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Tag Archives: Arthur Freed

The Barkleys of Broadway (May 4, 1949)

The Barkleys of Broadway
The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
Directed by Charles Walters
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are back, for one final engagement!

The Barkleys of Broadway was their first pairing in a decade. It was also the only film they made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the only time they were onscreen together in Technicolor.

During the 1930s, Astaire and Rogers appeared together in nine films released by RKO Radio Pictures: Flying Down to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939).

In the 1940s, Ginger Rogers established herself as an actress in dramas and comedies, and Fred Astaire established himself as a successful solo star in musicals like Holiday Inn (1942) and Easter Parade (1948).

Astaire was set to make another film with Judy Garland, his co-star in Easter Parade. It was going to be called “You Made Me Love You,” after one of Garland’s hit songs. But when she was forced to drop out of the project, producer Arthur Freed cast Ginger Rogers to replace her … because the world can never have too much Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

When the two perform their first tap number in The Barkleys of Broadway, it’s joyful and exhilarating, and it’s hard to believe that more than 10 years have passed since they made a film together.

In The Barkleys of Broadway, Astaire and Rogers play Josh and Dinah Barkley, a married couple who are wildly successful onstage but who can’t go two minutes without bickering offstage. Their partner Ezra Millar (Oscar Levant) tries his best to keep them in check, but even he can’t keep them together when a handsome French playwright named Jacques Pierre Barredout (played by Jacques François) convinces Dinah that she should become a “serious” actress and star in his new play about Sarah Bernhardt.

Josh continues performing on his own. The high point of his solo career is the impressively surreal number “Shoes With Wings On,” in which a bunch of dancing shoes live up to their name.

Dinah struggles under Barredout’s dictatorial direction, so Josh takes to impersonating the Frenchman over the phone after rehearsals to give Dinah the kind of direction he knows will help her.

Eventually they are brought back together by Ezra’s machinations, which leads to an emotional performance of the song “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” which Astaire had previously sung to Rogers in the film Shall We Dance, but which they had never danced to on film before.

The Barkleys of Broadway is a lot of fun. It’s great to see Astaire and Rogers back together, and Oscar Levant is his usual acerbic, deadpan self. (He also gets a chance to do what he does best — entertain on the piano.)

The film’s music is mostly by Harry Warren, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin. (“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is by George and Ira Gershwin.)

The story is inconsequential, but that’s the case with most movie musicals. This film is an excuse for some singing, dancing, and comedy, and it’s all wonderful. The fact that Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire would never make another film together makes it a slightly bittersweet viewing experience, but it’s not that bittersweet. After all, they left us with a tremendous cinematic legacy, and nothing lasts forever.

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Ziegfeld Follies (April 8, 1946)

Ziegfeld Follies premiered in Boston on August 13, 1945. It was first shown in New York on March 22, 1946, and went into wide release on Monday, April 8, 1946. On some theatrical release posters, the film’s title was Ziegfeld Follies of 1946. The film is a lavish, old-fashioned musical pieced together from a big bag of spare parts. It was a pet project of producer Arthur Freed, and was originally intended to mark Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 20th anniversary in 1944, but it went through so many edits and revisions that it missed the mark by more than a year.

Despite the studio’s boast on the theatrical release poster that Ziegfeld Follies is the “greatest production since the birth of motion pictures,” I really didn’t enjoy it that much. The musical numbers are hit and miss, and the comedy bits all hit the ground like lead zeppelins. There are a lot of impressive set pieces, and the colors are really bright, but as far as plotless extravaganzas go, it just doesn’t have the latter-day stoner appeal of Fantasia (1940).

The film begins with little models of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, then P.T. Barnum’s big top, then Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.’s theater. That’s it, folks. The only three shows in the history of the world that matter. Clearly humility is not on the program for the evening.

William Powell, who played “Flo” Ziegfeld in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), reprises his role for the first segment of the picture. He’s on a set that looks like the kind of pad Liberace and Louis XVI might have picked out for themselves if they were roommates, talking a lot of nonsense about magic and the theater (it took me a little while to catch on to the fact that he’s supposed to be in heaven). We’re then treated to an elaborate stop-motion recreation of Ziegfeld’s 1907 opening by the Bunin puppets. All of his great stars are recreated as puppets; Marilyn Miller, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, and even Eddie Cantor in blackface.

Each segment that follows is introduced by a storybook page. Fred Astaire appears in the first, “Here’s to the Girls.” He acknowledges that “Ziggy,” as he calls him, never had much use for villains or plots, then sings an ode to the American girls who were Ziegfeld’s main attractions. Cyd Charisse dances a little solo and then Lucille Ball cracks a whip over eight chorus girls dressed as panthers. Finally, Virginia O’Brien hollers for some fellers, and then sings, “Bring on Those Wonderful Men.” It’s a punishing spectacle that sets the tone for what is to come.

In the next segment, Esther Williams appears in … surprise, surprise … a water ballet. It’s fine, and she spends a lot of time underwater, which is neat, but what is the sequence even doing in this picture?

Next, Keenan Wynn appears in the comedy short “Number, Please.” I found it completely unfunny, but maybe that’s because I can’t stand “frustrating” humor. Basically, all he wants to do is make a phone call, but he’s thwarted at every turn, until his face is red and steam is coming out of his ears. For me it dragged the movie to a halt like a sweaty punchline comic working the in-betweens at a burlesque strip show.

Next, James Melton and Marion Bell sing “La Traviata.” Yawn.

Ooh, goody, more comedy! Victor Moore and Edward Arnold appear in “Pay the Two Dollars,” in which a man spits on the subway and is trapped in a legal nightmare because his attorney won’t let him just pay the $2 fine. Again, what’s up with the horribly frustrating situational humor? Not only did this segment not make me laugh, it made me feel as if I was watching a stage adaptation of a Kafka story.

Next, Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer appear in a “dance story” called “This Heart of Mine,” with music by Harry Warren and words by Arthur Freed. It’s pretty good. It took me back to the days when lighting a girl’s cigarette and then dancing while smoking was still classy. On the other hand, no one glides across a ballroom like old Fred, so the rotating circular centerpiece seemed wholly unnecessary. Who did the director think he was dealing with, Clark Gable?

The next comedy segment is called “A Sweepstakes Ticket,” and for some reason it’s filmed on a regular set, not the impressionistic “stage” sets used in all the previous comedy bits. Hume Cronyn gives away a winning Irish sweepstakes ticket to make up the few bucks he was short on the rent, and he and his wife Fanny Brice try to get it back from their landlord. Again, it’s not at all funny, just frustrating.

The next segment, “Love,” with Lena Horne (R.I.P.), was a nice opportunity to see black people in Technicolor, and in a steamy tropical setting no less. It should have been longer.

Next, Red Skelton shows us all what will happen “When Television Comes.” He does a promo for “Guzzler’s Gin.” He drinks a whole bunch each take and acts more and more stinko. If you’re amused by cross-eyed drunkenness and double-takes, this will still do the trick. Although it’s possible audiences in 1946 were amused by this segment, I can’t imagine they were left with a very clear idea of what the advent of television would mean for the country.

Up next is “Limehouse Blues,” in which Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer return, only this time in yellowface. The Chinatown tropes are offensive, but the colors and imagery are quite beautiful and impressive, in a non-P.C. sort of way. Once we get to the actual dance number, however, the piece is hamstrung by its own ridiculous conceit. It doesn’t help that in all the medium shots, Astaire’s makeup makes him look a lot like Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932).

In “A Great Lady Has an Interview,” Judy Garland seems to be lampooning Katharine Hepburn or possibly Greer Garson. I got the feeling that there were a lot of industry in-jokes that I wasn’t getting. For me, Garland is always a treat, however, so I didn’t mind it that much.

And then, like a terrible party that suddenly becomes fun 20 minutes before the police arrive to break it up, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly appear in “The Babbitt and the Bromide,” by George and Ira Gershwin. Their dialogue is funnier than any of the “comedy” bits in the movie, and their side-by-side dance number is transcendent. Ziegfeld Follies is worth seeing for this sequence alone.

Finally, Kathryn Grayson sings “Beauty,” by Warren and Freed. It’s standard stuff, but there are enormous piles of bubbles that I thought were pretty cool.

In other news, the last living Ziegfeld Follies “girl,” Doris Eaton Travis, died yesterday at the age of 106. I hope it doesn’t seem as if I’m beating up on the Follies themselves. I’d love to go back in time and see a Ziegfeld revue on Broadway. This film just doesn’t really capture the magic.

The Harvey Girls (Jan. 18, 1946)

In 1876, a 41-year-old entrepreneur named Fred Harvey opened a string of restaurants along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway line. The eateries catered to middle-class and wealthy travelers alike, and at the height of the franchise’s success, there were more than 80 Harvey House restaurants. Harvey died in 1901, but the Fred Harvey Company continued to build restaurants into the 1960s.

A restaurant chain might seem an unlikely subject for a big-budget, Technicolor, Hollywood musical, but clearly the young, attractive waitresses in their crisp black and white uniforms were enough of a hook. The film opens with the following portentous prologue:

“When Fred Harvey pushed his chain of restaurants farther and farther west along the lengthening tracks of the Santa Fe, he brought with him one of the first civilizing forces this land had known … the Harvey Girls. These winsome waitresses conquered the west as surely as the Davy Crocketts and the Kit Carsons — not with powder horn and rifle, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee. To these unsung pioneers, whose successors today still carry on in the same tradition, we sincerely dedicate this motion picture.”

If all this is to be taken seriously, then who wouldn’t want to lionize these distaff settlers? I haven’t read Samuel Hopkins Adams’s 1942 novel that this film is based on, but it must have been a good story for Hollywood to want to pick it up. Or maybe it was just that Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren realized what a catchy rhythm the phrase “on the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” had.

After the prologue and credits, the film opens on a shot of a moving train. Susan Bradley (Garland) is standing on the deck of the caboose, singing a forgettable song about love. She is heading out west to marry a man whom she only knows from the florid love letters he has written her. When her suitor, H.H. Hartsey (Chill Wills), turns out to be a functionally illiterate cowpoke who had a friend play Cyrano for him by penning the letters himself, Susan parts with him (mostly amicably), and becomes a Harvey girl.

The dramatic conflict, such as it is, comes from the local saloon and gambling house, which also features dancing girls. The owner of the palace of sin, Ned Trent (John Hodiak), and his star attraction, Em (played by a young and foxy Angela Lansbury), fear that the opening of the Harvey House will usher in a new era of respectability and crush their business. In real life of course, Trent’s girls would have been prostitutes and Em would have been their madam, but in the world of 1940s M-G-M musicals, dancing the cancan for hooting and hollering cowboys was about as scandalous as they could get.

Garland and Lansbury both give good performances, and are backed up by a large and talented cast. Virginia O’Brien (as the Harvey girl “Alma from Ohio”) is tough and sassy, and Ray Bolger, most famous for playing the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (1939), here gets to play the Cowardly Homosexual, a popular character type in Hollywood pictures for decades. While his sexual preference is never identified outright, Bolger’s character’s effeminacy and fear of any butch labor (such as shoeing horses), as well as his spirited prancing, leaping, and tap dancing make it clear that he doesn’t have any designs on the ladies.

The Harvey Girls is an entertaining mix of musical and western. But if director George Sidney aspired for it to be anything more than breezy entertainment, it doesn’t show. Judy Garland is always a delight, but Vincente Minnelli’s ability to coax a nuanced performance from her and to tell an engaging story from beginning to end in a musical is sorely missed here. The Harvey Girls is enjoyable, but it’s no Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Also, aside from the standout song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” (which won an Academy Award for best song), no musical number in the picture really stands out.

The Clock (May 25, 1945)

TheClockThe Clock is the first film Judy Garland made in which she did not sing. She had specifically requested to star in a dramatic role, since the strenuous shooting schedules of lavish musicals were beginning to fray her nerves. Producer Arthur Freed approached her with the script for The Clock (also known as Under the Clock), which was based on an unpublished short story by Paul and Pauline Gallico. Originally Fred Zinnemann was set to direct, but Garland felt they had no chemistry, and she was disappointed by early footage. Zinnemann was removed from the project, and she requested that Vincente Minnelli be brought in to direct.

The Clock is the second film that Minnelli directed that starred Garland. The first was Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), which is one of the great American musicals, a big, Technicolor production with memorable songs and fine performances. It’s worth seeing, even if you’re not crazy about musicals. Minnelli and Garland were involved romantically during the filming of Meet Me in St. Louis, and they were married on June 15, 1945, shortly after The Clock was released.

The Clock seems like a deliberate attempt to make a film as different from Meet Me in St. Louis as Minnelli was capable of making. Filmed in crisp, luminous black and white, The Clock is an intimate story of two people. Cpl. Joe Allen (Robert Walker) is on leave in New York City for the weekend. While trying to find his way around Pennsylvania Station, he meets Alice Mayberry (Garland), a Manhattan “girl next door” who works in an office and isn’t initially thrilled that Joe takes in interest in her. She breaks her heel and he offers to help her, but he’s so pushy that it’s a bit of a turn-off. He refuses to take “no” for an answer, following her onto a bus, questioning her incessantly, and attempting to arrange to see her again. He also does it in such a naïve, corn-pone manner that it’s obvious that a polite girl like Alice would have a really hard time just telling him to shove off. Part of the problem, for me at least, is that Walker just doesn’t have the necessary charisma to pull off the “aw shucks” persona the script calls for and get away with it. In any case, after some indecision (and after ignoring her roommate’s advice that the young serviceman she met is “just looking for a pick-up”), she goes back to the Astor Hotel to meet him under the clock where they first met. They spend the entire night together, exploring New York City, and even end up helping a milkman (James Gleason) make his appointed rounds after a drunk (Keenan Wynn) punches him in the face, partially blinding him. Over the course of the night, they fall in love, but are separated on a busy subway the next morning. How will they ever find each other in a city of seven million people? (I don’t want to give anything away, but the way they find each other again won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention.) After they reconnect, Joe asks Alice to marry him, and she accepts his proposal, but they have to run through a mess of red tape to get the necessary documentation to get married immediately, before Joe has to ship out again.

The Clock has a lot to recommend it. Garland looks beautiful, and her performance is natural and engaging. Walker only has one mode, “wanting Alice,” but Garland wonderfully expresses confusion, excitement, and ambivalence on her path to falling in love. Also, the film does a good job of playing through the stages of love, from initial infatuation to full-blown romantic love, marriage, and even the quiet vicissitude of the “morning after.” The film looks fantastic. Minnelli recreated New York City on the MGM backlots in Culver City, California, mixing sets with stock footage, but I never realized this while watching the movie, and I live in New York. He reportedly spend almost $70,000 recreating Penn Station, and it certainly doesn’t look like a set. (The original Penn Station was torn down before I was born so I can’t say if it’s perfectly accurate, but it certainly fooled me.) I liked The Clock, and would recommend it to anyone who likes old movies, especially anyone who loves tales of wartime romance, but a more interesting actor than Walker in the lead role might have elevated it to a truly great film.

This is a love story, but it’s a melancholy one, especially during its second half. I’m not sure if the sense of sadness that pervades the film is by design, or is due to the fact that both stars were plagued with personal problems throughout filming. Garland became increasingly addicted to the prescription drugs the studio gave her to control her weight and perk her up, and Walker had recently found out that his wife, actress Jennifer Jones, had been cheating on him with producer David O. Selznick and wanted a divorce. Reportedly, Garland would often find Walker drunk in L.A. bars during filming and she would help him sober up during the night so he could appear in front of the cameras the next day.