We lost our little bird, so picked the two dumbest movies we could find to unwind. This is a not-great musical version of Ninotchka with a not-good romance featuring a few sublime dance scenes. Cyd Charisse comes to life in those, is otherwise buttoned up as the humorless Russian sent to collect three bumbling government agents who were sent to collect a defecting music composer who is writing new music for Hollywood producer Fred Astaire who is mangling the serious tunes into upbeat dance numbers and falling for Ninotchka.
Nice Cole Porter songs. Predictably, my favorite was the one about filmmaking with separate verses about color and widescreen processes. I also dug Fred’s attack on the passing fad that was rock & roll music. “Happy” ending has all Russians staying in California, embracing capitalism, decadence and popular music, and Fred making all Cyd’s decisions for her.
Astaire’s last musical for a decade and the final film of Mamoulian (Queen Christina, Love Me Tonight). Cyd and Fred had previously starred together in The Band Wagon. Janis Paige plays the star of Astaire’s film, an Esther Williams caricature whose quirk is whacking her head to get water out of her ears. She got her start in the movies last-billed in Esther Williams’s Bathing Beauty. Naturally no Russians appear in the movie. The composer is Dutch Wim Sonneveld, Hungarian Peter Lorre plays one of the comic-relief agents alongside NYC-born Jules Munshin (Kelly & Sinatra’s co-lead in On The Town) and Lithuanian (close enough!) Joseph Buloff.
First Minnelli movie I’ve watched since Meet Me In St. Louis (and his 13th since then – I must catch up). Writers of Singin’ in the Rain (and it shows, with all the behind-the-scenes crossover) but different songwriters. I didn’t know much about it, besides its position on some lists of great films, but was still impressed at how great it was, in direction and dancing and music (in that order) more than anything else. Katy enjoyed, too.
Fred Astaire, a decade after Holiday Inn, is looking more alive and alert than ever, despite being in character as a has-been showman. He’s paired with (eventual love-interest, natch) young Cyd Charisse of Singin’ in the Rain by two enthusiastic show writers. They bring the project to an overbearing actor/director, but he turns their comedy into a dreary version of Faust, so after the investors have given up the writers reclaim the play and undo the director’s pretentious changes, touring to eventual acclaim. It’s all in fun.
Nanette Fabray (of not much else, but still alive, so there’s time) as a writer of the play holds her own in the singing and dancing scenes, but her comic foil partner Oscar Levant (a composer and pianist, also of An American In Paris and Humoresque) I found more hammy and grating. Maybe it was more his big clown face than his acting, but there’s something unpleasant about him. Jack Buchanan, as the director (who is good-natured enough to stay with the play after the rewrite), is far better here as a noisy, self-obsessed Orson Welles caricature than as the fey hero of Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo. The one scene with a major dancer who’s not one of our stars is when Astaire dances through an arcade with Leroy Daniels. It’s a wonderful dance, and even more wonderful that Daniels is apparently playing himself, known around Hollywood as a rhythmic shoe-shiner who had a hit country song written about him.
No Oscar nomination for the song “That’s Entertainment” – I guess it wasn’t considered an original song. I liked all the songs pretty well, though Katy notes they didn’t try to make any sort of unified sense out of them. We get Astaire and pals in baby clothes dancing on their knees to “Triplets,” country Nanette in “Louisiana Hayride,” and Cyd’s big-drama “New Sun in the Sky”. As the cast regains control of their play and starts to turn it back into an entertaining piece, these songs get added seemingly at random. It adds to the comedy that we never remotely see how these bits connect in the finished play.