Brigadoon (1954)

An American In Scotland

Brigadoon was originally conceived as a musical on the scale of a John Ford production but that didn’t come to be. Due to budget cuts the entire movie is set bound but as far as set bound movies go Brigadoon is still an impressive display of production design. The sets themselves look impressive and expansive complete with fog effects, animals, vegetation and backdrops which do appear vast; something I imagine would be more challenging to accomplish in colour and cinemascope. Brigadoon was made after the Technicolor era had ended and while it might be lacking the eye popping colour of previous MGM musicals it’s still a beauty of a film.

Brigadoon was Vincente Minnelli’s first musical in cinemascope and while the widescreen technology allows for more space for the dancers I couldn’t help but notice there is not a single close up shot in the entire film. As it turns out Minnelli actually had disliked the use of close ups in cinemascope. It’s not a major issue but I do find it to be somewhat of a mild irritance.

The fantasy set of Brigadoon doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and requires the old suspension of disbelief. The village of Brigadoon rises out of the mist every 100 years for just one day thus the village will never be changed or destroyed by the outside world. Travelling through time at this rate the village will have gone 3,650,000 years into the future after only one year Brigadoon time. What happens if the location of Brigadoon has something constructed on it or succumbs to natural geographical change? Regardless the movie still works despite its illogical concept plus it is fun trying to theorise how it would play out. The Scottish setting of Brigadoon on the other hand is how the rest of the world imagines Scotland is like with its tartan layered aesthetic and I love it. The Scottish accents however do feel right and are not exaggerated as you would expect a Hollywood movie to do.

Gene Kelly and Van Johnson make an entertaining duo with Johnson playing the grumpy and sarcastic comic relief. But the real jewel pairing is between Kelly and Cyd Charisse as the romantic love interests. Just look at the Heather on the Hill number for a better expression of falling in love through dance. The soundtrack is no Singin’ in the Rain (but then again so few musicals are) but still a fine selection of gems and lush orchestrations, many of which help make Brigadoon a very relaxing film to watch and as pleasant a musical excursion as you could ask for.

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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.

Silk Stockings (1957)

In Soviet Russia, Stockings Wear You!

I’m rather disappointed with the latter era MGM musicals. High Society, Les Girls, Gigi; as one of the numbers in Gigi sums it up: “It’s a bore!” Silk Stockings is one of the better ones, not perfect but it shows this now increasingly outdated style of musical could still be glorious, despite their lack economic viability from the rise of television. Whereas High Society came off to me as an unneeded remake of The Philadelphia Story, Silk Stockings manages to hold its own and not come off as a cheap remake Ninotchka, which was released prior to the cold war in 1939 (and not doing much good for American-Soviet relations). Silk Stockings was made right during the cold war and towards the end of the McCarthy years. It’s interesting seeing the story of love overcoming ideology retold from the cold war perspective but it doesn’t come as mindless commie bashing; infact it does at least paint a positive view of Russian arts but propaganda it still is, as just like Ninotchka before it -favouring the gayety and decadence of the west to the rigid and gray world of the Soviet Union. The movie is self-aware its propaganda, with the film being made within the film described as “The iron curtain dissolved by music” and Astaire gleefully proclaiming the film within a film as “what propaganda!”

The influence of the director Rouben Mamoulian is one of the aspects which helps elevate Silk Stockings. Mamoulian was one of the most innovative directors of the 1930’s, whose credits include the ground-breaking musicals Applause and Love Me Tonight. Although this was 1957 and his final film, he was an innovator of the genre and his handsome direction is apparent throughout the film. The musical numbers take full advantage of the cinemascope frame, such as the number ‘We Can’t Go Back to Russia’ which features multiple people dancing at once in a long, unbroken shot. While Fred Astaire is dancing, Peter Lorre might be doing something amusing in the background. The dancing on display in the film is not Astaire’s most accomplished but is entertaining none the less. Mamoulian never worked with Ninotchka director Ernst Lubitsch, although Love Me Tonight did feature Lubitsch elements, as well as regular Lubitsch stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. Elements of the famous Lubitsch Touch are present throughout Silk Stockings; for example, when the Soviet commissar has just finished his first encounter with Ninotchka and is surprised to discover she is a woman, his secretary then bursts into the room to tell him this very fact, very much a Lubitsch inspired gag.

Cyd Charisse succeeds in holding her own, not merely doing an imitation of Greta Garbo; showing that she was an underrated actress as well as a great dancer. Plus it simply a pleasure seeing Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse reunited again after The Band Wagon. Astaire could have conceivably played Melvyn Douglas’ role back in 1939 (I often wish the man could have done more non-musical comedic roles) so his casting does work; plus I’ve always championed Astaire’s for his unsung comic abilities. The casting of Peter Lorre as one of the three operatives is brilliant decision, while Janis Page is also very entertaining as the uncultured actress Peggy Dayton.

The film’s selection of songs written by Cole Porter are very good. ‘Stereophonic Sound’ is a satire on the habits of movie goers more concerned with a film’s technical aspects over the content of the film itself, while Cyd Charrise’s solo dance number captures the decadence of capitalism in the form of dance. The ‘Ritz Roll n’ Rock’ reflects changing musical landscape from jazz to rock n’roll and appropriately so as this marked Astaire’s retirement from musicals, in the final number of the film dressed in his trademark top hat, white tie and tails; what a send-off! Although my favourite number in the film is Astaire and Charisse dancing on a film set in ‘All You Dance’, simply beautiful. The big flaw I have with Silk Stockings however is the length; at the two hours the movie is too long and some trimming could have gone a long way. With thirty minutes chopped out, Silk Stockings could go from a good movie to a great one.

It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)

Stormy Weather Ahead

Its Always Fair Weather will go down in history as the film musical which “could have been”. If It’s Always Fair Weather had been made a few years earlier it could have been in the same leagues as Singin’ In the Rain and On the Town but some shortcomings prevent it from being so. The movie was originally conceived as sequel to On the Town, reuniting Gene Kelly with co stars Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin. However by 1955, Munshin no longer had box office and credibility while Sinatra was too big a star that the studio was unwilling to work with him. In their place we get Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd, both of whom get the job done but lack the chemistry Kelly’s On the Town co stars possessed. Frank Sinatra in particular I find is sorely missed as I loved his three picture partnership with Kelly in which they made an excellent comedic duo. Although I find It’s Always Fair Weather’s biggest drawback are the sections of the film which are uneventful. The film could definitely benefit from the trimming or removal of whole scenes; there is a faster paced, snappier film in here.

Yet the film does showcase some of the best moments of any MGM musical. The musical numbers themselves are fantastic, all written for the film itself, while majority of MGM musicals took their songs from back catalogues and stage musicals. The five minute opening dance number showcases the then new cinemascope format by having three dancers occupy their own third of the screen. I feel widescreen technology came too late the MGM musicals which could have used it to great advantage but by 1955 musicals had already lost most of their economic viability due to the rise of television. The soundtrack of the movie is great enough that I even bought the soundtrack. ‘Once Upon a Time’ is one of the most emotional numbers I’ve heard in any film but the centerpiece of the film is Gene Kelly’s number ‘I Like Myself’, featuring him tap dancing on roller skates, no trickery! This is of my very favourite musical numbers of all time, his title number from ‘Singin’ In the Rain’ may be more iconic but this is friggin’ epic and an unbelievable display of talent if I ever saw it. The movie’s only crime in the song and dance department is the lack of a dance number between Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, despite one actually being filmed.

The movie’s other notable aspect is being one of the earliest movies to satires television and its vacuousness. This may seem hypocritical of Hollywood but unlike other Hollywood musicals, Its Always Fair Weather actually has a dark and not very uplifting story of three war buddies who are reunited ten years later to find out they can’t stand each other.
Despite its shortcomings I do have a lot of love for’ It’s Always Fair Weather’, largely due to its fantastic soundtrack and simply because of its gorgeous aesthetic as seen in MGM musicals, a world of beautiful, bright colours and welcome artificiality. As a musical enthusiast, I am forgiving of the movie’s flaws but others may be less patient with its uneven pace.

The Band Wagon (1953)

Fred Astaire 1953!

The Band Wagon is the film Fred Astaire’s career was culminating to: his best film in my view. Like Ninotchka with Greta Garbo or A Star Is Born with Judy Garland, this was the role he was born to play; one catered to his on screen persona. Fred Astaire is Tony Hunter! An ageing hoofer who no longer is the star he once was. The Band Wagon contains little references to Astaire’s past: from Bill Bojangles Robinson to the opening credits feature an image of a top hat and cane, to the mentioning of a fictional movie “Swinging Down to Panama” perhaps a reference to Swing Time and Flying Down to Rio (although I do wish there could have been a little reference to Ginger Rogers herself in there).

The Band Wagon provides Astaire with some of the best musical numbers of his career. However the film also allows him to showcase other avenues of his talent, such as his outburst scene over his dissatisfaction over rehearsals – a fine example of the acting prowess he possessed. While Ginger Rogers is obviously Astaire’s greatest partner Cyd Charisse is his most accomplished; could there be a more graceful figure?

Was I gullible that when I first watched The Band Wagon that the movie manipulated me into thinking the pretentious and egotistical stage director Jeffrey Cordova’s (Jack Buchanan) idea of a musical inspired by the Faust legend was a good idea? This isn’t the same old backstage musical plot; The Band Wagon is a thinking person’s musical. Likewise Charisse’s Gabrielle Gerard has a mature sub plot of her own involving her trying to deal with her dominating boyfriend and her feeling towards Tony; giving the film that extra mature edge.

Not only is there a great story, there is also great comedy with a cast gels so well together. Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray as a bickering couple and their hysterical fanboy reactions to meting Tony Hunter, to Jack Bunchanan’s over the top histrionics and his terrible ideas for a stage musical. My favourite moment in comedy in The Bandwagon is the scene in which Jeffrey Cordova manipulates Gabrielle’s boyfriend from being dead set against allowing her to being cast in his stage production to then begging him to allow her to be in the show. It’s like a Bugs Bunny-Yosemite Sam type moment but on a much more subtle level and made even more impressive by occurring in an uncut shot. Likewise the sets in The Band Wagon have an astounding level of detail that scenes near the beginning of the film taking place on the street had me wondering where they sets or real world locations.

Up until The Band Wagon it was uncommon for a film musical to have a soundtrack entirely composed for it rather than having songs and compositions taken from other sources; which makes it all the more impressive that the entire soundtrack to The Bandwagon is superb. If I was to choose my three favourite musical numbers of all time, in terms of epic scope they would be The Broadway Melody Ballet from Singin’ In the Rain, The Lullaby of Broadway from Gold Diggers of 1935 and The Girl Hunt Ballet from The Band Wagon in all its 13 minute glory. Here noir meets musical, with Astaire at his most badass. His line delivery could be in an actual crime film itself, plus it inspired the music video for Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal. There’s also the Shine on Your Shoes number, one which I could watch again and again just to look at all those gizmos in the background and the genuine reactions on people’s faces at seeing Fred Astaire dance; while That’s Entertainment has become a semi-official anthem for Hollywood. Oh and there’s the Triplets number; one of the weirdest musical numbers ever filmed and they’re actually dancing on their knees!

The early to mid-1950’s where a phenomenal period for the musical genre. Hollywood produced some of its finest musicals in these years before television brought this era of film musicals to an end. Films like The Band Wagon elevated the genre to new heights. A Fred Astaire musical which has everything and more!