Category: 1954


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One evening in New York City, after a wonderful romantic evening with a girl I was seeing, I walked her to the subway, and on my walk back to my apartment in the primarily Caribbean Crown Heights, I softly sang and subtly danced to “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. As one of the few Caucasians in the mostly Caribbean neighborhood, I didn’t have to do much to stand out, and singing a show-tune as I walked down the street didn’t help matters. But, I was so happy and so content that I didn’t care who saw or who laughed. When people in old musicals are so overcome with happiness or sorrow that they simply burst into song, I get it. It happens to me in real life. I just don’t have an array of back-up singers (or actual musical talent) and lavish dance routines.

I’ve discussed at length on this blog the special place that musicals hold in my heart and the complicated feelings I’ve developed for them as I’ve gotten older and my tastes have gotten more sophisticated (and my critical skills grew sharper). Grease was one of the first non-children’s movies that I can remember watching, and there’s always been something about theatrical song and dance numbers that have appealed to me on a deep and personal level ever since. Unfortunately, I also recognize that a lot of these “classic” musicals are also sort of hilariously bad in the actual storytelling department. 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business is no exception to that rule. It’s gorgeous production and sublime Irving Berlin score make it worth every musical lover’s time, but it’s story borders on non-existent.

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The Donahue clan, led by matriarch Molly (Ethel Merman) and Terry (Dan Dailey), are a struggling vaudeville family act. Though the group finds great success when the parents are joined by their children, Tim (Singing in the Rain‘s Donald O’Connor), Katie (Mitzi Gaynor), and Steve (Johnnie Ray), it isn’t long before the family act starts to fall apart. Steve wants to become a priest, and Tim falls head over heels in love with coat-check girl (and aspiring singer), Vicky Parker (How to Marry a Millionaire‘s Marilyn Monroe). And when Vicky’s career begins to take off, and she brings Tim and Katie along to be part of her new Broadway revue, it spells the beginning of the end of the Five Donahues as a performing act. Throw in Tim’s suspicion that Vicky is having an affair with her manager, and the family is set on a path towards disaster.

I love Donald O’Connor. I doubt that’s a controversial statement. He’s clearly the best part of Singing in the Rain. The title track of that film is great, but “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the best number of that whole film. And he does not disappoint in There’s No Business Like Show Business. The man can dance and he can sing, and he delivers a snappy one-liner with the best of them, and it’s always puzzled me that he wasn’t a bigger star (though I get it. He didn’t have leading man looks). Although I suspect the film would have been enjoyable without him, I also know for a fact that I wouldn’t have liked There’s No Business Like Show Business nearly as much without O’Connor’s presence. There’s a number after Tim kisses Vicky for the first time that has quickly become one of my favorite set pieces from a classic musical.

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Marilyn Monroe on the other hand… she really isn’t a great actress, but unlike How to Marry a Millionaire, this film shows off an area where Monroe is actually startlingly talented: burlesque-adjacent numbers. Whenever Monroe has to deliver actual dialogue, she’s more stiff and unnatural on screen than even the non-professional cast of Steven Soderbergh’s disastrous Bubble. But, when she’s performing her musical numbers in the film, which give her a chance to show off her sultry and simmering sexuality, it’s like watching an entirely different performer. The only other actresses from that era who seem to be as aware and in control of their sexuality were Liz Taylor and Lauren Bacall. And, Monroe’s confidence and presence sell every second of her musical numbers. For an actress that we’ve come to know (from historical records) as suffering from crippling self-esteem issues, it is surprising how well she carries herself in the film’s sizzling musical numbers from Miss Monroe.

And the rest of the cast is full of established musical talent. Ethel Merman is a Broadway legend, and although her performance is about as campy as they get, it fits the silly and fun mood of this film far better than a more serious take would have. Dan Dailey was appropriately lecherous but loveable as the beleaguered family patriarch although it was probably in the film’s best interest that he was involved in as few of the musical numbers as he was. Johnnie Ray shone during what little screen time he had, at least from a singing perspective (his acting wasn’t phenomenal), and I more or less immediately fell in love with the beautiful Mitzi Gaynor who played the sister. Looking at her IMDB page, she appears to have mostly done musicals and never had much of a career which is a shame because she was both gorgeous and talented.

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The costume work and set design and general composition of this film is a glorious exercise in excess. Early in the film, the Donahue’s perform a deliciously over-the-top take on the old Irving Berlin standard “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” that is far more complex and expensive than they should be able to afford, but I loved every second of its multi-national ridiculousness. And, as mentioned earlier, there’s a glorious performance of “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him)” performed with fountains and back-up dancers disguised as statues from Donald O’Connor. That was the moment when I surrendered myself to the silly fun of There’s No Business Like Show Business. As someone who’s danced down the streets of Brooklyn after a wonderful evening with a girl, it spoke to me.

There’s No Business Like Show Business isn’t ever going to stand in the pantheon of great movie musicals, and the performance of “Heat Wave,” which featured what I’ll refer to as blackface-adjacent backup dancers, was a little offensive, but like Babes in Arms before it, there’s something just undeniably fun about this film despite (actually probably because of) its ridiculous nature. The songs are great, and not even the sight of Ethel Merman with absurd mutton-chop sideburns during “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor (Until a Sailor’s Been Tattooed” should deter you from watching this film if you have a soft spot in your heart for old musicals. If you aren’t a fan of musicals, I can’t imagine that There’s No Business Like Show Business will convert you, but for those in the fold, it’s worth the two hours of your time.

Final Score: B

 

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When I think of Billy Wilder, his legacy is divided firmly into two categories. The dark and moody noir like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard and then his later comedies such as Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. At least one of those four films come up on virtually every list of the greatest films ever made (and usually there are several). The Austrian turned American become of the most beloved directors of the 1940s through the 1960s, and list of the greatest directors of Hollywood’s golden age is complete without him near the top. And though his direction is stunning per usual, perhaps it’s the lionized ideal of his works that I hold in my head which caused me to find his 1954 romantic comedy, Sabrina, so lightweight and insubstantial.

No one would ever accuse the light-hearted farce of Some Like It Hot as being cerebral or challenging material, but the lightning-fast nature of its script and the manic energy of Lemmon and Matthau make up for the fact that it lacks the dark overtones that made Wilder so famous in the first place. But, in Sabrina, there’s much to love but almost as much to remove us from the experience. From the lack of any real romantic chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart to a turgid script that feels as if it never wants to get off the ground to some material the feels blatantly misogynistic and condescending to women in a modern viewing, Sabrina is a truly enjoyable film but not nearly one of Wilder’s best works.

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Sabrina is a modern spin on the classic Cinderella “rags-to-riches” tale. In 1950s New York, the Larrabees are a family whose wealth seems to rival the Rockefeller. The daughter of the family chauffeur, Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn), is in love with the youngest of the Larrabee men, David (Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing‘s William Holden), a rakish skirt-chaser who’s been divorced three times and is set to be married yet again. Though his current engagement has been set up by his brother Linus (To Have and Have Not‘s Humphrey Bogart), the mature and responsible member of the family. When Sabrina sees David seducing a floozy in the tennis court, she tries to kill herself but is rescued by Linus who pretends to be unaware of her original intentions.

Afterwards, Sabrina heads off to Paris to learn to be a cook so she can continue the family tradition of serving wealthier families in the New York area, but when she befriends a wealthy baron, Sabrina returns from Paris a woman fully grown and confident in her own beauty and value to men. David picks her up at a train station and she is so transformed that he doesn’t even recognize her until he brings her back home. Linus, too, falls in love with Sabrina, and both men begin to compete for her affections. Though at first, Linus simply wants to remove Sabrina from the family’s affairs as she threatens David’s new engagement which is holding together a priceless business deal, but sooner or late,r Linus discovers he has to confront his own feelings for Sabrina.

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To the film’s credit, the black and white photography by Charles Lang is beautiful in the way that only black and white films from the period could be. We go back and watch movies like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street, and for many movie lovers, you long for films with such crisp and clear visual ambition. Sabrina may not look quite that good, but when Wilder has the camera glide in and out of parties and into subtle close-ups which frame the sexual yearning between David and Sabrina and Linus and Sabrina, it’s accomplished with a grace and ease that few film-makers today could hope to match.

But sadly, the film’s story isn’t as good as its direction (which is the case, I feel, for so many of the films before the 1960s). Audrey Hepburn is more or less emotionally manipulated and abused by both David and Linus for the entire film, and though David suffers his fair share of hilarious mishaps as punishment (a broken champagne glass providing one of the film’s funnier moments), Linus only gets a happy ending with no personal cost. He constantly tries to ignore, buy off, and exile Sabrina, but at the end, they still fall madly in love (I can’t imagine that obvious ending being a major spoiler). He treats her mostly like a nuisance, but she never seems offended by it. My sister and I were both rooting by the end of the film for her to say “Fuck it!” and abandon both men.

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Most damning for the film is that the romance between Hepburn and Bogart (which is the very core of the film) carried about as much sizzle and heat as a snowman. The much older Bogart (he was thirty years older than Hepburn at the time of filming) had been in a passionate love affair with Lauren Bacall for ten years in 1954, and it is clear that he had almost no attraction to Hepburn, and subsequently, he couldn’t make it seem like Linus did either. The only romantic scenes which seem to work involve the pouting and long-suffering Sabrina lusting after the elusive and roguish David, if for no other reason than Hepburn’s beautifully expressive face captures the depth of Sabrina’s longing and pain.

All those complaints aside, Sabrina is a lovely and very enjoyable film. It just seems so… light and shallow compared to the greatest films in Wilder’s library. Of course, my sister expressed a most Philistine of opinions when, after the credits rolled, she turned to me and said she enjoyed Sabrina more than Casablanca. I may have to disown her for such heresy, but perhaps my indifference to the romantic whimsies of this film are rooted in the fact that I am an often cynical male and not the type easily swayed and romanticized by the fantasy of this tale. For Bogie and Hepburn fans, Sabrina may not be their best work, but it’s still a must-see film.

Final Score: B

 

My relationship with British humor has been a long and torrid affair. Ever since I was in middle school and I watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail for the very first time, there has been something about that dry and proper English wit that has enchanted me. I just finished watching 1954’s Doctor in the House from streaming on Netflix, and while it wasn’t one of the best comedies I’ve ever seen and it was sort of boring at times, there were definitely moments in it that reminded me why I love our comrades across the pond.

Doctor in the House is about Simon Sparrow, a young man who is entering his first year of medical school. However, he quickly befriends a group of individuals who have been in med school for years (one of them is purposefully failing so he can continue to inherit money from a rich, deceased relative as part of a technicality of the will) and are just there goofing around, chasing skirt, playing rugby, and drinking themselves silly. The film is meant to be a sort of spoof of medical dramas and there are certain parts that are pretty hilarious (post-rugby match mayhem springs to mind) and for a 1950’s film, the movie is fairly straight forward about how much sex is going in this hospital.

This review is pretty short but this film left me without a whole lot to say. I enjoyed it but in a sort of popcorn way. It will be gone from my head a couple of hours from now, but if you have an interest in classic British comedies, you should give this one a twirl. It might be more up your alley than mine.

Final Score: B-

If you were to ask really movie buffs to name the most influential directors of the non-English speaking world, three directors’ names would invariably be mentioned: Akira Kurosawa of Japan, Ingmar Bergman of Sweden, and Federico Fellini of Italy. I haven’t seen any Bergman pictures yet (although there are many to come for this blog), but I’ve seen several Kurosawa pictures, and they are always spectacular. La Strada marked my formal introduction to the films of Federico Fellini, and when the final credits rolled, this incredibly complex and artistic film left me confused as to what it is that I had just watched.

The plot of the film is simple enough and is not where my confusion lies. Gelsomina is an impoverished country girl that is sold by her mother to traveling circus performer Zampano (played marvelously by Anthony Quinn). Gelsomina is quite dim-witted but generally innocent and pure. Her facial expressions and physical gestures give the obvious impression of an attempt at a sort of female Charlie Chaplin. Her actress Giulietta Massina is not given many lines but she is capable of expressing a wide range of emotions simply through her physical expression which is an impressive feat. Zampano, on the other hand, is a dim-witted womanizing brute and drunk who puts Gelsomina through an incredible amount of suffering throughout the course of the film. Rounding out the primary cast is Richard Basehart as The Fool, another traveling performer who gets entangled in a doomed love triangle with Gelsomina and Zampano. The film basically follows Gesolmina’s life as she is dragged from place to place with the menacing Zampano, and that is really the entire film.

This film feels so much like the biggest possible spiritual predecessor to any sort of modern indie art house film. Symbolism is rife throughout. Nothing really major ever happens through out the entire film. There isn’t any sort  of grand statement to be made about life or politics or the world. It just follows the minutiae of its two main characters (and the one major supporter) and lets their lives do the talking. That’s where my confusion with the film lies. I’m not entirely sure what in the hell the point of the film was. Nothing important or significant enough ever happens (with one glaring exception) to ever be able to wrest any sort of higher meaning away from the film. All of the scenes contain their own sort of beauty and power, but I still haven’t been able to figure out what is the over-arching thread that ties them all together.

The cinematography and direction of the film was outstanding however. You can clearly see the influence that Fellini’s camera working would have on generations of future film-makers and it was really ahead of its time. That was probably the aspect of the film (along with the acting) that managed to keep me engaged with the material even after I’d decided I was completely lost on where this film was taking me. This film really, really, really isn’t for everyone. But if you enjoy artier pictures and you don’t necessarily need a plot that is coherent or even important, you should check it out for its role in cinematic history as a product of a man considered to be one of the all time greats.

Final Score: B