(In French, On Cable TV, November 2018) Now Robin and the 7 Hoods is an interesting curio: A gangster musical, featuring Bing Crosby and the Rat Pack. Adding even more interest to the proceedings, the story is a retelling of Robin Hood in Prohibition-era Chicago. With a premise and cast like this, you can almost be forgiven for thinking that whatever is on-screen is a let-down from whatever idealized movie you could imagine. Depending on your taste, the film is either too talky, too long, not witty enough to fully capitalize on its potential, or to make good use of its long list of performers. Barbara Rush isn’t as good a Marian as she could have been, while we can quibble about the number of songs given to this or that actor/singer. All of this is true—Robin and the 7 Hoods is never mentioned as a major musical, and there’s a feeling that the material could be done quite a bit better. And yet … there are some really good moment in here. The highlight has to be the “Bang! Bang!” number featuring Sammy Davis, Jr. as a gun-crazy gangster shooting up the place. Another great sequence has a speakeasy transforming itself into a religious mission complete with gospel singers. Edward G. Robinson shows up briefly as an elderly gangster, while Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin (a bit wasted) and Bing Crosby (showing up too late) get to croon a few numbers. The colourful portrait of 1920s Chicago is a straight-up cliché, justifiably so in a silly musical comedy. I do wish Robin and the 7 Hoods would have been just a bit better, but I still had quite a good time watching it all. Just the thrill of discovery does account for much of it.
(On Cable TV, July 2018) Considering the high esteem with which I hold The Philadelphia Story (Hepburn! Grant! Stewart!), you may think that I wouldn’t be so happy about its musical remake High Society. But that’s not the case! I like musicals, and High Society is a great musical, justifying its existence by doing things that the original film couldn’t do. The fun starts early as the film features Louis Armstrong and His Band introducing the setting in song before turning to the audience and winking, “End of song, beginning of story.” I like my musicals self-aware, and the tone thus having been settled, we’re off to the races as Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra end up forming the triangle at the centre of the story. Kelly plays her princess-like role well enough—not up to Katharine Hepburn’s level, but the irony level is off the chart considering that this would be her last film before becoming a member of the real Monaco royalty. Crosby and Sinatra are effortlessly charming as usual—“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” is sensational, and “Now You Has Jazz” has Armstrong taking centre stage for a welcome encore. The film is at its weakest when running through the motions of repeating its inspiration, and at its strongest when it goes off in song and dance numbers. I really enjoyed it—especially as a musical.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) While I liked watching White Christmas, parts of the film don’t resonate given a different social context. I live in Canada. I’ve never been part of the military. There wasn’t a World War less than a decade ago. So when much of the film’s plot hinges on WW2 veterans making extraordinary sacrifices to save an inn managed by their former commanding officer, there’s a basic difference in worldview that takes a while to understand. Fortunately, much of the rest of the film works much better. Bing Crosby is a likable performer, Danny Kaye makes for a capable foil, and then there’s Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen to round off the main cast. The romantic repartee isn’t too bad, with the songs and dance number filling in the rest of the movie. It’s all quite amiable, especially once the film’s second half moves into the “let’s put on a show!” mode that allows full-scale musical numbers to be “rehearsed.” Fortunately, White Christmas does still work quite well as a Christmas movie, no matter where and when we come from.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) On paper, there’s nothing to suggest that Going My Way is going to be an entertaining experience. It is, after all, about a young priest moving to a New York City parish. His small-town ways are not greeted warmly, and it’s an uphill battle for him to be taken seriously. Duller films have been made of more interesting premises. But watching the film makes it better. For one thing, the lead character is played by Bing Crosby, who isn’t just effortlessly charming, but allows the film to gradually shift in semi-musical mode as his character can sing in support of his parish. As antagonists are tamed, songs are sung, the church’s mortgage paid off and things get back in order (at least until one capriciously arbitrary late-movie downturn), Going my Way actually works decently well. Movies rarely spend so much time in the minutiae of church-running, but the film isn’t particularly religious—the parish is usually portrayed as a business with obligations and logistics. Going my Way won the best Picture Oscar for its year, and while I can argue that (then) Gaslight or (now) Double Indemnity would have been better choices, it’s not an incomprehensible one: It’s a warm and uplifting picture, with great performances by Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald. It’s religious-friendly without being secular-unfriendly and as such could (and still can) reach a wide audience.