Friday, November 30, 2007

Musings on Obscure Vintage Musicals

Jeanette MacDonald about the time of BROADWAY SERENADE.

The first in a (possible) series of blog musings on obscure movie musicals…..


I had always thought the Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy I MARRIED AND ANGEL (1942) was one of the most bizarre MGM musicals ever made (and it is), but BROADWAY SERENADE, at least its bizarrely spectacular finale, runs a close second.

Essentially the plot of this odd film is a routine triangle among a talented but temperamental composer (Lew Ayres), his diva of a wife (Jeanette MacDonald), and a suave and romantically inclined backer (Ian Hunter) of a hit Broadway revue in which her musical star swiftly rises. But the score, supervised by MGM musical stalwart, Herbert Stothart, is an anything-but-routine, if emphatically uneasy mix of high brow classics, operetta, and pop-swing, and takes the MGM musical trend of providing a musical something for everyone one step beyond.

This catchall score includes two Tyrolean men-in-lederhosen operetta tunes, “High Flyin'” and a lyrical European waltz, both of which are reprised in an on-stage performance that partially includes MacDonald and her young baritone co-star on skies. (The schmaltzy arrangements are frequently livened up with some incongruous swing interludes). Overall music is credited to Stothart and Edward Ward, with lyrics by Gus Kahn, and Bob Wright and Chet Forrest, the latter two the team which eventually adapted Broadway’s KISMET. The song, “Time Changes Everything,” is credited to Kahn and Walter Donaldson.

Jeanette also does an operatic aria, MADAME BUTTERFLY’s “Un Bel Di,” in her endearingly off-kilter warble. But it’s ambitiously staged with the diva making a precarious but graceful descent from a huge Japanese bridge onto a set embellished with living mannequins and which looks like a BxW dry run for the “Limehouse Blues” number in ZEIGFELD FOLLIES.

However, the piece de resistance is the film’s finale, composed by her musical partner/husband who has been estranged until he can come up with his own blockbuster success. He of course does, but his breakthrough composition turns out to be what? A surreal avant-garde opera, a symphonic jazz cantata, a precursor to a Sondheim musical? Whatever, it’s based on Tchaikovsky’s “None But the Lonely Heart” which is fragmented, reassembled, sliced and diced, and intercut with more swing interludes in a pioneering manifestation of shocking early postmodernism. (It of course was really all stitched together by the brilliant Stothart, MGM’s resident maestro of the ’30s, who frequently raided the classics for his many MGM scores of the era, and Ward who apparently did the swing sequences).

It’s then performed by Jeanette and a cast of thousands, all playing musical instruments and wearing masks that look like a cross between Kabuki theater and an Amicus horror film. At the center of it all is Jeanette, unmasked, of course. Dressed in pristine Grecian garb and perched on a pedestal only a few stories lower than the one in THE GREAT ZEIGFELD, she is manically and at length serenaded by legions of the monstrous orchestral furies. (BROADWAY SERENADE indeed!) It’s all staged by Busby Berkeley, by the way, and probably ranks as both his least-known and most excessively grotesque production number.

The young Lew Aryes (who makes a final appearance at the grand piano at the climax of the finale) is one of the most freshly handsome of MGM’s rather stodgy 1930s leading men. When not having violent outbursts of temperament when their husband/wife musical act is heckled by distracters, he delivers his mostly hokey lines with soothingly masculine sensitivity. Ayes is best-known for his lauded performance in Universal’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTRN FRONT, but he was rather ill-used by MGM, starring in a series of eclectic MGM ‘30s films (including ICE FOLLIES OF 1939 with Joan Crawford and James Stewart). His work at the studio concluded with the hit series based on the Doctor Kildare stories, and his interesting career was interrupted (but not ended) by his status as a conscientious objector during WWII. Ironically, he later appeared as the reluctant vice-president in Preminger’s ADVISE AND CONSENT in 1962.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Disney World - Animal Kingdom

Expedition Everest: The Mount Everest of roller coasters at Disney World's Animal Kingdom, Florida.
Yes, I got on it!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Not Such A Small World After All

Returning from a Florida excursion which included a few days at the overwhelming Walt Disney World a friend had saved me an LA Times article about the World’s (much) smaller California precursor, Disneyland.

Seems D-land’s “It’s A Small World” attraction is due to be shuttered for a makeover in January for an unusual reason: some of the guests are no longer small enough to make it through. The Times notes that “heavier-then-anticipated loads” have been causing the boats to stall at two points in the ride.

This has happened so often that an exit platform has been installed next to Canada’s mini-Mounties because they’ve had “so many problems” with the grounded boats. The official Disney line never mentions the F word (f**), instead blaming the problems on fiberglass repairs on the much-put-upon dinghies. (Small Craft Warnings indeed).

At any rate, the ride will go down for major refurbishment in January 2008. This will include replacing the flumes to add some additional depth to the water channels and making the boats more “buoyant”. In the meantime guests now unable to complete the round-the-world tour are being given a consolation prize: a food ticket.

This just in: my same friend just reported that he heard on the radio Friday morning that a woman was caught dumping some kind of white power into the water at “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Cocaine or some other nefarious substance was originally suspected, but the none-pixie dust allegedly turned out to be the worldly remains of a cremated loved one. The woman was allegedly charged with littering… More later, if anything more turns up.


Robert Zemeckis’s BEOWULF opened in 3-D Friday. The apparently hyper-gory re-thinking of the literary classic was skewered by Times critic, Kenneth Turan, in the Friday (Nov. 16, 2007) edition. Though also critically lambasted I thought Zemeckis’s also 3-D POLAR EXPRESS was a rather sweet film. But since sweetness is NOT what the diminishing movie ticket-buying audience is going for these days you can hardly blame the director for going for the gore this holiday season. Though I’ve always been intrigued by 3-D after Harry Potter and LORD OF THE RINGS I’m personally so over the sword-and-sorcery trip.

But as far as 3-D goes, the best thing I’ve recently seen in the process (since REVENGE OF THE CREATURE and THE MAZE at the recent and celebrated LA 3-D Expo) is MICKEY’S PHILHARMONIC, one of the key Fantasyland attractions at Disney World. The brief but stylistically meticulous recreation of the flying sequence from Disney’s PETER PAN, in both 3-D and a kind of SuperCinerama three-panel wide-screen process, is spectacular and a vintage Disney animation/3-D buff’s dream come true. Also, the LION KING sequence includes a nod to the surrealistic “You Belong to My Heart” sequence from THREE CABALLEROS in psychedelic 3-D.

On my last day in the park I sat through this amazing short film, a kind of mini-MELODY TIME (that actually features more of Donald Duck than the Mouse), at least six times and found something new in each viewing. I can only hope MICKEY’S PHILHARMAGIC may be one of the attractions imported to California with the proposed makeover of the now-notorious California Adventure park.

+ + +

Well, at least one film out of the seemingly endless procession of boring new ones listed in the daily Times calendar section seems really interesting: Greg Araki’s new SMILEY FACE. (“High. How are you?”) Called “the CITIZEN KANE of stoner movies,” Araki will appear in person at selected Nuart screenings (7.30/9.50) on Friday and Saturday. Whatever it may turn out to be you can just about count on SMILEY FACE not being boring or predictable!

Recently I also liked the British Channel Four Films’ BEAUTIFUL THING (1996), one of the many hidden treasures available from the vast recesses of Netflix. It’s yet another coming out story, but a subtle and unclich├ęd one, and its real strength is the sensitivity and candor with which it deals with relationships among an eclectic assortment of straight/gay characters in a southeast London apartment building.