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Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
A rousing musical study of a domestic family crisis...
MEET ME IN ST LOUIS is a quaint, lush piece of work from musical director extraordinaire Vincente Minelli. Starring the lovely, young Judy Garland as Esther Smith, the movie traces the story of the Smiths as the two girls of the family try to land marriageable prospects, even as their father's (Leon Ames) decision to move the family out of the picturesque St Louis to New York threatens to tear their dreams asunder.
The movie isn't particularly demanding or especially thought-provoking. In fact, it's little more than a slight family drama dressed up with some songs (albeit lovely ones, including the title song, The Boy Next Door, The Trolley Song, and breakout classic Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas). Garland is fresh and pretty in her role as Esther, and displays some of her surprisingly sharp comedic talent in a scene where, due to a misunderstanding, she (quite physically!) berates her beau John Truett (Tom Drake). At this point in her life and career, Garland's voice is unparalleled, and it's certainly put to good use in this movie. There's little doubt that this movie was plotted around her talents; she is without a doubt the star, although little Margaret O'Brien puts in a valiant, adorable performance as her mischievous sister Tootie, and Mary Astor and Ames do a good job of depicting a relationship that's, in the end, still founded on love. (Their duet 'You And I' is unusually affecting, given that all the other songs in the film are really just for Garland to show her stuff.) You can't be much blamed for not remembering a whole lot of this movie's plot when you're done watching it though. It's so slight as to be a little unremarkable in that respect. The movie, while not objectionable in any way, is certainly one of the lesser entries in the canons of both Minelli and Garland.
Alice Adams (1935)
Hepburn sparkles as small-town girl in clunky social drama
ALICE ADAMS, played by the late, great Katharine Hepburn, is quintessentially the beautiful, ambitious small-town girl put upon by circumstance. She wants desperately to be accepted, to be something other than just a poor "nobody"... to hide the fact that she doesn't come from 'money' and 'background'. This is painfully obvious in the first few scenes, when Alice steals out of the nickel-and-dime store but pauses meaningfully before the classy Vogue shopfront: trying to fool the world and possibly herself into thinking that that was where she was shopping all afternoon. She plans and preens for the high-society Palmer party, even though she has to wear her two-year-old dress, pick flowers for her own corsage, and go with her brother Walter (Frank Albertson) as her date. As everyone at the party ignores Alice, save another social reject Frank Dowling (bit-player Grady Sutton), she spots and is attracted to the rich, handsome Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray, in a woefully underwritten role). Of course, Mr. Russell is meant to marry party hostess Mildred Palmer. This doesn't last long though--he quickly makes clear his attraction to the magnetic, gracefully awkward Alice, and begins to court her with serious intent. But Alice, in her eagerness to hide her social status, papers over their growing love with lies, which leads to a disastrous dinner party at the Adams abode... even as her family slowly disintegrates around them, partly due to Alice's father Virgil (Fred Stone) wanting to earn more money for his daughter.
The film is generally okay--that's the best word for it. Not great, not even really *good*, but just... okay. It's interesting, and hints at something better than it is. But ultimately, it's a social drama that comes off a bit stilted, with very few fully-fledged characters. The key role of Arthur Russell is remarkably free of a personality, and it's even hard to really put a finger on what Arthur finds so enchanting about Alice... aside from her being fortuitously Katharine Hepburn's identical twin. Oh, Alice is an interesting character, certainly. But so much of her being is concentrated on her social ambitions that it leaves you wondering what Arthur sees in her since these are the very things she hides from him when they are together. Alice's brother and father fare better, but even towards the end, Walter becomes little more than a plot device in an ending that appears to want to serve as a muddled sort of come-uppance for Alice. Sutton as bumbling gentleman and his sister's dance partner is actually a stand-out in his... what? Five minutes of screen time? Intriguing though the message of the film may be (social class does not matter and attempts to rise above it will only keep you from your true self and happiness), the blandness of the characters keeps one from really developing sympathy for the characters.
As for Alice, the film almost seems designed to have the audience keep her at arm's length. When she recognises that she is the one who will drive Arthur away, not because of what he has heard about her but because she cannot bear to confront her own reality head on, she keeps pressing on. The one truly brilliant scene in the film is that of the disastrous dinner party--this is possibly the first film I've seen where the atmosphere is one of muffled horror, both on the part of the participants as well as the audience. As Alice flounders through the dinner, chatting constantly, gaily, desperately, I found myself just wanting her to please, please keep quiet. To stop making things worse. It was very effectively staged, and a wry, clever commentary on Alice's inability to just relax and be herself. But by the end of the film, when Alice realises her foolishness and finally lets her guard down, there just isn't time to muster much sympathy for her character. It doesn't help that her suitor is so terminally boring that the love story is charming at best, but certainly does not come anywhere near to the unadulterated magic of the best classic film couples.
However--and this is a pretty darn big however--although this is probably not one of Hepburn's better 1930s films (she starred in a whole run of those, including LITTLE WOMEN, STAGE DOOR, HOLIDAY and BRINGING UP BABY), this is without a doubt one of the best of her 1930s performances. Never was there a lovelier, more quietly desperate wallflower than Hepburn's Alice. Hepburn is not squarely in her prime here--not yet. For that, I point you to her unparalleled, radiant turn in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. But in ALICE ADAMS, she is all fresh, awkward beauty. Her performance gives a strong hint of what she will be well capable of in the future--an almost intuitive ability to harness those 'mannerisms' of hers, as her critics call them, to serve the performance and flesh out her character... but also to shed them in an instant and truly, genuinely surprise her audience with beautiful understatement and a remarkable lack of histrionics in her performance. (This would only be refined in her future roles with Spencer Tracy.) As Alice floats through the Palmer party, pretending she is in demand and only waiting for her date, or as she chats with a desperate light in her eyes to Arthur at the Adams' dinner party, Hepburn suffuses the role with the kind of quiet, frantic desire which is simply perfect for her character. It is Hepburn that gives ALICE ADAMS the spark of life it needs to keep from being a mediocre, even bad, film. Her performance is the cornerstone and, quite frankly, the most interesting part of the film.
7.5, largely on the basis of Hepburn's performance which gives this film the extra edge it needs.
Funny Face (1957)
I think the word for this is 'surreal'...
So you've got two of the most famous, most classic film stars of ANY generation in one film--that would, of course, be Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. You've also got the whole Gershwin songbook to pick from for your soundtrack. You even have the studio agreeing to ferry the whole company to Paris for location filming. Sounds promising?
Yeah, it did to me too. Quite frankly, it's the script and basic plotline that let the rest of the enterprise down. Hepburn plays Jo Stockton, an intellectual (and we know this because of her less-than-gleaming pageboy cut and the drab shapeless grey potato sack she wears... and still looks fabulous in) who works in a bookstore. She tries very hard to get her shelves back in shape after Dick Avery (Astaire) and his entourage from Quality magazine (including a manic Kay Thompson as lady-in-charge Maggie Prescott) descend upon the store for a photoshoot... only for Dick to leave her floundering and singing "How Long Has This Been Going On?" when he surprises her with a kiss. Still, she clings to her empathicalism ideals and agrees to go to Paris for a Quality fashion shoot so that she can meet the father of empathicalism (her philosophy of choice, of course), Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair). Dick's charming of Jo continues through the fashion shoot, and to the tune of "He Loves And She Loves", he finally realises he loves her back. But as in all romantic comedies, the course of true love never did run smooth, and Jo gets upset when Dick tries to warn her off Professor Flostre ("He's about as interested in your intellect as I am"). The inevitable misunderstanding happens between two lovers when Jo refuses to turn up for the final unveiling, and Dick is set to take a plane back to New York alone.
It's all pretty run-of-the-mill, sentimental pablum, with an attempt to pass poor writing off as profound themes. I never knew Hepburn was a dancer, and she acquits herself rather well in her solo prance through the (literally) underground French cafe. But really--the only word for moments like this is 'surreal'. The impetus for the dance doesn't ring true; the dance itself is technically accomplished but bewilderingly weird... and well, Hepburn may entrance her audience when she's acting, but she's not a magnetic dancer (not the way, say, Cyd Charisse is). That apart, Thompson and Astaire also suffer in their seriously eccentric duet to "Clap Yo' Hands". Partly because Thompson's presence in the film is, to me, utterly mysterious. Of course she's *meant* to be the typical musical sidekick (see O'Connor, Donald, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN), but she falls far short of the mark. A successful sidekick would light the screen up during his or her solo--her "Think Pink" was, frankly, frightening, and she just wasn't very good in the rest of her numbers. (Even her duet with Hepburn, "How To Be Lovely", was running on empty when it started.) As for Astaire--what a shame. His talent was put to waste in this film, even though he still looks pretty spry and his sense of rhythm is as impeccable as ever. But in "Clap Yo' Hands", his dancing passes only for mugging (and sadly, not even intentionally so). Another one for the 'surreal' label--it's evidently TRYING to be witty and avant-garde. And failing miserably. Astaire's own solo number is perfectly executed as usual, and he pulls off his coat-swirling with great style, but one still feels as if some spark in him is still missing. Of all the good material the film had to work with, it's really a shame that it never used any of its three principals well.
That's not to say the film was beyond all hope: It's hard to come out of such a poorly-scripted and thought-out film on your feet, but it's also hard for Astaire and Hepburn to be truly horrifyingly bad... so they're just bland. They do go some way in lending their trademark class to the film, for example in the extremely poorly-lit darkroom courtship dance. It *seems* very good, from what little I can make out through all the murky black and red... it's a scene just crying out for digital re-enhancement so that we can actually see what's going on. But it's still quite nicely-executed. There's also a flash of the magic that this film could have had the two times Jo and Dick walk together behind the little Parisian church, with her in all her wedding finery. When he realises that she's fallen for him, for real, he sweetly serenades her with the song "He Loves And She Loves", and the raft across the river is a very sweet, pretty touch.
Given the pedigree of this film, I really had been expecting a lot more than I actually got. It's not horrible, but nor is it fantastic. Probably one to watch if you're a fan of Astaire's or Hepburn's, but I doubt I'll be pulling this one out for a re-viewing any time soon. 6.5/10
Poor Little Rich Girl (1936)
Could anyone really resist Shirley?
Were star vehicles in film *created* for Shirley Temple? It certainly seems so--there just couldn't have been another more adorable, endlessly charming, chubby little cherub fit to act in films like POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL.. and actually keep the audience interested and not turned off by all the unabashed saccharine sweetness she exudes (especially true for modern cynical audiences for whom Macaulay Culkin was their superstar child star).
In this film, Temple plays little Barbara Barry, daughter to soap mogul Richard Barry (Michael Whalen). Unfortunately, her father is too busy trying to fight off competition from Peck Soaps to spend much time with her and decides to send her off to school. On the way there, Barbara's nanny meets with an accident and Barbara is left to go off on her own little vacation where she eventually meets the Dolans (Alice Faye & Jack Haley), who work her into their radio act as their talented child who sings and taps like a dream. Barbara charms the Dolans' way into a Peck Soaps radio spot and it is when her father listens to the radio and recognises her singing a song with lyrics special to him that he realises that Barbara never made it to school...
POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL doesn't try to be a great film classic. (Incidentally, it's not one.) It's just a vehicle for Temple to sing, act, and generally be cute. She takes full advantage of it. Her baby voice is high but uncommonly sweet, and she does well with numbers like, "When I'm With You", "Oh My Goodness" and "But Definitely". It doesn't hurt that she's quite a talented little dancer as well, so she looks good when performing with the Dolans (for example, the over-long and rather pointless, but well-performed "Military Man"). My favourite number is when they argue over spinach in "You've Gotta Eat Your Spinach, Baby"--Temple displays just the right degree of righteous indignation as she pleads on behalf of children across the world that spinach isn't necessary. Her cuteness is undeniable as well--it's what made her box-office champion at Fox for several years in a row, and her trademark shock of ringlets, dimples and chubby cheeks are used to excellent effect in this film.
It's a pleasant enough film, moderately engaging for most, with no real shocks but no moments of supreme awfulness either. Good for a night in with the kids--they're sure to identify with all of Barbara's vitriolic protests against eating her greens (they sure are obsessed with spinach in this film!). Fun, but not challenging. 7.5/10
That's Entertainment! III (1994)
A fine evening of entertainment!
Every THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT film has a hook to draw new viewers in--the first film had the sheer novelty of these film giants talking to us about the work they did in that glorious, music-filled period of movie-making, although these legends were reduced to reading off pre-written scripts. The second movie had a more intriguing main attraction: only two narrators, but when those two narrators were Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly actually dancing and singing their way through the gorgeous clips stacked up? Fantastic.
Well, THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT III sure tries its best to live up to its predecessors. Retaining the narration technique used in the same film, albeit with the second generation of MGM musical stars (and only Gene Kelly, sporting enormous glasses!, retained from the first two films), the film's hook is the rare special footage it boasts--from a background tracking shot showing the vast amount of money and manpower invested in just one Eleanor Powell number, through to valuable outtakes such as Debbie Reynolds' 'You Are My Lucky Star' number (cut from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN but available on DVD now) and the Indians number in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN as originally performed by Judy Garland. There are other little treasure nuggets as well, all deleted scenes, such as Judy Garland's song 'Mr Monotony', meant for Easter Parade; and Lena Horne's risky bubble bath chanson filmed for CABIN IN THE SKY. And I do wonder what was so bad about Ava Gardner's lost vocals for SHOWBOAT--I thought she sounded pretty darn good myself!
I personally thought the best thing about this film was the way some of this rare footage was displayed--the split-screen technique was quite the stroke of genius. It was used to simply brilliant effect, for example, in showcasing two versions of a number filmed to the same dubbed vocals, the first starring Joan Crawford (for TWO-FACED WOMAN, in rather astonishingly Technicolour and camp blackface) and the second Cyd Charisse (for THE BANDWAGON). No guessing which number SHOULD have been retained (hint: Charisse is one of the best dancers of any time; Crawford is... not), but it was hilarious watching the very VERY different ways in which the same song was approached in the two different films.
My favourite part of the whole film was a number similarly presented, except this time it pitted Fred Astaire against himself. The sand-enhanced song-and-dance, to the tune 'I'm Just A Dancing Man', was filmed once, but deemed not classy enough. So there are two versions--one of Fred in top hat and tails, the other in overalls. Guess what? Astaire keeps to his own internal rhythm perfectly, and proves in this juxtaposition of the two scenes that he is his own best partner. It's pretty damn amazing, and probably the best and most jaw-dropping part of the film.
The rest of THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT III is pretty run-of-the-mill in comparison. It's not stuff we haven't seen before (we've seen better clips in the previous two films), and there are still the prerequisite sections dedicated to Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly (oh yes, and Esther Williams, of course). It's a shame that there wasn't a Cyd Charisse segment, or one dedicated to Ann Miller. Considering that both these dancing ladies were presenters during the film, it'd have been nice to recognise the great contribution their long legs made to film musical history. I did enjoy the clip from THE KISSING BANDIT that had Charisse and Miller pitted against each other in a catfight slash dance-off, which was very cool, very intense and great fun to watch. But otherwise, it's all stuff that would work better in the original films.
So while THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT III again succeeds in doing what it sets out to do (leave the audience in a happy glow), it's less accomplished than its predecessors. It's not as engaging to new viewers as either of the first two (showcasing lesser-known numbers and films), and is of only average interest to the hardcore classic film buff. It's a hard line to straddle, and the film manages to do it, don't get me wrong. But well. You can't go wrong with this film, but it's all been done before, and dare I say it...? Done better. 7.5/10
Now this is *really* entertainment!
You really would think that no other film musical documentary could possibly top THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT. Come on--it's got personal appearances by a host of stars, and some of the most famous and best-loved clips ever. Including, you know, the singing in the rain bit from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. Could it get any better?
Well, THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT II certainly tries its darned hardest to be better. Not a single clip is repeated from the first film in the trilogy, and watching this film really makes you realise just how much talent was all focused in the one studio from the 30s through to the 50s. Judy Garland admiring Fred Astaire's Easter bonnet in EASTER PARADE, Garland and Astaire sailing up the avenue as 'A Couple Of Swells' in the same film, Gene Kelly and Garland dueting on FOR ME AND MY GAL, Ann Miller and Bob Fosse in KISS ME KATE, a montage of musicals before colour, a Garland tribute, a Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn love-fest... this film unabashedly brings them all (and much much more) together. There are a couple of clunkers, of course, like Bobby Van hopping like a maniacal rabbit-freak through the town, or the token Esther Williams number. But as you listen to Garland sing 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas', or Frank Sinatra croon his way through 'I Fall In Love Too Easily', and see Gene tap dance on skates as naturally as if he had been born with them strapped on... again you're struck with just how special an era this was in film-making, one that unfortunately is lost to the rest of us except through video and DVD.
And I know that this isn't the most popular of opinions, but I think THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT II not only matches but far surpasses the original. There was nothing special about the first film--its only gimmick was the coup it had managed in bringing all these glorious film legends back together to talk about their work. The only caveat was that the incredible personalities behind the stars just couldn't shine through except with some pretty special people... otherwise, they were all reading off a pre-written script. Kind of dampening, really.
THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT II, on the other hand, is a small but successful exercise in creativity: from the title sequence through to Gene Kelly's direction of the new footage between himself and Astaire. It's also a delight for fans of both Astaire and Kelly when these two dancing men, you know... dance together again. Sure, they're not as nimble and quicksilver as they used to be, and some of the lyrics they're singing are--well, the only word for it is corny. But there's no denying that both these men have a kind of screen charisma that doesn't disappear with time, and having them both onscreen together, singing... now that really *is* entertainment as it should be. In the final scene they tell us that the best films have the audience leaving the film with a glow. How right they are.
Quite simply, THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT II is sheer, perfect nostalgia bottled and kept simmering, just waiting for an audience. About the only flaw with it is that it simply couldn't be better than its source material... but that's also what's so good about this film. It makes you want to go out and rent all the others... and still watch it over again just to revel in Astaire and Kelly being onscreen together for the first time since 'The Babbitt and The Bromide' in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES almost three decades ago.
What more could you ask for?
That's Entertainment! (1974)
More stars than there are in heaven...
There is nothing in this film--or more accurately, documentary--that doesn't do *exactly* what the title promises. It's hard for it to fail, really, considering the material it's working with. THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! sets out to be a joyous celebration of everything that was fun and sparkly and happy-making in the MGM musical, with the added bonus of having the stars (the BEST, brightest, eternal ones) that were there themselves telling us all about it.
Well, it works. No two words about it. These clips of song-and-dance routines that will stay with us forever were made with one sole purpose--to entertain. And entertain they do. From 'Singin' In The Rain' through to 'Showboat', 'High Society', 'Seven Brides For Seven Brothers'... the film is a catalogue of the best and brightest of MGM musicals, and the stars. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly deliver tributes to each other, Liza Minelli and Mickey Rooney talk about the magic that was Judy Garland, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds and Peter Lawford--with a lovely stint by Bing Crosby and a hilarious interlude by James Stewart--bring us through the decades singing and dancing. The clips picked were great, of course. How could you go wrong with segments dedicated to Astaire, Kelly and Garland? The clips were all perfect, with some rarer items popping up like Cary Grant singing 'Did I Remember?' and enough of the classic ones to make one feel like pulling out all the tapes and watching them through again.
There are a couple of things that keep me from giving this documentary top marks. Firstly, a general complaint that really isn't quite fair: seeing these clips just don't compare to watching them in their original films and the proper contexts. I hope that people who watch this film as an introduction to movie musicals actually go out and rent them afterwards, because there really isn't anything more brilliant than SINGIN' IN THE RAIN or ON THE TOWN. Secondly: it would have been much more engaging if the actors invited to speak on the programme hadn't so evidently been reading off pre-written scripts. Some fared better than others, with Taylor being the spaced-out worst, and Stewart acquitting himself admirably with his trademark drawl and charm. Astaire and Kelly are both still immeasurably attractive onscreen, but even they can't quite pull off the image of camaraderie the words they speak impart to their previous relationship. (Not to say that they were rivals--the opposite extreme isn't true either. They were simply professionals, and acquaintances.) It'd have been just that much more fun if these legends had been allowed to speak off the cuff.
All said, if you want to introduce someone to the magic that was the movie musical, there's really no need to go further than THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT!. It's a catalogue of stars and talent, song and dance, and extensive proof that we won't ever see the likes of all this again. More's the pity for those of us who weren't there when film history happened, all to the songs of Berlin and Gershwin and the toe-tapping of Astaire and Kelly...
Ziegfeld Follies (1945)
Sparkly and fun but with next to no substance... Astaire shines though!
If you're watching ZIEGFELD FOLLIES expecting a plot of any kind, or even an attempt at one, you'd probably be quite horrifically let down by this film. It's best to approach and accept it for what it is--a crazy filmic patchwork of song and dance and sketches, with some that undoubtedly work better than others, and some that are best left forgotten in the annals of film history. If you *do* bear this in mind, ZIEGFELD FOLLIES is an amusing way to spend a couple of hours as you watch these famous stars, including Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and many many more trying their utmost best to entertain you. (Admittedly, some with better success than others!)
The film opens with William Powell as Florenz Ziegfeld (reprising his role in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD for what really amounts to a cameo), looking down from heaven as he plans to put up one last, great Ziegfeld follies using the best stars of the day. What immediately follows is the trademark very very pink number, with girls galore floating by on merry-go-round horses, that segues into a rather surreal bit with Lucille Ball (properly attired in a pink fluffy concoction) brandishing a whip (oh dear) against several girls in very sexily-cut black leather body suits. It's an... interesting way to kick the film off, let's leave it at that.
There's no real way to summarise ZIEGFELD FOLLIES except by singling out one's own favourite numbers. And in the forest of boring (Keenan Wynn wastes his talents in a grating and predictable phone sketch), over-the-top (feast your eyes on Esther Williams' water ballet or Kathryn Grayson's operatic warbling as Cyd Charisse dances through bubble mountains) and just plain weird (Judy Garland performing what could well be the first rap in Classic Hollywood--it's not an altogether pretty picture), all of Astaire's contributions to the film stand out.
Astaire is the ostensible star of the film, appearing no less than four times with three gorgeous dance sequences that could certainly count among his personal best. In two of them he's partnered with Lucille Bremer to pleasing effect. "This Heart Of Mine" features Astaire in his rogue persona as he romances Bremer with dance (doesn't he always?) only to steal her jewelry... and for her to steal his heart. The better of their collaborations is the odd but intriguing "Limehouse Blues" with the two of them made up like Chinese (Astaire almost--*almost*--carries it off but ends up looking a little silly). Leaving aside stereotypes, the ballet in Tai Long's fevered dreams is quite stunning, and impeccably staged. I'm still trying to figure out how Astaire and Bremer managed to remember the exact way in which to flip their fans... I hate to think how many times they must have reshot that just to get it all perfectly synchronised!
My favourite number in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, small surprise, is the one I was looking out for: the penultimate number, "The Babbitt & The Bromide", featuring Astaire and Kelly together on screen, performing the same routine for once in their long illustrious careers. It's a funny little number, with the two fellows they play meeting each other at every stage of their lives, only to have the same inane, mundane conversation. Then follows a small bout of onemanupship as they try to out-dance the other, right into the gates of Heaven. Watching them together is a real treat, because you know these are probably the two best dancer/singer/actors ever committed to film. It's a bit of a shame that their styles don't quite gel: Astaire floats his way through the routine as Kelly pounds the ground as only he can, so their dancing is polished, in perfect time (the timing is absolutely amazing!), but just a little bit off-kilter. It's still the best number in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES though, with Kelly's irrepressible mischief playing against Astaire's ruffled charm.
ZIEGFELD FOLLIES is really just a big, sparkly candy box of a movie--if you bear in mind that a plot was never particularly high on the mind of writers, producers, or directors, and you have a good book by your side to tide you through the (fortunately not too numerous) stretches of boredom, you're set for the evening. Keep the video ready for whenever Astaire breaks onto the screen; that's always a sign of quality. 7/10
The Bishop's Wife (1947)
He's a real angel of a guy...
Reverend Henry Brougham (David Niven) is working very hard to get his cathedral built--in fact, he's so busy speaking to wealthy clients and attending business meetings that he forgets that the one thing he needs most in this world is his wife Julia (Loretta Young) and their daughter Debbie. As Julia feels increasingly hurt at Henry's neglect, who should swoop in but the mysterious, charming Dudley (Cary Grant), telling Henry he's an angel who's there to answer Henry's prayer. Henry can't quite believe this even as Dudley seems to make himself quite at home in Henry's life, charming the wife, the child, the maids... even the taxi driver Sylvester (James Gleason). It's all a bit too much for Henry when Dudley finally brings the cathedral's biggest patron Mrs Hamilton (Gladys Cooper) around to the idea of donating the money to the homeless instead of to the cathedral. Is there anything left of Henry's life that he can salvage? And can he really compete against an angel who has God and little miracles on his side?
THE BISHOP'S WIFE is a sweet little romantic dramedy, perfect for a Christmas night curled up before the TV set. You have to give it credit for packing in a lot more story and real, human characters than you'd expect--it's not stock Christmas heart-tugging schmokum (did I just make up a word?), but a story that's quite genuinely intelligent and real. It's not perfect (what is?), but its presentation of the characters, especially Dudley and Henry, ring true. You can believe that Henry, underneath his bitterness and myopia, really loves his wife. He's just... forgotten his direction in life, is all. Niven does an excellent job with the character, keeping him just this side of prim but making him sympathetic especially when he asks Dudley to put up his fists for Julia.
My favourite secondary characters are Sylvester, played impeccably by Gleason, and the slightly dotty Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley). They're actually real *people*. Actually, they even fare better than Julia herself, whom I didn't particularly warm to. I wasn't annoyed by her, but nor did I feel that it was very likely she could get a reverend and an angel to almost come to blows over her. It's a shame that Loretta Young spent most of the film looking pensive, and even in her character's moments of joy--say the ice-skating scene--she simply fails to leap off the screen and run away with the audience's hearts.
Cary Grant has no such problem, however. From the moment he strolls onscreen as Dudley--the guardian angel every girl wished she could have--he has everyone's attention. He makes Dudley just a little bit roguish, a little bit dark. You couldn't really take Grant seriously if he's all decked out in an angel's costume, halo and harp and all, but you *can* imagine him as a sort of very human kind of angel. Which is exactly what Dudley is. It's mostly the smaller moments Grant sneaks into the film and his own performance that make THE BISHOP'S WIFE compelling viewing, and if you came to this film as a Grant fan, you certainly won't leave it disappointed.
All in all, the final film is well-drawn-together, cleverly written and directed, and benefiting from its two powerhouse male leads... Niven cleverly underplaying his part, and Grant suffusing Dudley with the charm and deep, hidden vulnerability he can suggest in all his characters without so much as faking a pained expression. It's definitely a great way to spend a Christmas night, and perhaps any other night. 8/10.
Holiday Inn (1942)
It's always a wonderful holiday with Bing and Fred!
It seems as if the laidback, unambitious Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) is always competing with the edgy, decidely ambitious Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) for the same girl. Ted dances away with Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) the night Jim and Lila are supposed to get married, proving that Jim wasn't quite right when he claimed that "I'll Capture Your Heart Singing". Jim decides to set up the Holiday Inn, an inn that serves up a cracking night's entertainment (themed song and all) every time a holiday rolls around--which means that Jim gets to work 15 days out of the year and enjoy his farm and be "Lazy" the rest of the time. It isn't long before Jim meets Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), a girl who sings *and* dances beautifully, and the two of them make Holiday Inn a bigger success than anyone could have expected. Jim and Linda share a quiet "White Christmas", but just as the quiet (and I must say rather repressed) Jim begins to make hopeful overtures to Linda, Ted gets dumped by Lila and, in a haze of drunkenness, turns up at the Holiday Inn... only to bump into Linda and dance with his perfect partner and not even remember her when he wakes up with a hangover the next day. Ted's agent (Walter Abel) keeps trying to find Linda, whose back is the only thing he recognises, even as Jim realises that Ted could be poised to steal his girl again. Rather than explain this to Linda, Jim embarks on some subterfuge, making Linda dance in blackface ("Abraham"), sabotaging their dance routines (the hilarious "I Can't Tell A Lie") and trying to keep Hollywood agents from seeing them together (forcing Ted to perform the spectacular "Let's Say It With Firecrackers"). But Linda discovers Jim's betrayal, and goes off to Hollywood with Ted to make a film based on Jim's Holiday Inn. Can Jim win Linda back, and prove that he really *can* capture her through singing... rather than have her won away by Ted's dancing? Will he, in the end, have "Plenty To Be Thankful For?".
HOLIDAY INN is quite simply the quintessential holiday movie, perfect for any occasion. It's tailored to be that way, after all, with beautiful Irving Berlin songs written for every holiday. My favourites would have to be the heartbreakingly lovely "Be Careful It's My Heart" for Valentine's Day, "Easter Parade" for Easter (later the theme song for a Fred Astaire/Judy Garland vehicle of the same name) and of course, "White Christmas"--that classic, beautiful Christmas serenade by none other than Bing Crosby. Crosby is on fine form and it's not hard to see why his voice alone could win droves of ladies to his side, even if his character as written was too repressed to be particularly attractive.
Undoubted added value would be several of Astaire's numbers... surely some of the most innovative and breathtaking dance sequences he's ever performed, in a lifetime of innovative and breathtaking dance sequences. First off is the number Ted performs with Linda while drunk--whether or not Astaire himself was drunk at the time (it's reputed that he needed 8 shots of bourbon to get the dance perfect), it's a perfectly-timed, subtly humourous number performed with great style. When he dances with Linda again after he's declared that "I Can't Tell A Lie", Astaire is as funny as he's ever been, with his immaculate execution and impeccable timing, as he clowns his way through Crosby's abrupt tempo changes. Then, of course, Astaire literally blows the stage up around him as he joyfully proclaims (and his character claims to improvise!) "Let's Say It With Firecrackers".
The singing and the dancing in HOLIDAY INN, if it isn't obvious by now, is top-notch. What's interesting is that the characters, perhaps unintentionally, display surprising depth and complexity. Not the ladies--Linda and Lila (the latter in particular) are sketchily drawn out and don't have much character of their own. It's Jim and Ted who intrigue: Jim, the guy who can't seem to express his love except through anger or music; Ted, the apparently brash fellow who has never failed to fall for every girl he's danced with and felt no qualms at nicking girls off Jim for his own benefit. Jim's general meanness, with only the very occasional chink in his armour when he opens his mouth to sing (and *that* voice comes out of it), makes him very much an archetypal romantic hero. He's *not* the guy you like on sight, nor is he an everyman--he's lazy, he's stealthy, he doesn't consult the lady when he does things... and yet you're rooting for him in the end. A lot of it comes down to the fact that Jim is being played by Bing Crosby. Crosby pulls off the menacing aspects of Jim wonderfully, and yet manages to give him a sensitive undertone that doesn't alienate the audience completely. You can capture my heart singing anyday, Bing!
As for Fred Astaire--although his role and character are technically secondary, I have to say that this is the first of his films that I've seen where he actually leaps right off the screen and grabs my attention as an actor and not a dancer. Don't get me wrong; he's always been good. But I've always been more interested in seeing him get to the *dancing*, dammit. All the non-sung words in between? Filler. I'm beginning to think I'll have to go back and watch all those other films again, because Astaire was excellent in HOLIDAY INN. It probably helped that he was playing a bit of a scoundrel, devil-may-care and cheeky as all get out. It's the little touches in his performance that make it so good: his annoyance in between hurried dance-steps for "I Can't Tell A Lie", his earnestness when he asks Linda if she really means to leave for Hollywood with him... and well, his ability to hold his own as a cad, sort of, and still play right into the hearts of the audience. He's evidently set up to be the villain of the piece, and yet it feels right when things don't end *completely* against him.
HOLIDAY INN isn't a brilliant film, but it's certainly a very good--probably even great--one, and it's hard to imagine that anyone could watch the ending credits flash on the screen without a smile lingering on your face and Crosby's voice and Astaire's twirls still in your head. Highly recommended for any holiday in the year... and any other time you might need a pick-me-up!