Stab Me, Sugar

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Vincente Minnelli’s THE BAND WAGON, which Fiona had never seen, was a big hit with us — viewed with friends Nicola & Donald. It has just enough story — it doesn’t plummet into an endless ballet like AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Too much narrative might be a problem — musicals seem to exist in an unusual relationship to plot, with progress essentially halting for each number, which freezes a moment of happiness or sadness and extends it and wallows in it. This being a putting-on-a-show story, it has license to depart even further from the spine — especially since, as in most movies where a show of some kind features, the play being staged, inexplicably called The Band Wagon, seems to be a mishmash of disconnected songs, a revue of sorts, even though we’re TOLD it has a story, which is even summarised for us at the start. When you try to make the songs fit the outline, however, you find that they don’t, except the big one ~

The Girl Hunt, choreographed by Michael Kidd, spoofs Mickey Spillane, and allows screenwriters Comden & Green to extend their satiric twinkliness into a song-and-dance for once. We were particularly impressed by the various book titles displayed at the start, (KILL ME CUTIE, STAB ME SUGAR, THE BODY WITHOUT A HEAD) and by the surrealism of it all — it pinpoints the hysterical sense of nightmare that permeates noir, and which usurps any sense of reality in Aldrich’s Spillane adaptation, KISS ME DEADLY, and boils to the surface in the work of David Lynch.

In fact, if The Girl Hunt ballet were somehow to be a new production, everyone would be talking about how it plunders Lynch’s movies for imagery.

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Syd Charisse plays dual roles, like Patricia Arquette in LOST HIGHWAY. “She came at me in sections. More curves than a scenic railway.”

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Giant fireball like in WILD AT HEART — also LOST HIGHWAY, and others. Lynch, on how he got the idea for the exploding shack in LOST HIGHWAY, which seems like a clear echo or the blazing beach house in KISS ME DEADLY: “We had finished at this location, and then I suddenly got this image in my mind, and I called the effects guy over and asked him what kind of really powerful explosives he had. And he said that he had A LOT, but that he could GET MORE.”

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The clue of the shiny rag — obviously a reference to Dennis Hopper’s titular sex-swatch in BLUE VELVET.

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Nothing in this sequence specifically relates to the red room in Twin Peaks… but the general effect evokes it in every way.

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The fight amid the mannequins — now it’s Kubrick and KILLER’S KISS that seems to be the target. The pre-perfectionist Kubrick rather screws that scene up with some egregious eyeline-crossing, causing each piece of store dummy to change direction as it’s hurled. Minnelli and Kidd and Astaire have no such trouble.

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Back to Lynch, with the Greek sculpture and b&w floor irresistibly evoking Twin Peaks again. The palette is different, but you wouldn’t want red curtains in a bathroom — not restful.

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Lynch’s sets don’t usually have this level of stylisation, but in THE GRANDMOTHER he painted all the rooms black and then chalked in the edges in white for an abstract, graphic effect (painting his cast’s skin chalk-white too). Here, the highlight is the minimally-rendered skyscraper, it’s lower storeys obscured by other buildings that aren’t rendered at all.

vlcsnap-2014-10-26-21h21m03s218It’s the cursed ring from FIRE WALK WITH ME!

I guess what this sequence has in common with Lynch and particularly the world of Twin Peaks (returning to out screens next year), apart from some imagery, is that both exaggerate the incomprehensible plotting of the pulp mystery into abstraction — these mysteries can never be solved because their terms aren’t clearly defined. Suspects, clues, leads and corpses multiply absurdly, and Comden & Green mock these conventions by amping them up while Lynch pushes them further in order to enjoy the mysterious as an end in itself.

As I tell my students, never solve an intriguing mystery with a boring explanation.

 

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18 Responses to “Stab Me, Sugar”

  1. Comden, Green, Minnelli and Kidd are SO far in advance of Lynch it’s not funny.

    In that fashion show screen-grab you’ll note the fabulous Julie Newmar on the right and seated right next to her the great Bess Flowers. Bess (“The queen of the dress extras” and an Axiom of the Cinema) is all over The Band Wagon — appearing not only in the climactic “Girl Hunt” number but also as an audience member at the show-with-a-show’s unsuccessful out of town tryout. IOW she may be watching HERSELF in the last scene. Does it get any more surreal?

    And here’s a tribute to Fred and Cyd

  2. Asides from Spillane and noir, both Lynch and Minnelli are inspired by the original surrealists — Lynch studied painting, and Minnelli’s room full of mannequin parts clearly shows an awareness of Ernst, maybe Bellmer, etc.

  3. I love this film so much I named my daughter after the lead female character.

  4. Wow!

    I figure they may have been planning the role for Leslie Caron — there’s a line about her gamine quality and her ballet training would all make sense. But Cyd is fine, and you mind the age difference less. In Daddy Long Legs they have to cover themselves by having Fred object to her youth more strongly than anyone else.

  5. Nannette Fabray is 94 today.

  6. Randy Cook Says:

    My God, THE BANDWAGON is such fun! And I never get tired of the TRIPLETS number. It’s the epitome of cute, in the best way possible. And the talented Ms. Fabray is especially cute and watchable. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling, especially on her birthday, but she is probably the only actress whose nose was so small that she actually wore a rubber prosthetic to make it bigger. Like Orson, except prettier; and the result was more convincing than most of Orson’s noses, as well.

  7. La Faustin Says:

    My favorite faux title: DAMES SLAY ME. Please, please, please do LES GIRLS sometime!

  8. Les Girls has to be next on the list!

    Sheer coincidence me posting on Nanette’s birthday (obviously I would have mentioned her and her perkiness if I had known).

  9. Always intrigued by incoherent shows within shows.

    BAND WAGON does at least suggest the play has become a pretentious riff on Faust: the ripe dialogue they rehearse, the elaborately nonfunctional set, and the dour ballet (“Dance, you fools!”). The DVD has a deleted number, a sort of torch song by Cyd on a B&W set, that’s supposed to be part of the doomed show. I suspect it was cut because they realized they couldn’t present a non-awful number and then tell us the show was a total flop. The New Improved show within a show is pretty obviously a revue (even the shots of the program confirm this, listing sketches instead of scene locales) despite Fred’s declaration they’re doing the book musical originally written.

    Disney’s BABES IN TOYLAND looks exactly like a show-within-a-show. Fanciful but obvious soundstage sets, stiffly staged numbers and a thin fairy-tale plot. You fully expect the camera to pull back and reveal a frazzled director with a megaphone, at which point all the characters would acquire a second dimension. Sure there’s a story behind that one: Reportedly the wildly funny animator Ward Kimball was the initial director; he was replaced after production began by a safer pick.

    Give BAND WAGON credit for not embracing the cliche of a serious show or earnest performer so bad, the result is comic success. SPITE MARRIAGE has Keaton making a shambles of a hit melodrama, but the movie makes clear the onscreen audience’s laughter is a humiliation and not a triumph. And THE PRODUCERS twists the cliche by making success the last thing its schemers want. But anywhere else it tends to be awful and unpersuasive.

  10. …and any big sequence of people laughing tends NOT to infect the movie audience. The rows of shocked faces in The Producers are much funnier.

    I would have liked to see the Faust show — visually, the bits of rehearsal Minnelli lets us in on are stunning.

  11. I think Charisse is downright sublime in BAND WAGON. I love the way she and Astaire just sort of step into their “Dancing in the Dark” number, drifting into the choreography almost absent-mindedly, daydreaming themselves into synchronization (you can still daydream at night, right?). The “Girl Hunt” sequence is one memorable image and gesture after another (the guys slinking their way into the “Dem Bones Cafe” without raising themselves above waist-level, the other guys shooting at each other while doing cartwheels in the subway, etc.). One small grace note that really hit me when I last watched it was a little bit of acting business when Charisse’s character, towards the end, gets shot and falls into Astaire’s arms. She’s a goner – it seems like she’s already gone – but then her head raises up a little bit, and her eyes snap open. Her mannequin-like alarm looks like bad acting for a moment, then she switchblades up to give Astaire one last kiss, before finally expiring for good – expertly tucking the “bad acting” into a fillip of camp. It’s a perfectly judged piece of artifice in a sequence that’s built, top to bottom, from every species of artifice Minnelli had at his disposal.

  12. The perfect blendship of directing, acting and choreography (we have to keep mentioning Michael Kidd).

  13. Thank you — this was wonderful! The Band Wagon is still so incredibly modern-feeling. I think it would be a great introduction to anyone who says “I hate old musicals!” Honestly it could have been shot yesterday. And I love the cameraderie among the players. They look like they had a great time making this!!

  14. Maybe you can explain the plot of “Pretty Lady,” the show they’re putting on in “42nd Street.” Ruby Keeler is thrilled to see “Jim,” shuffles off to Buffalo to honeymoon with someone else, and winds up with Dick Powell. At least “The Band Wagon” is supposed to be a revue after they jettison all the Faust stuff.

    Looking forward to it.

  15. I always got the impression the Busby shows were revues. The thing that’s odd about The Band Wagon is it’s NOT supposed to be a revue — they SAY they’re going to return to the play as written, which would make sense in terms of supplying a happy ending for the writers and a triumph of fun over seriousness. Did I miss a scene where they say, “No, actually, your story is poorly developed, let’s just go random. And have an inferior hayride-themed number in there somewhere.” ?

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