Tag Archives: Musical

Favorite Performers: Kim Novak

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Favorite Performers: Gene Kelly

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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”

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

“Rain” Blogathon–“Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)

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Rain in movies is often used to evoke feelings of depression, despair, unhappiness, etc.  Film noir often uses rain to set the mood of the film.  In Key Largo (1948), the constant rain storm keeps the action contained onto the ship and gives the film a claustrophobic feeling.  While, noir and other more serious types of films tend to use rain as a way to make the scene dreary, scary, what not, other genres of film use rain for other purposes.  Romantic films like The Notebook (2004) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) use rain to create romantic kissing scenes.  Often times, in romantic films, the characters will be somewhat on the outs, only to realize their love for one another during a horrific rainstorm.  Their romantic feelings for one another will culminate with a passionate clinch and kiss in the pouring down rainstorm.  Other films, such as Pleasantville (1998) and Beauty and the Beast (1992) may use rain to symbolize change.  It is the idea of change that is represented so beautifully in Singin’ in the Rain (1952).  Gene Kelly in an iconic scene, memorably dances down the street in the pouring down rain.

“…doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo, doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo…” 

And so starts one of the most memorable rain scenes in film.

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Gene Kelly’s joy is infectious in one of the most delightful musical number ever to appear on screen

Singin’ in the Rain is quite simply one of the best (if not the best) musicals ever made.  It tells the story of Hollywood’s transition from silent films to “talkies.”  Stars Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are great romantic stars and are also involved in an off-screen romance–at least according to Monumental Pictures’ publicity department.  In reality, Don cannot stand Lina.  She on the other hand, cannot allow her ego to believe that someone doesn’t love her.  Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) is in charge of the studio’s music department and is also Don’s best friend.  Don ends up involved with an aspiring actress, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) who Lina is intensely jealous of.  Not only is Don in love with Kathy and not Lina, but Kathy also threatens Lina’s career.  Kathy can sing and dance–two things Lina can’t do.  After the hilarious failure of Monumental Pictures’ first talkie, Cosmo, Kathy and Don come up with the idea to turn their turkey of a movie into a musical.  After dropping his love Kathy off at home and excited about their new venture, Don is on Cloud Nine.  Not even a torrential downpour can dampen (pun intended) his spirits.

Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” number is simply put, one of the greatest things to ever grace the silver screen.  His excitement over his new romance and the new direction his career is heading is infectious.  Even though he starts out carrying his umbrella, he quickly puts it away.  Kelly’s character Don, is so happy about his life that he doesn’t even care that he’ll be soaked on the way home.  He gleefully taps and skips his way down the sidewalks with a big smile on his face.  Don sees a lamp post, jumps up and twirls around.  He pretends his umbrella is a guitar, and playfully tips his hat to the woman in the store window advertisement.  He taps into his inner child, without a worry in the world during his magical walk down the street.  Don throws and catches his umbrella and allows water from the downspout dump on his head.  He pretends to balance on a curb.  Don’s rain dance culminates with him splashing around in the massive puddles.  A cop finally ends the number when he stops and stares at this guy essentially playing in the road.  Don unconcerned, croons “I’m singin’ and dancin’ in the rain” and walks down the sidewalk, arms still swinging happily.  His glee and enthusiasm is contagious.  It is impossible to not feel happier after seeing this scene.  In a way, the rain represents a new life.  It washes away all the unhappiness and annoyances of his previous life and now he can start anew, with his new film persona and lady love.

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A party pooper stops all the fun

The song “Singin’ in the Rain” was not written for Singin’ in the Rain.  In fact, all the songs in the film, except “Make ‘Em Laugh” (which sounds exactly like Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown”) were used in past musicals.  “Singin’ in the Rain” was crooned by Cliff Edwards in the 1929 musical, The Hollywood Revue of 1929.  Judy Garland gives a rousing rendition of the song in the 1940 musical, Little Nellie Kelly.  In 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, the song was used in a more disturbing fashion.  Star Malcolm McDowell hums the iconic song while raping a woman.  Gene Kelly’s rendition of the song plays over the closing credits.  Kelly himself was not pleased to be associated with this film. In 2007, Usher re-created the famous musical number in an homage to Kelly’s famous number, complete with the same style suit and everything.

Even though “Singin in the Rain” was more than 20 years old by the time it was used as the title song for the 1952 classic and had been performed multiple times by different artists, even by big star Judy Garland, it is Gene Kelly’s rendition that is the most famous.  The image of Gene Kelly twirling on the lamp post while ‘singin’ in the rain’ will forever be a part of American pop culture.  In an era where the word “iconic” is thrown around too often and too loosely to the point where it doesn’t really mean much, the image of Gene Kelly singing and dancing in the rain truly meets the definition.  The song itself has such a catchy tune, it’d be hard to find someone who at least doesn’t know the main part of the chorus.  Even Cary Grant was humming it in the shower in North By Northwest.

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One of the most famous scenes in film history

In Memoriam…

Sorry for the delay in posting, but I’ve been very busy with work and dealing with the aftermath of a disaster incurred in my home.  During the Thanksgiving weekend, my sewer pipe and sump pump decided to join forces and fail at the same time.  Not to be outdone, the rain poured furiously, further compounding the problem.  As a result, my basement flooded about 1′, destroying everything in its path.  Unfortunately, in one of the rooms in the basement, I was storing my DVD collection.  I lost all the films on the bottom shelves in the room.  Some other films also suffered some collateral damage due to coming in contact with one of its flood-ravaged brethren.

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You’ll notice that the rug is floating.  All the movies that are on their sides on the second to bottom shelf are the ones in the water.  There were seven shelves in all.  Sadly, inside that cardboard box on the right side, were all my husband’s classic NES, SNES, Sega, etc. game cartridges.  While I know that the DVDs themselves are okay, the cover art is destroyed.  Plus the movies were covered in sewer water.  Who wants sewage contaminated films? I don’t.  Ick! Insurance should provide me with enough money to be able to replace all the victims.

Anyway.  This brings me to my post:

In Memoriam to some of those lost in the great flood of 2016…

You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) /You Were Never Lovelier (1942).

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In You’ll Never Get Rich, Fred Astaire portrays the manager of a theater who is enlisted by the theater owner, Robert Benchley, to help him woo dancer Rita Hayworth by buying her a gift.  However, Benchley is caught by his wife, Frieda Inescort, who is at the end of her rope.  It is implied that Benchley has a wandering eye and Inescort has had enough.  She threatens divorce.  To save his marriage, Benchley insists that Astaire bought the gift and sets Astaire and Hayworth up on a date.  Matters are further complicated when Astaire is drafted into WWII and Hayworth travels to the camp (to perform for the troops) and to visit her real boyfriend.  She and Astaire end up falling in love.

In You Were Never Lovelier, Hayworth portrays the second eldest daughter of a wealthy Argentinian, Adolph Menjou, who also owns a local nightclub.  Menjou has four daughters and has insisted that his daughters must marry in order of age.  Astaire portrays an American dancer who finds himself out of work after losing all his money betting on horses.  Looking for work, Astaire visits Menjou’s club.  Menjou is not interested.  Astaire ends up contacting his friend, Xavier Cugat, who has been hired to perform at Menjou’s eldest daughter’s wedding.  Astaire spots Hayworth and is immediately smitten, but she rebuffs him.  Hayworth is not interested in marriage.  Her two younger sisters are in love and desperately want to marry (in the film it the ladies seem like they’re more desperate to sleep with their boyfriends, but of course, morality dictates that they must wait until they’re married).  Knowing the plight of his youngest daughters, Menjou begins sending orchids and love notes to Hayworth under the guise of a secret admirer.  One day, Astaire tries to visit Menjou.  Menjou, not seeing Astaire and thinking he’s the bellboy, orders him to go deliver the latest love trinkets to Hayworth.  Astaire complies and Hayworth assumes that Astaire has been the one sending the notes.  Hayworth ends up asking Menjou to set her up with Astaire.  Menjou, who dislikes Astaire, offers to give Astaire a long-term contract at the club if he will do his best to repel Hayworth.  Of course, they fall in love instead.

A Summer Place (1959)

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One of my favorite types of films are the over-wrought melodramas of the 1950s.  A Summer Place has everything you could ever want in a film: adultery, bigotry, alcoholism, love, teen pregnancy, everything.  Plus, it has memorable theme music that is present throughout the film and adds to the overall mood of the film.

A Summer Place tells the tale of two former teenage lovers (Dorothy McGuire and Richard Egan) who end up reuniting twenty years after the end of their affair.  Neither McGuire nor Egan are happy in their respective marriages.  McGuire’s husband, Arthur Kennedy, is an alcoholic.  McGuire and Kennedy operate an Inn on Pine Island off the coast of Maine.  The Inn used to be Kennedy’s family’s opulent family mansion.  With the family fortune all but gone, they are forced to rent out rooms.  McGuire and Kennedy have even moved into the small guest house on the property so that they can rent out their master suite.  One day, Kennedy receives a message from an old acquaintance, Richard Egan, who wants to bring his family to the resort.  Egan, who used to be a lifeguard back when Kennedy knew him, is now a millionaire.  Kennedy doesn’t want Egan to visit, feeling that he’s only there to brag about how he’s rich and Kennedy is now broke.  However, McGuire tells him to accept the request, because they need money.  McGuire and Kennedy also have a teenage son, Troy Donahue.

Egan shows up with wife Constance Ford and teenage daughter Sandra Dee.  Egan and Ford have a rocky marriage.  She is bigoted against pretty much everyone.  He even delivers a delicious diatribe completing ripping her a new one.  Egan, who is very cognizant of “the love that got away” (McGuire) encourages daughter Dee to listen to her natural desires and to embrace her developing figure and interest in the opposite sex.  Ford on the other hand, is a prude who forces Dee to hide her curves and disapproves of any behavior that seems indecent.  She particularly disapproves of Donahue and even goes as far as forcing Dee to submit to a particularly embarrassing and degrading physical exam after she suspects that Dee and Donahue were having sex, even though both parties vehemently deny it.

McGuire and Egan, who haven’t been together for twenty years since McGuire left the then broke Egan for the rich Kennedy, rekindle their romance and are soon engaged in an adulterous affair.  Their respective spouses end up finding out and the marriages are soon dissolved.  At the same time, McGuire and Egan’s respective children, Donahue and Dee, are wrapped up in a teen love affair of their own.  Knowing of the time they lost, McGuire and Egan are the most supportive of their children’s affair.  Ford and Kennedy both disapprove.  Donahue and Dee are deeply in love and nothing, not even being sent to different schools in different states, will keep them from seeing one another.

Yours, Mine and Ours (1968)

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This film, the precursor to The Brady Bunch (1969-1974), features Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda as widowed spouses who end up marrying and merging their families.  The problem? Ball is the mother of eight children and Fonda has ten children.  The beginning of the film features funny scenes of Ball and Fonda’s courtship.  When they originally meet, neither knows about the other’s considerable brood.  When the truth comes out, they try to put the kibosh on their relationship, but soon it is apparent that they are truly in love and they decide to take the plunge.  Both groups of children dislike each other and the tension is high.  Eventually they end up learning how to work together and to actually like each other.

One of the funniest scenes is when Ball comes over to meet Fonda’s children for the first time.  The eldest sons, tasked with making cocktails, end up getting Ball schnockered by making her “an alcoholic Pearl Harbor” (as Fonda puts it), which is a screwdriver containing vodka, gin and scotch with a tiny bit of orange juice (for color, I imagine).  Ball ends up dumping food on one of the children, laughing and crying maniacally, and generally making a fool out of herself.

Another funny scene deals with the plight of poor Phillip, one of Ball’s youngest sons.  This poor kid can barely get any food at breakfast, can’t reach the sink to brush his teeth, is left with enormous rain boots that he can’t walk in and later ends up getting in a fight with the teacher in his Catholic school.

My favorite scene though, is the one where Henry Fonda hands out room assignments.  He assigns a number to each child (oldest to youngest), a color to each bathroom and a letter to each bedroom.  One of the children walks away repeating, “I’m 11, Red, A.”

Van Johnson co-stars as a co-worker of Fonda and Ball; Tim Matheson appears as the eldest child, Mike; and Tom Bosley appears as a doctor.

…and for the saddest casualty of them all…

The Long, Long Trailer (1954)

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This is my favorite film of all time.  I have probably seen it a hundred times–not exaggerating.  When I replace my copy, I will be on my third copy.  I wore out my VHS.  Anyway, myself and my family can recite all the dialogue.  Desi Arnaz has the best lines.  These are some of the gems:

“It’s a fine thing when you come home to your home and your home is gone!”

“Have you any conception how much room it takes to turn this thing around? We might have to go on for miles and miles!”

Then the mechanic has two of the funniest lines, that continually haunt Arnaz for the first half of the film:

“Trailer brakes first!”

“Forty feet of train!”

This film is about a newlywed couple (Lucille Ball and Arnaz) who purchase a trailer and take it on their honeymoon.  Arnaz’ job takes him to different locations all over the country (it is not stated what his job is, but I am assuming that he is some type of engineer as Ball mentions him working on a bridge and a dam), and Ball envisions them living in this motor home and traveling to wherever Arnaz’ job takes him.  They plan to drive from Los Angeles to Colorado for their honeymoon.  On the way, they visit Ball’s relatives in another part of California and also visit Yosemite.  They get into hilarious incidents along the way, including an impromptu housewarming party, a night stuck in the mud, ruining Ball’s Aunt Anastasia’s prized rose, and much more.  The highlight of the film is when Ball has the bright idea of trying to prepare dinner in the trailer while Arnaz drives.

This film is basically one big long I Love Lucy episode, Arnaz’ character’s name is “Nicky” after all, but it is fun from beginning to end and features gorgeous Technicolor and scenery.

 

Jailhouse Rock (1957)

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In the past, I had unfairly dismissed the Elvis Presley movies, thinking that they would be silly and lightweight–mostly an excuse to showcase Elvis and his music.  And they probably are.  However, I’ve now seen two Elvis films: Viva Las Vegas and Jailhouse Rock.  I love Viva Las Vegas, it is such a fun movie.  Elvis and Ann-Margret’s chemistry is off the charts, I actually wish they’d made more films together.  In fact, I loved Viva Las Vegas so much, that I kept it on my DVR to watch over and over until I got my own copy.  I think I watched it about four times before I got my own DVD copy of it.  Anyway, Elvis definitely is no Spencer Tracy, Edward G. Robinson or even Fred Astaire, but he’s got enough personality and charisma that it makes up for what he’s lacking in the acting department.

Anyway… On to Jailhouse Rock.

I watched this movie last night.  I’d seen the famous scene where Elvis sings the title song in front of the cell doors, but that’s pretty much all I knew of the film.  Apparently, when viewing the “Jailhouse Rock” musical number, I never bothered to notice the fact that the “cells” have no walls, just the door.  I always assumed that Elvis sang this song while in jail–figuring that maybe he led some sort of crazy choreographed jailbreak or something.  I’m glad that this wasn’t the case.  For an Elvis film, this film actually had a somewhat dark storyline.

The plot involves Elvis, a young man who gets off to a rough start when he fights a drunk man in a bar and inadvertently kills him.  The man had been accosting a young woman in the bar and Elvis didn’t like it and punched him, which led to the brawl.  Anyway, Elvis ends up being convicted of manslaughter and is sentenced to 1-10 years in jail.  While in jail, he meets Mickey Shaughnessy (who I immediately recognized from Designing Woman), a has-been country singer who seems to have been in the clink for a while.  Shaughnessy hears Elvis sing and promises to teach him how to play the guitar. He later convinces Elvis to perform in an upcoming inmate variety show which is also televised. After the appearance, Elvis receives gobs of fan letters.  Jealous, Shaughnessy arranges to make sure Elvis doesn’t receive his fan letters.  He then convinces Elvis to sign a “contract” promising to cut him in for 50% of the profits if Elvis becomes a star.

After almost two years, Elvis is released from jail, he gets a job at a nightclub where he meets a beautiful young woman, Judy Tyler.  After hearing Elvis sing onstage (during an impromptu performance), she convinces him to record a demo for a local record studio.  Elvis’ song ends up being stolen by another artist and he and Tyler form their own record label to produce his music.  Elvis’ career takes off and his ego inflates with it.

I thought this was an entertaining film.  Elvis’ character seems to be a bit quick tempered as he hits people frequently throughout the film.  I thought that Tyler’s character somewhat evened out Elvis’ character.  If he had a tendency toward being impulsive, she was more level headed and rational.  I also really liked Tyler’s speaking voice.  It was very elegant and clear, much like Eleanor Parker’s. Shaughnessy’s character was also interesting as he was a bit of a sleaze but you also felt bad for him as well.

The songs in the film were good too, my favorite though being “Jailhouse Rock.”  Which actually isn’t performed in prison–it’s part of a prison-themed performance planned for the television special that Elvis is to appear in.  Elvis “The Pelvis” is shown in all his glory in this musical number.

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Some trivia:

-Just days after completing production on this film, her first big role, Judy Tyler and her husband were killed in a gruesome car accident.  She was only 24.

-Elvis’ apartment (after he makes it big) is simply a redressed version of Lauren Bacall’s apartment from Designing Woman.

-Elvis was so distraught after Judy Tyler’s death, that he couldn’t bring himself to watch the completed version of Jailhouse Rock.