Archive for Debbie Reynolds

Hammock Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 21, 2017 by dcairns

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We had high hopes for PAGAN LOVE SONG, one of the last Esther Williams movies remaining to be watched. But while it certainly conforms to the easy-going vibe we enjoy in her films, this one’s a little TOO relaxed. An hour goes by without anything resembling dramatic tension at all, so that when some actual suspense is attempted over whether Howard Keel’s coconut crop is going to be ruined by rainfall, it was almost unbearable. His poor coconuts!

The film also features a tiny Rita Moreno, and as in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, the poor thing doesn’t gets to sing or dance. The casting of Tahitians is hit-or-miss: Esther makes an unlikely half-Tahitian, but there are some genuine native actors whose untutored way with dialogue is a joy.

Plenty of swimming, at least, even if the movie resorts to a crazy dream sequence — Esther swimming in a tropical sky is a psychedelic delight, especially when little bubbles escape her smile, drifting off into the clouds.

SKIRTS AHOY! is actually a much better musical (despite Arthur Freed contributing lyrics, PLS has no memorable songs), with Esther doing her own singing for once, and some cameos by stars like Debbie Reynolds & Bobby Van. While we were unenthused going in due to the military theme, the subject of women in the navy (Waves, they call ’em) proved to be quite an interesting one, even if, being an MGM musical, the film was never going to get particularly in-depth, if you’ll excuse the nautical pun.

Skirts Ahoy! (1952) from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Fiona’s very keen on this number, which makes good-natured fun of the whole “wet, she was a star” thing and allows Esther to use her own singing voice, which MGM rarely permitted.

Backstory: when Esther saw what the US navy’s swimsuits looked like, she insisted on redesigning them. Esther played a swimsuit designer in NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER, and it seems to be a matter of principle with classic Hollywood pictures that whenever the story involves fashion, the costumes must always be hideous. Some kind of cultural inferiority complex stifling the wardrobe department? The gowns are normally lovely, of course, but the F word is the kiss of death. All the swimwear in ND is ridiculously impractical and dripping with unnecessary and very un-streamlined tassels and fringes. Our favourite was the Highland-themed one, “Scotch Mist.” But anyway, Esther’s actual designs for the Navy in this film are practical and attractive without a trace of fanciness.

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Scotch Mist. That’s not tartan, folks! Last time I looked there was no Clan Irene. Contrast this with the no-nonsense pool costumes below.

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Fanciness is allowed when Esther does her one big pool sequence, cavorting below surface with talented kids Kathy and Russell “Bubba” Tongay as mute subsidiary naiads. While lacking the pomp and potentially lethal spectacle of licensed maniac Busby Berkeley’s aquastravaganzas, this charming little number may be one of Esther’s best.

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Most of the Kansan sea-goddess’ films were written by women, and most of them are at least reasonably progressive, as well as uniformly good-humoured. In these troublous times, they constitute the perfect escape from reality.

 

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The Reluctant Revenant

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2016 by dcairns

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My trawl through the less-explored Minnellis continues — thanks to David Wingrove for recommending this one. Introducing Martin Scorsese’s personal Technicolor print of THE BAND WAGON in Bologna, Ian Christie remarked that Marty considers Minnelli to be still an underrated auteur. Very well, I say, let’s take him seriously, which means looking for themes and stylistic motifs in his lesser films as well as the acknowledged classics.

GOODBYE CHARLIE, modestly opened-out from the play by George Axelrod (THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH and others of note), has maybe the most transgressive plot premise of any Minnelli. Pair it with ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER and call it his Diptych of Reincarnation (doesn’t Eddie “Rochester” Anderson get restored to life at the end of CABIN IN THE SKY? Could we call this an informal trilogy? This auteurist is drooling at the thought). Charlie, a hypermasculine screenwriter rake/heel, is shot dead when caught in flagrante with a movie producer’s wife, falling into the sea — only to emerge, post-funeral, in the form of Debbie Reynolds. (One wants to say “alluring form,” and one could, as Debbie is cute as a button, but one does get the impression the script has something more like Jayne Mansfield in mind.) Best buddy Tony Curtis has to deal with the fallout.

I wonder how this worked as a play? It doesn’t work as a film, in strict plot terms — audience identification is split between best buddy Tony Curtis and his back-from-the-dead transgender pal; subplots tantalise with the possibility of Reynolds actually getting intimate with (another?) man; a homicide detective turns up to make Tony nervous, but why? On Broadway, was some immoral element explored that had to be chopped from the movie script, leaving lacunae and shapelessness? I’m not too bothered, because what’s left is highly entertaining and quite peculiar.

Opening credits — director’s name revealed in the purple interior of a yawning clam. Well well.

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Scene 1 is part of the opening out — it shows how Charlie met his maker (but not how he gets remade). Minnelli, perhaps assuaging the nervous hetero element in the crowd, gives us generous footage of a Playboy Playmate doing the twist, a dance which mostly seems to involve shaking her tits (I had never thought of the twist this way before). Fiona admired her dress. I admired the way her breasts jostled for supremacy (partly) within it.

Minnelli accompanies this action with strange handheld lurches, leering in on several of the characters, which at first seems like a subjective drunkenness effect, then like a seasick thing, then becomes completely inexplicable, resembling the mad bursts of handheld frenzy in LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN or TRAGIC CEREMONY — handheld disorientation served up purely as a stylistic garnish.

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A very Minnelli widescreen shot. Burstyn on the right.

Then we’re into ninety-very-odd minutes of typically elegant Minnelli mise-en-scene, with occasional outbursts of excess pizzazz. Tony Curtis confirms his status as capable farceur, and Reynolds is fantastic, not overdoing the butchness or underselling it either. Astonishment: there’s Ellen Burstyn (before she took that name), playing comedy with gusto and skill. This could maybe form a duologue for her with THE EXORCIST: both are insider Hollywood stories in which a girl is possessed by a male identity and the solution is arrived at by defenestration.

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Further astonishment: the manslaughtering movie producer, clearly based on Alexander Korda (he’s a Hungarian and a knight) with maybe a side-order of William Randolph Hearst (jealous yacht-based assassin), is played by Walter Matthau. Old scrotumnal-face had mainly been making his living in hero’s pal or sneaky villain roles, but I guess ENSIGN PULVER had just unveiled his comic chops (and what chops they are!). However, the manic silliness of his work here is beyond anything he’d attempted on the big screen to this date, making even his most excessive moments in A NEW LEAF seem restrained. His “accent” is a wonderful creation all his own, owing nothing to any set of sounds previously mouthed by modern man. One has no idea whether his self-description “not unattractive” would have been so hilarious if anyone else had played the role — Matthau, of course, is an extremely attractive player, but for him to play a man who uses that phrase is priceless.

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Another highlight is Pat Boone. Enjoy that sentence as this is likely the only chance you’ll ever get to read it. Boone plays the mother’s-boy son of a millionaire businesswoman, mollicoddled since conception. He falls for Charlie immediately, based on her looks (she’s naked when they meet) and her knowledge of sports cars. There’s a spectacularly smutty exchange of double entendres about Boone’s malfunctioning Maserati.

Jesus, did Boone know what he was doing to himself with this role? “I do drink on special occasions: mother’s birthday, or the election of a Republican president.” Curtis gets a scene where he almost necks with Reynolds, and comes to his senses feeling squicky, but Boone actually kisses her/him. And the mother obsession is astonishing — mother is apparently absent attending to her many businesses, but when Pat leads Debs down to the wine cellar we half expect to find momma mummified in a corner. At one point, Minnelli jump-juts straight down the line on mum’s portrait, as if she were the Frankenstein monster or the eyeless farmer-corpse in THE BIRDS.

Boone was either completely clueless or a very good sport — I hate to give him credit, but I think he was at least somewhat aware. He gives really good stooge, and you can’t do that unknowingly in a comedy.

If you can manage it, I highly recommend seeing this crazy thing. You get Minnelli’s playful/transgressive side given freer reign than even in TEA AND SYMPATHY. You get his undiminished suavity as a master of camera blocking. This is probably his last good movie. It’s not wholly successful, but all the disconnected bits are good — we’re back to the FRANKENSTEIN metaphor again.

Rainsong of the Dumbshowman

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2015 by dcairns

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Revisiting SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN — it doesn’t change, and neither do you when you watch it — you’re basically the same age as whenever you first saw it. The only minor difference is that THE ARTIST has happened inbetweentimes, which provides some minor irritation. CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s use of the title song may be calculatedly blasphemous, but it can’t actually taint the Gene Kelly song-soliloquy, but spotting yet more bits Hazanavicius pilfered and got wrong (hey, look — the entire opening premier sequence with the upstaged leading lady, only in the modern de-make it doesn’t have any point to it!). Bits of THE ARTIST seem really inventive (unless they’re swiped from something I haven’t seen) but its main effect now seems to be to point up by idiotic contrast how clever Comden & Green’s depiction of the fall of the silents is — an accurate comic picture of the panic and floundering that consumed the industry (nobody held back from making talkies out of “pride”). And I think misguided reverence is more destructive to art, or divinity, that deliberate sacrilege.

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As a kid, although I definitely projected myself into Gene Kelly splashing in puddles, it was Donald O’Connor I identified with more, which worries me slightly now — the “friend” role is showy but where is Cosmo’s satisfaction in life? I feel like the Good Morning number, which I also loved, shows that dynamic where two guys are with a pretty girl and they’re both trying to be at their most entertaining, which is to say there’s a certain competition going on. So Cosmo isn’t sexless. But he seems not to be interested in succeeding romantically. In fact, we see him trying the old “I can get you in movies” line on a Sweet Young Thing at a Hollywood party but it’s played very innocently, like he has no real interest in following up on it, and the line is perhaps just intended to make it clear that he’s not gay for Don Lockwood. The life of the comedy relief is largely devoid of romance.

Speaking of seducing starlets, I did get a new perspective when Debbie Reynolds’ character is mooted as “perfect for Zelda’s kid sister.” Was it Raoul Walsh or Errol Flynn who said that the role of the little sister was always invented just so there’d be a starlet to sleep with? You can spot the true little sister roles, the ones that have no story purpose at all, a mile off. This seems like a sly Comden-Green inside joke.

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By the way, who was teenage Rita Moreno dating to get such a prominent credit? I don’t mean to imply any sexual skullduggery, it’s just that she’s onscreen for two minutes, gets about two lines, and gets a credit on the same card as Jean Hagen and Cyd Charisse. She has less to do than the wonderful Kathleen Freeman (totally uncredited). You’d think, if MGM were trying to build her up, they’d let her sing or dance. It’s always kind of astonishing to discover she’s in the film, because I still don’t think of her as old. And I guess she earns her credit just by the hilarious way she walks through her first shot. The movie is so bursting with new talent and less-familiar character players, I feel it must have been Donen and Kelly’s deliberate policy to avoid familiar faces. Douglas Fowley, as the explosive director, would normally have lost out to James Gleason or Sam Levene, who would have played it exactly the same. Fowley was probably in as many films as either, but never so prominently.

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Of course, Jean Hagen is the performer who goes above and beyond — so do the dancing stars, of course, but we could expect no less. Craftily written, Hagen’s Lena Lamont is a true rarity, a stupid villainess. She manages to be formidable enough to function for plot purposes as a credible dramatic threat — because she’s a powerful movie star with a strong sense of self-interest. The character, who ought to, by rights, be fairly sympathetic — she has more to lose than anybody, and is facing extinction by microphone like Clara Bow — is positioned just so in the narrative and turned loose, and so is Hagen, who gets laughs by the accent (already deployed in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE to different effect) and shrill voice, but isn’t content with just that — she starts doing weird things with emphasis and timing, always coming out of a different door, verbally speaking, so the character succeeds as a series of amazing variations on one note.

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I was wondering all over again how the hell musicals work. Most movies lean heavily on story. Musicals seem to crave slight narratives, which they then suspend totally for minutes at a time while the characters simply embody a moment of sublime emotion, extending it far beyond any dramatic meaning. I think it has to do with our love of performance — we love stories, but for short bursts we are able to love singing and dancing more. That’s why the increasingly long ballets in Gene Kelly’s stuff risk fracturing the delicate balance, because the story has to be given some opportunity to hold things together, and it gets stretched cobweb-thin if the dancing goes on for twenty minutes at a time. I think the Gotta Dance! routine here only works because so much goodwill has been built up throughout the movie, we trust them to get away with anything by now — and also, it’s a very nice sequence…