Musicals

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.

A Tribute to “The Shadow Waltz” from Gold Diggers of 1933

Shadow Waltz Gold Diggers of 1933

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Busby Berkeley musical numbers.  “42nd Street,” “We’re in the Money,” “By a Waterfall,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” I just can’t tear myself away from the TV if one of his numbers is playing.  Picking just one to call my favorite is definitely a challenge, but “The Shadow Waltz” from Gold Diggers of 1933 is certainly very close to the top of the list.

I’ve heard people say that all Busby Berkeley had to do for inspiration is look into a kaleidoscope, but I think that really does a disservice to Busby Berkeley’s creativity.  A musical number like “The Shadow Waltz” would have required a lot more thought than that.  And to be able to translate that vision into what we see on screen would have required a great deal of creativity, precision, and persistence, not just from Busby, but from the dancers as well.

Shadow Waltz Skirt Gold Diggers of 1933One thing that sets “The Shadow Waltz” apart from other Busby Berkeley musical numbers is how heavily it relies on the movement of the skirts worn by the chorus girls.  These aren’t skirts that were designed to be particularly pretty or fashionable, their main purpose is to move in a very specific way.  If one person’s skirt didn’t spin just right or got caught on something, the whole shot wouldn’t look right and they’d have to do another take. There’s even a couple moments when two circles of dancers move back and forth between each other, their skirts sort of meshing together as they pass.  It must have taken a lot of practice to get those skirts to move between each other like that.

The big thing I love about “The Shadow Waltz” is that it’s fantasy for the sake of fantasy.  This isn’t the kind of musical number that furthers the story or offers any kind of commentary.  “The Shadow Waltz” is supposed to be part of a show taking place on a stage in front of a live audience, but Busby Berkeley seems totally aware of the fact that this number could never actually happen on a stage. Dissolves, sideways shots with mirrors, that bit where all the dancers stand in the shape of a violin and a bow comes out and moves across them, he knows how unbelievable this all is. But he’s trusting the audience to put aside their disbelief and let themselves get lost in the moment and enjoy it for what it is.

The only thing “The Shadow Waltz” was ever meant to be was a few minutes of pure escapism.  Gold Diggers of 1933 was released in the midst of the Great Depression and these are the kind of moments audiences loved. And even though it isn’t 1933 anymore, isn’t it nice to lose yourself in the moment like that every now and then?

Monte Carlo (1930)

Monte Carlo 1930 PosterJust as she’s about to marry Duke Otto von Liebenheim (Claude Allister), Countess Helene Mara (Jeanette MacDonald) leaves him standing at the altar and hops on the next train to Monte Carlo.  Helene may be a countess, but she’s broke and only would have been marrying Otto for his money.  She’d rather try her luck gambling with what little money she has than marry Otto.

On her way to the casino one night, Helene passes by Count Rudolphe Falliere (Jack Buchanan) and he knows he has to meet her.  He tries to get her attention, but doesn’t have much luck.  So Rudolphe comes up with the idea of posing as a hairdresser named Rudy as a way of getting close to her.  The plan works and it isn’t long before they fall in love with each other.  Helene has no idea that Rudy is actually very rich so as her financial woes continue to worsen, she’s tempted to go back to Otto.  But when Rudy offers to take the last bit of Helene’s money to the casino and comes back with 100,000 Francs (not from gambling winnings, from his own money), Helene’s decision gets even harder.

Just when it looks like Helene is going to marry Otto, Rudy gets her to see an opera about a familiar story — a man who gets close to a woman by posing as a hairdresser.  During the show, Helene realizes who she really belongs with and finds out the truth about who Rudy really is.

If you’re a fan of Ernst Lubitsch’s musicals, you’ll probably enjoy Monte Carlo.  It’s not the best of his musicals, but it is so unmistakably Lubitsch that I couldn’t not like it.  It’s a pleasant little lark.  Even though the story isn’t the strongest, Lubitsch’s distinctive brand of style and sophistication was enough to hold my interest.  However, I didn’t really care for Jack Buchanan as the leading man.  I would have preferred to see Maurice Chevalier in his role.

Murder at the Vanities (1934)

Murder at the Vanities PosterIt’s opening night of Earl Carroll’s newest show and it’s the hottest ticket in town.  Stage manager Jack Ellery (Jack Oakie) wouldn’t even be able to get a ticket for the president if he wanted one. Just before the show is set to start, the show’s stars Eric Lander (Carl Brisson) and Ann Ware (Kitty Carlisle) decide to get married as soon as the show is over.  But once they arrive at the theater and word gets out about their impending nuptials, Ann is nearly killed twice before going on stage.  But the show must go on and Ellery refuses to cancel the show.  Instead he calls his friend police lieutenant Bill Murdock (Victor McLaglen) to investigate while the show is still going on.

Murder at the Vanities is kind of like if you took the ending of 42nd Street and combined it with a murder mystery storyline.  On the whole, Murder at the Vanities doesn’t quite work as either a mystery or a musical.  Paramount was clearly trying to hop on the backstage musical bandwagon set in motion by Busby Berkeley, but the musical numbers aren’t executed as well as Berkeley’s.  But I’ve got to give them points for putting a totally unusual spin on the backstage musical concept.  The mystery element of the story isn’t particularly compelling, either.  But despite all that, Murder at the Vanities is still a darn fun movie.  For its sheer outrageousness, it’s a pre-code classic.  Not only does it have women in skimpy costumes as far as the eye can see, it’s also got a musical number called “Sweet Marijuana.”  And as an added bonus, Duke Ellington makes an appearance!  If nothing else, it’s worth watching just because it’s a pretty unusual movie.  You just don’t come across very many murder mystery/musical movies.

42nd Street (1933)

42nd Street 1933When word gets out that producers Jones and Barry are putting on a new show, it’s the talk of the theater world.  Since the nation is in the midst of the Great Depression, a lot of people are depending on this show; everyone from electricians and set builders to chorus girls and the show’s director need it to be a hit.  Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) agrees to direct the show despite his doctor’s advice.  Julian has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and was advised to find a less stressful profession.  But Julian can’t afford to retire, so he needs it to be a hit so he can afford to get out of the business.

One person who is living comfortably, despite the Depression, is Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels).  She’s the girlfriend of Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), the show’s financial backer, which means she has no problem securing a position as the show’s leading lady. Other ladies clamor for the chance to be in the chorus, including Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), who is new to the theater world.  But Peggy has no problem fitting in and quickly makes friends with fellow chorines Annie (Ginger Rogers) and Lorraine (Una Merkel) and catches the eye of Billy Lawler (Dick Powell).

After rehearsals get underway, the producers find out that Dorothy has been seeing her former vaudeville partner Pat Denning (George Brent) on the side.  Not wanting to endanger the show, they try to put a stop to it.  But just before the show is set to open, Abner finds out about Dorothy’s two-timing, they get into a fight, and he wants her out of the show.  The producers protest, but when Dorothy injures her ankle, they have no choice but to re-cast the lead.  Abner wants Annie to take the lead, but she knows she isn’t up to the task.  However, she believes Peggy is.

When 42nd Street was released in 1933, the concept of the backstage musical had already been done before in movies like The Broadway Melody.  But when 42nd Street came along, it not only became the ultimate backstage musical, it revolutionized the entire genre of musicals.  Everyone wanted to mimic Busby Berkley’s style of choreography.  But unlike many early musicals, 42nd Street can hardly be described as creaky or dull.  Its slick production values, catchy songs, memorable choreography, and witty banter keep it fresh even after eighty years.

A Date With Judy (1948)

A Date With Judy PosterThe big school dance is coming up and Judy Foster (Jane Powell) is planning on attending with her boyfriend Oogie Pringle (Scotty Beckett).  Oogie is also the brother of her best friend Carol (Elizabeth Taylor).  But right before the big dance, Oogie decides he can’t take Judy, so the owner of the local soda shop gets his nephew Stephen Andrews (Robert Stack) to take Judy instead.  Judy is immediately smitten with Stephen and so is every other girl at the dance, including Carol.  Oogie is very jealous, but Judy swears she won’t take Oogie back.

Meanwhile, Judy’s parents’ anniversary is coming up.  To surprise his wife, Judy’s father Melvin (Wallace Beery) decides to learn how to rumba so he can surprise his wife when they go out to celebrate their anniversary.  He takes lessons from Rosita Cochellas (Carmen Miranda), girlfriend of bandleader Xavier Cugat (himself).  Melvin wants to keep this a secret, so he has Rosita give him lessons in his office, but when Judy pays an unexpected visit to his office, she gets the wrong idea when she sees Rosita’s purse there.

Oogie wants to get back together with Judy and Carol does her best to help, but Judy wants to continue seeing Stephen.  Judy even wants to marry Stephen.  But Stephen is more interested in Carol, or at least he is until he realizes just how snobbish Carol can be.  And even if Judy wanted to get back together with Oogie, she’s more concerned with trying to save her parents’ marriage.  On the night of the anniversary celebration, Judy and Carol confront Rosita and realize what a mistake they’ve made.  Not only is Judy’s parents’ marriage safe, but by the end of the night, Judy and Oogie get back together and Stephen comes around to Carol again.

A Date With Judy is nothing exceptional, but it’s likeable enough.  My biggest complaint about it is that for the type of movie it is, a light and fluffy bit of nonsense entertainment, it felt overly long.  It’s a nearly two-hour long movie that felt like it should have been more like 90 minutes.

However, I was very pleasantly surprised by Wallace Beery’s performance in it.  When I think of Wallace Beery, I think of him playing loutish characters in things like Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight and from what I’ve heard, he was a lout off-screen as well.  But in A Date With Judy, he actually brought a lot of warmth and charm to his character, which was a very refreshing change of pace.  The biggest highlight of A Date With Judy is getting to see Beery as Melvin trying to learn how to rumba.

Girl Crazy (1943)

Girl Crazy PosterDanny Chuchill, Jr. (Mickey Rooney) has been living the high life as the son of a wealthy newspaper publisher.  But when his father gets tired of Danny’s scandalous behavior making headlines, he decides to send Danny out west to Cody College to teach him a thing or two about hard work.  And, most importantly, Cody is an all-male college so there won’t be any women to distract him.

But when Danny gets to Cody, he discovers there is one woman around — Ginger Gray (Judy Garland), the dean’s granddaughter.  It’s love at first sight for Danny, but Ginger isn’t as impressed with him.  Danny doesn’t fit in with the other students, he has a hard time adjusting to Cody’s strict schedule and rugged activities and would like to go home, but the prospect of getting together with Ginger motivates him to stay.  After Ginger turns down a marriage proposal from one of the other students at Cody, Ginger starts to warm to Danny.

Cody College suddenly faces a crisis when the Governor announces plans to close the school due to low enrollment.  Ginger is devastated by the news, but Danny comes up with a plan to attract new students by hosting an annual rodeo with a beauty contest.  Ginger loves the idea so the two of them go directly to the Governor to get him on board.  The Governor gives them thirty days to turn the school around, so Danny and Ginger get to work making it happen.  For Danny, that means flirting with a bunch of debutantes to get them to enter the beauty contest, which makes Ginger jealous, especially when he names another girl as Queen of the Rodeo.  But just as Ginger is about to leave, Danny goes to see her and convinces her that she’s the only one he loves. Ginger and Danny get back together, Cody College sees a big increase in student applications, and the college is saved.

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movies are often accused of all being the same and, well, there’s no denying that Girl Crazy has a pretty familiar plot.  But Girl Crazy is by far my favorite out of all the movies Mickey and Judy made together.  Mickey and Judy always had very good chemistry together, but there’s something about them in this movie, I can’t quite put my finger on what it is exactly, that just makes them shine brighter than they did in their other movies.

Girl Crazy also features the strongest bunch of songs featured in any of their movies.  Judy’s rendition of “Embraceable You” is one of my all-time favorite songs and the big “I Got Rhythm” finale is very memorable. Plus, be sure to watch for Tommy Dorsey and June Allyson who both make appearances in some of the musical numbers.  The jokes may be silly and corny, but they always make me laugh.  This is MGM doing what it did best — making wholesome, lighthearted entertainment the whole family could enjoy.  Girl Crazy is simply one of those movies that I can’t help but be happy after watching

Sweet Charity (1969)

Sweet Charity

When Charity (Shirley MacLaine) isn’t dancing at the Fandango Ballroom, she’s desperately on the search for love.  When we first meet Charity, she’s positively elated over the fact that she thinks she’s finally found the love of her life.  But when they meet up on a bridge in Central Park, he pushes her off the bridge and robs her.  It’s an experience that would make a lot of people want to completely give up, but not Charity.  She still has faith that her one true love is out there and isn’t about to let anything get in her way of finding it.

One night, she runs into movie star Vittorio Vitale (Ricardo Montalban).  He had been planning to go out with his girlfriend Ursula, but when they get into a fight, he winds up going to a club with Charity instead.  He takes Charity back to his place for dinner and Charity can’t believe her luck, but then Ursula drops by and Charity spends the rest of the night hiding in Vittorio’s closet.

Charity’s night with Vittorio only makes Charity more determined to better her life.  When she decides she wants to leave the Fandango Ballroom, she goes to  an employment agency.  But while she’s there, she ends up getting stuck in an elevator with Oscar Lindquist (John McMartin).  After she helps him cope with his claustrophobia, she and Oscar begin seeing each other.  Once again, Charity thinks she has found what she’s been looking for, but there’s just one problem — Oscar doesn’t know about her job at the Fandango Ballroom.  He’s under the impression that she works in a bank.

Soon enough, he finds out the truth and he tries to be okay with it.  They plan to get married, but after he goes to her farewell party at the Fandango, he realizes he can’t marry her.  Left alone at the marriage license bureau, Charity starts walking home completely heartbroken.  But as she walks through Central Park, she realizes that she shouldn’t give up hope just yet.

On the surface, Sweet Charity has much to offer.  Shirley MacLaine was perfectly cast as Charity and with Bob Fosse directing, you know it’s got to be loaded with style and panache.  However, this was the first time Bob Fosse had directed a film and it showed.  Sweet Charity would have greatly benefited from being about twenty minutes shorter.  No matter how marvelous MacLaine was or how stylish the dance numbers and costumes were, those things simply weren’t enough to hold my attention through the full two-and-a-half-hour runtime.

Holiday Inn (1942)

Holiday Inn PosterJim Hardy (Bing Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), along with Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale), are a successful song-and-dance act, but Jim has had just about enough of the showbiz lifestyle.  He plans to do one last performance on Christmas Eve, then marry Lila, move to a farm in Connecticut, and enjoy a more leisurely life.  However, Lila has other plans.  She’s fallen in love with Ted and wants to keep performing with him, so Jim retires to that Connecticut farm by himself.  But Jim quickly realizes that living on a farm takes a lot more work than he anticipated and Jim winds up having to spend some time resting in a sanitarium.

Going to a sanitarium wasn’t all bad, though.  Being there gave Jim time to think and he came up with the idea of turning his farm into an inn that is only open on holidays.  Ted and Danny (Walter Abel), Jim’s manager, aren’t too keen on the idea, but when Danny runs into aspiring dancer Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), he tells her to get in touch with Jim.  When she arrives at Jim’s farm on Christmas day, she and Jim have an instant rapport and he hires her to perform at the inn’s opening night on New Year’s Eve.

Opening night is a big success, but just before the stroke of midnight, an unexpected guest arrives — Ted.  Lila had just left Ted and now Ted’s very drunk and looking to talk to Jim.  But before he can find Jim, he winds up dancing with Linda and the two of them are the hit of the night.  The next morning, Jim can’t remember who he danced with, but he knows that she’s his dream dance partner and sets out on a mission to find her again.  Not wanting Linda to run off with Ted the way Lila had, Jim proposes to Linda and tries anything to stop Ted from finding her.  But Ted finally figures out the truth on Valentine’s Day and wants to start performing with her at the inn.

Ted continues trying to woo Linda, but Linda stays faithful to Jim.  But when Jim finds out that some Hollywood agents will be coming to the inn to see Jim and Linda perform, Jim fixes it so that she misses the performance and Ted has to perform alone.  After Linda finally does make it to the inn, she finds out what Jim has done and is hurt that Jim doesn’t trust her.  She heads off to Hollywood with Ted to star in a movie based on the story of the Holiday Inn while Jim stays in Connecticut, following their romance through movie fan magazines.  Ted is completely lost without Linda, and with some encouragement from his housekeeper Mamie (Louise Beavers), flies to Hollywood on Christmas Eve to make one last attempt to win Linda back.

Holiday Inn is definitely one of my essential Christmastime movies.  I love Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby together and all those wonderful Irving Berlin songs are the icing on the cake.  Even though I think the character of Ted is a bit of a jerk, leave it to Fred Astaire to play him with enough charm to still be likeable.  Of course, Holiday Inn is best remembered for introducing the song “White Christmas,” which went on to become one of the most successful singles of all time.  As memorable as Bing’s songs are, I absolutely adore some of Fred’s dance numbers such as the firecracker dance and the drunken New Years Eve dance.

Even though Holiday Inn is generally thought of as being a Christmas movie, it covers so many different holidays that you could probably watch it any time of year and not feel completely out of season.  It’s an absolutely delightful movie.  The only thing stopping me from saying, “What’s not to like?” about it is that unfortunate “Abraham” musical number featuring Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds in blackface.

Rose-Marie (1936)

Marie de Flor (Jeanette MacDonald) is one of the most renowned opera singers in the world.  She’s on top of the world, and although she has plenty of wealthy men throwing themselves at her, she doesn’t feel the need to accept any of their advances.  The only man she’s concerned with is her brother John (James Stewart), who is serving a prison sentence.  She’d been hoping he would get out on parole, so when she finds out his request was denied, she decides to wield her influence and hosts a dinner party for the Premier of Quebec.  But on the night of the party, Marie gets a message from Boniface (George Regas), informing her that her brother has escaped and killed a Mounty in the process.

Boniface knows where John is hiding, so he takes Marie out to Lake Shibuga so she can find him.  But once they get to town, Marie stops in the store to buy some clothes and she discovers Boniface has stolen her money.  The shopkeeper tells her to report it to Sergeant Bruce (Nelson Eddy), the new Mounty in town, but she doesn’t want to call attention to herself and decides to try earning some money singing at the local bar instead.  The local drunks just don’t appreciate her operatic style, but she does catch Sergeant Bruce’s attention, who just happened to be in the bar at the time.  He had heard all about her money being stolen, and even though she tries to downplay who she is, he’d recognize her voice anywhere.

Bruce takes Marie to a festival where he knows Boniface will be.  Marie gets her money back and forces Boniface to take her to her brother.  But by the time Bruce figures out that Marie and John must be related, she and Boniface are already on their way so he follows them.  Along the way, Boniface ditches Marie again and Bruce takes care of her.  Alone in the wilderness together, the two of them fall madly in love with each other.  Eventually, Marie makes her way to John, but she doesn’t realize that Bruce had followed her and he arrests John. Marie returns to the stage, absolutely devastated by Bruce’s betrayal.  Soon, the stress of performing becomes too much for her and she takes a vacation in the mountains, where she and Bruce are finally reunited.

Rose-Marie is the Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy movie that I’ve seen and it definitely made me want to see some of the others they did together.  The operetta style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I don’t mind it and I can see why Eddy and MacDonald were such a successful duo.  It’s lighthearted and predictable, but who cares? It’s entertainment for entertainment’s sake.  As long as that’s what you’re in the mood for, it’s a very enjoyable movie.