Monthly Archives: May 2013

Good Songs in Cruddy Pictures — Part II

Broadway Melody of 1940

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

Even by dopey musical standards, “Broadway Melody of 1940” is bad beyond belief. Pauline Kael hated it so much, she was unwilling to admit that any of the dance numbers in it are any good. She was quite wrong about this. Here are two of the best.

“I’ve Got My Eyes on You” is an example of Fred Astaire doing his best at what he does best.  He plays the piano, he sings, he tap dances, he does tricks with a few props . . . and he does it in six shots.

I’ve Got My Eyes on You

“Begin the Beguine,” which ends the picture, features what is almost universally considered to be the most extraordinary tap dance routine ever put on film. Astaire and Powell have no chemistry whatsoever, but it hardly matters — at least, not when they’re dancing.  The art direction and cinematography, along with the number itself, all combine to make it the best advertisement I’ve ever seen for the luxurious pleasure and special chic of black and white cinematography. The mirrored dance floor alone is an amazing achievement; nothing like it had ever been manufactured before: it had to be invented — several thousand square feet of shatterproof, scratch resistant flooring strong enough to withstand a ten minute tap routine — and no glazier in the Los Angeles area was willing to try. Finally, the production team at Metro manufactured it right on the lot. The dancers were never allowed to rehearse on it.  Astaire and Powell had to be so confident in their routine that they could execute it to perfection on the first take.  The result is dazzling; the extended a capella tap cadenza at the climax goes beyond dazzling — it’s electrifying. 

Begin the Beguine

“Begin the Beguine” was the swan song for the black and white Metro production number — and also its apotheosis. The set, including the mirrored floor, took eight weeks to construct. The backdrop was a vast, midnight blue* cyclorama. Ten thousand miniature lights were then embedded into it to create the night sky. Mirrors thirty feet tall were placed upstage of the main dance floor, to reflect the dancers. The palm trees and the curtains were made of cellophane. The mirrored floor covered 6,500 square feet, and was created by pouring molten glass into large wooden frames. At the time, the set for “Begin the Beguine” was the largest and most elaborate ever constructed for a Metro picture. The mastermind who designed and engineered it was Merrill Pye, whose brilliant work on “North by Northwest” (1960) brought him his only Oscar nomination. (He lost, as did every other nominee that year, to another Metro picture, “Ben-Hur.”) For “Broadway Melody of 1940,” Pye designed the sets for the musical numbers; Cedric Gibbons (Metro’s Art Department chief) did the rest, and took sole credit for art direction. Pye’s credit, “music presentation,” is misleading, to say the least. Production costs for the entire picture came to $1.1 million. Perhaps most astonishing of all is the production schedule. Shooting began on October 21, 1939 and wrapped a mere twenty-seven days later. “Begin the Beguine” was shot in four days. It’s almost beyond belief that a dance number of such length and fiendish complexity could be completed in two weeks, let alone four days.
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* In the 1920s, the very glamorous Prince of Wales, a clothes-horse of the first water, started a trend when he introduced evening wear made of midnight blue fabric, as an alternative to the traditional black. As the most photographed man in the world, His Royal Highness recognized the photogenic potential of midnight blue; in black and white photography, the color appeared as a slightly softer black, which showed off subtleties of the tailoring (lapels, pockets, buttons, etc.) to better advantage. This lesson could hardly have been lost on Hollywood designers, though I have no proof that this is the case. It’s regrettable that, by the time “Broadway Melody of 1940” was in the works, His Royal Highness, now styled the Duke of Windsor, had become the world’s best dressed Nazi sympathizer.

It’s Always Fair Weather

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

“It’s Always Fair Weather” was originally conceived as a follow-up to “On the Town.” Halfway through the shooting schedule, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, who had successfully collaborated many times before (most notably on “Singin’ in the Rain”), were no longer speaking to each other. The picture was a nightmare to make. The story was more complicated and angst-ridden than audiences were prepared to accept from an MGM musical. It was also booked into some terrible places, including eleven drive-ins in Los Angeles, where it played as a second feature to “Bad Day at Black Rock.” This is not the picture to see at a drive-in. But leaving all that aside, it’s simply not much fun. The composer, André Previn, did his own orchestrations, which gave him more freedom than usual, but he confessed that he was so busy with the orchestrations that the tunes weren’t terribly good. He’s right. (Coincidentally, Previn also did the score for “Bad Day at Black Rock,” which is easily the best thing — perhaps the only good thing — in it.) Though it’s mostly all bummer, “It’s Always Fair Weather” does feature one song that I think stands as the best example of what MGM musicals were all about: it’s “I Like Myself,” Gene Kelly’s show-stopping number. Kelly’s solo routine for the title song in “Singin’ in the Rain” is generally regarded as the brightest jewel in the MGM crown, but I contend that “I Like Myself” is even more quintessentially Metro than “Singin’ in the Rain.” The super-wide CinemaScope format was never put to better use. The routine was shot on the perfectly level streets of the make-believe Manhattan Theatre District designed by Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Lonergan. Everything about the number is expensive, perfect, elaborate and artificial. Artificiality is the hallmark of the MGM style. When it doesn’t work it’s awful. But when it succeeds, as it does in “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Dancing in the Dark,” the ballet from “An American in Paris,” and “I Like Myself,” it’s thrilling. Kelly rehearsed this number for twelve days; it took four days to shoot.  Total cost was $174,836, but it looks like a million.

It’s a shame that the rest of the picture doesn’t work. Cyd Charisse, as a sexier version of Dr. Joyce Brothers, is hopeless. Dolores Gray, as an unctuous television hostess, is too noisy, too knowing, too busy and not at all funny. Dan Dailey, as an alcoholic ad man, gets loaded at a formal affair and runs amok — it’s his big number. It’s supposed to be hilarious. It isn’t. Michael Kidd, whose big number was cut, can’t sing or act. He looks miserable.

I Like Myself

Macao

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

“Macao” (RKO, 1952) is a mishmash of familiar situations from better pictures, but it has several things going for it.  As you can see from the poster, Jane Russell sings three numbers. “One for My Baby” is the best song of the three, but she doesn’t bring much to it. Ida Lupino sings/croaks it to much better effect in a crummy noir called “Road House.”  Russell fares better with “You Kill Me,” a nice tune by the redoubtable Jule Styne, with lyrics by Leo Robin.

Although “Macao” isn’t a good picture, Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum have good chemistry and the dialogue is pleasingly hard-berled.  (He:  Thanks for the flowers.  She:  I couldn’t afford a wreath.)  Howard Hughes, who owned RKO at the time, fired director Josef von Sternberg about a third of the way into production and replaced him with (uncredited) Nicholas Ray.  Ray was in the middle of divorce proceedings with Gloria Grahame, who offered to forego alimony if he could find a way to get her out of the picture — George Stevens tried to borrow her for “A Place in the Sun,” but Hughes wouldn’t hear of it.  Grahame got revenge by giving an over-the-top ham performance.  (That same year, she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her over-the-top ham performance in “The Bad and the Beautiful.”)

You Kill Me

‘The Loved One’: Rayon Chafes, You Know . . .

Original poster.

Original poster.

There has been so much publicity over the past few weeks for “Behind the Candelabra,” HBO’s biography of Lee Liberace, that I took another look at the best thing Liberace ever did — namely, his brilliant turn as the coffin salesman in Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s “The Loved One.” Though the picture falls apart long before it is over, it’s full of wonderful sequences, especially in the first hour.

After Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud) loses his job as an art director at a Hollywood studio, he goes home and hangs himself. This leaves his nephew Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse), who’s visiting from London, to make the funeral arrangements. The pompous asses of the British Colony in Hollywood instruct Dennis to inter the unhappy knight at Whispering Glades, the most luxurious (i.e., fantastically expensive) cemetery in Southern California. The scene below shows the unexpected series of indignities and reversals to which Sir Francis is subjected on what turns out to be his last day at the studio. Gielgud plays the evolution of despair beautifully: first we see his jauntiness, then his amused embarrassment, then his bewilderment, then his growing alarm (held in check by his English good manners), then his recognition of the seriousness of his predicament, and finally, his despair.

I’m particularly interested in the long take of Gielgud at the end of the scene. For much of his career, Sir John avoided acting in front of a camera — and indeed it wasn’t until quite late in his career that he learnt the trick of it; in the few British pictures he made in the 1930s — “Disraeli,” for example — he’s worse than merely bad: he’s so pathetically artificial and unconnected to his fellow actors that I flush with embarrassment when I happen across any part of that picture. I’ve decided to accept his early movie career as a collection of lamentable, youthful indiscretions. Perhaps his early failures were a necessary part of his education as an actor. He had the good grace and commonsense to be appalled by his mannerisms, vocal tricks, and especially by his involuntary habit of blinking rapidly — a habit that stayed with him for many decades; he overcame it at some point in the 1960s, but late in his career, the hummingbird blinking returned in some of his television performances. He did very well with Shakespearean roles in 1950s motion pictures. He was a fine Cassius in Metro’s stultifying “Julius Caesar” (1953); he was the best thing in that million-ton block of MGM cement, but he blinked like mad every time he was on camera. A few years later, as Clarence in Olivier’s “Richard III,” he gave another fine performance, but his blinking was still conspicuous and fast as a Western Union telegrapher’s index finger. I’m not sure if he blinked his way through his witty, scene-stealing performance in “Becket” (1964) in which he swanned about as the epicene, malicious Louis VII, King of France. (I really should have another look at “Becket,” but that picture bores the brains out of me.) At any rate, as Sir Francis Hinsley, he doesn’t blink at all.

Sir Francis’ departure from Megalopolitan Pictures is the last time we see him alive; he hangs himself off-screen — exquisite politeness to the bitter end. But since “The Loved One” is a very black comedy, Sir Francis will make a memorable appearance in a later scene. The next time we see the old gentleman, he’s a naked corpse under a white sheet, laid out on a steel table. But I’m getting ahead of myself. More about that in minute. Immediately following Sir Francis’ suicide, Dennis Barlow drives out to the broad lawns of Whispering Glades to make arrangements for his uncle’s burial. Whispering Glades is, of course, a restricted necropolis (no Jews or Catholics), but they accommodate, without murmur, Protestants who have laid violent hands upon themselves. Dennis’ first order of business is to buy a coffin. And this, at last, is where Liberace comes in. There are several good performances in “The Loved One,” including John Gielgud’s, Robert Morley’s, Jonathan Winters’, Margaret Leighton’s, Rod Steiger’s, and some others, but Liberace’s is the funniest. Surprisingly, it’s also the most accomplished.

The scene below features Liberace as Mr Starker, the chief counsellor in Whispering Glades’ Slumber Room (i.e., their coffin show room).

I don’t think this scene could be better acted. Liberace is hilarious: his choices are specific and witty, but he never comes close to tipping his hand or commenting on the character he’s playing. His Mr Starker is as unctuous as you would expect from a man who wants to sell you his most expensive coffin, but he doesn’t fall into the trap of overdoing it. Indeed, Mr Starker strikes me as far less unctuous than Liberace himself. It’s wonderful to watch how he takes in unexpected information and reacts to it. For instance, when Dennis says he prefers to have his uncle dressed in his own clothes, rather than in the elaborate formal attire Mr Starker hopes to sell him, Liberace recoils slightly and murmurs “Of course,” but can’t keep an edge of contempt out of his voice when he adds, “If you feel that would be appropriate.” This Mr Starker, as Liberace plays him, is a very strange blend of superciliousness, unctuousness, vulgarity and more than a few hints of menace. Liberace is also clever enough to understand that, first and foremost, Mr Starker is a salesman in a very competitive trade. Every moment he spends with Dennis Barlow, he is selling — and a wonderfully hard sell it is, too. Mr Starker intends to sell this young Englishman an expensive coffin and all the fixin’s to go with it. He dutifully displays the less expensive models, but as they are neither “moisture-proof nor dampness-proof,” his scornful opinion of “the middle price range” is evident. It is doubtful many customers have ever purchased a coffin in the middle price range from Mr Starker. Liberace handles the ghastly euphemisms of the Dismal Trade (e.g., “the loved one” (the dead person), “our Silent Night special” (a coffin), “slumber room ensemble” (burial clothes), “exterior designations” (tombstones, candles, etc.)) with amazing finesse. He speaks the jargon better than anyone else in the picture. (In an earlier scene, Tab Hunter, as a Whispering Glades tour guide, does everything but wink at the camera to let us know he’s kidding.) Screenwriters Christopher Isherwood and Terry Southern wrote some of the best material for Liberace; Mr Starker is their invention, in fact — he’s not in the book. They peppered Mr Starker’s sentences with funeral parlor euphemisms, then added a few coarse, backroom words not intended for civilians to hear. For instance, while showing the burial shoes, he says it’s “specially designed for the foot at rest. [another euphemism for dead] The foot curls a bit, you know, when rigmo sets in.” It’s a brilliant line, but it takes skill and restraint to play it absolutely straight as Liberace does. His juxtaposition of certain low-class pronunciations with hoity-toity, affected ones is not only very funny, but it adds dimension and peculiarity to Mr Starker. He pronounces “guaranteed” as “garranteed,” but pronounces “vaudeville” in the French manner as “vode-ville,” and speaks of quick change “artistes,” rather than “artists.” As Mr Starker, Liberace performs the seemingly impossible trick of being completely in earnest and utterly insincere, simultaneously.

And here’s another surprisingly excellent performance from the same picture. It’s the best thing Rod Steiger ever did. As far as I can remember, in this picture, Steiger gives the only intentionally funny performance of his career. Like Liberace, he’s completely committed to the character he’s playing and he’s a laugh riot. It seems clear to me that Steiger was all too aware that he was being funny. But he doesn’t wink at his performance, outrageous as it is, and I can’t help thinking that the dirty ham was thrilled to have the opportunity to play games with the face of one of the three or four greatest actors of the 20th century. Perhaps Sir John’s talent entered Steiger’s performance though Mr Joyboy’s busy-working fingers . . .

When we find the corpse of Sir Francis laid out on a steel table, he is in the workroom of plump, bespectacled, marcelled Mr Joyboy (Rod Steiger), who is the head cosmetologist of Whispering Glades. Mr Joyboy is endeavoring, with limited success, to manipulate and reposition the lifeless lips and glassy eyes into an expression of cheerful serenity — as always, with a special emphasis on restoring (artificially and temporarily) the glow of life to dead, possibly rotting, tissue. In this demanding and mysterious art, Mr Joyboy is a high priest; he achieves astonishingly lifelike results by the expert application of clamps, scissors, pincers, nail clippers, fish hooks, sutures, ping pong balls, paint pots, rasps, blobs of molding clay, tubes of glue and all the other implements in the cosmetologist’s toolbox. When a subject responds to Mr Joyboy’s ministrations, he says, “He came up nicely!” Sir Francis presents special problems, because he was delivered into Mr Joyboy’s atelier after rigor mortis had begun to dissipate. Rigor mortis is the cosmetologist’s best friend; adjustments and repositionings made when the flesh is stiff stay put. When rigmo subsides into flaccidity, however, Mr Joyboy faces an uphill battle. Have a look.

I must say, Steiger’s so terrific in this picture, it’s easy to forget what a terrible actor he was. Steiger was such a ham, he couldn’t say a simple line like “I wish I knew” without turning it into a bizarre three-act kitchen sink drama. A few of my friends and I used to see every new picture he was in because it was a near guarantee that he’d be laugh out loud terrible. Yet in this one, he seems incapable of making a mistake — his broadest, weirdest, most artificial line readings (noisily eccentric line readings were his bread and butter) are somehow exactly right. I cannot understand it. Perhaps Tony Richardson was a great director for lousy actors. That might explain why Liberace, of all people, was able to give an amazingly sophisticated performance. Liberace is more than an inspired bit of trick casting; no, he actually gives the sort of performance that a first rate, seasoned comic actor would be proud to give. He plays each individual beat with authority and precision, but he also develops his characterization with a clear sense of the underlying dramatic structure of the scene as a whole, so that Mr Starker’s personality and insinuating creepiness continue to amuse and surprise us long after we’ve recovered from the jolt of hilarity we got from the sudden appearance of Liberace, behind an iron gate, plumping pillows amid a crowd of coffins. He keeps us laughing and guessing till the last beat of the scene. This is not the performance of a flamboyant show-off celebrity pianist; it’s the performance of a skillful actor. When I used to see him on Johnny Carson, he always sounded as if he were reading cue cards or reciting from memory, even while chatting with Johnny. So how did he come up with a comic performance so witty, multifaceted, accomplished and technically sophisticated as the unforgettable Mr Starker? I can’t explain it, but he sure makes me laugh.

Behind the Candelabra: Gay for pay.

Behind the Candelabra: Gay for pay.

UPDATE: I just finished watching “Inside the Candelabra,” which is entertaining, consistently interesting, seldom funny, occasionally disgusting and depressing, and a little less occasionally, more poignant than I ever expected. It’s good, expertly presented pop entertainment, but it is hardly the masterpiece so many critics have claimed it to be. I think Matt Damon is the best movie star working today. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s attractive and he seems incapable of giving a bad or even an uninteresting performance. This performance is one of his best. Why has Michael Douglas been getting so much praise? He’s reasonably amusing and does his damnedest to be fey and flamboyant. I enjoyed his energy and dedication, but frankly, I kept thinking I was watching Tony Lo Bianco impersonate Carol Channing.