Tag Archives: Fred Astaire

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.
* 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


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

Other Notable Movies (for Better or Worse)

Mildred Pierce

Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott, Joan Crawford -- Toxic Triangle:  "How long has this been going on?"

Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott, Joan Crawford — Toxic Triangle: “How long has this been going on?”

“Mildred Pierce” is a superbly balanced blend of Woman’s Picture conventions (single mother struggling to find success, love and happiness in a man’s world), Film Noir elements (e.g., flashbacks, Dutch-tilt angles, dark shadows and silhouettes) and Camp (e.g., Ann Blyth as the Daughter from Hell: the nastiest, cattiest, most quotable little bitch of all time; Eve Arden at her most Ardenesque (i.e., a proto-drag queen), cracking wise and lighting matches off the sole of her shoe). Michael Curtiz somehow makes these three seemingly antagonistic styles work together to create a completely satisfying whole.  It’s quite amazing, when you think about it:  Camp and film noir in the same picture?  Shouldn’t they cancel each other out?  But they don’t — they invigorate each other.  It’s not the greatest picture I ever saw, but it’s one of the most fun.  If I happen across it when it’s on TV, I find it quite impossible to change the channel or leave the room before the end.

Alice Faye (in “The Gang’s All Here”)

Alice Faye:  Round the block, but not through the mill.

Alice Faye: Round the block, but not through the mill.

I confess to having a fondness for “The Gang’s All Here,” which many people I respect abominate.  It’s a terrible picture — terrible.  And it’s ugly.  And there’s a lot of music in it that I don’t like.  But I love the ingenious staging of the opening number (even though I’ve never liked the song “Brazil” and don’t like Carmen Miranda), and I like the bizarro stuff that pops up every 15 minutes or so.  In fact, it was one of my younger brothers who first called the picture to my attention — specifically, the last number, called “The Polka Dot Polka.”  It is damned strange — almost nightmarish, in a way that Busby Berkeley’s black and white pictures weren’t.  (By the way, “The Gang’s All Here” is the first color picture — and the last big-budget picture — that Berkeley ever was allowed to direct.  One can see why.)  I like the picture because of its awfulness.  I wouldn’t dream of trying to talk anyone into sharing my enjoyment of a picture that is inferior in so many ways.  Oh, but there is one song smack in the middle of it — Chapter 15 on the DVD — that, for my money, is one of the two or three best songs that Alice Faye ever sang.  It’s “No Love, No Nothin’ ” and she sings it beautifully.  (I think the only other song of hers I like more is “You’ll Never Know,” which she sang so exquisitely that it seems foolish for anyone else to bother singing it.  She owns that song the way Garland owned “Over the Rainbow” and Streisand owns “People.”)

I love Alice Faye’s deep, caressing voice and her perfect intonation — she’s always in the exact middle of the note (no wobble, no scooping); she phrases beautifully and serves the lyrics as faithfully as she serves the melodic line; there’s never any straining or phony sentimentality.  She was born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen — she didn’t have a noticeable New York accent, but her demeanor makes it clear that she was nobody’s patsy.  And I’m a sucker for the contralto voice!  Faye’s complete absence of the movie star’s need to be worshiped by her adoring fans makes her unique:  she always gives me the impression that the song she’s singing is more important than anything else, including her fans’ approval.  She wasn’t a show-off; she never overwhelmed a tune with ostentatious virtuosity; she trusted the melody and the lyrics to do the work for her, her choices about what to emphasize and what to underplay always made perfect sense and suited the songs perfectly.  (Gershwin and Berlin always said Fred Astaire was their favorite intepreter of their work, since he never “improved” their songs with his own unwelcome liberties:  he sang the songs exactly as written, and you could understand every word.  I see their point, but Astaire’s voice was thin and unappealing — unmusical.  Alice Faye did what Astaire did, but also produced a beautiful, luscious sound while she did it.)  As a screen presence, she conveyed friendliness and decency without seeming insipid or naive.  She was never the girl next door; she was the girl from the tenement down the street and she knew the score.  Yet, remarkably, for all her streetwise savvy, she wasn’t hard or jaded — just smart and in the know.  She’d been round the block, but not through the mill.  In my book, that’s a killer combination, and it’s at the heart of what makes her such a great singer:  no tricks, no fussiness, no self-aggrandizement, only beautiful diction, warmth, intelligence and emotional candor.  Whenever I hear Alice Faye sing, I think of how homesick her honey voice must have made the GIs overseas.  I haven’t seen many of her pictures, and the ones I’ve seen have been terrible.  But no matter how bad the pictures are, I always like her.  She was a good actress, and by all accounts, she was a very shrewd broad — she was one of the highest paid women in Hollywood (on many of those Jack Benny programs, you hear jokes at Phil Harris’s expense about how much more money his wife earns), and when Betty Grable came along (whom Faye liked), she knew her days were numbered and got out before her star faded.  She once said, “Six pictures I made with Don Ameche and, in every one of them, my voice was deeper than the plot.”  (SIX with Ameche!  No wonder I haven’t seen more of her pictures!)

I often wonder what her career would have been like had she been signed at Metro instead of Fox.  She radiated too much intelligence and self-respect to be a sex bomb, but at Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck made sure that she was a sexually desirable presence.  At Metro, her sex appeal would have been ignored — certainly not enhanced — but she probably would have been in better pictures.  Metro’s studio head, Louis B. Mayer, was the only mogul (perhaps the only man in America) who never understood that sex sells.  All the studios were expected to obey the crazy rules of the Production Code set down by the Hays Office, and all of them complied — more or less.  But that didn’t stop Harry Cohn over at Columbia from making Rita Hayworth as sexually vibrant as the law would allow.  Warner Bros. tended to focus on gangster pictures and “important” Bette Davis woman’s pictures, but Ann Sheridan (the Oomph Girl) was under contract at Warner’s, and she, too, was an out-and-out sex bomb.  Paramount had Marlene Dietrich, who was all about sex — and not even “normal” sex; she was the personification of Old World sexual decadence.  And Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox saw to it that his female stars were sexy — Fox produced more sex kittens than any other studio (Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, etc.).  So Alice Faye, who was beautiful but not kittenish, was costumed and photographed to look as alluring as possible (though not, alas, in “The Gang’s All Here,” in which she’s costumed in one hideous ensemble after another:  in “No Love, No Nothin’,” she’s dressed like a milkmaid from a Ruritanian operetta).

Mayer was the only studio head who slavishly complied with the Production Code; he made it his business to see that no hint of sexual innuendo or naughtiness polluted the pictures from his studio.  (And that’s why so many Metro pictures look so dopey nowadays:  they’re exasperatingly asexual.)  Common wisdom says that Mayer knew if he didn’t willingly comply with the Code, the government would interfere in his affairs.  This theory has never made sense to me — all the other studios complied, but, knowing that sex sells, found ways to subvert the rules even as they obeyed them.  I sincerely doubt Mayer feared government intervention — he had closer connections with Washington power brokers than anyone else in Hollywood.  No, I think he was simply afraid of sex.  That’s why he didn’t trade in sexbombs.

Mayer’s female stars tended to be matrons and grande dames.  The only real bombshell at Metro in the 30s was Harlow — but her most of career as a bombshell was in the pre-Code years.  Garbo was certainly alluring and mysterious, but sexy?  Maybe in the silents, but after the talkies came in, even when she played Camille, she was more glamorous than sexual — and the whole business of how Camille earned enough dough to keep herself in stockings and fans was completely left out of the script.  For most of the 40’s, Metro had but one resident sexbomb:  Lana Turner, who wasn’t nearly as sexy as the studio press agents wanted audiences to believe.  Her reputation for sex appeal and her nickname “the Sweater Girl” (which she hated) came from a small part she played in a Warner Bros. picture, “They Won’t Forget” — before she signed with Metro.  At Metro, she was often cast against Clark Gable, and since he was the reigning male sex symbol, she became a sex goddess by default, even though by the early 40s, she was already beginning to put on weight and age badly.  (She was a party girl:  she went out every night, drank and smoked too much and never got enough sleep.)  Her career has always bewildered me:  she was the most incompetent major star in Hollywood.  She couldn’t act, she couldn’t dance, she couldn’t sing.  A triple threat.  Hell, she couldn’t even cross a room gracefully.  If Turner had been at Fox, Zanuck would have put her on a diet, made her exercise more and wear a tighter girdle.  So what sort of actresses did Mayer employ?  Katharine Hepburn (sexless and in her mid 30s), Greer Garson (sexless and effete), Myrna Loy (who began as a siren in the silents, but quickly became Wm. Powell’s favorite wife, whereupon sex went out of her career), Norma Shearer (Irving Thalberg’s lumpen, cross-eyed wife), Joan Crawford (who started as a flapper, but soon was typecast as truculent working girls), and a host of elderly British character actresses.  In the late 40s/early 50s, Mayer promoted Ann Miller as a sex symbol (mainly because he was infatuated with her and tried unsuccessfully to have an affair with her), but I don’t think anyone ever bought Miller as anything but a hoofer with alarmingly fast feet.  The only genuine sex bomb to work at Metro in the 40s was Ava Gardner, and she was wasted there.  She was undeniably sexy, but every time I see her in a Metro picture, I think of how Zanuck at Fox would have presented her.  He surely would have given her bigger parts and made her show more skin.  Elizabeth Taylor eventually became a sexbomb, but not until Mayer had been fired.

The Best Years of Our Lives

Post-war blues for a bunch of schnooks:
Banker, soda-jerk, & the one with hooks.
Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, Fredric March:  Down in the dumps in a B-24.

Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, Fredric March: Down in the dumps in a B-24.

I’m not crazy about “Best Years of Our Lives,” for a couple of good reasons and plenty of bad ones.  For starters, I can’t get past the name of that fictional town:  Boone City.  I like Teresa Wright and Myrna Loy; late in the picture, there’s a devastating performance by a character actor named Roman Bohnen.  As for the rest, it’s three hours of “We will now pause for the liberal message” with a special emphasis on the amazing variety of things that can be done with prosthetic hooks.  I know it’s meant to raise public awareness, but honest to Pete, it borders on the pornographic when William Wyler spends five minutes showing us how Harold Russell uses his crooked pincers to light a match.  I remember thinking, “Well, at least we don’t have to see him play ‘Chopsticks’ . . . Oh, wait!  We DO have to see him play ‘Chopsticks’ . . . !”  It is the only time I’ve disliked a scene that featured the redoubtable Hoagy Carmichael.  The picture was produced by Sam Goldwyn, who made several high quality pictures, but never a good looking one.  The interiors in nearly every picture he produced are of almost unimaginable hideousness.  “Dodsworth” (1936) had a number of attractive deco sets (Richard Day won the Oscar that year for his work), but that seems to be the exception that proves the rule.

From the very first frame of the credits, the Hugo Friedhofer score alone is enough to tell you you’re in for it.  Then the credits tell you the screenplay is by onetime Algonquin wit Robert E. Sherwood, who had been the US propaganda minister all through the war and had come to take himself  v e r y  seriously indeed.  He’s like a nagging, neglected wife in bathrobe and curlers waiting for you to tiptoe in at three in the morning.  Big Ideas are his rolling pin.  And then there’s that first scene, in which the camera lingers over Harold Russell’s hooks as he writes his name and lights his cigarette.  Willy Wyler is gonna force us to gaze upon those hooks long and hard before he’s done with us.  That shows how honest and serious he is.  Every time Harold Russell shows up, it’s like a bad vaudeville act played in reverse:  the hooks start the act, instead of stop it.  Robert Warshow, the great critic of popular culture in the 1940s and 50s, titled his review of the picture “The Anatomy of Falsehood,” which should give you some idea of his opinion of this self-congratulatory piece of shit, but there’s no mean-spiritedness in what he wrote; I don’t know how he did it.

Harold Russell, Hoagy Carmichael:  'Chopsticks' & steel hooks

Harold Russell, Hoagy Carmichael: ‘Chopsticks’ and steel hooks

Harold Russell is the only man to win two Oscars for a single performance.  Nobody expected him, a non-actor, to win the Best Supporting Actor award, so they gave him a special Oscar for being a good role model.  Then he made a monkey of bookmakers everywhere by winning the competitive award, too.  Clifton Webb, who was nominated that year for “The Razor’s Edge,” uncharacteristically, took the loss in his stride — not so his aged mother, a termagant known as Mabelle, with whom he lived until the day she died.  She delivered a harangue to a crowd of reporters, in which she denounced the Academy for snubbing her son AGAIN:  this time, he had the Oscar in the bag, “. . . and at the last moment, along comes the man with the HOOKS!”

(Two anecdotes about Webb and his mother.  He went into deep mourning when she finally kicked off at 91.  More than a year after she died, Webb called Noël Coward long distance and blubbered so much that Coward finally snapped, “Clifton!  If you don’t stop weeping, I shall reverse the charges!”  Another, somewhat crueller anecdote about Mrs Webb goes like this:  Bogart invited Webb to a party, and said, “But I’m warning you:  bring your fucking mother, and she cleans up her own vomit.”)