Musical Cheers
by Les Phillips

42nd Street
(1932, directed by someone named Lloyd Bacon, but really directed by Busby Berkeley).

This film is a sort of American primitive. The central narrative is filmed stagily, with tacky, ordinary sets; direction that would fit nicely in a nineteenth century melodrama; silly performances in most of the supporting roles. The story is one of the ur-narratives of the American musical -- can Peggy Sawyer, only recently arrived in the chorus, go out there on stage in the lead role "and come back a star"? I expect that in the contemporary stage version of this musical, the quality of the production values and acting can make that myth compelling, but it wasn't at all compelling to me.

Ruby Keeler, as Peggy, has the tough job of being naive and uncertain, yet convincing us that she has the determination and fire to get the job done. She isn't convincing. But Warner Baxter, as the director seeking one last triumph, is entirely convincing. He projects an egotism that is strong, solid, natural -- and almost dangerously fanatical.

Really, you see this film for the Busby Berkeley production numbers. They are astounding. When the camera does an aerial view of the imaginative, vigorous, but utterly "designed" and precise dance movements, you realize that Berkeley has a thing or two in common with Leni Riefenstahl. (Transplant Riefenstahl just a little, and imagine her directing musicals . . .)

Girl Crazy
(1943, directed by Norman Taurog, who shares the official credit with Busby Berkeley).

This is the last, or next to last, Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musical. The plot is ridiculous and disposable: Young Manhattan fratboy playboy is disciplined by his moneybags father, who sends him off to something in Wyoming that appears to be a cross between a state college and a dude ranch. He immediately hits on the college president's granddaughter, played by Garland. She thinks he's disgusting. But only at first . . .

At 23, Rooney is utterly charismatic; his dancing in the opening number, set in a Manhattan nightclub, projects sex, ease, utter confidence, agility, and a hint of decadence. In other words, huge star quality. This is a Gershwin musical, with the songs mostly cribbed from other Gershwin musicals, and with a crucial exception, they're done very well. Garland's voice is mature, and she seems more at ease with herself than in any of her other adult performances. A version of "You're The Top," with Rooney slinking and sliding flirtatiously on the hood of Garland's jeep, is particularly clever and engaging.

Then we get to the closing production number, one of the strangest you'll ever see, and completely miscalculated. You have to suspend disbelief and agree that, yes, someone really would bring the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra (led by the real Tommy Dorsey and specifically identified as such) out to remotest Wyoming. You also have to believe that it's a good idea for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra to play "I Got Rhythm," just for Mickey and Judy, and for forty or so cowboys to run around in circles singing "I Got Rhythm," and shooting their guns in the air a lot. Nancy Walker has a small comic-relief role as the Ugly Girl. Gee, look at me, laugh, I'm ugly. Ecch. But she's very good. The film is a year before her stage breakthrough in On the Town.

Silk Stockings (1957, directed by Rouben Mamoulian).

A musical remake of Ninotchka, the Ernst Lubitsch comedy in which Greta Garbo played a stiff, no-nonsense Russian commissar who comes to Paris to be seduced by capitalism and Melvyn Douglas. I remember wondering what Ninotchka ever saw in Melvyn Douglas, but I bet she'd have fallen for Fred Astaire, and she certainly couldn't dance like Cyd Charisse. Cyd Charisse (aka Tula Ellice Finklea, from Amarillo, Texas) also is neither the actress nor the presence that Garbo was, and that puts it pretty generously.

The Cold War spin on the old story doesn't improve it. The attractions of Paris that are supposed to charm Ninotchka, apart from Mr. Astaire himself, appear to be caviar, champagne, nightclubs, and lingerie -- in other words, pretty much exactly what Communist propaganda used to say that capitalism was all about. (The film shows us nothing of the actual Paris except hotel rooms.) The popeyed Soviet diplomats appear to be most fond of Paris because they can get very drunk there; are they the only people who ever left Russia because they couldn't get enough alcohol at home? (Peter Lorre plays one of these dudes -- and he's trying to be low-key, but the roles are unavoidably low-comic and over the top.)

But the singing and dancing are wonderful. It's a Cole Porter musical, again with a lot of cribbed songs. Astaire and Charisse do an elegant little dance to "All Of You." And Charisse, by herself, does a brilliant number, an ode to the silk stocking she's just discovered -- it and this dance are the real symbols of luxury in this film. Astaire was 58 when the picture was made, but he's eternal; the dancing feels like he was born yesterday. Janis Paige is also very good as a bimbo star actress. Except for Finian's Rainbow a decade later (did he dance much in that?) this was Astaire's last musical.

Star! (1968, directed by Robert Wise)

A film biography of Gertrude Lawrence, starring Julie Andrews, and released at precisely the wrong moment in film history. In the late sixties, the big studios, desperately trying to bail themselves out of a financial and cultural bankruptcy, competed with each other to produce the next My Fair Lady, the next The Sound of Music. The zeitgeist and its new critics (Kael et al.) did not want the next new Broadway musical adaptation. I haven't seen Sweet Charity, Finian's Rainbow (with Astaire cast opposite Petula Clark!), Paint Your Wagon (featuring the song stylings of Lee Marvin), On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, or the original musical Lost Horizon (starring the well known musical talents Peter Finch and Liv Ullmann). Except for On a Clear Day (directed by Vincente Minnelli), these and other musicals of the epoch are apparently just dead solid awful. Whether they're bad or good, they lost piles of money. Children who had been dragged to Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music were dropping acid. They did not want to see Julie Andrews in a musical. About dead people. (Streisand was an exception to the rule, at least in Funny Girl. Barbra had The Force. Come back to the five and dime, Barbra.)

But Star! is worth your time, mostly for Andrews, whose voice is perfect. Gertrude Lawrence starred in lots of classic musicals, and sang some of the best of Coward, Porter, and Gershwin, so we get to hear the perfect voice sing a pretty perfect group of songs. As a bonus, we hear a good deal of Kurt Weill's Lady in the Dark, including the famous dream sequence and the wonderful "Story of Jenny" ("In twenty-seven languages/she couldn't say no."). I think the only song written for this musical is the title song. It's not the kind of book musical where songs are shoehorned into a plot to tell you what's going on; you simply see Andrews/Lawrence rehearsing and performing. This is a first-rate musical performance -- I forgot the dancing -- stuck in a movie that nobody wanted to see.

As biography, Star! is not very enlightening, but it avoids being too offensive. Lawrence is too consumed by performing to get in touch with Reality, or to maintain a truly Meaningul Relationship with anyone except Noel Coward. This works OK as a story; it wouldn't be anyone's reason for coming to the film. In 1969 the studio made a desperate, pathetic, humiliating attempt to recoup some losses by re-releasing Star! in truncated form, as Those Were the Happy Times ("at popular prices!").

©2003 Les Phillips