On the Town (1949) Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen

New York! New York! It’s a wonderful town!

The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down

The people ride in a hole in the ground

New York! New York! It’s a wonderful town!

And with these words “On the Town” gets off to a rousing start gliding us through a montage of three sailors on a one day pass seeing the sights of the city, New York City. The Brooklyn Bridge, the Village, Little Italy, Chinatown, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Central Park, the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center. It’s a world wind tour, a sparkling pioneering opening and possibly an early inspiration on music videos. Based on the 1944 hit Broadway musical with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The book, also by Comden and Green, was based on an idea for a ballet called “Fancy Free,” by Jerome Robbins who choreographed the stage production. In 1949, MGM brought the musical to the screen and of course had to change things including dropping most of the original songs and adding new ones (Bernstein’s music was considered too highbrow for movie audiences), this despite the fact that MGM was an investor in the stage production! Only four songs survived and, of those, the opening number had to be “toned down” (the line New York, New York, It’s a hella of town was change to read it’s a wonderful town) to appease the censors and blue noses. Additionally, the storyline was changed, enlarging and focusing more on Gabey (Gene Kelly) and Ivy (Vera Ellen) than Ozzie (Jules Munshin) and Claire (Ann Miller). Continue reading

Singin in the Rain (1952) Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

I’m singin in the rain

just singin in the rain

What a glorious feeling

I’m happy again

I’m laughing at clouds

So dark up above

The sun’s in my heart

And I’m ready for love

Is there anything more exuberant than watching Gene Kelly singin’ and dancin’ in the rain? Generally considered one of, if not, the grandest of all musicals, and whom am I to argue, “Singin’ in the Rain” is a joyous delight, celebrating movies, music, dance and the talent of a cast and creators who rarely were better. Critics over the years have been in agreement, from Pauline Kael who called it “the most enjoyable of musicals” to David Kehr, who said it is “one of the shining glories of the American musical’ to Roger Ebert who wrote, “There is no movie musical more fun as ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ and few that remain as fresh over the years.” Even New York Times curmudgeon Bosley Crowthers wrote at the time of the film’s release, “Guaranteed to put you in a buttercup mood.” And let’s face it, if a film can put old sourpuss Crowthers in a “buttercup mood” that my friends, is one hell of a movie! (1)

Surprisingly the film, while it met with good reviews, was not considered the instant classic, top of the heap, musical it would be judged in later years. Sure, it was a hit financially but overshadowed in accolades by Kelly’s previous film, Vincent Minnelli’s “An American in Paris,” released only five months earlier and destined to win Best Picture of the Year for 1951.(2) The Kelly/Donen film’s only Academy Award nominations were for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Jean Hagen and Best Musical Score for a Musical Picture (Lennie Hayton). This was the year of DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” generally considered the worst film to ever win Best Picture. Other nominees that year included Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon,” thought to be the early favorite, John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge,” John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” and the mediocre “Ivanhoe.” Hard to believe no one thought the joyous MGM musical was worthy of a spot on the Best Picture nominee list that year. Continue reading

Charade (1963) Stanley Donen

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“Charade” is a light Hitchcockian thriller with two of the most charming stars to ever grace the screen. A lively screenplay, a catchy title song that you cannot get out of your head and a superb cast of supporting actors, most of who would soon go on to become stars in the late 1960’s and beyond.  Directed with a light touch by Stanley Donen, best known for his wonderful musicals with Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain, On the Town and It’s Always Fair Weather) and without Gene Kelly (Funny Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Pajama Game) glides elegantly and smoothly into the world of The Master of Suspense. Donen actually complained about the comparison to Hitch, claiming that Sir Alfred did not have a monopoly on this kind of film. While he is right about that, there no denying the similarities. First, you have the main character Reggie (Hepburn) being accused of something, she knows nothing about (the whereabouts of stolen money). Then we have a script filled with dark humor, another Hitchcock trademark and finally Miss Hepburn’s co-star, Cary Grant, a Hitchcock alumnus with an outstanding record.

    Audrey Hepburn is Reggie Lampert, a UN Interpreter, whose husband is murdered and tossed off a moving train right at the start of the movie. His only possession is a small travel bag that the police will return to her. Just prior to learning of  her husband’s death, whom she was planning to divorce, she meets the charming Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) at a ski resort. They are attracted to each other. At the funeral palor where her husband’s body is on view, an assortment of odd strangers appear, each one substantiating personally that he is dead; one even sticks the deceased with a pin to ensure he is really dead. 

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Soon after, Reggie is requested to come to the U.S. Embassy where she meets Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau), a CIA agent who informs her that her husband was involved in a robbery during World War II, stealing two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, belonging to the government. Hamilton shows Reggie a photo of three men who were in the Army with her husband and were part of the gang that pilfered the dough. Reggie recognizes the men; they are the same three strangers who came to her husband’s funeral. Bartholomew wants the government money back though Reggie insists she does not have it nor know where it is.  Peter Joshua reappears willing to help Reggie anyway he can to find the money, which he eventually admits he wants for himself. He also informs her that his name is really Alexander Dyle. Soon bodies are dropping like the proverbial fly. Reggie and Peter/Dyle fall in love as they continue to search for the missing money. I won’t reveal the ending but suffice it to say most of the characters are not who they say they are, maybe.

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   The film is filled with twist and turns, and plenty of sophisticated and sometimes ghoulish humor, courtesy of screenwriter Peter Stone. Grant is in familiar territory having covered this type of film with Sir Alfred many times before (North by Northwest, Rebecca, and Notorious). He is charming as ever, even if he is looking a touch older. Grant was concerned about the romantic angle of the script due to the age difference between Hepburn and himself. He requested changes in the script, specifically that they make Hepburn’s character the aggressor in their relationship. Hepburn always seemed to be involved with older men in many of her films (Cooper, Bogart, and Astaire) and it always looked a bit uncomfortable except with Grant who is able to carry it off unlike the others. Despite their age difference, Grant and Hepburn have a magical chemistry working between them. They are perfectly matched. Hepburn is beautiful and sophisticatedly sexy as one could be. There are no two actors today who glow with  the appeal, the sophistication, the style these two stars radiate. They had faces then and charisma. 

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The film’s list of supporting actors is nearly a who’s who of future celluloid stars. Walter Matthau, who already had a long career in supporting roles would soon break out, win an Academy Award for his role as Whiplash Willie in Billy Wilder’s “The Fortune Cookie” and become the oddest of leading man. Here he is perfect as the underhanded “CIA Agent.”  Like Matthau, James Coburn had been slowly building a resume of wonderful character parts, one of which is in this film, and he would soon reach stardom with the “Our Man Flint” films. The great George Kennedy would soon become best known for his role as “Dragline” in the classic “Cool Hand Luke.”   The cast also includes the wonderful character actor Ned Glass best known for his role as Sgt Pendleton in “The Phil Silvers Show” (aka Sgt. Bilko). Finally and certainly not least is Henry Mancini’s wonderful score and title song, which is eerily played throughout the film and an integral part of the film’s success.

    “Charade” was Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas attraction in December of 1963 opening to mixed reviews though the public came in droves. In 2002, Jonathan Demme, made a valiant attempt to remake this light classic called, “The Truth About Charlie.” Unfortunately, Mark Wahlberg is a long distance away from Cary Grant and though the beautiful Thaddie Newton comes somewhat closer to capturing the elf like sophistication of Hepburn, the film remains okay to watch but it is “Charade” you will come back to watch again and again. 

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You may notice on IMDB, they say the screenplay is based on a story (The Unsuspecting Wife) credited to Peter Stone and Marc Behm. If you check out the photo of the paperback above it states, “A novel by Peter Stone.”  On the inside of the book, it reads that it is dedicated to suspense writer Marc Behm. So what goes on here? Stone is a playwright and a screenwriter and he is not known to have ever written a novel. The “novel” is a novelization of the screenplay and “The Unsuspecting Wife” was a short story by Stone that originally appeared in Redbook magazine. The most likely scenario of the credit to Behm is he wrote the novelization based on Stone’s screenplay thus, the dedication to give Behm credit.