Tag Archives: Musical

The Astaire & Rogers Blogathon–“Post Astaire and Rogers”


astaire

By 1939, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had made nine films together at RKO studios.  Their first film together, Flying Down to Rio (1933), featured the duo in supporting roles.  This wasn’t even supposed to be a vehicle for Fred and Ginger, the film starred Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond.  However, they excited audiences so much in “The Carioca,” that RKO was quick to re-team the duo in their second vehicle, The Gay Divorcee.  When ‘Rio’ was made, Ginger was the bigger star.  She had already appeared in almost two dozen films, including: 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933.  Fred on the other hand, was primarily a Broadway performer and had only appeared in one other film (Dancing Lady, where we’re treated to Joan Crawford’s awful dancing), where he played a fictionalized version of himself.

The Gay Divorcee was a huge hit and RKO was quick to keep teaming Fred and Ginger up in picture after picture.  Between 1933 and 1939, the duo had appeared in nine films: The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939).  By this point, both Fred and Ginger were ready to move onto other projects.  Ginger, especially, was ready to prove herself as more than just a dancer in fluffy romantic films.  She had achieved some success in the ensemble dramatic film, Stage Door (1937), and wanted to do more in this realm.

fredandginger
Fred and Ginger in “Swing Time.”

Fred, I don’t believe had acting aspirations as lofty as Ginger, but I believe he did want to try some more inventive dance routines.  Not that Ginger held him back, but seeing his performances where he dances solo, Fred seems to have more fun dancing–perhaps because he can do a more technical routine. After his initial partnership with Ginger ended, Fred appeared in a few more musicals with a variety of dancers: Broadway Melody of 1940 (w/ Eleanor Powell), You’ll Never Get Rich (w/ Rita Hayworth), You Were Never Lovelier (also w/ Rita Hayworth), and Yolanda and the Thief (with Lucille Bremer).  By 1946, Fred was tired of making films and retired.

Meanwhile, Ginger’s career was only getting bigger and bigger.  In 1940, Ginger appeared in one of her first major dramatic roles, Primrose Path with Joel McCrea.  I really like this film.  In this film, Ginger plays a woman who hails from a family whose tradition is prostitution.  Both Ginger’s grandmother and mother are prostitutes.  Ginger, understandably, does not want to follow in the family business.  She ends up meeting and marrying McCrea who is unaware of her family’s history.  Later in 1940, Ginger gets the role of a lifetime, the title role in Kitty Foyle.

When Ginger was first given the book for Kitty Foyle (for which RKO had just purchased the film rights), she was not impressed.  As she says in her 1991 autobiography, Ginger: My Story:

“As Howard [Hughes] and I were driving toward his residence, I glanced at my copy of Kitty Foyle.  There were explicit love scenes in it that were quite disturbing to me.  As I read these passages, I found myself passing judgement on them.  “That could never pass the censor board.  So what good is it for me to spend time reading it?” I was really embarrassed that RKO would send me something like this.  I snapped the book shut and quite deliberately, through it in the corner of Howard’s car.”

Ginger spoke to her mother, Lela, about the trashy book.  Lela very matter of factly, told Ginger that the studio would obviously have to tone down the sexual content as it would be impossible to film it.  The entire story would essentially have to be re-written.  After speaking with Lela, the producer and writer Dalton Trumbo (who was hired to write the script), Ginger’s qualms about accepting the part had been squashed.  Kitty Foyle ended up being a major hit, winning Ginger the Best Actress Oscar.

dennis
Dennis Morgan and Ginger Rogers in “Kitty Foyle.”

After Kitty Foyle, Ginger continued to act in dramatic films but also dabbled in comedic and noir roles as well.  Ginger even went back to her roots and appeared in more musicals.  One of my personal favorites of Ginger’s 1940s career is her turn in Billy Wilder’s directorial debut–The Major and the Minor.  This film is hilarious.  However, you really have to suspend your disbelief when it comes to the premise.  If you can accept co-star Ray Milland believing that Ginger’s character is “eleven, twelve next week” then you will enjoy this film.

The Major and the Minor gave Ginger the opportunity to show off her broad comedy skills.  The premise of this film is that Ginger has been trying to make a-go in New York City for a year but to no avail.  She decides to return home (to Stevenson, Iowa) via train.  However, she finds out that she doesn’t have enough money to pay an adult fare.  She does however have enough money to purchase a children’s ticket.  She gives herself a “makeunder” by removing her makeup and putting her hair in pigtails.  She modifies her clothing to make it look like something a child would wear.  She purchases her ticket.

major
Ray Milland and “12 year old” Ginger Rogers in “The Major and the Minor.”

On the train ride, Ginger attracts much attention from the conductor and train staff who are not buying her story that she’s “eleven, twelve next week” and that she’s tall because she’s “from Swedish stock.” Ginger has some very funny scenes trying to rationalize her grown-up appearance to the adults.  Ginger does take her child shtick a little far as she’s supposed to be 12 but she acts 5.  On the train, Ginger meets Ray Milland, a major who teaches at an all boys’ military school.  Milland can not see out of one eye.  With his blurred vision, he buys Ginger’s story that she’s 12.  Ginger ends up staying with Milland, Milland’s fiance and her sister for a few days.  Complications ensue when Ginger attracts the attention of the male cadets at the military academy and Milland’s fiance who is just not buying Ginger’s story.

I gave The Major and the Minor a lot of space in my article about Fred and Ginger, because it is probably my favorite of all of Ginger’s post-Fred films.  She also made one of my favorite Christmas-time films, I’ll Be Seeing You, where she plays a woman convicted of involuntary manslaughter and is serving time in prison.  She is given an eight-day furlough so that she can spend Christmas with her family.  During this furlough, she meets and falls in love with Joseph Cotten who is on a 10-day leave from the military hospital he’s been staying at.  I’ll Be Seeing You is a sweet, romantic film and is perfect for the holiday season.

In 1948, Gene Kelly was all set to appear opposite Judy Garland in Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade. However, right before filming was to begin, Gene broke his ankle playing volleyball.  Feeling bad, Gene coaxed Fred into coming out of retirement and replacing him in Easter Parade.   Fred agreed and this began a renaissance of some sorts of Fred’s career.  Easter Parade is one of my favorite films and as much as I love Gene, I cannot picture anyone else in this film other than Fred.

easter
Judy Garland and Fred Astaire in “Easter Parade.”

Easter Parade takes place in 1912-1913 New York City.  Fred plays a dancer who is part of a popular dance team.  His partner, Ann Miller, casually drops a bombshell on Fred: she’s been offered a solo show and has accepted.  Ann it seems, wants to be thought of as more than just Fred’s dance partner (Sound familiar?).  Upset, Fred goes down to a restaurant/bar to figure out a game-plan for his career.  While at the restaurant, Fred spots Judy, a singing waitress.  He makes a “My Fair Lady” type bet with the bartender.  He will pick Judy out of the lineup and turn her into his next dance partner.  The problem is Judy can’t dance.

Fred tries to teach Judy how to dance and she does okay, but is struggling.  It finally occurs to Fred that perhaps they should base their act around their respective talents.  Fred will dance and Judy will sing.  Perfect! With this change, Fred and Judy are a sensation and are soon auditioning for the famed Florenz Ziegfeld’s Ziegfeld Follies revue.  There is some drama between Ann and Fred and Judy and Fred that threatens to break up the act.  However, like all these films go, the drama is resolved and all is well by the end.

Easter Parade was a smash hit and MGM was eager to re-team Fred and Judy for another film: The Barkleys of Broadway.  However, by this point in her life, Judy was in bad shape and ended up being fired from production.  In perhaps a bit of a publicity coup for the film, MGM hired Ginger to take Judy’s place.  It had been ten years since their last pairing.  I don’t know if this is true, but I read somewhere that Judy, upset at being replaced, sent Ginger a shaving kit as a passive aggressive “congratulations” gift.  It seems that Ginger had a lot of peach fuzz on her face and used makeup and filters to hide it on screen. I hope this story is true, because it is hilarious.

barkelys
Ginger and Fred reunited for “The Barkleys of Broadway.”

The Barkleys of Broadway very much resembled Fred and Ginger’s real professional relationship: except in the film, they played a married couple.  In the film, Fred and Ginger are at the peak of their popularity, a sensation.  While at one of their shows, Ginger meets a playwright who suggests she take up dramatic acting.  Ginger tries to keep it a secret, but Fred finds out and the couple separate.  The Barkleys of Broadway was a big hit and continued to revitalize Fred’s career.  Curiously enough, Ginger’s career was starting to wind down.  She didn’t really make many big films in the 1950s, except for one of my favorites, Monkey Business with Cary Grant and a young Marilyn Monroe.

Starting with Easter Parade, Fred was becoming more innovative in his dance routines.  In Easter Parade, Fred used trick photography in “Steppin’ Out with my Baby” to make it appear like he was dancing in slow-motion.  In Royal Wedding, Fred again uses trick photography to make it look like he was dancing on the ceiling.  The Barkleys of Broadway features Fred’s “Shoes with Wings” routine where he dances with a bunch of shoes.

My other absolute favorite film from the later part of Fred’s career is Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn.  In this film, Fred plays Dick Avery, a fashion photographer for Quality magazine.  He is tired of photographing the same vapid models, who are pretty, but don’t really bring anything to his photograph.  His editor, Maggie Prescott (hilariously played by Kay Thompson, whom I wished had made more films), agrees that the magazine needs a new look.  They want to find someone who is as smart as they are beautiful.  They end up barging into (and destroying) the Manhattan bookstore: Embryo Concepts.  While at the bookstore, they find Audrey Hepburn, the shy shop clerk.

funnyface
Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson at Embryo Concepts bookstore in “Funny Face.”

Fred and Kay photograph the comic book reading model, Marion, but she’s just blah.  All beauty but no substance.  Fred ends up getting a photo of Audrey during the shoot.  Back at the magazine office, Fred is developing his photo of Audrey and sees that she has that je ne sais quoi that he and Kay have been looking for.  Kay calls up Audrey’s shop and orders some random books as a pretense to get her to come down to their office.  Audrey shows up and before she knows it, she’s been swept up in the world of modeling.  Audrey accepts the modeling work, as she’s informed that she’ll get to go to Paris.  Paris is where the renowned philosopher, Emile Flostre, regularly holds lectures about empathicalism–a philosophy that Audrey is very interested in.  Complications ensue when Audrey prioritizes her personal interests above those of her employer’s.  One of my favorite scenes of Funny Face is Fred and Kay’s dance at the beatnik hangout–“Clap Yo’ Hands.”

By the 1960s, both Fred and Ginger appeared infrequently in films but kept busy pursuing other interests.  Fred had his own television show for awhile and Ginger was a hit in theater, even appearing on London’s famed West End for a period.  Fred’s television career was very successful, his programs won numerous Emmys and revived an interest in dance.  In 1985, Ginger realized a lifelong ambition–to direct a play.  She directed an off-Broadway production of Babes in Arms.  Fred passed away in 1987 and Ginger in 1995.

Advertisements

The Judy Garland Blogathon–Judy & Gene

judy

gumm
The Gumm Sisters. Judy is bottom center. Mary Jane is on the left and Virginia is on the right.

96 years ago today, one of the world’s best entertainers was born.  Judy Garland was born Frances Gumm in 1922 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.  As a young girl, she performed with her two sisters, Mary Jane and Virginia as part of the Gumm Sisters vaudeville act.  Frances was the youngest and most talented in the group.  When Frances was five, the Gumm family moved to the Los Angeles area.  Mrs. Gumm tried to keep her daughters in the minds of show business executives by having them appear in various short films.  The Gumm sisters toiled in short films, dance classes and schooling for a few years until 1935 when Frances was discovered by MGM.  The Gumm sisters had changed their last names to “Garland” at the end of 1934.  In addition, Frances changed her name to Judy.

MGM studio head, Louis B. Mayer, saw Judy performing with her sisters and was immediately impressed with Judy’s talent.  He requested that Judy and her father come down to MGM and meet with him in his office.  Judy sang “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” for Mayer.  She was immediately signed to a contract.  However, soon MGM found that Judy was difficult to cast.  She was thirteen–too old to be a child star and too young to be an adult star.  Judy spent a few years playing the girl next door parts, co-starring with huge MGM star Mickey Rooney in his Andy Hardy series.  In 1939, Judy was cast in her star-making role: Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.

judygarland
Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.” In her most memorable screen moment. singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

After ‘Oz,’ Judy was seventeen and was eager to move onto more mature parts.  MGM however, kept her pigeonholed into girl next door parts.  She appeared as a goody goody teen in Babes in Arms and Strike Up the Band with Mickey Rooney.  In 1940, Judy finally snagged her first adult role in Little Nellie Kelly, playing a dual role to boot!  By 1940, much to MGM’s chagrin, there was no doubt that Judy was grown up.  She had already been embroiled in a hot and heavy affair with bandleader Artie Shaw until he ran off with Lana Turner.  Judy was devastated.  She then got together with musician David Rose, whom she married in 1941.  By 1942, Judy was a huge star at MGM and was transitioning into adult roles.  One of her major adult roles was as a vaudeville star in For Me and My Gal.

formeandmygal
Gene Kelly making his film debut with star Judy Garland, in “For Me and My Gal.”

For Me and My Gal is notable for not only being one of Judy’s early adult roles, but also for being Gene Kelly’s film debut.  Gene had been making a name for himself on Broadway, first as a choreographer and then as the star of Pal Joey.  MGM objected to Gene’s casting, but Judy supported him and campaigned for him to get the part.  Throughout production, movie veteran Judy supported Gene and gave him acting tips, especially when it came to adjusting his stage acting for the silver screen.  Gene always remembered Judy’s kindness when he made his first film and continued to support her throughout the rest of her life.

By 1948, Judy and Gene were huge musical stars.  It was also by this time that Judy was having her well-documented personal issues.  Judy initially was excited about shooting The Pirate, she thought it would be fun.  Director Vincente Minnelli (and Judy’s husband) also thought it would be a nice change of pace for he and Judy.  However, the production was in trouble as soon as it began.  Production was delayed two months because of Judy’s mental health.  She was then worried that co-star Gene would steal all her thunder.  Gene would regularly assist in choreographing the routines–he saw The Pirate as a way to make the dancing more ballet-like, a dance style that Gene was very familiar with.

thepirate
Hypnotized Judy screams out for Macoco in “The Pirate.” MACOCO!

Judy experienced multiple paranoia episodes during production and barely even showed up to shoot her scenes.  She was only present about 35 days out of the 100+ days of production.  When Judy was absent, the filmmakers would shoot around her.  During Judy’s absences, Gene would work closely with Minnelli on coming up with ideas for scenes and such.  When Judy would show up for work, she’d notice Gene and Vincente’s close relationship and become jealous.  She also thought that her husband had developed a crush on Gene (By all accounts, Gene was straight and did not reciprocate the crush).  Judy’s paranoia, combined with her addiction to pills, led to a nervous breakdown.

gene
Gene Kelly’s shorty shorts in “The Pirate.”

Judy’s mental health issues caused production to stretch from the planned two months to six.  In the end though, Judy pulled out a great performance–like she usually did.  Judy’s Manuela is one of her funniest performances–especially when she is hypnotized and starts crying out for Macoco.  “Mack the Black” is one of Judy’s most memorable songs.  The Pirate ended up losing money at the box office and was considered one of Judy, Gene and Minnelli’s worst films.  However, now The Pirate has found its audience and it is considered one of the classic musicals.   If you only watch one part of The Pirate, watch the scene where Gene dances with fire while wearing shorty shorts.  You won’t regret it.

In 1948, MGM wanted to re-team their two biggest musical stars, Judy and Gene, in another film, this time Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade.  Judy was supposed to play a waitress whom Gene’s character discovers and molds into his new dance partner.  Gene’s partner, played by Cyd Charisse, has decided to leave the act and strike out on her own. Just prior to production however, Gene broke his ankle during a heated volleyball game at his home.  Gene managed to coax Fred Astaire out of retirement and asked him to take his place.  Cyd Charisse ended up tearing a ligament in her knee and she was replaced by Ann Miller. If you can’t get Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, I guess Fred Astaire and Ann Miller will have to do (lol).  Easter Parade was a smash hit and soon MGM was eager to pair Judy and Fred up in The Barkleys of Broadway.

The Barkleys of Broadway was supposed to feature Judy and Fred as a successful husband and wife musical comedy team.  However, Judy’s character meets a famous playwright who suggests that she take up dramatic acting.  Fred’s character of course is upset.  Judy started production on the film but was soon fired after it was apparent that she had a serious addiction to prescription pills and alcohol.  MGM fired Judy from the film.  They then had the brilliant idea of reuniting Fred with his old RKO dance partner, Ginger Rogers.  Judy fumed at being replaced by Ginger.  It was known that Ginger had an unusually high amount of peach fuzz on her face.  Judy, feeling vindictive, sent Ginger a shaving mug and brush to “congratulate” her on the role (I don’t know if this anecdote is true, I read it somewhere, but if it is, it’s horribly petty on Judy’s part.  But it’s also hilarious).

portland
Judy and Gene dance the “Portland Fancy” in “Summer Stock.”

In 1950, Judy was cast and then fired from Annie Get Your Gun, due to her normal attendance issues and mental problems.  Busby Berkeley had also been hired to stage the musical numbers and Judy absolutely loathed him.  They had had their run-ins on previous Judy films.  MGM gave her one last shot and re-teamed her with co-star Gene in Summer Stock.  By this point, Gene was a huge star and he didn’t want to appear in a typical “let’s put a show on in the barn!” musical.  And in fact, Summer Stock does feature the gang putting a show on in the barn, albeit, a very large and fancy barn.  Neither Gene, nor director Charles Walters wanted to do the film, but both men did so as a favor to Judy, whom they liked and wanted to help.

In Summer Stock, Gene appears as the director of a small-time musical theater troupe.  One of the members of this troupe happens to be Judy’s sister, Gloria DeHaven.  Gene is also dating Gloria.  The theater troupe has been looking for a place to practice and hold their show.  Gloria suggests sister Judy’s barn on the family farm.  It is apparent that Judy is working hard to keep her family farm going, even through hard times.  Gloria on the other hand, doesn’t want to be a farmer, she wants to be an actress.  Eventually, Gloria ends up leaving the show and Gene ends up coaxing Judy to join the show after seeing that she has singing and dancing talent.  The conflict is that Judy is dating Eddie Bracken, the son of a very boisterous and bossy man who only wants to unite the two oldest families in town.  Eddie however, is such a wimp, that it’s hard to see why Judy even tolerates him.  By the end of the film, she doesn’t and has fallen for Gene–who in return, has fallen for her.  It’s a simple story, nothing groundbreaking, but it features a lot of memorable songs and dances.

heavenlymusic
The horrible “Heavenly Music” number featuring Phil Silvers and Gene Kelly. I hate this number so much, I wish it would just die and go away. Judy apparently was supposed to be in this number too, but called in sick and they went ahead with the number anyway. I think Judy knew what she was doing. Shrewd move on her part, I say.

During production, Judy experienced her usual issues, but MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer pressured the film crew to keep going and to accommodate Judy’s issues.  He didn’t want to see her get fired from her third consecutive film.  In one incident, Judy did show up for work, but wasn’t up to filming.  To take the heat off of her, Gene feigned an ankle injury, so that he would be the cause of the production delay.  Gene choreographed two of the most memorable numbers in the film: “You, Wonderful, You” which he performs with simply a squeaky floorboard and a newspaper, and “The Portland Fancy” which features Judy and Gene in a fun dance-off.  Spoiler Alert: Gene wins! Thankfully, Gene was not responsible for creating the god-awful “Heavenly Music” number.  He only had the misfortune of appearing in it.  Supposedly, Judy was supposed to appear in it too, but called in sick that day.  It was decided to go on without her and film it with just Phil Silvers and Gene.  I don’t think Judy was sick, she knew what she was doing.  She didn’t want to have any part of that terrible number.

gethappy
Judy Garland in “Get Happy” in “Summer Stock.”

After filming completed, it was decided that Judy needed a big solo number.  By this point, she had taken a well needed vacation and had lost 15-20 pounds.  “Get Happy” was the number that was selected.  Judy looks noticeably thinner in this number and looks and acts more like the Judy Garland that everyone knows.  “Get Happy” is one of the highlights of Summer Stock and is one of Judy’s best numbers.  Summer Stock was released and was a big hit.

Judy was then re-teamed with Fred Astaire and assigned Royal Wedding.  Judy was replacing June Allyson who had to drop out of the film due to pregnancy.  However, Judy’s demons once again re-surfaced and she was replaced by Jane Powell.  At the end of 1950, MGM and Judy made the mutual decision to terminate Judy’s contract.  Judy wouldn’t return to the silver screen until 1954’s A Star is Born.  Judy’s performance as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester is tremendous, especially her rendition of “The Man That Got Away.”  Judy was nominated for the Oscar and in my opinion, she should have won.  However, Grace Kelly ended up walking away with the award for her performance as Bing Crosby’s plain and disgruntled wife in The Country Girl.  Judy was devastated by the loss.

genekelly
Because this gif from “An American in Paris” featuring Gene does not get featured nearly enough on this blog.

While Gene Kelly’s star soared even higher after Summer Stock (his last pairing with Judy), Judy’s collapsed except for her brief renaissance in A Star is Born.  Gene went on to create two of the most influential and highly regarded musicals of all time: An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain.  Gene’s rendition and dance to “Singin’ in the Rain” is probably the most famous musical number of all time.  Judy herself had sung “Singin’ in the Rain” in Little Nellie Kelly (1940).  The famous “Good Morning” song performed and danced by Gene, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds was also performed by Judy and Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms (1939).  These songs were used in the film to show the development and transition of silent to talking pictures.  I would argue that Judy was one of the major players in helping the transition.  Gene’s contributions were important of course, but films had transitioned by the time he came on the scene.  Judy was right there almost from the beginning.

Without Judy Garland, there might not have been a Gene Kelly.

judygene
Judy and Gene are “Ballin’ the Jack” in “For Me and My Gal.”

MGM Musical Magic Blogathon–“Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)”

mgm

“…Meet me in St. Louis, Louis.  Meet me at the fair. Don’t tell me the lights are shining any place but there…

judylucille
Esther (left) and Rose (right) belt out “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

This lyric is heard multiple times in Meet Me in St. Louis and it perfectly sums up the 1944 MGM classic, Meet Me in St. Louis.  In a nutshell, the film is about the Smith family and the love they have for each other and their hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.  Their hometown also happens to be the future home of that year’s World’s Fair.  However, Meet Me in St. Louis is so much more.  It rightfully deserves to be remembered as one of the great musicals of not only the Golden Age of Hollywood, but of all time.

Meet Me in St. Louis opens in the summer of 1903.  The Smith family is seen conducting their day-to-day business.  Matriarch Anna Smith (Mary Astor) and maid Katie (Marjorie Main) are making ketchup.  Younger daughter Agnes (Joan Carroll) comes in from swimming, crooning “Meet me in St. Louis.”  Grandpa Smith (Harry Davenport) is taking a bath.  High school aged siblings Esther (Judy Garland) and Rose (Lucille Bremer) come in from a trip downtown.  It seems that a new attractive young neighbor, John Truett (Tom Drake) has moved in next door.  Esther immediately has a crush on John.  I don’t blame Esther for crushing on John, he’s cute, even if he’s kind of a dork.  Rose on the other hand, is dating Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully), who has moved to New York (for school perhaps? Or maybe he’s on vacation? It’s not clear why he’s there).  Rose is expecting a phone call from Warren.  A phone call in 1903 is a BIG deal.

phone
Rose takes a call from Warren… with the whole gang listening.

Rose’s phone call is such a big deal that the family is planning their dinner around Warren’s call.  It is assumed by Esther and Rose that Warren is calling to propose marriage to Rose.  After all, Rose is 18, and in 1903, if you’re not engaged by 18, you might as well be dead. The regular Smith dinner time is 6:30 pm.  However, Warren is planning to call at the same time.  Dinner has been moved up to 5:30 pm.  Patriarch Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames) is not too keen on the change in dinner times and Rose ends up taking the call with the entire gang in the room.  Warren finally calls and he and Rose end up having a hilarious conversation with a lot of “WHAT?! I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”  The phone call ends with nary a proposal from Warren.  Rose may as well become a nun now.

Eldest sibling and brother Lon (Henry Daniels, Jr.) Rose and Esther plan a party for all their friends and to celebrate Lon’s admission to Princeton University.  The siblings plan a wild party, complete with roast rabbit, and a rousing song and dance to “Skip to My Lou.”  Esther also has ulterior motives at this party.  She and Rose have invited neighbor John to the festivities and Esther plans to make her move.

ESTHER: “I’m going to let John Truett kiss me tonight.”
ROSE: “Esther Smith!”
ESTHER: “Well, if we’re going to get married, I may as well start it.”
ROSE: “Nice girls don’t let men kiss them until after they’re engaged. Men don’t want the bloom rubbed off.”
ESTHER: “Personally, I think I have too much bloom. Maybe that’s the trouble with me.”
rose
Esther and John turn off the lights.

Esther gives it everything she’s got.  She tries hiding his hat in the breadbox to keep him from leaving, she wears her special perfume and she invites him to turn off the lights with her.  All she ends up with is returning John’s hat complete with raisins inside and John complimenting her on her strong grip and her perfume that reminds him of his grandmother.

The next day, Esther takes a trolley ride and hopes to see John.  The trolley is taking guests on an excursion to the construction site of the World’s Fair that is taking place in the coming year.  John misses the trolley, but after a rousing rendition of “The Trolley Song,” Esther is overjoyed to see that John has managed to catch a ride after all.  Later that evening, youngest sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) and Agnes go out for Halloween.  

tootie
Tootie’s Halloween costume

 

Halloween in 1903 is a very strange affair.  The neighborhood kids dress up (which is fine) and spend the evening burning furniture and stealing things from the neighbor’s homes.  It seems that the stealing is condoned, as it is mentioned that the neighbors specifically set things out to be stolen, on the condition that it is returned.  The children also go around playing tricks on the neighbors.  Tootie ends up having to confront and throw flour at the “scariest” neighbor, Mr. Burkhoff.  She does so to prove herself to the older children.

TOOTIE (after throwing the flour at Mr. Burkhoff): “I killed him!”
TOOTIE (after the kids celebrate her “murder” of Mr. Burkhoff): “I’m the most horrible!”

On the way home from Halloween, Tootie and Agnes tie a dummy to the trolley tracks as a joke.  The trolley nearly derails and John helps the kids hide from the angry conductor.  Tootie ends up sustaining a split lip and a broken tooth during the affair.  When she returns home, she concocts a story about being assaulted by John.

JohnAndEsther
Esther goes over to John’s house to beat him up

Esther is furious that John would supposedly beat up children and goes over to his home to confront him.  She ends up attacking him.  John is caught completely off-guard and thinks Esther has just gone off the deep end.  Tootie then admits that she made up the entire story and Esther is angry and petrified that she just beat up the guy she likes.  This is the least of her problems however when Alonzo comes home with a big announcement.

It seems that Alonzo’s law firm is planning to transfer him (and consequently his family) to New York City.  The family is devastated at the idea of leaving their home.  Rose and Esther are especially upset, because they are still in high school and will have to leave their respective romances, friends, school, etc.  Esther and Rose are also upset when they realize that they will miss the World’s Fair that they’ve been looking forward to for a long time.

Christmas Eve rolls around and the three eldest children are looking forward to attending the annual Christmas Ball.  Esther plans to attend with John.  It seems that Rose’s paramour, Warren is attending the dance with Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart), a girl he met in New York.  Out of revenge, Esther and Rose plan to take the liberty of filling out Lucille’s dance card for her.  They plan on filling in all the names of all the losers and bad dancers at the dance.  By the time the Smiths get to the dance and meet up with Warren and Lucille, it seems that the plans have changed.  At Lucille’s urging, Warren and Rose pair up and Lucille pairs up with Lon.  At Grandpa’s behest, Esther ends up taking the bad dance card.

judytom
Esther and John dance at the Christmas Ball

Esther’s dance card perks up however when John manages to get his tuxedo and come to the dance afterall.  He and Esther dance their last dance at the ball.  The Smiths are planning on leaving St. Louis after Christmas.  John proposes marriage to Esther that evening and she is overjoyed and accepts.  Later that evening, Tootie is realizing how moving to New York is going to affect her.  Esther tries to help Tootie by singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but all this does is drive Tootie to a near nervous breakdown about the thought of leaving everything behind.

Alonzo, seeing first hand how moving is going to affect his family, changes his mind and announces that the family will remain in St. Louis.  The family is overjoyed.  Warren, apparently overcome by emotion at the Christmas Ball, bursts in:

WARREN: “Rose Smith, we can’t go on like this any longer.  I’ve positively decided we’re going to get married at the earliest opportunity and I don’t want to hear any arguments.  That’s final.  I LOVE YOU! Merry Christmas.”
ROSE: “Merry Christmas.”
ALONZO: “Anna, who is that boy?”
ANNA: “Now Lonny, he’s a very fine young man. We’ll talk about it later.”
GRANDPA: “That young man is so excited he’s liable to leave on his honeymoon without Rose.”

The films concludes with the entire family, boyfriends and girlfriends included, attending the 1904 St. Louis World’s fair, or the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.  The family looks on at awe at the fountain that was also used in An American in Paris.  I feel like this fountain is also in Gigi and Clueless, but I am not sure.  For sure it’s in An American in Paris, however.  The film ends on a corny, but appropriate note.

worldfiar
Esther and John at the World’s Fair
ESTHER: “Isn’t it breathtaking John!? I never dreamed anything could be so beautiful.”
ANNA: “There’s never been anything like it in the whole world.”
ROSE: “We don’t have to come here on a train or stay in a hotel. It’s right in our own home town.”
TOOTIE: “Grandpa? They’ll never tear it down, will they?”
GRANDPA: “Well, they’d better not.”
ESTHER: “I can’t believe it. Right here where we live. Right here in St. Louis.”
mary
Mary Astor gets to wear the prettiest white dress of all the ladies to the World’s Fair.

Meet Me in St. Louis is memorable not only for the memorable songs in the film, but for the effect it had on Judy Garland and her career.  By 1944, 21/22 year old Garland was tired of playing the cute teenage girl.  She was eager to take on adult roles.  Initially, when offered the role of “Esther Smith” in Meet Me in St. Louis, Garland was not happy.  Esther was yet another teenage girl.  However, director Vincente Minnelli managed to convince Garland to do the film.  One of the big things Minnelli did was to hire makeup artist Dorothy Ponedel to do Garland’s makeup.  With Ponedel, Garland was given an entirely new, glamorous image.  Garland was so happy with how she appeared on screen, that she had her contracts written so that Ponedel was her makeup artist on each film.  Minnelli made Garland feel beautiful in Meet Me in St. Louis.  Perhaps it was this reason why Garland fell in love and married him.

There are multiple reasons why I love Meet Me in St. Louis.  One of the main reasons are the costumes.  I love many of the costumes that Rose and Esther wear.  Anna wears an amazing multi-colored striped robe toward the end of the film.  It is so over the top and gaudy, I love it.  I also love the Smith Victorian home.  It’s gorgeous.  All the rich woodwork and detailed wallpapers are so ornate, but beautiful.  One of the best rooms in the entire house is the bathroom.  It has a beautiful stained glass feature.  I love that the set department paid so much attention to the details in the home.

johnesther1
John proposes to Esther. I love her sparkly scarf!

Another reason I love Meet Me in St. Louis is for Garland herself.  Her personal problems are well known and it is well known that they affected her professionalism on this film as well.  However, in typical Garland fashion, the audience would have never known of Garland’s personal problems, they do not affect her performance at all.  I read somewhere that Garland never showed up to rehearsals to “The Trolley Song.”  The day came for the number to be filmed.  Everyone was nervous that Garland wouldn’t be prepared and the shoot wouldn’t go off as planned.  Garland showed up and boom! nailed the song on the first take.

Meet Me in St. Louis is such a joy to watch.  I’ve probably seen it over twenty times and I never tire of it.  I love Judy.  I love Tom Drake.  I love the costumes.  I love the songs.  I love the Smith home.  I love how Tom Drake describes everything as “peachy.”  I love Tootie and how morbid she is.  I love everything about this film.

Favorite Performers: Kim Novak

kimnovak

Kim Novak is someone who I discovered when I saw Picnic (1955) for the first time.  I had heard of her and knew what she looked like, but I had never actually seen any of her films until I saw Picnic.  She wasn’t my original draw to the film either.  I originally recorded it because I was a fan of co-star William Holden and I also love the overwrought melodramas of the 1950s.  My initial impression of Novak was that she was very pretty but she seemed somewhat stiff.  I began wondering if it was all style and no substance when it came to Novak.  However, as I kept watching her in Picnic, I noticed that she didn’t seem as stiff as she had in the opening scene.  I found myself warming up to her.

In Picnic, the crux of Novak’s character, Madge, is that she feels that she is only wanted and appreciated for her looks.  Her mother insists that Madge seal the deal with her rich upper crust boyfriend Alan, before her looks begin to fade.  Madge is 19, by the way.  Alan talks about and treats Madge like she’s a trophy on his arm.  Madge begins to resent everyone only focusing on her looks and not showing any regard for her wants, needs and desires.  Novak was very skilled in bringing the conflicted Madge to life.  On one hand, Madge doesn’t want to disappoint her mother; but on the other hand, she wants to live her own life and not skate by on her looks, even if that path looks uncertain.  Madge spends much of the film battling with her own wants and needs, versus those of her mother, boyfriend and the hot, mysterious, and exciting drifter William Holden.

kimnovak1
Kim Novak and William Holden dance in “Picnic”

After Picnic, I remember making a point of seeing Novak in some of her other films.  I saw Bell, Book and Candle co-starring James Stewart.  This film allowed the audience to see Novak as another type of character–a beautiful woman afraid to fall in love.  In this film, Novak plays a beautiful witch who lives in Greenwich Village in New York City.  Novak develops a crush on Stewart and ends up casting a love spell on him when she discovers he’s engaged to marry another woman.  The love spell causes Stewart to fall in love with Novak instead.  Soon Novak finds herself falling in love with Stewart and she’s faced with a choice to make: Fall in love with Stewart and lose her magical powers or keep her powers and let Stewart go.  Novak plays it cool in this film and is very adept at showing the progression of her character falling in love.  Despite being very beautiful and being labeled as one of the 1950s sex symbols of Hollywood, Novak’s characters are never overt in their sexuality, unlike someone like Marilyn Monroe.

kimnovak3
Kim Novak as “Madeline” in “Vertigo”

One of Novak’s most famous films is her turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  Novak is cast as one of Hitchcock’s typical icy blondes, but she brings so much to her complicated, somewhat dual role.  In this film, Novak must portray the beautiful and tragic Madeline who Stewart meets and falls in love with.  Later, she portrays the small-town girl, Judy, who of course resembles Madeline, and agrees to allow Stewart to transform her into his lost love.  As Madeline, Novak plays the wispy blonde, who is so beautiful but with an underlying vulnerability.  As Judy, Novak plays a more average looking woman (more like a gorgeous woman wearing too much heavy makeup) from Kansas who is trying to make it in big city San Francisco.  She is brassier and more no-nonsense than Madeline. Of course there is more to the story than meets the eye and Novak was fascinating to watch.

Novak is a highly underrated actress who I believe wasn’t taken seriously because she was so beautiful.  In all her films, she brings charm and also an underlying vulnerability that makes her a joy to watch on screen.  Today, Kim Novak lives on a ranch in a small town in Southern Oregon.  It’s exciting to think that one of my favorite Classic Hollywood stars is still alive and thriving in a town only about 3.5 hours south of me.  Maybe someday, I’ll make it back down there and maybe run into Kim Novak on the street or something.  I can always hope!

My favorite Kim Novak films:

-Picnic (1955).  I already talked about this film above; but this film deals with a drifter (William Holden) who interrupts the tranquility in a small Kansas town.  Most of the action occurs at the town’s annual Labor Day picnic.  Novak portrays Madge, a beautiful nineteen year old woman who is dating Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), one of the town’s most eligible bachelors.  Novak falls for Holden, much to the chagrin of Robertson and her mother (Betty Field).

kimnovak4
Kim Novak and her cat, Pyewacket in “Bell, Book and Candle.”

Bell, Book and Candle (1958).  Described above as well.  This film depicts the story of a beautiful witch (Novak) who casts a spell on a man (James Stewart) whom she’s been admiring from afar.  Soon, she must decide whether to fall in love with Stewart and give up her magical powers, or let Stewart go in order to retain her powers.

Vertigo (1958).  Mentioned briefly above.  This film is so complex that it would be hard to describe it and do it any justice.  This is a film that has to be watched and watched intently, not casually.  A couple weeks ago, I watched this film in the theater and was fascinated by how much of the film I had forgotten or hadn’t pieced together the pieces of the story.  Once I had the story figured out, I found it amazing and captivating.  In a nutshell, this film tells the story of a man, James Stewart, who falls in love with a mysterious blonde and loses her in a tragic accident.  He meets another woman, Kim Novak, who resembles his lost love.  Stewart goes to work transforming his new girl into the girl he lost.

kimnovak2
Howard Duff and Kim Novak in “Boys’ Night Out”

Boys’ Night Out (1962).  This 1962 comedy is silly and definitely not worthy of any sort of award, but I love it.  There’s just something about early 1960s comedies.  In this film, Novak plays a college student who rents an apartment from a group of men (James Garner, Tony Randall, Howard Morris and Howard Duff).  The men are all married, except for Garner.  The husbands are bored with their wives and their day-to-day routine and want to set up an apartment to have a fling.  They base their plan on the same tactics their boss uses to have his fling.  Novak rents the apartment not knowing of their plan to commit adultery and the men don’t know that Novak is pretending to romance them as a means to gather material for her college thesis on the sexual life of the middle class male. Hilarity ensues.

-Pushover (1954).  This is a really great noir and is Novak’s film debut.  Novak portrays the beautiful girlfriend of a man who robs a bank and both of them are now on the lam.  Fred MacMurray co-stars as an undercover cop who is tasked with setting up a stakeout in an apartment across the street from Novak’s.  While watching her, MacMurray ends up falling in love with Novak.  Soon Novak is trying to corrupt him to join her side and MacMurray is conflicted between his love for Novak and his duty to his job and the police department.

pushover
Kim Novak and Fred MacMurray in “Pushover.”  She’s only 20 here!

Pal Joey (1957).  This is a musical starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Novak.  Sinatra portrays Joey, a singer and charmer who can make pretty much any woman fall for him.  The only problem is that he’s a complete cad.  Sinatra meets Novak, a chorus girl in one of his shows.  He genuinely seems to have real feelings for her. Sinatra dreams of opening his own nightclub but needs money.  He appeals to an old flame, Hayworth, who used to also work as a stripper.  She married a wealthy man and is now widowed.  Sinatra decides to romance Hayworth in order to convince her to give him money for his nightclub.  Throughout the film, Sinatra and Hayworth use each other and continues to romance Novak.  The love-triangle continues throughout the film until Sinatra is forced to make a decision.

 

Favorite Performers: Gene Kelly

gene
Even with the scar, Gene is pretty cute!

Today marks the 22nd anniversary of Gene Kelly’s passing at the age of 83.  I remember hearing of his death in the sixth grade and feeling so sad.  I was a few months shy of twelve at the time.  I had just discovered Nick at Nite the year prior and had just discovered Gene Kelly by way of his appearance with Lucille Ball in DuBarry Was a Lady (1943). While ‘DuBarry’ wasn’t his best film, I liked Gene.  He just had that je ne sois quoi about him.  After seeing him with Lucy, I was hooked.  I religiously checked the TCM listings (then in its infancy) for Gene’s movies and tried to set the VCR to record them.  With each recording, I’d cross my fingers hoping that I’d set up the recording correctly and that the tape wouldn’t run out before my recording was complete.  Between TCM and the ever reliable Hollywood Video, I managed to see a few of Gene’s films.  When I heard that he had died, I remember watching Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Pirate (1948) with my friend who also loved him.

While I love Fred Astaire, I would never compare him with Gene.  Honestly, they’re like apples and oranges.  Sure, they’re both dancers and both men, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.  In the end though, I think I have to give Gene the edge–if only because I love the fabulous elaborate dance numbers he put together in his films.  Astaire, to his credit, did do some pretty fantastic numbers in his post-Ginger Rogers films.  However, Astaire never put together such productions like the ballet in An American in Paris (1951) and the “Broadway Melody” number in Singin’ in the Rain–two of my favorite numbers of any musical ever made.   Gene was a pioneer and an innovator not only in musicals but in the world of film itself.

fredgene

Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in “Ziegfeld Follies (1945)”  Two fantastic, yet very different dancers.

Gene was born in Pittsburgh in 1912.  As a child, he was reluctantly enrolled in dance classes with his brothers.  Gene dreamed of playing shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team–not being a world renowned movie star, dancer, choreographer and director.  At some point, Gene had a change of heart and gave up on his dream of being a professional baseball player.  Lucky for us, he decided to dedicate himself to dancing. By the early 1930s, Gene was a teacher at his own dancing school. By the late 1930s, Gene had established a very successful dance studio and decided to move to New York City to find work as a choreographer.  He didn’t find much success during his first stint in New York.  By 1940, he was back in his hometown starring in and choreographing local theater productions.  It was in one of these productions where he was discovered and given a larger part.  That part led to an even larger part in a bigger production and so on.

By 1940, Gene was back in New York appearing on Broadway in Pal Joey–a play which was later made into a 1957 film starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak. During Gene’s appearance in Pal Joey, he was approached by Hollywood mogul David O.Selznick for a Hollywood contract.  By the time Gene made his film debut in 1942 in For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland, Selznick had sold Gene’s contract to MGM.  During the next couple of years, Gene appeared in a few dramatic films and even appeared in a musical with Lucille Ball who had recently signed with MGM after a long stint at RKO as “The Queen of the Bs.”

dubarry

Gene Kelly, Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, Virginia O’Brien, Tommy Dorsey, Rags Ragland and Zero Mostrel in “DuBarry Was a Lady.”

Gene’s big big break was when he was loaned to Columbia to appear with Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944).  It was this film where he finally started to show glimpses of what he would achieve later.  One of the best dance numbers in this film is when Gene dances with his own reflection.  For the next decade or so, Gene appeared in a remarkable series of films that gradually built upon one another and showcased the innovative film and storytelling techniques and dance routines that Gene would become known for.  Gene was lucky to come around at just the right time–the Golden Era of the Hollywood musical from the mid-1940s through the mid to late 1950s.

By the late 1950s, the public’s tastes had changed and intense dramas and issue driven films were more popular.  The musicals of the 1960s and beyond definitely have a different feel about them and feel gritty and grim–which is a definite contrast to the glamorous and sparkly looks of their predecessors.  By this point in his career, Gene had mostly retired from dancing and turned into a director.  One his biggest films was 1969’s Hello, Dolly! which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning three. In 1980, Gene returned to the big screen in the musical Xanadu.

Gene Kelly_Olivia Newton John_Xanadu-1980

Gene Kelly and Olivia Newton-John in that cinematic classic, “Xanadu.”

Despite its reputation as one of those “so bad, its good” movies, I love Xanadu.  It has everything you’d want in a film: Gene Kelly, Gene Kelly roller skating, Gene Kelly playing the clarinet, Olivia Newton-John singing catchy 80s pop songs, a big roller skating dance number, flashbacks, Greek Gods, magic, neon… This film has everything.  When asked about why he made this film, Gene stated that the film had a great concept, it just didn’t quite turn out.  I think it turned out great.  This is truly one of the gems from 1980.  After Xanadu, Gene was pretty much retired and spent the remainder of his life making the award show circuits (picking up a Cecil B. DeMille award in 1981, Kennedy Center Honors in 1982, AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 1989, just to name a few of the honors he received).  By the late 1980s-early 1990s, Gene’s health steadily declined until his passing in 1996.

My favorite Gene Kelly movies:

Words and Music (1948),”Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” Gene and Vera-Ellen only appeared in a segment of this musical biopic starring Mickey Rooney and Tom Drake, however, they are definitely the highlight.  “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” is definitely a sexy number, a trait that is unusual in the goody two shoes MGM movies of the 1940s.  Vera-Ellen’s character is killed and she dies on the staircase, on her back, right in front of the camera.  All we see of Vera-Ellen’s character is her chest and legs.  This number also has great music that I really like.

veraellen

Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” in “Words and Music.”

On the Town (1949). This film is the final film that Gene made with Frank Sinatra and I feel that it is their best.  I like Anchors Aweigh but cannot stand Kathryn Grayson, so that film pales a little bit in comparison with ‘Town.’  I thought Gene had a great rapport with not only Frank but love interest Vera-Ellen.  My favorite number in this film is actually the “Prehistoric Man” number that mainly features Ann Miller, but Gene provides some amusing backup.  However, for Gene’s best number in this film, that honor would have to go to “A Day in New York” where all his co-stars, save for Vera-Ellen (who had ballet training, which non of the actor cast members had).  Vera-Ellen and Gene make a great duo–which is interesting because I don’t typically think of Gene as being part of a dancing team.


An American in Paris
.  This film is widely considered Gene’s masterpiece and won the 1951 Oscar for Best Picture over the likes of A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun.  While I like ‘Desire,’ and ‘Sun,’ give me ‘Paris,’ any day.  This film is so much fun and such a delight to both the eyes and ears that it makes an enjoyable experience each time I see it.  The best number in this film is of course the seventeen minute ballet at the end of the film.  This was a huge gamble for Kelly, director Vincente Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed.  Not only was the ballet expensive to produce, but it was unknown whether the audience would respond to it.  Well the audience did and the film was a huge hit, winning six Oscars, including the aforementioned “Best Picture” Oscar.  Gene was also given an Honorary Oscar for his versatility and achievement in choreography on film. My favorite part of the entire ballet is the Toulouse Lautrec part.  Could anyone else but Gene Kelly wear a flesh colored leotard?

genekelly

Gene Kelly’s flesh colored leotard in the Toulouse Lautrec part of the ballet in “An American in Paris.”  I’m not going to lie, this gif was the whole reason for this post.

Singin’ in the Rain.  This is probably Gene’s best known film and honestly, it is probably the best musical ever made.  I love this movie.  From the amazing cast (Gene, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen) to the great music, fun storyline, great costumes, everything.  This film is almost perfect.  The only thing marring this fabulous film, in my opinion, is the fact that Debbie Reynolds’ character has three different singing voices.  O’Connor is hilarious and has his amazing “Make ‘Em Laugh” dance routine.  Has there ever been a dance that looked so physically exhausting? Jean Hagen is hilarious as Lina Lamont, Gene’s delusional co-star and Hollywood-manufactured love interest.  Lina has a horrendous voice that is fine in silent film (because obviously you can’t hear her), but in a talkie… ugh.  And Debbie is just adorable as Gene’s love interest and the studio’s new discovery, threatening to supplant Lina’s status as top female star at the studio.  Pretty much every number in this film is fantastic, but my favorite would be the “Broadway Melody” number toward the end of the film.  It is colorful, has great dancing, a storyline, and fun music.  My favorite part of it is the part where Gene dances with Cyd Charisse, who is wearing a fringed and beaded green flapper dress.  The music is fantastic and Gene and Cyd just sizzle on screen.  This is one of the sexier musical numbers during the production code era.  The best part is when Gene lifts Cyd up with just one arm.

singin
The most famous moment in Gene Kelly’s entire career, singing (and dancing) the title song from “Singin in the Rain”

Other favorite Gene Kelly films:

Summer Stock (1950). “Get Happy” is probably one of the best numbers in Judy Garland’s career.  On the flipside, “Heavenly Music” is probably one of the absolute worst numbers in Gene’s career.  I loathe that number.  The only good part is when the dogs run out on stage.

The Pirate.  This film failed at the box office in 1948, but it’s a great film.  Perhaps it was ahead of its time.  Gene has all kinds of great athletic numbers, including one where he dons shorty shorts and dances with fire.  Judy is great and looks gorgeous and there is a fantastic number at the end where Gene dances with the amazing Nicholas Brothers.  They sing “Be a Clown” which suspiciously sounds like “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain.  Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown” came before Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed’s “Make ‘Em Laugh.”  However, both The Pirate and Singin’ in the Rain were produced by Arthur Freed. Hmm…

-Les Girls (1957).  Gene dances with Mitzi Gaynor in a fantastic number called “Why Am I So Gone (About That Gal?).”  Mitzi looks great and she and Gene have a great dancing chemistry.

genewhat
Gene Kelly and Shirley MacLaine spoofing the big 1940s musicals in “What a Way to Go!”

What a Way to Go! (1964) This film stars Shirley MacLaine as an inadvertent black widow who just wants to live a simple life, free of material possessions.  The present day part of the film features her telling the story of how she met and married each of her husbands and how money led her husband to his eventual death–the kicker being that it was Shirley who in trying to help her husband’s psyche, ends up leading him to riches.  With each death, Shirley inherited her husband’s fortune.  She’s worth millions upon millions of dollars and just wants to give it all away.  She’s sent to a psychologist (Robert Cummings) because who wouldn’t want all that money? In this film, Gene plays Shirley’s fourth husband, Pinky Benson.

When Shirley meets Gene, he is working as a two-bit clown in a small club. His act is lame and nobody in the club pays attention to him.  She feels sorry for Gene because he’s a very nice man and she senses that underneath the clown getup, he does have some talent.  One night, Gene is running late and doesn’t have time to put on the clown costume.  She convinces him to go out without the costume and just perform his act.  Well, Gene’s simple soft-shoe routine is a sensation and soon he’s off to Hollywood.  We are then treated to a send up of the big flashy MGM musicals as Shirley describes her life with Gene to the psychologist (each of her stories about her different husbands is a spoof of a different genre of film).  Shirley is up to the task of dancing with Gene and they do a really great and funny number together.  Gene’s character eventually becomes a huge, egotistical star who lives in an all-pink mansion (his character’s name is “Pinky” after all), and by all-pink, I mean ALL-PINK.  He eventually meets his fate when he is crushed to death by a stampede of adoring fans.

KELLY, GENE

 

 

The Busby Berkeley Blogathon– “Pettin’ in the Park”

busby

I’ll admit that Busby Berkeley isn’t one of my favorite figures from the classic era of Hollywood.  While I recognize that his choreography is unique and very creative, sometimes I find it a little tedious when there is a lot of it present in one film.  Some of the kaleidoscope numbers seem to just go on and on.  However, in the terms of the modern movie musical, Berkeley is a pioneer.  Not only for uniting song and visuals together, but also for his technical work when bringing the musical number to life on screen.  As a choreographer,  Berkeley didn’t just merely have the chorus girls tap out a syncopated beat and move left to right within the constraints of the stage.  Berkeley had elaborate soundstages built to showcase his numbers.  Other routines he created featured large winding staircases, large sets of risers to feature multiple layers of dancers, enormous fountains and more.  Berkeley’s set pieces not only made use of the stage itself but all the vertical space above.  The dance numbers are always over the top and very much in rhythm.  Berkeley’s heyday was in the early 1930s, before the production code was enforced (this era is also known as “pre-code”).  Many of Berkeley’s dance numbers can also feature some racy elements that many people may find surprising for an eighty-plus year old film.

One of Berkeley’s raciest pre-code films is undoubtedly 1933’s The Gold Diggers of 1933 and despite what I said about not being a huge fan of Berkeley, I love this film.  Starring the usual Berkeley pre-code musical suspects: Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks, and Joan Blondell, The Gold Diggers of 1933 features Powell as a songwriter who is hired to write the music for girlfriend Keeler’s new show.  The opening number, “We’re in the Money” performed by Rogers, is pretty racy for a 1933 film as the girls appear to only be clad in a coin cape and bra with a large coin serving as a pair of panties.  Rogers’ large coin is ripped off her after the number when the costumes and set pieces are repossessed.  Despite the scantily clad dancers in this number, this is hardly the raciest production in the film–that honor goes to “Pettin’ in the Park.”

rubydick
Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell are “pettin’ in the park.”

“Pettin’ in the Park” features Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler “on a date” with Powell reading an excerpt from the book, Advice to Those in Love.  The main crux of the advice is that spending time outside with your partner is a sure-fire way to get them “in the mood.” Powell starts crooning a catchy tune while Keeler clomps around on stage (I don’t think she’s a good dancer, definitely not graceful).  The song Powell is singing is a little ditty entitled, you guessed it, “Pettin in the Park.” Keeler joins in on some of the verses. It features immortal lyrics like this:

Pettin’ in the park…bad boy
Pettin’ in the dark…bad girl!
First you pet a little
Let up a little, and then you get a little kiss!

Suddenly a box of animal crackers (that Keeler had on her person for whatever reason) transforms into a zoo with a park scene.  There are dozens of couples on screen “petting” one another.

Then, this is where the musical number gets bizarre.  Powell starts really taking the petting advice from his self-help book to heart, and he gets a little too “handsy” for Keeler’s taste in the back of a car.  She bails on him, on a pair of roller skates no less, and heads home.  Suddenly a whole line of roller skating policemen emerge, along with a “baby” played by Billy Barty.  He is wearing a big bonnet and sitting in a baby carriage. He then rolls through the scene while shooting spitballs.  Barty is absurd, because it’s obvious he’s not a baby–but rather a little kid (Barty was born a dwarf.  His full adult height was 3’9).  The cops then go after the baby.  They try to grab him, he ducks and they roll past him and away.

baby
“Baby” Billy Barty

Next, we’re treated to a scene of this park as it progresses throughout all the seasons.  We first see the chorus girls sporting winter fashions while they brave a snowstorm.  Then the scene progresses into the spring and summer.  We see all the petting couples lying on benches.  The women are wearing flimsy white dresses.  Everyone’s in blissful “Pettin’ in the Park” glee, until oops, it’s fall now.  A rainstorm breaks out and the women run for cover, hiding behind a series of dressing rooms located behind one large curtain–it looks like separate rooms though.

The women remain in silhouette as they remove their wet clothing and get into something more comfortable.  This is probably one of the most risque scenes that has ever appeared in a pre-code film.  It is obvious that most of the women are topless or maybe even nude, as they change into something more comfortable.  Lecherous baby Billy Barty is back, this time sporting rain gear.  With a mischievous grin and shifty eyes, he raises the curtain.   The ladies’ bare legs slowly come into view and they are now sporting sexy new outfits.  Except the outfits are not sexy at all.  All the ladies emerge from the curtain wearing metal clothing.  Almost a literal chastity belt, if you will– the perfect outfit for any “pure” woman.

curtain
One of the raciest scenes in pre-code

The men are understandably a little disappointed and perhaps are in a little bit of pain, physically.  We’re back to Powell and Keeler, who is also now sporting metal clothing.  Billy Barty is to the rescue however, as he hands Powell a can opener.  The number ends with a suggestive shot of Powell cutting Keeler’s “dress” with the can opener.

This number would never be accepted today.  With today’s intense focus on sexual harassment, consent, and women’s roles in society, this number would have probably spawned numerous boycotts, social media diatribes, statements from the filmmakers expressing regret for having ever conceived of the number, hashtags, and everything else that could be done to express rage or apologize.  It is important to look at this number from a 1933 perspective, however.  It is a perception that people used to be a lot more prim and proper “back in the day,” or at least until the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and subsequent Women’s Rights movement in the 1970s.  However, it is obvious that even in 1933, the ideas about sexual roles were around even then–men are the pursuer and the women are the ones being pursued.  Sex was also on the forefront of almost any romantic couple’s minds.  Were the couples that were “pettin’ in the park” married? Probably not.  Powell and Keeler’s characters were not, yet off goes the chastity belt (though they marry by the end of the film).  One of the great things about “Pettin’ in the Park” is that the film is so delightfully indiscreet when it’s putting on the guise of being discreet–the perfect quality in any pre-code film, in my opinion.

Pettin’ in the park… bad boy!
Pettin’ in the dark… bad girl!
Dad and mother did it,
But we admit it,
I’m pettin’ in the park with you.

 

Favorite Performer: Ann Blyth

One of the best things about watching classic film is discovering new favorite performers.  Sure, there are the well-known legends of classic film: Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, etc. and I love many of them too and can completely see how and why these men and women have endured decades after their last film; but there are a whole crop of other actors in these films that deserve to be just as well known.  Many of my favorite performers were steadily working actors and were even stars in their day, but over the years, they’ve been all but forgotten.  Thankfully, through vehicles like TCM, the internet, the TCM/Fathom classic film events and other film revivals all over the country, these actors are once again getting their day in the sun.  It is my hope that through TCM and the classic film events that these actors will once again be in the limelight.   Often for me, it is the films with the big name that leads me to discovering these other performers, many of whom are just as good as the big name to whom they’re lending support, or even sharing a star billing with them!

One such performer who was a star in her day and whom deserves more recognition is Ann Blyth.

annblyth
Ann Blyth, 1940s

My first exposure to Ann Blyth was her star-making turn as the daughter-from-hell, Veda Pierce in the 1945 classic, Mildred Pierce.  ‘Mildred,’ starred Joan Crawford as the title character, a recently divorced mother who is determined to give her spoiled teenage daughter, Veda, everything she wants.  This film was a comeback vehicle for Crawford whose contract at MGM had been terminated two years prior, after eighteen years with the studio.  In 1945, Crawford signed with Warner Brothers and immediately embarked upon a string of hit films, mostly in the melodrama genre, where her career thrived for the next decade or so.  As an aside, frankly, I prefer this short period of Crawford’s career.  I’ve never been a huge fan of Crawford, but I absolutely love Crawford during her Warner Brothers era–plus I really love melodramas.  But I digress…

Back to Ann Blyth.

Prior to ‘Mildred,’ Blyth was under contract with Universal, mostly appearing in musicals that took advantage of her singing talent.  She was paired often with Donald O’Connor as Universal hoped that they could replicate the success of MGM’s Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland musicals that were popular a few years prior.  The Blyth/O’Connor musicals were successful enough, but Blyth’s star skyrocketed after she was loaned out to Warner Brothers to appear in ‘Mildred.’ Blyth was cast after Shirley Temple, Virginia Weidler, Bonita Granville, and Martha Vickers were considered.  Frankly, the idea of Shirley Temple slapping Joan Crawford sounds intriguing.  I believe Granville could also have done a pretty good job as she played a horrible child in 1936’s These Three.  But after seeing Blyth’s performance (and having seen it multiple times as Mildred Pierce is one of my favorite movies of all time), it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part.

annblyth1
Veda tells Mildred what she really thinks about her in Mildred Pierce

Blyth’s portrayal of Veda, I believe, is one of the all-time most “femme-fataly” of all femme fatales in noir.  On the surface, she looks harmless.  She’s got a sweet face and a very nice sounding voice.  However, under the surface, there lies one of the most shallow, despicable characters in classic film.  Veda is brazen and unapologetic about what she wants and what she’s willing to do to get what she wants.  In some ways, I find that admirable, because she knows what she wants and she doesn’t care what she has to do to get it.  On the other hand, the way she goes about it is questionable.  Veda can show moments of kindness and sympathy, but one has to wonder how genuine it is when the next scene has her saying/doing something awful to Mildred.  My favorite moment of the entire film is Blyth’s “f-you” speech to mother, Mildred, which culminates with Mildred ripping up Veda’s windfall (in form of a check that Veda received after some mild extortion), Veda slapping Mildred, and Mildred kicking Veda out of the house.

VEDA (to MILDRED): “With this money, I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men who wear overalls. You think just because you made a little money, you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can’t. Because you’ll never be anything but a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing. With this money, I can get away from every rotten, stinking thing that makes me think of this place or you!”

Damn.  I’ll have to say that Veda deserves everything she gets in this film.  Her monologue above pretty much sums up Veda’s entire character.  There is nothing redeeming about Veda.  Mildred does everything for her, even jumping into the incredibly difficult restaurant industry, and despite after much success, really has nothing to show for it at the conclusion of the film.

After ‘Mildred,’ Blyth appeared in a variety of different film genres.  One such film was 1948’s Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid with William Powell.  This fantasy film is a lot of fun.  Powell portrays a middle-aged psychiatrist, Arthur Peabody,  who is experiencing a bit of a midlife crisis when it occurs to him that his fiftieth birthday is quickly approaching (we’ll look past the fact that Powell already looks 50 and then some).  While on vacation, Peabody hears some singing coming from a distant island.  Taking his fishing boat, Peabody travels to the island and discovers the source of the singing.  It’s a mermaid, Lenore, played by Blyth.

peabody
Ann Blyth and William Powell in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid

While Lenore is mute and does not speak, she does sing.  Throughout the rest of the film, Peabody spends a lot of time with Lenore.  Lenore is mischievous and charming which Peabody finds exciting as it is pulling him out of the rut he feels he is in.  Lenore is also young and likes Peabody, which he also finds exciting as a man nearing fifty.  Peabody even ends up teaching Lenore how to kiss.   Much of the film involves Peabody trying to hide Lenore, first in the bathtub of his hotel room and later in the insanely large fish pond at the hotel.  Other characters in the film, overhearing snippets of Peabody’s conversations with Lenore and seeing Lenore’s face (not her mermaid body obviously) immediately think he’s having an affair.

While Blyth has no lines in ‘Peabody,’ she is completely enchanting as the mermaid.  Between her beautiful face and her gorgeous singing voice, it’s no wonder that Peabody is instantly smitten.

Blyth’s Hollywood career wasn’t incredibly long, though longer than some.  Over the course of thirteen years (1944-1957), she appeared in about thirty or so films.  While I believe Mildred Pierce represents the apex of her career, Blyth makes an impact in every films of hers that I’ve seen.  In addition to the two films I mentioned above, I also recommend Blyth’s last film, The Helen Morgan Story.  Despite her voice being inexplicably dubbed, Blyth’s performance as tragic torch singer, Helen Morgan, is excellent.  She portrays a woman who was at the top of her career, only to lose it to alcohol addiction.  While this may not be the best biopic, Blyth shines in a performance that was different than the many musicals that she made prior to this film.

annblythtoday
Ann Blyth Today

Today Blyth lives near San Diego, California.  At 89 years old, she still answers her fan mail and is known to journey up to Los Angeles occasionally to appear at film related festivals.  In 2013, Blyth appeared at the TCM Film Festival to be interviewed by late TCM host, Robert Osborne.  In this interview, she showed that she still had the charm and lovely demeanor that she showcased in all those films decades prior.  Fortunately, the real Ann Blyth is nothing like her best known role, Veda Pierce.