We watch classic musicals sometimes. I never thought a 1930’s backstage drama starring James Cagney as an obsessed showman, costarring with the entire Gold Diggers of 1933 cast, would turn out to be the elusive Perfect Film, but there ya go.
Tag: Busby Berkeley
One of Busby Berkeley’s unexciting 1940’s flicks (see also: Take Me Out to the Ball Game). He even has a total anti-Berkeley moment, aiming the camera at Judy, singing against a plain wall, and leaving it there for ages. What happened – budget cuts? Not a bad movie though – Gene Kelly’s debut, with established young star Judy Garland (only one year after her last Andy Hardy movie, and two before Meet Me In St. Louis).
Another one of those movies starring two attractive young people who just have to end up together, because it’s a Hollywood movie, even though they shouldn’t. Gene proves again and again that he cares only about his career, playing the Palace in New York, and anybody is disposable on his way to the top. But he doesn’t get to the top, due to the (vaudeville/WWI-era) public’s new interest in war heroes and his successful attempt to draft-dodge by smashing his hand in a trunk. And due to the WWII-era public’s distaste for draft-dodging romantic heroes, the ending was hastily rewritten so a troop-entertaining Kelly tries to warn approaching ambulances that passage is unsafe and ends up singlehandedly taking out an enemy machine gun nest.
Judy doesn’t get as many plot points, but gets to sing some good 1910’s showtunes. She starts out in the show of Jimmy Metcalf (future politician George Murphy), starts a duo act with Kelly until he dumps her when his opera singer friend Eve (Martha Eggerth, 1930’s cinema star in Austria and Germany) suggests she can get him more fame, sob Judy heads to the war to sing for troops, where she’s reunited with hero-come-lately Kelly.
Bosley Crowther: “To one who takes mild exception to sentimental excess, it seems an overlong, overburdened and generally over-talked musical film.” He also calls Judy Garland “saucy.”
After all his latest musical theater projects have fallen apart due to shaky financing during the Great Depression, fast-talkin’ producer Ned Sparks (in Imitation of Life the following year) has an idea for a sure-fire hit, a musical about “the forgotten man,” the unemployable Depression masses, a dour march through the grim realities of today. When we finally see the play, bankrolled by the secret millionaire/composer down the hall, it looks suspiciously unlike what we were imagining, full of naughty love songs and massive Busby Berkeley numbers in glittering costumes. This isn’t a plot twist or ironic commentary on artistic intentions vs. end results once money gets involved – it’s just an inconsistent movie.
The movie opens with Ginger Rogers, but she turns out to be just a friend of the main characters Polly, Carol and Trixie. Polly is Ruby Keeler (Mrs. Al Jolson, just off 42nd Street), a round-faced innocent cutie. Carol is Joan Blondell (later Mrs. Dick Powell, a successful actress through the seventies), the scheming beauty. And Trixie is Aline MacMahon (mostly a stage actress), the smartass. Polly falls for Dick Powell (star of Christmas In July and Susan Slept Here), the millionaire/composer, and the show is cast and everything is gonna be fine.
Conflict! Powell’s millionaire family finds out about his distasteful dabblings in showbusiness and brother Warren William (Caesar to Colbert’s Cleopatra) comes to town with lawyer Guy Kibbee (noble newspaperman in Power of the Press) to stop all this nonsense and threaten to cut off his fortune. But due to a fake gold-digger plot by Polly’s roommates, William and Kibbee end up falling in love with them, triple-wedding is planned and the show goes on, with a last-minute “forgotten man” musical number to remind us of an earlier point.
LeRoy directed the year after I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and musical scene director Busby Berkeley was on a roll after 42nd Street, and would helm the 1935 sequel himself. Also appearing: Sterling Holloway (Remember the Night) as a messenger boy, Eric Blore (The Lady Eve) as a stuffy rich guy, and Billy Barty (a little guy known for playing babies and hobbits and creatures) as a leering, naughty kid during a big dance scene. Songs include “We’re in the Money” (not exactly in keeping with the Depression theme), the catchy “Pettin’ in the Park,” and a waltz featuring a dance of neon violins, and of course the musical numbers and fun performances are the entire point of the movie, not any of the crap I’ve written above.
Finally, a decent Esther Williams movie. True-ish story of record-breaking swimming star Annette Kellerman who controversially wore one-piece bathing suits (an arrestable offense in 1907) and somehow less-controversially appeared nude in major films. Kellerman also pioneered synchronized swimming, which Esther re-enacts with Busby Berkeley rather than doing the nude scenes, unfortunately. It’s the second movie (after Sherlock Jr.) I’ve seen in which the star breaks his/her neck onscreen during a water stunt.
Victor Mature (Doc Holiday in My Darling Clementine) plays Esther’s manager/love-interest. From the writer of The Glass Bottom Boat and director of Random Harvest, nominated for best color cinematography but lost to The Quiet Man.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949, Busby Berkeley)
I finally watched some Esther Williams movie with Katy the night we heard she’d died (Esther, not Katy), but I have to say she didn’t make a huge impression (again, Esther, not Katy, who always makes an impression). She plays the inheritor of a baseball team, led by superstar trio Ryan (Frank Sinatra), O’Brien (wildly mugging Gene Kelly) and Goldberg (Jules Munshin, fifth-billed in a short run of late-1940’s musicals). Esther was at least noticeable better than Gene’s love interest Betty Garrett, who I was always afraid would try to catch up with Gene’s frantic comedy act, a la Shirley Maclaine in Artists & Models.
The best baseball-related song, “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg,” was based on a poem which I remember from that Ken Burns thing. Overall, kind of a lame finale to Busby Berkeley’s shining career, passing the reins to cowriters/choreographers Gene and Stanley Donen, who’d make On The Town and Singin’ in the Rain over the next few years.
Thrill of a Romance (1945, Richard Thorpe)
Oh this one was much better, and with a ton more water (Esther plays a swim instructor). She marries a neglectful rich guy who immediately runs away on business errands while she spends her unconsummated honeymoon with a colorful opera star and hunky war hero Van Johnson, with whom she swims and hikes and talks and laughs. Will she stay with the coldly absent husband who bought her attention with gifts, or the rugged handsome new man who she repeatedly admits that she loves? I’m not spoiling it.
An early starring role for Esther. Thorpe was a Tarzan movie vet, also in charge of the latest Thin Man picture. Esther’s meddling friend Frances Gifford had appeared in an unrelated Tarzan movie. Musicals are generally improved when they costar an opera singer – Lauritz Melchior would return in Esther’s This Time For Keeps.