Thursday, December 31, 2015
"42ND STREET" (1933) Review
I have always been a major fan of movie musicals. My favorite period for musicals stretched between the years 1945 and 1969. I find this ironic, considering that one of my all time favorite movie musicals is "42ND STREET", which was first released over a decade earlier, at the height of the Great Depression in 1933.
When talking pictures first arrived in the late 1920s, the Hollywood industry did not hesitate to produce musicals. One of the earliest films to win the Best Picture Academy Award was the 1929 musical, "THE BROADWAY MELODY". I have never seen this film, but I had a few glimpses of other musicals made during the first four or five years of the talkies. At worst, they were just awful. At best, they were mediocre. Then along came "42ND STREET" in March 1933 and Hollywood musicals have never been the same . . . well, almost.
Based upon Bradford Ropes' 1932 novel and written by Rian James, James Seymour and an uncredited Whitney Bolton; "42ND STREET" was originally slated to be directed by Mervyn Leroy. However, the director of Depression-era hits like "LITTLE CAESAR" and "I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG" found himself unable to helm the movie, due to illness. The directing assignment went to Lloyd Bacon, a contract director at Warner Brothers Studios. In addition, producer Darryl F. Zanuck hired choreographer Busby Berkeley to direct the film's big musical numbers near the end of the film.
"42ND STREET" begins when a pair of Broadway producers decide to put on a musical show called "Pretty Lady", starring stage star Dorothy Brock. The latter is involved with wealthy Abner Dillon, the show's financial backer. But while Dorothy busies herself with playing hot and cold with Dillon, she is secretly dating her former vaudeville partner, the out-of-work Pat Denning. The producers hire Julian Marsh to direct the play. However, Marsh's health is in bad shape, due to the high stress of his job. And he is also broke, due to the 1929 Stock Market Crash. He needs "Pretty Lady" to be a hit in order to secure enough cash for retirement. The competition for casting selection becomes fierce, especially for some the chorines, whose desperation for a job leads them to resort to sexual promises. Lorraine Fleming manages to get hired, due to her relationship with dance director Andy Lee. Both she and Ann "Anytime Annie" Lowell help a young woman named Peggy Sawyer to get hired. Peggy is a hoofer from Allentown, Pennsylvania who finds difficulty in getting a job due to her naivety and inexperience. Not only does she managed to befriend Lorraine and Ann, but also the show's juvenile lead, Billy Lawler. Peggy also acquires another friend - namely Pat Denning. Her friendship with Pat nearly affects his romance with Dorothy Brock and also the show.
When most fans and critics discuss "42ND STREET", they tend to focus on Busby Berkeley's direction of the musical numbers and the sexual innuendo that seems to permeate the film's narrative. What do I think of "42ND STREET"? Well . . . just as I had earlier hinted, it is one of my favorite musicals. Because it is regarded as a "backstage musical", most of the performances are limited to the film's last act, when Pretty Lady" has its opening night in Philadelphia. The only exception is the "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me" number, which was performed by Bebe Daniels in a rehearsal sequence. Overall, I have no problems with the musical numbers. Songwriters Harry Warren and Al Dubin created some memorable tunes. My favorites tend to be "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me" and "Young and Healthy". The first number is a personal favorite, thanks to Daniels' charming and slightly wicked performance. And between Dick Powell's energetic performance and the dazzling choreography directed by Busby Berkeley, the second number holds a special place in my heart. Ironically, when mentioning Berkeley's choreography, I do not mean actual dancing. I was referring to the number's complex geometric patterns created by the dancers moving or marching in place. Berkeley was known for this kind of choreography. I also enjoyed "Shuffle Off to Buffalo", due to its sexual innuendos, but it is not a big favorite of mine. I do love the movie's main and final song, "42nd Street". I find it energetic and entertaining - including the instrumental version during the number's New York Street montage. But I am not particularly in love with the actual choreography in the last number that features the song.
But more than anything, I really enjoyed the narrative behind "42ND STREET". Recently, I came across an article in which the blogger revealed that he or she had read the source material behind the 1933 movie - namely Bradford Ropes' 1932 novel. The blogger also revealed that the screenwriters had changed a good deal of Ropes' story. The novel mainly focused upon the personal lives of the show's cast and crew. It barely focused upon rehearsals or any of the backstage hang ups, until the last act. In a way, this structure reminds me of the 1933 movie, "DINNER AT EIGHT", which focused on the lives of a family planning a dinner party and their guests. According to the blogger, Ropes' novel was even racier than the movie. In fact, one subplot dealt with a romance between Julian Marsh and Billy Lawler. But since overt homosexuality was not tolerated in the old Hollywood films - even during the Pre-Code era - the movie's screenwriters developed a budding romance between Lawler and Peggy Sawyer, kick starting the first of several on-screen teamings between Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler.
The lack of a romance between two of the three leading male characters did not exactly make "42ND STREET" squeaky clean. The sexual innuendos that flew between the chorine characters provided plenty of ammunition for the Moral Brigade to raise their eyebrows. The movie is filled with memorable lines like:
*"Not Anytime Annie? Say, who could forget 'er? She only said "No" once, and THEN she didn't hear the question!"
*"It must have been hard on your mother, not having any children.".
But what I found really interesting . . . and somewhat disturbing about "42ND STREET" is that the film went beyond mere innuendos.
I was slightly taken aback by the sheer number of sexual politics that seemed to dominate the movie's narrative. "42ND STREET"featured chorus girls like Ann "Anytime Annie" Lowell and Lorraine Fleming willing to promise anything in order to become part of the show's chorus. Even leading lady Dorothy Brock seemed willing to subject herself to the slimy attentions of the show's money bags, Abner Dillon, in order to maintain her job with this show. The movie also featured one male character - namely the unemployed Pat Denning - who seemed willing to be Dorothy's boy toy, while she services Dillon. However in Pat's case, I suspectlove may be the reason behind his willingness to be Dorothy's personal bed warmer. In one or two cases, the prostitution that went on in this movie seemed to go beyond sex. A good example of this proved to be a decision made by the show's two producers, Barry and Jones, and Marsh. Desperate for Dillon's continuing finances, the three men were not only willing to hire Dorothy for the lead, but also hire local gangsters to rough up Pat Denning, when they learn about his affair with Dorothy.
However, the movie's sexual politics not only feature prostitution, but also another ugly subject. Sexual harassment. The movie did not hesitate to reveal the sexual manhandling and harassment of the female chorus members. In one scene, Lorraine Fleming had to resort to a caustic one-liner to stop a male dancer from groping her. From the moment she arrived at the theater, Peggy was either subjected to groping by male chorus dancers and crewmen, or propositioned. Most of this is handled with humor by the movie's screenwriters. But there was one scene in which I found particular scary. At a pre-show party at a Philadelphia hotel, Peggy had to fend off the unwelcome groping of a drunken chorus boy named Terry, who had been presented himself as a friend during the show's rehearsals. Worse, Terry hunted Peggy down throughout the hotel after she fled the party, leading me to suspect that he had intended to rape her all along.
Some people have commented that one of the movie's flaws is that it has become dated over the past eighty years or so. Personally, I feel that the march of time has not made "42ND STREET" dated. Despite the 1930s musical numbers and dialogue, the movie's story and theme is as fresh today as it was eighty years ago. More importantly, the Great Depression background gave the movie's narrative an earthy, yet realistic aura that still resonates today. But the movie does have its flaws. And for me, those flaws centered around the casting of Ruby Keeler and the final musical number, "42nd Street".
It occurred to me that I could have accepted Ruby Keeler as the movie's talented ingénue, Peggy Sawyer, if it not for the presence of . . . Ginger Rogers. I read somewhere that the movie's original director, Mervyn LeRoy, had suggested Rogers for the role of "Anytime Annie". Why "Anytime Annie"? Rogers could have easily portrayed the wide-eyed naivety of Peggy Sawyer. She was only 21 years-old when the movie was shot. She had portrayed similar characters in a few of her early movies with Fred Astaire. More importantly, she could both act and dance circles around Keeler. The latter, on the other hand, had a decent singing voice and was a damn good hoofer. But a hoofer only dances with his or her feet and not the entire body. And when it came to using her entire body, Keeler seemed rather sluggish. Keeler's performance was also rather stiff. This is not surprising, since this was her first movie. So why on earth did Warner Brothers settled on Keeler, when they had a bigger talent in Rogers? Then I remembered . . . Rogers was dating Mervyn LeRoy at the time this movie was made. But Keeler was married to Al Jolson, who was still a top Warners Brothers contract player at the time.
My other major problem with "42ND STREET" is the final musical number. As I had previously stated, I enjoy Harry Warren and Al Dubin's song very much. It may be 82 to 83 years old, but I still find it very catchy. I had no problems with the song. On the other hand, I had a lot of problems with the dancing featured in this number. I did not find it particularly impressive. Yes, I was impressed by Berkeley's precision-style choreography and use of the camera to display it in the "Young and Healthy" number. I was not impressed by the actual dancing featured in "42nd Street". Ruby Keeler's solo dancing led me to wince a bit. Well, perhaps more than a bit. I noticed that the . . . um, "strutting" done by the extras in the New York street montage segment seemed a bit offbeat. And the final segment featuring the background dancers seemed rather awkward and not particularly mind-blowing. I have seen better dancing in other Berkeley films, especially the "Lullaby of Broadway" dance number in 1935's "GOLDIGGERS OF 1935".
"42ND STREET" featured some fine performances from the cast. Most of them not only gave it their all, but also provided a great deal of energy to the movie. Both Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel were hilarious as the two showgirls who befriend Ruby Keeler's character. I also impressed by the energetic performances provided by George E. Stone and Guy Kibbee, who portrayed dance director Andy Lee and the wealthy Abner Dillon, respectively. However, I was not that impressed by Ruby Keeler's portrayal of Peggy Sawyer, which I found rather stilted. And I thought both George Brent and Dick Powell were particularly wasted in this film as Pat Denning and Billy Lawler. Fortunately, both men will go on to proved their real talent in later films. I personally thought the best performances came from the movie's two leads - Warner Baxter and Bebe Daniels. Baxter walked a fine line between indulging in borderline hamminess and conveying a world weary desperation in his portrayal of the tough-minded director, Julian Marsh, who is determined to produce one last hit. And he did it with a seamless skill that still leaves me breathless with admiration. I was also impressed by Bebe Daniels, who did an excellent job in her portrayal of the ambitious Dorothy Brock, who found herself torn between her love for Pat and her willingness to be Dillon's plaything, despite her personal disgust toward him.
It is a miracle that after 82-83 years, "42ND STREET" still holds up well for me. Ironically, it was not the musical numbers or Busby Berkeley's choreography that really impressed me. It was the backstage story filled with sharp humor, sexual politics and desperation that I believe resonates even to this day. It was the story, along with Lloyd Bacon's solid direction and a talented cast led by Warner Baxter and Bebe Daniels that still makes "42ND STREET" a favorite of mine, even to this day.
Wednesday, December 30, 2015
Below are images from "THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS", the 2010 adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1925 novel. The movie starred Julia McKenzie as Miss Jane Marple:
"THE SECRET OF CHIMNEYS" (2010) Photo Gallery
Monday, December 28, 2015
Below is a list of my top five favorite episodes from the ABC 2011 series, "PAN AM":
TOP FIVE FAVORITE "PAN AM" (2011) Episodes
1. (1.08) "Unscheduled Departure" - In this tense and well made episode, Flight 203 is forced to land in Haiti when a passenger suffers a heart attack during the flight to Venezuela.
2. (1.01) "Pilot" - This episode does a nice job in setting up the series' various subplots, which include the mysterious disappearance of British-born stewardess Bridget Pierce and Kate Cameron's recruitment as a courier for both the C.I.A. and MI-6.
3. (1.03) "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" - This emotional episode featured the crew's visit to Berlin during the time of President John Kennedy's famous state visit.
4. (1.11) "Diplomatic Relations" - Here is another tense episode in which Laura Cameron and returning stewardess Bridget Pierce are suspected of being spies by the Soviets during a stay in Moscow and find themselves being detained.
5. (1.09) "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" - Kate Cameron's job is threatened when she announced her intentions to walk away from her role as an intelligence courier and she becomes deeply involved in a spy hunt for a mole.
Saturday, December 26, 2015
"BRIDGE OF SPIES" (2015) Review
Several years ago, I read an article in which Steven Spielberg had expressed a desire to direct a James Bond movie. It has been over a decade since the director had made this comment. And as far as I know, he has only directed two movies that had anything to do with spies - the 2005 movie"MUNICH", which co-starred the current Bond actor, and his latest film, "BRIDGE OF SPIES".
Like "MUNICH", "BRIDGE OF SPIES" is a spy tale with a strong historical background. Based upon Giles Whittell's 2010 book, "Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War", the movie centered around the 1960 U-2 Incident and the efforts of attorney James B. Donovan to negotiate the exchange of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for the captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel - whom Donovan had unsuccessfully defended from charges of espionage against the United States. Although Whittell's book focused upon a larger cast of characters involved in the U-2 incident and the famous spy exchange, the screenwriters - Matt Charman, along with Joel and Ethan Coen - and Spielberg tightened their focus upon Donovan's role in the incident.
It occurred to me that in the past fifteen years, I can only think of five Steven Spielberg-directed movies that I have truly liked. Five out of eleven movies. Hmmmm . . . I do not know if that is good or bad. Fortunately, one of those movies that I managed to embrace was this latest effort, "BRIDGE OF SPIES". I enjoyed it very much. I would not rank it at the same level as "MUNICH" or "LINCOLN". But I thought it was a pretty solid movie for a director of Spielberg's caliber. The latter and the movie's screenwriters made the intelligent choice to focus on one particular person involved in the entire incident - James B. Donovan. If they had attempted to cover every aspect of Whittell's book, Spielberg would have been forced to release this production as a television miniseries.
Yet, "BRIDGE OF SPIES" still managed to cover a great deal of the events surrounding the shooting of Powers' U-2 spy plane and the exchange that followed. This is due to the screenwriters' decision to start the movie with the arrest of Rudolf Abel in 1957. More importantly, the narrative went into details over the arrest, the U.S. decision to put Abel on trial, their choice of Donovan as his attorney and the trial itself. In fact, the movie covered all of this before Powers was even shot down over the Soviet Union. The screenwriters and Spielberg also went out of their way to cover the circumstances of the arrest and incarceration of American graduate student Frederic Pryor, who was vising his East Berlin girlfriend, when he was arrested. And that is because the writers had the good sense to realize - like Whittell before them - that the incidents surrounding the arrests of both Abel and Pryor were just as important as Powers being shot down by the Soviets.
What I best liked about "BRIDGE OF SPIES" was its ambiguous portrayal of the nations involved in the entire matter - the United States, the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). No country was spared. Both the United States and the Soviet Union seemed bent upon not only projecting some image of a wounded nation to the world. Both engaged in sham trials for Abel and Powers that left a bad taste in my mouth. And the movie portrayed East Germany as some petulant child pouting over the fact that neither of the other two countries were taking it seriously. Which would account for that country's vindictive treatment toward Pryor. And neither the U.S. or the Soviets seemed that concerned over Pryor's fate - especially the U.S. Watching the movie finally made me realize how the Cold War now strikes me as irrelevant and a waste of time.
As much as I enjoyed "BRIDGE OF SPIES", the movie seemed to lack a sense of urgency that struck me as odd for this kind of movie. And I have to blame Spielberg. His direction seemed a bit . . . well, a bit too relaxed for a topic about the Cold War at its most dangerous. Many might point out that"BRIDGE OF SPIES" is basically a historic drama in which anyone familiar with the U-2 incident would know how it ends. Yet Both "MUNICH" and"LINCOLN", along with Ron Howard's "APOLLO 13" and Roger Donaldson's 2000 film, "THIRTEEN DAYS", seemed to possess that particular sharp urgency, despite being historic dramas. But for "BRIDGE OF SPIES", Spielberg's direction seemed just a tad too relaxed - with the exception of a few scenes. One last problem I had with "BRIDGE OF SPIES" was the ending. Remember . . . this is Steven Spielberg, a director notorious for dumping a surprising layer of saccharine on an otherwise complex tale. This saccharine was on full display in the movie's finale sequence that featured Donovan's return to the United States . . . especially the scene in which he is riding an El train to his home in the Bronx and his family's discovery of his activities in Eastern Europe. It was enough saccharine to make me heave an exasperated sigh.
Speaking of Donovan's El Train ride back to his neighborhood, there was one aspect of it that I found impressive. I must admit how cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a longtime collaborator of Spielberg's since the early 1990s, allowed the camera to slowly sweep over Donovan's Bronx neighborhood from an elevated position. I found the view rather rich and detailed. In fact, Kamiński provided a similar sweeping bird eye's view of the Berlin Wall and the two "enclaves" that bordered it. Another aspect of the movie's production values that impressed me were Adam Stockhausen's production designs. I thought he did an outstanding job in re-creating both New York City and Berlin of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And his work was ably assisted by Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich's set decorations; along with the art direction team of Marco Bittner Rosser, Scott Dougan, Kim Jennings and Anja Müller.
The performances featured in "BRIDGE OF SPIES" struck me as pretty solid. I thought Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemmons, Michael Gaston, Will Rogers and Austin Stowell did great work. But for my money, the best performances came from lead Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Dakin Matthews and Sebastian Koch. Dakin Matthews has always been a favorite character actor of mine. I have always found his performances rather colorful. However, I would have to say that his portrayal of Federal Judge Byers, who seemed exasperated by Donovan's attempt to give Abel a fair trial, struck me as a lot more subtle and effective than many of his past roles. Sebastian Koch gave a very interesting performance as East German attorney Wolfgang Vogel, who seemed intensely determined that his country play a major role in the spy swap and not be cast aside. Superficially, Tom Hanks' role as James Donovan seemed like the typical "boy scout" role he had especially became known for back in the 1990s. And in some ways, it is. But I really enjoyed how the actor conveyed Donovan's increasing disbelief over his country's questionable handling of Abel's trial and his sense that he is a fish-out-of-water in a divided Berlin. However, I feel that the best performance came from Mark Rylance, who gave a deliciously subtle, yet entertaining portrayal of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. What I liked about Rylance's performance is that he did not portray Abel as some kind of stock KGB agent, but a subtle and intelligent man, who seemed clearly aware of the more unpleasant side of both American and Soviet justice.
I might as well be frank. I do not think I would ever regard "BRIDGE OF SPIES" as one of Steven Spielberg's best movies. I thought the movie lacked a sense of urgency and sharpness that nearly robbed the film of any suspension . . . despite it being a historical drama. But, I still believe it was a first-rate film. I also thought that Spielberg and the movie's screenwriters did a great job in conveying as many details as possible regarding the U-2 incident and what led to it. The movie also featured a first-rate cast led by the always incomparable Tom Hanks. Overall, "BRIDGE OF SPIES" proved that Spielberg has yet to lose his touch.
Friday, December 25, 2015
Below are images from "HERCULE POIROT'S CHRISTMAS", the 1994 adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1938 novel. The movie starred David Suchet as Hercule Poirot:
"HERCULE POIROT'S CHRISTMAS" (1994) Photo Gallery
Thursday, December 24, 2015
Below is a list of my favorite Christmas movies . . . or movies set around the Christmas holidays:
TOP FAVORITE CHRISTMAS MOVIES
1. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969) - Based upon Ian Fleming's 1963 novel, James Bond's professional life and personal life intertwine, when he falls in love during his search to find criminal mastermind, Ernst Stravo Blofeld. George Lazenby starred as British agent James Bond.
2. "The Thin Man" (1934) - William Powell and Myrna Loy starred as Nick and Nora Charles in this adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel about a former private detective who is drawn into an investigation of the murder of the secretary/mistress of a wealthy man, who is missing. W.S. Van Dyke directed.
3. "Die Hard" (1988) - Bruce Willis debuted as NYPD detective, John McClane, who faces a group of highly organized criminals, performing a heist under the guise of a terrorist attack, while holding hostages that include McClane's wife on Christmas Eve. Directed by John Tiernan, the movie co-starred Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman and James Shigeta.
4. "Trading Places" (1983) - John Landis directed this comedy about an upper class commodities broker and a homeless street hustler, whose lives cross paths when they are unknowingly made part of an elaborate test of nature vs. nurture by a pair of wealthy elderly brothers. Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy starred.
5. "Christmas in Connecticut" (1945) - Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan starred in this charming comedy about a food writer who has lied about being the perfect housewife. She is forced to cover her deception when her boss and a returning war hero invite themselves to her home for a traditional family Christmas. Peter Godfrey directed.
6. "Lethal Weapon" (1987) - Mel Gibson and Danny Glover first paired together in this action tale about a veteran cop and a suicidal younger cop forced to work together and stop a gang of former C.I.A. operatives, turned drug smugglers. Richard Donner directed.
7. "The Santa Clause" (1994) - Tim Allen starred in this funny tale about a man, who inadvertently kills Santa Claus, before he finds himself magically recruited to take his place. Directed by John Pasquin.
8. "Die Hard 2" (1990) - Bruce Willis returned as police detective John McClane, who attempts to avert disaster as rogue military officials seize control of Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., on Christmas Eve.
9. "While You Were Sleeping" (1995) - Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman starred in this charming romantic comedy about a Chicago ticket collector, who saves a man for whom she harbors feelings after he is pushed onto the commuter train tracks. While he is in a coma, his family mistakes her for his fiancée. Jon Turteltaub directed.
10. "Home Alone" (1990) - Macaulay Culkin became a star in this holiday comedy about an eight year-old boy, who is mistakenly left home in Chicago, when his family flies to Paris for the holidays. Chris Columbus directed this movie, which co-starred Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, John Heard and Catherine O'Hara.