Archive for Judy Garland

Death and the Non-Maiden

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

ZIEGFELD GIRL is interesting and diverting alright. It’s in some ways the complete MGM film — it returns to the Follies, a subject of obsession for the studio, it would seem, and it reprises the formula of all those late silent/early soundie Joan Crawford movies (OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS, OUR BLUSHING BRIDES etc), featuring three girls (the title sells it short) with dreams of success. In such stories there’s always a Bad Girl who has sex, we are led to believe, out of wedlock and for reasons of business rather than love, and her success is short-lived with a bitter aftermath. The Good Girl usually achieves what the Bad Girl wanted by holding back on sex until it’s been sanctified by a priest and the Hays Office. There’s also an In-Between Girl who can show a middle path or be comedy relief or, in this case, be Judy Garland, whose storyline has nothing to do with sex or romance at all.

What’s interesting is to see the MGM studio machine trying to digest Busby Berkeley. There’s less black and much, much more white in these numbers than one would get at Warner Bros, and there’s slightly more of an attempt to weave the musical numbers into the plot and to make us believe they might really be happening on a stage, though of course we’re not fooled.

Busby’s earlier work had something to do with death — actual fatalities feature as part of the choreography in ROMAN SCANDALS, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 and 42ND STREET. Here, there’s what ought to be a great opportunity for him, with Lana Turner (the Bad Girl) passing out drunk during a show and nearly suffering a severe accident while dressed as an exotic tree. But it feels like MGM have subdivided duties on this, with Robert Z Leonard (The Z that stands for Zigler) handling Lana’s swaying and woozy closeups, while Berkeley just stages a big musical number without reference to the turmoil beneath the surface. Although I guess it IS a particularly grotesque, distended and peculiar one, and Judy Garland IS more than usually maniacal. But there’s no welcome sense that this is due to any subjective affect emanating from Lana.

Later, Lana leaves her sickbed to attend one last Follies show as customer, an amazing colossal extravaganza (which, loooong as it is, seems to have been truncated by MGM from some previous, unimaginably huge form) and again we miss the chance to experience a Busby Berkeley number through the eyes of a dying audience member. But I will admit, Leonard pulls out all the stops for Lana’s eventual demise, a kind of glam La Boheme.

It made me a bit angry that Lana has to die — she’s already REFORMED at this point, ffs. What more do you want from the girl? I guess killing her off was an opportunity for more emotion, but of course you could theoretically kill any of the characters off and have that — for Lana to croak, there has to be an offensive underlying sense that this is natural justice or divine justice or something. Sex is as fatal under the Production Code as it is in a slasher movie.

But she does look awfully good expiring. I realize I haven’t seen many of her earlier films or if I have (e.g. THE GREAT GARRICK), I don’t recall paying any attention to her. Seeing her at this age is like seeing young Liz Taylor after being slightly puzzled by her in later films. Suddenly everything makes sense — my God, she IS beautiful. The implausibly large, narrowed eyes, the tiny, stoma-like mouth, with fleshy lips that make is almost as tall as it is wide, the adorable snub nose. All so white — perfect for the whiteness of MGM and Cedric Gibbons sets. A deco cherub. The girl with the ice-cream face.

Horseshoe Shuffle

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on January 3, 2017 by dcairns

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THE HARVEY GIRLS is like the ultimate film of entertainment, with memorable songs, lovely actors (and John Hodiak, a cartoon wolf), elegant dance and camera moves, sumptuous colours, and a huge amount of good-natured fun.

I’m really glad to be discovering George Sidney at this belated stage of my life — I had seen some of his work before, but had given no thought to him. One of the not-so-good things about the auteurist approach is it could cause one to miss out on a good Sidney or Charles Walters film as one concentrates on a lesser work by Minnelli or Donen. Now, those latter gentlemen are more significant artists, but the other exponents of the Freed Unit style are no slouches.

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One moment I want to dwell on, amid countless terrific movements and moments. Virginia O’Brien gets one number of her own, shortly before she disappears from the film almost completely (she’d gotten pregnant, and she actually wears a smithy’s apron during her big song to disguise a little bump).

During her song, Virginia, who has dialled down the googly-eyed zombie act she first found fame with, and might have been moving on to more substantial and less gimmicky roles had parenthood not diverted her, prepares a horseshoe for applying to a hoof. The shoe is deposited in the fire, and after a rare cut (the sequence consists of only a few, very long, shots) it’s extracted with tongs and beaten with a hammer. Sparks and glowing makes it clear that this is now a real red-hot piece of iron.

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Then Virginia picks it up with her bare hands. Sings a line or two. And drops it in a barrel of water, which emits an explosive hiss of steam.

The mystery/joke of O’Brien’s asbestos fingers forced us to rewind to see what the trick was. And it’s a very simple one — Virginia hangs up the glowing shoe, steps screen right, forcing a small reframing, and while the shoe is offscreen, evidently some property man with tongs of his own or real asbestos fingers, grabs it and substitutes for it a fake shoe painted red to simulate glowing. He achieves this during a two-second moment when the shoe isn’t on camera. the horseshoe is still swinging when the camera re/discovers it. The jet of steam from the barrel is a practical special effect.

It’s a lot of trouble for a joke that doesn’t make any sense — what are we to make of Virginia’s superhuman flame-retardant properties? Is she a Shadrach or Johnny Storm of the Wild West? In a way, it’s not even a joke about that, but about the deceptive nature of the continuous take, about MGM and George Sidney’s ability to pull the wool over our eyes and make us smile at our inability to see what’s in front of us.

The Hands of Ingrid

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2015 by dcairns

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I know, I know, enough with the Halloween postings already! But this one isn’t that spooky. Curiosity prompted us to watch John Frankenheimer’s live TV version of The Turn of the Screw, a piece which only survives because Frankenheimer himself paid to kinescope his shows as they went out (a highly technical procedure which basically involves aiming a movie camera at a TV screen). This paid off, since the director was able to preserve his early work, and also refer back to it, which he found useful when making big movies. Our naive first efforts are often revealing to revisit.

The script for this adaptation of Henry James’ renowned novella is by James Costigan, with a heavy lit-crit emphasis on sexual hysteria as a cause of the ghostly manifestations: even more so than in Jack Clayton’s famous film version, THE INNOCENTS. Incidentally, both filmmakers rely on long lap dissolves for atmosphere, which makes one wonder if Clayton somehow caught the Frankenheimer airing (unlikely), or if something in James’ prose somehow suggests the idea (intriguing).

Recalling the way the BBC’s live Quatermass productions instill a kind of terror through the sheer flop-sweat of the cast struggling to make it through the broadcast without flubbing, corpsing, drying, breaking legs or dropping dead, I was anticipating some agreeable tension here, but Bergman is cool as ice, totally professional, and the kids are so eerily good they chill more for precocity as performers than as characters. Apart from one slight line-stumble early on (which feels quite natural), it’s amazingly slick, and somehow less scary for it.

I got distracted by technical considerations since the drama wasn’t fully engaging my mind. How did Frankenheimer manage scene changes in a narrative where the same character is in nearly every sequence? Here’s a doozy ~

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Dissolve from governess closing French windows to governess’s hands, pressed against the glass of the window as rain pours down outside. Cut to Ingrid at the window.

It seems so simple, yet it’s completely impossible to do live, since during that dissolve Ingrid is literally required to be in two places at one: standing outside in a medium shot, and standing inside at the window with her hands in ECU (plus it has to be simultaneously dry and rainy).

So, I’m thinking Frankenheimer must have had a hand double already in position for that close view. And while it was on air, Ingrid must have sprinted from her position outside to a different window, positioned her hands to match her double’s, and picked up the scene from there. The first televisual hand transplant has been carried out!

I mention this trick over coffee to my editor friend Stephen Horne, and he says, “Ah, kind of like the two Dorothies in WIZARD OF OZ.” Now, I’ve lived with/in OZ all my life, almost, and precisely for this reason, I guess, I’ve never fully unpicked what goes on when Dorothy crosses the threshold from sepia farmhouse to Technicolor Munchkinland. To begin with, she’s apparently sepia, but since this trip is accomplished with a moving camera, we can exclude matte shot trickery. So she’s not filmed in sepia, she actually IS sepia. Some poor stand-in has been spray-painted brown from head to toe, along with the farmhouse door (I wonder if she got sick like Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Woodsman who was poisoned by his lead face-paint). There’s even a sepia Toto, created using the same technology as the horse of a different colour you’ve heard tell about. As we move through the doorway into the gaudy fantasy kingdom, the camera loses sight of the brown Dorothy, and when she re-enters frame she’s a full colour Judy Garland. The magic of movies!

I wonder who came up with this? Must check my Making Of book. Definitely not Victor Fleming, the credited director — I think we may have to chalk one up for the Genius of the System. It’s the kind of thing a bunch of heads of department spitballing and brainstorming, or brainballing and spitstorming, would come up with together.

I don’t know which is more amazing, the OZ substitution, which effects a change of film medium from b&w to colour, or Frankenheimer’s, which went out live to an unsuspecting nation.