Category: Musical

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:

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (UK-US 2018)

1979 – Donna (Lily James, centre), Rosie (Alexa Davies, right) and Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn, left) photos courtesy Universal

It was the Friday of the second week of Mamma Mia 2 and our local cinema had to shift the screening upstairs to its 95 seat cinema since it was opening the latest Mission Impossible movie in Screen 1. I suggested we went early to get a good seat. I was proved right as the audience arrived en masse before even the ads started. There were a handful of older men in the audience, otherwise it was entirely female ranging from around 10 years-old to 80 plus. Usually when the ads play, they are loud and audiences speak quietly to each other. On this occasion I couldn’t hear the ads at all – the chatter, shrieks and laughter in anticipation of the film drowned out all the sound from the screen. When the ‘Intermission’ sign went up after the trailers I did wonder if there would be a riot at the prospect of waiting a further 10 minutes for the film to start. But the audience just chatted on and the projectionist seemingly found a way to start the feature earlier than usual. The audience quietened immediately and behaved impeccably (laughing, groaning and cheering appropriately) from then on.

I mention all this because professional film reviewers seldom see films with audiences and it certainly affects a reading when audience participation is part of the show. I should declare my own snobbery here. If I’d remembered that Richard Curtis was involved with the storyline of the film, I might have avoided it altogether. But I forgot and therefore enjoyed the experience like everyone else.

Donna leads a break-out from her graduation ceremony

Following on from Mamma Mia! (2008), the sequel is in many ways actually a prequel. Amanda Seyfried as Sophie is ten years into her marriage. She’s pregnant but her husband is now in New York learning more about the hotel business. She plans a re-opening of the ‘bijou’ hotel she inherited from her mother Donna and invites all the characters from the first film to the opening. But this is also a time of introspection and the first of many flashbacks introduces Lily James as Donna back in 1979 graduating from university and heading to the Greek Islands. The narrative then moves backwards and forwards in time towards a finale when all the characters are together. The distributors tease the audience with expectations that both Meryl Streep and Cher are in the film. The former has some brief moments and the latter a little bit longer and the chance to sing ‘Fernando’ with a barely recognisable (by me, anyway!) Andy Garcia.

Back to the present. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) with Christine Baranski as Tanya (left) and Julie Walters as Rosie (right)

What to make of this $75 million ‘juke-box’ musical? Well, you can’t go wrong with Adriatic sunshine (Vis, Croatia), Abba songs and some excellent troupers. There is one moment of comedy genius from Julie Walters, Cher is worth her one song and the new younger cast members have plenty of energy. I felt a bit sorry for Amanda Seyfried who I think is up-staged by Lily James (who gets the better songs/production numbers). I remember being impressed by Ms James in The Darkest Hour in a very different role. Overall, however, I don’t think the narrative holds much interest and I couldn’t detect any sub-text. It also doesn’t make much sense. If Sophie was conceived in 1979 she would have been nearly 30 when she married in 2008 and nearly 40 now – or is this film set in 2009? It is indeed a juke-box musical. You pays your money and you get the songs. I didn’t feel short-changed. As the golden age musicals had it ‘That’s Entertainment!’

I feel that this second film is a bit more bland than the first and possibly a bit slicker and more ‘Americanised’. It’s still essentially a British-Swedish production but presumably there is more American money behind it. (I note that Wikipedia calls the two films ‘American musicals’, which is a bit rich.) The second film has so far followed the first in making much more at the box-office outside North America compared to the Hollywood ‘domestic’ market. The director is Ol Parker, best-known for the ‘Marigold Hotel’ films and Catherine Johnson, the original writer of the stage musical is still involved. But what happened to the original director Phyllida Lloyd? Will the dilution of the Streep role harm the second film’s ‘legs’ at the box-office? We’ll see. I’m assuming that the first film’s audience skewed older and female.

Head Over Heels (UK 1937)

Jeanne (Jessie Matthews) in her dance mode in the nightclub gardens

In 1937 Jessie Matthews was one of the most popular stars in British cinema. Her musicals/romantic comedies had started to build a profile in North America where she was known as ‘The Dancing Divinity’. Stories persisted about a possible move to the US and a partnership with Fred Astaire. That possibility is one of the potential elements of this film directed by her husband Sonnie Hale. Hale had taken over directing his wife’s films from Victor Saville who had moved from Gaumont-British to work for Alexander Korda at Denham. Saville did go to Hollywood eventually.

Compared to their Hollywood equivalents, the musicals made at G-B’s Lime Grove studios in Shepherd’s Bush were low-budget affairs but didn’t lack creativity. Head Over Heels is designed by the great Alfred Junge and photographed by Glen MacWilliams, a Hollywood cinematographer who had already shot three previous Matthews movies. Head Over Heels is an adaptation of a French play, Pierre ou Jack, by Francis de Croisset whose plays Arsene Lupin and A Woman’s Face were adapted more than once and became Hollywood ‘A’ pictures.

The plot is quite simple. Jeanne Colbert (Jessie Matthews) is a nightclub entertainer in Paris and shopping in the market one day she meets Pierre (Robert Flemyng), a slightly eccentric character (who seems more English than French). Pierre is an inventor and earns a living as a sound engineer in a radio station. He falls immediately in love with Jeanne but doesn’t know how to woo her. When he visits the club where she sings and dances, he sees that she is quite taken with her partner Marcel (Louis Borell) and despairs. Marcel is a ‘cad’ who drops Jeanne when a Hollywood glamour queen Norma Langtry (Whitney Bourne) appears and invites him to America. Pierre sees his chance and eventually gets Jeanne a job in the radio studio but Marcel is destined to return and a struggle between the two men over Jeanne is inevitable.

Jeanne sings some advertising jingles thought up by Pierre in an attempt to persuade the radio station boss to hire her

Fanmail for ‘The Lady in Blue’ pours in – one of the images from ‘the radio montage’

The radio angle of the film is very interesting. During the 1930s radio was fast becoming the major medium of entertainment for the mass audience. In the UK it was a BBC monopoly and the Director-General John Reith had firm control over its broadcasting policy. Already in the 1930s many Brits turned to continental radio stations for popular music, including Radio Luxembourg which broadcast in English and featured sponsorship of programming like American radio. Pierre sells the idea of Jeanne as ‘The Woman in Blue’ to his radio bosses. She sings advertising jingles and becomes a star. The filmmakers present this in a montage of radio-related images which I found striking. Another interesting technique is the superimposition of Jeanne’s face over footage of Pierre’s hopeless trudging around the nighttime Paris streets in search of her after a break-up. Techniques like this inject some visual excitement into a film which is otherwise limited to three main locations – the nightclub, the radio studio and the dingy apartment Pierre shares with his friend Matty. The nightclub with its outdoor garden for performances is the setting for the dancing in the film, though there is less than in most musicals. There are a number of notable songs by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, the best of which is ‘There’s That Look in Your Eyes Again’. All the songs are sung by Ms Matthews.

Pierre searches for Jeanne in this expressionistic sequence

If you’ve never seen Jessie Matthews before, you may be surprised by her cut-glass accent which now sounds way over the top. The irony is that Jessie was a working-class girl from Berwick Street, famous for its fruit and veg market in Soho. She was the seventh of eleven children and a genuine Cockney who felt compelled to change her accent dramatically to suit the middle-class voices of 1930s British stage and cinema screen. Her forced identity shift is the mirror opposite of the middle-class young women who had to find voices to play working-class girls. Why did she do it? Possibly because she was headed for the London stage while her musical rival (as a singer only) Gracie Fields didn’t suffer from keeping her Lancashire accent.

Confrontation at the radio station when Jeanne objects to Marcel and Norma Langtry singing the song that originally belonged to Jeanne and Marcel

In this film the focus is on Jessie as actor and singer and she accomplishes both well. Her Jeanne is a rounded figure, assertive and assured but also vulnerable. But she certainly isn’t prepared to put up with nonsense and her fightback in the too brief final reel is very enjoyable. Part of Jeanne’s trouble is that by breaking her contract (because of the action of Marcel) on two occasions she is barred from working in Paris for three months each time which seems a heavy penalty. All film actors were treated badly by studios and impresarios but independent women seemed to suffer more than most.

Jeanne at the radio mike in typical enthusiastic and engaged mode

It’s a long time since I read a biography of Ms Matthews but her marriage to the comedian Sonnie Hale was difficult and at this stage of her career she began to experience stress and various problems that would affect her career. Hale pressurised her and she wasn’t convinced of his directorial qualities. Some of the ideas discussed above may have come from the experienced crew rather than Hale. I must do some more research before any other Matthews posts. Head Over Heels is on Volume 3 of The Jessie Matthews Revue DVD from Network.

In the clip below Jeanne sings “Head Over Heels’ in her act until she sees her partner Marcel betraying her with the Hollywood star.

Victor/Victoria (US 1982)

Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening this M-G-M film in 35mm on Saturday August 5th. This is a delightful musical comedy starring Julie Andrews as Victoria (the key club performer in the film), James Garner as King Marchand (a Chicago Club Owner visiting Paris) and Robert Preston as Toddy, (a Paris night club performer). What makes the film especially effective is the way that it plays with cross-dressing, a classic source of comedy on film.

The film was scripted and directed by Blake Edwards with music by Henry Mancini. The production is presented with excellent style and captures a certain image of Parisian night life. The cast, both leading players and supporting actors, are excellent and convincing in the role-playing within role play. The musical numbers are performances in Parisian night clubs including the raunchy Chez Lui.

In fact the film is adapted from a successful 1933 German musical comedy, Viktor und Viktoria, produced by UFA. It was written and directed by Reinhold Schünzel, who later left for Hollywood. Another to-be émigré in a supporting role is Anton Walbrook.  This original version is

a musical comedy greatly influenced by the American model, with its choreographed sequences and parades, clusters of pretty girls that open up like bunches of flowers, . . . (Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue 2004).

But it also retains some of the ironic treatment of gender representations that was rife in the earlier Weimar cinema, though more discreetly. The 1982 American version has little of the 1930s musical treatment, its offerings more like that of then contemporary musicals such as Cabaret (1972).

There was a English-language remake in 1935, long before this form became a staple of Hollywood output. The film was directed by Victor Saville for Michael Balcon and starred Jessie Matthews. Set in the British Music Hall the film is less risqué than either the German original or the later Hollywood adaptation. It was screened earlier in the year at the National Media Museum, but from video. A shame as the BFI do have a 35mm print. The publicity was also feint, hence I missed it. There was an interesting accompanying exhibition using photographs from the Daily Herald archive, but that was also little publicised.

Hopefully people will pick up on the screening of this latest version and turn up for what will be a very entertaining two hours plus. (134 minutes in colour and ‘Scope ratio).

Bells Are Ringing (US 1960)

Dean Martin and Judy Holliday

Dean Martin and Judy Holliday (in that red dress – see below)

Our Christmas Day treat this year involved putting up the screen and projector and downloading Bells Are Ringing. It was only later that I realised the coincidence that we had been watching the last classic MGM musical produced by the ‘Freed unit’, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and directed by Vincente Minnelli. In the next few weeks La La Land, the ‘new Hollywood musical’ is expected to arrive in the UK. I wonder if it will kickstart a revival or even do enough to sit alongside the Freed triumphs? Bells Are Ringing comes from the same three creative talents as The Band Wagon (1953), possibly my favourite musical. Bells Are Ringing isn’t such an instant ‘wow’ but it does have several things going for it, beginning with a terrific central performance by the fabulous Judy Holliday in her last film before a tragic early death from breast cancer just five years later.

Ella at her switchboard in attempted disguise when Jeffery calls

Ella at her switchboard in attempted disguise when Jeffery calls

I fear Ms Holliday will not be known by modern audiences. She was first a stage performer before getting her big break in the Hepburn-Tracey comedy Adam’s Rib (1949). This was followed by her Oscar-winning performance in Born Yesterday (1950), two notable films with Jack Lemmon and a handful of other film projects before this, her last appearance. On stage she had a hit run for Born Yesterday on Broadway and won a Tony as best actress in a musical for the stage version of Bells Are Ringing in 1957. In 1952 Holliday had appeared before one of the Senate Committees during the anti-Communist hysteria. She avoided ‘naming names’ and is said to have charmed her interrogators with a ‘dumb blonde’ routine. This was part of her star persona but in reality she was one of the most intelligent and cultured performers in American theatre and film. She escaped an official blacklisting and during the 1950s was an ‘A’ star for Columbia, but there is a suggestion that she didn’t appear on TV as much as might be expected for such a talented performer – a comedian who could sing and dance and had the potential to develop into a fine ‘serious’ actor. Some critics have suggested that she wasn’t ‘beautiful enough’ to be a big star in Hollywood, but she was vivacious and attractive and someone who audiences could relate to very easily.

Gangsters and the police descend on the answering service

Gangsters and the police descend on the answering service

The ‘bells’ in this romantic comedy musical are not primarily wedding bells. Ella (Judy Holliday) works for ‘Susanswerphone’, a telephone messaging service housed in a run-down building, the last one standing in an area of re-development. The central plotline involves her attempts to solve her clients’ personal problems, notably the stalling career of playwright Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin). She does this while trying to hide her identity with predictable results. Two subplots involve an attempt by a new client to use the answering service to run an illegal betting system and a comic police surveillance of the business based on a misapprehension. The betting scam introduces gangsters to the mix and this strand reminded me of Guys and Dolls. The stage origins of the narrative are clear in the limited number of sets (all studio-based) and one of these, a complex street sequence, proved to be a striking attempt to re-create the realism of ‘Hollywood New York’ while retaining the control offered by a studio set. Otherwise, locations such as glamorous New York apartments and park settings are reminiscent of earlier MGM musicals (with a cinema marquee for Gigi reminding us of the legacy).

The songs had music by Jule Styne (with arrangements by Andre Previn) and lyrics by Comden and Green – who had started their careers in a revue troupe with Judy Holliday in 1938. While many of them are enjoyable but forgettable, at least two have subsequently become standards and I recognised ‘Just In Time’ and ‘The Party’s Over’. 1960 is an odd point in time, certainly in popular music but also in stage musicals and in Hollywood. Rock ‘n roll had softened dangerously by 1960 and stage musicals wouldn’t receive the ‘shock’ of West Side Story until 1957 – which followed Bells Are Ringing into film production. Bells Are Ringing feels like the end of something rather than a beginning. It was the end for MGM’s Freed Unit and it came towards the end of Vincente Minnelli’s career as a director of musicals (the last was On A Clear Day You Can See For Ever in 1970 with Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand). I didn’t have time to study Minnelli’s use of mise en scène, but the colour schemes are certainly bold with strong primary colours. The gowns are promoted in the trailer below and some are certainly extraordinary. There is a strong echo of The Band Wagon and, as one commentator noted, the performance of one song, ‘The Midas Touch’ could easily have featured in the earlier film. Just as in The Band Wagon, Minnelli’s film seems to seek to undermine ‘artistic pretension’. When Ella is invited to a cocktail party she wears an extravagant red dress given to her by one of her clients. She is then teased by her friends who correctly relate it to the opera La Traviata. Because the dress is not in the current fashion she then tears off much of the ‘fancywork’ on the frock and reveals a simpler and more attractive dress – which is also suits her much better.

Some comments on Judy Holliday’s performance suggest that she was depressed and conscious of being overweight during the filming. All I can say is that she made the film for me (ably assisted by Dean Martin). Bells Are Ringing is otherwise a conventional MGM musical, perhaps a little below the best 1950s output of the studio. All the same, La La Land will have to be very good to displace the Freed musicals in my preferences. I think the BBC should be required to show a season of them every Christmas.

Chi-Raq (US 2015)

chiraqweb3

This is the new Spike Lee film set mainly in Chicago (or Chi-Raq) and which ‘The Guardian‘ review praised with four stars. It added a comment

“magnificent, rage-filled drama.”

I saw the film at the Leeds International Film Festival, The Catalogue quoted the director, who commented

“I think that we have the same indignation and hatred and anger when we do it to ourselves . . . “

on the ‘black-on-‘black violence that is the subject of the film.

I was underwhelmed by the film and found it rather scattergun in its treatment of the important topic. A couple of friends at the Festival offered similar opinions and one of them only gave it one star out of five.

The problem seems to be that the parts are better than the whole. The film uses rap-style dialogue, dramatic scenes, large scale set pieces including musical numbers and sequences that are predominately realist and other sequences that are fantastic even fanciful. I thought the set-pieces worked best, with Lee’s usual panache. The realist drama is based on actual figures in Chicago, a woman campaigner and a male priest. Replaying actual people and events can be tricky and I found some of the dramatic scenes somewhat ineffective.

Peter Bradshaw’s review adds

“It interestingly looks like a filmed stage play in the Aristophantic or maybe Brechtian style.”

Those two playwrights were skilled at balancing drama, irony and satire. Moreover, they worked in the theatrical medium and translating their ideas and practices to the medium of film is often problematic. This only works well when the filmmakers can translate these into the distinctive form of film. Spike Lee did this in a masterful fashion with his seminal Do the Right Thing (1989). Chi-Raq never achieves that level.

Peter Bradshaw also comments that

“it shows women of different ages banding together, organising, taking action.”

I found this aspect less than convincing. There are a series of short sequences where the activists in Chicago are supported by women in other lands and cultures, but there are not really convincing factors to explain this.

And Bradshaw also draws a comparison with Spike Lee’s own

Bamboozled (2000) or Kevin Willmott’s CSA: The Confederate States of America (20034).”

The first is a masterful satire and one of the exceptional US films of the last couple of decades. The latter is cartoonish and heavy-handed. Though Chi-Raq is better than that it does suffer from the same weaknesses.

I really like Spike Lee’s work so I was seriously disappointed on this occasion