Archive for Ethel Merman

Kings

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2019 by dcairns

WAIT TILL THE SUN SHINES, NELLIE stars Bensinger; Lena Lamont; Dr. Cyclops; Dr. Russell A. Marvin; Phoebe Dinsmore; and Lt. ‘Doc’ Ostrow.

Missed this in Bologna — the Leon Shamroy Technicolor would have been worthwhile — Youtube’s copy, though good by Youtube standards, is terribly dark at times.

But I don’t know what the film’s thesis is — what it’s trying to demonstrate, explicate or make us feel, except on a scene-by-scene basis. David Wayne’s small-town barber is from the “variations on an asshole school of characterisation, but to what end? The final line, after fifty years of story have been covered, celebrates the virtues of a good shave, and that does seem to be the chief lesson imparted. Actually, I kind of liked that bit.

We do, however, get to view the second and third most terrifying shaves in screen history (after THE COLOR PURPLE), one where Wayne is so drunk he can’t walk, and one where he’s contemplating murdering the man in the chair.

King is celebrated for his Americana, the nearest thing to a personal interest displayed in his cinema. There’s more of it in ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND (1938).

King claimed his staging of the musical numbers in IN OLD CHICAGO got him this gig, which reunites stars Power, Faye and Ameche from the earlier quake-fest, but his song-and-dance stuff here is far, far better. IOC basically observed Faye in three shot sizes as she transmitted a bunch of oldy-time standards from her big face. This one has proper PRODUCTION NUMBERS and I became a fan of capering imp Wally Vernon.

You also get a chance to contrast the performing styles of Alice Faye and Ethel Merman. Merman at this point is not an actor, but she speaks her lines with an appealing and convincing simplicity. And she sings the same way, only of course she has that powerhouse voice. Faye, giving the best performance in the best role I’ve seen her in, can do a lot more with inflection and phrasing and meaning, but lacks the ability to vibrate an iron bridge to pieces with her vocal cords.

The IMDb promised us cameos by Rondo Hatton (memorable in IN OLD CHICAGO in the role of “Rondo”) as a barfly, and Lon Chaney Jr as “photographer on stage,” but the on-stage photographer we see clearly ain’t Chaney and Hatton’ s barfly does not appear (how could you miss him?) so it’s left to John Carradine to bring the horror (which no fantasy about the birth of a musical movement should be without). John does not disappoint.

Carradine’s role is officially that of cabbie, but his plot function is to play Cupid, and who better? Picture him nude with a little bow and arrow. Charm itself! Hired by Power, he basically abducts Faye to bring her to his Carnegie Hall concert. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You let John Carradine kidnap you.

JC’ s laidback manner is terrifying: the more relaxed he gets, the more death seems imminent, and preferable to his company. His Dracula was never this alarming. He was really a fine actor, but needed to be aimed in the right direction. King appears to have launched him straight up, to land wherever he may.

At first, we suspected John was probably going to drive Alice Faye to a lock-up somewhere and torture her to death with pliers.

But, as the sequence went on, we became sure of it. An improbable end to a musical, but the only thing that would have made sense of his performance.

The actual ending is quite a bit happier than that. But as for the history of ragtime, its origins and purpose are still a total mystery.

ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND stars Leonard Vole; June Mills; Mortimer Duke; Lieutenant Hurwitz; The Tin Man; Dr. Paul Christian; Parthy Ann Hawks; Maj. Cassius Starbuckle; Larry Talbot and the Hoxton Creeper.

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Sizzling Quislings

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2014 by dcairns

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Lewis Milestone directed EDGE OF DARKNESS (a much-reused title) in 1943, the same year he made THE NORTH STAR, which is virtually the same film on the face of it. While EOD is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Norwegians starring Walter Huston, TNS is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Russians starring Walter Huston. THE NORTH STAR became something of a career embarrassment to all concerned for its celebration of commies, but EOD, co-written by Robert Rossen, also sneaks in some slightly left-of-centre politics (the wealthy industrialist played by Charles Dingle is the most enthusiastic Nazi collaborator, to no one’s surprise).

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Couldn’t resist this shot.

The movie really stars Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, two WB beauties, with Huston playing Sheridan’s father and Ruth Gordon (!) her mother. The older players overact a little in this one, but the youngsters are spot on. The movie works like a microwave oven full of tin cans: it heats up and sparks and crackles until the tension is unbearable, then it explodes all over the place. At this point, Milestone brings out his full kit bag of propulsive camera moves, rushing sideways as armies rush forwards, with the addition of a zoom lens — I know! Completely ahistoric — NOBODY was using the zoom between 1935 and at least the late 50s, and yet here it unmistakably is, used for several key shots, and quite distinct from any dolly move or optical enlargement. The influence may have come from combat photography. What’s weird is that though Milestone was active during the late twenties and early thirties, the first heyday of the zoom, he never used it then.

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It IS slightly disconcerting to see Milestone deploy the same kinds of propulsive tracking shots he made his name with in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT for a very different purpose — to SELL war rather than to condemn it. Sure, the film makes it clear that nobody likes war except evil Nazis, but then even the pastor who condemned the resistance fighters is seen blazing away with a tommy gun from the church spire. It’s all very dynamic and very persuasive. If you oppress the audience with a bullying, sweaty Helmut Dantine for 90 minutes, and Milestone certainly does, then they’re prepared to welcome any amount of carnage as relief from the tension.

I’m reminded of how Sam Peckinpah started by saying he used slomo to capture the agony and adrenalin of deadly force, but as early as THE GETAWAY he’d started using it for shots of smashing headlamps. The device celebrates movement, and that’s all it does, unless the context provides it with further meaning. A tracking shot may be a moral choice, but the same movement can have totally different meanings applied in different movies or situations.

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Gratuitous Judith Anderson in leather!

It’s such a collective movie that Errol gets sidelined for considerable stretches of the action, and even when the plotting resorts to the cheapest manipulation to push him into action — his sweetheart is raped by Germans (you can tell by the torn shoulder of her shirt, a strange, oblique movie convention that’s nevertheless impossible to misread) — he’s persuaded that taking personal revenge would be wrong when the whole town is biding its time for the propitious moment to attack the occupying forces.

Two hours of sterling WB melodrama, spectacular model shots to simulate a Norwegian port without sailing into Nazi-held territory, and Milestone’s vigorous visuals made this a pretty damn good watch. I certainly found it more compelling from the start than THE NORTH STAR, which starts as a mind-boggling piece of socialist realism celebrating Soviet collectivism through the medium of song (music by Aaron Copland, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) — a musical that morphs into a war movie.

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It’s strange how the smart left-wingers of Hollywood would become dumb when faced with the subjects of psychoanalysis and the Soviet system. These filmmakers were much better at exposing faults than at celebrating things they thought were great — and indeed, the former is much better fuel for drama than the latter anyway. The whole first half hour of this thing is just jolly, hearty Russians (Dana Andrews! Farley Granger!) talking in an odd, stilted way and carrying on with their picturesque lives in a William Cameron Menzies Russian village. I was soon praying for Nazis to invade and save the day. Nobody can be that cheerful with Martin Kosleck AND Erich von Stroheim giving them the fish-eye.

The dialogue is really weird. In the best of Hollywood’s foreign-set WWII pics, the foreigners (Germans in THE MORTAL STORM, French in THIS LAND IS MINE!) talk mainly American, with a careless smattering of other accents thrown in. Here, they’re all Americans alright, and they all have American accents, but they speak a weird denuded English from which every trace of life and idiom and slang and sass has been siphoned off. Lillian Hellman becomes a terrible writer as soon as she’s trying to be positive. Once some actual drama appears, Milestone, Hellman, Copland and Menzies (reunited with the director from the Oscar-winning TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS) can actually play to their strengths ~

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With the apocalypse underway, things brighten considerably, and the gigantic first act lull almost feels like necessary preparation for the onslaught, in which Milestone seems determined to exterminate every cast member whose name isn’t Walter. Milestone in horrors-of-war mode with his rocketing lateral tracks accompanied by Menzies’ violently skewed compositions is quite something (Milestone always worked with a storyboard, and Menzies liked to draw out all the shots even for films he didn’t direct, so the team is a natural — they also produce great scenic effects in ARCH OF TRIUMPH, dramatically inert though that is).

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Lillian Hellman could have used the above crib-sheet.

We weren’t quite Milestoned out so we ran ANYTHING GOES, a mangled version of a Wodehouse/Cole Porter musical, with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman. It’s a mess, with bowdlerized lyrics and a shambling narrative (mess with Wodehouse’s immaculate construction at your peril, Mssrs. Lindsay & Crouse!) but it does have some freewheeling visuals from the director, rushing all over the art deco ocean liner sets and luxuriating in the Travis Banton costumes. Lots of queer humour too —

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Fiona had woken up feeling tired, taken a nap, and slept for the entire day. She watched this film in a state of hypnagogic disbelief, convinced she was hallucinating. There’s a long sequence about shaving a Pomeranian in order to procure a false beard for Bing. There are even lyrics on the subject. The Spanish subtitles on our copy of the film certainly didn’t make it any less peculiar.