Flahooley (May 2012)

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After he was informed against in Hollywood, ‘Yip’ Harburg returned to the stage with this show, which only managed to clock up 40 or so performances on Broadway.  To be honest, it is a little surprising that it lasted so long.  The script, by Harburg and Fred Saidy, is packed with glib, naïve critiques of capitalism – eg incredulity that over-production can have malign effects – and silly jokes about foreign affairs – eg the Arab saying that they will have to send an Ambassador to the USA in order to recall him to register official displeasure.  Most of all, there is a lack of real wit.  These days, most of the gags come across as patronising, if not actually offensive.  For example, Bigelow greets the Arab and the Princess by just throwing-out random middle-Eastern words such as “shaslick”.  The effect makes you cringe.  Such things would surely this musical unrevivable these days.  In addition, the laboured jokes about atomic power in the by-play with the genie Abou Ben Atom are excruciating too.  Only the satire on the toy industry – the desperate search for a Christmas special – and the feverish intensity of Elsa Bundschlager’s hunt for Flahooley dolls to destroy have any kind of dramatic life.

It is a show that does not have a coherent structure.  The love story of Sandy and Sylvester that dominates the early scenes disappears quickly from sight, swamped by the orientalist grotesquerie of the Princess and then by the genie.  This in turn is pushed aside by the fervour of the McCarthyite witch-hunt.   The style fluctuates between the quasi-realism of the toy business, the pantomime aspects of the dolls and the genie, the exotic singing of the Princess, and political satire.  It is a strange ragbag of disparate elements.

The score is another problem.  Although Sammy Fain wrote loads of highly successful songs, this show provides very few clues as to his melodic gift.  The only number that enjoyed any lasting success was “He’s Only Wonderful”, which Sarah Vaughan quickly realised was ideal for her sumptuous voice.  The other songs are mainly either strongly tied in to their specific context – “Happy Hunting” or “The Springtime Cometh” – or are features for an exotic cast member.  One of the reasons for the “exotic”, orientalist strand in the show was that it incorporated a sensational star of the age – Yma Sumac, the supposed Inca princess with a voice that could span 4 ½ octaves.  That by itself makes revivals problematic.  In truth, though, it adds an element of the grotesque but nothing of real interest to the show.  Margaret Preece took on the burden and performed like a proper bump-and-grind trouper.

Stewart Permutt added his 1930s, Eric Blore-style panache to the role of the genie.  Matt “Alan Tracy” Zimmermann was every inch the egregious tycoon, Bigelow – a role with all the substance of a paper silhouette.  He did what he could with the feeble script and Christmas cracker jokes.  Myra Sands was scarily effective as the witch-hunter general.  Michelle Whitney as the talking Flahooley doll has a career in horror films ahead of her, if she desires.  James Vaughan these days seems to get the odds and ends – the newsreel announcer, the Arab – but, in such roles, over-acting is what matters.  The parts are small but the acting is large and perfectly-formed.

Once again, Mark Warman was the MD.  With the able assistance of Valerie Cutko, the show went very well.  I really enjoy the way that he changes style – crisp and precise for the ensembles, shading into rhapsody and counter-melody for the more able singers.  Emily O’Keefe took on a role that brought Barbara Cook to attention – Sandy.  Their account of “He’s Only Wonderful” was gorgeous.  The only other romantic number was “Here’s To Your Illusions” – a duet with James Irving as Sylvester, the inventor.  If anything the performance was even better, well-blended voices and the MD stretching out his fingers for a change.

lion-hunt

it is so hard to find out on-line or in books when the British Museum acquired those bas-reliefs of the Assyrian lion-hunt…have been reading Layard for hours today and he never mentions them…Instead he spends pages talking about Bedouins he has met etc.  It is all so vague – his account does not really work as a travelogue, nor as an account of his digs, nor as ethnography.  It is just a bulky heap of vagueness.

Husbands and Wives (January 2012)

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This is a Jaglom-style film from Woody Allen:  lots of talking by highly-educated New Yorkers about how difficult it is to be married and retain your own identity.  It is shot in a quasi-documentary style, with characters at times speaking direct to camera in response to questions from an off-screen inquisitor.  There is a lot of jerky, hand-held footage – so stylistically it is somewhere between a 60s documentary in cinema-vérité mode and a quasi-Bergman meditation.  But it is very talky and does not actually cut very deep.  It is difficult to feel much interest in any of the characters in the film – all of them so busy making excuses for how miserable they feel.

It was released in 1992, which was probably just before Woody Allen and Mia Farrow split up.  It is quite queasy watching them play a bickering married couple in this film.  Farrow plays an insecure but passive-aggressive woman who wants another child – strikingly similar to the persona that emerged from the publicity around their real-life break-up.  More disconcertingly still, we see Allen flirting with a 21 year old student – although he does back away at the end from any kind of sexual involvement.

The dialogue is copious and there are plenty of stuck-on references to Strindberg, Ibsen and Mahler, but it does not really convince.  There is no real bite or wit but plenty of mildly amusing wisecracks.  There is never a real sense of drama or tragedy.  These people will just go on talking and talking while their lives continue to drift.

Judy Davis plays perhaps the strongest character in the film.  She never manages to say the right thing, almost as if she is afraid of giving in to her passions of the moment.  Something is holding her back all the time.  She can go so far with Liam Neeson but no further.  Lysette Anthony as the new-age bimbo is perhaps a caricature but she is genuinely ridiculous in the ardour of her stupid but very firmly-held convictions.  She is the only light point in a troubled, confused film.

Bullets Over Broadway (January 2012)

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Every so often, Woody Allen makes a period film. Bullets over Broadway is set in new York in the 1920s – in the worlds of gangsters and glamorous Broadway stars. Woody Allen does not actually appear in the film but it is clear that the role of David Shayne – the would-be playwright – was written with him in mind. He is full of the verbal complaining, the tics, the obsession with being artistic of the standard Woody Allen character, with the exception that he is not Jewish. John Cusack does a reasonable job in the circumstances but you wonder why the writers – Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath – did not set him a different, more rewarding challenge. He could only ever be Woody Allen-lite.

It is a common enough storyline – a mobster puts his bimbo girlfriend into a high-brow play – but given a twist that not even Damon Runyon played. Cheech, the hood assigned to look after her, turns out to have greater dramatic flair than the playwright and actually manages to save the play. In a brutal irony, he is so upset about the bimbo’s inability to play the part that he even rubs her out. It is a Runyonesque storyline but, sadly, it lacks the sting in the tail of all real Runyon stories. Jennifer Tilly, as Olive Neal the bimbo, plays her part in the time-honoured way: a mix of Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain and Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. At one point, we even catch her playing patience – surely an echo of the latter film.

The texture of the film is filled out with various side-plots. The discussions amongst Shayne’s bohemian friends about how the “artist” makes his own morality, and about how they only write or paint in order to have the pleasure of not achieving success etc, would probably have expanded if Woody Allen had appeared in the film. Apart from the bimbo, the main female role is played by Dianne Wiest: a legendary Broadway grande dame, maybe modelled on someone like Laurette Taylor or Tallulah Bankhead, whose career is on the slide and who drinks too much. Her part is, sadly, underwritten. It never really develops beyond an alcoholic egomaniac who seduces the writer in order to get him to alter her part favourably. Admittedly, Dianne Wiest plays it well: from her earlier Allen films, it would be hard to conceive that she had sufficient hauteur to play this role.

What you do notice though is the crudeness of the wit. In the scene where Wiest sets out to seduce Shayne, she orders two martinis. He thinks one is for him but, in fact, they are both for herself. The leading man in the play is played by Jim Broadbent. The way we see him compulsively eating food, storing chicken legs in his coat pockets, stealing dog treats etc, is way overdone. The first time we see Tracey Ullman as the soubrette, she cracks jokes about breast-feeding her chihuahua. It seems as if she is modelled on a scatty English comedienne such as Beatrice Lillie but this is a style of humour that grates in this context.

The music also grated. It seems as if we might have to blame Dick Hyman for playing Bix’s account of “Singin’ the Blues” under Dianne Wiest’s seduction scene – a truly crass choice because no one can compete for attention against Bix. They re-used exactly the same recording of “Let’s Misbehave” that opened Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask. But the real pity is that the writers did nothing with the dramatic situation. Having killed Olive, Cheech must know that his boss will exact vengeance – even if he does not actually suspect Cheech, he will regard him as culpably negligent. But they did nothing with this. They preferred to go out in an anodyne way by having Shayne admit he is not a real artist and decide to return to Pittsburgh with his girlfriend. There is even a rather stupid scene where he harangues Cheech for being a monster by rubbing out Olive. It is a classic example of a scene that was written for Allen the performer.

Chazz Palminteri is easily the most solid performance in the film. It is a shame that the writers did not use him better. They could have tried for pathos but took the easy way out. So it is not a film that is either massively amusing or which plays with your emotions. It is a bit of a mis-fire.

Broadway Danny Rose (January 2012)

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Maybe the early 1980s were the most creative part of Woody Allen’s film career.  In Zelig, Radio Days, Purple Rose of Cairo, he did things with film that he had not done before; and would seldom do again.  He moved away from the parodies that lay behind Sleeper, Play it Again, Sam, or Love and Death.  They are not pastiche Fellini or Bergman films like Stardust Memories, Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy etc.  They are free from the egocentricity, the desire to present the director/star as a savvy Manhattanite that appears in Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah, Crimes….

Amongst this group of assorted, eclectic films, Broadway Danny Rose stands out as the most eccentric.  It is completely sui generis in his career, not least for the fact that it establishes its own filmic universe, not one borrowed from Fellini, Bergman, classic photos of New York, other films.  A shot of Mia Farrow looking at herself in a mirror might be an echo of Persona, but it is not used in the same way.  It is a look, a style that he never used again, sadly.  It verges on the Chaplinesque and, when this film came out, I did think and hope that he would pursue this route.  But he did not.  The other influences sketched above came back into play, plus an increasing reliance on talkiness that recalls the films of, say, Henry Jaglom.

Broadway Danny Rose is closer to the Chaplin of The New Janitor or The Bank than to any other Woody Allen film.  The character he plays is a charming hustler on the fringes of show business, responsible for the careers of a bunch of bizarre no-hopers.  He puts everything he has into these acts but, if they achieve any measure of success, they leave him.  The basic scenario instantly sets it apart from the normal Woody Allen film.  It is not about him.  He is an ever-optimistic, chirpy failure: a Chaplinesque figure rather than the usual Allen hero.  And then, at the end, when Tina seeks him out to apologise for scheming with Lou Canova to get him on the books of another agent, there is a scene worthy to be compared with the recognition scene in City Lights – a parallel that I do not think any critic pointed out at the time.  There is real pathos here, a depth and intensity of emotion rare in Allen’s films.

It is told and shot in a very unusual way.  A group of comedians meet in a deli and swap stories until, finally, one of them tells his favourite Danny Rose story.  The film is mediated through this narrator – a device that emphasises both how low in the economic pecking order Danny Rose and his acts were, but also the esteem and affection in which these people hold him.  The look of the film is also unusual.  This is not the glossy black and white of film noir.  It is not the stylish art deco black and white of musicals.  This is the grimy, dingy black and white of 50s television and newsreels.  The deli is a deli, not some glamourised, gleaming restaurant.  Danny’s apartment has paint peeling from the walls.  It has a texture of authenticity.  The sequences set in resort hotels remind you of old TV variety/cabaret programmes – “live from the Coconut Grove” etc.

The film plays with the screen persona of Mia Farrow.  Her elfin features are obscured behind large sun-glasses for most of the film.  She is pushy and mouthy in a way she never was in her earlier films.  It reinvented her screen career, showing that she could be more than just a teenage victim or a bit of decorative fluff.

Two further sequences deserve mention.  When they visit Danny’s apartment to collect his things, he learns of Tina’s desire to go into interior design.  His supportive, building instincts immediately click into action.  The scene rounds out his character – he really does like to help people to realise their potential.  The other scene involves Barney Dunn, a hopeless ventriloquist.  To escape from the mobsters, Danny gives them Barney’s name, in the belief that he would be out of town or in Puerto Rico.  But he is not.  They find him and beat him savagely.  Danny visits him in hospital and promises to help.  A low-key scene, full of pathos:  Chaplinesque.

Silk Stockings (December 2011)

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A sad disappointment of a film.  Any project that combines the talents of Cole Porter, Rouben Mamoulian, Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse ought to be something wonderful and stylish.  Instead, it is a jocose, vulgar wreck.  When Cole Porter et al. reworked Philadelphia Story and Taming of the Shrew, they managed to retain the spirit of the originals and to create something that stands up in its own right – fine songs, great dancing, good performances.  Maybe the art of Lubitsch is more intractable.

The script did not help.  It seems that George S. Kaufman’s book for the stage version did not make much use of the three rogue commissars so we have to blame Leonard Gershe and Leonard Spigelgass for what went wrong.  Instead of the rapier of Billy Wilder we get a plastic dagger.  For example, the second time that Ninotchka is sent to sort out the commissars, it is because they have entered a dance contest and won it with a cha-cha-cha.  I think that the version in Ninotchka when they throw a carpet out of a window and complain that it doesn’t fly is about one million times more amusing.  Not least since this particular cha-cha-cha would have been danced by Jules Munshin, Peter Lorre and Joseph Buloff!  Who could possibly have seen fit to give them a prize?

In this film, Peter Lorre cuts a particularly sorry figure.  For all his gifts, he was no physical comedian and it is painful to see him reduced to feeble clowning.  He might well have been this kind of person in real life, but this does not mean that he could act that way on screen.  He was M, der Verlorene, Joel Cairo, that guy in Casablanca….

Possibly the crux of the matter is that the script of Ninotchka has real emotional content.  The plot has been constructed by a watchmaker.  The commissars have to stay in the Royal Suite at the Grand Hotel because it is the only room with a safe big enough to hold the jewels they have extorted.  We feel the sense of betrayal when the White Russians manage to rob the safe while Ninotchka is on the razzle with Melvyn Douglas.  In Silk Stockings, the plot motive is simply deranged.  Why would an American film producer commission a Russian composer to write music for an adaptation of “War and Peace” in which a Hollywood mermaid à la Esther Williams will star?  Strange things happened in Hollywood but they need to meet the standards of probable possibility to make a film about them.  It is an idea worthy of The Producers rather than a bittersweet romantic comedy.  And then, to have the moment of betrayal triggered by a scene in which the Russians hear their adored music arranged as a swinging dance number!  It is just too stupid to carry any emotional punch.

Cole Porter, for all his legendary refinement, was no enemy of vulgarity – he did write Mexican Hayride after all, and held stars such as Bobby Clark and Ethel Merman in high regard – but it is hard to see why he went along with this.  Then again, it is a very weak score:  only “All of You” has achieved any life outside the musical.  Fred Astaire also seems out of place – hard though it is to imagine.  It is strange that he is not involved in the best dance sequences in the film – Charisse’s elegant solo where she dresses in finery to the strains of “Silk Stockings”, and the athletic, rumbustious “Red Blues”.  Dance styles had changed by 1957 and he was not getting any younger.  The physicality of “Stereophonic Sound” or his duet with Charisse, “Fated to be Mated”, really do not suit his style.  He also does an awkward jive take on his classic “Puttin’ on the Ritz” routine – “Ritz Roll and Rock”.  It is well-documented how much Porter hated rock ‘n’ roll.  His duet with Charisse to “All of You” feels like a pallid remake of their duet to “Dancing in the Dark”.  There is no real chemistry between them this time.

And what was Mamoulian up to?  He moves the camera gracefully.  He introduces Fred Astaire in a sequence of foot-level shots – did anyone ever walk as distinctively as Astaire?  He conjures a reasonable facsimile of Garbo out of Charisse but the script is so feeble that it is impossible for her to make us forget her predecessor in the role.  What is really hard to accept is the terrifying vulgarity of Janis Paige’s performance as the Hollywood mermaid.  She comes across as a blend of Ethel Merman and Martha Raye.  In any other Astaire musical, she would have had a brief scene or two as comic relief:  perhaps to make Ginger Rogers jealous.  She slaps the side of her head repeatedly – apparently in an attempt to alleviate the deafness brought on by all the swimming she has done in Hollywood.  They must have paid a lot for such a great gag!  Her boisterous, stentorian performance of “Stereophonic Sound” threatens to shatter the screen.  Her partner, Fred Astaire just looks ill-at-ease.

And then there is Jules.  Sig Rumann at least had presence and authority, which made his slide into decadence amusing.  Munshin was someone who aspired to be merely decadent – a man constantly striving to be no more than just tasteless.

It’s Always Fair Weather (December 2011)

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It is 1955 and the indefatigable team of Comden and Green write what you have to see as a follow-up to On The Town.  After the situation has been set up with the three pals’ return to New York at the end of the Second World War and their boisterous routine with dustbin lids, the action takes place in the space of a single day, ten years later.  We are spared Jules Munshin:  his place is taken by the much more assured and skilled Dan Dailey.  Perhaps it had also got through to MGM that Gene Kelly was always better when paired with dancers, because the electric Michael Kidd is the third of the trio, rather than a singer such as Sinatra or a straight actor such as Van Johnson.  It is a sour, alienating film.  For none of the three has civilian life lived up to their hopes and dreams.

Gene Kelly almost always seemed to play an obnoxious guy in his movies – so annoying that, at times, you wonder why the women on whom he was forcing his attentions did not just ram a pencil up his nose.  In this film, he has a motivation for his behaviour.  He was jilted by his sweetheart before he got back from combat and has become a gambler rather than the lawyer or politician he seemed destined to become.  Cyd Charisse had always had rather a spectral film career.  Although in The Harvey Girls she had a few dialogue scenes, she was really there to do a graceful balletic dance to “Wait and See”.  She appears in Singin’ in the Rain merely as the gangster’s moll in the “Broadway Rhythm” ballet.  In The Band Wagon, her part fades away, although she does have the “Dancing in the Dark” and the “Manhunt” routines to imprint her on our minds.  In It’s Always Fair Weather, she actually gets a substantial role as the TV producer.  She also gets to perform a more vigorous routine than the ones she usually glided through – hurled round a boxing gym by a bunch of very physical men in “Baby You Knock Me Out”: the antithesis of “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” sung by Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

As was customary in so many films of this particular era, there is a ferocious attack on the television industry in the shape of the show Midnight with Madeline with its blend of glamour and emotional overload epitomised in the performance of Dolores Gray.  The style lives on today in any show hosted by Graham Norton.

The fact that the film was shot in Cinemascope does not seem to have hampered Stanley Donen at all – he is still addicted to fluid, complex tracking shots.  But because this would tend to show up a lot of empty set in a standard solo musical number, it is possible that he deliberately decided to get around this by making the solos either group numbers – such as Charisse’s “Baby You Knock Me Out” or Madeline’s “Thanks But No Thanks”, or by setting Kelly’s “I Like Myself” on a street teeming with people and cars who have to make way for him.  Donen also uses some highly creative touches to vary the size of the frame, for example, in the restaurant where each of the three old buddies shows up in his own slice of the frame to reveal his thoughts about his former comrades to the strains of the “Blue Danube” waltz.  Later on, the three dance in perfect synchronisation, in three separate locations, to “Once Upon a Time, I had A Friend” – a split-screen effect that recalls Abel Gance’s Napoleon.

The highpoint though is surely Gene Kelly’s finest dance routine on film – “I Like Myself”.  André Previn’s music is bouncy and rhythmic enough to allow Kelly to take flight on roller-skates, alternating tap steps with long graceful glides.  The effort required stops him from falling back onto his tired clichés – such as the big dopey grin.  In fact, in this film, the skittle only appears for a split-second, in the opening number.  His character is not the sort of smug, self-satisfied man who did this mugging in so many other films.

As with On The Town, the film ends as the opening sequence did, with the camera craning high above the subway bridge, showing the three pals going their separate ways:  but this time, Kelly has a girl.

Meet Me in St Louis (December 2011)

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On the surface, this is a slice of Hollywood small-town Americana and this is how the reference books generally present it.  It shows Mr Smith, a rather hen-pecked father of 5 children – at least one of whom shows disturbing tendencies – against a quasi-historical backdrop of St Louis in 1903 where the production detail is so lavish, the colours so saturated, that you are not sure whether you are looking at a museum case or having a kind of delirious dream.  The costumes are so elaborate, so richly adorned with frills, bows, buttons that they could almost be a set of theatrical costumes.  Whatever we are looking at, it has nothing to do with reality.  The youngest daughter is given to killing her dolls and staging elaborate funerals for them:  she plans to dig up the “dead” ones to take to new York when the family moves.  She throws a stuffed figure under the wheels of a streetcar in the hope of derailing it – in concert with her next-older sister.  She “kills” her snow figures so that no one else can enjoy them after the family’s move.  This strikes me as strange behaviour!

I found myself making comparisons with The Magnificent Ambersons.  Although that too was a highly stylised film, the décor is so much less neurotic that it seems realistic.  And, of course, for the snow scenes, Orson Welles shot inside a big freezer in order to get the visible breath, a precaution that Vincente Minnelli did not take, but then he was probably not so interested in appearing realistic.  And yes, snow is fairly frequent in St Louis, although you would expect someone to know that it is not exactly rare in New York.  Like so many MGM musicals, you question why this was a musical at all.  The cast includes one singer of note and no dancers and yet it had to contain musical spectacle, while Mary Astor plays perhaps the most anodyne part in her career.

Alongside a slew of old songs – such as “Skip To My Lou” and “Meet Me in St Louis, Louis” – Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane provided a few distinguished and off-beat numbers.  Their songs were really not like anything else being written at the time.  Perhaps the most widely known is the melancholic lament Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas“.  Quite why it has become a standard Christmas song, performed and recorded by so many singers, is a mystery.  Like “Send in the Clowns”, it really needs the context in which it was set for it to make any kind of sense.  Or at least, this is what common sense would say.  Without the context, to me it seems lachrymose and tedious whereas it is actually a statement of heartfelt regret and loss that rises to a lyrical peak in the repeat of the A section – a little gem of craftsmanship.  Perhaps almost as well-known is “The Boy Next Door”, which Alec Wilder admired so much for its technical subtleties.

You begin to sense that Hugh Martin was particularly gifted at writing melodies that suited Judy Garland’s voice.  He was not afraid to use long trains of repeated notes – as he does in the verse of this song – knowing that she would phrase them to perfection.  He also uses the time-honoured device of repeating fairly drab musical material and then suddenly varying it to allow her to reach out for a high note of throbbing intensity.   He spent a lot of his career as a rehearsal pianist – perhaps gave him an insight into what singers like.  His lyricist partner, Ralph Blane, is equally unsung.  Even more than Johnny Mercer, he is able to encapsulate the humdrum.  The words seem natural, no forced rhymes, no devices that draw attention to the lyric qua lyric.  It is fluent like the style of P.G. Wodehouse at his best.  They mould without any effort to the musical lines of Hugh Martin.

Perhaps the most famous song and sequence in the film is “The Trolley Song“.  This is another exquisitely constructed Martin-Blane concoction: 86 bars of controlled but ever-gathering enthusiasm, as counted by Alec Wilder.  And yet, does the actual sequence convey the meaning you hear in the words?  It is a riot of colour and movement.  I suppose that after making his name in the 20s for his subtle black and white photography, George Folsey might have enjoyed the garish spectacle but did St Louis girls really wear such astonishingly contrasted primary colours in 1903?  The song seems to talk about a romance that springs up on a tram journey.  Yet, at the outset, John Truett is not aboard the tram and Esther is anxiously looking out for him.  The chorus starts up without her.  She sees John racing behind the tram, trying to catch it up, and launches into her solo.  She sings the song without making any reference to him.  He makes his way to the bench on which she is sitting.  She makes room for him but ignores him:  so much for the “hand holding mine to the end of the line”.  It is quite curious, turning the sequence into a kind of fantasy for what is going through her mind.

Here is Hugh Martin playing”The Girl Next Door” while Michael Feinstein sings.  Notice how, as the composer, he highlights the structural beauties of the melody rather than the emotional potential of the lyric.

The Phoenix of Madrid (December 2011)

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One of those Calderón comedies in the vein of La dama duende. It is intriguing to pick up on just what distinguishes this play from, say a tragedy such as El médico de su honra. The similarities are many. This is a play all about honour – the aged head of the house is afraid he will lose honour if don Luis does not get betrothed to his daughter Beatriz, simply because it has been a matter of discussion with his relatives. It is full of elaborate rhetoric – both Beatriz and Luis take every chance to declaim elaborately with lots of trans-elemental imagery and Petrarchist paradoxes. It is given to don Alonso to deliver the most elaborate summation-schema – the whole “he is a fool who makes a fool of love” speech. The play is very clearly laid-out as a quasi-legal case – as prescribed by Lope: at the start, don Alonso even sets out to adjudicate between the views of his valet Moscatel and don Enrique.

But of course the differences are instructive. Beatriz is treated as a ridiculous, parodic figure because of her preciosity – was Calderón indulging in anti-Gongorism here? No noble in the “serious” plays is treated with such levity. No one in this play is unjustly killed, unlike the wives in the big three wife-murder tragedies. Although jealousy is often invoked, it never has quite the same “pasos de ladrones” intensity that it has for don Gutierre in El médico. Perhaps most interestingly, the sub-plot of the love of the servants Inés and Moscatel mirrors the confusions and deceptions of their masters. If their trials are ridiculous, then so are those of their social betters. And, at the end, Luis, the hidalgo who does not declare his real affections suffers. Because this is a Calderón play, Beatriz has never even noticed him, so it is a perfectly satisfactory resolution that she ends up with Alonso.

It was a good, lively production. The small cast lent itself to the very confined stage available. A resourceful set design allowed for changes in locale, and even permitted Alonso and Moscatel to do a balcony jump.

Dangerous When Wet (December 2011)

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This was not from the Freed unit at MGM but instead from the corner where people like Joe Pasternak and Charles Walters, the director of this picture, lurked. From a distance, this just seems a wildly improbable scenario: a musical when the only real singer in the cast is Barbara Whiting, who plays the younger sister of the real star, Esther Williams. The only real dancer is Charlotte Greenwood – an eccentric dancer in the manner of Ray Bolger- who plays her mother. Esther Williams is engaging but not much of a singer or dancer. Fernando Lamas can croon a bit but has the screen personality of a cod. And then round out the cast with Jack Carson and William Demarest….and this is a musical. And then add a story that has a family of Arkansas farmers setting out to swim the English Channel to win enough money to buy a prize bull. It is maybe far-fetched.

During the film, Esther Williams falls in love with and marries Fernando Lamas – a French(!) champagne magnate. No film with Jack Carson and William Demarest can ever be totally boring or worthless but here the odds are stacked against them. The songs are by Schwartz and Mercer. You wonder how they felt about the assignment! They contributed some engaging material but nothing that became a standard – although Joyce Breach has recorded “I got out of bed on the right side”. The music director for the film was Georgie Stoll, which makes you wonder whether his protégé Andre Previn was involved in this.

The highpoint of the film is an interlude where Esther Williams swims with Tom and Jerry. She has to fight off an amorous octopus – who sings in the voice of Fernando Lamas – gets chased by a swordfish and ends up amidst a herd of seahorses. In truth, the astonishing thing about this film is that it was a box office triumph. It is surprisingly watchable but that might just be because you cannot conceive where the plot is going next. It is not held together by any normal logic or dramatic necessity and nor is it studded with great songs or dances. You watch it in a state of disbelief: is this really happening in front of my eyes?

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