Musicals

You Were Never Lovelier (1942)

You Were Never LovelierIn desperate need of work after gambling away all his money, performer Robert Davis (Fred Astaire) goes to ask hotel owner Eduardo Acuna (Adolphe Menjou) for a job. Eduardo is too busy getting ready for his oldest daughter’s wedding, but Robert runs into his old friend Xavier Cugat (as himself), who works at the hotel. Xavier will be working at Eduardo’s wedding and suggests that Robert try to get the boss’s attention by performing with his band during the wedding.

The Acuna family has some odd traditions regarding marriage, the biggest one being that daughters are to be married off in order of their age. With the oldest sister of the family now being married, next in line is Maria (Rita Hayworth), who has no interest in getting married, much to the dismay of her two youngest sisters who are both eager to take a trip down the aisle. At the wedding reception, Robert is immediately smitten with Maria, but his attempt to get close to her doesn’t work out as planned.

Knowing how eager his youngest two daughters are to get married, Eduardo decides to try to change Maria’s ideas about romance by writing phony anonymous love letters and sending flowers to her everyday, in hopes that it will be enough to get her excited about a man. During one of his attempts to get a job working at Eduardo’s hotel, Fred is mistaken for a delivery boy and is sent to deliver a letter and flowers to Maria. But when Maria catches a glimpse of Robert delivering the message, she falls madly in love with him. When Eduardo finds out what’s happened, Eduardo does not approve and he tries to make it worth Robert’s while to end it by offering him a job if he drives Maria away. Despite some mishaps along the way, it turns out you just can’t break up true love.

What a charming movie! You Were Never Lovelier isn’t the best remembered movie of Fred Astaire’s career, nor is it one of Rita Hayworth’s best remembered movies, but it’s a really delightful and funny movie full of spectacular dance numbers. My goodness, did Astaire and Hayworth make amazing dance partners! It’s too bad they only made two movies together because I would have loved to see more musicals with the two of them. The story may be a bit convoluted, but overall, it’s just so darn much fun and entertaining to watch that I can’t help but love it. It’s everything I want when I watch a musical from this era.

Sextette (1978)

Sextette 1978Marlo Manners (Mae West), world-renowned screen siren, has just married Sir Michael Barrington (Timothy Dalton), her sixth husband. The world adores Marlo and her marriage is making headlines all over the world. But when they check into the hotel for their honeymoon, they’re faced with endless intrusions from the media, Marlo’s manager Dan Turner (Dom DeLuise), dress fittings with her costume designer (played by Keith Moon), an entire team of athletes, and her former husbands Laslo (Ringo Starr) and Alexei (Tony Curtis). Meanwhile, Marlo has been working on her memoirs by recording scandalous tales of her many, many lovers on an audio cassette. She then tells her manager to destroy the tape, but it falls into the wrong hands and its contents could have major implications for a meeting of international delegates going on at the hotel.

Oh, Sextette. Where does one even begin with a movie that opens with the line, “Hello to you, this is Regis Philbin,” and (almost) ends with Alice Cooper singing a song at a piano while hotel maids and bellhops dance behind him? And in between, there’s a baffling list of guest stars, Dom DeLuise tap dancing on a piano (yes, there is Dom DeLuise tap dancing on a piano in this movie), and a whole lot of 80-something year old Mae West doing her typical Mae West schtick. Oh, and there’s also Timothy Dalton singing “Love Will Keep Us Together” along with Mae West.

It’s not a conventionally good movie by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, when I bought this DVD, the clerk looked at me and said, “You do realize this is not a good movie, right?” If you can appreciate really bad movies, then Sextette is the kind of movie you could definitely have some fun with. While it is definitely a “so bad it’s good” type of movie, I’m kind of obsessed with it just because of the sheer fact that this movie even exists. Because when it comes down to it, trying to describe Sextette is kind of like describing some bizarre, star-studded fever dream.  “…And Mae West was there…and Ringo…and George Raft…and then Keith Moon showed up playing a fashion designer…oh, and Tony Curtis talked with a bad Russian accent and threw a cake out the window!”

Absolutely everything about Sextette makes it sound like such an incredibly unlikely film that the fact that somehow all of these things came together to make this movie a reality absolutely delights me.  I mean, who would have thought that Mae West, Ringo Starr, Tony Curtis, Regis Philbin, Alice Cooper, George Raft, Keith Moon, and Timothy Dalton all appeared in the same movie together? That fact alone was enough to sell me on the movie. Then there’s other gloriously insane moments like Tony Curtis hamming it up so much you’ll be looking for a “Honeybaked” label on him and the fashion montage that consists of Mae West trying on dresses and saying her famous quips while Keith Moon, who plays her fashion designer, looks on. I mean, this movie just made it possible for me to write a sentence that mentions both a fashion montage and Keith Moon in the same sentence! It’s all just so incredibly unlikely that I can’t help but love it in a very odd way.

Carefree 1938

Carefree (1938)

Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy) has been engaged to singer Amanda Cooper (Ginger Rogers) multiple times, but she continually breaks off their engagement. After finding himself jilted for the third time, Stephen asks his friend Tony (Fred Astaire), a psychiatrist, to analyze Amanda and find out what’s causing her fear of commitment. Before meeting her, Tony thinks Amanda is a “mindless female,” and says so into his dictaphone, a recording that Amanda ends up hearing while waiting in his office. Furious, Amanda gets out of the appointment and snubs Tony when she meets him again later.

Eventually, Amanda admits why she’s angry with Tony and Tony apologizes before he starts questioning Amanda about her fear of commitment. Amanda can’t offer any explanation for it, so Tony orders her to have a meal of ridiculous food combinations to bring on dreams that could offer some insight. The plan works, but Amanda awakens the next morning realizing she’s in love with Tony, not Stephen.

When Tony asks Amanda about her dream, she doesn’t want to admit the truth, so she makes up a wild dream that makes Tony want to study her further. He orders her to be given a truth serum, not realizing she’s due to perform on the radio very shortly. Despite the fact that her broadcast is a complete disaster, Amanda still loves Tony, but just as she’s about to admit her feelings to him, Stephen announces that he and Amanda are engaged again. Although Tony loves her back, he tries to hypnotize Amanda into thinking she loves Stephen, a plan that also totally backfires.

Carefree is an Astaire-Rogers movie that I don’t think gets nearly enough credit. Sure, there aren’t as many songs as some of their other movies and the musical numbers aren’t as dazzling as “Cheek to Cheek” or “Never Gonna Dance,” but there still are some really great dances in it. I love the hypnotic dance they do to “Change Partners” and I like the slight surrealness of “I Used to be Colorblind.” I actually didn’t mind that it wasn’t as heavy on the songs as some of their other movies because there was less to distract attention from how great Astaire, Rogers, and Bellamy all were in it, just in different ways. For example, Ginger Rogers in particular was hilarious in it, but I think that’s a fact that might have been overshadowed if there had been more dance scenes. So even if Carefree isn’t the best of the Astaire-Rogers pairings, it’s nice to see them in a movie that lets them emphasize some of their other talents.

Gold Diggers of 1935

Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935)

During the summer months, the Wentworth Plaza is a popular destination for wealthy people to beat the heat. Among them is Mrs. Prentice (Alice Brady) and her daughter Ann (Gloria Stuart). Although Mrs. Prentice has more money than most people could ever dream of having, she’s notorious for being an absurdly cheap penny-pincher. She also wants Ann to marry T. Mosley Thorpe (Hugh Herbert), an older but very rich man who is an expert on snuffboxes. Thorpe is not Ann’s type at all and she desperately wants to have some fun.

Finally, Mrs. Prentice agrees to let her have some fun by hiring Dick Curtis (Dick Powell) to be her escort for the summer. Although Dick is engaged to Arline (Dorothy Dare), she approves of the idea since the money is good. Dick and Ann have a lot of fun together (and enjoy running up Mrs. Prentice’s bills), and it isn’t long before they fall in love with each other.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Prentice is at work organizing her annual show to raise money for the Milk Fund. She ends up hiring Nicoleff (Adolphe Menjou) to direct the show, but she doesn’t realize that he’s working with other people to make the show as lavish and extravagant as possible so they can get more money out of Mrs. Prentice.

Simply put, Gold Diggers of 1935 pales in comparison to 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, or Gold Diggers of 1933. It’s not like the basic plotlines of those movies are anything complex, but the plot of Gold Diggers of 1935 feels paper-thin in comparison. I also really missed stars like Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, and Ginger Rogers; although Alice Brady clearly has a field day hamming it up as the wealthy cheapskate.

But, since this is a Busby Berkeley movie, Gold Diggers of 1935 features some truly stunning musical numbers. Although 1935, on the whole, is really weak compared to his big hits of 1933, Busby Berkeley was still bringing his “A” game to the musical numbers. In terms of ambition and creative vision, he really outdid himself. No one is expecting anyone to honestly believe these numbers could actually be done on a real stage, but they’re an extravagant feast for the eyes. “The Words Are in My Heart” number with all those pianos is simply breathtaking and calling “The Lullaby of Broadway” a musical number almost feels like it’s selling it short; it’s more like a short film unto itself.

Rosalie 1937

Rosalie (1937)

Princess Rosalie of Romanzia (Eleanor Powell) doesn’t care much about her status. While studying at Vassar, she keeps her title a secret and enjoys doing normal college student things like going to football games. She has a big crush on Dick Thorpe (Nelson Eddy), a Cadet at West Point and top football player on their team. When they meet at a party, he falls in love with her too, not having any clue who she really is, and he agrees to meet her again in Romanzia.

He also doesn’t realize that Rosalie’s father, the King (Frank Morgan), has already announced her engagement to Prince Paul (Tom Rutherford). Rosalie doesn’t love Paul and Paul is more interested in Rosalie’s friend Brenda (Ilona Massey). Determined to not miss their date, even if it means getting in trouble at school, he flies all the way to Europe to meet up with her. He’s greeted with a hero’s welcome by the King himself, who invites him to come enjoy the big festival going on. At the festival, who else would he see doing an elaborate dance performance but Rosalie?

At first, Dick is thrilled to be reunited with Rosalie, but it isn’t long before he finds out the truth about who she is and who she’s engaged to. Before she can explain that she doesn’t love Paul at all, he leaves her to fly back to West Point. But Rosalie isn’t about to give up that easily and follows him back.

If Eleanor Powell wasn’t dancing, Rosalie did nothing for me. The story wasn’t anything remarkable; it didn’t hold my interest and it felt like it went on for way too long. And I had to take off even more points for all the scenes of Frank Morgan with that creepy ventriloquist’s dummy. The only things I liked about Rosalie were Eleanor Powell’s dance numbers, which were absolutely dazzling. Her number dancing to the song “Rosalie” is certainly one of the all-time greats. Rosalie was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, famously nicknamed “One Take Van Dyke,” and I would love to know how many takes were involved in the filming of that scene.

Alice Faye Tyrone Power Alexander's Ragtime Band

Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938)

Roger Grant (Tyrone Power) is a young musician with a lot of potential ahead of him. His aunt and professor both expect him to go on to become a fine musician, but secretly, the style of music Roger loves playing the most is not the most respectable of styles at the time. After playing a recital for a bunch of high society types, he and a bunch of fellow musicians head over to audition at a seedy saloon. The same night, Stella Kirby (Alice Faye) also comes to the saloon looking for work as a singer. As the band is getting ready to audition, they realize their sheet music has disappeared, so they end up auditioning with the same song Stella had brought to sing — “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” As the band plays, Stella seizes the opportunity and starts singing with the band and the audition is a big success and the bartender gives Roger the nickname of Alexander.

Stella isn’t fond of Roger and Roger isn’t fond of Stella, but their bandmate Charlie (Don Ameche) talks them into sticking together. The band starts performing under the name Alexander’s Ragtime Band and it isn’t long before they start becoming more and more popular. But behind the scenes, Charlie is falling in love with Stella while Stella and Roger have fallen in love with each other without even realizing it. Once they do realize how they feel about each other, Charlie steps aside and Roger and Stella continue seeing each other as their band grows in status.

Their happiness comes crashing down when Stella catches the eye of a prominent talent agent who wants to turn her into a star — but only her. Roger kicks her out of the band and Charlie leaves with her. While Roger goes into the military during World War I, Stella becomes a big star in her own right and marries Charlie. Roger is heartbroken when he hears the news, but tries to move on with Jerry (Ethel Merman), the new singer for his band. Jerry realizes he doesn’t love her and Charlie realizes Stella will always love Roger, but with years of bitterness between them, do Roger and Stella still have a chance?

Now, this is a movie with a whole lot of star power! Not only do you have Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, both on top of their games, there’s Don Ameche, Ethel Merman, Jack Haley, Jean Hersholt, and of course, a whole lot of Irving Berlin songs. The love triangle between Roger, Charlie, and Stella was pretty formulaic, but like I said yesterday when I wrote about The Bride Wore Red, a movie can be formulaic and still be worth watching if it’s produced effectively enough. The same holds true for Alexander’s Ragtime Band. It may not be anything mind blowing, but with a cast like that and all those Irving Berlin songs, it’s still good fun. This would be a kind of movie that I put on in the background while I’m busy doing other things because the music makes it nice just to listen to.

Pre-Code Essentials: Footlight Parade (1933)

Footlight Parade By a Waterfall

Plot

When talkie pictures come into popularity, it starts cutting into business for Broadway musical producer Chester Kent (James Cagney). He’s in dire need of a hit show, but everyone keeps flocking to these newfangled talking pictures instead. He’s convinced this is just a fad, but when his business partners take him to the theater to see one for himself, he becomes fascinated with the musical stage show the theater puts on before each movie. Chester decides he needs to get into the prologue game and convinces his business partners what a brilliant plan it is.

Chester gets right to work on his prologues with help from his faithful secretary Nan (Joan Blondell). Nan is deeply in love with Chester, but Chester is so busy, he doesn’t even realize it. He’s got all these prologues to produce, which is anything but a smooth process. He’s going through a divorce and now finds himself getting caught up with gold diggers. Everything that can go wrong does, but when a huge opportunity comes along, he has no other choice but to pull himself and his team together and get three prologues ready to perform in three days.


My Thoughts

Sometimes, an actor or director gets on a big streak of hit movies that when we look back, we say, “Wow, that was a great year for them!” For Busby Berkeley, that year was 1933. In 1933, his distinct brand of choreography made 42nd Street a huge hit, and then he topped himself by following it up with Gold Diggers of 1933. Last, but certainly not least, he one-upped himself again with Footlight Parade. These three movies are some of the most iconic movie musicals ever produced and the fact that they all came out in the same year is absolutely astonishing. With Footlight Parade, Berkeley really pushed himself and came up with some of the most imaginative and whimsical numbers of his career. (For years before I’d even seen any Busby Berkeley musical, I’d see pictures of the chorus girls standing on that fountain as part of the “By a Waterfall” number and know it was a Busby Berkeley scene. That’s how emblematic that scene is for Busby Berkeley.) By this point, he was pretty much done even pretending that these musical numbers could ever be produced on a real stage. But they are so witty, clever, saucy, and imaginative, it’s really easy to just go along with it.

For me, Footlight Parade is also one of James Cagney’s best movies. He is truly a force of nature in it; he truly leaves me in awe. Actors who can do gangster movies and musicals equally well are a rare breed and Cagney certainly falls into that category. He absolutely nails its rapid-fire dialogue and excels at working in such a fast-paced environment. And his dancing…oh, my.  Some of the dance moves he does in this movie look like early precursors to some of Michael Jackson’s dance moves. And like Michael Jackson, he makes all that dancing look so incredibly easy and effortless. But if you ever try some of those moves yourself, you’ll quickly realize how hard it really is.

However, out of Berkeley’s big three hits of 1933, Footlight Parade is the one whose plot now seems the most dated. 42nd Street is the classic backstage musical and people have no problem understanding Gold Diggers of 1933 deals heavily with the Great Depression.  But the fact that many movie theaters used to put on these musical prologues before movies during the early talkie era is now largely forgotten, except by film history buffs.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

All of the musical numbers.

“Outside, Countess! As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job!”


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Each of Busby Berkeley’s three big musical hits of 1933 are full of pre-code material, but Footlight Parade easily tops them all. Innuendo, adultery, references to prostitution, tons and tons of chorus girls in skimpy outfits, bawdy musical numbers…Footlight Parade spends many of its 104 minutes openly thumbing its nose at censors. I love how there are several instances of Chester being told that censors either will or do object to content in his prologues. These are clearly jabs at movie censorship boards and the movie is essentially acknowledging and making fun of its own pre-code-ness, which is something I have never seen happen in any other pre-code movie.

Pre-Code Essentials: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

The Smiling Lieutenant

Plot

Austrian Royal Guard Lieutenant Niki von Preyn (Maurice Chevalier) is madly in love with violinist Franzi (Claudette Colbert), but when the royal family from Flausenthurm comes to town, Niki winks at Franzi as the royals are moving through town and Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) sees it and thinks it was directed at her. She is insulted and the whole incident causes quite the scandal. But when Niki convinces Anna that he couldn’t help himself because she was so beautiful, she insists on marrying Niki right away and he is forced to go along with it.

Being a married man does nothing to make Niki forget about Franzi and they continue to see each other in secret. When Anna finds out what’s been going on, she plans to confront Franzi about it. But when Franzi realizes how much Anna loves Niki, she gives Anna a makeover to make her more appealing to Niki.


My Thoughts

Ernst Lubitsch is one of those directors whose movies never seem to completely let me down and The Smiling Lieutenant is one of my favorites of his. It’s just so…Lubitsch. It’s extremely witty, sophisticated, and has that unmistakably lightness that was Lubitsch’s trademark. Chevalier, Colbert, and of course, Hopkins are just so perfect for his style of direction and the movie’s sharp writing. It’s a really wonderful, delightful little comedy.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

The Smiling Lieutenant is easily the most fun I’ve ever seen a movie have with the subject of marital infidelity. Only in the pre-code era could you get away with making a comedy that involves a wife confronting her husband’s other woman and the two women end up singing a song together about jazzing up their lingerie.

Pre-Code Essentials: Dancing Lady (1933)

Dancing Lady 1933

Plot

When wealthy playboy Tod Newtwon (Franchot Tone) goes to take in a show at a two-bit burlesque hall, he happens to be there the same night the police raid the joint. Some of the dancers, including Janie Barlow (Joan Crawford) are arrested for indecency and taken to night court for sentencing. Since Janie can’t pay the fine, her only option is to spend time in jail. Tod is attracted to Janie and bails her out. Once he gets to know her and sees the passion she has for dancing, he decides to help her land a gig on Broadway, despite her insistence that she do it on her own.

Tod makes an arrangement with producer Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable) to finance his new show if he gives Janie a chance. Patch is hesitant to accept her, but warms up to her when he sees her genuine talent and dedicated work ethic. Janie starts seeing Tod, but Patch and Janie also start falling in love with each other. Janie works her way up from chorus girl to being the star of the show, but when Tod begins to think that Janie wouldn’t have time for him if she becomes a big star, he pulls his funding for the show. But when Janie finds out what he’s done, she realizes where her heart really lies.


My Thoughts

Dancing Lady  is my favorite Joan Crawford pre-code. It’s so very emblematic of the early 1930s era of her career. Joan is great in it and she has the chance to work with two of her best co-stars: Clark Gable and Franchot Tone. An MGM movie with Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone hardly sounds unusual, but Dancing Lady is noteworthy for the fact that it also features The Three Stooges and the film debut of Fred Astaire. Where else can you see Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, The Three Stooges, and Fred Astaire together in the same movie? The story isn’t anything remarkable, the musical numbers aren’t particularly memorable, but the cast is solid enough to make it worth watching. It’s the kind of movie that knows it’s entertainment for entertainment’s sake and it doesn’t try to be anything it isn’t, but it does exactly what it’s supposed to quite well. It’s great fun.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

At night court, the Judge calls Janie’s dancer friend to the stand:

Judge: “What’s your name?”

Rosette: “Rosette Henrietta LaRue! Occupation: hip swinging!”

When Janie goes to thank Patch for putting her in the show, he smacks her on the rear end and she enthusiastically replies, “Thank you!”


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

It doesn’t get much more definitively pre-code than having a major plot point hinge around a dancer being arrested for indecency. Janie is a classic example of a likable, sympathetic character who just happens to have an occupation that censors didn’t want audiences finding sympathetic. She may have worked at a burlesque joint, but most importantly, she’s a hard worker who was just trying to do the best she could and that’s something depression-era movie audiences could definitely appreciate.

The Dolly Sisters (1945)

The Dolly Sisters 1945

As little girls, twin sisters Jenny (Betty Grable) and Rosie Dolly(June Haver) immigrate to America with their uncle Latsie (S.Z. Sakall). They arrive in New York and are a  hit dancing for diners in a restaurant. Years later, they’re still dancing in that restaurant, but decide to go into vaudeville to help Latsie with a debt he owes. On the train to their first job, they meet Harry Fox (John Payne), who leads them into believing he’s a big star and is left in an awkward position when he arrives at the theater and finds himself being billed beneath a seal and the Dolly Sisters. It isn’t long before Harry and Jenny fall in love.

Harry and the Dolly Sisters go their separate ways, but Jenny and Harry promise to wait for each other. When they cross paths with Harry again, he helps them get the attention of Oscar Hammerstein, who launches their career. While the Dolly Sisters’ career is on fire, Harry’s isn’t doing as well and struggles with the fact that Jenny is so much more successful than him. They’re on the verge of ending their relationship when one of his songs catches the attention of a big publisher and Jenny decides to retire to marry Harry.

Jenny’s retirement is short lived, as just before Harry’s first show is set to open, he enlists in the Army and is sent overseas. Jenny and Rosie take the stage again and are a smash hit in Paris and London. Jenny still loves Harry, but when he sees a picture in a magazine of her talking to Tony, the Duke of Breck (Reginald Gardiner), he becomes extremely jealous and demands she come back to America with him. Jenny is forced to choose between Harry and Rosie, as she and Rosie already have a contract to perform in Paris again. She ultimately chooses Rosie and her career, but her divorce from Harry absolutely devastates her.

A depressed Jenny turns to gambling and Tony to ease her pain, while Rosie falls in love with Irving Netcher (Frank Latimore). Tony wants to marry Jenny, but she refuses to leave her sister until she overhears Rosie telling Irving she won’t marry him and leave Jenny all alone. Reluctantly, she agrees to marry Tony, but as they’re on their way to get married, they get into a car accident, disfiguring Jenny. After some plastic surgery, Jenny and Rosie hit the stage together one more time as part of an all-star benefit show, where she’s reunited with Harry.

The Dolly Sisters were a real sister act who got their start in vaudeville and rose to starring in shows produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. Like most biopics, The Dolly Sisters is pretty highly fictionalized. First of all, Jenny and Dolly are played by Betty Grable and June Haver, two blondes. The real Dolly Sisters were not blonde. The movie shows them as being devoted to being a sister act, but in reality, the Dolly Sisters did attempt to have careers separate from each other. The real Rosie Dolly also did not wait until her sister was on the verge of her second marriage to get married herself; she and Jenny each married their first husbands fairly close in time to each other. The Dolly Sisters also suggest that Jenny was the only one notorious for her gambling, but in reality, they both were.

Despite The Dolly Sisters creative liberties with reality, it’s still a pretty enjoyable movie. Betty Grable and June Haver are extremely believable as sisters. The only movies where I’ve seen more convincing looking twins are in cases when an actor is doing a dual role. The Dolly Sisters is full of extravagant musical numbers, which I have a such a weakness for (except for the musical number involving blackface.) The story is full of melodrama and soapiness, but it’s entertaining and when I watch Betty Grable movies, that’s exactly what I’m looking for — pure entertainment.