Archive for Howard Keel

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.

 

Landlubber

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2017 by dcairns

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Two more Esther Williams vehicles. Though she sure wasn’t kidding when she says her films were written to a formula, it’s interesting to see the attempts made to stretch that template.

DUCHESS OF IDAHO takes place largely in the potato-growing state, where Van Johnson can blend in. But it is bookended by New York sequences exploiting the somewhat irrelevant fact that Esther’s character works in some kind of aquatic revue, so the film can have a big water ballet shoehorned in at the start and finish. Water Ballet #1 is gaudy, with unattractive green water — liquid chlorophyll. Water Ballet #2 has really nice colours, but is a little unimaginative in terms of staging. Choreographer Jack Donohue has dancers cavorting around the pool, distracting us from the aquatic action. You really need to get the camera below the surface to let Esther cut loose. And you really need Busby Berkeley.

Most striking element is the opening titles, which are sung — or at least the whole cast list is. And “John Lund” isn’t easy to sing in an attractive way. I was hoping they’d keep it up right through “Special Effects by A. Arnold Gillespie & Warren Newcombe” and “Montage Sequences by Peter Ballbusch” but the chorus crapped out.

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There are cameos from Lena Horne and Eleanor Powell, but the most impressive moment is really a dialogue one. As Van Johnson pleads “I’m lonely!” outside Es’s hotel room door, a passing bellhop takes pity: “Hello.” It’s not even disguised, really: read it as an attempted pick-up, or dismiss it as a total non-sequitur.

Robert Z. Leonard directs with slightly more panache than he brought to HORSE FEATHERS (See comments). We get a juvenile Mel Tormé in a bit part and an uncredited Mae Clarke — was anyone else ever a lead in such iconic films as FRANKENSTEIN and PUBLIC ENEMY, and an extra in later life?

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TEXAS CARNIVAL is better — we’re getting used to Red Skelton so we could enjoy his mugging, which was a little more restrained anyhow. And there’s Howard Keel, and Ann Miller, and a farce plot with slightly more sense of consequence, but how is Esther going to get wet out in Texas. The novel solution is a dream sequence, where Howard sees her wafting around his bedroom like a wraith. He’s in air, she’s in water, but they’re both inhabiting the same screen space.

The diaphanous drift of Esther’s costume may make modern cinephiles suspect she’s about to turn into a skeleton and make Howard’s face melt.

In fact, Esther nearly drowned. The filming required her to perform in a blacked-out underwater set so her footage could be superimposed over Howard’s. The rooms and the camera set-up matched exactly, so she could pole-dance subaqueously around the bedposts. The set even had a ceiling. To allow the star to surface, a little trapdoor was built into it.

Of course, a black trapdoor in a black set, underwater, is essentially invisible, and Esther nearly drowned trying to find it. Having got the take, director Charles Walters had stopped watching, as had his camera crew. A props man happened to think it was odd that Esther wasn’t coming up for air, and opened the hatch, thus saving her life.

Here’s Ann!

The Shrew Must Go On

Posted in Dance, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2016 by dcairns

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There’s a bronze statue of an orangutan holding its young at Edinburgh Zoo, and as a kid I was crazy about climbing on it. There should be more statues you can climb on, statues should be tactile, interactive things, to take advantage of their solid, three-dimensional nature. Anyway, I was unexpectedly reminded of this when Fiona and I went to see KISS ME KATE at Filmhouse in glorious 3D.

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Say, how dod you do a glass shot in 3D? And note the MGM product placement bottom right.

The movie, fluidly directed by George Sidney (a largely overlooked figure in the Freed Unit’s stable of filmmakers), throws lots of crap in the audience’s face, to be sure, but the most effective moments of depth are the close-ups and medium shots, where I was constantly wowed by the strange spectacle of huge, colour, moving, realistic heads and shoulders in living three dimensions. It was a bit like the outsize photorealist sculptures of Ron Mueck, come to life. I wanted to climb up there and clamber about on Howard Keel or his co-stars. It helps that Kathryn Grayson and Ann Miller both have balconies you could do Shakespeare off.

(It was also a bit like the sculpted dioramas in a ViewMaster, the people being so smoothly and pinkly complected that you suspect them of being plasticine.)

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The whole thing was most entertaining, and though some of Cole Porter’s naughtier lyrics were censored for the screen, some real eye-brow raisers made it through. The Breen Office’s failure to excise “Lisa, where are you Lisa? / You gave new meaning to the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” can perhaps be understood: the line is perfectly meaningful if interpreted in an innocuous way. And Howard Keel sings it while reclining, so that if you were to picture him naked with an erection (you filthy beast) it would be at the wrong angle to suggest the famous Pisan monument.

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But “If she says your behaviour is heinous / Kick her right in the Coriolanus” doesn’t even begin to make sense as anything other than a dirty joke, so I have to assume the censor was just plain dumb, or so ashamed of what they thought the line MIGHT mean that they hesitated to bring it up.

The reordering of songs from the stage show is much more harmful than the cuts, and seems at times pretty bloody random. I mean, I’ve never seen the show, but given that this was Cole Porter building on Kern & Hammerstein’s success with Showboat, where the songs were all germane to the plot, I couldn’t help but noticing that as performed in the movie, many of them aren’t. Brush Up Your Shakespeare is great fun, but why are the rude mechanicals singing it to the Shakespearian star, in an alley, after their role in the show is over?

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The other weird thing is the heroine’s return for a happy ending — several plot turns seem to be getting jumped out here. The Taming of the Shrew NEVER works for me. Despite Shakes’ usual genius for not committing himself too strongly to particular opinions, this and Merchant of Venice seem so infected by the bad attitudes of the day that, despite the additional complexities he adds which stop them working as straight up masculinist or anti-semitic propaganda, they tend to leave a bad taste (unless you edit Shrew to the point where its meaning is reversed, as in the Fairbanks-Pickford version). Porter’s metatextual backstage farce version comes close to resolving a lot of the problems, but somewhere along the way some injudicious cuts have problematized it all over again…

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But — great, great fun. Especially when Hermes Pan lets Bob Fosse take over the choreography for his big bit, and you get a glimpse of the wonderfully contorted body-shapes of things to come.