Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Julie Andrews sings Noël Coward's 'Parisian Pierrot' in Star! (1968)

Watched Star! (1968), starring Julie Andrews, the other day. It was mesmerizing. Nearly three hours of extravagant, yet succinct, storytelling of the many trials of British musical megastar Gertrude Lawrence. The film spans the early to mid-20th century, dropping hints of what's going on in the world, but keeping focused on the main characters.

The numbers are brilliantly choreographed by Michael Kidd. One of the most haunting songs is "Parisian Pierrot."
"The biggest problem that I had with 'Parisian Pierrot' was figuring out what it meant. I finally deduced that it was somewhat autobiographical on  Noël Coward's part. It deals, I believe, with the intellectual who must wear the mask of superior intellect when he appears in public for the sake of the fawning sycophants. When all is said and done it's the ultimate disillusion that many creative people feel. When the public applause by the somewhat insincere dilettantes subsides, you still must go home alone. " - Michael Kidd, from the 20th Century Fox DVD
This part of the refrain bares out that interpretation:
The world may flatter
But what does that matter
They'll never shatter
Your gloom profound.
Costume designer Donald Brooks even provides Ms. Andrews with a comic mask to cover a sullen face, just to round out the story.

The number is loosely sandwiched between a scene where Ms. Lawrence is rather gloomy about having been fired from producer Andre Charlot's employ and a silly scene of Ms. Lawrence's party guests changing into swimwear on top of a double decker bus. Despite the crowd, you get the sense of emptiness in the character's life - her constant need for flattery to shatter her gloom.

Gertrude Lawrence in costume for "Parisian Pierrot"

Written by Noël  Coward for the 1923 revue London Calling!, starring Gertrude Lawrence and Coward, "Parisian Pierrot" is a moody, bluesy piece.

Pierrot is a stock pantomime character originated by a 17th century Italian troupe who played in Paris. A tragic clown, Pierrot is filled with unrequited love for Columbine who is in love with another character, the rogue Harlequin.

Coward's song diligently follows the mournful story's tone and never relents. However, the hit tune had a lighthearted genesis.
"The idea of it came to me in a night-club...a frowsy blonde, wearing a sequin chest-protector and a divided skirt, appeared in the course of the cabaret with a rag pierrot doll dressed in black velvet. She placed it on a cushion where it sprawled in pathetic abandon while she pranced around it emitting gutteral (sic) noises. Her performance was unimpressive but the doll fascinated me." - Noel Coward
 
At the time of London Calling!'s run, Fred Astaire was performing in Stop Flirting at the West End with his sister Adele.  Producer Charlot and Coward asked Astaire to choreograph dance steps for two numbers in the show. When Java discovered this little nugget of information she was dying for one of those numbers to be "Parisian Pierrot" and hoped someone had recorded something about the staging. It would be great to compare Astaire's version with Michael Kidd's filmed stage version in the movie.

Though Astaire did choreograph "One Girls" and "You Were Meant For Me,"  it seems that he did not stage "Parisian Pierrot," according to Sheridan Morely in Gertrude Lawrence : A Biography.

Bummer.

Still, the play was Coward's first big hit, and "Parisian Pierrot" was his first big popular song. And Julie Andrews sings it to perfection in the film.

Among producer Saul Chaplin's many duties on Star!, selecting the period tunes was also his responsibility. Chaplin states on the DVD that "Parisian Pierrot "
"...was one of Noel Coward's most popular songs in London and enjoyed a certain amount of popularity in the States as well. What is odd about that is the fact that the song is so range-y that it's difficult for people to sing. I can give you an idea: the average song has a range of, like, ten notes; this one has sixteen! Julie Andrews sings it so effortlessly in the film that you might not think so, but it's very difficult."

It is difficult to sing well, but it's so beautiful that you must try it anyway.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Marge & Gower Champion - Awesome Dancers



Java sometimes plays movie excerpts on her computer while surfing the 'net. It's really for the familiar sound; I just continue doing whatever without looking up. However, when Marge and Gower Champion are dancing, you can't help but stop and take notice.

The Champions are an innovative husband and wife dance team/Broadway choreographers/directors. I was introduced to their work through films, such as Showboat (1951) and Jupiter's Darling (1955), and later learned that the Champions performed in plenty of live television programs, worked the night club circuit and were sought-after contributors for stagecraft.

The Champions display seeming effortless athleticism. Its simply breathtaking. For instance, the "Someone To Watch Over Me" number in Three for the Show (1955) sees  the pair  spouting off lines of dialogue while doing lifts and twirls and what not.  I'm so glad that at least some of their work is preserved on film.




Java's Journey has just missed Marge Champion's birthday (September 2), but the anniversary of the Belcher-Champion marriage is coming soon (October 5). In John Anthony Gilvey's, well-researched and detailed book, Before the Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical, the author recounts the 1947 nuptials:

Whatever the wedding ceremony of Marjorie Celeste Belcher and Alfred Gower Carlisle Champion lacked in solemnity, it more than made up for in sheer hilarity. During the exchange of vows, Marge looked down for a moment and became so distracted by the big dents in the minister's shoes made by the bunions on his feet that she almost forgot to say, "I do."  Minutes later, a minor struggle ensued during the exchange of rings when, to her embarrassment, the bride found that the ring she had purchased was too small for the groom's finger. That did not stop her from trying to make it fit! When her efforts failed, the minister tried, then the best man, Gower's brother, John. They failed. Finally, the groom decided to wear the ring just below the nail of his finger rather than risk injury due to everyone's well-intentioned efforts.


A sense of humor in two very great artists. I'm only just beginning to round out my knowledge of the Champions. This promises to be a most exciting journey for yours truly,

Java

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Musical Noir and On The Town (1949)


 On the Town (1949) follows three sailors on 24-hour leave. It's just a  feel-good Gene Kelly-Comden and Green musical and nothing more. Or is it?

Raymond De Felitta praises a different Comden and Green story for being the antithesis of musical comfort food: It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) - a film about  three Army pals who, ten years later, cannot reestablish their friendship. Felitta calls the film  a “musical noir” that  bookends On the Town as “a dark, decade-later answer to that earlier show's [optimism]….”
Indeed, the older film is largely filled with carefree characters. However, Kelly, et al. did not wait for Fair Weather to answer the earlier film’s optimism. The cynical half of the On the Town diptych is right there in the film itself, in the “A Day In New York” ballet sequence. 

Kelly’s character in the main plot, Gabe the sailor, cannot find the woman that he has won, loved  and lost in the Big Apple. He looks at a sign advertising “A Day in New York: A Comedy in Three Acts,” then muses over the day. In his mind, the play becomes a six minute ballet which reruns the actions of the entire story up to that point in an abstract and decidedly more cynical light - stripping away the earlier comedy mask, revealing tragic persona.

The ballet  within the film
The first act of the daydream ballet echoes the film's main plot, with three overjoyed sailors leaping about against a  New York City skyline. They soon meet two women whose languid hip movements contrast the earlier slapstick scenes of female sensuality. (Earlier scenes even include crashing dinosaur bones and crooning to a caveman statue). Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne seem to defy gravity and float like the handkerchiefs they carry. Outstanding.

The main sailor (Kelly, playing Gabe's alter ego), not having a dance partner, sees a picture of Vera-Ellen’s character and sets out to find her.

The ballet's second act begins by mirroring  the setting in the main plot - guy and gal meetcute in a dance studio. Earlier in the film, when Kelly finds her there, he sings about walking along main street in his small town , introducing her to local denizens. Very cute.

Ballet version - courting at night
In the ballet, however, the two are clearly having a torrid affair. The first studio is brightly lit by sunlight, the second by a searing spotlight on an otherwise dark stage. In the earlier dance, the lady makes the guy wait a few taps as she makes up her mind about marrying him.  She assents with a nod of her head  and they jauntily skip down the “road.” At the second studio, it’s  instant, serious passion on display -  mirroring movements then chasing each other around, over and under the dance barre.

The ballet's third act finds Sailor elated. (I‘ll bet he is!)  Just as in the main plot, the two go on the town and Lady leaves without warning. However, unlike the main plot, but akin to Kelly’s forlorn clown in Invitation to the Dance (1956), this ballet leaves Sailor alone with only a memento of the woman he’ll never see again.

Ballet noir
Sitting in the bowels of  On The Town, sandwiched between ham and corn, this ballet noir does not immediately come to mind when discussing the movie. Even the  film wants you to forget it. On the heels of  Gabe’s introspection comes an outrageous, out-of-place, down-home, country song (“Count On Me”) to continue the carefree mood.

Although Fair Weather seems to be a distant observer  with a fresh perspective, declaring a moratorium on the good cheer of its innocent predecessor, it is actually the full grown plant of the seed of cynicism that has already germinated in On The Town.  The latter was simply waiting for the proper place to take root.

With the curtain falling over Sailor‘s tragic story and replaced with the “Comedy in Three Acts” sign, we’ve peaked behind Gabe’s mask. He carries on, but, as Comden and Green would later tell us, the party‘s over.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Grace Kelly: Style Icon at the museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum offers an exhibit called  Grace Kelly: Style Icon  from April 17 to Sep 26.

 "This exhibition shows the spectacular wardrobe of Grace Kelly, one of the most popular actresses of the 1950s. Featuring dresses from many of her films as well as the gown she wore to accept her Oscar in 1955, the exhibition will examine Grace Kelly's glamorous Hollywood image, the evolution of her style as Princess Grace of Monaco, and her enduring appeal as a fashion icon." - V&A Museum

Grace Kelly: Style Icon at the V&A Museum here

Also, check out this April 9, 1956 Life Magazine spread about Grace Kelly as she takes 12 costumes from High Society, does her Swan song and bids farewell to acting just before the big wedding.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pauline Kael on Lauren Bacall


Today is Lauren Bacall's birthday (born Betty Joan Perske on September 16, 1924). I submit a little of Pauline Kael's description of Ms. Bacall in the film To Have and Have Not (1944) from Ms. Kael's book 5001 Nights At The Movies.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
"... a beautiful big cat of a girl named Lauren Bacall slouched across the screen for the first time and managed to make the question 'anybody got a match?' sound like the most insolent and insinuating of demands....

"The refreshingly, daringly sexy Bacall burst through the conventions of the era. A writer said of her that her 'husky underslung voice, which is ideal for the double entendre, makes even her simplest remarks sound like jungle mating cries.' 

"Hoagy Carmichael provides the music and accompaniment for Bacall's facial exercises; the singing voice is that of Andy Williams, and it never sounded sexier than when coming out of [Bacall]."

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Favorite Movie Quotes

Inspired by Clara's favorite film lines, here are a few of mine.

  From Can-Can (1960)  


Paul: It's over. Don't go on torturing yourself.
Phillipe: I don't know how to stop.

Heartbreaking. Louis Jourdan can play sincerity like nobody's business. He had me at Gigi.

From Bells Are Ringing (1960)

Sue: Miss number 63 is canceling service because she's marrying Mr. number 78.
Ella: Oh, how wonderful! I had nothing to do with it. I happened to know that Miss number 63 wanted to mate her female Siamese cat and I also knew that Mr. number 78 had a male Siamese cat. So I told her and she called him, and they all got together.

Hilarious! This is, hands down, my favorite Judy Holliday film. The stage version is being revived in London.

From Giant (1956)
 Leslie: C'mon partner. Why don't you kick off your spurs?

Spicy. Leslie and Bick make up after a quarrel.

From Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Christine: I don't mind being called names or pushed around or even kicked in the shin. But now I have a run in my last pair of nylons.

Okaaaaay.

From The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)

Susan: You know, everyday we have a famous artist here. I'll bet you've had a terribly interesting life.
Nugent: Not very. Look can we do this some other time? I have a date, you see.
Susan: Oh, then you're not married.
Nugent: No
Susan:  I knew you weren't! You just couldn't be!
Nugent: Oh, I've had some offers.

Cary Grant was brilliant at comedy. 'nuff said.

From Anastasia (1956)
Dowager Empress: Sir Bounine is still attractive.
Livenbaum: Yes,  your majesty.
Dowager Empress: Madly attractive.
Livenbaum: Yes, your majesty!
Dowager Empress: Livenbaum, your voluptuous fancies are disgusting. To a woman of your age, sex should mean nothing but gender.

Gotta love Helen Hayes and Martita Hunt.

From Giant (1956)


Leslie: Now, don't you worry about me. I'm a tough Tex-e-an now.

I like the quote, but I also like the context - the wide open space behind them, yet it's an intimate shot; the newlyweds joining together in a family project (roping and branding); the humor. They are happy, which makes me happy.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

I could kick myself : Shows you wish you'd seen

 Zorro played in the West End last year. There doesn't seem to be any Broadway turn for it. I could just kick myself for not going.

I kicked myself a few years ago for not going to see Frank Gorshin in his one-man show about Burns and Allen called Say Goodnight, Gracie. He died not too long after his run.


All those times that I could have seen a great show . . .

Well, I did see Chaim Topol in his U.S. national tour of  Fiddler On The Roof. That was electric.

Are there any shows that you've missed out on and wish you had seen?

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Rat Pack: 25 Never-Seen Photos

Life Magazine
Life magazine released 25 (actually it's 28) never-seen photographs of four members of the Rat Pack - Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin. This release coincides with the 50th anniversary of Ocean's Eleven (1960).

You'll find pithy quotes from these stars below the pictures in addition to the name of the photographer and why he was tagging along.

My favorite might be the one of Dean Martin in a fedora, back-lit.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Classic Movies On the Radio

When radio was king, adaptations of popular movies were all the rage. An hour or half an hour would be devoted to a streamlined script of Jezebel or A Star Is Born, for instance, and broadcast over the airwaves.


Movie stars - great and near-great - would stand before the microphones (sometimes playing their original film roles) and perform in front of a live studio audience. I enjoy the audience reactions. Sometimes an actor will deliberately play to them -  make some gesture or ad lib a line that will elicit a gasp or a laugh or, in the case of Frank Sinatra or Al Jolson (!) squeals of carnal ecstasy. 

As I listen on my Zune in total isolation (as opposed to family gathered around a radio, as was the custom), I wish for a second that I could be in that audience just to find out, for instance, what exactly Cary Grant does  in Lux Radio's "The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer" which causes that "thump" sound  and elicits high laughter and applause during his Zoot Route greeting.

But you don't have to be a fanboy to enjoy these aural diversions. It's a good way to introduce people to classic movies. An acquaintance of mine who usually doesn't like pop culture B.B.E. - before the Britney/Beyonce era - listened to "Meet Me In St. Louis" during a road trip and was absolutely enthralled with demented little six-year old Tootie who buries her dolls. ("She's like totally emo. Pre-goth goth.")

From the early to mid- 20th century, there were so many radio theaters, one pretty much like the other, that they struggled to distinguish themselves from their competitors. One Show would feature 30 minutes of only Oscar-winning stories or Oscar-winning actors.  Another 30-minute show  was performed exclusively by SAG members who forfeited their radio show salaries to fund charities for indigent movie industry people.   Yet another was just like the rest except it had an hour-long format with several commercial interruptions for a prominent car company. There was even one radio program which performed only streamlined broadway plays, before or after they had become films.

Then there's the, arguably, most famous one -  Lux Radio Theater - which was initially directed by Cecil B. DeMille. It ran for about 20 years, survived 3 directors and provided a TV spin off - Lux Video Theater.

All the radio programs would feature commercials for various sponsored items (soap, cigarettes, petroleum). These interruptions were probably annoying at the time (just as TV and internet advertising is today), and were no doubt mocked by a lot of people [Mankiewicz famously makes fun of radio and its commercials in A Letter To Three Wives (1949)] but for me, they are history lessons in marketing. The advertising often sought to make the customer discontent until they have product X, and that method hasn't changed.  I must admit, though, that I prefer the humor of today's commercials; the radio ones back then are relatively grave.

Along with the products, ad spots might promote the actors. At the beginning of the episodes (especially in the hour-long shows) the presenter gives a little background of the stars or how the show was put together this week or some related movie news. At the conclusion, there might be an interview with the performers who plug their next film (a precursor to late night TV shows). In between the acts, a young starlet who isn't performing in the radio play might be trotted out to plug her name.

Although these Hollywood programs are self-referential (they are selling movies, after all), it's not completely self-contained. Every once in awhile you get a sense of daily life beyond Tinseltown. During one show a producer urges listeners to continue taking used bacon grease to the local butchers so that they can send it off to make bullets for "The Emergency." One presenter announced that the episode would be cut short to make way for a radio broadcast by the President - Franklin D. Roosevelt.  In a November broadcast in 1944, Cecil B DeMille claims at the beginning of "It Started with Eve" that the film version was the first American movie shown to the U.S. troops after they had stormed the shore in Normandy. (Wow! That totally gives my favorite Deanna Durbin film a sobering historical context that this light comedy didn't have before.)

In addition to the historic references, I enjoy comparing various versions of the same story. Not only contrasting the radio adaptation with its screen parent (Did you know that Judy Garland played in a radio version of A Star is Born  more than a decade before her Oscar-nominated performance in 1954?), but also comparing the many rehashed radio scripts among themselves.(Someone has too many husbands.)

I suppose somewhere there is still radio theater, but I'm not holding my breath for it to come to my neck of the woods. Sure, radio is no longer the leading purveyor of  up-to-date information and entertainment, and that's OK. Were it not for the internet, I would never have found these gems of cinematic history.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Li'l Abner (1940)

Li’l Abner (1940) is a low budget, adaptation of Al Capp’s famous comic strips, which follows a lumbering man-child whose only concern is to remain single and to keep up his daily intake of pork chops.

If the premise of this film seems hard to swallow, think of how Capp must have felt. A quick search on the web suggests that  Capp’s comic strips were meant to comment on society, contrasting the simple lives of  villagers with the machinations of urban crooks. This film, however,  dwells only on the innocent and rural part without much contrast and without satire. However, the tone of the 1959 musical version, which was adapted from the Broadway play,  remains closer to its source material in  examining  corrupt people through  guileless eyes.

Li’l Abner Yokum (Granville Owen aka Jeff York) lives in the small town of Dog Patch with his mother and father (Mona Ray and Johnnie Morris).One hilarious scene in the film  involves the tiny woman giving her husband a spring cleaning (read: bath) with a pig. The parents are the highlight of the film, but they get very little screen time after about  20 minutes.

The pair encourage their son to marry the girl next door, Daisy Mae Scraggs (Martha O‘Driscoll), but Abner would have none it.

Abner’s feminine friend gets some competition pretty soon when the swarthy vixen, Delightful (Billie Seward), comes to town.  The man-hungry brunette makes a move on Abner, but she’s quickly sent packing and we never see her again. The film is full of disjointed vignettes like this which serve to give every popular Dog Patch character some face time.

Through a series of ridiculous events Abner believes he’s going to die by the next day and so proposes both to Daisy Mae and to Wendy Wildcat (Kay Sutton), a second brunette who comes late into the picture. Great fun! Dog Patch Style!

Who will end up with the willing bigamist? Who cares? I’ll leave Daisy Mae to fight it out with Linda Darnell’s doppelganger.

This movie is dreck, but it has a very catchy theme song written by Ben Oakland, Milton Drake and Milton Berle. My favorite lyrics (because they are so fun to roll around in your mouth) are these:

He’s so handsome an’ so dashin’
That the gals can’t stop their mashin’
But when  you ask him 

What’s his secret passion
Li’l Abner says “pork chops.”


You have to open and close your mouth so much on those lines that it’s almost as if you’re chewing a tough piece of pig. I’m easily entertained.


Li’l Abner  is the kind of film that does not take itself seriously, which is good since a search for the title will bring up its more complicated, pedigreed successor. Li’l Abner (1940) fell into public domain some years ago and can be found at the Internet Archive.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock Geek to interview Tippi Hedren

This just in.

Author of the Alfred Hitchcock Geek blog, Joel Gunz, will interview Tippi Hedren on Sunday September 12th. Ms. Hedren, one of the cool, Hitchcock blondes, is the star of The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964).

Gunz has asked readers for questions. Head on over there and make a suggestion.

Links & Updates - Audrey Hepburn's approval ratings; The Heiress; Nostalgia Critic;Hat Dance; Wiseguy

Links
  1. John McElwee at Greenbriar Picture Shows blog tackles the maelstrom surrounding Emma Thompson's unpleasant assessment of classic movie icon Audrey Hepburn.  In "Fairy Dust Blown Off" McElwee wonders if Hepburn's charm is wearing thin these days. Not by a long shot. 
  2. I'm prepping for a blog post about The Heiress (1949). Found a great book of essays entitled Henry James At The Movies, edited by Susan Griffin (click the title to read it). So far I've read an essay about how  Catherine's silence in the film speaks volumes. Interesting stuff.
  3. Was recently reminded of a video review by The Nostalgia Critic comparing Jerry Lewis' Nutty Professor (1963) with the newer one. The main character's alter ego, Buddy Love, never seemed suave or likable to me. Perhaps that's to gin up more empathy for the Prof.
  4. Do read The Lady Eve's interview with John Gilbert's daughter - Leatrice Gilbert Fountain - about reclaiming her father's legacy. It hit me in the gut. That longing to discover your past resonates with me.
  5. Keith at Coolness is Timeless, mentions that GQ has listed the top 50 stylish men. Those who have made the list include David Niven, Clint Eastwood, Sidney Poitier and Montgomery Clift.
Updates
  1. Java's Blather - my catchall blog. This is where I'm going to start putting my post-1960s stuff. I've recently reviewed the first season of crime drama Wiseguy (1987) starring Ken Wahl.
  2. Spotlight World Trivia Blog - Spotlight North America : La Raspa vs Mexican Hat Dance. These two folk dances are often confused. I explore the differences and mention where you might have seen them in classic film and TV.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Quote of the Day: Lucille Ball

[On the MGM Studio System] "You were taken in charge and trained. They have none of that today any place. I regret the passing of the studio system. I was very appreciative of it because I had no talent. Believe me. What could I do? I couldn't dance. I couldn't sing. I could talk. I could barely walk. I had no flair. I wasn't a beauty, that's for sure."
-- Lucille Ball, actress, studio executive of Desilu Productions
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...