Good evening, class.
Hopefully you enjoyed European Film 101.
This week, we're mostly back in the states, although we'll come back to the French New Wave for a minute, as we cover your grandmother's favorite genres: musicals.
But these aren't all your grandmother's musicals. Some of them, in fact, very much are not.
This week was Black Friday week at the shop, so we're going to skip the overall introduction. And also this is posting very, very late. Sorry.
This is most effective if you watch it and write a short review of it on Letterboxd. Why the short review? A work of art will stick with you longer if you force yourself to reflect on it, even if for only a few minutes, before you move on to another episode of The Office.
Feel free to post your reviews on the social media platform of your choice and tag Stay-at-Home Film School. You can also use the hashtag #StayatHomeFilmSchool.
this week's films
There's more to musicals than the traditional entries and there's lots of films that have expanded on the template, often as an improvement.
Silent film stars Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are in the midst of production of their latest film when the invention of the talkie forces the film to shut down and the stars are enrolled in classes to learn articulation and how to adapt to this new medium. Lockwood, with his background in Vaudeville, has no trouble, but Lamont's nasally tone does not translate even a little. In a moment of despair they hit on the idea of having Lockwood's new girlfriend Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) dub over Lamont's dialogue and songs. The film is saved, but Lamont, feeling the pressure of losing her career, threatens to sue if Selden doesn't continue to supply her voice.
Ask anyone anywhere what they know about Singin' in the Rain and they will invariably mention the title sequence with Gene Kelly stomping through puddles and twirling around the post of a streetlight. There's something inherently romantic about being so head-over-heels in love that you walk home in the rain with no regard for how foolish you look. Kelly captures that childlike joy so completely that it is the type of number that can melt the heart of the harshest cynic. The image of Kelly hanging from the pole is so iconic that the temptation to mimic it surfaces nearly every time I walk down the street, especially in the rain.
Donald O'Connor's Cosmo Brown carries the responsibility of supplying the film's comic touch, and he does so in a memorable performance. There's a scene early in the film when Kelly is feeling low and O'Connor tries to cheer him up with a song. He launches into "Make them Laugh", punctuating the song with a procession of physical gags that culminates with him running up the wall and doing a backflip. He spends most of the song, which was filmed in one continuous take, throwing himself around the room with abandon in a manner more in line with a stunt double than a song and dance man. And it's definitely him the whole time, no question about it. Actually, O'Connor's character is really the brains behind the whole operation. O'Connor comes up with the impromptu songs, O'Connor comes up with the idea to turn the film into a musical, and O'Connor thinks to have Hagen's voice dubbed.
And what a voice it is, only it doesn't belong to Debbie Reynolds. Ironically, the singing voice they used to dub the awful voice of Jean Hagen was actually dubbed by Betty Noyes. Reynolds does all her own acting, though, and a fine job at that.
The dilemma shown here, of the silent film industry struggling with the move to talkies, was a real one. Many stars, including none other than Buster Keaton, lost their careers when the public found out that they couldn't make the switch. Either they had annoying voices or they weren't articulate or perhaps they were just dumb (or in the case of Lina Lamont, all of the above), but people just didn't want to watch them any more. So I'm sure it was a natural reaction for stars to go the route of Lamont and examine their contracts for any bit of leverage to keep their jobs. Remember that film stars, while well paid back then, didn't make nearly the amount they do now, so most of them didn't have piles of money laying around. If they couldn't manage to keep their style the way Charlie Chaplin did, they had to resort to other means. Dubbing was one method. Veiled threats were another.
But no one watches Singin' in the Rain to learn about the history of the film industry; we watch for the music, for Gene Kelly in the rain, for the dancing, for the chemistry between the trifecta of Kelly, O'Connor, and Reynolds. We watch for a vibrant use of technicolor, where the images seem to jump of the screen. But let's be honest, we watch to see Gene Kelly hanging from that lamppost. And to our surprise, the rest of the film is a thoroughly enjoyable, expertly made musical. You can't ask for much more than that.
Watch: Amazon (DVD)
You can't do a section on musicals without mentioning Bob Fosse. He started on the stage, where he directed a number of iconic productions like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Damn Yankees. Then he came to Hollywood, directing 5 films before his death in 1987. Three of them were nominated for Best Picture. Often compared to 8 1/2, because like Fellini's film, All That Jazz is based on Fosse's life.
"All That Jazz" even looks like a Fellini film — especially "Juliet of the Spirits" — having been photographed by Giuseppe Rotunno, Fellini's favorite cameraman. But looks and autobiographical details are, I think, deceiving."All That Jazz" is much less an "8 ½" than it is the most forthrightly candid variation ever worked out on Peter Pan and all other middle-aged boys who have refused to grow up. The film, which opens today at the Cinema I, is an uproarious display of brilliance, nerve, dance, maudlin confessions, inside jokes and, especially, ego. It's a little bit as if Mr. Fosse had invited us to attend his funeral — the wildest show-business sendoff a fellow ever designed for himself — and then appeared at the door to sell tickets and count the house; after all, funerals are only wasted on the dead. (Vincent Camby)
Roy Scheider gives the performance of his career as Joe Gideon, whose exhausting work schedule—mounting a Broadway production by day and editing his latest movie by night—and routine of amphetamines, booze, and sex are putting his health at serious risk. Fosse burrows into Gideon’s (and his own) mind, rendering his interior world as phantasmagoric spectacle. Assembled with visionary editing that makes dance come alive on-screen as never before, and overflowing with sublime footwork by the likes of Ann Reinking, Leland Palmer, and Ben Vereen, All That Jazz pushes the musical genre to personal depths and virtuosic aesthetic heights. (Criterion)
All That Jazz was nominated for 9 Oscars, including Best Picture. It was another 12 years before a musical was nominated for cinema's ultimate prize. Fosse won Best Director in 1973 for Cabaret. In fact, that year he became the only person to win a Tony, Emmy, and Oscar in the same year.
As is expected from musicals of this era, the plot and dialogue are just minor annoyances that bridge the gap from one musical number to the next. I don't pretend to know which songs are original to the film and which are recycled, but "the Trolley Song" ("Clang! Clang! Clang! Goes the trolley!") was nominated for an Oscar and is clearly the star of the show.
The Technicolor musicals are kind of the peak of what we think of as the "Hollywood musical" and and several of them were directed by Vincente Minnelli, Oscar winner for Gigi and father of Liza Minnelli.
Minnelli's reputation is an interesting one. He's often ignored by historians as someone who "just" did musicals and the film he won his Oscar for is not only considered one of his weakest films, but one of the worst Best Picture winners. It's not the sort of combination that helps your reputation going forward.
But he undoubtedly had talent. What he did, he did very, very well.
Cahiers du Cinéma (remember them?) called him “an artist who could give substance to the world of dreams.”
Last week we talked about the French New Wave, so it's only fitting that this week we include a French New Wave musical: Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
To start, this was the first major film of the legendary actress Catherine Deneuve.
When she made "Umbrellas" for the French director Jacques Demy, Deneuve was 20, and her work in this film was a flowering that introduced one of the great stars of modern French cinema. The film itself was a curious experiment in which all of the words were sung; Michel Legrand wrote the wall-to-wall score, which includes not only the famous main theme and other songs, but also Demy's sung dialogue, in the style of the lines used to link passages in opera. This style would seem to suggest a work of featherweight romanticism, but "Umbrellas" is unexpectedly sad and wise, a bittersweet reflection on the way true love sometimes does not (and perhaps should not) conquer all. (Roger Ebert)
Umbrellas was nominated for 5 Academy Awards (but across 2 years) and is probably best described as a French New Wave twist on a classic Hollywood musical. So, of course, it's a little quirky. To expand on Ebert's point, they don't randomly break out into song. All the dialogue is a song. Every. Single. Line.
The colors are ridiculously gorgeous.
It's also ridiculously good.
Watch: Amazon (rental)
While Mel Brooks' The Producers isn't technically a musical, it is about the making of a musical and contains a musical, so we're going to cheat and include it.
The plot is simple. Zero Mostel hires Gene Wilder to go over his books. Mostel is a former big player on Broadway who is hanging on by seducing old ladies into financing his plays, most of which flop. Wilder discovers that if a producer were unethical enough, he could raise more money than he needed by selling more than 100% of the play, but only if he was absolutely sure the play would flop.
So they go about trying to make the worst play Broadway has ever seen.
They find one written by this guy.
They go about making the worst decision at every opportunity. They hire a terrible director. They cast a 60's hippie as Hitler. They have this musical number to open the show.
It's all going so well!
And then Hitler speaks and it all goes to hell.
Mel Brooks is one of the great comedians in film history. Not many people would think to make a comedy about Hitler and if you want to argue this was an influence on JoJo Rabbit, I won't argue with you.
His genius, though, is not for ancient one-liners or for nostalgia. His genius is for such ambitious forms as the all-encompassing comedy routine and the genre-quoting and genre-annihilating epic movie, including Blazing Saddles (1974), a Jewish Western with a black hero; Young Frankenstein (1974), a film that expands the metaphysical ambitions of horror; History of the World: Part I (1981), a lewd corrective to historical piety; and Spaceballs (1987), a slapstick mock-out of the alleged profundities of the Star Wars series. (The Atlantic)
Oh, and he won an Oscar for this.
Of course, The Producers found a second life on Broadway, where it was a smash hit with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. It ran forever and ever, with different productions in different cities, and eventually settled, in a season-long storyline of Curb Your Enthusiasm, on Larry David.
Larry ruins everything in ways only Larry David can, which was Mel Brooks' plan all along. He wanted the worst possible actor, to finally bring The Producers to an end.
And then Larry David freelances and it all goes to hell.
To call Moulin Rouge! "bombastic" and "over-the-top" is to undersell it.
Set in Paris in 1900, Moulin Rouge! is a simple love story told in the biggest way possible. Ewan McGregor plays a writer who moves to Montmarte to become a bohemian. He meets some like-minded souls, helps them out of a writing jam, and then finds himself at the Moulin Rouge.
It goes a little something like this.
Kids, that is a Nirvana song. Ask your parents.
You'll sometimes hear this called a "jukebox musical", but it's more accurately a mash-up musical, as only one of the musical numbers are done unedited. There are at least 35 songs, mostly pop songs, littered throughout the film. It took them nearly 2 years to clear all the rights.
There's more than 12 in this scene alone.
Moulin Rouge! was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Not surprisingly, it won for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Costume Design, but it also should get credit for an assist. Jim Broadbent, who played Harold Zidler (the ringleader with the top hat), won Best Supporting Actor that year for his very different performance in Iris. It's hard to imagine that his performance here didn't win him a lot of votes.
It's easy to think of the film as all bombast and it really does play best in a movie theater, where it can just wash over you, but there's a method to Baz Luhrmann's madness.
In a world where every big-budget movie aims to be a spectacle EVENT, Moulin Rouge! is one of the very few that both grounds it in real emotions and sticks the landing.
I know what you're thinking: The South Park movie? The gleefully offensive one that broke the record for the most profanity in an animated film?
People don't tend to think of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut as a musical, but Mike D'Angelo (The AV Club, Los Vegas Weekly) called it "one of the finest musicals of the past 20 years." It features 12 songs, including "Blame Canada", which was nominated for Best Original Song (very likely because it has the least cursing).
Although this is probably my favorite (very NSFW).
For example, this song later in the film that ties together a number of musical themes from earlier songs.
Of course, if you watch the TV show, this isn't a surprise, as musical sequences are common throughout the show's run.
It also wouldn't have been a surprise when Trey Parker and Matt Stone won 9 Tony Awards for The Book of Mormon.
This is also this, which my friends in college were obsessed with.
The British are coming!