(Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2018) I recall seeing The Gay Divorcee in university, having borrowed the VHS tape from the university library to finally see what the fuss was about Fred Astaire. I loved it then and I’m still loving it now—perhaps especially even more so given that I’ve been diving deep into classic movies lately, no longer making much of a difference between colour and black-and-white, and being able to place the film in its proper context. While its sexual ethics are dodgy (Astaire comes across as a bit of a creep who can’t take a “no” in some early scenes), the film easily hits high points whenever Astaire and Ginger Rogers start dancing. Some great numbers are in here, including “The Continental”, the silly “Let’s Knock Knees” (which I still remembered from a previous viewing twenty years ago) and the romantic “Night and Day”. Still, the story itself has its comic highlights, with supporting actors playing broad comic archetypes and some very good dialogue along the way. The Gay Divorcee is not a great movie (and even as an Astaire one it paved the way to bigger successes) but it’s an enduring one because it’s fun.
(On DVD, February 2018) I partially grew up on seventies Disaster films (they were a popular staple of French-Canadian TV in the early eighties), and while I don’t remember a lot of about them, there is the occasional ping of recognition as re-watch them in middle age. My fuzzy memories of The Towering Inferno were a disservice to the film, which is quite enjoyable in its own bombastic way. Never mind the fascinating backstory to the film (two studios meshing together similar projects based on different books) when the end result brings Steve McQueen together with Paul Newman in a big cooperative battle of manly heroes. The film is long, but the leisurely opening act does set up a premise of fiendish promise: an enormous skyscraper, fire risks everywhere, and human failings exacerbating an already dangerous situation. It all culminates in a titular conflagration … and it works pretty well. There are a lot of familiar faces here, including O.J. Simpson as a security guard, Robert Vaughn in his usual evilness, and one last great appearance by Fred Astaire in an effective dramatic role. (He won an Oscar for it, properly understood to be about the rest of his career.) The film hits harder than expected, with plenty of sympathetic character deaths in addition to the expected reprehensible characters burning along the way. At times techno-thrillerish and at others always-getting-worse, The Towering Inferno does benefit from its mid-seventies vintage. The special effects haven’t aged well (mostly by limiting the way the disaster is portrayed—no CGI flybys of a burning tower surrounded by helicopters here) but the overall atmosphere of the film is fun. Far more successful than I expected to be, The Towering Inferno mostly holds up today … but be prepared for a long sit.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Any review of Swing Time risks being high on praise yet low in details, as much of the charm of the film lies in the dance numbers and physical performances from both Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. After what feels like an overly lengthy setup, the film starts heating up whenever Astaire meets Rogers and gets down to the dance moves. There’s undeniable charm to their shared numbers, and their technical proficiency is undeniable—even today, eighty years later, it still looks fantastic and a pleasure to re-watch. I’m torn on the “Bojangles of Harlem” number, though—while toe-tapping and technically far before its time with rear projection used as special effects, it does feature Astaire in blackface, and even making the segment a homage to Al Johnson isn’t enough to ease modern discomfort. Far less objectionable is “Waltz in Swing Time,” perhaps the finest footage of Rogers and Astaire together. While Swing Time itself may be slight (although it’s fun to step back in mid-nineteen-thirties Manhattan), the dance numbers are terrific, and that’s nearly all that matters.