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.