Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Musicals on TV - A Christmas Carol: The Musical

Hallmark Entertainment/NBC, 2004
Starring Kelsey Grammer, Jane Krakowski, Edward Gower, and Jesse L. Martin
Directed by Arthur Allen Sederman
Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Lynn Aherns

The early years of television coincided with the Golden Age of Stage Musicals in the 1950's and 60's. Barely a year went by between roughly 1950 and 1969 without at least one new musical appearing on TV, either a live adaptation of a Broadway show, or more rarely, an original work. While this died down by the early 70's, musicals began to turn up more frequently again about a decade ago. This one was adapted from a long-running mid-90's hit that ran at the theater at Madison Square Garden in midtown New York and made into NBC's big holiday event for 2004. Let's head to the London Exchange to see how Scrooge is getting on...and how different this retelling is from other versions of this story...

The Story: Ebeneezer Scrooge (Grammer) is the most miserly man in London. He refuses to help a poor family, only grudgingly gives his clerk Bob Cratchit (Gower) Christmas Day off, and tells his nephew Fred (Julian Ovenden) that he will not dine with him on Christmas. He doesn't want anything to do with the holiday, charity, or people. A female lamplighter, a barker for a pantomime, and a beggar woman all warn Scrooge that he needs to change his ways. He doesn't consider it...until the ghost of his late partner Jacob Marley (Jason Alexander) turns up with a group of ghouls who insist that Scrooge will become one of them if he doesn't change soon.

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Krakowski) arrives first, showing Scrooge his troubled days as a poor youth whose father was arrested for his debts. He insists that his son make a fortune and hang onto it. Scrooge finally makes his way to old Fezziwig's (Brian Bedford) bank, where he falls in love with the beautiful Emily (Jennifer Love Hewitt). After the death of his mother, and then his sister, he throws himself into his lending business...at the expense of his relationships. He buys Fezziwig out and loses Emily, and then Marley when he dies at the office.

The boisterous Ghost of Christmas Present (Martin) has a happier vision for Scrooge. He takes him to see his nephew Fred's party and the Cratchit family's tender and happy meal. Scrooge is especially taken by their small cripped son Tim (Jacob Collier). He's shocked when the ethereal Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Geraldine Chaplin) shows him a future that's less than pleasant - if he doesn't reform, he'll die, unmourned and unloved. But perhaps there's hope for Scrooge after all..

The Song and Dance: I really like some of the ideas on display here. The Wizard of Oz-like use of the lamplighter, barker, and beggar to double as the ghosts and reveal Scrooge's feelings of guilt actually works pretty well with the story. Jesse L. Martin has a blast as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Gower and Linzi Hateley are lovely as the Cratchit parents. I also like that they work in some details that other family-oriented adaptations leave out, like the ragged Want and Ignorance children under the Ghost of Christmas Present's cloak, the ghouls appearing with Marley, and the emphasis on Scrooge's sister.

Favorite Number: The Cratchit family gets two good ones. Tim and Bob sing the charming "You Mean More to Me" as they shop for Christmas dinner, and the family sings "Christmas Together" when they're having their much-anticipated meal.  The best of the chorus numbers is the well-choreographed "Mr. Fezziwig's Annual Christmas Ball," with it's leaping dancers and whirling couples.

What I Didn't Like: First of all, other than the songs I just mentioned, the score just isn't that memorable. The opening chorus number "Jolly Good Time" is especially bland. "Abundance and Charity," with Martin and the Rockettes, is basically there to give the dancers something to do. Marley's "Link By Link" is actually pretty good...until we get to the dancing ghouls, with rattling chains and rolling heads. They look like six dancing Beetlejuices. What was wrong with the book version, with Scrooge staring out the window and seeing wandering ghosts?

For that matter, what was wrong with the book version of Scrooge's past? Scrooge being a child neglected by his father because his mother died giving birth to him suits the story far better. It feels like they gave Scrooge Charles Dickens' real-life back story instead, and it's just too much. And I know Jane Krakowski is quite attractive, but did her number really need to involve pole dancing around Scrooge's bed, and what was with the skimpy costume? She didn't look like a Ghost. She looked like she got lost on the way to Las Vegas.

The Future segment is even more off. It feels rushed, like they just wanted to get the whole thing out of the way in three numbers or less. Geraldine Chapman looks more like the book Ghost of Christmas Past than Future. (Admittedly, Grammer, who pretty much sleepwalks through this movie, does seem to wake up for this segment; his performance of "Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Today" is truly impassioned and is by far his best moment.)

The Big Finale: Might make nice background music while working on your Christmas cookies if it's on TV or online, and it's not bad for fans of Grammer or the songwriters. Otherwise, it's nothing you need to go out of your way to see.

Home Media: It's currently out-of-print on disc; your best bet is likely digging it up on cable or on streaming services like Amazon Prime (where it's free with the service).

Amazon Prime

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Animation Celebration Double Feature: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town

We're going to kick off the Christmas season with a look at two of the most beloved holiday specials ever made made. Starting out as Videocraft in the 1960's, Rankin-Bass eventually churned out 18 Christmas specials between 1964 and 2001 (as well as three Easter specials, a Thanksgiving special, a New Year's special, and one that was centered more around winter in general). Rudolph was their first holiday stop-motion show in 1964, and one of the earliest frequently-repeated animated Christmas specials. Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town came out in 1970, just as the Rankin-Bass studio was really starting to pick up in popularity. Let's head to the North Pole to learn about the stories of these two favorite gift-givers and see if these specials really do "go down in history"...

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Rankin-Bass (Videocraft), 1964
Voices of Billie Mae Richards, Burl Ives, Paul Soles, and Larry D. Mann
Directed by Larry Roemer and Kigo Nagashima
Music and Lyrics by Johnny Marks

The Story: Sam the Snowman (Ives) narrates this holiday tale. Rudolph (Richards) is the son of one of Santa's (Stan Francis) reindeer, Donner (Paul Kligman), and his mate (Peg Dixon). He's adorable and smart, but right from the start, he has one big problem - his nose glows bright red. Embarrassed, his father first hopes he grows out of it, then covers it. That doesn't stop all of the other reindeer at the North Pole from making fun of him when it's found out. The only reindeer who doesn't is a kindly doe named Clarice (Janis Orenstein). She thinks he's cute, but her father doesn't want her hanging around with him. Understandably upset, Rudolph runs away.

He's not the only one having problems with the rampant conformity at the Pole. Hermie (Soles) is an elf who would rather be a dentist, but apparently career changes are frowned on for elves. He encounters Rudolph after taking off as well, and they decide to travel together. They're eventually joined by boisterous prospector Yukon Cornelius (Mann) After dodging the Bumble Snow Monster, they find themselves on the Island of Misfit Toys, where toys with defects or who are unwanted by children are sent. The head of the island, King Moonracer (Francis), asks for them to encourage Santa to take their toys on the sleigh. Rudolph is more worried about his nose giving them away and takes off. Everyone else goes after him, including the Bumble Monster. They do manage to rescue him and his parents...right before a major storm hits...

The Animation: This was revolutionary for 1964, and still looks pretty good, even for today. The pastel colors and adorable designs give it the look of a frosty fairy tale, or a mid-20th-century Christmas card...and makes Rudy's red nose stand out even more. Rudolph and Clarice are so huggable, you wonder how anyone could possibly not want play reindeer games with them, red nose or not. Love the more menacing or majestic designs like the Bumble and King Moonracer, too.

The Song and Dance: For the most part, this one remains charming and really cute. What I like about this one are the unique characters. There's no one like Yukon Cornelius anywhere else in animation, or Hermie, for that matter. King Moonracer, for all his limited screen time, is just plain cool. Rudolph is a darling, and god bless Clarice for loving him for what he is! The Bumble somehow manages to be menacing and oddly funny at the same time, with his wide ice-blue mouth and furry yeti-like body. And just you don't often see an elf who wants to be a dentist.

Favorite Number: As someone who has felt out-of-place her entire life, "We're a Couple of Misfits" hits closer to home for me than it probably should. Clarice's "There's Always Tomorrow" is a really sweet ballad, and gets a nice number too, with the animals in the forest all trying to help cheer Rudy up after the incident at the reindeer games. The standards here, along with the title song, are Sam's "Silver and Gold" as he describes why those colors are so important to Christmas (and Cornelius), the misfit toys' "The Most Wonderful Day of the Year," and the big number for Ives and the chorus in the finale, "Holly Jolly Christmas."

Trivia: There's almost been more replacements, changes, and additions to Rudolph than to the Star Wars Original Trilogy. The "Misfits" duet was replaced from the mid-70's to the late-90's by a similar song called "Fame and Fortune." There was also a scene with Yukon Cornelius finding a peppermint mine in the finale. "Misfits" was restored to the special in 1993; "Fame and Fortune" is now it's own number. (The peppermint mine sequence remains missing on most edits.)

What I Don't Like: Some of the attitudes here, especially towards women and people with disabilities, can seem more than a little harsh to modern ears in the first half. Donner in particular comes off as nasty to his own young son, and even Santa has his jerk-ish moments. "Silver and Gold" is a lovely song, but it really has nothing to do with the story and seems to be there as filler and to give Ives a slower number.

The Big Finale: While some aspects of the story haven't dated well, for the most part, this remains quite charming, with memorable characters and colorful animation.

Home Media: Though CBS continues to run Rudolph annually, they cut out parts of the numbers to fit in commercials. You're probably better off picking it up on discs or online. It can also be found as part of a collection with 6 other Rankin-Bass specials owned by Dreamworks/Universal, including Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town (see below).

DVD - The Original Christmas Classics set

Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town
Rankin-Bass, 1970
Voices of Mickey Rooney, Paul Frees, Fred Astaire, and Keenan Wynn
Directed by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass
Music by Maury Laws; Lyrics by Jules Bass

The Story: A group of elves lead by Tante Kringle (Joan Gardner) who live just beyond the Mountains of the Whispering Winds adopt an orphan they name Kris Kringle. When Kris (Rooney) grows to adulthood, he insists on taking the toys they create into Sombertown, over the mountains. There's two problems with that. First of all, the mountain is guarded by the cranky ice sorcerer the Winter Warlock (Wynn), who doesn't like people invading his turf. Second, the even crankier Burgomeister Meister Burger (Frees) has just outlawed toys in Sombertown. With the help of the kids in the town, a wayward penguin named Topper (Frees), and the lovely schoolteacher Jessica (Robie Lester), Kris manages to create a legend that will outlive the Burgomeister's strict laws and reform the Winter Warlock.

The Animation: A bit more colorful, as appropriate for a story about Santa Claus. The pastels have been replaced by bright reds and cool whites for the Mountains of the Whispering Woods and the gray dimness of Sombertown. I loved the sequence towards the end with Winter casting his magic over the Christmas trees - the backgrounds here are especially lovely.

The Song and Dance: Rooney's good humor and a defrosting Wynn liven up this unusual story. Once again, I give them credit for trying something different. I never would have thought of the origins of Santa Claus done as a Robin Hood-style folk tale, with Kris defying the Burgomeister's increasingly harsh rules to make children happy. I also like Lester as Jessica, who scolds Kris for giving out toys at first, before becoming the first person he defrosts with a toy.

Favorite Number: My favorite song from this one is Kris and the Winter Warlock's cheerful "Put One Foot In Front of the Other," as Kris encourages Winter to change his grumpy outlook on life. The elves explain why they make toys and what they'd once been in "The First Toymakers to the King." Astaire, as post officer narrator S.D Kluger, gets to sing the lovely "What Better Way to Tell You."

What I Don't Like: While ending with the Burgomeisters falling out of power is a fairly realistic touch, it also feels a bit dull and anti-climatic. I would have like to have seen more done with Jessica rescuing the others. In fact, we never do see how she actually gets them out of the dungeon! Yes, the reindeer can fly, but as Winter points out, they can't dissolve prison walls.

There's some really dark moments for this one, including sequences of the Burgomeister actually burning the kids' toys and Kris and the elves finding their destroyed home in the mountains. Jessica's big solo ballad "My World Is Beginning Today" is quite good, but it's accompanied by a rather odd series of psychedelic images that smack more of 1970 than vaguely late 1800's.

The Big Finale: Though not quite as beloved as Rudolph, it has enough of it's own charms to make it equally worth a look during the holidays.

Home Media: Same deal, only this one can currently be found on Amazon Prime along with on disc and streaming.

Amazon Prime

Thursday, December 6, 2018

I'll See You In My Dreams

Warner Bros, 1951
Starring Doris Day, Danny Thomas, Frank Lovejoy, and James Gleason
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Music by Walter Donaldson and others; Lyrics by Gus Kahn

If you've never heard of Gus Kahn, you're in good company. His name may not be as recognizable today as that of Jerome Kern, but you've probably at least hummed one of his songs once in your life. "It Had to Be You," "Carolina In the Morning," "Makin' Whoopie," and "Ain't We Got Fun" are among the famous songs he wrote the lyrics for. Let's see if this biography soars like so many of his most popular lyrics...

The Story: In the early 1910's, warehouse worker Gus Kahn (Thomas) brings his pile of songs and patriotic musicals to a song company to have considered for publication. He shoves them into the arms of one Grace LeBoy (Day), who promptly tells him to write less patriotism and more romance. He's angry at the criticism at first, but then goes over to her house in a tie and tells her and her parents that he's reconsidered. They create a partnership for a few years, but their publisher (Gleason) tells them that Grace isn't a good enough songwriter. He joins with composer Egbert Van Alstyne, writing the hits "Pretty Baby" and "Memories."

Grace keeps pushing the reluctant Gus into bigger and better things, even after they finally get married in 1916. She's plugging his latest hit when she's pregnant with their first child, a son. By the time she's having their second child, a daughter, she's pushed him into a big Ziegfeld show in New York and a partnership with perpetually drunk bachelor Walter Donaldson (Lovejoy). Grace is worried that he may be making a play for the show's star Gloria Knight (Patrice Wymore), but to Gloria's annoyance, he's only interested in his family.

The Depression wipes out the Kahn's savings and the style of upbeat tunes that Gus specialized in. Grace eventually convinces him to go to Hollywood, but while he does write music there, he's too temperamental to stick with one studio for very long. It takes a heart attack and the revival of film musicals in 1933 for Kahn to finally settle down and appreciate his wife and just how much his music has touched others.

The Song and Dance: Kahn died of a final heart attack in 1941, but Grace and his children were still alive, and their input makes this biography more honest than most. This is refreshingly domestic and small-scale compared to most musical film biographies, with it's emphasis on Grace and Gus' relationship and their home life with their children and their maid Anna (Mary Wickes). Anna's long and contemptuous relationship with Gus is the film's funniest running gag. Even the Chicago setting and the simple black and white cinematography marks this as something a little different.

Favorite Number: Day and Thomas are at their most charming in their duet of "Makin' Whoopee." Grace and Gus perform it on a train going back to Chicago. No backstage fuss, no melodrama, just two wonderful performers having fun together. Wymore gets the film's sole production number, "Love Me or Leave Me." Day also does a really touching version of the title song towards the end of the movie, when Grace is starting to worry about Gus and his health.

Trivia: Kahn's son Donald grew up to become a songwriter and musician in his own right. His most famous composition was the pop hit "A Beautiful Friendship."

What I Don't Like: This is absolutely not for people who like their musicals big, colorful, and bold. It's a small-scale story with songs mostly performed by the two leads and one major chorus number. The story itself is fairly cliche, hitting all the usual beats of a musician's rise and fall; while the family angle is an interesting twist, the plot itself is nothing you really haven't seen before, particularly in the angst-ridden second half.

Like most musical biographies of this time, once we get out of the early part of the 20th century, the costumes and sets stop reflecting the actual setting and start looking too modern. No one looks like they're dressed for the 20's and 30's during the segments set during those time periods. Once Gus' songs get popular, it looks like 1951 for the rest of the movie.

The Big Finale: If you're a fan of Day or Thomas or like your musicals on the smaller side, this charming tale of one of the most beloved lyracists of the early 20th century and his strong-willed wife is definitely worth a watch.

Home Media: This was one of Day's biggest hits (and was Warners' second-biggest hit of 1951) and can easily be found for streaming and on DVD via the Warner Archives.

Amazon Prime

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Cult Flops - Mame

Warner Bros, 1974
Starring Lucille Ball, Robert Preston, Beatrice Arthur, and Jane Connell
Directed by Gene Saks
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman

Auntie Mame - a fictional biography of a madcap society woman and her loving if bewildered nephew and staff - was a smash hit book by Patrick Dennis in 1955. It later became an equally popular play, and then a blockbuster movie with Rosalind Russell in 1958. The stage musical debuted in 1966, and with Angela Landsbury as Mame, was an even bigger hit. Mame's charmed life seemed to end there. Landsbury was passed over for the film version in favor of Lucille Ball, who was then at the tail end of her her celebrity as the biggest comedienne on television. When it finally debuted around Easter 1974, reviews were scathing and the film was a major flop. It didn't help that the brassy musical comedies that were big in the 60's had gone out of style by the mid-70's. What happened here? Let's head down to Beekman Place in New York City, where the party is just getting started, and find out...

The Story: For Mame Dennis (Ball), every day is an adventure. It's the Roaring 20's, and she's determined to roar right along with it, especially after she adopts her late brother's son Patrick (Kirby Furlong). She wants to show her "little love" and everyone around her, including Patrick's shy nanny Agnes (Connell), how to live life to the fullest. Trips to speakeasies and fire houses and schools where children run around naked may amuse Patrick, but it doesn't delight his conservative trustee, Mr. Babcock (John McGiver). Babcock has him taken away, just as the Depression hits.

Mame first gets a job in a "terribly modern operetta" starring her friend Vera Charles (Arthur), but she forgets her one line. She goes through a series of jobs, until she meets the handsome and charming southerner Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Preston) while working as a saleswoman in a department store. They end up getting married after she charms his family during a wild fox hunt. Beau dies in a skiing accident, leaving Mame back in the black but alone. She and Vera decide that Agnes is their next project, but she gets a little too into the "life is a banquet" thing and comes home pregnant. She's even less happy when a now-grown Patrick (Bruce Davidson) announces that he's going to marry a snotty college girl from Connecticut (Doria Cook-Nelson). Mame has to find someone more appropriate for Patrick while helping Agnes with her delicate condition, too.

The Song and Dance: Most of the complaints centered on Lucille Ball's performance, claiming she was miscast. I thought she was just fine, especially during comic set pieces like the roller skating sequence after she meets Beauregard and the wacky fox hunt. Arthur and Connell are even better repeating their Broadway roles, and Preston makes for an especially charming southern gentleman. The costumes are a lot of fun, from Mame's 20's lounging outfits to that stunning red gown with the massive fan trim she wears to her party for the Upsons in the late 1940's.

Favorite Number: "We Need a Little Christmas" is probably the best-known song from the show, and the number based after it is too adorable. Mame comes home from her sales clerk job and decides to cheer everyone up by celebrating early. (I love Agnes doubling as a tree covered in tinsel garlands.) Robert Preston gets a touching ballad Jerry Herman wrote expressively for the film, "Loving You," performed during the montage of Mame and Beau's decade-long honeymoon. Ball is hysterical flubbing her line in "The Man in the Moon."

Honestly, the movie is worth seeing just for Beatrice Arthur and Lucille Ball going at each other in the classic friends song "Bosom Buddies." They're just too funny in that number; their expressions at each bit of sarcasm is perfect.

What I Don't Like: Ball's singing voice was never terribly good, and while that works for chorus songs or in the comic "Bosom Buddies," her croaking does the dramatic ballad "If He Walked Into My Life" no favors. The soft-focus filters used to make Ball look younger just makes the film look out of focus at some points.

The Big Finale: I think the critics have been way too rough on this one for years, especially those who saw Landsbury in the stage show. If you love Lucy, the original book or movie, or big, bold musical comedy, you'll want to give Mame another chance at life, too.

Home Media: Ball's ongoing status as a major icon of comedy is probably the reason this one can be found on most formats; it was just released to Blu-Ray by the Warner Archives last week.

Amazon Prime

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Animation Celebration Saturday - Beauty and the Beast

Disney, 1991
Voices of Paige O'Hara, Robby Benson, Angela Landsbury, and Jerry Orbach
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman

If The Little Mermaid kicked off the Disney Renaissance of the 90's, the tremendous success of this movie codified it. This was one of the biggest hits of 1991, the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and one of the most talked-about films of the early 90's. Is it worthy of that legacy, or should it be run out of the castle? Let's head to a small town in France and find out...

The Story: Belle (O'Hara) may live up to her name, but she's still an outcast in her town, due to her love of books and sharp mind. Most of the residents don't know what to make of her. Handsome but obnoxious hunter Gaston (Richard White) wants to marry her, not because he's especially interested in her, but because she's the prettiest girl and he's the best-looking guy. She wants to expand her horizons, and she gets her chance when her inventor father (Rex Everheart) is held prisoner by a fearsome beast (Benson). She offers herself in exchange. She's upset and lonely at first, until she meets the moving objects who acts at as the Beast's servants, including Lumiere the candelabra (Orbach), Mrs. Potts the teapot (Landsbury), and Cogsworth the clock (David Ogden Stiers). The entire castle is under a spell, and all the objects are desperately hoping that Belle is the one who will break it and get through to the Beast. Gaston, however, has his own plans for Belle and her father...

The Song and Dance: I've loved this movie since my family went to see it on it's release in November 1991. Belle is still one of Disney's best princesses. She's not only smart and beautiful, but is sensible enough to figure (most) of what's going on with the castle and the enchantment well before the end of the film.

It also has one of the best male villains of any Disney movie. I used to dismiss Gaston as a vainglorious idiot when I was younger, but after having seen the live-action version, I've come to realize that he's one of the most frightening antagonists in the Disney canon. He's scary because not only because people like him exist, but because they're considered normal, where good people like Belle and the Beast who don't look or act as society dictates are not. The entire town follows him without question after one glimpse at the mirror, just because he says the Beast is bad, and they encourage his pursuit of Belle despite her obvious disinterest.

The Animation: Bold and colorful, the fabulous work on this movie was a big part of the reason for that Oscar nomination. From the sweeping shots of the Beast's gloomy Gothic castle to the bustle of the town, every detail is as perfect as one could wish. The animation on the human characters is even better. I've always loved Belle's facial expressions; she's still one of the most expressive female Disney characters. She says more with raise of an eyebrow than most animated characters say with tons of dialogue.

Favorite Number: The music codified the Broadway style of Disney films for the rest of the decade. As lovely as the Oscar-winning title song is (and the swirling pas de deux performed during it), my favorite song has always been the rollicking Busby Berkley parody "Be Our Guest." I have to hand it to the enchanted objects. For things that have barely been used in 10 years, they sure can put on one heck of a show! I'm also fond of the charming "Something There" for Belle and the Beast, and the opening number that introduces Belle, Gaston, and most of the town.

Trivia: Walt considered Beauty and the Beast for an animated film after the success of Snow White in 1937, but the studio couldn't figure out the story then and shelved it. They tried again briefly in the 1950's, but decided it was too close to Cinderella. It started up again after Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a hit in 1987, but was originally scripted as an action fantasy, not a musical. The music didn't come in until after the success of The Little Mermaid in 1989.

Lyricist Howard Ashman was ill with AIDS during the pre-production of Beauty and the Beast. He died in March 1991 and never got to see the finished film. The movie is dedicated to him, in a moving line at the end of the credits.

Along with the Best Picture nomination, the movie was nominated for Best Sound and won for Best Score and Best Song ("Beauty and the Beast"). "Be Our Guest" and "Belle" were also nominated.

What I Don't Like: The blending of CGI and 2-D animated elements was revolutionary in 1991, but it occasionally looks fake or weird nowadays. I always wondered exactly what Belle does in the town, besides read and help her father. We don't get to know many of the other objects in the castle besides Mrs. Potts, Lumiere, and Cogsworth.

The Big Finale: Not only one of my favorite animated movies, but one of my favorite movies, period. I loved the 2017 live-action version too, but this is the one you really need to see.

Home Media: Probably thanks to the release of the live-action version last year, this one is currently in print and is very easy to find in most formats.

Amazon Prime (Buy Only)

There's more Beauty and the Beast to come! Look for the direct-to-home media follow up Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas later this month!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Wizard of Oz

MGM, 1939
Starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Margaret Hamilton
Directed by Victor Fleming and others
Music by Harold Arlen; Lyrics by E.Y Harburg

And now, we travel over the rainbow to take on one of the most famous films - in any genre - of all time. While not a huge hit when it first came out, it's become a classic in re-releases and on TV. The tale of Dorothy and her companions and their journey to the Emerald City has become a touchstone to families and children of all ages. Let's head to Kansas to see if the movie is truly worthy of that legacy...

The Story: Dorothy Gale (Garland) is not having an easy time in dull Sepia-toned Kansas. Her aunt, uncle, and their farm hands don't listen to her when she tries to explain that the local grouchy old lady Mrs. Gulch (Hamilton) has threatened to take her beloved dog Toto away. To Dorothy's horror, they don't have a choice about letting him go when Gulch shows up with court orders. Toto escapes, and Dorothy runs away to save him. She's found by a traveling fortune teller (Frank Morgan) who encourages her to go home. She gets back just in time to run inside just as the farmhouse is hit by a tornado.

The twister lands her and Toto in the Technicolor land of Oz, where she's greeted by tiny little people called Munchkins. They're celebrating because her house landed on the Witch of the East, who had been persecuting them. Glinda, the pretty Witch of the North (Billie Burke), sends Dorothy along the Yellow Brick Road to ask the Wizard who rules Oz to help her find her way home. Along the way, she meets three familiar friends who join her on her journey, a goofy cowardly lion (Lahr) who wants courage, a wobbly scarecrow who wants brains (Bolger), and a very sentimental tin woodsman (Jack Haley) who wants a heart. They're dogged every step of the way by the nasty Witch of the West (Hamilton again).

The witch captures Dorothy when the Wizard sends them to her domain to get her broomstick. Dorothy doesn't really want to kill anyone, but she doesn't have a choice. She's not happy with what the Wizard turns out to be, either. He does offer her a ride home, but Dorothy misses the trip. It's Glinda who helps her see that she had the way home all along...and that no matter how far over the rainbow we go, home is never far from our hearts.

The Song and Dance: Making this movie was a long and arduous process, but it was absolutely worth it. The Sepia and Technicolor cinematography both glow with an incandescence that makes that rainbow pale. Everyone puts in fine performances; Garland won a special award for best child performer at the Oscars. Hamilton's green-faced witch has frightened generations of children with her fireballs and cackling voice. Bolger, Haley, and especially Lahr are delightful as Dorothy's beloved companions. The movie has one of the most famous scripts in film history, and probably some of the most quoted lines. ("People come and go so quickly here!" "There's no place like home!")

Favorite Number: Thank goodness Harburg insisted they keep "Over the Rainbow!" The executives thought it was too slow, but it really defines the whole movie, well before Dorothy hits Oz. Garland sang it frequently throughout her career, and it's still associated with her to this day. I've always enjoyed the three versions of "If I Only Had...," sung by each of Dorothy's friends when she meets them.

Trivia: There was originally supposed to be another number, "The Jitterbug," which had Dorothy and her friends being attacked by a bug sent by the Witch on the Yellow Brick Road. It was deemed extraneous and was deleted, along with reprises of "Over the Rainbow" and "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead." The footage for all three numbers is now lost, but the audio recordings survive and are frequently included as extras on DVDs and CD soundtracks.

What I Don't Like: Unfortunately, deleting the "Ding Dong" and "Rainbow" reprises does mean that there's no musical numbers in the last third of the film. The two songs might have added a little more meat to the second half. Some people today consider the basic message of never leaving home to be a bit on the dated side. And yeah, there are times, especially with the moving trees and the obvious painted backgrounds, where the older effects are pretty obvious.

The Big Finale: Not my all-time favorite musical, but I like it enough to understand why it's so beloved. I probably don't need to recommend this one to anybody. If you haven't seen it yet, do so, especially if you have young children.

Home Media:  Goes without saying that this one is pretty easy to find. While it's no longer an annual TV event, it turns up fairly frequently on Turner Classic Movies, and it's available on most formats.

Amazon Prime

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Cult Flops - Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Paramount/Warner Bros, 1971
Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, and Julie Dawn Cole
Directed by Mel Stuart
Music and Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley

It'll probably be a surprise to many people to find this review under the "Cult Flops" banner. It wasn't a big hit with critics or audiences when it came out, who dismissed it as a bland children's film. It took constant showings on TV and cable and being a hit on video to turn it into one of the most beloved family musicals of all time. Does it deserve its popularity, or should it be sent down the garbage chute? Let's take a trip to Willy Wonka's famous factory to find out...

The Story: Charlie Bucket (Ostrum) is a poor boy who often passes by the massive chocolate factory owned by the mysterious Willy Wonka (Wilder) on his paper route. A tinker (Peter Capell) tells him ominously that "no one ever goes in, and no one ever goes out." His beloved old Grandpa Joe (Albertson) explains that Wonka closed the factory to visitors after spies stole his secrets. No one knows who is making the candy. The mystery creates an absolute riot when it's announced that five people who find a golden ticket in a Wonka bar will have a tour of the factory and win a lifetime supply of chocolate. Four of the tickets go to spoiled, selfish children who care more about the chocolate than the wonders in the factory. Charlie's shocked when he finally finds the fifth.

Not only does the trip turn out to be as wild as the factory's unpredictable owner, but one of Wonka's rivals, Slugworth (Gunter Meisner) goes to the kids with a scheme of his own. Charlie has to resist the temptations of both Slugworth and the factory...and in doing so, learns that the most important thing isn't having a sweet tooth, but a sweet and honest heart.

The Song and Dance: Gene Wilder gave one of his best and most iconic performances as the oddball title character. He's mostly pretty subdued, even when the kids are going down garbage chutes and falling into his chocolate river...at least until he gets angry at Charlie in the finale over his messing around with one of his concoctions in the factory. Albertson is equally good as cantankerous and energetic Grandpa Joe, who is quite thoroughly enjoying his first time out of bed in twenty years. Ostrum and the other children are all excellent as the main five who get involved with all the lunacy in the factory. I always thought Roy Kinnear and Leonard Stone were hilarious as Veruca and Violet's very different businessman fathers, and David Battely has fun with the small role of Charlie's goofy teacher.

Along with the performances and wonderful music, the movie has some of the most intricate sets and cinematography of the early 70's. No wonder everyone is amazed when they enter the Chocolate Room. The details there and in the Inventing Room later, as well as during the infamous "freak out" boat ride, are a delight to behold.

Favorite Number: Wilder's "Pure Imagination," performed in the Chocolate Room as the rest of the tour goers are enjoying the candy, is probably the most famous number from this movie today. (It's so associated with the film and the story, both stage musical versions pretty much had to include it.) The opening number "The Candy Man" had a hit cover by Sammy Davis Jr, who was a big fan of the song. My personal favorite number is "I've Got a Golden Ticket." Albertson and Ostrum are just having so much fun with their rollicking routine for that song, you can't help but sing along.

Trivia: One of the reasons for the film's initial failure was it was originally conceived partially by Quaker Oats to kick off a line of real-life Wonka bars. The candy didn't go over any better than the movie did. Rumor has it they actually melted on shelves. (Nestle would do far better with the Wonka brand over a decade later. It was a Christmas tradition in my family in the 90's and early 2000's to get a Wonka bar in our stockings in the hope of finding the golden ticket. We never found one, but at least the candy was pretty good.)

Road Dahl wrote an early draft of the film, but it was ultimately deemed to be too dark and reworked by others. He eventually disowned the movie, complaining about the additional songs, bumping up Wonka's role, and several of the scenes that hadn't been in the book.

If Violet and Veruca seem to be a bit nasty to each other, even for bratty kids, there was a reason for that. Julie Dawn Cole and Denise Nickerson, who played Violet, had major crushes on Peter Ostrum and spent most of the shoot trying to show off for him.

What I Don't Like: Dahl has a point about some of those additional scenes. The out-of-nowhere ending kind of ruins the interesting mystery they had going with Slugworth. The random scenes of people trying desperately by any means necessary to get those golden tickets are funny, but they also do nothing to advance the plot and are really kind of bizarre. (Especially the soap opera spoof with the woman whose husband was kidnapped and exchanged for Wonka bars.) There's a few sequences from the book that are missing, notably the entire segment about the Indian prince who wanted a chocolate factory.

As nifty as the sets are, some of the effects do show their age nowadays. Violet's face in the factory is really just a blue spotlight, everyone in the Chocolate Room is obviously eating candy out of plastic props, not mushrooms and giant fruit, and the parents are right that the Chocolate River looks more like the dirty water it was than anything edible. Not to mention, some of the kids come off as so likable, it's hard to hate them the way you should when they're finally taken out.

The Big Finale: While I do like the non-musical Tim Burton remake as well, this one still has plenty of it's own charms. Delightful performances (especially from Wilder and Albertson), a great script, amazing sets, and one of Bricusse and Newley's best scores makes this one confection that remains very sweet indeed.

Home Media: Alas, both the 40th and 45th anniversary editions seem to be out of print  on DVD and Blu-Ray at press time. Your best bet may be streaming services like Amazon Prime or if you're really into this movie, the Blu-Ray/DVD Collector's Edition combo.

40th Anniversary Blu-Ray/DVD Collector's Edition
Amazon Prime