24 June 2010

Relevant to my Interests, Ep. 23

Here's a fun fact about Jeanette MacDonald: apparently, my grandfather had a thing for her, too! My father also admits that she is -- as the kids say these days -- hot, which means Jeanette has three consecutive generations of approval. If that isn't evidence of transcendental beauty, I don't know what is.

P.S. It also helps that she looks like this girl I had a major crush on in college.

19 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 1

1. "Dames" (1934)

Man, do I love this damned song. "Dames" was the eponymous song from the 1934 picture, and just about everything about it is great. An energetic and memorable tune, a toe-tapping rhythm, humorous lyrics and one of Busby Berkeley's best production numbers to go along with it. I'm hardly an expert on the subject, but nevertheless I'll put this song forward as one of the best of the pre-swing era.

The version featured above is a great recording by British singer Leslie Holmes, about whom very little information seems to be extant. Dick Powell -- there he is again! -- sang the song in Dames, but I actually think Leslie Holmes' performance is just a little bit better, even without a production number to go with it. Feel free to check out said production number the film, and see which one you like better.

18 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 2

2. "Keep Young and Beautiful" (1933)

If this song isn't obscure, the picture in which it premiered more than likely is. "Keep Young and Beautiful" was introduced by no less a personage than Eddie Cantor in the picture Roman Scandals, one of a half-dozen movies Eddie made at Samuel Goldwyn Studios. It's certainly one of the most energetic songs on this list, with a upbeat rhythm and an obscenely memorable melody to go along with it -- I've had this song stuck in my head for weeks at a time.

Yet although it's among the best songs in Harry Warren's oeuvre, it isn't nearly as well known as many of his other tunes -- aside from an Annie Lennox cover in the early 90s, it has largely faded into obscurity. Much of this is due, I suspect, to lyrics that could easily be construed as sexist -- e.g. "What's cute about a cutie? / It's her beauty, not brains!" -- and an accompanying production number that could even more easily be construed as racist (blackface, for good reasons, isn't held in very high regard these days). Even so, you oughtn't let trifling matters like political correctness keep you from enjoying a damned good song.

17 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 3

3. "You're Getting to Be a Habit With me" (1932)

This is song that has appeared on this blog before, but I suppose that only serves to demonstrate how much I like it. Along with "Young and Healthy", "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me" worked wonders to keep my spirits up during my year-long stint in the poorhouse (they also helped make 42nd Street one of my favorite movies, but I digress). As with its earlier appearance, the song is here performed by none other than Bebe Daniels, although this interpretation is more down-tempo and balladic than the version I posted a while back.

For a good orchestral rendition, check out this recording by Waring's Pennsylvanians.

16 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 4

4. "Young and Healthy" (1933)

This song has a special place in my heart. It's bright and springy melody kept me going during the long, dark days of late 2008 (along with a certain other song, which I'll be featuring tomorrow). As was the case with several of the other songs on this list, it was introduced on film by Dick Powell, whose upbeat performance of the song still remains the gold standard of "Young and Healthy" renditions. It's featured above, and if it doesn't at least motivate you to get up and move around a little bit, you may want to check yourself for a pulse.

15 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 5

5. "I Only Have Eyes for You" (1934)

Aside from "We're In the Money", "I Only Have Eyes for You" might be the most recognizable song in the Harry Warren catalog. Since its debut in 1934's Dames (where it was sung by Dick Powell and a battalion of chorus girls), Countless versions of the song have been recorded, including renditions by such Jazz legends as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and Frank Sinatra himself. Hell, even Art Garfunkel recorded a version. Although the original musical number was memorable in and of itself -- Ruby Keelers, millions of em! -- the song has since surpassed the movie in fame and renown.

The version of "I Only Have Eyes for You" featured above is a 1934 recording by Eddy Duchin and his Orchestra which quite closely resembles the original version from Dames.

14 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 6

6. "I've Got to Sing a Torch Song" (1933)

Although it isn't one of the better known songs from the picture, "I've got to Sing a Torch Song" nevertheless features prominently in Gold Diggers of 1933 -- It plays during the introductory credits and as background music in various scenes, and Dick Powell sings the song when Ruby Keeler asks him to demonstrate some of his music for the forthcoming revue. "I've Got to Sing a Torch Song" is a surprisingly versatile tune, which lends itself nicely to both slower, balladic renditions and to more upbeat and jazzy interpretations. Dick Powell's rendition featured above falls distinctly into the former category.

13 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 7

7. "Cryin' for the Carolines"

Perhaps the most obscure song on the list so far, "Cryin' for the Carolines" is also the most blues-styled song so far. It was first popularized by Ruth Etting, and later appeared in the 1930 picture Spring is Here, where it was harmonized by the Brox Sisters trio. There were quite a few recordings made of the song -- evidence of its popularity -- but this particularly bluesy rendition by Ben Bernie and the Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra seems to capture the melancholy nature of the music particularly well.

12 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 8

8. "Lullaby of Broadway" 1935

Introduced by Winifed Shaw in a jaw-dropping production number from Gold Diggers of 1935, "Lullaby of Broadway" went on to win an Academy Award in the category of Best Original Song. With it's energetic melodies and cheeky lyrics, it's easy to understand why. Versions of this song were recorded as late as 2006, and readers of a certain age might recall seeing a rendition of it on The Muppet Show.

Busby Berkeley's grand production number from Gold Diggers is featured here. It's so grand, in fact, that it has to be shown in two parts! After checking out part one above, do check out part two, as well.

11 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 9

9. "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" (1944)

A number one hit in 1945, "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" is an undeniably infectious swing tune. The song was popular enough to warrant recordings by numerous singers, among them Bing Crosby, Judy Garland (who famously sang the song in 1946's The Harvey Girls) and Johnny Mercer (who actually wrote the lyrics).The latter version is posted above, for your listening pleasure.

10 June 2010

The Harry Warren Countdown, No. 10

If you don't know the name Harry Warren, you should. Even if you've never heard of the man, odds are that you've heard his music. Harry Warren -- born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna in Brooklyn -- wrote an astounding number of songs in his lifetime, which run the gamut from Academy Award-winning musical numbers to enduring Jazz standards. A cursory glance at his curriculum vitae will likely reveal at least a half-dozen recognizable songs, even for those who aren't big on classic movies.

For the next ten days, I'll be enumerating my ten favorite Harry Warren songs (and trust me, narrowing it down to just ten is no easy task). So, without further ado...

10. "Forty-Second Street" (1933)

The titular song and grand finale number from the movie that just about single-handedly revitalized the Musical genre, "Forty-Second Street" combines an almost martial cadence with a jazzy and endlessly catchy melody. The end result is a song that perfectly captures the energy of its subject matter, perfectly accentuated by the visual accompaniment in the film 42nd Street, as shown here (Ruby Keeler's obvious lip-synching notwithstanding). It's an enduring classic.

03 June 2010

The Wrestler and The Champ

Memorial Day is customarily a day for war movies, more often than not featuring Audie Murphy or (less enjoyably) John Wayne. I opted to break with tradition, however, and watched The Wrestler.

Here is a movie with a lot to like about it. First and foremost is the great performance by Mickey Rourke. In a picture that is by and large a character study, Mickey Rourke really brings the downtrodden Randy "The Ram" Robinson to life (apparently, he improvised significantly in several scenes, adding to the naturalistic feel of his performance). Secondly, the mise-en-scene is truly fantastic -- in addition to the gritty camera work, the film's setting in central New Jersey really enhances the feeling of decrepitude that is prevalent throughout the film, particularly the scenes on the ruined boardwalk in Asbury Park (indeed, much of the filming was done in and around Elizabeth, not far from my old hometown of Passaic). Then there's the surprisingly appropriate soundtrack composed largely of 1980s Glam and Heavy Metal tracks, alongside similarly styled original compositions (performed by former Guns 'n' Roses guitarist Slash). Finally, the film also provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the world of independent wrestling promotions (full disclosure: I was big wrestling fan in the mid '90s. Of course, I still thought it was real back then).

To put the matter simply, The Wrestler is truly a very good movie. I couldn't help but notice, however, a few striking similarities between this movie and King Vidor's 1931 film The Champ. To begin with, the protagonists of the two pictures are very much alike -- Mickey Rourke's and Wallace Beery's respective characters are both former champs long past their prime, living in destitution and just managing to eke out a living by fighting in obscure matches. Even their names are similar -- compare Mickey's Randy Robinson to Wally's Andy Purcell. Perhaps the most significant similarity, however, is the fact that both Randy and Andy suffer from dangerous heart conditions.

One significant point of departure, on the other hand, is the protagonists' relationships with their children. In The Champ, Andy Purcell's relationship with his son Dink (played by Jackie Cooper), although quite strained at times, is nevertheless a loving one. Although he drinks heavily and gambles uncontrollably, Andy still cares a great deal for his son, and Dink looks up to him in spite of his flaws. Although Randy Robinson cares for his daughter Stephanie and regrets not having been a better father to her, it's nevertheless clear that, despite Randy's best intentions, their relationship is largely damaged beyond repair.

Yet the most compelling point of comparison between the two movies might be -- perhaps naturally -- their endings (spoilers ahead, by the way). In a final gamble to turn their lives around, Randy and Andy enter into climactic matches. Although they both emerge victorious, in both cases the victories come (or at least seem to come) at too great a cost. Andy manages to rally from a brutal beating to knock out his opponent, but suffers a fatal heart attack in the wake of the match (as an aside, Jackie Cooper is great in these final few scenes -- his tearful performance doesn't just tug at your heart's strings, it tears the whole thing out of your chest and throws it down at your feet). Meanwhile, Randy is on the way to winning his match when he begins to suffer from heart attack-like symptoms. With his opponent on the mat, Randy pulls himself up to the top turnbuckle for one last leap (this after delivering a heartfelt oration prior to the match, in which he tells the audience that they are his true family). One does not know beyond a doubt that Randy dies after his leap, but it isn't hard to imagine that he does.

Both Andy Purcell and Randy Robinson go out in a last blaze of glory. In doing so, they redeem themselves in the eyes of those dearest to them -- Andy proves his worth to both his son and his estranged wife by sacrificing his life to ensure that Dink has enough money to live on, and Randy manages, even if only for a little while, to once again win the hearts and minds of his own "family."

Of course, this isn't to say that The Wrestler is a rewrite of The Champ; In fact, I'd be surprised if The Champ actually was the first movie to tell this sort of story. The story of a broken man who, even if only a small way, manages to set things right is a theme with a timeless appeal, and one at the very heart of both movies. Although the films are poles apart in terms of feel and technique, it's their common theme that makes The Wrestler and The Champ such excellent movies. Do yourself a favor and watch them both.