Sunday, September 30, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: CAREFREE (1938)

The name, Carefree (1938), pretty much sums up the atmosphere of this light romantic comedy featuring classic movie favorites Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In this outing, as in all of their best known films, Fred and Ginger dance on unperturbed by life's grittier concerns, singing and dancing their way to love against a backdrop of wealth and country club ease. Although it is not as famous as big hits like Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936), Carefree is a charming musical comedy, sure to delight fans of the genre and those who value the breezy elegance that Rogers and Astaire embody so well.

Astaire plays psychiatrist Tony Flagg, who agrees to see his friend's intended bride because she keeps breaking off their engagement. Ralph Bellamy is the friend, Stephen Arden, and, of course, Ginger Rogers appears as the uncertain bride, Amanda. The good doctor employs various techniques to get to the root of his patient's reluctance to go through with the marriage, but in the course of his ministrations Amanda falls for him, putting everyone involved into a series of awkward situations. Along the way, we get several lively song and dance numbers, with music from Irving Berlin, and some very funny comedic scenes.

To watch Fred and Ginger dance is to see people defy gravity. Astaire is a lighter, more refined dancer than Gene Kelly, whose more masculine and athletic style would eventually come to dominate the musical genre. Both approaches have their attractions. "The Yam" dance number is an especially energetic example of Astaire and Rogers at work, and Ginger seems to be having a very good time singing in that one, too, even if the song is really quite silly. Astaire's solo dance early in the film, which begins with a harmonica and ends with golf clubs, is also great fun. This is a short picture with a limited number of show-stopping sequences, but that might be a good thing, since the viewer never feels overwhelmed by them.

The movie begins with some seriously outdated comments about women from the cynical Tony, and one has to wonder about the ethical problems of his constant manipulation of his patient's thoughts, especially as he tries to force Amanda to love Stephen by hypnotizing her. The film's sexist assumptions are trumped, however, by Ginger Rogers' sparkling comedic performance. Not only is she better looking than Astaire, but she's funnier, too, and Carefree gives her ample opportunity to demonstrate her gift for comic mischief. Whenever Tony alters Amanda's mental state, chaos ensues, and Rogers gleefully romps through these scenes. She's similar in many ways to Lucille Ball, only she never seems sorry or embarrassed, even when she glides to the altar with a black eye in the closing scene. Carefree is really Ginger's movie, and she is truly a delight to watch. In 1941 she would win an Oscar for her performance in Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman (1940), beating competitors as daunting as Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. Watching Carefree helps us to see why she deserved to be in such company, not merely for Kitty Foyle but for her whole career as an actress.

Director Mark Sandrich, who led several of the Fred and Ginger pictures for RKO, oversees the hilarity here, as well. The supporting cast members also add to the fun. Luella Gear is great as Amanda's Aunt Cora, while the wonderful character actor Jack Carson backs Astaire as Tony's assistant, Connors. Clarence Kolb evokes laughs as Judge Joe, and we also get Hattie McDaniel from Gone with the Wind (1939) appearing in yet another uncredited role as the maid, Hattie. At least she gets a good line in during the brief time she has on screen.

Carefree earned three Oscar nominations, including one for Irving Berlin’s song, “Change Partners and Dance with Me,” but it went home empty-handed. For more of Fred and Ginger, try The Gay Divorcee (1934) and Shall We Dance (1937), but be sure to catch Ginger on her own in 42nd Street (1933), Roxie Hart (1942), and Monkey Business (1952). Ralph Bellamy also appears in The Awful Truth (1937), His Girl Friday (1940), and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940).

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: BRIGADOON (1954)

Adapted from the popular 1947 musical from Lerner and Loewe, Brigadoon (1954) is merely a modest success in comparison to other Gene Kelly vehicles like An American in Paris (1950) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), but it’s still a reasonably entertaining outing for fans of the charismatic star. Supported by costars Van Johnson and lovely Cyd Charisse, Kelly offers his usual mix of dance and romance, and Vincente Minnelli’s direction keeps the narrative moving, but Brigadoon lacks the robust energy of Kelly’s best films. Its fairy tale image of Scotland is charming enough, however, that most fans of the musical genre will like the movie even if they don’t love it.

Kelly stars as Tommy Albright, an American tourist who stumbles upon the idyllic village of Brigadoon during a hunting trip through Scotland. Tommy and his cranky pal, Jeff (Van Johnson), quickly notice some strange aspects of life in Brigadoon, but Tommy also notices the charms of local lass, Fiona (Cyd Charisse). It turns out that Brigadoon is an enchanted place that only wakes up once every hundred years, and at the end of the day it will vanish into the mist for another century. As a village wedding thrusts the community into unexpected crisis, Tommy must decide if his love for Fiona means more to him than his life in the normal, modern world. 

Brigadoon is very much a fantasy of Scotland, decorated with plaids and armloads of heather. The patently artificial sets give little sense of the real Scottish countryside, just as the inhabitants of Brigadoon reflect none of the turmoil of eighteenth-century Scottish identity. Witches, identified by the villagers as the threat that inspired the “blessing,” had ceased to be a big concern in Scotland by mid-century, although they fit the fairy tale plot much better than Jacobite political strife. Still, the scenery is both charming and quaint, like an old-fashioned watercolor postcard. The locals sport colorful, picturesque costumes, and collies, cows, and sheep wander about the rustic town. 

The main attractions of the picture are Kelly and Charisse, two of Hollywood’s most attractive dancers. As the romantic leads, they get more screen time together than they had in Singin’ in the Rain two years before, and they are lovely to watch, especially in the yearning, balletic sequences. Charisse, dubbed as usual for the vocal performances, looks beautiful in Irene Sharaff’s costumes, but Kelly’s musical numbers don’t show off his singing ability as well as his other films. The most memorable musical segment of the movie is not one of the love duets but the more energetic ensemble piece, “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean,” which features a number of the supporting players.

Catch Kelly in Cover Girl (1944), Anchors Aweigh (1945), and On the Town (1949) for more song and dance, or have a look at his non-musical performances in The Three Musketeers (1948), The Devil Makes Three (1952), and Inherit the Wind (1960). You’ll find Cyd Charisse in The Harvey Girls (1946), The Band Wagon (1953), and Silk Stockings (1957). Van Johnson also stars in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), In the Good Old Summertime (1949), and The Last Time I Saw Paris (1961). Vincente Minnelli won an Oscar for Best Director for Gigi (1958), but he also helmed Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Father of the Bride (1950), and An American in Paris (1951). For a different take on Scottish romance, try I Know Where I’m Going! (1945).

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: NIAGARA (1953)

Although she is better remembered for comedy roles like Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot (1959), Marilyn Monroe got her first big break in a noir picture, The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Niagara, a color noir thriller from director Henry Hathaway, was released in 1953, the same year as both Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, but the Marilyn we meet in Niagara is quite a different gal from Lorelei Lee. Though not an essential example of the noir style, Niagara is an exciting film that pulses with sexual energy, and it puts Marilyn to good use in the role of a murderously unfaithful femme fatale.

Our story takes place in and around Niagara Falls, where a young married couple, Ray (Max Showalter) and Polly (Jean Peters), are finally enjoying a long postponed honeymoon, thanks to Ray's winning idea for the shredded wheat company where he works. At the cabins they meet another couple, Rose (Monroe) and George (Joseph Cotten), whose marriage appears far less happy. In fact, Polly soon discovers that Rose has another man in her life, while George appears to be coming unglued at the seams. When George turns up missing, everyone assumes it was suicide, but Polly, always in the wrong place at the wrong time, finds herself drawn into the deeper and far deadlier truth.

All of the major parts are well played, with Joseph Cotten edgy and worn as the understandably troubled George, and Max Showalter (credited as Casey Adams) blissfully and benignly stupid as Ray. The real action of the film belongs to Polly and Rose, however, with Peters and Monroe making perfect foils to one another. As Rose, Monroe comes across as cheap and scheming but certainly not dumb, even though she uses other people's assumptions about her to her own advantage. Both Rose and Polly are far more intelligent than any of the men around them, and the film's focus on its women makes Niagara an interesting noir choice for female viewers. Rose is very much a classic femme fatale, but Polly is more complex; Monroe might be the flashier figure, but Polly is the film's real protagonist, and Peters plays her beautifully. We only wonder why she is married to a dolt like Ray, who never listens to his wife and patronizes her with excruciating self-assurance as Polly tries to explain her suspicions about George and Rose.

The falls themselves function as another major character in Niagara. Hathaway and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald present the rushing water as the ultimate metaphor for unbridled passion, with almost all of the key scenes involving the falls or the river.  The characters spend a lot of the movie in bright rain slickers, climbing slippery catwalks, cruising on The Maid of the Mist, and wandering through the sights. It would be a great tourism advertisement if it weren't for all the homicide.

Technicolor noir is condemned as antithetical to the style by some purists, but Niagara successfully puts its palette to work in the service of its themes, and Marilyn certainly looks more interesting in color. If you enjoy Niagara, you can see more of Marilyn in film noir in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Clash By Night (1952). For more from Jean Peters, try Pickup on South Street (1953) and A Blueprint for Murder (1953). Look for Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and The Third Man (1949).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955)

I'll be the first to admit that Lady and the Tramp (1955) is not the most important or the most aesthetically creative of Walt Disney's classic animated films, but it remains my favorite nonetheless. It makes me laugh and cry every time I see it, and by now I have seen it many, many times. What more can you ask for in a classic film? Beautifully drawn, movingly sincere, and oddly enough more human than many of the films featuring human characters, Lady and the Tramp is the Disney movie for dog lovers and hopeless romantics alike.

The story follows the early life and growth of Lady, a pampered Cocker Spaniel in an elegant Victorian home. Lady gets a shock when she discovers that her owners' feelings about her have changed because they are expecting a baby, and she gets an even bigger shock when mean Aunt Sarah is called in to care for the baby while Jim Dear and Darling leave town for a few days. The canine heroine eventually finds herself tangled up with a rakish stray called The Tramp, but his attentions only manage to land her in trouble, first in the dog pound and then in the dog house back at home. Of course, being a Disney film, a happy ending is guaranteed, with the budding romance of Lady and the Tramp evoked most memorably in the spaghetti eating scene.

Barbara Luddy provided the voice of Lady, and it was a perfect part for the Disney regular, who would go on to be the voice of the fairy Merryweather in Sleeping Beauty (1959) and of Kanga in numerous Winnie the Pooh films. In Lady and the Tramp, Luddy's voice has a soft sweetness undercut with just enough rasp to make her feisty as well as feminine. The voice that dominates the film, though, is that of the incomparable Peggy Lee, the chanteuse best known today, perhaps, for the hit song "Fever." Lee lent her voice to four different characters in the film, Darling, Siamese cats Si and Am, and Peg, and she also helped write several of the songs featured in the picture. We hear Lee singing numerous times during the film, but the highlight is certainly her rendition of "He's a Tramp," sung by Peg, the bedraggled Pekingese at the dog pound. Lee had some legal quarrels with Disney over her work on the movie, but, in the long run, it has served her well, introducing her to generations of youngsters who otherwise would never have heard her gorgeous sound.

The danger in which the movie can place its characters is one of the reasons that Lady and the Tramp has such pathos; imagine one of the Disney princesses being thrown into prison and made to watch another prisoner dragged away to his death. The pound scene is one of the film's most moving moments; certainly the animals are humanized to a certain extent, but their misery is very real, as anyone who has walked the kennels of an animal shelter can attest. Lady's fear and confusion are emotions any pet might feel at suddenly being dumped in such an unfamiliar place. Lady spends almost the entire movie being bound, caged, threatened, muzzled, and shot at, and Tramp is literally being carted away to his execution when Jock and Trusty rush to the rescue. Trusty's encounter with the dog pound carriage, and Jock's reaction, can still bring tears to the eyes of viewers who have watched the movie dozens of times and know perfectly well how it ends. (Walt insisted that Trusty had to survive the crash because he remembered the emotional fallout from killing Bambi's mother.)

There's also the romantic angle of the movie to consider. For young girls, Tramp might well be their first encounter with the figure of the charming rogue, that lovable scruffy guy who isn't exactly a knight in shining armor but who manages to win the day and the girl anyway. Disney would revisit this territory to great effect in its treatment of Robin Hood (1973). Tramp is, quite literally, the Han Solo of the canine world; he lacks the pedigree of a prince, but he makes up for it in dash and swagger and the thrill of going out with the bad boy instead of the football team captain. As a dog, Tramp can get away with being a lot more dangerous an object of affection. Parents in 1955 would have had a heart attack had this romance played out between a human debutante and a rogue from the wrong side of the tracks, and not until Aladdin in 1992 would Disney try out this kind of love story with people instead of animals. Even more daring is the fact that Lady spends the night with Tramp out on Lovers Lane; I doubt Disney would try that scene with human characters even in this enlightened age. 

I have never been a big fan of the classic princess films, largely because their heroines are all too insipid and ineffectual for my tastes, but Lady and the Tramp can be more egalitarian because it features dogs instead of people, and that is part of its charm. Lady might be all that her name implies, but she still gets to chase chickens, bark at rats, and exercise her animal spirits. She gets to run around town with a tough, sexy guy, too. It might be a dog's life, but I'll take that over being a narcoleptic princess any day. 

If you love dog movies, see more of Disney’s canine capers in 101 Dalmatians (1961), The Fox and the Hound (1981), and Bolt (2008). Try live action classics like Lassie Come Home (1943), Old Yeller (1957), and Greyfriars Bobby: The True Story of a Dog (1961). Plague Dogs (1982) is a gripping emotional drama from Watership Down author Richard Adams, but don’t show it to children unless you intend to scar them for life.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.