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

Short Takes: Bogart, Bacall and Widmark Times Two

This week’s short takes are not a particularly great bunch. Like most bloggers I tend to write about the films I love, or at least like. I decided that’s not fair; makes every film that is considered “classic” sound great. They are not. This group is not necessarily horrible, except for one; another is mediocre and another is just decent. Now mediocrity can be enjoyable on some levels, recently I have been watching some low budget Boston Blackie films from Columbia Pictures which have been on TCM every weekend. They are light hearted, a bit corny, but enjoyable pieces of detective fluff. Blackie, as played by Chester Morris, is the only one with any brains, and in every film has to prove his innocence to the two dumb and dumber detectives who see him as a one man crime wave. You see, Blackie was a former jewel thief, now gone straight. At best, these films are fair, lightweight entertainment. Classic? Well, I guess it all goes down to your definition of classic, which by the way, has been discussed recently by some members of CMBA and there is a particularly good posting on the subject by Gilby of  Random Ramblings of a Broadway, Film and TV Fan.  Anyway below are this week’s short takes. classics or not. Continue reading

Christmas Holiday (1944) Robert Siodmak

Have yourself a very noirish Christmas…

After recently hearing about this film, I was optimistic that I had found a gem for the holiday season, a film noir with a Christmas setting directed by one of the masters of dark cinema, Robert Siodmak. To say the least, it sounded intriguing. When the DVD arrived in the mail, I watched it that same night staying up later than I should, considering it was going to be rise and shine at 5AM the following morning.

With the title, “Christmas Holiday” and the two stars Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin, on the surface this sounds like a festive holiday film along the lines of “White Christmas” or “Holiday Inn.” However, with Robert Siodmak directing you know you are not in for bright fluffy musical extravaganza. The film is more fascinating in spots than a first-class work overall. Sad to say the two leads offer rather flat performances, though Durbin has one shining moment. The script by Herman J. Mankiewicz is written with an uneven storyline. Deanna Durbin, best known for light musicals, is unconvincing in what was supposed to be her big dramatic breakthrough. A nervous Universal threw in two songs for her to sing, Frank Losser’s “Spring Will Be Late This Year” and the Irving Berlin classic, “Always” just to cover their bases.

   The film is set on Christmas Eve and day, though you would not know it from the opening scene. It is graduation day for a group of new cadets at West Point. Now consider what was just said, Christmas Eve, December 24th at West Point in upstate New York. It should be cold; freezing, instead the weather and the clothes all are wearing make it seem more like June in Florida. You also have to question the validity of a cadet class graduating on Christmas Eve. I won’t even mention the oddity of there being a Christmas tree in the barracks…oops I just did. I thought this was all a bit sloppy and quickly put me off.  More important is the rest of the opening sequence that introduces secondary character, Lt. Charles Mason (Dean Harens) to the story. After the ceremony, Mason receives a cruel “Dear John” letter from his fiancé and decides to catch a plane for San Francisco to try and convince her the breakup is a mistake. Inclement weather, forces his plane to land in New Orleans (an indirect route, to say the least, going from West Point, New York to San Francisco but this is 1944 and I have no idea what air travel was like in those days). Anyway, in New Orleans, the young officer meets Jackie Lamont (Durbin) a “hostess” at a sleazy nightclub run by Valerie de Morode (Gladys George). This is arranged by sleaze bucket newspaper reporter, Simon Fenimore (Richard Whorf). We find out Jackie Lamont is really Abigail Manette who has had a rough go of it.  She unloads on Mason, and us in flashbacks, her tale of woe.  She first meets Robert Manette (Gene Kelly) at a concert and is quickly charmed by the young handsome man. Quicker than you can say “Gotta dance!” they marry, however it soon becomes apparent there are hidden secrets; a domineering mother-in-law (Gale Sondergaard), and a husband with a gambling addiction who cannot pay off his debts and eventually murders his bookie. Despite mother covering up for her son’s crime, (she burns a pair of his blood-stained pants) Manette is caught, put on trial and sent to prison. Blamed by her mother-in-law for not helping Robert enough with his problems, Abigail’s dream marriage has turned into a nightmare of the darkest proportions. Back to the present, we soon learn Robert has escaped from prison and is seeking revenge.

    Based loosely on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, the location was switched from Paris to New Orleans. The nightclub where Jackie/Abigail works, a bordello in the novel was turned into a nightclub in the film, though you can easily read between the lines and realize Durbin’s character is working there as a prostitute, and that newspaper reporter Fenimore has a sideline pimping for the Madam, club owner de Morode.

As a film, it is better in parts than as a whole. Director Robert Siodmak does the best possible with an uneven script and to his credit he does gives us one of his most visually startling sequences in the film. This occurs when Lt. Mason and Jackie go from the nightclub/whorehouse she works at directly to this cathedral size house of worship where midnight mass is in progress. Siodmak lingers on the ceremonial proceedings, the music, and the prayers before closing in on our couple in one of the crowded pews. Here we see Jackie breaking down and crying, overcome with the emotional pain and guilt life’s ugly events have bestowed on her. Definitely, Durbin’s one shining moment in the film.

Acting kudos go to Gale Sondergaard’s performance as the overprotective mother, Gladys George as the nightclub owner and Richard Whorf as the slimy newspaperman. If you find yourself overdosing on the saccharine coated festive fare, you may want to try this dark holiday treat and have yourself a very noirish Christmas.