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Top Hat – Movie & Musical

Top Hat the MusicalYou may know Top Hat as the most famous of the movies made by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the 1930s – but for the last three years it has also been a stage musical which has notched up a trio of prestigious Olivier Awards and bedazzled audiences up and down the country with the same scintillating blend of great songs, breathtaking dancing, knockout performances, and jaw-droppingly glamorous sets and costumes that made the original film such a smash back almost eight decades ago.

This was the film credited with saving RKO Studios from financial ruin. It is the film which features Astaire’s iconic Top Hat, White Tie and Tails number plus one of the most romantic dance sequences in movie history. It was the first of the Astaire-Rogers films to not already exist as a Broadway show: the songs – which include Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain) and Cheek to Cheek – were written by no less important a figure than Irving Berlin specifically for Fred Astaire to sing, and were instant hits and longterm classics. It’s a musical which fizzes along between song ‘n’ dance numbers with moments of screwball comedy performed by some of the best comic actors of the day. It inspired standing ovations at its first wave of cinema screenings, back in 1935. How could anything dare to follow in its nifty footsteps?

Well, it’s a sign of just how elegantly and thrillingly the stage version has been realised that it has been given the wholehearted blessing of Fred Astaire’s daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie. Despite the fact that she and her father’s estate have no financial interest in the project, Top Hat, White Tie & Tailsshe has become an enthusiastic champion of the show and has even been willing to grant a rare interview ahead of its return to Scotland later this month for the first time since before its West End run.

McKenzie was first approached in 2009, when the show’s producer Kenny Wax outlined his idea and explained that he was having trouble convincing the Irving Berlin Music Company to grant permission to use the songs. She recalls: “He talked to me about my feelings because it is so associated with my father that he was interested in my reaction. Since it had never been a stage show, I thought it was a wonderful idea so I wrote to the Irving Berlin Music Company saying that I felt the timing seemed right, and I’d have no objection. Never did I expect it to be as wonderful as it is – because they added so many more Berlin songs to it which was great because there were only five in the movie.”

Only one aspect of the idea troubled McKenzie. “There was always one hesitation on my part, which I made clear to everybody – that I would not have been happy seeing the leading man trying to play my father rather than the character Jerry Travers. And they’ve all made it their own. So I’m really, really pleased.”

That said, the songs were written specifically for Astaire to sing. Irving Berlin upped sticks from New York to serve as composer in residence, and brought with him what he called his “Buick” – an oversized upright piano with a special mechanism for shifting the keyboard and transposing his melodies into any key – since Berlin had taught himself to play piano in only one key. Also, there was an element of collaboration between Astaire and Berlin: Astaire was keen to recycle a tap routine from a disastrous stage show and his description of it inspired the composer to produce the glorious Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.

Was Astaire at all proprietorial about the songs which were written for him to sing – not just in Top Hat, but also in subsequent films when he introduced Gershwin and Jerome Kern standards? “I don’t think he felt proprietorial about anything,” says McKenzie, pointing out that her multi-talented father was always delighted when others – such as Tony Bennett – sang some of the 40-odd songs he had composed.

Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch, who play Jerry Travers and Dale Tremont, may not be playing their characters as Astaire and Rogers did, but other aspects of the movie have been retained in the stage show – not least the feathered frock which Rogers designed for herself Ginger's feather dressto wear in the swoonsome Cheek to Cheek number. The filming of this particular dance was the source, says Ava Astaire McKenzie, of the rumours of a rift between the movie star dance partners – because Astaire reduced Rogers to tears with his angry outburst when wispy feathers kept detaching themselves from her gown and floating off in his direction.

While he was singing “Heaven, I’m in heaven ..” Astaire was actually, as he later described it, in hell. “It was like a chicken attacked by a coyote,” he said. McKenzie says: “Most of the time they got on very well but he did lose his temper on that occasion because he had not seen the dress – only sketches of it – and nobody took into account that those feathers were not going to stay put. They literally blinded him, got up his nose, and in his eyes – and he lost his temper. Which he would – if anything got in the way of his work. He had a very quick temper about that. So I think that whole rift thing is based on that.

“Of course you know the end of the story is that after it was all over, daddy and Hermes Pan – the choreographer and his best friend – presented Ginger with a little gold feather from Cartier for her charm bracelet and sang a song to the tune of Cheek to Cheek that went ‘Feathers, we’ve got feathers ..’ and he did in fact write a note saying something like ‘Dear Feathers’.”

Understandably, McKenzie has been paying close attention to the Cheek to Cheek dress in the stage show. “There have been two different dresses – one has more feathers than the other, but I did watch to see if they were coming loose, and last time just a few were floating around!”

* Top Hat is at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen from September 23-October 4; the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh from October 7-18, and the King’s Theatre, Glasgow from December 2-13.

First published in The Herald, Friday September 19

 

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City of Stars Exhibition, Glasgow

Back in February I curated an exhibition for the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, of photographs (from The Herald newspaper’s archive) of stars of the movie, music and entertainment worlds who visited the city between 1920 and 1990. It’s been a great success – so much so that the run has been extended indefinitely. The extension coincided with my brother offering his video-making skills to me for my blogs. So, here is a film about the exhibition – which features a cast including Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Bob Hope, Mae West, Danny Kaye, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant,  and Glasgow’s own Hollywood star, Mary Gordon.

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Hollywood’s Forgotten Man: Gregory La Cava

It’s not often these days that a festival programme makes me squeal with delight – but when I saw that the Edinburgh Film Festival was providing me with the chance to see one of my all-time favourite films on the big screen for the very first time, squealing was the only option.

The film is a 1936 screwball comedy entitled My Man Godfrey. In fact, it’s not just “a” screwball comedy; it is – to my mind – THE definitive screwball comedy. With its central romantic couple who bicker and banter and have zero in common, its supporting cast of eccentric nutcases (played by some of Hollywood’s most memorable character actors), its sizzling script and its lavish Art Deco sets, it is up there with Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night as a movie that defines the genre.

Like Capra’s film, it also has an edge over subsequent screwball comedies because it doesn’t focus exclusively on the Park Avenue set; it deals with the Depression head-on, and in a very no-nonsense, though poignant and poetic, manner. (Indeed, its revival seems timely, given the current economic climate.) Its hero (the charismatic William Powell) is a “forgotten man”, a once-successful banker who now gives his address as “City Dump , East River “, a cardboard shanty town under the Brooklyn Bridge just a short camera pan along the waterfront from the swanky townhouses where ditsy socialite Irene Bullock (the luminous Carole Lombard) and her set live.

Just as I’m thrilled to be getting to see MMG – which exists on DVD only in such a poor quality print that I binned mine – on the big screen, so Chris Fujiwara, the Edinburgh Film Festival director, is delighted to be showing it, along with 11 other films by its director, Gregory La Cava, himself one of Hollywood’s forgotten men. 

Even the most cinema-savvy might ask “Gregory La Who?”. After all, terrific as My Man Godfrey is, it is not often shown on TV and is undoubtedly La Cava’s best and best-known film. However, as Fujiwara explains, this is a director who has long been close to his heart – indeed, he’s been waiting a long time to give him the retrospective treatment. “This is the first film festival I’ve been the director of, and I always thought that if I had the chance to do a retrospective – any retrospective I wanted – then I would do La Cava.”

Gregory La Cava on the set of Stage Door, with Ginger Rogers & Katharine Hepburn

Why? “Because he’s a director who really needs a retrospective. He’s one of the great directors from what we consider to be the classic period of Hollywood and he made a number of great films, most of which are very little known even among people who are real film buffs.”

A one-time cartoonist, La Cava, who was born in 1892, began his movie career
making animated films before switching to live actioners in the 1920s, the last decade of silent pictures. Unlike many of his contemporaries he made a smooth transition to talkies. Indeed, as Fujiwara says, “what’s interesting is how well he did that. A lot of directors couldn’t make it and failed, or their careers declined rapidly. It was also a time when Hollyood was bringing out new directors especially from Broadway and from legitimate theatre because they thought that these directors would be better equipped to handle dialogue than people who’d been directing films during the silent period. But La Cava did make this transition and I think that’s a testimony to his incredible imagination, his ability to conceive of what sound could add to film, not just as a sort of extra, but as a sort of dimension of film.”

You only need to watch the “scavenger hunt” sequence of My Man Godfrey – which is reminiscent of the much later work of Robert Altman (MASH etc) – to see what Fujiwara means. The effect of all the hysterical, drunken chatter of a
group of over-excited, brainless socialites is total aural chaos – in the midst of which our man Godfrey is quiet, logical and the calm voice of reason. Some of the dialogue in these scenes get lost amongst the hubub of hyperactive voices but it doesn’t matter – though luckily we do get to hear one wisecracker’s comment that “All you need to start an insane asylum is a room and the right kind of people.”

Gregory La Cava with Irene Dunne on the set of Unfinished Business

Another of Fujiwara’s favourite La Cava films is Unfinished Business (1941) which, he says, shows that he was “very interested in doing something experimental with genre. He mixes pure comedy with very pure drama in this film, and very successfully. It’s a film which looks forward to a lot of the things that Hollywood would do years later, films like The Apartment.”

Ginger Rogers and James Ellison in Fifth Avenue Girl

The genre-mixing is a trademark of several of the films in the retrospective – and another common link is Ginger Rogers. “She was one of La Cava’s favourite leading ladies,” says Fujiwara. “She’s in Stage Door, Fifth Avenue Girl and Primrose Path – and she’s great in all of them. I think she worked really well with La Cava because he encouraged his actors to improvise. Stage Door was practically invented in rehearsal by Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and the other actors and I think you can see it in her performances. Ginger was always great but there’s something extra in the way she performs when La Cava is directing – and those are three of her very best performances.”

Given all of this, why then is La Cava not better remembered? “I think part of it is that he didn’t live long enough,” says Fujiwara. “He died in 1952 and his last film was made in 1947 and there was a five year gap before that. So his career went into decline, obviously. Also, he died at the beginning of the 1950s, just as Hollywood filmmaking was going through a period that was more receptive to the kind of creativity that he had. In the 1950s, there was a real flowering of creativity in Hollywood. It was the period when directors like Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks made some of their greatest work and I think that La Cava could have done that too – had he lived into that period. The fact that he didn’t meant that a lot of people with that sort of interest just overlooked him because he wasn’t working during that period of creativity.”

Is there a case for La Cava as an auteur then? “Oh definitely. I’d call him an auteur – no question. There’s a definite style you can see if you follow his films, even if you just see three or four of the ones we’re showing you can see tht they were made by the same person, that there’s a similar sensibility at work in them. He’s a director I would love the audience in Edinburgh to discover and I’d love to find out what people here think of his work.”

* The Gregory La Cava retrospective runs at the Edinburgh Film Festival from June 26-July 1, then at the Filmhouse from July 7-12.

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Christmas Crackers, Hollywood Style

Strangely for something with as much sentimental potential as Christmas, there is only a handful of really classic Christmas movies. Yet, every year, this buff draws up a list of Christmas movies to watch in the run-up to the big day – and every year she fails miserably to get through them all.

The viewing itinerary usually kicks off with a little-known 1945 comedy called The Cheaters, which is getting a rare screening on Channel 4 this weekend. With a screwball cast that includes the elephantine Eugene Pallette and the twittery Billie Burke (best remembered as Glinda from The Wizard of Oz), it’s about a family of hard-up socialites who – in order to impress their daughter’s rich suitor – take in the down-and-out Joseph Schildkraut over Christmas, and learn a thing or two about dignity from him.

The Cheaters makes a nice double bill with Christmas in Connecticut (pictured), another rarely shown 1945 comedy, this time about a sophisticated magazine columnist (Barbara Stanwyck) forced to live up to her phoney reputation as a Nigella-style domestic goddess when her editor decides to spend the holidays at her country cottage.

Continuing the unwelcome guest theme, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941) is one I always manage to squeeze in to the viewing schedule. A gloriously funny comedy, it stars Monty Woolley as the obnoxious “idol of the airwaves” Sheridan Whiteside (a character based on the humorist Alexander Woollcott) who, during a lecture tour, breaks his leg and has to spend his recovery – and Christmas – at the home of the unlucky mid-west family outside whose house he slipped.

“Christmas may be postponed this year,” says one gossip column reporting the accident which has left the Stanley family confined to the upstairs quarters of their own home. The snazzy script, packed with one-liners, is a joy and the performances – by Billie Burke (again), Bette Davis, chic glamourpuss Ann Sheridan (my Christmas style icon), the wonderful character actress Mary Wickes and Jimmy Durante (playing a character based on Harpo Marx) – are as sparkling as a glass of Christmas bubbly.

Versions – live and animated – of A Christmas Carol abound, but the most atmospheric and haunting of all is the 1951 British classic, Scrooge, with the peerless Scots actor Alastair Sim gloriously dour as the miser who claims that “Christmas is a humbug” until he is visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve and realises that friendship and love are worth more than money.

Wash that one down with the gentler The Bishop’s Wife (1947), a grown-up romantic fantasy in which Cary Grant stars as a particularly debonair and charming angel named Dudley, who answers the prayers of a stressed-out clergyman (David Niven)and his neglected wife (Loretta Young) at Christmas-time, and leaves a trail of swooning ladies in his wake.

Or settle down with family favourite Miracle on 34th Street (1947 – a vintage year for Christmas movies) in which department store Santa Edmund Gwenn has to prove that he’s the real McCoy to a non-believing seven-year-old (Natalie Wood).

Heartwarming Christmas scenes feature in plenty of movies, but the ones worth digging out in the run-up to midnight are Little Women (any of the three versions will do, as long as you have your hankies handy) and Meet Me In St Louis (1944).

Although it covers a whole year in the lives of the characters it depicts, Meet Me In St Louis easily qualifies as a festive film: not only does it embody all the sentiments of the season, but it also features Judy Garland introducing the beautiful song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas which is guaranteed to jerk a few buckets’ worth of tears.

The hours spanning Christmas Eve and Christmas morning should be spent in the company of Clarence the Angel, Zuzu, George, Uncle Billy and everyone else in Frank Capra’s evergreen It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – the definitive Christmas movie.

And, if by December 27, I feel that I’ve overdosed on the old Christmas spirit, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) will provide just the right amount of cynicism to prepare me for the horrors of Hogmanay…

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Newsflash: Meet Me In St Louis on the Movie Cafe

I was invited on to BBC Radio Scotland’s Movie Cafe today to chat about Meet Me In St Louis: you can listen to it here.

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Sim’s Scrooge

It’s 60 years since Alastair Sim played Ebenezer Scrooge on the big screen and although there have been countless versions of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol over those six decades, not one has come close to Sim’s 1951 film, Scrooge. And, yes, I’m referring to such illustrious actors as Albert Finney, Michael Caine, George C Scott and, er, Mr Magoo.

I’ll be honest: I’ve never read A Christmas Carol. So whether Dickens described Scrooge exactly as Sim plays him – a cowardly, emotional cripple who has buried his humanity under an ever-increasing obsession with money and whose frozen heart and icy personality start to thaw when he’s confronted with key moments from his past – I could not say. What I do know is that no other actor whom I’ve seen playing Scrooge has moved me as Sim does – and no other Christmas film, apart from It’s a Wonderful Life, leaves me on such an euphoric high.

Edinburgh-born Alastair Sim not only made the part of Scrooge his own (so much so that, 20 years after the film, he revisited the role when he headed the voice cast of Richard Williams’s cartoon version); he seems to have been born to play it. The part calls on a wide range of emotions – Scrooge undergoes a massive, but gradual, character transformation – but the 1951 film benefits, as no other does, from Sim’s unique gift of conveying glee. Sim’s widow, Naomi, wrote that she liked “most” of the film, “but particularly the scenes of Scrooge’s redemption .. where Alastair put so much of himself into the joy of having the scales lifted from his eyes and of being given another chance.”

We’d seen Sim’s irrepressible giggles before but there is nothing – Jimmy Stewart’s jubilant “Merry Christmas Bedford Falls” sprint through Bedford Falls apart – as uplifting or infectious as his hysterical fit of giddy mirth at the climax of Scrooge. It’s the cinematic equivalent of ecstasy.

And it’s not only this dazzling yet unshowy central performance that makes the film a winner. The supporting cast – a veritable Who’s Who of British acting talent – is ace; Brian Desmond Hurst’s direction is superb and Victorian London is beautifully evoked both visually and by the sombre yet eerie music.

 

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Three Cheers (and Six Martinis – Each) for the Charles’s: Celebrating The Thin Man

IT may not top the lists of greatest movies of all time, but the sparkling 1934 comedy-mystery The Thin Man was undoubtedly one of the most important films of its time. Not only did it introduce one of the screen’s most popular comedy partnerships in the elegant shapes of William Powell and Myrna Loy, but it also helped launch the screwball comedy which quickly became the defining genre of the decade. Yet, at the same time, its look (it was shot by cinematographer James Wong Howe, one of the greats) and its convoluted murder plot paved the way for the film noirs of the 1940s.

It was the first film to show a modern marriage, and one of the last films to get
away with overt sexual references before the censors clamped down in the mid-1930s. Its characters had fun, whether socialising, bickering or – and this was unprecedented – solving a murder. It was a film very much of its time, and yet, in the States, Thin Man parties – in which revellers drink to keep up with the hero and heroine – are still something of a cultish institution.

Based on a novel by Dashiell “The Maltese Falcon” Hammett, The Thin Man effortlessly blends mystery with comedy as ex-detective Nick Charles (Powell) is lured out of his luxurious retirement with his socialite wife, Nora (Loy), to track down a missing inventor. Dead bodies start to turn up, and the film climaxes in a dinner party at which Nick and Nora – aided and abetted by cops dressed as waiters – play host to the motley crew of suspects before revealing whodunnit.

The Thin Man moves at a brisk pace – only slowing down long enough for Nick and Nora to order their next cocktail, discuss their next cocktail, mix their next cocktail, drink their next cocktail or recover from the cocktails they put away the night before. It was directed by WS Van Dyke, known as One Shot Woody, because he was so economical, and shot in a staggering 16 days – half the time generally allotted to MGM’s movies. The script – by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who went on to write It’s a Wonderful Life – is snappy and packed with witty banter delivered, often at high, His Girl Friday-like, speed, by Loy and Powell, wisecrackers par excellence.

One of the most striking aspects of the movie – which will surprise anyone who thinks that the older the film the less likelihood there is that there will be any reference to sex – is the risqué nature of the dialogue. In one exchange, Nick and Nora discuss the newspaper coverage of his recent brush with a bullet.

Nick: “I was shot twice in the Tribune.”

Nora: “I read that you were shot five times in the tabloids.”

Nick: “He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids!”

Occasionally, the film likes to remind the audience that this couple is legit. When cops barge into their hotel bedroom and find a pistol, one of them asks: “Do you have a licence to keep a gun? Haven’t you heard of the Solomon Act?”
“Oh,” quips Nora, “that’s okay – we’re married!”

The fact that Nick and Nora start the film married was a novelty in the early 1930s. As Samuel Marx, the head of MGM’s story department, said years later: “Even that was a risk because in those days you got married at the end of a movie, not at the beginning. Marriage wasn’t supposed to be fun.” Nick and Nora had a playful, flirtatious relationship. Not only was it fun, but it was also a marriage of equals. They bickered and bantered and played tricks on each other but everything they did was underpinned by their obvious mutual respect.

The other constant in this marriage was booze and if there’s one aspect of The Thin Man which – after the twentieth martini – makes for rather uncomfortable viewing, it’s the amount of alcohol consumed. As Samuel Marx pointed out, the relaxed attitude to drinking must have been “a jolt” to audiences still uneasy about social drinking in the months following the repeal of Prohibition.

And yet, drink is a key feature of the movie. Nick is first seen standing at the Ritz bar, giving the bartenders a lecture on mixing a martini – “A Manhattan you shake to a foxtrot, a Bronx to a two-step, but a dry martini you should always shake to waltz time.” When Nora turns up, she is also somewhat the worse for wear. Dragged into the bar by the couple’s long-suffering terrier, Asta, she exclaims: “Oh there you are. He’s dragged me into every gin mill on the block.” Nick replies: “I had him out this morning.. ” When it’s not martinis, it’s Scotch – and variations on the “he’s working on a case – of Scotch” gag crop up in The Thin Man and all of its five sequels.

As for the hangovers, well, Nora’s appearance with the ice pack on her head was probably the first time in Hollywood movies a woman had been shown paying the price for a night on the tiles. Tipsy women were to become a staple of the screwball comedy, a genre which The Thin Man – along with two of 1934’s other big comedies, It Happened One Night and Twentieth Century – helped sire.

But the greatest legacy of The Thin Man was the birth of the comedy team of Powell and Loy. The pair had worked together on the crime movie Manhattan Melodrama earlier in 1934 and its director WS Van Dyke had witnessed them trading banter between takes. Seeing their potential as a screen couple who wouldn’t have to work at creating chemistry, he immediately decided that they were his Nick and Nora. The two stars went on to headline nine more comedies together; the spark they ignited in that original Thin Man film lasting throughout their screen partnership.

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