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.

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.

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.

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.

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!