28
May
22

100 Movie Musicals #40: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

An interesting failure, too stagey for the screen, too Hollywood for a good theatrical adaptation, with sawdust visibly leaking out of every seam. An interminably boring frontier musical about a fascinating historical figure where all the most interesting moments are shunted to the margins. The Titanic sinking is shoved to two of the last fifteen minutes!

bless her, she’s trying

We’ve had some bad movies on this list, ones I personally hated or that were thick with really blunt racism, but few of them have felt as perfunctory and tired as The Unsinkable Molly Brown, or so completely trapped by the more is more requirement of the big budget musical. Especially coming off three all timers like West Side Story, The Music Man, and A Hard Day’s Night, the sagginess of Molly Brown is hard to excuse. Even the color, normally a dazzling highlight of these productions, is wasted here on beautiful but uncanny scenery shooting or opulent but hideous interiors. Debbie Reynolds, so sparkling and joyous in Singin’ in the Rain, gives a committed performance as Molly Brown (for which she was bafflingly nominated for an Oscar), but she still spends 90% of the movie hollering in a cornpone accent, and Harve Presnell, her costar and the only Broadway actor to make the jump to the big screen, is tall and handsome and blandly mellifluous and deeply, deeply dull as Johnny Brown.

the boundary between hollywood and reality is seldom so stark

There’s an air of uncanniness to the entire production. Some elements — the frontier sets, the American performances, the dreadful costuming — are thoroughly artificial, but then they’re put against real locations or the second act’s detour into European cosmopolitanism, and it becomes almost viscerally uncomfortable to watch. West Side Story and The Music Man embraced artificiality, and thrived; A Hard Day’s Night put a vaudeville spin on New Wave realism to great effect; Molly Brown marries Hollywood hyperreality with Broadway theatricality and it just doesn’t work.

the tightest of pants against the widest of skies

Something also clearly went askew in the production. They cut 12 songs from the stage production, and it shows: Debbie Reynolds only gets two songs, and they’re both out of the way early on, leaving the rest of the tunes to be carried by Presnell, who is… I mean, he’s fine, he can sing perfectly well, but it’s so noticeable that he’s the only one who gets a number. There’s a song at the end of the second act that is notionally performed by Reynolds, but she spends the entire song with her back to the camera like she’s been replaced by a stunt singer, a baffling decision in a decade that was routinely still using ghost singers — My Fair Lady came out the same year, and didn’t feel the need to hide Audrey Hepburn’s face while she was being dubbed. The producers originally wanted Shirley Maclaine for the role, then Judy Garland when Maclaine couldn’t do it, so admittedly Reynolds was a compromise casting, but even then, why treat her like this?

very weird, very noticeable

I’m not a big fan of frontier movies in general — that whole Little House on the Prairie genre gives me a pain — but there’s plenty of narrative grist in that genre that the movie doesn’t bother with, even as it spends the vast majority of its runtime on the tension between these nouveau riche hicks and the second generation snobs of Denver. Things don’t start to really come alive until Molly splits from Johnny, returns to Europe and an affair with an impoverished prince and loses her accent, but that isn’t until the last fifteen minutes of two and a half hours; Reynolds does bitter and jaded and cosmopolitan so much better that it’s a shame the movie didn’t spend more time in that period of Brown’s life. The Titantic sinking, and Brown’s survival of it — the survival that earns her the sobriquet “Unsinkable” — takes less than two minutes of screen time, and is made of footage from the 1957 black and white Barbara Stanwyck Titanic. Baffling decisions all around. Debbie and Molly deserved better.

where was this energy the rest of the movie?

Something I’m curious about but don’t know enough about to really go into here is that Molly wasn’t just a rich hick trying to buy her way into society, the way she is in the movie, she was a rich philanthropist that did a lot of whatever you call rich person organizing? The closest the movie comes to that is a single gigantic gift bestowed at random on a priest, and a throwaway line that they pay their servants “too well,” whatever that means, but in real life she wasn’t just a donor and wasn’t just on philanthropic committees, she was actively forming them, and traveled the US and Europe to implement them. Like, real!Molly organized a survivor’s committee to ensure that all the survivors were taken care of after the wreck, and that wasn’t in the movie at all. In fact, anything that would have suggested that film!Molly had any conception of the world and the power relationships in it was cut out in favor of the sub-Caddyshack slobs vs snobs storyline, which is so much duller.

stop crying, hildy!

Also, she didn’t just survive the sinking, she took an oar in the lifeboat, and threatened to throw the lifeboat captain overboard if they didn’t go back and help more survivors; the movie version of that scene has her giving her clothes to other rich women who are cold and slapping a hysterical woman. I don’t know if the real life Molly Brown was an actually good person or not, but she was definitely more deeply engaged in something than anything that shows up on screen here, and that’s… I don’t know what the term here is, exactly. Richwashing? The movie strips any discussion of the power of the wealthy away and boils it down to a personal snobbish meanness instead.

20
May
22

100 Movie Musicals #39: A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Shockingly contemporary; feels like it’s from an entirely different universe than everything else we’ve seen on this list so far. Certainly the most New Wave things’ll get. The songs are just okay.

they wouldn’t do that, would they?

I’m not a big fan of the Beatles or New Wave movies, but it’s startling how well they come together here. I’m definitely here for the band more than the songs, and for the visuals more than the band. It’s just such a breath of fresh air after the rest of the list — even after two all timers like West Side Story and The Music Man — that’s it’s hard to contemplate dipping back into more traditional waters.

It’s kind of wild that A Hard Day’s Night didn’t have a bigger impact on musicals as a genre, given how influential it is on everything from music videos to mockumentaries to television editing; nothing else on this list looks anything like it. Even the later Beatles movies don’t do anything nearly as ambitious interesting, and certainly nothing as effortlessly cool.

15
May
22

100 Movie Musicals #38: The Music Man (1962)

Cynical traveling salesman gets his foot caught in the door and I cry like a baby.

that’s my barney!

The Music Man probably isn’t the most cynical movie we’ll watch for this project, but it’s almost certainly the most cynical movie that manages the transition to aching sincerity the best — and without sacrificing any of that cynicism. None of the things that the movie viciously skewers in the first act have gone away by the third — the River Citizens are still as stupid, pretentious, and self-regarding as ever — but then those are their strengths, too, and it’s love that makes the difference. Not a blind love that wishes away or forgives their venalities, but a knowing, encompassing love that recognizes that the gap between what people are and what they want to be can be beautiful.

i always think there’s a band, kid

And this is an insight that applies to all of the characters in the movie: Robert Preston’s magnificent flimflam man “Professor” Harold Hill is all pretense, all cynical disdain, but he’s not any less parochial than the rubes he sneers at, he’s just chosen to be the grinning Satan in their morality plays — see for example the way he jumps to the exact same conclusion that Shirley Jones’ Marian the librarian must have been sleeping with the rich old man who bequeathed all the books in the town library to her; what other way can men and women interact? You’re either a simp or a con artist. He spends most of the movie trying to hoodwink Marian into loving him, but she’s onto him from the start, and comes to love him because of that, rather than despite it, without forgiving any of it. She makes the active choice to love him because his con is nevertheless actually improving the town — her brother Winthrop comes out of his shell because of the con, and even if the band isn’t real, his joy and newfound gregariousness is.

tearing out the proof of his fraudulence

Marian herself isn’t exempt from this central insight: she holds herself at a remove from both the town and Hill, but that’s no less pretentious. She knows how to pronounce “Rubaiyat,” but she’s living in the same small town, and holding herself above them all makes her stated goal of elevating the culture so much harder. She’d rather cling to her self-perception as a miserable cultural sophisticate living in exile than unbend enough to improve things — and no one in the town thinks well of her; they all think she’s an intellectual fraud that secured her position by sleeping with the richest man in town. Hill doesn’t challenge that perception, but he doesn’t care, and also doesn’t think that it undermines her self-perception. The gap is beautiful.

there were birds all around but i never heard them singing

It gives the love story such an energy, a playful combativeness that isn’t mean, exactly, but gives their flirting layers. It also enables the final turn to sincerity, as they both grapple with what it means to be truly seen and loved anyway. It makes love a conscious, active choice, rather than chemistry or fate or fatuousness, and that’s so much more interesting than the 38th iteration of moonlight and water.

This all comes to a very literal head in the film’s climactic scene, where the outraged townspeople, whipped into yet another fury by yet another traveling salesman, drag Hill into the gymnasium and command him to lead the band in a performance of Beethoven’s Minuet in G. The band is legitimately terrible in the way that school bands usually are, but the aching yearning in Preston’s face as Hill stops hearing what the band actually sounds like, and starts hearing what he wants them to sound like is a dagger to the heart — and then each of the parents jump up, tearfully ecstatic that their Davey is actually playing music, and it’s beautiful. He didn’t expect anyone to actually listen to what he was saying and try to actually do it, and he’s completely helpless in the face of their belief. I cry every time, I can’t help it.

it’s a visual metaphor

I haven’t even touched on the music, which is phenomenal, and an entire class on the use of leitmotifs to build and reinforce characters across a huge cast; the way that Hill and Marian trade motifs to symbolize their romantic movement toward each other is particularly moving. It’s also delightfully complex, with lyrics and melodies layered on top of each other that somehow never get swallowed in the mud. It’s as showy and formalist as West Side Story, but without any veneer of hipness to hide behind. It’s a perfect film.

08
May
22

100 Movie Musicals #37: West Side Story (1961)

A triumph of filmmaking: a fantastic score, phenomenal cinematography, all time choreography, and killer performances (with one lamentable, Tony-sized exception); undermined thoroughly by an atrocious amount of brownface.

God, it sucks about all the brownface in this movie, because it’s so close to greatness otherwise. Everything looks great, sounds great, moves great, but then you get down to the vast gap between the text’s attempt to grapple with racist tensions between different waves of immigrants, and the ways that European immigrants get to ascend to whiteness while Puerto Ricans — who are already US citizens, in 1961 no less than 2022 — are locked out of it, and you’re staring at all of these white actors in brownface and it just sits there like a turd in a bowl of soup. There’s no eating around it!

manhattan as seen from above, believe it or not

West Side Story is such an ambitious movie from the moment it opens — with an overture card that eventually reveals itself as an abstract depiction of Manhattan — with a real understanding of the ways that cinematic musicals can be inspired by stage productions of musicals but need to bring their own visual language and approach to them, and the script hammers home repeatedly the ways that whiteness protects and privileges even hardscrabble white immigrants at the expense of everyone else, I’m frankly at a loss to explain how nobody stopped the browning up. Were they not paying attention to their own story? Had they not internalized it at all? How did the actors deliver their lines without cracking?

how do you let this go forward? how do you deliver bernardo’s lines looking like this?

If — and I’ll admit that’s a huge if — you can get past that, the film is, as I said, fantastic, a giant leap forward in how American musicals are shot and framed and scored, with an approach that draws a lot more from horror techniques than from MGM. There are a ton of low and high angle shots that don’t distort or obscure the (incredible) dancing, but that do emphasize the cinematic theatricality of the numbers. The musical numbers here are a thorough break from reality, emphasized by the framing, color palette, and focus tricks; you end up with more striking still images during the numbers than we’ve seen — normally these movies live in the entire sequence, rather than any one shot, but not West Side Story.

the camera is not an in-universe human observer, the camera exists within the scene solely as a camera

The story itself is… well, I mean, it’s Romeo and Juliet, innit, with all the strengths and weaknesses that brings along. The biggest issue is that Romeo and Juliet need Shakespeare’s eloquence to make them interesting, and when you discard the poetry and drag them down nearer to the real world they’re pretty insipid. Natalie Woods’ Maria has flashes of a personality, but Richard Beymer’s Tony is just a lunk-shaped void with a nice singing voice; the script makes him out to be a hulking, quick-tempered bruiser with a sore ego, but Beymer’s performance is all affable puppy dog, and it’s deadly considering how much screen time he has. Three of the four (four!) love songs are iconic, but then the Bernstein/Sondheim rapture ends and you’re left with nothing.

tony does always get the most arresting shots, though

There’s some interesting gender stuff going on in the background, particularly with the character of Anybodys; Anybodys reads so strongly as a trans boy now, with the character demanding repeatedly to be one of the (male) members of the gang — a position he only achieves after Riff dies, and which eventually entails participating in the near-rape of Anita, the film’s intentionally queasiest moment, and the catalyst for the final murders. There’s some stuff to unpack there; some parallels to the ways that the Polish immigrants are offered an ascent to whiteness if they’ll drive out the Puerto Ricans for the cops. It’s unclear how intentional that is — Anybodys is credited as part of “Their Girls,” along with Graziella and Velma — but it was prominent enough that the character is explicitly transmasculine in the Spielberg remake.

“why don’t you act like a girl” is tony’s final line before getting shot, too

Ultimately I don’t know about this one. It’s phenomenal in so many ways, and it’s both hugely ambitious and mostly successful in achieving those ambitions; it’s just impossible to look past the racism inherent in the casting. It didn’t have to be like this. With just slightly different choices — a stronger commitment to matching the textual anti-racism of the script with a corresponding anti-racism behind and in front of the camera — this could have been an all time classic.

but then i guess it was doomed to end poorly
08
May
22

Tampopo

Andrew and I recently watched Tampopo, a much beloved film directed by Jûzô Itami starring his wife and frequent collaborator Nobuko Miyamoto as Tampopo herself. It was originally released in 1985, but it is currently streaming through the Criterion Collection alongside a whole retrospective of other Itami films that I’m excited to watch too. I’ve really loved this movie for many years, although it had been a long time since I’d watched it and Andrew hadn’t seen it before, so it was nice to be able to re-discover this multi-course meal of a comedic film.

The movie is almost an essay collection meditating on the centrality of food in our lives, filled with brief, little vignettes interspersed like little amuse bouches in between bites of the main dish of the central plot. There are flashes that reminded me of The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie by Luis Bunuel, Tardi’s Mon Uncle series, In the Realm of the Senses, Rocky, the Magnificent Seven, and Gekiga-style manga in the way it dices together humor, eroticism, and pathos into a delicious, fluffy omurice combo.

The central plot revolves in particular around a hapless chef trying to master the difficult art of the perfect bowl of ramen that happy diners will drain to the last soulful drop of broth. Luckily she has a dream team of ramen aficionados like a very straight version of Queer Eye for the Chef Lady, who come together to help her make over her culinary skills, her restaurant, and even her chef outfits. The result is a delightful journey that I can’t help but feel helped to inspire a whole legion of Japanese culinary-themed manga, shows, and films such as the Drops of God, Oishinbo, Giant Spider and Me, Samurai Gourmet, and Midnight Diner, just to name a few of my favorites. Itami really deftly balances the serious technical ability and passion that the characters pour into ramen against a lovely sense of the absurd that keeps the whole endeavor feeling like a real hero’s journey for the title character.

If you’re looking for a movie that will leave you in a good (though possibly also very hungry) mood, I highly recommend bellying up to the Tampopo ramen bar.

01
May
22

100 Movie Musicals #36: A Woman is a Woman (1961)

An insufferably smug “idea of a musical” that fails to capture or satirize any of the pleasures or weaknesses of the genre while being bluntly, thoughtlessly misogynist. Airless, obnoxious, pretentious, and shallow.

it’s time for a book fight

God in Heaven, do I loathe Jean-Luc Godard. A Woman Is A Woman is the third movie I’ve seen of his, after loathing both Band of Outsiders and Alphaville, and I don’t know why I keep subjecting myself to his drivel. He has this huge reputation, but as far as I can tell even his best works are shallow reworkings of genre pieces that fail to understand the genres they’re tinkering with on even the most fundamental level.

Godard called this “the idea of a musical,” rather than a musical itself, and that’s true enough — the movie deploys music aggressively and oppressively, but only ever to undermine a scene or yank your attention away from any sort of emotional connection to these characters or this story and point it firmly at Godard’s craft as director. It’s exhausting and irritating, an actively hostile film that dares you to watch it, but simultaneously has nothing at all to say that’s worth the irritation of sitting through it.

26
Apr
22

100 Movie Musicals #35: Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

Sprawling historical melodrama; epic in the fullest sense of the term. Gorgeously excessive and operatic, centering on a doomed romance between a prince and a slave in the Mughal empire. Worth every minute of the 3+ hour runtime.

A dancer reflected in a giant prismatic mirror

This movie fucking rocks, it’s huge and sprawling and gorgeous and tragic and weird. Any picture that opens and closes with a narration from the entire Indian subcontinent gets my love, what can I say?

i’m a giant landmass, and even i don’t know

You don’t see a lot of historical epics in the musical genre in the US, which is a little odd because you definitely do get a lot of period pieces and a lot of musicals that deal with darker subjects or broader social issues, but usually that’s through the lens of two mostly random characters, not the rulers of a kingdom like this. You don’t normally see one half of the romantic leads try to solve his father’s disapproval by literally declaring war on him, say.

I’ve never even met Anarkaliiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!

Along the way you’ll get drunk 12 year olds, carpets of pearls, poetry written on a sword, more flowers than you can shake a dick at, and intense family drama. It’s a long movie, but every scene has something wild or beautiful or wildly beautiful going on that you’re never bored. It’s very easy to soak into as pure soap opera.

08
Apr
22

100 Movie Musicals #34: Black Orpheus (1959)

Brazilian retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice by way of a white French director that plays fast and loose with the myth but is so casually grounded and real that it doesn’t matter. Charming, trifling, tragic, bordering on colonial folk horror.

05
Feb
22

100 Movie Musicals #25: Guys and Dolls (1955)

Loopy, word-drunk phantasmagoria about one man’s attempt to host a floating craps game. Shenanigans and marriages ensue! An utter delight from soup to nuts.

you will roll blank dice and remember where the spots are?

We watched this the same night that we watched Carmen Jones, and the tonal and aesthetic shift between the two movies was wild. Guys and Dolls operates on a very different theory of what a musical can and should be than Jones’ awkward naturalism that always felt like it thought opera’s opulence and US musical theater’s hokiness was all a bit gauche: Dolls is all candy colored sets and suits, giant shoulders, impossible sewers, a Times Square that’s more than half airless casino. It’s deeply in love with the Runyon dialogue that its various criminals, burlesques, and gamblers all deploy—in love with language as a whole, really, in both formal and informal registers—in a way the really underlines how perfunctory and cliched the cringeworthy dialect was in Jones.

It’s magnificently structured, too, with a series of nested cons and dodges that require every other con and dodge to pay off for anything to resolve, and that set up allows the movie to hop between threads whenever things start to flag; we’re always moving from temporary resolution to the middle of some other crisis, and it gives this utterly no-stakes plot a surprising amount of tension. The ridiculous names (Arvide Abernathy? Big Julie? Nicely-Nicely?), broad personalities, and colorful costuming make it easy to hang on to, regardless of how complicated things get; you always know why people are doing what they’re doing, what the stakes are, and how they’re at odds with each other. Superhero movies and video games operate in a similar model, but few of them pull the trick off anywhere near as neatly as Guys and Dolls.

three silhouettes as instantly distinguishable as anything in Overwatch

There’s a bit of a running theme in all the musicals we’ve watched from this period, both on and off the list, where cops are at best ineffective and at worst outright villainously inept in a way you don’t see in modern films. The carceral logic of the wars on Drugs and Terror hasn’t seeped so thoroughly into every facet of the culture, maybe? For a decade that’s famous for its button-downed conformity, the mass culture is straining at the seams against it.

This is the most textually homoerotic movie we’ve had on this list, with all the dudes desperate to get away from the women they’re notionally in love with so they can get in more male bonding time. It’s similar to Bride of Frankenstein in that way — guys don’t want dolls, they want to run off to the margins of society and do crimes/mad science with their boys! Marlon Brando’s Skye Masterson lays it out early on to Frank Sinatra’s perennially marriage-averse Nathan Detroit: “For a relationship that can last us all our lives, no doll can take the place of aces back to back.” The title song is Nicely-Nicely trying to talk Nathan out of women as a concept! Guys and Dolls will get both its confirmed bachelors safely married off by the end, but that tension never really resolves; both Jean Simmons’ Sister Sarah Brown and Vivian Blaine’s Adelaide want their men to be anything other than what they are, and that tension is never really resolved.

it’s opulent, but it can’t last

For all that, though, the movie likes its heroines just fine, and there’s some real chemistry and affection between both couples, when the men aren’t in their heads about how women as a class spell the end of all fun. Skye and Sarah in particular have a sparky, combative flirtiness that makes the romance in this movie the first one on this list that hasn’t made me want to die. Skye at one point fussily corrects Sister Sarah’s bible quote, and it’s insufferable but also somehow charming because it’s just another salvo in the rhetorical game they’re mutually playing; he’s fighting on her turf in the same way she’ll be fighting on his turf later. Vivian Blaine is phenomenal as Adelaide, tremendously funny and touching, with a stage career in burlesque that is doing just fine and that is refreshingly never questioned by Nathan or any of the other men; for all the battle of the sexes framing tossed around, none of the men are threatened by the women having lives outside of the home. Adelaide is chasing Nathan to settle down and let her support him, not the other way around, and that’s so rare, both in the 50s and today, particularly for a woman doing sex work.

04
Feb
22

100 Movie Musicals #24: Carmen Jones (1954)

Wildly uneven attempt to split the difference between Bizet’s opera and Hammerstein’s musical that does neither well. Makes the truly baffling decision to dub everyone’s singing voice despite casting Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge in the lead roles.

damn, the woman who told me she wouldn’t put up with my abuse isn’t putting up with my abuse!

There’s a lot to unpack with Carmen Jones even before you get to the film itself. First and foremost, that it’s an all-Black cast, but the film was written, directed, and produced by white men, and based on a play also written, produced, and directed by white men, again. Most of the singing is dubbed, because the actors Otto Preminger cast weren’t opera singers, and Preminger was insistent on using the opera music, rather than adjusting the range of the songs the way the play had. Dorothy Dandridge—professional singer Dorothy Dandridge—is dubbed by a white opera singer imitating her voice. The two leads are silenced at every key moment by vocal doppelgangers, and it sucks. The play didn’t do this; this was specifically a cinematic decision to kneecap the lead performers. Most of the song titles are in dialect, too, which thankfully neither the actors nor the singers use, with the notable, horrifying exception of the white singer dubbing Dorothy Dandridge, who really leans into it. Because of course she does.

it does have a shirtless, glistening Harry Belafonte, at least

And for what? The film is a muddled, interminable mess. All the air is sucked out of what life the film has when the endless operatic songs start, and all of the musical numbers are noticeably being performed to something entirely different from what’s happening on the audio track. The dance numbers have no pizzazz or visual splendor at all, so whatever joy there is to get out of them is coming entirely from the audio track performed by people you can’t see. The whole movie is shot in CinemaScope, so every frame is wide as hell, but Preminger doesn’t do anything with all that extra space. It’s a format designed for huge vistas, large casts, sprawling sets, or intricate details, and Carmen Jones has none of those.

also this happens, and for a brief instant there’s some actual chemistry on screen

This is gallingly noticeable on Pearl Bailey’s big number, “Beat Out Dat Rhthym On A Drum,” where the visible performance is wildly at odds with the soundtrack—not only all all the dancers dancing to something way more uptempo, there’s no drum in the mix even as the band’s drummer goes hard on the skins. At least Bailey gets to sing her own song!

WHERE ARE THE DRUMS, OTTO?!

It’s also a romantic tragedy that turns on the ultimate abuse and murder of its title character, and you could maybe get away with that in the heightened surreality of an opera, but everything is so contrary and intimate here that Joe’s possessiveness and rage aren’t a sweeping tide of emotions but just a regular violent creep poisoned by his own failed masculinity. A special ACAB raspberry to the cops who show up at the end while Joe is strangling Carmen to death and politely wait for him to finish killing her before arresting him.

This isn’t the worst Otto Preminger movie on this list — we’ve still got Porgy and Bess coming up, and that makes this movie look like Singin’ In The Rain — but it’s still pretty damn bad. A huge waste of such a talented cast.