Saturday, March 18, 2017

Funny Face

Year 9, Day 77 - 3/18/17 - Movie #2,571

BEFORE: I've reached the end of my Fred Astaire chain (finally...) with a little assist (OK, a big one...) from TCM.  So that's two weeks of my life that I'll never get back - it's funny how people always say things like that, because nobody ever gets any time back, so why complain about it when you don't?  Like when people say, "Well, you're not getting any younger..." as an excuse for doing something, when nobody ever gets any younger.  But I digress.

Obviously, I didn't get to every Fred Astaire film, but this was never about being a completist, it was about familiarizing myself with his genre, and the whole Rogers-Astaire partnership, and I have accomplished that.  Turns out they made 10 movies together, or viewed another way, they made the same film together, 10 times in a row.  But I also saw Fred paired up with Cyd Charisse, and Paulette Goddard, and Vera-Ellen, and now tonight it's Audrey Hepburn.  Now, since I didn't get to "Flying Down to Rio", or "Holiday Inn", or "Royal Wedding", or "Silk Stockings", or "Daddy Long Legs", or "Easter Parade", there's always the possibility of doing a follow-up chain at a later date.  After tonight I've watched every Astaire film in my collection, which is basically every Astaire film that TCM has run in the last 6 months, so by that standard, I've done very well.  Maybe TCM will run "Easter Parade" in April and I can watch that next year, because Easter this year is already spoken for.

THE PLOT: An impromptu fashion shoot at a book store brings about a new fashion model discovery in the shop clerk.

AFTER: Music tonight is (mostly) provided by George and Ira Gershwin - though George had passed  on some 20 years previous.  In addition to the title track "Funny Face", there's "Let's Kiss and Make Up", "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and "'S Wonderful", which I thought was a Cole Porter song.  I think I was confusing it with "De-Lovely".

"Funny" here is meant to mean "different" or "unusual", not "hilarious" - Hepburn plays a young woman with a "funny" face, meaning that it's not the type that's usually seen in fashion magazines.  But yet, Astaire's fashion photographer Dick Avery (loosely based on Richard Avedon, supposedly) sees potential in this bookstore clerk, who's more interested in studying philosophy than being a model.

NITPICK POINT: The way that the magazine crew took over the bookstore - who does that?  It's fairly standard that any magazine shoot would ASK for permission to shoot at a location, probably have a contract for using the space, or at least a standard release form, and money would probably have changed hands, so there would be no lawsuit later.  Certainly some kind of permission from the owner of the bookstore would be needed, on the advice of the magazine's lawyers.

But this happens because Kay Thompson plays this pushy, demanding magazine editor (loosely based on Diana Vreeland of "Harper's Bazaar" and "Vogue" fame) who at first comes off much like Meryl Streep's character from "The Devil Wears Prada".  In real life she wrote the children's book "Eloise", and if that documentary I watched about the book's illustrator was accurate, she was a real Queen "B" in person, too.  But at least her character here eventually becomes more personable and helpful during the trip to Paris.

In the opening number, Thompson, as magazine diva Maggie Prescott, realizes the latest issue is quite drab, and suddenly hits on pink as the new fashion trend.  Almost immediately, everything must be pink, as decreed in the musical number, "Think Pink" - and that sound you hear is the feminist movement being set back 20 years.  And once she's made to see the potential of Audrey's bookstore clerk as the new face of her magazine, the girl is practically kidnapped and forced into slavery as a model.  Cut her hair, change her outfit, get some make-up on her.  It's not like she's got a choice in the matter, right?  After all, she can't possibly know what's best for herself.

Our heroine agrees to become a model only because that will get her to Paris, and give her a chance to meet her idols of philosophy - also, to sing a song where "Jean-Paul Sartre" is rhymed with "Montmartre" (nice!).  But after a few days as a model, she not only knows what to do, she's practically giving instructions to the photographer, instead of the other way around.  In that way, they sort of created a monster, albeit a very attractive, well-dressed one.  Although it was initially a means to and end for her, it turned out that the modeling lifestyle was perfect for her, and her philosophy idols were stone giants with feet of clay.  I'm not sure that sends out the right message to the young girls.

There was a 30-year age difference between Astaire and Hepburn, he was 58 when this film was released, while she was 28.  While a relationship like that may not have been common at the time, it certainly wasn't impossible.  I'm not generally one to judge, how you feel about two characters of those ages getting together is certainly up to you.  But it was 1957 - so if HE wanted to kiss her, well, then she was going to be kissed.  Note that whether she wanted to be kissed or not was largely irrelevant at this point in time.

There was a stage musical in 1927 called "Funny Face", which also starred Fred Astaire - but that show's plot was quite different, and only four of its Gershwin songs were preserved here.  This film's plot was instead adapted from another stage musical, "Wedding Bells", and no doubt updated to make references to late-50's things like beat poetry and Bohemian cafĂ© culture.  Astaire did one dance number with Kay Thompson and two with Audrey Hepburn, one of which was set in a photo darkroom, with predominantly red light.  I imagine that anyone who tunes in to this film during that number would think that something's gone wrong with their TV set.

Also starring Audrey Hepburn (last seen in "Charade"), Kay Thompson (last seen in "It's Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise"), Michel Auclair, Robert Flemyng (last seen in "Shadowlands"), Alex Gerry (last seen in "Three Little Words"), Dovima, Jean Del Val, Virginia Gibson, Sue England, Ruta Lee.

RATING: 6 out of 10 colorful balloons

Finian's Rainbow

Year 9, Day 76 - 3/17/17 - Movie #2,570

BEFORE: I'm in my ninth year of trying to watch the most appropriate film every night, and I don't think I've ever paid proper tribute to St. Patrick's Day - but in real life, since I'm about 1/4 Irish, I made sure to wear green today, eat some corned beef (it was hash, but it still counts) and drink a bottle of stout (it wasn't Guinness, but it still counts).

But then, it's easy to find a Christmas movie, much harder to find one for March 17, unless you resort to those horrible "Leprechaun" horror films, or watch "Darby O'Gill and the Little People".  So when I saw that TCM was running this one, and if I just delayed the end of the Fred Astaire film by a few days to link to it, I had to take that opportunity.  I'll wrap up things with Fred tomorrow.

As I feared, my watchlist did increase while I was on break - of course, TCM is to blame for running so many Richard Burton films, I think I recorded 7 or 8 of them.  I started early, while I was still taking films off the list, in order to minimize the damage, but the list still grew from 133 to 137.  I'll have to curtail my additions at least until I get it back down to where it was last week.

THE PLOT: An Irish immigrant and his daughter move into a town in the American South with a magical piece of gold that changes people's lives, including a struggling farmer and African-American citizens threatened by a bigoted politician.

AFTER: Full disclosure - my Mom made me watch at least part of this when I was a kid (same goes for "The Unsinkable Molly Brown", and dozens of others - Mom was really into movie musicals) but I doubt I ever watched this all the way through, and I certainly have never watched it with the understanding of an adult.  All I really remember is the wishful-thinking revenge that happens to the racist senator, but as a kid, I didn't fully understand the implications of a white man suddenly turning a darker color.

This is perhaps the rare case where "blackface" make-up is allowable, it represents a magical change in ethnicity (as if that's somehow possible) but occurs to make a larger point about race relations, in how that man is now perceived, and how he perceives himself, in order to foster a greater understanding about the division in our country.  Unlike, say, how Fred Astaire used blackface make-up to pay tribute to "Bojangles" Robinson in "Swing Time" - however well-intentioned that was, still not cool.

But let me back up a little bit, because when you take a look at the plot here, it really starts to make no sense - and that's even if you assume that leprechauns are real.  Like most magical beings in folklore, leprechauns have to live by a set of rules.  There's a pot of gold, which they have to protect, and it's kept at the end of the rainbow (which is a crock, because you can never find the end of one...) and then somehow if you catch a leprechaun, he HAS to give you his gold.  Then you're all set, right?

Not so fast, because here Finian McLonergan gets the gold from the leprechaun before the story even starts, and he brings it to America, which then means that the leprechauns of Ireland start losing their magical powers, and turning human.  So that means even if you GET the gold, you have to spend it within the confines of the Emerald Isle - see, there are more rules even after you win.  McLonergan comes all the way to Kentucky, but he's trailed by a very tall leprechaun (apparently no LP actors were available) who's conveniently growing to human size, and trying to get the gold back.

And what does McLonergan want to do with the gold in America?  Start his own business, purchase his own restaurant, invest it in the stock market?  Nope, he wants to bury it on an acre of land, because America is a magical place, and that will make the land "rich".  Umm, that's not how gold works - apparently Finian took the term "seed money" too literally.  Later in the film, when gold is discovered on the property, it's unclear whether the pot of gold somehow made more gold appear in the earth, or if someone's just referring to finding the pot that was buried there.  You know that it doesn't count if you put the gold there yourself, right?

Besides, NITPICK POINT, someone just doesn't come to you and say, "Hey, there's gold somewhere on your property..."  It's not like uranium, you can't detect it from a great distance, or use other geological factors to narrow down an area where gold probably might be.  The only way to say where gold definitely is is to go out there and dig it up, so this whole plot line was very confusing.   How come when someone tells them there's gold on the property, people don't immediately go and grab picks and shovels, and start looking for places to dig.  "Hey, there's gold somewhere on my property, that's great news - wait, you mean I have to start working to get it?  No thanks!"  Unless they figured out that the "found" gold was probably the buried pot, in which case there would not be any reason to celebrate the news.

But somehow this racist senator believes that there is gold in Rainbow Valley (maybe because of the word "Rainbow" in the name, this also is very unclear...) so he tries to buy up all the land - wouldn't you know it, he can't get the very piece of land he needs, which is collectively owned by a bunch of sharecroppers who are trying to cross-breed tobacco plants with mint plants, in order to make pre-mentholated cigarettes.  (I swear, I'm not making that up...)  This is a horrible idea, not only for the reason presented in the film, but also because we HAVE mentholated cigarettes already, so there's little need to make tobacco grow this way.  Geez, on "The Simpsons" someone combined tobacco with tomatoes to make tomacco plants, and somehow even that made more sense.

Maybe I shouldn't be so harsh, because there are ways in which this film sort of predicted the world we live in today, with its anti-immigrant sensibilities and a racist Southern senator who wants to take the country "Forward...into yesterday!"  And the botanist creating artisanal tobacco would have been spot on, if only it had featured marijuana instead.  But in many ways, a miss is as good as a mile.  There's also a particularly relevant explanation of the American financial system, when the residents of Rainbow Valley collectively get a huge line of credit extended to them from the "Shears" catalog, and they can suddenly have whatever they want - but do they know how credit works, do they realize that they have to pay for those items eventually?

But overall, this is a very silly film, and there are plot threads that just seem to go nowhere, or get abandoned outright.  The character of Susan the Silent is particularly useless, there's no reason for her to be mute (until this serves a purpose near the end of the story) so her "talking" through interpretive dance for most of the film just ended up being annoying.

Maybe whoever put Francis Ford Coppola in charge of directing a musical was to blame...

Also starring Petula Clark (last seen in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips"), Tommy Steele, Don Francks (last seen in "I'm Not There"), Keenan Wynn (last seen in "Three Little Words"), Barbara Hancock, Al Freeman Jr. (last seen in "Ensign Pulver"), Dolph Sweet (last seen in "Reds"), Ronald Colby.

RATING: 5 out of 10 mint juleps

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Barkleys of Broadway

Year 9, Day 75 - 3/16/17 - Movie #2,569

BEFORE: I'm back from a 6-day self-imposed exile of not watching movies - OK, that's not really true.  But I've been relatively inactive while waiting for TCM to catch up with me (for once...) and run this Fred Astaire film from 1949 that reunited him with Ginger Rogers after ten years apart.  They ran a whole vaudeville-themed "Let's put on a SHOW!" marathon today, but this was the only film that interested me - thankfully one of my DVRs allows me to search films by actor, so I was alerted that more Fred Astaire was headed my way, if I could just wait a few days.  Because why watch 12 Astaire films when I can watch 14?

I tried to make good use of my downtime - I gave the house a good spring cleaning, and really focused on filling my brackets properly for the "March Madness" tournament.  Just kidding, I read several weeks worth of comic books, bought a picture frame for a poster I've been trying (for YEARS) to hang in the living room, and I went out to see "Logan" on the big screen - my review will be posted in a few weeks, between two other Hugh Jackman films.  Speaking of linking, I went on a real tear over the course of a few nights last week, and I've not only got a plan to get me to Easter, I've gone WAY past that, almost to Mother's Day.  My linking may run out around May 10, unless something changes, at which point I can re-assess the plan, or program some documentaries, or stream something, I hear the kids are all doing that these days.

But first I have to wrap up this song-and-dance thing, which really began nearly a month ago with "The Unsinkable Molly Brown", and wound its way through Debbie Reynolds, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin films, in addition to Astaire.

THE PLOT: A successful but constantly-feuding husband and wife musical comedy team threatens to break up when the wife entertains an offer to become a serious actress.

AFTER: Music for this film was written mostly by Harry Warren and Ira Gershwin (this was after George Gershwin passed away) but the screenplay came from Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who also wrote "Bells Are Ringing" and "The Band Wagon".  Once again, the best excuse to get musical numbers into a film is to make a film about people performing in a stage musical - into that framework, you can work in just about any number, even though they'd never work on a real stage, or form a coherent whole show when put together.  Ah, but if it's a "musical revue", then anything goes. (Even a number that uses optical effects, which could never have been presented this way live on stage.).

The other "play within the play" is the dramatic story of actress Sarah Bernhardt, which Dinah Barkley is convinced to take part in, even though she's not really a dramatic actress - one has to wonder how much of this was really based on Ginger Rogers trying to prove that she could do more than just sing and dance.  Umm, wait, I've heard her sing, so let's just say she could dance.   You know, people often try to make a feminist statement by saying "Ginger did everything Fred did, but she did it backwards and in heels."  But that's not entirely true, because they didn't always dance in circular ballroom style - as you can see in this film, they often danced side-by-side, yes, doing the exact same thing, but then, that's not really MORE difficult, it's just the SAME level of difficulty.  And Fred did many solo numbers in their films, like the "Shoes With Wings On" piece here, so in fact he did frequently do more than Ginger did.  It's a nice thought that maybe Ginger's job was harder, but I think it's just not very accurate - and I'm an expert on the subject now.

They still had to fall back on that tired "mistaken identity" plot, even after all this time together.  Josh Barkley phone his wife after they separate, pretending to be her new French director (and possible lover?  It's not clear...) to give her tips to improve her stage acting - and the ploy is not revealed until much later.  Then once Dinah's in on the deception, she uses that to tease her husband, and this brings them back together.  Or was it the dancing at the benefit that brought them back together?  In their previous films, it was usually the dancing that resolved things.

I still don't know much about Oscar Levant, because I didn't know he could play the piano so well - I think he played piano in "The Band Wagon", but nothing on the level of Khachaturyan's "Sabre Dance" or Tchaikovsky's "Concerto in B-Flat Minor", as seen here.  The problem is that he seemed to play very difficult piano pieces and make them look very easy, so there's a bit of a disconnect.  If a piano player isn't seen struggling, and looks like he's having too good of a time, then that now calls Chico Marx to my mind.

Also starring Ginger Rogers (last seen in "Carefree"), Oscar Levant (last seen in "The Band Wagon"), Billie Burke, Gale Robbins (also carrying over from "Three Little Words"), Jacques Francois, George Zucco (last seen in "House of Frankenstein"), Clinton Sundberg, Inez Cooper, Hans Conried.

RATING: 4 out of 10 dress rehearsals