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
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  and High Society ) 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
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.
NO SMALL AFFAIR (1984)
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
THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES (1941)
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.