hoofin’ it to the top

I’ve always heard such good things about 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, USA, 1933), so I’m kind of scratching my head at the extremely lackluster film I actually watched.  This kind of backstage story that Hollywood seemed to churn out in countless variations during the 1930’s are always a lot of fun, typically an opportunity to showcase a lot of witty/bitchy banter, shrewd satire, colorful personalities, to say nothing of impressive sets, costumes and choreography.

Most of these are rags-to-riches tales with wide-eyed ingenues discovering their fated fame as superstars, and I suppose in this critical way, 42nd Street is different than most.  Because the star that is born in this situation is Ruby Dee, whose leaden feet rather inexplicably seems to inspire a sense of awe in everyone she interacts with (or, more often, inadvertently stumbles upon).  So much so that they all her peers help her along to her destined spot as the last-minute replacement for the show’s leading role, even at the sacrifice of their own careers.  Eh…?  It’s almost as if the film is pulling a prank on the audience―how else could this clearly mediocre dancer/actress make such a startlingly easy ascendancy to the top?  But the audience never gets a wink to let us in on a joke, if it is, in fact, a joke.

That said, it might be a bit harsh to pin most of the film’s shortcomings on Keeler, especially since there’s a surprising lack of zip in the rest of the proceedings in general, even in the Busby Berkeley extravaganza that concludes the film, which seems a bit… heavy.  For my money, one merely need look as far as the vastly superior Joan Crawford vehicle Dancing Lady from the same year–it might lack the participation of Berkeley, but it’s a the chance to watch a real star claw her preordained way to the top!

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RIP jane russell

Just recently I was remarking to a friend that there are two films that drive grad students in my program crazy, as they get taught (and so then we ourselves have to teach them) every semester. The two films? Citizen Kane and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

And honestly, I can only take so much Kane. But Gentlemen? Somehow, I never mind rewatching it—in fact, I even look forward to its expected showing every semester.  It is Marilyn Monroe’s finest hour, and an excellent example of the glories of Technicolor, to say nothing of the way it so delightfully illustrates and subverts—often simultaneously—issues of the male gaze, female social roles, sexuality, and class, without losing for a moment its sense of raucous fun. But the main reason I love Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?

Why, Jane Russell, of course.

As Dorothy Shaw, Russell is one of those rarest of entities in 1950’s Hollywood cinema—a beautiful woman brashly confident about her sexuality, who always makes quite clear that she has little use for Lorelei’s diamonds and would much prefer “a beautiful hunk o’ man.” And yet, despite the normally unforgiving judgment of the Production Code which insisted that even the slightest whiff of sexual immorality be punished tenfold (usually involving some kind of creative combination of searing heartbreak and a spectacular death scenes), Dorothy somehow manages to ends up with her selected man at the alter right in time for a happy ending.

[I love her breathy version of “Bye Bye Baby,” and listen to it regularly]

Of course, the film’s now-infamous musical sequence “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?,” with Russell jauntily trapezing through the barely-clad bodies of the Olympic team in a black jumpsuit and matching heels, is more than enough to ensure her an immortality of a certain type…

But just as much as her role in Gentlemen, Russell will be remembered for the manner that her career was launched, namely the barely-there décolleté that so fixated Howard Hughes during the making of The Outlaw, sparking a public furor that marked one of the first, legitimate blows to the Production Code when the film was eventually released in 1946 (too bad all of the hullabaloo still resulted in a rather dull film).  But the films that I have special affection for the two films that Russell made at the beginning of the 1950’s paired with Robert Mitchum: His Kind of Woman (Farrow, USA, 1951), and to a slightly lesser extent, Macao (von Sternberg, USA, 1952). Ludicrous but atmospheric, neither of the films are particularly good, but Russell always seemed game for each and every absurd plot development that’s thrown her way, and her sly vivacity pairs nicely with Mitchum’s perpetual sleepy-eyed bemusement.

[It’s almost worth watching His Kind of Woman solely for a stunning, extended tracking shot through a hotel bar that ends, if my memory serves correctly, with Mitchum unexpectedly arriving at Russell’s character. Not that that is the film’s only charm—far from it.]

[Being a von Sternberg film (with more than a bit of uncredited help from that other poet of cinema, Nick Ray), Macao is almost an inevitably beautiful film, even if the story doesn’t quite live up to it.]

Back when I collected autographs, I sent away a photograph to Ms. Russell, of which she graciously returned.  It has always been one of my favorites of the entire collection.

RIP, Jane Russell.

lacking just a little minnelli magic

Watching two Vincent Minnelli classics, The Band Wagon (1953) and The Pirate (1948), in quick succession revealed something important for me: when sticking to a cohesive narrative—Meet Me in St. Louis, The Clock, Some Come Running, even lesser effort like a Madame Bovary, he’s virtually unparalleled in the Hollywood studio system. But when he succumbs to his burlesque impulses, as in Band Wagon and The Pirate, I struggle to retain my interest. The latter, less well-known, more of a (queer) cult item, is a bizarre little trifle—someone featured in the featurette (Gene Kelly’s former wife, I believe) commented that it plays like a massive in-joke, and I think that about sums it up.

I can see how someone on its wavelength could find it absolutely irresistible, but it more or less eluded me, and instead was left watching something with infinite potential that never quite finds a way to coalesce into something genuinely memorable (except, perhaps, for the shock of Gene Kelly showing up in one fantasy sequence in black cut-offs that make boxer-briefs look modest). It’s also Minnelli at his most stylistically unrestrained, and not in a way that appealed to me—the antiquated burgundies, golds and roses fly somewhere past mere kitsch to into the realm of the downright tacky. And god, after suffering through one performance of “Make ‘Em Laugh” it sure took a lot of restraint to not take advantage of the stop button when mere minutes later it is served up once again…

Clearly, The Band Wagon is the superior film, though it too ultimately left me underwhelmed as well. The first half is good, actually very good, except perhaps for Astaire’s (very intentional) wet dishrag of a performance—when he’s not dancing I just don’t find him an interesting enough screen presence to carry off extended mopiness. And I clearly had the wrong reaction—which is obviously more indicative of my personal taste than anything to do with the film itself—in that I was more interested in seeing a revamped version of the Faustian Follies instead of the famous, folksy Mickey-and-Judy “let’s give ‘em a show!” segments that follow (to the apparent adoration of all). But there are moments of grace that show up occasionally and are as dazzling as anything to be found in Minnelli’s filmography: the screen comes alive during the buoyant camaraderie of the “I Love Louisa” sequence, the gravity and geometry-defying gymnastics of the background male dancers in the “Girl Hunt,” the visual pleasure of Cyd Charrise’s “18 mile-high legs” (Liza Minnelli’s characterization), pretty much any time the crackerjack Nanette Fabray is given a good quip to toss off. But what really got me: the scene on the stairs where Astaire and Charisse meet and immediately have a fallout and Charisse has on a pair of kelly green satin gloves that shimmer against her diaphanous black dress. God, I remember thinking to myself—that is cinema!

all that jazz

I tend to find documentaries play better for me in an intimate home video setting as opposed to the more grandiose theatrical experience, and so despite considering myself a fan, it was with trepidation that I wandered into the uninspiredly titled Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (2008). O’Day, who until her passing last year was widely considered the last great female jazz vocalist who could be mentioned in the same breath as Holiday, Fitzgerald and Vaughn, led the type of life one can easily imagine being made into a biopic that wins actresses Academy Awards—there is enough heroin, failed marriages, memorable music and Esther Blodgett-esque comebacks to supply material for a dozen industrious screenwriters. But always cutting through the stock-documentary checklist of events-to-cover is O’Day herself. A startling firecracker of a woman, one moment she’s the hard-boiled, sharp-featured stock blonde of a 40’s noir, the next she’s a folksy Barbara Jean (of Nashville fame) good-naturedly burbling away at god knows what.

The film is worth watching for the skewering of even her most wrenching memories with sly humor, but of primary importance: that voice! At first careening through the quarter note vocal pyrotechnics of a song like “Tea for Two” with dazzling ease, later there’s the ravaged voice that hints at countless personal stories and long private histories contained within each uttered word. And O’Day’s story ends up being inspirational, almost despite itself, as here is a woman who beat the odds and continued to do the thing she loved most until she almost literally dropped dead. Indestructible! was the title of her last album, released just three years ago—and it serves as a remarkable summation of O’Day herself (pity it wasn’t used as the title for the film itself).

Intrigued by the clip shown and O’Day’s pronouncement that the glowing notices she subsequently received in The New York Times was “the highlight of [her] life,” I tracked down Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1960) and was more or less unprepared for the sheer greatness I beheld. O’Day wasn’t kidding when she emphasized that everyone was there at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958: Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk, Mahalia Jackson, Big Maybelle, Chico Hamilton and countless others not actually shown in the film—that these performances were captured at all for posterity is impressive enough, but then, what performances!

Interspersed between O’Day’s expert deconstruction of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and Louis Armstrong’s onstage banter and Big Maybelle’s earthy growl is footage that turns the cameras upon the assembled crowds with fascinating results—several times a barely-glimpsed attendee makes as indelible impression as the performers themselves.  This allows for unexpected sociological observation: the pre-Civil Rights crowd wasn’t neatly segregated as I had expected—young blacks down from Harlem sat interspersed with the Newport white elite in their expensive suits and pearls (sometimes reality can be so much more complex than the tidy demarcations made in history textbooks).

And then there’s Mahalia Jackson, who performs three songs to close out the film. Unassumingly radiant, watching her thunder through “Didn’t it Rain,” occasionally slapping together her hands for emphasis, is as euphoric an experience as anything I can imagine; then, at the close and the crowd roars and she bashfully keeps averting her eyes from the audience before murmuring “how you make me feel like a star!”—well, that’s just transcendence itself.

suspended somewhere between heaven and hell

In retrospect, I see I had rather set myself up for a bit of a fall with Cabin in the Sky (Vincent Minnelli, USA, 1943)—I had imagined something more jazz and less “slice of life,” and as a result I ended up being more than a bit disappointed. The film is at its best when Minnelli indulges in the subject matter’s more metaphysical elements (decking his actors out in evocative otherwordly refinery that matches the spiritual allegiance of their earthly characters), and the film reaches a blissful crescendo in those ribald sequences in the sleazy town gin joint as the end of the film—Ethel Waters’s unexpected vivaciousness during these scenes lead to the the feeling that debauchery is more fun and perhaps even preferable to the title’s piously attained stairway in the sky.

Things are more hit-and-miss during the long stretches when Waters piously slaves away—both physically and spiritually—for a man who can’t seem to help doing her endless wrong (another of the film’s glaring weaknesses is that Eddie “Rochester” Anderson fails to give any indication as to the source of passion he seems to inspire in both Waters and sexy town flirt Lena Horne). While not the indisputable masterpiece I was hoping (and expecting) it to be, I’m still willing to affirm Cabin in the Sky as a very good film, maybe even an excellent one, all the while conceding that Stormy Weather, made the same year, is probably the film I wanted in the first place.

[And while I don’t often comment on such things in these reviews I just have to mention that the commentary provided on the Warner Bros. DVD is a disgrace—while I’m naturally sympathetic towards Dr. Todd Boyd’s politically correct reading of the film, he manages to drain every once of joy the film might possibly posses, as he seems resolutely unaware of the potential that the winning performances from those involved might mitigate some of the inevitable stereotypes on display (it doesn’t help that he’s terribly simplistic in his analysis). I turned on the commentary because I honestly wanted some analysis from a contemporary African American perspective—but I turned this off after all of ten minutes in utter disgust.]

“she’s a sapphist!”

Opening sidenote: The above quote is probably one of the funniest lines in a film I’ve come across in a long, long while. The delivery is priceless.

Funny that it took so long for me to get around to 8 Femmes (8 Women) (François Ozon, France, 2002) as it’s a film so obviously up my alley… and while I wasn’t exactly disappointed I wasn’t entirely satisfied either. It’s truly a bizarre little confection, really—featuring an exemplary cast showcasing a number of the most recognizable female names in contemporary French cinema (Deneuve, Huppert, Ardent, Beart, Sagniere, Ledoyen, to say nothing of the legendary Danielle Darrieux, still spry in her mid 80’s) but all shoehorned somewhat inelegantly into a hodgepodge of distinctly British manor house murder mystery tropes and equally distinct American classic Hollywood melodrama conventions. Most of the fun—and don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to be had—is derived from the sense of fun via the obvious fun these actresses are having, as well as Ozon’s awareness that the real pleasure in this particular type of mystery is less in the final revelation than in twisty paths required to get there.

Curiously, it was the musical numbers that fell most flat for me—interesting because if I ever made a film I’d do a similar thing (make musical numbers out of 60’s French pop songs and integrate them into a seemingly incongruous storyline) but each number felt uncomfortable clunky here, too forced and too calculated. Even more odd is that the musical sequences provide the film with some of its most striking moments—particularly Huppert’s emotional, showstopping cover of the  Françoise Hardy classic “Message Personnel”—but on the other hand each time a character breaks out in song it brings the film to a grinding halt, which is exactly what a musical number shouldn’t do. As I seem to say at the end of every review of a Ozon film I’ve written, it’s really a failed experiment and yet has so many points of compensation that despite myself I just really don’t care.

ADDENDUM: Every time I come across this review, I’m surprised at how harsh my initial reaction was, considering how fond my memories of it are.  I’ll have to write a full re-evaluation one of these days.

imminent disaster somehow diverted

Hairspray (Adam Shankman, USA, 2007) is the kind of film for which it is immediately obvious that there is very little margin of error: it’s either going to be unwatchable or an unexpected success, and surprise, surprise, this musical version of John Water’s more gritty, much-loved satire falls in the latter category. By a wide margin, no less. One of the most buoyant theater experiences I’ve had in a long while—it keeps sweeping you deeper into its skewed, candy-colored world until the climactic “Miss Baltimore” pageant is reached and you stare slack-mouthed in disbelief at the way all the storylines and character arcs are being resolved, but it feels just so damn good that all ones wants is for the inspired lunacy to just keep on going, hoping it’ll somehow stumble onto a legitimate way to end all inequality and discrimination, in all its forms.

Much more adept and light on its feet in confronting and examining the defining social issues of the 1960’s America than Dreamgirls ever dreamed of (it gives faces to the pain, not just artistic montages tipping its hat to history issues taking place just outside the window), and even if the songs themselves aren’t terribly inspired–there’s no chance of this being taken as classic Comdon and Green–the cast performs with such enthusiasm and earnestness that its impossible not to buy into nearly every number wholeheartedly. Impeccably cast from top to bottom (I mean, an actress of the caliber of Allison Janney is given what, a half dozen lines?), the casting stunt of having John Travolta play Edna Turnblad, surely the film’s make-or-break gamble, pays off handsomely—he’s irresistible. A joy, and all the more savory because it is so unexpected.