Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Cult Flops - Head

Columbia Pictures, 1968
Starring The Monkees (Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones), Victor Mature, Timothy Carey, and Annette Funicello
Directed by Bob Rafelson
Music by various

First of all, a huge thanks to my good friend Linda Young, who designed the new backgrounds and lettering. I think she did a wonderful job! (And don't forget to check out her blogs, especially her book reviews at A Cozy Nook to Read In.)

Second, if the Fantasia films are the strangest animated movies I've reviewed, than this is probably the strangest live-action movie. I'm doing this one in honor of Peter Tork, the bassist and pianist for the Monkees, who also passed away on February 21st. I've been a big fan of the Monkees' music and TV show since I was a child, but I didn't know this movie even existed until the mid-2000's. If Finian's Rainbow was too old-fashioned for 1968, this one might have been a bit too up-to-date, with its supremely weird stream-of-consciousness sequences and cynical relationship with the media and how it manipulates its audience. It's not a typical musical...but it's not a typical anything else, either. What is it, exactly? Let's head to a ribbon-cutting ceremony on a bridge in Southern California and see if we can figure it out...

The Story: We begin on a real bridge in Long Beach, California. The Monkees dash through a ribbon-cutting ceremony before leaping off the bridge and into the water. After a series of trippy color filter effects, we see them having a kissing contest with an unimpressed young woman. From then on, the film becomes a series of strange sequences, going from a quick bit of Vietnam War footage to a real-life Monkees concert, then to the boys in the actual war. They're almost torn apart before ending up in a vacuum cleaner, then a black box, then a man's hair. They each have their own way of getting out of the "box," from gentle hippie Peter repeating the words of a swami to hot-tempered Brit dancer Davy literally fighting his way out...but in the end, they just find themselves back in the box again.

The Song and Dance: Well, you definitely can't say this one isn't unique. In fact, it's really hard to describe. The Monkees and producer/director Rafelson had gotten tired of making their TV show and wanted to do something that dealt more with all the trouble the group had getting respect from the music community and not playing their own instruments. There's some really interesting commentary here on people's relationship with the media and how it manipulates viewers into seeing what it wants people to see...ideas that may have been way ahead of their time.

Of the non-musical vignettes, my favorite sequences include Micky blowing up a Coke vending machine in the middle of the desert (the satisfied look on his face when he does it is classic), Peter and Davy in the bathroom after Davy's encounter with the eye, Peter finally getting the guys to pay attention to him in the box (something he had a hard enough time doing in the show, let alone here), and most of the finale, from Davy breaking out to them being chased again.

Favorite Number: "Circle Sky," performed at a real-life concert the guys did in Utah, gives you the idea of just how crazy their shows could get (and is one of Mike Nesmith's better songs). Davy dances with choreographer and singer Toni Basil (best known for the 80's hit "Hey Mickey") in Harry Nillson's "Daddy's Song," which has a lot of fun with the camera and negative and positive stock. "Can You Dig It?" is a more traditional chorus routine in a harem, while Peter's "Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again" at Mike's surprise party and the dreamy "Porpoise Song" in the opening play with color filters and psychedelic imagery.

Trivia: If the movie sounds like something written by people who were stoned...well, you're right. The Monkees, Rafelson, and his buddy Jack Nicholson developed the plot and the general idea while they were gone on marijuana one weekend in Ojai, California.

It wound up being one of the biggest flops of 1968, barely making its money back. It didn't help that Rafelson's avant-guarde posters and commercials showed nothing but a giant head repeating the film's title, and didn't even mention the Monkees. Audiences didn't know what to make of it, and critics of the day were even more confused.

In addition to Nicholson (who appears briefly after Peter hits a waitress), cameos include Frank Zappa (leading a cow), Dennis Hopper, Terri Garr (who tries playing western cliches with Micky and Mike), Annette Funicello, and boxer Sonny Liston.

What I Don't Like: The music is good, but the rest...well, if you're expecting something a bit closer to the more upbeat TV show, you're going to be sorely disappointed. Like Chicago, this is very cynical and dark, a good reflection of the Monkees' mindset by the time their show ended. It's not for people who prefer a linear plot that actually makes sense, aren't fans of the Monkees or classic rock, or who are looking for a more traditional musical.

The Big Finale: Despite the G rating, this is absolutely not for kids. Start them on the TV show first. For adult fans of the Monkees or Rafelson's other work, this is worth checking out at least once, if only to see how strange a musical can get.

Home Media: Not on streaming, and the solo DVD is wildly out of print and expensive. Your best bet if you really want to see this may be to treat yourself to the Criterion Collection set that includes this and Rafelson's other movies, including the classic Easy Rider and two personal favorites, The Last Picture Show and The King of Marven Gardens.

Blu-Ray - America Lost and Found: The BBS Story

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Happy St. Patrick's Day! - Finian's Rainbow

Warner Bros, 1968
Starring Fred Astaire, Petula Clark, Tommy Steele, and Keenan Wynn
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Music by Burton Lane; Lyrics by E.Y Harburg

Top o' the evenin' to ye! We celebrate the most Irish of holidays tomorrow with a wee bit of blarney from the late 60's. This strange tale of leprechauns and magic originally debuted on Broadway in 1947, but was too odd and old-fashioned to make a dent in a changing Hollywood when it hit the big screen twenty years later. How does it hold up now? Let's head over that hill and stream to Rainbow Valley, near Fort Knox, and find out...

The Story: Finian (Astaire) and Sharon McLonergan (Clark) are Irish immigrants who just arrived in Rainbow Valley, a commune in the Deep South. The head of the commune is Woody (Don Francks), a happy-go-lucky fellow who does everything he can to try to get out of real work, including selling the mentholated tobacco his chemist friend Howard (Al Freeman Jr.) is working on. Finian has his own way to easy riches. He buries a pot of gold near Fort Knox, in the hope that it'll grow the way America's gold supply seems to have. Trouble is, the gold actually belongs to Og (Steele), a leprechaun who is rapidly becoming human - and horny - without it.

Og explains (with much wailing) that the gold grants three wishes to whomever stands near it. Sharon accidentally gets the first one when she wishes that bigoted Senator Rawlings (Wynn) would turn into a black man...and he unfortunately does and, ashamed, runs off. Now half the county thinks Sharon's a witch, and unless Og and Finian can find that pot of gold and wish everything back to normal, they're going to burn her at the stake!

The Song and Dance: Fred Astaire may have been at odds with Coppola's more modern directorial style, but they brought in some great results. Even the scenes that were obviously shot on a soundstage look terrific in the widescreen cinematography and glow with an incandescence that would make that rainbow in the song look pale. Astaire is a hoot as the grizzled Irishman who always thinks the next pot of gold is somewhere over the rainbow; Clark is even better as his exasperated but loving daughter.

Maybe it's a good thing they did wait twenty years to make this into a movie. Finian's Rainbow came out during the height of the Civil Rights Era in the US, and it openly discusses prejudice, bigotry, and stereotypes in a way they probably wouldn't have gotten away with even a decade before. There's also how Sharon and Woody's relationship is handled. "Old Devil Moon" is far hotter and more overtly sexual than most love scenes in musicals, and they're actually seen sleeping together in the finale, even before they technically get married.

Favorite Number: Astaire gets his last great solo in "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich"; he's as nimble as ever, making the whole sequence a real highlight. Steele and Clark have a grand time doing laundry outside with my favorite song from this score, "Something Sort of Grandish." There's also some nice chorus numbers, including "This Time of the Year" and "That Great Come and Get It Day." Clark has a lovely "Look to the Rainbow" over the credits; her "How are Things In Glocca Morra" is nicely-done as well.

Trivia: The original Broadway show did debut in 1947, but its themes of racial and economic equality scared quite a few people off, as did the fantasy aspects and lyricist E.Y Harburg's strong leftist politics. MGM wanted to do it in 1948, but Harburg wanted too much money. An animated version in the mid-50's and a live-action musical with Debbie Reynolds in the early 60's were eventually scrapped.

The stage version had occasional revivals in the 60's, but it was rarely seen after that until it turned up in a successful off-Broadway revival by the Irish Repertory Theater in 2004 (and would be done again by the company in 2016). A revival on Broadway in 2009 didn't do nearly as well, only running three months.

The song "Necessity" was cut from the film after the movie ran long in previews. No word on if the footage still exists, but the song is on the soundtrack LP and CD.

What I Don't Like: Rawlings comes off like every southern bigot stereotype that ever appeared in any epic about the South, and while Wynn's not bad, the character gets grating after a while. The blackface makeup he wears after his skin color changes is not only unconvincing, but will likely offend many folks today.

In fact, while the movie can be commended for dealing with the subject of bigotry at all, it makes for an awkward mix with the fantasy elements. It doesn't help that Steele's performance is too over-the-top, even for a mythical character, and wears one down after two hours. Coppola wanted everything to be real, but Astaire (and Warners) wanted old-fashioned fun...and trying to mix the two just makes a mess. The fact that a big portion of the plot hinges on tobacco and making it smoke doesn't look great nowadays, either. And yes, like most film musicals of its era, it's way too long at two hours. Several minutes, particularly towards the end, could have been trimmed.

The Big Finale: A real mixed bag, to say the least. Astaire, Clark, and some great music do help to offset the strange fantasy and occasionally iffy and dated plot. If you're a fan of either of them or want to check out a really unique fantasy tale, this is worth a look.

Home Media: I have the original DVD release from 2006, but it and the Blu-Ray are currently available via the Warner Archives. It's on a couple of streaming platforms as well.

Google Play

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A Salute to Stanley Donen - Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

MGM, 1954
Starring Howard Keel, Jane Powell, Russ Tambyn, and Julie Newmar
Directed by Stanley Donen
Music by Saul Chaplin and Gene dePaul; Lyrics by Johnny Mercer

We head into more robust territory for the first musical western to appear on this blog. This was not expected to be a hit in 1954. MGM threw all their hopes and finances into their adaptation of the Broadway show Brigadoon...and while that did well enough, this is the one that audiences and critics took to, making it one of the biggest hits of the year. It was one of the few musicals my younger brother and very macho stepfather would watch without complaint. Let's head to a small backwoods town in Oregon in 1850 to see just how well this dance-heavy tail works today...

The Story: Adam Pontipee (Keel) rides into town, hoping to marry a good, strong woman who will help him take care of his farm and his six wild younger brothers. He eventually convinces Millie (Powell), a cook at a local tavern, to marry him. She thinks she's creating a new life and isn't thrilled to be saddled with caring for such an uncouth family at first. Millie won't put up with their rudeness and lack of social graces. She finally gets them all cleaned up - even Adam - and teaches them to dance for a big barn raising party in town. The men in town aren't happy with seeing six handsome bachelors who are interested in the only women around and first compete with them, then pick on them. After one attacks Adam, Gideon, the youngest brother (Tambyn), starts a brawl that ends with the girls angry, the townspeople angrier, and no barn.

The boys, however, can't get their ladies out of their heads and threaten to leave. Inspired by a book Millie brought with her about the kidnapped Sabine Women, Adam suggests they abduct the girls and bring them up to the farm to be married. They do just that, causing an avalanche in the pass leading to their farm to keep them from escaping. Millie's horrified. She banishes the boys to the barn. Stung by Millie telling him off, Adam's the one who leaves. He eventually returns in the spring to find that the boys are now in love with the girls, and Millie is pregnant. They now understand why kidnapping the ladies wasn't the best idea...but it's the ladies who have other plans.

The Song and Dance: With Donen and choreographer Michael Kidd in charge, the emphasis here is firmly on the "dance" side of things. Four of the seven brothers and all of the brides but Powell were trained dancers; Russ Tamblyn was an acrobat, hence some of his more death-defying feats on the boards in the Barn Raising Ballet. Powell gets top honors as Millie. She may be a dreamer, but she's also a spitfire who has no qualms about turning the dinner table over on the boys when they eat like pigs or telling Adam off after they kidnap the girls. No wonder she managed to whip the guys into shape so quickly. Also look for Tommy Rall as Frank, the most hot-headed of the brothers, and Julie Newmar as Dorcas, the oldest and boldest of the brides.

If nothing else, I give them credit for the unusual setting. I don't know many westerns that are actually north-westerns (or many musicals that are set in Oregon). Oregon's cold winters even come into play as part of the plot.

Favorite Number: The brothers get at least three awesome ensemble numbers, the most famous of which is "The Barn Raising Ballet." Their face-off against the men in town is one of, if not the most famous, chorus routines in film history, with the guys performing increasingly difficult stunts to show off for their prospective women.

I'm even fonder of "Lonesome Polecat," with the boys doing some wonderful dancing as they chop wood and do other chores. Their spirited "Goin' Courtin'" with Millie, as she teaches them how to dance like gentlemen, is also a lot of fun to watch. Powell also gets the lovely "Wonderful, Wonderful Day" as Adam brings Millie home for the first time. The brides also have a nice ensemble number of their own, "June Bride," and brides and brothers come together for "Spring, Spring, Spring."

Trivia: Special kudos to the costuming department for taking inspiration from the pioneer characters in the film and making the best of their limited budget. The women's dresses in the film were made from antique quilts head costumer Walter Plunkett apparently found at a Salvation Army. Not only are they unique and colorful, but their being made from old quilts is historically-accurate to that time and place, too.

The limited budget is also why most of the movie was filmed on an obvious soundstage. Much of their budget went to the bigger and more heavily publicized Brigadoon. Apparently, the only scene shot in the real outdoors was the escape through the pass with the girls, which was filmed in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Some folks may have noticed that Benjamin, the second-oldest brother in orange, doesn't take part in (or has limited roles in) most of the dances. He was played by Jeff Richards, who was actually a former baseball player. Julie Newmar could dance, but as his partner, ended up off to the side a lot of the time as well.

There was a stage version that debuted in 1978 and eventually made it to Broadway in 1982, where it played only five performances. It did a little bit better in London, and has since become popular with regional theaters. A modernized TV show from 1982 lasted only a season and is best-known for introducing River Phoenix as the youngest brother.

What I Don't Like: Millie is definitely not the only person who has problems with the kidnapping plot nowadays. That the boys are shown to be awkward and not terribly social is only a mild excuse. They're lucky they weren't strung up and probably deserved far worse than Millie's tongue-lashing and the snowballs with rocks in them that the girls pelted them with. A few sexist lyrics here and there don't help. At the very least, it's the girls who, much like Millie, eventually take matters into their own hands.

The Big Finale: Terrific performances, fun songs, and some of the best and most energetic chorus routines ever committed to film more than overcome the occasionally awkward and dated plot. If you're a fan of dance, or have a man in your life who thinks he's too macho for musicals, try this one on him.

Home Media: Alas, the two-disc DVD set is currently out of print, but there is a Warner Archives Blu-Ray, and it can be found on several streaming platforms and in at least two DVD musical collections.

DVD - 5 Film Collection: Musicals
Google Play

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Salute to Stanley Donen - Singin' In the Rain

MGM, 1952
Starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, and Jean Hagen
Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
Music by Nacio Herb Brown; Lyrics by Arthur Freed

Director and choreographer Stanley Donen, who passed away on February 21st, made some of the most beloved musical movies of all time. This week, we're going to look at two of them. Although it wasn't a huge hit when it came out, Singin' In the Rain is now generally considered to be the greatest original movie musical of all time. Does the story of the changes wrought in Hollywood by the coming of sound - and how the cast and staff of one fictional studio is effected by it - live up to that lofty hype? Let's head to the Chinese Theater in Hollywood for the premiere of Monumental Pictures' latest blockbuster and find out...

The Story: Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Hagen) are Monumental's biggest stars. Their every move is followed by legions of adoring fans, who lap up their romantic swashbucklers. Turns out that their romance - and much of Don's life story - is as fictional as their movies. Don's a former vaudevillian and stuntman who loathes his shrill and obnoxious leading lady, but tolerates the publicity for the sake of their careers. Avoiding the fans, he leaps into the car of actress Kathy Seldon (Reynolds), who first screams at him, then calls him out on silent film pantomime not being "real" acting. He then runs into Kathy at the after-premiere party, where she's a chorus girl. Fed up with his teasing, she tries hitting him with a cake, but gets Lina, then runs off.

A few weeks later, Don and Lina are just starting to film their next big costume adventure when studio head R.F Simpson (Millard Mitchell) shuts them down briefly to turn the production into a sound film. Meanwhile, Don and his musician friend Cosmo Brown (O'Connor) find Kathy working on the lot. Don confesses his love to Kathy, and she admits that she wasn't quite truthful about not having heard of him before.

Their romance progresses far better than the film does. The production of the new movie is filled with nothing but headaches with the new, capricious sound equipment and the fact that Lina's Brooklyn accent and shallow manner is all wrong for her role. The movie's preview is a disaster, until Cosmo comes up with the idea of turning it into a musical and using Kathy to dub Lina. Everyone is happy with this...except Lina, who has no desire to share stardom or Don with anybody.

The Song and Dance: "What a glorious feeling," indeed! This is a delightful ride, with a hilarious script, gorgeous costumes, and some of the funniest performances of any movie musical. Hagen and O'Connor get top honors as the ditzy dame whose attempt to prolong her fifteen minutes of fame brings about her downfall and Don's deadpan best buddy. Reynolds does quite well for this being one of her earliest roles; I especially love her calling Don on his hammy acting in his movies when he ends up in her car. Kelly has a lot of fun, both parodying his own swashbuckling image and matching O'Connor's quips.

As someone who has been studying 20th century history for most of her life, my favorite non-musical scenes (along with Don and Kathy in the car) are the filming of the ill-fated original version of The Dueling Cavalier and the botched premiere afterwards. With many people who had actually worked on early talkies still on the lot in the 1950's, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green had no shortage of real-life inspiration. Some of what happens to Lina, Don, and the crew in those scenes - including the places where the microphone ends up - actually occurred on the sets of early sound movies.

Favorite Number: Given how famous the musical numbers in this movie are, it would be easy to say "all of them!" Special kudos to O'Connor and Kelly's "Fit as a Fiddle," where they somehow manage an energetic vaudeville routine while playing violins (those audiences had no taste) and to O'Connor, Kelly, and Reynolds' "Good Morning." Poor Reynolds worked so hard to keep up with that number - she was gymnast, not a dancer - her feet eventually bled. Other favorites include O'Connor and Kelly's other big duet "Moses Supposes," O'Connor's wild salute to slapstick "Make 'Em Laugh," and, of course, Kelly's famous romp in the rain to the title song, one of the happiest scenes in musical history.

Trivia: Reynolds isn't the only one who had trouble keeping up with the fast-paced numbers. O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" was so physically exhausting for him, he ended up in the hospital for several days. Kelly danced the title number while he was sick with a very bad cold, making his joy and high spirits during that sequence all the more remarkable.

The only songs in the movie that weren't written by Brown and Freed were "Make 'Em Laugh," "Moses Supposes," and "Fit as a Fiddle." Comden and Green wrote "Laugh," which closely resembles Cole Porter's "Be a Clown." (Reportedly, Porter didn't mind, but Irving Berlin did complain to music director Roger Edens, who basically told him to stuff it.) Edens wrote the music for "Moses Supposes," Comden and Green the lyrics. Freed did write the lyrics for "Fiddle," but Al Hoffman and Al Goodheart wrote the music.

Just to make things even more confusing, Jean Hagen actually used her own voice to dub some of Debbie Reynolds' performance of Lina's lines ("Would You?" was dubbed as well).

What I Don't Like: While "The Broadway Melody Ballet" has amazing dancing by Cyd Charisse and Kelly, it does seem slightly shoe-horned in to give Kelly another ballet after the success of the one at the end of American In Paris. The costumes are actually quite historically accurate (both for the 17th century and the 1920's), but the makeup and hair, on men and women, are pure 1950's and can take one out of the time period slightly.

The Big Finale: For once, the critics are 100 percent right. This is a delightful look at one of the most chaotic periods in Hollywood history; the script and the musical numbers alone are worth checking out.

Home Media: Quite easily found in most formats, including several streaming companies. If you can dig it up, look for the original 2-disc Special Edition DVD that I have. The second disc includes performances of the songs from the movies they came from, some of them fairly rare.

DVD - 5 Film Collection: Musicals

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Oscar Winners - Chicago (2002)

Miramax, 2002
Starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifa, and Richard Gere
Directed by Rob Marshall
Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb

We end our Oscar Winners series where we began it, with a pair of ambitious dancers in the Roaring 20's who are hoping to become the next big thing. These girls, however, aren't merely willing to rely on a fiancee or business smarts to get them to the big time - they're ready to literally kill for their chance in the spotlight. How does the tale of two murderesses who hire a shady lawyer to get their names "in the papers" look nowadays? Let's head backstage at a vaudeville theater in the titular Windy City and find out...

The Story: Housewife Roxie Hart (Zellweger) longs for a career on the stage. She thinks Fred Casley (Dominic West), who claims to know the manager of a theater, is her ticket to the big time. She's so angry when she discovers he lied about his connections to get her in bed, she shoots him. Turns out another dancer she'd been admiring at the theater, Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), is also guilty of murder, having killed her sister and husband when she found them in bed together.

They end up in the infamous Murderess' Row, run by corrupt Mama Morton (Queen Latifa). Morton suggests Billy Flynn (Gere) take Roxie's case. He turns her into a good girl gone bad and makes her the sensation of Chicago. Roxie's desperate to keep her name in the headlines and herself out of the hangman's noose...but while she and Billy may be able to fool the courts and reporter Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski), they may not be able to keep fooling a public that's craving the next big thing.

The Song and Dance: The original Broadway show debuted in 1975, but ended up being overshadowed by the runaway success of A Chorus Line. Audiences found it too cynical and downbeat at the time, despite several of the songs becoming popular. There were no such problems when it was revived in 1996; if anything, the advent of the internet, and later, social media, that covered celebrities' every move had made the show's points about the fleetingness of fame more relevant than ever.

Zeta-Jones won an Oscar as the amoral Velma Kelly; Queen Latifa and John C. Reilly were nominated for supporting awards as Mama Morton and Roxie's sad-sack husband Amos. Lucy Liu is fun in a cameo as another murderess who killed her lover and his two mistresses, and Gere's having a wonderful time as crafty Billy Flynn. The great costumes and sets do a wonderful job of contrasting the gritty world of the prison and backstage with the glittering, glamorous vaudeville going on in Roxie's head.

Favorite Number: In addition to the big opener "All That Jazz" that introduces us to the show in Roxie's mind and Velma Kelly, two of the film's big dance routines, the sexy "Cell Block Tango" and Gere's "Razzle Dazzle" with the spangled chorus girls, have become nearly iconic today. Latifa and Reilly score with their big solos, "When You're Good to Mama" and the sad-clown "Mr. Cellophane." Gere also gets a good solo, once again with the chorus girls. "All I Care About" makes Billy look like the white knight on his way to Roxie's rescue...but what we actually see reveals a shifty shyster who cares more about his image than the women he's supposed to defend. Zellweger and Zeta-Jones have a great time camping it up for their final dance, "Nowadays."

Trivia: The director of the original Broadway show, Bob Fosse, wanted this to be his next movie musical after the success of Cabaret, but he died before it got far. Interest in the film version was revived after the huge success of the 90's revival. (Which, by the way, is still running, and at press time is the longest-running revival in Broadway history.)

The movie was based on a 1927 play of the same name, which in turn was inspired by two real-life murder cases in the city that writer Maurine Watkins worked on.

Along with Best Picture and Zeta-Jones' performance, the movie won Oscars for sound, editing, costumes, and art direction.

What I Don't Like: For all the "Razzle Dazzle," this is a very dark show, and absolutely not for children. Zellweger is only a so-so singer and dancer, which to tell the truth, works in the film's favor when it becomes quite obvious that Roxie isn't going to get into vaudeville because of her talent. The idea of putting the numbers in Roxie's head can occasionally be confusing, and I do wish it hadn't lead to them cutting the witty "Class" number with Latifa and Zeta-Jones that didn't fit that storyline.

The Big Finale: Brassy, sexy, and utterly amoral, if you can handle that cynical tone, Chicago is a fun ride with some interesting things to say about celebrity and how desperate some people are to get - and keep - those fifteen minutes of fame.

Home Media: As the most recent musical to win an Oscar and one of the movies that revived the genre in the early 2000's, it goes without saying that you can find it pretty much anywhere in almost every format.

Amazon Prime

(Oh, and we resume our regularly scheduled programming on Tuesday with two of MGM's most famous musicals in honor of the recently-passed Stanley Donen, starting with Singin' In the Rain.)

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Oscar Winners - Oliver!

Columbia Pictures/Romulus Films, 1968
Starring Mark Lester, Ron Moody, Carol Reed, and Jack Wild
Directed by Carol Reed
Music and Lyrics by Lionel Bart

Oliver! came out at a turning point for Hollywood and the American film industry. Huge "roadshow" musicals, usually based after popular shows, were the studios' way of pulling people away from their newfangled TV sets and into the theaters. Inspired by the success of The Sound of Music, these lavish epics had massive sets, elaborate costumes, widescreen color cinematography, and casts of thousands. They also couldn't have come out at a worse time. Rock was taking over as the music of the future, making the Broadway show look passe, and newer styles of film making were telling more intimate and violent stories. Does that mean Oliver! is as out of date as it's Victorian setting? Let's head to a workhouse in a small town in England and find out...

The Story: Oliver Twist (Lester) is sold to an undertaker after he asks Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe) for more of his daily gruel. That ends after Oliver attacks one of his apprentices for saying nasty things about his mother. The boy eventually escapes to London, where he falls in with the Artful Dodger (Wild), a crafty young pickpocket. Dodger brings him to his boss Fagin (Moody), the roguish head of a group of boy thieves. The real head of the group is brutish Bill Sykes (Reed), who rules over the London underworld with an iron fist. His girlfriend Nancy (Shani Wallis) finds Oliver charming.

Oliver is caught by a rich gentleman, Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O'Conor), when he tries to pick his pocket. Mr. Brownlow takes him to his lavish row house in Bloomsbury Square. Bill and Fagin are determined to make sure he doesn't talk about them and order Nancy to kidnap the boy. Nancy's not too happy about the situation and is determined to bring him back to Brownlow...especially after Bumble shows up and reveals the truth about who Oliver really is...

The Song and Dance: Like The Sound of Music, this is a big movie - and this time, the story is as sweeping as the camerawork. Ron Moody got an Oscar nomination as the roguish and calculating Fagin, who may kind-of like the kids he works with, but loves the gold he gets from them more. Wild was also nominated as the hilarious Dodger. Reed is appropriately intimidating as Sykes, and Wallis makes a heartbreaking Nancy. Reed's work here also won an Oscar; check out that finale, with half the cast chasing Sykes and Oliver around a dark and foggy London, or the opening with the Beadle selling Oliver.

Favorite Number: Moody has a grand time with his three big solos, "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two" and the two versions of "Reviewing the Situation." It's the chorus numbers where this movie really works. "Consider Yourself," "Who Will Buy?" and "Oom Pah Pah" are all energetic and fun to watch, with some great choreography by Onna White. (She earned a special Oscar for her work.) My favorite song from this is "I'd Do Anything," and it doesn't disappoint - Wallis, Wild, and the kids are absolutely adorable, with their parasols and spoof manners.

Trivia: Moody was carried over from the original London cast of Oliver! in 1960, which featured the Georgia Brown as Nancy and Keith Hamshere, who later became a popular still photographer in Hollywood, as Oliver. The show ran for nearly a decade there. It did almost as well on Broadway, with Clive Revill as Fagin, Brown as Nancy, and the late Davy Jones of The Monkees as the Artful Dodger. It's been revived on Broadway once and in London three times, most recently in 2009 with Rowan Atikson as Fagin.

This was and remains the only G-rated movie to win Best Picture. It was also the last British movie to win Best Picture until Chariots of Fire in 1983.

What I Don't Like: Poor Oliver himself is a bit bland, compared to the colorful folks around him. It doesn't help that Lester has a tiny little voice that barely can be heard in "Where Is Love?" Despite the kids and goofy comic numbers like "I'd Do Anything," this is a fairly dark musical, especially in the second half. Considering there's two murders, one a bit gristly, some violence, and a kidnapping, I'm not even sure how this got a G rating. The plot can also get a bit convoluted in the second half, and that's after eliminating a lot of characters from the book and most of Oliver's tangled family history.

The Big Finale: Alternatively charming and intense, the great cast and some outstanding dances carry the day here. If you have older kids or young teens the ages of Oliver and the Artful Dodger who are ready for a slightly darker musical and/or are interested in history, try this one on them.

Home Media: I have the 2006 DVD with the movie on two sides of the disc. There's apparently a Blu-Ray edition that's more-or-less the same thing, and it's available on several streaming platforms.

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Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Oscar Winners - The Sound of Music

20th Century Fox, 1965
Starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker, and Richard Hayden
Directed by Robert Wise
Music by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein

Yes, I know the next musical to win an Oscar was actually My Fair Lady, but I covered that one back in October before I decided on this theme. We're going to skip ahead a year to our next winner. This was one of the biggest musicals of the 60's, in every way possible. It solidified Julie Andrews' status as a major star after the success of Mary Poppins and proved that musicals could still do big business in a changing Hollywood. How does the real-life tale of the Von Trapp Family, singers who fled Austria during World War II, look now? Let's make swooping tracking shot on a certain hill overlooking Salzburg, Austria and find out...

The Story: Maria (Andrews) is supposed to be a novice nun at an Abbey outside of Saltzburg in Austria, but she just can't seem to conform to the church's strict rules. At a loss with what to do with her, the Mother Superior (Peggy Wood) sends her to former naval officer Captain Georg Von Trapp (Plummer), who needs a governess for his seven children. They've driven off other governesses in an attempt to get their frequently-absent father to notice them, but Maria wins them over with her honesty and imagination. She especially becomes friendly with the oldest Von Trapp child, sixteen-year-old Lisel (Charmian Carr), after she helps the girl cover up her outdoor rendevous with a young messanger boy, Rolf (Daniel Truhitte).

The Captain has forbidden both play and music after the death of his wife. When he goes away for a month, Maria introduces the children to both, teaching them how to sing and have fun all over Saltzburg. The Captain is angry that Maria disobeyed him, but his new fiancee Baroness Elsa von Schraeder (Parker) and friend Max Liberman (Hayden) are so enchanted by the children's singing, he ends up encouraging Maria to stay. Maria, however, is quite smitten with the Captain, to the consternation of the Baroness. She tells her that his feelings are mutual. Confused, Maria returns to the Abbey, only to be sent back by the Mother Abbess when she realizes that the young woman is trying to hide her feelings.

Even as they confess their love, the Nazis are marching on Austria, annexing it into Germany. The Captain is against the Nazis and being conscripted into their navy. It'll take a little help from their friends in Saltzburg...including Max and the nuns at the Abbey...to help the Von Trapp Family Singers escape to Switzerland and freedom.

The Song and Dance: What I like about this film (and our previous Oscar winner West Side Story) is the dynamic cinematography. These films inhabit the slums of New York and the majestic Austrian alps in a way seldom seen in musicals. The stunning color and camerawork, including those famous tracking shots in the opening, give this movie a feeling of intimacy. The Von Trapps are a part of their world in a way characters in films, let alone musicals, almost never allow for. Maria takes the kids swimming and boating; we see them dancing and singing in various real-life locations, many of which still exist today.

The script is much better than I remember it (and than most critics give it credit for), especially in the first half, where the emphasis is more on the kids and the triangle between the Baroness, Maria, and the Captain. (I also appreciate how the Baroness bowed out gracefully, instead of prolonging things or fighting.) Andrews, Plummer, and Parker were all excellent, Carr was lovely in "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," and the other kids were adorable.

Favorite Number: The movie almost literally soars whenever it's outside. Andrews' opening rendition of the title song, shot as she twirls around the hills, is iconic today, as is Maria teaching the kids how to sing "Do-Re-Mi" as they frolic across a glowing Saltzburg. Maria and the Captain's "Something Good" in the gazebo in the second half is warm and touching, while Rolf and Lisel's "Sixteen Going On Seventeen" earlier in the same place is too cute. Andrews also has fun performing the holiday standard "My Favorite Things" with the kids during a thunderstorm.

But my favorite song from this show is the gentle ballad "Edelweiss," originally performed by the Captain solo after the kids and Maria do "The Lonely Goatherd." It's such a sweet number, one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's best ballads, and Plummer's dubber Bill Lee gives it the right soft sell.

Triva: "Edelweiss" isn't just sentimental for the Captain and the citizens of Austria. It was the last song Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote together. Hammerstein had been diagnosed with stomach cancer;  he died nine months after the opening of the stage show.

Rodgers wrote the movie songs "Something Good" and "I Have Confidence" solo. Some current stage versions of the show will occasionally add them in.

The original Broadway show debuted in 1959, with Mary Martin as Maria and Theodore Bikel as the Captain. It ran for four years and shared a Best Musical Tony with Fiorello! It was an even bigger hit in London, running for nearly a decade. A Broadway revival in 1998 with Rebecca Luker as Maria and Michael Siberry as the Captain also did fairly well, running a year and a half. There was a live TV version in 2013 and another one in England in 2015.

The movie was the blockbuster film of 1965, running in theaters for over four years. It was the biggest hit film of all time until The Godfather surpassed it in 1972 and remains on the list of all-time top-selling movies today.

There's a lot of historical fudging here. The Captain did hate the Nazis and was supposed to join the German navy, but the family escaped by train to Italy, not by foot to Switzerland, and he and Maria had been married for almost a decade by that point. The real Von Trapp villa was closer to the border to Germany than Switzerland. Max is fictional as well.

What I Don't Like: With Maria and her children still alive then (Georg died in 1946), there's no way this was going to be anything like accurate. A lot of critics in the 60s, and even to this day, deride the film as overly sentimental...and while it's not nearly as treacly as Going My Way, it can get a bit cutesy at times. "The Lonely Goatherd" marionette number is cute and funny, but it seems kind of shoehorned in for no reason other than to use the song and pad the already overlong running time. And yeah, the mood whiplash at the end, from romantic comedy-drama to tense thriller, is a bit much.

The Big Finale: Too sweet? Maybe a little, but it's also beautifully shot and acted, with wonderful songs and some of the most stunning camerawork of any musical film. If you're a musical lover or a fan of Andrews, you owe yourself to check this one out.

Home Media: As one of the most popular films of all time, you can pretty much find this one in any format of your choosing, including many streaming platforms.

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