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Archive for the ‘musicals’ Category

Godspell movie poster

Since tomorrow is Easter, I thought it would only be fitting to talk about a movie of the religious variety and since TCM is showing Godspell on Easter afternoon (3/23 at 3 pm), it was kind of a no-brainer.

I saw Godspell (1973) for the first time sometime last summer. This may sound a bit flippant, but I only watched it because I wanted to see what Victor Garber looked like, or as I called him, “The guy who played the girl’s father on Alias.” No, I’m not an Alias fan, but on a few occasions, I was forced to sit through a couple of episodes with my friends. My plan was to see what he looked like when he was younger (doesn’t everyone like to play that game?) and then watch something else. The idea of hippies dancing around and singing about the Bible wasn’t exactly my cup of tea.

Much to my surprise, I found that I couldn’t tear myself away from the film. I changed it once and then flipped right back. The opening intrigued me–a bunch of normal people, working everyday jobs and walking around the streets of New York City. And then suddenly, they’re drawn by the call of John the Baptist (David Haskell) and before you know it, they’re shaking off their working clothes, dancing in Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain and putting on face paint and wild clothes. Victor Garber is Jesus, although he’s not outfitted in the traditional robe and sandals. Instead, he’s dressed in a Superman shirt, a timely ‘fro and complete with slight clown makeup. It’s not surprising that there are people out there who claim this is blasphemy, but I never got that vibe from the film. It’s message is joyful and uplifting–Godspell was simply adapted for the hippie, peace-loving audience at the time. Here’s a bit from a 1972 Toronto review that explains it perfectly:

“Blasphemous? Balderdash! The only thing blasphemous about Godspell is the way some people feel threatened, too insecure in their own beliefs, to accept a novel and joyful expression of love for religion…They do not make gags about God. They do not laugh at the intention of the parables or the universal ideas they were meant to illustrate. They make the parables fun; but they don’t make fun of the parables.”

As a side note: I should state here that I do identify myself as a Roman Catholic, although I’m not a very knowledgeable one. I went to public school and was forced to take some religious classes when I was around 7 years old. I took Religious Philosophy when I was in college, but quickly dispensed everything I learned once my exam was over. Not much has stuck with me, although I know the basics. It’s not very popular to talk about God in some circles, and I can fully admit that I flirted with atheism about two years ago during a very rough patch in my life (although it was more of the “Are You There God, it’s Me, Margaret I’m not talking to God, so there” variety). Things have happened in my life that have changed that opinion and I can proudly say that I believe in God now. But I also believe in not shoving your beliefs down people’s throat and being overly judgmental about things. One of my favorite sayings is the old standard: “He who is without sin, shall cast the first stone.” I hope no one thinks less of me because of this.

Thankfully, I do like religious movies–King of Kings, Barabbas and Godspell are my favorites. But John Huston’s version of The Bible (1966) has always creeped me out and whenever I see it on tv, I run screaming from the room. Mainly because I was stuck somewhere two years ago and that was the only movie being shown on the in-house tv station. Not once, twice or three times. But FOUR times a day!

Godspell album coverAnyway back to Godspell. Part of its appeal is the music, which was all written by Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz. While the songs sound distinctively 70’s (they wouldn’t sound out of place on your local lite FM station), they’re also really catchy. One of the most popular songs, “Day by Day” (sung by Robin Lamont, who was also in the original cast) is particularly beautiful. There are some other great songs as well, like the two I’ve included in this post: the upbeat, “Light of the World” and the gorgeous, “Beautiful City.” The latter was specifically written for this film version, while two other songs, “We Beseech Thee” and “Learn Your Lessons Well” were omitted. Also, look out for the ending of “All For the Best” which ends with the cast members dancing atop of the World Trade Center. My aunt has a copy of the original soundtrack and every time I would flip through her albums, the cover scared me. I’m not sure why, although it’s worth noting that everything scared me when I was a kid.

One really interesting note is that Victor Garber came from the legendary 1972 Toronto production, which is also notable for launching the careers of Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Martin Short, Gilda Radner and Paul Shaffer of David Letterman fame. This site is completely devoted to the Toronto production and it’s really worth checking out. Lots of reviews and pictures ahead.

Godspell certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, there are some people out there who will probably roll their eyes and recoil in horror at a movie like this. Like a lot of 70’s movies, it’s certainly dated, but if you’re into religious movies and give it a chance, I think you’ll enjoy it. It’s fun, has a good message and has a great soundtrack–there’s a lot to like.

And for those who celebrate it, Happy Easter! And don’t go overboard on the chocolate.

Download: “Beautiful City” (2.8 MB) and “Light of the World” (2 MB) from the Godspell soundtrack (links will open in new window and download it from there)

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Annie is ready to party!Last year for my birthday, I received the That’s Entertainment! box set. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the That’s Entertainment box set is made of up the three eponymous titles devoted to MGM musicals of the past. It includes all three movies and a special bonus disc filled with outtakes and extra bonus footage, including some really fun excerpts of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, as well as other MGM musical stars on a 1976 episode of the Mike Douglas show. Ann Miller looks so awesome. She certainly came ready to party!

Out of all three movies, my favorite would be That’s Entertainment III (1994), mainly because that’s the one with all the deleted scenes as well as a credit-less version of Fred and Ginger dancing the Swing Trot from one of my favorites, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). However, there was one number on there that was so disturbing, so horrible–I wound up screaming in horror: Joan Crawford lip-synching to “Two Faced Woman”.

THE MOST FRIGHTENING SCENE IN MOVIE HISTORY!

THE MOST FRIGHTENING SCENE IN MOVIE HISTORY

It’s from the 1953 musical, Torch Song. Thanks to TCM, they’re showing it on Sunday night at 11:30 pm as a part of a 24 hour Joan Crawford birthday lineup. Her age varies–some people say that she’s going to be 100 years old, while others say that she’s was born in 1904. I like to go with the latter, since it feeds into one of the reasons why Bette Davis hated her so much (Joan was looking good compared to Bette during the shoot of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Even if you go with the idea that Joan was born in 1908, she still looked a hell of a lot better than Bette–scary Baby Jane makeup notwithstanding. That’s what smoking will do to you, I guess.)

Split screen comparison

In That’s Entertainment III, Debbie Reynolds’ explains that the original version of “Two Faced Woman” was to be originally lip-synched by Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953). However Cyd’s version was cut for time and I guess the powers that be thought, “Hey! Let’s use this in the new Joan Crawford musical! And while we’re at it, let’s do it as an ‘island’ number so we can put Joan in blackface!” YIKES.

It’s pretty easy to see where “Two-Faced Woman” was to be used in The Band Wagon. It would come sometime after the lovely Astaire-Charisse “Dancing in the Dark” number and right before the scene in which Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) starts directing around the stage props, only to be lifted into the air himself. I can see why they would cut it for time–I think it would have considerably disrupted the flow of the backstage mayhem.

Click for larger imageJoan’s legs
Cyd’s legs Vs. Joan’s legs: no contest!

Joan’s version is downright scary and it’s not just due to the horrific makeup and bad wig. India Adams’ voice just isn’t right for Joan (and to be honest, I don’t think it’s right for Cyd either). It almost makes her sound possessed, like she’s singing in a range that’s way too low for her. While Joan would have loved to do her own singing, MGM claimed that there was not enough time on the schedule to do so. Joan didn’t complain. Not only was she happy to dance again, she was back at her old home studio of MGM. Joan was terrified that no one would remember her, but the moment she stepped on the soundstage, she was thrilled–all the old technicians did in fact, remember her.

Since I’ve never seen Torch Song, I can only go by reviews that I’ve read off IMDB and on various Joan Crawford sites. And the consensus is that it’s BAD. The kind of bad that makes you laugh and laugh for hours on end. Since this was Joan’s first color movie, you get to see her dyed, flaming red hair in all it’s glory. The cast includes Michael Wilding as the blind pianist who falls in love with Joan, as well as Gig Young (Yay!), who plays Joan’s drunken, cheating boyfriend who winds up disappearing halfway through the film (Boo hiss). Torch Song was directed by Charles Waters, who was more than competent to direct a musical, having previously helmed such classics as Easter Parade (1948) and Summer Stock (1950). I’m really excited to see this movie, since I LOVE bad films just as much as I love good ones.

Also of note are the other fantastic Joan Crawford movies that TCM is showing:

Dancing Lady (1933) – 3/24 at 4:45 am – a fun musical with Clark Gable and in his screen debut, Fred Astaire–who plays a man named…Fred Astaire. Go figure. Light, fluffy entertainment.

The Women (1939)- 3/24 at 10:00 am – where Crawford plays a gold-digging, husband stealing bitch. She also gets the best line in the film, which comes at the very end of the movie.

A Woman’s Face (1941 – 3/24 at 12:15 pm) and They All Kissed the Bride (1942 – 2:15 pm – both notable for her pairing with the fantastic and always forgotten, Melvyn Douglas! I don’t know why more people don’t enjoy him today. He’s great at screwball comedy, but just as adapt in a drama as well.

Humoresque (1946) – 3/24 at 3:45 pm – A top-notch WB drama about a violinist (John Garfield) who falls in love with Joan, much to the dismay of his family. Plus, it has Oscar Levant in it. I don’t think I’ve fully expounded my love for him in this blog, but just you wait. That day will come.

Oscar Levant in “Humoresque”
My favorite neurotic: I love you, Oscar Levant!

Links: The “Films of Joan Crawford” site has a page on Torch Song here, while “Joan Crawford Best” has reviews, lobby cards and posters over here.

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The movie poster for “Viva Las Vegas” (1964)I’m not a big fan of Elvis’ movies–but my father is. In fact, he’s such a fan, he has dvd’s of almost every movie Elvis has made (with the exception of Loving You, since that one is out of print) so by proxy, I now know the complete Elvis filmography and the songs that open each movie. Perhaps one day, I’ll wind up on a game show and put this knowledge to good use but for now, I’ll just write about it here.

The only Elvis movie I’ve seen in it’s entirety is Viva Las Vegas (1964), which is probably the most popular of all his films. It co-stars Ann-Margret, who at the time was being labeled as “The Female Elvis” since she not only exuded sex appeal, but could sing as well. To be honest, watching her numbers during Viva Las Vegas is somewhat painful. Her contest performance reminds me of something out of an aerobics video, but then I’m not a guy who would probably enjoy watching Ann-Margret jump around in a skimpy leotard. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’d enjoy watching Elvis jump around in a skimpy leotard either.

The plot is pretty standard: Elvis is Lucky Jackson, a race car driver who heads to Las Vegas in order to compete in the city’s Grand Prix race. He meets swimming instructor, Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret), and falls in love with her. There’s also a rival for her affections named Count Elmo Mancini, but since it’s an Elvis movie, you know the Count isn’t going to get her, no matter how many twists and turns the movie takes. The ending kind of throws me off though–after the car race, what ever happened to the Count? I know his car crashed, but did he die? The wedding scene is kind of hastily thrown in as well, and the closing shot consists of the separate performances of Elvis and Ann-Margret’s numbers from the contest. It’s a very rushed ending. I would have liked to see them together, one more time–but you know, this is an Elvis movie and from what I know, this one had a pretty decent plot compared to the others (I’ve seen bits of Stay Away, Joe just for Joan Blondell and let me tell you, scrubbing the bathroom would have been preferable).

The highlight of the movie is, of course, the musical numbers. I never was a big fan of Elvis’ music, but since I wind up hearing so many of the songs from the movies now, I’ve come to really appreciate it. One of my favorite musicals numbers (and I should add here, one of my favorites ever) is the lively, “What’d I Say?”, which takes place on a huge roulette wheel. While Elvis’s rendition is fantastic, the choreography and energy of the other couples involved is top-notch. I particularly enjoy the part when the one couple keeps flipping each other over (at the 2:05 mark), as well as the closing section when everyone starts dancing around the wheel. It’s moments like this that makes you thankful for Cinemascope.

Throughout the film and during this number, the chemistry between Elvis and Ann-Margret is overwhelming. I can only imagine what it was like to be on the set at the time. It’s said that Elvis and Ann-Margret had a huge affair during the making of Viva Las Vegas, but in her autobiography, she stayed relatively quiet on the whole matter, only commenting that Elvis was her “soulmate.” I think that’s tremendously classy on her part.

The song “What’d I Say” was originally written by Ray Charles as was a result of an impromptu performance. Charles had to fill up extra time during one of his nightclub shows and working off a keyboard riff and drum beat, he began improvising on the spot. Despite objections from Atlantic Records, claiming that it was too risque (Charles said the call and response section of the song was about making love), “What’d I Say” was released in the summer of 1959 and became a huge hit.

In April of ’64, Elvis’s version of “What’d I Say” was released as the b-side to “Viva Las Vegas”, but wound up doing better on the charts. “Viva Las Vegas” peaked at Number 29, while “What’d I Say” did eight slots better, making its highest showing at Number 21. It’s funny to think that “Viva Las Vegas” wasn’t a top ten hit back then, since now it’s one of his best known songs. It’s even butchered in one of those klassy Viagra commercials, which makes me cringe every time I see it on tv.

Still, “What’d I Say?” a fun song to listen to and I can’t help but do that little shaking move that Elvis and Ann-Margret do throughout the number when it pops up on my iPod. I mean, how can you not? If this song doesn’t make you want to shake it, you might be dead.

Download: “What’d I Say?” by Elvis Presley (2.8 MB) – Do not direct-link download. A new page will open when you click on the link and then download it from there.

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If you can believe it, there was once a time when I disliked musicals. I’m crazy about them now, but back when I first started watching classics, I just didn’t get the point. Yeah, dancing and singing, big whoop. I say this with a bit of shame now, but it’s the truth. I just didn’t like them–or I didn’t allow myself to like them. A closed-minded film addict is the worst thing ever.

The movie poster for “How to Succeed…”So it was always a bit odd that one of my favorite movies was How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (1967). It’s airing Saturday, March 8 at 10:15 pm on TCM as part of their “How to Climb the Corporate Ladder” nightly theme. I fell in love with it from the second I saw it. How to Succeed… (as it will be written throughout) is one of those films that doesn’t take itself too seriously and I’ve always recommended it to people as “a musical for people who don’t like musicals.” It has a very “modern” feel to it unlike the MGM spectaculars from the 40’s and 50’s or the Rodgers and Hammerstein epics. How to Succeed… is a satire of the business world, in which lowly window-washer J. Pierpont Finch amusingly schemes himself into a top level executive position, all thanks to a little paperback book he buys at the beginning of the film.

Finch reads the book for the first time

Since How to Succeed… started as an actual book, it’s transition to one of the most successful Broadway plays of all time is something of a miracle. Written by Shepherd Mead (an advertising executive at Benton and Bowels), How to Succeed… was a satire of the ups and downs of the 1950’s business world in the form of a self-help manual. The book proved to be so popular that the writing team of Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert bought the rights to it and adapted it for the theater. When it went unproduced for the next five years, they brought it to the attention of successful writer/director of many Broadway hits, Abe Burrows and composer Frank Loesser and the rest is history.

Robert Morse and Rudy ValleeFrom the start, Burrows and Loesser had Robert Morse in mind for the role of J. Pierpont Finch. Morse’s first notable role in both Broadway and Hollywood, was in The Matchmaker, where he played the role of Barnaby Tucker. It was on the opening night of another Broadway play, Take Me Along (1959, with Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidegon) that Burrows and Loesser sent Morse a telegram saying, “Have a good time. But in two years, when you get out of that show, we’re doing How to Succeed… and you’re playing Finch.” Morse was thrilled with the news. For the part of World Wide Wicket company president, J.B. Biggley, Burrows and Loesser originally sought the British comedian, Terry-Thomas, but when negotiations fell through, Rudy Vallee was cast instead. This was to be his first Broadway performance in 26 years, when he last appeared in George White’s Scandals of 1935. Charles Nelson Riley was to play Finch’s nemesis, Bud Frump, while Bonnie Scott was cast as Rosemary, the love interest.

A Playbill from the Broadway runThe cover of Newsweek from November 27, 1961Robert Morse with other Tony award winners
From left to right: the 1961 Playbill for How to Succeed…, Making the Cover of Newsweek and Robert Morse with other Tony award winners

Opening on October 14, 1961, the first Broadway performance of How to Succeed… was met with rave reviews. The cast was top-notch and critics were praising it’s smartly written script, catchy songs and exciting dance numbers choreographed by Bob Fosse. It became one of Broadway’s most successful shows, winning seven Tony awards — Best Musical, Best Author, Best Composer, Best Actor for Morse, Best Supporting Actor for Reilly, Best Direction, Best Conductor and Best Producer — and the prestigious 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s quite a feat for a show that went unnoticed for five years! When it finally closed, How to Succeed had racked up 1,417 performances and became the fifth longest running musical of all time.

The cast of “How to Succeed…”

As with all successful Broadway productions, a movie version was inevitable. Of course there were some major cast changes. Since Michele Lee had taken over the part of Rosemary on Broadway, she was cast in the film version instead of Bonnie Scott. Taking the place of Charles Nelson Riley was Anthony “Scooter” Teague as Bud Frump, while Maureen Arthur, who had played sexy secretary Hedy LaRue on the road, would also appear in the movie. Otherwise Morse, Vallee, Sammy Smith (as Wally Womper) and Ruth Kobart (as Biggley’s secretary who has a soft spot for Finch) all reprised their roles for the 1967 film version. And If you happen to be a die-hard Monkees fan like myself, keep an eye out for Carol Worthington as the gawky secretary, Lucille Krumholtz. Worthington had just appeared as a tough biker chick on one of my favorite episodes, “The Wild Monkees”, that same year.

From the “I Believe In You” numberNot only were there cast changes, but some of the songs were dropped as well. All of Rosemary’s songs–“Paris Original”, “Cinderella Darling” and “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm”– were cut from the film. Instead, Rosemary sings “I Believe In You” to Finch, while in the Broadway version, Finch sings this song to himself in a mirror. Also deleted from the print was the musical number, “Coffee Break”, since it’s footage was deemed unusable. Some stills do exist, but it explains why there’s an abrupt cut right after the arrival of the coffee cart was announced.

A still from the deleted “Coffee Break” numberA still from the deleted “Coffee Break” number
Two stills from the deleted “Coffee Break” number

I love that How to Succeed… is really a product of the late 60’s. The sets are brightly colored, almost garish in their use of bold, strong colors. While David Swift did a wonderful job in both directing and adapting the film for the big screen, what I really love about How to Succeed… are the musical numbers, particularly the hilariously saucy, “A Secretary is Not a Toy”. Although another choreographer was used for the movie, Bob Fosse’s original style resonates throughout.

From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”
From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”
Scenes from number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”

In “A Secretary is Not a Toy”, the clicking keys of a typewriter are used as a form of percussion, while the shuffling sound of shoes and numerous finger-snaps also add to the mix. The dancers move in a decidedly modern style, shuffling back and forth, shaking their hips and wiggling their heads. More than anything else, it draws from the world of jazz. “A Secretary is Not a Toy” also boasts one of the best lyrics ever: “Her pad is to write in and not spend the night in!” How can you not love a song that says that?

The panned version - UGH!From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”
To pan or not to pan: the answer is “NO!”

The final moments of “A Secretary is Not a Toy” also has one of the most unique set-ups–the dancers come into the picture from opposite ends of the screen. Because of this, it’s essential to watch How to Succeed… in it’s original letterbox format. I once saw this movie on the Flix channel in the panned-and-scanned version and nearly had a coronary. During this number, you see nothing but a completely empty space for at least ten seconds while waiting for the dancers to enter the picture! It’s infuriating to see the movie butchered like that. I’m getting angry just thinking about it!

From the “Brotherhood of Man” finale numberAnother musical highlight is the rousing finale number, “The Brotherhood of Man”. This really shows my age, but I first came to know it from an episode of “The Drew Carey Show “(remember how they used to do musical numbers?). I had no idea that “The Brotherhood of Man” was from a Broadway production, so I was more than surprised to see it in How to Succeed… Anyway, it’s the first song that I ever really loved from a musical–so much, that I went and bought the soundtrack after seeing the movie. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve lip-synched Ruth Kobart’s part in the mirror while getting ready for the day. Really. Now stop laughing at me.

Download: “The Brotherhood of Man” sung by the Original Broadway Cast – 5.6 MB (link will open in new window and download from there)

1967 Smirnoff Vodka Tie-in Ad for the Movie ReleaseEven with all the fantastic musical numbers, the real the star of How to Succeed… is Robert Morse as J. Pierpont Finch. By 1967, Morse had already racked up numerous movie credits (the biggest one at that point was the 1965 black comedy, The Loved One), so he definitely had screen experience. I’m so glad the powers that be allowed him to recreate the role of Finch on the big screen. So many times you hear that the original Broadway actor was passed over, because they weren’t commercially viable enough for the film version. Thank goodness they had enough sense, because Morse is absolutely perfect as Finch. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part. He’s mischievous and sly in his slightly underhanded dealings, but still possesses a lovable boyishness that makes you root for him–especially when it comes at the expense of Bud Frump. One of my favorite scenes is when Finch rushes to work on a Saturday morning, runs to his desk, begins dumping cigarette butts, empty styrofoam coffee cups and other pieces of assorted trash all over it, and then collapses as though he had just pulled an all-nighter. Just as he finishes this routine, J.B. Biggley walks in, sees the “exhausted” Finch at his desk and compliments him on what a hard worker he is. Not only is it hilarious, but it also leads to the “Groundhogs!” duet in which Finch pretends to have attended the same alma matter that Biggley did.

Groundhogs!

I love you.I also love the sweet relationship between Finch and Rosemary. In her first film appearance, Michele Lee is as cute as a button and she’s a perfect match for Robert Morse. Rosemary’s love for Finch is earnest. I love when she sings, “I Believe In You” to him. The look in her eyes and the expression on her face says everything that the lyrics don’t. She *does* believe in him. And despite a mishap between Finch and Rosemary in the middle of the film, one of the sweetest moments occurs when he realizes that he loves Rosemary just as much as she loves him–and of all things, after being kissed by Hedy LaRue!

As I’ve gotten deeper into the classics, I’ve found other musicals to love and oddly enough, they’re the ones that I detested so much at the beginning: The Band Wagon, An American In Paris, Ziegfeld Follies, Top Hat, The Barkleys of Broadway and the one that really started it all, On the Town. I’ve come to love the MGM musicals that I once found so corny and silly. Rodgers and Hammerstein, not so much. But I still adore How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Yes, it’s a little kitschy at times, but it’s got a great story, strong acting and songs that will stick in your head for days. It’s a very well-made film and even though the business world has certainly changed some forty years later, How to Succeed… still stands the test of time. It’s great entertainment. Even if you’re a person who doesn’t enjoy musicals, I suggest you give How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying a chance. It’s different than any other classic musical out there. And who knows–like myself, it may start you down the slippery, addictive slope of watching and enjoying more musicals. And you know what? That’s not such a bad thing after all.

Note: A lot of the information presented here is from the liner notes and interview tracks off the Deluxe Collector’s Edition CD of How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. It’s a great listen.

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Okay, so the title is a little misleading because in every interview I’ve read or seen, people have nothing but glowing words for Fred Astaire. He was a gentleman through and through. The worst thing I’ve ever read was that he was a…perfectionist.

I figured now would be a good time to profess my love for Mr. Astaire since he’s one of the stars in Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach–which is showing February 27 at 8 pm on TCM. Nuclear war has broken out across the nation and Australia is one of the last places where people are still alive. Before we go any further, I should warn you that it’s an extremely depressing movie. It’s not good to watch if:

1. You’ve had a terrible day. You’ve lost your job. Your dog or cat died.
2. You are a woman who’s currently going through PMS.
3. You spent the entire afternoon searching through myspace, checking out your old classmates profiles, only to find out that a good majority of them are all married with kids and now you realize that yes, you are going to die alone. If you were cast in a classic movie, you’d be the “Spinster.” And since you’re terrified of cats, even the title of ‘crazy cat lady’ is now out of your future.

Ahem.

Not only is On the Beach depressing, but it’s a bit draggy at times. It’s a good solid story though, which should be more than enough reason to tune in and at least give it a chance. The other members of the cast include Gregory Peck as Towers, the commander of the USS Sawfish and Ava Gardner as Moria Davidson, who (of course) fall in love with each other. Rounding out the cast are Donna Anderson and Anthony Perkins (when he could still be viewed as a sweet and innocent actor instead of a nutjob) as a young married couple.

And of course there’s Fred Astaire. Legend has it that Astaire got the part of the scientist, Julian Osborne, because of Mrs. Stanley Kramer. She happened to be watching an Astaire movie on the late show and knowing her husband’s search for an actor to play the scientist, she turned to him, pointed at the tv and said, “There’s your scientist.” Kramer was dismissive at first, but he soon realized that she was right. When they met, Astaire was curious to why he was chosen for such a role. Kramer answered, “You’ve got something most actors don’t have, Fred. Integrity. It shines out of you.” And Astaire accepted the part.

Fred, Ava and Greg
In a wink-wink moment, Ava coyly remarks: “I could sing and dance.” 

It’s seems like a bit of stunt casting at first. Fred Astaire in a non-dancing role! But he’s absolutely wonderful. It’s because of this movie that I became a huge Fred Astaire fan. Kramer was right on the money when he said Astaire had “integrity.” That’s why his characterization of Julian is so terrific. We first see him at a local get together, where he’s downing drinks and feverently discussing the nuclear war with another partygoer. Since he’s a scientist, he feels that people are blaming him for the mass destruction and ends his drunken rant by concluding that everyone is doomed. He’s not exactly the kind of guy you want at your party, but Astaire’s acting ability is a revelation. Anyone thinking that he was strictly a song-and-dance man is proven wrong. There’s none of that lighthearted joy that’s so prevalent in his musicals. Something is seriously bothering Julian Osborne. There’s a bitterness that he’s trying to mask by consuming alcohol. You want to know what’s going on his mind and why he’s like this.

Another pivotal scene for Astaire takes place later in the film. By this time, Cmdr. Towns has asked Julian aboard the USS Sawfish, hoping to find out who (or what) is sending a mysterious morse code signal that’s based in San Francisco. When all the crew members are sitting around and joking with one another, one of them asks Julian who started the war, to which he sarcastically answers, “Albert Einstein.” He then delivers a guilt-ridden monologue which explains where his mind is at: “Everyone had a bomb, an atomic bomb, a counterbomb, countercounterbombs–the devices outgrew us, we couldn’t control them. I know. I helped build them. God help me.”

Serious Fred Astaire
A close up on Astaire’s face during his monologue 

During this scene, Kramer closes in on Astaire’s face, allowing us not only to hear the pain in his voice, but see his tortured look as well. And as you watch him, you forget that he ever danced with Ginger, Rita and Cyd. You believe that these thoughts, these terrible guilty thoughts have been weighing on his shoulders for the longest time and after seeing San Francisco, only now is he able to get them out. It’s not really his fault. It’s the fault of the people who chose to use these weapons so carelessly, but Julian doesn’t care. He feels that he’s specifically to blame.

What’s great about Astaire’s delivery of the lines is that he doesn’t over act. Each word is carefully thought out and spoken with such heartfelt sincerity, you see him as Julian Osborne, not Fred Astaire acting as Julian Osborne. He doesn’t just step into the role, he becomes it. And that’s what makes his performance so fresh and interesting. He even holds his own with Peck–and even, dare I say it, surpasses him (And I LOVE Gregory Peck, so this isn’t a putdown).

I always wondered if Astaire’s casting opened the door for Gene Kelly in Inherit the Wind, which was released the following year. To be honest, I prefer Inherit the Wind to On the Beach, but competing with giants like Spencer Tracy and Fredric March–well, Kelly is outshined. He’s good though, but not as good as Astaire. I know it’s said that comparing them is like comparing Apples and Oranges, but you can trace their acting styles right to their dancing styles. While Kelly was creative in so many wonderful ways, I feel Astaire managed to convey more emotion through his dances. The draw of Kelly’s routines is how unique they’re set up, whereas Astaire conveyed creativity through the grace and fluidity of his movements. That’s why he puts in an outstanding performance in On the Beach. His sensitivity for his character shines through. He’s in touch with Julian’s inner emotions. While it’s mentioned earlier in the movie that he once had a relationship with Moria (Gardner), he left her behind and forged ahead with his work. Now he regrets it. There’s also another scene where Julian and Peter Holmes (Perkins) have a conversation. Holmes is bemoaning his life, worrying about his wife and children and the cyanide pills that he left her with. After giving him a cool look, Julian comments that he feels so sorry for him, being saddled down with a family. He’s a rather sarcastic fellow, but you can understand why–he’s alone in this world. Holmes has his wife and children. Moria and Towers managed to connect amidst all this sadness. And Julian is alone. He gave everything up for a career that’s now to blame for the destruction of the world. It’s another moment into the dark regrets of Julian’s mind that Astaire allows us to see.

I’m surprised that Astaire wasn’t Oscar nominated for this, especially since the Academy loves when actors play against type. Perhaps they couldn’t see past his musical past. He was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor, but lost out to Stephen Boyd in Ben-Hur.

astaire_ryan1.jpgIn the final words of his autobiography, Steps in Time, Astaire mentions that he never used dancing as a way to express himself. He just did it. Maybe he didn’t dance to personally express himself, but he did a hell of a job expressing his character’s emotions. And no better example of this is in the little-known, 1943 RKO musical, The Sky’s the Limit. It’s an odd movie. Not only are there some plot holes, but there’s the casting of RKO contractee Robert Ryan as one of Astaire’s Flying Tiger buddies as well as funnyman, Robert Benchley. And if that weren’t enough, both Astaire and his co-star Joan Leslie (fresh off her success in Yankee Doodle Dandy) keep their real first names: Fred and Joan. It’s an odd choice, especially when Hollywood was so keen on creating illusions.

Fred Astaire and Joan LeslieThe premise of The Sky’s the Limit could have been lifted from any old Astaire/Rogers script: Fred is a decorated Flying Tiger who’s about to go on leave, but instead of enjoying it, he’s forced to make personal appearances. Fed up with the situation, Fred rebels, jumps off a train and heads to a New York nightclub where he meets and instantly falls in love with Joan. He never tells her that he’s part of the Air Force. Instead, he allows her to think he’s a bum who can’t keep a job. There are some scenes where you could say he’s stalking her (moving into her apartment building about an hour after he meets her, making her breakfast, visiting her in the darkroom at work), but since it’s the 40’s, that behavior is fine. It’s a little annoying, but it’s sweet, I guess. I’d have a guy following me around like that and you bet I’d be calling the cops or arming myself with a gun.

But what’s really weird is that there’s no reason given to why Fred doesn’t tell Joan who he really is. “Because the script says so!” isn’t an adequate response. Is it because he wants Joan to love him for who is he and not as a celebrated war hero? Or perhaps he doesn’t want become too attached, knowing there’s a chance he may die in the war. Or is Fred just nuts? It’s never discussed. Were the bosses at RKO afraid to inject too much psychological drama into a Fred Astaire movie, thinking that moviegoers wouldn’t want to see him grappling with dark thoughts? Even Astaire knew there were weak points in the movie, yet it wasn’t in his nature to argue and fight with studio executives or directors. He listened to them. Except for an incident on The Band Wagon (where tensions ran high throughout the entire cast), Astaire was a total professional with the cast and crews he worked with. When you read about all the spoiled brats in today’s Hollywood, you have to love a story like that.

Despite these complaints, The Sky’s the Limit is one of my favorite Astaire movies. It’s fun to watch Fred and Joan sing and dance together. Robert Ryan gives the movie a bit of an edge, especially in the scene where he forces Fred to dance on a table, while he pounds on it. It’s a strange, yet hilarious moment, almost as though it were taken out of a western.

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Images from the “Snake Dance” scene

But the real kicker of the film comes near the end when Fred thinks he lost Joan forever. In the number, “One For My Baby”, Fred sits at a bar and drinks and then suddenly begins a routine where he winds up kicking glasses in anger. He combines physical violence with an edgy dance routine and it works. It’s nothing like his comical drunk dance routine in Holiday Inn. No, he wants us to know that he’s disgusted with himself for losing a woman he’s just fallen head over heels in love with and if that weren’t bad enough, he has to go back and fight in the war. He may die and never even see her again. It’s a serious plot turn in a lighthearted movie. There was never a routine like this in an Astaire/Rogers vehicle because his characters never had to express such extreme anger or depression. Sure, Ginger might have rejected him, but it was always done with a knowing wink. Here Astaire is so angry, he caps off the number by hurling a bar stool through a mirror. He’s dejected, broken-down and there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s also interesting to note that Astaire choreographed his own routines in The Sky’s the Limit, so this number was all his own idea. One wonders how other future dance numbers would have been if Astaire choreographed them by himself.

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Images from the “One For My Baby” Number. In order: Fred drinks, dance, kicks glasses and then hurls the barstool into the mirrored backdrop. Hooliganism! 

As I read this over, I’m still awed by the fact that it took a movie like On the Beach to make me realize that Fred Astaire was a great actor and entertainer. I used to think “He just a dancer!” Thankfully, he put in that splendid performance in On the Beach and managed to change my opinion. Yes, he dances, but that was his method of acting and how he conveyed emotion to the audience. Whenever I watch him now, I can’t take my eyes off the screen and when he finishes a number, I find myself smiling like crazy. He’s just so good.

It’s a shame that Astaire was never cast in a role like Julian Osborne again. I think he could have had a great career as a serious actor, but deep down his number one love was dancing. Even as styles changed, Astaire stayed true to himself and the public continued to adore him. I think a lot of it has to do with that integrity Stanley Kramer was talking about. It’s one thing to just go through the motions of acting, but when you put your heart and soul into it, everyone knows. And that’s what Astaire did. He loved what he did and we loved him for it.

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