Guys and Dolls: A Little Frank Sinatra Never Hurt

                I love musicals.  I love it when the main characters spontaneously burst into song, I love the pretty costumes, I love the dancing, I love the creativity, I love everything about them.  I love virtually every musical I have ever seen.  And musicals that also star Frank Sinatra?  Bonus.  So, I was very happy to re-watch “Guys and Dolls” for the umpteenth time for my musical this week.  It comes in at #23 on the AFI’s Best Musicals list and it comes in pretty high on my personal favorites list as well.

                “Guys and Dolls” takes place in 1950’s New York City and begins by introducing us to Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra).  The first thing we learn about Nathan is that he runs an illegal underground crap game and is currently searching for a new place to hold it.  The only place that will host his game also plans to charge him $1,000…a sum that he does not have.  However, Nathan’s luck seems to change when he realizes that high roller Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) is in town.  Knowing that Sky is loaded and hoping to make an easy grand, Nathan bets Sky the $1,000 that he can’t take a certain girl on an impending trip to Havana with him.  Sky takes the bet but instantly regrets it when Nathan names the missionary, Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) as his pick.  Now Sky must find a way to convince this good girl to fly to Havana with a man she just met while Nathan tries to patch things up with his own girl, Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), who wants him to give up gambling, marry her, and get a real job.

                One of the greatest things about this movie is its wonderful, award-winning score.  It boasts multiple famous hits such as “Luck Be a Lady,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Sue Me,” “A Woman in Love,” “Adelaide’s Lament,” and “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” to name a few.  I’ve been singing these songs my whole life and I know I’m not the only one.  They’re such classics and they don’t lose their magic upon repeated listens.  The movie was made in 1955, 5 years after it opened on Broadway, and 3 new songs were added for the film version: “A Woman in Love,” “Pet Me Poppa,” and “Adelaide.”  A few songs from the Broadway version were dropped from the movie as well, perhaps most notably “A Bushel and A Peck.”  But whether you’re listening to the Broadway or the movie version, the music is simply wonderful.

                When “Guys and Dolls” began making the transition from stage to screen, only one of the principal actors from the Broadway version reprised her role in the movie: Vivian Blaine as Adelaide.  The rest of the principal roles were up for grabs and no one made their voice heard more than Frank Sinatra.  From the very beginning, he wanted in.  However, he was aggressively campaigning for the lead role of Sky Masterson as opposed to that of Nathan Detroit.  When the studio decided to cast non-singing-actor Marlon Brando as Sky and demote Frank Sinatra to the role of Nathan, Frank was very upset.  He accepted the role of Nathan Detroit and played him perfectly, but he always resented the fact that a non-singer won the lead role.  I have to say, while I love Nathan Detroit (I actually think Nathan and Adelaide are the more entertaining couple in the film), I do share in his frustration that they gave the lead role in a musical to an actor who couldn’t sing.  And I don’t mean that Marlon Brando couldn’t sing on Frank Sinatra’s level, I mean that he couldn’t sing at ALL.  If you don’t believe me, watch this and hear for yourself:

All of Marlon’s finished songs in the movie were strung together from multiple takes.  Now, there is no denying that Marlon Brando was an exceptionally talented actor.  He was moody and at times downright crazy, but he was truly overflowing with talent.  Acting talent, not singing talent.  He was a great choice for the role of Sky Masterson in that his acting was spot on, but it always makes me squirm just a little when he starts to sing.  Putting him in the same movie with Frank Sinatra didn’t help either.  But, that being said, his singing isn’t so painful that it detracts from the overall enjoyment of the film, so I’ve always given him a pass.

                There are plenty of songs that I could, and want to, post in this entry, but I thought I’d start by sharing a scene that doesn’t actually have a song in it.  This is the scene where Sky and Nathan make their bet and I’m sharing it to show that whatever drama went on behind the scenes, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra really did create excellent chemistry onscreen.

                Now I can’t talk about a musical for very long without actually showing a song or two.  The hard part for me is narrowing it down!  There are so many wonderful songs in this movie and I want to share them all, but I’m going to force myself to stick to just one: “Sue Me.”  This isn’t necessarily my favorite song in the movie (although I do love it), but I’m showing it to highlight Vivian Blaine as Adelaide.  As I said, Vivian was the only Broadway principal cast member to reprise her role on the screen and in many ways I think she steals the whole film.  Her Adelaide is nasal, neurotic, quirky and loveable.  She’s a pleasure to watch, especially in her scenes with Frank Sinatra.  The two of them share a humorous, off-beat chemistry that’s in stark contrast to the relationship between Sky and Sarah Brown:

                It’s always so easy for me to see why the musicals have stood the test of time – it’s almost always because of the music!  When you take a handful of catchy, classic songs, mix in a great cast, and create a good story to boot, the outcome is pure, delightful entertainment that’s fun to watch over and over and over again.  And of course, the main moral of the story is, a little Frank Sinatra always helps.

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Bringing Up Baby: Screwball Comedy At Its Best

                Oh dear.  I’ve fallen behind a week.  I’m sure that will happen more than once before I’m finished going through my list, but again, better late than never.  And I’ve decided after some consideration, that as I work my way backwards through the AFI’s Top 100 list, to only watch the older classic movies…since there are so few recent movies on the list, it won’t cut out much work for me and since this blog is devoted to classic films anyway, I don’t feel badly about it.  To be perfectly clear, the cutoff date for future movies is now 1969.

                The movie for this week is #97 on the list: “Bringing Up Baby.”  I was so excited to have an excuse to watch this movie again (not that I need one) because it’s one of my very favorites.  For this viewing, I made my boyfriend, Wes, sit down and watch it with me as well.  I can now say, with great pride, that I have finally managed to show him his very first Cary Grant movie!  Good deed for the week: CHECK.  Introducing a favorite movie to someone I love is one of the best things in life, so that made watching this film again even more enjoyable for me.

                “Bringing Up Baby” is one of the most delightfully zany screwball comedies that I have ever seen.  It stars Cary Grant as a reserved scientist named David Huxley, who is hoping to receive a grant of $1 million for his museum.  However, after meeting flighty heiress, Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn), he suffers a series of misadventures that cause him to sacrifice his dignity, come close to losing his shot at the money, and somehow end up taking care of a leopard for the day.  Susan does her part to make things worse by constantly trying to help.

                There’s not much else I can say about the story of the movie without either giving something away or listing all the various misadventures one by one.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it would take all the fun out of it to know everything that goes wrong ahead of time.  What I will do is talk a little bit about what went on behind the scenes and share a couple of my favorite scenes with you as usual.

                One of the things that surprised me the most about this movie is that it bombed at the box office when it came out.  Howard Hawks, the director, attributed this to the fact that every single person in the film is a “screwball” with no straight characters to ground the movie.  That’s actually one of the things I love most about this film.  Every character is so wonderfully zany that everything they do next is unexpected.  If this were any other movie, the lack of a straight character would be an issue.  However, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn were so talented and had so much chemistry that it does nothing to harm this movie.  But for whatever reason, the movie going public didn’t respond to it at the time.

                This movie also marks a first in that it was Katherine Hepburn’s first attempt at onscreen comedy.  Before this movie, she had done a lot of dramas and almost none of them were very popular when they came out (in fact, when “Bringing Up Baby” failed at the box office, Katherine was labeled “box office poison”).  Because of that, it took her a while to figure out her comedic timing and Howard Hawks had to bring in a coach to teach her.  Katherine proved to be a quick and eager learner and for the rest of her career, she could transition from comedy to drama and back again with an ease few actors have ever accomplished.  And while her comedic timing may have taken some work, she never suffered for want of a sense of humor.  During filming, Cary Grant was very nervous around the leopard.  Katherine, knowing about his fear, put a stuffed leopard through a vent in the top of his dressing room to scare him.  “He was out of there like lightning,” she said later.

                This film boasts another fairly significant first: it is considered by many film historians to have the first use of the word “gay” in its modern day meaning.  Apparently, homosexuals began using the term amongst themselves in the 1920’s or earlier but it wasn’t widely known among heterosexuals until sometime around the 1960’s.  The word itself never appeared in the script; rather it was ad-libbed by Cary Grant.  Here is the scene where it appears, you can decide for yourselves in what connotation it was meant:

                As long as I’m showing you scenes from this movie, I’d like to show one more if I may.  This is a clip from one of my favorite scenes towards the beginning of the movie.  In this scene, David and Susan haven’t known each other for very long but their series of misadventures have already begun.  This particular scene was based on something that happened to Cary Grant at the Roxy Theater.  His pants zipper was down and it ended up getting caught on a lady’s dress.  Cary Grant, not knowing what to do, simply followed her around.  When Howard Hawks heard this story, he loved it so much that he put it in the film:

                This movie has been on multiple “Best” lists over the years and is still making people laugh today.  I think the biggest reason for that is the chemistry (not to mention the talent) that its two stars share onscreen.  Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn were paired together in 4 movies and it’s easy to see why based on this film alone.  Their timing is so perfect and their chemistry is so obvious.  Because of that, it’s easy for me to see why this movie has stood the test of time.  Aside from being laugh out loud funny, it boasts two of the greatest stars the screen has ever seen.  And if you’d like a recommendation for another Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn film, my advice is to see “The Philadelphia Story.”  You even get the added bonus of Jimmy Stewart.  But we’ll save that for another time, another entry…trust me.

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Show Boat

                Well this one is coming to you a few days late, but better late than never!  This week (or last week, rather) I watched and discussed movie #99 on the AFI’s Top 100 list, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”  So, for my second movie last week, I watched movie #24 on the AFI’s Top 25 Musicals list, “Show Boat.”  And yes, I did omit #25 on that list…the reason being that I ran out of time and also, the #25 movie was “Moulin Rouge.”  Since I don’t believe I know a single person who has not seen that movie, and since it’s not a classic movie anyway, I felt no guilt in passing it by.

                Now, on to the matter at hand.  This will be a very short entry, I’m afraid.  You see, the #24 movie on the list was the 1936 version of “Show Boat.”  Unfortunately, this version of the movie is not available on DVD.  However, while I do not own a VHS player, I was determined to hunt the 1936 version down and then watch it at my parents’ house.  I mean to do this right, damn it!  And sure enough, I found it at my favorite video rental store (possibly the only video rental store left in all of the Emerald City).  I checked their website at the beginning of the day and saw that they had it available on VHS and that it was checked in (Hallelujah!).  However, by the time I got there after work that evening, it had been checked out.  Now, I have no idea what kind of person (besides myself) would check out a VHS copy of a 1936 musical, but I would love to meet that person someday.  In the meantime though, I had a problem.  A quick check on Amazon showed that I could not purchase the VHS in question for under $33, and even if I had that kind of money to spend on an extinct form of entertainment, it wouldn’t have gotten here in time anyway.  So, I rented the 1951 MGM version of “Show Boat” instead.  I figured I could at least discuss the story and the songs and perhaps later I’ll track down the 1936 version and do a compare and contrast entry.

                Now, it’s summary time!  “Show Boat” is about exactly what it sounds like: a riverboat that carries a traveling theatre troupe from town to town up and down the Mississippi River in the late 19th century.  Julie LaVerne (played by the stunningly beautiful Ava Gardner) is the troupe’s leading lady and her husband, the leading man.  The captain, Cap’n Andy Hawks (Joe E. Brown), has a beautiful, if naïve, daughter named Magnolia (played by Kathryn Grayson) who dreams of being an actress and looks up to Julie almost as an older sister.  Towards the beginning of the movie, the local sheriff is alerted to the fact that one of Julie’s parents was African American and that Julie herself is married to a white man.  As this was illegal down South at the time, Julie is forced to leave the troupe in disgrace.

                After Julie leaves, Magnolia fulfills her dreams of becoming an actress by becoming the new leading lady.  Her leading man is newcomer, Gaylord Ravenal (played by Howard Keel): a gambler on his way to New Orleans.  They fall in love and marry despite her mother’s objections (Magnolia’s mother is played by the incomparable Agnes Moorehead).  However, their happily-ever-after takes a turn for the worse when Gaylord’s luck runs out.

                I have to start by saying that the vast majority of critics agree that the 1936 version is the superior one.  In fact, I was hard pressed to find a favorable critic review for the 1951 version at all.  I have to say that I’m sure they’re right, and here’s why: this is a fairly gritty story with some pretty heavy themes – especially for a musical.  The version I watched seemed to be trying too hard to be another frothy MGM musical and glossed over some of the tough material in favor of focusing on the positive and the musical numbers.  I have heard from multiple sources that the 1936 version is much more faithful to the heart and soul of the story (plus, the 1936 version starred Irene Dunne, so how could it not be better?).

                That being said, I can really only discuss what I saw.  While I did wish that the movie would have taken the time necessary to focus on the darker aspects of the story, I also have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the movie.  I’m sure a big reason for that is that I’m a big fan of the light-hearted MGM musical.  And while the studio may have chosen to ignore or gloss over some things, the actors did a wonderful job with what they had to work with.  I’ve loved Agnes Moorehead since I watched her play Endora as a child, Marge and Gower Champion make a wonderful appearance as a dance team, and Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel are two of my favorite musical stars.  However, I believe that this version of the movie belongs to Ava Gardner.  Her character, Julie, left the troupe early and only resurfaced occasionally throughout the rest of the film, but she managed to steal every scene she was in.  She even made me cry in her final two scenes.  It’s such a shame that Ava Gardner was so insecure in her abilities as an actress, because I thought she was truly wonderful.  I especially loved it when she sang because the emotion on her face said it all.  To show you what I mean, here’s a clip of her singing “Bill”…at this point in the movie, her husband has left her and she’s become a washed up, broken version of herself.

                Although this version of the movie is not considered the best, there were a few moments that made the movie for me.  The first is Ava Gardner’s character singing “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man.”  I’m really only including this scene because I love the song so much.  I know I’ve heard better versions, but Ava’s is pretty great too (although Annette Warren dubbed her in the film, Ava actually had a lovely voice herself and her own version is included on the soundtrack).

                The second and most important scene stealer for me (and most critics, who agree that this scene was the saving grace of the 1951 version) is William Warfied singing “Ol’ Man River.”  He sings it on a foggy morning as Julie is leaving the troupe and it’s appropriately melancholy and hauntingly beautiful.

                That’s just about all I can say since I didn’t actually watch the version I was supposed to.  I can’t comment on why it has stood the test of time since I didn’t see the movie that really has stood the test of time.  However, I can say that the music is wonderful, the story is bittersweet and beautiful, and there were some shining moments despite its flaws.  I can only imagine how great the 1936 version with Irene Dunne would be.  And all that being said, I would still watch this version again and recommend it to all of you.

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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner…

Today, I have a daunting task before me: to discuss one of the greatest movies of all time, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”  Not only did this movie deal with a very tricky topic for the time it was made (interracial marriage), but it’s packed with some of the best performances the movies have ever seen by several of Hollywood’s most legendary stars.  A movie like this could keep a film historian up nights as he or she analyzed it much more thoroughly and readably than I, a mere movie buff, ever could.  But for what it’s worth, here lie my humble thoughts and ramblings about this classic, beautiful film.

                First, as always, a quick summary for those of you who have yet to see this movie.  I say “yet” because by the end of this entry, you had all better be on your way to the nearest video store (if you can still find a video store) to rent it.  In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn play Matt and Christina Drayton, a Californian couple with liberal views on racial equality.  However, their beliefs are challenged when their daughter, Joey (played by Hepburn’s niece, Katherine Houghton), shocks them by bringing home her fiancé: John Prentice, an African American doctor (played by the wonderful Sidney Poitier).  The movie takes place over the course of a single day as Matt and Christina wrestle with their convictions and weigh their daughter’s happiness against the hardships they know she will encounter as the wife of a black man in 1967.  A kind-hearted priest, a suspicious African American housekeeper, and John’s parents join the cast and the debate as the day wears on.  The ultimate question, of course, is whether or not Matt and Christina will give the union their blessing at the end of the day.

                So much for the plot.  Now that we’re all on the same page, I’d like to move on to the struggles of the individual characters.  The first person to find out about Joey and John’s engagement is Joey’s mother, Christina.  I have to take a brief moment here to gush about Katherine Hepburn and how spectacular she is in the role of Christina.  It is by far one of her best performances (and one of her 4 Oscar winning performances).  Her first reaction upon learning of her daughter’s intention to marry is barely contained shock.  She tries bravely to smile through it as the young couple recount how they met and fell in love, and by the time they are done, she seems to have a handle on her emotions once again.  In fact, she is the first to come around to the idea of her daughter’s marriage.  She starts by being happy for Joey’s happiness (although still clearly a bit worried) and by the time the movie is halfway through, she is openly supporting the marriage and challenging the lingering doubts of those around her.  Katherine Hepburn brings Christina to life with so much love, devotion, and sensibility (and of course, some of the trademark Hepburn fire) that by the end of the film, I would have sworn I actually knew her.  I even saw my own mother’s worried face in some of her expressions.

                The Drayton family employed an African American housekeeper/cook named Tillie.  Tillie’s reaction to the news of the engagement was severe.  There didn’t appear to be any internal struggle in her at all.  Quite the contrary, she shouted her disapproval directly to John and begged Joey to think about what she was doing.  When her concerns were dismissed, she satisfied herself with giving the couple (as well as John’s parents) disapproving looks and halfhearted grunts.  At one point, she muttered to herself, “Civil rights is one thing. This here’s something else.”  Her reaction surprised me a little.  I don’t suppose I was expecting her to be happy about the whole thing, but her outright antagonism towards John and the engagement wasn’t something I was prepared for.  Her main objection, as she said, was that she hated to see a member of her own race getting above himself.  It was obvious she distrusted him, but equally obvious that her distrust arose out of a desire to protect Joey.  Her motives were pure and born out of love for the family she served.  And while it’s hard to condone her words and actions, that ultimately made her a likeable character.

                Although they aren’t introduced until towards the end of the movie, John’s parents prove to be another obstacle in Joey and John’s road to happiness.  In the evening, they fly up from Los Angeles to have dinner with the Drayton family.  Upon disembarking the plane and seeing that their future daughter-in-law is white, their shock is evident.  Mr. Prentice’s mouth hangs slightly open and Mrs. Prentice seems momentarily unable to speak.  This makes for an awkward car ride to the Drayton house, especially when Mr. Prentice remarks that it would take him at least 8 hours to list all of his objections to the marriage.  However, while he objects more vehemently and more obviously than either of Joey’s parents, it is also clear that his objections are not based on the fact that he is prejudiced against white people.  Rather, he is concerned for their safety and happiness as a mixed race couple in the 1960’s.  He fears for his future grandchildren and the troubles they will face.  His motives, like Tillie’s, are rooted in love but when he opens his mouth to speak, anger, not love, is what comes out.

                Mrs. Prentice ultimately reacts differently than her husband.  At first, she is very quiet and says almost nothing, although she wears a pained look while listening to her husband express his disapproval.  Later, while speaking with Christina, she admits that she is in favor of the marriage and it breaks her heart to know that her husband may try to come between the young lovers.  She is worried, yes, perhaps just as much as he is.  But she also sees how much they love each other and believes that their love can help them through their hardships.

                John himself struggles with knowing that he will be making life difficult for the woman he loves, however unintentionally.  Minutes after Joey announces that they plan to get married with or without her parents’ approval, John secretly takes Matt and Christina aside to assure them that he will do nothing unless they approve wholeheartedly.  He knows life will be hard for Joey once they are married and if she has to suffer a falling out with her parents, it will ultimately be too much for her.  He loves her and wants to marry her, but he struggles with the fear that she will be ostracized and unhappy.  However, over the course of the day as he continues to wrestle with his decision, he begins to stand up for himself and his engagement more and more.

                Finally, the award for the biggest internal struggle goes to Matt, Joey’s father.  Upon first meeting John, Matt treats him no differently than he would treat any guest in his house.  He smiles, shakes his hand warmly, and seems very interested in who he is and what he does.  However, once Joey tells him about their engagement, his mood changes dramatically.  Like his wife, he remains civil and smiles through their conversation for his daughter’s sake.  But later, alone with Christina, his doubts and fears come pouring out.  His disapproval also has nothing to do with who John is as a person, in fact, he admits aloud that John is a wonderful man.  He even respects him.  However, he is so wrapped up in thinking about his daughter’s future as the wife of a black man that he cannot be happy for her and he cannot give his approval without reservation as John requires.  He paces around the house, fights with Christina, and weighs his desire to protect Joey against his reputation as a Civil Rights advocate.  As the day goes on, he gets more and more flustered and agitated.  He knows he can’t give his approval, no matter how much Christina and the priest (an old family friend) try to convince him otherwise.  He knows his refusal to consent will break his daughter’s heart, but what can he do?  It’s his duty as her father to protect her.  How can he help but have reservations when he knows what lies ahead?  His journey from shock to confusion to anger and refusal and finally to his ultimate decision is fascinating and heartbreaking to watch.

                The only two people who have no struggle or hesitation whatsoever are Joey and the priest, Monsignor Ryan.  John says lovingly of Joey that not only does she not care about the difference of their skin; she doesn’t seem to know there even is a difference.  Throughout the whole movie, she is happy, bubbly, and excited: a bride planning her wedding to the man she loves.  Similarly, Monsignor Ryan is nothing less than thrilled for them from the beginning.  Upon hearing the news, he is the only one who is not shocked and he exhibits no hesitation when congratulating the two lovers.  In fact, he is amazed to discover that Matt Drayton opposes the union.  At one point, he says to a teary-eyed Christina, that some of the strongest marriages he knows are mixed race marriages.  He goes on to say that he believes it has something to do with the extra effort and consideration it takes to deal with the prejudices such couples must face.

                Before I start wrapping this up, I wanted to share one scene stealer in particular.  I plan to do this in every entry.  Although this movie was full of wonderful speeches and fantastic acting, my favorite scene stealer was an easy pick (that is, since I’m making it a rule not to give away endings, otherwise that would have been my pick).  It’s a scene in which Christina’s busybody friend and employee, Hilary, comes by the house to gawk at Joey and John.  In one of her finest moments, Katherine Hepburn tells her off in the most epic way possible and tells her to get permanently lost:

                Now at this point, I would usually take a moment to discuss my thoughts on why this movie had the impact that it did when it came out.  However, that answer is fairly obvious here.  “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” came out in 1967 in the midst of the Civil Rights movement.  In many parts of the country, especially in the South, racism was still prevalent.  In fact, at the time of the making of this movie, interracial marriage was still illegal in many states (although by the time the movie was actually released, this had changed a bit thanks to Loving v. Virginia).  This movie dealt with a heavy, relevant topic and I’m sure it fueled dinner table discussions for months after its release.  “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was a risk, but it paid off – even in the South.  This movie ended up winning 2 Academy Awards: Best Actress for Katherine Hepburn, and Best Writing.  

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was also popular because it was Spencer Tracy’s last film.  He died just 17 days after filming was completed and never got to see the finished product.  In fact, during the making of the movie, his health was so poor that they were constantly working off of two scripts: one with Tracy and one without.  Katherine Hepburn, his longtime love, would take him home when she deemed him too exhausted to continue filming for the day.  This was the last of the Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy films, and everyone on set knew it.  In the ending scene when Spencer Tracy delivers his speech on how true love endures through the years, Katherine Hepburn can be seen crying unscripted tears in the background.  His death made “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” even more poignant than it already would have been.

                Finally, as always, it’s time for me to offer my most humble opinion as to why this movie has stood the test of time.  In this case, I believe it’s because no matter how far we’ve come in terms of racial equality, we can’t forget where we’ve been.  This is still a struggle for many people; granted much less so than it was 50 years ago.  Racism still exists today and interracial marriage still raises eyebrows.  But it’s more than that.  It seems that whenever we manage to move on from one form of bigotry, we just replace it with another.  It will always be important to remind ourselves to see people as people.  To see them as the individuals they are, without the labels and the bigotry.  For that reason, and for many others, this movie continues to be relevant.  I absolutely agree that it deserves a place on the AFI’s Top 100 list.  No question whatsoever.  And I can recommend it wholeheartedly.  In fact, I would say that this is definitely a movie everyone should see.  Now, go take care of that!

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Yankee Doodle Dandy!

 

Let’s get started with a bang! Or rather, with a trumpet blare and a wave of the flag.  Last night I watched the first movie on my list, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and what a way to start this project: singing, dancing, and a whole lot of flag waving.

First, a synopsis for those of you who are unfamiliar with this movie. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” stars James Cagney in one of his most famous roles as the singer/dancer/actor/producer/songwriter George M. Cohan.  If that name sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve seen or heard it tacked on to some of America’s most beloved patriotic songs including “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There” among many others.  This movie tells the story of his life.  Pretty simple.

I had seen clips from this movie before last night but had never watched the whole thing, and I have to admit, I was a little unsure at first.  I tend to dislike musical biopics.  As soon as you recover from the shock of hearing me say there’s a kind of musical I don’t like, I’ll explain why.  I feel a bit cheated when a musical doesn’t have a happy ending.  It’s like when you pick up a murder mystery novel and find out at the end that the victim committed suicide.  It’s not what you signed up for.  And, unfortunately, real life tends to be quite a bit messier than life in the musicals.  So, when I watch a musical biopic and the main character ultimately gets divorced or loses his business or dies, I feel cheated out of a happy musical experience.  I either want to see a musical or a biopic, not both together.

However, this movie surprised me.  Cagney’s character started at the bottom and went up, up, up ending with a happy marriage, a successful career in show business, and since George M. Cohan was still alive at the time of the making of this movie, no death scene (except for that of George’s aging father).  After reading a short bio on Mr. Cohan, I can say that the movie’s uplifting effect was due to the fact that they left out or changed several important facts about his life, even completely omitting an early marriage.  George M. Cohan himself, upon seeing the finished product, said, “It was a good movie. Who was it about?”

That being said, I am still grateful to everyone involved in the making of this movie that they made it exactly as they did.  Whatever else may have happened in his life and whatever liberties the studio may have taken, George M. Cohan has had a profound effect upon anyone who’s ever heard his music.  During wartime, his songs became anthems and boosted the morale of our boys abroad.  I was perfectly okay with the fact that this movie chose to focus on the good, the uplifting, and the success of Mr. Cohan’s life because that was the legacy he left us with.  This movie celebrates that legacy with a lot of heart.

To show you what I mean, I’m going to share a couple scenes that made the movie for me.  The first one is a scene in which George Cohan writes a song for his future wife, Mary.  Not only is the song as wonderful as you’d expect from Mr. Cohan (I went to sleep and woke up humming it to myself), but the scene as a whole is a perfect example of the warmth and the heart I mentioned:

The second scene I’m going to share is one that just filled me with awe, because of both the music and James Cagney’s talent.  It’s a big production musical number of “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and it had exactly the intended effect on me, that is, a huge swell of patriotic pride (unfortunately, this clip is colorized and cut out over half the number, but it’s the best I could find):

The final scene I wanted to take a moment to discuss was the ending scene.  It really will only take me a moment, because I’ve decided not to give away any endings in any of my postings.  If one of my posts inspires someone to go rent the movie themselves, I don’t want to spoil it.  However, that being said, endings are often my favorite part of the movies.  A good ending can make me forgive any sin committed in the rest of the film and convince me to re-watch it over and over again.  “Yankee Doodle Dandy” had such an ending.  Again, I won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that Cagney cried and so did I.

Now, before I finish, I wanted to take a few moments to talk about why this movie was so successful, both at the time and now, 71 years later.  This movie was made in 1942 and the year speaks volumes about why it was such a success.  First of all and most importantly, we were in the midst of World War II.  Between the rousing wartime tunes like “Over There” and the overall feeling of patriotism in the movie, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” struck a chord with the movie going public and proved itself incredibly relevant to what was going on at the time.  It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards that year including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, and it won 3 of those 8 for Best Actor (James Cagney), Best Music, and Best Sound/Recording.

Very quickly, there are two more reasons why 1942 audiences and critics loved “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”  The first is, in 1942 James Cagney was at the height of his popularity, possibly second only to Clark Gable in the public’s eyes.  His draw at the box-office definitely gave this movie an edge.  The second reason is that early Hollywood was very nostalgic about vaudeville, seeing as how many of them had gotten their start there.  George M. Cohan was a vaudeville creation who made it to Broadway and gained worldwide recognition.  It was the Hollywood dream.

Lastly, before I leave you, I want to end each post by giving my thoughts on why this movie has stood the test of time.  Why did this movie make it onto the AFI’s Top 100 instead of another movie?  For “Yankee Doodle Dandy” the answer is simple.  It’s the music.  We know these songs by heart and they’ve come to define American patriotism.  They move us.  “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is all around a great film: superb acting, wonderful storytelling, and fantastic dancing.  But the heart of this movie lies in the music.  So, I end this post by saying as Cagney said, “everybody, sing!”

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Hello, my name is Heather and I’m a classic film addict…

“Thank God for film. It can capture a performance and hold it right there forever. And if anyone says to you, “Who was he?” or, “Who was she?” or, “What made them so good?” I think a piece of film answers that question better than any words I know of.”

~Liza Minnelli

 

A few weeks ago, I participated in a very disappointing game of Apples to Apples.  It was disappointing because it helped to confirm a growing epidemic among adults of my generation and younger (I’m nearly 25).  The symptoms are as follows: a man will say he doesn’t know who Lucille Ball is until someone prompts him by saying “I Love Lucy.”  A girl will have to look up the name Grace Kelly in the hope that it will ring a bell (it doesn’t).  The eyes gloss over at the mention of Katherine Hepburn.  The list goes on…

I noticed it during my game that night and I’ve been noticing it more and more over the last few weeks, months, and years.  This condition I like to call “I can’t name a single Cary Grant movie” is sweeping the nation and infecting our country’s youths at an alarming rate.

So, what’s a girl to do about this?  I’ll get to that.  First, I want to take a moment to explain why I think this condition is so tragic and why it is so important to have a favorite Cary Grant movie (to clarify: having a favorite means you chose from among several…meaning you’ve seen multiple Cary Grant films).

When I was growing up, my parents started introducing me to classic films and musicals the moment I outgrew Barney.  My earliest memories of falling in love with the movies come from watching “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “Roman Holiday” among many, many others.  I grew up singing along with Louis Armstrong, Julie Andrews, Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby.  I fell in love with Cary, laughed at Lucy, and wanted to be like Grace and Audrey.  Ann Miller inspired me to dance.  Judy Garland made me want to sing.  Debbie Reynolds was the girl next door.  I saw so many Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies, I started to feel like they were friends of mine (at this point, I think it’s important to clarify that, yes, I had plenty of real friends too).

So, these movies and these people were a large part of my childhood.  So, what?  Just because I grew up with them instead of the movies my peers grew up with, does that make them better to anyone else but a nostalgic girl like me?  I say yes.

I say yes for a couple of reasons.  First of all, there’s the talent issue.  Whether you’re watching a gravity-defying dance number by Gene Kelly or the range of emotions in Ingrid Bergman’s face while she’s listening to Sam play it again, it is absolutely impossible not to be left breathless by an amazing performance in a classic film.  These people, these performances deserve to be remembered.  They deserve to be passed on from generation to generation.

Secondly, these people were pioneers.  Movies were brand new and Hollywood was in its infancy when these actors and actresses started out.  They created something fresh and remarkable and they did it all without following in anyone’s footsteps.  It’s hard to wrap our minds around this as a society that can’t remember the last time we went an entire month without a sequel or a reboot coming out, but it happened.  I tend to think of classic movies as being from the 1920’s on through the 1960’s (some people may argue me on that point, which is fine), and just look at what happened during that time frame: we saw silent films turn into “talkies,” we saw the first big production musical numbers on film, we saw singing and dancing, we saw people like Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, and Bill Robinson breaking racial barriers, we saw the first epics, the first feature length animated movies, we had Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock for crying out loud!

In the first 40 years we saw so many actors, directors, and studio heads breaking new ground (and they did it all while remaining suitable for children).  Can we say as much about the last 40 years?  Every so often there will be a movie that feels fresh and original, but it also seems like we’ve run out of ways to break new ground so we’re spending time thinking of ways to take off more clothes instead.

So much for why I think these performances are so important (I promise I could say much more on the subject).  Now why the blog?  I decided after much mulling it over, that I wanted to have a place where I could talk about these movies as much as I want.  Someplace to give my opinions, write reviews, encourage discussions, and hopefully educate others (I’ve tried geeking out on Facebook, but found that any video I posted would only get traffic from my mom and occasionally my aunt Tracy).  And if it turns out that I end up just talking to myself, that’s fine too.  However, I also figured that a blog should have some sort of definable purpose or goal, so…

OBJECTIVE

        I wanted to watch classic movies and talk about them.  So, after some consideration, I’ve decided to go through the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time.  Yes, starting with number 100 and working my way all the way down to numero uno, I will watch and discuss every movie on that list!  Here’s how it’s going to work:

  • I will watch one movie a week for the next 100 weeks (just over two years)
  • As I am certainly capable of watching more than one movie a week, I will also be going through the AFI’s list of Top 25 Musicals simultaneously (one per week) and then move on to the top 50 Screen Legends list (one per week)
  • For the remaining 25 weeks without 2 movies per week, I will supplement with my own movie choices, actor profiles, etc.
  • Most weeks, I will try to watch my movies and write my posts on Tuesdays and Thursdays (I’m sure some weeks will vary, such as this week when my first movie will be on Thursday)
  • I realize that a few of the movies on the list are not classic movies, but the vast majority of them are, so I’m still considering this to be a blog devoted to classic films

So there you have it.  I fully expect no one to read or watch along with me.  I expect I’ll mostly be talking to myself.  But I’ll have a great time of it anyway.  And anyone who wants to watch along with me (for one or both of the lists) is more than welcome to join!  We’ll lick this “I don’t know or care who Irene Dunne is” epidemic yet!

I’ll see you back here on Thursday with the first movie on the list: “Yankee Doodle Dandy” 🙂 In the meantime, watch if you will, as Fred and company say it best…that’s entertainment.

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