Archive for January, 2022


100 Movie Musicals #23: A Star Is Born (1954)

A bravura dramatic and musical performance from Judy Garland and some striking visual compositions, but ultimately dragged down by a soggy, melodramatic plot that runs a solid hour longer than necessary. Watch the first hour and bail.

a solid decade or more ahead of its time

It’s an interesting movie because it doesn’t quite work, but the ways in which it doesn’t work are fascinating. Garland’s delivering a great performance here, but she’s also miscast as the showbiz grinder turned rising Hollywood star married to a charismatic former star skidding down a long alcoholic decline — her own very public battles with addiction and weight loss and the way the studios eventually cast her aside as too difficult to work with when there wasn’t anything more to get out of her is so much closer to Norman Maine’s story than it is to Esther Blodgett’s. That would have been perhaps a little too grim, but as it is you’ve got a clearly struggling Garland delivering a passionate speech about the inscrutability of what drives someone you love to drink and it’s not not about her own issues.

Visually the movie is pulling some tricks that you wouldn’t see more of until the downbeat musicals of the 70s, with a muted, gritty aesthetic that isn’t quite real but evokes a noirish squalor more than anything around it; the shift from the backstage Hollywood cotton candy of Singin’ in the Rain is thunderous. The sound design, too, particularly in the first hour, is similarly muted, with a lot of the same kind of overlapping dialogue and background chatter than Robert Altman used frequently.

a gorgeous use of natural lighting to convey a mood as esther stops to throw up in a construction site

This is yet another backstage musical, where all the songs are happening diagetically, with professional singers and dancers performing for an in-universe audience. There’s definitely some selection bias to this list, but it is wild that we are in the heart of golden age of Hollywood musicals and there’s so little here that follows modern musical conventions or metanarratives. The best song in the musical, the closest thing A Star Is Born has to an I Want song, is Esther rehearsing “The Man That Got Away” with her band in a bar after hours while Norman looks on.

god, can she sing

I’ll admit that my interest in the movie wanes after the first hour, when all that downbeat visual flair mostly drops away. The second act has some bravura moments, including an extended, baffling centerpiece number that’s meant to represent Esther’s breakthrough role, and which sprawls from a non-blackface minstrel number through a stylish fashion fever dream, a non-dancer’s dream ballet sequence. It’s gorgeous, and screenshots incredibly well, but it’s narratively inert and drags on for ages and ages.

striking visual compositions, tho

Though the plot itself is no great shakes, either, an utter slog of a story where you’re just watching Norman grind through a plot that announces itself coming a million miles away. There are no surprises there, despite all the technical craft and innovation the movie is bringing to bear, and not a ton of chemistry between Garland and James Mason; the studio originally wanted to cast Cary Grant as Norman Maine, and he might at least have injected some life into the character, some charm to offset the acres of red flags that Maine waves constantly. As it is, Mason feels like a poor man’s Michael Yorke, but without the vulnerable melancholy that lies behind Yorke’s best performances. The movie also never shows us Maine’s alcoholism affecting his life — we’re told he’s missing work, or that he’s unreliable, physically miserable, dangerous to himself and others, but we never actually see it. It’s a lot of time to spend with the man and know so little directly about the defining characteristic of his life.

maine, after a three day bender, faces a judge in a still immaculate suit; It’s a Wonderful Life got grimier than this!

He eventually walks off into the sea to free Esther from him, in another gorgeous shot, but the movie is so unwilling to show us anything too grim that it all comes across with a pinch-faced primness that’s hard to take seriously. Alcoholism’s a real rough road, but what we’re shown makes all the concern feel like an HOA head angrily trying to shoo a barbecue into the backyard because people can see your husband drinking a beer, Agnes and it robs the drama of any pathos. The last third is such an incredible slog it robs the movie of any joy or interest it had; we were so relieved when Maine died because it meant we could stop watching, and that’s probably not the mood they were going for, no.

it’s a shitty thing to do to your wife, dude

100 Movie Musicals #22: Singin’ In The Rain (1952)

Absolute classic riffing on the previous 20 years of movie musicals. The jokes land, the cast is tremendous, and the musical numbers are genius. Okay, so the plot’s thin, but it doesn’t matter when everything else is this good.

it’s great to stay up late

Singin’ in the Rain is meta as hell, and almost all of its songs are ones that had been popular 20-30 years earlier, making it both a commentary on the history of musicals and a backstage musical and a jukebox musical. What i’m saying is, this is basically the musical equivalent of Scream, or (keeping it in-genre) the 50s version of Enchanted. It picks up a lot of extra juice having waded through a bunch of 20s and 30s musicals to get here, I tell you what.

One thing that’s pointedly absent from Singin’ is the blackface that was rife in the actual musicals of the period, particularly given Don and Cosmo’s start in the sorts of pool halls and vaudeville stages that launched Al Jolson’s character in The Jazz Singer. The closest we come is a reference to “Mammy” in The Jazz Singer—and in 1952 I’m not sure how much of the audience would have even seen that movie—and a very brief scene on the film set where a white actor playing an African talks to Don about the shift to sound, which makes essentially the same joke about blackface that Blazing Saddles made about scifi actors playing aliens: the mismatch between the outlandishness of the costume and the jobber casualness of the person inside the costume is funny. It lands differently when it’s Black people instead of aliens, though; thank god it’s just the one scene. Erasing this garbage from the film’s fictional history is absolutely the right choice, but it paints a rosier picture of early 20th century US culture than we really deserve.

good christ no

(I will be so happy when I don’t have to mention blackface in these reviews anymore, I swear to god. I don’t think we’ll see any more from this point on? We’re at least past the point where a movie is going to drop a minstrel scene in without commentary, low bar though that is.)

Singin’ in the Rain also features maybe the most famous Dream Ballet sequence in musical history, with the extended Broadway Rhythm/Gotta Dance/Broadway Melody sequence starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. These were a staple of every Gene Kelly movie (or at least every Kelly movie I’ve seen) and they’re always pure dance showcases. As pure dance sequences, they’re phenomenal, easily the highlight of whatever film they’re in, but narratively they’re complete dead weight, a bat to the knees of the movie’s pacing.

fifteen minutes of art!

It’s intensely frustrating when you’re steaming ahead toward the ending to be yanked into an entire separate reality untethered from everything that’s come before. The climactic performance was a big feature of the Busby Berkeley movie musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933, but at least there the whole movie had been about rehearsing for those numbers! Here they’re the musical equivalent of the third act Beam Of Light From the Sky superhero setpiece, spectacle for spectacle’s sake.

what, again?

100 Movie Musicals #21: Words and Music (1949)

Looks dire, is dire. An all-star cast, and the songs are killer, but oof magoof the amount of straightwashing they do to Lorenz Hart is unendurable. Listen to the soundtrack instead.

Well, I can’t say we weren’t warned: the trailer for this made it look as dire as it ended up being, and the reviews from the period I read ahead of time actually called out the movie for burying Hart’s queerness, admittedly in coded language, but that’s still more than I would have expected of 1949.

It’s just such a stodgy, mediocre throwback of a movie, with significantly less snap and ambition than the musicals from the period they’re recreating. Technologically, the film’s a yawn, too; color was as much of a technological innovation in the 40s as CGI is in action movies now. Words and Music has dodgy color is a way that On the Town didn’t — On the Town looked three decades ahead of its time, and Words and Music is notably less vibrant than Wizard of Oz, which was ten years old when this came out.

It’s also unbearably creaky after the last several musicals, which felt like they were experimenting with the format and moving toward a more specifically cinematic type of musical untethered from theatrical productions. Words and Music is a throwback to the early thirties, not just because it’s a backstage musical, but also because it’s a stand-and-sing musical. You can do a stand-and-sing musical—Meet Me In St. Louis wasn’t much in the way of dancing—but to be so song-forward at the same time you’re not delivering anything narratively in the song? Musical numbers, like action setpieces, can drag a movie straight down into the mire if you treat them as separate from the story or the emotional arcs of the characters. It’s not the age of the songs that’s the problem—Singin’ in the Rain is next on our list, and that’s almost entirely old songs, most way more mediocre than the Rodgers and Hart songbook—but the staging, story, and cinematography are just nothing here.

The cast really is phenomenal, though, with Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelley, Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett, Janet Leigh, and a very young Mel Tormé, but that’s if anything more infuriating. How do you make such a boring nothing of a movie with that murderer’s row of talent? How do you strip out all the drama and interest from the life of a tiny, depressed, gay alcoholic who dominated musical culture for a decade?


100 Movie Musicals #20: On The Town (1949)

Wall to wall delightful nonsense about three horny sailors and three horny ladies gadding about New York. Fizzy and horny and glamorous, and the location shooting gives it just enough grounding. You could do so much worse!

The logistics of filming a musical on location boggle the mind, but filming on location in New York in the 40s are especially wild to me. Entirely worth it, though — the opening sequence on the docks as the day dawns gives what will end up being the airiest of souffles an immediate grounding in quiet melancholy that never quite dissipates, regardless of how gonzo things get.

The women in this are great, too, a real throwback to the kind of brassy dames that were such a highlight of the pre-code musicals — though notably here they aren’t the viewpoint characters the way they would have been in the 30s. Still, everybody gives as good as they get, and the dancing is phenomenal, as you’d expect from a Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen collaboration.

On the Town had a spiritual sequel with It’s Always Fair Weather, a quietly downbeat musical about the way the optimism of the immediate postwar period curdled into the ennui of the 50s. The cast is entirely different, with the exception of Gene Kelly, and we don’t follow up with the women at all, which is a shame, but then that captures something too of the 1950s backlash that saw women shoved back to the margins. Worth checking out for the rollerskating dance number alone.


100 Movie Musicals #19: On An Island With You (1948)

Backlot musical starring Esther Williams with a ton of Hawaiian brownface and a romantic plot that is pure rape culture from soup to nuts. It *almost* stumbles into a deep critique of both those things, but ultimately doesn’t. Pity.

Vicky put On An Island With You on the list because they wanted an Esther Williams musical, and this one had Ricardo Montalban in it, so that’s the one we went with. I’ll tell you now: we chose poorly. Esther Williams and Cyd Charisse spend a big chunk of the movie in brownface as white actors playing Hawaiian women in the movie within a movie, and the main plot is a love story about a stalker infiltrating the set in order to kidnap Williams and make her love him; the movie is firmly in the camp that this is romantic, rather than horrific, even while multiple characters point out, entirely accurately, how terrible everything is. The sideplots are better, or at least less overtly abusive, but there’s only so much Jimmy Durante and Xavier Cugat flirting over a tiny dog can redeem things. Skip this, watch Million Dollar Mermaid instead.

Here, this is the best scene in the movie, a dance number between Cyd Charisse and a dangerously sexy Ricardo Montalban, and even that’s pretty mediocre by the standards of Charisse numbers. Watch this and rest secure that you’ve seen the only thing half worth seeing from this turkey.


100 Movie Musicals #18: Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

Sprightly, vivacious and key pivot point in the evolution of musicals from collections of meaningless songs to songs as narrative elements. A real lightning strike in comparison to what came before.

zing zing zing, everybody’s got to ding