest, a little too pat). As angelically beautiful as Prince’s finely-featured face appears, he’s stubbornly perpetuating his family’s demons onto the people, and mostly the women, around him.
The film’s title song is both and ode and an apology to all of them, and while the symbolism of the lyrics was opaque to me (along with purple rain, there’s also a purple banana mentioned in the film’s opening number, and the fan debates and discussions of these lyrics go on for miles), it’s Prince performing his heart out with all the touches he’s great at—virtuoso musical ability, flamboyant fashion sense, spinning and practically performing gymnastics while playing guitar.
If the musical performance numbers look stunning and memorable, the rest of the movie comes up amateurish. Compared to Prince’s lyrical poetry, the stilted dialogue sounds even flatter than it already is, especially since most of it sounds like it was re-recorded in post by actors reading cue cards 10 feet away from the microphone. The acting, even Prince’s, sounds like people reciting lines, remembering halfway through that they’re supposed to be emotional about it. And as dour as everyone is, the exaggerated comedy of the antagonist, Prince’s flashy musical rival (enthusiastically played by Morris Day), feels like it’s happening in another, but still pretty weak, movie.
The whole thing might have played better as a concert film, but it still obviously caught everyone’s attention at the time. The opening sequence, introducing every character by their behavior and actions (and notably, without dialogue), over Prince’s opening number, feels portentous and electric. After that, I’m just waiting for everyone to stop talking and fake crying and get to another one of those guitar-spinning numbers with the weird but beautiful lyrics.
(1997, Twentieth Century Fox, dirs: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman)
by Max Foizey
The Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia was slaughtered along with her family in 1918, at the hands of the Bolshevik secret police. But what if she survived? This animated historical fantasy film substitutes a magic-wielding Grigori Rasputin for the Bolsheviks. Feeling betrayed, Rasputin curses the Romanovs, but winds up in limbo when Anastasia survives and his spell to destroy the family isn’t fulfilled.
Struck with amnesia from hitting her head after being separated from her family, young Anastasia (now called Anya) winds up in an orphanage with a necklace that says “Together in Paris” and vague memories of her history. In similar fashion to the 1956 Ingrid Bergman film of the same name, this story follows two con men hoping to make a quick ruble who don’t realize they’ve found the real Anastasia.
Meg Ryan brings Anastasia to life with perfect scrappy delivery (Liz Callaway provides Anya’s singing voice), and John Cusack does such a great job as Dimitri that it’s hard to believe his only other voice work was in 2008’s animated film Igor.
Christopher Lloyd’s Rasputin brings to mind a decomposing Jafar of Disney’s Aladdin. He might have been a more imposing villain if his body parts weren’t constantly falling off for comedic effect. His villainous tune, “In The Dark of the Night,” is catchy and comes complete with demonic wormy bug accompaniment.
Hank Azaria sports an inexplicable Minnesotan accent as Rasputin’s goofy albino bat sidekick Bartok. The bat was popular enough with audiences to have his own direct-to-video spin-off Bartok the Magnificent.
While Rasputin is cartoony, Anastasia and Dimitri look more like real people than most other humans found in animated films (Dimitri even has a bad 1990s haircut). As you get caught up in Anya and Dimitri’s romance, the film forgets about Rasputin and Bartok. The story doesn’t really need them, although the final confrontation between Anastasia and Rasputin is exciting and features a stone Pegasus come to life. Who doesn’t want to see that?
Angela Lansbury brings gravitas to the role of Anastasia’s grandmother, The Dowager Empress Marie, while Bernadette Peters has a blast hamming it up as Sophie, Marie’s lady-in-waiting. I didn’t recognize Kelsey Grammer’s voice through his Russian accent as Dimitri’s pal and fellow con can Vlad, until he sang “Learn to Do It,“ one of the film’s many wonderful songs.
Anastasia is a gorgeous, involving musical that proved worthy of two Academy Award nominations (for the tunes “Journey to the Past” and “Once Upon a December”) and recently gave life to a stage play by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who were responsible for the film’s dynamite songs. David Newman’s rousing underscore is something special, an adventurous mix of styles that perfectly compliments the proceedings.
Perhaps the most memorable scene in the film comes early on when Anya, unclear of her history, is in the ballroom of her past, seeing visions of figures dancing gracefully across her memory, as she sings “Once Upon a December.” It’s a truly stunning sequence I’m sad to have missed on the big screen.
While many women in real life came forward claiming to be the true Anastasia, this animated film is obviously not based on actual events. I don’t believe the real Anastasia had a dog named Pooka and I highly doubt the real Rasputin had a talking bat companion. I could be wrong.
Over his career, Don Bluth has directed many of my favorite animated films, including The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and Titan A.E., in addition to creating the animated sequence in Xanadu and the video games Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace. With Anastasia, Bluth and co-director Gary Goldman prove they could retain their creative identity while producing a movie in the style of the House of Mouse.