The Great Ziegfeld (1936, Robert Z. Leonard)

Endless, rambling bio-pic about a theater producer who always planned bigger shows than he could afford, with enthusiasm that proved contagious to financial backers. Semi-falsely billed as a William Powell/Myrna Loy movie, since she plays his second wife, appearing in the last half hour of the three-hour movie. Good scenes (especially the lavish musical numbers) and acting, but the story is bloated with details from Ziegfeld’s life that just aren’t necessary to the plot or character, starting with an opening scene with his father and a little girl (who returns hours/years later to dance in one of his shows, but so what).

Powell was between The Thin Man and its first sequel. He runs a circus act with strongman Sandow (Nat Pendleton of two Thin Man movies), then marries his star Anna Held (Luise Rainer, winning back-to-back oscars with this and The Good Earth) after moving to Broadway shows. Anna carries her whole show, but Ziegfeld wants to do something bigger (he gives the impression of having a short attention span), so he starts the Follies, a musical comedy variety show that changes every year. Some ups, some downs, he seems washed up then opens four Broadway hits at the same time, then falls broke/sick/dead when the market crashes.

Myrna Loy’s character is Billie Burke, the good witch of The Wizard of Oz, and Frank Morgan (Ziegfeld’s main friend/rival) played The Wizard himself. Surprisingly, Will Rogers was dead and that was a Will Rogers impersonator in his scene.

Written by one of Ziegfeld’s main show writers. Won best picture and actress (Luise Rainer). Frank Capra, The Story of Louis Pasteur and Dodsworth took the rest. Got a semi-sequel in Ziegfeld Girl, also by Robert “Ziegfeld” Leonard with Busby Berkeley (it’s shorter, with Judy Garland = probably a better movie), and the music and comedy revue Ziegfeld Follies, featuring Powell as the dead Ziegfeld.

All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse)

A singing, dancing musical fantasy taking place in the mind of a lead character confined to a hospital bed, who doubles the filmmaker’s own hospital illness/fantasies. But enough about The Singing Detective

Bob Fosse ended up in hospital trying to obsessively re-edit his film Lenny while launching his musical Chicago, and Fosse’s stand-in Roy Scheider (the guy in Jaws whom I disliked less than Richard Dreyfuss) is in a similar fix, plus he’s juggling too many drugs and women, including ex-wife Leland Palmer (that’s the actress’s real name, also of Ken Russell’s Valentino) and dream-girl Jessica Lange. Inspired by 8 1/2, Scheider always surrounded by women in his profession and home life.

Lost the big oscars to Kramer vs. Kramer and Apocalypse Now, but still won a bunch, including editing, which it deserved. Most impressive part of the movie is the dance scenes, which include the camera and editing as part of the dance.

N. Murray:

Joe’s great curse is that he knows everything can be improved with more time and effort — himself included. More than once in the movie, he shows his work to someone who’s exasperated with him for all the time he’s taking and all the money he’s spending, and in each case, they shake their heads, annoyed to have to admit that all his fussing has made the finished product more brilliant. A skeptic might say this is Fosse congratulating himself, but it’s really more of an explanation. It’s impossible to create something as lasting as All That Jazz without doing a lot of personal and collateral damage.

Frances Ha (2012, Noah Baumbach)

This was fun. I suppose I can forgive The Squid and the Whale now. Greta Gerwig (best known as the first victim in House of the Devil) wants to be a famous dancer, will never be a famous dancer, is kind of unsufferable but cute enough that you forgive her. A better movie than Monsters University about childhood dreams and hard work not entirely working out. Katy cringed a lot during the most Baumbachesque scene, an ultra-awkward dinner conversation, while I was busy trying to figure why Dean & Britta were in the scene.

Pina (2011, Wim Wenders)

Dance doc based on the choreography of Pina Bausch, who died unexpectedly a week before filming was to begin. It ends up feeling like a memorial instead, the dance scenes interspersed with non-synched voiceover/closeup segments with each major dancer saying something about Pina.

Katy wanted more narrative and background, but the movie is purely interested in the dances, which are outstanding and look awesome in 3D. Highlights: “Cafe Muller,” in which Pina runs across a room full of chairs while a guy quickly clears her path, a couple climbing through chairs while a third guy precariously stacks them (Pina was into chairs), a solo sadness ballet at an empty factory, a rainy moon-rock scene with gondola-like floor slides, and dances in active locations (by a busy street, on a monorail).

Royal Wedding (1951, Stanley Donen)

Katy found some rare free time to watch a movie (she was sick), so we watched another Fred Astaire musical (our sixth). SHOCKtober will resume shortly.

For once, Fred Astaire’s costar isn’t his romantic partner but his sister. Fred was in his 50’s, looking slightly rough in close-up but having lost no charm, and sister Jane Powell was only 32, of course. The two are dancing partners in a hit show in New York – he’s the consummate professional and she’s always out with a different guy. Their agent books them a gig in London (supposedly it’s the same show, but prefiguring The Band Wagon, none of the music numbers we see from it seem vaguely related to each other) and they each find true love. Jane Powell recognizes a kindred spirit in royal womanizer Peter Lawford (who costarred in Easter Parade with Astaire and Judy Garland in 1948, the same year Jane Powell starred in A Date With Judy), and Astaire meets pretty redhead Sarah Churchill (who wasn’t in a ton of movies, but guess whose daughter she was). And they live happily et cetera.

Of course the group/duo dances are very nice, but Astaire kills it in the solo segments. He does two of his most famous and elegant dances – one on the walls and ceiling (even after I explained, Katy still can’t figure how he did this), and one ingeniously with a coat rack as his partner, a clear influence on David Byrne in Stop Making Sense. For her own solo numbers, Powell sings. And I did not have to turn to IMDB to know that she’s a big fan of Jeanette MacDonald, the piercing Snow White soprano of Monte Carlo and Love Me Tonight. Powell isn’t as horribly shrill, and recording equipment was of higher quality in 1951, but it’s still not my favorite vocal style.

Young director Stanley Donen’s next musical would be Singin’ in the Rain, and this was the first movie by writer Alan Jay Lerner, who’d write Gigi and My Fair Lady. Sarah’s bartender dad is Irishman Albert Sharpe, who returned in Lerner’s Brigadoon. Keenan Wynn seemed awfully proud of himself, but was frankly stupid as both the couple’s New York agent Irving, and his twin brother in England, Edgar. He would improve into the 60’s, appearing in Dr. Strangelove and Point Blank, before falling to the depths of Laserblast and Parts: The Clonus Horror.

Month of 121 Shorts: Silent/Early Cinema 2

Methuselah (1927, Jean Painlevé)
The title character is a dog-masked shoe-obsessed megalomaniac. Painlevé himself plays Hamlet, and surrealist poet Antonin Artaud found time to appear in this between Abel Gance’s Napoleon and The Passion of Joan of Arc. Doesn’t really make sense on its own – five filmed episodes that were projected during a stage play, strung together here with a stereotypical silent-film piano score.

The Vampire (1945, Jean Painlevé)
Portrait of the South American vampire bat set to happy jazz. They put a bat and a guinea pig in a cage and let the one eat the other. Don’t think I’ll be showing this one to Katy.

Bluebeard (1938, Jean Painlevé)
An opera version of Bluebeard, comically told with awesome and elaborate claymation.

The High Sign (1921, Keaton & Cline)
Buster steals a cop’s gun, runs a shooting gallery, becomes a rich guy’s bodyguard and becomes the same guy’s hired killer. Gags involving ropes and dogs and a house full of traps – one of BK’s funniest and most complicated shorts. So many film scraches I thought it was supposed to be raining. Features Al St. John (the clown who would one day be known as Fuzzy Q. Jones in a hundred westerns) and the gigantic Joe Roberts.
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One Week (1920, Keaton & Cline)
Opens with the same calendar we just saw in The High Sign and Buster getting married… nice transition from the last movie except that it’s a different girl. The one in which he builds a house. More acrobatic stunts than the previous movie – the two make a good pairing. Ooh, a meta camera gag and some near-nudity. I think more work went into this than all of Go West.
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A Wild Roomer (1927, Charley Bowers)
Charley (who not-so-subtly calls himself an “unknown genius” in the intertitles) makes a God Machine which creates self-aware puppets.
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Actually I’m not sure what that was about, besides being an extended stop-motion demonstration – the machine is supposed to take care of all your household chores. As with both of the other Bowers films I’ve watched recently, he has unquestionably made an excellent machine, so the conflict comes from the complications from having to show it off to others (in this case a cranky saboteur uncle with an inheritance at stake).
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Zooming in further one finds… a baby exterminator??
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Fatal Footsteps (1926, Charley Bowers)
“If there were a tax on idiots, Tom would send his dad to the poorhouse.” Well that makes up for the “unknown genius” line. Charley is trying to learn the Charleston to win a contest in the very house where the Anti-Dancing League (motto: “mind thy neighbor’s business”) is meeting. Just when I thought it was gonna be that simple, he invents some mechanical dancing shoes – stop-motion ensues. The shoes get mistakenly worn by Charley’s relative who offends his fellow Leaguers, then Charley wins (and escapes) the contest.
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Even fish are learning the Charleston:
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Haunted Spooks (1920, Hal Roach/Alfred Goulding)
The girl is first introduced kissing baby birds, so she’s got my sympathy.
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Her grandfather dies – she gets the house and inheritance if she lives in it for a year with her husband – but she has no husband! I thought I’d be in for 25 minutes of haunted-house hijinks, but the husband problem has to be solved first (Harold Lloyd is rejected by his rich dream girl, picked up by our girl’s lawyer while attempting to commit suicide) so we don’t get to the house until minute 17. After introducing some superstitious-negro stereotypes, the girl’s crooked uncle proceeds to “haunt” the house to drive her away and steal the inheritance.
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Cute movie, but what I liked best were the illustrated intertitles.
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Chess Fever (1925, Vsevolod Pudovkin)
Fever has gripped the whole town. Chess breaks up a relationship, drives two people to attempted suicide, then happily reunites them. I guess from important-sounding Pudovkin, with his grim-looking video covers, I wasn’t expecting a comedy, but this was light (despite all the suicide) and wonderful. Wikipedia says it includes documentary footage of the 1925 Moscow chess tournament.
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Charleston (1927, Jean Renoir)
A scientist from central Africa (a white guy in blackface and a tuxedo) flies in his aircraft (a marble on a string) to post-apocalyptic Paris, runs into a sexy Euro-girl and her pet monkey. The girl (Catherine Hessling, Renoir’s wife) teaches him the Charleston, filmed in cool slow-motion. Maybe this wasn’t as surreal in ’27 as it is today. The first (credited on IMDB anyway) film produced by Pierre Braunberger, who would go from Renoir to Resnais/Rivete/Rouch to Truffaut/Godard to Shuji Terayama.
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The Little Match Girl (1928, Jean Renoir)
New year’s eve, a poor girl (Catherine Hessling again) can’t sell any matches, starves/freezes to death on the street after hallucinating a better life. The first Renoir film I’ve seen with stop-motion (there’s only a tiny bit) but not the first to focus on clockwork machines. Also reverse and slow-motion and a horse race through the clouds – much more ambitious than Charleston. In her fantasy she plays at the toy store, shrunk to toy size herself, and meets a handsome soldier who looks suspiciously like the handsome cop who was nice to her in the snowy street. It’s all fun and games until Death comes and wrestles her from the soldier. Both these shorts were shot by Jean Bachelet, who would be cinematographer on three separate films of The Sad Sack including Renoir’s.
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Hellzapoppin’ (1941, H.C. Potter)

“It’s a great script – feel how much it weighs.”

Seeing how it’s Academy Awards season, I’ve been watching bizarrely oscar-related movies… first Susan Slept Here was narrated by an oscar statue, and now this one, the only movie to be nominated by accident. It seems a song called “Pig Foot Pete” appeared in an Abbott and Costello movie with the same singer (Martha Raye) and songwriters who worked on this movie, which probably accounts for the never-properly-explained discrepancy of “Pig Foot Pete” getting Hellzapoppin’ awarded an oscar nomination. It’s all beside the point, since nothing stood a chance against the song White Christmas from Holiday Inn.

The story involves mistaken identity, Martha Raye (Monsieur Verdoux) running after Mischa Auer (My Man Godfrey) because she believes he’s an eligible millionaire, while he tries to score Jane Frazee – but the movie (based on a fourth-wall-smashing hit broadway play) is really just an excuse for popular comics Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson to riff on everything around them, including the film itself. Goofy-looking Hugh Herbert (whose “hoo-hoo-hoo!” laugh supposedly inspired the creation of Daffy Duck) of Footlight Parade, Sh! The Octopus and The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend, also wanders about making jokes.

Chic and Ole – don’t ask me which is which:
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Movies like this (and there aren’t many movies like this) make the phrase “screwball comedy” seem inappropriately applied to such relatively calm, normal films as Bringing Up Baby. Surely the Marx Brothers movies were an influence. I’d like to think that Frank Tashlin, who was working in cartoons at the time this came out, was heavily influenced by its high-energy cartoony gags and unhinged self-reflexivity. Some of the jokes (many of the jokes!) are very bad, but you’ve gotta forgive them because overall the movie is too amusingly nuts to dislike.

Frankenstein’s Monster, about to helpfully toss Martha Raye:
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Kevin Lee: “The show-stopper is the much celebrated Lindy Hop sequence involving several Black domestic servants who without warning launch into the most jaw-dropping swing number captured on film.”

Here’s the precursor to that swing number, which is indeed jaw-dropping:
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Director Potter would work with all the biggest stars in his other films, and eventually make a sequel to this year’s biggest oscar-winner Mrs. Miniver.

Pretty girls are roasted on a spit in hell – the movie opens with this!
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The legal battle of Olsen vs. Johnson vs. Universal Pictures has led to the commercial unavailability of their work for so long that if it finally came out now, in sparkling restored deluxe DVD editions, nobody much would care since they are barely remembered. Good job there, guys.

Martha mooning after Mischa Auer:
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NY Times called it “an anarchic collection of unfunny gags,” but then, they also spelled “alittle” as one word.

Once and future stooge Shemp Howard is the film projectionist. I love how he, not the cameraman, can change the framing of the movie by panning to follow women in swimsuits.
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Opera Jawa (2006, Garin Nugroho)

First, the bad. Was a slow afternoon and I forgot to bring candy. Movie was projected on DVD, all low detail. Lot of long shots, someone singing in back of the room so I can’t even make out his face. Starts singing reeeeal slow, so I read the subtitle then have to wait a minute for them to finish singing what I’ve already read, so I figure I can close my eyes for the rest of the shot, then when I open ‘em something else is happening and I don’t know how much time has passed.

But other than this one glitch, the movie was incredible. Beautiful imagery, wild colors and costumes, amazing music, cool story. It’s an adaptation of an Indian legend about a woman who cheats with another guy when her husband is away, and when he returns the two men fight over her. The movie references the legend while retelling it (with different character names). Don’t know if the original ends with the husband killing his rival then stabbing his wife to death, ripping out her heart and singing to it, but the movie sure does. Overall an excellent way to spend a sleepy weekend afternoon. Only me and one other guy thought so, though. Will have to see again under better conditions – sorry, Cinefest, but screening blurry DVDs for paying audiences is Not Okay.

Writer/director Nugroho has won awards for a bunch of his movies, been working since ’91.

If I may borrow chunks of what C. Huber wrote for Cinema Scope:

Nugroho’s staggering Opera Jawa—presents the contradictions of society, its values and (resulting) problems, including the capacity for violence, in such a layered manner that it’s impossible to untangle the myriad levels of inspiration.

Alternating between the core drama, Brechtian commentary, and social crowd scenes, the film is played out in the palaces and temples and on the beaches of Yogkharta and Solo, two centres of Javanese culture crucial in the shaping of Javanese art. (Additionally, palace, temple, and beach represent the three pillars of government, religion, and culture.) Yet it also makes use of modern installations, including a barrage of golden and red waxheads (some of these are later hung over body models, lit inside and dripping red), hanging corpses made of white cloth, a metal sedan-creature whose helmet-head carries the inscription “Viva Lamuerte,” and a huge stretch of red cloth running through the village streets, connecting two main locations. Meanwhile, the style of singing and choreography keeps changing throughout; not exactly a juxtaposition, but no smooth merging either, despite the magnificent, measured flow of music and sound as well as the exuberant colours and symbols Nugroho orchestrates. Rather it produces a dazzling dialectic, perfectly expressing the conflicts of society as enacted on a daily basis, which are both classical and modern.

French Cancan (1954, Jean Renoir)

It took me two or three years to finally watch The Golden Coach and then I loved it to pieces, so anticipation was unreasonably high for this one. At first it’s just another Renoir movie, light and magnificent even when being grim and serious, but as the plot threads started to mirror those of The Golden Coach (woman deciding between three lovers) it built to a similarly wonderful ending. So no, not up to Golden Coach standards, but close!

Jean Gabin:
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This was Renoir’s big return to France, his first French movie since the distrastrously received Rules of the Game, so he made a nationalistic crowd-pleaser with lots of dancing girls, just to be safe. In the late 1800’s, Jean Gabin (fresh off Touchez pas au grisbi) is having financial trouble with his high-class variety theater, decides to buy a new place and revive the low-class can-can dance as a popular middle-class spectacle. Calls it the Moulin Rouge, ho ho. Recruits and trains non-dancers including washwoman Nini and gathers old favorite companions including hot-tempered star dancer (and part-time girlfriend) Lola, famous whistler Roberto, and singing assistant Casimir, and gains financial assistance from a visiting prince.

Trouble: Nini is fooling around with Gabin, also has longtime boyfriend Paolo, and is also being courted by the prince. Paolo tells her it’s over if she dances the cancan in public, and she breaks up with the prince (leading to his suicide attempt), so she tries to stick with Gabin, under the condition that he see no other girl but her. His reaction:
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So now, boyfriendless, she throws herself joyously into the dance, choosing art over a steady love life, the same ending as The Golden Coach but in exhuberant dance instead of a solemn speech. Wonderful! Can’t believe Katy didn’t want to watch this back when I kept suggesting it in the apartment. Anyway, I’ll gladly watch again when she changes her mind.

Color and sound and costumes are all brilliant. Acting is usually great, and when it’s not, Renoir keeps things moving fast enough that you can’t tell. I was surprised when Gabin wakes up in bed with Lola – I’d forgotten that you could do that in 1950’s Europe. His scene at the end is great, sitting backstage tapping his foot, imagining the action on stage, knowing all the steps and smiling without having to see. The Criterion essay (or did I read it somewhere else?) points out that this scene lets us know that he choreographed the dance and practiced it with the girls over and over without showing us the actual practices… very effective.

Françoise Arnoul (Nini) had previously appeared in Antonioni’s “I Vinti”, is still acting today
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María Félix (jealous Lola) was a huge star in Mexico. Giani Esposito (the prince) starred six years later in Rivette’s Paris nous appartient.
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Franco Pastorino (Paolo) died a few years later, only appearing in one more film.
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This is the earliest Michel Piccoli appearance I’m likely to see (his earlier films are quite obscure). That’s him in the blue.
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Cameo by Edith Piaf:
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