The Music Man
When I was a kid I looked to movie characters for whom to emulate. There really wasn’t a common thread between them except some magnetic quality my impressionable 6-to- 12-year-old self was able to discern. It also really helped if they wore good clothes. It didn’t even matter whether they were the heroes or the villains of their stories. I really liked Corey Haim's incredibly gay wardrobe in The Lost Boys just as much as I liked Kiefer Sutherland’s menacing hair metal vampire look in the movie. I started playing racquetball, as well as slicking my hair back, and wearing suspenders to be more like Gordon Gekko after I saw Wall Street. I began pretending to be sick to get out of going to school (and thinking I was really, really clever) while also becoming obsessed with owning argyle socks (which I had never heard of) after seeing Matthew Broderick wear them in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
I was certainly impressionable, also maybe kind of weird. Still, the character that made, maybe, the biggest impression on me was that of Robert Preston’s Professor Harold Hill in the movie adaptation of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. He was a dapper con artist, a larcenous gent selling dreams to gullible townsfolk and making them feel like a million bucks as he fleeced their Edwardian era pockets. If you haven’t seen the film he probably sounds like a terrible person but the genius of The Music Man is that, though he is thoroughly dubious, he’s also the greatest thing to ever happen to the Iowa town that he storms right in to in order to swindle. Also, his red and white marching band uniforms are fantastic.
The Wizard of Oz
There may not be another film more ingrained in Hollywood movie culture, more iconic, or more entertaining than The Wizard of Oz. For decades its yearly broadcasts on television become a rite of passage and, like a precious family heirloom, it was passed on; each year a new generation of children was introduced to it and eventually they grew up and did the same for their kids. As adults we’ve been able to find new aspects of it to be astounded by. For kids it’s also worked as the perfect portal to make a child into a more sophisticated movie watcher—after experiencing The Wizard of Oz it’s hard for a kid to go back to watching Barney. Their brains now need newer and richer material and of course there are so many films to follow it up with.The Wizard of Oz is also notable as a massive genre bender: besides succeeding as a family film, it’s a delightful musical, a dark Depression-era period drama, and it also works as a terrifying fantasy/ horror/ adventure flick. No matter what age, who couldn’t find something to love in it?
For folks who may be reading this from another planet, here’s the basic set-up... In the gloomy black n’ white Kansas, young Dorothy Gale (17-year-old-ish Judy Garland, playing much younger) lives on her aunt and uncle’s farm with her beloved little mutt, Toto. A mean neighbor, Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton), threatens to have the pooch destroyed. So Dorothy escapes the farm with Toto, and while running away she meets a traveling fortune teller named Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) who convinces her there’s no place like home. She gets back to the farm just as a tornado sweeps in, knocking her unconscious; she and her house are swept up into the air and land in a colorful place called Oz, inhabited by an army of little people known as Munchkins. It turns out her house landed on top of a witch, killing her, and leaving her still-living green sister, the Wicked Witch of the West (again, Hamilton), irate. Dorothy would be dead meat but as informed by another witch, this one kindly and beautiful, named Glinda (Billie Burke), the magic ruby slippers she is now in possession of will protect her. The Wicked Witch leaves swearing revenge. Dorothy is eager to get back to dullsville, Kansas, so before ditching her, Glinda suggests she follow the yellow brick road which will lead her straight to the brilliant Wizard who should know how to get her home.
Less standard follow-your-dreams dancical than sleek spandex-clad killing machine, the movie Flashdance is as exhilarating as it is nihilistic. Jennifer Beals has a honeyed glow and a natural, sexy charisma in the role of Alex, the hot young welder who moonlights as an exotic dancer at a Pittsburgh dive bar. Her dancing is her “art” and though I think it’s supposed to be erotic it’s really more schizo-aerobic.
The girls who dance with Alex at the club all have some kind of new wave performance art aspect to what they do and the set pieces are hilariously elaborate. One girl goes for a zany kabuki new wave effect and, well, it’s just weird. For a movie about a dancer in the sticks hoping to make it big we don’t get much of a sense of dance as an art form revolving around the body. The dancing is really about the editing which is best described as epileptic while the film’s narrative goes forward at such a robotic, lockstep pace – with plenty of music video-like detours comparable to commercial breaks – that it’s not so much a movie that you see as one that you have done to you. In that sense, you might say it’s ahead of its time because the film provided a basic blueprint for the way Hollywood movies are made now. The characters’ emotions are signaled with delicious Giorgio Moroder-produced instrumentals and the clichés of the basic kid with a dream story who must “risk everything” are cheerfully, mindlessly, and ferociously utilized.
At the peak of the disco era, the film version of the so-so Broadway musical Grease managed to be the perfect vehicle to celebrate 1950s nostalgia while becoming an iconic relic of '70s pop culture. Since its release it has become a rite of passage for young people—a romanticized version of teen rebellion and young love. It’s surprisingly raunchy, but very funny, with great music and very energetic choreography. More then Rebel Without a Cause or Blackboard Jungle it has actually taken over as the ultimate representation of 1950s teen life. While the earlier films were made by people who were afraid of that generation’s American teenager, Grease was created to celebrate them.
The Sound Of Music
Once upon a time in Hollywood, in the 1960s, big lavish adaptations of Broadway musicals were the hot ticket in movies, not just at the box-office but on Oscar night as well. Luckily Easy Rider, young driven counterculture, and the fall of the big studios eventually put an end to the era. Though I’m not generally a fan of musicals, I do have a lot of affection for The Sound Of Music. The film is carried by the charmingly virginal Julie Andrews as Maria, whose beautiful singing voice and pleasant manner take her from a charming nunnery to being nanny to a bunch of Austrian would-be Shirley Temples, and through song she cools the heels of their stern father Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), eventually wedding him. By Act Two, hours later, the happy Partridge-esq family now must flee Nazis taking over their beloved Alps homeland, but not before singing a few more songs to an adoring public. As hard as it may be to believe, shot by director Robert Wise in big, brash 70mm style, this is incredibly entertaining fluff.
Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) is in a huff because the rebellious Maria is bringing chaos to the Abby with her constant singing, so she wisely sends her off to bring her pep to the gloomy widowed Von Trapp and his passel of blond haired marching children. When around he treats his kids like young cadets, even the teensy ones, although he is usually hanging with the Baroness (Eleanor Parker, who later played three different characters on three episodes of TV’s Fantasy Island), a middle aged divorcee on the make with her scheming partner, the music promoter Max (Richard Haydn of Young Frankenstein). Maria quickly figures out all these young scamps need is love…. and music. Before you can say "Do-Re-Mi" she has them in Tabernacle Choir shape. At first Von Trapp is put off by Maria’s groovy ways but when he hears his kid’s powerful acapella version of “The Sound Of Music” this breaks the ice and he becomes a father of the year candidate. All is going well, Max even offers to manage the new musical family act. But the baroness feels threatened by the obviously younger and less leathery Maria, and convinces her to pack her bags, leave the family, and go back to Nunville. Dramatic! End of Act One.Continue Reading
Beyond the Sea
Kevin Spacey is a weird case. He used to be so cool, so mysterious. Everyone had a theory about him. Though he had been kicking around the fringes of the film and television industry for years it wasn’t until his succession of three brilliant roles —as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects (1995), John Doe in Se7en (1995), and Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential (1997)—that he seemed to arrive as a fully formed movie star. Any one of those show stealing roles would have made any actor famous but to claim all three and make each performance so memorably iconic is a tribute to Spacey’s versatility as a performer and to his incredible knack for knowing how to sustain an audience’s interest without giving too much away.
But fame, though he clearly sought it, began to intrude on his privacy. His coy question dodging as to whether he was gay or not seemed par for the course ten years ago when closeted celebrities insisted they weren’t closeted while refusing to just say they were gay (think Rosie O’Donnell and Ricky Martin). But Spacey, whose golden years are well past him at this point, insisted again only recently that he shouldn’t have to disclose his sexual orientation—an act of self-censorship no heterosexual would ever dream of having to play along with. Would anyone really care one way or the other at this point? It reminds me of the Onion article about the “Area Man Who Thinks He’s Still in The Closet.”Continue Reading
Saturday Night Fever
At first glance what may appear to be a cultural relic from the disco '70s is actually a deeply sensitive star-making vehicle for the young John Travolta as a Brooklyn hot dog who is slowly realizing that everything in the world he knows - his unemployed and jealous father, his gooney Brooklyn buds, his life as the king stud on the dance floor, everything around him - is all bullshit.
Who would guess that a little script by Norman Wexler (Serpico) based on a New York Magazine article by Nik Cohn, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," would be at the center of a cultural phenomenon? (The piece was said to be based on his reporting of real life characters he met in Brooklyn, but later it was revealed he made the whole thing up.) Everything about Saturday Night Fever became hot; Travolta’s white suit started a fashion trend, discotheques went from being an urban, ethnic or Euro trend to being found on main street in the middle of America. But hottest of all was the soundtrack, selling 20 million copies. Most was produced and performed by the Australian family band, The Bee Gees, the one time Beatles wanna-bees. The soundtrack scored them hit single after hit single, including "Staying Alive," "Night Fever," "How Deep Is Your Love," and "If I Can’t Have You" sung by Yvonne Elliman (who played Mary Magdalene in the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar).Continue Reading
A great tradition which essentially disappeared when the studio system collapsed was what one might call the variety film. The variety film was a kind of cinematic vaudeville show—a hodgepodge of comedy bits, some singing, dancing, and whatever else a cast of players under contract could fill out the average running time of a movie with. They were goofy, hurried, made on the cheap, and meant to be light entertainment. A great example of this would be International House (1933), a film about a hotel in "Woo-Hoo" China where W.C. Fields, Bela Lugosi, George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Cab Calloway all cross paths in very silly ways.
A variety film with the same spirit as International House but with more urgent purpose was Hollywood Canteen which chronicled a day spent at the famous club for GIs during World War II. The Hollywood Canteen originally came to exist through the efforts of Bette Davis and what she created with it really represented Hollywood at its best. From its opening day the Canteen was staffed with movie stars who volunteered their time nightly to serve GIs coffee and donuts or sign autographs. Girls came to dance with GIs and it was possible to see famous orchestras or comedians on a nightly basis there. Hollywood Canteen was made at Warner Brothers and the film features an all-star cast of contract players at the studio during the mid-1940s. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the entertainment world of the time with delightful cameos from everyone from Barbara Stanwyck, Ida Lupino, and Joan Crawford to Jane Wyman, John Garfield, the Benny Goodman Orchestra, Roy Rogers, the Andrew Sisters, and many more.Continue Reading
Busby Berkeley Bonus Disc (Busby Berkeley Collection)
It may seem like cheating to skip over the five films featured in the first Busby Berkeley Collection and single out the bonus disc included with the collection as a “Movie We Like,” but the very fact that Warner Brothers bothered to include the extra disc comprised solely of the musical numbers from Berkeley’s films indicates that they were eager to facilitate the pure rush of cinematic delirium that occurs when watching the crazy things back to back. Berkeley didn’t write or direct most of the films included in the box set collections that bear his name but his authorial hallmark is stamped right across all of them. He created and staged the musical numbers for the films and it’s these musical numbers that gave him immortality as one of the great film architects of glamorous spectacle and Hollywood mythology. The best of Berkeley’s musical numbers are pre-Production Code wonders of erotic reverie and paradisaical splendor. They looked like nothing that had come before though they have certainly been imitated and paid homage to by directors entranced by their bizarre majesty ever since. Berkeley turned song and dance numbers that bridged the scenes of what could have been generic studio musicals into glittering ecstatic pageants that rendered the lovely legs of chorus girls into a kaleidoscopic “ballet mechanique,” filling the entire screen in one hallucinatory art deco fantasia after another. There is beauty to Berkeley’s approach but there is also darkness that creeps in, such as in the desperate city-dwelling throngs killing, thieving, and hustling to the title song of 42nd Street. Fellow practitioners of the dark arts of Kino Delirium, Kenneth Anger and Guy Maddin, owe this guy a lot and I would assume that they would be the first to admit it.
The plots of Berkeley’s films are mostly variations on the backstage musical archetype with a make it or break it “let’s put on a show!” finale. The films themselves - such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 with stars like James Cagney and Ruby Keeler - are a lot of fun, if a little slow between the numbers. I once saw Gold Diggers… screened at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and seeing the film with booze, surrounded by the graves of Hollywood luminaries at night was several great things made more so by their combination. But it’s the musical numbers that everyone wants to see, and so to get the purest expression of Berkeley’s genius it’s nice to be able to skip right to the whiz bang heart of it and luxuriate in the delights of “We’re In the Money,” “By A Waterfall,” and the very weird and wonderful “Pettin’ In the Park,” which serves as unimpeachable evidence, if any was necessary, that the 1930s was as sexually frank an era as any before or since.Continue Reading
Meet Me In St. Louis
Judy Garland, in my book, has always been one interesting persona to watch on screen. Her eyes glitter when she sings, she is always bathed in some wonderful soft light, and somehow the camera is always doing the best dolly moves when she’s on screen. She’s also a separate entity from the real world, so it seems. Her films, just as fascinating to me as Busby Berkeley musicals, are no less from the escapist realm. It’s amazing that 1945 marked the end of World War II, and, well, also produced the completely irrelevant musical, Meet Me In St. Louis. Meet Me in St. Louis is directed by Vincente Minnelli, who married Garland after working with her on set. The story is set in St. Louis, Missouri, in the year before the 1904 World Fair. The middle-class Smith family leads a comfortable and happy life. The four daughters are equally charming in their own separate ways. There’s Rose, Esther (Garland), Agnes, and the youngest, Tootie (Margaret O’Brien). The family anxiously awaits the World’s Fair in their hometown, yet the father breaks the news that they must move to New York City to find a job. The story follows the family’s devastation in the end of summer through their lessons of life, love, and family well into the Christmas holidays, where they make the decision that breaks or makes their bond as a family.
The film features some tunes and dance-numbers, just as pie in the sky as the daughters’ names, including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Boy Next Door,” and “Under the Bamboo Tree."Continue Reading