Category Archives: musical

Artists and Models (1955)

Director: Frank Tashlin

For reason that I can’t work out, Jerry Lewis died today. I mean, we can probably guess the reasons for that, but it’s how he managed to live so long that has me perplexed… we’re talking about a man who had an assortment of health woes throughout his life and suffered his first heart attack in 1960 when he was just in his mid-30s. He did fairly well to make it into his 90s, all things considered. And, for reasons I also can’t work out, I’ve never actually seen an actual proper Jerry Lewis film until now; I’ve only known him as a sort of pop culture figure usually invoked in bafflement about French tastes in film comedy, but never actually seen him at work. I mean, I’ve seen The King of Comedy and Funny Bones, both of which he’s in but neither of which I’d exactly call a “Lewis film” as such… so I suppose the time is right? And there’s a few Lewis films in the 1001 Films list, so also an opportunity to make another dent in that…

Anyway, he was still with Dean Martin when he made this, though not for much longer (a line Dino’s character has early on about them needing a divorce is weirdly prescient); I’ll take the 1001 Films book’s word for it that this was Martin & Lewis’ finest hour cos I obviously have no other experience. It’s… curious, isn’t it? Frank Tashlin, of course, began life as a cartoonist and animator, and I’ve seen it said that even when he moved into live action in the 50s he never entirely left that cartoon background behind. That seems like a fair summary of this film, with such details as Lewis dressed as a giant mouse and terrifying a cat, Martin’s reflection in a mirror duetting with him, that sort of thing… but also the way the plot develops from the romantic foursome of the first two-thirds of the film into the frankly weird spy thriller of the last third, which revolves around Martin writing a comic book based on Lewis’ dreams, but the dreams somehow contain part of an actual secret government formula which attracts the interest of the Russians and OY. Never quite as wholeheartedly bizarre as it could and perhaps should’ve been, but reasonably funny on the whole, blessed more by Shirley MacLaine as one of the female love interests than it is by Lewis, whose appeal I found kind of baffling. Maybe I need to see Jerry solo instead? I don’t know. At some point I’ll be doing that for the purposes of this list anyway…

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

It’s very clean, isn’t it? Tim Brayton has already done a particularly splendid analysis of this film, and for that sort of thing the best thing I can do is send you there directly. As for me, this film holds a special place in my DVD collection, by virtue of having been (along with Fight Club—HMV were having some sort of sale that day) the first film I actually bought for it… and, in terms of my appreciation of the Fab Four, it was actually quite vital in giving me some insight into their early appeal. Cos for a long time I was primarily interested in their later stuff, from Revolver onwards, and I was mostly comparatively cool on the earlier work. (This was true of my approach to popular music generally, I should say; my “year zero” pretty much used to be 1967, though over the years I’ve worn it back a bit earlier.) Though I’d seen the film on TV, I still didn’t quite get the early Beatles. And then for some reason the film got a theatrical re-release around 2000 or 2001, and I couldn’t not go. And so I went. And I got it. Not so much from seeing the picture on the big screen as hearing it, listening to those songs being played at cinema volume. Suddenly something clicked. The film itself is terrific, obviously, for many of the reasons Tim Brayton note; it is indeed glorious surface but there’s also room for deeper viewing if you really want to, and the film actually does withstand same in a way that, well, Help! or Magical Mystery Tour don’t. AHDN is a terrific example of the sort of thing that it is—i.e. a quickly assembled cash-in on what was probably thought at the time to be the soon-to-fade popularity of Lennon McCartney Harrison & Starr—while managing to be more than just that; there’s joy in the end result which overcomes any cynically mercenary motives that might’ve underlaid its creation.

Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

Bad Beatles fan here. I’ve loved them for decades, and yet it’s taken me until now to see this. Still, unavailability’s a bitch like that (it was on DVD here years ago via Avenue One, but I had enough sense not to give them my money)… I happened to spot it in the TV guide for this afternoon, and so decided I’d better remedy that gap in my appreciation of the Fabs. Appreciation, of course, was the last thing it got at the time, as we know, and with hindsight that’s hardly surprising; the Arena documentary on the film’s making was also shown before the film, and someone from the BBC at the time said they had a gap in programming for Boxing Day that year, and The Beatles just happened to be working on this film that would fill it nicely, the BBC thought it’d be ideal slotted between Petula Clark and Norman Wisdom… OH HOW WRONG THEY WERE. I mean, now that I’ve seen it myself, I can see the Fabs weren’t really doing much that was, strictly speaking, new; the film seems to have been mostly Paul McCartney’s idea, he was better connected with the artistic avant-garde of the period than the rest of the band, and he obviously took cues from the work of others in creating MMT. But it was one thing for the world’s biggest pop band to make an experimental home movie with no real plot and a lot of random weirdness, it was another for the BBC to offer it as family viewing entertainment on Boxing Day when people were coming down from festive season business, and I somehow wasn’t surprised when I saw it today that it made people choke on their turkey leftovers (I’m surprised the strip club scene made it to air). Also, as quite a lot of the commentary on its re-release notes, it was a colour film shown in b/w on BBC1, so that did it no favours (the “Flying” sequence, which uses colour filtered outtakes from 2001, would’ve made even less sense than the rest of the film, cos the colour was the whole point)… they did show it in colour on BBC2 a few days later, but so few people had colour sets then that it didn’t help either.

Since then poor unloved MMT has come down through the ages as the Fab Four’s Fabbest Fuckup; the revisionist view now upon its rerelease seems to mostly be that it’s a lot better than conventional wisdom would have us believe, and that’s understandable, though I didn’t think it was the “lost classic” they’re now trying to push it as. It still is what I think it always was: the work of a bunch of young men being self-indulgent Four pop stars trying their hand at something a bit different, probably not really knowing enough about what they were doing to really make it work, but, having said that, the circumstances of its first presentation probably caused its reputation to be far worse than it really merited. I didn’t think it was that good—I understand the whole “happening” and improvisatory aspect of it and how important that was to them, but a stronger sense of direction would’ve helped—but I suspect that if it had premiered at a film festival or something it would’ve been received far more differently, probably a bit better. Anyway, it might’ve been a minor hole in my film knowledge, but at least it’s filled; maybe one day Let It Be will finally get its own legitimate release and I can fill that gap as well…

All This and World War II (1976)

I suspect it would’ve been this Film Threat article that introduced me to this… whatever the fuck this thing is. More recently, thanks (if “thanks” is the right word) to this Dangerous Minds piece, I’ve now had the opportunity to actually see it. And to some degree I suppose I’m glad I did, because I might never have believed such a… thing as this could exist. Fuck, I’ve seen it now and I still don’t believe it. There’s much more background on the thing here, with some genuinely startling information.

Anyway, in short, the film appears to have been modelled on Philippe Mora’s Brother Can You Spare a Dime (the credited director here, Susan Winslow, also did research on that), which combined 30s newsreel footage and clips from 1930s films to paint a portrait of the Great Depression. All This would do the same for WW2… but, rather than use period songs like the earlier film, it’d use Beatles songs. Or rather cover versions of them. Mostly horrible, and even more poorly applied (surely even Beatles haters must feel sympathy for them if they saw this, although neither Lennon nor McCartney seems to have thought it was a bad idea to let this happen to their music). What, the Bee Gees doing “Sun King” as Japanese planes set out for Pearl Harbour? Leo Sayer doing “I am the Walrus” during the strike? Recruitment and boot camp scenes soundtracked by FRANKIE LAINE singing “MAXWELL’S SILVER HAMMER”? And the finished film being released by 20TH CENTURY FOX? I mean, HOW THE CHRISTING FUCK DID THIS HAPPEN? Seriously—someone not only had the idea for this film (from a dream, yet), but a major Hollywood studio let them make it. At no point did anyone seem to have thought, “this is in fucking atrocious taste, we really should stop”. I honestly don’t know whether to bow down before its perverted genius or weep for humanity. A critical and commercial bomb resulted—bizarrely, the soundtrack album made more money than the film—albeit one that somehow made it to Cannes in 1977. 20CF have since done their best to bury it (too late once the horse had bolted, though), and it will almost certainly never see any legitimate home release for a number of reasons, many of them doubtless good; I’m happy to let a Youtube rip of a dodgy VHS bootleg do me.

Love Me Tonight (1932)

We’re not quite done with Chevalier and MacDonald yet, though… After seeing those Lubitsch musicals, it was interesting to see another director using them, particularly when said director is Rouben Mamoulian, who we saw making his first film a few days ago. How would it compare, particularly given what Jonathan Rosenbaum says about the critical debate over whether it was imitation Lubitsch or pisstake Lubitsch. The idea that it might be its own beast apparently doesn’t occur… either way, with all due respect to uncle Ernst, his Armenian counterpart outdid him on this one; much as I liked Lubitsch’s musicals, the music was, to be sure, often the weakest part of them. Mamoulian had no such trouble; apart from his film being more actually “musical” than Lubitsch’s (particularly those last two), he had Rodgers & Hart on his side. Not only more, but better. The story is not a million miles away from what we saw in Monte Carlo, except this time it’s Chevalier’s humble Parisian tailor inadvertently forced to play a baron when he goes to collect a debt from one of his noble customers and arrives in the middle of a gathering of “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible”. If Applause often felt like Mamoulian saying “fuck you” to the Hollywood technicians struggling with sound in 1929, this is much more relaxed and genial, the most obvious examples of overt technique being the stag hunt (which begins with comical fast motion and ends with even funnier slow motion) and the handling of the song “Isn’t  It Romantic”, passed among various characters like “Wise Up” in Magnolia but with far less pretension. I’ve said before that I wished I’d known some films would be so good or I would’ve seen them years before I did, and this is one of those (although years ago I just couldn’t get my hands on the thing to watch it); it really is kind of tremendous.

One Hour With You (1932)

We end this tour of Lubitsch’s middle period for now with probably the best and funniest film in the Lubitsch musicals box. That said, if The Smiling Lieutenant wasn’t the happiest production, this one was positively fraught… while working on Broken Lullaby (his last drama film and a big flop), he was also assigned to oversee the then up-and-coming director George Cukor, who was making another Chevalier/MacDonald musical; he began by throwing out the script and changing the film to a remake of his own 1924 film The Marriage Circle, then started directing scenes, then gradually the whole thing, until it all ended in a lawsuit over who should get directorial credit. You would never guess any of this from the film itself, of course, which presents us with another love triangle, or a love shape of some sort; unusually for this set, Chevalier and MacDonald actually begin as a perfectly happy married couple, Andre and Colette, but marital bliss finds itself shaken up by a visit from Colette’s old friend Mitzi. When the latter has an unexpected encounter with Andre in a taxi, it sets a nice bit of infidelity drama in motion, made all the more amusing by the fact that Andre doesn’t really want an affair with Mitzi and that Colette suspects he’s having an affair with another woman entirely. Meanwhile Colette also has unwanted attention of her own to face from Adolphe (subject of perhaps the funniest scene in this entire collection: when Adolphe asks his butler why he lied to him about Andre and Colette hosting a costume party, the latter replies about wanting to see his master wearing tights). At 78 minutes, it’s the shortest of these four films, and bears witness to everything I’ve ever said about the superior storytelling economy of older films. A successful conclusion to a generally successful box set from Eclipse…

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

Given that this film was thought lost for decades (I read conflicting stories of where and when it was rediscovered), it’s scrubbed up remarkably well. Similarly, just as it bears comparatively few scars from decades of disappearance, it shows few signs of having been the not entirely happy production it apparently was; both Lubitsch and Maurice Chevalier were having off-screen problems, and there were “issues” with the film’s two leading ladies, the reasonably established Claudette Colbert and newcomer Miriam Hopkins. (The latter was apparently not a popular figure in Hollywood, and Lubitsch was one of the few people who got on well with her.) It does, however, show signs of the abrupt decline of the musical genre after its equally abrupt birth with the sound film; by 1931 American audiences had tired of the hundred-odd musicals Hollywood had unleashed in the previous two years and many films shot as musicals found themselves being released minus their songs. The Smiling Lieutenant kept its songs, but they’re noticeably fewer in number than in the last two films. This time we’ve got a love triangle again, this time with Chevalier as the victim; he’s the Viennese lieutenant of the title, who falls in love with Colbert’s violin-playing women’s orchestra leader, but who inadvertently insults Hopkins’ princess when she and her father the Kaiser of Flausenthurm (with an “h”, most definitely) are visiting Vienna, and winds up married to her rather than the actual love of his life. I see other reviews of the other two films we’ve seen sigh about them ultimately ending by reasserting traditional male dominance of the relationship and similar attitudes, etc, and Smiling Lieutenant kind of does that, but it’s interesting to see the love rivals uniting in the end as Colbert shows Hopkins how to modernise herself to retain “their” man. It’s a markedly more bittersweet ending than I’d anticipated.

Monte Carlo (1930)

Love Parade was fine, but 109 minutes of it was slightly much. Monte Carlo improves on it by being 20 minutes shorter, and an improved sense of pace is definitely apparent. Also, the music this time round is markedly better, “Beyond the Blue Horizon” becoming a particular hit in a way that I don’t think any of the songs from the previous film could’ve done… Anyway, we begin with Jeanette MacDonald fleeing marriage this time rather than trying to get into one, ending up in Monte Carlo with not a lot of money in her purse and not much luck adding to that sum at the gambling tables; she attracts the interest of a visiting count but doesn’t reciprocate it, so he hits upon the novel idea of posing as a hairdresser to get close to her. The credits list Booth Tarkington’s Monsieur Beaucaire as a partial source for the film (otherwise mostly taken from some German play), which leads to one of the funnier examples of the play-within-a-play device commenting on the action of the play it’s embedded in I’ve seen when the countess goes to an operatic rendition of the tale near the film’s end. The DVD notes reckon Jack Buchanan’s not exactly a match for the unavailable Maurice Chevalier, and he’s not exactly the world’s finest singer here, but I thought he was OK generally; anyway, MacDonald’s countess is really the main figure and she’s fine at this sort of thing. Unlike the previous film, there’s no secondary couple, although Claud Allister is good as the cloddish duke the countess flees from marrying (this is her third such attempt to escape him, and with good reason). Like I said, though, the film’s comparative brevity is what serves it best; I don’t know if Lubitsch set out to make it shorter than Love Parade, but it was a good move anyway. Not terribly consequential, but good fun.

The Love Parade (1929)

Breaking new ground here with what is, technically, the first musical reviewed on the blog* (That’s Entertainment being a compilation documentary). More Lubitsch over the next day or two, this time from the Eclipse box of his early Paramount musicals, so we’ve leapt quite some way in time and space from those German films of his we saw recently… by this time he was established in Hollywood, just signed to Paramount, and ready to tackle the new sound technology (the silent The Patriot apparently had talking sequences in 1928 but I don’t know if they were done by him or not). Apart from making pretty much instant stars of its two leads (Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette Macdonald), it also apparently pioneered the operetta style of musical where the songs are part of the story, as opposed to the revues and stage-based stories that otherwise predominated in early musicals. Interesting to see this again after Applause; I first saw this some 12 years ago in one of David Stratton’s classes, at which time it seemed about as advanced as a 1929 talkie was likely to get (especially by comparison with Alibi, which we saw the week before), and I suppose it was, though next to Mamoulian’s film you can see a degree of comparative stiffness, some quite lengthy static takes… IMDB says it was actually shot silent and completely post-dubbed, but I call bullshit on that, it doesn’t look silent-shot to me. Story is a nice little battle-of-the-sexes job, Chevalier’s womanising count marries MacDonald’s queen but he’s really the “housewife” in the arrangement as he has nothing to do except just be the Prince Consort until tables turn in the last act. Songs didn’t strike me as terribly interesting, but they’re pulled off nicely enough by the film’s stars (Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth, his and her servants respectively, also get to do good stuff as the film’s other couple), and the whole thing works quite well as a successful transition into post-silent Hollywood for Lubitsch.

(* Whoops! Guess which fuckwit forgot until two days after writing this that The Cocoanuts was actually a musical as well…)

That’s Entertainment! (1974)

When your New Year’s Eve plans unexpectedly fail, what more can a poor boy do except be left agog at the mind-boggling camp of Esther Williams’ swimming sequences? (To say nothing of Mickey Rooney in blackface!) That was how I saw in 2011, in a fairly bad mood that was, admittedly, transformed somewhat by a bit of alcohol and this famous bit of Golden Age nostalgia after the midnight fireworks… This celebration of MGM’s 50th anniversary will itself turn 37 this year (it’s about six months older than me) and offers a certain insight, I suppose, into its own time; interesting to see that minstrel show bit from 1941 not only included but included without any comment, as if MGM thought that 1974 audiences might not be, you know, bothered by it or something. But not only did they celebrate a past era, they marked the end of their own, with all the linking introductions being shot on the old MGM backlot which would be demolished once filming was over; I did like that the various hosts didn’t hide how shabby the backlot was by this time, it kind of enhanced that end-of-era aspect. As for me, with a literal handful of exceptions, the musical genre isn’t one I’m normally attracted to, but it was NYE, I was at home and in the mood for something light, this suited ideally… Nostalgia always sells well and fuelled this film’s success in the Watergate era, but now it carries a further nostalgic charge in the digital age, with its celebration of some quite amazing athleticism, and the necessity for possessing certain skills and talents that couldn’t be compensated for by technological enhancement quite as readily as they could now. Astaire had to be able to actually pull off those moves in long shot and long takes; Berkeley’s dancers had to be actually able to arrange themselves in those shapes. If That’s Entertainment does amusingly admit there weren’t many differences between the various Rooney/Garland films, it also pointed out the fact that some sort of real artistry was involved in making these things, and I can appreciate that if I don’t always appreciate the films themselves.

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