Thursday, October 31, 2019

Happy Halloween! - The Rocky Horror Picture Show

20th Century Fox, 1975
Starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Boswick, and Meatloaf
Directed by Jim Sharman
Music by Richard Hartley and Richard O'Brian; Lyrics by Richard O'Brian

We celebrate the scariest of all holidays with the most "cult" of all cult flops. Mainstream audiences and most critics had no idea what to make of this when it debuted. It would finally gain an audience, not on cable or video, but in midnight showings across the country where fans in costume could get in for free. The showings continue in selected cinemas to this day...and so does this movie's rabid fandom. Is it worth the adulation, or should the curtain fall on this "science fiction double feature?" Let's head to a rainy wedding, as an innocent young couple is about to leave for a honeymoon that isn't going to go at all as they expect...

The Story: Janet (Sarandon) and Brad (Boswick) are the newlyweds whose car breaks down on a dark road somewhere in Texas. They walk to a spooky castle seeking a phone, only to find a party for an "Annual Transylvanian Convention" going on. The party guests are the strangest creatures this side of the Universal monster movies. Janet and Brad are shocked by their wild "Time Warp" dance and want out.

Before they can flee, they run headlong into the head of the group, Dr. Frank-n-Furter (Curry). The mad transvestite scientist claims to have discovered the secret to creating life. He's thoroughly in love with his creation, the beefy and hunky Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood). Not everyone is crazy about their relationship. His brain was partially donated by Eddie (Meatloaf), a former delivery boy and biker. Frank has no intention of sharing his creation with anyone and gets rid of him.

Janet and Brad are having their own problems. Frank has tried seducing both of them, and Janet has fallen for Rocky. Frank doesn't have the time to be jealous when Eddie's uncle, noted UFO scientist Dr. Everett Scott (Johnathan Adams), comes looking for his nephew. An uncomfortable (and gross) dinner ends with everyone in Frank's clutches and dancing to his wild tune. But not everyone is a fan of the "sweet transvestite"...and before the end of the night, it's his very own servants who'll turn on him.

The Song and Dance: Yeah, I can see how this got such a cult following. Glittering costumes, amazing makeup, and some truly awesome song-and-dance sequences make this one heck of a party. Tim Curry gives one of his best performances as cinema's only alien mad scientist transvestite. This is a must if you're a fan of his; he oozes oily, wily seduction from every frame. Hinwood is oddly touching as Frank's gorgeous-but-brainless creation, and Meatloaf is almost a literal blast of energy in his brief role as the wild biker who wants a piece of the action.

Extra points for spooky location shooting in an actual castle in England. The real exteriors add quite a bit to the weird and cheesy atmosphere, as do the massive stage sets inside.

Favorite Number: Of course, the most famous song from this one is the dance routine "The Time Warp." Not only is it the catchiest and most infectious song in the movie, but the steps are fun and easy to learn...and they even include the steps right in Charles Gray's narration. Frank's entrance through the cage elevator, "Sweet Transvestite," is almost as famous, with Curry introducing himself with mincing menace. Meatball's rocking entrance through the wall in "Hot Patootie - Bless My Soul" turns his cameo appearance into the movie's highlight as he rides all over the set and flirts wildly with groupie Columbia (Nell Campbell).

My favorite song from this score may be most unique opening number in musical film history. The movie begins with a pair of women's disembodied scarlet lips performing "Science Fiction Double Feature" in a male voice. It perfectly underscores the androgyny theme with Frank...and name-drops cheesy sci-fi movies of the past that likely inspired this one, from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Flash Gordon to Forbidden Planet.

What I Don't Like: Yeah, as you may have noticed, this one is pretty damn strange. While it's not as gory or bloody as Sweeney Todd, there is at least one murder...and they eat the remains. Obviously, if you're looking for a more typically romantic fling, a stronger story, or aren't into horror or sci-fi, this isn't your show. It's also not for those looking for something lower-key - this is flashy, loud, and crazy.

The Big Finale: This is as cult as cult can get. It may have been a little too wild for me...but there's no denying its cultural impact. While it is fun to watch at home, if you want the full experience or are a huge fan of Curry or Meatloaf, you may be better off looking up one of those midnight showings.

Home Media: This film's rabid fan base has assured that it can be found in every format, usually for under 10 dollars.

Amazon Prime

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Dreamworks/Paramount, 2007
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, and Timothy Spall
Directed by Tim Burton
Music and Lyrics by Stephan Sondheim

We kick off Halloween week with our second Tim Burton horror musical featuring his regular leads Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. This one, however, is neither animated, nor remotely family-friendly. Based after the blood-soaked 1979 stage musical, this tale of blood and revenge is definitely not for the faint at heart. Let's take a boat ride to Victorian London to find out what happened to Todd to make him want to use his barbering abilities for more than scraping chins...

The Story: Benjamin Barker (Depp) has returned to London to gain revenge on Judge Turpin (Rickman), who had him unfairly imprisoned fifteen years before. Turpin attacked his wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) and took his daughter Joanna (Jayne Wisener) as his ward. Barker returns to his old digs on Fleet Street, over Mrs. Lovett's (Carter) pie shop. Mrs. Lovett has always had a crush on him and gives him his razors, which inspires him to reopen his barber shop under the name Sweeney Todd.

Meanwhile, the young sailor who came to London with Todd, Anthony Hope (Jaime Campbell Bower), has seen Joanna at the window of the Judge's home and fallen in love with her at first sight. The Judge doesn't want anyone even contemplating her and sends the Beadle Bamford (Spall) to get rid of him. Having bested Italian barber Pirelli (Sascha Baron Cohen) in a shaving contest, Todd is ready to go into business. Pirelli is the first of many bodies that pile up in the ovens at Fleet Street, as Mrs. Lovett turns the remains into pie fillings and the "worst pies in London" become the rage of the town.

Todd, however, still wants revenge on Turpin, and Anthony still wants Joanna. When he discovers she's in an insane asylum and Mrs. Lovett's assistant Toby (Ed Sanders) figures out what they're doing, it sets off a chain of events that ends in tragedy as Todd discovers that revenge is a dish best served not at all, never mind in a hot meat pie.

The Song and Dance: As this is an opera, we're mainly discussing the song side of things. The voices may not be perfect, but there's some excellent performances in this Grand Guiginol melodrama. Rickman and Spall get the honors as the lusty villains who will destroy a man's reputation to get a "pretty woman," and Cohen has a blast in his brief role early on as the faux-Italian hair cutter with the so-called miracle tonic.

Burton's creepy aesthetic is all over this movie, from the dark, blood-filled sewers and streets of London to the ragged gray and white costumes. It won an Oscar for its historically-accurate sets, representing the darkest, grimiest depths of the Victorian era, and was nominated for costumes and Depp's performance as the vengeance-obsessed Todd himself.

Favorite Number: Carter and Depp have two soaring and enjoyable duets, "My Friends" when Mrs. Lovett offers him his razors back, and "A Little Priest" when they start making those pies. Carter small voice comes across better in "Poor Thing," when she explains what happened to Todd's wife, than in her insisting that she'll "Wait" for Todd to come around to her dreams. She also does well with "By the Sea" as she tells us what she hopes to do with Todd. Bower has two soaring versions of "Joanna," first when he sees her at her window, and later in the shop when he's hiding her. Depp and Rickman may not have the most operatic voices, but they still relish their version of "Pretty Women."

Trivia: Sweeney Todd originally debuted on Broadway in 1979, with Angela Landsbury as Mrs. Lovett and Len Cariou as Todd. It wasn't a long-runner, lasting just over a year. It did better with critics, winning 9 Tonys, including Best Actor and Actress for Cariou and Landsbury. The show finally became a cult favorite when the touring version, with Landsbury and later Broadway Todd George Hearn, was filmed and ran on PBS and Showtime in 1982.

While it was a flop in Todd's native London, it later became popular enough over there to have been revived four times, most recently in 2015. The show's been revived three times in New York, including a successful off-Broadway version in 2017.

What I Don't Like: Good grief, this was gross. I'm just not into gory slasher movies. If you aren't, either, don't come within a hundred miles of this film. The blood flows freely, especially towards the end as Todd starts murdering folks left and right. It's also very dark for a musical, both in the cinematography and the creepy, melodramatic story.

A lot of theater geeks and Sondheim fans have complained bitterly about the less-than stellar voices singing often-truncated versions of the operatic music. Apparently, a lot of numbers were dropped or shortened, including the opening, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." I don't have the cast album and can't tell you what's missing, but I do know that sometimes Carter's tiny voice isn't big enough for the soaring music, and Wisener and Bower are stiff as boards.

The Big Finale: Slasher horror just isn't my cup of tea...but if it's yours, or you're a huge fan of Burton and the cast and don't mind the song and story changes, you'll want to fire up the oven and give this one a try.

Home Media: As a relatively recent film, this one is quite easy to find in all major formats, usually for under 10 dollars.

Amazon Prime

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Animation Celebration Saturday - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Disney, 1937
Voices of Adriana Caselotti, Lucile LaVerne, Harry Stockwell, and Pinto Colvig
Directed by David Hand, Wilfred Jackson, and others
Music by Frank Churchill; Lyrics by Larry Morey

And here's the one that kicked off Disney's beloved Animated "Canon" films. There had been animated movies made before this in Europe, but it had never been attempted in the US. Other studios called it "Walt's Folly" and thought it would never catch on. They couldn't have been more wrong. The movie was a sensation, capturing the imaginations of audiences and critics alike. Does it still measure up to that adoration today? Let's head to the courtyard of the Evil Queen's (LaVerne) castle and finds out...

The Story: The Queen is deeply jealous of sweet and pretty Snow White, forcing her to work as a scullery maid. That doesn't stop her from encountering a handsome prince (Stockwell) while cleaning the courtyard. When her magic mirror tells her that Snow White is now the "fairest of them all," She sends her huntsman (Stuart Buchanan) to kill the girl, but he doesn't have the heart and sends her into the woods.

She ends up in the home of the Seven Dwarfs, a septet of diminutive miners. They don't know what to do with her at first, until she tells them she's willing to keep house and cook for them. The Queen, however, has figured out that she's still alive, and she'll do anything to eliminate the competition - including turning herself into a hag and bringing the girl a poisoned apple herself!

The Animation: We're looking at real history here, folks. Walt and his animators had been developing this since at least 1934, and the work shows. It's leaps and bounds above their previous shorts, with fairly realistic movement in the characters and lush watercolor backgrounds, especially during Snow White's flight through the forest and when the Dwarfs are chasing the Evil Queen in the finale.

The Song and Dance: This is another Disney animated film where the supporting cast pretty much steals the show. The Dwarfs are so funny and have such distinct personalities that it's hard for many people to think of the story without them. The Evil Queen is so cold and scary, she even spooked Walt Disney, who swore he'd never do a villain that frightening again. (That didn't last long.) The musical score by Leigh Harline is lush and beautiful, starting a long tradition of stunning orchestra scores for Disney animated features.

Favorite Number: The movie starts in stirring fashion with not one, but two ravishing ballads, Snow White's lovely "I'm Wishing" over a well, and the Prince's gorgeous "One Song" under her balcony. The Dwarfs are introduced in the mine with their famous marching song, "Heigh Ho." Snow White and the Dwarfs have fun with their big chorus number "The Silly Song"; one could spend a viewing alone checking out the details in that one, from the creative wooden instruments to Snow White's fairly smooth movements. Her "Someday My Prince Will Come" was the major hit, and remains one of the most popular ballads from any Disney animated film.

What I Don't Like: Once again, the problem is with the leads. Snow White is sticky-sweet and horribly cutesy. Her prince is even less interesting, showing up in the beginning and the end and not doing much else. The Queen, as scary as she is, doesn't really have much to her, either.

Also, as sweet as the movie can be at times, it can also be very dark, particularly where the Queen is involved. The spooky atmosphere makes this a little too dark for very young princesses and anyone who expecting all sweetness and light.

The Big Finale: Not my favorite Disney movie, but it is the first animated film, and it does have great music, a decent villain, and the very funny Dwarfs. Might still be a lot of fun for romantic older kids and adults who love animation history or fairy tales.

Home Media: Easily found on all formats and for purchase on streaming.

Amazon Prime (buy only)

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Cult Flops - Little Shop of Horrors

Warner Bros, 1986
Starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, and Steve Martin
Directed by Frank Oz
Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman

Our next scare-fest comes to us from off-Broadway. This goofy comedy was not without its filming problems, including a totally re-shot ending. How does the original version look now? Let's head to Skid Row, where a black girl-group chorus is introducing us to the concept and the residents of the street, and find out...

The Story: Seymour Krelbourn (Moranis) works in a low-rent flower shop on Skid Row that's about to go under. Desperate to save his job and that of his crush Audrey (Greene), he brings out an "exotic" fly trap-like plant he's been nurturing and puts it in the window. He named the plant Audrey II (voice of Levi Stubbs) after the woman he loves. Turns out Audrey has no interest in flies. He wants blood, the fresher, the better. He thinks he's found a perfect candidate in Audrey I's obnoxious laughing gas-sniffing dentist boyfriend Orin (Martin). Pretty soon, Audrey II's popularity is spreading, even as the police investigate Orin's disappearance. Now Seymour has to stop Audrey II from gobbling everything in sight, before the fiendish flytrap can execute its plan for world domination!

The Song and Dance: I've never been the biggest horror fan, and this was still one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. Hilarious performances all around, especially from Moranis as the nebbish florist who just wants to impress his girl and Martin as the sadistic dentist we've all had nightmares about. The cameos that pop up add to the fun, including Bill Murray as a pain-loving patient and John Candy as a radio talk show host.

Even to this day, the Audrey II puppet still looks awesome. You really believe this is a talking plant out to eat its way across the planet. I'm not surprised the movie got an Oscar nomination for Visual Effects.

Favorite Number: Seymour gets two great solos, "Da Doo" as he explains how he aquired Audrey II, and "Grow for Me" when he's trying to figure out what to feed it to make it get bigger. The human Audrey explains what she really wants - a typical home with her true love - in "Somewhere That's Green" and gets an impassioned duet with said crush towards the end, "Suddenly Seymour." The girl group chorus opens the film in vigorous fashion with the dynamic title song and join Orin as he explains how much he loves his job in "Dentist!"

The movie's coolest number was written for the film. Audrey II reveals that he's a "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space" in the finale as he tells Seymour how he and his sprouts plan on conquering the Earth. The puppeteering work on those tiny sprouts and the action-packed final routine is beautifully done.

Trivia: The original off-Broadway show debuted in 1982 and was a huge hit, running five years. While the London version didn't run quite that long, it still did fairly well in a larger theater, running three years. A Broadway version in 2003 didn't do quite as well, running a year. Greene was Audrey in the original run, as well as in a critically acclaimed Encore! concert in 2015.

The original ending had Audrey II eating Seymour and Audrey I and running amok in New York, eventually ending up on top of the Statue of Liberty. There was also a longer "Meek Shall Inherit" montage, with an elaborate dream sequence for Seymour. Both were cut after negative test screenings and thought lost until 2012, when work in progress reels were found and restored for DVD.

A disappointment in the theater, the movie was a top-seller when it came out on video. A short-lived cartoon based on this film and the original 1960 Roger Corman movie debuted in 1991.

What I Don't Like: Although I don't really have problems the current ending, many people find it too be too sentimental, going against the grain of the mostly satirical and relatively dark film. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if they'd stuck to Oz's original vision and stuck to the scarier finale.

Several songs from the original show were cut, including the one that went along with that darker ending, "Don't Feed the Plants."

The Big Finale: I loved this movie as a child, and it's every bit as enjoyable today. If you're looking for something that's scary and yet very funny, with a terrific cast and still-impressive special effects, you'll want to head downtown and check this one out.

Home Media: The original theatrical version that I reviewed and the "director's cut" with the original ending are widely available in all formats.

DVD - The Director's Cut
Blu-Ray - The Director's Cut
Amazon Prime

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Corpse Bride

Warner Bros, 2005
Voices of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, and Joanna Lumley
Directed by Tim Burton
Music by Danny Elfman; Lyrics by John August

For the next two weeks, we're going to celebrate the spookiest time of the year with four frightening tales of musical mayhem, starting with this stop-motion romance. Having had success with The Nightmare Before Christmas in the 90's, Burton once again dove into animation with this melodrama about a young man who literally goes from the underworld and back to return to his beloved. Is it as much fun as the earlier film? Let's head to a small village in Europe, where two families are preparing for a wedding, and find out...

The Story: Victor Van Dort (Depp) and Victoria Everglot (Watson) are being brought together in an arranged marriage by their two influential families. Victor's is newly rich and searching for status. Victoria's is penniless but high in social standing. Victor is so nervous, he makes a hash of the wedding rehearsal. He wanders out to the woods to practice his wedding vows, placing the ring on what he thinks is a wooden branch. It turns out to be the hand of a deceased bride, Emily (Bonham Carter), who now believes they're married. Victor faints and finds himself among the colorful skeleton residents of the Underworld, who explain how Emily was betrayed and killed by the man who was supposed to elope with her. He tricks her into returning above, but Victoria is less than happy to find him in the arms of even a dead woman. Now Victor has to explain to the dead bride that he loves another and keep his own living intended from marrying a rather sketchy nobleman.

The Animation: Not as bright or creative as Nightmare, but still excellent.  The stiff gray designs of the Victorian world above reminds me of Burton's even creepier stop-motion short from the 80's, Vincent, with its wide, dark-ringed eyes and angular designs. The Underworld is more fluid and whimsical, with more movement and some very creative character models.

The Song and Dance: Alternately bittersweet and goofy, this is actually less creepy than you might think, despite all the dead people roaming around. As good as Depp is as the confused groom, he's outshown by both ladies. Bonham Carter does well with Emily's sweet and more vengeful sides, while Watson brings more strength than you might think to dainty Victoria.

Favorite Number: "Remains of the Day" is a jazzy number for Bojangles (Elfman) and his skeleton combo as they tell Victor the sad tale of how Emily was tricked into eloping with a man who only wanted her money and jewels. Carter also gets the touching "Tears to Shed" after she finds out about Victor and Victoria.

What I Don't Like: The music, while not bad, isn't quite as memorable as the scores for Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, and there isn't nearly enough of it. A song for Victoria to explain her feelings, or a duet for Victor and Victoria or Victor and Emily, might have been nice.

The Big Finale: If you love Burton's other stop-motion projects, unusual love stories, or the cast, you'll want to take a chance and join the Underworld in celebrating this one.

Home Media: Oddly, while the widescreen DVD is out of print, the full screen disc is still available. It can be found in widescreen on Blu Ray and most streaming companies.

Blu Ray
Amazon Prime

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Family Fun Saturday - Pete's Dragon (1977)

Disney, 1977
Starring Sean Marshall, Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, and Jim Dale
Directed by Don Chaffey
Music by Al Kasha; Lyrics by Joel Hirschhorn

Before we get into this year's horror musical reviews for Halloween, I thought we'd try something a tad lighter. This is an old childhood favorite of mine. A re-release was one of the first movies I ever saw in a theater. How well does the unusual story of a boy and his dragon who help out a New England town look today? Let's take to the road with Pete (Marshall) and his buddy Elliott and find out...

The Story: Pete (Marshall) is on the run from the Grogans, the combative hillbilly family who bought him from the orphanage and treat him like a slave. His only friend is Elliott (voice of Charlie Callas), a friendly green dragon who becomes invisible when anyone but Pete is around. They flee to the New England coastal town of Passamaquaddy, but Elliot's size wrecks havoc on the people of the town. They hide in a cave, where Pete is found by Nora (Reddy), the kindly daughter of the lighthouse keeper Lampy (Rooney). Nora and Lampy take Pete in, and even let him go to school. Not only are the Grogans still on Pete's trail, though, but the snake-oil salesman Dr. Terminus (Dale) and his assistant Hoagy (Red Buttons) are determined to get their hands on Elliott to use him to make their bogus remedies.

The Animation: Par for the course in this time period. Elliot moves relatively well, but his "invisible" spells are obviously moving wires, and you can pretty much see the green screen around him when he's with actual people.

The Song and Dance: It's the supporting cast who shine here. Dale and Buttons have a blast as the con men who think dragon parts will make them rich, while Rooney's having his own fun as eternally inebriated Lampy. Sean Marshall's actually not bad as Pete. He really does make you believe his best friend is a dragon (even when the special effects don't). Reddy is a warm and witty Nora (and gets to introduce this movie's sole standard, "Candle On the Water"). They're abetted by a cast of favorite TV hams, including Jim Backus as the mayor and Jane Kean as the strict school teacher.

The other plus here, along with the music, is gorgeous cinematography. That may be California substituting for New England (complete with a specially-built lighthouse), but it still looks great. "Razzle Dazzle Day," filmed on top of the lighthouse, takes full advantage of the widescreen process as the trio get a load of the stunning views.

Favorite Number: "Candle On the Water" is Nora's big ballad about mid-way through, as she hopes that her own love will be like the lighthouse and find his way home. It's a really lovely song that deserved its Oscar nomination. Nora also gets a sweet duet with Pete as they discuss Elliott and their odd friendship, "It's Not Easy."

Dale throws himself wholeheartedly into the flourishing villain song, "Every Little Piece," as he and Buttons reveal what they intend to do with Elliot. Nora explains to the kids of Passamaquaddy why Pete's so close to his friend - and why they should let all kinds of people (and dragons) into their lives - as they turn the docks into a playground in "There's Room for Everyone." There's also that widescreen view in "Brazzle Dazzle Day" as Nora, Lampy, and Pete clean and paint the lighthouse.

What I Don't Like: Yeah, the story isn't the strongest in the universe. It doesn't match either of Disney's earlier ventures into live action/animation, Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The special effects look almost annoyingly dated now, and even then weren't great compared to the big sci-fi fantasy movies of the time. You can easily see the wires and green screen, especially in the big action finale. There's also the Grogans, who come off as ridiculous hillbilly stereotypes and aren't nearly as much fun as Dale and Buttons. Frankly, the whole thing comes off as more than a little cheesy.

The Big Finale: Too goofy for older kids, but for youngsters and those who grew up watching this on cable or video, the music and cast alone is worth giving this this one a look.

Home Media: The "High Flying Edition" is easily found in all formats.

Amazon Prime

Thursday, October 17, 2019

All That Jazz

20th Century Fox, 1979
Starring Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer, Ann Renking
Directed by Bob Fosse
Music and Lyrics by various

Fosse was riding high through most of the 70's, becoming the first person to win a best director Oscar (for Cabaret), Emmy (for the special Liza With a Z), and Tony (for directing and choreographing Pippin) in one year, but all that activity took its toll. This movie is Fosse's version of that tumultuous time in his life, when he was directing Chicago while trying to edit the film Lenny. Let's head to New York to meet Fosse's avatar Joe Gideon (Scheider) and find out just how bad things got...

The Story: Gideon is not the most pleasant guy. He's trying to edit his new movie The Stand Up about a stage comedian (Cliff Gorman) and choreograph and direct the big Broadway show NY/LA, but it's all starting to get to him. He takes pills, drinks and smokes too much, chases women, and neglects them when he gets them. His wife Audrey (Palmer) is playing a role in NY/LA that she's way too old for and wishes he'd slow down for five minutes. His daughter Michelle (Erzebet Foldi) wants him to settle down and marry someone, anyone. His current girl Kate (Reniking) is fed up with his workaholic tendencies and is ready to leave him. The producers of his movie are threatening to take it out of his hands if he doesn't deliver it on time.

With all this, it's probably no surprise to anyone but Joe when he finally has a massive heart attack while doing a read-through of his show with his producers. Even after he's diagnosed with severe chest pain, he still continues to drink, smoke, and chase the ladies. He's literally flirting with death, represented as a beautiful lady in white (Lange). A bad review of his film sends him into cardiac arrest, requiring open heart surgery...and prompting a final dream of a musical number representing all the people and events of his life.

The Song and Dance: Whew, this is a weird one. Even when the story is at its strangest, it's anchored by some stellar performances. Scheider is the stand-out as Gideon, the man determined to cheat death and use everyone he can, including the devoted women in his life. Foldi, Reniking, and Palmer are excellent as his muses, who care about him despite his multitude of faults. The massive "Bye Bye Life" finale is as lavish, glittery, and overstuffed as one could wish; the costumes and sets won an Oscar (as did the score and editing).

Favorite Number: Reniking and Foldi delight Scheider - and the audience - with their peppy, upbeat dance routine to Peter Allen's "Everything Old Is New Again." The choreography is fast and fun, the girls are having a blast, and he clearly appreciates it. "Take Off With Us (Airerotica)" takes off more than a plane with the sexy, mostly-nude routine to one of two news songs written directly for the film. As one producer said, it's not for the family audiences, but there's some awesome dancing and the song is fun.

Probably the best-known aspect of this today is the huge finale. Ben Vereen, as a smarmy talk show host, introduces a series of songs representing different facets of Gideon's life. My favorite is the feathers-and-fans "Who's Sorry Now?," as well as the faster-paced opening "After You've Gone."

What I Don't Like: This is definitely not a musical for children, for anyone expecting a more typically romantic or upbeat story, or for those who aren't into Fosse's dark style. It's also not a story about terribly pleasant people. Joe Gideon is, quite frankly, a jerk, and a lot of the folks around him aren't much better. There's also the footage of actual open heart surgery juxtaposed against the musical numbers in the finale. And yeah, the musical number is overproduced, over done, and just too strange for words.

The Big Finale: This is not a movie for everyone, but if you love Fosse or are interested in trying a different and darker story, you'll want to give this one a look.

Home Media: The Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-Ray are absolutely worth the money, with a wealth of extras and stunning picture and audio.


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Ziegfeld Follies (1946)

MGM, 1946
Starring Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Fannie Brice, and Red Skelton, among others
Directed by Charles Walters, Vincent Minnelli, Roy Del Ruth, and George Sidney, among others
Music and Lyrics by various

After revues fell out of favor in 1930, no studio would attempt a musical film without a narrative - even the thinnest excuse for one. At least, not until the mid-40's. Producer Arthur Freed wanted to return to the days of the ongoing Ziegfeld Follies revues and create his own, with prime MGM talent. How well did he pull it off? Let's head up above with the now late impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) himself as he recalls his beloved shows and find out...

The Story: This is a revue, so there really isn't one. Ziegfeld, looking down from the heavens, remembers his beloved Broadway shows of the early 20th century and wonders what they would loo like in the (then) present, with a galaxy of MGM stars.

The Song and Dance: And while song and dance are the operative words here, some of the comedy routines aren't bad, either. The solo skits come off best, with Keenan Wynn doing exasperated wonderfully well dealing with obtuse operators in "Number Please" and Red Skelton hilarious as the TV pitchman getting increasingly drunk on his own product in "When Television Comes." Fannie Brice, the only actor who actually appeared in the original Ziegfeld Follies, romps through "A Sweepstakes Ticket" with nervous Hume Cronyn and a suspicious William Frawley.

Favorite Number: Things kick off in lavish style with "Here's to the Beautiful Girls," as Fred Astaire salutes Lucile Ball and other lovelies in pink feathers and cat suits...which Virginia O'Brian immediately spoofs, claiming she wants to "Bring On the Wonderful Men." Judy Garland spoofs drama divas of the time like MGM actress Greer Garson in the very funny "The Great Lady Gives an Interview," as she twitters around adoring newspaper reporters. Lena Horne may have protested the dark tropical nightclub setting of "Love," but her burning hot performance still comes across as the sexiest moment in the film.

The movie may be best-known for three major dance numbers, all featuring Fred Astaire. "This Heart of Mine" is the glamorous mini-tale of a thief who falls for a heiress (Lucille Bremer) at a ball. The color is exquisite, the costumes are gorgeous, and the song (which became a standard) is the best in the film. "Limehouse Blues" is another Vincent Minnelli-directed segment. The more tragic tale of a Chinese man who loves a prostitute in London's Chinatown turns into a colorful abstract Asian fantasy ballet.

For my money, the number for the records is "The Babbitt and the Bromide," a Gershwin song originally from the Broadway show Funny Face. The only time good friends Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly danced together during their heyday is a charming competition as two men trade small talk while showing off their very different dancing styles.

Trivia: The movie began filming in 1944 and ran into problems galore. The original cut was almost three hours! Many, many numbers were dropped, some of which still exist as audio cuts. When the roadshow engagements in 1945 didn't work out, numbers were dropped and rearranged, forcing its wide release to 1946.

The big "There's Beauty Everywhere" finale was originally supposed to feature tenor James Melton singing the song, with Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire dancing in a "bubble ballet." The bubble machine went haywire and broke down. The gas was so bad, it made at least one cameraman faint, and the bubbles got so bad, the fire brigade had to be called in to switch the machine off. Melton was eventually replaced by Kathryn Grayson, and the ballet segment was cut down to a few glimpses of Cyd Charisse and the chorus flitting around in the bubbles.

The only other time Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly danced together was in the documentary That's Entertainment II in 1976.

The movie cost so much with all the retakes and lavish sets and costumes, it did well in '46 and still just barely made back its money.

What I Don't Like: This is a mixed bag, especially in the comedy skits. Victor Moore and Edward Arnold's "Pay the Two Dollars" is more annoying than funny, with Moore's constant whining. "Beauty Everywhere," for all the trouble they had filming it, is a little too overdone for a simple and romantic song, and probably not the best note to end on. The comedy skits are also pretty simple, more like filmed mini-plays and come off as a bit static. The white people playing Asians in "Limehouse Blues" and a few stereotypes can take many folks out of the intended dramatic atmosphere.

And obviously, if you're actually expecting a story along with your musical numbers, this isn't the place for you. It's far better than most of the ricky-ticky early talkie revues, but it's still a revue.

The Big Finale: If you're a huge fan of the MGM musicals of the 1940's and 50's, this is worth seeing for the cast and dance numbers alone.

Home Media: The DVD was just re-released on the Warner Archives last year, and it's available on several streaming companies.

Amazon Prime

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Musicals On TV - Z.O.M.B.I.E.S

Disney, 2018
Starring Milo Manheim, Meg Donnelly, Trevor Tordjman, and Kylee Russell
Directed by Paul Hoen
Music and Lyrics by various

This may be the strangest film Disney ever did, animated or live-action. Apparently based on the pilot for a Disney Channel sitcom, Zombies & Cheerleaders, that never made it to the air, this was a surprise hit for Disney last year. How does this manage to combine zombies and a "normal" cheerleading squad in a racism parable? Let's head to Seabrook High, a more unusual school than you might think, and find out....

The Story: Fifty years before, there had been a great apocalypse in Seabrook that turned half the population into brain-eating zombies. The other half forced the zombies behind a barrier, where they created their own culture and language. They now have watches that suppress their desire to eat brains and attack people, allowing three zombie teens - Zed (Manheim), Eliza (Russell), and Bonzo (James Godfrey) - to attend Seabrook High School. Zed falls for Allison (Donnelly), a seemingly perfect blonde girl who is obsessed with getting on the cheerleading squad. 

Allison has her own secret, one she's keeping from Bucky (Tordjman), the egotistical head of the squad. The squad - and the town - only accepts utterly perfect people who don't look different from anyone else. Allison, however, is starting to relate more to Zed and his friends, especially after Zed joins the football team and unleashes his zombie side to let them win games. When Zed takes her to Zombietown, she meets his little sister Zoey (Kingston Foster), who's  not a bad little cheerleader herself. Bucky, however, can't stand sharing the spotlight with someone who's different than him. Allison has begun to see the zombies in a different way...and when Bucky sabotages their homecoming game, she's the one who has to bring the two groups together and prove that zombies are as good as anyone else.

The Song and Dance: Like I said at the top, this may be the weirdest thing Disney ever did, in live-action or animation. On the surface, it has a lot of things in common with High School Musical and Descendants - new kids are made fun and pigeonholed by peers, Romeo and Juliet romance, big chorus numbers - but the horror theme and the racism angle definitely add something unique. Donnelly in particular isn't bad as the conflicted Allison, and Foster's adorable as little Zoey. I also like the emphasis on there being many different ways of inciting change, and that physical fighting or deviousness aren't always the way to lead a revolution. 

Favorite Number: Once again, it's the chorus songs that stand out. The opening "My Year" introduces us to all the principals, including Allison and Zed's very different worlds. "Fired Up" is initially the big number for the new cheerleaders as they try to pass Bucky's impossible standards. It comes up again as the big finale where all the kids, zombie and "normal," dance together. There's also a great dance routine for the kids in Zombietown to celebrate their differences, "BAMM!"

What I Don't Like: I wish they could have been slightly more subtle about the racism parallels. The "everyone is different" theme is driven home with all the force of a zombie going after ten tons of brains. Most of the kids are annoying and obvious, and the songs just aren't that memorable. Not to mention, the kids don't really look much like "zombies." They look like cute teenagers in bad Jolly Green Giant makeup.

The Big Finale: Well, it's not really bad so much as it is...odd. If you desperately need a mildly horror-themed variation on High School Musical or are looking for a horror musical for young teens, this is worth at least a rental or catching on The Disney Channel or Disney Plus.

Home Media: Surprisingly, despite the film's popularity, this is currently only on DVD and streaming. 

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Into the Woods (2014)

Disney, 2014
Starring Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, James Corben, and Emily Blunt
Directed by Rob Marshall
Music and Lyrics by Stephan Sondheim

We leave Denmark and enter the woods for a far darker fantasy. This is another one that took years to bring to the big screen. It was originally in development at Columbia in the early 90's, but they'd lost interest by the end of the decade. It didn't start up again until Marshall approached Sondheim after the success of Chicago in 2002 to direct one of his shows, and Sondheim suggested Into the Woods. It finally got going around 2012, and debuted in 2014 to become a fair success. How does this melding of four famous fairy tales and one original one look on the big screen? Let's start in a small town with a lot of folks doing wishing and find out...

The Story: The Baker (Corben) and his wife (Blunt) want nothing more than to have a child, but were cursed by a witch (Streep) after she caught his father raiding her garden. Because she did lose the magic beans, the witch was herself cursed to be ugly by her mother. Pretty Cinderella (Kendrick)  wants nothing more than to attend the festival and meet the handsome prince (Chris Pine), but her stepmother (Christine Baranski) won't let her go. Little Red Riding Hood (Lila Crawford) is pursued through the woods by a hungry wolf (Johnny Depp) who wants to do a lot more to her and her granny than see and smell them. Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) just wishes her guardian the witch would just let her leave her tower. Jack (Daniel Huddlestone) wishes he didn't have to sell his cow, and his mother (Tracey Ullman) wants a better life and a more attentive son.

After many misadventures and much running into each other and losing cows in the woods, they finally all get what they want...but it turns out to be far from the end of our tale. Jack killed the giant when he went up the beanstalk, and now his wife has come down to the kingdom for her revenge. After Rapunzel takes off and the giant kills Little Red Riding Hood and Jack's parents, the others have to figure out how they're going to get the giantess out of the woods...and the importance of teaching the next generation about real love.

The Song and Dance: A great cast brings four of the most beloved fairy tales of all time to life. Kendrick makes a sweet Cinderella, while Pine and Billy Magnussen are hilarious as the princes, who are more concerned with their own egos than their love interests. Streep makes an excellent witch, cursing the Baker and his wife, then so upset when Rapunzel opts to leave safety. Corben and Blunt also do well as the couple who start everything off with their desire for a child, and the kids are a delight.

The other delight here is the special effects. From the birds who dress Cinderella to the tar the witch sinks into, everything does indeed look magical and spooky. Even better are the things they choose not to see. We don't get to actually see the full giantess, just what the characters see of her...but it works better leaving it to our imagination.

Favorite Number: The movie kicks off in high style with an epic title song that gradually involves almost every principal and reveals their desires and wishes...and how they'll impact the story. Streep tears into her solos "Stay With Me" and "Witch's Lament." Blunt and Corben have a touching "It Takes Two," and Blunt does well by "Any Moment" with an amorous Pine and "Moments In the Woods" when she's trying to figure out her feelings afterwards. Crawford has fun with her admittance that "I Know Things Now" after escaping the wolf. Kendrick's "On the Steps of the Palace" as she tries to figure out how to avoid the prince again is adorable, and Pine and Magnussen's "Agony" is hilarious and beautifully filmed by an artificial waterfall.

The film ends with my favorite song from this one, the touching "No One Is Alone." The surviving characters admit that, even if they've lost their loved ones, they still have each other...and their loved ones will always be in their hearts.

What I Don't Like: A lot was changed from the original show. Many characters were cut or had their parts reduced, notably Cinderella's father and the "mysterious man" who shows up in the second half. Many songs were dropped, including the Baker's big solo "No More." And as dark as this is, it's still not as dark as the stage version, which included details like Rapunzel becoming pregnant and being killed by the giant and the princes having affairs with other storybook maidens.

And speaking of Rapunzel, what happened to her and her prince? After she takes off with him, they're neither seen, nor heard from again. We never do find out if they survive the giant or not.

Johnny Depp isn't the singer that the rest of these folks are, and his Jack Sparrow-esque Big Bad Wolf feels more than a little out of place amid the rest of the perfectly-chosen cast.

The Big Finale: If you're a fan of the cast, the work of Stephan Sondheim, or love older, darker fairy tales like I do, you'll want to take a trip into the woods yourself and check this one out.

Home Media: As one of the more recent movies I've reviewed, this is easily found in all formats, including streaming.

Amazon Prime (Buy Only)

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Hans Christian Andersen

The Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1952
Starring Danny Kaye, Zizi Jeanmaire, Farley Granger, and Joseph Walsh
Directed by Charles Vidor
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesseur

This week, we're going to explore the world of fantasy with two very different retellings of favorite fairy tales. Danny Kaye was at the height of his popularity as a beloved comedian when he appeared in this supposed version of the life of the famous Danish author of The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina, and other romantic tales. How well does Kaye do with Hans and his stories? Let's head to tiny Odense, Denmark, in the 1830's to hear a story from Hans himself and find out...

The Story: Hans the Cobbler (Kaye) loves telling stories to the children of the town. He keeps doing it during school hours, upsetting the school master (John Brown). Trying to avoid being thrown out of town, Hans' apprentice Peter (Walsh) suggests they take their wares to Copehagen and try their luck there.

Upon their arrival, Hans is arrested for dancing on a statue of the king. Peter gets him out by offering their services to the Royal Danish Ballet. Hans falls hard for its prima ballerina Doro (Zizi Jeanmaire), but despite their seemingly antagonistic relationship, she's really in love with her husband Niels (Granger), the dance master. He even writes her a story, The Little Mermaid, which they turn into a ballet. Peter tries to tell Hans that Doro isn't interested in him, but he's too smitten to listen. His love life may not be all he hoped, but his stories become better-known after they're printed in Copenhagen's newspaper, finally making him a real writer.

The Song and Dance: This is probably Kaye's best-known solo vehicle, and I can understand why. He's a wonderfully warm Andersen, sweet with Jeanmaire and adorable with the children. This was Jeanmaire's debut; she's a fabulous dancer, is very funny sparring with the grumpy Granger, and is so sensual and flirtatious, you can understand why Hans became smitten.

This is also a really beautiful movie. Goldwyn went all-out in bringing Andersen's world to life. The color is exquisite, the costumes delicate and gorgeous, especially the stunning ballet outfits. My favorites are the unique transparent tutus seen on Jeanmaire and the ladies in the "No Two People" number and the colorful peasant outfits in Odense.

Favorite Number: I saw this a lot on independent TV stations when I was little, and it was my introduction to the delights of ballet and Frank Loesser. Of the three ballets in the film, by far the best is the lovely "Little Mermaid" in the finale. This may have been my first "Little Mermaid," well before the Disney film came out, and it's touching, romantic, and gorgeously danced.

Loesser wrote what may be his finest full movie score here. Kaye scores with the short but charming "Inchworm," sung in counterpoint with the children in school, the sweet "Thumbelina" in the prison with a little girl outside, and the gorgeous ballad "Anywhere I Wander" as he dreams of his adored Doro.

Trivia: Goldwyn had been working on this since 1936, and even considered doing it with Walt Disney at one point.

It was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Song for "Thumbelina."

What I Don't Like: Um, the spiel in the opening isn't kidding about this being "a fairy tale about a spinner of fairy tales." Other than him being Danish and a cobbler, this has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Andersen's real life. The idea of him being in love with a ballerina is sweet, but it's also pure Hollywood fantasy.

The Big Finale: If you have children of your own, or you love ballet, Loesser, Kaye, or the real Andersen's stories, you'll want to dance on over and check this one out.

Home Media: The Blu-Ray is out of print, but it can still be found fairly easily on DVD.


Saturday, October 5, 2019

Animation Celebration Saturday - Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Disney, 1959
Voices of Mary Costa, Eleanor Audley, Bill Shirley, and Verna Felton
Directed by Clyde Geronimi and others
Music by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky; Lyrics by Jack Lawrence and Sammy Fain

I'm doing this one in honor of the release of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil in a few weeks. Disney started work on this one in the early 50's after the success of Cinderella and continued with it through the decade. It was supposed to be Disney's magnum opus, but it had a lengthy and drawn-out production, with so many changes that it wound up being the most expensive Disney movie up to that point. Even being one of the bigger hits of 1959 couldn't put it in the black, but it's since become one of the more popular films in the Disney animated canon. How does the story of a prince, a princess, and a nasty fairy who can really hold a grunge look today? Let's head to the kingdom for the christening of infant Princess Aurora and find out...

The Story: King Stefan (Taylor Holmes) and Queen Leah (Felton) have longed for a child. They're delighted when they finally have little Aurora and hold a huge christening for her. Among those they invite are the three good fairies, Flora (Felton), Fauna (Barbara Jo Allen), and Merriweather (Barbara Ludley), who all have gifts for the new princess. Not on the guest list is Maleficent (Audley), a far darker fairy. She spitefully curses the child to prick her finger on a spinning wheel on her 16th birthday and die. Merriweather uses her gift to soften the curse into Aurora merely falling into a deep sleep.

Stefan's not taking chances and destroys all the spinning wheels in the kingdom, but the fairies know better. They turn themselves into ordinary humans and raise Aurora as a normal girl they call Briar Rose. Even so, she still manages to meet her intended, the handsome Prince Phillip (Shirley), in the woods and fall instantly in love with him. She thinks he's just a woodsman and is devastated when her mothers tell her the truth about herself. Meanwhile, Maleficent is still searching for Aurora...and she won't stop until her curse is satisfied.

The Animation: Some of the most gorgeous work Disney did in the 50's, with influences everywhere from Art Deco to medieval tapestries. I especially love the lush use of color here. Everything pops, whether it's the green of the forest where Aurora and Philip have their dance, the deepest blacks, grays, and purples of Malificent's domain, or the fiery scarlets of the duel between Philip and the dragon in the end.

The Song and Dance: The supporting cast is the thing here, along with that lovely animation. Maleficent is one of Disney's most beloved villains, and Audley gives her just the right touch of purring menace. Phillip is likewise one of my favorite Disney princes, far funnier and more romantic (and more relevant to the story) than previous prince charmings. The fairies are all hilarious, especially when they're trying to put together a birthday cake and dress for Aurora without the use of magic - or the slightest idea of what they're doing. The kings and their drunk song are almost as funny.

Favorite Number: "I Wonder" is Aurora's introductory number in the woods with her animal friends, as she admits to her loneliness and wonders where her someone is. She gets the answer quickly with this movie's most famous song, "Once Upon a Dream." She first performs it when her friends dress as the prince of her dreams...but it turns into a real dance of romance when Phillip finds her. It's one of Disney's most romantic sequences, with the soaring music and the soft greens of the forest providing the perfect backdrop. The two kings have a great comic drunk song with "Schumps"...which is stolen by their minstrel, who sneaks their wine and gets even more drunk.

What I Don't Like: The real problem here is with the title character. Other than as a love interest, Aurora just isn't that interesting. Despite being one of the more popular Disney princesses, things more happen to her than her doing anything. I don't think they ever really figured out what to do with her, besides putting her to sleep. The strength of the supporting cast just shows how bland she is.

The Big Finale: Come to this one for the stunning animation and one of Disney's best bad ladies, stay for some lovely music and hilarious side characters.

Home Media: Just re-released on Blu-Ray as part of Disney's new Signature Collection last month. It's also easily found for purchase on several streaming companies.

Amazon Prime

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Funny Girl

Columbia, 1968
Starring Barbra Streisand, Omar Sharif, Kay Medford, and Walter Pidgeon
Directed by William Wyler
Music by Jules Styne and others; Lyrics by Bob Merrill and others

Thirty years later, Fanny Brice's story did make it as a hit stage musical, this time in a fully-authorized version. Barbra Streisand was such a sensation as Brice, they wouldn't do the film version without her. For most people, she and her ways with both ballads and comic numbers really made the show. She even won an Oscar for this, her first film performance. How does the movie surrounding her look today? Let's head to the Ziegfeld Theater in New York with Fanny herself and find out...

The Story: We join Fanny as she recalls how she began in the early 1910's, when she was just a determined teenager looking for jobs in vaudeville. She manages to get a singing job after the manager realizes she stands out too much to be in the chorus. Gambler Nicky Armstein (Sharif) is in the audience and is smitten, asking her to dinner. She can't believe a handsome guy like him would be interested in a girl like her and turns him down.

Nicky's not the only one who catches Fanny at the show. None other than Florenz Ziegfeld (Pidgeon) hires her to sing in his famous Ziegfeld Follies. She becomes a star, which brings Nicky back into her life. He does everything he can to seduce her. Despite her awkwardness, she eventually falls for him, even following him to the ocean liner where he's gambling. They eventually marry and have a daughter and a beautiful huge house.

While Fannie is able to return to the Follies and continue as a success, Nicky doesn't do nearly as well with his business ventures and resents his wife trying to help. Fanny eventually admits that looks aren't everything when he gets in trouble for an embezzlement scam, and she realizes that, she may be the funniest woman around, but losing the love of her life is a lot less amusing.

The Song and Dance: Yes, Streisand is as good as every critic has always says she is in this. She throws herself into the role of the gawky young woman who becomes...well, if not a swan, at least someone more assured and poised. Sharif matches her as the caddish gambler who finds her fascinating, if only she wasn't so determined to keep performing and trying to bail him out. The widescreen cinematography is some of the most famous in any musical, including that much-discussed tracking shot at the end of the "Don't Rain on My Parade" number.

Favorite Number: I mentioned that famous tracking shot at the end of "Don't Rain on My Parade." The rest of that song is classic too, from the driving montage of Streisand on the train to her powerhouse performance. She also gives a lovely rendition of "People" early on, after her first date with Arnstein at her mother's post-Follies party. "The Roller Skate Rag" is supposed to be a typically cute vaudeville chorus girl number...if only Fanny could actually skate! She does better by the classic ballad "I'd Rather Be Blue." "His Love Makes You Beautiful" starts out as a typical Follies number with mirrors and chorus girls as seasonal brides...before Fanny steps in and shows just what love that makes you "beautiful" does. She ends with a truly searing version of Brice's signature dark ballad, "My Man."

Trivia: Funny Girl opened on Broadway in 1964. It was nominated for eight Tonys...but it debuted the same year as Hello Dolly and lost in every one. It still managed to run for over four years, even after Streisand left the show. A Broadway revival in 2012 failed to materialize, but a 2016 West End revival did well in a limited run.

The film version dropped 8 numbers, including a song for Fanny's mother and her friend at the vaudeville house, a chorus song for her neighbors at the big post-Follies party, several more Ziegfeld Follies routines, and a lovely ballad for Streisand, "The Music That Makes Me Dance."

This was the biggest hit film of 1968.

What I Don't Like: If you're not a fan of Streisand or Sharif, this is not the place for you. Most of the remaining cast, including Medford and Anne Francis as a Ziegfeld showgirl, barely register.

Likewise, I have mixed feelings on all those numbers being dropped. On one hand, they gave more characters stuff to do. On the other hand, the extra Follies songs and neighbors song weren't really necessary to the plot and took the focus away from Fanny.

There's also the problem that, like many musical films of this era, the movie is simply too long. They could have trimmed the more than two and a half hour running time.

The Big Finale: f you love Streisand or the extra-long epic movies of the late 60's, you'll find much to enjoy in this classy film.

Home Media: As a major hit and one of Streisand's most popular vehicles, this is easily found on all major formats, usually for under $10.

Amazon Prime

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Rose of Washington Square

20th Century Fox, 1939
Starring Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, Al Jolson, and Joyce Compton
Directed by Gregory Ratoff
Music and Lyrics by various

This is another one in the series of musical melodramas Alice Faye did in the late 30's-early 40's, and like Lillian Russell, it has a real-life basis. How does the story of a singer who falls for a fast-talking gambler look today? Let's head to an amateur show to meet the title character and find out...

The Story: Rose Sargent (Faye) is a struggling singer working amateur nights in the early 1920's. She's discovered by minstrel performer Ted Cotter (Jolson), who takes her under his wing and gets her career started. He starts to fall for her, but she sees him as only a friend. Her eye is on handsome con-man and gambler Bart Clinton (Power). Ted knows that Bart is no good, but Rose can't help falling for and marrying him. When one of Bart's con victims finally sues him, he skips town after Ted puts up bail. Seeing his wife perform the passionate "My Man" makes him rethink his life and paying for his crimes.

The Song and Dance: The cast is the thing here. The story may be a load of melodrama, but they generally put it over well. This might not be a bad place to start if you want a taste of Jolson. He gets to sing some of his most famous numbers, including "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby" and "California, Here I Come." Power comes off a little better here as the charming scoundrel than he did in his previous go-around with Faye, Alexander's Ragtime Band.

Favorite Number: As mentioned, this may be a great way for newcomers to get to know Jolson. Not only do we get performances of songs like "My Mammy," but we also get to see his comedic chops when he has to deal with a drunk heckler in the audience. Faye's performance of the title song is the sole large-scale production number, complete with chorus and specialty dancers Velez and Yolanda doing a death-defying dance routine mid-way through.

Trivia: Three numbers were cut, Faye's solos of "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" and "I'll See You In My Dreams" and Jolson's medley of "April Showers" and "Avalon." Unlike a lot of cut numbers from older movies, all three exist and are included on the DVD as extras.

If the story seems like the life of Fannie Brice with different names, well, Fannie Brice thought so, too, and she wasn't happy. She sued 20th Century Fox for damages; the matter was settled out of court.

What I Don't Like: The story is as melodramatic as the later Funny Girl, but without that movie's epic numbers and splendid performances. Jolson is fine when he's singing, but is totally out of his element in some of the heavier dramatics. Honestly, Bart is such a jerk and a cad, I agree with Ted - I really don't understand why Rose sticks by him.

And yes, Jolson does most of his numbers in blackface. It was expected at the time, but it seems unnecessary at best today and offensive at worst.

The Big Finale: Heavy bit of melodrama given a bit of vitality by Jolson and Faye. May be fun for their fans and lovers of bittersweet romance.

Home Media: Out of print on solo DVD, but it can still be found on a Faye collection.

DVD: The Alice Faye Collection - Volume 2