Category: Musical

Stanley Donen 1924 to 2019

I should apologise to Donen fans for this delayed tribute to an important director. My practice is to study the list of obituaries in Sight & Sound and pick out those I would particular like to honour and remember. This year my study of this resource has itself been delayed.

Stanley Donen moved from Broadway production to Hollywood’s M-G-M as a choreographer. Here he teamed up with Gene Kelly with whom he had worked on the Broadway production of Pal Joey. The duo choreographed a number of dances in the excellent Anchors Away (1945). And, in 1949, they teamed up to co-direct the now classic On the Town (1949).

This is one of the great Hollywood musicals and a film that pioneered the move to location shooting. The opening ‘New York New York’ sequence is a memorable number and, when in New York, there is a great opportunity to wander round the sites  of the song and dance. Working with cinematographer Harold Rosson and editor Ralph E. Winters, Donen produced an unconventional but dynamic street ballet.

In 1952 Donen and Kelly together helmed the equally entertaining classic, Singin’ in the Rain. This was a delightful send up of the transition from non-talkie to talkie films in Hollywood in the late 1920s. It has some remarkably funny scenes and some great musical numbers; the title sequence must be the most watched song and dance performance to come out of Hollywood. Kelly was ably supported by Donald O‘Connor and Debbie Reynolds. All three were nearly outperformed by Jean Hagen.

Donen then had a solo direction on another classic, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Adapted from a story from ancient Rome, ‘the rape of the Sabine Women’, this is a period musical. It does not have quite the panache of the contemporary musicals but still has some great song and dance numbers.

Donen also directed one of the last classic Kelly musicals It’s Always Fair Weather (1955). Plotted as a sequel to On the Town it never matches the intensity of the earlier musical, but there are, as always, some great sequences with Kelly demonstrating his skills on roller skates.

Donen then left M-G-M and worked both for other studios and independently though none of these titles match the earlier classics. In 1960 he moved to Britain. The great age of the screen musical was in its decline. He still worked on a number of successful films, usually with some financial and or production input by a Hollywood studio. The most well-known is Charade (1963) on which Donen was both producer and director. This was a Hitchcock-style thriller with Audrey Hepburn and [the much older] Cary Grant. It does not have the resonance of Hitchcock’s actual films but it has wit and excitement and a suitable MacGuffin.

The other late film of Donen’s that I really liked was Two for the Road (1967), again with Audrey Hepburn playing opposite Albert Finney. The film was scripted by Frederic Raphael and has an unconventional and non-linear narrative. Joanna (Hepburn) and Mark (Finney) have to re-examine their marital relationship whilst driving in Southern France. So the film is both a romantic drama and a road movie.

Donen directed twenty film titles. Only a few are classics and most of these are the musicals; one could add to those mentioned above The Pyjama Game (1957), starring Doris Day and co-directed with George Abbott, with whom Donen worked on a couple of occasion. Interestingly co-direction is a recurring feature in the work of Donen, something that throws a spanner in the work of auteur specialists. However, especially in the musicals, there is a distinctive style and approach from Donen. Some writers have referred to the idea of ‘cine-dance’. In his work with Gene Kelly Donen pioneered a new style of film musical; both men were always ready and interested in experimentation.. These are smaller scale than many of the great earlier film musicals and relying on a sense of the actual rather than the stylised. The presentation of song and dance is beautifully choreographed, not just in the performances, but also in the way they are filmed, visually and aurally. The ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ sequence is a model of this. Kelly’s performance is perfection but the way that the camera follows or advances with him and the quality and timbre of the recording are why this sequence can be watched time and time again.

I might add that Stanley Donen, like the other film people, who passed on last year, has received rather less than usual from Sight & Sound. Usually the February issue contains the printed listing and comments on those who went to the great cinema in the sky. This year I scanned the March issue, which now appears in February; no obituaries? This was the same in the following issue. An email to the S&S office revealed that they were only online. Worse, I have as yet been unable to find any reference in the printed issues of the magazine to this ‘downsizing’. I do think they deserve better.

Check out the obituaries.

Carefree (US 1938)

I’ve always enjoyed Fred Astaire pictures, especially the 1930s RKO Pictures films with Ginger Rogers, so I was delighted to discover Carefree on BBC iPlayer. I don’t think I’ve come across the film before and I was taken by its use of psychoanalysis. The set-up is conventional with perpetual cuckold Ralph Bellamy as Stephen Arden approaching his friend Tony Flagg (Astaire), a psychoanalyst, to see if he can help cure Stephen’s fiancée Amanda Cooper (Rogers) of her phobia about marriage.

Amanda and Tony with Stephen (Ralph Bellamy) and Amanda’s Aunt Cora (Luella Gear)

Unsurprisingly, Tony meets Amanda and they fall for each other. He then tries aversion therapy under anaesthesia and hypnosis to shift Amanda’s attention back to Stephen and this backfires. It’s obvious how all of this is going to work out, but who cares? The joy of these films is primarily in Fred and Ginger’s dancing and there are some terrific sequences here. The songs are by Irving Berlin and I recognised only one tune (‘Change Partners’). The story seems to be that Fred thought one song was such a clunker that he refused to sing it. The ‘Yam Song’ was therefore sung by Ginger and I think Fred was right, which is not a criticism of Ginger’s singing. It’s nice to know Berlin was human and could produce something I didn’t enjoy. All this throws the onus back on Fred’s dance ideas. We get a choreographed routine where he drives golf balls to musical accompaniment. Genius! More spectacular is the dance that follows on from the ‘Yam Song’. It took my breath away because of its sheer physical athleticism as well as grace and beauty.

The Yam dance finale – just fabulous!

The plot reads more like a screwball romcom than a musical comedy and I thought immediately of Bringing Up Baby for some scenes, especially with Fred in evening dress and Ginger in a long dress in a country club as substitutes for Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. The screwball element is provided mainly by Ginger being forced out of ‘amnesia therapy’ too soon which results in some crazy driving and playing with a skeet gun – the phallic connotations of which are entertaining in this context. The same sequence also includes an early role for Jack Carson as Fred’s ‘nurse assistant’. The Bringing Up Baby references are partly explained by having Dudley Nichols as a writer on both films which were produced in the same year at RKO. I don’t think the film was as successful as the earlier RKO musicals, but like Bringing Up Baby, I think it looks terrific now.

Amanda and Stephen in his consulting room

Carefree has 19 more days on iPlayer in the UK. Here’s a clip in which Amanda can’t admit she’s attracted to Tony so she invents a dream which acts as a kind of critique of psychoanalysis. I love her dress with the heart and arrows.

Wild Rose (UK 2018)

Wild Rose Jessie Buckley

Jessie Buckley is Rose-Lynn

There is no way I couldn’t enjoy Wild Rose. I love traditional country music and I’m particularly fond of a group of female country singers, many of whom are referenced in this film.  I’m also a big fan of the classic country biopics, Coalminer’s Daughter (1980, the Loretta Lynn story) and Sweet Dreams (US 1985, the Patsy Cline story). Add to that, Jessie Buckley has a great voice and a real screen presence and I’m sold. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t several questions to ponder and to wonder whether an even better (but less commercial) film is buried in there somewhere.

Wild Rose Julie Walters

Julie Walters is Marion, Rose’s mum

The Irish actor-singer Jessie Buckley plays Rose-Lynn Harlan, a woman in her late 20s but with the dreams (and selfishness) of a younger woman. As the narrative begins she is being released from prison with an electronic tag. She returns to her mother Marion (Julie Walters) and her two young children, a boy of five and a girl of eight. Soon, Marion will force Rose out into her own council flat with the two kids, pushing her to take responsibility. Trapped by the tag and a night-time curfew, she has to rebuild her life and grapple with her dream of going to Nashville. Her possible ‘way out’ is a meeting with an unlikely mentor and supporter, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), who can open doors usually closed to the likes of Rose. She will eventually make use of one of those doors opening, but this isn’t a conventional ‘star is born’ story.

Sophie Okonedo is Susannah, an outsider in Glasgow with contacts in London

Wild Rose was a big hit at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year and the film celebrates aspects of Glasgow culture. But also in some ways perpetuates a trend in Scottish film culture, following on from Sunshine on Leith, in having an English director (Tom Harper who handles the material well) and two English lead players with the central character played by an Irish woman. The script is by Nicole Taylor, who is a Scottish writer, best known for a range of well-received TV scripts. This gives it enough authenticity and credibility but does it need the starpower of Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo to get made? Like most UK projects of this kind the production was dependent on public funding – Creative Scotland, BFI and Film 4. I’m imagining the casting decisions aimed at overseas distribution, especially in North America. Julie Walters is very good, dialling down some of her familiar excessive moves. I’m not qualified to judge her accent but it seemed OK to me and Sophie Okonedo is great as usual but I wonder if their presence creates expectations about the narrative?

Rose with her daughter – can she leave her family to further her ambition?

In much the same way, the songs for Rose to sing are carefully chosen. In the promotional material certain songs are picked out. ‘Country Girl’ originally by Scottish band Primal Scream and ‘Angel from Montgomery’ by John Prine (made famous by Bonnie Raitt) are two titles not usually associated with country music. Perhaps the distributors worried about the disdain for country shown by many in the UK? I wonder if the promotion in the US will pick out other songs? Rose actually sings songs by Wynonna Judd, Patty Griffin and Trisha Yearwood which might be more germane.

What will Rose make of Nashville?

I’m being picky because I’m so invested in the music. The house band recruited for the film are excellent and they play mainly with traditional instruments. Glasgow is the focus point for the meeting of Irish and Scottish traditional music with North American associated music culture every year in the Transatlantic Sessions and Celtic Connections so there is an authenticity in both the playing and the Glasgow cultural roots. Because I don’t watch ‘reality TV’, I was unaware that Jessie Buckley had made a big impact on the show that sought to find a new singer for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals. She can certainly sing and I was convinced that she could make it singing most forms of popular music. She also has the acting ability to make Rose-Lynn believable. This all means that Wild Rose is very enjoyable and entertaining. But it could be something else as well. I was reminded of the Irish film Once (2007) which told a simple story but explored a real interest in music (and won an Oscar).

Fisherman’s Friends (UK-Belgium 2019)

From left: David Hayman, Dave Johns, James Purefoy, Sam Swainsbury, Daniel Mays and Tuppence Middleton

At a time when Talking Pictures TV in the UK is attracting more and more viewers to its offer of popular British films from the 1940s to 1960s (and a few other goodies too), it’s worth asking if in another 50 years, film scholars will be studying the ‘popular films’ of the 2010s. They should because every film reveals something about the film culture which produced and consumed it. What can we learn now? On the eve of a possible ‘Brexit’ we might note that this British film attracted some investment from Belgian tax funds. I wonder if that will happen again in a ‘post-Europe’ British film industry? (Actually the Belgian company Umedia seems to have other UK productions on its books.) The principal production company of Fisherman’s Friends is British with a record of producing popular entertainment features that don’t involve the usual public funders, BBC Films, Channel 4 and the various regional funders. This counts as an ‘independent’ production in the commercial sense, though it is resolutely mainstream and conventional as a film narrative. Lastly, the film is distributed by Entertainment Film Distributors (EFD) which focuses on both US and UK independent features – and is prepared to support a wide release.

Fisherman’s Friends is one of those ‘based on a true story’ films, an unlikely music industry story which is easily turned into a social comedy romance. It is being generally treated as a ‘feelgood film’ or ‘one for the Oldies’. Neither of these is a totally inaccurate description but perhaps masks the interesting mix of elements. In 2010 a group of fishermen in Cornwall who enjoyed singing sea shanties were noticed by radio DJ Johnnie Walker and found themselves with a Top 10 album after a record producer gambled on their local popularity becoming a national phenomenon. They went on to make regular high-profile appearances, e.g. on the Glastonbury stage, and are still performing with slightly changed personnel in 2019.

The four Londoners are given a frosty welcome by Maggie Steed serving in the local pub

The film based on the ‘discovery’ of the group inevitably changes some aspects of the story and grafts on a romance. A music industry figure played by Daniel Mays meets the group through a contrived storyline. The leader of the group is Jim played by James Purefoy and his daughter Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton) is a single parent with a 7-year old daughter. Alwyn manages a B&B. The plot creates an interesting triangle. All the singers are local fishermen in Port Isaac and many double as the local lifeboat crew. The structure of the comedy narrative refers back to Ealing with the arrival of metropolitan record industry people in ‘the independent kingdom of Cornwall’. The trip also highlights the presence of the British upper classes in Cornwall. Think Whisky Galore as the best-known example of this sub-genre. In this case there is also a visit by the fishermen to ‘that there London’ – possibly the weakest part of the film.

The weakness of the script is there in very cheesy one-liners (followed by the occasionally very funny line) and the exaggerated difference between Cornwall and London. The London we see is all about record company offices and hipster diners/pubs. It’s good to see that London is represented as the multiracial city it is in reality but the scene in which the fishermen sing an impromptu shanty in a pub and are cheered on by a largely young black audience is very odd. I’m suggesting that the filmmakers have some positive ideas but haven’t quite worked them through.

Danny and Alwyn provide the romance

This is a film with a strong cast which also includes David Hayman, Dave Johns, Noel Clarke (almost unrecognisable under a wig) and Maggie Steed. Steed, Purefoy and Middleton all come from the South West (but not Cornwall!) so they do have some regional authenticity. By contrast to this experienced cast, director Chris Foggin is making only his second film. The writers have got hits like the two St Trinians films among their credits. Somebody should perhaps have known better than to string out the narrative to 112 minutes. There are several songs in the film and that perhaps explains the length. I enjoyed the songs though I think some more variety might have improved the ‘musical’ elements of the genre mix. The ‘real’ singers appear as extras in the film. Whether they are actually singing I don’t know. The one ‘different’ song sung by the Same Swainsbury character is something that might have been developed. Unuusually for a British film of this type, it is presented in ‘Scope which enhances the natural beauty of the Port Isaac setting.

Many of the UK critics marked the film down and the trade paper Screendaily remarked that despite ‘soft reviews’ the film’s wide release (over 500 screens) had been successful giving it a No 2 slot in the UK Box Office. If the film does skew towards older audiences it may well have done good business in mid-week. Overall I enjoyed the film. It won’t be a classic feelgood film and as the ‘true story’ is already nearly ten years ago the narrative itself doesn’t necessarily speak for/about 2019. But the opening week success does suggest that in the midst of debates about streaming and up against the release of Captain Marvel on the same weekend, a small independent feature can still attract audiences in large numbers. It may simply disappear next week but EFD will still feel it was worthwhile going for those 500 screens. Cineuropa also reports that the film has ‘pre-sales deals’ in Spain and Scandinavia – perhaps the universal attraction of singing fishermen and the possibility of a metropolitan man falling for a local woman can sell the film in several territories? I enjoyed Tuppence Middleton’s performance very much.

GFF19 #8: Alice’s Restaurant (US 1969)

Arlo and his friend Roger are arrested for ‘illegal dumping’

The free programme of archive prints at GFF this year was dedicated to a group of films that challenged traditional Hollywood in 1969 and the festival strand was entitled ‘The End of Innocence’. Alice’s Restaurant is a particulary good example of a film that fits the selection criteria and was introduced as such by the GFF co-director Allan Hunter. It’s a rarely-screened film from 1969 and we watched a digital print from Olive Films in the US.

The director of the film was Arthur Penn who alongside the other two ‘Ps’, Peckinpah and Pakula, belonged to the maverick group of 50s/60s directors who began in TV or theatre and were never really happy with the studios. Robert Altman was another and this quartet were older and possibly wiser than the Movie Brats who formed the next generation. Penn had his big success with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 (sharing its success with producer-star Warren Beatty) and he was in a position to make this unusual film with a reasonable budget. Hunter made two useful statements when first he told us that Arthur Penn himself had attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an ‘experimental college’ with an emphasis on art and that he was therefore predisposed to make this film about the ‘counter-culture’ based around various events in the life of Arlo Guthrie and celebrated by the young folk singer in a long narrative song which appeared in 1967.

Alice (Pat Quinn) and Ray (James Broderick) on their wedding day

Secondly, Hunter quoted Penn himself saying that his film was the most ‘authentic’ of the studio pictures attempting to capture the brief period of the counter-culture. I’m not sure if there is much competition for such a title, but certainly Penn’s film feels authentic, not least because of Arlo himself in the lead. There are others in the cast too who are non-actors, some of whom were directly connected to the original events that form the basis of the narrative. Alice and her husband Ray are played by the actors Patricia Quinn and James Broderick (and the real Alice and Ray) have small parts. Alice is the familiar ‘earth mother’ figure of the commune narrative whereas Ray is the older figure, a man around 40 who perhaps fought in Korea and is now enjoying a kind of delayed adolescence.

The Thanksgiving dinner

The film is conventional in including scenes of the clash between the young ‘long-hairs’ and the conservative townsfolk of the small Montana town where Arlo attempts to become a student to avoid the Vietnam draft and then, after his expulsion, the antics he gets up to ‘fail’ the draft board medical. By contrast the initial opening of the restaurant and the founding of an ‘alternative community’ in a de-consecrated church in Massachusetts at first goes well. The incident at the centre of the narrative when Arlo and his (real) childhood friend ‘Roger’ (Geoffrey Outlaw) illegally dump the garbage from the Thanksgiving Day party when they discover the town tip is closed now appears the oddest act in the film. No self-respecting ‘alternative’ group today would despoil the countryside with litter.

Pete Seeger playing for Woody with Arlo’s accompaniment

Arlo’s father, Woody Guthrie was hospitalised with Huntington’s chorea, a hereditary and ultimately fatal nervous disease. He died in 1967. Woody is played in the film by the actor Joseph Boley but when Arlo goes to visit on one occasion he discovers Woody being serenaded by the real Pete Seeger with his banjo. I was surprised to see a couple of reviews stating this performance was out of place in the film. Pete Seeger is one of the great men of the 20th century for me and when Arlo joins him on harmonica, I found this to be the most emotional moment in the film. It was nearly matched by a later song at a funeral when Tigger Outlaw sings Joni Mitchell’s ‘Songs to Aging Children Come’. (Tigger was possibly the first wife of Geoff Outlaw according to one internet source?)

I’m not sure what I make of the film from this 2019 viewing and I can’t remember whether I saw it the first time round. The music still resonates and it stitches the narrative together in following the song lyrics. Arlo is a likeable character and Pat Quinn as Alice is very good but the more generic sequences don’t do much for me, especially the extended party scenes. The sub-plot about trying to help a heroin user carries more weight but not enough to support the narrative on its own. Perhaps what surprised me most was the importance of the motorcycle sequences, which seem to hark back to the 1950s as a ‘challenge’ to conservative America. They also create some tension with the sense of a peaceful alternative community.

Arlo during his draftboard medical with M. Emmet Walsh

The counter-culture didn’t last that long in North America, perhaps from 1967 to 1970? In the UK, despite being in London during that period, I felt the impact of the ideas about ‘alternative lifestyles’ wasn’t really evident until the later 1970s. Fortunately Harold Wilson kept the UK out of the Vietnam War, one of the few times the UK didn’t slavishly follow US foreign policy. Arlo Guthrie in one interview has stated that for him the anti-war rallies were the high point of the 1960s.

One of the other points that Allan Hunter made was again to quote Penn in saying that it was a white middle-class alternative lifestyle. I think in general that’s probably true, but there are actually African-American musicians in the film and Arlo’s girlfriend is Asian-American. I’m glad I saw the film but questions about the ‘End of Innocence’ were always more likely to be raised by the next programmed archive screening of Medium Cool.

[I haven’t included a trailer because there seem to be several free online offers of the film that you can explore.]

One Exciting Night (a.k.a. You Can’t Live Without Love, UK 1944)

Vera gets an invite to a charity concert – is this her big break?

Talking Pictures TV comes up trumps again with this British film starring Vera Lynn. I’ve always known Vera Lynn as ‘the Forces’ Sweetheart’ because of her war work visiting troops at the front and singing for relatives and friends on her radio show. I also knew about her fabulous recording career in the 1940s and 1950s. But I’d never seen her before in a feature film. This film (under its alternative title) was the third of three wartime features. It’s in some ways an unremarkable mixture of a romance, a crime film and a musical comedy of the sub-genre of wartime films featuring charity music and variety performances (e.g. the ‘Hollywood canteen’ films).

Vera plays a young woman who has volunteered for a women’s auxiliary role supporting RAF personnel on leave in London. But secretly she is hoping to get a break that will offer her an entry into show-business. By chance she gets mixed up with an attempted robbery in a very complicated bit of plotting. The victim of the robbery is Michael Thorne (Donald Stewart) who has been some kind of impresario but now works in a government office. Egged on by her comrades, Vera gets an invite to a charity performance and meets and falls in love with Thorne, eventually winning on three counts – saving him, getting together with him and rescuing him from the crooks.

The film is directed by Walter Forde (known for his earlier work, especially with Ealing (see Saloon Bar, 1940)) and photographed by Otto Heller. It was made for Columbia UK on a reasonable budget and generally looks pretty good. Vera gets to sing six songs and she has a wonderful voice. (Some of the musical numbers follow the convention of an invisible orchestra accompanying Vera.) For me the highlight of the film is a bit of daredevil sleuthing in which Vera has to climb out of a window high above the West End and edge along a narrow ledge in her attempts to save Thorne. She does this in a long evening dress and heels most impressively. I wonder why she didn’t get more roles after the war? She is quite tall (5′ 7″) for the period, especially in heels. She looks very good and moves very well but I don’t think some of the hair and make-up styles suited her as she has a strong distinctive face which makes her stand out against her rather bland rivals for Michael’s affections. She also has a bright, open personality and a sense of grit and determination beneath. The cinema’s loss was music’s gain. I think Vera Lynn is now 101 and I wish her well. Donald Stewart (an American domiciled in the UK) had a small part in the Jessie Matthews musical First a Girl (1935) and I think that Vera Lynn, like Jessie Matthews might have had a successful Hollywood career in other times. She did have a successful music career including hit singles in the US. Here’s one of the songs: