(In French, On TV, November 2018) I’m on a quest to watch pretty much everything that George Cukor has directed, and for Let’s Make Love to feature Marilyn Monroe is just extra incentive. Coming at this film with expectations raised too high may be a problem, though: despite a few cameos and occasional flashes of wit, the result is decidedly average and not quite what we’d expect from the cast or the opening moments. The first few minutes of the film do set up a far funnier film than what we get, through narration explaining the family history of the lead character (played by Yves Montand), a Franco-American billionaire who ends up playing himself in a satirical play in order to get close to Monroe’s character. The difficulties in having a businessman attempting to become a stage sensation soon lead him to the film’s most inspired sequences, namely hiring Milton Berle for comedy tips, Gene Kelly for dancing lessons and Bing Crosby to learn how to sing. The three men play themselves, leading to a few cool moments if you’re already a fan of these entertainment legends. Otherwise, though, the film is surprisingly underwhelming. The traditional romantic comedy hijinks aren’t executed particularly well when Montand looks lost (thanks to language difficulties), Monroe is fine but doesn’t have much of a character besides looking pretty (this was at a point in her career when she was gathering a reputation for being unreliable), and the casting definitely seems off. High expectations make this film a disappointment, so do try to keep them under check: it’s not as good as you think it will be from reading the cast list, and the behind-the-scenes drama of making the film (what with an affair between the two leads even as they were married to other high-profile celebrities) is arguably more interesting than what shows up on-screen. [December 2018: My opinion of Let’s Make Love went up a small notch after catching an English-language broadcast of the film: The French version not only has some very awkward transitions between English-language songs and interstitial French dialogue, but has the gall to cut off some of the Berle/Kelly/Crosby material that is the highlight of the film. French dubs are usually much better than this.]
(On DVD, February 2018) I’m hit and miss on most musicals, but so far I’m three-for-three on Gene Kelly directed musicals (plus an honorary mention for On the Town) including the sometimes maligned Hello, Dolly! I’m not saying that it’s a perfect film or even on the level of Singin’ in the Rain: The romantic plot between the film’s two leads is unconvincing, some numbers are dull, Barbra Streisand is arguably too young for the role, the first half-hour is barely better than dull and the film doesn’t quite climax as it should (the biggest number happens long before the end). But when Hello, Dolly! gets going, it truly shines: Walter Matthau plays grouchy older men like nobody else before Tommy Lee Jones; Barbra Streisand is surprisingly attractive as a take-charge matchmaker suddenly looking for herself; the B-plot romantic pairing is quite likable; the period recreation is convincing and the film’s best numbers (the parade, the restaurant sequence) are as good as classic musicals ever get. As with other Kelly movies, it’s a musical that understands its own eccentric nature as a musical, embracing the surrealism of its plotting and the most ludicrous aspects of its execution. It’s awe-inspiring in the way ultra-large-budget movies can be: the parade sequence is eye-popping and the hijinks at the restaurant are a delight. Seeing Louis Armstrong pop up to croon his own take on Hello, Dolly! in his inimitable voice is a real treat. It doesn’t amount to a classic for the ages like other musicals, but Hello, Dolly! Is still a heck of a lot of fun even today, and it’s quite a bit better than what the contemporary critical consensus has determined.
(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.
(On DVD, January 2018) I’ll be the first to admit that classic musicals aren’t for everyone, but there’s a fun quality to An American in Paris that makes it irresistible. From the pleasantly idealized portrait of post-war Paris to witty musical numbers that acknowledge their own nature as musical numbers, this is a fun, not particularly deep but rather enjoyable musical. It won an Oscar, but it feels considerably less substantial than you’d expect—just a few Americans having fun in a glossy version of Paris, wooing girls and getting into all sorts of dance numbers. Gene Kelly is fantastic in the lead role (he also brought his distinctive touch to the film’s choreography, including the spectacular but rather long standout ballet sequence at the end of the film), with Leslie Caron simply being adorable as the romantic ideal, and Oscar Levant as comic relief. While An American in Paris is notable for its extended ballet sequence that makes much of the film’s last half-hour, I found it long and disconnected from the rest of the film—of course, that’s the point. And it’s impressive to see Kelly make ballet not only accessible to movie audiences, but actually fun. Still, I like other moments of the film better—The “black-and-white” party sequence is visually memorable, and the sequence in which Henri first describes the heroine of the film is a delight. I can never say enough good things about Kelly, the colours are bright, the atmosphere is delightful and as an example of the height of MGM’s musical comedy era it’s about as good a representation of the form as possible—I like Singin’ in the Rain a lot more, but there’s a difference between a solid example of the form and something that completely transcends it. The exemplar should not feel slighted for not being exceptional.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) I’m currently bingeing on classic movies, with occasional flashes of giddiness along the way as I (re) discover great movies along the way. I’m surprised at how much I just love Singin’ in the Rain. I had two or three minutes of doubt at the very beginning of the film, as the opening sequence takes on a grandiloquent tone that could be mistaken for earnestness rather than satire. Fortunately, the “Dignity, always dignity” sequence quickly set me straight as to the film’s real tone and intention. As with most of the Gene Kelly musicals I’ve seen, Singin’ in the Rain is a musical that celebrates that it’s a musical … and also recognizes that its audience has seen enough musicals to expect more. As a result, the tone is satirical, there are some spectacular set pieces and the result is optimized for maximum entertainment. Among the highlights is the early “Fit as a Fiddle” acrobatic number, which is eclipsed later on by the anthology-worthy “Make ’Em Laugh.” Gene Kelly is terrific, but Donald O’Connor is a great partner in dance, along with Debbie Reynolds and Jean Hagen to round up the cast. It certainly helps that the film is often laugh-aloud funny—never mind “Make ’Em Laugh” when there’s the classic “early talkie” sequence. (Which I dimly remembered from having seen at least this part of the film decades ago) Looking at Hollywood’s early-sound age is a great excuse to trot out excesses, and to have a lot of fun along the way. I’m certainly not alone in my love for the result, as Singin’ in the Rain earn an enviable spot on many best-of lists. It’s movies like this one that will keep me digging into film history, trying to catch what has charmed so many people since then.