Stormy Weather

Stormy Weather — how Harold Arlen's song shifted with the times —

Should we watch old movies that have racist elements? I thought about that question before recommending Stormy Weather. I answer in the affirmative in this case because this 1943 movie is one of biggest explosions of African-American talent on screen in the first half of the 20th century.

The plot: Well, there isn’t much of one, really. The film is loosely structured around the legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson reminiscing about his life, but there’s no real driving narrative, developed characters, or acting of note (except for Dooley Wilson, who is hilarious as a slippery but ultimately good-hearted friend of Robinson). Although the movie is often called a musical, it’s more in the tradition of the music revues initially popular on stage that Hollywood began turning out as soon as talkies emerged in the late 1920s. Revues have a series of scenes in which a performer appears and does their thing (e.g., singing, dancing, jokes), and then with minimal set up or continuity, another performer appears and does theirs. Stormy Weather would have been just as entertaining if they had just had a host between numbers saying things like “Wasn’t Lena Horne fantastic ladies and gentlemen? Next up, put your hands together for Cab Calloway”. Feel free therefore to ignore all the interstitial material and focus your attention on the priceless performances by the stars. Fats Waller in Black and White Portrait Photo Print (10 x 8):  Home & Kitchen

A movie that contains Robinson, Wilson, Horne, Calloway, Ada Brown, Fats Waller, Katherine Dunham, Dizzy Gillespie, F.E. Miller, Coleman Hawkins, The Nicholas Brothers and more is going to provoke arguments over which is the best number. My choice is Waller and his band’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ but you could make a case for many others, include Dunham and Horne’s rendition of the title song. Not every musical star is made for film, but everyone here has extra dimensions to their performance that wouldn’t come out on their records, great as those are (e.g., I had no idea before this movie of Waller’s hilarious non-verbals).

Despite the wartime-imposed budget limits, the trappings around the performances also look fantastic. This includes some lavish Busby Berkeley-style numbers directed with panache by Andrew Stone and arresting camerawork by the revered cinematographer, Leon Shamroy.

All that said, there’s racist aspects of this movie that will put most viewers off some of the time and some viewers all of the time. It’s a white-produced film from the 1940s and minstrelry hangs in the air in several numbers, as do stereotyped characters. Lena Horne is gorgeous and talented, but the odds that a major Hollywood studio would have cast her as one of the leads if she weren’t relatively light skinned are surely close to zero. I can respect people who find the racist realities of the period so toxic that it ruins the movie for them today. Personally, I think of it from the performers’ point of view: They didn’t put that crap on screen, they were there to take advantage of a too rare chance to show off their enormous talent, and they succeeded. And if not for this film, we wouldn’t have visual records of some of these superstars, so I’m grateful for that as well. All of that tips me firmly in favor of this film being watched and appreciated today, but to each their own.

There’s no better way to close this review that by embedding what Fred Astaire said was the best dance number ever filmed: Jumpin’ Jive.

Action/Adventure Musical Mystery/Noir

Peter Gunn

Peter Gunn Theme by Ray Anthony | Daily Doo Wop

I haven’t owned a television for a quarter century, and almost never recommend television shows because I don’t know enough to judge them. But I am happy to make an exception for a trendsetting, utterly fresh, and cool as all get out TV series that ran from 1958-1961: Peter Gunn.

Blake Edwards, prior to his fame for making the Pink Panther movies, 10, Victor Victoria, and other big screen fare, invented Peter Gunn whole cloth. Never before had a detective character been expressly invented for television versus adapted from books, pulp magazines, or radio. And unlike the hard bitten, rumpled PIs of yore, Peter Gunn (Craig Stevens) was stylish, smooth, and also a romantic, particularly in his flirtatious banter with chanteuse Edie Hart (Lola Albright), his gorgeous girlfriend. Edwards also broke new ground by infusing his love of jazz in every aspect of the show. Gunn works out of a jazz bar, and jazz musicians figure prominently in some of the scripts. It also serves as the default instrumental music, giving the whole series of a midnight to dawn vibe. This is all a credit to Henry Mancini, whose dynamic theme song became one of the most covered in television history.

As Gunn’s police detective friend, Herschel Bernardi gives the best performance of the series, in a part that adds some grit and gravity to what otherwise might have been overly light storytelling. Other recurring actors score with colorful parts reminiscent of Pick Up on South Street, including Billy Barty as a pool shark who knows the word on the street. The film noir look and camerawork of the series — more like what one would see in a movie that a 1950s television show — further accentuates the smoky allure of the proceedings. Also fun: An army of future stars have guest turns on the series, allowing the viewer to play “Hey, isn’t that….?”.

Peter Gunn | Linnet Moss

Yet what impresses me the most about this show is the economy of the scripts. In about 25 minutes, a new mystery is introduced, investigated, and resolved, despite the fact that almost every episode has stand alone jazz numbers or comic/romantic scenes that don’t advance the plot at all. Villains on this show don’t have lengthy trials, they either confess or shoot it out in the final minute, wrapping up each episode as a standalone adventure. On a few occasions, the storytelling is too telegraphic and thereby causes some confusion, but generally it works exceedingly well. I would recommend this show to anyone who aspires to be an screenwriter or editor because it shows how fat-free storytelling can be elevated to an art form with no loss of characterization or entertainment value.

Even though Peter Gunn has been off the air for decades, it’s fairly easy to find in DVD collections, streaming on various channels (e.g., Amazon Prime), or on YouTube. Rather than close this recommendation with a trailer, I instead embed the immortal music of a groundbreaking show. Fun trivia: The piano part on the album was played by “Little Johnny Love Williams” who went on to mega-fame as the composer of the scores of mega-hit movies.

British Comedy Musical

A Hard Day’s Night

Keynote: A Hard Day's Night couldn't contain The Beatles / The ...

The beloved film critic Roger Ebert maintained that what we now remember as the “the 1960s” may actually have started in 1964, as the magnificent sound of George Harrison’s new 12-string guitar opened A Hard Day’s Night.

At the time, it had every promise of being a forgettable flick: low budget, quickly made, unknown director and some trendy band that was probably going to be forgotten in a few years. But faster than you could say “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” emerged movie magic that holds up very well a half century on.

There isn’t much plot (and why should there be?). The Beatles run from screaming fans, dance with admiring birds, make wisecracks and eventually arrive at a big concert, where they drive the on screen and movie theater audience into ecstasy. Along the way they play the title tune, “I wanna be your man”, “Can’t buy me love”, “This boy” and many other wonderful songs. Everything about this movie is as buoyant as the music; the Fab Four were naturals on screen and it’s impossible not to share in their fun.

Looking back, you might think “How hard could it have been to make a good movie with The Beatles?”. But remember that no one knew at the time what enduring, globe-spanning stars the Fab Four would become, and, that most movies starring pop music stars over the years have been shoddily-scripted, boringly-shot, products designed to make a fast buck. Alun Owen could have been lazy and let The Beatles’ charm and popularity sell movie tickets, but instead he wrote a funny, clever, original screenplay that deservedly netted an Oscar nomination.

Meanwhile, Richard Lester and Gilbert Taylor may well have created the modern music video with this film. If you look at typical rock musicals in the 1950s (e.g., Elvis Presley’s films) there are many static set-ups on the musical numbers, almost as if you were watching a big Broadway number on stage in front of you. But the camera is everywhere in a Hard Day’s Night, including a number of shots from the Beatles’ viewpoint during the final concert, which works perfectly for a film that was trying to convey what their lives at the time were like from the inside. The resulting visual look is fresh, exciting and high-energy.

Put it all together and you have not just one of the best rock-and-roll movies ever made, but one of the Silver Screen’s best musicals of any sort.

Comedy Musical

The Rutles: All You Need is Cash

Before A Mighty Wind before Fear of a Black Hat and yes, even before This is Spinal Tap was the first mock rock documentary (or, to paraphrase Marty DiBergi, the first, “if you will, mockumentary”). I am speaking of 1978’s The Rutles: All You Need is Cash.

Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle is in top form as writer/co-director and also on screen, including as Rutles bassist Dirk McQuickly (who bears an eerie resemblance to Paul you-know-who) and as a number of minor characters, including an “Occasional Visiting Professor of Applied Narcotics at the University of Please Yourself, California”. Neil Innes does marvelous work sending up John you-know-who and also by penning some inspired song parodies.

The film reviews the exploits of the “pre-fab four” from their early days in the Cavern in Liverpool, to the naughtiest street in the world in Hamburg to stardom under their eccentric manager Leggy Mountbatten, who loves their tight trousers. Even if you don’t know much about the Beatles, this movie is a laugh-filled treat, not least because so many comedy (including some Saturday Night Live stars from the glory days) and music legends (Mick Jagger and a well-disguised but still recognizable George Harrison) lend their talents at perfect moments. Telling the ridiculous story of The Rutles with an ostensibly straight face and a documentary style only makes it more hilarious, most particularly during a “very expensive” visit to discover the origin of the blues in New Orleans.

If you want to see what a fantastic job Idle and Innes did parodying both the Beatles’ music but also their stage presence and mannerisms, check out this clip of that famous night on the Ed Sullivan show…

p.s. A generation later, Idle revisited the same terrain in Can’t Buy Me Lunch. Not as fresh as the first time around of course, but still a pleasing follow-up to the original.

Drama Musical

Fiddler on the Roof

Gifted filmmakers are able to delve into the particularity of one group’s life to illustrate universal human experiences, thereby appealing simultaneously to those inside and outside the group. That’s part of the transcendent power of 1971’s Fiddler on the Roof. At one level, the film is steeped in the particularity of Jewish villagers under persecution of the Russian czar, and it’s a powerful story on those terms. But it’s also a moving treatment of crumbling tradition, parenthood, culture and faith which spoke to a whole generation of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds.

The story focuses on a dirt-poor, devout and intelligent milkman named Tevye, his wife Golde and their marriageable daughters. The family scratches out an existence sustained by the bonds, traditions and religion in their shtetl of Anatevka. As suitors present themselves for his fiercely independent daughters, Tevye struggles to reconcile his traditional beliefs and concern about their material welfare with their desire to choose their own husbands based on love. Meanwhile, rumors of pogroms and forced exiles reach his ears, and he wonders when Anatevka will suffer a similar fate.

This is a very hard judgment to make, but of any Broadway musical, I would cite Fiddler on the Roof as having the best songs. “Sunrise, Sunset”, “Tradition”, “Matchmaker” are among the unforgettable musical pieces Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick created for the play. These show stoppers are brought beautifully to life in the film by director Norman Jewison (A Canadian Protestant who got the job because the Hollywood execs assumed that with a name like that, he must be Jewish!). Jewison and the fine cast are equally adept at the dramatic scenes, which are given more prominence in the film than in the play because Jewison wanted a more serious tone to what he saw as a largely grim story.

The big debate about this film concerns the non-casting of Zero Mostel as Tevye, the role he made famous on Broadway. To the bitter disappointment of Mostel and his many fans, the part went instead to Topol, the actor who had played Tevye in the London production of the play. It remains a stellar cast regardless, with an extraordinarily talented set of performers with both musical and dramatic talent.

This clip features one of the many wonderful, touching songs from the movie. It also shows how Jewison and top-flight cinematographer Oswald Morris did much much more than photograph a play; they created a remarkable piece of cinematic art using all the techniques the medium can offer.


British Comedy Drama Musical

The Ruling Class

I stand outside myself, watching myself watching myself. I smile, I smile, I smile.

It takes courage to make a movie that defies all conventions and challenges the audience. Sometimes, indeed most of the time, the filmmakers fall on their faces. But every once in awhile a group of wildly innovative iconoclasts create something that has the right to be called unique, such as this week’s film recommendation: The Ruling Class.

The story begins with the solid, respectable, fiercely pro-Empire 13th Earl of Gurney (The always watchable Harry Andrews, holding nothing back) putting on a tutu and playing an auto-erotic asphyxiation game that goes awry. Enter greedy potential heirs, but the old coot has left his money to his manservant Tuck and his schizophrenic son Jack (Peter O’Toole). Jack currently believes himself to be the risen Christ, though after a dramatic series of events 2/3 of the way into the film he alters his self-identity in a profound fashion, with deadly results. The story barrels along with equally bizarre twists, punctuated by cast members bursting into song and doing Broadway-style dance numbers! It may sounds like an utter mess, but it’s a sublime piece of cinematic art.

As you would guess, there is a good deal of very black humor in the film. There are also many lighter-hearted laughs courtesy of Alastair Sim as a half-baked bishop (Honestly, he could evoke chuckles reading the phone book) and Arthur Lowe as the suddenly rich, alcohol-soaked Trotskyite butler Tuck, who stays on in his servant role while talking relentless smack to his “betters”.

The film is a triumph of three Peters. Peter Barnes wrote the original stage play and the screenplay, Peter Medak directed, and Peter O’Toole leads a champagne cast by giving an all out performance playing a volatile, complicated, exuberant character. Hats must also be doffed to Jack Hawkins, whose acting I have much praised in prior recommendations (e.g., The Long Arm, The Cruel Sea), and who is in the co-producer’s chair here (alongside Jules Buck).

This film did poor box office in 1972 and seemed to get no middling reviews: Critics loved it or hated it. Likewise, today, I can imagine some intelligent people of good will finding this film contrived, overlong, pretentious, and maybe even obnoxious. But in other modern viewers it will evoke wonder and admiration. If you are open to something completely different, please do give it a look, particularly if you can get your hands on the stunning print available from the Criterion Collection.

p.s. Harlaxton Manor, the magnificent pile where much of the film was shot, was once the site of my employer’s study abroad program.

Comedy Musical

How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying)

An incisive take on the life of corporate suits and their sexy secretaries in 1960s Manhattan, with Robert Morse as the star. No, it’s not Mad Men, but 1967’s toe-tapping, uplifting and funny “How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying)”.

Based on the smash Broadway hit, the heart of the film is of course the music. The songwriter is the great Frank Loesser, and some of his most enjoyable pieces are rendered with energy and talent by the cast (“Brotherhood of Man”, “The Company Way”, “I Believe in You”). Bob Fosse’s choreography is consistently creative and the colourful costumes by Micheline enliven every scene.

The agreeably silly script tells the story of an ambitious window washer named J. Pierpont Finch (Robert Morse, whose bravura performance deserved an Oscar nomination) who climbs the corporate ladder with shocking speed, aided by the titular self-help book. He is pursued by Rosemary Pilkington (Cutely played by Michelle Lee), who is every bit as ambitious in love as he is in work. Many veterans of the stage production (including Rudy Vallee) contribute their comic and musical gifts.

David Swift, famous as a Disney animator and TV writer/director, seems an unlikely writer/producer/director for this film. In some ways, one could say it was an easy job because the choreography and cast had mostly been worked out already on Broadway. But on the other hand, adapting a beloved Broadway show to the screen is a big risk for a director because fans of the stage version can get upset at the inevitable changes in the film version. Here they were apparently delighted along with the rest of the movie-going population, so kudos to Swift for a smooth translation of play to screen, and congratulations on what was the high mark of his career as a film maker.

I am embedding one of my favorite numbers from the movie because it always picked me up when I was a lowly graduate student feeling stomped on and disrespected in a really demanding doctoral program. Enjoy.

Footnote: There are two continuity goofs in the opening minutes of the film. Finch pays for his newspaper but grabs the self-help book impulsively without paying for it and the guy running the booth doesn’t react. A few moments later, when he starts from the roof down on the window washing platform, there is another window washer working the other side. But that guy is played by a different actor by the time Finch has descended to the window. Yes…noticing these things means I have seen this movie perhaps too many times. But. Can’t. Stop. Re-Watching. So. So. Entertaining.

Comedy Musical

The Music Man

The Music Man is a joyous, funny and romantic musical that has been lifting hearts for decades. Iowa native Meredith Willson laboured for years to fashion the tale of a fast-talking huckster who comes to fleece the small town rubes of River City and finds more than he bargained for, including romance with the lovely local librarian. The role of the would-be con man, Professor Harold Hill, made Robert Preston a huge Broadway star. Cary Grant saw the play many times, and Hollywood legend holds that when he was asked to essay the part of Hill in the 1962 movie adaptation, he responded “Not only will I not accept the role, but if you don’t get Preston to do it I will not even watch the movie”.

Since at least the time of Clara Bow, Hollywood casting directors have debated whether particular actors have “it”. Well, whatever “it” is, Preston’s got “it” in abundance. Hill is not a nice person. He wants to mulct the town into investing in a boys’ band it doesn’t need and he hopes to seduce and abandon the goodly Marian the Librarian along the way. But the second Preston comes on screen, everyone is cheering for him to pull it off. He is not, truth be told, a great singer at the level of Gordon MacRae, but he is a great actor and an irresistible charmer on screen.

If asked to think of a fresh-faced musical film actress with great pipes and screen appeal, most Americans of a certain generation would come up with Julie Andrews, perhaps remembering Shirley Jones only as the mom on a TV show that their kids watched. But Jones, who plays Marian, was a very big star in her day, and deservedly so. And she wasn’t just effective at playing wholesome All-American innocents as in this film and Oklahoma!: She after all won an Oscar for playing a vengeful prostitute in Elmer Gantry. Of the principals of the Music Man, she is far and away the best singer, and she also conveys warmth, fire and depth as Marian, the unmarried small town lass with a much-gossiped about past.

Preston and Jones are the hubs of the show stopping numbers, including “Ya Got Trouble” and “76 Trombones”. Except for Shipoopi, with singing and dancing by Buddy Hackett (Ack! – but at least he makes a good comic sidekick for Preston), there isn’t a less than good song in the film, and the music grows on you with repeated listenings.

It is worth mentioning also, given that so many child stars came to bad ends, that little Ronny Howard has a nice part in the film. He went on as we all know to become one of the great movie directors of his generation, which based on the little singing he does here was a wise decision.

Some NYC and LA-based film critics have read this film as a condemnation of the ignorance and small-mindedness of Iowans, which to me seems like coastal snobbery not borne out by facts. Yes, the people in the town are sometimes petty and are easily taken in by the conniving Professor Hill, but Wilson also shows us that River City is a place of simple decency, youthful idealism and of course honest, redeeming love in the person of Marian. The movie thus stands as one of the three best statements of everything that is good about Iowa (The other two of course being Field of Dreams and the nearly all-white 2008 democratic caucus nominating Barack Obama).

Here is one of the lesser known but still marvelous numbers from the movie, showing off Preston’s smooth con artist ways and the mellifluous voices of the Buffalo Bills.

p.s. Lovers of the Simpsons will appreciate that this film is the source material for the famous Marge vs. The Monorail episode.