• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (26/3/2021)

(Musings on a few forgotten musicals)


It's been a busy week writing for people who give me money, so it's not been possible to devote much time to the weekly release schedule. Apologies. We'll catch up over the next few weeks - it's not as if anyone's going anywhere, is it? To fill the void, here are a few unsung musicals to keep an eye out for.


HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME.


Hoping to repeat the success of Show Boat (1936), Paramount reunited Irene Dunne with songwriters Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for High, Wide and Handsome (1937), a musical reconstruction of the mid-19th-century struggle between the sodbusters and the railroaders for control of the Pennsylvania oilfields. Hammerstein originally conceived the project as a musical comedy. But, coming off the stage version of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935), director Rouben Mamoulian was determined to couch everyday provincial reality in folk musical terms and, thus, revised the screenplay and insisted on shooting on location in Chino, California to enhance the sense of period authenticity.


The picture would cost $2 million and prove to be a box-office disappointment. But, as critic Richard Roud has suggested, its blend of social statement and showbiz escapism was `an extraordinary fusion of Brecht and Broadway' and it wound up being less a reprise of Show Boat than a rehearsal for Oklahoma!, with which Mamoulian and Hammerstein would transform the American musical six years later.


Mamoulian was accused by some of spoiling a costume entertainment by being too serious about its socio-economic issues and by others of ruining a pugnacious Western by dotting it with romance and operetta. Yet, he succeeded in combining the best elements of both genres and utilised a blend of studio stylisation and outdoor actuality to give the film a unique hybrid vitality.


Others still criticised the restrained staging of the musical numbers. But these are perfectly suited to 1850s performance styles, with Dorothy Lamour's torch song, `The Things I Want', and her table-top saloon duet with Dunne (`Allegheny Al') feeling as credible as Dunne's execution of the title song and her circus ring reprise of `Can I Forget You?', which she first sang in the moonlit orchard and which now persuades her to return to Randolph Scott to rally his bid to lay a pipeline across hostile terrain in defiance of rail tycoon Alan Hale and his henchmen, Charles Bickford and Akim Tamiroff.


Moreover, the songs are neatly integrated into the storyline and are used to establish the relationship between the real and the romanticised, most notably in the medicine show opening and the sequence in which the livestock accompany Dunne's `symphony of life', as she feeds them in Scott's farmyard.


The connection between labour, landscape and community is fortified by the pipe-laying sequences, which are worthy of John Ford and Howard Hawks, in their respective depiction of the furtherance of America's frontier fate and the camaraderie of professional men engaged in honest toil. Indeed, this is very much a tale of the land, with Scott personifying its settled dependability in contrast to Dunne's restless energy, which manifests itself in the eruption of oil that follows her nuptial rendition of the elegiac ballad, `The Folks Who Live on the Hill'.


The pipeline, therefore, becomes a symbol of transportation and irrigation that will enervate both the economy and the community. Yet Mamoulian also gives it a sexual purpose, as Scott is impotent before Dunne and her circus family arrive to ensure both the final erection and the first triumphant gush of oil at the refinery. But rather than employing cheap phallic imagery, Mamoulian uses the couple's economic and erotic consummation to show how the romance of soil and soul fulfills America's Manifest Destiny.


Recalling Frank Capra's contemporary fables in its exposure of hypocrisy and greed, High, Wide and Handsome also echoes the New Deal message of the Berkeley backstager by demonstrating that morality and amusement are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, Dunne's vigour and resolve inspires the farmers to unite in a common enterprise rather than trying to subsist in isolation. But, post-Depression audiences were tired of such exhortations and the picture slipped into undeserved obscurity, even though its central idea of a cherished lifestyle coming under threat would become a recurrent theme of folk musicals from Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me in St Louis (1944) to Robert Wise's The Sound of Music (1965).


YOLANDA AND THE THIEF.


Director Vincente Minnelli once described Yolanda and the Thief (1945) as `a fantasy that just didn't perfectly come off'. Indeed, ever since its disappointing showing at the American box office, it's been deemed a disaster and rarely figures prominently in histories of the genre. Yet, it was an audacious experiment in dance and design that not only confirmed Minnelli as a visionary artist, but it also sent the Hollywood musical in an entirely new direction.


Producer Arthur Freed found his inspiration in a magazine story by Ludwig Bemelmans, who collaborated with Irving Brecher on a screenplay that reworked the operetta tradition of pinning a country's future on the romantic fortunes of its most significant citizen. Moreover, it also provided a classic example of the fairytale musical, as love not only affords Yolanda Aquaviva the opportunity to escape from the confines of her supposedly idyllic existence, but it also prompts the scheming Johnny Riggs to forget his wanderlust and settle down.


Despite Judy Garland lobbying for the role, Fred Astaire was cast opposite Freed's protégé, Lucille Bremer, with whom he had teamed effectively on the Ziegfeld Follies (1946) routines `Limehouse Blues' and `This Heart of Mine', the latter of which anticipated Yolanda's tale of an unscrupulous con man. However, the diverse visual influences were less obviously in step. The opening sequence in the convent school was drawn from Bemelmans's famous Madeline books, while Broadway art director Jack Martin Smith took his cue for Patria's baroque architecture from the paintings of Tiepolo. Choreographer Eugene Loring imported ideas from Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau for `Dream Ballet', while Irene Sharaff conceived the undulating black-and-white striped floor in `Coffee Time' solely to set off her café au lait costumes.


But Minnelli imposed a miraculous unifying vision. Pre-empting the self-reflexivity of the nouvelle vague, he glories in the filmicness of his creation, employing colours and compositions of such self-conscious artificiality that the audience can never forget that it's watching a motion picture rather than a slice of real life. Yolanda also brims with a sexual energy that defies the strictures of the Production Code. Bremer's carriage ride to meet Astaire at his hotel emphasises her repressed passion, which is both reinforced and subverted by Minnelli's decision to shoot Astaire's serenade through the strings of a harp, that not imply her moral imprisonment, but also her willingness for his fingers to play her in a similar manner.


This emphasis on artifice, eroticism and psychology culminates in Loring's 16-minute dream ballet, which borrows liberally from conceits devised for the stage productions of Oklahoma! and Lady in the Dark. However, the combination of Loring's ingenuity, Astaire's grace and Minnelli's genius for Technicolor stylisation gives this surreal interlude a mesmeric beauty and disconcerting ethereality that it rivals anything later achieved by Gene Kelly. But the picture isn't just artistically daring. It also packs a political punch.


Yolanda has too often been lumped with the Good Neighbour musicals that Hollywood churned out to keep Central and South America onside during the Second World War. But it slyly implies the interdependence of the Americas rather than following the `quaint, exotic and exploitable' line that Fox established in the likes of Irving Cummings's Down Argentine Way (1940). Moreover, it parodies this patronising attitude, as by having Johnny pose as Yolanda's guardian angel, it exposes the cynical reasons for the USA's overtures of friendship and its reluctance to enter into anything other than an alliance of convenience.


Yet, despite positive reviews, Yolanda missed the mood of postwar audiences, who regarded Latin escapism as passé and preferred all-American entertainments that didn't make too many intellectual demands. Consequently, it lost $1,644 million on its $2,443 million budget and its failure cost Bremer her career and prompted Astaire to retire the following year. But Freed courageously persevered, as he had recognised the pioneering qualities that would become the artistic cornerstones of the distinctive MGM style over the next decade.


SUMMER HOLIDAY.


One of the musical's forgotten masterpieces, Summer Holiday (1948) was a sly satire on the ongoing investigation into Hollywood Communism by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Yet, it was also part of the Americana boom that followed Meet Me in St Louis. Arthur Freed had long been keen to work with Rouben Mamoulian. So, when plans for Jumbo and The Belle of New York stalled, he suggested that he might like to musicalise Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!


Although a great admirer of the play, Mamoulian was initially unconvinced that the doings of the Miller family in Danville, Connecticut in 1906 were the stuff of screen musicals. However, he soon realised that he could enhance the emotional impact of the original text by integrating songs to do the work of the dialogue. Moreover, a `musical play' would be able to tell the story `in richer, more colourful and more imaginative terms, without sacrificing any of its true values'. Indeed, such an approach could impart `more beauty and excitement than was there before'.


As the feature was to be filmed on the old Andy Hardy set, it was fitting that 27 year-old Mickey Rooney was cast as Richard Miller, the teenager with radical inclinations and an inquisitive zest for life. But MGM was also keen to reassert a certain sexual innocence to counter headlines about Rooney's marital misadventures and it hoped that the project would smooth his transition to adult roles, much as Meet Me in St Louis had done for his onetime co-star, Judy Garland.


Ironically, considering Summer Holiday's subtext, the shoot was consistently disrupted by a dispute between the Teamsters and the stagehands' union, IATSE. Consequently, Mamoulian fell behind schedule and the situation was compounded by the complexity of several sequences. Yet, while it took two weeks to rehearse, the glorious opening number - in which Mamoulian exploits Walter Huston's rendition of `Our Home Town' to capture a sense of place through its architecture, atmosphere and principal inhabitants - was a masterclass in scene-setting that lead seamlessly into Rooney's delightful soda shop date with sweetheart, Gloria De Haven. Requiring 12 days to shoot in the stifling heat of a Pasadena park, the Independence Day picnic proved equally impeccable, with its dazzling use of tableaux, montage, dissolves, pans and top shots.


However, the most intricate scene to execute was Richard's bar-room encounter with the vampish Belle (Marilyn Maxwell). A triumph of visual ingenuity, its subtle shifts in costume, colour and décor required eight days to accommodate the 89 different camera and lighting cues. Yet the manner in which Belle's dress and demeanour change as Richard becomes increasingly inebriated epitomises Mamoulian's audiovisual genius. Moreover, the use of different shades of red, as Belle's reputation as a scarlet woman becomes clear, contrasts strikingly with the predominating palette of yellows, beiges and greens that Mamoulian borrowed from the Americana paintings of Grant Wood, Thomas Benton and John Curry.


Yet the Front Office resented Mamoulian's artistic autonomy and exacted its revenge by removing three songs - Huston's first rendition of `Spring Is Everywhere', De Haven's solo, `I Wish I Had a Braver Heart', and the reportedly exquisite `Omer and the Princess', which had been designed by costumier Walter Plunkett in the style of a Persian print. Moreover, the studio shelved the picture for some 18 months and, when it was eventually released, the critics chimed in with the in-house verdict that it was short on pizzazz and long on period kitsch. Consequently, it lost $1.460 million and decimated Mamoulian's reputation, and he only returned West a decade later for Silk Stockings.


But Summer Holiday was anything but a hokey piece of sentimental pictorialism. It was more concerned with the transition from youth than freezing a moment in time and, thus showed the impatiently rebellious Richard consistently debunking idyllic notions. However, some of Mamoulian's more sentient contemporaries recognised the picture's iconoclasm and followed its lead away from the genre's more conventional formats.


ANNIE GET YOUR GUN.


The capriciousness of the movie business is admirably summed up by the contrasting fates of George Sidney's Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and David Butler's Calamity Jane (1953). Respectively fictionalising the feats of 19th-century sharpshooters Phoebe Anne Oakley Moses and Martha Jane Burke, they each featured an anachronistically vivacious blonde in the title role, had Howard Keel as the leading man and romanticised the harsh realities of Wild Western life. Yet Warner's highly derivative screen original is much more fondly remembered than MGM's adaptation of Irving Berlin's Broadway hit - even though the latter boasts an infinitely superior score, a stronger supporting ensemble and considerably more wit and charm.


The received wisdom is that Betty Hutton hammed her way through Annie Oakley's love-hate relationship with Frank Butler, while Day exhibited adorable élan in portraying Calam's determination to prise Wild Bill Hickok away from maid-turned-chanteuse, Katie Brown. Yet, Day is every bit as guilty of gnawing the scenery as Hutton. However, she hadn't committed the cardinal sin of replacing Judy Garland.


A 1147-show run had persuaded MGM to spend a record $650,000 in acquiring Annie Get Your Gun as Garland's next big showcase. But, having spent most of 1948 on suspension battling her addictions and mental problems, the 26 year-old was in no stage to tackle her first radical departure from the patented Garland persona. Musical director Roger Edens first noticed that she was struggling to connect with the material when she came to record her nine songs. But it was the stress of working with the aggressive Busby Berkeley that prompted the breakdown that led to six bouts of electro-shock therapy.


However, Garland returned to work, only to lose her nerve again after viewing some disastrous rushes. Berkeley was dismissed the following day and Garland rallied briefly under the more solicitous supervision of Charles Walters. But she knew she was wrong for the role and, after enduring six days filming `I'm an Indian, Too', she was fired for her unprofessional attitude to a picture that had already cost a small fortune.


Producer Arthur Freed initially considered Betty Garrett as Garland's replacement, as she possessed something of the gusto that Ethel Merman had brought to the 1946 stage production. However, Garrett's agent botched the negotiations and Freed opted to loan Betty Hutton from Paramount, even though many MGM insiders were sceptical, especially as Doris Day, Judy Canova, June Allyson and Ginger Rogers all supposedly coveted the part.


Indeed, on-set morale was morbidly low, as not only had Walters been callously replaced by George Sidney, but Walter Plunkett's costumes been discarded, Sidney Sheldon's script had been revised to accommodate the comic routines that Hutton had insisted replaced Robert Alton's more complex dance numbers and the entire score had been recast in Hutton's range. Yet, Sidney and Hutton approached their tasks with vigour, as they felt they had something to prove to their detractors. Moreover, Howard Keel (who had avoided much of the chaos, having broken his ankle in falling from his horse on the second day of filming) was keen to make a good impression in his first Hollywood musical. Thus, they threw themselves into the project, with Hutton bursting through the screen during such Berlin showstoppers as `You Can't Get a Man With a Gun', `Doin' What Comes Natur'lly' and `I'm an Indian Too', while also more than holding her own against Keel on `Anything You Can Do' and the anthemic `There's No Business Like Show Business'.


Costing $3,768 million, Annie Get Your Gun grossed over $8 million on its initial release and its 1956 revival. It also earned Edens and Oscar Deutsch Academy Awards for their scoring. But, while audiences warmed to Hutton's courageously exhilarating efforts, the critics detected a desperation in her performance that was exacerbated by Keel's Eddyesque stiffness. However, this unfairly disparaged gem is long overdue reappraisal, as it not only remained true to its source, but it also added plenty of cinematic spectacle, most notably during the rousing finale. Yet Garland's plight served to emphasis how short MGM was of genuine vocal talent and, while this eventually proved to be one of the Freed Unit's most profitable pictures, it also exposed the first inklings of the crisis that, within a decade, would decimate the movie musical.


SILK STOCKINGS.


Silk Stockings (1957) was a film of firsts and lasts. Inspired by Ernst Lubitsch's classic screen comedy, Ninotchka (1939), it was adapted from Cole Porter's 25th and final Broadway show and marked Arthur Freed's first outing as an independent producer within MGM. It also saw Fred Astaire work for the first time with Barrie Chase, who would become his dance partner in a series of Emmy-winning TV specials. But, more crucially, it spelt the end of Rouben Mamoulian's movie career and proved to be Astaire's last genre entry for a decade and the last musical to be wholly filmed at Culver City.


The critics seemed to sense this twilight aura and delivered mostly misguided pronouncements about the picture's supposed pro-capitalist and anti-intellectual attitudes. Especial ire was reserved for Cyd Charisse, who was compared unfavourably to Greta Garbo, who had excelled as the dour Party emissary who is seduced by Paris in Lubitsch's sparkling original. But such invective simply missed the point. Mamoulian had no intention of duplicating either Ninotchka or Silk Stockings. Instead, he sought to turn a song show into a dance film, in which Astaire and Charisse's duets carried more dramatic and psychological significance than the text.


It wasn't an easy task, however. The MGM suits still blamed Mamoulian for the losses incurred by Summer Holiday and only hired him at Freed's insistence. Meanwhile, Astaire had misgivings about both Mamoulian and his May-December teaming with Charisse. Furthermore, neither Leonard Spigelgass nor Harry Kurnitz's draft screenplays were up to scratch and Leonard Gershe was accorded only a couple of weeks to rectify the situation. Yet, by editing as he shot, Mamoulian not only wrapped on schedule, but he also kept the budget down.


Astaire was also concerned about the ailing Porter's commitment to the project. But his 13 tunes boasted a classic catalogue song in `All of You' and two new numbers for Astaire, including `The Ritz Roll and Rock', in which he combined the tails of his Deco past with the doo-wop of the pop present. It also provided Janis Paige with the risqué gems `Silk and Satin' and `Josephine', and the mischievously self-reflexive `Stereophonic Sound'.


Indeed, the excesses, crassness and cultural insensitivity of Hollywood and the decadent West were as much the subject of Silk Stockings as Soviet hypocrisy and repression. It's full of self-deprecating humour, with Paige's Esther Williams-style swimming star arriving in Paris to shoot War and Peace and winding up persuading Astaire to make a musical about Napoleon's love life, entitled Not Tonight. Moreover, the jazzing up of Wim Sonneveld's `Ode to a Tractor' lampooned Hollywood's habit of bowdlerising show scores, as much as it posited the superiority of US music over Soviet.


Indeed, the film's fascination lies in these contrasts and contradictions, because they go beyond the traditional parameters of studio escapism. The action consistently subverts backstager expectations both by questioning the customary championing of entertainment over art and by dispensing with the usual interdependence of the lovers' fate on the success of the show by reducing Astaire's movie to a mere Macguffin.


There is a tendency to laugh at Communism and with Capitalism, and the broad satire occasionally ill-suits the Cold War context. But while Mamoulian ridicules the Marxist emphasis on utility over beauty, he also exposes the dehumanising impact of faddish materialism and vulgar populism on the complacent West. He even raises the notion of the male gaze, for while Charisse (who was dubbed by Carol Richards) seems to sing `Without Love' from a position of subservience that suggests she's more of a kitten than a comrade, she still resents the objectification of women for male gratification and denounces Paige's suggestive and demeaning performances. It says much for Mamoulian and Charisse's artistry, therefore, that the sensual `Silk Stockings' routine - in which Ninotchka abandons ideology for lingerie - is a dreamy psychological insight and not a voyeuristic tease.


But Mamoulian explores emotion through dance throughout, just as Astaire's pairings with Ginger Rogers had done 20 years earlier. Thus, Charisse resists Astaire's eagerness and charm until they dance to `All of You'. Subsequently, she thrills to the artifice of the film sets, as he glides her on a tour through his land of make-believe to `Fated to Be Mated'. Even when she dances `The Red Blues' in a stylised Muscovite reality of greys, blues and khakis, it's movement that conveys her mindset rather than the dialogue or lyrics. As ever, Mamoulian makes such transitions with exquisite, rhythmic ease and stages the musical sequences with effortless precision. Thus, while Silk Stockings may have seemed somewhat studio-bound after Stanley Donen's Funny Face (1957), it still grossed $4,417 million and ranks among the MGM musical's late glories.


THE PAJAMA GAME.


Stanley Donen is the unsung hero of the Hollywood musical. Gene Kelly was never as effective a director without him and his 1950s output is consistently superior to that of Charles Walters, George Sidney and Walter Lang. Indeed, on occasions, it even surpasses the efforts of Vincente Minnelli. Yet, following the Richard Adler and Jerry Ross duo of The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958), he all-but severed his links to a genre he had done so much to infuse with kinetic energy.


Indeed, Donen even had reservations about taking on The Pajama Game, as he preferred to direct original musicals that freed him from both comparisons with the footlight staging and the temptation to settle for proven material. However, realising that several sequences could be translated without much opening out, Donen asked Broadway director George Abbott to share the screen credit - although there was little actual collaboration involved.


Based on Richard Bissell's novel 7½ Cents, the story of a union official's romance with a factory superintendent in the midst of a pay dispute had restored some of the fun that had elapsed from the Broadway musical during the Rodgers and Hammerstein era. Moreover, it also caught the blue-collar mood of the sitcoms and domestic dramas that were then dominating America's TV schedules. Yet, beside its wry social comment, the action also borrowed tropes from the backstager and folk musical traditions to ensure an escapist element. It also subverted the conventions of musical coupling by making the romantic leads, Babe (Doris Day) and Sid (John Raitt), as amusing as the comic juveniles, Hinesie (Eddie Foy, Jr.) and Gladys (Carol Haney).


Warners reportedly bought the show for Patti Page and Frank Sinatra - although earlier rumours had mentioned Cary Grant, Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, Marlon Brando and Bing Crosby. But Donen retained 39% of the original cast and 11 of the 15 songs, thus making this one of Hollywood's most faithful transfers. Indeed, only Janis Paige was absent from the principals. But her replacement, Doris Day, turned in her best screen performance by combining elements of both her established tomboy sass and the controlled feminist chic that would become her battle-of-the-sexes trademark. Moreover, there was just a chink of vulnerability between the personae, which she archly concealed with a brassy sexiness that was never allowed to recur once she became Ross Hunter's screwball icon.


Donen similarly refused to prettify the remainder of the cast, whose physiques, fashion sense and tonsorial stylings unfussily complemented the studio realism of the Sleeptite factory, the union offices, Hernando's riverside dive and Babe's abode. Moreover, the diversity of the score reflected the contrasts between the characters and conveyed the rhythms of working life, which Donen established in the pre-credit sequence and satirised by undercranking the camera during `Racing the Clock'. Indeed, such touches exposed the static post-MGM approach to filming musicals.


In `Hey There', Donen not only makes clever use of the dictaphone to allow Raitt to duet with himself, but he also turns the camera into an interested observer of and discreet participant in a scene showing a man wrestling with his feelings rather than a performer delivering a song. Moreover, by shooting in a single take, Donen makes a key psychological moment highly cinematic and Day's reprise is equally inspired, with the red and green lights of the railway signal outside the window bathing her room in symbolic colour, while her live rendition ends with sobs of frustration that choke the lyrics. Indeed, Day's reading of the song suggests just how wasted she had been in all those Warner trifles.


Yet the film is stolen on three separate occasions by Carol Haney. Gene Kelly's former assistant had broken her ankle two days into the Broadway run (allowing Shirley MacLaine to become a star in true 42nd Street fashion). But Haney not only sings with a pleasingly authentic ordinariness, she also erupts on to the screen in the glorious trio of `Once a Year Day', `Hernando's Hideaway' and `Steam Heat'.


The first routine innovatively exploits the undulating topography of Hollenback Park and shatters the Berkeleyesque uniformity of the chorus line, while the second deftly combines darkness, match-light and nimble camera movements. But the latter was a genuine showstopper that confirmed Bob Fosse's choreographic reputation. Utilising hissing radiators and clunking pipes, Fosse creates a jazzy syncopated number whose rhythms are reinforced by finger snapping, hand clapping and foot stomping.


The stylised gyrations might have owed much to Jack Cole, while the use of hats and props recalled Fred Astaire. But the minimalist costumes, jerky body movements and expressive hand gestures became Fosse's shtick. Yet Haney never became the star she clearly was, as, like Jerry Ross, she died tragically young - depriving the musical of exuberant, innovative class just when it needed it most. However, she left her mark in what Jean-Luc Godard branded `the first left-wing operetta'.


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