Tag Archives: Jule Styne

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

Good Songs in Cruddy Pictures

I’ve never been any good at finding treasures at flea markets, thrift stores or junk shops. Some people have a remarkable talent for detecting a Rembrandt in the midst of a clutter of paintings of poker-playing dogs and gloomy clowns. Not me: all I see is junk. The same was true about motion pictures until DVDs came along. Only then did I begin to realize that a lot of great songs and routines are to be found in some of the worst musicals and TV shows. Here are seven examples of numbers that I think are much better than their surroundings.

Thank Your Lucky Stars 

Original poster.

Original poster.

“Thank Your Lucky Stars” is one of Warner Bros.’ many wartime morale-boosting revues. This one features an exasperating storyline and Eddie Cantor at his most tiresome, twice:  he plays himself and a schlemiel who looks just like him. Oy. Yet there are several good numbers in it that make it worth knowing. Here’s the one I like best, featuring va-va-va-voom Ann Sheridan.

Love Isn’t Born (It’s Made)

Till the Clouds Roll By

1946 Advertisement.

1946 Advertisement.

“Till the Clouds Roll By” is an almost unbelievably bad picture. It purports to be a biography of Jerome Kern, and stars that legend of the Jewish Rialto, Robert Walker. It is possibly the worst of all the A-list Arthur Freed musicals (“Yolanda and the Thief” is equally bad, and it’s creepy in a way this one isn’t, but it at least has a certain demented imagination). “Till the Clouds Roll By” . . . Clouds? What clouds? This picture is devoid of dramatic tension of any kind. Will the nice young lady marry Jerry Kern? Why, yes! Will his music find favor in England? Why, yes! Will he find success on Broadway? Why, yes!  On his very first time out? Why, yes! Will Jerry’s fictional loser friend be jealous of his great success? Why, no! As far as I can remember — it’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit through the whole wretched mess — the biggest drama occurs in the scene that begins with Jerry’s astonished voice-over: “I never thought I’d ever keep . . . a scrap-book!” He gives his no-talent, no-count goddaughter (Lucille Bremer, for once in a part that fits) a break — a small part in a show — then has to take her song away from her — but it’s Marilyn Miller (Judy Garland) who does the dirty work for him.  The girl kicks up a rumpus and Jerry has to scold her: “There’s a little thing called . . . ‘the Good-of-the-Show,’ ” etc.  That’s it. The girl cries, then repents. So much for turmoil.  Even the names of his shows are free of drama: “Hitchy-Koo” . . . ! “Toot Toot!” . . . ! “She’s a Good Fellow” . . . ! “Night Boat” . . . !  “Good Morning Dearie” . . . ! But it has several wonderful numbers in it. This one’s my favorite, and it’s the only time I’ve ever heard anyone sing the verse, which is lovely.

Look for the Silver Lining

It Happened in Brooklyn

TCM Promo.

TCM Promo.

An appalling picture, very nearly unwatchable. Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford play a pair of sadsacks just back from World War II, whom no girls want to date. They’re bashful, you see . . . Jimmy Durante is Cupid. Why go on? Yet about forty minutes in, Sinatra introduces one of Jule Styne’s best songs; his performance, in my opinion, is the best of his career.

Time after Time

Small Town Girl

Original poster.

Original poster.

One of the sticky sweet concoctions from the Joe Pasternak unit at Metro. Pasternak went in for the cotton candy operetta white picket fence Americana-style kitsch. In this one, there are several bizarre elements. In the first place, it’s directed by Busby Berkeley, who incorporated a few lunatic ideas into it — as for instance, the Ann Miller number “Gotta Hear That Beat,” in which all the musicians are under the floor, with their arms extending through holes and holding onto their instruments. It’s very weird . . . and pointless. Miller taps around them like crazy. Apparently, this was a difficult number to film and the ordeal of extending one’s arms through the holes while sweltering below was an excruciating torture. At any rate, the effect, though bizarre, isn’t arresting enough to make the torture seem worth the trouble and agony.

Another oddity is the following number, in which Bobby Van, having just received some excellent news, gleefully hops across Metro’s backlot Connecticut village in three or four very long takes. Along the way, he’s a public nuisance: he forces his attentions on nearly everyone who crosses his path, shakes maracas at a baby in a pram, rattles a parrot’s cage, upsets a horse, robs a fruiterer, sets loose a pack of strays from the dogcatcher’s paddy wagon, etc. The townspeople seem to think he’s adorable, so it’s easy to find his misdemeanors charming and commendable — but it’s awfully strange to see such wanton outlawry being winked at in Old Man Mayer’s law-abiding backlot.  Pay close attention to the little dog in the final seconds — at approximately 2:53. On cue, he jerks himself up onto his hind legs, then skips unsteadily across the street with Bobby, but loses his balance short of the opposite curb and lands on his fore-paws.  When he rises up again, he strains to catch up to the action, executes a sweet little hop over the curb, only to fall down on all fours again . . . then turns miserably in the wrong direction, his back to the camera, tail wagging like mad and scampers awkwardly out of frame — no doubt toward his irate master, who you just know is waiting for him round the corner, brandishing a rolled-up newspaper.  It’s terribly poignant, the way his tail curls down, still wagging, just as he totters off to his doom — I’ve been laughing about it for years. See for yourself.

Take Me to Broadway

Yet there’s an even weirder number that made its way into the picture. First, you must understand that the small town where the action takes place is the Whitest place on the planet.  It’s the coyest, whitest, most virginal little hick-town ever to be incorporated on the lily-white backlot of MGM. Yet smack in the center of the story, a judge’s daughter (Jane Powell), in cahoots with the local turnkey (Connecticut Yankee Chill Wills), lets a man (handsome eunuch Farley Granger) out of jail and accompanies him to an after-hours nightclub where Nat “King” Cole sings this sultry song. The following day, she stays in her pink bedroom in her pink flannel nightie and listens to the song on her nightstand radio. All by itself, this song doesn’t seem as weird as it does in the context of this parallel Whites Only Universe of MGM Small Town America.  What is the blackest man in America doing in the whitest girl in America’s bedroom on the backlot of All-White Metro? The only thing lost out of context is its weirdness. But in or out of context, Nat “King” Cole is fantastic.

My Flaming Heart

And here’s another Bobby Van number. I make no claim that it’s great, only that the energy and pizzazz are remarkable. André Previn conducts, and the Metro orchestra is on fire.  And even if there were not all that great hoofing to make it memorable (the first time I saw it on TCM, I couldn’t get over it), there is Bobby Van’s awesome wasabi-colored jacket, which is the greatest sports jacket I’ve ever seen. I also get a kick out of the girl at the beginning who sings/croaks “We wonder how we ever let the fella get away” . . .

Fine Fine Fine

The Judy Garland Show

This one is cheating a bit, since this song isn’t from a movie, but “The Judy Garland Show,” which was usually quite terrible.  This episode, in particular, was atrocious — Steve Allen did nearly ten minutes about his new musical concerning the life of Sophie Tucker (the show ran exactly eight performances — April 15, 1963 – April 20, 1963:  good riddance to bad rubbish); Mel Tormé, in a tuxedo with ruffled shirt and high-water slacks, sang the Ray Charles’ hit, “I’m Comin’ Home,” on a set filled with white motorcycles; female dancers vogued about him in elaborate hairdos and white gowns, while he was all finger-poppin’ and “with it” — perhaps the funniest (unintentionally) number of all time. (You can find it for yourself on YouTube; I won’t have it here:  to quote the aggrieved elevator-man, Clancy, from Cheever’s “Clancy in the Tower of Babel”: “I’m not taking that up in my car!”) Then at the end of the show, Judy Garland belted out this song by corny old Vincent Youmans, and it’s unforgettable. It always makes my hair stand on end, no matter how often I hear it. Every single atom of her is committed to the material. It has been said that “Through the Years” was her favorite song.  And why not?

Through the Years