Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Best Foot Forward (Eddie Buzzell, 1943)

Military academy movies are homoerotic enough. Fuse one with the musical's propensity for turning bodies into decorative elements and you have a Vesuvius of male objectification. In MGM's Best Foot Forward, Lucille Ball, playing herself, winds up at a military academy teeming with horny boys. But well before they literally tear her clothes off in one scene, the young men of fictional Winsocki find their own bodies subjected to hazing and awkward ornamental choreography.
My favorite scene has a row of cadets singing one line each of "Wish I May Wish I Might" into one another's eyes:
Wish I had an old jalop job

Just a little olden top job

Wish I had myself a C card

That would suit me to a T, pard

I could take my drag a-drivin'/And I would get the wish I wish tonight

And the cadets are always touching each other in that guileless, pre-Stonewall way.
So much so that the über-catchy "Three Men on a Date" doubles as a song about three men on a date with each other.
Other selling points:
Rubber-faced Kenny Bowers (on the left in the pic above) still playing to the nosebleed seats
A frothy score by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane
Nancy Walker butching things up in a spirited but arch performance
Several hot numbers from Harry James and His Music Makers

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College Coach (William A. Wellman, 1933)

As the author of the indispensable coffee table book The Hollywood Musical: Every Hollywood Musical From 1927 to The Present (New York: Crown, 1981), Clive Hirschhorn is an oedipal father I have to kill. So I get snippy when I watch a film he deems a musical that turns out to be no so such thing. Hence College Coach, a tough, punchy campus flick typical of the programmers Wellman was pumping out in the early 1930s.
Of the five songs listed by Hirschhorn (and IDMb), one is a school song heard over the opening credits and five minutes later sung by a group of students around a piano. Another has only one line sung - a news reporter modifies "Just One More Chance" as "Just One More Pose." I heard neither "Meet Me in the Gloaming" nor "What Will I Do Without You?" at any point in the film (perhaps they formed part of the non-diegetic score). Which leaves only one song, "Lonely Lane" sung by Dick Powell for no discernible reason.

It's a serviceable enough hour-plus, though, that touches on corrupt college football coaches. Future Ed Wood luminary Lyle Talbot is in it and so is John Wayne in a brief speaking role.

Bresson scholars might want to check out a fight scene played out, in part, below the waist.
And I was partial to the moment when two boys dance together after a score.
But yeah, so not a musical.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Footlight Serenade (Gregory Ratoff, 1942)

More than any other classical Hollywood genre, the musical affords directors the opportunity for displaying the male body and nowhere is that more apparent than in the "I'm Still Crazy For You" number from Footlight Serenade (Gregory Ratoff, 1942).
That's John Payne getting a rubdown and then some from Betty Grable. It may have been part of his star text to display his beauty so nakedly. Just check out the photo with which IMDb saw fit to represent him. Nevertheless, "I'm Still Crazy For You" indulges in a role reversal typical of the musical with a de-cheesecaked Grable the aggressor wrestling Payne's near-nude flailing body.

And it ends on an even itchier note as the couple face away from the camera for the last line of the song and a bit of dialogue thereafter, sweat glistening off of Payne's back. Head-scratching but delightfully queer.
Other selling points include a typically excellent performance by Victor Mature as an unstable love interest. The Medveds were high when they nominated him for The Worst Actor of All Time in The Golden Turkey Awards (Richard Burton won). He was one of the greats, outclassing everyone in this film and capable of using his agitation with the profession to lend his characters a slight psychotic edge. And keep an ear cocked for "Except with You," a Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin nugget begging for a country remake.


Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Film Declared One of America's Best Not So Hot

Laughter (Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast, 1930) was the last film I had left to see on Jonathan Rosenbaum's list of 100 great American films and it struck me as much the worst film on the list. Perhaps heightened expectations (and having to be polite to a craggy "anti-Commie" movie collector who sent me a copy of it on VHS for free in the pre-torrenting era) soured the film for me. Or perhaps it truly was as lumpy as Leonard Maltin claimed in early editions of his annual movie guide (it's since been dropped).

Or perhaps my even craggier bootlegs didn't give the film a chance to shine. So I took advantage of living near a great film city and finally saw Laughter on the big screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center with an intro by Rosenbaum himself. But the gorgeous print did little to change my first impressions - a decent enough film but hardly one of America's 100 best.

A warmed over Gatsby, Laughter concerns a young showgirl (Nancy Carroll) who marries a wealthy but dull and grey-haired New York banker (Frank Morgan). When her erstwhile composer boyfriend (a snappy performance by Fredric March) shows up unannounced, she gets seduced back into her carefree ways. Typical of some of the more stagey examples of early talkies, the weak transitions in and out of scenes contribute to the overall lumpiness. Many moments just fizzle out with only telegraphed indications of the characters' pasts. Thus, a disquieting track in to a silent Carroll as she ponders her lot loses its dramatic and even thematic thrust since her laughter-filled past remains vague at best. The story begs for some Lubitschian forward motion.

Even the complexities of the ending are dulled by an abrupt conclusion. Carroll runs off with March to Paris for a life of voluntary poverty. But as March is babbling about the changes he's made to his symphony, she eyes a rich woman in a café brandishing a sparkling bracelet. March catches her lusting after it. "I didn't say anything," she says laughing it off. But here, another slow track in (perhaps with March's voice trailing off the soundtrack) would have underscored her doubt more emphatically.

Still, there are attractive lumps along the way, particularly the scene in which Carroll and March break into a Long Island home to avoid the rain. They keep warm with bear rugs as they act out middle-class married life, a visual stolen by Warren Beatty in the notorious turkey Town & Country (Peter Chelsom, 2001) (the painful and depressing story of which you can read about in James Robert Parish's Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops).
Some trivia:

A Variety article reported some microphone problems during filming at Paramount's New York studio. In one scene, Carroll suggests to the banker's daughter (Diane Ellis) that they go to a museum. Ellis dryly responds "Oh I've seen a museum." According to the article, the line kept coming out as "Oh I've seen 'em; you've see 'em." So the line had to be switched to "But I've been to a museum." But Ellis quite clearly says "I've seen a museum" in the final print. They obviously got it right after the story went to press.

The scenes between Ellis and Carroll are quite remarkable since Carroll is her stepmother and they're both roughly the same age. They handle the situation with a humor and maturity indicative of the pre-Code spirit. So it's especially upsetting to learn that Ellis died shortly after starring in Laughter. She married Stephen C. Millet, a New York broker, and died in Madras, India while on honeymoon.

The Siskel screening corresponds with a class so the theatre was filled mostly with students. Best line heard from two students sitting next to me: "That has to be the TA. He has that TA swagger."

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Bilinda Butchers: Goodbyes (DiscsAu/Fastcut, 2012)

I'd avoided this San Francisco band due solely to their silly name. How could such a blatant tribute to My Bloody Valentine, mopping the name of the band's singer/guitarist, be worthwhile? But gotdang if their Goodbyes EP doesn't honor the memory of Loveless and then some. On the most stunning track, "Crystal Tears," The Butchers stutter their Wall of Shoegaze as if they were were pushing pause to the beat. Within the crevices, you can grasp a jaunty, banjo-like figure and eventually, a structure - verse-chorus-verse, breaks, an unwillingness to rush back into the verse which only reinforces the heft of the chorus, etc. It's a sound captured remarkably by the cover - a frightened gal drowning in a vat of Campbell's Cream of Daisies.

I'm still exploring their oeuvre including a recently released debut LP. But I come to gush not to conquer. Bandcamp:

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Josie and the Pussycats (Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, 2001)/Josie and the Pussycats (Epic/Sony Music Soundtrax, 2001)

Inspired by Ryan Maffei (check out his crazeballs tumblr where he lets forth on Xgau's 1970s guide), here are old reviews of the Josie and the Pussycats movie AND soundtrack. I end the former meditating on the second chapter of late-1990s teen pop: "Too bad we'll have to wait another generation to see the film that registers the vagaries of teen pop's unbridled ambition." Eh, time moves fast enough under late late capitalism that we can speculate a mere 13 years later. I suppose no one film would encapsulate that next chapter so much as films in general, i.e., films as a more prestigious route beyond pop music - The Social Network, surely, or whatever TV show Billie Piper stars in now. Britney's still at it although she may be entering her fizzle years after the sleepiness of her last album (which might explain Britney Inventions, the remarkable tumblr of a former student of mine swooping in to provide the history-making and irony lacking in her star narrative). Christina's on TV, The Spice Girls are atomized, Carson Daly's safe on a morning show, The Backstreet Boys are collapsing history with the NKOTBSB album and tour (The Osmonds should open). And The Click Five...wait, who?

What's Ideological, Pussycat?
Josie and the Pussycats (Harry Elfont and Deobrah Kaplan, 2001)

Some readers found it perplexing, to be nice, that I included Josie & The Pussycats on my top ten list for 2001. I hemmed and hawed over whether I should justify my choice at length and decided finally, what the hell. Enjoy. Seriously.
At the Milwaukee word-of-mouth screening for Josie & The Pussycats, a local DJ announced that Carson Daly had a cameo in the film which elicited a wall of screams from the audience. Obviously this made the DJ jealous for he immediately sniffed “Carson Daly – anyone can do his job.” Dream on, buddy. Carson Daly’s job looks easy but if you pay attention to TRL, you notice a great deal of unease underneath that quintessentially average five o-clock shadow. As Rob Sheffield suggested in the pages of Rolling Stone last year, he’s absolutely petrified of teen pop and its screeching constituents. 
I read this fear as generational and it rises to the surface in the film with such force that the sugar high ad spots and soundtrack were utterly misleading. Josie & The Pussycats is a deeply cynical, deeply disturbing film from its very first scene when a boy band, with the market-suspicious name Du Jour, gets offed by their scheming record company and manager Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming). Writer/directors Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan chose the project as the latest in their line of Generation X resuscitations after The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas and A Very Brady Sequel. But from their pomo perspective, they fashioned a sour grapes cautionary tale for Generation Why Not. Election got there first but you can definitely witness a rift start to unfold in Josie & The Pussycats. 
Most of Elfont and Kaplan’s caveats reside in their naïve view of ideology. Wyatt casts aside Du Jour for Josie and her Pussycats because the boys begin to suspect their record company of evildoings. It turns out that indeed there’s a veritable ideological state apparatus in a piece of recording studio equipment which places subliminal consumer messages in pop songs. Music purchasers find themselves led zombie-like towards a wide variety of other products, all to the benefit of diabolical mogul Fiona (Parker Posey). The climactic Pussycats show, then, resembles a scene from Halloween III: Season of the Witch. And Daly’s cameo is positively terrifying. The message – be cognizant of the way your zeitgeist is being marketed to you…or die.
Death by Carson Daly? A tad melodramatic perhaps. But if good ole fashioned Gen X skepticism eventually finds its most persuasive outlet in the copious product placements meant to anger up teen pop’s consumer-damaged bloodstream, the end of the film reveals the toll unbridled skepticism takes. It’s revealed that underneath Fiona and Wyatt’s slick urban professional veneer is a snaggletoothed lisp and albino hairdon’t respectively. The two fall in love and kiss, perfectly at ease with their alternative beauty, to which young, ambitious Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook) says something along the lines of “how cute…in an ironic sort of way.” You know, as if irony were a bad thing. How Gen Why Not can you get? Fascinating. Too bad we'll have to wait another generation to see the film that registers the vagaries of teen pop’s unbridled ambition.

Josie and the Pussycats - Music from the Motion Picture (Epic/Sony Music Soundtrax, 2001)

Because it concentrates on one band/sound, apart from a brief visit towards the end by faux boy band Du Jour, Josie & The Pussycats is a refreshing respite from the soundtracks which double as necessarily inconsistent label samplers. The disturbing Gen X cynicism of the film here gets translated into a good half-hour of Mountain Dew-fueled power pop – less brawny than Tsar, nowhere near as complex and joyful as the amazing New Pornographers, catchier if less risk-taking than the last That Dog album, etc. Individual songs tend to get swept up in the total rush of the thing. But if, like me, you were humming the descending numerics of the first single, “3 Small Words,” on your way out of the theatre, you’ll purr along to every single one of these confectioneries. 

Of course, there’s a downside to such consistency. That speedy, syncopated six-string chug offers lots of Cheap Tricks but not enough treats. The sugar high production, courtesy of Babyface and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, just lets it rave over the songwriting so that the excited drum roll on “Shapeshifter” get subsumed in noise rather than building a bridge back to the chorus. But “Pretend To be Nice” is song enough to merit special mention for its slow chorus and lyrical detail nailing down a too-cool-for-you snob: “He falls asleep on the living room couch/With his sunglasses on and his tongue hanging out.” “Shapeshifter” sounds like it’s about the same guy but this time he’s ripping on Josie’s friend behind her back and it’s the one moment that reveals some heart (as opposed to Heart). In one sloppy, matter-of-fact line, “If you think that’s cool, whatever dude!” Josie manages to convey anger, care and disappointment that her friend might still for this poseur.

However gratifyingly streamlined this album sounds, though, there’s a messy, bizarre postmodern story behind it waiting to get out. The Josie & The Pussycats on the record are not The Josie & The Pussycats in the movie, fine. But who exactly they are remains a mystery at this time. Kay Hanley, of Letter to Cleo, is identified as the voice of Josie. But Bif Naked and Matthew Sweet appear courtesy of their labels and no one seems to know why. No press kit was released with the CD and even the album’s publicist at Epic expressed consternation (although she offered that it’s entirely possible Sweet played every instrument on the album).

And then check out the songwriting. On “Come On,” ten songwriters are credited including an ex-Go-Go, ex-members of Gigolo Aunts and The Three O’Clock, the two writer/directors of the film, Hanley, Schlesinger and Babyface. I’m dying to know how this happened not just because the song is absolutely nothing special lyrically or musically, something That Dog or Counting Crows (whose Anna Waronker and Adam Duritz dip their pens in other tunes here, incredibly) could’ve tossed off in an hour. Knowing how all this disparate talent came together (or didn’t) could only enhance the synthetic pleasure the songs already possess. Maybe Josie & The Pussycats will storm the Hot 100 and the story will be forced out. Yeah sure.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood, 2014)

As they approach their final statement, venerable auteurs tend to reflect upon the import of their worldviews if not of cinema itself. So a new Clint Eastwood film, for instance, presents itself as an opportunity to traipse through a lifetime of fusing sound and image. Changeling took time out to honor the hypnotic power of movies while White Hunter, Black Heart, Blood Work, Gran Torino, etc. tried to locate the elasticity in his western/crime thriller personae. And now Jersey Boys continues this project by pulling his tough guy legacy even further out of shape.

At first blush, Eastwood seems one of the least likely directors to undertake the film adaptation of the Broadway hit chronicling the career of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Despite an astute musical ear, nothing in Eastwood's oeuvre (especially the sorry roadshow flop Paint Your Wagon) suggested an ear for musicals (or even musical biopics). But Valli's falsetto shook up the foundations of Italian-American machismo and provides Eastwood with yet another conduit for navigating the edges of masculinity. Delivered in that helium-cured voice, "Walk Like a Man" offered far more possibilities for persona-shaping than mere advice from a father to his son to hang tough.

Eastwood never shies away from this aspect of their music, particularly in his attention to the contributions of queer producer-writer Bob Crewe. Jersey Boys suggests that it was Crewe's camp lust for movies that influenced the creation of "Big Girls Don't Cry." He's watching Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, Billy Wilder, 1951) with the Seasons at one point and mouths every word of the scene when Jan Sterling gets slapped. When asked why she doesn't cry, Crewe responds with the title of their next number one hit. Bob Gaudio, who co-wrote "Big Girls Don't Cry," maintains that he discovered the line in Tennessee's Partner (1955) while Crewe claims, more plausibly, that he heard it in Slightly Scarlet (1956, both directed by Allan Dwan, curiously). Nevertheless, the exchange acknowledges the queer architectonics behind so much 1960s pop. Too bad he didn't include a scene where Crewe's latest boytoy inspires him to write "Can't Take My Eyes Off You."

Eastwood seems less interested in hitting the biographical highlights than he is fashioning a sort of Wikipedia article with the direct addresses to the camera from various band members serving as links. Yes, it's that Joe Pesci, the actor, who introduced Gaudio to the group. And watch as he references his famous "How am I funny?" Goodfellas harangue in one scene.  No, we really didn't know much about homosexuality back then. "This was 1959; people thought Liberace was just theatrical." And look - there's Clint Eastwood on a TV screen. To a certain extent, all biopics function in this manner. But Jersey Boys feels eminently clickable. You just want to reach out and press on any character's face to find out that, sheesh, Frankie Valli and/or the Four Seasons had more hits than you remembered. It's an entirely appropriate biopic for 2014 and for a director actively shaping his legacy.

But Jersey Boys works most of all because it doesn't take much for a musical to least for music lovers. For the most part, Eastwood allows the songs to play out in their entirety which actually makes the 134 minutes move briskly. The actors, recorded live, perform worthy approximations of the hits and the Seasons' masterpiece "Sherry" plays out in its original form as the cast faux-freeze-frames after the requisite spontaneous outburst of song number at the end of the film. Eastwood has been criticized for lacking the flash necessary to film a musical. But as the Astaire-Rogers musicals have taught us, the music and the performers provide the flash. The director just needs to record it and Eastwood's sober approach here suits the subject perfectly.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Corn’s-A-Poppin’ (Robert Woodburn, 1955)

It's refreshing for once to have heard about a freakishly obscure film and then have the opportunity to catch it on the big screen mere months later. Chicago programmer Patrick Friel hyped Corn's-A-Poppin' to me earlier this year and thanks to the preservation efforts of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, a gorgeous print was shown at the Music Box last night. And while it didn't quite live up to the hype, I bow nevertheless to the Society for rescuing this godforsaken thing.

J. R. Jones' terrific Chicago Reader review will remain the most thorough account of the film's background until a DVD with commentary shows up. And if it does shows up, it will be due to the fact that Robert Altman co-wrote the screenplay well before his days as a New Hollywood maverick. To quote Jones: "Corn's-A-Poppin' originated with Elmer Rhoden Jr., an old school pal of Altman's in Kansas City. Rhoden's father co-owned Commonwealth Theatres, a regional chain of movie houses, and his brother was chairman of the Popcorn Institute, a trade association; together they came up with the idea of a locally shot, popcorn-related feature that could play the circuit. To direct the movie, Rhoden turned to Robert Woodburn of the local Calvin Company, which cranked out 16-millimeter industrial films, and Woodburn brought along his colleague Bob Altman to help on the script." So Corn's-A-Poppin' comes off as a PRC or Monogram horse opera filtered through an industrial film mode of production complete with abysmal acting, creative framing, and crummy musical numbers (repetitive too - hey Johnny, what are you running after again?).

I anticipated something even grungier than that - a singular wonder along the lines of Ten Minutes to Live (Oscar Micheaux, 1932) or Glen or Glenda? (Edward D. Wood, Jr., 1953). And indeed, the scene transitions yank the viewer out of the story world in intriguing ways. A dinner party is introduced with an uncomfortable close-up of a pot of boiling spaghetti. Or the camera lingers too long on an actor after the last line has been delivered. And Dora Walls' remarkable performance as Agatha Quake seems piped in from Mars with an irritating squeal that crosses a lock-jawed Edith Massey with Gigglesnort Hotel's Blob. But overall, Corn's-A-Poppin' tells a pretty straightforward tale about a shifty press agent attempting to bring down popcorn magnate Thaddeus Pinwhistle (although someone please explain to me how Pinwhistle finally figures out the swindle). The story world is simply too sturdy, lacking the cognitive dislocations of the most unique orphan films. It certainly has more character than the long-lusted-after but disappointing Howdy Broadway. But I found the Soundie-style shorts shown before the feature far more compelling, especially The Stoneman Family's speedfreak "Goin' Up Cripple Creek" which burned a hole right through the Merle Travis, Johnny Cash, Bill Anderson, and Norma Jean shorts that came before it.
Here's a trailer for Corn's-A-Poppin' which shows the nifty number when Hobie Shepp and the Cowtown Wranglers get pelted by popcorn:

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