Archive for Vincente Minnelli

Battleships

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2017 by dcairns

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You know you’ve been watching too many MGM movies when the same musical battleship turns up twice.

First instance is as the grand finale of the less-grand I DOOD IT, a very early Vincente Minnelli movie or an archetypal Red Skelton vehicle, depending on how you want to look at it. It is pretty well impossible to contain both those aspects in your mind at the same time without spraining a lobe or two. And the film itself alternates between Skelton schtick, in a plot borrowed loosely from Buster Keaton’s SPITE MARRIAGE (a couple of set-piece routines are ported across in their entirety) and Minnelli ecstasies, with numbers constructed around Eleanor Powell or else guest stars like Lena Horne and Hazel Scott.

(The inclusion of black artists like LH and HS in pop-up numbers easily excised from movies in the South is on the one hand, faintly aromatic of chickenshit, and on the other, slightly more courageous than you would expect from MGM. They could have simply opted not to employ any black stars at all, like every other studio. An unrelated point is that ’40s musicals do suffer from an insane proliferation of completely gratuitous numbers which do not relate to the plot and often retard the development of any narrative to a quite damaging degree. If it’s Lena Horne, one doesn’t mind, but novelty organists and big bands are less acceptable. One thinks of THE GANG’S ALL HERE being the ne plus ultra of this kind of thing, but the tendency was widespread.)

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Poor Eleanor Powell is situated right at the fault-line between the Skelton slapstick and the Minnelli musical. She’s a disastrous partner for Red, who always benefits from a sympathetic female lead to dial down his exuberance. Powell is somewhat lacking in warmth as a screen personality, and her role is an unappealing one (the character in the Keaton original is perhaps his least sympathetic heroine) and she’s not a wonderful enough actress to convince us she’s attracted to this man-cub. On the other hand, she dances up a storm, and her physical prowess comes in very handy in the “putting an unconscious woman to bed” routine reproduced from the silent movie.

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Second instance is a sort of battleship cameo in S. Sylvan Simon’s GRAND CENTRAL MURDER, where the ship pops up as backdrop in a montage showing the rise to prominence of a Broadway star (Patricia Dane, also featured in I DOOD IT, whose interesting bio can be read here). I think she’s actually performing in front of rear-screen footage from I DOOD IT, blocking out Eleanor Powell. The shame of it!

The rest of the movie is a kind of whodunnit RASHOMON, with a roomful of suspects, an apoplectic police detective (inevitably, Sam Levene, though James Gleason would have done just as well) and a private eye and spouse (Van Helflin and Virginia Grey) who appear to be part of MGM’s relentless attempt to spin the THIN MAN formula out beyond one profitable series and have it take over cinema as a whole.

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S. Sylvan Simon of the WHISTLING series directs the gab the way George Sidney would cover a big band number — gliding swiftly from soloist to soloist, elegantly taking in secondary players en route, always managing to either be in exactly the right spot or create meaningful tension about where he’s on his way to. It’s a really magnificent, symphonic example of the filming of dialogue.

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Van Heflin is terrifically enjoyable here, though he does smoke a pipe. So the tendency towards boring patrician roles is already there, but this slight, youthful version of ole babyskull is also very eager to seize on any opportunity to irritate everyone around him, which always seems to make for an enjoyable character. Fiona pointed out that there’s something weirdly OFF about the way Heflin and Grey are introduced — as mysterious members of the shoal of red herrings who shimmer through the narrative. Only gradually does our hero emerge as the narrative’s front-runner, perhaps because director SSS’s handling of the performers is somewhat democratic: Van Hef doesn’t get a “hero shot” right at the beginning, like John Wayne in STAGECOACH, announcing that he’s some kind of big deal in this picture. And since another suspect is Tom Conway, who in other circumstances might just as easily have been the leading man, the first third of the film feels a little uncentered. But that could be a perfectly appropriate feeling to have in a whodunnit RASHOMON.

Endnote: appropriately enough for a piece wallowing in Hollywood’s recycling, I can finish with my belated realisation that the number at the end of I DOOD IT is lifted wholesale from the 1936 BORN TO DANCE, meaning that it is not in fact a Minnelli production, but… a Roy Del Ruth?

Words are such small, squiggly things

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on January 14, 2017 by dcairns

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ZIEGFELD FOLLIES is vulgar, shapeless and indigestible. Everything in it is too long, and too beautiful. I may have to watch it every year, drunk.

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The Reluctant Revenant

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2016 by dcairns

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My trawl through the less-explored Minnellis continues — thanks to David Wingrove for recommending this one. Introducing Martin Scorsese’s personal Technicolor print of THE BAND WAGON in Bologna, Ian Christie remarked that Marty considers Minnelli to be still an underrated auteur. Very well, I say, let’s take him seriously, which means looking for themes and stylistic motifs in his lesser films as well as the acknowledged classics.

GOODBYE CHARLIE, modestly opened-out from the play by George Axelrod (THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH and others of note), has maybe the most transgressive plot premise of any Minnelli. Pair it with ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER and call it his Diptych of Reincarnation (doesn’t Eddie “Rochester” Anderson get restored to life at the end of CABIN IN THE SKY? Could we call this an informal trilogy? This auteurist is drooling at the thought). Charlie, a hypermasculine screenwriter rake/heel, is shot dead when caught in flagrante with a movie producer’s wife, falling into the sea — only to emerge, post-funeral, in the form of Debbie Reynolds. (One wants to say “alluring form,” and one could, as Debbie is cute as a button, but one does get the impression the script has something more like Jayne Mansfield in mind.) Best buddy Tony Curtis has to deal with the fallout.

I wonder how this worked as a play? It doesn’t work as a film, in strict plot terms — audience identification is split between best buddy Tony Curtis and his back-from-the-dead transgender pal; subplots tantalise with the possibility of Reynolds actually getting intimate with (another?) man; a homicide detective turns up to make Tony nervous, but why? On Broadway, was some immoral element explored that had to be chopped from the movie script, leaving lacunae and shapelessness? I’m not too bothered, because what’s left is highly entertaining and quite peculiar.

Opening credits — director’s name revealed in the purple interior of a yawning clam. Well well.

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Scene 1 is part of the opening out — it shows how Charlie met his maker (but not how he gets remade). Minnelli, perhaps assuaging the nervous hetero element in the crowd, gives us generous footage of a Playboy Playmate doing the twist, a dance which mostly seems to involve shaking her tits (I had never thought of the twist this way before). Fiona admired her dress. I admired the way her breasts jostled for supremacy (partly) within it.

Minnelli accompanies this action with strange handheld lurches, leering in on several of the characters, which at first seems like a subjective drunkenness effect, then like a seasick thing, then becomes completely inexplicable, resembling the mad bursts of handheld frenzy in LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN or TRAGIC CEREMONY — handheld disorientation served up purely as a stylistic garnish.

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A very Minnelli widescreen shot. Burstyn on the right.

Then we’re into ninety-very-odd minutes of typically elegant Minnelli mise-en-scene, with occasional outbursts of excess pizzazz. Tony Curtis confirms his status as capable farceur, and Reynolds is fantastic, not overdoing the butchness or underselling it either. Astonishment: there’s Ellen Burstyn (before she took that name), playing comedy with gusto and skill. This could maybe form a duologue for her with THE EXORCIST: both are insider Hollywood stories in which a girl is possessed by a male identity and the solution is arrived at by defenestration.

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Further astonishment: the manslaughtering movie producer, clearly based on Alexander Korda (he’s a Hungarian and a knight) with maybe a side-order of William Randolph Hearst (jealous yacht-based assassin), is played by Walter Matthau. Old scrotumnal-face had mainly been making his living in hero’s pal or sneaky villain roles, but I guess ENSIGN PULVER had just unveiled his comic chops (and what chops they are!). However, the manic silliness of his work here is beyond anything he’d attempted on the big screen to this date, making even his most excessive moments in A NEW LEAF seem restrained. His “accent” is a wonderful creation all his own, owing nothing to any set of sounds previously mouthed by modern man. One has no idea whether his self-description “not unattractive” would have been so hilarious if anyone else had played the role — Matthau, of course, is an extremely attractive player, but for him to play a man who uses that phrase is priceless.

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Another highlight is Pat Boone. Enjoy that sentence as this is likely the only chance you’ll ever get to read it. Boone plays the mother’s-boy son of a millionaire businesswoman, mollicoddled since conception. He falls for Charlie immediately, based on her looks (she’s naked when they meet) and her knowledge of sports cars. There’s a spectacularly smutty exchange of double entendres about Boone’s malfunctioning Maserati.

Jesus, did Boone know what he was doing to himself with this role? “I do drink on special occasions: mother’s birthday, or the election of a Republican president.” Curtis gets a scene where he almost necks with Reynolds, and comes to his senses feeling squicky, but Boone actually kisses her/him. And the mother obsession is astonishing — mother is apparently absent attending to her many businesses, but when Pat leads Debs down to the wine cellar we half expect to find momma mummified in a corner. At one point, Minnelli jump-juts straight down the line on mum’s portrait, as if she were the Frankenstein monster or the eyeless farmer-corpse in THE BIRDS.

Boone was either completely clueless or a very good sport — I hate to give him credit, but I think he was at least somewhat aware. He gives really good stooge, and you can’t do that unknowingly in a comedy.

If you can manage it, I highly recommend seeing this crazy thing. You get Minnelli’s playful/transgressive side given freer reign than even in TEA AND SYMPATHY. You get his undiminished suavity as a master of camera blocking. This is probably his last good movie. It’s not wholly successful, but all the disconnected bits are good — we’re back to the FRANKENSTEIN metaphor again.