musicals

The Road to TCMFF 2017: Early Announced Films, How Classic Are They?

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When the TCM Classic Film Festival announced a smidgen of its schedule, fans poured over the listings to see what movies were included and did they fit their definition of classic. TCM fans are vocal on social media praising the network when pleased and passionately-yet-constructively criticizing it whenever they think their definition of classic has been strayed from. From what’s been released, I see a good mix sure to make a lot of fans happy. When I was considering whether to attend this year, I definitely felt the pull of the schedule. Let’s review what’s being offered together!

Since so many TCM film fans want to see classic era (i.e. studio era) movies, here’s how the offerings break down by time period. Of the thirty-two films or programs announced so far, twenty-four of them were made before 1970. Seven are from the 1970s or later.

The silent era (1910s-1920s) has two offerings:

The 1930s has eight offerings, half of which are pre-codes:

The 1940s have five offerings:

The 1950s have six offerings:

The 1960s have four offerings:

 

The 1970s have six offerings:

The 1980s have no offerings.

The 1990s have one offering:

While the bulk of the schedule fulfills the most traditional and constrictive definition classic film, the 1970s, the post-studio era, is very strongly represented. Only the 1930s has more selections; the 1950s ties with the 1970s. Obviously later made films are more likely to have guests that can attend the festival, but I don’t see that as the single motivation for programmers to include such movies. If we go by a broader definition of classic, something that is of its time yet timeless in its ability to be enjoyed repeatedly now and for years to come, then almost all the 1970s programming can be defined as classic. THE LANDLORD sticks out as rediscovery championing.

The post featuring my TCMFF picks will go live soon! In the meantime, feel free to comment on the 2017 schedule’s classic credentials.

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We Want Ice Cream!

This weekend I celebrated a milestone birthday, and my confectionery of choice was ice cream. That got me thinking of the technicolor conclusion of Kid Millions (1934). If you’ve never seen the film, watching the above clip won’t spoil you. It’s pure fantasy that’s mostly unrelated to the film’s complicated comedy plot.

In this film, Eddie Cantor‘s character Eddie Wilson, Jr. has a dream of a better life for him, his sweetheart, and children. Once he escapes his life of poverty and toil aboard a barge, he wants to open up an ice cream factory that will give away its sweet product for free to children. The bulk of the film is him trying to claim a previously unknown inheritance to make all his dreams come true.

The ending sequence remains amazing today, so it must have made a tremendous impact on its original depression-era audience. Beautiful women in silky pajama-like outfits dance, sing, and make ice cream on huge sets with giant props. It’s as if Busby Berkeley had never become a choreographer, but had been a factory foreman instead. The film’s actual choreographer Seymour Felix must have had a blast coming up with routines.

In a time when many were without a lot, here was a scene filled with giant shakes, fruit, chocolate, bottles of milk, and plates of ice cream with no end of abundance in sight. Anyone of any age watching the screen children break down the door to rush into the factory would understand that urge. They’d trample Eddie for a taste of happiness.

Poor Eddie has a hard time today, too. For someone once so famous and celebrated, he’s not very well-known. He was a multi-media star (stage, radio, records, films, TV, and books), and he was awarded an honorary Oscar. Yes, his jokes seemed old when he told them, but as a performer I find him engaging and entertaining, so I laugh.

If an average person has a hint of who he was, he’s either Banjo Eyes or more likely that blackface performer. The latter is probably why his movies are not often revived. In his films there’s inevitably a scene of him performing in blackface. This performance form is no longer favorably viewed today, but back when Eddie started it was much more common, particularly in vaudeville and in film for a short while.

It’s a shame that often overshadows his performances, his humanitarian work, and his support of performers of color, like Sammy Davis, Jr. Just look at his version of utopia in Kid Millions. Sitting together in the same room eating their Neapolitan ice cream is an integrated cast of children. There’s even a pan of the room in which a row of African-American children are momentarily spotlighted. This was unusual at the time and had to be by design. Cantor’s heavenly ice cream social was for all children.

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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

For Valentine’s Day, here is one of my favorite romantic scenes from a musical. The film Lovely to Look At, a remake of Roberta, may not be memorable as a whole, but it showcases some imaginative dance sequences featuring Marge and Gower Champion. While they had the unenviable task of replacing Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, the Champions were gifted with not recreating the earlier pair’s routines. The Champions’ dances were mostly freed from the show within a picture’s stagings. In Lovely to Look at, the big performance to save the fashion house remains, but their other dance scenes show their characters’ flirtations that lead to romance and to them falling in love.

In the above scene, their characters have spent the night accompanying their friends from boîte to boîte. Left alone, they have no distractions. He wants to dance with her one more time, that’s the only way he can hold a girl in his arms in a crowded room and have her all to himself, and she agrees after initially resisting. They have fun, and dance well together, and then the camera moves in for a close-up when they pause in front of a window. When it pulls back, we see the nightclub set has vanished, and only the starry night remains. In multiple long takes, they dance on and among the stars. They’re the only two people in their universe at that moment, and they both hear, feel, and move to the same song. They’re a perfect pairing. Long before they walk off together into the night, we know they have fallen in love. We’ve watched it happen.

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Say It With Firecrackers

Somehow it’s a little too dry and a little too chilly for fireworks in the Bay Area, but I’m going to wish you a happy Fourth of July and say it with fireworks anyway. From the original jukebox (movie) musical, here is Fred Astaire tapping out his tribute to tomorrow’s holiday:

This is one of my favorite Astaire solos. A little movie magic tricks the eye and the ear, but the moves are all his. I love how happy he looks when done. He’s probably imagining how the finished scene will look, and it is a stand-out in a film full of production numbers.

Have a happy and safe Fourth of July!
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Amália Rodrigues & Fred Astaire

I’ve been enjoying NPR’s 50 Great Voices series, and the holiday break gave me a chance to catch up with some missed episodes, including their piece on Amália Rodrigues. Since I’m half Portuguese, I enjoy finding instances where Portuguese and American culture collide, mix, and transmute. Rodrigues embraced other cultures’ musical traditions in order to offer her unique spin on fado, and that combined with her voice and emotive range turned her into an icon celebrated long past her death. The NPR reporter brought up an anecdote involving Rodrigues and Fred Astaire that I hadn’t heard before.

Rodrigues went to New York for a risky throat operation. Doctors weren’t sure if her voice would recover from the procedure. Depressed, Rodrigues considered killing herself with sleeping pills. Instead she ended up watching Fred Astaire movies in her hotel room. The man that had gotten so many Americans through the Great Depression by offering some hope and cheer via the big screen worked his magic through the small screen.  He helped Rodrigues through her depression. She didn’t kill herself, and she underwent what turned out to be a successful surgery. Her voice fully recovered, and she returned to Portugal, and her subsequent concerts added to her legend.

A clip of the singer performing Barco Negro in the film Les Amants du Tage (1955) follows. While the film is French and in French, she keeps her lyrics in their original Portuguese. The camera breaks away from her to further the plot by having characters translate her song for the female lead, and once they’ve said enough for the song to resonate for both leads and the film’s audience, the cameraman wisely returns to Rodrigues for the song’s climax. Her charisma is palpable. For English subtitles, click the closed captioning box.

Er’way in-hay the oney-may.

I’ve been reading Ginger: My Story by Ginger Rogers. My favorite parts of the book are the behind-the-scenes scoop. Rogers doesn’t offer too much gossip. She focuses more on the making of her films and stage shows. Driven, she sought comfort in work even when her personal life went on the fritz. Sometimes she skimps on the personal details, and I can’t decide if she’s witholding some material to protect her privacy or if the details simply weren’t important to her. Even though she wrote a memoir, self-reflection doesn’t seem as key to her as telling her story and witnessing her faith. Occasionally she sets the record straight about an infamous incident or her celluloid contributions.

For instance, she reveals the pig latin sequence in Gold Diggers of 1933 was her idea:

One day on set, I was handed the opening song and told to learn it by that evening. The scene was to be shot the next day and we had to be up on the number. I pleaded with Malcolm Beelby, the pianist, to forsake his lunch hour to help me learn my lyrics. Malcom kindly obliged. We went into a corner of the sound stage and started to rehearse. After about three hours, I started getting a little slap-happy, so instead of singing the lyrics as they were written, I translated them into pig latin.

Darryl F. Zanuck observes her, likes it, and has the improv put into the final film.

The pig latin bit makes that production number. In close-up, Rogers the beautiful girl has enough American chutzpah to make light of all the money her depression era audiences didn’t have enough of. She’s verbally winking at them, saying I am one of you, that things will be okay as long as we can have fun. We may not be in the money, but we are in on the joke. For a moment we are her conspirators, the wall has broken down, and we are taken away from our troubles.
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