(On Cable TV, December 2018) A good musical comedy is timeless, and Easter Parade is better than most. Here we have Fred Astaire as a Broadway singer pairing up with a young singing sensation played by Judy Garland in an effort to make his ex-partner (on-and-off-stage) jealous. That’s really an excuse to string along musical numbers, of course, and Easter Parade plays that game well. Astaire is in fine form, MGM’s Freed unit was near the top of its game and few expenses were spared along the way. I’d like it a lot better if Judy Garland and Ann Miller (who plays the ex-partner) switched roles, but I seem to be in the minority in my overall lack of enthusiasm for Garland. Still, Miller gets at least one good solo number (“Shaking the Blues Away”) and it’s fun to see her as the romantic antagonist. The film’s by-the-numbers plotting lets the musical numbers shine through: the highlights include the Astaire/Garland comedic “We’re a Couple of Swells”, but especially the Astaire number “Steppin’ Out with My Baby”, which mixed optical trickery to show Astaire’s dance moves in slow motion. The early-1910s Manhattan atmosphere is convincing, with all the stops pulled out for the title end number. Astaire, like in most of his movies, is too old for his co-star, but then again which woman, no matter her age, could keep up with his dance moves? Worth watching at any time of the year, Easter Parade is among the best of the MGM musicals, and remains a minor landmark in Astaire, Garland or Miller’s careers.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Despite James Stewart’s considerable charm (and here he has the chance to play as pure a young romantic lead as he ever got), it took me a while to warm up to You Can’t Take it with You. Despite an eccentric cast of characters, it takes a long time for the comedy to truly take off. Fortunately, this happens midway through, as an explosive sequence is followed up by a rather amusing courtroom sequence. That’s when director Frank Capra feels freest to truly unleash the madness of his characters, and what it means for the plot. Less successful is the film’s last act, which focuses on more manners moral lessons (it’s right there in the title), lessening the film’s laugh quotient but ensuring that it would present an easy moral lesson fit for the film to win that year’s Best Picture Oscar. This being said, the film is not a chore to watch even today. James Stewart is always good, of course, while Lionel Barrymore is unusually sympathetic as the patriarch of an oddball family and 15-year-old Ann Miller makes an impression as the family’s dance-crazy daughter. The film’s mid-point highlight is good for a few laughs, and even easy moral lessons can work well in wrapping up a satisfying viewing experience. As a checkmark for best Picture completists, it’s an odd but not a bothersome entry.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) At face value, On the Town is a ridiculous film. Following three sailors on leave in Manhattan through a day of gentle debauchery, it has unbelievable coincidences, a pat ending, generic characters and some astonishing lengths, including an entirely optional dream sequence. But here’s the thing: it’s a musical, and like many of the musicals closely associated with Gene Kelly, it knows it’s a musical. It doesn’t even waste any time telling us that it acknowledges its own absurdity, from the impossibly full morning tourism of the characters, to three cabarets reprising the same ditty, to the consciously ridiculous meet-cute romances. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra make for fantastic leads, and the visual polish of On the Town is often eye-popping: If I liked Ann Miller best of all the film’s dames, it may have something to do with the fantastic green dress she wears throughout “Prehistoric Man.” The film is, from “New York, New York” on, a joy to watch: Cheerful, exuberant, unconcerned with plausibility and rather racy in some implications, it’s also a delightful romanticized time capsule of post-war New York City in full Technicolor. The location shooting (a rarity at the time), as short as it was, brings a lot to the film. I’m not terribly fond of the dream sequence, except that it does show the possibilities of ballet in a non-traditional setting … like many of Gene Kelly’s films. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by On the Town—it’s much better than a summary would suggest, and simply a lot of fun.