The Band Wagon (1953)

The Band Wagon (1953) movie poster

director Vincente Minnelli
viewed: 08/16/2015

Check off another of the BBC’s 100 Greatest American Movies that I had not yet seen.  Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon is considered alongside Singin’ in the Rain (1952) as among the best of American musicals.  For my money…I guess I don’t totally know where I stand on it.  I did like it and quite well.

Some years back, a friend turned me on to Fred Astaire and I came to really like his films, particularly ones from the 1930’s.  I’m no expert on musicals but this seems a somewhat odd one.

What starts with Tony Hunter (Astaire), a movie star on the wane, returning to New York and Broadway at the behest of a musical/dance writing husband and wife combo, Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray, turns into a shanghaied fiasco.   They bring on touted producer/actor Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) and he brings on ballet star Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse).  Gabrielle and Tony take an immediate dislike to one another and Cordova turns a light “song and dance” show into an over the top version of “Faust”.

The final section of the film moves from a more standard narrative into a collage of sequences: a hay ride, a top hat and cane pairing, a trio dressed as triplets, and finally into the film’s most inspired piece, the “Girl Hunt Ballet”, a loose, humorous musical dance twist on Noir.  While this latter segment has the feel of a variety show, it sort of veers from the track of a general narrative.

It’s odd.  Good, perhaps great, but odd.  And that’s all I got after one viewing.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) movie poster

director Vincente Minnelli
viewed: 01/06/2012

Some classic films that I watch with the kids are not only their initiation with the material, but my own as well.  I once used to note that no one has seen every interesting or important classic film, everyone has holes in their experience, so don’t be so surprised that I’d never seen it.  That said, in telling people about the movie the next day, I was surprised how many people hadn’t even heard of it.

Go figure.

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Meet Me in St. Louis is one of Judy Garland’s most known and beloved films.  Set in the early part of the 20th century, it’s a family drama/comedy/entertainment that is interestingly already wistful for a bygone time of innocence in American culture.  Based on the writings of Sally Benson, it recalls a middle class family in St. Louis in the year leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair, which was held there.  Garland plays Esther, the second eldest daughter of the Smith clan (which includes three other sisters).  The joys and adventures are comprised of riding the trolley, riding shotgun with the ice delivery man, Halloween shenanigans, building snowmen and going to dances.  And wooing young men.

Some humor is made of the “invention” of the telephone, the newfangled device that allowed a person in New York to talk to a person in St. Louis “as if they were just in the next room” (via shouting and misunderstanding).

The film is shot in Technicolor and is a pretty pure delight.  It debuted such classic songs as “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, two of the film’s many highlights.  It’s also interesting that second-billed Margaret O’Brien played the youngest of the sisters, Tootie.  She’s a total hoot, a wild almost tomboy of a character, who gets most of the laughs and a bit of the drama.

Made in 1944, during WWII, the film is a diversion of diversions, reckoning of a wholesome America.  The film’s largest drama revolves around the father’s plan to uproot the family for a promotion in New York City.  The film is of course a tribute to the St. Louis of the early century, which received the World’s Fair’s cosmopolitan fantasia, “right in old St. Louis” (or something to that sentiment.)  St. Louis represents the ideals of the American family, and the joys and traumas therein are of that of nearly broken hearts and almost abandoned homes.  But the whole thing is too happy and upbeat and cheerful (despite the sentiment of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that things will be better) to end with anything but a smile.

The kids really enjoyed it.  Felix had specifically asked if we could watch some more musicals and this was one that I’d always wanted to see.

The Bad and the Beautiful

(1952) director Vincente Minnelli
viewed: 07/09/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The main draw for me to the double feature at the Castro this evening was The Bad and the Beautiful, the comic melodrama directed by Vincente Minnelli that I’d seen once before almost 20 years ago and had long wanted to see again.  Paired with The Big Knife (1955), I made note on my calendar to make it out to the theater, and for once, I actually followed through on such a plan.

And this film was well worth it.  Starring Kirk Douglad, Lana Turner, Walter Pigeon, and Dick Powell, the film is aces all up, wonderfully cast, cleverly written, and funny, spritely and insightful.  This was shown as part of the Castro’s more than week-long series of “Hollywood does Hollywood” series and it’s a classic of self-reflexivity at its finest.

Douglas plays Jonathan Sheilds, a self-made Hollywood producer, who we follow in flashbacks from his meagre beginnings to his rise to the top to his crash and burn.  We follow, as I mentioned, in flashbacks, through the eyes and stories of three of his collaborators and friends who he has managed to alienate and turn decidedly against him.

Barry Sullivan is the B-movie director (whose earlly efforts are modeled off of Val Lewton’s production of  Cat People (1942) to great humor) who gives Douglas class script that he’s written which Douglas promotes to his own end and leaves Sullivan in the dust.  Turner is a boozy floozy of an actress, daughter of Douglas’s actor idol, who he builds into a movie star by romancing her and promoting her, only to turn around and drop her for another actress.  And Dick Powell is the erudite writer, who Douglas draws begrudgingly to Hollywood (along with Powell’s gorgeous Southern Belle of a wife, played by Gloria Grahame).  When through machinations of Douglas’s Grahame is driven to the arms of a lover and ultimately killed, Powell is righteously incensed.

Ah, but for as ruthless and cut-throat Douglas’s road to success is, he makes great movies.  The film flirts with condemning him, but the tone isn’t pure melodrama, but rather a quite enjoyable comedy.  And it’s whip-smart and funny as heck.  A great film about the inner-workings of the Hollywood system, with hundreds of knowing barbs thrown and clever twists of narrative, the film is just plain excellent.  Bottom line: a great, great movie.

Cabin in the Sky

Cabin in the Sky (1943) movie poster

(1943) dir. Vincente Minnelli
viewed: 05/24/10

When Lena Horne passed away on May 9, I queued up this film, a debut of sorts for her and the first feature film directed by Vincente Minnelli, an early Hollywood all-African American film, full of complex representation issues and yet still full of wonder, charm, and real cinematic captures of the likes of Horne, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, among a stellar cast of other amazing African-American talents of the time.  And it, while doubtlessly flawed on a multitude of levels, also exudes great charm and warmth and wonder on a number of levels as well.

Adapted from a Broadway play, Cabin in the Sky is a Faustian musical, set entirely within an African-American pretext.  This, of course, is 1940’s Hollywood version of African America, so what it tends to depict most accurately are the stereotypes of the time and yet also the unbridled talent of the performers.  Well, somewhat unbridled.  The whole thing is bridled with its vision of this “ethinc” world.  But the film is not intentionally racist.  In fact, the film shows great affection for its characters, not simply idealizing them (because they are much of caricatures, cartoon characters, “types”), but indeed yearning toward their true humanity.

Actually, it’s not hard to be brought to mind of animated films like Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943) or Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943), both from director Bob Clampett.  While the animation takes the caricatures to extremes (as animation, particularly of that time, took everything to extremes), the image is one far more stark and racist-seeming than Cabin in the Sky comes anywhere near.  And I mention this to try to keep these potentially problematic depictions in perspective.  Not only are the scenarios and characters of Cabin in the Sky far from the most troublesome, they really shine through in some ways.  And to state a keen observation about these films, the makers were not as ill-intentioned as their depictions might seem, for there is a love and valuation on the music and styles, while exaggerated, are meant to be appreciative not derrogatory.

The film tells the story of Little Joe, played with great charm by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and his loving, long-suffering, adoring Petunia, played by Ethel Waters.  Little Joe, though he tries to be a good man, is tempted by gambling, drinking, and women, and though he’s drawn to repentence by Petunia, who is religiously religious, he is also drawn toward sin by his cronies and by the uber-sex kitten Georgia Brown (played by Horne).  When he takes a bullet in a brawl, he is confronted by both good and evil, who give him six months to amend his ways or he is due in hell.

The devils are an amusing lot, led by Rex Ingram as Lucifer Junior and his band of conniving assistants, who include Louis Armstrong (in a non-singing role).  The devils have little horns made from their hair, and while this may be a bit on the dodgy side of racial depiction, it is also a simple, succinct and clever use of art design, giving them all a little dash of the comical.  They send Georgia Brown to tempt Little Joe and it leads to the drama.

The film is light-weight in its tone and humor, featuring a number of great songs (“Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” and “Taking a Chance on Love” both sung by Waters) and some vivacious dance sequences including a smooth number by villain Domino Johnson (John William Sublett), a dance number by Bill Bailey, and a group dance scene to the music of Duke Ellington’s band.  When the music and dance is on, its the performances themselves that are foregrounded, capturing the various artists in their element as much as is possible, and very worth the while.

Sadly, Lena Horne, despite cutting such a notable figure, doesn’t get much performance time herself, but she does indeed make an impression.

The whole of the product is more than the sum of its parts.  The film is a complex one to watch considering 21st century sensibilities regarding racial depictions, and it’s important to understand the circumstances for the production.  That the studio wanted to make a film promoting these talented African Americans is one of both true recognition of talent as well as a shot at finding a way to make money on that talent.  But at the same time, a movie like this at the time wouldn’t even be shown in a multitude of cinemas throughout the southern part of the United States.  The film, which I would argue should not be overly disdained for what might be troublesome from a stereotype-angle, also should be understood for all of what it was and wasn’t.  In a sense, to truly watch this film is to be informed of much of its production, stars, history, and the reality behind its creation.

Minnelli handles the material well, showing flashes of brilliance in some scenes, keeping the film bopping along despite some of its more mediocre qualities, and allowing the cast to have their moments of wonderful performances.  And it’s clear that the character or Little Joe, while not depicted as the brightest of brains, nor the most polished of the penitent, is one of deep character and humanity.

I actually quite enjoyed the film and am now quite eager to see other films of the period that are somewhat akin to it.