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Broadway Melody of 1938

Posted : 1 month, 4 weeks ago on 25 June 2019 02:39 (A review of Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937))

There sure is a lot here. Broadway Melody of 1938 is one of those “something for everyone” entertainments that winds up being of little value to anyone. It doesn’t settle into its backstage theatrical story, its supporting plot about an aging performer is just there, and there’s a lot of time spent on horseracing and training a thoroughbred. At least the film is smart enough to often cede the floor to its biggest strengths: its female stars.


Eleanor Powell gives one of those happily broke, starry-eyed dreamer performances that litter the Depression-era musical, but she’s at least cute and charming about it. Sure, her character plays a bit like a well-adjusted speed freak set loose upon the populace, but we also get to watch her dance. Powell is a so-so actress but a dynamite dancer, possibly the greatest female dancer ever captured on celluloid. Her finale is astounding as she gets tossed around by various dancers then zips back into her machine-gun taping and elegant kicks. Her dance duet with George Murphy plays like a Fred-and-Ginger-style pas de deux straight out of Top Hat or Swing Time.


She’s surrounded by enough incident and filler to propel two other films, at least. There’s George Murphy and Buddy Ebsen as a pair of old vaudevillians who become her best pals, Robert Taylor as Powell’s love interest and a Broadway producer, a sneeze expert, a wannabe Opera singer and his Italian stereotype uncle, and a stage mother who runs a boarding house for actors and her teenage daughter. Whew, I’m wiped out just typing all of that, and we’re still missing a few bits and pieces along the way.


The sneeze expert is a time suck, Ebsen is a bit awkward here, Murphy and Taylor are fine is sacked with flavorless roles, and the Italians are just loud, annoying caricatures that needed to be removed. It’s that stage mother and teenage daughter that really stick out in a positive way. They’re played by Sophie Tucker and Judy Garland, and Broadway Melody of 1938 quickly shapes up into something engaging when it lets these two do pretty much anything. Imagine a version of this film with Tucker and Garland leading it? No guarantee it would’ve been better, but their charisma alone would’ve powered through the dead spots.  

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Pigskin Parade

Posted : 1 month, 4 weeks ago on 25 June 2019 02:39 (A review of Pigskin Parade)

A cinematic oddity that splices together campus comedy, sports underdog (football, in this case), and manic musical into… something. I’m not quite sure what it all is, but it’s a lot of something that’s diverting if thin. There’s wisecracking Patsy Kelly and an effete Jack Haley as a married couple, a strangely Oscar-nominated turn from Stuart Erwin as a redneck with a talent for football, and a cavalcade of collegiate brothers. Of course, there’s something about the big game, mistaken identity, boundless “can-do” energy that permeates Depression-era cinema, and a strange subplot involving a Communist-sympathizing student as a punchline. What really stands out in Pigskin Parade is the cinematic debut of a teenaged Judy Garland constantly asking if people want to hear her sing and being rebuked in her earliest scenes. She does eventually let those mutant lungs belt out a few songs, but Pigskin Parade is so overloaded with musical interludes, hillbilly comedy, and anything else you can think of that Garland’s belting is but one small fraction of a weirder tapestry.

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The Pirate

Posted : 2 months ago on 21 June 2019 03:55 (A review of The Pirate)

It’s impossible to separate the final version of The Pirate from its fractured, turbulent production. Star Judy Garland was absent for roughly 75% of its shooting schedule as her marriage to director Vincente Minnelli crumbled, her pill addictions took a stronger hold on her life, and her mental/emotional states unraveled accordingly. Garland’s bad behavior, however understandable in hindsight, causes much of the final film to be handed over to Gene Kelly, in full hammy swagger and never sexier.


This lopsided effect leaves The Pirate as one of the strangest musicals to come out of the Arthur Freed unit at MGM. After all, Garland doesn’t sing until roughly thirty minutes into the film, Kelly’s extended dance sequences get the lion’s share of time, and the plot is a practically a bitch in heat. Somehow the confluence of Kelly’s peacocking, Garland’s overwhelming neurosis, and Minnelli’s overwrought imagery craft something unique.


Whether that “unique” is a positive or negative depends largely on the viewer. For me, I’ve long been fascinated and enthralled by The Pirate’s dream space Caribbean and overcharged erotic allure. I’m part of the cult that thinks this is a musical underdog just waiting for everyone else to take notice of its brilliance and vault it out of its limbo state. Others are not quite as forgiving of the patchwork plot and hyperbolic artistry.


There’s Garland’s quivering good girl just aching to go bad at the guiding hand of Macoco, the scourge of the Caribbean seas. Her first meeting with Kelly, a meet-cute flirtation, finds her practically vibrating with repressed sexual desire and Kelly turning up the sleazy charm. Garland’s legs are practically locked together at the vaguest change in vaginal humidity, and one can’t blame her as Kelly’s tanned seducer slides up to her.


Kelly’s a proud cock on display. His performance registers as something of either a parody or homage to John Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks’ pirate roles and hammy theatrics, and a display of his thick, muscular body. The costumer outfits Kelly in pants and tights that look as if they were painted on, and he’s never looked more alluring than he does here. Kelly was never more erotically charged and open a star than he was during the pirate ballet, the masterpiece sequence of the film, where he becomes the object of the camera’s desire in a way that is typically reserved for female stars.


This ballet sequence highlights his powerful thighs, arm muscles, and athletic dancing just as much as it functions as an elaborate erotic fever dream from Garland’s chaste good girl. He brandishes a sword throughout, and yep, it’s completely loaded with Freudian metaphor. Kelly and Garland generate heat in The Pirate, and this fantasy ballet exemplifies that this no sweetly pure romance story like Kelly and Garland’s other films, such as Summer Stock.


Awash in dreamy reds, purples, and then speed towards an ending run of sequences that seem at odds with the rest of the film. “Be a Clown,” first performed in a leg destroying routine with Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers then reprised with Garland and Kelly in pure slapstick mode, feels like an imposition from a more routine MGM production. It’s a remarkable and strange film nonetheless, one that’s psychologically complex in the ways it juxtaposes its characters interior realities with the fussily designed exterior. The Pirate is a fascinating, complex film that feels alternately designed for cult worship and begging for rediscovery as a damaged jewel in everyone’s oeuvre.   

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Girl Crazy

Posted : 2 months ago on 21 June 2019 03:54 (A review of Girl Crazy (1943))

The last of their four musical films together, Girl Crazy takes an established property and has Mickey and Judy playing honest-to-goodness characters rather than taking their established personas and building around that. Girl Crazy ends up being one of their strongest films for it. Of course, the Gershwin songbook certainly didn’t hurt.


Based on the stage show of the same name, however fast and loose, Girl Crazy finds Rooney playing an idle rich boy on the decent side of naughty that gets packed away to school out west after one too many bad headlines by his wealthy father. Rooney’s monied character is basically a decent sort that has to learn that there’s more to life than immediate gratification, and Garland’s just the girl to teach him that lesson. Opposites repel and attraction, there’s some misunderstandings and lessons along the way, and we stop every so often for another song-and-dance number.


Yes, Girl Crazy is pure formula, but what a formula! It never overstays its welcome, everything works, there’s some fun supporting players (Nancy Walker as sour to Garland’s sweet, in particular), and a number of knockout musical scenes. Hell, Girl Crazy even offers Rooney another chance to riff and whip out a series of impressions in order to lift Garland’s spirits, and the audience’s by extension.


Who cares if the plot’s nearly transparent when you’ve got June Allyson, in one of her first films, bringing her manic girl-next-door energy to “Treat Me Rough” or Garland breaking your heart during the “But Not for Me” chorus? Girl Crazy works so well because all the parts work with the smooth efficiency of a Swiss watch. Of course, something as dreamy and romantic as the sight of Garland and Charles Walters slow dancing in “Embraceable You” will tend to patch over any problems with predictability.


The absence of Busby Berkeley ironically helps matters as Garland seems more relaxed and natural here, and Rooney doesn’t dominate in the same way he did during Babes in Arms or Babes on Broadway. Their pairing feels more equitable here and they manage to give as good as they get. “Could You Use Me?” finds the pair engaging as mature adults primed for romantic and sexual coupling, and it’s a contrast to more chaste flirtations of their previous three films together.


While Norman Taurog’s direction manages to find the human element in many of the musical sequences, it’s the finale, “I Got Rhythm,” that one remembers. Berkeley’s final production number, “I Got Rhythm” finds cowboys and cowgirls line dancing, marching, firing pistols, and doing rope tricks. The entire thing is a surreal, overripe jewel that functions as the perfect cherry on top of Girl Crazy’s already tasty dessert. His presence isn’t necessarily missed during the rest of the film, Garland strongly disliked him, but he manages to go out with a bang.


As “I Got Rhythm” ends Girl Crazy with a loud pop (mostly from pistols), so too does this film mark the end of Mickey and Judy as a big screen duo. They would share the screen one last time during a scene in Words and Music, but this would prove their final merry-go-round as co-stars. For me, this is probably their strongest film as a pair with Garland’s dramatic talents ripening, Rooney knowing when to scale back or go big, and the uniformly strongest score of them all. Girl Crazy is a carefree musical fueled by the towering achievements of its consummate stars.

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Babes on Broadway

Posted : 2 months ago on 21 June 2019 03:52 (A review of Babes on Broadway)

The weakest of the four “let’s put on a show” musicals Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland made; Babes on Broadway ironically also contains some of the best individual materials of the four films. But there’s no getting around a few simple facts: Babes on Broadway is too long and convoluted, and the minstrel show sequence finale is such a sour note that it nearly negates everything that came before it. At least they’re not in blackface for the fadeout performance of the title song.


This one really amplifies the reoccurring theme of Rooney as an oily hustler who will do anything to succeed and get ahead. He will be humbled by his experiences in this story, of course, and become worthy of Garland’s love and admiration. Garland gets more of a spine here by letting Rooney know that his machinations and betrayals have hurt her.


This downbeat tone causes a lot of Babes on Broadway to play like a film from a decade prior. It’d be easy to imagine the basics of this story and these characters plopped into a Depression-era musical, like a family-friendly 42nd Street. The whole thing either peps up or drags down depending on any individual scene, but a persistent bitterness remains. The fun of watching Mickey and Judy put on a show to save someone/something is leeched out ever so slowly here.


Along the way towards that complicated finale, Babes on Broadway manages to provide some bravura sequences. There’s the “Hoe Down,” one of Busby Berkeley’s geometric and complicated sequences that’s obviously taxing on the performers but sold entirely by their ability to make it look as easy as walking. “How About You?” is Mickey and Judy doing a Fred and Ginger meet-cute turned duet around her apartment. “Chin Up! Cheerio! Carry On!” is a morale booster as Judy nearly single-handedly does her part for the special relationship by singing about how much America supports Britain while it was going through the blitz.


As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the hilarious sight of Rooney doing an impression of Carmen Miranda in “Mama Yo Quiero.” Yes, he’s in full drag and doing a highly credible imitation of her performing style before ending it on a jokey scream of “Mama!” Rooney, Richard Quine, and Ray McDonald burn the house down during “Anything Can Happen in New York” for an appreciative Fay Bainter. The highlight of the film is Vincente Minnelli’s ghost theater sequence where Rooney and Garland imitate stage stars of the past, including George M. Cohan and Sarah Bernhardt.


If there’s so much good, then why is Babes on Broadway so low in my estimation? Because it’s all bits and pieces that never quite cohere into anything stronger. It’s getting to these set pieces that takes some doing as the connective tissue is plagued with awkward performances and tonal issues. Richard Quine is fine, Ray McDonald is there, Virginia Weidler is a child actress I never much cared for. She’s all awkward dancing and outshined by the depth of talent of her main co-stars here. Hell, Margaret O’Brien’s cinematic debut, a blink-and-miss it cameo where she delivers a hilariously melodramatic and morbid joke audition, blows her out of the water.


It’s nearly impossible to talk about Babes on Broadway without circling back to that blackface finale, so no sense in prolonging the inevitable. Its presence is bad enough, but its introduction is so shiny and happy that it somehow makes it all even worse. It just keeps going on and on as Berkeley is clearly enamored with the blackface makeup contrasting with the all-white costumes and assembling them in various shapes and patterns. There’s some good technique and astounding images here, but what you’re looking and what they’re in service towards winds up being a net negative.  

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Strike Up the Band

Posted : 2 months ago on 21 June 2019 03:49 (A review of Strike Up the Band)

Backyard musical number two from Mickey and Judy, Strike Up the Band is bigger than Babes in Arms but not necessarily better. Make no mistake, this is a hugely entertaining affair with some delightful set pieces and a fun group of supporting players, but a certain sense of proportion starts to weigh the film down. The expediency of Babes in Arms is sorely missed as Strike Up the Band loses energy the longer it goes on.


This one finds the wholesome twosome starting a high school band, entering a competition to meet a big-time band leader, but oh no, one of their classmates falls sick and needs an emergency procedure. Will these kids find a way to both save their friend and make it to Chicago for the big competition? If there was ever any doubt about the happily ever after outcome, then you must be new to these movies. I envy you; you’re getting to experience the joyful noise and megawatt energy of these two overachievers demonstrating the full range of their talents.


The major problems with Strike Up the Band is not knowing when to edit and limit excesses. This sounds like a strange criticism of a musical, especially an MGM musical right on the cusp of the genre’s strongest run of films and stars, but some of the best musicals know when to scale it back. For instance, June Preisser’s role as romantic and artistic rival for Garland was much better in Babes in Arms. In that film her presence was a logical extension of the plot, but she feels shoehorned in here as though what worked prior was simply replicated without thought put into the ‘why’ of it.


A similar thing happens with the backyard musical within the film, “Nell from New Rochelle.” It’s fun to watch Garland, Rooney, and William Tracy ham it up in a vaudevillian morality play, but it just keeps dragging on long after the cutesy charms have worn off. I am impressed that a group of high school students were able to cobble this together. It’s improbable even by the already improbable standards of a movie from the Dream Factory.


Let’s focus on the good now. “Do the La Conga” is enthralling and energetic as Mickey and Judy perform an exaggerated version of the dance. There’s also the stop-motion fruit orchestra of “Our Love Affair” that’s as strange as it is enchanting. “Drummer Boy” finds Rooney displaying his talents for drumming and playing the xylophone. Then there’s the outrageous finale of “Strike Up the Band” that drops any pretense of reality, no matter how feeble, and goes full-scale musical fantasy world.


It’s in these various moments that Strike Up the Band engages the audience as thoroughly as possible. These kids come to represent America’s can-do spirit, as mythical as nearly anything else in the film, and provided a balm for a scarred national psyche as Pearl Harbor and World War II were right around the corner and the Depression slowly unwinding. It’s a ball to spend time in the fantasy world where enough gumption can launch a pair of teenagers into big production numbers and fame. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if you’re Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

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Brother Bear 2

Posted : 2 months, 1 week ago on 16 June 2019 05:07 (A review of Brother Bear 2)

The original Brother Bear was a neutral object that never quite justified its existence and was like watching studio groupthink in action. Three years later comes a direct-to-video sequel, imaginatively titled Brother Bear 2, and it’s just as much of an indifferent object as the first. Hell, this one loses its movie star, Joaquin Phoenix, for a TV performer on a comeback, Patrick Dempsey, and a pop star mid-transformation into an actress, Mandy Moore. It’s this spirit of settling that pervades throughout Brother Bear 2. If you enjoyed those Canadian moose from the first film, then here’s an entire subplot about them trying to romance a pair of females, played by SCTV alumni Catherine O’Hara and Andrea Martin. I guess this one is as good as the original, or maybe a little better? I don’t know, honestly, as spending more time with this group of characters was an indifferent proposition from the jump. So, here’s a romance where the female gets turned into the beast and it expands upon the main character’s (human) backstory with plenty of stuff about the great spirits and not a single native voice actor to be found.   

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Drive a Crooked Road

Posted : 2 months, 1 week ago on 16 June 2019 05:07 (A review of Drive a Crooked Road)

A bit of a noir-by-numbers, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy the thrill ride of Drive a Crooked Road. Sure, the plot is the basic building blocks of a film noir, but it’s nice little B-level entry in Mickey Rooney’s filmography that careens through its brief running time with no fat on the bones and a strange little ending. I doubt anyone will ever mistake this for a stellar entry in the noir canon, but it’s a nice little minor discovery.


Rooney plays a lonely auto mechanic that becomes the patsy for a femme fatale (Dianne Foster) and her wannabe bank robber beau (Kevin McCarthy). You can guess where it’s going: femme fatale temps Rooney, introduces him to bank robber beau, and then slowly introduces him to their criminal plans. It zips through these story beats with surprising economy and a slow burning performance from Rooney.


No megawatt theatrics from Rooney here, but an authentic depiction of loneliness, world-weariness, and romantic isolation. He makes a great dupe, and I watched this as a double with Babes in Arms. If you ever wanted to see a demonstration of Rooney’s range as an actor, then I couldn’t think of a better or odder pairing. The effervescent, eternally youthful performer that chewed the scenery is nowhere to be found here.


Where Drive a Crooked Road stumbles is in its ending. Foster’s femme fatale gets a complete arc as she grows a conscience and feels terrible about the entire plot and helping to set it into motion. Foster’s biggest transformation is in her relationship with Rooney. Her revelation that she used him but feels terrible about it is a nice payoff from the private moments we’ve seen so far, but Rooney’s dupe never gets one. He seems to stumble into his comeuppance instead of engineering his revenge. It’s an upending of noir’s conventions while also feeling a bit like a spinout near the finish line.   

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So Dark the Night

Posted : 2 months, 1 week ago on 16 June 2019 05:06 (A review of So Dark the Night)

I suppose this is a noir film, in a mild sense, but its so bonkers and esoteric in its story beats that it quickly veers into horror proximity. So Dark the Night, director Joseph H. Lewis’ sophomore slump, is a weird, shapeless thing.


I’m not sure if its pretentions or what, but So Dark the Night begins as a mere detective number set in France with disparate parts that never quite come together. Then there’s the slow unraveling of the killer’s identity and a character’s crumbling psychological state, which are a Venn diagram situation, that feels at odds with the love story introduction. It’s a perpetual bait-and-switch situation that never quite finds a coherent scenario to build upon.


So Dark the Night feels far more like a story built upon maximum shock appeal and fractured identities. It’s not that we’re asked to sympathize with a potential killer that put me off, there’s plenty of stories that ask this of us, but there’s no hold on the character for us to grasp. It’s an odd film but not an unenjoyable one. It’s parts are great even if I’m unsure what they add up to or if they add up to something worthwhile.  

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My Name is Julia Ross

Posted : 2 months, 1 week ago on 16 June 2019 05:06 (A review of My Name Is Julia Ross (1945))

Less a traditional film noir than an arty psychological melodrama with a noir aesthetic, My Name is Julia Ross is a kindred spirit to the likes of Gaslight and Rebecca. While it distinctly ranks as the bronze medalist between the trio, My Name is Julia Ross is still a solidly made thriller.


Sometimes budget constraints can cause films to either flourish or flounder. The works of producer Val Lewton are perfect demonstrations of what a thin budget, but a lot of atmosphere and inky shadows can go a long way in a visual medium to strengthening the full work. My Name is Julia Ross has plenty in common with those films with its propulsive story, heavily shadowed interiors, and unsteady psychological atmospherics.


Julia Ross (Nina Foch) lands a job with a wealthy family, and is promptly kidnapped, quarantined away, and gaslit into thinking she’s Marion, the wife of Ralph Hughes (George Macready) who died mysteriously. Ralph’s domineering mother, Mrs. Hughes (Dame May Whitty), appears all docile and sweet to everyone but is the twisted engineer of Julia’s psychological torture and imprisonment. Julia’s a bit of a cypher, we only learn enough about her to care before she’s whisked away and treated as an empty vessel for the Hughes’ familial strife and poisonous worldview.


Its in Nina Foch’s central performance that much of Julia Ross gets its power. Her paranoia at the persistent manipulation is registered by Foch’s eyes continually searching for someone to believe her. Her desperation in escaping this fate and conundrum is all over her face and quivering voice.


As Julia Ross comes to its close, a bit of like watching someone willingly trade one imprisonment for another, you realize that this has been an incredibly effective and bustling 65-minute journey. No room for fat, this is a lean, mean, no bullshitting machine. Everything works and its streamlined efficiency is a marvel of B-movie engineering.   

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