Sunday, October 9, 2011

This Film is an Epitome of Classic

As far as classic musical films are concerned, or film in general for that matter, this one is very high up on most movie critics' lists, including mine. From 1952, and starring Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, the classic "Singin' in the Rain."

Kelly (who also shares directing credit with Stanley Donen) stars as Don Lockwood, a silent era film star. Along with his childhood friend and fellow musician Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor)Don is thrust into the movies after a film set stunt knocks out the lead actor. There, he meets the films' actress, Lina Lamont. His star quickly rises, and he goes from silent film musician, to stunt man, and finally, to major star. It's 1927, and films are quickly beginning to talk on their own. As they are known, Lamont and Lockwood (the Pitt and Jolie of the time) are approached to turn their latest film into a "talkie". While Don makes the transition easily, Lina's natural voice (quite comically) does not make the transition into sound very smoothly. Enter Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds, in one of her first films), a young aspiring actress. Don and Kathy meet, quite auspiciously, as he is running from his adoring fans, and seemingly falls right into her lap. Much to Lina's dismay, and a plan is hatched to dub Lina's nasally, whining voice with Kathy's smooth and beautiful singing and speaking voice. Very quickly, a romance between Kathy and Don begins to bloom. This, in a nutshell, is an excellent example of musical film at it's finest.

To me, this film will never get old. Every aspect of it is fantastic. Much like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly was notorious for his perfectionist tendencies. Every step of every musical number had to be just so before he was satisfied. Of course, watching the film, everything looks flawless, except the things that aren't meant to look flawless, which is part of its genius. For example, the scene in which the actors are being wired for sound for the first time is great. We take sound in films for granted in this day and age, but at some point, somebody had to work out the kinks so that we may enjoy not only the look of the picture, but the sound that goes with it. Much like we would learn a new game, or new software, plenty of mistakes and kinks to iron out were made. It's one of my favorite parts of the film. As in any musical film, the music is essential. Aside from the title number, which Gene Kelly famously performed while he was very sick, one of my favorite numbers is "Make 'em Laugh". It shows off the talent of Donald O'Connor. It makes me smile every time. He did not use a stunt double, amazingly enough. That's him doing back flips off of the walls. According to his IMDB profile, O'Connor went on bed rest after performing this number, which is understandable. Nonetheless, it's certainly one of the more entertaining parts of the film. Of course, there is a love story here as well. It's more of a love triangle. Lina loves Don (almost as much as she loves herself) and once young Kathy enters the picture, Don falls for Kathy.

If a film is strictly a love story, that's one thing. That SHOULD be the film's focus. But if the film is anything other than that, the love story within the film can be its downfall. It can potentially overshadow everything else in the film, leaving the viewer to wonder what exactly happened to the other actors or stories in the film. Fortunately, this film is not such an offender. While a love story certainly becomes a very integral part of the film towards the latter half, it doesn't distract from the music or the comedy.

Films about the film industry are always interesting to me, because you get the feeling that you're getting the inside scoop on what really happens during the making of a film. On one hand, a film about the industry can be entertaining, funny and perhaps insightful. But on the other, it has the potential of becoming one dimensional and only focusing on one aspect of the process, or how the process affects just one person in the film. When this happens, the film becomes dry and boring. Finally the film could try and focus on too many issues and ways in which to solve those issues, thereby making the film muddled and confusing. This film is only guilty of the former. It's highly entertaining.

A good musical film does several things. First and foremost, it's entertaining, and you don't feel like you'd rather get a root canal than finish watching it. Secondly, it tells a story, be it one based in history (such as this one), or completely fictionalized. Finally, it integrates the music into the film in such a way so you don't feel like the film has completely stopped just for a song. As many times as I've seen this film, I have yet to catch any major flaws in it that would deter me from watching it again. It's one of my absolute favorite films, and it was a great one to include for my blog's big number 5-0 entry.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

"One Two Three" an Excellent Satire

It's no secret to those of you who read this blog, but James Cagney has recently shot up my list of favorite actors. His roles and different personas were often very complex. He was most famous for his "gangster" roles, but he often played gangsters who (although his character would NEVER admit it) may have a tough exterior, but his vulnerable side would often come through, albeit often in somewhat twisted ways. This film, written by Billy Wilder and released in 1961, was a departure for Cagney, but nonetheless, his portrayal was as brilliant as that of the other actors, and the script which they were given.

Cagney stars as C.R. "Mac" MacNamara, a Coca-Cola executive in charge of operations in West Berlin. Mac feels that he should be in London, as head of the entire European operation, whereas his wife Phyllis (Arlene Francis) feels he should take a nice executive position back at the home base in Atlanta. The back and forth between Cagney and Francis creates the first of the many hilarious conflicts of the film. His staff is very loyal. Perhaps too much so. With the exception of his beautiful secretary, his staff treats him as the dictator for whom they had previously worked. That would be a man named Adolf Hitler. This creates another hilarious wrinkle, one in which Mac makes no secret of his disdain for heel clicking, something that his assistant Schlemmer (Hans Lothar) doesn't seem to understand. Enter the largest (and prettiest) wrinkle of all. Her name is Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), and she is the spoiled, somewhat dimwitted teenage daughter of Mac's boss, Wendell Hazeltine. Despite Mac's strict rules, Scarlett proceeds to do anything and everything she desires. When she disappears for days, Mac panics, fearing he may lose his job, and his hopes of advancement. When she returns, she's not alone. It turns out that during her outing, she has met and has intentions to marry a communist sympathizer named Otto (Horst Buchholz). Hilarity ensues and Mac and his staff attempt to stop the marriage before the arrival of the Hazeltines in Berlin.

This is one of my absolute favorite new films (new to me, that is). Billy Wilder was a master at very sophisticated, dry and sharp humor. This film has plenty of that. And this was an excellent vehicle for Cagney because, even in his gangster films, he had a very dry and sarcastic wit that translated beautifully into doing a straight comedic film. And while Scarlett may APPEAR to be dimwitted, well, as they say, appearances can be deceiving. The fast pace of the writing in this film, going from joke to joke so fast, your head will spin, was pulled off by every single actor in the film with great aplomb. It's almost absurd that a teenager would have such a large vocabulary when she's trying to convince a parental figure that marrying a man, and a communist at that, is the right thing to do. But it's the absurdity of the film's subject matter, not to mention the ability of each actor in the film to deliver their lines as if they were ordering a cup of coffee, that makes the film so brilliant.

As you may be able to tell, I LOVED this film. It's humor was dry, witty and sarcastic, which is right up my alley. Don't get me wrong. I absolutely love a film full of fart jokes and potty humor as much as the next guy. But every once and awhile, I need a break from all the gas and pratfalls to actually expand my mind and be entertained at the same time. This film is fantastic and HIGHLY recommended.