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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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.

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.

Funny Face (1957)

Astaire at His Bes…Worst

It disappoints me that for many people Funny Face will be their only encounter with Fred Astaire due to the fact that it is an Audrey Hepburn film. I first watched Funny Face for the Hepburn factor (unfamiliar at the time with Fred Astaire) and was left unimpressed with the film. Later on I became infatuated with Astaire thanks to his partnership with Ginger Rogers and other films such as The Bandwagon. Due to this I revisited Funny Face in the hope that I would appreciate it more; unfortunately the opposite happened. Boy is this movie a waste of talent:

First and foremost, dancing, or should I say the lack of it. When I watch a Fred Astaire musical I expect to be memorised by his dancing moves. Yet every time a musical number began in Funny Face, Astaire does nothing. There are times when I expect him to bust a move but nothing happens. Eventfully when he does start dancing, the choreography is about as basic as it gets.

Secondly, comedy. I’ve always thought Fred Astaire is very undervalued as a comedic actor. In the films he did with Ginger Rogers his timing and ability to come up with a witty comeback to everything is right up there with the likes of Groucho Marx. Typically in these films he would be playing off high society snobs and in Funny Face these same snobs exist, but Astaire is now one of them! Whenever a character in this film is being superficial or snobbish, Astaire just stands there and does nothing! In the past he would have been all Groucho Marx on them.

Next, chemistry. Being a huge fan of both these stars, perhaps just seeing them together could help elevate the film above its flaws? Nope! Astaire and Hepburn have no chemistry at all. While Hepburn does fair better in this film than Astaire, having one musical number which I quite liked, The Basal Metabolism. But that’s enough lavishing praise on this movie.

Finally, the plot. Granted many musicals have silly plots, that’s part of their charm. But plot in Funny Face goes beyond silly, it’s flat out insulting. Well ignoring the fact that in the reality of the film, Audrey Hepburn is considered unattractive, they take an intellectual girl who works at a book store and turn her into a superficial model. Also why can’t Audrey not just call the police and tell them that the book store she works at was trespassed, used for unauthorised photography and vandalised, oh never mind, the plot just sucks. Also I’m so sick of Paris being used as a setting for romantic comedies. Choose a different city!

If this is the only Fred Astaire film you’ve seen, please I beg of you, watch the films he did with Ginger Rogers or The Bandwagon in order to see what he is really like.