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Archive for September, 2011

By Bob Clark

Another detour from anime this week as we look more at the animated musical, but still steer clear of the traditional route of Disney and their imitators. In any number of ways, the 1971 animated television special The Point represents something of an oddity for anybody pursuing relative obscurities and nostalgic relics of thinking-man’s cartoons. With a sketchy, watercolor-infused art style that often only makes faint attempts to connect concretely with the plot at hand or the subjects of the various musical numbers, the film has a decidedly surreal, but playful outlook uncommon for traditional fairy-tale narratives. Instead, it has much more in common with any number of the other pop-music inspired works of animation from the 70’s and 80’s (The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, Peter, Paul & Mary’s Puff the Magic Dragon), not to mention the whole abstract and expressionist tendencies in some of the more independent animated efforts from that time period in North America. Though they tend to be drowned out by the overwhelming mainstream popularity of studios like Disney and Warner Brothers, there’s long been a strong-running undercurrent of more subversive animators toiling within and without the system in the United States and especially Canada, and it’s to The Point‘s credit that it feels more like any number of the adventurous works of Canadian animation than anything from its own shores.

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by Sam Juliano

With the single resounding exception of 1965’s The Sound of Music, the films made from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s stage musicals have all shared critical disdain for a host of reasons, ranging from their style and technique to their exceeding theatricality.  In what can now be seen as one of the major ironies surrounding the musical theatre and Hollywood’s interpretation of it’s most celebrated properties, the form’s most beloved composing team have been “cinematically translated” at a level that is hardly commensurable to the rapturous music they created.  Over eight collaborations beginning with Oklahoma! in 1943 and concluding with the aforementioned The Sound of Music two decades later Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II set the bar for creating what are now regarded as timeless scores and music that is distinguished for it’s musical and homespun purity and entrancing melodic lilt.  As recently as this past year, a revival at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center of South Pacific reminded theatregoers of the beauty of their compositions and the intimacy that always made their stage work shine far brighter than the subsequent cinematic incarnations.

Of course, aside from State Fair (1945), which was written directly for the screen, and a 1957 television musical of Cinderella it was for the theatre that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s shows were originally conceived, and it was through the devices, structures and practices of the theatre that they were first brought to life.  What works within the space, confines and imagination of the stage is often compromised in another medium, where delicate chemistry is unavoidably amplified.  In the case of the film version of South Pacific, a colored filter violated the tenuous artistic balance, while in Fred Zinnemann’s Oklahoma! the cheery small-town atmosphere was turned into a Western epic, with heavy-handed Freudian underpinnings thrown into the mix for good measure.  Only Walter Lang’s 1956 The King and I escaped the prevailing wrath of the nay-sayers, much because it’s inherent pagentry benefited by the expansive screen transference, drawing as it did on the lavish sets, costumes and other studio resources. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(USA 1941 92m) DVD1/2

A lamp chop in an ashtray

p  Joe Pasternak  d  Henry Koster  w  Norman Krasna, Leo Townsend  ph  Rudolph Maté  ed  Bernard W.Burton  md  Charles Previn, Hans Salter  art  Jack Otterson

Deanna Durbin (Anne Terry), Robert Cummings (Johnny Reynolds), Charles Laughton (Jonathan Reynolds), Margaret Tallichet (Gloria Pennington), Guy Kibbee (Bishop Maxwell), Walter Catlett (Dr Harvey), Catherine Doucet (Mrs Pennington), Irving Bacon (Raven), Gus Schilling (Raven), Charles Coleman (Roberts), Clara Blandick (nurse), Sig Arno (waiter), Alexander Granach (Popalard)

There’s a scene in Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption when Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne locks himself in the warden’s office and plays the Mozart ‘Sull Aria’ over the loudspeaker system.  Morgan Freeman’s Red talks of how its beautiful sounds were as if “a bird beautiful bird had flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away.”  It was one of the most sublime moments in an otherwise rather schematic piece, but it only goes to illustrate that one man’s manipulation is another’s heaven. 

            Take Deanna Durbin for example.  She and her best director Henry Koster are already represented here with One Hundred Men and a Girl and there would seem to be no need to include another one of her films.  It Started With Eve is not a musical, rather a romantic comedy with musical interludes, but these are musical interludes that enter the bloodstream of the film itself.  (more…)

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by Judy Geater

Director: Stanley Donen

Producer: Arthur Freed

Music: Burton Lane

Lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner

Screenwriter: Alan Jay Lerner

Choreographers: Fred Astaire/Nick Castle

Cinematographer: Robert H Planck

Studio: MGM

Main actors: Fred Astaire, Jane Powell, Peter Lawford, Sarah Churchill, Keenan Wynn

****

Don’t be misled by the title – though MGM probably hoped people would be. There is nothing very glitzy about this movie, not all that much pageantry, and the only “king” featured is Fred Astaire in a pasteboard crown for the opening musical number.

For the most part, the royal wedding, of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, is just a backdrop. The main story is an amusing and occasionally poignant backstager partly based on Astaire’s own early career, when he and sister Adele were famous dancing partners until she retired from the stage to marry a British aristocrat. However, the story is probably secondary to the stunning dance numbers, including the famous one where he dances up the walls and around the ceiling. Jane Powell ‘s beautiful singing voice is another definite plus to this movie.

There are a lot of cheap public domain DVDs of this movie available with badly faded Technicolor, and it is also available all over the place to watch online in a similar state. Fortunately there is also a properly restored region 1 DVD available from Warner, issued as a double set with another Astaire movie, The Belle of New York, and including numerous special features. (more…)

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by John Greco

When “A Hard Day’s Night” was first released everyone was expecting the English pop groups’ version of an Elvis movie, “It Happened at the British Open” or something like that. Have John Lennon and Paul McCartney pump out a half a dozen or so songs, create a soundtrack, release the album and sell millions for United Artists. The studio was just looking to cash in on the music quickly before the fad of Beatlemania would fade from the memory of teenagers around the world. In February 1964, The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show where more than 60 million viewers watched. The time was ripe for a film, but it had to be made quick and cheap, United Artists not wanting to spring for any extra dollars. What producer, Walter Shenson got, along with the studio, music critics and the public, instead was a surprisingly energetic, pulsating, witty frenetic day in the life that Andrew Sarris in his original Village Voice review called, “the Citizen Kane of juke-box musicals.”

Prior to “A Hard Day’s Night,” rock and roll musicals were a disreputable lot consisting of Alan Freed “extravaganzas” which were mostly excuses to bring early rock and roll singers like Little Richard, Gene Vincent and Chuck Berry along with Doo-Wop groups such as The Flamingos and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers on to the big screen surrounded usually with the simple idea of putting on a big show for the kids against the wishes of parents, teachers, local town leaders and other narrow minded authority figures. Not much better were the Elvis movies, though some of his early films (King Creole, Jailhouse Rock, and Flaming Star) reflected signs of talent on screen. Disappointingly, by the time “A Hard Day’s Night” arrived, Elvis’ films had been reduced to the stale pabulum formula of “Fun in Acapulco,” “Kissin’ Cousins” and “It Happened at the World’s Fair,” generally with songs just as bland as the titles (The Bullfighter Was a Lady, Barefoot Ballad, Cotton Candyland). Other films exploited the Twist dance craze (Hey Let’s Twist, Don’t Knock the Twist) and the A.I.P. Frankie and Annette movies were not much better. So when in July 1964, a small black and white film starring the English mop tops was released the only thing anyone was expecting was a lot of money to be rolling into United Artists bank account. (more…)

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By Brian, a.k.a. Classicfilmboy

I love her funny face, to steal a line from the title track of “Funny Face,” because I adore Audrey Hepburn.

And this, her first musical, combines everything an Audrey fan would love: romance, comedy, a debonair leading man and Audrey’s stunning wardrobe, an array of late 1950s couture by her favorite designer, Hubert de Givenchy.

As for Givenchy, Hepburn once said: “I depend on Givenchy in the same way that American women depend on their psychiatrists. There are few people I love more. He is the single person I know with the greatest integrity.”

And why talk about clothes? Because it’s a musical about a fashion photographer and the mousy bookstore clerk he turns into a beautiful model. It’s actually pretty amazing that this 1957 film turned out as s’wonderful as it did, considering how many changes it went through from start to finish.

The original musical “Funny Face,” with songs by the Gershwin brothers, was on Broadway in the late 1920s and starred Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele. The Arthur Freed unit actually began developing this musical as a film at MGM but ended up selling it to Paramount. Most of the songs and the plot from the original were dropped, Gershwin songs from some of their other shows were added, and new music was written by Roger Edens and Leonard Gershe. (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(France 1950 99m) DVD2 (France only, no English subs)

Aka. The Wanton

What will become of us?

p  Emil Natan, André Paulve  d  Yves Allégret  w  Jacques Sigurd  ph  Jean Bourgoin  ed  Maurice Serein, Suzanne Girardin  art  Alexander Trauner, Auguste Capelier 

Simone Signoret (Dora), Bernard Blier (Robert), Jane Marken (Dora’s mother), Frank Villard (François), Jacques Baumer, (Louis) Jean Ozenne (Eric), Gabriel Gobin (Émile), Mona Dol (Head nurse), Laure Diana (stables customer), Fernand Rauzéna (circus chief),

Let’s start at the very beginning, Julie Andrews once said atop a mountain in that musical assault on anyone’s intelligence.  I never was one for following orders, if I’d been a von Trapp child I’d have delighted in doing more than sticking frogs in Maria’s pockets.  So let’s not start at the very beginning, but at the very end.  You come into the cinema where Manèges is playing sixty seconds before it finishes, and are there to witness a grieving middle-aged woman call out in tears to a man leaving down a hospital staircase, bemoaning “what will become of us?”  His answer is simple, but as you sit down the man next to you is heard to whisper, in the manner of Malcolm Tucker, “NMFP.”  You look at him and think “you heartless bastard.”  He gets up and walks off, like the man in the film.  You settle down to wait for it to start again. (more…)

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text by Arlene Croce – images from “Night and Day” in The Gay Divorcee (1934) – edited by Joel Bocko

If writing about movies is like dancing about architecture, then writing about musicals is like trying to draw a blueprint for a tap dance. Here I try to make both ends meet.

The words below the fold are from Arlene Croce’s seminal “Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book.”

The images (some fragments, some fully framed) are from a single number, “Night and Day,” the only sequence in the film where Fred & Ginger dance by themselves, three minutes out of nearly two hours but the very essence of the picture and their partnership.

Make sure to check out a full clip of the dance on You Tube. Music and lyrics by Cole Porter, choreography by Fred Astaire, dancing by you-know-who.

Ideally, senses sharpened by the indirect evocations of Croce’s prose and the lingering snapshots of motion, you will view the dance with renewed appreciation. Much as one might press one’s nose up against a pointillist painting, viewing all those little dots as isolated phenomena before stepping back to take in the big picture, all without losing sight of the magical details which give it its essence.

As Arlene Croce says, opening her study of the sequence, “This incomparable dance of seduction is a movie in itself.” Enjoy.

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Brilliant poetic and existential "Drive" with Ryan Gosling is one of the best films of the year

 

by Sam Juliano

Fall weather is upon us in the Northeast, and we can only be grateful and invigorated by such a glorious development.  Temperatures actually dropped into the 40’s a few nights ago, and people are scurrying to clothers stores for jackets, sweaters and light coats.  Some stores are even sporting Halloween decorations six weeks in advance of the day, and the start of the New York Film Festival and the Metropolitan Opera schedule is just weeks away.  Even back-to-school night is set for this coming week in many communities, including my own.

Here at Wonders in the Dark the musical countdown is moving ahead impressively, as the comments and site traffic have been through the roof.  Several writers have really made their mark, and we can only be thrilled at what will surely be a fabulous second half.  As always, Jamie Uhler, Jim Clark, Allan Fish and Bob Clark continue their great series work, while Joel Bocko and Maurizio Roca are all over the site contributing in any and every way possible with exceeding scholarship.  And then there’s Dee Dee with her incomparable sidebar work and great additions and comments.  It’s been quite a ride.  Talk is beginning to surface about an all-time ‘Greatest Comedies’ countdown for late Spring, but much satill has to be decided and confirmed.

After movie going had slowed to a trickle the week before, Lucille and I (and some of the kids) have come back with a vengeance this past week with an unusually prolific assault on multiplex screens.  Heck, after the non-EZ pass toll from New Jersey to Manhattan jumped from $8.00 to $11.50 yesterday, I can only wonder how I’ll have to motify the number of my Manhattan appearances!  Ha!  Anyway, we sat seven (7) films in theatres, with one of those a 3D return of the animated masterpiece The Lion King.  Saturday was the biggest day with three films seen: (more…)

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by Allan Fish

(Germany 1931 110m) DVD1/2

A ship with eight sails and fifty cannons

p  Seymour Nebenzal  d  Georg W.Pabst  w  Bela Balazs, Leo Lania, Ladislas Vajda  operetta play  Bertolt Brecht  play  “The Beggar’s Opera” by John Gay  ph  Fritz Arno Wagner  ed  Hans Oser  m  Kurt Weill  art  Andrei Andreiev

Rudolf Forster (Mackie Messer “Mack the Knife”), Fritz Rasp (Peachum), Carola Neher (Polly Peachum), Valeska Gert (Mrs Peachum), Lotte Lenya (Pirate Jenny), Reinhold Schünzel (Tiger-Brown), Wladimir Sokoloff (Warder Smith), Herman Thimig (Vicar),

The general consensus regarding Pabst’s take on the legendary Brecht-Weill operetta is that it was a noble failure.  In terms of keeping the feel and satire of the theatrical original it’s not an unfair decision (the truest Brecht film remains Kühle Wampe).  Yet could the original play have worked as a film any more than the 1952 version of its predecessor, Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, did with Olivier as Macheath?  I for one don’t think so, and one must also recall that there was a time when Pabst’s film was very highly regarded indeed.

            Now we know that many of the changes that Brecht objected to in the infamous legal case against the makers were partially proposed by Brecht himself, and while some of Weill’s songs faced the chop, it would hardly be the last time where a screen musical would lose some of its score; take Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, for one.  Yet perhaps the most vital statistic to take into account when discussing the film’s power was the Nazis banning of the film and destroying of the negative in 1933, so that for years the film was out of circulation and existed only in the memories of those who remembered the original screening.  Luckily, prints that went abroad weren’t under Nazi jurisdiction and it was restored in the early 1960s, but by then it was the age of West Side Story, of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Weimar Germany was but a memory.  I say Weimar Germany, for though the film is ostensibly set in turn of the century London (updated a few decades from the theatrical version), it’s really a comment on the status quo in turn of the thirties Berlin.  What’s more, as the proposed English version never came into being and the French version lost much of its bite, one became all the more aware that the film, as with the play, must be performed in German. (more…)

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