Friday, March 10, 2017

Three Little Words

Year 9, Day 69 - 3/10/17 - Movie #2,568

BEFORE: Fred Astaire once again, carrying over from "Second Chorus".  But after tonight I'm taking 5 days off, to catch up with TCM's programming next week, when they're running two more films with Fred in them.  But honestly, I really could use the break, I'm burned out on song and dance routines.  Plus I've got a lot going on at work, one studio is moving to a new location a few blocks away, but I've got to organize everything like the phone and internet and the mail switching to the new address so we can continue on.  It's going to take some focus, so it's probably best if I'm well-rested for a little while.  Maybe I can catch up on some comic books too - not just reading but also logging them in to my collection and putting some in plastic bags for protection.  So after tonight, no movies until next Thursday, 3/16.  

THE PLOT: The story of the successful Tin Pan Alley songwriting team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby.

AFTER: I've learned a lot about music from the 1930's in the last two weeks, especially songs written by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with a little Cole Porter thrown in for good measure.  But tonight's focus falls on Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, and if you don't recognize their names, you may know their songs "Who's Sorry Now?", "I Wanna Be Loved By You" and the title track, "Three Little Words".  They also wrote songs that appeared in Marx Brothers films like "Animal Crackers" and "Duck Soup", like "Hooray for Captain Spaulding".

But I'm not sure that their life experiences were particularly notable, or worth making a biopic about.  The value of a songwriter would seem to be in the success of their songs, not in the story behind writing them.  I mean, like, put it on the page or on the record, there may not be a need to make a movie about writing the songs.  But in recent years this sort of vehicle has come back to the world of stage shows and movies, like "Jersey Boys" for the Four Seasons, "Beautiful" for the songs of Carole King, "Get on Up" for James Brown and "Love & Mercy" for the songs of Brian Wilson.  The behind-the-scenes stuff would seem to be the best way to cram a lot of that person's together into one film and rack up some music royalties (especially useful if that songwriter and performer is usually hesitant to allow their songs to appear in movies...)

But that's the problem, I don't know enough about Kalmar and Ruby to be able to tell if this is really the way it all went down - and I'm not sure I care enough to research it.  I think it was just a way to get Astaire dancing again (and in color, for once...) and a way to get the popular comic Red Skelton in there too.  Did Kalmar really have secret desires to be a stage magician?  Did Ruby really go and play baseball with the Senators during spring training, which mercifully got him out of destructive relationships with women?  Who knows?  (Who cares?)

But it's at least an interesting portrait of what it takes for two people to work together in a creative partnership, even if they're not the best of friends - and that makes this relevant for a lot of people, whether they work in music, film, dance or any kind of art.  No man is an island, and no writer, choreographer, musician or filmmaker is either.  Collaboration (before) is always an important part of the process, and feedback (after) is as well.  Otherwise an artist is just making art for himself, and that means he has a fool for a client.  Umm, or something.  You know what I mean.

But collaboration is always a two-way street, and sometimes the cars on those streets crash into each other.  Now, the IMDB tells me that a lot of the tension between Kalmar and Ruby was manufactured here for dramatic purposes, because the two real guys got along very well - but that hardly makes for an interesting movie, see?  But on the other hand, I kind of believe that people back then wrote very racially insensitive songs like "So Long, Oolong". 

Also starring Red Skelton (last seen in "Ocean's 11"), Vera-Ellen (last seen in "On the Town"), Arlene Dahl, Keenan Wynn (last seen in "Song of the Thin Man"), Gale Robbins, Gloria DeHaven (last seen in "The Thin Man Goes Home"), Phil Regan, Harry Shannon, Debbie Reynolds (last seen in "The Tender Trap"), Paul Harvey (last seen in "Spellbound"), Carleton Carpenter, George Metkovich.

RATING: 4 out of 10 theater marquees

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Second Chorus

Year 9, Day 67 - 3/8/17 - Movie #2,567

BEFORE: Fred Astaire carries over again, this makes 10 in a row for good old Fred, with four more coming up.  He's certainly a contender, probably a shoo-in, for my most-watched performer of the year.  (Last year it was Burt Reynolds with 14 films, the year before that it was Cary Grant with 22.  In 2014 I think it was Woody Allen with 21, but that's only because I didn't count Hitchcock's cameos)

In a 1968 interview, Fred Astaire called "Second Chorus" the worst film he ever made.  That is so not a good sign - but how could it possibly be worse than "Carefree"? 

THE PLOT: When perennial college students Danny O'Neill and Hank Taylor are forced to graduate, the competitive pair seek jobs with Artie Shaw's band and reunite with ex-manager Ellen Miller.

AFTER: Well, I wouldn't say it's the worse Astaire film I've seen, but still there are things that just don't make sense, or that strain the limits of credulity.  First off, Fred Astaire as a COLLEGE student?  He was 41 years old when this film was released!  Did people back in the 1940's stay in college until they were 40 years old?  I doubt it, I thought everyone had to go to work or join the army in their twenties!  Same problem with Burgess Meredith, who was a guy that looked old even when he was young, and then kept finding ways to look older - after "Rocky" and "Grumpy Old Men" he continued to act, but I think some people weren't sure if he had already died, and nobody told him.

(EDIT: Burgess Meredith was 33 when this film came out, but I dare say he looked older than Astaire here.)

They do say they've been enrolled in college for 7 years, and because they've got such a sweet deal making money with the band there's a reason why they keep intentionally flunking, but still...  I could maybe see 17 years older than freshmen, but not 7.  There's the typical love triangle here, with both "college" men chasing after the same woman, but I think we all know who's going to wind up with her in the end, right?  

But to our lady's credit, the answer is almost "neither" - because both gentlemen act like asses in competition with each other, both for the girl and the open trumpet slot in Artie Shaw's band.  They sabotage each other's auditions, and end up fighting backstage, which results in the bandleader not hiring either one of them, and spreading the word around town that they're both impossible to work with.  One is forced to get a job playing the bugle at the local horsetrack, and the other is forced to play in a band in a Russian tea room of sorts.  To be fair, Astaire's phony Russian accent improved greatly since playing Petrov in "Shall We Dance".

The men's scheming also ruins their intended girl's job (not once, but TWICE) so it's clear to see why she wants nothing to do with them.  The second time, their monkeying around causes the backer of Artie Shaw's concert to pull his funding, so they have to find that guy and convince him to put his money back in the show.  If I didn't know better, it seems a bit like they're offering him a shot at romancing Ellen if he'll back the show - which veers a little too close to prostitution perhaps. 

I'll acknowledge that it's the worst NAMED film in the Astaire filmography - the "Second Chorus" sounds like it has something to do with singers in a musical play, and that's just not applicable when so much of the action concerns getting into and then performing with a swing band.  Maybe it could refer to the chorus of a song, like first the verse and then the chorus part, but that seems like it wouldn't apply at all to the mostly instrumental work that a swing band would play.

And NITPICK POINT: It's just not feasible to conduct a swing band and tap dance at the same time.  Astaire makes it look quite easy, but that can't be appropriate for the conducting.  Because conducting is an activity that requires complete concentration, so if he's tap dancing, then he's not conducting right, and vice versa.

Also starring Paulette Goddard (last seen in "The Great Dictator"), Burgess Meredith (last seen in "Grumpier Old Men"), Artie Shaw, Charles Butterworth, Jimmy Conlin (last seen in "Lost in a Harem"), Frank Melton.

RATING: 4 out of 10 sleeping pills

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Broadway Melody of 1940

Year 9, Day 66 - 3/7/17 - Movie #2,566

BEFORE: OK, this is a little embarrassing, I thought this was another Astaire/Rogers movie, but it's not - Ginger Rogers is nowhere to be seen in this film.  The next film that Astaire and Rogers made together was "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle", and I don't have a copy of that one.  They stopped making movies together for RKO in 1939, and the costs of making movie musicals kept going up, and then "Carefree" didn't turn a profit, so I guess the writing was on the wall.  Fred moved over to MGM and Ginger stayed at RKO, but she won a Best Actress Oscar in 1941 for "Kitty Foyle" so who's to say who made the right move?

Anyway, it's Fred without Ginger tonight, so my count was a little bit off - but after two more Astaire films I'm going to take a little 6-day break, and then when I come back next Thursday, it will be to review Fred AND Ginger again in "The Barkleys of Broadway" - they got back together in 1949 for one more movie together.

THE PLOT: Johnny Brett and King Shaw are an unsuccessful dance team in New York. A producer discovers Brett as the new partner for Clare Bennett, but Brett, who thinks he is a debt collector, gives him the name of his partner.

AFTER: Speaking of the Oscars, the original film "Broadway Melody" won Best Picture in 1929, and MGM followed that with three sequels, "Broadway Melody of 1936" and "Broadway Melody of 1938", in addition to this one.  Eleanor Powell appeared in all three sequels, but I'm going to guess that there were diminishing returns in this franchise by the time 1940 rolled around.

Well, even though there's no Ginger Rogers here, there's still a love triangle, or perhaps it's really more like a dance partner triangle, and there's a case of mistaken identity - so this is straight out of the Astaire/Rogers screwball comedy playbook.  Here Johnny mistakes a producer for someone collecting on debts that his (usually) drunk dance partner owes, so he pretends to be him, to throw the guy off the trail.  If the guy was about to serve a summons, that would mean he failed to deliver it to the right person, so it wouldn't be enforceable.  Umm, or something.

But it really means that the great dancing job, being paired with Broadway star Clare Bennett, has now been offered to the wrong man.  King then takes the phone call from the show's director, telling him where to show up for rehearsal, and thinks his ship has come in.  And to keep the charade going, the producer, for some unknown reason, doesn't make much of a fuss when the man in rehearsal doesn't look like the man he hired.  That's quite a contrivance.

But Johnny keeps hanging around in the background, offering King some new choreography moves, and some new tap rhythms as well, but then one night when King is too drunk to perform (it happens to a lot of guys, so I hear...) Johnny steps in.  Fortunately it's a dance number where he's dressed like a masked harlequin, so nobody notices the replacement.  Umm, even though King's quite a bit taller...WTF?

Meanwhile, Clare has figured out that Johnny is the better dancer, and falls in love with him behind the scenes.  She reveals the truth to King, who then does the only honorable thing - namely, pretend to be drunk again, so he'll get fired and they'll be forced to hire Johnny, which they meant to do in the first place.  Seems to me there was probably an easier way to get there, but hey, what do I know?

It's music from Cole Porter tonight, but I didn't recognize any of them, except maybe "Begin the Beguine", which I never really understood.  But it turns out that the Beguine is a slow, couples dance that comes from combining French ballroom style with Latin folk dance - the dance really took off after the song became a hit, but it's a little odd that the lyrics of the song call for the dance to begin, but by that point, isn't it a bit late?

I didn't really get the gag with the fur stole - so the producer gave it to each of his young girlfriends, but then asked for it back at the end of the night?  OK, so he's a bit frugal, so what?  It's not really a joke, it just seems like a personality quirk, or am I missing something?

Also starring Eleanor Powell, George Murphy, Frank Morgan (last seen in "The Shop Around the Corner"), Ian Hunter (last seen in "Easy Virtue"), Florence Rice (last seen in "At the Circus"), Lynne Carver (last seen in "Roberta"), Ann Morriss, Trixie Firschke, with a cameo from Mel Blanc.

RATING: 4 out of 10 juggled plates

Monday, March 6, 2017


Year 9, Day 65 - 3/6/17 - Movie #2,565

BEFORE: Film 7 with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - now that I'm planning to add two more films to the Astaire chain next week, my total for Fred will be 14 films, and now I've got 6 more to go, but at least I'm still past the halfway point.

And I'm feeling "Carefree" myself, since I figured out a path that gets me to my Easter-themed films, in just the right number of moves, even though I'm getting ready to take 6 days off.  Plus the chain goes through some of the films on my list that I really, really want to see - like "Now You See Me 2", "Cafe Society", "Black Mass", "Doctor Strange", "Mad Max: Fury Road", and "The Revenant".  All that, plus a lot more, in between now and April 16, which will be Easter Sunday AND Film #2,900.  So it's all sort of coming together, but where I go after that is yet to be determined.

It seems like 133 is sort of the magic number for the watchlist, especially since I can't seem to get the list any smaller than that.  But when the list is (temporarily) smaller, then it becomes difficult to make connections, and when it's larger than that, it feels like there are too many choices, too many linking paths to choose from.  As soon as I added a couple of TCM's films with Richard Burton and brought the number back up to 133, BOOM, I got the connection I needed to turn a dead-end in the chain into something that would link to my Easter programming...

THE PLOT: A psychiatrist agrees to hypnotize his friend's girlfriend in order to convince her to accept his proposals of marriage, but she ends up falling for the psychiatrist instead. 

AFTER: Ugh, I don't know where to start with this one, tearing it apart.  Most everything here is just hard to handle, even when you take into account that this was released in 1938, and the dynamic between men and women was much different than it is today.  But depicting a psychiatrist getting involved with one of his patients is just plain wrong, even though that forms the standard sort of love triangle that's common in these Astaire/Rogers bedroom farces.

Now, to be fair, at first the psychiatrist takes a stab at analyzing his patient's dreams, and going from there.  But here Amanda Cooper (Ginger) is afraid to tell her doctor about her dream, because she had a dream where she was dancing and romancing HIM, instead of her boyfriend.  So she makes up a tall tale about a more complicated dream where she's being chased, and she turns into a fish, and then a tree, etc. etc. and the doctor then labels her a psychotic.  Whereas before meeting her, he'd sort of pigeonholed her as a standard, spoiled rich bratty woman who doesn't even know what she wants.  This is somewhat horrible, too - a doctor passing judgment on a patient before he even meets her.

Honestly, I don't know which is worse - the doctor mistakenly treating her as a psychotic because of her rather inventive dream, or just writing her off as a "typical" spoiled woman, who just can't make up her mind and commit to marriage.  The second theory manages to downplay ALL women by extension - as if to say, "Oh, they all want to get married, even if this ONE won't admit it."  Way to stereotype a whole gender, doctor - I just can't imagine how you're still single.  Or the other way to interpret it is to suggest that all women want the same thing, but some of them are just not in touch with their own desires enough to realize it.  Why was it so hard to imagine a woman who wanted to love her boyfriend, but still have doubts about marriage?

They had something like this in a different film, a few days ago - "Oh, she's in love, she just doesn't realize it..."  So, she's what, then - stupid?  Unaware of her own feelings?  There are just no good answers here, once you set up a situation like this.

Then, it gets worse - Doctor Flagg places her under anesthesia to "let her inhibitions run wild", to find out who she really is and what she wants, and then he LEAVES THE ROOM, allowing her to go out on the street and act in "uninhibited" ways.   Incredibly unprofessional, at best.  But there's also a distinct lack of medical knowledge exhibited here, because there doesn't seem to be a difference between "anesthesia" and "hypnosis", because both seem to allow the patient's subconscious in a similar way.  But as far as I know, anesthesia only serves to put people to sleep, not to allow them to express their deepest desires.

Then, after learning that his patient had a romantic dream about him, the "Doctor" then uses hypnosis (and the science of this may have been in its infancy back in 1938, who knows...) to suggest to the woman that she loves only her boyfriend, Stephen, and not her doctor, who is a "monster".  You can probably see the effects of this coming - it works, but a bit too well, and suddenly Amanda is keen on getting married to her boyfriend, but now we're unsure if it's what she really wanted, or if she's just acting on the hypnotic suggestion.

Plus, you guessed it, the doctor has a change of heart and realizes that he's really in love with his patient (which, if true, should really get his license revoked, if you ask me).  And in his case, he knows he's in love when he feels that he's in love, you know, because he's a guy and guys are never wrong about things like this, where women just can't be trusted to be self-aware, if their feelings are in conflict with a man's ideals.

So Dr. Flagg has to get back to Amanda and re-hypnotize her, or un-hypnotizer her, only by this point her boyfriend has gotten his skeet-shooting buddy, a judge, to file some kind of restraining order so he can't get close to her.  But that's OK, because somehow we've determined that if she gets knocked out, that will pretty much allow him to tap into her subconscious and fix things.  The solution, let me be really clear here, is for the woman who's under hypnotic suggestion to marry her boyfriend to get punched in the face.  Congratulations, it's a new low for feminism.  Admittedly, it's not the usual solution to solving things in the Astaire/Rogers franchise, because dancing's not involved, but this is hardly an improvement.

The writers never did one iota of research into the real applications of psycho-analysis, dream interpretation, hypnosis, or medical ethics, but why let any of that get in the way of a story?  It's not just junk science, it's harmful to the public.  People generally believe in things like hypnotic suggestion now, and I wonder how much of it comes from science and how much of that just comes from movies.

Oh, and except for "Change Partners", this film features some of the lesser works of Irving Berlin - the song and dance number called "The Yam" is particularly heinous.  Let's face it, the 1930's were a strange decade.  Common wisdom back then (apparently) was that if you ate a lot of weird food, you'd have more vivid dreams, which is just nonsense.

Also starring Ralph Bellamy (last seen in "The Ghost of Frankenstein"), Luella Gear, Jack Carson (last seen in "Arsenic and Old Lace"), Clarence Kolb (last seen in "After the Thin Man"), Franklin Pangborn, Walter Kingsford (last seen in "Around the World in Eighty Days"), Kay Sutton (last seen in "Follow the Fleet") with a cameo from Hattie McDaniel (last seen in "I'm No Angel").

RATING: 3 out of 10 golf balls

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Shall We Dance

Year 9, Day 64 - 3/5/17 - Movie #2,564

BEFORE: I'm facing a difficult decision tonight, because I've made great progress so far this year, meaning that I've shrunk the watchlist by at least 10 movies, and I've been able to maintain it at 133 films for the last month.  Even when I went away for the weekend in February I kept going, staying up late to watch the ultra-long film "Cleopatra" in a hotel room in Atlantic City.  But I think I need to shut things down for a week, if I'm going to maintain the chain.

I don't HAVE to watch every Astaire/Rogers film - and I don't HAVE to watch something special for St. Patrick's Day, but I also can't ignore the opportunities that come my way.  Next Thursday, TCM will be running "The Barkleys of Broadway", one of the two Astaire/Rogers films I don't have, and then the next day, it's "Finian's Rainbow", also with Fred Astaire, just in time for the holiday.  I hate to push everything on the list back by nearly a week, but I also shouldn't feel bad about doing so if I really want to.  After all, I "only" watch 300 films a year, so there's an extra 65 days built into the schedule - I can use up 6 of them now, and still have a lot of leeway.  Because in the end, it's going to be a lot easier for me to connect Fred Astaire to St. Patrick's Day than it would be to hold off until "Easter Parade" (or, God forbid, "Holiday Inn").

My only concern is that the watchlist number could creep up again, while I'm dark for 6 days.  Richard Burton films are entering the list at an alarming rate (Thanks again, TCM...) and the list of films I want to add to the watchlist is back up around 21 films, about where it was 2 weeks ago, and also 4 weeks ago, so it's become very difficult to make any progress.  But since I don't want to break the chain, it looks like I'll watch 4 more films this week, then take 6 days off.  Maybe I'll catch up on my comic books, maybe I'll go to the theater and see "Logan" and save that review for later on.

Anyway, it's my 6th pairing of Astaire & Rogers tonight (their 7th, but who's counting?) and you know, I've found all their films to be so similar, maybe it wouldn't hurt me to take a little break later this week.

THE PLOT: A budding romance between a ballet master and a tap dancer becomes complicated when rumors surface that they're already married.

AFTER: I don't know if I'm alone here, in noticing that the plots of the Astaire & Rogers films are really just made up of the same elements over and over.  There are two love triangles here, one for him and one for her, which is what I call a "Love quadrangle" (I guess it should be "quadrilateral", but whatever...) and then there's confusion over either identity or the validity of a marriage.  I'm left to conclude that the 1930's was just a simpler time, before the Dark Days of World War II, and maybe that's all you really needed to make a musical/dance movie back then.  Hire the composer of the day - here it's the Gershwins (but it could be Jerome Kern or Cole Porter), let Astaire work with the choreographer to come up with a routine that hasn't been done before, give Ginger a song to sing, and then make sure that love conquers all at the end.  By today's standards, maybe it's just too simple by comparison.

From a dance point of view, this one's all about the melding of ballet and "modern" styles like tap, and I'm not really sure whether anyone in the public was clamoring for this to happen, other than Astaire himself.  A modern analogy would perhaps be trying to come up with a hit single that was part country music and part rap, just because they're both popular forms of music.  But it wouldn't necessarily work, because the styles are so different, and the audiences are so distinct as well.  My first question, in either case, would be, "But WHY?"

Astaire plays Petrov, a man dancing in a Paris ballet company with a Russian name, but who is secretly American - and believe me, his fake Russian accent is just horrible.  He's being pursued by one woman, Lady Tarrington, but he's only got eyes for Linda Keene, a famous American tap dancer. He makes plans to meet her, and then books passage (along with his requisite bumbling manager) on the Queen Mary, once he finds out she'll be traveling on it.  To get rid of Lady Tarrington, the manager tells her that Petrov and Linda are secretly married, but she goes right out and tells the press this rumor.

As for Linda, even though she's bonding with Petrov while on the ship, she gets outraged when the rumor spreads too far, and she gets so mad that she books an airplane off the ship (wait, how is that even possible, it's not an aircraft carrier...) and flies ahead to New York to get engaged to another man.  Meanwhile, her managers photograph a wax dummy of her in bed with Petrov while he sleeps, because they've got their own reasons for continuing the marriage rumor, which honestly, are not quite clear - at least, I didn't understand them.  I don't even want to KNOW how or why her managers took a wax dummy that looks just like her with them on a trip across the Atlantic.

When Petrov arrives in New York and catches up with Linda, the movie logic really breaks down - they decide that the only way to stop the marriage rumors is to get married for real, and then get a divorce.  Right.  Just as the only sure-fire way to prevent a hangnail is to cut your whole hand off.  But they get married, and then more relationship confusion as Linda catches Petrov with Lady Tarrington again.  Geez, if only there were a way to stage another complicated dance number that would explain everything.

As fate would have it, there is - and this one involves a variety of women wearing mask of Ginger Rogers' face.  Which, once you get past the creepier aspects of THAT, I guess means that whatever woman Petrov is with, he's really thinking about Linda.  That's really not as romantic as it sounds, but again, I guess that was enough, back in a simpler time. But I think by the time you're putting your star dancers on roller skates, it's a sign of franchise fatigue.

NITPICK POINT: All these rich people brought their dogs with them on a cruise ship?  I find that hard to believe.  I've been on three cruises and never saw one dog on any of them.  Barring the customs and quarantine problems involved in bringing your pet to another country, how would that even work?  Where would you walk them, and where would they go to the bathroom?  And wouldn't you always be afraid that your dog would run across the deck and jump over the side, into the ocean? I don't know, maybe things were different for rich people back in the 1930's, but I just don't get this.

NITPICK POINT #2: Same problem with the ballet dancers, seen practicing a routine on the ocean liner.  Wouldn't the natural rocking of the boat make this into something less than an ideal situation?

Also starring Edward Everett Horton (last seen in "Top Hat"), Eric Blore (also carrying over from "Top Hat"), Jerome Cowan, Ketti Gallian, William Brisbane

RATING: 4 out of 10 to-may-toes / to-mah-toes