Friday, November 17, 2006



A film review by Dan Navarro
Copyright Dan Navarro 2006

Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell were teamed again in Sunny Side Up (1929), one of the first film musicals. Farrell and Miss Gaynor had starred -- successfully -- as a romantic couple in three silent films, so it must have seemed a "natural" pairing when Fox cast them in this, their first musical film. Gaynor plays Molly, a girl who lives happily in the New York tenements, and she gets things rolling with a charming rendition of the title song. Farrell is Jack Cromwell, a handsome Long Island millionaire who drives into Molly's neighborhood on a lark one evening, and is instantly smitten with her.

He doesn't know, of course, that secretly, Molly has worshipped him from afar after cutting his photo out of the newspaper. They meet cute -- he wanders into her apartment while she's still in her lingerie -- and after that, they get along famously, though she's in love and he thinks merely that Molly is "a swell girl."

All that changes, though, after Molly goes to Long Island at Jack's request -- properly chaperoned by her best galpal and two trusted male friends. As they get to know each other, Jack comes to realize he truly loves Molly; but now there's a barrier between them, for she thinks he is merely pitying her for being poor.

There are plenty of good songs, all written by the formidable team of DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson: In addition to the title song, we hear "I'm a Dreamer (Aren't we All)" sung by Miss Gaynor; "If I Had a Talking Picture of You," sung by both stars; and, in a big production number, "Turn on the Heat," sung and danced by dozens of girls who go from wearing parkas and heavy boots to stripping down to bathing suits, as the set warms up to tropical temps.

Sunny Side Up is probably the first film musical that isn't a "backstage" musical. All the songs and dances take place in what passes for real life.

Farrell and Miss Gaynor can't really sing, of course. But they could both carry a tune, and they were both charmers. And, as Samuel L. Jackson would say, several decades later, of an entirely different creature, "A little charm can go a long way."

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

KIKI (1931)

KIKI (1931)

Mary Pickford's Kiki (1931) is not generally considered one of her best films, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Probably this was an attempt by the legendary Ms. Pickford to "jazz up" her image. Long gone were the billowy curls of her early films, where she played young girls even after she was in her thirties. Here, she sports jazz-age bobbed hair, plays a flirtatious chorus girl, and is clearly a woman "on the make" -- though chastely -- for the character played by her costar, Reginald Denny. Quite a departure from Mary Pickford's "America's Sweetheart" persona.

I've said that in Kiki, Ms. Pickford tries to "jazz up" her image. Here, she shows us her legs (which were "not bad" for someone only 5 feet tall); she removes her brassiere from beneath her blouse while standing in front of Denny; and in a later scene, she sits in front of his male assistant in her lingerie and unconcernedly puts on her stockings, slowly, one leg at a time.

The film is lively and kinetic, almost a slapstick comedy. Ms. Pickford delivers kicks to various backsides, among them Reginald Denny's and Margaret Livingston's, and gets kicked herself. Twice, Ms. Pickford is seen falling on her rear end. She even tumbles off the stage and into the orchestra pit, landing seat first into a drum -- a stunt her friend Charles Chaplin would use, years later, in Limelight (1952). I thought everyone in Kiki was extraordinarily game. They were all obviously hoping to make this film hilarious.

Unfortunately, Kiki flopped at the box office, and Ms. Pickford would make only one more film -- Secrets, another flop. The writing on the wall was now more legible than ever. Maybe the public felt that, at age 38, Ms. Pickford was reaching a little too hard for the youth serum. The era of "America's Sweetheart" was over.

But she left behind a legacy of great performances, and a great public enthusiasm for America's first major female movie star.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

ROBERTA (1935)

ROBERTA (1935)

A film review by Dan Navarro
Copyright Dan Navarro 2006

"Roberta" was one of the major musical triumphs of the 1933 Broadway season. Set in a glamorous Paris between the two world wars, the play oozed romance, elegance, and continental sophistication... or at least enough of those qualities to divert attention from its absurd plot. A winning score by Jerome Kern lifted "Roberta" several stratospheres above its banal libretto; a good thing too, because without that boost, the show might never have been translated to the screen to become the perfect showcase for the talents of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Reams have been written, and will continue to be written, about the superb dance partnership that was Astaire and Rogers. In their initial pairing as supporting players in Flying Down to Rio (1933), they captivated the public, and soon became the movies' favorite dancing couple. But a quirk of fate has, until recently, shrouded what is arguably their finest collaboration, in RKO's 1935 movie version of Roberta.

Because M-G-M bought the rights to the musical in order to create its own version, Lovely to Look At, in 1952, the RKO movie was kept off television and off video dealers' shelves until the 1990s. Whole generations of film fans have grown up loving Fred and Ginger in classics such as The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Swing Time (1936) without ever savoring the one film -- Roberta -- that really established Astaire and Rogers as superstars. This is dancing at its endlessly watchable best.

The plot, such as it is, concerns American football player John Kent (Randolph Scott), who inherits his aunt Minnie's successful dress salon ("Gowns by Roberta") in Paris. There, he falls in love with the firm's head designer, Stephanie (Irene Dunne), who turns out to be an exiled Russian princess in disguise. Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, then girl storms back like the cavalry in the last reel to save the faltering business by staging a mammoth fashion show, complete with beautiful models, and lots of singing and dancing. Finis.

Fred Astaire plays Huck Haines, a struggling bandleader and the hero's best pal. Ginger Rogers is Huck's old childhood flame Lizzie Gatz, who is in Europe masquerading as a Polish countess, Tanka Scharwenka. Perhaps because they have little responsibility for carrying the burden of the plot, Astaire and Rogers seem positively liberated in their roles, and their dancing together seems more spontaneous than ever.

Lizzie, using her fake title as leverage to persuade a reluctant impresario (Luis Alberni), gets Huck's band a job at the Cafe Russe, where she sings as Countess Scharwenka. Then, during a rehearsal session with the band, Lizzie sings the Jerome Kern-Bernard Dougall ditty, "I'll Be Hard to Handle", complete with phony accent and much sly humor... and in so doing, she launches one of the great Astaire-Rogers dance duets. The song is sweet and hot, two choruses and it ends, and we think the number is over. But it isn't, yet. While the band vamps lightly, Huck and Lizzie begin a friendly conversation, reminiscing about the old days; then, in the most casual, spontaneous way, they begin dancing together. Lightly they sway, then so gradually that we don't realize it's happening, their dance becomes a major musical event.

Arlene Croce, author of a definitive volume on Astaire and Rogers, says of "I'll Be Hard to Handle": "This is the big event of the film, the number in which 'Fred and Ginger' became fixed screen deities." It certainly gets your attention. They start with a rhythmic shuffle, then after eight bars he gently takes her by the waist and together they spin around and around, settling at last into one of the most brilliant and inventive tap duets ever filmed. Halfway through the number, they separate and have a tap "conversation", each taking a phrase, then each responding with a salvo of taps. The band strikes up a bugle call, and Rogers snaps to military attention, only to be distracted by Astaire's invitation to resume their buoyant pas de deux. They continue the breathtaking duet as the music rises to a new wave of excitement; then, just as our hearts are ready to burst with exhilaration, they whirl one last time and collapse into two chairs.

As satisfying as the number is, "I'll Be Hard to Handle" seems to resonate with us out of all proportion to its value as a screen event, to move us in a way few movie dance numbers ever have. Now that we have video that can be played and replayed endlessly, at last we can put our finger on the number's special ingredient: The entire sequence -- three minutes of exquisite skill and grace -- is filmed as a single shot, with no breaks in the action, no skewing of camera angles, no interruptions in the flow of the dance. Knowing that Astaire was a perfectionist who sometimes demanded as many as eighty takes before pronouncing a dance number fit to be seen, we can appreciate how pleased he must have been with this particular take, to let it occupy three minutes of uninterrupted screen time, with no cuts. And he was right: This performance is perfection itself. There would be other great dance duets by Astaire and Rogers, and by other dancers; but prophetic title and all, "I'll Be Hard to Handle" would be tough to top.

"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" is probably the most famous of the Roberta songs. In the film it is sung by Irene Dunne as Princess Stephanie, and is later reprised as a romantic adagio by Astaire and Rogers. Astaire once told this reviewer that he didn't like to do love scenes -- and, sure enough, there are very few conventional love scenes in the Fred Astaire oeuvre; he always preferred to express his feelings for his partners through their dances. His choreography for "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" is like a love scene, treating Rogers both like a queen and like a delicate rose. There is a moment where they walk side by side, he pressing her head lightly against his shoulder. The dance casts a powerful spell, but it is kept short, and it ends with us wanting more.

The climactic fashion show, showcasing the new gowns by Roberta's dress salon draped on several gorgeous models (Lucille Ball among them), is played out to "Lovely to Look At", a romantic ballad written by Kern for the film. Irene Dunne sings while the models parade their stylish frocks, and soon afterwards the temporary conflict between Stephanie and John Kent is resolved. The lovers embrace, romance is in the air, and it seems to be contagious; even Huck and Lizzie make tentative plans to marry.

RKO, which was gleefully raking in the gate receipts from the previous Astaire-Rogers film, The Gay Divorcee, while Roberta was in production, wisely chose to close Roberta with a shot of Astaire and Rogers, the new superstars, rather than the top-billed Irene Dunne. The die was cast. Cite Flying Down to Rio as the first film to pair this extraordinary duo. Credit The Gay Divorcee for being their first starring vehicle. But salute Roberta as the film that finally distilled the essence of Astaire and Rogers, and sent their lucky star spinning into permanent orbit.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

DESTRY (1954)

DESTRY (1954)

A film review by Dan Navarro
Copyright 1996 Dan Navarro

Destry Rides Again (Universal, 1939) is usually accorded near-mythic status in books and film commentaries. It teamed James Stewart, a hot new star fresh from his triumphant Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with the glamorous Marlene Dietrich in the story of a gun-hating deputy sheriff who succeeds in cleaning up a lawless town. The film was so well-received, its title is nearly always mentioned in lists of the great films of that banner year, 1939.

But Destry Rides Again is not the last word. The film was remade as Destry fifteen years later by the same director, George Marshall, this time in Technicolor, with Audie Murphy in the central role of the gun-shy deputy. The slick patina of the Stewart-Dietrich version, combined with the celebrated legend naming 1939 as Hollywood's Greatest Year, have worked to downgrade the 1954 Destry in the public's mind as an inferior remake. It is nothing of the sort. Destry is a near-classic Western, complete and satisfying in every way, and it boasts performances that in some ways eclipse the efforts of the 1939 cast.

In the old West, a small frontier town named Restful is anything but. Hooligans roam the streets freely, random gunplay erupts everywhere, and peaceful citizens live in fear for their lives. The town has an overworked sheriff, but the real power in Restful resides with Phil Decker (Lyle Bettger), a corrupt saloon owner who is the equivalent of a big-city crime boss. Decker and his cronies operate in league with the slimy local mayor (Edgar Buchanan, magnificent in a rare villainous role) and Decker's own dance hall girl, Brandy (Mari Blanchard, so luminous she almost gives corruption a good name).

When the sheriff tries to interfere in one of Decker's crooked schemes, Decker has the lawman casually gunned down. Then, to insulate himself from further interference, Decker arranges to have the town drunk, Rags Barnaby (Thomas Mitchell), named the new sheriff, thinking he will be ineffectual. But Rags surprises everyone by taking his new appointment seriously. He goes on the wagon, then sends for Tom Destry, the son of a former two-fisted lawman, to be his deputy.

Tom Destry (Audie Murphy) arrives in Restful, looking nothing like the swaggering he-man the sheriff had in mind. In fact, Destry doesn't even carry a gun. The new arrival is soft-spoken, polite and deferential, the antithesis of the intrepid Western hero of legend. And Destry does let himself get pushed around -- by Decker, by his gunsels, even by the femme fatale, Brandy. But director Marshall is just setting us up, and we know it. We watch in silent glee, waiting for the inevitable moment when the worm will turn, and the meek will inherit the earth. When Destry's controlled rage surfaces at long last, he smites the villains mightily, with a vengeance that out-Shanes Shane.

Marshall's chief asset in this retelling of the Destry story is, of course, Audie Murphy. In World War II, Murphy had won the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor in combat, as well as 23 other decorations; and yet, this heroic fighting tiger turned out to be diminutive and baby-faced. Standing no more than five feet eight, with the angelic face of a well-scrubbed choir boy, Murphy must have seemed a "natural" for the role of the reluctant gunfighter Tom Destry. As it turned out, not only was his physical appearance ideal for the role; his acting style, always low-key, fit the Destry mold perfectly.

James Stewart was, of course, one of the finest actors ever to appear in American cinema, and he was eminently qualified for most of the roles he played. But at well over 6 feet tall, he towered over his fellow cast members in Destry Rides Again, and was by nature unable to project the vulnerability his role demanded. (Perversely, the casting department gave the role of Destry's chief nemesis to the shorter-than-average Brian Donlevy.) Stewart also had a habit of punctuating his most intense dramatic moments with the dark, wild-eyed visage of a deranged man. We can see that look in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), when Stewart's George Bailey is confronted with a nightmarish vision of the world, and in that sequence his expression was most appropriate. But he uses the "crazy George Bailey look" four times in Destry Rides Again, and it's unsettling, because we never expect to see the easy-going, nonviolent Tom Destry look that unstable.

Audie Murphy's Destry is, by contrast, calm and friendly even in his most trying moments, as when he is forced to break up some recreational gunplay by local toughs. Instead of glaring daggers at them, he smiles and graciously asks the men to let him borrow their guns. Amused, they decide to humor the pint-sized pacifist by handing him their guns, because up until now they have had no reason to fear him. All that changes, as Destry rapidly empties the pistols by picking off twelve tiny furniture knobs from a distance, in a dazzling display of marksmanship. In that instant, the lamb shows his fangs. It's a defining moment in the film. Even if you knew it was coming because you saw the 1939 version, it still catches you by surprise because this time around, Destry has seemed like such a powerless little pussycat.

Mari Blanchard sparkles as Brandy, the amoral saloon queen. She plays Brandy with a sexy exuberance, perhaps mindful that she was enjoying the best role of her career, after a string of small parts in B-pictures.

Brandy is an intriguing puzzle: A bad girl who cheerfully aids and abets her lover, Decker, as he runs crooked poker games and fraudulent land schemes -- but who is nevertheless attracted to the peace-loving Destry and his basic decency. Blanchard also gets to sing and dance to three numbers composed for the film by Frederick Herbert and Arnold Hughes, although an upbeat tempo can't disguise the fact that one of the songs, "Bang! Bang!", is basically the same tune as "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have", sans Dietrich's husky vibrato.

Destry's dramatic stability is provided by the redoubtable Thomas Mitchell, as the town drunk turned sheriff. The veteran screen actor had won an Oscar (for Stagecoach, 1939) and two nominations, and was clearly the class of the Destry cast. There is hardly a moment in any of his scenes when he does not own the camera. Every inflection in Mitchell's voice, every nuance of expression, is done with authority. Watch him in the scene where Rags Barnaby is informed, upon being awakened from a drunken stupor, that he has been named the new sheriff. He steadies his bloodshot eyes, firms his jaw, flings away the bottle he was holding, and declares, in the voice of a man who's trying desperately not to sound inebriated, "A man's got to choose between th' bottle and th' badge!" And with head held high, he marches away on wobbly legs that haven't quite sobered up yet. It's a moment of bravura acting by an old pro who understood what screen presence was all about.

But the enduring image in Destry is of Audie Murphy as the quietly courageous man of peace who, in the end, is forced to take up arms against the forces of evil. The moment when Destry finally, reluctantly, straps on his gunbelt and heads out the door to take care of business is one of the great scenes in Western films. It is beautiful, as justice is beautiful. And we have been so carefully set up for this moment that we are no longer sophisticated observers; we are little children, cheering in the knowledge that soon, all the ugliness will be wiped out, and the world will be a happy place again.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


A film review by Dan Navarro
Copyright Dan Navarro 2006

The Office Wife
(1930) puts the beautiful silent screen actress Dorothy Mackaill into sound pictures and introduces Joan Blondell to the screen. For those laudable achievements alone, this film deserves kudos.

But it really earns its welcome by presenting a charming story about wealthy businessman Larry Fellowes (Lewis Stone) who, though married, finds himself falling for his private secretary, Anne Murdock -- the "office wife" of the title -- in the person of Ms. Mackaill.

Anne likes him too, and we are treated to an exquisite tension between them, as they go about the firm's business, each of them falling more and more in love with the other, yet having to remain very businesslike in their relationship.

Finally Larry gets up the nerve to give Anne a kiss... but before you holler "employee harassment!", take a good look at Anne's posture just before the kiss. She is totally asking for it. She puts her face close to his, and her body language practically DARES him to kiss her. He does. What to do now? Joan Blondell, as Anne's sister, learns that Fellowes' wife is planning to divorce him -- for reasons unconnected to Anne -- so Joan gives her sister's boss a phone call, letting him know that Anne has "fallen for her boss," without explicitly naming him. Our gal Joan knows how to set up a situation.

I didn't signal "spoilers" at the start of this commentary, because I think that's unnecessary. We know from Anne and Larry's first meeting that these two are going to wind up together. One may say that Lewis Stone is "too old" for Dorothy Mackaill, and in truth he was her senior by 24 years. But they are very "simpatico" together, and are a winning couple. Sort of like Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the modern day.

Dale Fuller, who played tragic females in Souls for Sale (1923) and Greed (1924), plays another one here, as a secretary who secretly yearns for Larry's love. Maybe Ms. Fuller was typecast, but she certainly did play that sort of role well.

In this precode, we get to see Joan Blondell put on her stockings, slowly, one leg at a time... a scenario that she would duplicate in several other films of the era. The act became so familiar that, in Foothill Parade (1933), she threw the folks a switcheroo, putting both stockings on the same leg. "Accidentally," of course.

The Office Wife clocks in at just under one hour in length, making it one of the shortest and most enjoyable precodes ever.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

GOOD NEWS (1947)

GOOD NEWS (1947) --
It put the "camp" in campus!

A film review by Dan Navarro
copyright Dan Navarro 2006

What a delicious find! Although Good News is a Technicolor musical, a genre I love, the film has no first-rank musical stars such as a Gene, a Fred, or a Judy. No Howard Keel or Kathryn Grayson. No Doris Day. No Frank Sinatra. Nevertheless, Good News is a gorgeous musical entertainment, and deserves mention among the best musicals of its generation.

The tiny (5 ft. 2 in.) June Allyson, she of the smoky voice and perpetual smile, stars as Connie, a coed working her way through Tait College. She likes Tommy Marlowe (Peter Lawford), a football player who seems like a nice guy; but while helping him with his grades so he'll be eligible to play in The Big Game, she learns that he's smitten with Pat, a scheming gold digger who thinks Tommy's family is worth millions.

With a set-up like that, you already know the rest: Tommy learns he really loves Connie, but she spurns him, thinking he's in love with Pat. In the Big Game, Tommy plays badly, and Tait is about to lose, until... good girl Connie gets bad girl Pat out of the picture, Tommy is energized to play his All-American best, Tait wins the game, Connie wins Tommy, and the whole school celebrates with singing and dancing. The end.

That simplistic plot -- echoed in dozens of movies over the years -- might have sunk Good News but for the energetic treatment it receives. Little Tait College is displayed in glorious Technicolor hues; the songs by Buddy DeSilva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson are first-rate; and the choreography (by Charles Walters and Robert Alton) is eye-poppingly spectacular.

Best of all, first-time director Charles Walters (who would later helm such musical hits as Easter Parade [1948] and High Society [1956]) kept the film moving briskly, with not a dead spot in sight.

Walters also displayed a cinematic virtue I wish more directors would use: He liked to let the shots run long, and would not "cut" a scene until absolutely necessary. Orson Welles and Woody Allen were advocates of this "long cuts" approach. So is Robert Altman, on occasion. But in Good News, Walters used it to perfection.

Consider the two big production numbers, "Pass That Peace Pipe," sung and danced by Joan McCracken and Ray McDonald, and the big finale "The Varsity Drag." Both numbers use dozens of singers and dancers, both are colorful and energetic, both employ intricate dance movements. And yet, there were only TEN CUTS in each of these mammoth production numbers! That means the dancers and crew had to perform their jobs perfectly, because there was almost no opportunity to "cover up" mistakes by simply cutting away, and then cutting back again.

By comparison, look at a modern musical: Chicago (2002), the Oscar winner of a few seasons ago. In just one big number, "The Cell Block Tango," director Rob Marshall used more than TWO HUNDRED cuts! Even in the relatively short finale number, "Hot Honey Rag," there were 72 cuts. This MTV-style editing has captured the imagination of today's young directors, who must think all viewers are afflicted with ADD and can't concentrate on scenes that last longer than two seconds. But there was a time when continuity of image and action mattered in musicals. Charles Walters showed he prized that continuity, with his masterful treatment of the dances in Good News.

It isn't the same as sitting in a theater seat, watching a dance number on stage. You get to see it all the way through, from start to finish, yes; but because you are rooted to that theater seat, your view of the action is always the same. In Walters' movie, the camera swoops, it pans, it tracks... giving us continuity of action, but also a subtly changing angle to it. Walters' masterful alchemy took a routine plot and transformed it into a spectacular viewing experience.

Even without Gene, Fred, or Judy, Good News is one of the best musical films of Hollywood's storied Golden Age.

Sunday, October 08, 2006



A film review by Dan Navarro
Copyright 2006 Dan Navarro

It's a moviegoer's maxim that, when a film is based on material from another medium -- a book, a play, a TV drama -- the movie will always be inferior to the source material. But that tired notion is eclipsed, if not demolished, by M-G-M's Kiss Me Kate (1953), a sparkling and energetic version of the 1948 Broadway musical triumph written by Sam and Bella Spewack, with a dazzling score by Cole Porter.

Much has been written over the years about the charm and durability of Porter's melodies and the cleverness of the Spewacks' libretto. Well-deserved tributes, both; but not enough has been said about the imaginative ways in which the movie version of Kiss Me Kate improves on the stage original. The Spewacks crafted an ingenious, double-tiered story about a play within a play, in which the stars' backstage bickering mirrors the bickering of the characters they play on stage. For the movie, Dorothy Kingsley re-fashioned the libretto into a seamless shooting script that "opens up" the story and smooths out some of the rough edges.

The story concerns a troupe of actors performing a musical version of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew". The male star and director of the show, Fred Graham (Howard Keel), was once married to his leading lady Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson), for whom he still carries a torch. Lilli is temperamental and a spitfire, but still capable of great affection if a man proves himself worthy of it. In this uneasy atmosphere, they launch their new collaboration: He as Petruchio, she as Katharine, the shrew Petruchio must tame.

Complicating matters is the presence of a supporting actress, Lois Lane (Ann Miller), who is to play Bianca, the younger sister of Katharine. Lois and Graham have a light flirtation going, but she is no more constant than Lilli is; in fact, Lois is semi-engaged to Bill Calhoun (Tommy Rall), a dancer who will play Lucentio in the show.

The first evidence of Kingsley's genius (and of director George Sidney) is seen right after the opening credits. In a scene not in the stage original, the fade-in takes us to Fred Graham's apartment, where he is welcoming Lilli, Lois, and Cole Porter himself (in the person of actor Ron Randell). They discuss doing the show, Fred and Lilli sing the beautiful love duet "So in Love", then Lois does a sizzling, take-no-prisoners tap routine to the lively "Too Darn Hot". The dance is so spectacular, as Lois whirls about the room in a skimpy red dress trimmed with fringe, it invariably draws wild applause from the audience whenever the film is revived. Today, "Too Darn Hot" is usually cited as "the definitive Ann Miller number" by fans of her musicals.

Dazzling though her dance routine is, Lois is soon informed by Graham and Porter that the song has been taken out of the show. "There's no place to put it", explains Porter. That might have been an in-joke in 1953, because in real life that was almost the fate of the song, in the original stage play. "Too Darn Hot" has no real place in the narrative of the show, so it is usually sung by a chorus of dancers performing between acts of the play within the play. It was considered so expendable that, in 1958, when NBC-TV staged a performance of Kiss Me Kate as part of its prestigious Hallmark series, "Too Darn Hot" was simply dropped from the show. But it lives on, spectacularly, in the movie.

Howard Keel's Fred is self-absorbed and vainglorious, but at least he isn't the insufferable ham played by Alfred Drake in the stage play. Drake's broad, extravagant gestures may have played well to the balcony, but in a film, restraint is called for, and Keel provides it admirably. Grayson, for her part, gives us an interesting Lilli/Katharine, a shrew with a heart. In both roles, she lets us see her own vulnerability, even as she is throwing dishes or throwing a punch. This is a shrew made to be tamed, by the right man.

When Fred and Lilli's bickering escalates into all-out war -- on stage, on opening night, in front of a packed house -- she ad-libs insults, slaps, kicks... until finally, exasperated, Fred puts his ex-wife and co-star across his lap and gives her a sound spanking in front of the footlights.

But Fred Graham's "triumph" is short-lived. Backstage during intermission, Lilli belts him again, then defiantly announces that she is walking out on the show. He does manage to keep her onstage (through a comedic subterfuge), and by the fade-out, you get the feeling that these two sparring partners are ready to hang up their gloves. Somehow, you doubt that their fragile egos can survive together for very long; but for now, at least, all is Edenic bliss.

Good as the leads are, the movie version of Kiss Me Kate belongs to the dancers. Ann Miller had the best role of her career, and she responded with some of the finest dancing ever seen on the silver screen. In this, she had a formidable team to work with: Choreographer Hermes Pan, and fellow dancers Tommy Rall, Bob Fosse, Bobby Van, Carol Haney, and Jeannie Coyne. Miller's dance duets with Rall are sharp and inventive, in particular "Why Can't You Behave?", danced on a Manhattan rooftop (another example of the camera's ability to "open up" a scene), and the slyly erotic "Always True to You Darling in My Fashion" (Pan makes a brief appearance here, as a sailor on the prowl).

As was customary in M-G-M musicals in the Golden Age, the best number is saved for last; and a delectable treat it is. In one last, bravura display of the film's superiority to the stage play, the final dance number uses a song, "From This Moment On", that was not in the original play, but was lifted from a 1950 Cole Porter show, "Out Of This World". It is an inspired choice. Hermes Pan uses all six lead dancers in a brightly-colored, lively and kinetic mating ritual, with the dancers taking turns pairing off in separate pas de deux. Tommy Rall and Ann Miller dance the first sequence, giving way to Bobby Van and Jeannie Coyne. Then, for the third duet, we get to see the only dance in the movie not choreographed by Hermes Pan. This is Bob Fosse's turf: We see Fosse and the wonderfully agile Carol Haney take center stage in a finger-snapping, back-flipping, jazzy interlude that sets the screen ablaze. Their duet lasts only about one minute, but for that minute the screen is on fire.

Katharine's final speech is truncated Shakespeare: "I am asham'd that women are so simple... To offer war where they should kneel for peace....", but Grayson makes the most of it; and, in yet another triumph of the screen version, this time the speech is spoken rather than sung, as it was in the play. This allows Katharine to put a neo-feminist "spin" on the words, implying through inflection and gesture that Petruchio may have tamed his shrew this time, but he had best watch his step in the future. This is no surrender, it's a marital detente. And it is the genius of Kiss Me Kate -- both the play and the film -- that we feel the story's happy resolution on two levels at once: Between Petruchio and Katharine, and between Fred and Lilli. That's the magic of great story-telling, and it is the particular magic of Kiss Me Kate.


A Film Review by Dan Navarro
Copyright 2006 by Dan Navarro

About halfway through No Small Affair, there's a scene where Laura, the singer played by Demi Moore, belts out a knockout rendition of the Madeira/Dorsey standard, "I'm Glad There Is You." It's a jazzy paean to romance. Watching the movie again recently, I was jolted when Laura sang the line about "underrated treasures", because it's a capsule description of the film itself. No Small Affair, unheralded in its day and rarely revived since, is itself a treasure, a gem among the gravel of cynical 1980s films.

It's a coming-of-age tale, chronicling the conversion of Charles Cummings (Jon Cryer) from gawky teenager to confident young adult. Nothing new there, except that director Jerry Schatzberg and screenwriters Charles Bolt and Terence Mulcahy have fashioned a charming film that sings with a bittersweet passion about Cummings' wrenching transformation. His catalyst is Laura, the 23-year-old saloon singer played by Demi Moore. With her youthful yet worldly manner, and her scratchy violin voice playing its siren song on Cummings' sensibilities, the lad is a goner. What ensues is a funny and endearing rite-of-passage story with brilliantly clever complications.

Cummings -- he prefers not to be called Charles -- is a 16-year-old amateur photographer who likes to shoot pictures of colorful San Francisco locales. One day, when Laura and a friend wander into camera range, Cummings waves them off, but not before he's snapped a few shots of Laura's beautiful face. Seeing that face later in his proof sheets, Cummings is hooked.

Infatuated beyond reason, Cummings searches for his new beloved. He begins by staking out the dock where he first saw her. After several hours of fruitless waiting, he sulks: "Someone said, if you stand in one spot long enough, the whole world will pass by. I don't know who said that, but he's an idiot."

Fortune finally smiles on Cummings on a night out with his big brother Leonard (Peter Frechette) and Leonard's fiancee Susan (Elizabeth Daily). Armed with a fake ID, Charles joins the pair at a downtown nitery, and there, on the tiny stage, the object of his affections warbles into a hand mike, barely audible above the blare of a heavy-metal band. But the next morning, Cummings' exhilaration at finding Laura is tempered by the news that her band is breaking up, and the lady may wind up out of a job.

Worlds above Cummings in sophistication, Laura nevertheless turns to her new friend for comfort when her career goes sour. One afternoon, she accedes to his request to pose for his camera, and we can feel their deepening friendship as the hours pass by and Cummings shoots roll after roll of film, happily taking pictures of this glowing Circe in front of some of San Francisco's most picturesque landmarks. Night falls, and the pair are tired, hungry, and broke. So they decide to crash a wedding reception and help themselves to food and drink. When they are caught by the father of the bride (Hamilton Camp) and threatened with arrest, Cummings makes a deal with the irascible paterfamilias: Let Laura sing for their supper. She does... and, to everyone's surprise, including Laura's, her rendition of a classic ballad (the above-mentioned "I'm Glad There is You") is a big hit. Who knew this grunge diva could sing pop?

This revelation inspires Cummings to take drastic action. Rounding up his life's savings, he pays to have Laura's likeness and telephone number posted on taxicabs all over the city. He's hoping the publicity will attract attention to Laura's talents, but at first it seems only to attract heavy-breathing weirdos. Exasperated, Laura pulls her phone out of the wall. But a newswire service picks up the story about the young fan and his generous gesture and prints it, and soon the phones are ringing off the wall at Laura's old place of business. The bar owner, Jake (George Wendt), pleads with Laura to return and sing at his establishment. She agrees, but she is still furious with Cummings.

Laura's "debut", in front of a packed house that includes record company talent agents, is a success. She is offered a recording contract, and the possibility of stardom beckons. But now, in a neat reversal of the first half of the film, the hunted becomes the hunter, as she tries frantically to locate Cummings and thank him.

What makes No Small Affair so winning is the delicious array of comedy performers director Schatzberg has united for his film. Jon Cryer, making his first film at age 19, has all the right moves, whether making sheep's eyes at his costar or doing a nifty moonwalk upon receiving a bit of good news. Demi Moore, in her first starring role, makes Laura tender/tough, a savvy woman who combines a strong sense of independence with a most touching vulnerability. (In one climactic scene, Laura wraps her arms around her young benefactor and says, "When I grow up, I want to be just like you.") It wouldn't be the last time Demi Moore enchanted a younger man.

Among the supporting players, none resonates more delightfully than Judy Baldwin as Stephanie, the elegant call girl Cummings meets at his brother's bachelor party. Baldwin's bit is little more than a cameo, but her luminous and hilarious scene with Cryer will be remembered long after most of the other performances are forgotten.

Monday, October 02, 2006


A film review by Dan Navarro
Copyright Dan Navarro 2006

When I first watched The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) years ago, I liked it so much I didn't want it to end. I couldn't believe that a black-and-white comedy made so long ago could have the power to move me like that. The depth of my affection for the film is reflected in the fact that, just recently, I saw it for the second time ever... and I felt just as strongly about it as I did the first time.

Charles Coburn plays J.P. Merrick, the richest man in the world, who lives in comfortable isolation in his New York mansion. He's so wealthy that he doesn't realize he owns Neeley's department store... until one day, the newspaper runs a story about Neeley's employees demonstrating for better working conditions. To add insult to injury, they've hoisted an effigy of Merrick.

"That dummy doesn't look anything like me," grumbles Merrick to his servile board of directors. He decides to go undercover, gain employment at his own department store, try to worm his way into the employees' confidence, and "root out the troublemakers!"

Spoilers coming. Okay, now Merrick -- calling himself "Tom Higgins" -- has a job as a shoe salesman, and he's learning who the offenders are among the employees. Much to his surprise (but not to ours), he comes to like them. The "Miss Jones" of the title is Mary Jones, a salesperson played by Jean Arthur at the peak of her considerable powers. She's kind to "Tom." Her boyfriend Joe (Robert Cummings) is the ringleader of the demonstrators, but he's not the fire-breathing agitator Merrick was expecting. He's warm, friendly, and only wants what is best for all the employees.Then there's Elizabeth (Spring Byington), a lady close to Merrick's own age, and he learns to like her enough to consider proposing marriage. But, in a critical scene one evening on the subway, Elizabeth confides to "Tom" that she could never marry a man with money. It's against her principles. Of course, at that point, she thinks he's a poor man.

There are plenty of comedic subplots here, and director Sam Wood steers them skillfully. One has Tom and Mary being arrested for minor offenses on the Coney Island boardwalk, then Joe shows up at the police station and advises the cops that they are in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Funny stuff. But don't worry, this isn't an anti-establishment film, it's an anti-injustice movie. Joe is a fellow who knows right from wrong, and Mary loves him for that.

Finally the day of reckoning comes, when Merrick will have to reveal to his new friends who he really is. In the hands of some hack director, this scene could have crashed and burned, taking the movie with it. But to our great delight, Wood makes it a truly memorable epiphany.

And in this, the film's penultimate scene, Coburn himself delivers the funniest line in the movie. In context, it is funnier than any line I've ever heard. And, although I've warned of spoilers, I won't repeat his line here. Nothing should prevent you from the joy of hearing it for the first time, when you finally see The Devil and Miss Jones.
Here's my lovely daughter Julie and her hubbie Dan (another Dan), at lakeside in the mountains.

Like most Californians, Julie and Dan love the beach. When they're not at the seashore, look for them here.
And this is your obedient servant.