Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Denying the Subversion: Musicals of 1957

Genre movies have a special place in my heart.  There is a comfort with them, you pretty much know what to expect, and that is a good thing.  There is a time for a film that shakes ones expectations, that brings us to places we’ve never been before, but sometimes we need the familiar.  We need tropes that affirm that the world is regular and follows certain rules—at least the film world, if not the world around us.  A good genre film may not make us laugh or cry, but it is a cozy flame in a fireplace on a winter day.  And sometimes we need just that.

The balance a genre film—whether noir, romantic comedy, western, musical or other—must achieve is to maintain that familiar, but to also be interesting.  There must be both the trope and the novel, the familiar and the surprise.  Because no film should make us so comfortable that we fall asleep.  But where that line is drawn is different for different people.   Some can find the unique in very subtle ways,  while others are more demanding of their genre films, demanding some kind of subversion of what is often expected. 

I usually prefer the remarkable as opposed to the comfortable, but this week I sat down to two musicals very comfortable in their genre: musicals.  In looking at their performers, we know that we shouldn’t expect much in the way of subversion:  Doris Day in The Pajama Game and Fred Astaire in Funny Face.  So I settled in to the familiar, and hoped that there would be enough uniqueness to keep me awake.

First comes The Pajama Game, which from the first scene we know that it is imitating a Broadway-style song-and-dance, which makes sense since the musical and all the performers (except from Doris Day) came straight from the successful stage play.   Doris Day is unexceptional here, but her co-lead John Raitt has a remarkable voice (I found myself wanting to sing along).  But the real star here is Carol Haney in the supporting role of Gladys.  Every time she participates in a song, the film brightens and gathers energy.

And, honestly, it needed some energy.  There is a wonderful scene when there is a revisit of an earlier song, except done at half speed.  In the end, this is how I felt the whole movie to be.  The dancing was uninspired, the songs unexceptional.  And there was something else missing… but I just couldn’t put my finger down on it.  With the exception of a few musical numbers—“Hernando’s Hideaway” and “Steam Heat” especially—this film was pretty much a snooze.

Then came Funny Face with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn… and Kay Thompson playing a pivotal third wheel.  I have two confessions to make before I begin.  First, this is the first time I have seen Fred Astaire in a film since I saw Easter Parade as a young teen.  And I am not a fan of Audrey Hepburn.  I have seen both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady and both films are wonderful—except for Ms. Hepburn.  She seems flat in both roles, just filling dresses, but not the characters (and this isn’t because of my deep disappointment that Julie Andrews wasn’t able to reprise her stage role as Eliza).  So I entered into this film not expecting much.

I was quite, quite pleased.  First, the Gershwin songs were clever, jazzy and fun—everything good you expect from Gershwin.  The dance was energetic and fun, a true pleasure to watch, all except Fred Astaire.  Okay, now I get it.  I mean, I’ve seen the rotating room dance, and some tap dancing by the master, but now I know why Astaire is the dance Master—it was like he floated, defying gravity.  When he and Audrey dance upon the water platform and drift to the middle of the stream, I gasped aloud—that was musical perfection.

But I also found in this film what I was unknowingly missing in The Pajama Game—chemistry.  Both movies are musical versions of a typical romantic comedy.  The secret to a good romantic comedy is chemistry.  You can put in as much ridiculous, insane, unrealistic situations and characters around the main characters, but the central relationship has to be believable.  As much musical time as The Pajama Game spent on the central relationship, I just didn’t buy it.  These were strangers, not lovers. 

Funny Face played it almost perfectly.  Fred, the experienced actor, acted the experienced man.  He expected nothing out of Audrey, and his love was pushed deep, coming out only in his plan to make her the next fashionista.   Audrey is the girl next door, even when she is a fashionista, and her performance is perfect in every scene.  Her love is intellectualism, but her attraction to Astaire seemed natural and wonderful.   The only fault I find in their relationship is when they confess their love to each other, which is so sudden and silly I’m surprised the performers didn’t burst out laughing in the midst of it (perhaps that was an earlier take). 

But overlooking that, the film was wonderful.  It was everything I expected from a great musical: perfectly performed and full of joy and great dancing.  I don’t care that a photographer and his subject doesn’t break into dance in the middle of a shot.  In this film, I believed it and I was glad to be with them, appreciating their happiness. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Classic Cartoons of 1957

You may find that I am posting more about movies of 1957, like Paths of Glory in the last post.  The reason for this is because my movie comrades and I on the Filmspotting Forum are participating in Retrospots, where we grant awards for film of years gone by.  For our first round of Retrospots, we have chosen the year 1957.  This is a year of truly great film, like 12 Angry Men, The Sweet Smell of Success and Witness for the Prosecution and many others.

It was also a pretty good year for cartoons.  Yes, cartoons.

I like cartoons.  I grew up watching repeats of classic Popeye, Loony Toons, Woody Woodpecker, Droopy, Hanna Barbera, Japanese anime, and even Super Chicken.  And so, to provide a *ahem* service for the Filmspotting community, I watched a whole bundle of cartoons from 1957 and reviewed them.  For your reading pleasure, I share them with you, along with my rating out of five stars.  If you'd like to watch any of them, they are all available on YouTube under the name given.

The Candlemaker
A pretty standard Christian moral tale with a conclusion of working hard.  Occasionally the animation is interesting, but nothing exceptional here.  2.5/5

Ali Baba Bunny
A Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck classic.  Some good laughs.  The tension the duck causes and the brains of the bunny are always enjoyable, and it’s a standard good time.  Hassan chop!  4/5

Piker’s Peak
The Bunny and Yosemite Sam, climbing the “Shmaterhorn”.   Sam is just sad.  3/5

Hooky Spooky
Casper the friendly ghost.  It started out so well, with a “night school” for ghosts, but as soon as Spooky wants to go to the zoo instead, the imagination ends. 3.5/5

The Story of Anyburg, USA
A Disney moral tale of who is responsible for good driving.  It’s not funny, and the point is pretty dumb, actually.  2/5

The Truth about Mother Goose
A history lesson on the background of three nursery rhymes by Disney.   Disney proves once again that they know how to educate better than anyone and that they really don’t know solid history.  Still, it was fascinating to watch. 4/5

Bedeviled Rabbit
Taz v. the Bunny.  Taz is smarter than he is in other cartoon, and it is better for it, although it really only makes him a substitute for Elmer.  Amusing.  3/5

Red Riding Hoodlums
A Woody Woodpecker knock off with his niece and nephew.  They try so hard and are occasionally funny, but they are just stealing jokes from Warner Bros, and the animation isn’t near as well done. 3/5

Byl Sobie Raz (Once Upon A Time)
A first effort by Polish/French director Borowczyk.  It’s got a lot of imagination put into it, but in the end it is simply too basic.  Not enough to keep ones interest even for its eight minute run. 

What’s Opera Doc?
Well, this is the star of the year, and no wonder.  It isn’t really funny, but it draws in a lot of elements—from Fantasia, Wagner and the basic plot from Bugs and Elmer—and it is dark.  Really dark.  It is the most different of any of the Warner Bros. cartoons, and the animation is truly artistic.  If you haven’t seen this since you were a kid, try it out.  (I still prefer Duck Amuck)   Kill the rabbit! 4/5

Romeo Rabbit
Elmer has to babysit a romantic (enormous) rabbit for his uncle who promises him 500 dollars to do the job.   Frankly, Elmer deserves every penny.  He forces Bugs to help him out, and Bugs at first is no match for the duo.  Of course,  he wins in the end.  A couple surprises, but a lesser Bugs. 3/5

Steal Wool
One of my favorite WB series is the Sam the Sheepdog and Ralph the Wolf (who is just Wile E Coyote behind a red nose).  These are just two working stiffs, doing their jobs, one to protect and the other to steal sheep.   The action between the bookends is pretty typical Road Runner stuff, except that Sam is almost miraculous in getting out of Ralph’s traps.  The ending of this one is one of my favorites. "Morning Sam."  "Morning Ralph."  4.5/5

Mucho Mouse
Time for a Tom and Jerry mini marathon.  Jerry is a Spanish mouse, who can never lose.  Tom is the champion mouse-catcher from the States.  Tom is too outmatched, it isn’t really fair and all the characters speak, which to me is breaking the rules.  I had no idea the series was created by Hanna Barbera, but this cartoon certainly has the look of later H/B series.  3/5

Tom’s Photo Finish
Spike is framed by Tom for eating the chicken, but Jerry has it all on film, and he begins placing copies of the photo all over the house where the masters will see them.  This is classic T & J.  And Tom doesn’t get beat up too badly.  4/5

Feedin’ the Kiddie
Jerry has a nephew visit for Thanksgiving, who is so focused on food that he doesn’t pay attention to the trouble he gets into with Tom.  I prefer the ones where Jerry actually has a challenge—he’s more fun on the defense than the offense.   3/5

Timid Tabby
Tom has his cousin George visiting, who is scared of mice.  Jerry thinks he can use this to his advantage, but because he can’t tell the difference between Tom and George, he is fooled.  Nice to see Jerry on the taking side for a change.  3.5/5

Tops With Pops
Tom and Jerry and Spike with his son Tyke.  Jerry hides with Tyke, whom Spike loves and protects from Tom.  Some good laughs here, although Jerry is infernally smug.  4/5

Give and Tyke
An unnamed dog is stealing Spike and Tyke’s dog collar so he doesn’t get taken into the pound.  While Spike’s voice is an imitation of Jimmy Durante, the unnamed dog is exactly like Yogi Bear.  However, Yogi Bear doesn’t appear until 1958, when Hanna Barbera open their own studio.  So this cartoon must be part of the vocal development of that most famous character.   There’s a lot of give and take here, but little decent comedy.  Still, this is historic, showing the development of MGM Hanna Barbera to their own studio work.  3/5

Scat Cats
Spike and Tyke have to keep a group of alley cats from getting into the masters’ house when they are away.  Another historic document.  Not only does the voice of Yogi return, but the alley cats clearly precede the series Top Cat, which began in 1961.  Some good laughs in this one.  3.5/5

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Paths of Glory: System of Leadership

The court martial movie is a well-trodden path.  And no wonder: it has the semblance of rebelling against authority, while supporting the system of authority.  It provides an opportunity for true actors to really shine in highly dramatic roles.  It has the best of both stage-- a presentation before a limited audience-- and the movies, providing context and drama outside the courtroom.  Some of the greatest movies have been court martial films: Mutiny on the Bounty, The Caine Mutiny, Breaker Morant, and A Few Good Men are among them.

Paths of Glory is certainly among them.  It stars Kirk Douglas as a Colonel in World War I, who is first ordered into a dubious battle and then forced to defend his men from accusations of cowardice.  Beside being a marvelous court martial movie, it  has one outstanding characteristic above the other films: it has amazingly good war scenes as well.  It isn't focused on the court, although it's focus is upon justice and the misuse of authority.  The most dramatic scenes are on the field.  Like another great war movie, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, PoG allows us to see inside the whole war machine, from those who command generals to the lowliest private.

The amazing thing about this film is that it doesn't just target a single bad commander.  Rather, it shows how the system as a whole is built to create those commanders to make decisions that unnecessarily costs lives.   How both a general and a sergeant are supported in evil decisions in order to cover their butt or to obtain a little more glory at the cost of many lives.  And it also shows how such a corrupt system cannot abide by integrity, nor even understand it.

And this makes Paths of Glory unique.  It isn't exactly an anti-war film, because Kirk Douglas, our hero and man of integrity, begins and ends a soldier.  And it doesn't just decry the misuse of authority.  Rather, it says that there is a systemic problem in all military leadership.  That is a remarkably bold statement.  Especially for a film made in the mid-50s.

I do wish that more of the supporting cast had been as stellar as some of the lead roles.  But the sound and cinematography are worthy of Academy Awards-- although the Academy didn't even give it a single nomination. The central battle scene is amazing and it seems to have influenced at least Spielberg, as I can see Saving Private Ryan and War Horse borrow aspects of it.   While not a perfect film, it's a keeper and worthy of the Kubrick label.

Oh, did I fail to mention that it was directed by Stanley Kubrick?