Feature: Duel of the Dudes

The love triangle is a standby of the romantic movie in which women or men have to choose which lover best suits them. It occurred to me in reviewing Love on the Run that it might be interesting to delve into hypothetical battles between actors and guess which would prevail. Granted, in most of these cases the outcome will depend on who the object of affection is as he or she is the ultimate decider. Nevertheless, based on the typical on-screen persona of the men below, who would you guess to be the victor in a romantic comedy or drama (Explain your answer!)? Without letting my own bias into the mix, below are my conclusions about Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.

 

Despite being probably the most prominent dancers of their time, Astaire and Kelly never appeared in a narrative movie together. They pop up as themselves in The Ziegfeld Follies and That’s Entertainment II, but otherwise the two never had to fight over a girl. I mentioned in my review of the former flick my opinions of my favorite of the two dancers, but I will try to keep that conclusion out of this argument.

Both men wooed women on screen through song and dance, but their styles of dance were distinctly different. Both could tap, but Astaire was the real hoofer whereas Kelly adopted more of what we now consider a Broadway or Jazz style. This difference is important in this battle as Kelly’s technique was more sensual (think An American in Paris) whereas Astaire’s was more fun. While Fred was busy holding hands and swinging his partner too and fro, Kelly was right up against his ladies, showing his prowess. It is for the mere reason of dance style that I think Kelly pulls to the lead.

Looking at their on-screen personalities, both men generally played kind, gentle lovers. Kelly occasionally went beyond that comfort zone to play a disgraced soldier (For Me and My Gal) and a criminal pirate (The Pirate), but he was always kind to the women in those stories. Astaire, on the other hand, seems to have proved in his cinematic history that he can always win over the girl, even when the alternative is Peter Lawford (Easter Parade). Kelly’s on screen personalities, however, did not shy away from being a down-and-out underdog in some instances, which perhaps could make Astaire the stronger lead in a love triangle.

Nevertheless, based on dancing style and the likelihood that Gene Kelly could act as a strong romantic contender against anyone, I will choose him as my victor. What do you think of this duel? Was it an unfair fight?

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Ziegfeld Follies

Gasser

Ziegfeld Follies (1946)

     This post will be short because how much can one really say about a movie without a plot? Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. was world-known for his lavish stage shows that lacked a plot but entertained spectators with one song, dance or comedy vignette after another. The movie Ziegfeld Follies does the same.

     The film was originally completed in 1944, 12 years after Ziegfeld’s death. Some audiences found offensive the opening that features William Powell reprising his role as the showman –previously having played him in The Great Ziegfeld— in heaven devising a new revue. Not having been around to be a fan of Ziegfeld when he was alive, I could not care less as the scene endures for a few minutes before we never see him again.

     There is nothing particularly appealing to me about a movie that strings together unrelated songs, dances and visual effects. Ziegfeld Folliesis not without its gems, however. The movie featured the only time outside of That’s Entertainment II that Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly dance together. The two were masters in their own way, but their styles are very different, so it is nice to compare and contrast them here. Where Astaire is lanky and fit, Kelly is muscular and nimble. I will always choose Kelly over Astaire for multiple reasons –voice, dance style, looks– but the two are well matched when dancing together.

     Really the one reason I sought to watch Ziegfeld Follies was for Judy Garland‘s appearance in it. She acts and sings in a comedy sketch as “The Great Lady”, a character very different for her. The scene was originally planned for Greer Garson to mock herself, but the actress had turned it down. Garland, therefore, plays a snooty, self-loving super actress with a refined, Garson-esque voice that shows yet another facet of her acting talent. She welcomes a group of reporters and puts on a dramatic show of flitting about her apartment and posing for any photos that might want to be snapped. The scene is fun, absurd and makes Garland look absolutely stunning. We can probably thank Director Vincente Minnelli for that.

     The movie is packed with a long list of other stars, some more entertaining than others. If you enjoy just watching a bunch of talent paraded about for two hours, then Ziegfeld Follies is for you, but as far as I am concerned, a plot is necessary to keep me from getting distracted.

Source: TCM.com

Feature: What to Watch Saturday–Ninotchka

Wowza!

Ninotchka (1939)

     It is possible that still to this day I would not have seen Ninotchka had it not been for its appearance on one of those lists of the best movies ever made or movies you have to see. I bought it as part of a Greta Garbo box set some time before that list crossed my path, a box set that seven years later still has several untouched DVDs. But I am lucky/glad the circumstances led me where they did because Ninotchka truly is one of the best pictures ever made.

     This Best Picture/Writing/Actressnominated movie will play at noon ET Saturday as part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar. It might not have won in that oh-so-competitive year of 1939, but it has maintained a place in cinema history nevertheless.

     The tag line for the Ninotchka promotions was “Garbo laughs” because it was one of the few lighter roles she did in sound. When you start into the movie, however, you will be befuddled by that reference because as this Russian officer Ninotchka, Garbo fails to smile for the front third of the flick. The Swedish star plays the heavy who enters France to find out what is taking three bumbling Russian officials so long in selling some royal jewels. These Iranoff (Sig Rumann), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) have discovered the wonders of a capitalistic society and all the luxuries it offers and are in no hurry to return home.

     Ninotchka will resist the lure of the romantic and decadent city of Paris even when she finds the kisses of Leon, played by Melvyn Douglas, delightful. It is an absurd hat that will turn her, however, and when she breaks down into laughter, we know Mother Russia’s spell has been lifted.

     Ninotchka almost seems scandalous in how heavily Garbo’s character pushes the message of the evils of capitalism and the glory of communist Russia. One can forget all that, however, when the leading lady starts living life to our own delight. Garbo is so charming as the naive adult entering such a luscious society, but she also plays the brutally stoic role perfectly. Douglas, meanwhile, could not be more charming. I feel like as an actor he largely failed to make his mark or distinguish himself from the mass of similar leading men, but he really is swoon-worthy here. I find the duo particularly enthralling in a late-night scene in Leon’s apartment after “little father” the butler has been sent home. Garbo’s growling of “again” as a request for another kiss is hilarious, endearing and unexpected all at once.

     And if you have never heard of Ninotchka and the title has you bewildered in terms of pronunciation, no worries. By the end of the picture you too will be shouting “Ninotchka, Ninotchka, Ninotchka!” and possibly asking your significant other to “salute”.

     It might be worth noting on a down point that Ninotchka was remade into the 1957 musical Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. My first disappointment with that film is that it did not actually feature the jazz standard “Silk Stockings”. Secondly, it is a tragic disappointment story and performance-wise when compared with its origin movie.

Salute!

 

Something to Sing About

Ring a Ding Ding 

Something to Sing About (1937)

Something to Sing About had a number of things going against it when I sat down with it last weekend. The DVD was one of those cheap three-movies-in-one discs and the picture quality was choppy from the start. I certainly thought to myself at the beginning “this is a bad movie.” I was far from correct, however.

Despite the majority of his fame as gangster and tough-guy types, James Cagney had a background as a song-and-dance man in New York, where he grew up. Besides living in that grand and diverse city, he did not actually have the rough upbringing one would expect of the man who assaults a female character with a grapefruit. Nevertheless, Hollywood liked him best in those tough roles and the public had a hard time accepting him in light-hearted dancing parts. It is often said Yankee Doodle Dandy nearly ended his career.

In Something to Sing About, Cagney plays the singing and dancing leader of a band popular in New York who has been recruited by Hollywood for a one-picture contract. This Terry Rooney proposes to his girl before leaving town and has no grand ambitions about making it big. Once out west, the studio big wigs find he has many shortcomings: his hairline is terrible, his dialect is poor and his wardrobe leaves something to be desired. In the picture Terry is to fight a couple of goons and rehearses the close but fake punches before the film starts rolling. The other actors, apparently, like to have some fun with “greenhorn” actors and so actually sock him. Terry responds as we would expect a Cagney character to and starts throwing punches and breaking all the furniture on the set over the goons. The director keeps the film rolling.

Terry assumes he’s through in Hollywood and so returns to New York where he and Rita (Evelyn Daw) get married and take a honeymoon to South America. While they are on the boat, the Terry Rooney picture becomes a major hit and the studio is set to sign him to a long-term contract, but no one can find the star. The studio puts out a public notice to help track him down, and after being mobbed by fans near a theater, Terry finally returns to his employer.

The contract itself presents a problem, however, as it requires Terry to remain single. Rita and the studio heads agree that if the wife pretends to instead be the star’s secretary, they can remain married. The romance gets complicated, however, because the studio wants Terry to star with –and appear to be romancing– their star actress Stephanie (Mona Barrie).

I thought I had Something to Sing About pegged from the start: Terry would go to Hollywood and become a star and the excessive female attention would have him forget all about the girl back home. That certainly is far from the case. Terry never once suggests he is anything but in love with Rita; the circumstances just make things look bad. Cagney’s character remains appealing to audicnes because being a dancer has not softened his character from the one to which we are accustomed. He still has the fight and gruff of his gangster types, only he’s in a more legitimate racket.

On a more important note, however, is Cagney’s dancing. He opens the picture with a tap number on the stage of a nightclub that would blow your mind. His footwork is more impressive here than I have seen in his other musicals. He is not just tap-dancing, he’s doing jazz and ballet-type moves as well. Cagney’s performance here rivals Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as far as I am concerned and (as a former dancer myself) is among the best dancing I have seen in classic movies. Cagney allegedly worked off-screen with Astaire to practice some of the routines and his choreographer was one he worked with before getting into movies.

I cannot emphasize enough that any Cagney fan or anyone loving dance or musicals MUST see Something to Sing About. You will not believe what talent this often-gruff actor had.

  • Watch Something to Sing About in its entirity on YouTube.

Source: Legends: James Cagney by Richard Schickel, TCM.com

What to Watch Thanksgiving: Musicals

Musicals tend to be very family friendly fare, which is possibly why Turner Classic Movies has sprinkled several throughout the day and night Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. At the top of my list is Judy Garland‘s great Meet Me in St. Louis.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

I feel like the plot of this story of a large St. Louis family in 1903 does not matter much in the grand scheme of things. The narrative is marked by the romances of Garland’s Ester with the neighbor boy and sister Rose (Lucille Bremer) hopes her long-distance boyfriend will get around to proposing. The family as a whole also struggles with the idea of moving to New York as a year goes by.

The songs in Meet Me in St. Louis are among the reasons to watch the flick. Many famous numbers we still remember today are just as enjoyable out of the context of the film as they are in. Among them is the title song, the Oscar-nominated “Trolley Song” that was filmed in one take and Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

This picture marks the first encounter of Garland and Director Vincent Minnelli. The two feuded on set until Garland viewed the daily rushes and discovered how beautiful Minnelli was making her look. The young star had all kinds of confidence issues about her appearance, some of which stem from Louis B. Mayer’s pet names of “ugly duckling” and “my little hunchback.” The woman had also been reluctant to take the part that returned her persona to that of a teenager because she had finally found success in adult roles, such as For Me and My Gal. The new-found chemistry between the star and director led to a marriage in 1945 and four subsequent films. Despite being gay, Minnelli would father Liza with Judy before the two divorced in 1951.

Meet Me in St. Louis is a great way to see Judy in one of her best roles and to sing along with the family to the memorable songs.

Musicals scheduled on TCM for Turkey Day include:

  • Meet Me in St. Louis at 10 a.m. ET.
  • The Music Man at 1:45 p.m.
  • Anything Goes at 8 p.m.
  • Shall We Dance at 3 a.m.
  • Flying with Music at 5 a.m.

Source: Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clark

What to Watch: Friday

The royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton holds no great appeal for me unlike many in America, however, the grand event, set for Friday, brings with it a cinematic celebration of sorts on Turner Classic Movies. That evening, the channel will air a number of royal-themed films, all of which happen to be good flicks.

Royal Wedding (1951)

First up at 8 p.m. ET is Royal Wedding starring Fred Astaire, Jane Powell and Peter Lawford. I have never been in love with Astaire but usually watch his films anyway. This one, however, is among my favorites. Astaire and Powell are a brother and sister musical duo on tour in London for Elizabeth II’s wedding. Powell meets Lawford and the two have an adorable romance. Meanwhile, Astaire tries to court a dancer. The musical contains the famous “Dancing on the Ceiling” number whereby a trick of simultaneously rotating camera and set make it seem as though Astaire is actually walking on the walls and ceiling (the same effect was used in certain scenes of 2010’s Inception). This is also the first solo directing credit for Stanley Donen.

Roman Holiday (1953)

 
Next on the schedule is Roman Holiday airing at 10 p.m. Given that Audrey Hepburn is my favorite actress, I naturally love this flick directed by William Wyler. It was her first major role and she won her only Best Actress Oscar. Hepburn plays Princess Ann who runs away while visiting Rome and is rescued by American reporter Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck, after sleeping pills have her adopting a street-side bench as a bed. The young princess explores the city anonymously, although Bradley has figured out who she is. No one could have played the free-spirited Ann like Audrey.

The Glass Slipper (1955)

A new take on a classic princess story, Cinderella, is the subject of the 12:15 a.m. airing of The Glass Slipper. Leslie Caron plays the pauper who is lucky enough to attend the prince’s ball. This flick is not as great as the previous two, but it is a nice live-action musical with one of the greatest musical stars of France: Caron. It also offers a realistic take on the fairy godmother character, who is a crazy old lady that fell from a prominent position in society after “reading too many books”.

The Swan (1956)

Finally, if you can make it to 2 a.m. you will be entreated to a romantic Grace Kelly flick that predicts her eventual royalty. The Swan casts Kelly as a princess whose family has fallen out of the good graces of a greater sect of the family that includes the queen. To save the family, Kelly’s Alexandra must win over a distant cousin (Alec Guinness) and marry him. The trouble is, she is in love with her tutor (Louis Jourdan). It is one of the less memorable of Kelly’s roles but a great one anyway.

 
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