On The Town (1949)

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A Grand Day Out

On The Town is a unique beast of movie musical as MGM never followed up on it in one of the most noteworthy uses of location filming in a Hollywood movie up until that point. On the Town captures New York City circa 1949 in beautiful Technicolor as three sailors on leave spend 24 hours tearing up the town. When three men on board a ship without female interaction have leave, then dames become the ultimate aim. On the Town is also another example of Old Hollywood’s idealisation of the navy, particularly in musicals. Did movies like this effect recruitment? They sure make the navy look fun and even explicitly state it during the On the Town number, “Travel! Adventure! See the world!”. Likewise MGM musicals really aren’t given the credit of just how funny they are, especially those penned by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. “It’s 9:30 already. The day’s gone and we haven’t seen a thing yet.” – Just right after that montage of you exploring the entire city?

Many shots in On the Town, particularly in the opening montage have an un-staged feel to them which give an insight into the world at the time, full of regular people getting on with their lives. The sets here are more on the realistic side and less artificial compared to other MGM musicals, allowing for the transitions between locations and sets to go by largely unnoticed.

Vera Ellen couldn’t be more girl next door, very pure and innocent (as reflected in the number Main Street). Ann Miller and Betty Garret on the other are the opposite to this, which gives the movie characters of both the innocent and then the sex crazed variety. Betty Garret’s nymphomaniac tendencies are on full display as soon as we meet her character of Hidly Esterhazy; she really wants to get Sinatra back up to her place, really badly.

Ann Miller however plays by far my favourite character is the film as the most unlikely of scientists, Claire Huddesen; a sex goddess with the personality of a weird girl – ah the best kinds of contradictions. In her own words she states she was running around with too much of all kinds of young men and just couldn’t settle down. Her guardian suggested that she take up anthropology and make a scientific study of man thus becoming more objective and getting them out of her system and being able to control herself; I love this character! Yet this has caused her to have a thing for prehistoric males over modern men. I can relate to being attracted to those alive decades ago but Ann Miller takes this further to hundreds of thousands of years.

Prehistoric Man is one of the odder musical numbers in the film history both in terms of lyrical content/themes as well as the number itself. As the caveman dancing, bongo bashing, Ann Miller being pulled along the floor by the hair madness proceeds, you have to ask yourself “what the hell am I watching?”. The soundtrack of On the Town is one of the finest in the MGM library; you know a musical soundtrack succeeds when you’re humming multiple tunes from it for a week after watching. The only track which falls flat for me is You’re Awful; with the absence any hook it’s not awful but mediocre.

The first ballet sequence in On the Town which introduces Vera Ellen’s Miss Turnstiles has a similar concept to Leslie Caron’s introductory sequence in An American In Paris; full of contradictory statements to describe her character. The two ballet’s in On the Town are much more humble that what would come in the MGM musicals over the next few years, nor do they have the eye popping colour and appear more washed out. The A Day In New York ballet for example is bound to only two modest sets but these still serve as nice warm up for the magnificence of what was to come.

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You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

It’s Truly a Wonderful Life

There are those who will hear the name Frank Capra and have a reaction along the lines of “Oh Frank Capra, sentimental, saccharine, manipulative rubbish”. I don’t make apologies when I say that dismissing a film for being sentimental is the nonsense film criticism to end all nonsense criticisms; it stinks! Newsflash, stories have been manipulating people’s emotions since the dawn of time. Pulling of effective sentimentality is a skill and I have not come across a single good reason as to why it is a problem. You Can’t Take It With You is Capra at his most sentimental, manipulative, saccharine and all those other dirty words and I love it for that. So if that’s the crime of the century, then lock me up for life.

The Sycamores are the ultimate eccentric family, in fact eccentric probably the right word, they are complete nuts. They live a counter cultural lifestyle of not working or playing taxes (and somehow getting away with it) and doing whatever makes them happy without a care in the world; people who aren’t afraid to live. There are like cartoon characters who can twist their way out of any situation with people more in tune with reality, such as when Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) manages to convince the timid Mr Poppins (Donald Meek) to stop throwing his life away working as bureaucrat and start having fun. The movie feels ahead of its time and like something which would have been written in the 1960’s. The family’s refusal to pay taxes is ethically questionable, even though Barrymore gives some interesting and humorous rebuttals to not paying taxes (perhaps Wesley Snipes could have used some of Lionel Barrymore’s logic in court) but it’s a movie fantasy, it could never happen in real life.

One the sweetest, most heartwarming scenes in any film ever is when Grandpa Vanderhof tells Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) about how his love for his deceased wife. Ugh, it just kills my poor little soul; a perfect display of Capra’s gift for directing very intimate, emotional scenes in which the rest of the world ceases to exist. I’ll also always remember Barrymore’s monologue on “ismmania” as profound words of wisdom (“when things go a little bad nowadays you go out and get yourself an ‘ism’ and you’re in business”). What’s particularly striking about Barrymore’s role as Grandpa Vanderhof is that he character is the polar opposite of the role of Henry F. Potter he would play in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Likewise there doesn’t seem to be any actress whom James Stewart didn’t share a great dynamic together. James Stewart and Jean Arthur share a perfect chemistry together, pairing the embodiment of the everyman and the embodiment of the everywoman.

You Can’t Take It with You has only earned a status of a minor classic but in my view is Capra’s most overlooked film. There’s so much fun to be had with this film, it is the perfect 30’s comedy. Capra-corn and proud of it!

Stage Door (1937)

The Women

Stage Door is like the poverty row version of MGM’s The Women. It features only one big box office star, another who had become box office poison and a supporting cast who would later go on to play notable prominent roles in later films (Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Eve Arden).

Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn where the two big rivals at RKO pictures, with Rodger’s career on the up and Hepburn’s career on the down yet you can feel their mutual respect for each other as the film progresses (in the fictional realm at least). Stage Door follows a group of actresses living in a drab theatrical boarding house, trying to make it in the world of show business. Right of the bat the movie is emotionally investing as the cast of street smarts constantly spew one liners and witty remarks in an effort to try and deal with their lack of success amidst the depression ridden 30’s, the film succeeds in evoking both laughter and sadness simultaneously. The lightning fast dialogue alone makes Stage Door worthy of multiple viewings. Supposedly the filming began without a completed script, resulting in much of the film’s dialogue being improvised, the interactions between the female cast feels real, the acting present in the movie doesn’t feel like acting, almost like I’m getting a voyeuristic insight into these character’s lives. I find Stage Door a one of a kind film; it has a raw quality, one that can’t be created intentionally making it a rare treat in many respects. The cast and dialogue is just too good that I really become attached to these characters and almost wish the film could be a bit longer.

Katharine Hepburn’s Terry Randall is another instance of Hepburn playing the odd one out. She’s the one character in the boarding house who clearly comes from an upper class background and she is only one who achieves stage success by landing the lead in a play despite her lack of acting experience. I get the impression Stage Door purports the idea that one who comes from a lower class background will find it harder to overcome these ties and find success. In one dialogue exchange Terry asks the other women “do you have to just sit around and do nothing about it?” and the character played by Lucille Ball replies “maybe it’s in the blood, my grandfather sat around until he was 80”. Terry is clearly more dedicated to her craft than the other woman in boarding house, discussing Shakespeare and other aspects of theatrical arts, while the other conformist woman poke fun and shun her for it, which does make me question what they are doing there in the first place. But untimely Terry is the one who manages to go places.