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Monthly Archives: July 2018

Movie Crash Course: Top Hat

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And thus on the evening of July 30th, 2018, I finally learned why Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were such a big deal.

Look: I’ve said before that one of the reasons I’m doing this project is for self-education. I grew up in a small town with only a single multiplex, and the only indie theater complex nearby favored cult-classic stuff from the 1970s and cartoons for the kids.  Any late-night movies we got on TV were usually 60’s horror cheese.  There are vast swaths of film history I simply haven’t been exposed to properly.  Add in my aversion to most musical films, and that’s how I’ve managed to be ignorant all this time.

Not that I hadn’t heard of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  Their fame and reputation were well established when I was a kid, and I’ve seen passing brief clips of one or another of their numbers, usually only a few seconds’ worth of segments in one documentary or another.  I knew that Astaire and Rogers were supposed to be good, and saw tastes of things here and there, but the penny still hadn’t dropped.

Watching one of their films properly makes the case.  Mind you, I found the plot utterly ridiculous – a romantic misunderstanding straight out of a Three’s Company episode drives the action, with Astaire and Rogers as a pair of singletons whom a married couple are trying to fix up.  Astaire is Jerry Travers, a showman who’s come to London to star in his friend Horace’s stage show – and Rogers is Dale Tremont, a model who’s come to meet her friend Madge’s new husband (Horace) and the gent Madge is trying to set her up with.  Travers runs into Tremont before they are formally introduced, and they both get flirty – until a chance misunderstanding leads Tremont to think Travers is actually Horace.  So for a surprisingly long time, she’s totally confused about why her friend’s husband is pursuing her – and why her friend is actually encouraging the situation.

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This is a plot device that always makes me roll my eyes, where the “problem” is something that could be solved in about two minutes if people just talked to each other like grownups.  Roger Ebert famously referred to these kinds of plots as “Idiot plots” – “Any plot containing problems that would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.”  But like with the Marx Brothers, the plot really isn’t the point – it’s the dancing.  Even Roger Ebert’s review of Top Hat excuses the froth – “This is an Idiot Plot, yes, and could be cleared up at any moment by one line of sensible dialogue, but there are times when nothing but an Idiot Plot will do, and we are happy to play along.”

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Speaking of idiots – when it comes to dance, I am one.  But – Astaire’s talent was completely and nakedly obvious even to a rube like me.  Right from the first – Astaire’s first number was a tap solo in Horace’s hotel room, and managed to be intricate and athletic yet somehow….poised and elegant at the same time.  He was energetic as all hell – dancing rings around the room – but suave, elegant and graceful no matter how fast the feet were flying.

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And then Ginger Rogers joined the party.  Their first duet was on a gazebo the pair were trapped under during a rainstorm; up to this point, Tremont’s been kind of cold towards the obviously smitten Travers, but over the course of the dance – and through the dance – you can see her assert herself, Travers’ ardor becomes more of a conversation, and the pair finally connect.  And it happens with a dance.

The real showstopper is Dancing Cheek to Cheek, which comes after Madge has all but thrown Tremont into Travers’ arms while all are on vacation in Venice.  Tremont is understandably conflicted – she still thinks Travers is Horace, but she’s falling for him – and Travers is already smitten, and ecstatic he’s dancing with her.  This is one of the numbers that gets trotted out in a lot of clip shows and has been featured in other movies, and with good reason – it is graceful and gorgeous and elegant and….eh, using words doesn’t seem to work.  It left me nodding and wistful and thinking “ah, now I get it.”

That scene also has a backstage-anecdote punch line.  Fred Astaire was a superlatively smart dresser and was opinionated about all his costumes – the top-hat-and-tails were usually his idea, as were the blazer-and-button-down-with-tie his characters wore in casual moments.  However, he also took into account how a costume would look while dancing.  Rogers decided to do the same this time, and for this particular number chose a dress festooned with hundreds of ostrich feathers; the choreography featured a lot of dips and swings, and the feathers would flow beautifully.  However – the dress hadn’t exactly been built to withstand dancing this vigorous, and during the first take the dress started shedding.  Astaire hit the roof, snapping that the pair looked “like a chicken getting attacked by a coyote” because of the feathers flying everywhere.  Astaire and Rogers had a blowup on set, with Rogers’ mother even coming into the fray – but Rogers won, with the condition that they draft a couple seamstresses to spend all night sewing all the feathers more securely to the dress before trying again the following day.  (Even so, you can see a couple feathers getting shook loose during the scene.)

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The famous duo made up soon after, and even used the incident as an in-joke; Astaire used the nickname “Feathers” for Rogers on and off forever after, and on the last day of filming he presented Rogers with a gold feather charm for her charm bracelet, singing a parody of their famous number he’d made up:

“Feathers, I hate feathers,
And I hate them so that I can hardly speak….”


Our Fears Are Always With Us

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…This is not about movies. Another nuclear war dream woke me up again last night.

Truth be told, I wake up in the middle of the night a lot these days.  Most nights, though, it’s only briefly; if I don’t fall right back to sleep after a couple minutes, I get up for a trip to the dunny followed by a glass of water.  I figure that most of the time I’m waking up because my middle-aged body is in need of one or the other, and I’m too sleepy to tell which one, so I cover both.  It works either way – usually I fall straight to sleep again.

This time, though, I needed stronger stuff. I didn’t have the same heart-pounding panic these dreams would give me in my 20s – I’m sure age has something to do with that, as well as the scale of a nuclear threat being way lower than it was back then.  But the dream was still unsettling – this time it was something about a nuclear blast that was too far up in the upper reaches of space to do much damage on Earth but had a big impact on the moon, which in turn was predicted to affect our tides and orbit.  It was still visible enough on Earth that I dreamed of throwing myself to the ground in protection when I saw the huge flash in the sky.

I lay in bed trying to will myself back to sleep. But kept thinking of the fallout from a nuclear blast on the moon; what would that do?  Our orbit would get out of whack, for one thing- but how far?  Would our orbit around the Sun get crazier and wider until one day we were just flung free of the Solar System?…

….Dwelling on that made me realize I needed to distract myself with Youtube kitten videos to find sleep again.  Fortunately I dropped back off again within an hour – and even had a bit of a second dream before waking up, something about baby ducklings and Patrick Stewart swimming in the East River.  (I don’t remember details, and I cannot begin to tell you how much I wish I did.)

But I had a surprising thought as I was falling back to sleep – gratitude.  Gratitude that I was still unnerved by nuclear threat, despite 20-plus years of living free of its shadow. In college I once predicted that people of my generation, people who were kids during the last days of the Cold War, were so profoundly marked by that terror that it would guide our politics ever after.  We may go on to prioritize other concerns or publicly, campaign for tax reform or farm subsidies or marriage equality or what have you, I argued, but in the back of our minds, whenever it came to nukes, we would be terrified kids wanting to do anything to stop people who would push that big red button.

If you’re talking about something that hasn’t been a danger for 20 years, though, then complacency because the other danger. Starting to forget. Starting to let yourself get talked into “Mutually Assured Destruction” or a new arms race as wise policy.  They talked our parents into this, our grandparents, and we ended up on a knife’s edge, the world nearly destroyed several times over.

I found myself whispering a prayer of thanks for my nightmares, and a prayer that I would never become that complacent. And only then was I able to get back to sleep.

Another Blogathon

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Ack!  Hello! Looks like people are already stopping by:

I am participating in the “Non-English” Blogathon hosted by Thoughts All Sorts.  This is a showcase of films not in English; I’ve tossed in my review of Rene Clair’s Le Million.

Movie Crash Course: Captain Blood

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So let me ask you.  When you see a movie about pirates,  what do you want to actually see?

You want to see them, y’know, being pirates, right?  Clashing swords, hollering “up in the rigging, ye monkeys!”, carousing in taverns, cannons ablaze at enemy ships, Jolly Roger flag fluttering in the breeze, chests of gold coins, voyages to mysterious ports, pitched battles on decks, swash-swash buckle-buckle, right?  If you went to the next Pirates of the Caribbean film and it ended up mostly being about Captain Jack’s backstory, with lengthy sequences of him working in an optometry practice or something before caught up with political dissidents and getting deported to work as a slave on a sugar plantation, and it was midway through the film before he even got on a boat, you’d feel a little cheated, no?

Yeah, so that was Captain Blood.

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Now, this is not to say that the backstory of our hero Peter Blood wasn’t inherently interesting. Based on a 1930s novel, Captain Blood is the story of an Anglo-Irish doctor who gets mixed up the Monmouth Rebellion against King James II.  He’s been trying to stay neutral in an existing poltiical conflict in England, treating wounded on both sides; but when the King’s men find him tending to a rebel soldier’s wounds, they imprison him with the rest, deporting the whole group of men to Jamaica where they are to be sold into slavery in the sugar plantations and sulfur mines. He quickly gets on the bad side of a wealthy plantation owner, Colonel Bishop – but Bishop’s niece Arabella is impressed by his spunk and buys him herself. turning him over to her uncle to manage.  Blood’s medical expertise also wins him favor with Jamaica’s wimpy governor, who struggles regularly with gout.

Bishop, however, still doesn’t like the guy, but can’t do anything about it because of Blood’s favor with the governor.  So Bishop takes it out on his other slaves – which makes them all the more ready when Blood comes up with a scheme to escape by taking over a boat.  They scrape together the money to get a smallish boat from a shipbuilder in debt – but then the city is attacked by Spanish pirates, most of whom abandon their ship to carouse in port, and the team gets a better idea…and thus, nearly halfway through the film, does our ostensible pirate captain finally become a pirate.

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The film takes pains to show us that Blood is a moral pirate, drawing up a very rigorous code of conduct and plan of business for himself and his crew – plunder being paid into a common fund with equal shares paid to all, plus any extra one-time stipends paid out for injuries. Drunkenness during battle is a no-no. Capturing women for lewd purposes is strictly forbidden.  It’s decent of him and all, don’t get me wrong – but a good several minutes is spent on a sequence spelling out his OnBoard Code Of Conduct, and on a sequence showing the crew dutifully lining up for their share of the proceeds after a raid.  Which…isn’t exactly gripping.

It does set things up for a later plot twist, after Blood has joined forces with the French pirate Levasseur; the pair have agreed to meet up at a deserted island, each taking different routes to get there, and divvy up whatever each crew may find en route. When they meet back up, Blood is horrified to see that amongst Levasseur’s cache of booty is – Arabella.  Without letting on that he already knows her, Blood gets into a swordfight with Levasseur for breaking contract.

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….I just timed that fight; it lasts only one minute and three seconds.  A big sea battle at the end takes only about eight minutes.  Which gives us only….nine minutes of pirate battles in a two-hour film that is claiming to be about a pirate.


Despite how it may sound above, I didn’t hate this film.  There are some fun moments from stars Errol Flynn (as Blood) and Olivia de Havilland (as Arabella), both of whom were complete newcomers to Hollywood. Flynn seemed a little green, and the swordfighting was a little uneventful, but it was hard to tell how much of that had to do with the story simply focusing on the wrong things, in my opinion.

Or maybe it’s me that’s been spoiled with all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, or with the swordplay in Princess Bride (Wesley’s first fight with Inigo Montoya alone is three times the length of the big fight in Captain Blood).  I tried to remind myself that I’m watching in an era when “pirate movies” were familiar genres, and there were conventions I’d been trained to expect – and at the time Captain Blood was first out, this was unfamiliar territory.

Still, though.  If you’re going to call yourself a pirate movie, your pirate stuff should at least be more than 20% of your running time.  That’s what I think, anyway.

Movie Crash Course: The Crowd

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Jumping back to 1928 for a silent film again!

After his 1925 film The Big Parade (discussed earlier) became a hit, director King Vidor was the darling of Goldwyn Studios.  After some careful thought about how to follow up his war film, he had an idea – isn’t the daily grind of everyday life kind of a war, too?

And thus, The Crowd. The “crowd” in the story is more of a metaphor for societal expectations, social customs, and the everyday pressures affecting all of us anonymous teeming millions, told via the story of one such anonymous ordinary guy.  We first meet “John Sims” (he could just as easily been “John Smith”) at the exact moment of his birth, in a small town on the 4th of July, in the Year Of our Lord 1900. His proud father declares that his son “will have every advantage” and that “he’s going to be someone the world hears from!”  The boy John takes this to heart, telling his schoolmates that “my Pop says I’m going to be someone big!” one day, right before his father dies suddenly, leaving John’s family bereft.

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But John’s self-confidence stays intact, and at 21 he heads for New York City, a headful of dreams and schemes and not so much in his pockets. He gets a desk job in short order (note: this is from the 1920s), and secretly steals moments to plot and plan his Get Rich Quick ideas, most of which involve writing slogans for advertisements.

John’s schemes work about as well as anyone’s, however – in the sense that usually, they fail. In the meantime, he meets the spunky Mary, marries her, has a couple kids, and all the while keeps promising that his ship is bound to come in any day now; but in reality, he’s stuck in a low-level desk job, they’re falling behind on bills, and they’re stuck in a cheap two-room apartment.  Even when John does get a modest success – finally selling a slogan to an ad company – the family suffers a personal tragedy, sending John into a tailspin.  Early on, John is the love of Mary’s life – but the film is surprisingly honest about how their trials often come close to splitting the pair up.

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The whole thing is amazingly and refreshingly ordinary – and at times, hit me uncomfortably close to home, like with the soul-stealing shots of John in his desk in a vast open-plan office (not naming names, but I’ve been stuck in many offices like that).  Vidor is honest and frank about how the mundanities of life – broken plumbing, squashed cakes, lids on milk jugs that refuse to open – can be just as frustrating and can sap just as much of your energy as the bigger tragedies like lost jobs and car crashes.  I was most impressed that the film doesn’t give us a happy, fairy-tale ending either; instead, after an uneasy argument, John and Mary decide to give themselves a bit of a break and see a vaudeville show. Their relationship is unclear, and so are John’s prospects; but they’re happy right now, at least….

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That last shot of them is actually one of a handful of scenes where Vidor plays up the “John as a single face in a teeming crowd” angle with some fantastic camerawork.  The first comes early on, as twelve-year-old John gets word of his father’s death; the camera is at the top of a long stairway in John’s family home, with a curious crowd huddled at the bottom.  John emerges from the pack and starts to slowly climb the stairs, gradually hiding the crowd behind him and taking focus.

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The office scenes all start with a shot of the whole sea of desks before singling out John’s; the first time we see it, we even get some introductory shots of the size and scope of the buildings around the office before panning all the way up the façade of a skyscraper and in through a window.

In one of the more famous and poignant sequences, John is hovering nervously at the sickbed of one of his children. While he waits for the doctor’s verdict, he starts insisting on quiet so that his child can rest – gently shushing other family members first, then running outside and trying to silence a team of fire trucks before finally facing down a huge crowd of people rushing after the trucks, futilely begging them for silence.

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The very last sequence stuck with me longest – John and Mary are at the vaudeville, their future uncertain, but they are together right now, and laughing. The camera gradually pulls out to take in more and more of the surrounding audience, with John and Mary fading in amid all the other people laughing at the show; we lose sight of them at the end, they’ve blended back in.  Initially this felt bleak – we realize we’re never going to know what happens to them – but then it reminded me that Vidor’s point was that ultimately, each one of the other people in that crowd had their own struggles they may be coping with, unbeknownst to anyone else around them.  It’s a visual expression of the saying, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Movie Crash Course: A Night At The Opera

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In my first year of college, I was part of a crowd that regularly hung out in my dorm hallways shooting the breeze. Another such hallway bum was Jeff, an enormous Marx Brothers fan; when he was in a mischevious mood, he’d do bang-on Harpo imitations. However, I hadn’t yet seen any of their films, and had to finally ask what he was doing. He explained, but was completely floored that I was Marx-Brothers Ignorant.

About three weeks after that conversation, I was puttering in my dorm room one Saturday when Jeff came by.  “Are you busy right now?”

“…No, why?”

He ignored my question. “Do you have anything going on today?  A test to study for or a date or anything?”


“Good,” said Jeff eagerly. “You haven’t seen the Marx Brothers, and I need to fix that.  The moviehouse up the street is showing A Day At The Races and A Night At The Opera back-to-back. It starts in 20 minutes. Get your coat.”

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It was a perfect introduction to the Marx Brothers; A Night At The Opera, along with Duck Soupis one of their best-known works, and contains one of their best-known sequences – the “Stateroom Scene,” which sees fifteen people try to cram into a shipboard room the size of a closet.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.  This time around, Groucho is Otis B. Driftwood, business advisor to the wealthy widow Mrs. Claypool (the unflappable Margaret Dumont).  Mrs. Claypool is looking for an inroad into high society, and Driftwood has advised her to make a donation to New York’s Opera, then helmed by a Mr. Herman Gottlieb (Sig Ruman).  Gottlieb is eager to use the money to hire famed Italian tenor Rodolfo Lasspari.

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Lassparri is something of a jerk, however; he regularly beats up his dresser (Harpo), and is trying to hook up with the opera’s soprano, Rosa (Kitty Carlisle Hart).  Rosa’s heart belongs to a lesser-known, but equally talented, tenor in the chorus named Ricardo Baroni.  When Driftwood comes sniffing around the opera house, hoping to sign Lassparri for New York’s opera, Baroni quickly hires a family friend, Fiorello (Chico), as his manager and tries to get in on the action as well.  Harpo also ditches Lassparri in favor of Baroni.

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But Gottlieb only has eyes for Lassparri, and hires him and Rosa to appear in New York’s opera houses. After Baroni gives Rosa a tearful good-bye at the dock of their ship,  Fiorello manages to get Team Baroni on board after all – by stowing away inside Driftwood’s steamer trunk.  Driftwood is by now sympathetic to Rosa’s preference for Baroni, and agrees to champion him to Gottlieb as well.  Maybe they could interrupt Lassparri’s debut performance somehow….

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The script was a little more cohesive than Duck Soup, largely at the behest of producer Irving Thalberg, who was working with the Marx Brothers for the first time.  He’d pointed out that the previous constant-stream-of-jokes with a plot sort of mixed in was funny and all, but the jokes targeting the film’s “good guys” could be seen as off-putting.  He proposed an overall formula for the Brothers’ scripts on his watch:

  • There’s a romantic couple that Chico is friendly with and wants to help them.
  • Harpo is a put-upon underling who teams up with Chico.
  • There is extensive verbal wordplay between Chico and Groucho.
  • Jokes that come at the expense of another character should target the “villains” of the film.
  • There are musical numbers.
  • There’s a happy ending.
  • The whole thing is set in an eye-popping venue, like the opera, the circus, an exotic city, etc.

Fans of the total-anarchy version of the Marx Brothers objected, but I actually think it’s an improvement; the story leads the jokes, rather than the other way around.  The brothers are more consistent characters, rather than swinging from sympathetic to mean-spirited.  And there’s still plenty of chances for gags, such as the stateroom scene above (it was so good, Alex actually applauded), or with Chico and Harpo crashing the orchestra to mess with Lassparri.

The film uses a good deal of opera, understandably, but also adds two original songs – a love duet between Rosa and Baroni, and “Cosi Cosa”, a fanciful romp that takes place when Baroni, Chico and Harpo crash a spaghetti dinner down in the steerage part of the ship.  The “Cosi Cosa” sequence felt pretty superfluous, to be honest; but it gave Chico and Harpo a chance to show off their respective musical talents, with Chico doing a quick piano solo and Harpo….well, you know.

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By the way, Harpo comes by his name honestly; his solo was lovely.  And it felt utterly bizarre to see Harpo switch from the anarchic manic physical comedian to a sensitive ethereal musician.  And then right back to zany comedy guy.

On the whole, Thalberg’s new formula worked, especially for A Night At The Opera, which received some of the best reviews of the team’s career thus far.

The Movie Crash Course Blogathons!

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So hey!  Did you know that there are a lot of movie blogathons?  I just learned that.

Fortuitously, three films I’ve already reviewed would fit very neatly with three upcoming blogathons; I’m throwing my hat into the ring for each, and will definitely participate in future.  My first is this weekend’s Winter In July blogathon, featuring films with wintry settings (at least in part).  Technically Great White Silence took place in Antarctica’s summer, but I think it counts.

Watch for the next one (non-English films) in a couple weeks, and one on World War I in November.  …That last will be on the rolled-out new blog….when I roll it out sometime in August.