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Music in the Air (1934)
Kern-Hammerstein froth with stars at their peak
This is a lightweight piece of musical fluff- very stagebound from the Broadway hit as it is transferred to early musical film. The libretto isn't much and only one of the seven songs became a hit - I'VE TOLD EVERY LITTLE STAR. However, it is the star personalities that make this a delightful romp.
Gloria Swanson and John Boles are the protypes for Fred and Lili Graham, the feuding husband and wife leads in KISS ME KATE. Here they perfectly assess the comedic and vocal requirements of their roles and play them to the hilt. As the young male lead Douglass Montgomery gives one of his finest performances, full of joy and innocence. June Lang fares somewhat less as the ingenue support, registering neither talent nor personality. Al Shean does his usual Charles-Winniger want to be turn as the old song writer. Marjorie Main has a silent role as Swanson's maid.
The score contains two dances and the songs: SCHOOL PRAYER; BEYOND THE HILL; WE BELONG TOGETHER; I'M COMING HOME; ALL ALONE; ONE MORE DANCE; and the hit I'VE TOLD EVERY LITTLE STAR.
A must-see for Swanson fans - after seeing this and TONIGHT OR NEVER, it stll baffles me why she wasn't a big talkies star - she could do anything - drama, comedy, musical - with flair and inventiveness. It was certainly our loss.
Flying with Music (1942)
Grade B programmer musical - minor in every way
A private collector has finally allowed me to see this almost forgotten musical -and it deserves to be forgotten. It is a 50 minute Hal Roach musical programmer that is grade B in every way - there is an erroneous official timing of 71 minutes that proliferates but I am trying to get that removed.
The plot is almost non-existant. The characters are thinly drawn and the direction, acting and production values are beneath contempt.
George Givot plays a man on the lam from a divorce and alimony. He disguises himself as a tour guide for five young socialites. The lead socialite, Marjorie Woodworth, is looking for love from a latin singer she idolizes - the reason for the trip - but is romanced by a pilot. Eventually all things end happily. The only bright spot is a midget, Jerry Bergen, who plays the comic foil for the detective who is trying to nail Givot.
The score (five forgettable numbers) and the song PENNIES FOR PEPPINO earned Oscar noms - totally and irrevocably undeserved - these were the days when every studio could submit its "best" as nominees in the categories of sound, score, scoring, song and special effects.
It took me over forty years to find this turkey and the result was not worth the effort. Note that lyricists Chet Forrest and Bob Wright went on to create SONG OF NORWAY and KISMET on Broadway.
Lenya steals the film.
This is perhaps Warren Beatty's best screen performance- he is perfectly cast as the Italian gigolo and both his accent and his heavy-lidded loucheness, not to mention his beauty, bring Paolo to life. One feels more for him than for the person we are supposed to feel for- poor Karen Stone. Vivien Leigh with her newly developed deep contralto voice plays Karen in an emotional vacuum. She "walks through" the role and we never "feel" what she is supposed to be feeling. Perhaps this is Quintero but I doubt it. I just think Ms. Leigh was tired and unable to dredge up the required feelings on cue.
The film goes on a bit too long - the languidity of certain scenes which merely repeat what has already been established draws it out longer than necessary.
All said, the best thing in it (and deservedly Oscar-nominated) is Lotte Lenya's Contessa - in nine perfectly crafted and acted scenes, she steals the film and is the one character we remember the most.
Ship of Fools (1965)
Leigh, Werner and Signoret keep boat afloat.
Yes, it is very preachy about prejudice, but then Hollywood was full of Jewish people and they always loved a film set against anti-Semitism. It was safe to place it in a period era - here 1933- where they might not offend enough of its audience to deny it a healthy cash return at the boxoffice. Oddly enough it was the sugary sweet anti-Nazi R&H bonbon, The Sound of Music, that took the trophy that year, but then this was only a subplot in that opus.
Granted it is a bit overdone, but the screenplay has its heart in the right place and we are enriched by the performances of Oskar Werner and Simone Signoret - justly Oscar nommed - as well as the last film performance of Vivien Leigh (who not only deserved a nom and didn't get it - she deserved to WIN the Best Supporting Actress trophy - a very sad and serious error). Her fifteen scenes, six without dialogue, are superbly played, with bitter acid. When she speaks of her husband and her age, one believes she is talking about herself. Her soliloquy in front of her mirror is worth an Oscar in itself. Here she displays the deep throaty voice she gained in later years, such a contrast to the light, wispy girlish trill she displayed in most of her films.
Nominated for eight Oscars and winner of trophies for Art Direction and Cinematography. A worthy effort worth seeing.
Things Are Looking Up (1935)
Delightful Courtneidge comedy vehicle
This film is a fun romp and a perfect vehicle for Ms. Courtneidge's talents- mugging of the grand school ala Marie Dressler - both coming from the vaudeville training of broad comic gesture and both homely, matronly but lovable.
The title tune is quite infectious and well done. Note the continuity error in the Wimbledon audience. The fellow in the front row bottom right of screen sometimes wears a hat and sometimes not.
Vivien Leigh is most noticeable in three scenes- she is behind the girl in the geometry class who gives Cicely a hard time; she is in front row of third window scene during the title tune production number; she has her one line towards the end in a checkered dress as she tells Courtneidge she won't return to the school if the latter isn't elected headmistress.
Do make an effort to see this- much fun.
Tillie Wakes Up (1917)
Grade B slapstick follow-up to successful "Punctured Romance"
Marie Dressler's considerable acting and comedic talents were not truly realized until the talkies, but here in her third film, she again uses the character of Tillie, which she originated onstage in TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE and made her first film (incidentally, the first feature film comedy). Tillie is a comic caricature - quick to innocence, quick to anger. Here she is unhappily married to a business man who flirts with his young upstairs neighbor, a woman who henpecks her husband (Johnny Hines). Johnny decides to end it all but first he will have a last fling. Tillie decides to make her husband jealous by finding a "Romeo." It's all an excuse for Hines and Dressler to go to Coney Island and take advantage of all of the rides, before the forsaken husband and wife come to find them and ask forgiveness. Total nonsense!!!!
The slapstick is practically non-stop. Dressler does her first-time drunk bit as she did in PUNCTURED ROMANCE and the pratfalls are many. Hines' character never gels and Dressler does nothing more than mug outrageously and keep falling down. Her agility considering her age and weight were a constant surprise.
This is a Grade B minor comedy that isn't even particularly funny unless you love pure slapstick for its own sake.
Dressler fans - you won't be amused much.
Bird of Paradise (1932)
Passionate romance in tropical setting
I despair of non-romantics taking the time to denigrate with their reviews ultra-romantic films, such as this.
BIRD OF PARADISE is a masterwork - superbly photographed (the lighting, composition and mobility of the camera are astonishing), lushly scored (Max Steiner's score is the first ever to run from beginning to end of a talking film), and lyrically directed. Del Rio's performance is perfection - a native woman whose only future is to be sacrificed to Pele, the God of Volcanos, who finds true love with a white man who visits her island and chooses to stay.
For romantics, this is a classic tear-jerker and an exercise in sheer visual beauty. The underwater swimming scene between a nude Del Rio and a McCrea clad only in the thinnest of briefs is unique in cinema.
Perhaps the Academy's shut-out of this work is due to its coming on the heel of the semi-documentary Murnau TABU, the year before which explored similar themes. No reason however not to nominate it for Del Rio's performance, the cinematography and the score.
One of the most visually beautiful films ever made and a must-see for romantics.
The Mysterious Lady (1928)
Effective spy melodrama - one of Garbo's last silents
This is a blueprint for the screenplay to Garbo's later talkie, MATA HARI. Here she plays a spy who seduces officer Nagel. She manages to fall in love with him but he rejects her, once he knows she is a spy. She goes ahead with her plans to steal documents from him. He is stripped of his officer's rank. Later, she kills her superior in order to save his life and flee with him.
Both Garbo and Nagel are effective, but in no way extraordinary. The film is well made without being memorable overall. Scenes of interest are: Garbo's first shot as camera pulls back from Nagel's face, revealing her engrossed in the opera and a side shot of her face which follows; lighting as she lights a candleabra; cinematography and editing in Nagel's degradation scene; composition of a shot of Nagel at the piano with mirrored reflections; Garbo at the fireplace; and a tracking shot with Garbo as she greets guests on her way to a rendezvous.
The MGM/UA VHS release of 1990 includes an original orchestral score and sound effects. The print used was quite poor - very scratched, decomposing in spots and with tints turning on and off within scenes. Supposedly MGM had no surviving negative or prints and had to make do with a well-worn one. This video release has since been discontinued and it has never been released on DVD.
All in all, an okay film, but nothing extraordinary.
The Rogue Song (1930)
Complete audio track reveals dull and sluggish operetta
I have finally been able to hear the entire 101 minute audio track, preserved on disc. The film is lethargically paced and the ten Laurel and Hardy scenes are very short and have nothing to do with the plotting, just gags tacked onto the film to liven it up after poor preview response. The sound is not that good and of the ten musical numbers only two songs are worthy of praise - SWEET WHITE DOVE and WHEN I'M LOOKING AT YOU. In addition we have a RIDING SONG, SONG OF THE ROGUE, LOVE COMES, SONG OF THE LAUGHING MAN, NADJA'S SONG. There are two ballets and a lament.
Tibbett comes off well, self-confident and masculine in his bravura and sexy performance and his singing voice here is put to good use. One can see how he garnered a Best Actor nomination that year. There were a number of other performances nominated on the basis of pure charm (Ronald Colman in BULLDOG DRUMMOND, Maurice Chevalier in THE LOVE PARADE and THE BIG POND).
If this is ever found, it probably will be a disappointment for those who waited. The fragment of Laurel and Hardy with the bear (just over a minute) and the ballet (a few minutes) have surfaced as visual fragments and are housed at UCLA.
The Song of the Flame (1930)
Extant sound reels reveal good music/good sound
The five extant sound discs from this film reveal a very high quality Vitaphone sound - round, warm and clear with good sound effects and a quality reproduction of speaking and singing voices as well as orchestrations. It would seem it fully deserved its Oscar nomination for Best Sound.
Performance-wise Alexander Gray comes off as charming as usual- he made a handful of early talkies and proved himself a charming and handsome man, very much at ease. Sadly both his work in NO NO NANETTE and the pictorial portion of SONG OF THE FLAME is lost.
Bernice Claire in the lead has a babyish voice and poor dramatic ability -she sings well, but does not seem at home in talkies. Noah Beery as the villain is word perfect and pronounces so carefully that he lacks any dramatic vocal flair - an unnatural speaking voice with over careful diction.
The score is a marvelously operatic one. All nine songs are preserved in the sound disc performances. There were four choruses as well, three of traditional Russian folk tunes and one drawn from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.
A delight to the ear - this "lost" operetta of the early days of talkies and film musicals.