Blindspotting: West Side Story and 42nd Street

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One of the reasons why you may not often hear as much about plot or character when discussing musicals is that they tend to use age old stories at their core. More often than not it’s all about those tunes and performances, so those familiar tales are used to provide a familiar landscape from which to launch the song and dance routines. As I sat down to catch up with a couple of classic musicals with well-worn structures – a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet set in the big city and a backstage look at the lead up to a performance’s premiere with a big break for a young ingenue – I wondered if either of these tales could be given new life via more than just their music and production numbers…While each brought moments of wonderful creativity and sparkling entertainment (in different amounts), the stories were, for the most part, still born.

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That’s not enough to dismiss either film though. In particular, West Side Story is a monument to production design and choreography. Just about every shot in the film is packed with colour from mixed pastels to bright primaries to everything in between in just the right combinations. As a series of stills it would make for an incredible photography exhibit. Of course, much of the secret to the film is its motion in the form of Jerome Robbins’ choreography (he’s also credited here as a co-director along with the master of many genres Robert Wise). It feels novel and exciting even 50 years down the road. It’s sharp and quick and powerful – in short, it’s incredibly physical. It’s an expression of the character’s youthful energy and their inability to find a place to put it, and so it ends up working perfectly during the confrontation and fight scenes where the dancing is essentially the fighting itself. If not every tune fully landed with me, the vast majority did and mostly kept me with the 2 and a half hour runtime. Mostly.

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Blindspotting in 2014

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Let’s review…This whole idea behind the Blind Spot series (kicked off 2 years ago by top notch Toronto blogger/writer dudes James McNally and Ryan McNeil) is solely meant to poke and prod slackards like myself into finally getting around to those films that we not only feel are classics we should see, but ones we really want to see. Whether the titles are standard “Canon” fodder or some goofy grindhouse flick that you found for a dollar and have had sitting at home for 5 years, the point is to nudge us to watch something that has obviously caught our eye, but keeps getting passed over. Indeed, life is too short to watch something dull/crappy simply to “get through it” and check it off a list, but we’re talking about movies that sparked some kind of interest at some point and now vie for your attention with a vast array of other possibilities. The vast majority of the 44 blindspots I’ve seen and written about over the last 2 years (pairing movies for each post) have been well worth the wait and typically confounded expectations that had been in place for years. Even the ones that didn’t do much for me at least gave me something to consider.

So here is my initial cut at the pairings I’m looking at for 2014 (with me reserving the right to scrap them and alter my choices based on nothing more than a whim). What about you? Any particular film or films you’ve been meaning to see, but keep avoiding?

 

Breaking The Waves (1996)
Shanghai Express (1932)

One of the pairings I didn’t get around to last year, so let’s give it another shot. Almost 65 years separate these two stories of women and their sacrifices – it just takes one of them exactly twice as long as the other to tell its version.

Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)
Ashes And Diamonds (1958)

The other pairing I didn’t do last year was Best Years Of Our Lives and From Here To Eternity (I decided to swap them out for a couple of Westerns). On reconsidering their inclusion again this year, I still wanted to get to Best Years, but this time out I thought I would match it up with another post-war story. I’m expecting the view from Poland to be in sharp contrast to the one from the U.S. though.

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West Side Story (1961)
42nd Street (1933)

Busby Berkeley’s flights of imagination seem to be a good match for the colour and choreography of West Side.

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Film on TV: November 29 – December 5

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Night of the Living Dead, playing Saturday on TCM.

Among new things this week we find Charlie Chaplin’s first full talkie The Great Dictator on TCM on Monday, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, a relatively early oddity in Frank Capra’s career, on TCM on Tuesday, late Truffaut film The Last Metro on IFC on Thursday, and Romero’s zombie classic Night of the Living Dead on TCM on Saturday. TCM brings out some 1940s greats to go along the latest installment of Moguls and Movie Stars, which focuses on wartime Hollywood, so stay tuned for those Monday and Wednesday night.

Monday, November 29

11:30am – TCM – Gold Diggers of 1933
The story’s nothing to get excited about (and in fact, the subplot that takes over the main plot wears out its welcome fairly quickly), but the strong Depression-era songs, kaleidoscopic choreography from Busby Berkeley, and spunky supporting work from Ginger Rogers pretty much make up for it.
1933 USA. Director: Mervyn LeRoy. Starring: Joan Blondell, Warren William, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Aline MacMahon, Ginger Rogers, Guy Kibbee.

1:15pm – TCM – 42nd Street
By 1932 when 42nd Street came out, the Hollywood musical had already died. So excited by the musical possibilities that sound brought in 1927, Hollywood pumped out terrible musical after terrible musical until everyone was sick of them. 42nd Street almost single-handedly turned the tide and remains one of the all-time classic backstage musicals. It may look a little creaky by later standards, but there’s a vitality and freshness to it that can’t be beat.
1932 USA. Director: Lloyd Bacon. Starring: Warner Baxter, Ruby Keeler, George Brent, Bebe Daniels, Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, Una Merkel.

8:00pm – IFC – Barton Fink
One of the Coen Brothers’ most brilliant dark comedies (heh, I think I say that about all of their dark comedies, though), Barton Fink follows its title character, a New York playwright whose hit play brings him to the attention of Hollywood, where he goes to work for the movies. And it all goes downhill from there. Surreal, quirky, and offbeat, even among the Coens work. It’s based loosely on the experiences of Clifford Odets, whose heightened poetic style of writing has clearly been influential on the Coens throughout their career.
1991 USA. Director: Joel Coen. Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, Tony Shalhoub.
(repeats at 1:45am on the 30th)

8:00pm – TCM – Moguls and Movie Stars: Warriors and Peace Makers
TCM’s Hollywood History series enters WWII, examining how Hollywood reacted to the war – everything from war-themed films to escapist entertainment to explicitly political films. A selection of those films directly inspired by the war and war efforts play tonight, then several other non-war themed 1940s films play Wednesday night as part of the series.

9:00pm – TCM – Casablanca
Against all odds, one of the best films Hollywood has ever produced, focusing on Bogart’s sad-eyed and world-weary expatriot Rick Blaine, his former lover Ingrid Bergman, and her current husband Paul Henreid, who needs safe passage to America to escape the Nazis and continue his work with the Resistance. It’s the crackling script that carries the day here, and the wealth of memorable characters that fill WWII Casablanca with life and energy.
1943 USA. Director: Michael Curtiz. Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains.
Must See
(repeats at 6:00pm on the 5th)

12:00M – TCM – The Great Dictator
Chaplin’s first completely talking film, and one in which he doesn’t play his Little Tramp character. Instead, he’s both Hitler and a Jewish man who looks strikingly like Hitler. This obviously creates confusion. Brilliantly scathing satire – it always amazes me that it was made as early as 1940.
1940 USA. Director: Charles Chaplin. Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard.
Must See
Newly Featured!

2:15am (30th) – TCM – They Were Expendable
There are films that don’t seem to be all that while you’re watching them – no particularly powerful scenes, not a particularly moving plot, characters that are developed but don’t jump out at you – and yet by the time you reach the end, you’re somehow struck with what a great movie you’ve seen. This film was like that for me – it’s mostly a lot of vignettes from a U-boat squadron led by John Wayne, the only one who thought the U-boat could be useful in combat. But it all adds up to something much more.
1945 USA. Director: John Ford. Starring: John Wayne, Robert Montgomery, Donna Reed, Jack Holt, Ward Bond.

3:45am (30th) – IFC – The Piano
I often find Jane Campion films overly pretentious, but this one strikes the right chord, with Holly Hunter as a mute woman in an arranged marriage who finds love with one of her husbands’ hired hands – but stealing the show is her young daughter, an Oscar-winning performance by Anna Paquin.
1993 New Zealand. Director: Jane Campion. Starring: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin.

4:30am (30th) – TCM – Hollywood Canteen
One of several films made during WWII that largely functioned as excuses for studios to parade their stable of stars on-screen in cameos, musical numbers, and comedy bits – in this case, the central device is the major Hollywood USO location of the title with a standard soldier-starlet romance plot, and the film has basically the whole Warner Bros. lot running around. It’s entertaining though not that good, and fun to see so many big stars playing themselves for a change.
1944 USA. Director: Delmer Daves. Starring: Robert Hutton, Joan Leslie, Dane Clark.
Newly Featured!

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42nd Street Forever: Volume 1

42nd Street Forever 1 DVD CaseHello everyone. It’s been a while.

Since I last posted on Row Three, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the wild, crazy world of what’s commonly known as “Grindhouse”, or exploitation, cinema (both terms seem a bit overused nowadays, don’t they?). To this end, I purchased a series of DVDs, released by Synapse Films, titled 42nd Street Forever, which are essentially a collection of trailers from the Grindhouse era (starting in the late 60’s on through to the mid 80’s). It’s a terrific series of DVDs, and I really have a lot of fun watching them. So, as a way of kinda slipping back into things here on Row Three, I thought I’d devote some time to covering each volume of the 42nd Street Forever collection.

Volume 1 contains over 2 hours of trailers, covering a wide range of genres and sub-genres. Needless to say, many of these trailers stretch the boundaries of good taste to their absolute limit (there’s plenty of nudity, graphic violence, and a whole lot of what we’d today term “political incorrectness” packed into these trailers). But let’s be honest: that’s what makes them so much fun!

Now, instead of me just droning on about the various trailers in each series, I thought I’d take full advantage of all the internet has to offer by presenting a few of them, just to give you an idea of what you’d be in for if you chose to check Volume 1 out.

That said, I guess I better start off with the following:

Warning: the trailers presented in this post are of an adult nature, and contain violence, nudity, and sexual situations. By clicking READ MORE below, you are confirming that you are of a proper age to view this material, and are not easily offended by blah blah blah blah blah).

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get started:

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Film on TV: October 25-31

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Strait-Jacket, playing Saturday on TCM.

With TCM already filling every Friday night this month with Hammer horror, I wondered what they were going to save for Halloween itself, but I shouldn’t have worried. What they’ve got all weekend (Friday-Sunday) is a treasure trove of 1930s-1950s horror – everything from early Technicolor horror like Doctor X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum to Val Lewton to Hammer’s Frankenstein films on Friday to a whole raft of William Castle films throughout most of Saturday, another round of Lewton late Saturday early Sunday, then most of Sunday devoted to Roger Corman and Vincent Price. I didn’t single out all of these films, mostly only the ones I’ve – but suffice it to say that if you’re a fan of this style of horror, just keep your TV tuned to TCM all weekend and you’ll be more than happy.

Monday, October 25

6:30am – TCM – Black Orpheus
This reimagining of the Orpheus/Eurydice myth set amidst the Rio de Janeiro Carnival won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
1959 Brazil/France. Director: Marcel Camus. Starring: Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn, Marcel Camus, Léa Garcia, Lourdes de Oliveira.

8:30am – TCM – Summertime
I haven’t seen this David Lean drama, but Kurt and rot were talking about it in some comments recently, and made me more interested in it than I ever have been before. So maybe I’ll check it out.
1955 USA/UK. Director: David Lean. Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Rosanno Brazzi.
Newly Featured!

12:45pm – IFC – Pan’s Labyrinth
One of my absolute favorite films of the past decade (or ever, really), an absolutely beautiful and terrifying fantasy that juxtaposes the gruesome horrors of the Spanish Civil War with an equally horrifying fantasy world that provides, if not escape, at least some measure of importance and control to the film’s young heroine. Guillermo Del Toro solidified my view of him as a visionary filmmaker with this film, and it still stands to me as a testament to what fantasy can and should do.
2006 Spain/Mexico. Director: Guillermo Del Toro. Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Meribel Verdú, Doug Jones.
Must See

2:15pm – TCM – One Two Three
Billy Wilder directs James Cagney in fast-talking near mania as a Coca-Cola manager in Berlin tasked with keeping tabs on the boss’s daughter. This comedy moves at breakneck speed, showcasing Wilder and screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond’s genius for dialogue. Not as memorable as many of Wilder’s others, perhaps, but a hidden gem.
1961 USA. Director: Billy Wilder. Starring: James Cagney, Pamela Tiffin, Arlene Francis, Horst Buchholz.

4:15pm – TCM – Roman Holiday
Audrey Hepburn’s first lead role, and the one that immediately catapulted her into stardom. She’s a princess who runs away to try out being normal, and spends an adventurous day exploring Rome with incognito journalist Gregory Peck. Pretty much delightful right the way through.
1953 USA. Director: William Wyler. Starring: Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Albert.

11:30pm – TCM – Mickey One
This is not a particularly great film, but it is interesting as a pre-Bonnie and Clyde collaboration between Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty, where they’re trying to do some of the same things in terms of bringing European style to an American story. It’s not nearly as successful as Bonnie and Clyde, but it does have its moments.
1965 USA. Director: Arthur Penn. Starring: Warren Beatty, Alexandra Stewart, Hurd Hatfield, Franchot Tone.

3:15am (26th) – TCM – 42nd Street
By 1933 when 42nd Street came out, the Hollywood musical had already died. So excited by the musical possibilities that sound brought in 1927, Hollywood pumped out terrible musical after terrible musical until everyone was sick of them. 42nd Street almost single-handedly turned the tide and remains one of the all-time classic backstage musicals. It may look a little creaky by later standards, but there’s a vitality and freshness to it that can’t be beat.
1932 USA. Director: Lloyd Bacon. Starring: Warner Baxter, Ruby Keeler, George Brent, Bebe Daniels, Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, Una Merkel.

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Film on TV: March 16-21

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Kiss Me Deadly, playing on TCM on Saturday

Two birthday marathons on TCM this week – Akira Kurosawa on Tuesday (one of a multiple mini-marathons leading up to his centennial birthday on the 23rd) with heavy hitters The Bad Sleep Well, High and Low and Red Beard and some lesser-known ones; then Ginger Rogers on Wednesday, mostly concentrating on her pre-code stuff, including 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, as well as a bunch of other obscure ones that probably aren’t quite “good” in the strictest sense of the word. Other newly featured stuff includes Ealing’s The Lavender Hill Mob on Tuesday, Kiss Me Deadly and 12 Angry Men on Saturday, and the Billy Wilder-penned Midnight on Sunday.

I apologize for not getting this posted yesterday. I got distracted with other things, and then it got late, and then…OH, I FORGOT TO FINISH IT, OKAY? I’m sorry. There wasn’t really anything of interest on today anyway.

Tuesday, March 16

11:30am – TCM – The Lavender Hill Mob
Alec Guinness leads the Ealing Studios regulars in this delightful heist comedy, one of the greats among a bunch of great late ’40s, early ’50s Ealing films. Also look for a really young Audrey Hepburn in a walk-on (this is her first film, I believe).
1951 UK. Director: Charles Crichton. Starring: Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sid James, Marjorie Fielding.
Newly Featured!

1:00pm – TCM – The Great Escape
I expected to mildly enjoy or at least get through this POW escape film. What happened was I was completely enthralled with every second of it, from failed escape attempts to planning the ultimate escape to the dangers of carrying it out. It’s like a heist film in reverse, and extremely enjoyable in pretty much every way.
1963 USA. Director: John Sturges. Starring: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, James Coburn, James Donald.
Must See

4:00pm – TCM – Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Musical tones and volcano images haunt Richard Dreyfuss, eventually leading to an encounter with some of the most strangely beuatiful and mysterious, yet apparently friendly, aliens ever put on film.
1977 USA. Director: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban.

8:00pm – TCM – Akira Kurosawa centennial marathon
So, TCM’s playing Kurosawa films because it would be his 100th birthday on the 23rd of March. Predictably, I haven’t seen any of the offerings tonight, though, also predictably, I’m hoping to change that. Tonight, they’ve got The Bad Sleep Well followed by High and Low, and Red Beard, and then on into the morning with I Live in Fear and Scandal.

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Film on TV: February 22-28

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Stage Door, playing at 3:30am on Sunday, Febuary 28th (late Saturday)

 

As TCM’s Oscar-celebratory month winds down, they’ve still got a few new ones to throw at us – the first musical to win a Best Picture Oscar, The Broadway Melody, shows on Monday; an actual good Merchant-Ivory film in A Room With a View turns up on Thursday; and fantastic underrated film noir The Killers plays on Thursday; finally, one of my personal all-time favorite films, Stage Door, hits the screen late Saturday/early Sunday (trust me, picture quality is higher than the still above; couldn’t find a decent cap). Sundance also springs Zhang Yimou historical actioner Curse of the Golden Flower to us on Sunday. As expected, the rest of the week is filled out with great repeats on all channels – many classics, both new and old.

Monday, February 22

2:00pm – TCM – The Broadway Melody
After Warner Bros. thrust the film industry into the sound era with Jolson’s musical numbers in The Jazz Singer, it wasn’t long before other studios latched onto the musical possibilities provided by the debut of synchronized sound. MGM led the way with this backstage entry (the first of a series of unrelated “Broadway Melody” films) and earned themselves a Best Picture Academy Award. That’d never hold up today – this is extremely creaky and old-fashioned now – but hey. It has historical interest.
1929 USA. Director: Harry Beaumont. Starring: Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love.
Newly Featured!

6:00pm – TCM – Sunset Boulevard
Billy Wilder’s classic noir explores the dark side of the rich and formerly famous, as a struggling screenwriter (William Holden) gets involved with a silent screen star seeking to make a comeback in the sound era. In one of the most brilliant cast films ever, actual silent screen star Gloria Swanson returned to the movies to play the delusional Norma Desmond and actual silent star/director Erich von Stroheim (who worked with Swanson on the never-finished Queen Kelly, portions of which appear in Sunset Boulevard) plays her former director/current butler. The film is a bit on the campy side now, but that doesn’t diminish its enjoyability one bit.
1950 USA. Director: Billy Wilder. Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Nancy Olsen, Erich Von Stroheim, Buster Keaton.
Must See

11:45pm – TCM – It Happened One Night
In 1934, It Happened One Night pulled off an Academy Award sweep that wouldn’t be repeated until 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, snagging awards for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress. Colbert is a rebellious heiress, determined to run away and marry against her father’s wishes. Along the way, she picks up Gable, a journalist who senses a juicy feature. This remains one of the most enjoyable comedies of all time, with great scenes like Colbert using her shapely legs rather than her thumb to catch a ride, Gable destroying undershirt sales by not wearing one, and a busload of people singing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze.”
1934 USA. Director: Frank Capra. Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert.
Must See

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Film on TV: December 28-January 3rd

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Renaissance, playing Monday at 8:25am on IFC

 

Not too many new ones this week, but still plenty of great films to round out the year, including a marathon of Hitchcock’s best films on TCM on New Year’s Eve, followed by the entire Thin Man series overnight. EDIT: Sorry the early ones on Monday, including Renaissance (pictured above) have already happened. I scheduled the post to post last night and for whatever reason, WordPress thought it better not to post it.

Monday, December 28

6:15am – Sundance – Adaptation.
Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s follow-up to Being John Malkovich is slightly less bizarre, but still pretty out there – just in a more subtle way. Nicolas Cage plays a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman who’s stuck in his attempt to adapt a bestseller; it doesn’t help when his successful brother (also played by Cage) shows up. The end feels like it’s going off the rails, but that’s all part of the genius.
2002 USA. Director: Spike Jonze. Starring: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Tilda Swinton, Chris Cooper.

8:25am – IFC – Renaissance
In near-future Paris, a brilliant young scientist is kidnapped; her employer Avalon (a highly influential company that sells youth and beauty itself) wants her found, but her importance to them may be more sinister than first meets the eye. The story’s not handled perfectly here, but it’s worth watching for the beautifully stark black and white animation.
2006 France. Director: Christian Volckman. Starring (English version): Daniel Craig, Romola Garai, Ian Holm, Catherine McCormack, Jonathan Pryce.
Newly Featured!
(repeats at 2:05pm)

10:45am – IFC – Before Sunrise
Before Sunrise may be little more than an extended conversation between two people (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) who meet on a train in Europe and decide to spend all night talking and walking the streets of Vienna, I fell in love with it at first sight. Linklater has a way of making movies where nothing happens seem vibrant and fascinating, and call me a romantic if you wish, but this is my favorite of everything he’s done.
1995 USA. Director: Richard Linklater. Starring: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy.
Must See
(repeats at 4:00pm, and 5:05am on the 29th)

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42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933

Most musicals and comedies made during the 1930s were escapist fluff, meant to take audiences’ minds away from the troubles of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl for a couple of hours of music and laughter. Fred and Ginger’s dancing at RKO, Bing Crosby’s singing at Paramount, MGM’s Broadway Melody series, the screwball comedies of Hawks and Leo McCarey, the slapstick stylings of the Marx Brothers – all of them sparkling and calculated to ignore the economic woes of the world outside.

But Warner Bros. as a studio was known for making less glamorous, more hard-hitting films in the 1930s, building their reputation on gangster films and “ripped from the headlines” social commentary pictures. It’s probably not surprising, then, that musicals made at Warner Bros. would have a different tone than most contemporary musicals. Sure enough, both show business classic 42nd Street and lesser-known programmer Gold Diggers of 1933 (which would spawn two sequels) take the Depression itself as a major theme and plot point.

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Gold Diggers of 1933

42nd Street (1932)

42nd Street isn’t known as the granddaddy of backstage movies for nothing – it opens with word spreading around Broadway that famed director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is putting on a show, continues through auditions and rehearsals, setbacks and last-minute casting changes, and finishes with the opening night extravaganza.

(Click through for the rest of the entry. The video below is a brief bit of amusement from Gold Diggers of 1933.)

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