Archive for Vincente Minnelli

Anglo/Saxon Attitudes

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2018 by dcairns

Fiona was surprised to find a Kay Kendall biography in the library (see yesterday’s post for an evaluation of the Edinburgh library system’s limitations) and devoured it on sight, demanding supplemental viewing materials, stat. I had tried to sell her on THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE before, but this was now the perfect moment. She didn’t require quality, just so long as KK was prominently featured.

I’ve probably mentioned before my theory that Vincente Minnelli made Hollywood’s most nightmarish comedies — the best of them aspire to pure phantasmagoria, and are more oppressive that they are funny, though admittedly DESIGNING WOMAN is extremely funny and amiable. Often they rise to moments of surreal heightened anxiety, sometimes involving altered states of consciousness. One image from a dream sequence in FATHER OF THE BRIDE, of Spencer Tracy’s feet sinking through a carpet suddenly turned to quagmire was repeated without modification in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and served just as aptly in a horror movie as it had in a “family comedy,” Minnelli-style.This movie takes place during what turned out to be the last ever “season,” when society’s latest batch of debutantes (don’t known what it means) “came out” (don’t know what it means, in this context anyway). Sandra Dee plays the daughter of Rex Harrison, which is the first big laugh and the last for a while. Kay Kendall is the stepmother who sets about arranging the girl’s coming out ball, and trying to arrange her love life in a socially suitable way, hampered by S-Dee’s falling in love with a humble drummer played by John Saxon (very cute, and at times seeming to play the role on-purpose gay).This is John Saxon describing native love rituals witnessed in Africa.

“…and then he carries her off to his TENT.”

This is Kay and Dee reacting to him.(Kay dresses like Big Bird through much of the film.)

This kind of lighter-than-air stuff has to be very good to get by, because you’re trying to get laughs out of nothing. The play and its adaptation, both by William Douglas-Home, aren’t really clever enough to manage this, but laughs are still had, partly from the deft work of Kendall and Harrison, two of the best light comedians who ever lived, and partly from numerous moments where the script hoves perilously close to the foulest bad taste, due to dated sexual attitudes, stuff that could be dealt with lightly then but seems shocking today. And since surprise is part of laughter, we found ourselves laughing at Sandra walking in on daddy just as he plays the role of dastardly seducer to a sofa cushion (really, too complicated to explain) ~Harrison does a fantastic variation on the man determined to finish his sentence even though the changed circumstances make it quite unnecessary and his delivery of the words no longer carries any of the intended meaning. It’s a very familiar trope — think Baloo singing when his disguise falls off in THE JUNGLE BOOK — but Harrison has his own version of it that no one’s ever seen or imagined before. And Kendall has a great bit entering, being surprised, and folding up like a deck-chair as her limbs give way on her.

Peter Myers gives a very funny performance as an upper-class bore forever reciting elaborate tales of how he’s negotiated the traffic to get where he is — but he transformed into an inarticulate rape-hound when left alone with Dee. And here’s her adorable reaction when she quizzes daddy on his early love life and learns that his first amour was a French girl who worked in a house in Paris — a maid? — no, not exactly…The weirdest and best sequence is a hallucinatory montage of balls, with Harrison getting drunk at each one, suffering Deutsch-tilt hangovers in interstitial office sequences, and finally losing contact with reality altogether as his secretary, having just handed him a glass of bicarb, starts announcing guest’s names in a dubbed man’s voice — audio bleed from scene to scene as life literally BECOMES nightmare.It’s in his comedies that you sense that Minnelli was not an altogether happy man.

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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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