Archive for MGM

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…

Stab Me, Sugar

Posted in Dance, FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2014 by dcairns

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Vincente Minnelli’s THE BAND WAGON, which Fiona had never seen, was a big hit with us — viewed with friends Nicola & Donald. It has just enough story — it doesn’t plummet into an endless ballet like AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Too much narrative might be a problem — musicals seem to exist in an unusual relationship to plot, with progress essentially halting for each number, which freezes a moment of happiness or sadness and extends it and wallows in it. This being a putting-on-a-show story, it has license to depart even further from the spine — especially since, as in most movies where a show of some kind features, the play being staged, inexplicably called The Band Wagon, seems to be a mishmash of disconnected songs, a revue of sorts, even though we’re TOLD it has a story, which is even summarised for us at the start. When you try to make the songs fit the outline, however, you find that they don’t, except the big one ~

The Girl Hunt, choreographed by Michael Kidd, spoofs Mickey Spillane, and allows screenwriters Comden & Green to extend their satiric twinkliness into a song-and-dance for once. We were particularly impressed by the various book titles displayed at the start, (KILL ME CUTIE, STAB ME SUGAR, THE BODY WITHOUT A HEAD) and by the surrealism of it all — it pinpoints the hysterical sense of nightmare that permeates noir, and which usurps any sense of reality in Aldrich’s Spillane adaptation, KISS ME DEADLY, and boils to the surface in the work of David Lynch.

In fact, if The Girl Hunt ballet were somehow to be a new production, everyone would be talking about how it plunders Lynch’s movies for imagery.

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Syd Charisse plays dual roles, like Patricia Arquette in LOST HIGHWAY. “She came at me in sections. More curves than a scenic railway.”

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Giant fireball like in WILD AT HEART — also LOST HIGHWAY, and others. Lynch, on how he got the idea for the exploding shack in LOST HIGHWAY, which seems like a clear echo or the blazing beach house in KISS ME DEADLY: “We had finished at this location, and then I suddenly got this image in my mind, and I called the effects guy over and asked him what kind of really powerful explosives he had. And he said that he had A LOT, but that he could GET MORE.”

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The clue of the shiny rag — obviously a reference to Dennis Hopper’s titular sex-swatch in BLUE VELVET.

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Nothing in this sequence specifically relates to the red room in Twin Peaks… but the general effect evokes it in every way.

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The fight amid the mannequins — now it’s Kubrick and KILLER’S KISS that seems to be the target. The pre-perfectionist Kubrick rather screws that scene up with some egregious eyeline-crossing, causing each piece of store dummy to change direction as it’s hurled. Minnelli and Kidd and Astaire have no such trouble.

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Back to Lynch, with the Greek sculpture and b&w floor irresistibly evoking Twin Peaks again. The palette is different, but you wouldn’t want red curtains in a bathroom — not restful.

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Lynch’s sets don’t usually have this level of stylisation, but in THE GRANDMOTHER he painted all the rooms black and then chalked in the edges in white for an abstract, graphic effect (painting his cast’s skin chalk-white too). Here, the highlight is the minimally-rendered skyscraper, it’s lower storeys obscured by other buildings that aren’t rendered at all.

vlcsnap-2014-10-26-21h21m03s218It’s the cursed ring from FIRE WALK WITH ME!

I guess what this sequence has in common with Lynch and particularly the world of Twin Peaks (returning to out screens next year), apart from some imagery, is that both exaggerate the incomprehensible plotting of the pulp mystery into abstraction — these mysteries can never be solved because their terms aren’t clearly defined. Suspects, clues, leads and corpses multiply absurdly, and Comden & Green mock these conventions by amping them up while Lynch pushes them further in order to enjoy the mysterious as an end in itself.

As I tell my students, never solve an intriguing mystery with a boring explanation.

 

The Sunday Intertitle: Cementing Relationships

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 21, 2014 by dcairns

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Original Shadowplayer David Ehrenstein sent me a heads-up by email, advising me to check out A LADY OF CHANCE, which has some plum intertitles. Norma Shearer is the titular hustler, a brazen con-artist working with Lowell Sherman (dropping down several levels of the social register from his usual playboys, but still delightfully suave and caddish) and brassy blonde Gwen Lee. Remarkable to see Shearer play hard-boiled — she gets to skulk, flounce, coolly calculate and flirt outrageously — I can’t think why she didn’t insist on playing bad girls full-time. She’s actually good at it.

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Sherman, that unassuming rogue, should be the subject of gigantic retrospectives — a wonderful player and a fine director too. I have definite issues with the whole MGM sensibility, but he’s someone who could channel it smoothly, his tendency to play the classier kinds of scoundrel or otherwise flawed characters militating against the studio’s habitual poshlust.

Another old smoothie, bisexual Brit Edmund Goulding, contributed to the script, but the titles are credited to Ralph Spence, “highest-paid title writer in the world at $5/word.”

You can buy it: A Lady of Chance, (1928)

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