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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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Good News (Dec. 4, 1947)

Hey, kids, do you think “nostalgia” is only something for baby boomers hazily recalling Woodstock or Generation X’ers and their ’80s dance parties? Guess again.

Nostalgia has been around since there were people old enough to remember their youth and know that they’d never get it back. Charles Walters’s Good News, for instance, took viewers in 1947 and 1948 back to the good old days of 1927, when people were dancing the Charleston, when Will Rogers was elected mayor of Beverly Hills, when Coolidge chose not to run again, when “flaming youth” ran wild, and when a girl was a “flapper” and a boy was a “sheik.”

Unfortunately, Good News is about as convincing a portrait of the ’20s as Grease (1978) was of the ’50s.

It’s a sanitized Technicolor version of the racy original, which was based on the hit Broadway play that premiered in 1927.

In the special features section of the DVD I watched, there were a couple of scenes from the 1930 version of Good News, and in spite of their static camerawork and unimaginative black and white cinematography they were totally and completely electrifying.

Take a look at the scene below, in which Dorothy McNulty performs the song “Varsity Drag.” It’s an athletic, goofy, wild number, full of sexual innuendo and all kinds of good stuff that would be impossible to have on screen after the enforcement of the Hays Code (like the underwear shot at 3 minutes and 20 seconds).

Incidentally, Dorothy McNulty later changed her professional name to Penny Singleton and starred in the Blondie movies. She was also the voice of Jane Jetson on The Jetsons.

Anyway, the 1947 version of Good News just can’t hold a candle to that kind of wild vivacity. It doesn’t help that Peter Lawford, who stars as B.M.O.C. Tommy Marlowe, was cast more for his appeal as a heartthrob than his talent as a singer. He’s not terrible, but he looks uncomfortable throughout the proceedings, especially when he has to sing and dance at the same time.

His leading lady, June Allyson, who plays shrinking violet Connie Lane, is also a bit of a disappointment, but their funny duet, “The French Lesson,” is an amazing bit of fast-paced wordplay.

The most energetic and fun-to-watch performer in the film is Joan McCracken, who plays the man-hungry Babe Doolittle. Her performance of “Pass That Peace Pipe” is a highlight of the film.

A very young Mel Tormé also shows up for a couple of songs, “Lucky in Love” and “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” so Good News is worth seeing if you’re a fan of The Velvet Fog.

The song “Pass That Peace Pipe,” which was written by Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin, and Roger Edens, was nominated for an Academy Award for best original song, but lost out to “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Song of the South (1946).

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.

Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (Oct. 5, 1945)

AbbottCostelloHollywoodAbbott and Costello were one of the most popular comedy teams of the ’40s. They’re still famous for their “Who’s on first?” routine, and a lot of their film and radio work is still funny, as long as you’re in the mood for their old-fashioned brand of burlesque antics. If you’re not in the mood for them, or if one of their bits falls flat, Lou Costello is the most irritating man on earth.

In Abbott and Costello in Hollywood they play a couple of bumbling barbers named Buzz Kurtis (Abbott) and Abercrombie (Costello). Who’s ready for lots of physical humor involving shaving cream and shoe polish?

When we first meet the boys, they’re in the supply room of Hollywood Shop: Barbers to the Stars. Even if you’ve never seen an Abbott and Costello picture before, as soon as you see Abbott instructing Costello on how to shave a customer’s face without cutting him while Costello listens attentively, holding a straight razor poised above a balloon covered with shaving cream, you’ll know the balloon is not long for this world. If you have seen an Abbott and Costello picture before, you’ll know that after the balloon breaks and sprays shaving cream all over Costello’s face, there will be a second balloon. Will there be a third balloon? I don’t want to give anything away.

Thankfully, the movie doesn’t coast on barbering gags, since Abbott and Costello decide they want to be Hollywood agents at around the 30-minute mark. As with any Abbott and Costello picture, however, the plot is secondary to gags and wordplay, so it doesn’t really matter whether they’re playing geologists or Portugese noblemen. A lot of the routines in this movie are clunkers, but a few are laugh-out-loud funny, such as the one in which Costello hides out by pretending to be a dummy on the set of a western, and finds himself being punched in the face and thrown over a balcony in take after take by craggy-faced tough-guy character actor Mike Mazurki.

Most of the “stars” they meet in Hollywood (like Rags Ragland) are long forgotten, but if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see a young Lucille Ball in a small role.