December 2010

 

I Do Love a Good Show Tune (Part 4) – Lights, camera…music!

As promised, I’m going to talk about movie musicals. And I mean musicals written specifically for the screen, not shows that were successes on Broadway first then adapted for the movies.

Of course, this covers hundreds of films, going all the way back to the 1930s (must do a piece on the wonderful Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals at some stage!). So I thought I’d narrow it down to two of my favorites, Singin’ In The Rain and Gigi, both produced by the Arthur Freed Unit at MGM during the Golden Years of Hollywood (and when you see work like this, you tend to accept that description as more than just hyperbole).

MFTDec10-1Singin’ In The Rain (1952) wasn’t a family favorite. I’m not quite sure why – I loved it from the first time I saw it at about eight. Perhaps there was a bit too much dancing – my parents weren’t crazy about films with long ballet scenes. I, as a ballet fanatic, loved those extended narrative dance sequences, especially when the dancers were people of the calibre of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse.

I’ve seen the film numerous times since – a lovely moment was introducing it to some work friends about 15 years ago. They had never seen it and were a bit sniffy about watching a musical (intellectual types!). And they were all absolutely entranced to the stage that a couple of them now list SITR as their favorite film. It’s a pleasure to pass on the lurve!

It felt like serendipity that having decided on featuring SITR in this month’s My Favorite Things, I turned on Turner Classic Movies a couple of weeks ago and caught the overture. I sat and watched the whole thing, thinking that while people rave about the wonderful dancing, one of the unsung strengths of the movie is just how clever it is. The lines are razor sharp and witty with some of the best going to the waspish Lena Lamont, the villainess of the piece. She’s stupid but she’s got animal cunning, not to mention a voice that would cut glass. Jean Hagen plays her to the hilt – it’s one of the really great screen performances, going right to the edge then hovering. A balancing act worthy of Mr. Kelly himself! Another treasure of the film is Donald O’Connor who plays Gene Kelly’s best friend Cosmo. The Make ’em Laugh song and dance sequence is justly famous but one of my favorite routines in the whole film is this one where DO and GK are having such a wonderful time together just being silly! Check out Moses Supposes on YouTube. I bet you’re singing “Moses supposes his toeses are roses but Moses supposes erroneously” right now!

Actually an interesting point of Hollywood trivia. Singin’ In The Rain is now considered the greatest musical movie ever made, yet it won not one Oscar in 1952 (in spite of nominations for Jean Hagen and best score).

Lack of Oscar success isn’t an issue with Gigi!

MFTDec10-2Gigi (1958) won nine Oscars, including Best Picture, and I’m not surprised. It’s luscious and romantic and altogether gorgeous. Oh, and by the way, it has no extended ballet sequences, so it WAS a family favorite. My parents were huge Maurice Chevalier fans – they’d been lucky enough to see him in concert in the 1950s and always said it was the best live performance they’d ever attended. Lucky them! I think he would have been magic on stage!

Here’s Maurice in one of the best moments in the movie when he’s reminiscing about a youthful love affair with Gigi’s grandmother played by the equally magic Hermione Gingold. Such clever lyrics and so full of wistful humanity for lost chances.

The first time I saw Gigi, I remember loving the music, and the glamorous costumes and settings, and how picturesque the stars were – seriously, Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron are almost too beautiful to be human. But as a primary school kid, most of the story went completely over my head. Gigi is being groomed as a courtesan and Gaston (Louis Jourdan) is set to become her first keeper. But as a slightly more worldly person, I’ve come to love the sophistication and wit of this romantic story.

One of the most romantic moments in the film is when Gaston sings this Oscar-winning song after he realizes Gigi isn’t a child any longer. I can’t help seeing a similarity with Henry Higgins’s I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face from My Fair Lady. Both follow very similar structures – rage and bewilderment followed by a completely unwelcome revelation of love. Gaston and Henry Higgins have a lot in common too. They’re both smart, mouthy, spoiled and emotionally immature. It’s odd that they’re strangely attractive as romantic heroes!

Oh, dear, I could rave on forever about both movies but perhaps I should stop. If you haven’t seen these films, I strongly recommend seeking them out. They truly DON’T make movies like this anymore!

OK, promise you we’ll take a break from show tunes for a while, although probably not forever!