A Grand & Moving Thing: The King and I (1956)

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Yul Brynner in The King and I. TCM & Fathom Events are screening this classic musical on August 28 and 31 in select theaters across the U.S.

“If you live long enough and you’re lucky you may get the chance to see two or three originals in your lifetime.”
- TV commercial advertising the 1982 stage production of The King and I at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre

In December of 1982 I was given a ticket to see Yul Brynner perform The King and I at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. It was a birthday gift from my mother who knew how much I loved the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and Yul Brynner. I was a hard-to-please adolescent and I’d never had the opportunity to see a big Broadway production before but at the time I was studying dance and trying to figure out if I wanted to pursue a career in theatre, music or writing. You all know what I eventually decided to do but seeing Brynner on stage in the role he made famous was one of the most electrifying and downright amazing experiences of my life.

At age 62, the bronze and barrel-chested actor was still a charismatic and commanding performer. A true ‘original’ as the commercial for The King and I advertised who had created the character of King Mongkut on stage in 1951 before bringing him to the screen in 1956. A year after I watched Brynner belt out “Shall We Dance?” he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and died in 1985 following a hugely successful return to live theatre. His death devastated me but Brynner remains immortal in my mind thanks to his unforgettable appearances in a number of great films.

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Ruby Keeler: Come and Meet Those Dancing Feet

blog42ndMy favorite days of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars are those devoted to character actors, neglected stars, or actors whose careers were limited to one genre—sort of, the forgotten and forsaken of film history. It’s not that these actors were not famous, established, or major stars in their day, but to today’s audiences, they lack the iconic recognition of Golden Age favorites like Bogart, Tracy, Ball, or Davis. If it weren’t for TCM, the forgotten and forsaken would be lost to time.

Case in point: Ask most people to name a Ruby Keeler film, and the response would be, “Who?” Even movie lovers know her only from a handful of Warner Bros. musicals, specifically 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. I confess I knew very little about her: I have seen her Depression-era musicals, I remembered that she was married to Al Jolson, and I recalled that she had an amazing comeback in the early 1970s when she starred on Broadway in No, No Nanette.

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Opiate of the Masses: Silk Stockings (1957)

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Silk Stockings (1957) is remembered less for what it is than what it represents – the end of the Golden Age of MGM musicals. It was adapted from the last musical Cole Porter wrote for the stage, contains Fred Astaire’s final leading performance, and was director Rouben Mamoulian’s farewell feature film. Viewed outside of that melancholic context, the film is a peppy Cold War burlesque that turns the ideological battle of Communism and capitalism into a decision between cold logic and effortless entertainment (guess what wins). Astaire reunites with his Band Wagon co-star Cyd Charisse to solve East-West relations through dance and expensive undergarments. An enormous hit in its time, it was the highest grossing musical to ever play Radio City Music Hall, but its reputation has suffered since. Silk Stockings deserves a better fate than to be an answer to an end-of-career trivia question, and  Warner Archive is helping by releasing it on Blu-ray. It will also screen on TCM this coming Sunday, August 14th, at 6PM.
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ABBA: The Movie

Earlier this year I made a trek with three friends to Stockholm where we got to experience firsthand the Eurovision Song Contest, that annual feast of musical excess, questionable taste, vocal acrobatics, and international squabbling. This year proved to be no exception, and though it’s still a niche event in the United States, all of Europe and many other countries (particularly Israel and Australia) treat it like a major sporting event. Tradition holds that the winner’s country hosts the following year’s contest, so it was Sweden’s sixth turn to be taken over for a couple of weeks by Eurovision fans.

Not surprisingly, you couldn’t walk through a store or sit through an event without hearing the name “ABBA” at least a few times. Sweden’s greatest pop music export, the fabulous foursome famously won the contest in 1974 with “Waterloo,” energizing a career that would burn brightly until the group’s dissolution in 1982. Since 2013, Stockholm has also been home to ABBA: The Museum, an eye-popping immersion in the group’s music, impact, and blazingly colorful outfits (including the weirdly lifelike figures in the photo below). However, the group’s popularity is perhaps greater than ever around the world, and as I concluded walking through rooms flickering with concert footage and music clips, they’re also one of the most cinematic music acts of all time. [...MORE]

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December 12, 2015
David Kalat
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Girls! Girls! Girls!

Two lovers, locked in a room—the future of the state itself depends on whether their roiling lust for each other will override their other emotions and compel them into a marriage. The last time these two saw each other, Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) thought Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald) was a whore. The first time they saw each other, Sonia knew Danilo was a gigolo. And if all this talk of prostitution sounds tawdry, just remember that is in fact what this is all about: the King has ordered Danilo to seduce Sonia because unless she has a compelling reason to stick around in the Ruritanian kingdom of “Marshovia” she’ll take her wealth with her, crippling the economy. This is about trading money for sex, and sex for money.

Fans of high culture of course know this story as the beloved Merry Widow (which is just this weekend finishing a glorious run at Chicago’s Lyric Opera–awesome stuff). Franz Lehar’s opera had been entertaining audiences around the world since its Vienna premiere in 1905. But the prudish censors who governed Hollywood in 1934 weren’t what you’d call fans of high culture. For them, Ernst Lubitsch’s film version of The Merry Widow was just a piece of smut.

So how exactly did this thing get made in the first place? And what did it have to do with the Marx Brothers?

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KEYWORDS: censorship, Ernst Lubitsch, Joseph Breen, The Marx Brothers, The Merry Widow, Will Hays
COMMENTS: 2
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August 15, 2015
David Kalat
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Smells Like Teen Spirit: the Grease Sing-a-Long

TCM is partnering this month with Fathom Events to present exclusive theatrical screenings of the Grease Sing-A-Long in select theaters August 16 and 19 only (buy tickets by clicking this link). For those of you who like me grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s this will be a fun walk down memory lane and a chance in indulge in some groovy nostalgia. For younger readers, this can be a chance at some cinematic archeology—an opportunity to explore a baffling oddity, a fragment of pop culture from some alternate universe that broke off from its parallel dimension and jabbed through a rift in time and space into our own unsuspecting world. Put simply, Grease is v. weird.

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KEYWORDS: Fathom Events, Grease, John Travolta, Olivia Newton John
COMMENTS: 4
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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

75th Anniversary of THE WIZARD OF OZ

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]

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