Saturday, March 4, 2017

Swing Time

Year 9, Day 63 - 3/4/17 - Movie $2,563

BEFORE: After tonight I'm halfway through the Fred Astaire chain - I've got 6 more on tap, 3 of them with Ginger Rogers and 3 without.  I finally managed to make it all the way through one - "Follow the Fleet" - without falling asleep.  So maybe things are looking up, or that one was slightly more interesting than the others?  It's hard to tell.

THE PLOT: A performer and gambler travels to New York to raise the $25,000 he needs to marry his fiancée, only to become entangled with a beautiful aspiring dancer.

AFTER: This time Fred's character, "Lucky" Garnett, meets Ginger's character by the thinnest of plot contrivances - he asks her for change for a quarter to buy some cigarettes, but that was his "lucky quarter", so he has to follow her and get the quarter back.  That's not really a great foundation for a relationship, but then he finds out she's a dance instructor and he signs up for lessons.  Let me repeat that - Fred Astaire signs up for dance lessons.  I'm not even a fan of tap and ballroom dancing, and I know that's a bit like Monet signing up for art lessons at the community center.

At first Lucky pretends to be a terrible dancer, when we all know that he's probably not, and this leads to Penny (Ginger) getting fired.  But then he shows what he's really capable of, to suggest that she taught him how to be a fantastic dancer in just one lesson.  So she's rehired, and the dance studio owner even offers to get them an audition for a regular dancing job at the Silver Sandwich (I think he said "Silver Sandwich", maybe I mis-heard him.  Ah, Silver Sandal, that makes more sense.)  But for a viewer, it's very hard to swallow Fred and Ginger executing a complex dance routine that obviously needed to be planned well in advance, when they've only known each other for a few hours, and during that time he was pretending to be a bad dancer.

More problems ensue when Lucky tries to gain a tuxedo via gambling, and after that the couple can't audition because the bandleader won't play because Ginger's character is his ex-girlfriend AND his contract has just been lost by the club owner in a gambling bet.  It seems every plot point in this film is the result of a bet, but what does that say about life?  That nobody's in control of their fate, when it always depends on the luck of the draw, or the spinning of a roulette wheel?

I think it's safe to say that Lucky doesn't really want to get married to his original fiancée, because he leaves her behind, and only promises to come back when he hits it big - and because there was some confusion between him and his prospective father-in-law over what his job was, somehow he can only earn the money by gambling?  So if he earns the money by dancing, that wouldn't count?  It seems like he's just coming up with more and more excuses why he doesn't want to go back and get married.  And by extension, his new relationship with Penny can be seen as just another reason to not go back to his fiancée, right?

I think this is the third time that Ginger's character couldn't marry Fred's character (at least at first) so she marries (or almost marries) an Italian fop.  What's up with all of these catty Italian cads, that hang around just close enough to be considered for marriage, but can't form a bond with Ginger's character where she can actually love him?

Somehow things are resolved, after an unfortunate "Mr. Bojangles" routine that Fred dances in black-face.  Something else that was acceptable THEN, but not so much now.  But at least this film has some other more famous songs from Jerome Kern, like "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Pick Yourself Up".  I guess this is why "Swing Time" is another of the Astaire films that made that "1,001 Films You Must See Before You Die" list.

Also starring Victor Moore (last seen in "The Seven Year Itch"), Helen Broderick (last seen in "Top Hat"), Eric Blore (ditto), Betty Furness, Georges Metaxa.

RATING: 4 out of 10 stagehands

Friday, March 3, 2017

Follow the Fleet

Year 9, Day 62 - 3/3/17 - Movie #2,562

BEFORE: Astaire and Rogers carry over again, it's Day 5 with Fred and Day 4 with the pair, which means now I'm halfway through my chain of their pairings, I've got 8 of their 10 films (I'm missing their first and their last).  Here's what the rest of March is going to look like, after I finish with Fred and Ginger -

Fred Astaire leads me to Audrey Hepburn for two films, and one of those connects to Michael Caine, who'll be here for 6 films.  The overlapping chain will also include two films with Jesse Eisenberg, two with Blake Lively, two with Reese Witherspoon, two with Nicolas Cage, two with Bruce Altman, and that will take me up to "The Bonfire of the Vanities".  This chain's all been part of the plan for some time, but I could follow the Kirsten Dunst link from there to recent addition "Midnight Special", which leads me to "Black Mass", which leads me to "Doctor Strange".  From there I can link to either "Black Hat" or "In the Heart of the Sea".  That plan takes me up to March 30, it will take some more research on IMDB to see if I can link anywhere from there.

If I go out and see "Logan" next week I've definitely got a space for it, right between two other Hugh Jackman movies, but I just have no concrete way to link there now.  I also have to think about linking to a couple of Easter-themed films, again, if it's possible.  Two weeks from there to Good Friday?  Let me see what I can do...

THE PLOT: A Navy sailor tries to rekindle a romance with the woman he loves while on liberty in San Francisco.

AFTER: Well, if "Top Hat" shared a cast and a few plot elements with "The Gay Divorcee", this one shares cast members and plot points with "Roberta" - so I'm starting to think there are two sets of co-stars for Fred and Ginger, and two main plot ideas, and they just toggled between them at some point.  Once again Fred's character rolls into town, and finds his old girlfriend, played by Ginger, and they dance.  Once again Randolph Scott's character is in a love triangle and has to choose between two women - the sophisticated snob and the sincere, down-to-earth girl.

And once again, there's some identity confusion, as Fred's "Bake" Baker gets the sophisticated, snobby girl to audition for the show - the audition calls for her to read seductive lines while wearing a negligée.  And then Randolph Scott's "Bilgey" character is placed where he can see this, so he'll think that his girlfriend is carrying on with Bake, and therefore she won't be worthy of him.

The problem here is, Bilgey is as shallow as the ocean is deep - and he's only going out with the snobby woman because simple, down-to-earth Connie pushed for marriage just a bit too quickly, and he wasn't ready to settle down.  If he really loved her, why couldn't he just ask her to wait a few years, or even a few months?  But Connie doesn't really have that much experience with men, so maybe she blurted out the thought of marriage a little too early, is that any reason to dump her?

I say that even though this is the relationship we're "supposed" to root for, Bilgey and Connie, it seems fairly doomed from the start.  Connie got Bilgey to pretend to be her date, so she could get in to the Paradise Club to see her sister Sherry (Ginger) perform, and then suddenly she was sweet on him, because they shared this club-entry moment?  That's not much to base a solid relationship on.  And Bilgey wouldn't even dance with her when she was dressed like the school teacher that she is, it was only after getting a make-over at the club, to look like a glamour girl, that Bilgey showed any interest in her at all.

Really, Connie, you could do so much better.  Why set your sights on the first man who notices you, when he only really cares about you when you're all dolled up?  How's he going to feel about you a year or two down the road, when you've reverted to your drab, school teacher look?  Again, it's not a good sign for a long, healthy relationship - he'll chase after the first glamorous girl he sees, right?

Bake and Sherry do everything they can to get Bilgey and Connie together, and of course they succeed, but I just wonder if it's worth the effort.  He only agrees to marry Connie when he can't marry the glamorous snobby widow, and who wants that?  Drop this Navy seaman, Connie, and hold out for someone who loves you for being you!

At least the actress who played Connie eventually met her on-screen and off-screen match in Ozzie Nelson - remember "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet"?  Nah, me neither, that was a bit before my time.

More songs from Irving Berlin tonight, probably the most famous is "Let's Face the Music and Dance", but there's also "Let Yourself Go" and "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket".  But who the heck writes a love song titled "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan"?  Did Irving lose a bet or something?

Overall, it's a standard technique for what to do with a star once they've made a few pictures, and they didn't just want to make the same exact story over and over (similar, sure, but not identical).  When in doubt, send them into the army, or the navy.  They did it with Abbott & Costello, and later with Martin and Lewis.

Also starring Randolph Scott (last seen in "Roberta"), Harriet Hilliard (aka Harriet Nelson), Astrid Allwyn, Harry Beresford, Russell Hicks (last seen in "Hold That Ghost"), Brooks Benedict (ditto), with cameos from Betty Grable (last seen in "The Gay Divorcee"), Lucille Ball (carrying over again from "Top Hat").

RATING: 4 out of 10 dance tickets

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Top Hat

Year 9, Day 61 - 3/2/17 - Movie #2,561

BEFORE: Day 3 with Fred and Ginger carrying over.  Why is she called "Ginger", anyway, since she's got blonde hair - was this before "Ginger" was an epithet for people with red hair and freckles?  Ah, I see, her original first name was "Virginia".  Well, that answers that.  Perhaps people didn't figure out that red-heads don't have souls until a few decades later.

Tomorrow's the last day in TCM's "31 Days of Oscar" programming, so for the last time:
7:45 AM White Shadows in the South Seas (1928)
9:30 AM Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)
12:00 PM Wild Strawberries (1957)
1:45 PM The Wind and the Lion (1975)
3:45 PM Woman in the Dunes (1964)
6:15 PM A Woman of Affairs (1928)
8:00 PM Woman of the Year (1942)
10:00 PM Young Frankenstein (1974)
12:00 AM The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
2:15 AM The Young at Heart (1938)
4:00 AM Z (1969)

I've seen three of these: "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf", "Woman of the Year", and "Young Frankenstein".  Another 3 out of 11 brings me to my final score: 124 seen out of 340.  36% - not too shabby, at least I did better than 1/3.  Once I get through the films I recorded this month, anyway.

I'm not getting much of a chance to rest, since TCM's running a Richard Burton marathon starting this weekend.  Everything from "The Robe" and "The Night of the Iguana" to "The Sandpiper" and "The VIPs" so it looks like I'll be picking up another 4 or 6 films in the next few days.  I'll have to log them in now so my watchlist total doesn't go up again.  At least I'm holding the line at 133 films.

I also figured out a plan to get me to the end of the month.  Before this, I was only set until March 23, and some recent additions to the watchlist have allowed me to add a few more days before my linking runs out.  But I was hoping to link to the new Marvel film "Logan", and right now I don't have a way to do this.  I thought maybe I could get there through watching "Doctor Strange", but it turns out that there's a Stan Lee cameo in one film, but not the other.  What's up with that?  Also, how come I can watch "Doctor Strange" on iTunes for $5.99, but when I try to order the DVD on Amazon, they can't deliver it in 2 days like normal, but in 1 to 2 months instead?  That just won't work for me, Amazon., I need it in like 3 weeks...

THE PLOT: An American dancer comes to Britain and falls for a model whom he initially annoyed, but she mistakes him for his goofy producer.

AFTER: The search for a Fred Astaire movie that I won't fall asleep during continues - that's not a great sign.  Or maybe it's a good sign that I'm just not cut out for these singing/dancing films - I knew going in that this genre was not my cup of tea, but so many of these films, like "Top Hat" and "Swing Time" appear on everyone's lists of the "Greatest American Films" or "Films You Must See Before You Shuffle Off This Mortal Coil", so I still count watching them as progress.

Look, the truth is, I had a very stressful day at work.  I'm starting to wonder (after only 23 years on the job) why absolutely EVERY task given to me is an emergency, either the deadline is tomorrow (or worse, yesterday) or it needs to be e-mailed out this afternoon before 3, or the boss needs to take that thing with him on a business trip and he's leaving for the airport in 10 minutes.  I mean, why can't any task be given to me with a reasonable deadline - it's obviously going to take me 30 minutes or 3 days to do that, why can't I be given the appropriate time-frame to do it?  In the end, if everything is an emergency, then nothing is, or everything is extremely stressful, and then I'm held accountable for not working on the long-term projects when all those emergency requests are what prevented me from doing that.  It's anything but fair.

So when I come home, you'd think that watching a nice bit of Hollywood fluff with Astaire and Rogers whirling around, or a bedroom farce where there's a case of mistaken identity, it would come as a form of relief - but I've been like a rubber band that's been stretched too far, and apparently after stress-eating a frozen meal if I'm not allowed to constrict back to my regular shape, I'm bound to snap.  So given the chance to relax, my body keeps choosing to fall asleep, which is not good - it means I've got two speeds, furiously fast and completely inert, and there's no longer anything in-between.

I'll try to take all this under consideration, but the truth is that I haven't found a Fred Astaire film that will hold my attention and keep me awake - no, not even "Top Hat".  Then I have to wake up at either 4 am and finish the film, then grab a few more hours of sleep, or wake up at 9:30, watch the last hour of the film and be late for work.  The latter situation is not ideal, because if I'm late then I have to work even harder to finish everything in time the next day, and it's become a vicious cycle.

Anyway, only 3 days into the Astaire/Rogers chain, and the pattern has started to emerge - Fred's going to travel to some fancy city in Europe (London, Paris, Venice) and he's going to encounter Ginger there, and there will be some kind of wacky mistaken identity, but then they're going to dance together and everything will work out in the end.  It's fairly simplistic, but it sure seems like it was a winning formula at the time.

Tonight Astaire plays Jerry Travers, a song-and-dance man (I know, it's a bit of a stretch) and Horton plays his friend and married producer.  His dancing wakes up the sleeping Dale Tremont (Ginger) and after she falls for him, she mistakes him for the married man - so his advances are no longer wanted, and he gets slapped in the face (this happens repeatedly).  And since she can't marry the man she wants to, this means that for some reason, on the rebound, she has to marry her Italian friend.  It's all a big confusing mess until the secrets are revealed (and revealed by the same guy who performed this role in "The Gay Divorcee, no less).

Apparently many critics at the time also noted the many similarities to "The Gay Divorcee" - almost the same cast, the love triangle, confusion over identity and such.  However, time's been good to "Top Hat", and now on all those "Best of" lists it's quite prominent, and the earlier Astaire/Rogers film doesn't even make the cut.

Maybe it's the soundtrack - "Gay Divorcee" really only had "The Continental" going for it, and this one has Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek", "No Strings (I'm Fancy Free)" and of course, "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails".  And then there's "The Piccolino", but that's not really worth talking about.

Also starring Edward Everett Horton (last seen in "The Gay Divorcee"), Erik Rhodes (ditto), Eric Blore (ditto), Helen Broderick, with a cameo from Lucille Ball (also carrying over from "Roberta")

RATING: 5 out of 10 gondolas

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


Year 9, Day 60 - 3/1/17 - Movie #2,560

BEFORE: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers carry over from "The Gay Divorcee", this was their third film together, but the second in my chain, because I omitted "Flying Down to Rio".  But I can watch almost all of the rest of their singing + dancing pictures.

Here's the line-up for tomorrow's "31 Days of Oscar" schedule on TCM, the next-to-last day:
6:15 AM Voice in the Wind (1944)
7:45 AM Wait Until Dark (1967)
9:45 AM The War Against Mrs. Hadley (1942)
11:15 Watch on the Rhine (1943)
1:15 PM Waterloo Bridge (1940)
3:15 PM Way Out West (1937)
4:30 PM Weary River (1929)
6:00 PM The West Point Story (1950)
8:00 PM West Side Story (1961)
11:00 PM What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
1:30 AM What Price Hollywood?  (1932)
3:15 AM The White Cliffs of Dover (1944)

Just another 3 here that I've seen - "Wait Until Dark", "West Side Story" and "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" so I'm up to 121 seen out of 329.  One more day until the letter "Z".

THE PLOT: In Paris, a man clueless about fashion suddenly inherits his aunt's dress shop, while his bandleader friend reunites with his old flame.

AFTER: We've got the standard love triangle here - though Fred Astaire's character, Huck Haines, is not involved in it. Instead it's his friend, John Kent, who has to choose between his (sincere) partner in the fashion business and his (shallow) girlfriend from the U.S. - who's suddenly interested in him again.  Probably because he inherited the dress company.  So right away we know he's supposed to end up with the sincere one, after he eventually realizes how shallow the shallow one is.  Everyone around him sees the right choice too, because they all say he's not in love with the shallow one, he only thinks that he is.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but is there really a difference between being in love with someone, and just thinking that you are?  I'd like to see an explanation of this.

Being part of the band that travels to France under a miscommunication - I can't help but think this is just the way to work in a lot of songs, similar to putting on a play or hosting a party during the Newport Jazz Fest.  And Astaire's character racks his brain to remember the woman that he knows in Paris, so the band can try to find some quick work, it's an awful big coincidence that they run into her while John is visiting his aunt's fashion company.

I'm way out of my comfort zone here, because nearly everything featured in this film is a topic that I know very little about - namely dancing, the Paris club scene, and especially the fashion industry.  When Huck inherits the business from his aunt, things get especially confusing, because Huck only seems interested in clothes that cover up more of a woman's body - which doesn't seem like the typical male perspective on things.  Maybe John's from the midwest and therefore very conservative, but that feels like a cheat.  It's more likely that the Hays censorship code finally kicked in, and instead of featuring a lot of skimpy outfits, the filmmakers were forced to write a cover story for why the hemlines had to drop and more material needed to be in the gowns.

Come to think of it, it's really dumb to spend so much of the film on these fashion show scenes - it's a black and white movie, after all.  What's the point of telling us about this beautiful green dress if it just looks gray to the audience?  Why couldn't they just wait a few years until color film became more prominent, and then make this movie properly?  Sorry, but the different shapes of these similarly gray dresses wasn't enough to keep me interested, and as a result all of the fashion show scenes seem to drag on much too long.

The whole sequence where John and Stephanie decide to be partners in the dress company didn't really make much sense.  "I don't want the company - I want you to have it."  "Well, I don't want it either, not if I have to run it by myself."  "Why don't we become partners?"  Who the hell turns down 100% of a company in order to get 50% of a company?  It seems people in the 1930's were either too honorable, or just plain stupid.  And first John doesn't want it at all, then he settles for half of it?  Huh?

Then Irene Dunne's singing really ruins things - she warbles "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" at a high pitch, and it's just not good at all.  I always thought that was a really dumb song, anyway - what was up with those stupid lyrics?  Smoke gets in your eyes, sure, and coffee goes in your cup, and cars go on the road.  Really, how stupid were people in the 1930's, that they had to be told that smoke might go into their eyes?  Didn't everybody already just know that, or couldn't they figure that out for themselves?

Late in the film, Ginger Rogers gets to sing, too - she and Fred do the song "I Won't Dance", but the problem here is that Ginger's character is an American pretending to be a European countess or something, so she has to maintain this ridiculous accent during the song, and that's not good either.

Also starring Irene Dunne (last seen in "The Awful Truth"), Randolph Scott (last seen in "My Favorite Wife"), Helen Westley, Claire Dodd (last seen in "In the Navy"), Victor Varconi (last seen in "For Whom the Bell Tolls"), Luis Alberni, with a cameo from Lucille Ball.

RATING: 3 out of 10 shots of brandy (why not just order a large glass of it?)

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Gay Divorcee

Year 9, Day 59 - 2/28/17 - Movie #2,559

BEFORE: One last day in February, and I think it makes sense to start the Astaire-Rogers films tonight, because the title and the synopsis suggest that maybe there's something to do with love and marriage here.  Can't be sure, haven't watched it yet.  But if I'm going to go chronologically through the Astaire-Rogers films, I suppose I really should have started with "Flying Down to Rio", only I don't have a copy of that.  Hmm, today is Mardi Gras, aka Fat Tuesday, aka Carnivale in Brazil.  Maybe I should have tied in with that?  Only, adding another film at this point would be counter-productive.

Because I'm close to the point where I can start reducing the size of the watchlist again - in the past few weeks I haven't made any progress at all, because I've been adding select films from TCM's "31 Days of Oscar" line-up - like "Camelot", "McCabe and Mrs. Miller", "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and three films with Fred Astaire (whew, made it just in time).  Plus I added some recent films that are going to be seasonally appropriate in September for back-to-school ("Orange County", "Everybody Wants Some!"), for October's horror line-up ("Pride and Prejudice and Zombies", "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse" and to like to "Star Wars: Episode VIII" in December ("Bright Lights", "The 'Burbs")

Anyway, TCM is getting close to the end of the alphabet - here's their "31 Days of Oscar" line-up for tomorrow, 3/1:
6:30 AM Twilight of Honor (1963)
8:30 AM Two Arabian Knights (1927)
10:15 AM Two Girls and a Sailor (1944)
12:30 PM Two Tickets to Broadway (1951)
2:30 PM Two Women (1961)
4:30 PM Ugetsu (1953)
6:15 PM Umberto D (1952)
8:00 PM Vacation From Marriage (1945)
10:00 PM Vertigo (1958)
12:15 AM Victor/Victoria (1982)
2:45 AM The Virgin Queen (1955)
4:30 AM Vivacious Lady (1938)

Only hitting for 2 out of 12 today - there's little chance of improving my percentage at this point, with just two days left after this.  I've seen "Vertigo" and "Victor/Victoria", so now I'm up to 118 seen out of 317.  37% as we near the end of the Oscar-themed programming.  At least tomorrow I'll be able to view the whole month of March to see if TCM is running anything else interesting - I know Richard Burton will be the "Star of the Month", but that comes a little bit too late to help me out.

THE PLOT: An American woman travels to England to seek a divorce from her absentee husband, where she meets, and falls for, a dashing performer.

AFTER: The ballroom dancing is really just a visual metaphor, right?  Because Fred offers Ginger a cigarette right after they dance - hmm, what other activity makes people stereotypically smoke right after performing?  This scene was probably quite scandalous for 1934 - I mean, they were DANCING and that means holding hands, and moving their bodies together.  Maybe the 1930's were a lot more liberal than I tend to imagine - maybe people didn't get all bent out of shape over sex stuff until the late 1940's?  (The 1930 Hays code regarding censorship of storylines apparently wasn't strictly enforced until mid-1934, right around the time this film was made...)

Because there is a sexy story here, Mimi (Ginger's character) comes to the U.K. with her aunt, so that her bumbling lawyer can arrange for her to get "caught" with a man in her hotel room, thus giving her husband grounds for divorce.  The lawyer hires a professional "co-respondent" (I thought they were calling him a "correspondent", my mistake) which is a British legal term for a person named in a divorce proceeding, charged with misconduct (aka sleeping with someone's spouse).  But the Italian man he hires is even more incompetent than the lawyer is, because he can't remember the right code phrase to identify himself, and he can't even find the right lady he's supposed to be spending the night with.

Enter Guy Holden, professional dancer on holiday, and close friend of the bumbling lawyer.  He accidentally says the code phrase to Mimi, so she thinks he's the hired gigolo.  So she invites him up to her room, due to this case of mistaken identity.  (Because a married woman falling for a dancer, and inviting him up to her room for real, well, how scandalous - it just wasn't done, you know.)  So it's interesting that this whole framework - this divorce story, the mistaken identity - seems to exist just to make a scandalous plot point legitimate.  A woman inviting a man to her hotel room?  Ah, but it's OK because of these conditions.  What a silly time in history.  Like people weren't sneaking around and having extra-marital sex in hotel rooms all the time - I'm sure they were, only nobody could talk about that in a movie.

The funniest confusion, therefore, comes from the conversation between Fred and Ginger - sorry, Guy and Mimi - when he thinks they're talking about dancing, and she thinks they're talking about sex.  He talks about his "first time", how an older woman took him by the hand and showed him what to do, "from the very first step".  And then when he talks about "performing" for thousands of women, well, that just confirms his reputation as a gigolo to her!  Again, scandalous for 1935, but fairly tame by today's standards.

I'll be keeping an eye on the other Fred Astaire films, to see if they also try to pull off similar racy humor.  Or contrived coincidences to resolve relationship dilemmas, like they did here with the waiter, whose interruptions just happened to lead to a resolution.  But hey, when your relationship just falls apart, why not just go dance the Continental?  Or you know, just go "knock knees" with someone...

Also starring Ginger Rogers (last seen in "Stage Door"), Edward Everett Horton (last seen in "Holiday"), Alice Brady, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, Charles Coleman (last seen in "Buck Privates"), William Austin, with a cameo from Betty Grable (last seen in "How to Marry a Millionaire").

RATING: 5 out of 10 kewpie doll puppets

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Band Wagon

Year 9, Day 58 - 2/27/17 - Movie #2,558

BEFORE: Hey, how about that crazy Oscar ceremony, huh?  The confusion over the Best Picture winner was no doubt aided by the fact that most reviewers had considered "La La Land" a near lock.  So did I, as you can tell by the fact that I've scheduled 12 Fred Astaire films to run, starting tonight, and I felt it was important to do the background research on great singing & dancing before watching "La La Land".

I was up late watching the Oscars live - I started about an hour late, but this enabled me to speed past the commercials and the slow parts, and catch up.  But what is it lately about the way these big events finish?  Ever since that Miss Universe mix-up in December 2015, it seems like every major event has one of these last-minute surprises - and of course, if you live on the East Coast they all seem to take place late at night and I have to resist the urge to wake up my wife and tell her that something shocking has happened.  We had the Cubs winning the World Series, then there was that Presidential election thing, and then the Patriots came back from way behind to win in overtime.  It's like whatever force in the universe is responsible for endings decided that not enough people were staying tuned, too many people were giving up and going to bed.  Well, I hope people are going to start paying attention now to last-minute upsets!

For linking, I looked very hard to find an entry point to the Astaire chain, and I finally found one - Herb Vigran, who played notable sidewalk pedestrian Barney Lampwick in "Bells Are Ringing", carries over to play the uncredited "Man on Train" here - but he's like the second actor with lines seen in this film, so I'm going to allow that.  Most uncredited performances I wouldn't dare use to link from film to film.  I'd end up using some contract performer like Franklin Farnum again and again, and that doesn't seem sporting.

It's also not sporting to ask my bosses if I can borrow their Academy screeners - if I did that, I would have seen more of this year's nominated films.  Without doing that, I only saw two prior to the ceremony - "Rogue One", which was up for a couple technical awards, and "Suicide Squad", which I think won for Best Make-up (certainly not Best Viola Davis Performance...)

Anyway, I'll be sure to get to "La La Land" and "Moonlight" in due time - but I'm still waiting to see "Spotlight" and a couple other films that were nominated LAST year, like "Mad Max: Fury Road" (on the list), "Bridge of Spies" (airing now on premium cable), and "Room" (available on Demand now for $1.99, I think I'll buy it this week...).  Once I finish getting the nominated films from 2015, I'll consider borrowing the screeners for 2016's films - actually, I may need to borrow "Café Society" for linking purposes in March.

Now here's the TCM "31 Days of Oscar" schedule for tomorrow, 2/28:
7:30 AM Topper Returns (1941)
9:15 AM Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
11:45 AM Torch Song (1953)
1:30 PM Torpedo Run (1958)
3:30 PM Tortilla Flat (1942)
5:30 PM Trader Horn (1931)
8:00 PM The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
10:30 PM A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
1:00 AM Tristana (1970)
3:00 AM Tulsa (1949)
4:30 AM 12 Angry Men (1957)

I never got around to "Topper", even in my huge Cary Grant chain, so there's little point in watching "Topper Returns".  So I'm only hitting for 3 films tonight - "Tora! Tora! Tora", "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "12 Angry Men".  That brings me up to 116 seen out of 305 films.

THE PLOT: A pretentiously artistic director is hired for a new Broadway musical and he changes it beyond recognition.

AFTER:  I've got 12 Fred Astaire films on the docket, why start with THIS one?  Besides the linking from "Bells Are Ringing", it's great that this film was nominated for three Oscars, AND it's the film that features the song "That's Entertainment" - there's your real Oscar tie-in.   Plus it was directed by Vincente Minnelli, who also directed "Some Came Running" and "Bells Are Ringing", so that's three films from the same director in under a week.  Also, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the screenplay and lyrics for "Bells Are Ringing" also wrote this screenplay - so they carry over as well.  But after this, I'll get to the films Astaire made with Ginger Rogers, and I'll try to cover those in chronological order. 

Now, for the problems involved with watching this film - the actor who plays the artsy director, Jack Buchanan, is very screamy and hard to understand.  He talks very fast, like Katharine Hepburn used to in her early films - I think it's an "old Hollywood" sort of thing.  Many times I couldn't even understand what he was saying.  I get that he was playing a person who was full of himself and hard to work with, but there must have been a way to get that across and also deliver his lines clearly.

The director wants to take this light comedic stage show and turns it into an interpretation of "Faust", complete with dark sets, mood lighting and plenty of fleshpots - but when the audience hates it, the artsy director at least admits that he's wrong, and lets Astaire's character turn it back into a musical revue.

The problem here is, the musical numbers are very disjointed - it's hard to imagine a stage play that would have the "Triplets" number, the "Louisiana Hayride" number, and also the long, complicated "Murder Mystery in Jazz" segment.  What possible bridging material could there be that would make some sense of all this?  It's just all over the place, and I can't take it seriously as the play-within-the-play.

A little research on IMDB and Wiki tell me why it's like that - the writers took some bits from the original Broadway production of "The Band Wagon", but also worked in other numbers from other shows they did over the years, so really it became a mixed bag of incoherence.  Astaire's dancing trip through the penny arcade at the start of the film, "A Shine On Your Shoes", for example, came from a 1932 stage review called "Flying Colors" - and so did that dreadful "Louisiana Hayride" number.  The "Triplets" routine came from a stage musical called "Between the Devil", but I can't imagine such a silly piece, with three adult actors dressed as babies (dancing on their knees to look shorter) fitting in anywhere, honestly.

The implication here is that if you take a show out on the road, essentially re-writing it on the fly, everything will come together by the time you hit New York again.  OK, the show must go on and all that, and I get that the more you perform it, the better it may get, but what about those poor audiences in Philadelphia and Boston, who don't get to see the best version of the show?  This means they have to sit through sub-par performances, right?

This still qualifies as a romance film, because Astaire's soft-shoe hoofer and Charisse's ballet dancer don't get along at first, so you can probably guess where their relationship is headed after they work on the show together, spend a lot of time riding on trains together in close quarters, and finally find some common ground in choreography.

Also starring Cyd Charisse, Jack Buchanan, Oscar Levant (last seen in "An American in Paris"), Nanette Fabray, James Mitchell, with cameos from Henry Corden (last seen in "Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"), Ava Gardner, Julie Newmar.

RATING: 4 out of 10 stagehands

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Bells Are Ringing

Year 9, Day 57 - 2/26/17 - Movie #2,557

BEFORE: I added this one to the collection a few months back, and it was part of the romance chain for a long while, then I took it out of this year's chain, for a reason I'll explain in a minute, but then when I tore apart the February plan to add in the Debbie Reynolds movies, I realized that I needed to put it back in, because Dean Martin could carry over from "Who Was That Lady?", then it could serve as a necessary link to the Fred Astaire chain.  And if the Oscars go tonight the way that everyone's predicting, there couldn't be a better time than tomorrow to start a chain of singing-dancing Astaire films.

The problem with "Bells Are Ringing" is that I saw a stage production of it when I was a teenager - but a local production in my hometown, and that means that every time I tried to watch the film over the years, it felt too familiar, almost like I'd seen the film before.  But though I've now seen parts of the film here and there, I don't think I've ever watched the whole film through, start to finish.  So that's how I justified taking it off the list, but also why I've now put it back on the schedule.

Here's the TCM "31 Days of Oscar" line-up for tomorrow, 2/27:
6:45 AM Three Comrades (1938)
8:30 AM Three Little Words (1950)
10:15 AM The Three Musketeers (1948)
12:30 AM Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
2:15 PM The Time Machine (1960)
4:15 PM The Time, The Place and the Girl (1946)
6:15 PM T-Men (1948)
8:00 PM To Be or Not to Be (1942)
10:00 PM To Each His Own (1946)
12:15 AM Tom Jones (1963)
2:30 AM Tom, Dick and Harry (1941)
4:00 AM Too Young to Kiss (1951)
5:30 AM Top Hat (1935)

It seems that TCM and I are on the same page once again - they're running 2 Fred Astaire films tomorrow, just when I'm starting a 12-film chain featuring him.  I'm recording "Three Little Words" and "Top Hat" is already on my schedule for next week.  In addition, I've seen "The Time Machine", "To Be or Not to Be" and "Tom Jones", so if I count the Astaire films, that's another 5 out of 13 films, for a total of 113 seen out of 294.  4 more days until we reach the end of the alphabet together.

THE PLOT: A Brooklyn answering service operator who tries to improve the lives of her clients by passing along bits of information she hears falls in love with one of her clients, the playwright Jeffrey Moss, and is determined to meet him.

AFTER: Even though I saw a (local) stage version of this musical, it's funny that my memory is still somewhat unreliable.  I could have sworn that this was the musical featuring the song "We Need a Little Christmas", and that made me hesitant to program it during February.  But it turns out that Christmas song was in a different musical, "Mame".  I probably saw the same community theater group put on both shows, and my brain crossed the streams.

No, this is the musical featuring the Betty Comden and Adolph Green songs "The Party's Over", "It's a Simple Little System", "Just in Time", "Drop That Name", and of course the title track, and all of the "terrible" songs written for the play-within-the-play, "The Midas Touch" by the dentist character who really wants to be a composer.  It's a clever way to shoehorn in a bunch of little songs with seemingly random titles.

But first, let's take a step back, as we're traveling in the WABAC machine tonight to a time before cell phones, before answering machines, heck, maybe even before alarm clocks.  It seems there were a bunch of people in this mythical land of New York who relied on a phone service to answer their calls, take down and relay messages, and even wake them up at certain times.  (Other things I never understood about the old days of telephones include the "party lines", using operators to make long-distance calls, and that system of using words to remember phone numbers, as in, "Hey, get off the party line, I need to tell the operator to connect me with Fairbanks-9715!")  And apparently, back in the day, if you called someone and they weren't home, and you couldn't leave a important message, you were then legally obliged to hire, or propose to, someone else.  It's not like you could call them back later, don't be ridiculous....

But let's assume that phone operators were once as important to society as this film suggests.  A service called Susanswerphone (a horrible portmanteau, unless everyone who worked on the switchboard happened to be named "Susan") functions here as an important part of the lives of busy urban professionals, like playwrights, actors, opera singers and dentists.  And this service finds itself under investigation for getting "too close" to their clients.  This turns out to be a euphemism for some kind of prostitution, though I don't think I picked up on that implication as a teenager.  So as a result, our heroine, Ella, is forbidden to meet her clients in the real world, or to pass along outside information that could help their careers, unless it comes in a direct message left for them.  She gets very strict orders to NOT insert herself into the lives of her clients.

So, naturally, that's what she does.  To prevent the playwright from over-sleeping, she goes over to his apartment, lets herself in, and plays loud music to wake him up.  (Again, it's not like a playwright can afford an alarm clock, let's be reasonable...)  Before you know it she's getting him coffee, placing him in front of the typewriter, and giving him words of encouragement, while he's still wondering who she is and where she came from.

Once the play outline is done and approved, she also mysteriously enters the life of two other clients, a dentist who composes music and needs that big break, and a "method" actor (who might as well be named Schmarlon Schmando) who can't get cast because he keeps showing up in a t-shirt and jeans instead of a nice suit, which the role demands.  So Ella's kind of like a behind-the-scenes Broadway producer, I mean, she was involved in the writing, composing and casting of this play (which we never get to see) called "The Midas Touch".

Meanwhile, the answering service gets a new client, which is supposedly a record company (you can explain to your kids what a "record" is, right after explaining what an "answering service" is...) but is really a front for a bookie operation, with clients calling in to order "500 copies of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, Opus 6 on LP", which is code for betting 500 on the 5th horse in the 6th race at Belmont Park.  Beethoven is Belmont, Puccini is Pimlico, Tchaikovsky is Churchill Downs, and so on.  It works fine until the (probably) gay maintenance man knows a little too much about how many symphonies each composer wrote.

It's another case of events spiraling out of control, much of it due to mistaken identity or similar confusion, similar in ways to "Marriage on the Rocks" or "Who Was That Lady?".  The repetition of law-enforcement agents crossing over into people's personal lives sort of justifies putting this one exactly here in the chain.  I'm good with it - and once again, all the confusion and charades works out completely for the best for everyone involved.  Well, maybe not the gambling operation - but just about everyone else, which means that Ella was correct to meddle with people's lives.  And New York's a very unfriendly town, but not if you just introduce yourself to people on the corner and get to know them.  Yeah, right...

Also starring Judy Holliday, Jean Stapleton (last seen in "Klute"), Fred Clark (last seen in "The Mating Game"), Eddie Foy Jr., Dort Clark (last seen in "The Chase"), Frank Gorshin, Bernard West, Ruth Storey (last seen in "In Cold Blood"), Gerry Mulligan, Ralph Roberts (last seen in "This Property Is Condemned"), Valerie Allen, with cameos from Hal Linden, Len Lesser (last seen in "Some Came Running"), Mae Questel, Herb Vigran (last seen in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown").

RATING: 6 out of 10 blind dates