Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ginger Rogers & singular talents: Monkey Business, The Major and the Minor, Swing Time, and The Gay Divorcee

The program notes for the Brattle's Ginger Rogers tribute, "Backwards and in High Heels", note that even that title doesn't really do her justice. After all, the quotation it comes from (pointing out that yeah, Fred Astaire was great, but Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards and in high heels) is not actually about her. Rather, it's about women in general, how they often have to work harder for lesser recognition. It's almost political, really, as opposed to pointing out just how great she was on-screen.

After all, she's clearly more than Astaire's dance partner. I admit to not being hugely impressed when I saw her in Tight Spot a few months ago; she brought a big personality a B movie that really wasn't very good despite her presence alongside Brian Keith and Edward G. Robinson, and while I think I've seen her in some other stuff (I want to say a Jimmy Stewart western), a concentrated dose of her as 2011 came to a close led me to really appreciate her screen persona. It's actually pretty close to what I imagine her Tight Spot character must have been like when younger, sassy and capable and funny. She's also a bona fide good actress right from the start; even when she's being second-billed to Fred Astaire or Cary Grant (or set to be upstaged by a young Marilyn Monroe), she's always the best thing about these movies.

Well, unless you compare her to Astaire as a dancer, maybe. It gets back to the "backwards in high heels" thing, but it did often seem as though Fred was doing the longer sequences of quicker steps, although it's not like he was spinning as much, and I'll bet twirling in heels is an order of magnitude more difficult than throwing down a few taps. But what do I know? I've got a lot more experience watching martial arts flicks than musicals, and I'm not exactly great at figuring which stuff is really hard there, either.

It's funny, though, that I can spend the three or four months from my first day at the New York Asian Film Festival to when I'm finally done with my Fantasia reviews pumping out a whole bunch of text about a slew of sometimes very similar kung fu and horror movies and feel like I'm hitting each one fresh, but present me with two RKO musicals to write up back to back, and I almost feel like I'm writing the same thing twice. I don't know if I felt that when reviewing three versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles in rapid succession!

In a way, though, Hong Kong filmmaking is sort of the last bastion of the mindset that made movies like Swing Time, and even there, it's kind of diluted these days, as the cross-pollination with Hollywood makes those action movies a little more story-oriented. I mention this is the review of Swing Time, but while movies like it and The Gay Divorcee are nominally telling a story, that wasn't really what they were for, and to some extent you have to keep this sort of thing in mind when watching flicks from the thirties and forties: With no television, let alone home video, and travel options better than they were a generation before but not as good as they would be a generation later, the local cinema was the best way for someone in a small town (or even a city off the main rail lines) to see talented people doing the things they excelled at, and the studio supplied that.

So you'd get something like Swing Time, which is awfully close to being five or six dance numbers strung together with the absolute minimum connective tissue needed to call it a story for those who won't pay their nickel to see people dance. Warner Brothers would build musicals around their library of songs, sticking singers in the middle for much the same purpose movies would be built around Astaire dancing or Sonja Henie skating - these things were draws, because you couldn't get them anywhere else.

You see echoes of that today - plays, operas, and ballets broadcast to theaters that project them digitally, and even if Hong Kong has put stronger spines in their action movies (or diluted the displays of martial skill with special effects), Thailand is still cranking out movies that are basically "these guys can move; watch them do their thing". And it's not a bad thing that everything is more accessible these days But it's a funny thing - as film has become a more sophisticated, better storytelling medium, they've narrowed to become little but, and we seem to have lost some ability to love them as exhibitions. The closest thing we've got to that today are FX-driven blockbusters, and making them gorgeous, state of the art, and amazing with story a secondary focus has become an unforgivable sin.

Certainly, I was disappointed at Swing Time when I looked at it as a story interrupted by dance numbers, but as dance numbers loosely held together by story, well, what makes it less worthy than Pina? It's just using a different method to stitch things together.

Monkey Business (1952)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 December 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Backwards and in High Heels)

The high concept comedy has been relatively common at various points in cinematic history, and while the type that go past high concept to outright fantasy are more common now than ever, they're not new: You've always had the likes of Topper and Bell, Book and Candle. Something like Monkey Business is still an odd thing to see sixty years later, a goofy comedy less driven by (then) current societal mores than absurd innovation.

The chief innovator is Dr. Barnaby Fulton (Cary Grant), a research chemist for Oxley Chemical Company searching for a rejuvenation formula. Well, maybe it's actually the chimp who gets out of her cage, randomly mixes some chemicals, and then dumps the result in the water cooler. After drinking it, not only does Barnaby feel twenty years younger, he starts acting it as well, opting to play hooky from work. Company owner Oliver Oxley (Charles Coburn) sends secretary Lois Laurel (Marilyn Monroe) to find him - and while she's not that bright, she sure is radiant, which could potentially cause trouble with Barnaby's wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers).

Director Howard Hawks made great movies in several genres, but when he turns sights on screwball comedy, well, it can get exceptionally screwy. Monkey Business is deliriously silly, even more so than Hawks's and Grant's Bringing Up Baby, but in many ways the story (by four credited writers, with Hawks involved as well) is actually pretty tight, in that once you accept the premise that a concoction mixed by a chimp can revert otherwise stiff people to their more freewheeling youth, everything else follows pretty logically from that; it's just a matter of arranging things so that the characters stumble into gags rather than tragedy. Well, OK, some bits toward the end are a bit off, though they still draw laughs even if one is a stretch and the other would be seen as kind of politically incorrect nowadays.

Full review at EFC.

The Major and the Minor

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 December 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Backwards and in High Heels)

The next time some old person starts loudly complaining about how movies today are just strange or perverted compared to the old days, just turn around and remind grandpa that he (or his parents) probably paid money to see The Major and the Minor, a romantic comedy in which a thirty-year-old Ginger Rogers plays a character in her mid-twenties who potentially becomes a rival for a man's affection by making him think she's a twelve-year-old girl.

That's not her goal, of course - as the movie starts, Susan Applegate (Rogers) is a small-town girl who has given New York City her best shot and now just wants to go back home. Unfortunately, the money she has set aside for her train ticket back is no longer enough, but seeing a girl not much smaller than herself pay child's fare gives her an idea. Circumstances lead to her hiding out in the cabin of one Major Kirby (Ray Milland), and when the train stops because of a flooded track, Kirby and his fiancée Pamela (Rita Johnson) offer to put "Su-Su" up at the military academy where he teaches for a few days - and while the adults and many of the cadets are fooled, Pamela's sister Lucy (Diana Lynn) isn't buying it at all.

In the wrong hands, The Major and the Minor could become something really grotesque, but that's what makes it so much fun: Even though it was a little more acceptable for a young man to court a teenage girl when the movie came out in 1942, Billy Wilder makes sure the apparent age difference is enough to be creepy when looked at from most any perspective, and has a fine time stepping over the line just enough to make the audience squirm before dancing back again. The script (by Wilder and Charles Brackett, from a story by Fanny Kilbourne by way of a Edward Carpenter's play) is well-balanced between Susan being placed in uncomfortable positions and doing so to others, which keeps things from straying into really uncomfortable territory.

Full review at EFC.

Swing Time

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 December 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Backwards and in High Heels)

"Formula" is a bit of a dirty word when talking about film today, but there's a sort of awesome purity to how it was applied back in the pre-home video, pre-television "Golden Age of Cinema": RKO has a guy who can dance really well under contract, so the producers tell the writers to come up with a script that starts with him dancing, ends with him dancing, and doesn't go more than twenty minutes or so at a stretch without him dancing. The director directs, the studio ships it to their theaters, where the people who haven't seen that guy dance in a few months buy their tickets. Then they do it again. It doesn't always result in great movies, but they certainly give the audience what they were looking for.

This one opens with Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire) doing his last dance as part of a traveling show before getting married to Margaret Watson (Betty Furness), at least until his fellow performers sabotage him. As a result, Lucky ends up in New York, having promised to earn $25,000 to show he's responsible. So, of course, he and his magician friend Pop Cardetti (Victor Moore) immediately causes a series of misunderstandings at a dance school that gets teacher Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers) and receptionist Mabel Anderson (Helen Broderick) fired. Still, it doesn't take long before people realize that Lucky and Penny have great chemistry on and off the dance floor.

Describing Fred Astaire as just "a guy who can dance really well" obviously undersells him quite a bit, but there's little denying that Swing Time is built to showcase how well Astaire and Rogers work their feet: There are five or six dance numbers in a 103-minute movie, and at times it feels as if the powers that be sense Lucky and Carroll have gone too long without dancing and so arrange circumstances to make them start. The script relies on weak plot devices like Lucky never losing when he gambles, and is just amazingly eager to wrap things up at the end. It's a dance delivery system as much as it's a story.

Full review at EFC.

The Gay Divorcee

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 December 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (Backwards and in High Heels)

I am sure that somewhere in The Gay Divorcee, there's a moment that at least made sense eighty years ago, because it all seems rather adorably silly now. Well, maybe not all - Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers can dance and even spark a bit when sitting down, and that will get you a long way.

This time around, Astaire plays Guy Holden, a famous American dancer come to Europe for some time out of the spotlight visiting his English friend Egbert "Pinky" Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton). Pinky is watching the store at the family law firm when Mimi Glossop (Ginger Rogers) - a lady who married young and now only hears from her husband when he wants access to her money - walks in looking for a divorce, her Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady), who has been on this merry-go-round several times, in tow. Apparently, the best way about this is for Mimi to be caught in a hotel room with a gigolo (Erik Rhodes), so Pinky sets that up at a Brighton resort. He asks Guy to come along, hoping a few days at the beach will help him get his mind off the girl he met when he first arrived in England... Not realizing that Mimi is that girl.

To call a movie like The Gay Divorcee goofy or ridiculous is actually a sort of compliment. It is, after all, a farce, based on piling mistaken identities and missed connections until they can be stacked no more and fall over. If the story ever slowed down enough for somebody to think, the thing would fall apart completely, and to a certain extent, it does - it goes from being snappy to requiring a character to be even more ridiculous than previously established to draw things out even more toward the end before heading to a rushed wrap-up. And just getting to the resort seems to take longer than it should.

Full review at EFC.

1 comment:

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