(On Cable TV, January 2019) I’m probably showing the shallowness of my pool of reference, but Anchors Aweigh certainly struck me as a dry run for the more successful On the Town four years later. After all, both movies star Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as sailors on shore leave, reaching for the same kind of audience-friendly mixture of comedy and music. It’s as if both sprang from the same starting point, with On the Town improving upon its predecessor by featuring more couples and swapping Los Angeles for New York. Still, Anchors Aweigh is far more than a prototype—it’s a perfectly enjoyable film in its own right. The plot is serviceable as a way to showcase what its leads do best. Sinatra is great while singing a quiet number at a piano, while Gene Kelly dances as well as ever—famously with an animated Jerry the Mouse, but also in a market sequence, and then again in a dream Spanish adventure sequence. The colourful look at 1945 movie studios pleasantly blurs the line between fiction and memorializing then-reality. George Sidney’s direction is slickly professional (especially during the Hollywood Bowl piano sequence), and female lead Kathryn Grayson is very, very cute. While comparisons with On the Town do Anchors Aweigh no favour, it’s a very enjoyable musical, and it’s doubly worth seeing by classical Hollywood fans by virtue of showing us what MGM studios looked like at the close of WW2.
(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.
(In French, On TV, December 2018) Just as I was tempted to dismiss writer/director Jacques Demy on the basis of the unbearable Les parapluies de Cherbourg, here comes the much better Les demoiselles de Rochefort to redeem it all. This far improved follow-up fixes my two biggest annoyances with the previous film: Much of the dialogue is spoken rather than sung, and it does feature a happy ending (even though it’s by mere seconds—the film does toy with its audience toward the end, perhaps keenly aware that those having seen Les parapluies de Cherbourg almost expected an unhappy ending.) That alone could have been enough to make it a good movie, but then it goes the extra mile. Not only does it feature a young gorgeous Catherine Deneuve and her sister Françoise Dorléac, but here is no less than Gene Kelly (visibly older, but still capable) walking in for a few scenes and a dance number. Very, very colourful, Les demoiselles de Rochefort makes the best of its coastal-town setting, starting with an elevated bridge dance sequence, then spending much of its time in a public square with a fantastically glassed-in café set. There’s a little bit of atonal weirdness when it turns out that there’s an axe murderer (!) hanging around, but otherwise the film is far more successful than its predecessor. “Chanson des Jumelles” is a great, memorable number, but it’s really the cheerful colourful atmosphere of the film that wins audiences over. I happened upon the movie by chance, playing as it was in the middle of the night on an unlikely TV channel, and almost gave it a pass. Only Gene Kelly’s name drew me in, and I’m glad it did—Les demoiselles de Rochefort is now one of my favourite French films of the 1960s, which is saying something considering the strengths of the decade for French cinema.
(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.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, August 2020) Two-and-a-half years and several dozen musicals later, I still like On the Town a lot — it’s self-aware, visually imaginative, can depend of the combined talents of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Ann Miller and does create the bubble of fantasy that many musicals rely on. A second look highlights a few things that hadn’t necessarily focused upon the first time — such as the underhanded agency of the female characters, and the fact that our male protagonists are slightly idiotic. Once past Ann Miller, I also have plenty of nice things to say about Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett and even Alice Pearce in a clearly comic role.
(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.