One more Criterion musical watched after last month‘s spree, and this one has the most interesting story. Envisioned as an On The Town sequel with Gene Kelly, but Sinatra and Munshin got replaced by Michael Kidd (choreographer of Seven Brides) as a short burger chef and Dan Dailey (Ethel Merman’s partner in There’s No Business) as a tall corporate sadsack. The three play war buddies who promise to reunite after ten years, and they come through but don’t like each other/themselves much anymore. Through Dan’s advertising job their story catches the attention of Cyd Charisse (her boxing-ring song is the best scene), who tricks them into appearing on live TV with overbearing host Dolores Gray (Kismet the same year). The show coincides with boxing promoter Gene Kelly’s ambush by some gangsters angry that he has messed up their fixed fights, the cameras catch the ensuing brawl and confession, and the guys realize that they still like each other/themselves as long as violence is involved. A drunken dance with trashcan-lid shoes goes on for hours, and Kelly shows up Melvin with a roller skate dance where you can tell the skates aren’t locked.
The opening abduction scene will make more sense eventually, and even then, it wasn’t until I started playing the commentary that I could say with any confidence what’s happening in the open. The household scene that follows quickly reminded that we’re in the hands of the Hard to be a God director – full of movement and talking, bustling activity in every corner of long roving camera takes.
Yuri is a military doctor in 1953, bald with a mustache, an important man who will be brought low by forces that we twenty-first-century non-Soviets can hardly fathom without audio explanation. It’s sure entertaining though, and practically as foul and brutish as God. Sound effects are good – dubbing is bad, but I’m constantly checking subtitles since the movie never shuts up for a second, so we’ll call it even.
Learned from the commentary: the movie is in two parts since they could get double budget if it was submitted as two films. One character with a cane umbrella would be seen as a hilarious foreigner by Russian audiences since he wears galoshes. There are major literature and poetry references throughout (I caught Viy and Sadko). German didn’t look through the camera viewfinder or select lenses, considered cinematographer Vladimir Ilin a co-author of the film, “the lighting cameraman has to be an artist too.”
The doctor gets home, but his son in voiceover says he never saw his father again… there was a double in the film, being trained what to say in case he was captured, and other doubles and siblings, so maybe I got some characters confused, and I only played the first hour of the commentary. It involves antisemitism, the death of Stalin, and a scandal called The Doctor’s Plot, which refuses to make sense no matter how much I read about it. To be clear though, the movie’s power comes through fine even not knowing what’s happening – in fact, I wonder if it’s the whole point not to know. “Poetry floats up in my memory like sailboats in the fog, along with salami.” The doctor ends up on a train, tormenting the abducted man from the opening scene, and looking intense:
Another part of the population was starving in the gulag, but we ignored that reality; we only knew ours, and I can assure you that from that point of view, living in a totalitarian regime isn’t all bad. People who don’t want to know lead an adorable life. That’s why even today a lot of people in our country yearn for totalitarianism.
The MGM musicals on Criterion Channel are starting to blur together – musically, at least. This one has a memorable plot: a Broadway star walks out, and auditions narrow down her replacement to three girls, each the favorite of one of the casting men.
Producer Larry Keating talks show director Gower Champion into auditioning his former partner Marge Champion (the Champions had remade Ginger & Fred’s Roberta the year before) – she’s a established star and right for the role, but they’re both uneasy about it. Composer Kurt Kasznar (Anything Goes, Kiss Me Kate) is hot for the extremely flexible Helen Wood (a future porn actress). Kurt is mostly terrible but surprisingly competent as a dance partner.
For some reason, these three give the time of day to the coffee boy (Bob Fosse!), who falls for Debbie Reynolds. I mean you can’t expect a girl to be excellent at everything, so the better the dancer, the worse the actress. Debbie Reynolds does tap, and is somehow in competition with super-flex girl and established star – but she’s Debbie freakin’ Reynolds so we’re rooting for her.
The dance sequences are fun – conveyor belts, dream sequences, a dance mostly in reverse featuring balloons unpopping. The poor composer does not get his girl, since she turns out to be married and pregnant, and the Champions decide to reunite romantically instead of working together, so Debbie’s dream comes true (plus she gets to date a coffee boy, but Fosse is cute and enthusiastic). From the screenwriting couple behind The Pirate, and IMDB says both movies bombed. Our seventh Stanley Donen movie!
Debbie and Donald, reuniting from last year’s Singin’ in the Rain. This one’s not at the same level, but is still awfully fun with good music – other musicals we’ve watched this month have better dancing, but this one had the best songs.
The plot is convoluted hooey: he bumps into her in the park, makes excuses to spend time together by photographing her for a nonexistent article in the magazine where he works as a flunky. She’s currently playing a football on Broadway (not “playing football”, she’s the football, it’s hilarious) and is supposed to marry a rich chunk (Richard Anderson of Seconds and Forbidden Planet), so Donald goes further in his scheme and brings over a mock-up magazine with Debbie on the cover, which causes everyone to overreact. Donald ends up homeless and the magazine devotes an entire issue to locating him – as you do when you’re a major publication and your coffee boy goes missing – and everyone’s happy, except maybe Debbie’s dad (Allyn Joslyn: a pilot in Only Angels Have Wings, sheriff of Moonrise) who quit his job spectacularly and now has an unemployed son-in-law. Katy knows the mom from The Parent Trap – Una Merkel aged fast, from playing the marriable daughter of The Bank Dick to playing someone’s Aunt Elsie in only one year.
Vibrant colors, and not in widescreen, this being six months before the premiere of Cinemascope. Don Weis went into television early, directing everything from Wagon Train in the 50’s to Batman in the 60’s to MASH in the 70’s to Fantasy Island in the 80’s. The screenwriter won an oscar a couple years later for Designing Woman. Debbie’s little sister gets a whole song, and it’s not terrible. She would later be a teen TV star on the series Bachelor Father.
Yeesh, we had no idea. One brother goes into town, finds a gal who’s eager to escape, convinces her to marry him, and heads back into the woods. So far so good… but then his six brothers sneak into town, kidnap six girls, cover their tracks with an avalanche, hold the girls hostage until the thaw, and when their family members arrive in spring with rifles and pitchforks the girls have the stockholm syndrome and ask to get married.
Before the mass kidnapping, saddled with a flustered husband and six hungry boys, Jane Powell sure turns this rowdy bunch of crude mountain men into model citizens in a couple scenes. Sure the men have lapses, like when they get in a brawl and destroy the barn they were supposed to be building, but the men from town were attacking them with boards and hammers! Maybe after Jane’s lessons in manners, they realized that the men in town are the savages, and deserve to have all their eligible young ladies stolen away to the hills.
Donen made this between Singin’ in the Rain and It’s Always Fair Weather. In scope with bold and bright (but shaky) color. I’m not sure any of the songs were great, but the staging and dance were all tops. Giant dude and oldest brother Adam was Howard “Not Richard” Keel of Annie Get Your Gun, and his bride Jane Powell is from Royal Wedding. Too many burly, beardy, identical-looking dudes and pretty girls without any character to mention – we focused on Russ Tamblyn as the youngest brother, didn’t realize Julie “Catwoman” Newmar was in there too. Remade in the 80’s with River Phoenix, then again with Amitabh Bachchan
A gritty, efficient movie… hit man Vince Edwards is sent by his unseen boss to knock off a guy at the barber, a guy at hospital, then one of his own associates Mr. Moon. Vince gets a big head about being good at his job, suddenly making self-important speeches to everyone and being shitty to waiters. Then he loses his composure upon finding out his next target is a woman. He wires her TV knobs to a high voltage line but she defeats him by using the remote control, and the whole criminal conspiracy starts to fall apart.
“The only type of killing that’s safe is when a stranger kills a stranger… now why would a stranger kill a stranger? Because somebody’s willing to pay.”
Vince the Barber:
Vince’s hired hand, Herschel Bernardi of TV’s Peter Gunn and Arnie, gets a side plot where he learns to shoot a bow and arrow for one of their attempted hits. Their loud annoying partner Phillip Pine was in a sci-fi apocalypse movie the same year, later directed a 1972 anti-drug movie which potheads watch to laugh at. The girl, Caprice Toriel, was never seen before or since, but Kathie Browne, the hard-drinking party girl who lets Vince know that his second attempted hit killed a cop instead of the intended target, appeared in the late Howard Hawks comedy Man’s Favorite Sport?
Vince, almost getting away with it before falling into a police trap:
First movie watched on the new Criterion Channel! Irving Lerner would not go on to direct The Empire Strike Back – that’s Irvin Kershner, and I get them confused. Lerner also edited films for Scorsese, Kubrick and Vic Morrow and made two other crime dramas in the late 1950’s. Lead killer Vince Edwards was in Too Late Blues and played the wife’s boyfriend who gets everyone dead in The Killing. Composer Perry Botkin must’ve recently watched The Third Man.
A few days after Rashomon, we took a whole class to the Alamo for this one, all of our first times seeing it. A version of Macbeth that is plenty enjoyable on its own, through its great atmosphere and unique variations on the story, and even more so after reading about some of the design elements and historical context.
From Stephen Prince’s Criterion essay:
Noh shows up everywhere in Throne of Blood, making the project a real fusion of cinema and theater… Noh elements include the music (that assertive flute, for example), the bare sets, and especially the stylized performances by Mifune and Isuzu Yamada … Actors in Noh use masks, and while Kurosawa doesn’t do anything so blatantly artificial here, he does have Mifune and Yamada model facial expressions that resemble popular Noh masks (a strategy he extended in Yamada’s makeup) … Kurosawa strips all the psychology out of Macbeth and gives us a film whose characters are Noh types and where emotions — the province of character in the drama of the West — are formally embodied in landscape and weather. The bleached skies, the fog, the barren plains, and characters going adrift against and within these spaces — this is where the emotion of the film resides … Kurosawa wants us to grasp the lesson, to see the folly of human behavior, rather than to identify or empathize with the characters.
Toshiro Mifune’s ninth Kurosawa film, with Isuzu Yamada (landlady of The Lower Depths) as his Lady, and Minoru Chiaki (the priest in Rashomon, also Hidden Fortress and The Face of Another) as his friend-turned-rival. The three witches are replaced by a single spinning-wheel ghost, with a neat single take when the spirit house vanishes while the warriors (and camera) are distracted.
I love the performances even more than the multiple-perspective conceit, how Mifune goes from devil-may-care trickster thief to pathetic coward, the wife from tormented crying victim to cold duel instigator. Three points of view including the dead husband’s through a medium, then a fourth version from a witness woodcutter, then he’s also revealed to be a liar/thief, having stolen a valuable dagger from the crime scene, and all this causes the local priest to despair until his faith is restored by the woodcutter adopting a baby that was apparently abandoned at the temple while they were telling crime stories. The priest’s bit is overdone, rest of the movie is perfect. Watched on the big screen at Alamo with my Katy.
Won top prize at Venice against Diary of a Country Priest, Renoir’s The River, Ace in the Hole, Born Yesterday, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, and won different oscars in two consecutive years, since their rules used to be even stupider than they are now. This was Toshiro Mifune’s fifth Kurosawa film, and his breakout role to the Western world. The wife Machiko Kyô starred in Gate of Hell, the dead husband Masayuki Mori in Ugetsu, and the medium Noriko Honma in each of Kurosawa’s final three films.
If anyone’s reading, there is a short-term Situation over here… fewer movies are being watched, and fewer words written about them. Gonna burn through the backlog with some half-assed posts!
Katy says this is considered Jimmy Stewart’s worst movie, which seems farfetched – A Tale of Africa, anyone? Sure it’s no Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but it’s fine. Stewart is scooping salt after dropping off supplies when local drunken bully Dave (Alex Nicol of Bloody Mama and The Screaming Skull) comes by and steals/destroys all his stuff. Stewart gets revenge, of a sort, by hanging out with Dave’s dad’s love-interest/nemesis Aline MacMahon (The Flame and the Arrow) and refusing to leave town, not letting on that he’s tracking some rifles stolen from his late brother. So Jimmy gets tangled up in all the townfolk’s affairs until he figures out who’s trading rifles to the sinister Indians (it’s Dave, of course), almost getting himself killed a bunch of times in the process.
Dusty, enraged Stewart with defeated Dave:
The town is supposedly dominated by a very large ranch plus Aline’s smaller one, though we never see workers at either place except when they ride out in groups to start fights. The rancho grande is run by ailing Donald Crisp (Ulysses Grant in Birth of a Nation forty years earlier) who wishes his son wasn’t such a fuckup, and foreman Arthur Kennedy (who we just saw in The Lusty Men), who’s in on the rifle scheme with Dave. Combo of the gun deal, the vengeful Stewart, and Crisp’s failed power plays all lead to downfall and death, though somehow Crisp is given a happyish ending, engaged to Aline, while Stewart has to ride off but tells his own love interest (Cathy O’Donnell, girlfriend of handless Harold in The Best Years of Our Lives) to look him up if she ever rides east.
Crisp and Kennedy:
Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West) plays a would-be assassin: