Gamine Streets

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Picked up DADDY LONG LEGS for a pound in a charity shop — didn’t expect too much from it, for whatever reason — but it’s lovely. Of the later Fred Astaire things I’ve seen, it struck me as better than SILK STOCKINGS, for instance — that one is haunted by the spectre of the superior NINOTCHKA. I prefer it to FUNNY FACE too, though that one arguably has better songs (but DLL has a nice bunch by Johnny Mercer).

Whereas this one should be troubled by the icky plotline — gajillionaire Fred Astaire sees Leslie Caron in an orphanage, likes what he sees, and decides to adopt her. Well, not quite: he pays for her American college education anonymously. But then she falls in love with the idea of her unseen guardian, and then he meets her, not revealing the connection, and falls in love with her.

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(The CALIGARI tradition of painted sets and painted shadows lived on, not in horror movies but in musicals. Work that one out, Kracauer!)

The clever part is that the screenplay by Phoebe and Henry Ephron has gruff, irascible supporting characters state all the objections to this May-December romance up front, voicing the audience’s own concerns in a killjoy way, forcing us to side with Fred. It helps that Caron is so irresistible.

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Director — Jean Negulesco, so we get swellegant widescreen composition

Cinematographer — Leon Shamroy, the King of Deluxe Color, so we get beautiful complimentary tinted tones. Shamroy had a slight tendency to overuse his honey and blue lighting (the orange and teal of his day) but he comes up with some lovely variations here in the night scenes.

Production designers — Lyle R. Wheeler, “the Dean of Art Directors,” and especially John DeCuir so we get stylised sets with a bold palette which never get garish in an MGM/Goldwyn manner. While THE RED SHOES was clearly an influence on the fantasy sequences, they’re full of fresh visual ideas, stuff you haven’t seen before.

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The movie is two hours long but doesn’t feel over-padded, much. And in one fantasy, Fred plays an imaginary Texas squillionaire and is VERY funny — fatuous smile, hundred-gallon hat, slow, comical movements. Of course, however ridiculous he makes himself, he’s graceful too.

Hmm, do I like any other Fox musicals? There’s THE GANG’S ALL HERE. I’ve written something about that one, too, but you won’t get to see it for a while…

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27 Responses to “Gamine Streets”

  1. FOX musicals were for the most part dominated by Betty Grable — who’s always lively and pleasant but not a personality onto whom complex musical-comedy tropes can be affixed a la Garland. In other words she’s all smiles and no frowns.

    I saw Daddy Long Legs when it came out and rather enjoyed it. The raising-your-adopted-daughter-to-be-your-wife looks forward to Gigi, and today may well be seen as Woody Allen (off-screen) avant la letter

  2. Yes, it’s a worrisome conceit, but fortunately the Ephrons have realized this and have a plan to deal with it. Partly thanks to the presence of Fred and Les, this didn’t seem like a definably Fox film, more like an appealing crossbreed.

  3. ooh this all sounds very tempting. I really enjoyed the original book its based on. As far as I remember the girl character is quite mouthy, independent minded making it an unusal portrail.

  4. She’s probably been pacified a bit for the film then. Her American roommates are more forthright, but they don’t have much to do.

    Would be happy to loan this to you if you have a player now. It’s gorgeous to look at.

  5. It’s worth investigating the Mary Pickford version from 1919 lovingly directed by underrated director Marshall Neilan. It’s obviously a completely different universe: from glamourized cutesy to grim naturalism. Personnaly I prefer the Pickford film to this Fox musical I find too corny, in spite of Astaire’s routines.

  6. That sounds REALLY interesting — and I’ve been meaning to try a good Neilan, the ones I’ve stumbled upon have been minor efforts.

  7. Maybe the Caligari-type sets underscore the dark reading you find? Wasn’t Fred’s dalliance with a younger woman later in life to the horror of his sister Adele and others, another case of life following art? David E, your Hollywood expertise is needed here.

    Also Ann, I’ve read that Neilan was an underrated director who was affected by the corporate studio purge aimed at un-cooperative talents such as Griffith, Ingram, and Von Stroheim. I must look up this earlier version.

  8. The best Neilan-Pickford is Stella Maris with an atmosphere as grim as Greed. Pickford gives a stupendous double perfomance in a dual role. A must.

  9. I don’t know about Adele, but Gore Vidal claims to have nailed Fred.

    I leave you with that scenario du jour (Lars Von Trier’s got nuttin’ on Eugene!)

  10. Crikey.

    OK, Stella Maris is ordered.

    Neilan was a drinker, I think. And anybody with self-destructive tendencies was likely to be helped along by Hollywood.

  11. I’ve just finished DADDY LONGS LEGS, my first Neilan and impressed. STELLA MARIS is also on youtube.

  12. Wouldn’t the caligaresque designs in post-War dance films derive more from Hein Heckroth’s work in The Red Shoes’ ballet segment rather than Caligari directly ??? If nothing else, Heckroth’s use of colour and dimensional exaggeration – not present in Caligari in the same way – seems to pervade the look for a decade or so of Kelly/Donen and late Astaire films…..

  13. Yes, but I was pondering more the strangeness that such visuals could be accommodated by the musical. You see it in 30s films like The Broadway Melody and Show Girl in Hollywood, a grotesque distortion of the backgrounds.

    Heckroth’s work makes perfect sense because the ballet in The Red Shoes seeks a mode between the cinematic and the theatrical. In Hollywood this seems to blend with the 50s graphic style, which is addicted to slanted angles and simplified outlines — the UIP animation look.

    Of course musicals are already theatrical and fantastical by nature. Perhaps it would make more sense to ask why stylised sets seemed appropriate for horror, when they tend to make everything less real, more fun, lighter and more distant.

  14. Caron had a string of other films where she was a sweet teenaged girl matched with a Mature man: Lilli, The Glass Slipper, and most famously, Gigi. In American in Paris she’s old enough to work in a shop, but her relationship with her fiance began — innocently, we hope — during WWII, when she’d definitely be a kid.

    Younger girls and older men are certainly common in old movies as in life. Even if the female lead was written as a clear adult, she might actually be played by a teenager. But for some reason the theme dominated Caron’s early career.

    She was never worldly beyond her years like Bacall, or energetically striving for maturity like the early Kate Hepburn. She was this idealized beautiful, graceful creature who never displayed the side effects of adolescence; her emotions seemed to reflect a sheltered, idealistic child rather than an adult rockily taking form. She was the non-Manic Pixie Dream Girl, ready to painlessly and perfectly bloom into a perfect adult mate on exposure to the right man. On a TCM interview, the very mature Caron affectionately described her character in Lilli as a little halfwit.

    In time she would be allowed to play a true adult, and was good enough that her career survived. But looking at all those films where she was essentially a tonic for significantly older, world-weary men . . . Were these lush, romantic musicals being targeted at fantasizing old men, or merely being made by them?

  15. La Faustin Says:

    Caron’s relationship with Georges Guétary in AMERICAN IN PARIS began when he was in loco parentis, her parents having entrusted their little girl to him while they joined the Resistance. Not to go all BUZZFEED, it is remarkable that in the film this situation is found perfectly acceptable by all concerned while the Nina Foch character is practically burned at the stake for (1) taking the initiative to ask Gene Kelly out; (2) providing him with a fabulous studio; (3) arranging a prestigious gallery show for him. I think you have to read her as a man. (A whole different, though equally enraging, issue.)

    Caron today would make a FABULOUS Tante Alicia. She played Madame Armfeldt (pretty much the same role) in a recent Paris production of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC.

  16. Yet her last movie was 2003. That’s a shame. I was thinking that the last appearance I could remember was Damage (or, as we call it, The Unfeasibly Low Banister of Jeremy Irons) but in fact I saw her in Funny Bones a couple of years later.

    Considered purely as a story, An American in Paris always struck me as profoundly flawed, which is probably why it can afford to spend its whole third act in fantasyland. I wasn’t so much aware of the sexual politics (which are frightful) as a kid, but I felt that if the central problem can be dismissed in an offscreen scene and everybody’s happy, then the film was predicated upon NOTHING.

    It’s lucky the people and and songs and dances and sets and photography etc are as delightful as they are.

  17. Robert Keser Says:

    The unique hollowness at the center of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (“a film about a situation, not a drama”, as David Thomson said) still did not prevent Alan Jay Lerner from winning a screenplay Oscar in 1951, though he should have thanked Minnelli for distracting the audience with the creative but overlong ballet sequence.

    For more about Marshall Neilan, see my review of his 1927 HER WILD OAT: http://brightlightsfilm.com/58/58herwildoat.php#.Uy7befXNsgA

  18. Robert, Thanks for the link. I’ve since seen STELLA MARIS and REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM noting that Neilan does get some remarkable performances from his actresses as well as highlighting specific instances of child abuse in certain films usually swep under the carpet elsewhere. Does Neilan use a red flash when Mary’s hand is out on the stove in STELLA by the sadistic Directree? I’ll have to go back and confirm. I can’t seem to find any reference to him in my early copy of Sarris so he does seem to have slipped through the net but your references to him reveal that he was a victim of the studio bureaucratic purges instituted by Mayer and Thalberg against “difficult talents.” The double performances of “little Mary” (note the quotes) in STELLA is really remarkable.

    La Faustin, I agree with you about the abysmal treatment handed out to Nina Foch in AMERICAN very akin to Hollywood’s ideological horror of the older woman with a younger lover seen in so many instances. As she grew older, Leslie Caron suffered the same fate as the grotesque Nazimova claiming Valentino’s lover in Ken Russell’s biopic

  19. I guess the “legitimate” justification for the Foch treatment is Kelly’s horror at the idea of being a “kept man,” which seems like a very of-its-time anxiety (see also Sunset Blvd, where the penalty is death). But he seems to assume that she can’t be interested in him AND his art, without much justification that I can see.

    Neilan got favourable mention in Brownlow and Gill’s Hollywood series, as a forgotten auteur, which makes Sarris’s neglect part of an ongoing narrative. The pity is, though I’m sure the hardcore silent movie afficianados revere him, he hasn’t been reinstated into wider film history.

  20. That is why your sites, others, and commentators are so important in this continuing work of excavation of forgotten talents.

  21. Robert Keser Says:

    Tony, I’ve seen STELLA MARIS twice but I don’t remember a red flash (however, that’s hardly the only thing I don’t remember).

    Sarris acknowledged that there just was no reliable access for evaluating the silent film heritage in 1968, so he rather sheepishly created the Subjects For Further Research category. By that point Neilan had died and was remembered only for his final acting role in A FACE IN THE CROWD. (His penultimate directing job was in 1937 for the alarmingly titled SING WHILE YOU’RE ABLE)! Plenty of other directors who primarily worked in the silent era are still awaiting rediscovery, such as John S. Robertson, Alan Crosland, John Adolfi, Herbert Brenon, E. Mason Hopper and many others, and those are just the Americans (although Brenon was British).

  22. I’ve enjoyed films by Robertson, Crosland, Adolfi (who was shot dead, I believe) and Brenon. I’m not sure if any of them are great, but they all made some excellent films.

  23. Robert, Sorry. Wrong film. If you access DADDY LONG LEGS on 30:28 you will see the red filter becomes excessively red at the moment the director puts Mary’s hand on the hot stove. This, of course, could be due to the film stock reproduction, my visual impairment, or reaction to this shocking scene. But before the hand goes on the stove, the filter changes from brown to light red and then appears to flash excessively the moment her hand is pushed on to the grille resulting in burning it – to the shock of at least one Trustee present during this scene.

  24. Ginger roders carried Fred in all there movies, she was the best!

  25. Well, he did most of the choreography, so I think he pulled his weight. I like Ginger enormously, but I don’t believe in boosting one half of the double act over the other. The fact that they were so successful together suggests they were both good.

  26. Yes on both your essay’s points! This is Astaire’s best post-“Bandwagon” movie. And I’m always a bit surprised by how well it plays compared to all the other movies which posited Caron as luscious-li’l-jailbait. Astaire’s often-expressed discomfort at May-December romances in movies (if not in life) might have helped since the writers for once incorporated discomfort into the scenario. (Cf. “Manhattan”‘s “That explains the little girl.”)

    As for why Caron was so often stuck in these parts — well, weren’t all Hollywood’s leading ladies, at least since Bacall? The studios kept their 1930s leading men leading on but couldn’t stomach the notion of a leading lady past 27. Look at who Gary Cooper, James Stewart, and John Wayne supposedly attracted. At least she got a younger man in Minnelli’s segment of “The Story of Three Loves”.

  27. Caron just seems like the kind of actress — youthful, even now — who would maximize the creep factor of any older male lead. As with Audrey H pairing with Cooper and Bogart. Couldn’t she have played with, I don’t know, Paul Newman, for once? Probably not since she was tied to MGM.

    Need to check out Story of Three Loves, I think I can finally get a good copy.

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