Stage Door (1937)

stagedoor00226The calla lilies are in bloom again–such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. I carried them on my wedding day and now I place them here in memory of something that has died.

Perhaps Katharine Hepburn’s most famous lines, taken from a failed play in which she played the lead in 1933. Stage Door follows aspiring actresses into the world of grease paint and heartache. One actress tries to find success through important connections (Gail Patrick), another wants to go about it through hard work and persistence even though she begins to fall short (Ginger Rogers), still another had success and her star has already fallen after one great run (Andrea Leads). We are to follow one aspiring actress specifically, one who has never worked in the theatre, who seems to have the world as her oyster and who has the confidence to pull strings, but is short on talent and the heartbreak to allow her to give a mature performance (Katharine Hepburn).

Hepburn delivers the calla lilies lines with so much heart and sensitivity it really feels like she broke out of the Hepburn mold and has become Terry Randall channeling the character of Kay Hamilton. On occasion, especially in her earlier films, Katharine Hepburn was melodramatic and disconnected from her roles a bit. This was Hepburn’s only bright spot of the mid-thirties as far as the critics were concerned prior to 1940 with The Philadelphia Story. Most of her successful films had a balance of lightness in large doses to the melodrama. It’s clear from Stage Door that she could carry a film if she didn’t take herself too seriously.

stagedoor00059Hepburn is not the center of Stage Door, however. The ensemble cast includes a 14 -year-old-who-forged-her-age-as-17- year-old Ann Miller, the on-top-of-her-game Lucille Ball, the always amusing Eve Arden, Adolph Menjou as the producer who sets everything a-flurry, a very young Jack Carson who was just getting his start in films in minor roles (he had 14 film credits in 1937–most uncredited), Gail Patrick who I always think of in her role in My Favorite Wife, Andrea Leeds who is wonderful in the role of Kay, and finally the one and only one that shares the title billing with Katharine Hepburn–Miss Ginger Rogers.

Ginger Rogers was every ounce more the star than everyone else in the film and yet she doesn’t take it as her own. She delivers wise-cracks like no other. It was not exactly the first film where she played the wise-cracking dame looking for success, but Stage Door did showcase her talents as a comedienne and led to more screwball comedy roles like Carefree. It’s also a little bit meatier than the roles she played against Fred Astaire–more of an emotional range for her to play and she does seem to go through the gambit of emotions. She’s at her best in locked battles of wits, but her performance clearly delivers the level of sophistication for the top billing.

stagedoor00255Incidentally, quite a bit of the dialogue that takes place between the tenets of the Footlights Club was ad-libbed. It was a brilliant choice to make, because it adds more depth to the film than canned dialogue would. You really feel like you’re in the midst of what goes on outside of the theater and rehearsal halls. It gels the relationships between the girls and heightens emotions in the scenes to come.

As one of the girls, Eve Arden adds to the color of the film by engaging in snuggles with the love of her life–a cat she lovingly calls Henry. She dangles Henry around her neck as if he were sable. It’s beautiful. Though Arden’s role is limited, all she has to do is be present in a scene to make it amusing–the beauty of her delivery being the monotone delivery of her lines. Stage Door marked her fourth screen appearance. She appeared in Song of Love when she was just sixteen years old. Arden a long break from film until appearing uncredited in Dancing Lady. She had a plummier role in Oh Doctor, which was the fuel which led her to be cast in Stage Door.

This film also tackles social issues like wealth and security. Katharine Hepburn’s character ‘comes from the so-called upper class and Ginger’s the lower.’ Much like The Philadelphia Story and Holiday there’s this moral struggle in the female lead over whether or not you should do what you want to in life rather doing what society dictates is your place. The beautiful thing is that the character has a choice, the problem is that in each of these films the dominant male figure tries to sabotage and take control of what form this choice comes in.

stagedoor00088There’s an even darker element involved with Kay Hamilton–the star of last year who is unable to get another lead role. I won’t give things away, but her role is the emotional hinge that the film turns on, it’s the heart of the film and Andrea Leads lends great depth to the character’s inner turmoil, aided by the music and periodic voices. She delivered the Calla Lilies to Katharine Hepburn’s Terry Randall. The hand-off of the role and the torch is tear-inducing and appropriate to the energy that builds from the climax of the film.

If you’ve never seen Stage Door, you must find a copy immediately, because it’s a film that shouldn’t be missing from your collection. The ensemble cast and stellar performances make this film, though sometimes a weighty emotional roller coaster, one that you’ll want to watch many times over.

Dancing Lady (1933)

dancing-lady00005Usually the chorus girl to Broadway star includes a little less dignity and a little more scratching up from the bottom. Not so with Dancing Lady. Sometimes you get the starlet (Joan Crawford) who wants to do things the right way, though unbeknownst to her she’s sabotaged by a Park Avenue Playboy Tod Newton (Franchot Tone).

Clark Gable is director Patch Gallagher. He has ideals, too. He puts everything on the line when his producers stop backing the show. Though he tries to keep a cool appearance, his heart gets in the way and he comes to the rescue of our damsel in distress with the truth.

Fred Astaire makes his screen debut as Joan Crawford’s dancing partner in one of the production numbers to end all production numbers. In A Star is Born with Judy Garland, Garland plays with the whole concept of a production number gone global. Watching the scene with Fred dancing-lady00089Astaire again reminded me of that and both grand scale production numbers from this film were probably under target with like numbers in “Someone At Last” from A Star is Born. Of Course, Fred Astaire couldn’t make his film debut with a simple routine. He goes from dancing with Crawford on solid ground to the heavens, and from there oddly end up in Bavaria. Don’t ask. I have no idea.

Joan Crawford did consider herself a hoofer and did dance in the early days of her career even though she didn’t do a whole lot of it on film. Her style is much like Ruby Keeler’s. She pounds every step into the ground, is a bit stiff through the wingspan, and has a seemingly insatiable love of her own feet. It was probably fairly impressive for audiences at the time to see her sing and dance.

dancing-lady00126Nelson Eddy also makes his screen debut, though it is true that it wasn’t the first film released that he was in. He made this film first, but the others were released sooner. His part is fascinating compared to the parts he played with brief appearances he made on other films (Broadway to Hollywood and Student Tour which were released respectively in 1933 and 1934. Dancing Lady was actually released on January 1, 1934 for the consumption of general American audiences). In his prior screen appearances, Eddy sang concert songs. In Dancing Lady, he sings a “modern” number called “Rhythm of the Day.” It’s ironic given the parts Eddy would have in the future, mostly period pieces–in this film, he sings for those who are not with the rhythm of the day to transport themselves into modern times. I must confess, when the song gets into my head it stays there for far too long.

Also of small note is an appearance by The Three Stooges. I’m not sure why, but for some reason in 30s films, there had to be the side-talent as side-talent to the director and/or the director’s sidekick. Am I missing something? Unlike The Ritz Brothers in You Can’t Have Everything, dancing-lady00064they only make a short appearance and aren’t part of the main show. They don’t even overpower and upstage the stars. It’s amazing. Joan Crawford holds her own against them.

And then of course there is the charming Franchot Tone, who does his bit as the playboy and Clark Gable as the director. A restrained, slightly vulnerable Clark Gable can be pretty appealing and Franchot Tone is fairly charming in whatever he does. The love triangle doesn’t take over the film as one would think it would. Definitely gives the plot a twist on an old story. Sure, you know the chorus girl turned star is going to go with the director rather than the swell from Park Avenue, but I feel like there’s more substance and respect in their relationship. Gable’s character is a little more fleshed out than your average Joe (Comparable to Cover Girl now that I think of it, except no Ersters, errr–oysters).

The print on the DVD is pretty-near flawless. Only qualm would be the sound. Never fails to amaze me how lovely the print has been preserved over 76 years. A definite must-watch for any fan of Nelson Eddy and Fred Astaire just to see their big screen debuts. The plot is not really original, not even for the era. There really aren’t any stand-out performances (other than Fred and Nelson, of course), but it’s a lovely way to spend a couple hours.

Going My Way (1944)

goingmyway00017A story of a priest (Barry Fitzgerald) getting on in years and his trials and tribulations with his new assistant (Bing Crosby), a young, progressive upstart that seems to him to be tearing up every bit of the church he had built over 45 years prior.

Father O’Malley’s philosophy of how life should be is lovely. The lighter side of religion, the side this film covers, makes a heathen like me want to Hail Mary and carry a Rosary. The film is so infectious and positive, that until reviewing the film again tonight, I completely forgot O’Malley’s cracks to the atheist in the beginning. These make me sad, but director and writer of Going My Way, Leo McCarey, like Bing Crosby was a devout Catholic. He clearly had a good time of it to be able to create a character like Father O’Malley.

goingmyway00153The songs are beautiful. Crosby sings “Hail Alma Mater,” “The Day After Forever,” “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ra,” “Ave Maria,” “Going My Way,” “Swingin’ On A Star,” and “Silent Night.” Risë Stevens also makes her second film appearance singing “Habanera,” “Ave Maria,” and “Going My Way.” Everything about these numbers, except perhaps “Habanera” is simple and heartfelt.  “Habanera” is stunningly dressed for the screen with Risë Stevens in her most famous operatic role. It’s a gift that her “Habanera” was preserved on the screen for generations to come.

I always thought the subplot with the young couple a little awkward though, even though we get “The Day After Forever” with goofy hand motions with Bing doing a bit of mocking. That’s pure goingmyway00281loveliness, but all the same the subplot sometimes bogs down the speed of the film a bit.  I would have rather seen a little more Risë Stevens, only because there could never be enough of her.  It’s interesting that she is clearly in love with Father O’Malley and McCarey (I presume) was a little coy and sensitive in approaching their relationship.

Another heartwarming subplot in the film is Father O’Malley’s attempt to get a rowdy group of boys off the streets and into the church choir. The boys are skeptical of the plan at first until they hear themselves sing as a group and become completely engaged and willing to help Father O’Malley any way they can. As a choir they can do no wrong.

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Father O’Malley is persuasive though, not only to the audience, and to the boys he brings into the choir, but to Father Fitzgibbon (Fitzgerald). He gets the old man out and about–in the rain, on the golf course. While trying to figure out his new place within his own church, Father Fitzgibbon is certainly

taken out of his element. His character arc takes us for a 180 degree turn.

Father O’Malley, on the other hand, seems to end up drifting and being put on a sort of Groundhog Day routine where he has to wake up every few months and start all over again. It’s interesting that the film ends with him leaving Father Fitzgibbon and there’s a definite sadness as Father O’Malley steps out of frame. Will he be lonely or will he find some sort of happiness? We learn a bit more in the sequel to the film, The Bells of St. Marys, where Father O’Malley saves a school from closing down.

goingmyway00049Whether you’re religious or not, the spirit of the film will capture your heart. A tear or two may be shed by a surprise visit at the end of the film. A lot of spirits were raised in 1944 when this film was released. War was raging in Europe and this was the biggest box office draw of 1944. Crosby was the biggest drawing star of the year. Everything was going Bing Crosby’s way for certain, especially when he took home Oscar for Best Actor. A beautiful film, deserving of it’s ten Oscar nominations and seven Oscar wins: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Director, Best Original Song, Best Writing, Best Screenplay.

Balalaika (1939)

Revolutionaries, Princes, and Cossacks, oh my!

balalaika00002Our story starts and ends with the Balalaika Cafe–a place full of music and gaiety. The movie is full of music, certainly shades of gaiety, but doesn’t quite capture the complexities and the intrigue of the political goings on.

Full disclosure up front: Ilona Massey bores me to tears. I don’t find her a particularly good vocalist and her acting leaves me cold. Her character should hold on to her cause. Instead she just lets it go, even when her brother dies at the hand of the Cossacks. Nelson Eddy, on the other hand, is one of my favorite singers and personalities on film. This also causes problems, because I really don’t like Nelson Eddy’s character at all. I feel his Prince Karagin has few to no redeeming values. The plot skims the surface of the political issues of the time–a delicate balance indeed, but it would have made the film a lot richer to have kept the plot of the stage version where there was a little more substance.

balalaika00034A review from the Oakland Tribune points to the musical highlights as great interest to fans of Nelson Eddy and then the reviewer notes the following:

For those who can take Eddy in their stride or leave him astride his faithful Cossack pony, “Balalaika” will prove to be a pretty dull operetta.

– Wood Soames, Oakland Tribune, December 28, 1939

Indeed, as a Nelson Eddy fan, the Nelson Eddy songs are rousing and since it’s the most positive aspect of the film, I have to place my focus on the music. The film opens with “Ride Cossack ride” a marching song typical of most Nelson Eddy opening scenes (Naughty Marietta, Rose-Marie, Rosalie, and Girl of the Golden West just to start). This is followed directly by “At the Balalaika” and then an Ilona Massey solo. Lets just skip that.

balalaika00052Eddy delivers a powerful version of “The Song of the Volga Boatman” at the residence of Lydia Pavlovna (Ilona Massey). First on his own without music and then he is accompanied by the piano and then several instruments until the music swells with the voices of several men in the room along with Eddy’s voice. It ends with a soft violin and then Eddy finishes the note. It’s a beautiful piece of work. Eddy has rarely sounded better. The recording should be my ringtone.

Then we’re taken to the opera house where the duo takes us through pieces of “Carmen.” We skip over Ilona to Eddy’s rendition of “The Toreador Song,” which in all ways is perfect. The scene plays out beautifully until Ilona comes back into full frame.

balalaika00071We get a long break from the vocals. Secret identities are unveiled. All the manipulation from Eddy’s character comes to a climax. Lydia’s ties to the revolutionaries quickly come into play and she tries to warn the Prince of what is to come.

We then find Lydia at the opera. Thus, we shall skip that part. Emotions are heightened. Lydia suddenly has convictions, but she doesn’t display them simply because she believes them, she does so out of shame and for a little bit of show. And so we find our characters at war.

It’s Christmastime, the Prince is still pining for Lydia. To complete a touching scene, fraught with happy and sad old memories of the Balalaika, the Prince sings “Silent Night” along with the Germans they’re at war with in a moment of unity.

balalaika00117The war ends and the nobility has been successfully thrown out of power. Nelson Eddy sings a reprise of “At the Balalaika.” Then finally we have one more number that has always, always disturbed me. I shall say no more or I’ll spoil the ending, suffice it to say what is reflected and illuminated is not well reflected or illuminated.

A film with great music, but definitely not among my favorites (who’d of thunk it?).

You Were Never Lovelier (1942)

stanfordI’m old fashioned
I love the moonlight
I love the old fashioned things

I love You Were Never Lovelier, perhaps beyond reason. I’ve seen it at the Stanford Theatre at least once and hope it’s on again during the summer film festival, because really it’s too much fun. It’s one of those films that makes me tremendously happy in the viewing process and leaves me bouncing off walls toward the end.

A traditional family man (Adolph Menjou) who owns a nightclub in South America wants his second eldest daughter (Rita Hayworth) to marry before he allows his two younger daughters to be wed. He writes love letters to his daughter under the guise of a secret admirer. His plan works out until the fellow (Fred Astaire) that delivers one of the letters is suspected to be the suitor.

As one of my favorite films, I wrote a slightly over-enthusiastic journal entry after the first time I saw the film on the big screen, an excerpt follows:

“You have never seen Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire dance unless you’ve seen them on the big screen. I decided this tonight.

Throughout the film and for the good of one of my [essay] revisions… I was wondering exactly what draws me to classic film and these movies in particular.  I know the reasons pretty much, but at the same time it’s difficult to articulate. With this film and so many other favorites, it doesn’t take itself as seriously as films do today. Even a film like Legally Blonde takes itself seriously. I just can’t abide that.”

– November 24, 2004

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Rita and Fred have so much energy in their dance numbers, particularly “The Shorty George.” They’re absolutely brilliant. The songs aren’t legendary, but they’re memorable with the title song, “You Were Never Lovelier,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” and “Dearly Beloved,” led by Fred Astaire along with “The Shorty George” and great Cugat numbers like “Chiu, Chiu.” It’s all very upbeat and exciting with more than just a sampling of South American flavor.

The cast of You Were Never Lovelier seem to have enjoyed themselves greatly. There’s no melodrama. It’s all hearts and flowers. Adolph Menjou has always been one of my favorite film personalities and he balances the role of overbearing father beautifully against Barbara Brown’s submissive mother. If the co-stars took themselves too seriously, the plot would fail. It’s a fun, mistaken identify film from Columbia–the second of two films Astaire and Hayworth made together (their first was You’ll Never Get Rich).

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Rita Hayworth is sometimes overlooked as a dancer and that’s unfortunate, because she really was one of Fred Astaire’s best dancing partners. Sometimes you have to look beyond the stereotypes to enjoy a film and this is definitely one of those films that just needs you sitting down before the screen and you’ll be caught up in the goofiness of the plot and the charm of it’s leads.