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Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

TOP HAT (1935)

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made ten films together between 1933 and 1939. Many of these were directed by Mark Sandrich – but who cares? I don’t mean to belittle Sandrich, who was a talented practitioner of the movie musical, but it was Astaire and Rogers they came to see. Probably the most adored screen couple during the depression years, audiences flocked to their films in search of blithe escapist fare. And they found it. The quest was most delightfully fulfilled with TOP HAT (1935). It is certainly the most typical of the team’s collaborations, with its mistaken identity plot, witty rejoinders, splendid supporting cast, endlessly hummable Irving Berlin songs and, oh…those lighter than air dance numbers – the dances that have always served as a metaphor for the swooning emotion of romance.

The screwball plot of TOP HAT has Jerry Travers (Astaire), an American song and dance man in London for a stage performance, falling head over heels for Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers), a globe-trotting mannequin. But through a series of wild coincidences, she comes to believe he is married to her friend Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick). Madge’s husband Horace (Edward Everett Horton) is the producer of the show in which Jerry is starring, further complicating matters.

The power of dance to sooth the soul is playfully depicted right from the start. Visiting Horace in his hotel room, Jerry performs an elegant tap dance to Hermes Pan’s choreography, waking Dale, who is staying in the suite below. She hurries upstairs to confront Jerry, who immediately falls in love. When she leaves, Jerry spreads sand from a cigarette but receptacle onto the floor to quiet the sounds of his taps. Dale, Horace and eventually, Jerry all fall asleep to the soft shoe as the dancer becomes a literal Sandman. But Jerry’s taps are also lethal weapons as in the “Top Hat, White tie and Tails” number. Here he shoots at the all male chorus line with his cain, while his taps double as the sound of the gun shots. Dance also has the ability to bring people together in a way unlike any other art, as is demonstrated by the literal crossing of bridges in the Venetian set dances.

But the relationship is off to a stormy start in London as they dance together for the first time under the protection of a gezebo roof, during a torrential downpour. “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” may be the title of the song to which they frolic, but clouds on back drops and rear projections follow them throughout the film, thanks to the astute art direction by Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark.

But even with Dale’s misconceptions about Jerry’s true identity, everyone else disappears (including cast members and extras) during the couples “Cheek To Cheek” moment. They are the only two people left on earth, it seems, as it often does when young couples fall in love.

Along with the major relationships depicted in TOP HAT, there are several other couplings of note. First is that of Horace and his valet Bates (Eric Blore). The comedic interactions are highly effective and the performances involved are top-notch. But there is something else – something that could only be hinted at in 1935. There seems to be a decidedly gay angle, here. This is perhaps because Edward Everett Horton and Blore play their scenes to persnickety, perfection. They seem at times to be a bickering married couple and Jerry even remarks “I hate to interfere in these little family squabbles.” Another interesting pairing (and one with still more gay undertones) is that of Horace and Jerry. When the two follow Dale to Venice (under the guise of meeting up with Madge) they end up, through complications, sharing the bridal suite. After the men are asked to move out of the room to make way for an actual married couple (see below) Jerry batts his eyelashes and affects disappointment. “We’ve hardly settled in, have we angel?” he asks Horace. Lastly, there is the strange and seemingly contradictory relationship between Dale and Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes), her dress designer. They travel Europe together to promote his designs, and he is at once a strong male protector but also very effeminate. When he thinks her honor is at stake he proposes marriage, explaining “I’m rich, I’m pretty, and this Hardwick will leave you alone.” His classification of himself as “pretty” is yet another feminine trait revealed in a male character. At the film’s conclusion, when all is straightened out (pun quite definitely intended), Alberto kisses Horace passionately as Madge remarks “Go right ahead boys! Don’t mind me!” All these couplings make for delighted speculation on the part of viewers watching the film with the twenty/twenty hindsight of a twenty-first century perspective.

A final note about Fred Astaire and the man who would eventually succeed him as Hollywood’s king of dance: Gene Kelly. The star and co-director of ON THE TOWN (1949), SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) and other classic musicals provided in several ways a counterpoint to Astaire. Kelly was a great dancer – athletic but perhaps a bit mechanical. Astaire brought dance to the level of “poetry in motion” as the cliché goes – but the cliché was invented for him. He seemed to walk on air, to use another well turned phrase. We are impressed with Kelly’s precision and prowess on the dance floor but Astaire virtually carries us to the clouds – too enraptured to be impressed by mere technique. The differences between them can best be summed up by paraphrasing critic Andrew Sarris’ famous dissection of the personas of Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin. The difference between Kelly and Astaire is the difference between poise and poetry, between man as machine and man as angel.

CREDITS: Produced by Pandro S. Berman. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Written by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott. Story by Dwight Taylor. Photographed by David Abel and Vernon Walker. Edited by William Hamilton. Art Direction by Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark. choreographed by Hermes Pan. Songs by Irving Berlin. WITH: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick, Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes.

July 31, 2013 Posted by | 1930's cinema, classic cinema, film comedy, film directors, musicals | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FANTASIA 2000

Walt Disney always wanted to bring classical music to the masses.  His goal was to marry it with powerful visuals, creating a synthesis of movies and music.  In 1940 he did just that with the ambitious production FANTASIA.  The combination of abstract filmmaking early in the movie with a more linear approach in its later reels, was well received by audiences and critics – eventually.  Many at first, weren’t sure what to make of this unique film.  However, with repeated re-issues, viewers caught on, and Disney won new respect from cineastes.  But he wasn’t satisfied.  From the beginning he intended for FANTASIA to be periodically updated and re-released with new material as well as select sequences from the original.  His ultimate dream was finally realized in 1999 with FANTASIA 2000.  None too successfully, in the minds of many, who saw it as a pale imitation.  I – for the most part – disagree, as will be explained in the following. 

With James Levine and the Chicago Symphony filling in for Leopold Stokowski, the first piece presented is Beethoven’s fifth symphony.  As in the first film’s opening with “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, this is an abstract visual feast.  Here geometric shapes take flight and eventually come to gether to form a flock of butterflies advancing toward sunbeams in the sky.  This brief excerpt is introduced using the same film clip that was utilized in the first film to present the Bach inspired piece.  The connection is obvious, as both are inspired by the designs of avant-garde filmmaker and painter Oskar Fischinger.  In fact, Fischinger was hired by Disney to design the “Toccata” segment though Uncle Walt was concerned that the visuals were too abstract.  As a result, they were adapted by Disney artists into a format that the German master renounced. 

With the Beethoven segment, we see themes and concepts that will run throughout the film, in less absolute forms.  The butterflies in particular and the hand of nature in general, as well as the shafts of light that break through the clouds, may represent a yearning of the spirit to roam and explore freely – the higher aspirations of the soul. 

The next clip is introduced by comedian Steve Martin and violinist Itzhak Perlman – in retrospect a bad idea – as are the other celebrity appearances, many laced with unsuccessful humor.  The piece is “The Pines of Rome” by Respighi, and it features beautiful, dreamlike animation of whales frolicking among glaciers and the now required shafts of light peeking through the clouds.  The water imagery is also impressive, here as it is in the rest of the film.  Like the butterflies in the first segment, the whales take flight and make their pilgrimage to the sun and sky. 

Quincy Jones brings us a lyrical moment featuring Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.  The animation is based on the art of cartoonist Al Hirschfeld and tells the story of New Yorkers during the depression.  It also features a gravitation towards the light as it’s final shot – this time the white lights of broadway as a construction worker realizes his dream to become a famous musician.  Gershwin and Hirschfeld – two New york icons – are served nicely. 

Up next, Bette Midler introduces “Piano Concerto # 2” by Shostakovich, and a computer animated version of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”.  A tiny soldier courts a ballerina figurine and is thwarted my a menacing Jack in the box.  The soldier finds himself cast into a sewer, with still more water imagery.  He makes his way to the ocean (yet more!) where he is eaten by a fish which is caught by a fisherman who finds him inside.  The sequence ends with the soldier reunited with his ballerina love, a shaft of light shinning down on them.  Even fragile toys and figurines have yearnings. 

James Earl Jones gives us Camille Saint-Saens “Carnival of the Animals” and a bauble featuring flamingos horsing around with a yo-yo, creating havoc.  It is without doubt the films lightest vignette – a celebration of pure silliness – but with the requisite shafts of light and water imagery.  Longing, after all, can be a joyous experience. 

Magicians Penn and Teller introduce the films holdover from the original FANTASIA – Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and its famous setpiece of Mickey Mouse (with the aid of bewitched broomsticks) inadvertently swamping the Sorcerer’s home with torrents of water.  Sunbeams are always peaking through the doors and windows and of course, there is that giant butterfly conjured in the Sorcerer’s smoke.  Thematically, this is an excellent choice for the new film, as well as being the best sequence in both the original and sequel. 

You may not be expecting animals marching onto Noah’s ark as James Levine introduces Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” – but that is exactly what you get.  This charming episode combines all the previous imagery of the film – water, shafts of light, animals – into a strangely moving story of Donald Duck coordinating the boarding of the animals for Noah.  Donald fears his beloved Daisy has been left behind, culminating in a touching reunion. 

As life, death and renewal are the themes of Noah’s ark, these metaphysical events are also the main thrust of the film’s final segment: Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” introduced by Angela Lansbury.  Spiritual longing and rebirth are once again represented through  symbolism – especially an imposing Elk, which breathes on an icicle at winter’s end, causing it to melt, droplets of water falling to the ground.  The seminal drops give birth to a lovely maiden who further replenishes the earth only to face off against an erupting volcano – the “firebird”  of the title.  Once again the landscape is devastated, leading to rebirth. 

The astounding power of nature is the overall message of FANTASIA 2000.  If the original film celebrated christianity (take note of the final “Ave Maria” segment) this newer work exalts mother nature – unabashedly so.  I will leave it to the reader to decide the merits of this choice by the filmmakers.  But it can safely be said that this is a film for a new era.  While the establishment does not care for its artistic aspects, they certainly approve of the new religion.  Things have changed since Walt’s day.    

CREDITS: Produced by Donald W. Ernst.  Executive Producer: Roy Disney.  Directors (in order of their segments): Pixote Hunt. Hendel Butoy. Eric Goldberg. Hendel Butoy. Eric Goldberg. James Algar. Francis Glebas. Gaetan Brizzi, Paul Brizzi.  Music Director: James Levine.  Production Design by Pixote Hunt.  Hosts: Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Penn and Teller, James Levine, Angela Lansbury.                

April 9, 2013 Posted by | ANIMATION FILMS, classic cinema, musicals | , , , , , | Leave a comment