27 January 2009

Dueling Musicals, Part II: Dancing Lady (1933)

When last we met, Warner Bros. had unleashed a series of highly successful musical films over the course of 1933. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, meanwhile, had not attempted a major musical since 1930; The March of Time (which was scrapped before production was complete) and Lord Byron of Broadway (which bombed at the box office) were both produced that year. With hostilities reopened on the musical front, MGM needed to hit back in a major way. To that end MGM released Dancing Lady in November of 1933. The picture was a hit at the box office, and proved to be just the counter-stroke that MGM needed--the Operation Uranus to Warner Bros. Case Blue, if you will (is that a dense enough metaphor for you?).

Dancing Lady is the story of Janie Barlow (played by Joan Crawford), a burlesque showgirl who decides to have a go at legitimate theater after her previous show is broken up by the police. She is bailed out by Tod Newton (Franchot Tone), one of those Park Avenue types you hear so much about, and who clearly fancies Janie (and who can blame him?). Janie attempts to get the attention of veteran Broadway director Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable), but to no avail. Tod again helps Janie out by agreeing to finance Patch's production on the condition that Janie be given a place in the show. A typical Joan Crawford love triangle ensues (along with a few plot points that I, to be perfectly honest, don't feel like recounting), but after all the sound and fury Janie ultimately winds up as the leading lady. By the way, does that sound familiar?

For a variety of reasons, I enjoyed Dancing Lady, perhaps more than a sane person ought to. The most obvious reason is none other than Joan Crawford herself, who (aside from being stunningly gorgeous) is fantastic throughout the whole picture. Indeed, Dancing Lady is almost a biographical sketch of Joan, who--like her character--rose from the rank of a mere chorus girl to a top-tier starlet. Though her singing voice may leave something to be desired, Joan dances well enough and is quite endearing as a comedienne. If 42nd Street was Ruby Keeler's ticket to stardom, Dancing Lady cemented Joan's position in the Hollywood firmament; so great was her success in the picture that Dancing Lady remained a de facto measuring stick for her subsequent roles at MGM.

Now that I have sufficiently fawned over Joan Crawford, let us consider a few of the other players in the film. Dancing Lady was the fourth film in which Clark Gable played Joan's leading man (they ultimately made eight films together). In this picture, Clark Gable is... well, Clark Gable. He does what he always does, and does it as well as he always does. Franchot Tone makes quite a good Park Avenue chap, perhaps because he was one off the screen as well as on. Ted Healy and his stooges--the Moe, Larry and Curly of legend--also make an appearance as stage hands, still at the beginning of their Hollywood careers at this point. At the same time, this picture was one of the last appearances of Winnie Lightner, who appeared in several early talkies at Warner Bros. before attempting (unsucessfully, sadly) to freelance. Finally--and perhaps most interestingly--Dancing Lady marks the film debut of Fred Astaire, who serves as Joan's dance partner in the picture's musical finale.

Ironically, neither Fred Astaire nor the Stooges would stay with MGM for long after Dancing Lady. The Stooges made a few shorts at MGM before moving on to greater fortunes at Columbia. Fred Astaire, meanwhile, was under contract to RKO Pictures and had been loaned out to MGM for Dancing Lady. Had the studio heads at MGM forseen the kind of success these two short-timers would have down the road, they no doubt would have forked over heaps of money to keep them in the MGM stable of stars. It is quite a twist of fate that Dancing Lady was produced by David O. Selznick, who had signed Fred Astaire to RKO before returning to produce pictures at MGM in the stead of an ailing Irving Thalberg (come on, you think this shit is interesting, too!).

For all the hits MGM and Warner Bros. rolled out that year, the battle for musical supremacy was hardly decided in 1933. Warner Bros. produced a series of Gold Diggers pictures, with installments in 1935, 1936 and 1938*. Not to be outdone, MGM produced the Broadway Melody series, with iterations in 1935, 1937 and 1940*. Picking a winner is largely a subjective matter, but two important factors must be considered. First of all, MGM managed to remain profitable throughout the Depression while Warner Bros. (not to mention the rest of Hollywood) failed to do so. Second, MGM continued to crank out musicals during the 1940s and 1950s, giving rise to the likes of Gene Kelly. Ultimately, it seems that MGM was victorious on the musical front, and Dancing Lady was doubtless a considerable factor in that victory.

*Note that I am going by the year the films were produced, not by the years in the title.

25 January 2009

Dueling Musicals, Part I: 42nd Street (1933)

In 1933, Warner Bros. released a trilogy of Busby Berkeley-directed musicals: 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of '33 and Footlight Parade. Aside from having largely identical storylines, all three of the films featured eerily similar casts--Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell as the showstoppers, Guy Kibbee as the plutocrat and Ned Sparks as the same deadpan character he always seems to play. Though each of the three films is notable in its own right--Gold Diggers spawned a trio of follow-ups and Footlight Parade was insturmental in provoking Will Hays and company to bring down the production code hammer--42nd Street is the primary focus here.

The cliff notes version of the plot is this: Broadway Director Julian Marsh (played by Warner Baxter) is placed in charge of Pretty Lady, a forthcoming production that, it is hoped, will be a smashing success. Dorothy Brock (played by Bebe Daniels) is slated to be the leading lady, thanks to the machinations of Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), her patron and the financial backer of the production. A hopeful young ingenue named Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) arrives at the tryouts and manages to make the cut, after befriending a pair of chorines (Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers) and making the acquaintance of Billy Lawler (Dick Powell), an up-and-coming young player. Trouble ensues as word gets out of Dorothy Brock's ongoing tryst with Pat Denning (George Brent), an old vaudeville partner of hers. At the same time, Denning is trying to get into Peggy's panties. One thing leads to another, and Dorothy winds up breaking her ankle in a drunken spat with Peggy and Pat. At the last minute, Peggy is chosen to replace Dorothy as the lead, and the fate of the entire production is in her hands.

42nd Street was an immense success, and made a star of Hollywood newcomer Ruby Keeler. Showbusiness, of course, was hardly anything new for Ruby, who has been onstage since the tender young age of fourteen (being Mrs. Al Jolson probably didn't hurt her either). She was also quite the dancer, although there are times when she does seem a bit stiff as actress. In any event, she would be paired with Dick Powell in several more pictures. 42nd Street was also an important early success for Ginger Rogers, who (as we all well know) would go on to achieve considerable fame as the dancing partner of Fred Astaire (more on him in Part II).

On the other hand, 42nd Street was one of the last major roles for Bebe Daniels. Bebe's portrayal of Dorothy Brock is one of my favorite aspects of 42nd Street (not that that should come as a surprise to anyone). By the time 42nd Street was released in 1933, Bebe had been in pictures for 23 years and was a true veteran. Her excellent singing voice allowed her to weather the transition to talking pictures, and is featured here in the song "You're Getting to be a Habit with Me." It seems somehow very poignant that Bebe, as Dorothy Brock, gracefully steps aside and lets the younger actress capture the limelight.

Aside from being a resounding hit in its own right, 42nd Street also revitalized the market for movie musicals, thanks in no small part to the mad genius of Busby Berkeley. The coming of sound saw the film industry inundated with musicals, many of which were rather forgettable (anyone who has had the fortitude to sit through the Hollywood Revue of 1929 can attest to this). With 42nd Street and its successors, Warner Bros. Studios had struck gold. It remained to be seen how Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would respond.

21 January 2009

17 January 2009

Free Associations, Ep. 7: "Jag Vill Ensam Vara"

On the surface, Greta Lovissa Gustafsson and Per Yngve Ohlin have very little in common, excepting the fact that they both hail from Stockholm in Sweden, the land of Vikings, reindeer and inexpensive modernist furniture. Yet Greta Garbo (as the former is famously known) and Dead (as the latter is known, albeit much less famously) have a bit more in common than most people realize.

Both Garbo and Dead were reclusive and esoteric, and both seemed entirely absorbed in their respective arts and in their own cultivated personae, and certainly both were known for their, shall we say, distinctive voices. Both were dour and brooding, and were rarely caught smiling; neither of them were known for their humor. Finally, both are remembered by posterity for being titans in their respective crafts.

Of course, I'll be the first to admit that they have their differences--Dead didn't wear gowns by Adrian, was never nominated for an academy award and could never conceivably be linked romantically to John Gilbert. Likewise, Garbo never buried her clothes for days before wearing them on camera, didn't keep a dead bird in a bag for the purpose of "inhaling the smell of death" and most likely wasn't fond of self-mutilation (at least not to the point that she had to be taken to the hospital for blood loss). Finally, the two died under vastly different circumstances--Garbo lived to the ripe old age of 84, whereas Dead committed suicide at age 22 (and in quite a grisly fashion, I might add).

I can only imagine the chaos that would have ensued had Garbo killed herself at the height of her fame (although I can imagine that Joan Crawford would have taken pictures of the gruesome scene before reporting it to anyone, much like Euronymous did. She just seems like that sort of gal).

Regardless of their fellow actresses or bandmates, however, these two secretive and unusual personalities will always bear an eerie similarity in my mind. And you should count yourself lucky that I didn't decide to throw ABBA into the equation!

Addendum: As it turns out, Greta and Dead are buried in the same cemetery: Skogskyrkogården, in Stockholm.

15 January 2009

The Godflatmate

Some time later, she was found floating in Long Island Sound.

13 January 2009

Stirring up the Shit Pot

This is one of my personal favorite hobbies. It must run in the family. There's nothing like fanning the flames of controversy.

10 January 2009

The God Simplex

There is an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine about the Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Despite living not all that far from the main campus of the church (and despite having been in Ballard just last weekend), this was the first time I'd ever heard of Mark Driscoll and his parish. As I understand it, the church espouses a decidedly theologically conservative form of Calvinism, a branch of hard-line Protestantism that is so stringent that it makes the Papacy seem laid back by comparison.

The Calvinist Church is one with which I am fairly familiar. My mother's side of the family--which is almost entirely Dutch-Indonesian with just enough French Huguenot mixed in to make things interesting--is eminently Calvinist, some relatives to the degree that they fit quite snugly into the patchwork of the Christian Conservative bloc (this despite other relatives carrying on quite proudly the tradition of Dutch liberalism, but I digress). I myself was baptized a Calvinist, in fact. As you might have guessed, I never really toed the Calvinist line. I didn't care much for church as a child--for me, it was a boring place to which my mother always tried to drag me on Sunday (and not, I might add, with a great deal of success). It was not until I was able to comprehend the finer points of Calvinist theology that I sought to properly distance myself from Calvinism.

My primary objection to Calvin's theology is one that is cited in the Times Magazine article: the notion of predestination, which essentially argues that God has already determined who will be saved and who won't. This led me to wonder what the importance was of being a good Christian if it had no influence on the fate of one's soul. When I posed this question to my mother, who was (and still is) prone to the sentiments of self-righteousness that seem to be typical among the more tenacious Protestants, she didn't really have an answer. John Calvin no doubt would have had me beheaded for my insubordination.

Such a hard-line approach is no less extant in the Mars Hill Church, where Mark Driscoll tolerates no opposition from his parishioners to his message. Nor is Driscoll's theology any more egalitarian--among the tenets of Driscoll's religion is the doctrine of complementarianism, which bars women from leadership roles within the church and charges women with submission to their husbands in domestic matters. In addition to all this, Driscoll preaches an image of Christ that is decidedly hyper-masculine, peppering his sermons with rhetoric that, vis-a-vis his aversion to a "queer Christ," reeks of homophobia (and I suspect, given the references to a "feminzed Christianity," just the slightest bit of latent misogyny).

The Mars Hill Church may be a relatively new rendition of the Calvinist doctrine, but it still fails to address my standing objection to the doctrine of predestination. Beyond that, the Mars Hill Church has many of the same issues present in other megachurches, primary among these the fact that in its perceived atavism it misses the essential point of the Christian philosophy--companionate love for one's fellow human being; what in Latin would be called caritas. That--not frenzied glossolalia, not impassioned talk of hellfire and certainly not the judgment and condemnation of those who don't conform to a given set of dogmatic niceties--is truly how humans can reach the divine.

06 January 2009

Brain Droppings

Once again at a loss for meaningful things to discuss at any length, I am again forced to resort to sharing my often nonsensical stream of consciousness with the faceless masses of the internet. Here's the latest installment of my own Brain Droppings.
  • The homonymous new album by Taake is out (it has been for some time, actually). My first impression is that it's decent Black Metal, but only that. The folkish elements that truly made Taake great and set the band apart from the rest of the horde seem to be missing, and the music just doesn't seem to make a lasting impression. I suppose I should expect this sort of thing from a guy who claimed he wanted to lose fans, however.
  • In the unlikely event that I should ever manage to land myself a wife, I can only hope that she is half as awesome as Nora Charles, especially as portrayed by Myrna Loy in The Thin Man. While I'm being unrealistic, it wouldn't hurt if she looked like Myrna Loy, too. Men must marry Myrna, after all.
  • Speaking of The Thin Man, it is great old flick that everyone and their mother ought to see (and considering that you can watch the whole thing on Youtube, there really is no excuse not to).
  • The phrase "everyone and their mother" is interesting. By definition, wouldn't the term "everyone" include mothers to begin with? And what about the mothers' mothers? Are they included as well?
  • The video for the song "Flight" by the British Ambient/Experimental band Stray Ghost is strange but interesting. Buster Keaton seems so far removed from the atmosphere of the track, but with the footage edited as it is, the video and the music seem to go together oddly well.
  • I've been following along with the current unpleasantness in the Gaza Strip. Not particularly closely, mind you, but more with the detached interest with which the casual sports fan watches the Super Bowl. I predict that Israel wins in a blowout. Also, what's the over/under on civilian casualties?
  • Now that I've installed a new video card, my computer now seems to be in complete working order. This would be great if I had money to waste on computer games.

04 January 2009

"That's the Kind of a Baby for Me"

She's got a dainty style
A little baby smile
The kind that makes you want to stick around a while
She's got those dreamy eyes
And every time she sighs
You'll forget your family
The other evening in a cabaret we spent
And when I saw the check, I thought it was the rent
But when the waiter came
She simply signed her name
That's the kind of a baby for me!

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