Spreadin’ The Jam
A swing primer on payin’ the rent with a little glad action on the part of fellow enthusiasts.
A film that shows what is meant by Singin’ in the Rain, namely “Cinderella”. We don’t shrink from this sort of tale if it’s done right (to borrow an intonation from Truffaut), we swallow it even better in the studio as a satire of silents, we find it admirable if it doesn’t get in the way of our toe-tapping or our nostalgia. Easter Parade has a number of scenes in all the best anthologies, where they don’t make any sense at all. Fred Astaire is “Drum Crazy” because he’s trying successfully to distract a small boy from a stuffed toy rabbit he himself wants to buy for his mistress, it’s spring, “my oh my, what a lot of things to buy,” flowers, gifts, a toy.
They’re dancing partners, Nadine & Hewes, she leaves him to become a star of the Ziegfeld Follies, which is why the film is set in 1912, he trains another hoofer in her place.
Minnelli could not have filmed this better, he opens The Band Wagon with a similar tour de force and another intent. Walters breezes along like Howard Hawks, Nadine has a maid who’s an accomplice to her mistress’s snobbery, that comes later. The news of betrayal comes buoyed up by this wealth of vernal craftiness and dropped, Hewes is in a bar, the girls come on behind him, he makes a bet with the bartender.
Pygmalion or My Fair Lady with the great comeuppance for Nadine. She graces the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in a Ziegfeld pageant, gets her picture taken in the Easter Parade led by two Russian wolfhounds, turns like Toumanova in Torn Curtain at the end of “Shakin’ the Blues Away”, a real job of work reluctantly taken in hand by Hewes’ academic friend, who also courts the new dancer like Freddy of Shaw & Lerner & Loewe.
Hannah Brown is dubbed “Juanita” for exoticism and made to learn the old routines, then Hewes sees the light and they find something new. He doesn’t see that she loves him and he loves her, she brings this to his attention. A producer builds a show around them, Walking Up the Avenue, “we would swim up the avenue but we haven’t any lake,” after Hewes turns down a chance for them in the Follies.
Balancing the bartender is François, whipping up a Sid Caesar Salad named for himself, more Fritz than Feld.
A more powerful analysis of the dance than Fred Astaire in slow motion you’ll not find even in Canada.
The Barkleys of Broadway
The Barkleys of Broadway is their third stage hit, a Surrealist artist portrays them as frying pan (Josh) and pancake (Dinah), she leaps into the fire of tragedy as The Young Sarah, Bernhardt, for a playwright who can’t direct. Josh phones her notes in a French accent as the author, she is a triumph. The gag is revealed, she returns to musical comedy.
Oscar Levant plays Khachaturian’s “Saber Dance” at the initial opening night party, and the Tchaikovsky First at an annual hospital benefit (he is the composer of their shows). Levant plays on the line rather than in it, less expression means more music.
Robert Alton’s choreography is punctuated by a centerpiece, Hermes Pan’s “Shoes with Wings On” (the music alludes to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the dance is related to The Red Shoes). The tendency is toward intimate naturalism, a theme developed grandly on the rehearsal stage where a vigorous tap duet shifts to swing as the camera cranes down to the dancers.
Astaire and Rogers at the benefit give a demonstration of New York style with Hollywood snap, American verve and Continental savoir vivre.
The set designs are very accurate, Walters’ terse and consummate style takes every inch of the frame into view as a speaking composition from vivid scene to scene.
His great student is Woody Allen. The theme is best analyzed by Cukor in Pat and Mike, simple and direct. Easter Parade is given a mirror or a sequel.
Bernhardt’s audition at the French Conservatory is represented in Act II of the play, she throws out Juliet à la Vivien Leigh for a dramatic recitation of the Marseillaise in French (the other girls are good audition material, not caricatures). Josh’s notes are on characterization, the conflict with her mother makes her apprehensive of the duke, etc.
Gielgud met Richardson in the Thirties while directing The Tempest, Caliban thought little of him but couldn’t make a proper entrance on the Old Vic promontory until a certain turn was given, “the scales fell from my eyes.”
Astaire in profil perdu adds a new element of comedy to his asseveration that Dinah is his creation (Easter Parade), she must be on her own two feet, she says.
The fine point is that these high-strung New Yorkers quarrel over his one critique on the first opening night, she might have been more tragic in the subway scene. The French playwright in the audience doesn’t care for musical comedies but saw her as Bernhardt at that moment.
The composer compliments a girl, “you’re free of the slavery of talent.” Josh alone in the Theater Shoe Repair number shoots his shoes, more descend from the heavens (the trick photography has him surrounded by dancing shoes in motion and a pair of ballet slippers).
“No more plays, no more biographies” for Dinah, they dance “Manhattan Downbeat” with real couples.
“A Walk in the Country” (filmed outdoors with a camera car) leads to Mrs. Belney’s (Billie Burke) summer home and rained-out golf and the playwright’s script, a scene of subterfuge out of The School for Scandal, Dinah feigning sick and the composer fetching a tray of brandy decanters (Josh feigns a cold at the first party, left on Mrs. Belney’s snowy Manhattan terrace while Dinah meets the playwright).
Rogers in slacks defers slightly to Astaire in the tap rehearsal number, both in kilts for the “Highland fling” make for an irresistible planet orbiting a somber satire of Hitchcock’s crofter (The 39 Steps).
“My direction is completely to blame,” says Josh to Dinah over the phone, aping the Frenchman and correcting him, “a legitimate play is not different from a musical comedy.” The judges at the Conservatory choose Bernhardt “by unanimous consent.” Keaton in Le Roi des Champs-Élysées also goes upon the stage in French.
Judy Garland singing in the shower, Gene Kelly with a creaking floorboard and a sheet of newspaper, begin the two halves on a spontaneous urge.
“Get Happy” unites the agricultural and artistic themes. The analysis shows several weeds and ringers pulled from the patch, and some surprising indications (Phil Silvers as a directionless New Yorker, “Heavenly Music” dousing the fashion set).
The main problems are the hay-feverish son of an imperious shopkeeper out to claim the farmer’s daughter, and her sister the art-school flop gone showbiz.
Critics have taken this once over lightly, but it’s a major work.
A sacrificial film built up out of bare artifice and Technicolor to have done with these for the purpose of clarifying the thematic relationships of Walters’ earlier films. This one is divided by Lili’s suicide attempt after the Casino de Paris, so that the overture culminates in the great crane shot to the slack-rope walker and Marcus’s act. Marcus le Magnifique is secretly married, that is the secret of his magic. Lili is sixteen, that is her secret. The puppeteer unveils himself to her in his cast of characters, this finally penetrates her understanding, she grasps the stage magician’s tours de force, the performer’s representations and the essential folly of men.
Whimsy has been the thought of critics regarding Lili, English critics are resistant to it, Americans not. The real culmination of Walters’ technical abilities in a certain sense comes at the first scene of the puppet show with Lili, he carries it to a fine point of finish just to reveal by degrees the puppeteer behind the curtain.
This and the final imaginary dance expressly recall The Wizard of Oz, and again it is typical of Walters to conclude his film according to the theme with one of the most beautiful sets ever filmed at M-G-M, a full-scale enlargement of a monochrome wash with lightening.
The puppeteer is a former dancer lamed in the war. The impresarios of the Folies de Paris praise his new career as even better than the old. All this is by way of a fairy tale, the magician and the puppeteer are one and the same.
Dangerous When Wet
From the opening title, this is visibly a piece of madness in the manner of the conscionably surreal Fifties musical. In fact, Dangerous When Wet appears to pick up an image from Man Ray and develop it out of You Can’t Take It With You by way of Whitman’s morning walk in Alabama.
Walters’ flat style (a later influence on Gene Kelly) registers the musical as wise to itself and entirely cohesive, like a taut violin string on which the slightest nuance is measured.
The middle section, which contains an entire Tom & Jerry cartoon dream sequence, develops a single image: the French bathing suit. After presenting “for your consideration” the bikini tout simple, it exhibits a one-piece that is a “bijou rose et noir”.
The realism of the Channel swim is a fine bit of exhaustion. The songs by Arthur Schwartz and Johnny Mercer are perfectly charming. Charlotte Greenwood astounds, William Demarest reminds you he was a prizefighter, and Jack Carson is deployed to full advantage as a pep tonic salesman.
A very jolly analysis of The Philadelphia Story in the form of a précis with musical numbers, or a sketch for a musical. The numbers are famous set pieces, particularly “What a Swell Party This Is,” and the Newport Jazz Festival makes its bow in an appreciatory gesture by Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong (this was the year of Look Back in Anger, in which Jimmy says, “Anyone who doesn’t like real jazz, hasn’t any feeling either for music or people”).
These bits replace some of Philip Barry’s arias, and give you something like Olivier’s Hamlet, where pictures speak a thousand lines. And the pictures in High Society have a certain something, hard to pin down.
Walters films this as a play that opens into a musical from time to time, and he carries this to the point of casting his camera from the footlights or even the stalls at times, from which coign of vantage Louis Calhern, for example, walks on like a hallucination pure and simple. The overall effect is rather like the revolving dice tables of Robin and the 7 Hoods.
Billy Rose’s Jumbo
John Noble buys out the Wonder Circus by an excellent stratagem, but damned if it doesn’t backfire on him.
Walters & Berkeley, Hecht & MacArthur, every bit as fantastic as it sounds, beginning with a Chorus like Henry V, singing on the “circus of yore”.
The circus acts are built up into the structure of the film, and finally become its expression.
The circus is that which cannot be bought for money, but the price of a ticket will get you a complete education.
Noble hires his son out to Pop Wonder under another name. The boy pays the bills with Noble money so his father can foreclose, and that’s what happens. But Pop has a daughter who knows how to fly.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Walters demonstrates from the outset that he is a precise and painstaking director with, among other things, an understanding of Keaton, as well as an intimate and fertile grasp of musical film technique.
His décors are artistic to the last degree. “I can paint a bowl of fruit that’ll draw flies!” The story is a rib-tickler, as Henry James would say. Or rather Whitman.
It’s a new treatment of the dance camera, suited to a more dramatic expressiveness, even if it is only tracking out on Ed Begley dancing a jig, after which a pie fight ensues and the camera gets one.
The story gets dangerously close to Twain, and then achieves a portrait of the lady that, cinematically speaking, is rather like Degas, before concluding with a quote from To Kill a Mockingbird.
Walk Don’t Run
Friday to Monday at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
A Briton finds no room at the inn, an American joins him in a girl’s apartment transposed from George Stevens’ The More the Merrier.
It’s the twenty-fifth anniversary of World War II’s commencement, and Sir William’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.
The problem is to get a Haversack off the girl.
The sublime complexity is very fast and detailed, the roomers lose their pants at first, but Sir William knows exactly how to brew a cup of coffee.
Both sides of Japan reflect the situation, cosmopolitan and traditional.
The film was admired, if not understood, by critics at the time but, like Ralph Nelson’s Father Goose on the identical theme, its reputation has suffered precisely for that lack of understanding.