Archive for February, 2022

20
Feb
22

100 Movie Musicals #29: The Pajama Game (1957)

Tonally messy but rousing labor musical from Stanley Donen, Bob Fosse, and Doris Day. The songs are merely fine, but by god how many full-throated union organizing musicals are there? Never trust a boss, and especially don’t date one.

workers of the world unite

Real wide gap between the sex farce the posters make this look like and the relatively (by musical standards, anyway) grounded labor and gender politics movie it actually is. The movie is about the manufacture of pajamas, not the wearing of them, and Doris Day’s Babe Williams is an organizer and workers’ committee leader who starts dating the new floor manager, despite everyone including them recognizing what a fucking terrible idea that is during the buildup to a strike.

The amazing thing—the incredibly bracing, delightful thing—is that when push comes to shove, Babe chooses solidarity over love, and the floor manager is the one who has to betray his class, sneaking a look at the company’s books to discover that the owner has been denying the workers a raise merely to pump up their profits margins. That this is treated as a huge scandal is shocking from the vantage point of 2022, frankly.

the most rousing paean to tiny raises

The gender politics of this thing are all over the place, or rather they’re pretty good for 1957, but the way the grievance committee is ready to throw down against physical violence and economic extortion from management is starkly at odds with the way that sexual harassment and fraternization are just taken as a matter of course. John Raitt’s Sid Sorokin harasses Babe repeatedly from the instant he meets her, and not only does management not care, the union people don’t either. Babe’s coworkers tease her repeatedly about how cute the abusive new boss is, and how much he’s hitting on her. Narratively, she doesn’t have to back down to his goals, or change her beliefs for love, which is nice and all, but you have to wade through a lot of “so what if the boss doesn’t force a kiss on you at the company picnic? it’s his Once a Year Day!” to get there. There’s also an extended runner about how poisonously jealous the shift leader gets about his bookkeeper girlfriend that culminates in an extended chase where he’s trying to stab her that the movie plays entirely for laughs, and it’s unnecessary and horrible.

sexual harassment in the workplace: fun for the whole family!

This is the first movie choreographed by Bob Fosse on our list, I think? It’s not particularly Fossean, except for the Steam Heat number, which goes straight to the friggin’ wall with bowlers and slacks and jazz hands. It’s ridiculous as an amateur performance during a union convention, but you know, that’s fine, let the man have his fun. God knows it’s less out of place than Gene Kelly’s dream ballets.

ssssssteam heat, indeed
20
Feb
22

100 Movie Musicals #28: Funny Face (1957)

Surprisingly downbeat and grounded musical about a romance between a reluctant bohemian turned fashion model and her photographer. A real sense of visual style, if you can get past the ridiculous idea that AUDREY HEPBURN is goofy lookin’.

i mean we have eyes

I don’t know that I have a ton more to say about Funny Face, honestly. Stanley Donen musicals are always solid, with a persistent melancholy to them that gives them a little more heft than the fizziness of the plot would necessarily indicate. The fashion industry setting is unusual, and leads to several gorgeously surreal sections, but the casting is just bizarre. Hepburn is of course one of the most (widely-acknowledged-as) gorgeous people of the 20th century, and the movie barely bothers to frump her up; the idea that Kay Thompson’s hardboiled magazine editor Maggie Thompson would think she lacks “grace, elegance, and pizzaz” is laughable.

how can i possibly be a model, she says

Fred Astaire is also a weird choice, though apparently someone that Hepburn specifically requested as her co-star. He’s 30 years older than Hepburn, and even in his heyday was always something of a twerp, so he comes off as more of a patronizing sex pest than anything — it’s hard to not pine for frequently Donen collaborator Gene Kelly, who oozes charm and could have sold things better, though even he would have been 17 years too old. There’s a palpable generation gap, reinforced by the easy working relationship Astaire and Thompson’s characters have.

joie de vivre, as they say

But if you get past all of that, there are some real shining moments. Kay Thompson is fantastic as the movie’s underbilled third lead, Astaire gets a showpiece dance with his own coat, and Hepburn absolutely crushes it in a centerpiece dance at the beatnik bar. Never have black pants and a smoke-filled basement looked so cool. The cinematography is particularly good, with a number of visually striking shots that have been rare in musicals but that happened all the time in horror movies from the same period — and, probably more intentionally, in fashion shoots. They brought in an actual fashion photographer to do the fashion shoots, and you can tell — all of the stills they take are great, interesting, playful, and slightly sad.

There’s a whole beatnik plot, too, which gets as cringey as you’d expect — big budget movies struggle to capture any kind of a counterculture without seeming square as hell — which has a double whammy of a climax where Astaire and Thompson perform a number in dialect (which would 100% have been in blackface even a decade earlier), followed up by an attempted sexual assault from the chief beatnik. It mostly exists to shame Hepburn’s character for her intellectualism, and to underscore that she really can’t do any better than Astaire. “He’s not any more interested in your intellect than I am,” Astaire yells at Hepburn during a fight, which is (a) a hell of a thing to say to someone you’re supposedly in love with and (b) absolutely the empirical truth as far as the movie is concerned. It’s a backlash moral for a backlash decade, but what a lousy thing way to wrap things up.

11
Feb
22

100 Movie Musicals #27: The King and I (1956)

Terrible songs, wall-to-wall racism, a shapeless nothing of a plot, and a romance that consists of one (1) dance. The costumes are nice, and you get to see Yul Brynner’s abs, I guess, but otherwise this biiiiiites.

two actors who should be ashamed

I mean, what can you even say about The King and I? It’s deeply racist, with all the major Asian characters played by white actors in yellowface (which is not helped by casting actual Asian actors for all the minor roles who stand behind them), and a plot that strips all the interest from two real historical people in pursuit of a paper-thin romance that doesn’t culminate in anything except one dance and a deathbed scene. The songs are a dreary slog, on top of that — I don’t like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work at all, apparently — and feel decades older than they were; the movie was made just five years after the Broadway show debuted, which would be the equivalent of a Hadestown musical coming out in 2021. It’s relentlessly Orientalist, wallowing in technicolor opulence and bare chests and pidgin English. Special recognition goes out to Yul Brynner, who wasn’t Asian but frequently claimed to be in order to mess with reporters: that sucks, and it sucks that he traded on that lie in order to justify taking roles like this. The historical King Mongkut was a Buddhist monk before becoming king, and spoke multiple European languages fluently, so seeing him reduced to an easily outraged simpleton that Deborah Kerr has to bring up to the modern era is so damn dirty. That’s not even getting into the whole religious aspect—the movie has a runner where Mongkut starts reading the Bible to understand Anna better, and again historically Anna was hired specifically because she wasn’t a missionary and because every other English-speaking teacher they’d hired had been a missionary intent on converting the king’s children. It’s tremendously disrespectful to have the man so completely ignorant of the religion attempting to colonize his kingdom.

Really, more than anything, The King and I is a way for US audiences, deep in the intense anti-feminist backlash of the 50s, to reassure themselves that they’re better than those heathen foreigners, who only see women as servants and who need to be enlightened by the West, which is a trick that still gets used by violent misogynists today. The song “Something Wonderful” really captures how tangled this all gets: a white actress in yellowface sings about how great it is to be subject to a dude, and the audience is expected to… what? displace their criticism of strict gender roles to an exoticized other? elevate western gender roles as enlightened? The song itself is a celebration of those gender roles, but Anna, the audience surrogate, is outraged by the advice in it, so presumably we’re meant to be outraged by it, but she ends up following the advice anyway, so is it the textual celebration of patriarchy it appears to be, a racist condemnation of fictitious Thai norms, or both? Is the advice terrible and the woman giving it trapped in a patriarchal society that should be challenged (by a white British savior), or is the advice sound and Anna’s protestations merely gestural?

look just don’t make a fuss, he’s so very stressed

This all culminates with a grand banquet between the Siamese court and a British delegation on the brink of invading and colonizing the country. The King insists on demonstrating the court’s Europeaness, so Anna makes all the women of the court the same kind of giant dresses she wears. Anna forgets to make underwear for the women, so when they all panic and flee the room at the sight of the British ambassador’s beard (“he has the head of a goat,” ffs) with their dresses pulled up to hide their faces, they expose their vaginas to the British party. “I don’t think the ambassador and I have had such an enticing welcome,” cracks one of the party, snickeringly.

Oh, and I haven’t even gotten to the utterly baffling production of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” that serves as The King and I‘s dream ballet sequence, an adaptation RodgersAndHammerstein.com rather euphemistically calls “a unique blend of ballet and Asian-inspired movement.” This play within a movie is written and narrated by Rita Moreno, a Puerto Rican actor, playing Tiptim, a Thai woman with a thick accent, reading out Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white Connecticut woman, writing in dialect for Black characters portrayed by Asian actors performing a mockery of Thai culture in a movie written and directed by white men. Tiptim is using the performance as a way to plead for her romantic freedom from her marriage to the king, so she can run off with her lover, another Thai character played by a white actor in yellowface. It’s a funhouse mirror maze of racism.

where to even begin
08
Feb
22

100 Movie Musicals #26: The Court Jester (1955)

Classic, loving sendup of fantasy swashbucklers of the 40s and 50s, with a subversion of gender roles still sadly relevant to modern fantasy. A delightful, silly reprieve stuffed full of quotable bits.

Get it? Got it. Good.

I love this movie, and have for ages. I’ve seen it easily a dozen times, and it’s basically the perfect midcentury musical. It’s clever as hell, the songs are catchy, the jokes are nerdy as heck and mostly all land, and it’s only 101 minutes long. What more could you ask for?

The plot is convoluted, essential, and irrelevant, all at once. Everything that happens grows out of the thick hedge of backstory the movie lays out in a winking introductory credit sequence — royal family murdered, usurper on the throne, baby prince survives, rebels in the forest, shifting alliances, yadda yadda — but it’s all so deeply familiar that you don’t have to get bogged down in the web of relationships. You’ve heard of Robin Hood or Game of Thrones? Fine, great, you’ve got the gist, let’s go. The jokes still land because this is still a stock fantasy plot 67 years later.

Captain Jean, The Black Fox, Hawkins, and the Prince with the Purple Pimpernel

But The Court Jester isn’t a parody of that plot so much as a gently comedic version of it. What if we replaced the dashing hero with a sweet-natured circus entertainer who longs for action but whose skills as a caregiver make him more valuable as a nursemaid? What if we replaced the damsel love interest with a female swashbuckler instead? What if they had to go undercover as their stock characters, and we mine the dramatic irony of them playing against type while playing according to type? What if everyone played this completely straight but we paced things like a medieval screwball comedy?

Hawkins, gently singing the infant prince to sleep

Flipping the genders of the main characters and not playing it for anxiety or resentment is a major key to the movie’s timelessness. There’s still a little of that 50s misogyny, in that the reversal is meant to be funny rather than neutral, but the movie never shames Danny Kaye’s Hawkins for his motherliness or Glynis Johns’ Jean for her swashbuckling; those skills are key to their success, even as they constantly trade gendered tasks back and forth as the plot demands. Hawkins’ skills at childcare are what piques Jean’s romantic interest in him—the closest thing the movie has to a traditional love song is a lullaby Hawkins sings to the baby while Jean watches, suddenly interested. It is still, today, so incredibly rare to see a fantasy hero—hell, a male lead in any genre—singing tenderly and sincerely to a baby so it’ll feel safe and sleepy. It’s also Jean that initiates their relationship, and spawns the plan to take the castle specifically because she’s not comfortable marrying Hawkins until the king is restored. Hawkins is absolutely the main character here, but he’s constantly reactive; it’s Jean who sets things in motion, and Jean who keeps everything on track while Hawkins flails around dramatically, and Jean kicks everything off because she can’t get married to this cute Good Boy until after the war is won. Hawkins ends up the prize in two romances, pursued by Angela Lansbury’s Princess Gwendolin and her witch in his disguise as Giacomo the jester/assassin.

(Look, I told you it was convoluted.)

young, hot angela lansbury

The script is delightful, packed with nerdy jokes about the Francis Bacon-Shakespeare theory, fantasy’s meaningless archaisms, and endlessly quotable rapid fire dialogue, from the repeated “get it/got it/good” exchange as Hawkins bluffs his way through multiple nested assassination and abduction scheme to the world’s most unnecessarily complex poisoning scheme (“the vessel with the pestle has the pellet with the poison; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true”). Even the names have a pie-eyed High Fantasy melodiousness to them: the ministers Brockhurst, Finsdale, and Pertwee, always mentioned in one breath; the grim and grisly Griswold of the North; Lord Ravenhurst, the conniving prime minister; Griselda the put upon witch. The songs by Sylvia Fine and Sammy Cahn revel in verbal gymnastics, and Kaye sells the hell out of every melodic tongue twister they send his way, with a particular showpiece in “The Maladjusted Jester,” an extended riff on his notional comedic backstory. They’re more tuneful than patter songs, and lord knows Danny Kaye is a better singer than, say, the Marx Brothers, but they have a similar lyrics-first approach.

if your majesty doth ask it, i will tell about the basket

All in all, it’s just a winning, gentle movie where sweetness, quick wits, and an army of patriotic circus tumblers can overthrow a tyrant, and that’s a fantasy as relevant now as it was in 1955.

i did mention the army of circus tumblers, didn’t i?
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.