Archive for Finian’s Rainbow

On “Top of the Town”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2021 by dcairns

Devoted Shadowplayer Chris Schneider contributes an appreciation of obscure (to me, anyway) thirties musical TOP OF THE TOWN. You can watch the whole film on YouTube (bottom).

Someone was just saying, in connection with the writing of director Jacques Rivette, that the crazier your choice of “best” is, the more you’ve proved your (cinematic) love. This was extrapolation, mind you. Perhaps, then, I should prove my love of Thirties musicals by choosing the decidedly odd TOP OF THE TOWN (1937).

TOP OF THE TOWN is a dog’s-dinner of a picture, let’s be clear, but it’s not without interest. For one thing, it can be cited as the first Universal picture to employ the “twirling stars” studio logo. Secondly, it has a score by a very decent pair of songwriters — Jimmy McHugh (music), Harold Adamson (words) — which contains a genuine, soon-to-be “standard,” “Where Are You?” See recordings by Frank Sinatra and Chris Connor and Mildred Bailey.

Also of note is the historical oddity that TOP OF THE TOWN is one of that handful of pre-WW2 films, films like the Barbara Stanwyck/Robert Young comedy RED SALUTE, using interest in the Soviet Union as a source for comedy. What that means, here, is a flighty heiress (Doris Nolan) who has returned from the USSR with a tendency to call people “comrade” and now wants the nightclub on top of the family-owned skyscraper, the famed Moonbeam Club, to produce Important Art. This places her in conflict with the boyish musician (George Murphy) who simply wants to lead the club’s band and put on a good show. 

You might know Doris Nolan as Katherine Hepburn’s sister in HOLIDAY. She gets no songs here, only attitude. George Murphy, a talented yet not especially appealing dancer, was Astaire’s rival in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940. He only gets one chance to dance, toward the end. Since nothing much happens between Nolan and Murphy, the strategy is to distract the audience with character performers like Hugh Herbert (as Murphy’s friend) and Gregory Ratoff (as his manager) and Ella Logan (as a diminutive song-belter) and Peggy Ryan (as a child doing an Eleanor Powell dance impersonation). Gertrude Niesen, as the band’s torch-singer, goes missing, but manages to sing “Where Are You?” And did we mention the trio of contortionists in sailor suits who do animal imitations?

Coherence is, shall we say, not one of the strengths of TOP OF THE TOWN. The director is Ralph Murphy, whose one notable film might be THE NOTORIOUS SOPHIE LANG. The script, allegedly, has uncredited contributions by Robert Benchley and Morrie Ryskind.

Another famous name, Mischa Auer, does put in an appearance. As part of the Moonbeam Club’s new Significant Entertainment, Auer shows up and does the “To be or not to be …” in full Hamlet drag — tn the accompaniment of a moaning choir in blackface. This is, um, problematic, as is a dance number involving salt-mine laborers being whipped. Luckily, the show is saved and the club patrons satisfied when a spontaneous jazz “jamboree” breaks out. Sorta like the number at the end of La Cava’s HALF-NAKED TRUTH.

TOP OF THE TOWN has its good points, to go with its silly or offensive ones. Notable among the plusses are the film’s gleaming look, in accord with its *moderne* title lettering, and Glasgow’s own Ella Logan scat-singing and dancing. This is the woman, let us remember, who later created the female lead in FINIAN’S RAINBOW.

And how can you say no to a film, I ask you, featuring Mischa Auer in his Hamlet Drag doing a conga-style pelvic thrust?

Surely Jacques Rivette would understand.

Notorious

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2013 by dcairns

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Really enjoyed Richard Quine’s THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY, a mystery romance set in Hollywood England. Kim Novak starts off with the worst cockney accent on record — I think she may have been Dick Van Dyke’s dialect coach — but it turns out to be a phony anyway so that’s alright.  There are other compensations.

Basically Kim is the titular landlady who’s suspected of murder, Jack Lemmon is a junior diplomat who moves in, falls in love, and gets embroiled, and Fred Astaire is his boss. Quine is respectful of Fred’s very particular qualities, so that he grants him an entrance framed head-to-toe, as you would frame a great dancer, a shot he repeats twice with variations as the plot unfolds. Coppola couldn’t even manage that framing for ACTUAL DANCES in FINIAN’S RAINBOW…

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What’s very nice about this casting is it’s all off-the-nose, if I can create that expression for my purpose. Lemmon is written as a pushy, self-confident American male loverboy, as if someone was thinking of Tony Curtis. Lemmon’s lightness and diffidence makes the character MUCH more likable and surprising, and his efforts to seduce Novak are more fraught with suspense and sentiment as he’s inherently a more vulnerable and off-centre performer. Plus he has a way of twisting apologetically through a doorway, not even opening it wide enough for a direct approach, inserting a leg sideways like a bandy ballerina…

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Novak could well be playing a role written for Monroe — played with wide-eyed innocence, her character would have been an obvious naif and we’d have known she was victim of a frame-up. When two male characters become convinced of her innocence because she’s so charming, we’d have agreed wholeheartedly. But because the husky Novak has more of an edge, perhaps because nobody with Groucho Marx eyebrows can be wholly trustworthy, we laugh at them for being persuaded by feminine charms. Yet Novak has vulnerability aplenty and can be liked at the same time as suspected.

Fred is playing Lemmon’s hard-ass boss. While the elder Fred’s more deeply-lined face has suggestions of harshness, it’s also softly saggy, and as an actor he’s still the embodiment of the lighter-than-air. That steel we know he had as a dancer, pushing himself and his co-stars on to painful perfectionism, is rarely glimpsed in his performances. So again, the actor brings wafting gracefulness to a role that’s written as bolshy and probably fat.

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Honorable mention: Lionel Jeffries as Inspector Oliphant.

The movie is co-written by Blake Edwards and Larry Gelbart, and with some of Edwards’ characteristic visual gags: a BLUE VELVET moment with a suspicious Lemmon hiding in Novak’s closet is topped with a nice moment when she unknowingly hooks a coat hanger onto his ear.

A surprisingly menacing bit revolves around Maxwell Reed, Joan Collins’ unpleasant first husband, who proves much more effective as bad guy than he ever was as a leading man. He’s something of a precursor to Ross Martin’s psycho in Blake Edwards’ own EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, only here he’s arguably too dark and vicious for the movie. It has an interesting effect — not quite digestible into the overall tone, but certainly adding grit.

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Oh, the visual style — really exquisite camerawork. It’s zoomtastic, but the aggressive zoom-bar-yanking is combined with machine-tooled crane movements and a lot of “relay shots,” where the camera attaches itself to one character, then another, drawn in a series of smoothly-oiled tugs through a space by the unfolding story. Lots of really intricate work, and it again resembles a musical in its highly choreographed, elegant showiness.