Silk Stockings (1957, Rouben Mamoulian)

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.

You Were Never Lovelier (1942, William A. Seiter)

The one where a rich guy (Adolphe Menjou of Morocco and The Tall Target) writes love letters to his daughter Rita Hayworth, intending for her to get into a romantic mood then when he finds someone she can marry, he’ll pin the letters on that guy. It pulls off the could’ve-been-icky premise pretty well. Anyway, self-important dancer Fred Astaire (with a big Omaha shout-out) comes along, Rita thinks he wrote the letters, bam.

Nominated for some sound & music oscars but lost to the more patriotic Holiday Inn and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Everyone was supposed to be Argentine but we weren’t convinced.

The Barkleys of Broadway (1949, Charles Walters)

A fluke Fred & Ginger movie ten years after their other collaborations. They’re a married song-and-dance act, best friends with their songwriter Oscar Levant (I liked him more than I did in The Band Wagon – he gets a good solo piano number here). Ginger’s husband is critical of her performance but smooth-talking stage director Jacques Francois says she’s wonderful and should do dramatic work. So Fred carries on with understudy Gale Robbins while his wife acts with the french guy, but Fred sneaks into rehearsals and secretly gives her acting tips. She finds out, they get back together.

Too much breaking-up and acting serious, not enough dance numbers

This Scottish routine was horrible:

The best scene is Fred solo as an enchanted-shoe salesman:

Shall We Dance (1937, Mark Sandrich)

Elements of this movie in order of importance:

1. Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers dancing on roller skates
2. Eric Blore (Sullivan’s valet) as an uppity hotel manager
3. The awful “you say potato, I say po-tah-to” song
4. E. Everett Horton as Fred’s fretful manager
5. A bunch more Gershwin songs, not that I can remember them
6. The plot

Famous ballet star Fred with a fake-Russian stage name is a closet jazz enthusiast, arranges to be on the same ocean liner as pop-musical star Ginger. As they get to know each other, a rumor spreads through the boat then the media that they’re already married. She is pissed at the rumors, goes home to marry her boring fiancee (there’s always a boring fiancee). Complications arise, a fake scandal is manufactured using a Ginger-faced mannequin, and Ginger agrees to secretly marry Fred so they can get publically divorced. But they stay together in the end. More importantly: they dance on roller skates.

Swing Time (1936, George Stevens)

Surprisingly not my favorite Astaire movie so far, despite its lofty reputation. Katy was not wowed, either. Sure the dances are very light and graceful, but now I’m spoiled on the showy gimmick dance scenes from later films The Band Wagon and Royal Wedding.

Fred, a performer unashamed to wear blackface and call himself Mr. Bojangles, is engaged to Margaret (Betty Furness of the original Magnificent Obsession), but his friends know she’s not right for him and conspire to make him miss the wedding.

Glowering bojangles with his fiancee:

So Fred runs off to NYC with his gambling buddy Victor Moore (of Make Way For Tomorrow, which I coincidentally watched the next day), and they stumble across future Preston Sturges character Eric Blore.

But more importantly, they find Ginger Rogers, whom Fred would so love to love, if only he weren’t engaged. Ginger also becomes engaged, to boring bandleader Georges Metaxa.

While a comic-relief Victor Moore causes hijinks and gets to know Ginger’s dancing buddy Helen Broderick (also of Top Hat). The two of them were more fun than Fred and Ginger.

The presence of actual black person Floyd Shackelford doesn’t take the sting off the Bojangles scene.

compare to:

Stevens was a cinematographer since the silent era, shot some Laurel & Hardy movies, made big films like Giant and Shane in the 50’s. This came in the middle, among other musicals and romantic comedies.

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.

Flying Down to Rio (1933, Thornton Freeland)

Kind of a clunky picture about a lovestruck band leader who takes his group to Brazil and falls for a local firebrand. Lots of time wasted on groany romantic drama between musical numbers, then the nine-minute songs wear out their welcome until I start hoping for the return of the groany drama. It’s saved by the charisma of the band members and some light filmmaking flourishes – over-the-top musical bits with oddball camera placement and silly-ass graphic transitions between every scene – brought to you by Thornton Freeland (directed Brewster’s Millions) and D.P. J. Roy Hunt (who also shot I Walked With a Zombie – someone needs to look into this guy). I don’t remember anymore why we watched this in film class at Tech (following Wings and Things To Come), probably something to do with 1930’s audiences’ love and fascination for new technologies such as the aeroplane (“electric tie rack! rackin’ up electric ties!”).

Something like Ginger Rogers’s 25th film, but Fred Astaire’s first, and it’s remembered for that. Central music number The Carioca was oscar-nominated, but beaten by Astaire & Rogers’ follow-up The Continental from The Gay Divorcee. Both songs are five minutes too long, so I’d like to cast my belated vote for the third nominee, Bing Crosby and Miriam Hopkins’s cross-dressing college gangster comedy She Loves Me Not.

Dolores del Rio was harmless in this, would turn up in Journey Into Fear with Orson Welles a decade later. Less harmless was star bandleader Gene Raymond, our blonde German-looking chunkhead romantic lead. Suppose I might have to see him again in Mr. and Mrs. Smith or If I Had a Million, but mostly he had the courtesy to stay out of the more acclaimed movies of the 30’s. Good-natured gentleman Raul Roulien as Dolores’s family-arranged fiancee failed to make as much of an impression as did Etta Moten (“the first Negro woman to play a dignified role in pictures”) who sang a verse of The Carioca, or Eric Blore (Sullivan’s valet) and Franklin Pangborn (another future Sturges player) as comically uptight hotel managers in the opening scene.

The Band Wagon (1953, Vincente Minnelli)

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.

Roberta (1935, William A. Seiter)

Set in Paris but I don’t think there’s a single Parisian (character or actor). Stiff lunkhead footballer Randolph Scott (Ride Lonesome), looking convincingly awkward on the delicate Paris sets, is tagging along for some reason with Fred Astaire (here winningly named Huck Haines) and Fred’s band of musical entertainers.

Randolph looks to his rich aunt Roberta (Helen Westley, who also appeared with Irene Dunne in Show Boat) for a place to stay while Fred negotiates with blustery “Russian” Luis Alberni (hotel owner in Easy Living, chef in The Lady Eve) for a place to work.

Enter Fred’s love interest Ginger Rogers. Where did she come from again? I don’t remember, but she’s somewhat hindered here by her awful fake accent and by Fred’s fancy for solo tapdances. Fred’s got no humility – this was only his third film (between Gay Divorcee and Top Hat) and something like Ginger’s 30th. The two dances she participates in are wonderful, especially the first where she wears pants so we can see what she’s up to.

Aaand enter Irene Dunne (pre-Awful Truth, same year she was in John Stahl’s Magnificent Obsession) as Randolph’s love interest. I hate to see a dumb American dude being fought over by a European princess (Dunne, who has also been secretly designing Roberta’s all-the-rage fashions) and an aggressively rich American (Claire Dodd), but maybe Randy is more handsome than I realize. Irene is also secretly (?) the sister of the building’s doorman (Victor Varconi: Pontius Pilate in DeMille’s King of Kings), which leads to misunderstandings. Hmmm. Ultimately what matters is we get some oscar-nominated songs, some Fred/Ginger dances, and some comedic running-around. I like Irene Dunne whenever she’s not singing (she’s fond of the piercing Jeanette MacDonald style, which would thankfully die after the 30’s).

Remade in the 50’s with Red Skelton and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Lucille Ball appears in a fashion montage at the end. IMDB trivia gives clues how to spot her, but I guess my laptop DVD drive is dying so I can’t get screenshots.