The Glenn Miller Story (1953)

glennmiller001171“Little Brown Jug” has become a staple of ReelCast from it’s inception. It’s also the emotional hinge that The Glenn Miller Story turns on.

Bandleader Glenn Miller (James Stewart) looks for his sound. He finds it and strikes a chord with an old college sweetheart (June Allyson) to boot.

One of the highlights of the film is Louis Armstrong playing and scatting “Basin Street Blues.” The music sells the film, the story isn’t quite as compelling as the big band music and cameo appearances by band singers and bandleaders of Miller’s era. What the film does brilliantly is feature the music and makes you want to take out 78 recordings of the originals and melt alongside the clarinet lead, perhaps on the arm of your favorite dancing partner.

By focusing on the romance between Glenn Miller and his wife, the screen tribute may be a little sweeter, but probably not as interesting as it would be to reach a little deeper and really take a look at the relationships between the musicians and the band singers were like, because although it catches bits of the lifestyle and makes reference to it when Allyson’s character is sick, it doesn’t quite have that smokey jam session flavor that could make the film a little more edgy–and a little more real.

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It’s by far the most cheerful of the three Stewart-Allyson films. A lovely film with a brilliant soundtrack, an easy and lovable plot, and happy-go-lucky end that may bring a few tears, The Glenn Miller Story is a tribute with a bit of artistic license to it’s namesake in both tenor and content.

Little Women (1949)

littlewomen00103Christopher Columbus!

Little Women, much like Anne of Green Gables, is a rite of passage for many a young girl who loves to delve into literary worlds or dreams of creating her own someday. I did not escape the love of the tales of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

June Allyson becomes Jo March. She’s perfect in the role with her deep, laryngitis-ridden voice and boyish gestures, her cheekiness and enthusiasm. Allyson is never over-dramatic or understated in the role. She keeps the character balanced and real, hardly contrived and superficial as Professor Bhaer says of Jo’s fictional characters.

littlewomen00037Margaret O’Brien steals scenes as Beth. A lot of the dialogue rings true to the bit part O’Brien had in Babes on Broadway–the sincerity in which she delivers lines should seem over the top, but almost always rings true. The relationship between Beth and Jo is underscored by the respect and admiration that June Allyson and Margaret O’Brien had for each other.  They played sisters 5 years before in Music for Millions and according to both had competitions to see who could cry on cue faster as both were known for their crying scenes.

Peter Lawford could probably be interchanged with several of his contemporaries and it wouldn’t matter, but he’s Peter Lawford and it makes for much happiness. The role of Laurie isn’t fleshed out a whole lot. Nor are the feminist issues that the novel goes into, however, the film is still strong and is really focused family and change with light romance thrown in.

littlewomen00239Elizabeth Taylor is suited to the role of Amy, although it always bothers me to see Taylor with blonde hair. Mary Astor makes a wonderful, strong Mrs. March. And Janet Leigh is fine as Meg, though her part isn’t very fleshed out either and really could have been played by anyone.

The sets are lavish and so detailed. It feels so iconic that it the film seems like a Vincent Minnelli film at times, many of the transitions are held in frame and faded out as if stepping in and out of vignettes.

Though it may not be the best version of Little Women to come out of Hollywood, it’s charming all the same. To quote Professor Baehr once again, “It has such truth, such simple beauty–I cannot tell you what it gives me, my heart.”

Ship Ahoy (1942)

shipahoy00022An author of dime novels (Red Skelton) gets caught in an international conspiracy when he writes a piece that inspires fellows not of the allied persuasion to involve a musical star (Eleanor Powell) in carrying a magnetic mine to Puerto Rico.

Somehow I managed to avoid watching this film until tonight. I saw I Dood It long before it and I wasn’t so fond of it, so I guess I just didn’t want to be disappointed by another Eleanor Powell-Red Skelton title.

The film opens with Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra playing the “Hawaiian War Chant (Ta-Hu-Wa-Ha-Hai).” The number is perfection, it’s Tommy Dorsey at his best. It’s just a shame that Eleanor Powell didn’t make her part in the number a bit longer. We’re not short in Powell dance numbers in Ship Ahoy, however, she has a grand total of 5 production numbers–even a number where a portion is in morse code.

shipahoy00074Ship Ahoy speaks the language of jive, it’s hep to the reet beat. 27 minutes into the film, I noticed an Italian fellow walk up to the mic. I thought it could potentially be Frank Sinatra being that it was Tommy Dorsey’s band and the right time period for Frank to take the lead, but he was looking down and it just didn’t look like Frank to me. Once he got up to the mic, I burst into laughter. I called the Italian correctly. It was indeed a very young Ol’ Blue Eyes singing “The Last Call for Love” in his second film appearance with Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra (and no doubt in a costume that was used for Balalaika with Nelson Eddy 3 years prior). The first Sinatra film appearance was in Las Vegas Nights which was released the year before.

For the most part, the slang and the gags don’t get in the way or stretch for too long–a bit of a problem for Red Skelton films in general. There’s a couple bits toward the end that seem a little unnecessary. Same goes for Bert Lahr who manages to tone it down enough to be quite watchable, although he may not have fared so well on the big screen, but for my tiny little window he’s a joy to watch until the rare times the punch lines get carried away.

shipahoy00044The plot itself seems to me to be a bit too familiar to Skelton’s Whistling in the Dark (1941), where he played Wally Benton (he revisited the role twice more–the second time during the same year and the third in 1943). This film must have seen modest success, because MGM teamed Powell and Skelton again in I Dood It which was released the following year.

Ship Ahoy is a fun film with great music and where it’s short on a solid plot, it’s long on great swing numbers danced by Eleanor Powell and vocals from a budding Francis Albert Sinatra.

Love Affair (1939)

loveaffair1Love Affair is iconic, yet almost unknown to modern audiences. The plot is best known through it’s remakes An Affair to Remember (1957), and Love Affair (1994).

Irene Dunne plays Terry McKay, a woman who is engaged to her boss and sailing back home from a business trip to Europe. Charles Boyer is Michel Marnet, a French playboy looking for amusement and excitement before his impending marriage. They find each other grand company over pink champagne and promise by the end of the voyage that if they can both make a go of things with real jobs that they will meet on top of the Empire State Building in six months.

My favorite part of the film is when Terry and Michel go to see Michel’s ‘leetle’ grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya). In just a short amount of time, so much is learned about the characters, where they see themselves in the future, and a bit of the past.

carefree00474The serenity of the grandmother’s home comes across so well over celluloid. There are lovely moments between McKay and Marnet when they’re in her family chapel. The music is a beautiful compliment to the pathos and silence restrained only by it’s walls. Michel asks his grandmother to play the piano and Terry accompanies her by singing a lovely lilting rendition of Plaisir d’Amour. The conversation the two women have while Michel is gone reminds me of fleeting moments of quality conversations I’ve had with people whether it be a stranger or a relation before they somehow vanish–be it because of death or paths that never cross again.

Irene Dune sings two other songs as well–“Wishing Will Make it So” by Buddy G. DeSylva and “Sing My Heart” by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. The songs are placed seemlessly into the plot line. They never seem intrusive, it never feels a bit like a musical. It just naturally heightens the scenes and always thrusts the progression of Terry McKay’s character forward.

loveaffair3An Affair to Remember crosses well over the line to over-dramatic and saccharine in true 50s fashion. It takes itself far too seriously. The film feels a bit more tawdry than it’s predecessor. The 1994 film with Katharine Hepburn in the role of the grandmother falls flat, she’s really the only saving grace. Irene Dunne’s Terry McKay is strong. She makes light of the darkness and is perfectly willing to make sacrifices even though she really doesn’t have to.

As the building block for every related film to follow, it distresses me that if you look at reviews for the films to succeed it that there is rarely a mention of the film. It’s hard to believe this is so when Love Affair is public domain and readily available. It’s unfortunate that so many of Dunne’s films were remade in the 50s and 60s and hers were lost out of fear by the studios of competition–clearly Irene’s films were far superior to the remakes. As I’ve said, Love Affair is no exception to the rule. t’s a beautiful, witty, elegant film that I shall give you no excuse for missing.

You can watch the entire film hosted by Archive.org below.

 

Carefree (1938)

carefree00324Psychoanalysis has rarely been so fun as it is in Carefree. The film boasts a mixture of dance, slapstick, screwball comedy, Freudian slips, and lobster with gobs of mayonnaise. All elements that make this film unique in the Astaire and Rogers filmography.

If you love the glitz and glamour of Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee, you may not be so keen on Carefree, but if you love a heavy dose of Ginger Rogers it may be your favorite Astaire-Rogers film. I fall in the latter category. This is Ginger’s film more so than Fred Astaire’s. Usually, the roles are on a pretty even keel with Fred taking the lead occasionally. Carefree is driven by Ginger Rogers’ character. Every action is determined by her emotions–in or out of a trance.

carefree00092A fellow (Ralph Bellamy) is in love with a girl (Ginger Rogers) who can’t seem to decide whether or not she’s in love with him, so the fellow brings in his Psychoanalysist best friend (Fred Astaire) to try to get to her subconscious and help her make up her mind. The girl in question, Amanda Cooper, is induced into having a dream by Dr. Flagg in which the pair dance to an Irving Berlin tune (“I Used to Be Colorblind”) that has curiously colorful lyrics (it was intended to be filmed in color). Miss Cooper sets her sights on her doctor, who in the end finds he has to psychoanalyze himself in a mirror (pictured above) to figure out his own feelings for the girl.

Carefree has witty dialogue, a great supporting cast including a subdued Jack Carson and Luella Gear, and unlike audiences of the day the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. Rogers has a great scene where she’s given anesthetic in an attempt to reduce her down to her inhibitions–she goes on a rampage, always polite in her antics, shattering glass with a wrench and pulling pranks on everyone she passes. Ginger plays it to perfection.

carefree00150This glimpse into the then modern psychoanalysis was both playful and satiric in nature. Surely, anyone packing a punch can get to the subconscious mind, right? Even though the science is far from accurate and the principles used appear highly can be viewed as highly manipulative, there’s something at work under the surface, intended or not that gives both a slap and a nod to the practices of the day. The only other films that I can think of that even indulge themselves in a dab of Freud from the 1930s is Four Wives. In the 40s, there were a scant few that popped up like Random HarvestKing’s Row, and Now Voyager all from 1942 and Spellbound (1945).

Speaking of playfulness, my favorite number from the film is “The Yam.” It’s insane, it’s fun, it’s inventive. It’s all the best of Fred and Ginger put in a completely random context and situation.

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Another dance routine that is a little awkward is the reprise of “Change Partners.” It’s an inventive number, but it involves Dr. Flagg trying to dance Amanda Cooper into a trance to change the thoughts he had put into her head earlier–“Dr. Flagg is a horrible monster, he should be shot down like a dog.” Ralph Bellamy’s character fights to get her back and tries to play these new thoughts in Amanda’s head to his advantage. Seems Amanda has no choice, as she’s being tossed back and forth by the two men.

Quips aside, this is a wonderful film that is overlooked and under-appreciated except perhaps by those who love Ginger Rogers comedies–indeed, my favorite. Despite how the two male leads manipulate Amanda Cooper, she comes off as a strong woman who is not at all maladjusted to her world at all. She has equal footing with Fred Astaire and the male characters in the film, cutting nearly every one of them down to size at some point in the plot. It’s a delightful little venture into screwball comedy.