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Easter Parade

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 29 June 2019 11:16 (A review of Easter Parade (1948))

Seventeen musical numbers in 103 minutes. No one can unfairly claim that Easter Parade doesn’t offer a lot of bang for its buck, but that doesn’t mean it was necessarily money well spent. There’s no real story or concept here, just a loose connection of scenes that ostensibly tell a story but really function to get Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, in the only film they made together, from one song/dance to the next.


Easter Parade is a bit of a non-event considering it’s the meeting of Astaire and Garland, two of the movie musicals towering artistes. What Garland could do with phrasing, delivering, and vocal power, both its withholding and unleashing, Astaire could do with his elegant, languid bodily movements and control. They get plenty of chances to shine, but the surrounding film never adds up to much in the end. Astaire’s a vaudeville performer whose former partner goes solo (Ann Miller, largely wasted apart from her kinetic “Shakin’ the Blues Away”), so he finds Garland’s chorus and trains her to be his new partner. Naturally, they eventually fall in love, and Peter Lawford’s around the edges as a best friend and would-be suitor.


That’s not enough material to justify its running time, so Easter Parade functions like the Macy’s Day Parade – all artifice and happy to be seen with nothing much going on. Sequences that don’t involve singing, dancing, or Jules Munshin hamming it up in an extended bit about… tossing a salad (?!) are basically color commentary from toothy hosts before they cut back to something more visually interesting. It’s a soundtrack with some visuals to go along with it.

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Judgment at Nuremberg

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 28 June 2019 05:38 (A review of Judgement at Nuremberg (1961))

A three-hour black and white courtroom drama about the Nazi trials populated by movie stars in the waning days of their careers – sounds like the recipe for a snooze fest, an overly pious piece of do-gooder cinema that’s overly saccharine. Judgment at Nuremberg is not that movie. I mean, in a way it is since Judgment at Nuremberg is a star-studded piece of social critique that’s black and white and runs for three hours, but it’s more complicated than that.


Perhaps Judgment at Nuremberg’s quick glance as a piece of white elephant cinema is quite simply unfair. Much of this might have to do with director Stanley Kramer’s complicated legacy as one of Hollywood’s original open hearted (white) liberals. His films were heavy on the message and the sentiment, often at times overly simplistic about complex social issues, but clearly intended to mean well.


But this digestible view of his career seems to forget that he was a producer of works such as Champion, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, and High Noon. When he got all the right ingredients together, Kramer could make some classic cinema. It is here that Judgment at Nuremberg resides – it is a masterpiece of the courtroom drama and the social issue film.


The best thing about Judgment at Nuremberg is how it presents a Germany identity at war with itself. There are no simplistic heroes and villains here, and the rise of Nazism is removed from the cartoonish, pulpy villainy of so many Hollywood films and distinctly given recognizably human faces. These thorny and complex ideologies give the film a distinct bite. It’s easier to hate someone and their actions from afar, but how easy is to hate someone and their deeds up close? How culpable was the average German citizen? How effective is a “good German” defense by someone with some social power?


These are the open psychological scars that Germany is grappling with when Spencer Tracy’s judge enters the bombed out remains of Nuremberg. Tracy is here to oversee a tribunal hearing the case against four German judges, including Burt Lancaster’s conflicted Ernst Janning. Into this already simmering cauldron of trauma and guilt wander a variety of stars in supporting roles, such as Richard Widmark as the prosecuting attorney, that blur the lines between victim and victimizer. Nationalism proved Germany’s downfall, but the ‘how’ and ‘why’ it got there is where Judgment at Nuremberg offers some insight.


While the staging and camera work is a bit static, as is typically the case with courtroom dramas, the acting never falters. This is a group operating with decades of experience and know when to push and when to hold back. Tracy anchors everything with gravitas, Lancaster complicates our sympathies, and Maximilian Schell is a mercurial defense attorney. Tracy and Schell both deservedly got Oscar nominations, and Schell walked away with win for a flashy but layered performance that’s never anything less than riveting.


Even better are a trio of supporting players: Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, and Marlene Dietrich. Clift plays a victim of forced sterilization, and his performance feels so authentic and real that it becomes squeamish to watch him rage and reveal the deep scars within. Garland is a gentile woman accused of having an affair with a Jewish man, and she’s broken and vulnerable in a way that lays bare an interior neurosis that often threatened to combust her flimsiest musical parts. In the twilight of their careers, both Clift and Garland would die before the decade was done, these two reminded the world what their vast talents were capable of in riveting, raw performances.


While Dietrich gets a role that finds her swimming in and out of the film as the conflicted, wounded soul of Germany itself, a woman trying to reconcile with the atrocities as much as she’s struggling with the new world of a liberated Germany. Clift and Garland deservedly got Oscar nominations, but there was no love for Dietrich. What a shame as her performance here is a minimalist wonder, and a definition of the word “luminous.”  


As the film winds towards its harrowing end, one that does not absolve anyone from guilt and eschews easy political favoritism, such as a subplot about the encroaching Cold War and pressures to emphasize reunification over justice, Judgment at Nuremberg remains as haunting as Dietrich wandering down the streets with Tracy by her side. Jingoistic fervor and political apathy are the real enemies here, and they remain something worth fighting against. There’s no easy answers to prickly questions, and this film is an engrossing, harrowing fictionalization that thrills as much as it disturbs.   

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The Clock

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 27 June 2019 09:01 (A review of The Clock)

The Clock is a lovely little movie that offers Judy Garland one of her rare straight dramatic parts. It doesn’t hurt that she’s matched by a fabulously sincere and present performance by Robert Walker, and an overall tender tone that underscores the bittersweet nature of the romance. The Clock is a “small” wartime romance that packs a bigger punch than some of its more prestigious siblings.


It’s in the ways that The Clock goes against the MGM modus operandi of high-gloss and heavy glamour that prove so successful for this little movie. The story is simple: a soldier on leave (Walker) finds himself in New York City, meets cute with a girl (Garland), and they spend the rest of his leave falling in love and exploring the city. Along the way there’s appearances by several well-known characters including, including a drunk Keenan Wynn, James Gleason and his wife, Lucile Gleason, in small supporting parts that add color and texture to the central romance.


That’s it. That’s the entirety of The Clock in summary, yet it fails to do justice to its emotional majesty and fragility. There’s a deep well of insecurity and battered hope, both in the main characters, and in the country at large. The specter of World War II hovers around the edges of their thoughts and actions, including the complicated emotional goodbye as Garland sends Walker off. Tears have been shed along the way, but Garland’s young bride is smiling a peculiar way as she strides back in the bustle of the city with a sense of…something. Maybe of purpose? Maybe the bloom of new love hasn’t wilted with the cold light of day?


There’s a mystery at the heart of the romance, and the petty indifference and cynicism that they encounter that lingers both in the spirit and the imagination. Quickie romances are a common practice in the face of war and potential death, but it feels like these two likeable, sincere people found something special with each other. There’s a level of comfort in their interactions, an uneasy chemistry that seems to shift with the same fast pace as the story’s contours that’s quite refreshing.


It doesn’t hurt that director Vincente Minnelli has two lead actors as talented and enthralling to watch as Garland and Walker. Walker was a known quality as a “serious” actor, and he does incredibly well with his green corporal that’s adrift in the big city aside from this girl he found. But it’s Garland’s straight dramatic work that’s the real discovery, as if her numerous scenes of quivering need or rejection weren’t powerful enough. Her crying at the wedding reception she’s just gone through is a marvel, but it’s nowhere near as commanding as the quiet power she brings to their scene in a church or the morning after their wedding night.


The city itself functions as a third character, and one that is ever shifting to its mercurial moods and whims. A frantic search after they’ve been broken up underscores a big city’s ability to be both massive and small, caring and unfeeling at the same time. In scaling back the ambitions of the narrative, Minnelli once again provides a symphony of emotions, faces, and textures that give a little sting with the sweet. The Clock may be the greatest little movie in all of their careers.

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Presenting Lily Mars

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 27 June 2019 09:01 (A review of Presenting Lily Mars)

Booth Tarkington’s novel gets the glossy MGM treatment here, so that means the downbeat ending and realistic traumas the characters face are softened and/or jettisoned in favor of a triumphant final bow before the curtain closes/screen fades to black. Presenting Lily Mars is a great showcase for the full breadth of star Judy Garland’s talents even when the rest of the film is flabby, creaky, or generally hokey. But we get to watch Garland belt out “Broadway Rhythm” while dancing with Charles Walters, and it’s hard not to be enamored of a film that provides that chance.


Frankly, the first chunk is stronger and more focused than the rest. The first chunk finds Garland’s Lily Mars, a teenager with dreams of stage stardom, trying to charm a big Broadway producer, Van Heflin in purely reactive mode. The producer just so happens to be the son of her neighbor and family friend, Fay Bainter lovable as ever, and Lily manages to convince her to setup a meeting so Lily can demonstrate her talents. It’s a joy to watch Garland play as a novice actress that adopts that strange mid-Atlantic accent and overly done mannerisms around every vowel. Her Lily is a neophyte actress lacking skill but making up for it with gumption and a tremendous capacity to listen, learn, and grow.


Presenting Lily Mars automatically goes into more predictable and paint-by-numbers territory once she runs off to New York for a chance at the big time. She can’t make it past being an understudy with a tiny speaking part, but the girl gives it the old college try. Of course, when you’re blessed with a singing voice and style like Garland’s, you won’t be doing bit parts for very long. The eventual love story between Garland and Heflin feels tacked on and entirely out of the blue.


Those New York scenes are also undone by the presence of Martha Eggerth, a great singer but a lousy actress, as a grand diva of the stage annoyed and threatened by the upstart. Eggerth lacks a definable presence or quality in front of the camera, and much like she threw portions of For Me and My Gal got out of shape, she distorts plenty of space in Presenting Lily Mars. Perhaps putting her against acting greats like Garland, Heflin, and a fun Richard Carlson as a theatrical sidekick. Her best scene is a reaction towards Garland’s imitation of her. Make of that what you will.


It all winds up being a bit of a meh. Presenting Lily Mars is not one of Judy’s standout films, but it’s a perfectly enjoyable little minor work. It’s easy, breezy, and contains a great role for the actress transitioning to adult roles and away from being the perpetual adolescent. Better things were on the horizon, including The Clock and Summer Stock.

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Ziegfeld Girl

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 27 June 2019 09:01 (A review of Ziegfeld Girl)

Ignore that James Stewart, fresh off an Oscar win for The Philadelphia Story, gets top billing here. Here’s a supporting player to the trio of stage-struck hopefuls played by Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, and Lana Turner. The whole thing is overly long, the melodrama gets laid on a bit too thick, I did roll my eyes on several occasions, but this is the type of grand scale entertainment you’ll only find in the studio system.


Ziegfeld Girl, a loose sequel to The Great Ziegfeld, which it borrows plenty of footage from during the climatic show, is all about showing what it takes to make it in the big time, or how to burn out glamorously. Garland’s a vaudeville singer/actor that does a lot of work with her father but is getting eyed for a solo spot in the Follies. Lamarr is a devoted wife who takes the job after getting scouted during her husband’s violin audition out of pure desperation for money. Turner is discovered working an elevator and quickly goes from starry-eyed dreamer to alcoholic tramp precariously at the top of the social ladder.


If that’s not enough plot for you, there’s also James Stewart miscast as the bootlegger boyfriend of Turner, Tony Martin as a married crooner trying to have an affair with Lamarr, and Jackie Cooper as Turner’s younger brother who has a chaste romance with Garland. The whole thing is overstuffed and moves at a lugubrious pace towards a near uproarious finale for its sheer overwrought glamor trappings. Turner’s character can’t just die, she has to reenact her triumphant walk down the Follies stairs then collapse in an impassioned heap on the floor. It’s more camp white elephant cinema than honest-to-god entertainment.


It doesn’t help that two-thirds of the girls get the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Lamarr is gorgeous and swims through the frame in flowing gowns, but that’s the entirety of her role. There are a few bits where her character expresses a mild disdain for show biz and her life as a clotheshorse, which is a reflection of Lamarr’s own sensibilities. While Garland gives a rare misfire of a performance. She’s uneven as though she’s unsteadied about performing around her glamour girl co-stars. She’s a bit too self-conscious in spots, or too manic in others, but reliable in her comedic bits and that voice can sell you ice in the tundra.


It’s Lana Turner’s tragic bad girl that gets the fullest scope, and Turner rises to the occasion. She wasn’t much of an actress, but she was a presence that was fascinating to the camera. Her best roles matched her beauty with a destructive force that threatened to topple her away from sex goddess and into broken human. Ziegfeld Girl launches her into the stratosphere and waits a short bit before yanking her down into addiction, destitution, and eventual tragic (but highly photogenic) deathbed scene.    


Ziegfeld Girl is an ornate bauble that sparkles brightly but is an overly designed paper weight. Watch it for Turner’s star-making role, Lamarr’s narcotized glam, and Garland’s impassioned belting. Just don’t expect it to be one of the better films of anyone’s career.

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Andy Hardy Meets Debutante

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 27 June 2019 04:52 (A review of Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940))

I fully admit to being skeptical about the Andy Hardy films. I don’t mind a little sugar, but there’s nothing sour to offset the sweet about these films. They’re pleasing little lies about a piece of Americana that likely never existed. A better written and acted The Brady Bunch, if you will. No problem is too big to resolve in 85-plus minutes before you’re off to Andy’s next misadventure.


Andy Hardy Meets Debutante is more of the same: Andy’s a cocky shit that tries to charm a girl (Diana Lewis, the debutante in question), gets sage advice from his father, and shares some great scenes with Betsy (Judy Garland, once more capable of coaxing more depth of feeling out of Rooney than any other co-star). Preachy, heavily sentimental, and with regressive ideas about gender and female roles in society, Andy Hardy Meets Debutante is a creaky relic.


It’s only when Garland and Rooney share a late-night car drive and Rooney tenderly kisses her cheek that something human and real comes to life. It’s a shocking moment of real and authentic romantic confusion and anguish in an otherwise ersatz story about small town virtues in combat with big city vice. While so much of the film is blatantly manipulative and toothless, the scenes Mickey and Judy share elevate the material into something electric and special. You’ll remember Garland’s tears and Rooney’s efforts to smooth it all over far more than you will any of Lewis Stone’s hokey pieces of advice about avarice in every city/town.

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Love Finds Andy Hardy

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 27 June 2019 04:52 (A review of Love Finds Andy Hardy)

Small town American was never as picture perfect and saccharine as it was in the Andy Hardy series. There’s the stoic but supportive father (Lewis Stone), fretful loving mother (Fay Holden), nicely combative older sister (Cecilia Parker), and Andy, the teenager on the right side of mischief-making (Mickey Rooney). They’re a postcard family in sitcom-level conundrums that feel stretched out to accommodate the 80-plus running times of their films.


Love Finds Andy Hardy is probably the most famous entry in the franchise, if for no other reason than the appearances of Judy Garland and Lana Turner, both on the cusp of superstardom. It’s also a quaint little charmer that’s all Norman Rockwell Americana and innocent shenanigans involving an irrepressible teenager boy. It’s a silly little thing that alternates between giving you a cavity with its sugarcoated homespun imagery and charming with its naivete.


Andy wants to buy a car, but he’s short the $8 dollars necessary to pay it off. His friend offers him a compromise: entertain his girlfriend (Lana Turner, the safest naughty girl imaginable) during the Christmas break while he’s gone, and he’ll give Andy the missing $8 as a thank you. There’s naturally complications, including the reappearance of Andy’s girlfriend Polly (Ann Rutherford, all wide-eyed sweetness), the introduction of Betsy (Garland), a poor little rich girl that’s got a crush on the uninterested Andy, and some light familial drama that functions as time waster and stretching of the thin narrative to feature length. Everything wraps up neatly by the time the final credits roll around and we’re off to the next entry/misadventure of Andy.


Love Finds Andy Hardy is best when we ignore the other family members and just zero in on Andy’s quest for girls, cars, and a good time. I swear, if you threw in rock and roll and surf, this thing could easily restructure into a late 50s/early 60s idyllic teenage movie. It probably did and just swapped out Andy for Gidget, let’s be real.


Back to the movie at hand. Rooney’s a horny cartoon around Lana Turner, who pouts and seduces with alacrity even at this early age. He’s a chaste neighborhood kid around Ann Rutherford’s Polly, a long-suffering girlfriend type that seems primed to knock him on his ass at any moment. But Rooney’s best around Garland’s Betsy as her wide-eyed vulnerability brings out a gentleness in the actor and character that provides honest emotion to poke through the glossy, sugary veneer. Garland nearly steals the movie from him with her authentic performance and knack for comedy.


It all just goes breezing by until order is once more restored. The family conflicts are smoothed over, Polly and Andy are reunited, Betsy manages to set everything right, and the big Christmas dance provides some magic in the form of Garland’s singing. Love Finds Andy Hardy is a lovely little thing, but proof that too much sweetness can be detrimental after a while.  

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Thoroughbreds Don't Cry

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 27 June 2019 04:51 (A review of Thoroughbreds Don't Cry)

The first pairing of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland finds the pair playing second fiddle to a waifish British male youth. No, not Freddie Bartholomew, who seems tailor-made for the lead role and was mysteriously dropped, but Ronald Sinclair, a carbon-copy of Bartholomew. Sinclair’s lacking in charisma and on-camera naturalism, too mannered and too artificial without the personality to pull it off, and he’s overrun by Rooney, Garland, Sophie Tucker, and C. Aubrey Smith.


Yet I still found myself engaged with Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry. It’s a minor film, but one filled with heart and charm in direct proportion to its narrative thinness. Sinclair is a proper English boy who travels to America with his grandfather (Smith) and racehorse searching for a jockey (Rooney, all cocky swagger and heart of gold), meet a boarding house owner (Tucker) and her young niece (Garland, precocious and engaging), and encounter several obstacles before the big climatic race. Will Sinclair’s thoroughbred win the derby? Of course, but it’s more fun to watch this earliest glimpse of the peculiar chemistry between Mickey and Judy in embryonic form.


Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry gives Rooney a plum early role as the jockey that finds his ambitions in direct conflict with his abusive, absent father’s machinations. I don’t know what it is exactly about Rooney as a jockey, but it’s an archetype that Rooney always exceled at in films as varied as National Velvet and The Black Stallion. His verbal sparring with Garland is a delight as their kids-next-door looks and vulnerabilities immediately mesh well together. Their give-and-take would blossom in their further films, but they’re already demonstrating an innate comfort and language with each other here that’s primed for further exploration. If there’s any reason to invest the time in watching this sweet little movie, it’s in the beginning of the Mickey and Judy on-screen pairing. That’s reason enough.

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Little Nellie Kelly

Posted : 1 month, 4 weeks ago on 25 June 2019 02:41 (A review of Little Nellie Kelly)

Judy Garland’s not a girl, not yet a woman in Little Nellie Kelly, an oddball film that has her playing both mother and daughter. Loosely based on the George M. Cohan play of the same name, Garland finds herself stuck between the opposing male forces of her life in both incarnations and a metric ton of Irish clichés sprinkled on top. The whole thing feels engineered for viewings on St. Patrick’s Day and not for much else.


Here’s a bit of historical trivia for you: this is the lone death scene in Garland’s entire career. It comes early in the film when she dies post-childbirth, and she reappears as the teenaged daughter. Garland was eighteen at the time and plays both a little older and a little younger than her real age. The role(s) don’t give her much in the way of variation aside from an attempt at an Irish accent in one and a love interest in the second, her Babes in Arms co-star Douglas McPhail.


Garland tries valiantly to make this mawkish tripe work, but not even her immense talents can quite overcome it all. George Murphy and Charles Winninger play the two male counterparts of Nellie’s life. In Ireland, Garland is Nellie Noonan in love with Murphy’s Jerry Kelly and caretaker of her belligerent drunk father, Winninger. The father hates his future son-in-law but still travels with them to America. Nellie Noonan dies, Murphy and Winninger spar over raising the daughter, and enter a long stalemate that places Nellie Kelly as the peacemaker and object of their affection. Eventually she meets a suitor, McPhail has a lovely baritone but zero screen presence, and the fractious cycle between Murphy and Winninger starts anew.


Winninger’s character is clearly meant as a lovable caricature but plays a deeply unlikeable, manipulative bastard. Garland and Murphy are unbelievable as lovers what with him being very obviously twenty-years her senior. They fare far better as loving father and daughter. It’s hard to buy Garland’s instant love affair with McPhail as well, but much of that problem lands squarely on his shoulder. So here comes Judy’s powerful voice to save the day on songs like “It’s a Great Day for the Irish” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” A must-watch for the Garland aficionado (hey!), but skippable for the rest unless you’re looking for a creaky blarney about the auld sod.

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Listen, Darling

Posted : 1 month, 4 weeks ago on 25 June 2019 02:40 (A review of Listen, Darling (1938))

Rarely has 75 minutes feel so interminable as it does during Listen, Darling. The plot is a bit of nonsense that plays like the lamest of sitcom conceits: two siblings (Judy Garland and Scotty Beckett) enlist their best friend (Freddie Bartholomew) to help kidnap their mom (Mary Astor) so she doesn’t enter a loveless marriage. Ha ha ha….


You can guess what follows – a proper bachelor that the kids like and the mom finds reminds her of her dead husband (Walter Pidgeon), a couple musical interludes by Garland (“Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” in a minor reading is the obvious highlight), and groan-inducing child actor performances abound. Bartholomew was nearing the end of his time as a movie star, and I never quite got his appeal. He seems so grossly artificial next to Garland, and just plain awkward next to Pidgeon and Astor.


Listen, Darling winds up restoring heteronormative order by letting the kooky bachelor and merry widow wind up together with the kids’ approval. Astor and Garland would reunite in six years for a much better project, Pidgeon would go on to make far better films, and this whole thing feels like it was made merely to keep these rising stars (or transitioning ones) in the public consciousness. 1939 would treat Garland’s immeasurable talents far better with a pair of classics that gave her sterling material.

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