Thursday, February 28, 2019

Oscar Winners - Gigi

MGM, 1958
Starring Leslie Caron, Louis Jordan, Maurice Chevalier, and Hermione Gingold
Directed by Vincent Minnelli
Music by Fredrick Loewe; Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner

Along with having many things in common with our previous film An American In Paris, this one also has a lot in common with My Fair Lady, which would have still been running on Broadway when this movie came out. It uses a lot of the same creative team, once again has a story involving the relationship between a vivacious girl and a middle-aged man, and a cool old guy steals the show and has some of the best numbers (including a duet with the equally cool old lady). How does the story of a charming teenager and her relationship with a wealthy playboy look now? Let's return to Paris, this time in the early 1900's, and find out...

The Story: Parisian school girl Gigi (Caron) doesn't understand why her Grandmama (Gingold) keeps sending her to dull lessons in manners and charm with her strict Aunt Alicia (Isobel Jeans). She thinks it's all silly. Her grandmother and aunt would disagree. They're training her to become a courtesan - a high-class call girl - so she'll have some security later in life.

Gigi's not the only one who's bored. Gaston Lachaille (Jordan) is also tired of living the outsized and outrageous life of a playboy and dilettante. He's especially fed up with his latest mistress Liane (Eva Gabor) after she cheats on him with her ice skating teacher. His uncle Honore (Maurice Chevalier) encourages his partying, but he's weary of the whole society scene. He visits Gigi and her grandmother to escape the tedium and spend time with with the vivacious teenager. Gigi gets him to take them to the seaside, and they have a wonderful time...but now Grandmama and Aunt Alicia are convinced that the time is right for Gigi to make her debut as an adult. Gaston's not as sure that he's ready for Gigi to grow up; he fears he'll lose the charming "little sister" who brought  him so much delight.

The Song and Dance: This is considered to be the last major original musical from the famous "Freed Unit" at MGM...and what a way to go! Vincent Minnelli's work in this is outstanding, some of the best he ever did. There's a few outright gorgeous shots here; my favorite is right before the finale, as Gaston is contemplating why Gigi got so upset after he dragged her out of Maxim's. We see him at night, in silhouette against a flowing, glittering fountain, and it's framed beautifully. I adore his use of color here, from the brilliant red room where Gigi and her grandmother live to the glowing pastels of Paris in the spring. Most of the film was made on location in France, including the real Paris, and it's all the better for it.

What I really love about this one is how intimate it is, especially compared to some of the more "epic" musicals of the 50's and 60's. For all the sumptuous trappings, it's really just the story of a man watching a young girl grow up before his eyes...maybe a little too quickly for his taste. It's a relatively quiet story compared to some of the larger ones we'll be seeing here next week, and for all the talk of courtesans and the life they lead, it's actually quite elegant and classy.

Favorite Number: The title song won the Oscar, probably for the scene in which Gaston sings it while wandering around a stunningly-shot Paris, but my two favorites from this score occur before and during the trip to Trouville. Having won her vacation with Gaston in a card game, Gigi celebrates with "The Night They Invented Champagne." The song is energetic and fun, especially Gingold and Jordan's spontaneous little dance. Grandmama has her own fun with Honore at Trouville when they recall their original affair many years before in the rueful and witty "I Remember It Well."

Maurice Chevalier revived his career in the US with his performance of "Well" and two more hits. He opens the movie with "Thank Heavens For Little Girls" and responds to Gaston's romantic difficulties with Gigi towards the end with "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore."

Trivia: It won nine Oscars in every category it was nominated, including Best Picture, cinematography, score, adapted screenplay, song, editing, costumes, and production design. It was a record at the time, one that would be bested a year later by another big MGM movie, Ben-Hur.

Two of the songs heard here were originally written for other projects. Gigi's wistful ballad "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight" was intended for Eliza to sing before the ball in My Fair Lady, but was cut before the show hit Broadway. Lerner had originally penned the lyrics and title of "I Remember It Well" for a Broadway show he did with Kurt Weill called Love Life and re-wrote them slightly to fit Gigi.

There was a Broadway version that debuted in 1973, with long-time stage star Alfred Drake as Honore, Daniel Massey as Gaston, and Karin Wolfe as Gigi. It was a surprise flop, only lasting four months. A revival in 2015 with Vanessa Hudgens as Gigi made a little over two months.

What I Don't Like: First of all, they way they treat Lianne's attempted suicide is appalling. Granted, they do mention she's done this before and survived, but the men in particular celebrate it and their ability to drive women mad. There's also the whole "courtesan" thing to consider. On one hand, I can understand Aunt Alicia and Mamita wanting niece and granddaughter to have some means of support in her later years, and courtesans were among the few women in Belle Epoque Paris with any real means of controlling their freedom, but they're basically training her to be a very fancy prostitute...and as she frequently complains, she has little say in the matter. She does have a point in her solo "The Parisians" that love is a lot more than that - it's the reason Gaston is bored.

Chevalier's "Thank Heavens" can come off as less slyly winking and and more uncomfortably close to pedophile territory for many audiences today, especially given he sings this around little girls in the opening. (There's a reason Mamita and Aunt Alicia perform this song in the 2015 stage revival.) Also, like My Fair Lady, the intimate story allows for very little dancing. Mamita and Gaston's routine in "The Night They Invented Champagne" is pretty much it.

The Big Picture: The elegant production, lovely music, and outstanding cast helps one overlook some of the more questionable or dated aspects of the plot. If you're a fan of Chevalier, Minnelli's other work, or the musicals of MGM's "Golden Age," this is absolutely worth checking out.

Home Media: As an Oscar-winner and one of the most popular musicals of the 1950's, this is quite easy to find in all major formats, including some streaming platforms.

Google Play

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Oscar Winners - An American In Paris

MGM, 1951
Starring Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, and Georges Guetary
Directed by Vincent Minnelli
Music by George Gershwin; Lyrics by Ira Gershwin

Our first two Oscar-winners this week have a lot in common. Both are set in Paris, were made by MGM's famous "Freed unit" during the 50's, star French gamine Leslie Caron, were scored by popular composer-and-lyricist parings, and involve the romance between an older man and a younger woman. American In Paris is the modern-set one; along with taking home the Best Picture Oscar, it won Gene Kelly his only Oscar for his contributions to screen choreography. Does it soar like the dancers in its famous ballet in the finale? Let's head to Paris in the years following World War II and find out...

The Story: After World War II, American Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) stayed on in Paris to pursue his dream of painting. He's basically a starving artist in a tiny one-room apartment over a cafe, but he's happy having coffee and chatting with his buddy, the equally struggling pianist Adam Cook (Levant). Adam introduces him to his friend Henri (Guetary), who speaks eagerly of his new lover, Lise (Caron).

Jerry's career starts to take off when a rich American widow, Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), takes an interest in his work and offers to sponsor an art show for him. She brings him to a bar to meet her fashionable friends, but he's more interested in Lise. He tries dancing with her, with little success; he does better visiting her at the perfume shop where she works the next day. They go on dates and fall in love, but she keeps running off. Meanwhile, Milo rents an art studio for Jerry and says he'll be able to pay her back after his art exhibit. Jerry, however, is still in love with Lise...but he and Henri have no idea that the woman they love is one and the same.

The Song and Dance: As slight as the story is, it's relatively mature for a big Technicolor MGM extravaganza of the 1950's, with Jerry objecting to being kept for his looks rather than his work and Lise insisting that she stays with Henri because her protected her during World War II. Kelly, Caron, and Foch are all quite good as the central lovers, but they're overshadowed by the gorgeous costumes, production design, and cinematography, all inspired by real-life French artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Favorite Number: Gene Kelly has fun with French urchins, teaching them "I Got Rhythm" near a street flower shop. The kids have a great time watching Kelly's energetic tap dance. He also gets a rather sweet number with Levant, Guetary, and the old folks in the cafe in the opening, "By Strauss." In more traditional girls-and-stairs mode, Guetary scores with a flashy "I'll Build a Starway to Paradise." Caron and Kelly do a lovely pas de deux by the Seine to "Our Love Is Here To Stay." Levant's best moment is his dream sequence where he becomes a one-man orchestra - including conductor! - during a performance of the Concerto In F.

By far the most famous sequence from this film - and likely the reason it won Best Picture - is the famous American In Paris Ballet in the finale. Kelly, Caron, and the MGM chorus run through a riot of sound, color, and jazzy ballet, all done with stunning costumes and choreography evoking that Belle Epoque Paris of the early 20th century.

Trivia: That's Noel Neill, Lois Lane in the original TV Adventures of Superman, as the snooty art student who wants to discuss Jerry's paintings with him when he first displays them at Montmatre.

Two stage versions of this show debuted in the late 2000's-early 2010's. The first seems to have been limited to a regional theater at Houston. The second came to Broadway via France in 2015 and was a hit, running over a year.

What I Don't Like: The fine performances and gorgeous production help to mask the fact that the story is slight, and at times, a bit of a bore. Jerry and Lise aren't terribly exciting characters, and Jerry and Milo can both come off as a tad creepy with how they chase younger members of the opposite sex. By the end of the movie, you stop caring who's going to end up with whom and wonder when they're going to make it to that ballet.

The Big Finale: The ballet alone makes this worth checking out at least once if  you're a fan of dance, Kelly, the Gershwins, or Minnelli's work.

Home Media: Look out for the beautifully restored two-disc Special Edition DVD and Blu-Ray; it's also on several streaming platforms.

Google Play

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Oscar Winners - Going My Way

Paramount, 1944
Starring Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Frank McHugh, and Jean Heather
Directed by Leo McCarey
Music by Jimmy Van Heusen and others; Lyrics by Johnny Burke and others

Bing Crosby was at his height of popularity when he appeared in this story of a young priest who reinvigorates an aging parish and its stubborn old head pastor. Crosby and Fitzgerald worked so well together, the movie was the biggest hit of 1944 and won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture. Does it still "swing on a star" today? Let's follow that young priest to St. Dominic's Church in New York City to find out...

The Story: Father Chuck O'Malley (Crosby) is a young priest with many new ideas on how to change life at St. Dominic's. His laid-back manner and casual clothes don't make a good first impression with the locals or head pastor Father Fitzgibbons (Fitzgerald), especially after Fitzgibbons learns that he's friends with the even more laid-back Father O'Dowd (McHugh) from the next-closest parish. O'Malley sets out to win over the churchgoers. He helps Carol, a young runaway (Heather, and convinces the hooligan boys of the church to start a choir. His ex-girlfriend Jenny (Rise Stevens) hears him singing a song he wrote and thinks he could sell it to help the parish. She even sets up for her and the boys choir to sing it for a music executive. Even though they do manage to sell another song, it's not enough to save the parish from destruction. Father O'Malley has to move on...but not before he gives Father Fitzgibbons what he's dreamed about.

The Song and Dance: Crosby won an Oscar for this as the kind, casual priest...but to tell the truth, it's not much different from his usual non-religious roles. Stevens and Fitzgerald come off a little bit better as his former flame and the crotchety head of the church with more old-fashioned views. The boys' antics, especially from future Bowery Boy Stanley Clements and former Little Rascal Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, have their moments as well.

Favorite Number: "Swinging On a Star" was the hit and also won an Oscar. I wish they'd released Bing and the kids' version of it on the piano. It's pretty cute. Stevens gets a lovely version of the title song with the boys and an orchestra when they're playing for the music executive. Her version of the Carmen "Habernara" aria is also quite well-done.

Trivia: Barry Fitzgerald was nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. He won for supporting. The rules changed the next year to prevent that from happening again.

What I Don't Like: First of all, though a lot of movie reference books and online movie sites list it as a musical, this is really more of a drama with songs. The songs are mainly there to let Crosby have fun with the kids and give Stevens something to do. They don't move the story along or really have anything whatsoever to do with the plot until late in the movie, when Jenny comes up with the idea of selling Father Chuck's song.

Second, the movie is overlong and takes forever to get where it's going. Carol, as Father Chuck points out, is frankly a bit of a spoiled brat who runs out on her parents because she claims they "don't understand her." Her romance with the son of the man who owns church's mortgage is wooden and cliched and seems shoehorned in from another movie entirely. The entire film is sticky-sweet and overly sentimental. That may have been what war-worn audiences wanted in 1944, but it's likely to be more annoying than heart-tugging for many modern audiences.

The Big Picture: Despite a few good songs and some decent performances from Crosby, Stevens, and Fitzgerald, this one mostly drowns in its own sentiment today. See it only if you're a huge fan of Crosby, the cast, or religious dramas. I personally prefer the slightly less sticky sequel The Bells of St. Mary's with Ingrid Bergman.

Home Media: Can be very easily found on its own on DVD or streaming or in a set with 23 other popular Crosby films on DVD.

DVD - Bing Crosby: The Silver Screen Collection
Amazon Prime

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Oscar Winners - The Great Ziegfeld

MGM, 1936
Starring William Powell, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, and Myrna Loy
Directed by Robert Z. Leonard
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin and others

This lavish biography of the most famous producer ever on Broadway was one of MGM's attempts to out-do the Busby Berkeley spectacles over at Warners, and it was huge in every sense of the word. The sets were enormous, it employed literally thousands of people and tons of costumes, it was the longest musical yet at almost three hours, and it wound up being one of the biggest hits of the year. Does the story of the man who "Glorified the American girl" still deserve a place in the theatrical pantheon? Let's head to the midway of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair to find out...

The Story: At the 1893 Chicago Colombian Exposition, Florenz Ziegfeld (Powell) finds himself barking opposite the flamboyant Billings (Morgan). Billings' attraction, the exotic dancer "Little Egypt," is more popular than Ziegfeld's strongman Sandow, until Ziegfeld gets the idea for women to actually be able to touch his muscles.

After his stint with Sandow fizzles out, he heads to England, where he learns that Billings wants to sign beautiful and vivacious French-Polish vaudeville star Anna Held (Rainer). He manages to sign her instead with promises of jewels and her name up in lights. She does appear onstage, but isn't a success. Ziegfeld generates publicity by claiming she bathes in gallons of milk. She's appalled, until he finds eight backup singers to add even more appeal to her number and all the women in the audience admire her supposed milk-fed complexion. He gives her jewels and offers to marry her, which doesn't impress her fellow chorus girl Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce).

Ziegfeld does marry Anna and eventually makes stars out of even more beauties in his long-running, extravagant series of Ziegfeld Follies revues. He does try to make a star of Audrey, but she descends into alcoholism even as they conduct an affair. Anna walks out on him when she finds out what he's up to with Audrey. He rebounds, eventually marrying comedienne Billie Burke (Loy). His stage shows aren't going as well. Word in Times Square is he's all through...but then he has four hits simultaneously in the late 20's, including Show Boat, the first truly mature musical. The Depression finally wipes Flo out for good...but there will always be the memories of hundreds of showgirls on ever-expanding staircases...

The Song and Dance: Like another MGM musical from a year later, Rosalie, this movie is big. It was the biggest musical of the 1930's in every way conceivable. You can't fault MGM for not letting all that cash show up on screen. There's a lot to look at this movie, with everyone running around in acres of ruffles, sequins, and lace (designed by MGM's ace costumer Adrian). Rainer may have won the Oscar, but it's Powell as an urbane Flo Ziegfeld who really anchors the film. Morgan's also a lot of fun as his long-time rival, and Bruce comes across fairly well as the gold-digging chorus girl who cares more about liquor and diamonds and getting "Glorified" than anything.

Favorite Number: By far the most famous routine from this one is "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody." Set on a massive tiered wedding cake-like set lined with hundreds of dancers, with Bruce seated serenely on top, it's a glittering tribute to three centuries of "Glorifying" that's just as amazing for audiences now as it was in the mid-30's. Real-life Ziegfeld star Fanny Brice made one of her few film appearances singing another Berlin song "Yiddle On My Fiddle"; pity we didn't get to see the full rendition of her signature ballad "My Man." Rainer and those dancers have a lot of fun with a number by the real Anna Held, "It's Delightful to Be Married," and Ray Bolger gets a nice tap dance about mid-way through.

Trivia: Luise Rainer became the first person to win an Oscar for acting in a musical.

That "Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" number alone cost $220,000 to film in 1936, which is over 3 million in today's money.

The real Billie Burke was still very much active and alive in 1936, and in fact was an actress at MGM for years. (Most people know her as Glinda the Good Witch in the 1939 Wizard of Oz.) She was the one who sold the rights to a musical biography about her late husband first to Universal, then to MGM when Universal couldn't afford it. She acted as a consultant for the movie.

This is not the last time MGM would use the Ziegfeld name for their musicals. In 1941, the would do a backstage musical drama about showgirls called Ziegfeld Girl; in 1946, they debuted their own version of the Ziegfeld Follies (with Powell reprising his role as the showman briefly in the latter).

What I Don't Like: Rainer's histrionics may have impressed audiences in 1936, but between her yelling and her incomprehensible accent, she comes off as more overwrought than anything today. Between Ziegfeld still being a household in the 30's, Burke's involvement, and many of his former stars threatening to sue if they were mentioned, this is even more sanitized than most Hollywood musical biographies. You barely get a sense of any time passing. With the exception of Brice and ballerina Harriet Hoctor (who appears in the circus number towards the end), almost none of the stars had ever been in a Ziegfeld show, including Bolger.

Like Rosalie, the movie is really too big. All the flash tends to overwhelm the cliched and occasionally dull plot. It's also way, way too long at almost three hours. Some of the Follies musical numbers mid-way through that don't involve any of the stars are fun but do nothing other than pad out the run time and show how elaborate the Follies could get and probably could have been trimmed.

The Big Finale: If  you're a fan of Powell or the huge Busby Berkeley-style musicals of the 1930's, this is worth seeing for the cast and musical numbers alone if you have time on your hands.

Home Media: Not on Blu-Ray at press time, but the DVD is fairly easy to find, and it's on a couple of streaming platforms.

Google Play

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Oscar Winners - The Broadway Melody

MGM, 1929
Starring Bessie Love, Anita Page, Charles King, and Kenneth Thomson
Directed by Harry Beaumont
Music by Nacio Herb Brown; Lyrics by Arthur Freed

For the next three weeks, we'll be looking at the musicals that took home Best Picture at the Academy Awards in honor of the Oscars ceremony on February 24th. We kick off the series with none other than the very first film musical. Most people consider The Jazz Singer to be the first movie musical, but it was really a silent movie with a few sound and song sequences. That title belongs to this blockbuster smash, the biggest hit of 1929 and one of the most influential films of the early talkie era. Does it still wow them in the aisles today, or should it be sent packing? Let's head to Tin Pan Alley in New York to find out...

The Story: Queenie (Page) and Harriet "Hank" Mahoney (Love) are a small-time vaudeville sister act that's determined to make it on Broadway. Queenie is young and not terribly talented, but is also sweet-natured and quite lovely. While Hank is quite pretty herself, she's really the more talented and sensible (and short-tempered) of the duo and handles all their business affairs. Hank's fiancee Eddie (King) is a songwriter who claims they're virtually guaranteed a spot in impresario Francis Zanfield's (Eddie Kane) big Broadway revue. Turns out Eddie's not as influential as he thinks. Flo, one of the more obnoxious chorus girls (Mary Doran), sabotages the piano for their act, and the only reason Zanfield ends up taking them is because of Queenie's looks.

Meanwhile, Eddie admits he's fallen in love with Queenie, who knows how much her older sister loves him. She ends up going out with Jock Warriner (Thomson), a wealthy playboy. Things aren't going well with the show, either. The girls are cut from the big "Broadway Melody" number Eddie wrote for them, and Flo keeps baiting Hank into fighting her. Queenie insists that she knows what she's doing, but Hank knows better...and she's the one who finally sends Eddie to prove how much he truly loves her sister.

The Song and Dance: For all the melodrama, it's Bessie Love as Hank who really owns this film (and deserved her Oscar nomination). There apparently was a silent version, but silence could never do Hank justice. Only speech could truly show the vulnerability under the tough exterior. Of the remaining cast, Doran's not bad as her rival; their ongoing cat fights prompts some of the film's best lines. King's mostly stiff, but he does have a good moment after he's thrown out of the apartment Warriner bought for Queenie and realizes he's a better composer than fighter.

To give the movie some credit, it moves pretty quickly for a film of its time. Directed Harry Beaumont tried to give the movie more mobility than had been previously possible with the heavy sound equipment, including a mobile "coffin on wheels" camera for the scene where Queenie is chatting with Jock at her party.

Favorite Number: The hit ballad "You Were Meant for Me" is sweet, simple, and direct, just Eddie telling a reluctant Queenie how he really feels about her. The girls finally get a duo number that isn't sabotaged with the adorable "The Boy Friend" towards the end. The orchestra at Queenie's birthday party does fairly well with the low-key "Truthful Parson Brown" (the only song not written by Brown and Freed; it's from Willard Robinson). "The Wedding of the Painted Doll" may not have anything whatsoever to do with the rest of the story, but it does have some incredibly limber acrobatic work.

Trivia: Speaking of "The Wedding of the Painted Doll," that sequence was originally filmed in early 2-strip Technicolor. The color print has since been lost, and the sequence now only exists in black and white.

"Wedding" was also the first time a movie musical number made use of pre-recorded playback. Producer Irving Thalburg wanted to reshoot the number in color, but the color cameras were expensive. Instead of hiring the orchestra again, they just played the recording they made the first time. With very few exceptions, that's how most movie musicals have done it ever since.

Love had one of the most remarkable careers in Hollywood history. She started in silent films like the original The Lost World in the early 20's, and was still going in England in the early 1980's.

What I Don't Like: If there was ever a movie made for its time and place, this one was it. While its success gave credibility to sound movies and movie musicals, all most modern audiences (and critics) see is a load of overwrought soap opera with incredibly stiff and badly-choreographed musical numbers. Half the dancers don't know what they're doing, especially in the title number. And what's with the poor girl tapping on her toes there? It just looks painful. "The Love Boat" literally does not move at all. Tableaus - showgirls in living "pictures" - may have looked amazing on the stage, but they weren't made for movies (where things are supposed to, you know, move).

Most of the actors are nowhere near Love's level. Page was still a teenager when she made this movie, and her inexperience shows. She sings "The Boy Friend" with Love, then wanders off to the side to let Love and the dancers do their thing. Granted, this works with the plot when Zanfield hires them because of Queenie's looks rather than any natural talent, but it doesn't make the movie easier to watch. Jed Prouty, as Queenie and Hank's stuttering uncle and manager, is just annoying.

The Big Finale: I like this one because of Love and my interest in 20th century history, but it hasn't dated well, to say the least. Unless you're also a fan of the Roaring 20's or the early talkie era, or you must see every Oscar movie, you can probably take a pass on this one.

Home Media: I have the original 2-disc Special Edition from 2006, but most people who are interested will probably be fine with last year's re-release on the Warner Archives; as one of the few surviving films of its era and an Oscar-winner, it can also be found on many streaming platforms.

Google Play

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Musicals On TV - The Wiz Live!

Universal/NBC, 2015
Starring Shanice Williams, Elijah Kelley, Ne Yo, and David Alan Grier
Directed by Kenny Leon and Matthew Diamond
Music by Charlie Smalls and others

The live TV musical made a comeback in 2013 with the surprise success of The Sound of Music Live! While it and a subsequent NBC live Peter Pan were at least somewhat popular with audiences, they went over less well with critics. We've already seen an earlier version of The Wiz that had trouble with miscasting and an inappropriate director flop...but this one was an even bigger hit, one of the most popular of all the recent live musicals, resonating big with audiences and critics. Were they right, or should it have a house dropped on it? Let's head to a farm in Kansas, where one young lady is about to run smack into a twister that will change her life, and find out...

The Story: Thirteen-year-old Dorothy Gale (Williams) is tired of living with her Auntie Em (Stephanie Mills) and their three goofy hired hands on a dull farm in Kansas. She wants to go back to Omaha to her school and friends. Before she can leave, a twister takes her and her home and drops them in the magical, rainbow-colored world of Oz. Turns out she saved the Munchkins from the nasty Witch of the East, Evarmean. The blue-clad Witch of the North, Adaperle (Amber Riley) sends her along the Yellow Brick Road to ask the Wizard of the Emerald City to get her to Omaha.

Along the way, Dorothy saves a scarecrow (Kelley) from being attacked by crows, hears the tragic tale of a tin woodsman (Ne-Yo), and reassures a cowardly lion (Grier) that he's not such a scaredy-cat after all. She and her friends manage to get past the Emerald City's stuffy gatekeeper (Common) by pointing out the silver shoes Adaperle gave to Dorothy and remind him that she killed the witch. The Wizard (Queen Latifa) insists that they kill another witch, the even more wicked Evilene (Mary J. Bilge) before she'll give them what they want. It's Dorothy who manages to find the courage to destroy the Witch...and with the help of Glinda, the Witch of the South (Uzo Aduba) realizes where her "home" really is.

The Song and Dance: Yeah, this is much better. Not only is this closer to the original 1975 Broadway show, but it's pretty close to the actual Oz books. The costumes are some of the most amazing creations I've ever seen on television. This is more of a live-action Dr. Seuss movie than the ones that came out a decade ago, with brilliant primary colors and swirling lines on every character. As good as Williams (who was chosen after a national search) is, the movie is anchored by fine performances by its three witches. Riley is an adorable and very funny Adaperle (especially when she keeps getting Dorothy's name wrong), Aduba is an absolutely gorgeous Glinda, and Bilge reeks slinky, sassy evil.

Favorite Number: Aunt Em explains why she wishes Dorothy would stay in the touching "The Feeling We Once Had" in the opening. Grier has almost as much fun as Bert Lahr with his "I'm a Mean Ol' Lion" and his duet with Williams, "Be a Lion." The Emerald City Ballet (Psst) shows off some of those incredible costumes as Dorothy and her friends try to find where the Wizard is, only to learn that they hide and seem to be some kind of monster. Bilge really tears into her "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News," while Aduba has a really lovely "Believe In Yourself." Dorothy, the Wizard, and her friends perform the new-for-the-show "We Got It!" before the Wiz takes off.

Trivia: Stephanie Mills (Aunt Em) was Dorothy in the original 1975 Broadway cast of The Wiz.

Those awesome costumes won an Emmy; the production design, lighting, hair and makeup, and direction were nominated.

What I Don't Like: I still kind of wish we could have seen more of Evilene before she's introduced; that problem seems to be built into The Wiz. The tornado that brings Dorothy to Oz is depicted by dancers in whirling costumes, fairly cheap special effects, and Dorothy flying up into the air. It looks kind of weird, especially compared to the better effects in Oz, and the black lines on Dorothy that are helping her fly are pretty obvious.

The Big Finale: I'm so glad they did this. It's a marked improvement on the film version of this show, with a great cast in amazing Emmy-winning costumes having a lot of fun with the enjoyable score. Highly recommended if you're a fan of the show, the cast, or live musicals.

Home Media: The solo DVD is out of print, but it can be found on a few streaming platforms or bundled with the 1978 theatrical version of The Wiz.

DVD - The Wiz/The Wiz Live! Double Feature
Amazon Prime (buy only)

Thursday, February 14, 2019

My Tragic Valentine - Carmen Jones

20th Century Fox, 1954
Starring Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, and Olga James
Directed by Otto Preminger
Music by Georges Bizet; Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Here's another adaptation of a Broadway musical with an all-black cast from the 1940's. This time, we're moving to the world of opera for one of the more unique movie musicals out there. Oscar Hammerstein turned Carmen, the tale of a gypsy cigarette factory worker who seduces a Spanish soldier, into the tale of a parachute factory worker who seduces an African-American soldier. Let's head to that parachute factory in North Carolina to see if this tragic romance is a knockout in the first round, or if should be booted out of the ring.

The Story: Corporal Joe (Belafonte) is assigned by his superior Sergeant Brown (Brock Peters) to take parachute factory worker Carmen Jones (Dandridge) to the police after she's arrested for fighting with a co-worker. That's the last thing Joe wants to do. He was supposed to have leave with his girl Cindy Lou (James). Carmen keeps trying to flirt, and Joe keeps saying no, until their car ends up in the water, and she manages to get him to her grandma's house. They do make love, but Carmen can't handle being attached to one man and takes off.

After spending time in the stockade, Joe is released and goes looking for Carmen again. He finds her at a nightclub in Louisiana, avoiding the advances of prize fighter Husky Miller (Joe Adams). Joe tells Carmen that he's due for flight school. Angry, she leaves with Sergeant Brown. Joe's not having any of that and beats him. Trying to avoid being arrested for hurting an officer, he and Carmen take off for Chicago. Carmen tries to get a loan from Husky, but ends up playing cards with him and her friends Frankie (Bailey) and Myrt (Diahnn Carroll). Joe's determined to get his girl back by any means necessary...including threatening her and her lover. Carmen's not interested, but Joe won't take no for an answer.

The Song and Dance: Two powerhouse performances in the lead roles anchor this melodramatic love story. Dandridge became the first African-American to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, and its easy to see why here. Her sexuality burns on the screen like a smoldering flame, capable of engulfing everything in her path. Belafonte's equally raw sexuality is more of a surprise, especially if you're like me and you know him better as a laid-back folk singer. The color cinematography (made in the widescreen Cinemascope process) and brilliant costumes showcase the sweltering South and gritty Chicago of World War II in all their rainbow glory.

Favorite Number: Despite the awkward lyrics, Pearl Bailey lays into "Beat Dat Rhythm On the Drum" with relish, while Dandridge slinks through "Dat's Love" (aka the famous "Habanera" aria). Dandridge joins Bailey, Carroll, and Roy Glenn for "Whizzin' Away Down De Track," while Adams leads the chorus in the other famous aria from Carmen, "Stand Up and Fight" (The Toredor Song).

Trivia: This was successfully revived off-Broadway last year, with Anika Noni Rose of Dreamgirls and The Princess and the Frog as Carmen.

What I Don't Like: While it feels a little less stereotyped than Cabin In the Sky, it's still a bit dated. Hammerstein's lyrics occasionally try too hard to sound African-American, especially in "Rhythm on the Drum." The casual dialogue often sounds odd with the classical songs. Everyone was dubbed - even those like Carroll, Dandridge, and Belafonte who were fine singers in their own right. (At least they not only hired black opera singers to dub them, but mentioned them in the credits - and Dandridge's dubber, Marilyn Horne, went on to become an opera star in her own right.)

The Big Finale: If you love opera, dark romances, Preminger's other work, or anyone in the cast, this unusual operatic tale is worth checking out.

Home Media: As one of the more interesting 20th Century Fox musicals featuring several popular singers, this is easy to find in most formats, usually for under 10 dollars.

Amazon Prime

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Cabin In the Sky

MGM, 1943
Starring Ethel Waters, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Lena Horne, and Rex Ingram
Directed by Vincent Minnelli
Music by Vernon Duke and Harold Arlen; Lyrics by E.Y Harburg and others

MGM transferred this hit 1940 Broadway musical to the big screen as the first major directorial assignment for Vincent Minnelli and a showcase for many black performers of the time. It also wound up being Lena Horne's only leading role at MGM; Waters and Ingram reprise their roles from the stage version. Does this tale of heaven and hell warring for the soul of a shifty gambler and his kindly wife deserve the pearly gates today, or should it thrown into that whirlwind at the end? Let's head to a small all-African American town in the south to find out...

The Story: Little Joe Jackson (Anderson) is a gambler and a con-man who truly loves his faithful and very religious wife Petunia (Waters). He's shot dead by fellow gambler Domino Johnson (John W. "Bubbles" Sublett) when he's unable to pay his debts. Petunia's fervent prayers are heard by the angel "The General" (Kenneth Spencer) and Lucifer's son Junior (Ingram). The General will restore Joe to his wife, but only if he becomes a good, hardworking husband for six months. He and Lucifer will act as his consciences and guide his actions, but he has to decide how to act on it.

Little Joe does behave for a while, including remembering his wife's birthday. Not one to take losing sitting down, Lucifer brings the gold-digger Georgia Brown (Horne) around to meet him and lets him win the lottery. Petunia hears Joe talking to Georgia about the money and comes to the wrong conclusion. They run off and start a fancy nightclub that attracts some of the biggest names in jazz, including Duke Ellington and His Orchestra (themselves). Petunia's not done with her husband, though...and neither is Domino. It'll take divine intervention to finally show Joe which woman he truly loves.

The Song and Dance: There's some fine performances here you're just not going to see anywhere else. Waters really owns the two major hits from this score, "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe" (which was written for the movie), and my personal favorite, "Taking a Chance On Love." Horne's sexy Georgia Brown makes you realize how badly MGM wasted her talents elsewhere, and Ingram and Spencer were hilarious as the deities warring over Joe's soul.

Minnelli does well with his first assignment at MGM, especially with the Wizard of Oz-like tornado in the finale. He builds the suspense quite well, with Horne running out into the wind screaming and the men's fight continuing even as the tornado tears their world to ribbons.

Favorite Number: "Chance" is probably the best-known standard from this show, and it gets a pretty good number, too. It kind of comes out of the blue, but is made up for with some incredible tap dancing by Bill Bailey and Waters' vocal dexterity. Horne scores with her version of the silky "Honey In the Honeycomb" and the winking "Ain't It the Truth." Some of the jitterbugging in the Joe Henry's Paradise nightclub is downright incredible. (Really wish they'd kept Horne's reprise of "Ain't It the Truth" in the bubble bath - it's really fun. Apparently, censors at the time had a fit over a black woman being seen in a bubble bath.)

What I Don't Like: Anderson may have been a popular comedian at the time in The Jack Benny Radio Show, but he's out of place here among the dignified Ingram and Spencer and dynamic Horne and Waters. He gets a nifty dance routine in "Taking a Chance," but he can't sing worth a darn. He's so goofy and shiftless, you wonder what either woman sees in him.

Though Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed took pains to talk to black groups and make this as respectful of African-Americans as possible at the time, some aspects of this movie still come off as a little dated nowadays. Joe and some of his buddies can seem like lazy stereotypes to many audiences, and the religious aspect is a bit awkward.

Wish they'd done more with Louis Armstrong (the Trumpeter) and Ellington. Armstrong's only solo was cut, and Ellington has one number at the nightclub and is barely seen. I also kind of wish they'd ended with Petunia and Joe going to the pearly gates; darker, yes, but more in line with the rest of the story. The happy ending seems like a bit of a cop-out.

The Big Finale: This isn't the easiest movie to discuss nowadays, but it is a powerful and relatively positive portrait of African-Americans during World War II. If you love the cast or the music or Minnelli and can handle the stereotypes, this is a really interesting movie that's definitely worth a look.

Home Media: Not the easiest movie to find; the DVD is currently available through the Warner Archives, and it's on several streaming platforms.

Google Play

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Family Fun Saturday - Annie (1982)

Columbia/Rastar, 1982
Starring Aileen Quinn, Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, and Ann Reniking
Directed by John Huston
Music by Charles Strouse; Lyrics by Martin Charnin

I'm pre-empting my original plans for tonight in honor of British actor Albert Finney, who passed away yesterday. I reviewed one of his two musical films, Scrooge, in December. He was already known as a character actor on stage and in movies like Murder On the Orient Express when he appeared as billionaire Oliver Warbucks in this version of the beloved Broadway show. Is this huge movie worth "Daddy" Warbucks' billions, or should it be dropped on a bridge? Let's head to an orphanage in New York in 1933 to find out...

The Story: Annie (Quinn) is a spunky orphan in 1933 Manhattan who continually runs away to look for her parents. Thanks to the half of a locket she wears, she's convinced they're out there somewhere, but she's always found and brought back to perpetually drunk Miss Hannigan (Burnett). She returns from one such excursion with a raggedy mutt, Sandy, in tow, but Hannigan doesn't really cotton to either of them. She's even less happy when Grace Farrell (Reniking), the secretary of billionaire  Oliver Warbucks (Finney), takes Annie and Sandy to his huge mansion on the other end of Manhattan for a week as a publicity stunt. 

Warbucks doesn't take to her at first, but she soon wins him over with her blunt and sensible nature. The week isn't even out before Warbucks and Grace want to adopt her...but Annie's still holding out for her real parents. He offers a reward for anyone who knows about her locket and the wherabouts of her parents. Feeling bitter over Annie getting out of the gutter and not her, Miss Hannigan readily agrees to the scheme suggested by her brother Rooster (Tim Curry) and his girlfriend Lily (Bernadette Peters). The latter two will dress as Annie's parents, bring Warbucks the locket, and collect the money...but they underestimate how much Annie means to both Warbucks and to her friends at the orphanage.

The Song and Dance: I have never understood why critics continue to be hard on this movie. I suspect it gets too many comparisons to the original Broadway show. This was one of my favorite movies when I was very young - my mother says it's one of the first live-action movies I ever saw in a theater - and it remains a lot of fun. Burnett, Peters, and Curry dig into their roles as the comic-book villains with relish, while Finney gets to show off his comedic range as the devoted bachelor and businessman who finally softens with Annie. The little girls are hilarious, and Reniking demonstrates  the dancing skills that's made her a favorite on Broadway since the 70's. There's some gorgeous sets and cinematography, too, especially at Warbucks' expansive mansion and in the big action finale. 

Some aspects of the comics that were cut from the stage show were restored here. Punjab (Geoffrey Holder) and, more briefly, The Asp (Roger Minami), Warbucks' bodyguards, both turn up, and Punjab has a major role in the finale. President Franklin Roosevelt (Edward Hermann) and Warbucks argue over their differing politics in a way that I wish a lot of politicians (or people in general) would keep in mind nowadays. And it doesn't bother me that the movie is set in the summer, rather than at Christmas, like the show. 

Favorite Number: Even as a kid, my favorite song from this movie was "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," which is first performed on the radio show where Mr. Warbucks makes his announcement about Annie's parents and the reward, then by the orphans who just listened to it. The girls have a ball with their kickline and singing into their shoes. Reniking leads one of the big ensemble numbers and one of the numbers added for the movie, "We've Got Annie"; she and Annie have a girl-to-girl moment with "Let's Go to the Movies" before the glamorous chorus at Radio City Music Hall takes over. Burnett dodges "Little Girls" and drinks herself into a stupor in one of the show's best songs, while she, Curry, and Peters have a blast sliding down banisters with their version of "Easy Street." Miss Hannigan tries to seduce Finney, to no avail, when he comes to adopt Annie in another song written directly for the film, "Sign!"

Probably the two most iconic numbers from this show and the film are Annie's hopeful ballad "Tomorrow," which she performs at the White House with FDR, Eleanor, and Warbucks, and the girls' first chorus number "It's a Hard Knock Life." The latter, with its swirling sheets and bittersweet lyrics, sets the stage for the movies - the girls have a rough life, but Annie's gonna get out, no matter what.

Trivia: "Easy Street" was originally supposed to be a much bigger chorus number, but apparently, it came off as too sour and too big and had to be reshot several months after most of the filming had already wrapped.

The exterior of Mr. Warbucks' mansion was filmed at Wilson Hall in Monmouth College in northern New Jersey; the bridge sequence was filmed at the real (defunct) NX Train Bridge in Newark.

This has been remade twice, as a Disney TV movie from 1999 (which I have seen), and an updated story set in the modern day from 2014 (haven't caught this one yet). 

What I Don't Like: As with The Wiz, this movie has director problems. John Huston was mainly known for his action and drama films. That may be why there's some unnecessary action sequences towards the end, including the orphans breaking out of the closet Miss Hanngian locked them in and Punjab rescuing Annie from the bridge in the finale. The latter in particular mainly exists to pad out the film and give it a slightly edgier PG rating. The movie moves at a glacier pace; some younger kids may get fidgety after a while. While the fidelity to the comic book is nice, Punjab and The Asp are both a bit on the stereotypical side today, and the Asp has one line and is barely seen afterwards. 

Miss Hannigan changes her mind about killing Annie way too quickly! One minute, she's agreeing to the whole "Easy Street" deal; the next, she's trying to keep Rooster from chasing Annie up the bridge. She probably should have gone to jail too (as she did in the original play), even if she did repent. 

The Big Finale: While it can be corny and a bit cutesy, this remains one of my favorite movies...and I'm not the only one. This was a fair-sized hit in 1982, and a lot of women my age have told me they have equally fond memories of it. Some wonderful performances and really fun numbers overcome a few dated stereotypes and slow pacing. If you grew up when I did and saw this movie a lot on video or cable, or you have little girls of your own who may enjoy the music and rags-to-riches story, this is highly recommended.

Home Media: I have the later widescreen DVD; if you're not a fan of widescreen, there's an earlier DVD that included the fullscreen version as well. It's pretty easy to find on Blu-Ray and most streaming platforms, too.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Sparkle (2012)

Sony/Tri-Star, 2012
Starring Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Carmen Ejogo, and Derek Luke
Directed by Salim Akil
Music by Curtis Mayfield, R.Kelly, and others

Our second Black History Month entry is a remake of a 1976 film that flopped on first release, but became something of a cult favorite in subsequent years. American Idol winner Sparks makes her film debut, and this would be the final film performance of pop and R&B star Whitney Houston, who died three months after filming wrapped. Does the story of a shy girl in the late 60's who uses music to get out from under her strict mother's wing resonate, or does it falter like a bad stand-up comedy routine? Let's head to a nightclub in Detroit in 1968 and find out...

The Story: Sparkle (Sparks) and Sister (Ejogo) are singing in a Detroit club in the late 60's when they're discovered by young Styx (Luke), who is hoping to become a record producer. He and his cousin Levi (Omari Hardwick) get in on the bible group run by their very religious mother Emma (Houston). She shoos everyone out when she has leave as well, but Styx hangs around and sees Sparkle playing her own song. He's impressed with her and her talent and tries to get her to sing. Not only is she too shy, but she's afraid that she'll end up like her mother, who tried to make it as a singer before almost dying in a flurry of drugs, booze, and a bad relationship.

Styx isn't ready to give up on the girls yet. He convinces Sparkle to form a group with Sister and their middle sibling Dee (Tika Sumpter). Dee does it to earn money for medical college, while Sister finally joins in to earn enough for her own apartment. Levi has been courting Sister, but she's more interested in stand-up comedian Satin Struthers (Mike Epps), who has gotten very rich doing jokes about black people for white audiences. They're a sensation at a local talent show, where Sister uses her electric sexuality to wow the crowds. They become a wildly popular club attraction in Detroit, thanks to Sparkle's songs and Sister's raw performances. Sister finally agrees to marry Satin, to her mother's dismay.

The girls get an opportunity to open for Areatha Franklin, but things go downhill from there. Sister's been using cocaine, and Satin is beating her. Not only that, but their mother sees the performance and tells Sparkle she has to choose between her family and her career. Sparkle is devastated, enough to break up with Styx. It takes Sister's tragic sacrifice to make Sparkle and Emma understand just how much music means to the sisters and how important it is to pursue your dreams.

The Song and Dance: It's too bad Houston didn't live to see this movie's release. Ejogo was absolutely electric as Sister, the bad girl of the family who knows how to use her charms and doesn't care what anyone thinks of her. Houston's last performance as the rigid mother who thinks she's keeping her girls from falling into the same trap is also excellent, as is Epps as the comedian who makes fun of his own race, only to have it boomerang back in his face when he tries and fails to court black audiences. The scene in the finale, where Satin tries to beat all three sisters, is a harrowing and well-acted depiction of domestic abuse.

I like how intimate this is, compared to Dreamgirls. This is really just a small story of one family with three very different sisters who want to prove they can make it in show business. Filming in the real Detroit makes it feel even more authentic.

Favorite Number: Ejogo's "Hooked On Your Love," the sisters' song at the talent show, proves just how much she stole this movie. She's absolutely electric as she shimmies and wiggles in her golden halter miniskirt...and both the real audience and the one in the film responds with appropriate delight. Houston's best number is her rousing revivalist song towards the end, "His Eye Is On the Sparrow." Jordin's best number is one of the three written for the film, R.Kelly's heartfelt "One Wing."

What I Don't Like: Sparks and Luke lack...well, sparkle. They come off as dull compared to the dynamic acting around them and have no chemistry whatsoever. You'd never believe they're two crazy kids just starting out in show business. Most of the other songs in the movie are bland and forgettable, even the ones that came from the original film. Houston's Emma can occasionally seem less well-meaning and more like a fundamentalist shrew who smothers her daughters and won't let them do much of anything. No wonder she pushes them away.

The Big Finale: While it does have some of its own charms, including some fantastic performances, it mostly comes off as a Dreamgirls clone. It's worth a look if you're a fan of that movie, Houston, or Sparks.

Home Media: As one of the most recent movies I've reviewed and the last film of a beloved music star, this is fairly easy to find in all formats, usually for under ten dollars.

Amazon Prime

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Honoring Chinese New Year - Flower Drum Song

Universal, 1961
Starring Nancy Kwan, James Shigata, Miyoshi Umeki, and Jack Soo
Directed by Henry Koster
Music by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein

We celebrate the Year of the Pig with this colorful generation gap tale. This may seem like an odd choice for Rogers and Hammestein, but they were no strangers to musicals about cultural folkways. It was the first modern-set movie with a primarily Asian cast in a story about Asians, and it was fairly popular in the early 60's. Let's head to San Francisco to see how well this tale of modern love triangles clashing with old-world Asian values holds up today...

The Story: Mei-Li (Umeki) and her father Dr. Han Li (Kam Tong) immigrate illegally to Chinatown so Mei to honor her pre-arranged marriage with Sammy Fong (Soo). Fong is the owner of the Celestial Gardens nightclub and has no desire to marry anyone but his girl, singer and stripper Linda Low (Kwan)...eventually. He turns the Lis over to Madame Liang (Juanita Hall), the sister-in-law of prosperous old-fashioned Master Wang (Benson Fong). Wang and Liang hope that Mei-Li will marry Wang's very American college son Wang Ta (Shigeta), but he ends up smitten with Linda. She doesn't really care much about him, other than getting a ring on her finger. She has the club's announcer and comedian Frankie Wing (Victor Sen Yung) pose as her brother in order to get the Wangs to agree to the wedding.

Sammy finally breaks off the wedding when he invites Master Wong to Celestial Gardens on Chinese New Year to see what Linda really does for a living. Shocked, Ta gets drunk and stays overnight with his friend Linda Chao (Reiko Sato), a seamstress who is also in love with him. Mei Li comes to her to have a coat mended, sees Ta's clothes there, and jumps to the wrong conclusion. Ta tries to talk to her, but she says she's ready to go through with the arranged marriage. Sammy, however, is not, and Ta really does care about her. It'll be up to Mei-Li herself to figure out how to unmix these couples and get "the younger generation" matched to everyone's satisfaction.

The Song and Dance: In many ways, this is still very charming. The ladies are the winners here. Kwan and Umeki score as the two very different brides, with Umeki delicate and sweet as a plum blossom, and Kwan brassy and salty. I also like the sole major non-Asian, Juanita Hall, as Madame Liang, who is taking citizenship classes and is more open to Western ways than Master Wang. James Shigata is quite easy on the eyes and has a stunning voice; no wonder all the women chase him. The Oscar-nominated sets, costumes, and cinematography ably capture all the hustle and "chop suey" East-Meets-West of San Francisco's Chinatown.

It's interesting that much of the story hinges on illegal immigration, considering how much that's in the news these days. While a lot of aspects of this story don't work now, that one almost feels ahead of its time.

Favorite Number: Kwan's "I Enjoy Being a Girl" is the sole standard to come from this score, and it gets a number worthy of it, too as she admires many versions of herself in the mirrors of her plush pink bedroom. Umeki's best musical moment is the actual "flower drum song" in the opening sequence, "A Hundred Million Miracles." Sato's "Love Look Away" is a ravishing ballad, with a lovely abstract ballet representing Helen's desire for Ta after it. Shigata gets another good love song, "You are Beautiful." "Grant Avenue" is better integrated into the score here than in the original Broadway version as a number for Kwan and the male dancers at the Chinese New Year Parade. Kwan and Soo get a more comic ballet, the hilarious "Sunday," as they imagine being normal suburban parents.

Trivia: The Broadway show debuted in 1958, and was the first and only stage show directed by Gene Kelly. It was one of the biggest hits of the 1958-1959 Broadway season, running for a year and a half.  Hall, It would be revived in 2002, with a totally re-written book by Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang. This version wasn't as well-received and lasted only six months.

This would be the last major American film with a mostly Asian cast until 1993's The Joy Luck Club.

Fans of sitcoms of the 60's and 70's will recognize two members of the cast. Soo played Sargent Nick Yemana on the long-running 70's cop comedy Barney Miller, while Umeki was the housekeeper Mrs. Livingston on The Courtship of Eddie's Father.

What I Don't Like: A lot of this story has simply not dated well, and not just the occasionally condescending portrayals of "The Older Generation" and Asian values and traditions. Linda Low's desperation for security and marriage and the cartoony "Sunday" number are very, very early 60's, as is the silly nightclub routine for  Frankie Wing, "Gliding Through My Memoree." Hall was cast as Madame Liang because their original choice, Anna May Wong, passed away before filming began and she played the role on Broadway...and yeah, it's pretty obvious she's the only non-Asian. Some of the lines comparing East and West sound awkward at best nowadays and slightly offensive at worst. Not to mention, not only were few people dubbed, but they were dubbed by non-Asians.

Linda Chao vanishes half-way through is never seen or heard from again. In the book this is based on, she apparently commits suicide after she can't get Ta to fall in love with her. Obviously, the musical wasn't going to be able to go that dark, but they could have at least mentioned her. Her big song and ballet, as beautiful as they are, really do nothing to move the plot along and just add to the already excessive length.

The Big Picture: Mixed feelings on this one. As much as I love the colorful costumes and some of the songs and performances, a lot of the story doesn't hold up nowadays. As one of the few mostly-Asian American films (and to my knowledge, the only mostly-Asian American musical), this is recommended on the sheer novelty value, performances, and musical numbers alone.

Home Media: I highly recommend my 2-disc DVD set from 2006, which has a gorgeous restoration and a ton of extras. It can also found on Amazon Prime and as part of a 3-pack with two other popular Universal musicals, Mamma Mia! and Jesus Christ Superstar.

DVD - Musicals Spotlight Collection
Amazon Prime

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Cult Flops - The Wiz

Universal, 1978
Starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, and Ted Ross
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Music and Lyrics by Charlie Smalls and others

This will be the first of several musicals with all-black casts I look at in February in honor of Black History Month. We kick off with one of the bigger flops of the late 70's. This R&B adaptation of The Wizard of Oz was a huge hit on Broadway in 1975, and it would do well in a live TV version in 2015 (which we'll look at a bit later this month). So what happened here? For an answer to that question, we'll head to a Harlem apartment at Thanksgiving, where one young schoolteacher is about to go on a journey that will change the way she looks at her life...and family...

The Story: Dorothy Gale (Ross) is a shy schoolteacher who still lives with her parents in their Harlem apartment. She's been deliberating getting a better teaching job and moving out on her own, as she's introverted an uncertain of herself. She chases after her beloved dog Toto when he runs out into a blizzard. A snow whirlwind whisks her and Toto off to the strange urban land of Oz, which basically resembles a fantasy New York. They land in a playground, where the graffiti comes to life. According to the witch Miss One (Thelma Carpenter), they killed the Wicked Witch of the East and rescued the Munchkins from being chalk drawings for the rest of their lives. Miss One gives Dorothy a pair of silver shoes that once belonged to the Witch and sends her off to the Emerald City to find the Wizard.

Along the way, Dorothy makes some unusual friends. She befriends the Scarecrow (Jackson) when she rescues him from crows in a cornfield. He's fond of pulling papers filled with quotes from his own straw and claims he lacks brains. They encounter the rusted old Tin Man (Russell) at an abandoned carnival. He's chatty when he's not rusted, but can be sarcastic, and says he lacks a heart. They're nearly knocked over by a lion (Ross) hiding in front of the New York Public Library, but he turns out to be a cowardly critter who wants courage badly. Even after they do make it to the glamorous Emerald City at the World Trade Center, the capricious Wizard (Richard Pryor) won't do what they want until they shut down the sweatshop of Evilene, the Wicked Witch of the West. But she's already hot on their trail and will stop at nothing to make sure they don't complete their quest!

The Song and Dance: The supporting cast is the key here. Russell and especially Jackson, the latter in his film debut, make a great tin con-man and a very sweet and thoughtful Scarecrow. Ross makes for a decent lion, and Lena Horne is a lovely and elegant Glinda the Good Witch of the South.
When the camera moves in for a closer look, it can ably capture New York during the height of it's gritty decaying late 70's period (including shots of the World Trade Center - the Wizard is supposed to live at the top of one of the towers). The colorful costumes and odd and unique set design were Oscar-nominated, as were the cinematography and score.

Favorite Number: For all the problems this movie has, some of the singing is first-rate. All three versions of "Ease On Down the Road" are a blast. Ross and Russell really tear into their respective solos "I'm a Mean Ol' Lion" and "Slide Some Oil to Me." While the number itself is kind of weird (with people stripping down half-way through), the Luther Vandross-penned "Everyone Rejoice/Brand New Day" after they've defeated Evilene is the movie's most energetic and toe-tapping number. Jackson has fun with those nasty crows, who keep telling him "You Can't Win, You Can't Break Even."

What I Don't Like: Sidney Lumet was not the right director for this. He clearly didn't know how to make a musical work. Most of the numbers are filmed in long shots. You can barely see any of the dancing or what anyone's doing, or even ogle the designer costumes in the Emerald City number. Things would have looked a lot better if he'd given us a few more close-ups and actually focused on the dancing, rather than those elaborate New York sets.

Some characters, like Glinda, Evilene, and the Cowardly Lion, have limited roles compared to other retellings of this story. They should have built up Evilene throughout the film, like the Witch shadowed Dorothy in the 1939 version. The Wizard sending the group after her seems kind of abrupt. And why would someone who can melt have sprinklers in her sweatshop?

And that brings us to Diana Ross. She tries, but the role of Dorothy was meant for a young girl. No amount of re-writing or tossing her in a cutesy, frilly dress could make her look younger. While some of her vocal performances are outstanding (her impassioned "Believe In Yourself" is really touching), her acting wavers between stiff and shrill. To date, this has been her final screen performance.

The Big Finale: This movie was a huge flop in 1978, and despite the good cast and some decent numbers, it doesn't really hold up now. Only come here if you're a really big fan of Jackson or Diana Ross.

Home Media: The solo DVD is out of print, but it is available on Blu-Ray and most streaming services. Your best bet may be to pick it up as a double-feature with The Wiz Live like I did.

DVD - The Wiz/The Wiz Live
Amazon Prime