October 3, 2015
David Kalat
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Dance, Girl, Dance

It is one of Hollywood’s most revered myths—the talented yet undiscovered starlet from some flyover backwater, desperate to make it big in the city. Forget The Voice, this stuff goes all the way back to the dawn of mass media. You could be forgiven for wondering which was more numerous: the wanna-be stars or the movies made about them.



Happy Birthday Fayard Nicholas

brosjumpinjiveA few years back, I was teaching the musical comedy when a male student remarked that he did not care for musicals because they were like chick flicks—too focused on romance and too filled with music that was old-fashioned. He did not find the production numbers with Fred Astaire from Top Hat to be particularly impressive; while he recognized that Astaire was good at his craft, anyone can take lessons and learn to dance, or so he claimed. For the next class, I came armed with a clip of the Nicholas Brothers performing their famous staircase dance from Stormy Weather (left). The class was dutifully impressed, and the student who dismissed musicals begrudgingly admitted that he liked the Nicholas Brothers whom he compared to athletes. The incident came to mind because today is Fayard Nicholas’s birthday, and it seemed fitting to acknowledge the talents of the Nicholas Brothers.


Shall We Dance: Step Up All In


“I wanted to show great dancing and inventive choreography without too much cutting, without chopping it up too much. Good dancing should speak for itself. Watch old Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly movies – a loose head-to-toe shot and very few edits. It’s so restrained and elegant!” -Trish Sie, director of Step Up All In

The durable Step Up franchise released its fifth entry over the weekend, a giddy 3D extravaganza subtitled All In. In these Rob Marshall-marred times, the series is the closest thing we have to the spectacular musicals of the classical era. That is, they hire people who know how to dance…and let them dance. No celebrities here, just kids who can move. Producer Adam Shankman said, “What’s nice about these movies is, they don’t need stars. They just need people who can do everything.”  This keeps costs down and has the added benefit of promoting young talent. Channing Tatum started off his career in the first Step Up, and Summit Entertainment is now placing their bets on Ryan Guzman, a Mexican-American actor who comes from a modeling and MMA background. Guzman adapted his cage fighting agility to the dance floor, and while he may never develop Tatum’s natural charisma, he has effortlessly meshed with the pro hoofers on the set. And the directors have respected their movements. All In was directed by Trish Sie, a dancer and choreographer who has worked for Pilobolus and those OK GO music videos (the lead singer’s her brother). She takes a distanced approach, allowing the performances to take place almost entirely in long master shots, privileging the dancers and the choreography of Dondraco Johnson, Christopher Scott, and Jamal Sims. Sie shows great faith in her dancers and collaborators, as well as the intelligence of her audience. The result is a joyous mix of old-school craft and angular modern dance styles.


Once Again, Remembering Vera-Ellen

vera three little words

Those of us who can’t resist a good MGM musical are no doubt now and again thinking about the great screen dancer Vera-Ellen, a sparkling screen presence in an number of films yet someone whose memory is overwhelmed by the passage of time and a peculiar lack of the proper respect paid to her accomplishments. On the occasion today of the 92nd anniversary of her birth on February 16, 1921, and although I wrote about her once already (way back in 2007, check out the post by clicking here), and though she’s been gone for over thirty years — she passed away from cancer on August 30, 1981 at only 60 years old – it’s a perfect time to remember again this most charming and talented actress.


Stanley Donen’s Double Bill: Movie Movie (1978)

The Film Society at Lincoln Center is wrapping up its superb Stanley Donen retrospective this week, and beyond the established masterpieces like Singin’ In the Rain lie charming curiosities like 1978′s Movie Movie. I missed the screening, but fortunately it is available to purchase from Amazon On Demand for $9.99. Structured like a 1930s Warner Bros. double bill (the on-screen production company is “Warren Brothers”), it pairs two hour-long features: the boxing melodrama “Dynamite Hands” and the backstage musical “Baxter’s Beauties of 1933″. Scripted with loving exaggeration by Larry Gelbart (still cranking out MASH episodes at the time) and Sheldon Keller (a veteran TV writer who started with Sid Ceasar), it’s both a parody of and an homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Complete with faux flyboy trailer for “Zero Hour” (“War at its best!”), it’s a similarly nostalgia-soaked recreation of past movie-going experiences as Grindhouse, with an equally poor reception at the box office.


Think Pink – Think Kay Thompson!

Kay Thompson in "Think Pink" from Funny FaceTalk about the great time-waster.  Nothing does it like YouTube for me.  Here I was, researching something — I can barely remember what — and then I get distracted It's Kay Thompson in "Funny Face"by clips of the amazing Kay Thompson.  Understandable, as she’s dynamite in 1957′s Funny Face, directed by Stanley Donen, giving a huge dose of “Bazazz” (her own word) to the witty romantic musical.  Thompson was mostly a behind-the-scenes wizard in Hollywood, making many MGM musicals of the 1940s — Ziegfeld Follies, The Harvey Girls, The Pirate and many more — into the perfect classics of the genre that they are.  She was also the bestselling author of the Eloise books, about the little girl who lives in a posh NYC hotel.  But I like her best performing, where she’s a force of nature that’s snappy, sly and sophisticated.


Beulah and Belva, Roxie and Velma

chicago4Many movie-goers and reviewers find remakes of hit films automatically unworthy, assuming the decision to remake was merely a case of cashing in on past successes. Especially in the current film industry, in which franchises, sequels, film versions of hit TV shows, and remakes rule, the mature audience’s tolerance for remakes must be at an all-time low. But, remaking or reworking old material has always been a part of Hollywood’s strategy to lure viewers to the box office, and a new version of an old film doesn’t necessarily mean it is without merit or interest. I recently watched all three versions of Chicago, which have their origins in a 1926 play, and while each movie uses the same plot, they all have different themes and subtexts.


Simple Men

A scene from SIMPLE MEN.

I’m listening to a Sonic Youth-mix cassette-tape I made back around 1990. It reminds me of Hal Hartley, due to one singular sequence in Simple Men (1991) – which remains one of my favorite Hartley films. Kool Thang plays on the jukebox as first Elina Lowensohn, Dennis McCabe, and Martin Donovan dance to it at a semi-abandoned bar (we later see Karen Sillas and Robert Burke enter the frame as the song plays on). I met Hartley in 2000 when he came to the Denver premiere of Kimono. It was a simple introduction with no time for idle chatter. I remember this: he was thin, crazy tall (6′, 6″), soft-spoken, and very polite. It just goes to show that still waters still run deep, no matter how much Bubble Bath you pour into it. [...MORE]

Elvis and Ann-Margret: Rock ‘n’ Roll Romance

viva1cDuring November, Turner Classic Movies is presenting a series of films under the banner  “Leading Couples,” which is in conjunction with a new TCM book of the same title. Movies starring well-known, charismatic onscreen couples will be showcased on the last two Tuesdays of this month. Viva Las Vegas has been selected as part of the series, but be sure to set up your home-recording equipment because this Elvis Presley musical gets the 4:45 A.M. time slot on November 25. Generally speaking, the explosive pairing of Elvis with Ann-Margret is the reason that Viva Las Vegas is one of Presley’s most well-liked movies. Her charisma with Elvis is unmatched by that of any other leading lady in any of Elvis’s musicals, making this 1964 film a good addition to the Leading Couples series.



Donald O’Connor’s Favorite Musical Moment

Versatile actor/singer/dancer Donald O’Connor was born on August 28, 1925, and he’s been gone almost five years.  Throughout a long career which began while he was still a child — his parents were circus folk — and soon transitioned into a stage act with two of his brothers, then into movies, O’Connor was an affable and indefatigable screen presence.  Often more comic than crooner, he was a skilled and charming musical performer who always gave us everything he had.  Though he brought to life one of the movie’s most energetic musical numbers ever — “Make ‘Em Laugh” from 1952′s Singin’ in the Rain — his own favorite onscreen musical moment, as revealed during a talk show appearance on TV’s The Mike Douglas Show, was a lovely and lyrical dance from 1953′s Call Me Madam, opposite Vera Ellen.    [...MORE]

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