The Show Must Go On: 42nd Street (1933)

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When sound came to cinema, the musical came along with it. The tremendous box office returns of The Jazz Singer (1927) had producers reeling, and the market was soon flooded with song and dance. But the Depression-era audiences began tuning them out,  preferring the patter of William Powell to the tapping of another chorine. By 1931 the studios had slashed musicals from their slates and were brainstorming what went wrong. In the May 1931 issue of the Motion Picture Herald, Paramount’s Jesse Lasky was optimistic about the future of the genre:

A gradual but inevitable return of music to the screen is predicted by Lasky. He believes the future will bring a sprinkling of operettas, a reasonable number of musical comedies, dramatic pictures with backgrounds of symphony orchestras. Citing the public’s attitude toward musical comedies, he contends that picture audiences were given something before they were prepared for it. “There is merely a need of a little more skillful technique and a better understanding on the part of the public”, explained Lasky. “The public was not prepared for the license of the musical comedy. For years we had trained the public to realism. The stage naturally had a dramatic license which was impossible in pictures. Audiences could not get used to music coming from nowhere on the screen. Nevertheless, musical comedies will come back and the public will become accustomed to that form of entertainment. In the next two or three years they will have forgotten that there ever was any question about musical comedies.”

In 1933 all questions were dropped after the massive success of WB’s 42nd Street, a snappy, streetwise backstage musical that introduced the world to the symmetrical spectacles of Busby Berkeley’s dance choreography. Now out on a sparkling Blu-ray from the Warner Archive, it’s clearer than ever why this was the film that brought the musical back into the spotlight.

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That’s Entertainment: The Band Wagon (1953)

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Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse stroll through Central Park together without saying a word. Their silence continues past a bustling outdoor dance floor, but their steps begin to sync in rhythm. Then there is an orchestral swell on the soundtrack, and they twirl individually. It is test of compatibility, a flirtatious movement to see if their bodies can work in unison. Astaire scratches his lip, gauging their chances. Once the melody of “Dancing in the Dark” eases onto the score, though, they move as one organism in a dance of light, joyful communion. It is an expression of love by other means, and, as choreographed by Michael Kidd, is one of the glories of the Hollywood musical.  The Band Wagon (1953) is an overwhelming sensorium of movement and color, and one of the more convincing arguments in justifying Hollywood’s existence. It is finally out on Blu-ray today from Warner Brothers (bundled with KISS ME KATE 3D, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and CALAMITY JANE in a desert island Blu-ray “Musicals Collection”) and the result is a near-flawless transfer of the three-strip Technicolor.

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Johnny Mercer Goes Hollywood: Old Man Rhythm (1935) and To Beat the Band (1935)

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Johnny Mercer is one of the finest lyricists the United States has ever produced, contributing “Moon River”, “Fools Rush In” and “Days of Wine and Roses” to the Great American Songbook. Before he wrote that string of immortal hits, he tried (and folded) his hand at movie stardom, appearing in some sprightly B musicals for RKO starting in 1935. In the early 1930s Johnny Mercer was just another hard working lyricist, with his steadiest paycheck coming from the Paul Whiteman Orchestra as both writer and singer. He had made a name for himself in 1933 with “Lazybones”, written with Hoagy Carmichael, which attracted the attention of the aging but still popular “Pops” Whiteman. The hope was that Mercer could replace the recently departed Bing Crosby in his touring road show. The Savannah-born Mercer was paired with legendary Texas trombonist Jack Teagarden, and they formed a kind of Southern comedy duo, interpreting Fats Waller and “Harlemania” for the white masses. Their routines were enough to get the attention of Hollywood, and RKO lured him West. Mercer had dreams of contributing songs to major musicals, but he had to prove his mettle in the Bs first. The Warner Archive recently released a DVD of Mercer’s first two silver screen forays, the irresistible college comedy Old Man Rhythm (’35) and morbid farce  To Beat the Band (’35). These cheap B pictures are enlivened by the spectacular talents RKO had at its disposal, including  choreographer Hermes Pan, production designer Van Nest Polglase and director of photography Nicholas Musuraca (Cat People, Out of the Past). They are Bs that look like As, and though none of Mercer’s tunes in these films became standards, there were no duds. Billie Holiday agreed, and would record “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo” and “If You Were Mine” from To Beat the Band later in ’35.

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THE WIZARD OF OZ – 75th Anniversary

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A blurb written in 1998 by Rick Polito for a TCM screening of The Wizard of Oz was resuscitated on the internet two years ago and went viral: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” Eight years before that, during my college years in 1990, space limitations on the calendar film series I was programming inspired similarly curt descriptions. Mine, however, were not funny and only annoyingly glib. For 2001: A Space Odyssey I wrote one sentence: “Do we really need to write a description for this?” My flippant entry for The Wizard of Oz was no better: “You know this one too. It’s not like it hasn’t been on TV every year for the last 25 years.” Had I done my homework I would have known that, at the time, it had actually been on TV for even longer than that but, either way, readers were not amused. And rightly so, because no matter how familiar you are with The Wizard of Oz, the film has many layers, it deserves more than flippant sentences, and it rewards repeat viewings. More to the point, people who are only familiar with The Wizard of Oz from television will have a  big-screen opportunity to tremble under the earth-ripping power of those opening cyclone shots, thanks to TCM and Fathom Events which will be bringing the movie to select theaters nation-wide on January 11th. [...MORE]

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.

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Shall We Dance: Step Up All In

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“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.

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Reel Elvis: The King in Hollywood

elvisopener2After writing about the Elvis Presley musical Kissin’ Cousins for last Monday’s post, the King was on my mind—and in the ether. I couldn’t help notice how many times Elvis’s name or music popped up in conversation, on television, or on the radio. Maybe it was just one of those weeks, but I was impressed that someone who has been dead for 37 years still has that much cultural cache. I was also pleased that readers responded to the Kissin’ Cousins post with their own favorite Elvis flicks and observations about his often-maligned movies. With that in mind, I thought I would offer some tantalizing tidbits, astute asides, and fascinating facts on Elvis’s film career.

He Wasn’t Always a Singing Race-Car Driver, Plane Pilot, or Boat Captain. Critics are quick to poke fun at the musical comedies, which Elvis dubbed “Presley travelogues,” but there is more variety in his 33 films than detractors realize. Elvis made three westerns (including the Civil War drama Love Me Tender), one straight drama, five musical dramas, two satires, and two documentaries. Even the musical comedies vary in tone and approach—from the sublime Viva Las Vegas to the ridiculous Harum Scarum.

What’s in a Name? Films often go through title changes during production, but Elvis’s movies were downright notorious for this. In 1958, 20th Century Fox purchased the novel Brothers of Broken Lance by Clair Huffaker before it was published. The studio wanted a title change, so the publisher agreed to release it as Brothers of Flaming Arrow. The studio changed its mind again, and the book was finally published as Flaming Lance. Publicity for the upcoming western claimed that Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra had signed for the key roles, but that was premature. Neither actor agreed to the film, so the property was shelved for two years. In 1960, Fox signed Elvis for the main role, and shooting began in August for Flaming Heart, which was changed almost immediately to Black Star, thent Black Heart. In September 1960, everyone finally agreed to Flaming Star.

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A Salute to ‘Kissin’ Cousins’—Sort Of

kissinopenerOver the years, Kissin’ Cousins has grown on me—sort of.  Elvis Presley’s fourteenth feature film, which airs next Sunday (March 30) on TCM at 8:30am, is a musical comedy that is even more ridiculous than most of his films. And yet, Kissin’ Cousins manages to be interesting—sort of. It is the only one of his 31 narrative films to feature the King in a dual role. In KC, Elvis stars as dark-haired Josh Morgan, a member of the Air Force aerobatic team the Shooting Stars, and blonde Jody Tatum, a member of the hillbilly Tatum clan of rural Tennessee. Josh finds out that he is a distant cousin to Pappy Tatum, so he is assigned to persuade the stubborn patriarch into allowing the Air Force to build a missile base on his mountain. While the story doesn’t seem like it would inspire much to sing about, the 96-minute film includes eight musical production numbers.

Kissin’ Cousins marks an important but dubious point in Elvis’s Hollywood career. The musical is his first film with Sam Katzman, known as “the King of the Quickies.” Katzman had been producing low-budget, rock ‘n’ roll musicals since the 1950s, and he was notorious for his short shooting schedules and penny-pinching methods. Of course, this doesn’t mean that his films are not entertaining or enjoyable; I love his teen musicals (Get Yourself a College Girl; Twist Around the Clock) as well as some of his other productions (Your Cheatin’ Heart). But, when Elvis’s manager, the equally notorious Colonel Tom Parker, teamed up with Katzman, it represented a turning point for Parker’s approach to Elvis’s film career.  Parker was unhappy with Elvis’s previous film, MGM’s Viva Las Vegas—which would be released after Kissin’ Cousins—because its budget surpassed a million dollars, and it went over its shooting schedule. He felt that the money spent to ensure high-quality production values was unnecessary. Though Elvis would make only two films for Katzman, thereafter, Colonel pursued deals with other small production companies, because he was determined to keep production costs down and increase Elvis’s salary by asking for a percentage of the profits. He also learned other methods for decreasing production costs, which he employed on Kissin’ Cousins. While on location near Big Bear Lake in California, he struck deals with local hotels and restaurants to put up the cast and crew at a cut rate in exchange for promotional opportunities.

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Hello Hello Conrad

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One of my favorite musicals happens to be BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963) and you can currently catch it playing on TCM On Demand. George Sidney’s film satirized America’s obsession with the burgeoning pop culture of its day and lampooned the perpetual and (often) manufactured hype surrounding music idols like Elvis Presley and bands like The Beatles. The jokes occasionally fall flat but the lively musical numbers more than make up for any of the script’s hiccups and it’s a film I like returning to again and again. Following the media onslaught of Grammy Award stories this week it seemed like a good time to revisit this pop music spoof. So let’s forget about Justin Bieber for a moment and let me introduce you to Conrad Birdie.
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Gypsy Musical: Caravan (1934)

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Poaching European talent has always been a popular Hollywood pastime, from Murnau to Lubitsch to Lang. Not every import had such an impact however, as proven by the reception of Caravana lavish 1934 gypsy musical directed by one Erik Charell.  Charell and his leading lady Lilian Harvey had become a hot commodity after the international success of their German film operetta The Congress Dances (1932). Fox decided to make Caravan a “super-special” with a budget over a million dollars, importing French heartthrob Charles Boyer as the male lead. It was a financial and critical disaster, with the NY Times moaning that it was  “an exceptionally tedious enterprise”.  Charell’s professional career was over – but what a way to go out (Harvey also flamed out in Hollywood after four films). Fully utilizing the emerging mobile camera technology, Caravan is a perpetually moving marvel, pirouetting through the gypsies like a fellow reveler. The average shot is thirty seven seconds long, so even expository conversations become epic journeys through the cavernous sets – providing an anarchic sense of freedom. Screening as part of MoMA’s “To Save and Project” series of film preservation, Caravan is a major re-discovery.

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