You’re The Top!: Eleanor Powell Was BORN TO DANCE (MGM 1936)


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Dancing masters like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and The Nicholas Brothers all agreed… Eleanor Powell was the tops! The 24-year-old star made a big splash in MGM’s BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936, and the studio quickly followed up with BORN TO DANCE, showcasing Eleanor’s tap-dancing prowess in a fun musical-comedy-romance featuring a cavalcade of stars, and an original score by Cole Porter. Yep, Leo the Lion was going big on this one!

The plot’s your typical Boy Meets Girl/Boy Loses Girl/Boy Wins Girl Back fluff, this time around concerning submarine sailors in port and the babes they chase after. Nora Paige (Eleanor) enters the Lonely Hearts Club (no, not Sgt. Pepper’s! ) looking for work as a hoofer (“You don’t use a fan?”, says wisecracking Jenny Saks, played by wisecracking Una Merkel ). Nora shows what she can do in the hot number “Rap, Tap On Wood”, a joyous dance number…

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Base-Brawl: William Bendix in KILL THE UMPIRE (Columbia 1950)


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Ahh, spring is in the air, that magical time of year, when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of… baseball!! That’s right, Dear Readers, Opening Day is upon us once again, and what better way to celebrate the return of America’s National Pastime than taking a look back at KILL THE UMPIRE, a 1950 comedy conceived in the warped mind of former animator Frank Tashlin and directed by ex-Warners vet Lloyd Bacon.

Big lug William Bendix stars as Bill Johnson, an ex-major leaguer whose passion for the game keeps him from holding a regular job because he keeps playing hooky to go to the ballpark. Bill hates only one thing more than missing a game – umpires! But when his exasperated wife threatens to leave him, his ex-ump father-in-law suggests he go to umpire school to save his marriage. Bill balks at first, but then reluctantly agrees, not wishing…

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Pre Code Confidential #11: THE MALTESE FALCON (Warner Brothers 1931)


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Everybody knows the 1941 Humphrey Bogart/John Huston classic THE MALTESE FALCON, but only true film fanatics watch the original 1931 version. Since I fall squarely into that category, I recently viewed the first adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s seminal private eye yarn. The film, like it’s more famous remake, follows the novel’s plot closely, with the added spice that Pre-Code movies bring to the table.

Cortez is no Bogie, but he’ll do

The odds are six-two-and-even if you’re reading this post, you don’t need a plot recap. What I intend to do is go over some of the differences between the two versions. Let’s start with Sam Spade himself, the prototype hard-boiled detective. Suave, slick-haired Ricardo Cortez  interprets the role as a grinning horndog who’s never met a skirt he didn’t like. We meet Spade in the opening shot, clinching a dame in silhouette at the door to his office. Then the door…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: 42nd Street (dir by Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley)


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If you’re a regular reader of this site, it will not take you by surprise to learn that the 1933 Best Picture Nominee, 42nd Street, is one of my favorite films of all time.

I mean, how couldn’t it be?  Not only is it a pre-Code film (and we all know that pre-Code films were the best) and one the features both Ginger Rogers and Dick Powell in early roles but it’s also a film that depicts the backstage world of a stage musical with such a combination of love and snark that it will be familiar to everyone from community theater nerds to Broadway veterans.  42nd Street is a classic musical, though I have to admit that I think the majority of the songs are a bit overrated.  Even more importantly, 42nd Street is the ultimate dance film.  The film’s big production number, choreographed and filmed in the brilliant and flamboyant Busby Berkeley style, is such an iconic moment that it’s still being imitated and lovingly parodied to this day.

Every dance movie owes a debt to 42nd Street but few have come close to matching it.  Remember how much we all hated Smash?  There were a lot of reasons to hate Smash but the main reason was because it tried to be 42nd Street and it failed.  There can only be one 42nd Street.

It’s hard to estimate the number of show business clichés that currently exist as a result of 42nd Street.  Then again, it can be argued that they were clichés before they showed up in 42nd Street but 42nd Street handled them in such an expert fashion that they were transformed from being urban legends to immortal mythology.

42nd Street takes place in the backstage world, following the production of a Broadway musical through casting to rehearsals to opening night.  It’s an ensemble piece, one populated by all the usual suspects.  Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is the down-on-his-luck producer who desperately needs a hit.  Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) is the celebrated star who is dating a rich, older man (Guy Kibbee, who made quite the career out playing rich, older men) while secretly seeing her ex, a down-on-his-luck Vaudevillian (George Brent).  From the minute that we first see Dorothy, we know that she’s eventually going to end up with a boken ankle.  It’s just a question of which chorus girl will be promoted to take her place.  Will it be “Anytime” Annie (Ginger Rogers) or will it be the naive and wholesome Peggy (Ruby Keeler)?  You already know the answer but it’s still fun to watch.

If you had any doubts that this was a pre-code film, the fact that Ginger Rogers is playing a character named “Anytime” Annie should answer them.  42nd Street is often described as being a light-hearted camp spectacle but there’s a cynicism to the film, a cynicism that could only be expressed during the pre-code era.  The dialogue is full of lines that, just a few years later, would never have gotten past the censors.

(This is the film where it’s said that Anytime Annie “only said no once and then she didn’t hear the question!”  This is also the film where Guy Kibbee cheerfully tells Annie that what he does for her will depend on what she does for him.  Just try to get away with openly acknowleding the casting couch in 1936!)

The menacing shadow of the Great Depression looms over every glossy production number.  Julian needs a hit because he lost all of his money when the Stock Market crashed and if the show is not a hit, everyone involved in the production will be out on the streets.  The chorus isn’t just dancing because it’s their job.  They’re dancing because it’s an escape from the grim reality of the Great Depression and, for the audience watching, the production numbers provided a similar escape.  42nd Street said, “Yes, life is tough.  But sometimes life is fun.  Sometimes life is sexy.  Sometimes, life is worth the trouble.”  Someday, 42nd Street promises, all the misery will be worth it.

Ultimately, 42nd Street is all about that iconic, 20-minute production number:

42nd Street was nominated for best picture but it lost to the nearly forgotten Cavalcade.

The Fabulous Forties #34: This Is The Army (dir by Michael Curtiz)


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The 34th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set is the 1943 musical, This is The Army.

This Is The Army is based on a Broadway musical that was specifically conceived and written by Irving Berlin as a way to boost wartime morale.  The show, which was a collection of patriotic songs and comedic skits, was performed by members of the U.S. Army.  The film version starts with dancer Jerry Jones (George Murphy) being drafted at the start of World War I and putting together an all-army revue called Yip Yip Yaphank.  (Interestingly enough, this was also the name of a real-life show that Irving Berlin put together during World War I.)  The show is a big hit and, when the soldiers in the cast receive their orders to head to France, they literally march off the stage and out the theater.  It’s actually a pretty rousing scene but it’s almost immediately followed by a very sad one, in which we learn that only three members of the cast survived the war.  Jerry Jones is shot in the leg and when he returns home, the former dancer now walks with a cane.

Twenty-five years later, another world war has broken out.  Jerry’s son, Johnny (Ronald Reagan), has joined the army.  Johnny is ordered to put together another revue, in the style of Yip Yip Yaphank.  At first, Johnny is reluctant but orders are orders.  Soon, Johnny and the cast of This Is The Army are touring the U.S. and even performing in front of President Roosevelt (played by Jack Young, though, from a historical perspective, wouldn’t it be neat if President Roosevelt had appeared as himself in a film with Ronald Reagan?).  Along the way, Eileen (Joan Leslie) tries to convince Johnny to marry her even though Johnny wants to wait until the war is over.

It’s really not much of a plot but then again, the film is about showcasing the musical performances.  The soldiers sing.  The soldiers dance.  The soldiers tell jokes and imitate people who were famous in 1943.  There are several scenes that attempt to wring laughs from soldiers dressed up like women.  What’s interesting is that, at a time when the army was still segregated, the performances in This Is The Army feature both white and black soldiers.  Irving Berlin apparently demanded that black soldiers be allowed to appear in both the stage show and the film and, as a result, the unit that performed This Is The Army was, for a time, the only integrated unit in the U.S. Army.

Of course, that makes it even odder that there’s an extended sequence in which white soldiers perform while wearing blackface and standing on a set that’s been designed to resemble a pre-Civil War plantation.  It’s a scene that pops out of nowhere and then it keeps going and going and going and I could only stare at the screen in shocked horror as it played out.  It’s an odd contradiction that the same Irving Berlin who demanded that black soldiers be honored on stage and screen was also apparently the same Irving Berlin was put a minstrel show sketch into the middle of This Is The Army. 

Interestingly enough, George Murphy later retired from acting and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1964.  Murphy’s success inspired his co-star, Ronald Reagan, to run for governor.  If Murphy had never been a senator, Reagan would probably never have been a president.  Both Reagan and Murphy give likable performances in This Is The Army and it’s easy to see how that likability, while it may not have often translated into great acting, did eventually lead to political success.

This Is The Army is a time capsule film, one that is mostly interesting as a view into the psyche of 1940s America.  The humor is often corny and the storyline is predictable but there’s also a very sad subtext to the film.  Since both the film and the stage show were performed by actual enlisted men, you watch with the knowledge that some of the men singing and joking on stage won’t return from the war.  Often times, during the performances, we see random people in the audience crying as they realize the same thing.  Even in an otherwise light-hearted film, the sobering realities of life during wartime are right beneath the surface.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Broadway Melody of 1936 (dir by Roy Del Ruth)


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It’s Oscar month and you know what that means!  It’s time for TCM to do their annual 31 Days of Oscars!  For the next 31 days, TCM is going to be showing movies that were nominated for and occasionally won Oscars.  This is a great month for me because it has long been my goal to see and review every single film that has ever been nominated for best picture.  Considering that close to 500 movies have been nominated, that’s no small task.  However, over the past four years, I have definitely made some progress, as you can see by clicking on this link and looking at a list of every single best picture nominee.  Thank you, TCM, for helping me get closer to my goal!

For instance, if not for TCM, how would I ever had the chance to watch Broadway Melody of 1936?  Broadway Melody of 1936 was one of the twelve films to be nominated for best picture of 1935 but it’s now largely forgotten.  When film loves discuss the best musicals of the 30s, it’s rare that you ever hear mention of Broadway Melody of 1936.

Technically, it can be argued that Broadway Melody of 1936 was the first sequel to ever be nominated for best picture, despite the fact that it has little in common with Broadway Melody, beyond taking place on Broadway and being nominated for best picture.  (Broadway Melody won the award.  Broadway Melody of 1936 lost to Mutiny on the Bounty.)  Silence of the Lambs, The Godfather, Part II, Mad Max: Fury Road, Toy Story 3, and The Bells of St. Mary’s are all sequels that were nominated for best picture but Broadway Melody of 1936 did it first.

As for what Broadway Melody of 1936 is about … well, it’s really not about anything.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  The film has a plot.  Irene Foster (Eleanor Powell) wants her former high school boyfriend, Broadway director Robert Gordon (Robert Taylor), to cast her in his new show but Gordon refuses because he doesn’t want the innocent Irene to be exposed to the sordid world of show business.  Fortunately, Irene has some allies who are willing to help her get that role.  Ted Burke (Buddy Ebsen) is an appealingly goofy dancer who, at one point, wears a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt.  Bert Keeler (Jack Benny) is a columnist who rattles off his “New Yawk cynical” dialogue in the style of most 1930s news reporters.

Broadway Melody of 1936 has a plot but it’s not really that important.  The story is just an excuse for the songs and the dance numbers.  And while none of the numbers are spectacular (especially when compared to other 30s musicals, like 42nd Street), they are all definitely likable.

Seen today, Broadway Melody of 1936 seems like an odd best picture nominee.  It’s not bad but there’s nothing particularly great about it.  To truly appreciate the film, it’s probably necessary to try to imagine what it was like to watch the film in 1935.  At a time when the country was still in the throes of the Great Depression, Broadway Melody of 1936 provided audiences with an escape.  Audiences could watch the film and imagine that they, just like Eleanor Powell, could leave behind the dullness of reality and find stardom in the glamorous and glitzy world of Broadway.

Never doubt the power of escapism.

 

Shattered Politics #1: Abraham Lincoln (dir by D.W. Griffith)


Unlike just about everyone else that I know, I am about as apolitical as you can get.

Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I always vote.  I believe in …. stuff.  Occasionally, I get angry about the state of the world. Why I’ll have you know that when I first registered to vote, I was really, really excited and I even sat down and researched every single person who was running for President.  (And, of course, I decided I would support John Edwards because he had good hair.  But then I changed my mind and ended up voting for Charles Jay, the candidate of the Personal Choice Party.)  But, for whatever reason, current events have never become the obsession for me that they are for some people.  You’ll never catch me posting a political meme or sagely agreeing with an activist on Facebook.  It’s just not for me.

(On the plus side, this has allowed me to have friends with many diverse viewpoints and generally lead a happy life.)

At the same time, I’m also fascinated by history and history is often the story of politics and politicians.  As a result, I’m far more interested in past affairs than I am in current affairs.  I can spend hours talking about the election of 1876 but I could hardly care less who is elected in 2016.  I know my political history well enough not to worry about the political present.

Perhaps that explains why, despite my indifference to politics, I tend to enjoy political movies.  And that leads us to my latest review series here at the Shattered Lens.  Over the next two weeks, I will be reviewing, in chronological order, 94 films about politics and politicians.  It’s a little something I call Shattered Politics.

(For some previous examples of what I mean by review series, check out Lisa’s Homestate Reviews, Lisa Goes Back To College, Netflix Noir, 44 Days of Paranoia, Embracing the MelodramaBack To School, and, of course, Lisa’s Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse and Exploitation Film Trailers!)

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We start things off with a film from 1930.  One of only two sounds films to be directed by cinematic pioneer D.W. Griffith, Abraham Lincoln is — as you might guess from the title — a 90 minute biopic about the 16th President of the United States.  It tells the same basic story as Lincoln, just in a lot less time and with Walter Huston playing the title role.  The film opens in 1809 with his birth then speeds forward to detail his tragic love affair with Ann Rutledge (played by Una Merkel) and his subsequent marriage to Mary Todd (Kay Hammond).  We get a snippet of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and then, just as quickly, Abe is President, the country plunges into civil war, and an alcoholic actor named John Wilkes Booth (Ian Keith) is meeting with disreputable looking men in a shadowy bar and making shadowy plans.

Any honest review of this version of Lincoln’s life needs to deal with the obvious.  Abraham Lincoln was released 84 years ago, at a time when the film industry was still struggling to make the transition from silent to sound film.  In other words, the film is stiff, stagey, and full of actors who alternate between shouting their dialogue and delivering their lines through nervously clinched teeth.  This is essentially a silent film — complete with overdramatic title cards and heavy-handed symbolism — that just happens to feature some very awkwardly delivered dialogue.  Walter Huston is occasionally effective as Lincoln but, just as often, he’s not.

However, Abraham Lincoln is fascinating to watch from a historical point of view.  It helps if you know a little something about director D.W. Griffith.  Almost all of the narrative techniques that we now take for granted were originally introduced to cinema by D.W. Griffith and many of them were introduced in his controversial 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation.  

Of course, Griffith’s legacy is problematic precisely because of The Birth of a Nation.  An epic look at the Civil War, Birth not only featured white actors in black face menacing Lillian Gish but also ended with the Ku Klux Klan heroically riding to the rescue.  That even viewers in 1915 were critical of the film’s racism and overly pro-Confederate sentiments should tell you something about just how extreme the film truly was.

(That said, one huge fan of the film was U.S. President and aspiring dictator Woodrow Wilson.)

By most accounts, Griffith was stunned by the negative reaction to The Birth of a Nation and several of his subsequent films (most famously, Intolerance) were meant to answer his critics.

That’s what makes the opening scenes of Abraham Lincoln all the more interesting.  The film opens in 1809 with a shot of a ship on the ocean.  We catch a glimpse of the Africans chained in the lower decks.  Two white slave traders are seen carrying a dead body to the side of the ship and tossing it overboard.

We cut to Virginia, where we see a group of slave owners complaining about how the North is harming them financially by trying to end the slave trade.  One of the men says that the only man who could have kept the north and south united is dead.  The camera pans up to a picture of George Washington.

Then, the scene cuts to Boston.  A group of northerners sit around a table and talk about how slavery is harming the north economically and therefore, it has to end.  One of the northerners says that the only man who could have kept north and south united is dead.  Again, the camera pans up to a picture of George Washington.

And, it’s a wonderfully effective sequence, one that not only reveals the economic reasons behind most wars but one which also reveals the cruelty, inhumanity, and pure evil of slavery.  (That said, when the film later shows us a glimpse of life in the Confederacy, Griffith does include a couple of slaves cheerfully dancing in the background.)

And, as awkward as the scenes involving dialogue are (the less said about the scenes between Walter Huston and Una Merkel, the better), Griffith does occasionally show the visual flair that was his trademark.  One excellent sequence involves soldier after soldier lining up, one after the other and each of them staring straight into the camera as they prepare to go to war.  When the film concentrates on scenes of men marching across the countryside, it actually works.

Then again, you may just want to see the film for the chance to hear one extra, when asked the identity of a man giving a fiery speech, awkwardly explain, “That’s the actor, John Wilkes Booth.  Not much of an actor but he’s got a way with the ladies!”

It’s really up to you.

Walter Huston as Abraham Lincoln

Walter Huston as Abraham Lincoln