Tag: music/musical

Research Paper Double Feature: Call Me Madam (1953) and Wonder Man (1945)

vera-ellen, you were so young!Ok so I’m a college student, right? Which means around this time of year I’ve got papers to write! And tests to take! Therefore I have been a bit lax in my movie-viewing. However, during paper-writing distress I often turn to familiar musicals to help me through such trying times. They’re good to have in the background. So whilst working through my Armenian art research, I had a double feature of Call Me Madam and Wonder Man, both linked by the fabulous Vera-Ellen (above). Also be careful, I got a little crazy with the screencap feature…

vera-ellen and donald o'connorFirst up was Call Me Madam, probably my favourite Donald O’Connor film (I don’t think of Singin’ in the Rain as “his” film). Inspired by the story of Perle Mesta‘s appointment and adapted from the Broadway musical, it’s got Ethel Merman expertly belting and sassing her way through the role of Sally Adams, a beloved rich Washington socialite and widow, famous for her generosity and splashy parties. Through her powerful contacts (including President Harry Truman), she lands the position of ambassador to the fictional grand duchy of Lictenburg, a place she knows nothing about and has no real business being in. She knows only that they are in serious debt and will request a large loan from the US, and that she must turn them down “stern, but diplomatic.” Young news reporter Kenneth Gibson (Donald O’Connor, looking utterly adorable in large red-framed glasses) tags along after proving his usefulness as a knowledgable press attache, general protocol advisor, and awesome guy to pal around with.

ethel merman doesn't mind a trainAfter they get to Lichtenburg, of course it becomes a double love story with Sally falling for General Cosmo Constantine (George Sanders) and Kenneth super-falling for Princess Maria (Vera-Ellen). Sally spends her time pissing off chief of protocol Pemberton Maxwell (Billy De Wolfe) and trying to get over her feelings for Cosmo, whom she believes is only wooing her to snag the American loan. Meanwhile Kenneth recklessly pursues the princess, who is in the middle of engagement negotiations with another country’s prince and cannot interact with private citizens. It’s sad! But then love triumphs over all! As does diplomacy! There’s a lot of singing and dancing in there too, thanks to Irving Berlin’s fantastic score and the stars’ incredible talents.

best duet, part 2I always find myself surprised by how genuinely funny this movie is. Of course the musical performances are top notch, the dancing superb, the accents varying, and the costumes elaborate, but legitimately comedic? My goodness. Ethel Merman has a lot of great one-liners or side comments, plus I laugh out loud every single time she shouts “Well hello Harry!” when Truman calls her. Donald O’Connor is perfect, as always, in an understated (well, except for that wonderful drunk scene) role that compliments her brashness very well. In fact I think one of my favorite things about this movie isn’t the romantic relationships, but the awesome friendship between Kenneth and Sally. They do one of the best duets ever for “You’re Just In Love“. And obviously Vera-Ellen is dancing and dancing to her heart’s content with flowy skirts and a vaguely Eastern European, prim accent. Adorable.

donald o'connor looks so much better than you think anyone can with glasses like theseThis is a film I never get tired of, and it pretty much suits every mood. It’s simple and entertaining but not unintelligent. It’s playfully satirical, and though much reference is made to American politics and how the US has to help out poor little Lichtenburg, the fictional country is treated with respect for the most part. They stay strong culturally despite outside influences and even Sally, “the most American American”, realizes her way is not always the best way and that she is pretty ignorant about other cultures. Basically, I guess, just see this movie if you want an extremely enjoyable musical, a radiant cast, or if you just want to see one of the main reasons Donald O’Connor was my first really big celebrity crush (he is still pretty high up there).

4.5/5

danny kayeOk so next up was Wonder Man, one of my favorite Danny Kaye vehicles, and also one of his hard-to-find early films with Virginia Mayo. He stars in a duel role as the intellectual (he’s so smart he writes with both hands! Gee whiz!), taciturn Edwin Dingle and his estranged twin, zany nightclub performer Buzzy Bellew. While Edwin is working on a comprehensive anthology work at his local library, he is gradually romanced by the sultry and kind librarian Ellen (Virginia Mayo). His brother is killed after volunteering to serve as a witness against gangster Ten Grand Jackson (Steve Cochran), but he soon appears in spirit form to his twin. Buzzy has mad ghostly powers and uses them to sort of control Edwin, whose body he intends to use to keep on living and land Ten Grand a conviction. Edwin tries to resist him and go back to a confused Ellen, but ends up getting entangled with Buzzy’s nightclub act and his fiancee Midge (a very young, almost unrecognizable Vera-Ellen in her first film role). Wackiness and puzzlement and chases ensue, of course, but finally Edwin is able to stumble his way through Buzzy’s mess, testify against Ten Grand, and maybe even get the girl!

virginia mayo is so incredibly gorgeousSo this movie is basically just a really fun and silly time with a truly excellent performance by Danny Kaye (though nothing is new there). Love the dual role thing. Love Virginia Mayo doing anything, though I mostly know her from the films she did with Kaye. Love “So In Love” with Vera-Ellen rocking her custom shoes that mix point and tap styles so she can still show off her dance skills in a non-musical movie (there are two musical numbers and they are within the nightclub setting). I get pretty uncomfortable during the early dance sequence that relies a lot on condescending fascination with primitive island cultures, but I promise after that it is a laid back, enjoyable movie! It even won an Oscar for its visual effects- cool transparency things happen due to Buzzy’s intangibility, also they do a very good job having Danny Kaye talk to himself. I don’t think it’s on DVD unfortunately (I have a seemingly bootleg copy I got used on Amazon) but it appears the whole movie is on youtube, if you’re interested.

danny kaye is arguing with danny kaye. wacky!
4/5

Movie Review: White Christmas (1954)

Well my family members had departed and the table was mostly cleared, so what better time than Thanksgiving night to begin the Christmas-related movie viewing? This was my mother’s and my rationale for sinking into our couch for a viewing of White Christmas on our spanking-new television. This is one of my favorite Christmas movies for various reasons. The plot is fairly simple: Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) form a highly successful stage show after they meet in the army during WWII. They’re totally best friends, but Phil is always trying to push the workaholic Bob into relationships in an attempt to get some free time for himself. They become well-known producers and on night decide to check out a sister act for their show, Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen) Haynes.

Phil and Judy instantly plot to set up Betty and Bob, but the girls are headed for Vermont to perform at an inn over the holidays. Phil cons Bob into going to Vermont as well, and upon entering the inn they discover it’s owned by their former leader, General Waverly. The inn is doing very poorly because it hasn’t snowed all season and the general’s about to go bankrupt but doesn’t want any charity, so Phil and Bob secretly plan to bring their entire show there in order to draw enough crowds to save it. Under the guise of using the scant visitors as “guinea pigs”, they work the Haynes sisters into the act and much singing and dancing follows during rehearsals as sparks (some good, some bad) fly between Bob and Betty, and Judy and Phil become closer as they plot the future of the former couple. There are misunderstandings, stubbornness, and easily-resolved conflicts so that in the end the general learns how appreciated he is and his inn is back in business and everybody is in love. Yay!

This movie is sweet and easy to get caught up in. The music is wonderful, naturally, with excellent tunes by Irving Berlin. It’s got great dialogue, with a lot of good comedic bits for Danny Kaye and Mary Wickes. Vera-Ellen is fantastic, as always, and this was her last big feature before her early retirement due to health issues (it’s so sad; she’s one of my all-time favorite dancers). Bing Crosby croons for a while, as is his wont, and Rosemary Clooney doesn’t have enough songs. The story isn’t much to speak of but the characters are so likeable and fun to watch that I’m always engrossed. And it’s Christmas-related but not really about Christmas so nothing is being shoved down people’s throats. Being from the 50’s it has some period-related silliness and a pro-army message and is really really white, but the women have some agency and the costumes are swell, and I wouldn’t have expected anything groundbreaking from a cute mainstream musical.

Interesting Side Note: I just found out it was directed by Michael Curtiz, who did Casablanca, Captain Blood, and Mildred Pierce. Unexpected.

4.5/5

Check out Vera-Ellen tapping so fast you barely see her foot move. She is the best. Also Danny Kaye, being silly.

Bing Crosby relives his Holiday Inn days.

Movie Review: Tommy (1975)

Get ready kids this will be a long one.

Yeah so back in the days when people started to make rock operas, The Who made Tommy. First released as a concept album in 1969, the work was made into a film with Ken Russell as director and Roger Daltrey as the eponymous character. The story is… loose, to say the least. It’s like this: Nora (Ann-Margret) loses her husband (Robert Powell) in WWII and must raise their newborn son Tommy on her own. A few years later she shacks up with Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed), a larger-than-life camp director with a penchant for alcohol and lovemaking. One night the supposedly-dead father comes home and finds his wife in bed with Frank. In a confused rage Frank kills him with a lamp, all in front of little Tommy. Nora and Frank try to convince him he saw nothing, heard nothing, and won’t speak about it. This triggers psychosomatic blindness, deafness, and muteness in the boy. Flash-forward several years later and Tommy has grown up, cared for by his mother who tries weird religious cures like the Church of Marilyn Monroe. Frank tries to get him laid by the Acid Queen (Tina Turner). One day he stumbles upon a pinball machine and is instantly a pro, prompting his rise to stardom as a world-class pinball player, even defeating the champ (Elton John). He makes his family super rich but Nora is still sad about his diminished senses. His celebrity increases to cult status (like the thousands of people worshiping kind, not the Rocky Horror kind) after a miracle occurs. But we all know fake pinball celebrity religions never last. Also all of this is completely sung.

Ok so it’s a commentary on the commercialization of famous people and their position as pseudo religious figures. I get it, I really do. And the whole “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me” mantra speaks to the alienation we all experience due to varying circumstances. That’s ok. I dig the music and a lot of the visuals were interesting and trippy, including the highly stylized costumes and settings. It’s certainly a unique story, so that’s always good. But honestly… it just wasn’t that enjoyable. I wanted to like this movie, I really did. I’m not super familiar with The Who but I dig the songs I know, and I had heard very good things about the film/play and thought a 70’s rock opera about pinball could do no wrong. Unfortunately there were many things that felt off. A lot of the performances were sub-par. I know Ann-Margret is like this great sex symbol and of course we all love when she rolls around in soap suds and beans but her voice wasn’t that great and her acting was flat. Oliver Reed was just loud most of the time. Roger Daltrey spent most of the movie with a blank stare (which is understandable) and shirt off (also no complaints) but very little effort is made to actually characterize Tommy (this is partially shortcomings of the writing, not just his performance). Tina Turner was annoying. Jack Nicholson is very out of place. I liked Elton John and Eric Clapton, but that’s about it. I didn’t feel particularly interested in any of the characters and the story was too jumpy so I wasn’t exactly hooked there. I spent most of the movie feeling like I was missing something- why is this movie such a big deal? Was it just novel for its time? Is it just the fans’ ardour for the album spilling over into its other incarnations? It’s not that I disliked it, I just thought I’d like it a lot more than I did. It was definitely interesting and it made an impact, but it didn’t feel particularly smart or incredible. It might just something that works better conceptually than physically. The ending left me in a confused and buhhh kind of mood- suddenly religion is ok? Jesus was my co-pilot all along? I didn’t get that, honestly, so if someone can clarify things for me I’d be most grateful.

3/5

The best scene/song in the movie.

Movie Review: Stop Making Sense (1984)

After seeing David Byrne perform one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to (so much dancing!), it seemed like a good idea to finally see this movie. And what a fun time! This is a straightforward concert film, with footage from three different Talking Heads shows edited together fairly seamlessly. David Byrne starts off by walking out on stage alone with a boombox, letting us know he’s “got a tape he wants to play” and proceeds to do a solo “Psycho Killer” with pre-recorded backup. Slowly the rest of the band comes out to play, rolling out on wheeled stands for the drums and keyboards. Two female back up singers in matching purple outfits complete the set up. It is going to be a good night.

The staging and camera work are notably simple- no dramatic closeups or ecstatic crowd shots. It is very realistically portrayed, without edited frills, so that the music is the clear focus. The lighting isn’t very showy, and the background is often blank but for some songs they had very cool images or backlights. The band danced all over the place, often in a synchronized Running Man. Towards the end Byrne got out his notorious Big Suit and managed some impressive hip movements. Songs they play include “Heaven”, “Life During Wartime”, “Girlfriend is Better”, a dragged-out, break-downy “Take Me To the River”, and “Crosseyed and Painless” for the closer. They also did one Tom Tom Club (the side project of husband-wife duo bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz) song, “Genius of Love”. It was ok- sort of silly and upbeat, but not the Talking Heads so not as good as anything else in the movie. Naturally, the best scene of the entire film is this:

“Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place)”

It is a very good movie, and I am not a person who usually does the concert-DVD thing. Naturally, it is most suited for Talking Heads fans, but really I think anyone who enjoys a good musical performance would dig this.

4.5/5

Girlfriend Is Better
Burning Down the House
Swamp