The Pirate (1948)

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Caribbean or Caribbean? Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

At the beginning of The Pirate we learn Manuela (Judy Garland) has a life of servitude ahead of her while she yearns for a life of adventure. She desires to be taken away by the legendary Mack the Black, swooning over dreams of stolen treasure, maidens captive, of villages destroyed; kind of twisted don’t you think? Regardless I don’t think anyone can project an innocent yearning for adventure better than Judy Garland. The Pirate was a different role for Garland; more exotic, less girl next door and more grown up. For once she plays the object of desire and I find she pulls this off perfectly as although I’ve never found Garland to be a woman of sexual appeal, I do find her one of great beauty (why she was ever referred to as an ugly duckling is beyond me). At heart however Manuela is still very much a Judy Garland character, a down to Earth girl with aspirations for greater things.

The title of The Pirate could come off as misleading. Gene Kelly isn’t a pirate but rather a performer named Serafin masquerading as one. No the pirate of The Pirate is Mack the Black, whom in a odd turn of events is actually the man Manuela is going to wed in an arranged marriage known as Don Pedro, the mayor of a small Caribbean town who has put his life of crime behind him  and kept it a secret. The Pirate is enhanced on second viewing knowing the true identity of Don Pedro as he speaks of his dislike of travelling on the sea and telling Manuela home is the perfect spot; remind you of another Judy Garland film? There is even a moment in which Manuela frantically tells Auntie Inez (Gladys Cooper) she wants to go home which feels like Wizard of Oz redux. The second half of the pirate is one huge comic, screwball like farce which doesn’t fully work for me; it’s amusing but not so much laugh out loud making me prefer the first half to the second.

The Pirate shows Gene Kelly had the ability to be a natural swashbuckler while his introductory sequence in which he gives a lengthy monologue promoting his acting troupe has to be one of his most entertaining non-musical moments on screen. However what really makes his role in The Pirate stand out among his other films is the oozing sexuality he projects on screen; more than any other film he did. Serafin is a real Don Juan with his Gable like moustache as well as with his tightly fit pirate attire and the wipe he is seen sporting in the film (plus that cigarette trick, what a play-a!) His introductory song Nina is one steamy number with Kelly flirting and dancing with oodles of women (just look at that state his hair is in by the end of the number) while the topical setting just enhances the eroticism. The Pirate is another movie in the “how did they get away with that club”. You can censor all you want but you can’t tell someone to simply stop projecting natural sexuality.

Although Judy and Gene do display affection for each other at points in the film, the romantic element of The Pirate comes off to me as secondary. Serafin pursues Manuela for reasons other than love as he can tell she is going into a life she doesn’t want due to his ability to know an entire woman through their body language. This gives his character another element and shows he isn’t totally  shallow and just out to get laid; he wants to prevent Manuela from going down a path she doesn’t want to and expose the adventuress that she is as well as her hidden performing talents. By the end it’s evident they share a more of a professional association than a romantic one, nor is there even a final kiss between the two.

Mack the Black is the musical highlight of the film and an interesting change of pace seeing Judy Garland doing a more racy number. Mack the Black was the replacement for a number titled Voodoo of which the negatives where burned at Louis B Mayer’s instance over the number’s reportedly scandalous content. Would it be considered shocking by today’s standards, was it even that shocking to begin with?  – One can only imagine. As the audio still survives, the song itself is one of the darker, more eerie songs in the MGM library but doesn’t strike me particularly memorable. Perhaps going with Mack the Black was the right decision after all. Be a Clown on the other hand is notably the basis for the song Make ‘em Laugh from Singin’ In the Rain and plagiarised it may be, Make ‘em Laugh is a far superior rendition in my view. The ballet sequence in The Pirate however is a treat with a real sense of three dimensional depth. The sequence with its many explosions and Gene Kelly’s masculine athleticism makes for one of the more primal musical numbers in film history.

The production values of The Pirate aren’t quite up to MGM’s usual standard with clear dividing lines on the sky backgrounds, visible wires holding Gene Kelly on the tight rope and even a very visible thread attached to Judy’s hat as its hoisted away by the wind. Come on MGM, you can do better than that. Ultimately The Pirate is not my favourite MGM musical but is unique enough to make it worthwhile.

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.

Invitation to the Dance (1956)

Gotta Dance!

Invitation to the Dance is often dismissed as a failed experiment; I must disagree. In my eyes Invitation to the Dance is a masterful achievement. I find many anthology films tend to be hit and miss with their segments but all three segments presented here are gems. A pure representation of Gene Kelly’s artistry as seen in ballet sequences in previous Kelly musicals. Invitation to the Dance was made in 1953, when Kelly was at the height of his powers, however due to the film’s lack of commercial prospects. It wasn’t released until 1956 when the movie musical had dropped in popularity due to their lack of commercial viability from the rise of television.

The film’s title says it all; this is a film which tried to make dance more accessible to all and not just some Gene Kelly vanity project. A film to show that dancing isn’t for “sissies”; it can be masculine and bad ass. Originally Kelly was only going to appear in one segment with the rest starring the greatest dancers in Europe; however the studio wouldn’t allow this and demanded he appear in all the segments. Regardless I still feel the film succeeds in feeling like an inclusive experience with its array of dancers including a young child whom appear alongside Kelly and are all given their moment in the sun.

The first segment “Circus” offers a slice of early 20th century European culture with beautiful array of sets full of eye pleasing colours which still manage to feel authentic; somewhere that’s been used and lived in. All three segments in Invitation to the Dance are devoid of dialogue but Circus really does call back to silent cinema with its melodramatic love triangle premise. In his role as a mime, Kelly gets to express the full range of his physical talents and uses his face to convey all his emotion. Circus is a fine piece of tragic, visual melodrama with an emotionally gutting finale.

The second sequence “Ring Around the Rosy” is the section of the film most reminiscent of the MGM musical in the 1950’s with its use of impressionistic backgrounds as seen in the ballet sequences of Kelly’s musicals. I never do tire of these backgrounds as they’re always a pleasure to behold; an aesthetic and atmosphere which really characterised musicals of the era. I do love the humour present in the segment such as the femme fatale with the exaggerated Veronica Lake hairstyle which constantly had to be pulled back in order for her to even see, to the singer whose voice is the sound of a trumpet which causes the dames to swoon and faint.

The finale segment “Sinbad the Sailor” is the most impressive on a technical level in which Kelly dances alongside animated characters in a dazzling piece of Arabian Nights inspired fantasy. Famously Kelly had previously danced alongside Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945 ) however Sinbad the Sailor takes this to a new level in which Kelly occupies a fully animated environment. The integration and interactions with the animated world and its characters is largely seamless and more than impressive for the time, with the dance steps of the animated characters being on synch with Kelly’s steps. Likewise he is also joined by a live action child and only Kelly himself could dance that well with a child. During this segment Kelly also finds a love interest with an animated Middle Eastern girl and the two even engage in a kiss: An early example of an inter-racial kiss in cinema, even if it is between a live action man and an animated woman.

An American In Paris (1951)

We’ll Always Have Paris

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

An American In Paris is a very different beast of a movie than Singin’ in the Rain. It’s not as fun as other MGM musicals (although there is fun to be had) but it’s better described as a more intellectual viewing experience. The film is light on plot like other classic Hollywood musicals but there is much going on internally between and within the characters. Simply put, this movie musical is dark. Gene Kelly’s role of Jerry Mulligan is a cynical loser who is not a very successful painter (although I do like when he tells of the pretentious art student, telling it like it is!). Likewise the romance between Jerry and Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron) is a hopeful but not entirely a happy one. Even with Kelly and Caron ending up together at the end, the character relationships in the film are never resolved. During the film I kept thinking is she not better off with Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary)? The guy who is a successful actor and saved your life during the war or the loser whom you only recently met? Likewise in Milo Robert’s (Nina Foch) final appearance she states “I think I need some champagne” and is never heard or seen again. Even though her character denies wanting more with Kelly than championship and only wants to help him professionally in a surprising prostitution reference (“If you’re hard up for companionship there are guys in town who do this kind of thing for a living, call one of them”), I never felt convinced by this. Who says classic Hollywood is all just happy endings?

An American In Paris is the perfect display of the artistry of director Vincente Minnelli. He found French painting an inspiration for his own style; a skill he would incorporate into other productions such as Lust for Life. There couldn’t be a better or more obvious choice of director for An American In Paris than Minnelli. Not many other directors can use space as effective as Minnelli and display such a fluid motion of the camera. Just look as the film’s introductory sequence to Gene Kelly and his chums or the shot of Kelly walking down several flights of stairs in his apartment building; thus I can forgive the very visible camera shake 47 minutes into the movie during the Tra-la-la number. Even though he was a contract director (he made 33 films, only three made outside of MGM) he rose above these constraints and formed his own style whereas contract directors where usually assigned to conform to the studio’s standard and aesthetic. Whether or not he can be classified as an auteur there has been no other filmmaker like him in Hollywood history.

The film’s sets themselves look like they’ve been lived in instead of coming off as totally shiny and glossy with frames still looking like Paris as the impressionists saw it. Have neighbourhoods in Paris ever looked like this or is it just movie fantasy? Likewise take in the appearance of the Beatnick nightclub and observe the early incarnation to the modern day world of the hipster.

Kelly’s ability to dance alongside children and interact with them is something no one could do better than him which is evident from the genuine reactions from the on looking kids during the I Got Rhythm number; truly the dancing figure for the everyman. Leslie Caron’s introductory ballet sequence on the other hand is a Technicolor assault on the senses; the backgrounds are one solid colour while she wears dresses which totally contrasts them. Could you ask for a more memorable first ever screen appearance; complete with a sexual chair dance and one flexible body. Likewise the contradictory humour from the sequence’s narration always makes me laugh. Another major musical highlight is Oscar Levant’s dream sequence which reminds of the Buster Keaton short The Playhouse in which every member of the theatre is played by Keaton; likewise here he have an army of Oscar Levant. The sequence was actually his idea and along with the character he portrays in the film reflects his real life personality as a neurotic. The appearance and the colours of the sequence definitely remind me of Powell and Pressburger; surely the filmmakers must have taken inspiration.

They do save the best for last however in the form of the American In Paris Ballet; among one of the greatest things ever committed to film. A sequence which takes full advantage of cinema as an art form; could the entire thing be recreated on the stage? Watch French impressionism come to life in a 17 minutes feast for the senses which is artful without being artsy. There’s chorography and then there’s this with so many people moving, dancing and doing their own thing; with Gene Kelly’s graceful yet masculine dancing still being at the centre of it. Fred Astaire once said he didn’t want the camera to dance for him but rather stay stationary with as few cuts as possible. Kelly’s style is very much the opposite of this in that the camera movement is integral to the dance but doesn’t take away from his talent, not one bit. Yet I haven’t I even mentioned the music of Gershwin; could it be more lush and rich?

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

That’s Entertainment!

What is about Singin’ in the Rain that even the film elite hold it in such high regard and has even appeared on a previous Sight & Sound poll as one of the ten greatest films of all time, ranking among traditional highbrow films? Singin’ in the Rain is not just a great musical but also a film with a great story. It is not as harsh a critique on Hollywood as Sunset Boulevard but who would have still believed the content of fan magazines to be genuine after this film. Singin’ in the Rain has a cynical side as it pulls apart the Hollywood myth; beginning with Don Lockwood’s back-story as to how he rose to fame, which the movie comically shows us is full of crap. “Dignity, always dignity” but not if you want to make it to the top but at the end of the day  Singin’ in the Rain is a movie for movie lovers which celebrates Hollywood as much as it makes fun of it.

The film is set in 1927 albeit a very colourful 1927. In 1952 Technicolor films were in their final years of production and would soon become a thing of the past. The movie is a tribute to MGM producer and songwriter Arthur Freed – head of the MGM Freed unit – the producers of some of the greatest film musicals of all time. Although the days of the studio system where coming to an end in the early 1950’s as films from different studios started becoming homogenous and not containing unique aesthetics to each studio, the MGM musical still remained its own unique beast that on other studio could replicate. Likewise, the film studio in Singin’ in the Rain is a fictional studio and not MGM itself, I guess that would have been too much of a self-endorsement.

The soundtrack itself has entered the pop culture lexicon for good reason. I’ve had no shortage of listening to my CD soundtrack; glorious corn and camp topped with beautiful orchestrations, all of which never leaves your head and contributing to making Singin’ in the Rain one of the go to anti-depressant films. Few other songs can lift my mood more than Moses Supposes or the film’s title number: could there be a greater expression of joy? After all, it is in the title; he is singing in the rain; turning the dreary rain into carefree joy, finding joy in despair. As for Make ‘em Laugh, even though it is a plagiarism of Cole Porter’s Be a Clown from The Pirate (1948), I considering Make ‘em Laugh is a superior rendition. There is also that disorienting fashion parade sequence which could be removed and have no effect on the plot but I do love me some 50’s fluff. But they do save the best for last in the form of the Broadway Melody Ballet. A number of MGM musicals had a lengthy ballet sequence, and to say they out did themselves here would be an understatement as Gene Kelly dressed as Harold Lloyd with the go getter attitude of the 1920’s celebrates a simple notion, “gotta dance!”. The visually asserting array of bright colours and impressionistic backgrounds is aided by Cyd Charisse; what a talent, what a figure!

Singin’ in the Rain presents a light hearted and comical look at what actors and studios went through during the transition to sound. Few other scenes in cinema are as entertaining as Lina Lomant’s failure to understand sound recording technology. This scene not only showcases the problems with the technology in its early days by picking up unwanted sounds (complete also with the classic angry movie director) but it perfectly captures the relatable frustration that comes with filmmaking. I can tell you there is nothing more frustrating than out-of-sync sound. Likewise, the star’s difficulty in adapting to talkies and being laughed at by audiences parallel the legend of audiences being in howls of laughter as actor John Gilbert’s attempts to deliver dialogue on screen. Jean Hagan playing the dumb broad Lina Loment does a comedy act similar to Judy Holiday but in my view better than Holiday ever did. Donald O’Connor on the other hand surely isn’t human with his vaudeville style act his facial and body movements and ability to walk up walls. Just name me a film with a more astounding display of talent. Here’s to you Singin’ In the Rain, I bow humbly to your cinematic and musical perfection.