Showing posts with label Musicals. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Musicals. Show all posts

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Soundies: The Ultimate Collection and interview with curator Susan Delson


For anyone who loves the 1940s music, dance and overall style, discovering Soundies is an absolute treat. What is a Soundie you may be asking? The Soundie was a precursor to the music video. These bite-sized musical short films were the length of a song and featured performers singing, dancing and even acting out skits. Soundies were produced specifically to be played in a Panoram, a coin-operated jukebox with a small screen. These short musicals made on low budgets with up-and-coming talent and highlighted contemporary trends in pop culture. They gained momentum especially during WWII and eventually petered out after the war was over. To me each Soundie is a little window into a bygone era. 

Kino Studio Classics has blessed the public with the release of Soundies: The Ultimate Collection, a four disc Blu-ray set includes 200 Soundies as well as numerous introductions by curator Susan Delson, Media Conservationist Ina Archer as well as interviews with Soundies experts Matt Barton and Mark Cantor. A booklet inside includes essays as well as an extensive list of themes and individual Soundies in order of appearance. This list proved especially helpful to keep track.

Each disc features 6 themed with 8 Soundies each. The themes vary and an introduction helps put them into context. Themes include: trending song and dance forms, the WWII homefront, sexuality and subversiveness, urban and rural culture, Latin, Asian and African-American styles as well as a four-part Straight from the Panoram series which plays 8 different Soundies as they would be shown on a real Panoram.

My personal favorites from the set include: Swing for Sale, Hot Chocolate, Got a Penny for Benny, G.I Jive, Frim Fram Sauce, Four or Five Times, Paper Doll, He's a Latin from Manhattan, Time Takes Care of Everything and Ta Ha WaHhu Wa.

There is so much energy and vivacity in these Soundies that it seems a shame to watch them sitting down. I highly recommend getting up and dancing to the beat. A much more enjoyable way to experience these Soundies.

This set is an absolute winner. I love the packaging and design, the number of diverse selection, and the introductions that helped provided historical and cultural context. The Soundies themselves are of mixed quality depending on their source material but overall they look really fantastic on Blu-ray. I do wish the intros and interviews were a bit more higher quality in presentation. Otherwise I think this is an outstanding Blu-ray set and would make the perfect gift for a classic movie fan.

I'm thrilled to have interviewed the series curator Susan Delson. Check out the interview below:

Historian Susan Delson. Photo courtesy of Susan Delson

Interview with Curator Susan Delson

Raquel Stecher: As a cultural historian, how did you first become interested in Soundies?

Susan Delson: I came across Soundies while writing a previous book, Dudley Murphy, Hollywood Wild Card. It’s a film study and biography of a little-known director whose career crossed over from silent film to sound. Murphy had an adventurous career—from Ballet mécanique to The Emperor Jones—and closed out his Hollywood years by making ten Soundies in 1941.

I started by screening Murphy’s Soundies at the Library of Congress—there weren’t many on YouTube at that point. Then I discovered the breadth of the LC’s Soundies holdings, which are vast. And I was hooked.

Raquel Stecher: It's clear that a lot of thought was put into curating the collection of soundies into different categories for this blu-ray collection. Can you tell me a bit about how each program was curated and what you hope viewers will pay special attention to?

Susan Delson: I spent years screening and researching Soundies before I began writing my book, Soundies and the Changing Image of Black Americans on Screen: One Dime at a Time. I’d been a film programmer in the past, and right from the start, potential program themes were part of my Soundies thinking. I figured I’d present these films eventually, one way or another.

As I started programming the Kino Lorber set, I knew that I wanted to explore the full scope of the history embedded in the films—American history, African American history, entertainment history, and especially the change-making undercurrents in the culture back then. Soundies are a terrific way of getting into all of that—and at the same time, a lot of fun.

Each of the four [Blu-rays] in the set has its own theme, and those took shape pretty quickly: Introducing Soundies, Life in the Soundies Era, Musical Evolutions, and Women, Sexuality, and Gender.

There are six eight-film programs on each [Blu-ray], and all of them explore a different aspect of that disc’s theme. Except for the last program on each disc, called “Straight from the Panoram.” With those, I re-created an eight-film reel exactly as the Soundies Corporation released it back then—a program from a different year on each disc.

In response to your question, what I hope viewers will pay attention to is probably all of the above—the history, the cultural undercurrents, and above all, the fun. I also hope they discover lots of terrific performers they hadn’t known about. For me, that was one of the most exciting things about the whole project.

Raquel Stecher: I was particularly interested in the Soundies programs that reflected different aspects of American life during WWII. How do these Soundies give viewers a window into the culture of that era?

Susan Delson: There’s an immediacy to Soundies’ depiction of home-front life that you don’t generally get in Hollywood movies of that era. There’s nothing quite like Louis Jordan making sly double-entendres in Ration Blues to give you a sense of what living with wartime rationing might have been like. Or the Pretty Priorities (what a name!) doing a joking, patriotic strip tease to support scrap drives for the war effort in Take It Off.

In many films, there’s a creative, playful attention to personal style—this was the zoot suit era, after all. There’s a focus on dance, too, which makes sense when you realize that in the 1940s everyone danced, whether it was the foxtrot, the samba, or the jitterbug. There are some Soundies, like Hot Chocolate (“Cottontail”) or Swing for Sale, that people might have watched over and over just to pick up some new dance moves. 

The company behind Soundies—the Soundies Distributing Corporation of America— released a new eight-film reel every week. That’s over 400 films a year. They had to keep pace with popular culture, if only to keep the product flowing. The films had to be made quickly and cheaply. And with little or no time for rehearsal, let alone directorial vision, performers often had a lot of say in how they presented themselves on screen—much more than they might have had in Hollywood. With Soundies, you get a street-level, pop-culture perspective that you don’t get in mainstream media of the day.

Raquel Stecher: The blu-ray set features a diverse mix of Soundies with Black, Asian and Latino performers. I was particularly delighted to see Soundies featuring Dorothy Dandridge, the Mills Brothers, Ricardo Montalban, Nat King Cole and more. Can you talk a bit about why this was important and what you believe are some of the highlights of the collection?

Susan Delson: The diversity you’re talking about is really important. It’s what distinguishes Soundies from most of 1940s popular culture, and I’d say it’s the main concept behind the whole Kino Lorber set.

As you can see in the [Blu-rays], the Soundies Corporation was committed to presenting a diverse array of talent. Not out of idealism or altruism—they were a business and they absolutely wanted to make money. But the Soundies Corporation recognized an underserved audience when they saw one, and they knew there was a market for films that showed, on screen, a more complete view of who we were back then—Black, Latinx, Hawaiian, Asian, Eastern European, and more. There’s so much talent here that doesn’t appear on screen anywhere else during these years.

Among the highlights, I’d have to start with the first film on disc 1, Duke Ellington’s Jam Session. It’s by far the most popular Soundie online, closing in on 3 million YouTube views (mostly under the title “C Jam Blues,” which is the number the band is playing). Dorothy Dandridge’s Soundies are another highlight—she was 19 when she made them, and she’s absolutely incandescent.

Then there are the discoveries. The vocal harmony trio Day, Dawn, and Dusk has such a smart, sophisticated take on high culture, on American history, and gender play. We have three of their Soundies in the set, and every one is a gem.

My colleague Ina Archer, who does some of the on-camera intros in the set, calls another vocal harmony group, the Delta Rhythm Boys, the house band for Soundies. I agree. They really set the style for Soundies produced in New York, and they’re wonderful to watch.

Raquel Stecher: I have so many favorites from this collection, especially Hot Chocolate, Paper Doll, Frim Fram Sauce, Johnny Zero, etc. What are some of your personal favorites?

Susan Delson: All of the ones you mention are terrific. I also love Along the Navajo Trail, with John Shadrack Horace and Johnny Moore’s 3 Blazers. It’s the only country-western Soundie I came across that stars Black performers, and they’re great. Sticking with country-western, I also love Why Did I Fall for Abner, with Carolina Cotton and Merle Haggard. Everyone looks like they had a terrific time shooting that one—including the all-woman backup band, the Glee Gates Trio with two additional musicians. They’re terrific.

I also have a soft spot for Soundies that make me laugh, like A Little Jive Is Good for You and Operatin’ Rhythm. And just about all the films on disc 4 that explore women’s sexuality and gender play.

Raquel Stecher: What do you hope viewers will get out of watching Soundies: The Ultimate Collection?

Susan Delson: I hope the films will add some nuance and complexity to our thinking about the World War II years, beyond the “Greatest Generation” gloss. The culture back then was a lot more complicated and contradictory than people might think—emphasis on contradictory—and we see that in the films.

In my introductory essay in the [Blu-ray] booklet, I write that Soundies speak in multiple voices, and they don’t all say the same thing. For me, that’s a real plus. If there’s one thing I hope viewers take away from Soundies: The Ultimate Collection, it’s that our country is, and long has been, a place of multiple voices, cultures, and peoples. 

With these films, you really get the sense that as a nation, our diversity is our strength. And they make that point in a way that’s fun to watch and listen to. I hope everyone has as much fun with these films as I had in putting the programs together.

AmazonBarnes and Noble Deep DiscountKino Lorber

Soundies: The Ultimate Collection Blu-ray is available from Kino Classics. 

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy for review and to Susan Delson for granting me an interview!

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)

Directed by George Roy Hill, Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) stars Julie Andrews as the eponymous Millie. As a young woman living in New York City, Millie has big dreams. She sheds her out-of-date style for the new 1920s flapper look and sets her sights on a job so she can ultimately marry her boss and live a life of luxury and stability. Millie is staying at Mrs. Meers' (Beatrice Lillie) boardinghouse where the elevator requires its riders to tap dance for it to function and where a series of new tenants have mysteriously disappeared. Mrs. Meers is secretly running a sex trafficking ring with the help of a pair of Chinatown henchmen (Jack Soo and Pat Morita) who disguise themselves as launderers. She targets women who come to the city as orphans. Free of familial connections and with no one to miss them if they're gone, they're the perfect targets for Mrs. Meers to drug and sequester. Her new target is Miss Dorothy Brown (Mary Tyler Moore), a wide-eyed and naive young woman whom Millie quickly takes under her wing. Millie becomes the object of affection for paperclip salesman Jimmy (James Fox) but is adamant she will marry her boss Trevor Graydon (John Gavin) who really just has his sights on Dorothy. A series of events unfold including a wild party hosted by widowed millionaire Muzzy Van Hossmere (Carol Channing) and many attempts by Mrs. Meers to drug Dorothy. Will this quartet of love birds finally catch on to Mrs. Meers' machinations and save Dorothy before it's too late?

Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) is a fun and lively musical that has a grand ole time with song, dance, costumes, color palettes and 1920s style and culture. It doesn't take itself too seriously which adds to the light and frothy feel. This was the first musical for director George Roy Hill (best known for his later films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting). He's quoted as saying "I wanted it to be a soufflé. I knew it had to stay afloat by its own mindless nonsense." And he definitely succeeded at that. The movie was produced by Ross Hunter who had made numerous big budget films for Universal Pictures including All That Heaven Allows (1955), Imitation of Life (1959), Pillow Talk (1959) and Flower Drum Song (1961). Hunter originally wanted to adapt the 1920s themed musical The Boy Friend but wasn't able to secure the rights so he decided to pursue the 1956 musical Thoroughly Modern Millie instead.

While the movie is not meant to be a wholly accurate portrayal of 1920s life, I was impressed on how many key cultural elements were shown that were indicative of the era. These include automobiles, aviation, (a reference to) automats, dance parties, '20s colloquialisms ("banana oil", "by jingo", etc), vaudeville and most notably "buildering" (the fad of climbing buildings that Harold Lloyd depicted in his 1923 silent comedy Safety Last!) There are references to silent films including various title cards which appear as thoughts for Millie when she breaks the third wall to deliver a quip to the audience. 

My favorite visual element of the film is the changing color pallette. The set design and fashion appear in muted colors of white, black, grey and beige with a pop of a singular color. This statement color becomes the visual focal point of those scenes. We see green, yellow, orange, pink, red, black, blue, gold then purple and eventually there are more references to previous colors.

Even though the lighter elements dominate, Thoroughly Modern Millie is ultimately a problematic movie. A sex trafficking musical that features really harmful Asian stereotypes is not going to sit well with contemporary audiences. And it's not like these themes are minor ones that could easily be edited out of the musical. They're really ingrained into the overall story. 

Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) was a critical darling and a box office hit. Julie Andrews is at the top of her game and both Carol Channing and Mary Tyler Moore really shine in this musical. The film was nominated for seven academy awards including Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Carol Channing and Best Costume Design for Jean Louis. Elmer Bernstein earned the only win for the film with a Best Original Score Oscar. A sequel called The Jazz Babies was planned but never came to fruition.

The Roadshow Edition of Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) complete with full overture, intermission and exit music is available on blu-ray from Kino Lorber. The movie has been fully restored in 4K by Universal Pictures. It really benefits from this restoration especially since color is such an important element in the movie. The Blu-ray disc also includes English subtitles, audio commentary by film historian Lee Gambin and art historian Ian McNally and various theatrical trailers. 

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy to review!

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen (2022)

Director Daniel Raim continues his quest to champion the art of filmmaking with his latest documentary Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen (2022). Narrated by Jeff Goldblum, this documentary takes a deep dive into the making of Fiddler on the Roof (1971), director Norman Jewison's personal and professional journey and all of the key players who came to together to make one of the greatest musical films of all time.

Fiddler on the Roof was the brainchild of composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and writer Joseph Stein. The inspiration came from a selection of short stories by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem called Teyve and his Daughters as well as artist Marc Chagall's 1912 painting The Fiddler. The play opened on Broadway in 1964 and there was some concern that the story would only appeal to a small Jewish audience. However, Fiddler's tale of a Jewish dairy farmer who attempts to marry off his five daughters in pre-revolutionary Russia, is a story of family, tradition and the inevitability of change. This gave the story a universal appeal and along with the excellent story and top-notch musical numbers, Fiddler was an international success. And naturally it was destined to become a film. 

Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen explores the history behind the Broadway show, how Norman Jewison came to be involved, the casting, musical direction, art direction, location scouting, choreography, cinematography and many other elements that came to make the film as well as Fiddler's legacy. There is so much here to take in but it never feels overwhelming. 

The documentary includes interviews with director Norman Jewison, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, musical director John Williams, actresses Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel), Michele Marsh (Hodel) and Neva Small (Chava) and film critic Kenneth Turan. There are also archival interviews of Jewison back in 2000 as well as actor Topol and art director Robert F. Boyle. The interviews add so much to this documentary. There is nothing quite like first hand accounts of an important moment in film history. And much like Daniel Raim's other documentaries, there are illustrations from artist Patrick Mate as well as plenty of archival footage and behind-the-scenes photographs. The documentary is also is chock full of interesting facts even beyond just the making of Fiddler on the Roof. Watching it felt like I was getting two documentaries for the price of one: the making of a film and the biography of its director. 

Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber

Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber

"My documentaries preserve film history and depict the art, craft, and soul of the movies through intimate portraits of cinema artists." — Daniel Raim

I was already a fan of Daniel Raim's other work, especially Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story which continues to be my favorite documentary. I also really loved Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers and In Search of Ozu (available on the Criterion Channel). He scores another win with Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen.

An engrossing documentary from start to finish, Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen is a must watch for fans of the musical and for anyone interested in the art of filmmaking.

Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen is distributed by Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber (I'm hoping a blu-ray/dvd release is in the near future!). It opens at the Angelika Film Center in NYC on April 29th and the Laemmle Royal and Town Center in LA on May 6th which many more screenings to follow. Visit the official page for more details.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

West Side Story: The Jets, the Sharks, and the Making of a Classic

West Side Story
The Jets, the Sharks, and the Making of a Classic
by Richard Barrios
TCM & Running Press
Hardcover ISBN: 9780762469482
232 pages
June 2020

AmazonBarnes and NoblePowell's

When West Side Story was released in 1961, moviegoers had never seen anything quite like it. It threw out all conventions of what a musical should be, offering instead a young cast, an urban setting, on location shooting and ethnic strife. As author and musicals expert Richard Barrios writes, West Side Story was unique in "subject matter, unity of music and dance, overall presentation and seriousness of intent."

West Side Story was born out of a time when teenage culture was thriving and gang violence among youths was making headlines. Upon the success of Kiss Me Kate (1953), which gave Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew a modern twist, writer Arthur Laurents, director and choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein came together to create the next big splash on the musicals scene. West Side Story would take Romeo and Juliet, strip it of its upper class stature and its pomp and circumstance to tell a story of lower class immigrant teens at war. The thumb biting Montagues and Capulets became the finger snapping Jets and Sharks. The musical was a hit on Broadway but when it came time to adapt it into film executives still thought the project was a gamble. What they didn't bank on was how enthusiastically audiences would embrace this vastly new and different approach. It all worked. The story, the music, the dance sequences, the urban backdrop, the colorful costumes, etc. And of course, the stars made a huge impact. There was Natalie Wood's effervescence, Richard Beymer's youthful innocence, Russ Tamblyn's spirited physicality, George Chakiris' elegant intensity and Rita Moreno's charming vivacity.

Look at that beautiful self cover!

An inside spread

Author Richard Barrios offers fans and musical enthusiasts a valuable companion to this iconic film with West Side Story: The Jets, the Sharks, and the Making of a Classic. This is a soup to nuts exploration of the Broadway play's origins, it's transformation to film, the casting, the production, the release and the story's continued legacy. Barrios has a way with words and his elegant turn of phrase along with his thoughtful and informed insights make this a thoroughly enjoyable read. Mimicking the structure of the film, the book even has a prologue, intermission and epilogue. There are plenty of behind-the-scenes photos, film stills and publicity shots in both color and black-and-white. The biggest takeaways for me were how many obstacles had to be overcome in order to make the film and how there was a natural divide during production separating the cast in two camps. There were naturally those who were playing the Jets and those who were playing the Sharks. Directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins kept them separate as much as they could to build up natural tension. Then there were the Broadway veterans vs. the Hollywood Stars and team Robert Wise vs. team Jerome Robbins and other divisions that happened on set. It's fascinating to read how everything came together, despite so many challenges.

This the perfect gift for the West Side Story fanatic in your life. I am not even that big of a fan of the musical and I found this an engrossing read.

This is my fifth review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

Thank you to Running Press for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

6 Questions with Alicia Malone on TCM's Mad About Musicals

This month TCM in conjunction with Ball State University is hosting a free online course and month long programming called Mad About Musicals. The course started on June 3rd but they've extended the deadline for signing up to 6/17!

If you're participating in the course or just tuning in on Tuesdays and Thursdays to watch musicals, check out my interview with TCM host Alicia Malone. 

Raquel Stecher: What can those who signed up for the TCM’s Mad About Musicals course expect?

Alicia Malone: I’m jealous of everyone who is participating, because you get lessons by the knowledgeable and hilarious Dr. Vanessa Theme Ament, who you’ll also get to see on TCM doing some special intros alongside Ben Mankiewicz. You also get to see special interviews, movie clips and play games to test your expertise. And all of it works alongside the programming on TCM.

Raquel S.: What can viewers expect from TCM’s Mad About Musicals screenings this June and which films will you be introducing?

Alicia M: Throughout June viewers will be able to watch more than 90 musicals, selected from the 1920s through to the 1970s, showing every Tuesday and Thursday. I’ll be introducing the films on Tuesday evenings, and I feel very lucky that I get to introduce some of my personal favorites, such as Singin’ In The Rain (1952) and An American in Paris (1951).

Raquel S.: How did musicals evolve over the 20th century?

Alicia M: Doing preparation for this month has been so much fun, because watching a bulk of musicals in a short amount of time allowed me to see how they evolved. At the very beginning, musicals were used to showcase how sound could be used in movies. They were often Broadway adaptations, with sequences filmed on a stage. But then as they grew in popularity, studios (especially MGM) saw them as important vehicles for their biggest stars, and as technicolor began to be introduced, musicals got bigger, splashier and brighter than ever. But by the end of the 1950s these productions were getting too expensive, and audiences weren’t as interested in these pieces of escapism. Though every decade there comes a few new musicals, such as La La Land (2016), which looked to the past and became a huge hit.

Raquel S.: Why is it important to learn about film history and in this case the history of musicals?

Alicia M: I actually think musicals are a fun way to start learning about film history, because the two go hand in hand. Learning about film history helps you to enjoy watching movies. You start to be aware of what was happening at the time it was made, why the directors chose certain shots, songs or stars. And everything is influenced by what came before it, so I love being able to spot how films have changed but also stayed the same.

Raquel S.: Some folks love musicals and some don’t. What would you say to convince film lovers who are hesitant about musicals that this is a genre to enjoy?

Alicia M: I would tell them to look at the artistry of the filmmaking. The skill of the dancers, the costuming, the catchy songs, how sometimes a whole script was written around a group of completely different songs. Sometimes people are quick to write off musicals as being simple entertainment but there was a lot of care put into the making of these movies.

Raquel S.: What is your favorite musical and why?

Alicia M: My favorite is Singin’ In The Rain (1952). That might be a cliched answer, but I don’t care... it’s a film that always brings me joy. It’s also the film that I saw which made me love musicals in the first place. I watched it when I was really young, dreamed about doing that wall flip that Donald O’Connor does in ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ and learned all the songs. I still put it on whenever I need a little pick-me-up. “Dignity, always dignity...” This is the movie I recommend to those who are skeptical of watching classic film in general, it has an energy that is infectious.

Many thanks to Alicia Malone for taking the time to chat with me about TCM's Mad About Musicals!

Monday, September 11, 2017

King of Jazz by James Layton and David Pierce

King of Jazz book
King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman's Technicolor Revue
by James Layton and David Pierce
foreword by Michael Feinstein
November 2016
304 pages
Media History Press

Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powell's

King of Jazz (1930) was an ambitious project. The darling of Carl Laemmle's heir Carl Laemmle Jr., it sought out to showcase jazz superstar Paul Whiteman. The bandleader's popularity was staggering, boosted by his penchant for publicity and his ability to add to combine jazz with symphonic style. His name carried so much clout that night clubs were eager to be connected with him. Even his sideline bands and his singing trio the Rhythym Boys, made up of Al Rinker, Bing Crosby and Harry Barris, were in high demand. In 1927, Whiteman was at peak popularity and with the advent of sound in the film industry the Laemmles pounced on booking Whiteman for King of Jazz. But what exactly would this movie be about?

At first Universal tried to give King of Jazz a plot but what stood in their way was Whiteman himself. He wasn't particularly good looking so a romantic lead would be out of the question. He also wasn't much of an actor. Universal tried several times to make a musical out of King of Jazz. One of my favorite directors, Paul Fejos gave it a shot. As did other directors and other writers. Nothing was quite right. It didn't help that Whiteman turned everything down. It wasn't until musical theater director John Murray Anderson came on board and King of Jazz became a musical revue instead of a musical movie with a plot that the film started to take form. It featured a bevvy of talents, including Paul Whiteman himself, some from Universal's stock including John Boles, and others from theater and vaudeville. After many delays, King of Jazz released in 1930. Unfortunately, the onslaught of musicals and musical revues in the early talkie era created a fatigue for this genre of film. There were major flaws with the final production and critics and audiences alike took notice. As a result, it didn't perform well at the box office. However, this two-strip Technicolor movie was innovative and served as a time capsule of the era's entertainment industry. It would prove to be a historically important film.

King of Jazz (1930)

In Layton and Pierce's follow up to The Dawn of Technicolor, this book explores all that went into the making of King of Jazz and beyond. Readers are treated to a history of Universal Studios, a full background on Paul Whiteman and a soup to nuts look at everything that went into the production of King of Jazz down to the smallest detail. For example, we learn all that took to make the Rhapsody in Blue number as blue as possible which was nearly impossible with two-strip Technicolor. Only red and green would show. In order to mimic blue, they juxtaposed a light green with silver. Also, did you know that Bing Crosby was going to have a bigger role in King of Jazz? He caused a car wreck and upset a judge which landed him in jail. He would be released from jail each day to work a bit on the movie only to go back after he was done.

We also learn about the film's release, subsequent re-releases and the nine foreign language versions. The film's legacy is a complicated one. King of Jazz was chopped up and prints and scenes went missing. It took decades to put it back together and it's still not fully complete. The authors also delve into the expensive and impressive recent restoration effort conducted by NBC Universal. I had the pleasure of seeing the restored film at last year's Capitolfest.

 (The video above is not from the restoration rather from the color corrected re-release. 
This is one of my favorite numbers from the revue.)

King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman's Technicolor Revue is a monumental feat. It's mind-boggling how much research went into this book. As I read through it I kept thinking to myself, what great lengths it took the authors to dig up all this information and present in such a composed and orderly fashion.

I contributed to the Kickstarter campaign for the creation of this book and am so pleased to see the final result. I loved reading The Dawn of Technicolor and I had high expectations for Layton and Pierce's new book. Needless to say these expectations were met and then some. This book is gorgeous. It's full of black-and-white photographs, drawings, sketches, music, portraits and color stills from the film. It's smaller in trim size than The Dawn of Technicolor which makes for much more comfortable reading. A lot of love and attention was put in this book and it shows from the self-cover down to the appendix.

For anyone who is interested in the early history of film, King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman's Technicolor Revue is a must-have for your library. Even if you have never seen the King of Jazz, the insights into the history of it will teach you a lot about this era in film making. Now maybe one day soon we'll get a Blu-Ray release of the fantastic restoration.

This is my fifth review for my Summer Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Bells Are Ringing (1960)

"I'm in love, with a man.
Plaza o double four double three.
What a perfect relationship.
I can't see him, he can't see me.
I'm in love, with a voice.
Plaza o double four double three.
What a perfect relationship
I talk to him, and he just talks to me."

During the late 1950s things weren't looking up for actress Judy Holliday. Her marriage to David Oppenheim was over. She had been summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee and although she wasn't blacklisted her movie career suffered as a result. Things needed to change for the better and quickly. In steps in her good friends Adolph Green and Betty Comden, the writing duo behind many stellar musicals on stage and on the big screen. Inspired by Holliday's time as a switchboard operator at the Mercury Theatre, Comden and Green create a musical with her in mind. It becomes a huge hit on Broadway with over 900 performances before MGM picks it up and adapts it for screen. The end result is a sparkling musical that serves as a last hurrah for the brilliant Judy Holliday: Bells Are Ringing (1960).

The film stars Judy Holliday as Ella Peterson. She lives and works with her two roommates in a dilapidated freestanding brownstone in New York City. The three of them run a service called Susanswerphone, an answering service for everyone from artists, to local businesses to busy socialites. Ella has a soft spot for her clients and becomes personally involved with them, much to the dismay of her boss and roommate Sue (Jean Stapleton) who wants to keep things strictly business. The thing is Ella is starting to fall in love with the man behind Plaza-04433, Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin). He's a writer working on his newest musical The Midas Touch. However he's down and out because his writing partner left him and he'd rather drink than face writing by himself. In steps Ella to save the day. Jeffrey thinks Ella is really a 60 year old lady and lovingly refers to her as "Mom". When Ella meets Jeffrey in person she pretends to be Melisande Scott and they fall in love.

A wrench is thrown in the works when two police inspectors have their eye on bringing down Susanswerphone. They suspect it's really some sort of escort service. Sue puts pressure on Ella to be on her best behavior and having a romance with Jeffrey could ruin everything. To complicate things further, Sue is smitten with J. Otto Prantz (Eddie Foy Jr.), the leader of a bookie ring who disguises his illegal activity behind the ruse of the classical music distribution company Titanic Records. Unbeknownst to the smitten Sue and her two roommates, Otto is taking bets on horse races under the guise of orders for Beethoven symphonies and the like.

Ella can't help herself. She wants to help Jeffrey but she also wants to help the dentist who dreams of  being a songwriter and local beatnik Blake Barton (Frank Gorshin) who dreams of making it big as an actor. She wants to help everyone but doesn't want hurt the business either. What's a gal to do?

Judy Holliday sneaks into Dean Martin's apartment in Bells Are Ringing (1960)

With plenty of memorable musical numbers, fun characters and a zany plot with a satisfying ending, Bells Are Ringing (1960) is sure to please. Having seen the film several times recently I've fallen completely head over heels for it. Judy Holliday is so charming. It's her final film role and her only leading part in a color movie which makes it extra special and something to treasure. My favorite numbers of hers are It's a Perfect Relationship, a delightful song you'll find yourself singing over and over again, and the somber The Party's Over. The Titanic Records/bookie scheme is brilliantly explained in It's A Simple Little System lead by Eddie Foy Jr. Let's not forget Dean Martin who has several great solo songs and duets with Holliday. In addition to Comden and Green, Bells Are Ringing features powerhouses from movie musicals including director Vincente Minnelli, producer Arthur Freed, musical director Andre Previn and songwriter Jule Styne.

Bells Are Ringing (1960) was begging to be brought out on Blu-Ray and the good folks at Warner Archive heard the call and did just that. Seeing Judy Holliday don a gorgeous red party dress in the brilliant color only Blu-Ray can bring makes the whole thing worthwhile. The Blu-Ray includes several extras including two deleted musical numbers and an alternate version of The Midas Touch scene and the film's trailer. There is also a featurette from the 2005 DVD release which includes archival footage of Comden and Green discussing the movie, an interview with Hal Linden, who was Sydney Chaplin's understudy for the role of Jeffrey Moss on Broadway, as well as an interview with actor Frank Gorshin. I love that the Blu-Ray has English subtitles and a song selection menu which gave me an opportunity to play my favorites over and over again while also learning the lyrics.

The story of this film has a somber note as well. Holliday had a rough time making the picture. Ever the perfectionist she wanted it to be just as good as the Broadway production. She had a love affair with Sydney Chaplin, son of Charlie Chaplin, and her co-star on Broadway. That relationship ended before MGM started production on the film. It was inevitable that they had to replace Chaplin. Vincente Minnelli had just made Some Came Running with Dean Martin so he was a natural choice for the role. Holliday was sick during the making of Bells Are Ringing and died 5 years later of breast cancer. It's a shame we don't have more time with her. It makes films like this all the more special.

Bells are Ringing (1960) is available on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive. Their Blu-Rays are pressed discs and not made on demand like their DVDs. You'll definitely want to pick up a copy of this one!

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to the Warner Archive for sending me Bells Are Ringing (1960) for review!

Monday, December 26, 2016

La La Land (2016)

Poster for La La Land (2016)

City of stars 
Are you shining just for me? 
City of stars 
There's so much that I can't see

If ever there was a contemporary movie that could charm its way into the hearts of classic film fans it's La La Land (2016).

Based on an original screenplay by filmmaker Damien Chazelle, La La Land tells the love story of two struggling artists trying to make it in Hollywood. The lovebirds, actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), get off to a rocky start but as they discover their common ground sparks fly. Their passion for their individual crafts and their support for each other's dreams brings them together but also drives them apart. It's a love story where love for the art and love for each other are in conflict. There are song and dance numbers throughout the film, lots of amazing costumes, on-location shooting and finery that make this film a visual spectacle to savor. The most striking part of this film is the alternate ending within the ending which caps off this marvelous film.

La La Land (2016)

La La Land (2016)

Musicals require us to suspend our disbelief that everyday people can break out into song and dance. Classic film fans (and theatre goers) embrace this genre but even those who don't will find much to enjoy in this film. The song and dance numbers are expertly choreographed and the theme song City of Stars is a catchy tune. I can't speak to Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling's singing skills but as a former dancer I didn't think they necessarily had the chops to pull off the dance moves. There weren't many of those for them and the signature song and dance number that graces the advertising for the film was decent. In the early days of Hollywood, triple threats, actors and actresses who could act, sing and dance, were a lot more common than they are today.

La La Land (2016)

La La Land is influenced by many classic movies. In one scene, Gosling mimics Gene Kelly's signature Singin' in the Rain move where he climbs a lamp post. Stone's Mia wanted to become an actress when she was exposed to films such as Notorious (1946) and Bringing Up Baby (1938) as a child. Ingrid Bergman is practically an extra in the film. Mia's bedroom is adorned with a gigantic poster of her, she graces a Hollywood Hills billboard and Mia shows Sebastian a spot on the Warner Bros. lot where Casablanca (1942) was filmed. Mia and Sebastian have their first real date at the Rialto Theatre to see Rebel Without a Cause (1955). They visit the Griffiths Observatory shortly afterwards for one of the more ethereal musical numbers. The on-location shooting gives the movie a real sense of place. Mia works on the Warner Bros. lot and lives in the Hollywood, both places that Carlos and I have come to know after traveling to the area for the four previous TCM Classic Film Festivals.

La La Land was filmed in Cinemascope on 35mm. I watched a digital presentation of it and it was a bit fuzzy especially during the group dance numbers. If you have an opportunity to watch this one in 35mm do it!

When I left the theater after the film was over I was in a state of mild euphoria. La La Land had it all: good music, a great story with excellent character development, classic film references galore, stunning visuals all wrapped up in a beautiful package. There was very little I didn't like about the film. It's not perfect but there is much to enjoy.

La La Land is a fine film worthy of even the pickiest classic film fan.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Interview with Richard Barrios, Author of Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter

I've had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Barrios, author of Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter. Check out my review of the book here.

Raquel Stecher: Some people love musicals and other people hate them. It always seems to be one extreme or the other. Why do film lovers have such a love-hate relationship with this film genre?

Richard Barrios: It’s been that way since the dawn of the movie musical, back in the late 1920s, and it’s still that way. There are lots of reasons, of course, and one large one has to do with the connection of songs with script—for some people, those two things need to be kept completely separate. It could be said, too, that even the most cynical of recent musicals can seem too innocent and out-of-place in a time as jaded and seen-it-all as our current one seems to be. For some, too, rock music has become so dominant that the music traditionally thought of as “show tunes” isn’t felt to be appealing; for a few, unfortunately, any kind of musical will still seem “too gay,” whatever that is. And then there’s also the notion about people bursting into song, which is so crucial that you wisely gave it its own question.

Stecher: You make a great point about how some viewers are turned off by the idea of actors “bursting into song” in musicals. Why does this turn off some people?

Barrios: I write, in the book, about the notion of “suspension of disbelief.” And no matter how unrealistic some films can get, with their explosions and fights and whatnot, there will always be a particular resistance to the idea of a character singing to another character. It’s felt, by some, as being just too unreal for film—a stage convention that doesn’t work when it’s on a big screen in a big closeup. That’s why, since the dawn of musical cinema (The Broadway Melody) to now (Jersey Boys), so many musicals have been backstage stories, where the characters are seen performing onstage, instead of “in ‘real’ life.”


Stecher: I love this sentence from your book “Falseness and honesty: what is a musical if not a phony way to tell the truth?” This is a really interesting dichotomy. What is about musicals that make them both honest and phony?

Barrios: In many ways, musicals are inherently artificial, aren’t they? People in the real world don’t just get up and sing or dance, either alone or with each other. (I tried singing to someone once, and it didn’t really turn out too well!) But the great thing about that artifice is that under it can be some kind of true and genuine feeling—expressions of love or loneliness or joy, or even things more complex. Maybe a little girl in Kansas wouldn’t have really walked through a barnyard singing about a land over the rainbow, but for sure the thoughts and dreams of that song would have occurred to her—likely in a less beautiful and eloquent way.

Stecher: While you talk about a lot of the big name musicals such as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Sound of Music (1965), you also discuss at length obscurities such as Whoopee! (1930), Sunnyside Up (1929), Madam Satan (1930) and The King of Jazz (1930). Should the reader of your book have a broad understanding of musicals both popular and rare?

Barrios: You know, it’s the nature of history to recall the milestones and, eventually, leave the “also-rans” behind. It’s true in movies and in politics and sports and everywhere else. But the history wasn’t made simply by the ones we recall; sometimes it’s simply a trick of fate that some films end up getting neglected. (Some, of course, deserve the neglect—but the real stinkers deserve recall, just as we won’t forget, say, the Titanic.) I write about the revered and beloved classics and also the ones that may have been adored when they were new and subsequently forgotten. Both types were important to the musical’s evolution…and if reading about, say, Madam Satan in Dangerous Rhythm, a reader is led to seek it out, then I’ve really done my job.

Madam Satan (1930)

Stecher: Early musicals were very experimental and with time good ideas were “recycled and regurgitated.” Why do you think that is?

Barrios: When a product or an idea scores big, there are usually a host of imitations. We see that now with things as diverse as reality TV and vampire fiction and, well, you name it. There are only going to ever be a finite number of “new ideas.” When musicals broke big in 1929, a few of them truly were innovative, both with their technique and subject matter, while far more looked back to a few models and imitated them. The first big backstage musical, The Broadway Melody, spawned dozens of imitations, and so did the Al Jolson films The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool. Audiences soon became saturated with all the copies, and that plus the onset of the Great Depression put an end to musicals for several years.

The March of Time - Source
Stecher: Could you tell us a bit about The March of Time, that epic musical that never was to be?

Barrios: The most arresting aspect of The March of Time was that it wasn’t really “never to be”—it did actually happen! Here is the film industry’s most powerful studio, MGM, embarking on a huge plotless musical revue, and doing so without much in the way of planning for an overall structure. At the end of it, they had a massive pile of footage, songs and sketches that didn’t really seem to mean anything—so they tinkered some more, and kept tinkering, to give it some kind of point. Meanwhile, musicals were taking a nosedive. Finally, in the fall of 1930, MGM did something no other studio would have had the nerve to have done: it announced that The March of Time was shelved. Imagine that today—a hugely expensive film going completely unreleased. (The cost of March was about $800,000—an extremely high budget for 1930, and roughly equivalent to, say, $100 million today.) A tiny bit of the cost was recouped by putting some of the numbers into a comedy released in Germany, then farming out several sequences, including some in early Technicolor, in short subjects. (A couple of these featured The Three Stooges.) Then, in 1933, they put a few minutes of it into a backstage story called Broadway to Hollywood and were finally able to write off the whole mess on the company’s books. I don’t think ever, in all of film history, has such a major production been so completely aborted after it was shot. (I detail the whole saga in my book A Song in the Dark.) Fortunately, some of the numbers survive—and, seeing them, you can understand why the studio took the drastic step it did. That’s the take-away lesson of The March of Time: musicals need to be planned well, they don’t just happen spontaneously.

Stecher: What do you think is the biggest misconception about musicals?

Barrios: To refer to the subtitle of my book, that they don’t matter. That they’re just empty or mindless confections that should divert and then be forgotten in a few minutes. And of course that misconception is held not only by people who don’t like musicals, but also by some of the people who make them. Alas, too many musicals do seem empty and mindless—and really, they’re capable of so much more. The truly great ones have shown us this, over and over.

Stecher: In your book you discuss certain figures of musicals past including Bing Crosby and Judy Garland. Who do you find the most fascinating and whose work reveals a lot about the genre?

Barrios: So often, musicals are about the people, aren’t they? The ones who really delivered, like Astaire, the ones who moved away from them, like Ginger Rogers or Doris Day or Barbra Streisand, the ones like Gene Kelly who achieved miracles but sometimes made poor decisions, or the ones like Crosby who did a lot, but perhaps wasn’t totally committed to it. Then there are people like Garland and Betty Hutton, where personal or health issues sometimes kept them from achieving everything they could have. Though in Garland’s case especially, what she was able to achieve is pretty miraculous. Then there are the Jimmy Cagneys, who one wishes had made more musicals, and the Liza Minnellis and Bette Midlers, whose main stardom came at a time when few musicals were happening. These careers, and others like them, are one major way to chart a great deal of the history of the genre. Recently I did a presentation when I showed how some aspects of musicals keep on happening. In this case, it was showing film clips of a female star who stunned audiences with her musical talent, since up to then her fame in movies hadn’t been built on it. From the late 20s and early 30s, I showed Gloria Swanson, and from the early 2000s, Catherine Zeta Jones. And maybe that illustrates what I find the most fascinating with these people—that they have careers that enable history to keep repeating itself.

Love in the Rough (1930)

Stecher: What’s in store for musicals in the future? And when will there be another golf musical like Love in the Rough (1930)?

Barrios: You know, Love in the Rough was actually sort of a knock-off, like I discussed earlier, of another golf musical: Follow Thru. I wouldn’t hold my breath for too many, or any, more golf musicals—golf is traditionally one of those subjects that does not tend to make successful movies. (Remember The Legend of Bagger Vance?)

As for what lies ahead for musicals, I think it’s safe to say that there won’t be too many of them—nor will they be extinct. 2014, for example, is seeing the release of at least five major musicals: Jersey Boys, Begin Again, Get On Up (the James Brown bio), the Annie remake, and Into the Woods. And I think that the range of this quintet is probably indicative of what we’ll continue to have for a while: musical biopics, comedies with music (at least that’s what Begin Again looks like in its trailer), and Broadway adaptations, either remakes or first-timers. Obviously, if any of these are successful, that will mean more of that specific kind. Maybe it’s not the best of times just now, but at least it seems that there’s some interesting work awaiting us. I hope so—and, in any case, there’s a wonderful and available musical heritage that we can always enjoy when the new ones aren’t there.

Stecher: What are you working on next?

Barrios: Book-wise, I’m still dealing with Dangerous Rhythm, very happily doing presentations and lectures and interviews. If anyone asks me to do further things pertaining to musicals, I’ll be more than happy. Otherwise, I recently moved from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, so my life is quite occupied with homeowner-type duties. As far as future writing projects, I do have one current notion that I intend to expand: I grew up in South Louisiana, literally just out of the swamps, and never particularly felt that I fit in there all that well. As a kid and adolescent, I was able to find a great deal of my identity from going to the local movie theater, and also from all the film I watched on TV. So I’m thinking about the movies I saw growing up, and how they influenced me and were a reflection of who I thought I was—and often seemed more real to me than things happening in my life “off the screen.” And yes, musicals figured very prominently in that equation; I guess I’m living proof of my thesis that musicals do matter! Thanks for asking me such great questions—it’s been a treat.

Stecher: Thank you Richard Barrios for taking the time to do this interview!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter by Richard Barrios

This is my first review for the 2014 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge.

Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter
by Richard Barrios
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780199973842
Hardcover - 288 pages
May 2014

Barnes and Noble
IndieBound (your local indie bookstore)


 “[Musicals] can be substantial... everyone’s scorn.”

Musicals. You gotta love ‘em. Or you gotta hate ‘em. When it comes to how people think about musicals, most people's feelings are on one extreme or the other. Some of us relish how musicals carry us away and entertain us with song and dance. Others scratch their heads at the notion of people randomly bursting into song. If those skeptics do watch these musicals, they tend to fast-forward through the song and dance numbers. Why do musicals illicit such strong feelings from audiences? And why does the genre have such a complicated past?

Dangerous Rhythm: Why Movie Musicals Matter by Richard Barrios is a revealing look at the movie musical genre. It explores how musicals have been received by audiences and how they’ve struggled to grow and succeed as a movie genre. Richard Barrios is a leading expert on musicals and I very much enjoyed reading his previous book A Song in the Dark. Barrios is opinionated and frank in the way only someone who truly understands a particular subject can be. While A Song in the Dark was about the early history of movie musicals, Dangerous Rhythm explores the history of the genre as a whole. The musicals discussed in this book run the gamut from popular to obscure, from old to new, from live action to animation and from respectable to fluff. Revelations come left and right and the book serves as an eye-opening look at a troubled genre that has become such an integral part of film history.

The introduction alone is full of interesting and enlightening observations. In fact, it’s my favorite part of the book and I was sad when it was over and had to move on to the themed chapters. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the introduction:

“...they manage to embody American optimism, American enterprise, American taste and exuberance and vulgarity.”

“The movie musical had been an American institution... and from 1972 onward it would die many deaths.”

“The truth is that in an age of media saturation and virtual realities and immediate gratification, musicals do not always fit in well.”

“Part of the problem is that musicals are seen as a collaborative endeavor, one that does not permit an individual artist to leave a signature.”

Each chapter focuses on a different topic. These include origins, money, hits, misses, animation, personalities, choreography, songs, race, sexuality and television. The chapters have great titles, and part of the fun of starting a new chapter was figuring out what it will be about by deciphering the fun title. Sometimes it was very obvious and a few times it was trickier. Barrios reveals a lot about the movie musical genre. The inherent problems of musicals are many. There are natural constraints of the form and there are problems imposed on them by the public. Good ideas were “recycled and regurgitated” (page 20) and experimentation came mostly at the beginning. I really loved the following observation Barrios makes, which I think reveals a lot about why the genre has had such a complicated reception: “falseness and honesty: what is a musical if not a phony way to tell the truth?” And then there is this major point, which many people talk about but never gets really discussed at length: “the ... reason that many audiences and a number of filmmakers won’t go near musicals: the perception that they are based on the notion of people bursting into song.” To be truly entertained by a movie we have to watch something that is both different and familiar. It’s a tricky balance and if something seems to phony it can be off-putting to part of the audience whereas others will embrace it for what it is.

The book is well-structured with its themed chapters. However, the book can be a bit manic in the way it travels through time, going breezily back and forth between different eras. In order to exemplify his various points about the genre as a whole, Barrios juggles many different movies in his different discussions. It jumps around a lot which can be a little confusing however it gives the author the freedom to really explore the topic at hand. You have to be familiar with musicals, especially early ones, to be able to fully grasp the subject matter. I don’t think someone with very little knowledge about musicals will be able to appreciate this book.

There are footnotes throughout the chapters which serve as additional information to complement the text. They’re not necessary to read but serve more like bonus trivia. There are some photos in the book but I don’t feel like they were needed and didn’t reveal anything important on their own. But they are nice to have nonetheless.

Dangerous Rhythm is a valuable book because of its numerous enlightening observations about musicals. If you are interested in musicals or want a better understanding of film history as a whole, then this book is essential reading. And I have to say, of all of the classic film related books I've been reading in the past few years, this has one of the best cover designs. It's stunning!

Thank you to Oxford University Press and Larissa of Claire McKinney PR for sending me a copy of the book to review! Stay tuned as I’ll be posting an interview with author Richard Barrios on the blog soon.

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