Monday, November 30, 2009

Crawford Sings and Dances

This week, we decided to watch Dancing Lady, famous for Joan Crawford's only turn at dancing with Fred Astaire (it was his first picture - as himself).  In some senses, this movie is wannabe Busby Berkeley.  Watch the sillouhette scene, where we see young ladies apparently undresssing, and then the reveal to show that they have changed into a rather revealing costume for a good example of this.  Joan Crawford stars as the titled Dancing Lady - Janie Barlow, a burlesque dancer who is determined to hit the big time.  With the assistance of high-society's Tod Newton (Franchot Tone), Janie gets a letter of introduction to Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable), a Broadway producer.  Her dancing skills land her a part in the chorus; her determination and pluck land her the lead in the musical. 

Of course, we have a love triangle here: Janie, Tod and Patch; though, in some ways, her love of Patch is as much her love of dancing.  Tod is high society; he attempts to change Janie ("No shoes with bows on them".  "But I like shoes with bows!"), Patch loves her for who she is.  It is interesting that in some senses this triangle mimicked Crawford's real life. There have long be rumors of liaisons between her and Gable; she and Tone were married from 1935 to 1939.
Precode naughy bits run through the movie. The previously mentioned dance number, the burlesque strip that opens the film (and almost results in Janie's imprisonment), a scene where Janie undresses for bed, as the flashing neon lights outside her NYC apartment flash to reveal what her slip covers. And then, there is Tod's interest in setting Janie up as his lover (which she rejects).  All rather racy by standards a year later.

Finally, there is the dancing in the movie.  It is wonderful to see Astaire in his first picture, and of course his dancing is great. But Crawford, who did start out as a dancer is rather an odd dancer. Her style is rather flapper-ish - her arms and legs splay around. She's not really graceful.  We took a look at an earlier dance number that was featured in That's Entertainment, and it is pretty much the same. A trailer gives you an idea of some of the dancing:



 Thankfully, Crawford turned to dramatic parts. We'll look at one of those next time.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Precode Royalty - AHH Garbo!

For this meeting, we looked at Garbo's Queen Christina.  This is a wonderful film in so many ways.  Let's begin at the beginning - before we even see the glorious Garbo.  We were so impressed by Cora Sue Collins as the young Christina.  Just her walk told her story.  Only six years old, but already with a mind of her own, and the ability to rule, she is both amusing and enthralling.  I look forward to seeing a few more of this actress' films (she appears to have "retired" in 1945).

Then, we get to Garbo. Her relationship with Aage (C. Aubrey Smith), her body-man, is unique indeed. How many films actually show a man walking unbidden into a woman's bedroom to awaken her for the day's work? Immediately, we understand the dichotomy that is Christina.  We quickly discover she has a lover (Ian Keith, as Count Magnus) and perhaps another one in the person of her lady-in-waiting, Ebba (Elizabeth Young).  The kiss that Christina bestows on her young maid, and her anger at discovering Ebba with a young man point up that there is much more to this relationship than merely that of a Queen and her handmaiden.
Finally, we get to her nights with John Gilbert. How is it that EVERY item in the room seems to be phallic? Even a bunch of grapes make one sit up and take notice. We felt that John Gilbert is a very underrated actor. We were not sure why his career ended so early. As we all know, his voice was just fine. Perhaps a bit tenor, but certainly not unpleasant, and the chemistry between him and Garbo is palpable.  His duel with Ian Keith was exciting; his death scene totally moving.  And then, there is Garbo again. Her face a mask of determination and pain.  I defy anyone to not be moved at the sight of her staring off into her future.  Here it is:



Next time - Dancing Lady

Monday, November 16, 2009

Precode Golddiggers

This week, we look at Gold Diggers of 1933, another Busby Berkeley musical. It looks at the Depression through the eyes of showgirls who are trying to survive as theatricals close under them.  Enter Brad Roberts (Dick Powell), a young man eager to break into show business as a songwriter.  He agrees to finance a show, as long as it features his music and stars his love, Polly Parker (Ruby Keeler). Brad is, it seems, quite wealthy, the younger son of a family that has agreed to his ambitions as long as he changes his name.  However, once his older brother Lawrence (played by William Warren) finds out that young Brad is planning on marrying a showgirl, mayhem ensues.  Carol's friend Polly (Joan Blondell) is mistaken by Lawrence for Carol, and Polly decides to play along.

During the musical numbers, Billy Barty is back, again as a child in the "Pettin' in the Park" number, oogling all the lovely ladies.  The number ends with the famous scene of him handing a can opener to Dick Powell, so he can cut the "protected" Ruby Keeler out of her tin armor.  But as racy as the number is, perhaps the interaction among Joan Blondell, William Warren, Aline MacMahon (as Trixie Lorraine, another showgirl) and Guy Kibbee ("Fanny", the object of Trixie's golddigging). The girls con expensive hats out of the men - retribution for their mission to break up Brad and Carol.  And let's not forget the lovely Fay (Ginger Rogers), whose last name is Fortune, and who, quite frankly, is looking for one.Of course, all comes right in then end - Brad get Carol, Polly gets Lawrence, and even Trixie get "Fanny".

We were surprised that, in this lighthearted romp, the number that ended the musical is "Remember My Forgotten Man". Its somber tone is in direct contrast to the rest of the movie, and that it ends the movie is a statement in and of itself. Coming out in the middle of the Depression, it reminds the audience of the environment to which they must return.  Here is that scene:



And so, next week we pick up with a more serious story.  Hope you'll visit with us again.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Precode, Busby and Cagney

We decided it was time to go back to some lighter fare, and since Footlight Parade had a brief moment in Wild Boys of the Road, we opted to start there.  It goes without saying that this movie is worth seeing if only to watch James Cagney dance (and act. Then again, he could read a telephone book, and I would watch).  But this is a fun movie, with the added attraction of Joan Blondell. A little tap dancing from Ruby Keeler, a song from Dick Powell - this is a movie not to be missed.

In some senses, the plot is not important here.  It's the musical numbers you pay closest attention to.  Indeed, most of the more suggestive bits of this movie are in the musical numbers: "Honeymoon Hotel", with the silhouette of the apparently naked ladies; "Sitting on a Backyard Fence" (did Andrew Lloyd Weber see this before making Cats?), and, of course, "Shanghai Lil".  Billy Barty's Mouse/Little Boy is just oh -so naughty!!  Here is the "Shanghai Lil" number:



Busby Berkeley has this way of making his number ever so slightly off-color, yet they are so spectacular, that you end up going "did I just see that"?  But this suggestion goes with the lush sets of the musical numbers; it compliments and enhances the over-the-top and unique vision that is Berkeley.  And then there is Cagney: brash, gutsy, sexy, and with a dancing style that is hard to imitate (the closest I ever saw was Mikhail Baryshnikov in his wonderful tv special Baryshnikov on Broadway). We so rarely get to see Cagney dance; double pleasure here.

More Berkeley next time.

Monday, November 2, 2009

I Cover the Waterfront

I'll just start out by saying that this movie was a big disappointment.  We were all so pleased to find another early Claudette Colbert movie, but she has so little to do here that it was just a waste of her great talents.  I Cover the Waterfront follows reporter Joe Miller (Ben Lyon) as he tries to get the goods on Eli Kirk (Ernest Torrence), a smuggler who deals in illegal Chinese immigrants.  The beginning is pretty horrific - about to be trapped by the authorities, Kirk throws his "cargo" overboard (bound with chains to make absolutely sure he sinks), with a shrug and the comment that "He knew what he was getting into."  The big complication here is that Kirk has a daughter, Julie (played by Colbert), and our hero Joe falls in love with her.  In the end, Julie must choose between Joe and her father.  

The meeting between Julie and Joe IS rather funny. Joe receives a report of a nude woman swimming in the ocean.  It's Julie, and it seems she does it all the time. She doesn't like swimsuits (then again, if one thinks of the suits at THAT time, one can understand why!).  Joe camps himself beside her clothing, so she is unable to get dressed, and of course, he won't leave until she agrees to meet him again.  Here's a later scene, with Julie and Joe:



We can't really recommend this one, though it is nice to see Claudette in just about anything.  Better yet, get Torch Singer!