(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) I know that many people consider the 1954 version of A Star is Born to be the definitive take on the story, Judy Garland elevating the material in a way that’s not harmed by the rough edges of the 1937 version or Streisand’s invasive influence on the 1976 remake. But… I beg to differ, largely on the strength of the argument that I don’t like Judy Garland all that much. Still, it’s worth acknowledging that this 1954 version, as directed by George Cukor, is a much slicker version of the previous take on the film—the budget is clearly there, and the film can be lavish in the way it shows the nature of stardom in the mid-1950s. Alas, this indulgence also makes the film longer and duller with every full-length musical number stopping the film dead in its track. The 1983 re-edit of the film, which attempts to incorporate cut sequences with a mixture of audio and still pictures, is not as good as it sounds—I probably would have liked the unaltered 1954 version a bit better. This being said, I quite liked James Mason in the male lead role, as he captures the mixture of arrogance and vulnerability that the part requires. Meanwhile, superstar Garland sings well, but looks twenty years older than she should. While the film leans heavily in its musical genre, it does keep enough of Hollywood to bridge the gap between the all-movies 1937 version and the all-music 1976/2018 versions—and the look at 1950s Hollywood is simply fascinating.
(On Cable TV, September 2018) MGM’s extraordinary success in producing what we think of as the quintessential musical comedy films arguably began with Meet me in Saint-Louis. Not that it was the first musical—the form had been popular for fifteen years by that point. But it’s in this film that MGM put together the ingredients that ensured its continued success for the decade-and-a-half to come: Colour cinematography, distinct memorable songs, a nostalgic depiction of a slightly earlier era, limpid plotting and very charming actors all explain why the film was an immediate hit and still plays superbly well into the twenty-first century. Meet me in Saint-Louis is headlined by Judy Garland, and I have to say that despite my overall ambivalence about her later work, she is adorable as a doll here—old enough to escape being a child actor, but not yet damaged by a life of substance abuse. (It’s on this movie that she met director Vincente Minnelli, with whom she’d marry in 1945 and have Liza Minnelli in 1946.) The episodic structure of the film—adapted from a series of short stories—seems odd at first, but soon becomes a comfortable and heartwarming depiction of a year in the life of an upper-middle-class family, complete with holiday-themed episodes and a final act that sums up the year’s narrative threads. Some of the film’s songs have since become classics, especially “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Meet me in Saint-Louis remains a great film to watch, no matter the time of the year.
(On TV, December 2017) There are movies that seem to exist outside their own running time, movies that everybody knows through quotes, call-backs, references, parodies and (now) memes, quite independently from actually being seen. I’m not sure I’d seen The Wizard of Oz completely from beginning to end until now, but that hardly seemed to matter in a world where its quotes are clichés, its characters iconic and at least two novels (which I’ve read) are directly based on it. It’s become a cornerstone of American fantasy fiction, and actually watching it only reinforces why: Even in 1939, The Wizard of Oz is a dynamic, literally colourful example of how to deliver a fantasy movie. It’s got invention (although this may not be as clear to contemporary audiences force-fed decades of imitators), a certain amount of wit, a vivacious performance by Judy Garland, and a tremendous amount of competence in delivering a slick escapist fantasy story by way of a movie musical. It simply doesn’t feel like a film from the thirties. While its rhythm is unequal and some section of the film feel role by sheer virtue of having become clichés, The Wizard of Oz is still must-see cinema—see it to understand why it’s become such a cultural mainstay.