Thursday, December 31, 2015

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS 1944

I don’t believe in perfection, but were someone to really press me to name what I consider to be the most perfect musical ever made, I wouldn’t hesitate a second before placing Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis at the top of any list. An unpretentious gem of a movie small in scale, meager of plot, modest in ambition, and blissfully devoid of any of those so-called “sure fire” elements associated with most major movie musicals; Meet Me in St. Louis is nevertheless a  nonstop, smile-from-ear-to-ear delight which features more moments of genuine magic than all eight Harry Potter movies, combined..
Judy Garland as Esther Smith
Margaret O'Brien as Tootie Smith
Lucille Bremer as Rose Smith
Meet Me in St. Louis is a nostalgically idealized little memory book of a musical chronicling a year in the life of a suburban family in turn-of- the-century St. Louis. Divided into a series of charming and delightfully idiosyncratic vignettes, each designated by a season of the year, Meet Me in St. Louis presents itself as slice-of-life Americana – circa 1904 – with nothing loftier on its mind than a desire to pay gentle tribute to the imperishable bonds of home and family.
What it ends up being is one of the few films I can recall which manages to strike a perfect balance between sentiment and sentimentality.

Setting a tone of lighthearted innocence and old-world charm that Minnelli captivatingly (not to mention, miraculously) manages to sustain throughout the film, Meet Me in St. Louis opens with an introduction to the members of the Smith household that’s ingenious in its economic conveyance of character  info and narrative function. There’s level-headed lady of the house, Anna (Mary Astor); no-nonsense housekeeper, Katie (Marjorie Main); college-bound only son, Alonzo “Lon” Jr (Henry H. Daniels); next-to-youngest daughter, Agnes (Joan Carroll); grandpa (Harry Devenport), a collector of hats and firearms; Esther (Garland), the romantic pragmatist ; eldest daughter, Rose (Lucille Bremer); precocious (and downright weird) youngest daughter, Tootie (O’Brien): and, last but not least, Alonzo, the quintessential father figure (Leon Ames).
You and I
Mary Astor as Anna Smith /  Leon Ames as Alonzo Smith
Director Vincente Minnelli, whose only third film this is, displays a remarkably sure hand with this opening sequence. For not only do we come away from it with a vividly distinct sense of each of the main characters, but the seamless manner in which the action and camerawork is interwoven with the impromptu singing/humming of the title tune is positively balletic. It’s a virtuoso bit of narrative filmmaking worthy of Kubrick or Hitchcock.

We accompany the Smith family throughout the year as they weather sundry domestic and romantic crises, the chief conflict, such as it is, being the zestful anticipation surrounding the opening of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair vs. the dispiriting news of the impending uprooting of the family to New York.
Boy Meets Girl
Tom Drake as John Truett / Henry J Daniels Jr. as Alonzo "Lon" Smith Jr
The uncluttered simplicity that is the screenplay by Irving Brecher & Fred F. Finklehoff, (the DVD commentary makes mention of the excising of a superfluous subplot) is based on the largely autobiographical stories of Sally Benson. Stories first serialized under the title, “5135 Kensington” in The New Yorker in 1941, expanded and novelized later in 1942 as “Meet Me in St Louis.”  
I’ve never read the novel, but as a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (on whose screenplay Benson was a contributor) Benson seems to have a disarmingly quirky eye when it comes to family. Meet Me in St. Louis is funnier than most films of its ilk, largely due to a great many wonderful throwaway comic lines and the characters being afforded humanizing traits like vanity (“It would’ve been nice to be a brunette.” “You should have been. Nothing could’ve stopped us. Think how we’d look going out together, you with your raven black hair and me with my auburn.”), self-seriousness(“I hate, loathe, despise and abominate money!” “You also spend it.”), precocity (“You’re nothing less than a murderer!  You might have killed dozens of people!” “Oh, Rose, you’re so stuck-up!”), and eccentricity (“The ice man saw a drunkard get shot last night and the blood squirted out three feet!” – That would be Tootie again).
All of this is tunefully buoyed by a lovely musical score comprised of period standards and originals songs, four of which are composed by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine. 
I've seen it a million times, but Judy singing the Oscar-nominated
  The Trolley Song is always such a thrill to watch
A treat for the eyes and ears, Meet Me in St. Louis never fails to win me over with its charm and heart, but I really get a kick out of its character-based comedy. And while many other films have tried to duplicate its formula (the rather dreadful Summer Holiday- 1948), they only wind up getting the material trappings right. Meet Me in St. Louis - from its talented cast and their inimitable chemistry, to the creative artists behind the scenes, to the degree of loving care lavished on this entire production by Vincente Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed (who co-wrote the lovely song "You and I" and voiced Leon Ames' voice) - is a film that remains in a class by itself.
Marjorie Main as Katie

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
From all this gushing praise you’d think Meet Me in St. Louis was a movie I’ve been in love with all my life. On the contrary, I saw the film in its entirety for the first time in 2007. My avoidance of Meet Me in St. Louis for so years stemmed from an assumption on my part that it was just another one of those aggressively quaint, synthetically folksy period musicals that tend to cause me to break out in hives (think The Music Man or Hello, Dolly!). Nothing wears me down faster than hardened show biz pros barnstorming their way through cloying depictions of homespun simplicity.

But of course, it’s within this very arena that most critics contend (and I agree) Vincent Minnelli scores his greatest triumph. In convincing the actors not to play down to the material, to treat the characters, dialog, and situations seriously, he infuses this gossamer-light fairy tale with genuine warmth of emotion. The result is a sincerely sweet and touching family movie devoid of the usual mawkishness sentimentality.
The entire "Long-Distance Phone Call" sequence is hilarious.
A favorite scene in a film comprised almost entirely of favorites
Considerable assist is given by the Oscar-nominated screenplay (Meet Me in St Louis was nominated for four, winning only a special juvenile Oscar from O'Brien)  which consistently keeps clichés at bay by subverting anticipated payoffs with unexpected twists. Every time a scene threatens to become too sentimental or hackneyed, some bit of business or dialog is introduced that wrests the proceedings back to something honest. This is especially true of the two youngest Smith girls, Agnes and Tootie; angelic of face but mischievous and possessed of extravagantly gruesome imaginations (Agnes, after being told [in jest] that her pet cat has been harmed: “Oh, if you killed her I’ll kill you! I’ll stab you to death in your sleep, then I’ll tie your body to two wild horses until you’re pulled apart!”).

What I think appeals to me most is Meet Me in St. Louis’ refreshing lack of schmaltz. Where a less thoughtful film might have the characters express their feelings through manipulative emotional outbursts and maudlin displays designed to elicit a sentimental response from the audience, I’m impressed by the way the closeness of the Smith family is illustrated in the ways they treat one another.
This beautifully composed shot is a testament to Minnelli's painterly eye. The detailed production design and eye-popping Technicolor cinematography only add to Meet Me in St. Louis' enduring appeal

1) When Rose’s much-anticipated long-distant call turns out to be a bust, I’m always so charmed by how Ester rescues her sister from embarrassment by putting a new spin on the events.
2) Instead of having a tired subplot involving Rose and Ester vying for the same man, I adore how Rose is excited for Ester to go out on the porch and try to catch the eye of the boy next door.
3) The way Esther puts aside her feelings for John Truett and is ready to do battle with him in defense of Tootie.
4) Of course, the most touching (for me) is the tender way the mother, in spite of being upset by the news of moving to New York, kisses her husband and in effect plays a love song for him. Multiple viewings reveal all the little routines of family togetherness that play out in the background when everyone returns to the parlor. It’s no small wonder that so many people consider Meet Me in St. Louis’ Autumn sequence (comprising the Halloween and moving to New York announcement scenes) to be the strongest in the film.
Grandpa schools Tootie & Agnes on the finer points of flinging flour
into the faces of victims on Halloween
I have a bit of an aversion to the trite, artificial sentimentality of "wholesome" family programming like The Brady Bunch and Father Knows Best (Hazel is another matter...that Shirley Booth can reduce me to tears in an instant, even in a sitcom), and I flat-out  reject the alternative trend which asks me to find snarky, wise-ass children to be adorable. That's why Meet Me in St. Louis is such a marvel. Minnelli & Co. found the magic formula to get me to care about a family that genuinely cares about one another.
I'm not sure I'd trust anyone immune to the absolute
adorableness of Esther's crush on neighbor John Truett

PERFORMANCES
The cast of Meet Me in St Louis could hardly be better. Ensemble acting at its finest, with the standout performances only serving to add luster to the already glowing efforts of the rest of the troupe. I’m partial to the delectably neurotic Margaret O’Brien (I always crack up when in one scene, out of the blue, apropos of nothing, Tootie announces plans to start digging a tunnel to a neighbor's terrace for the express purpose of grabbing her leg when she walks in her garden), but lovely Lucille Bremer has many fine moments (“The plans have been changed!”). Everybody's favorite dad, Leon Ames, the master of confounded exasperated, is solid as always. I’m citing these particulars, but the truth is that every single character int he film is exceptionally well-cast. The result is that we not only like the Smith family and care what happened to them, but we appreciate why they feel so strongly for their town and friends. 
The Smith Family
Depending on the source, any number of people have claimed responsibility for casting the reluctant Judy Garland in this, my favorite of her non-Oz roles, but the who doesn't matter so much as trying to imagine what this film would be like without her. Even if everything remained exactly as it is, without Garland I'm 100% certain the result would merely be one of those disposably competent, workaday musicals MGM churned out with regularity in its time. Judy Garland is the element that makes this film magic, and it's amazing to me that she was overlooked come Oscar time. People don't tend to think of vocal performances as acting, but just check out the variance in Garland's singing of "The Boy Next Door" contrasted with the performance she gives during "The Trolley Song" and ultimately, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Were one to regard each of these unforgettable moments as a dramatic scene, scenes Garland commands and puts over with touching sincerity and depth of feeling...well, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett would both have to concede they're not in her league.
Striking a perfect balance between spunk and youthful innocence ("I've worked all my life to be a senior!"), Judy Garland's Esther Smith is a testament to her uniquely accessible and likable star quality 


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I'm always taken a little aback when I realize just how few musical numbers there are in Meet Me in St Louis. It always feels like wall-to-wall music! One listen to the score of the 1989 Broadway adaptation of the film, expanded by at least eight more songs by the same composers (and in which we learn Tootie's name is Sarah), and you're likely to come away with a better appreciation for the virtues of brevity.
Under the Bamboo Tree
I've written before (in reference to the dull soirees in every version of The Great Gatsby I've ever seen) that parties in movies rarely ever look to be much fun. The going away house party the Smiths throw for brother Lon is the exception. This lively, well-staged sequence features a clever reworking of "Skip to My Lou" and of course, the cute Margaret O'Brien / Judy Garland duet, "Under the Bamboo Tree."

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Movie musical magic moments don't get much better than Judy Garland's sublime rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." I love the song and the way Garland sings it, but it's truly how the song is used in dramatic context of the story (along with Margaret O'Brien's doleful performance) that makes it the memorably heartbreaking classic scene it is. As the pivotal event necessary to inspire the father to change his plans, this number delivers both narratively and emotionally.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS 
Like the character of Lon Smith, I grew up as the only boy in a household of four sisters (hence my desire to escape to the movies every chance I got), only in the pecking order of age, I was where Agnes would be. My earliest memories of my family, before my parents divorced in 1967, have a veneer of nostalgia surrounding them takes on more and more of the shimmering Technicolor glow of Meet Me in St. Louis the older I get.
The youthful quirks of my sisters stand out in my mind: One had her room plastered with posters of the Beatles; another was part of a neighborhood girl's singing group, modeling themselves on The Supremes; one sister was drawn to anything artistic; and the youngest seemed to be in constant telepathic communication with the family dog. My parents stand out in my mind as these two perfect problem-solvers. It seems there was nothing you could come to them with that they couldn't fix, whether it be the strap on a roller skate, or the certainty there was a monster hiding in the bedroom closet when the lights went out.
When we were that young, it felt like we were indeed a unit, looking out for one another, the feelings of love, concern, and companionship all melding together under the instinctual, unexamined union called family.
Any sense of accuracy in my memories of Christmases, picnics, and birthday parties, is forever lost in the alchemic process which turns that which can no longer be retrieved into that which we need it to be. Both of my parents have since passed away, my sisters no longer speak to one another, and the success of my current (isolated) relationship with each of my siblings is firmly rooted in my living several hundred miles away from all of them. 
The word "family" should appear in dictionaries right next to the word "imperfect" because that's what they are (even the Smith family left St. Louis for New York in real life). But growing older has shown me that familial love, equally imperfect, can be incredibly durable, flexible, forgiving, and remarkably impervious to time, distance, and the holding of grudges.

When I watch Meet Me in St Louis, I know I'm looking at a vision of family life that never existed anywhere, at any time, ever. But this movie, like a fairy tale or my own hazy, half-remembered, half-idealized, wish-fulfillment memories of my childhood and family; makes me believe, if only 113-minutes, perfection is possible. And that's what dreams are for.
"I can't believe it. Right here where we live. Right here in St. Louis."



BONUS MATERIAL
The one clear advantage to it taking me so long get around to seeing Meet Me in St. Louis is that it ultimately afforded me the unforgettable opportunity of seeing it for the first time in the presence of an audience at one of Los Angles' great restored movie houses. The Palace Theater in downtown Los Angeles was built in 1911.
Not only was it a thrill to see this classic on the big screen and experience the collective audience response (applause and huge laughs throughout, and not a dry eye in the house by fadeout) but getting to be inside this magnificent theater was a wholly unforgettable experience.

In 1989, Meet Me in St. Louis was (as is the trend these days) adapted for the Broadway stage. It was nominated for four Tony Awards and looks absolutely insufferable.


A photograph of the actual 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition 

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

GYPSY 1962

Sing out, Louise!
It’s not exactly a picnic being a movie buff who’s also a devotee of live musical theater. Those distinct yet inherently complimentary art forms have made such strange bedfellows over the years, I've found it necessary to put myself through a staggering array of mental acrobatics before I feel ready to commit to even the simple act of watching a film based on a favorite Broadway show.

Sometimes this means I have to ratchet down the kind of overeager anticipation that can only lead to disappointment (Nine, Dreamgirls). At others, I have to hold in check a guarded, over-protective attitude toward a beloved source material (to this day, I’m not entirely sure I hate the film version of Grease so much because I genuinely think it’s a lousy movie, or because its 70s-mandated disco-ification [Spandex in the 50s!] is so at odds with the original show’s satirically nostalgic charm). Occasionally, if the filmmaker is particularly clever, I find I can be surprisingly flexible and willing to surrender to reinterpretation and reinvention (Hair, The Wiz, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). However, if I’m really committed to giving a movie based on a musical the benefit of the doubt, I know my chief hurdle is to refrain from engaging in that time-honored, fruitless pastime of all self-appointed musical theater “purists”: stockpiling comparisons and evaluating motion pictures by live theater standards. 
When I let go of the desire for to-the-letter faithful transfers of Broadway shows to the screen and accept the fact that film and stage are two entirely different animals, I always enjoy myself so much more. in fact, of late I've come to appreciate how most of my favorite stage-to-screen musical adaptations have not always been those which have cleaved religiously to the stage production, but rather those which have discovered a way to translate the essence and excitement of a stage show into cinematic terms (Jesus Christ Superstar, Cabaret, Oliver!).
Happily, I was spared all this with Gypsy due to having discovered the movie version long before I ever knew anything about the well-regarded Broadway musical. Equally fortuitous was the fact that I fell in love with  this movie while I was still too young to know I wasn’t supposed to.
Rosalind Russell as Rose Hovick
Natalie Wood as Louse Hovick / Gypsy Rose Lee
Karl  Malden as Herbie Sommers
Directed and choreographed by West Side Story’s Jerome Robbins, written by Arthur Laurents (West Side Story, Anyone Can Whistle), music by Jule Styne (Funny Girl, Bells Are Ringing) and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (you name it), Gypsy, is the highly-fictionalized 1959 Broadway musical based on the memoirs of famed stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee. On the strength of Ethel Merman’s star turn and the show’s then-novel integration of song, narrative, and character, Gypsy was already being heralded as a theatrical milestone by the time Warner Bros turned it into a critically lambasted, Top-Ten boxoffice hit motion picture in 1962.
Gypsy was adapted for the screen by Leonard Spigelgass (Pepe, of all things) and directed by The Bad Seed’s Mervyn LeRoy (can you imagine pushy Mama Rose coming across Rhoda Penmark? Gypsy would have had a 10-minute running time).

A backstage musical set in the waning, transitional days of vaudeville, Gypsy is a family drama (some would say tragedy) about Rose Hovick’s stop-at-nothing efforts to make her daughter, blonde and talented “Baby” June, a star. There’s another daughter of course, the shy and talent-challenged Louise, but that’s a fact the thrice-married Rose makes the best of rather than rejoices in. As the family and their ragtag vaudeville act tour the country, Rose takes up with and secures the managing services of marriage-minded Herbie, a former kiddie talent show host. Meanwhile her daughters grow restless for another kind of life: June, for a solo career on Broadway, Louise, for a stable home and family.

Four characters, four different dreams, but in Gypsy, only Rose’s dreams matter, which we come to learn is Rose’s one talent. She has a gift for deluding herself into thinking the dogged pursuit of her own dreams is actually in the interest of others. Gypsy’s humor, heart, conflict, and drama derive from the sometimes ruthless lengths Rose is willing to go to make those dreams come true.
"Some People"
In spite of its impressive showing at the boxoffice, the movie version of Gypsy is widely regarded as a disappointment...if not an out-and-out failure. Citing everything from Mervyn LeRoy’s uninspired direction to Rosalind Russell’s notoriously “manipulated” vocals, Gypsy’s reputation as a respectable misfire is so pervasive, few tend to credit it with one of the things it gets absolutely right: it’s an atypically faithful movie adaptation of a stage hit.

Me, I place myself in the opposite camp. While far from what I’d consider a classic, Gypsy is nevertheless one of my favorite movie musicals. It’s tuneful (not a clunker in the bunch!), funny, well-acted (save for that dreadful young Louise and the chorus boy with the overdone Bowery Boys shtick), and one of those rare musicals with genuine dramatic heft. And as good as I think Natalie Wood is in this, the real jewel in Gypsy’s crown is Rosalind Russell. She’s the first Mama Rose I ever saw, and although the role has been better sung and more showily performed, after all these years I’ve never seen anyone come close to Russell in giving Rose Hovick the kind of depth and humanity necessary to make me care about this somewhat monstrous creature.
Rosalind Russell IS Mama Rose to me.
"You'll Never Get Away From Me"

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine when I saw Gypsy on TV for the first time. My older sister was a rabid Rosalind Russell fan, so watching Gypsy, a musical I knew absolutely nothing about, was not a choice, but a household edict. Viewed on the family’s living room console, Gypsy as first seen by me was in black & white, pan and scan, with commercial interruptions and edits for time. In fact, it wasn’t until many years later when Gypsy aired on cable that I even KNEW the "Little Lamb" number existed, let alone had the opportunity to see it (I can hear my partner saying that’s an opportunity he’d gladly pass up).
But even with these limitations, I thought Gypsy was something pretty special. Being a child myself, I was enthralled, in those pre-Annie / Oliver! days, by a non-kiddie movie where kids played such an integral role in the plot, and similarly, the whole “family” thrust of the dramatic conflict was nicely within the scope of what I could understand. Although I must say, being at an age where concepts of good/bad - hero/villain were still pretty simplistic; the chilling vision of motherhood as represented by the charismatic, likable, yet overweeningly selfish Mama Rose was really quite a shock to the system.
Ann Jillian (age 11) as "Dainty" June Hovick with Caroline the Cow
I remember loving all the musical numbers (especially “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”), thinking Natalie Wood was really a knockout (something I dared not relay to my sisters, lest be teased unmercifully), and just being bowled over by Rosalind Russel’s powerhouse performance. Then, as now, she fairly eclipses everything else about the film for me.

Over the years, as my appreciation for Gypsy grew both in terms of concept and context, the film never stopped being a favorite; even if all those repeat viewings only made me more aware of the film’s many flaws and inadequacies.

When critics hail Gypsy for its seamless integration of song, story, and character; the downbeat themes masked by its cheery vaudeville visage; and the emotional complexity of its lead character, you’ll get no argument from me.
If I have any complaints, it’s that the film’s innocuously cheery, prototypically 60s roadshow approach to the material seriously undercuts what’s so special about Gypsy.
There’s something disturbingly Eugene O’Neill-ish lurking beneath all that Hovick family dysfunction that the movie only touches upon.
"If Momma Was Married"
Because we’re a country that worships success and achievement, people tend to react to Gypsy Rose Lee’s ultimate attainment of wealth and fame as some kind of happy ending. As if Rose’s cutthroat determination is finally vindicated and Louise’s lonely childhood rewarded. But I always leave the film thinking that nobody’s won a damn thing. Louise winds up with a “dream” that was never hers; the anonymous adoration of “celebrity” a substitute for a heartbreakingly anonymous childhood. Rose, in spite of the reconciliatory tone of the fadeout, is, in spite of all of her efforts combating a lifetime of being abandoned, still alone.  
Russell and Wood are both effective at accessing some of the darker corners of their characters (as much as the screenplay allows), but it would be years before Hollywood felt comfortable adapting the movie musical – a traditionally family oriented genre – to accommodate more serious themes (Sweeney Todd, Cabaret, All That Jazz, Into the Woods).

"Rose's Turn"

PERFORMANCES
Movie musicals were having a hard go of it in the 60s, and studios hedged their bets wherever they could. In Gypsy’s case, this meant turning a groundbreakingly complex, 4-character dysfunctional family musical drama into a splashy, $4 million, widescreen crowd-pleaser. It also meant ignoring the near-unanimous praise heaped on Ethel Merman’s head for what many considered to be her career-defining role and performance (vocally immortalized on the Original Broadway Cast album that seemed to be in every home, by law, when I was growing up), and going with a better actress with marquee value. An actress whose biggest drawback was that her voice wasn’t up to the demands of the written-specifically-with- Merman-in-mind musical score. 

Bankable Rosalind Russell, adding a touch of Lavinia Mannon steeliness (Mourning Becomes Electra) to her Auntie Mame steamroller ebullience, controversially stepped into the made-to-order shoes of Ethel Merman in the iconic role of Mama Rose: stage mother to end all stage mothers.
Rosalind Russell's vocals were a largely handled by Lisa Kirk
A 2003 CD release of the Gypsy soundtrack included a few outtake samples
of Russell singing unassisted. 
After seeing Ethel Merman in the movies Call Me Madam and There’s No Business Like Show Business, it’s hard for me not to appreciate the soundness of any decision designed to keep her off the screen (although I have to concede she’s pleasant and very un-Ethel Merman like in those early Eddie Cantor musicals). However, the by-product of Merman being passed over has been the fostering of an idealized “What if?” scenario regarding Merman recreating her greatest stage success onscreen, A fantasy scenario that has followed Rosalind Russell’s Gypsy around like one of Madame Rose’s trunks.

But speculating about what was missed in not granting Merman the opportunity to play onscreen the role she originated onstage fails to take into account what a significant contribution an actress of Russell’s caliber (equally deft at playing comedy or drama) brings to a movie as stagy and setbound as this. 
"Everything's Coming Up Roses"
Natalie Wood, fresh off of doing whatever she thought she was doing with that Puerto Rican accent in West Side Story (1961), was cast as late-blooming ecdysiast, Gypsy Rose Lee.
Natalie Wood has always held a lot of appeal for me, and her genuinely sweet persona is used to great effect during the film’s first half, just as her remarkable figure and striking looks provide a perfect contrast/payoff in the second. I’m not sure how she does it (star quality alone?) but her Louise looms larger in the film than it does in any stage production of Gypsy I’ve ever seen. That Wood naturally has the ability to make you care about her is one of the reasons I think her rather underwritten role carries so much poignancy.
Natalie Wood shines brightest in her quiet scenes. Consequently, her big, dressing room outburst moment is, for me, her weakest. But in delivering a few well-placed snarky lines to her meddlesome mom, Wood’s transformation from mouse to sardonic cat is a delight.
"Let Me Entertain You"
Gypsy afforded Natalie Wood a rare opportunity to do her own singing.
To help with her strip routines she visited a Sunset Blvd strip club where
strippers had names like Fran Sinatra and Natalie Should


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
In defense of "Little Lamb"

Maybe it’s because I was deprived of it for so many years. Maybe it’s because Natalie Wood’s vocals remind me of Audrey Hepburn singing “Moon River” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Maybe it’s because all my taste is in my mouth. Whatever the reason, “Little Lamb,” a song so maudlin it would make Mother Teresa roll her eyes, is my favorite song in the film.
I love that it is the single, solitary moment afforded the pushed-to-the-sidelines Louise, and the first time we get to hear about what someone else feels besides Rose. This external internal monologue captures so perfectly a child’s loneliness (associating sadness with what should be a happy occasion) with the single lyric: “Little cat. Little cat. Oh, why do you look so blue? Did somebody paint you like that, or is it your birthday, too?” 
That just knocks me the hell out. Reduced to waterworks each and every time.

Most musicals have draggy second acts, but Act II of Gypsy has two wonderful numbers: The show-stopping “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” and that masterfully-constructed musical nervous breakdown, “Rose’s Turn.”
"You Gotta Get a Gimmick"
Roxanne Arlen as Electra, Betty Bruce as Tessie Tura, and Faith Dane as Mazeppa

The one number that's perfectly fine but that I could do without is "All I Need Is The Girl". But this likely has to do with the song being done to death on TV variety shows long before I ever saw Gypsy. But the rousing "Mr. Goldstone We Love You" is a number I could watch a hundred times.  
"Mr. Goldstone, I Love You"
That's character actor Ben Lessy as Mr. Goldstone -  dubbed Mervyn Goldstone in
inside-joke honor of director Mervyn LeRoy

It's a shame the cute "Together Wherever We Go" number was deleted from the film before its release. Karl Malden had all of his singing bits (he sang briefly in "You'll Never Get Away From Me") left on the cutting room floor. Happily, 16mm prints of both numbers appear as part of the extras on the Gypsy DVD.
"Together Wherever We Go"

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
One of the things I like most about Gypsy and why I think it’s so deserving of its status as one of the greatest American musicals, is that one could talk to fans and detractors of the show all day and never hear the exact same take on Mama Rose. In spite of her dominating presence in every scene of the musical, hers is a character influenced as much by a particular actress’s interpretation as by the audience’s response to her behavior.
"Don't you DARE answer that phone when I'm yelling at you!"
That's Jean Willes quaking in her boots as Mr. Grantzinger's secretary
I’m one of those who sees Mama Rose as (to quote Lewis Carroll on the topic of unicorns) a “fascinating monster.”  She’s pitiable and perhaps sympathetic in that she’s a woman clearly driven by frustration (what outlets did a woman with her brains, drive, and ambition have in the 1920s?), selfish desire, and her own childhood abandonment; but her treatment of her daughters – all in the name of love – qualifies her as a largely detestable character.
And as a look at some of my favorite films with strong female characters will reveal (Blue Jasmine, Queen Bee, Mommie DearestAngel Face, The Day of the Locust, Darling, Hedda), I have a real affinity for fabulous monsters.

Rosalind Russell, in not shying away from Rose’s unpleasant side, gives a portrait of a woman of contradiction.  Contradictions so keenly felt during the “Rose’s Turn” number, that by the time mother and daughter take a hesitant stab at reconciliation at the finale, the scene resonates with melancholy because (if you’re as old as I and your parents are no longer around)  it seems to be the legacy of the adult child to always come to the realization that if we're lucky, our parents, even at their worst, are never more or less than simply human.
"Madame Rose and her daughter Gypsy!"


 BONUS MATERIAL
The real-life Gypsy Rose Lee appeared onscreen opposite her motion picture mother,
Rosalind Russell in the 1966 comedy, The Trouble With Angels

"Mama's Talking Soft", a song composed by Styne & Sondheim for Gypsy that failed to make it into the production (it was to be a duet sung by June & Louise following "Small World"). In 1959, pop star Petula Clark recorded a cover of the song for the B-side of her single, "Where Do I Go From Here?"



"Let Me Entertain You"

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS 1970

"Not a sequel, but like Valley of the Dolls, deals with the oft-times nightmarish world of Show Business!"
                                                                                                                             Ad copy for the poster

One of the advantages of being old enough to remember a cult film before it became a cult film is that it gives you a sense of perspective. Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (also referred to hereafter as BVD) is one of the most deliriously campy, quotable, contagiously musical, visually kinetic, laugh-out-loud bad/good films EVER. A top-ranking favorite of mine, BVD is a non-sexy sex comedy that’s also a surprisingly ingenious send-up of every show business cliché mined by movies since the days of What Price Hollywood? (1932).
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a caffeinated homage to glossy Hollywood soap operas like The Oscar, The Best of Everything and, of course, BVDs rootstock and inspiration: Jacqueline Susann’s immortal Valley of the Dolls (hereafter also referred to as VOD).

Although released in the summer of 1970, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a '60s movie down to its bellbottoms and sandals. Depicting a burlesque vision of the Swinging Sixties as it existed only between the tragically unhip pages of "gentleman's magazines" like Playboy; BVD is both groovy and square. A cross between a hyperactive geek fantasy (via 27-year-old screenwriter Roger Ebert) and siddle-aged wish fulfillment, the film is a garish, never-a-dull-moment, laugh-out-loud paean to '60s pop culture excess. Directed with a manic combination of aplomb and amateurism by budget skin-flick impresario Russ Meyer collaborating with first-time screenwriter, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert; BVD is a film so exhaustively steadfast in its desire to affront and entertain, at times it feels like a Tex Avery cartoon come to life.
Dolly Read as Kelly MacNamara
Marcia McBroom as Petronella Danforth
Cynthia Myers as Casey Anderson
David Gurian as Harris Allsworth
Having now fully established the extent to which I lovingly clutch this carnival-colored trash classic to my negligible-by-Russ-Meyer-standards bosom, I can elaborate on what I mean when I say that having an actual recollection of 1970 and the atmosphere in which BVD was released, allows for a sense of perspective.
When a once-dismissed film is rediscovered by a new generation of fans, it's not uncommon for history to be rewritten a bit as a means of staking an up-to-date-claim on an older work. In the years it took for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to morph from film reviled to film reveled, a somewhat rarified legend has developed among BVD cultists. One which contends 1970 film critics raked BVD over the coals because they didn't understand that Meyer's film was a satirical comedy (i.e., intentionally terrible), and therefore never meant to be taken seriously. Well, that's not entirely true.
John Lazar as Ronnie 'Z-Man' Barzell. He forgot that life has many levels
Granted, a few critics may have been confounded and didn't know what to make of a film that careened at breakneck speed from musical to melodrama to comedy to ultraviolence; but Russ Meyer's oeuvre of the outrageous was a fairly well-known commodity by the time he'd landed his contract with Fox. Having leapt from peep-show Orson Welles to being the darling of the college film circuit, Meyer's reputation as a sex parodist was well known to any '60s film critic worth their salt. Everyone knew that Russ Meyer had never made a conventional or serious movie in his life. If anyone was apt to misinterpret the built-in sex mockery of Meyer's films, it was likely the grindhouse trenchcoat setindividuals who, by nature, were inclined to approach their softcore T & A with the utmost solemnity.
Edy Williams as the infamous Ashley St. Ives. Men were toys for her amusement
From what I recall of reviews at the time, those critics who failed to respond favorably to Meyer’s first studio outing didn't do so out of an inability to grasp the film's sophomoric satire; rather, they disliked it because they failed to find the cultural value in a bad movie parody of a bad film.
A great deal of what contemporary audiences find so amusing about BVD are related to But in thinking back to the poor reception 70s critics gave Russ Meyer's first major studio release, it's of no small significance to keep in mind that a great deal of what we currently find so howlingly funny about Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is connected to how absurd we find the look and sound of the late 60s. Today we laugh at everything from the hippie-dippie rock music, to the extreme fashions, oversized hairstyles, carnival-colored decor, and hooty slang idioms. Divest these things of their nostalgic camp value and you can see how, to critics at the time, these things were only slight exaggerations of everyday 70s pop culture.
Michael Blodgett as Lance Rock. He never gave of himself
For example: Z-Man's parties were only raunchier reenactments of those "penthouse party" sequences that kicked off every episode of TVs Laugh-In since it debuted in 1967. Edy Williams' enormous mane of hair and ever-present bikini was basically Raquel Welch's standard photo-op uniform at this time in her career. And comparable variations on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls outrageous crayon palette decor and outre fashions could be found in a plethora of way-out Mod Cinema releases  (like Britain's Smashing Time -1967) as well as so-called "serious" films like Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine (1971).
Phyllis Davis as Susan Lake
Excessive goodness can often blind us to the human failings of those less perfect
A lot of 70s film critics were predisposed to dislike Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on principle, finding abhorrent the very idea that the same studio that gave the world The Sound of Music had enlisted the services of a "nudie" director to make an X-rated exploitation film. And as the film's X-rating had as much to do with its violent finale as for its sexual content (and remember, graphic violence was still relatively new to films at the time), cries of "poor taste!" met BVD's bloody 3rd act massacre inspired by the less-than-one-year-old tragedy of Sharon Tate's death. (To make matters worse, the Manson Family murder trails began just two days before Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' July 17 release.)
Erica Gavin as the languid Roxanne
Meanwhile, serious cineaste factions, encouraged by the emergent New Hollywood and the ushering in of innovative, artistic films like Bonnie & ClydeThey Shoot Horses, Don’t They?Easy Rider, and Midnight Cowboy, felt strongly that the motion picture industry was ill-served by a film like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. A film which many felt, like the wholesale auctioning off of studio backlot land taking place at the time, symbolized Hollywood's desperation, decline, and imminent demise. As luck would have it, these very sentiments proved near-irresistible publicity in favor of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in the anti-establishment, counterculture youth-centric marketplace of the late 60s and 70s.
Harrison Page as Emerson Thorne
Behind that friendly mask lies fermenting the unholy seed of a lawyer
The 60s were the age of the "put-on" and the "put-down."  Movies that tore down tradition and poked fun at middle-class convention were popular with the youth market (and the swiftest way for a mainstream film to appear "hip"). Young people flocked to the underground films of Andy Warhol (Flesh - 1968, Lonesome Cowboys - 1968), the gonzo cinema of John Waters (Mondo Trasho – 1968), and Russ Meyer’s own string of grindhouse “nudies” (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! – 1965, Vixen 1968). When cinema scholars and film critics began to pay attention to these films, cash-strapped Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon with mainstream attempts to capture the campy, comic book zeitgeist with films like Casino Royale  (1966), Barbarella (1968), and the popular Batman TV show (1966-1968).
The derisive send-up of pop culture grew to be such a popular mainstay, by 1970 America had fairly overdosed on irony and satire.
Duncan McLeod as Porter Hall
Used his profession to mask selfish interests...to betray the trust that should have been sacred

Released during the waning days of Psychedelic Cinema (druggy, youth-oriented films invariably made by middle-aged men), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and its sister-in-sleaze, Myra Breckinridge (twin Fox releases opening within a week of one another) were last-ditch efforts to hitch a ride on the already steamrolling Youth Culture gravy train. Both films arrived at the tail-end of a veritable onslaught of look-alike outrageous psychedelic send-ups of the Flower Power generation. Oddities like Otto Preminger's Skidoo (1968), The Big Cube (1969), Head (1968), Angel, Angel Down We Go - (1969), The Gay Deceivers (1969), and a recent personal favorite, An American Hippie in Israel (1970).
James Iglehart as Randy Black
Randy's body: A cage for an animal
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls - offering good, old-fashioned bare breasts over Myra Breckinridge's fenmdom anal rape - was the hands-down bigger hit of the two (it was also the better film); duplicating Valley of the Dolls' fate by being wildly popular with the public yet widely panned by the critics and regarded with disdain by the very studio that made it.
In 1971 when Russ Meyer tried his hand at his first straight dramatic film with the courtroom drama, The Seven Minutes, the results proved every bit as laughable and overdone as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (and in lacking bare bosoms and backsides, it was a crashing bore, to boot). The ineptitude and financial failure of The Seven Minutes (Meyer's only flop) soured Fox's relationship with the director and laid to rest further debate regarding Meyer's "intentionally" clumsy way with actors, dialog, and editing in BVD.
Henry Rowland as Otto. The man with the benign, Germanic countenance
Initially signed to a 3-picture deal, Russ Meyer was let go following the failure of The Seven Minutes (his employers, Richard Zanuck & David Brown had been ousted in 1970), leaving him free to return to independently (re)making his trademark live-action breast fetish cartoons. The ones which earned him the title, “King of the Nudies.”
Valley Girls
Jacqueline Susann is credited with coming up with the title, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, for the two (rejected) screenplays she submitted to Fox for a legitimate sequel to her hit, Valley of the Dolls.
When a disgruntled Susann sold the rights to her next book, The Love Machine to another studio, Fox (forbidden to make a sequel without her permission) kept her title and made a satire instead. Lawsuits followed

I felt compelled to contextualize Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – a miraculous mess of a movie I’ve loved since the days it was primarily known as "20th Century Fox’s embarrassment" – because the revisionist narrative ascribing canny premeditation to everything risible and inept in BVD is just too pat. The whole "They knew what they were doing" scenario doesn't pay respect to the freakish, one-of-a-kind, lightening-in-a-bottle quality BVD possesses that makes watching it for the 50th time as much of a blast as the first. No one could have foreseen that a breast-fixated, one-trick-pony director; a newbie screenwriter; and a cast of Playboy pin-ups and hysterically diverse actors would produce a film so dementedly sublime.
The Carrie Nations
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls chronicles the exploits of an all-girl rock band coping with the toxic show business cocktail of quick success, easy sex, & plentiful drugs
The making of a completely satisfying, entertaining film is a major feat in itself, and Russ Meyer achieved this miracle twice (BVD and Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), and in having the ratio of intentionally awful to inadvertently awful so well-balanced and impossible to discern, these films achieve a kind of ideal perfection. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is my idea of perfect trash art.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Being that I can't think of a single thing I DON'T love about this movie, here is my Top Ten List of favorite things in BVD:

1.Nobody blinks!
On the DVD commentary, we learn that Russ Meyer's rapid-fire editing style is at least in part the result of his determined resolve not to show his actors blinking (it breaks audience concentration). Consequently, the actors all look to be in a constant state of astonishment.

2. Boobies, boobies, boobies!
Russ Meyer's concept of the feminine ideal is mired inextricably in the full-figured, breast-fixated 1950s. The lean and lanky hippie silhouette typified by Peggy Lipton on The Mod Squad is nowhere to be found in Meyer's Playboy Pictorial vision of an abundantly well-fed and curvaceous 1970.  "The-head-is-missing!" Dept: that's actress Veronica Ericson embraced by Michael Blodgett.

3. The fashions!
The 70s Peacock Revolution in men's fashion made it not only possible but acceptable for young men in their 20s to look like Norman Bates' mother.

4. The hair!
I guess those ginormous breasts have to be offset by something, so towering manes of real and synthetic Bobbie Gentry-sized hairdos abound in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

5. The cartoonish camera angles and sound effects!
Whether it be the sound of a dive-bomber accompanying a suicidal leap, the 20th Century Fox theme played over a beheading, or "Stranger in Paradise" heard during a male-on-male groping session; the sound effects, music cues, and wacky camera angles in BVD confirms Russ Meyer's claim that his films are basically "Superbly made cartoons."

6. Diversity!
Compared to what's going on in mainstream films today (I still can't get over that all-white Into the Woods), the high volume of black actors and PoC used in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is positively radical. Not only are the two most genuinely beautiful actresses in the film African-Americans - the striking Lavelle Roby (above) and Marcia McBroom - but the depiction of the intimate relationship between McBroom and Page is actually very progressive for its time.

7. That unexpectedly sweet lesbian relationship!
Gavin & Myers give two of the better performances and display the most chemistry of any couple in the film. That their scenes have a touching sweetness thoroughly absent elsewhere in the film is, by all accounts, attributable to Meyer staying out of their way.

8. The movie franchise missed opportunity!
I can never look at Russ Meyer stalwart, Charles Napier (as Baxter Wolfe), without thinking he would have made a wonderful Clutch Cargo in a series of live action features based on the 1959 cartoon TV series

9. The montages!
BVD is full of montages. Breakneck fast montages, slow-mo montages, and charmingly old-fashioned, up-the-ladder-of-success montages. This screencap from the Hollywood montage is of the very first place I lived when I moved to Los Angeles in 1978 (the brick building to the left is the Villa Elaine Apartments on Vine), and the Adm & Eve adult book store next door, the site of my very first LA job! (Stephen Sondheim collaborator, George Furth came in once and I got his autograph. As he signed he said, "This is equal parts flattering and demoralizing!")

10. That leopard-print bikini!
I don't think I need to say anything more.


PERFORMANCES
By any rational assessment, the performances in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls are not much worse than those found in (limiting the degree of awful to the Jacqueline Susann family) Valley of the Dolls, The Love Machine, or Once is Not Enough. The major difference being a matter of aptitude (can’t act vs. won’t act) and energy (there’s not a single lazy performance in BVD. Indeed, Meyer’s idea of pacing seems to be pitched somewhere at “fire drill”). And in that vein, Dolly Read, David Gurian, Phyllis Davis, and Duncan McLeod are all pitch-perfect.
"What I see is beyond your dreaming."
Faster Pussycat star, Haji, whispers mystically in Z-Man's ear
Spouting an endless stream of ersatz-Shakespearean double talk, John Lazar as Phil Spector-ish music tycoon Z-Man Barzell (who looks uncannily like former husbands of both Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli) gives an unforgettable, appropriately bizarre, Frank N. Furter prototype performance. 

Edy Williams (acting with her teeth) makes Ann-Margret's thesping in Kitten With a Whip look nuanced. Although a campy, fun presence onscreen, Williams was apparently not very popular with many on the set, save for Russ Meyer, whom she later wed. And even he, according to Erica Gavin, "Couldn't stand her."

I harbored a crush on reptile-eyed Michael Blodgett for a long while, inducing me to subject myself to 1971s The Velvet Vampire (available on YouTube) because he has a few nude scenes in it.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
As a fan of all manner of 60s music, I love the soundtrack to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. As a fan of women’s prison films (Roger Corman's Swamp Women), girl’s reform school movies (Girls Town), and Andy Warhol’s BAD - a movie about an all-girl hit squad; there’s something irresistibly badass about the idea of an all-girl rock group.
"In the Long Run" & "Find It" are two songs on heavy rotation on my ipod
I was 12-years-old when Beyond the Valley of the Dolls came out, and I remember at that time television programming was chock full of rock groups. Real-life bands like The Beatles, The Jackson Five, and The Osmonds all had their own animated TV shows, and in addition, there was The Archies, Josie and Pussycats, The Groovie Goolies and The Cattanooga Cats. Live action had The Bugaloos, The Partridge Family and reruns of The Monkees. I guess rocks bands were then are what superheroes are now.
The big singing voice we hear coming out of Dolly Read's mouth belongs to Lynn Carey (shown above, right, giving grief to Tuesday Weld about her lack of cashmere sweaters in Lord Love a Duck). Carey also co-wrote two of the songs with composer Stu Phillips.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
No tribute to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls would be complete without a list of my favorite lines of dialog:

"I’ve already seen a display of your discretion. It’s reminiscent of a meat axe!" 

"In a scene like this you get a contact high!"

"Who is it Emerson. The delivery...boy?"

"Have you ever been whipped by a willow until the blood came?"

 "You’re a groovy boy. I'd like to strap you on sometime."

"And there's someone else inside, but I - I don't know who it is...THE HEAD IS MISSING!"
"But you said you were going to study!"

"Yes, I vow it; Ere this night does wane, you will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!"

"The cat swore up and down it was Acapulco Gold, so if we’re lucky, maybe it’s at least pot!"

"And how's she getting home?"

"Roxanne, will you watch out for me?" (not funny, just the sweetest line in the movie)

"Don’t Bogart the joint!"


BONUS MATERIAL
Listen to it HERE

From Z-Man to King Herod
That's Marcia McBroom behind those Foster Grants in 1973's Jesus Christ Superstar

The fey art director Haji locks in a cage in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls portrayed the mysterious Argyron Stavropoulos in Rosemary's Baby.

Although never seen onscreen, Pam Grier was cast as an extra in BVD. Marcia McBroom says she and Grier were roommates at the time, and both auditioned for the role of Petronella Danforth
Any BVD cultists or fans out there who know anything about the production stills featured on the DVD extras showing Dolly Read in old-age makeup? They accompany shots of her in a mod Union Jack outfit in a stylized church setting (there's even a shot of her in with the old-age makeup lying a coffin). 

Bad Idea Dept: Slated for 2016, Will Ferrell & Josh Gad are set to star as Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert in a film about the making of BVD titled: "Russ & Roger Go Beyond"


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Copyright © Ken Anderson