(On Cable TV, February 2019) From 1933 to 1945, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made nine movies together, revolutionizing the movie musical along the way. While I think that The Gay Divorcee is the funniest of those movies and Swing Time the best from a dancing standpoint, Top Hat is usually mentioned as the most successful of those nine pictures. It certainly gets a lot of mileage out of the classic “Cheek to Cheek” number, but perhaps the best thing about it is how it distills the Astaire/Rogers formula to its purest: A romantic comedy, with catchy music and terrific numbers spanning the gamut from funny to classy. There’s a solo tap-dancing showcase for Astaire, there are gorgeous costumes (wow, that feather dress!), there’s screwball comedy of mistaken identities, there’s an astonishing multi-storey set meant to present a fantasy version of Venice and, of course, there’s the idealized couple dancing away. With that formula, it’s a guaranteed fun time. The comedy is formulaic to the point of having miscommunication naturally escalates to good-natured slapping, which is in-keeping with mid-1930s comedy. If the Astaire/Ginger partnership worked so well compared to some other Astaire partners, it’s because the age difference between the two was a “mere” 12 years, but also because Rogers could keep up with him better than others. (If you’re paying attention to the other perennial issue in Astaire movies, that of consent in romantic pursuits, it’s still here but not as blatant as in other films.) Top Hat may not be all that substantial, but it remains exhilarating entertainment in the classic Hollywood glamour tradition. Since seeing the film, I managed to find a DVD copy—just so that I can watch it at any time.
(On Cable TV, January 2019) On paper, Funny Face looks like a perfect combination: A musical comedy with Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn and Paris. Thankfully, the film lives up to expectations: Fred Astaire dances as well as he can, and while Hepburn isn’t quite as much of a dancer as some of Astaire’s other screen partners, she did have dancing (and singing!) chops and couldn’t possibly be cuter as an intellectual bookseller—even Hollywood’s idea of an intellectual bookseller. Paris and Hepburn were a regular item (“Bonjour, Paris !”), but they look great together and the film doesn’t miss a chance to use a French stereotype when it can. (I had to laugh at the spat between two bohemian Parisians: “Salaud ! Dégueulasse ! *Slap* *Kiss*”) Unlike some musicals, Funny Face does have strong comic elements: The look at a fashion magazine—Astaire plays a fashion photographer—is amusing, and seeing both Astaire and Hepburn as black-clad undercover beatniks is hilarious especially as they skewer the philosophical excesses of Left-Bank thinkers. (Alas, Funny Face does have an anti-intellectual bent, but so it goes in musicals.) The romantic ending is more conventional and not as interesting, but as usual the fun is getting there. Less fortunately, you do have to get over the usual Astaire romantic issues in liking the film: His characters are often written as having revolting ideas about consent in the face of romantic persistence (“No” usually means “try again later with more charm” in his movies) and there’s a thirty-year difference between Astaire and Hepburn. That last item used to infuriate me, but then I recently realized that very few people could keep up with Astaire as a dancer—younger actresses at least had a chance to move as quickly and gracefully as he did. (It’s not much of an excuse, but it’s the one I cling to.) If you can manage to get past that, Funny Face is a perfectly charming and enjoyable musical, somewhere between a classic and a strong representative entry in the genre. (While technically a Paramount production, a number of key crewmembers such as director Stanley Donen were from MGM’s legendary Freed unit.) Plus, of course, it’s an essential piece of Hepburn’s filmography by showcasing her at her best.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) In the running for the title of the greatest clip show ever made, That’s Entertainment! does have the advantage of great source material to draw from: nothing less than the heydays of MGM musicals, featuring greats such as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and so many others that it would be exhausting to list them all. Various stars such as James Stewart, Bing Crosby and Elizabeth Taylor introduce some of the archival segments. Helmed by writer/director Jack Haley Jr. from MGM’s library extensive library, the film is a pure celebration of musicals as an art form, and of MGM as a powerhouse studio. Ironically, the film also acts as a tombstone for the classical MGM—filmed on the studio’s backlot, That’s Entertainment! presents the MGM studios right after they were sold off to finance the studio’s debts. As a result, the backdrop behind the presenters is decrepit, rusted, faded, overgrown with weeds, showing Hollywood’s past grandeur in a documentary fashion. The contrast between that and the clip shows is astounding, as we get a quick greatest hits of MGM’s most memorable numbers and fascinating segments about Astaire, Kelly, Esther Williams and Judy Garland. That’s Entertainment! is an absolutely fascinating film, and it deserves its enduring popularity—TCM even used it, along with its sequels, as a perfect lead in to the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Now, I want a good affordable copy of it on Blu-Ray.
(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, December 2018) Being right doesn’t mean much when you’re late, and unfortunately that’s the first conclusion I get from watching Finian’s Rainbow, an old-fashioned musical that has the right moral values about racism but the rotten luck of making it to theatres one year after movies such as In the Heat of the Night and Guess who’s Coming to Dinner completely changed the Hollywood conversation about racial injustice in the United States. As New Hollywood was remaking the film industry in a far different image, Finian’s Rainbow was torn between new issues and old-fashioned style, featuring no less than Fred Astaire singing and dancing about racial injustice while dealing with a meddlesome leprechaun trying to get its gold back. Yeah… I’m not making this up. It’s a musical in the purest tradition of the form, but it would have been so much better had it been made ten years earlier. Astaire isn’t bad, but he looks truly old here—I mean: he never looked young even when he was, but here age has visibly caught up to him, and his great dance routines look almost dangerous. Petunia Clark is fine as his daughter, but much of the comedy and remarkable performances come from other players (including Tommy Steele as a hyper-caffeinated leprechaun) in this bizarre southern state/Irish-mythology mash-up. The film’s message against racial discrimination goes through an incredibly racist character being magically transformed into a black person (hello blackface) in time to travel with a small group of singers—the song is great (“The Begat”), but everything leading to it has issues of some sort. Plus, it’s directed by none other than Francis Ford Coppola. Finian’s Rainbow, as you can guess, is a strange blend—sometimes great, sometimes endearing, sometimes dumbfounding and sometimes uncomfortable. It’s certainly interesting, but I’m going to stop myself from calling it a must-watch.
(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.