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.
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.
Hooray for Hollywood, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Wednesday December 7
Anyone who fell under the spell of the charismatic John Wilson and his sensational orchestra after watching them performing their concert of classic songs from MGM musicals would know that that show was a hard act to follow. The MGM concert featured some of the greatest numbers ever written for the movies and in the most sumptuous arrangements; and the Glasgow concert last November was spine-tingling from start to finish.
This year’s tour – which rolled into the Usher Hall on Wednesday – focused on songs from musicals made by every other studio. RKO, Disney, Paramount, Warners and Fox were all represented (rather bizarrely in a couple of the choices) – and while the concert featured fewer thrills than last year’s, it still produced magical moments a-plenty from the swinging 42nd Street which introduced the quartet of singers through to such stand-out duets as Noah Stewart and Sarah Fox’s electrifying One Hand, One Heart and Stewart’s commanding solo on Sigmund Romberg’s Serenade.
These two more operatic singers produced the showstopping vocal moments; Kim Criswell and Matthew Ford were at times overpowered and overshadowed by the orchestra behind them, notably on the exquisite The Man Who Got Away.
Indeed, the John Wilson Orchestra – the happiest and most animated orchestra you’re likely to see – was THE main star of the evening: not only did it produce a gorgeous and luxurious sound but its choreographed bow-taking (each section did a wee comedy turn) couldn’t have been better staged by the great Busby Berkeley himself …
* Published in The Scotsman, Friday December 9.
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.
Thank God for conductor John Wilson and the BBC SSO. Without them, fans of the great Bernard Herrmann would not have had the chance to be immersed for 24 hours in some of the most iconic, haunting and emotive music ever written for film – and to hear some of it played live for the first time in Glasgow.
The Herrmann weekend kicked off on Saturday evening with a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with Herrmann’s classic score being played live by the orchestra. Despite a technical hitch near the beginning, this was a hugely enjoyable experience – on several levels. It was a treat to see the film on the big screen and in the company of others, rather than home alone on a TV, and it was a thrill to hear the music up close and being performed by the dynamic strings of the SSO. Indeed, at points it was difficult to stay focused on the screen, so animated were the musicians.
The murder scenes may not have the same impact now as they did on first viewing, but what the slightly disjointed effect of having the film music played live highlighted was how much of the work in the iconic shower scene was done by those shrieking strings. This was further underlined on Sunday afternoon when the orchestra played the Psycho music in a concert setting: all the contact between knife and skin is in the music (you never see it), and this music stands up all by itself.
Although the sell-out Psycho Live performance was obviously considered the hotter ticket, the Sunday afternoon concert turned out to be the more satisfying, since it allowed the audience to focus entirely on the music. No film composer evokes the windmills of troubled minds or gets under the skin like Herrmann, and this concert – again featuring sensational playing, this time by the whole orchestra – was exhilarating from start to finish, with the almost unbearably beautiful and electrifying Vertigo music the most breath-taking five minutes of the weekend.
Other highlights included the swoonsomely sumptuous Marnie opening titles, the rousing overture from North by Northwest and a handful of suites by other film composers, including David Raksin (whose Laura music should be played more often) and Constant Lambert, whose Anna Karenina score revealed similarities with Herrmann’s work.
Only complaint? A complementary season of films at the GFT wouldn’t have gone amiss – and might have helped satisfy the withdrawal symptoms inevitable after this glorious Bernard Herrmann binge.
You can watch some of the Music to be Murdered By concert online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00kld89
To accompany my last post, on John Wilson’s views on Bernard Herrmann and his film work, here’s my pick of the best movies to feature his music.
* Citizen Kane (1941). Orson Welles’s groundbreaking fictional biopic of a newspaper magnate featured an equally groundbreaking score which was more spare than what had gone before, and made great use of the brass and woodwind sections of the orchestra to create a sense of darkness and an oppressive atmosphere.
* The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947). Beguiling period romantic fantasy about the love affair between a young widow (Gene Tierney) and the ghost of a gruff sea captain (Rex Harrison). Herrmann’s exquisite score conveyed all the longing and desire that couldn’t be portrayed onscreen. This YouTube film is a lovely homage to this cult movie which, I reckon, would make a wonderful double bill with the equally romantic and beautifully scored (by John Barry) 1981 time travel film Somewhere in Time.
* On Dangerous Ground (1952). Herrmann named his romantic score for this cultish mood piece about the slow-burning relationship between tough city cop Robert Ryan and a blind girl as his favourite of his own work.
* The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): Herrmann not only wrote the extraordinarily tense music for Hitchcock’s kidnapping drama (which stars James Stewart and Doris Day), but is also seen conducting the orchestra (playing Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds Cantata) at the Albert Hall in the climactic scene.
* Vertigo (1958). Herrmann’s repetitive, pulsating, spiraling music not only reflects James Stewart’s obsession with Kim Novak but enables the audience to experience its effects as well.
And as for the love theme … well, listen and sigh..
* North By Northwest (1959). One of the sexiest and most tongue-in-cheek Hitchcock films, it stars Cary Grant in a case of mistaken identity and has a suitably quirky, though magnificent and dramatic, Herrmann score – a fandango, of all things. John Wilson says: “I’d love to do that film with the live orchestra….”
* Psycho (1960): The ultimate Hitchcock thriller, and the ultimate Herrmann score – which John Wilson says “does stand upon its own, it’s wonderfully unique”. Janet Leigh stars as the young woman on the run who soon regrets checking into the Bates Motel.. Right from the start, the music lets us know that something bad is going to happen…
* Cape Fear (1962). So effective was Herrmann’s thunderous, menacing score for J Lee Thompson’s terrifying thriller – in which Robert Mitchum played the psychotic Max Cady – that Martin Scorsese retained it for his 1991 remake.
* Marnie (1964). The lush romantic music for this film outclasses the performances by Tippi Hedren as the eponymous kleptomaniac, and Sean Connery as the man who wants to save her.
* Taxi Driver (1976): With this brooding, and intermittently romantic, urban-sounding score, Herrmann ended his career as he had started it – at the top, with one of the most important films of the decade, Martin Scorsese’s study of disturbed Robert De Niro’s descent into violence.
The zombies of Brad Pitt’s new movie may have left Glasgow but there are going to be some traumatised souls wandering around the city centre again next Saturday. Why? Because – as part of a weekend centenary celebration of the music of film composer Bernard Herrmann – the classic 1960 Alfred Hitchcock chiller Psycho is being screened at the City Halls, with its iconic, nerve-jangling music being performed live by the BBC SSO.
The tension in the audience is likely to be tangible according to conductor John Wilson, whose last visit to Glasgow was with his own orchestra and their joyous concert of songs from MGM musicals. Raising his arm as if about to impersonate the knife-wielding psycho of the film, he explains: “I’ve done this before and during the build-up to the shower scene, the tension was absolutely palpable. I could hear people whimpering behind me when I was poised to give the downbeat to this shrieking, stabbing violin quote.”
Even seasoned viewers of the film are likely to feel renewed tension from the live performance of the score. And there’s certainly plenty of stress involved for Wilson whose job it will be to synchronise the orchestra’s playing with the action on the screen. He’ll be relying on an analogue clock to keep him right. “I prefer to do it that way,” he explains. “You have a timecode on the score and you have a clock which is synchronised to the film.” Which is exactly how Herrmann probably recorded the original score with his studio orchestra? “Yes, but they had lots of attemps at it till they got it spot-on. We’ve got one!”
Won’t he be a nervous wreck, especially given how unsettling and edgy the music is? “It is stressful,” he admits, “but it won’t be anything like as bad as when I did The Wizard of Oz – and I had Munchkins to deal with! There was no margin of error there because I had singing as well as dialogue to synchronise with, and only an eighth of a second to play with. It takes that time for the eyes and ears to notice that if the music and the image are not in synch. Psycho is more straightforward – and the music is less technical, though very effective.”
Indeed, there are few Hollywood composers whose work is as effective or as integral to a film’s artistic success as Bernard Herrmann – especially where his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock are concerned. In those films, a Herrmann score is never merely background music; it is almost always a partner to the action onscreen. It’s impossible to recall Vertigo without hearing its throbbing, swirling, obsessive love theme or its eerie arpegios (recently quoted in – of all things – the hit TV cop show New Tricks), or to picture Cary Grant clambering atop Mount Rushmore without hearing the insistent, driving fandango which propelled the action throughout North By Northwest, or to imagine that iconic shower scene in Psycho, without hearing those shrieking, stabbing violins.
So integral was Herrmann’s contribution to his films that Hitchcock would tell him: “I’ve left reel three for you”. And the composer would fill it with music which, as Wilson says, gave you everything you couldn’t see. “He seemed to have an unerring instinct for catching the mood of a film, right up to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, his last score, and he was so technically adroit in so many different styles that he could pinpoint musically exactly what the subtext of a scene was. He never took you in the wrong direction, as it were.”
You only need to watch Janet Leigh’s car journey in Psycho to understand this element of the power of a Herrmann score. If you play the scene without sound, Leigh could be en route to the supermarket or to pick her kids up from school; turn the volume on, and it’s immediately apparent that something very, very bad is going to happen. The music unnerves and unsettles. “It’s that unresolved harmony,” says Wilson. “It’s completely ambiguous. There’s lots of that in Herrmann’s music – you get shifting blocks of unresolved harmony, harmony that can never go anywhere.”
Herrmann – who started his movie career at the very top, with Orson Welles’s iconoclastic Citizen Kane – used music to communicate emotion, to reflect the psychological and emotional state of the characters and help the audience understand their troubled minds. Did he change the function of film music?
“I think he did, in a number of ways,” says Wilson. “He was so determined and serious-minded, such a craftsman, that he raised the status of film music. Don’t forget Herrmann was a very, very highly regarded conductor and he had a career as a legitimate composer for the concert hall. He viewed the art of writing film music very seriously and he was a perfectionist. He was completely uncompromising in his choice of timbre and choice of instruments and he wouldn’t be dictated to by directors. He talked himself out of many jobs. But he fought for the cause of film music and was very erudite and articulate about it. He dragged the art of composing for the movies up a notch.”
At the same time, argues Wilson, Herrmann moved film music on from “that very opulent, late-romantic, Wagnerian/Straussian sort of sound” that the first generation of Hollywood composers, led by Max Steiner, had established. “I guess Herrmann was the first to incorporate into that style a leaner, more angular, more sparsely scored, less generic sort of sound.”
Wilson was first captivated by Herrmann’s music when he was a student at the Royal College of Music. “In my first year, I got all these LPs out of the library – LPs by Charles Gerhart and the National Philharmonic. He recorded a series on RCA of Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman and Miklos Rosza – all those film composers – and there was a Herrrmann one in there called Beneath the 12 Mile Reef or something like that. It had nine harps in it. Then I read about one he’d written with five organs.. and I was intrigued. Round about the same time I saw Vertigo for the first time, and I loved it. I love all those Hitchcock films.”
The best of those Hitchcock scores will be played in the second concert of the Herrmann centenary celebration weekend in Glasgow, along with music by some of his colleagues, among them David Raksin (Laura) and Alfred Newman (All About Eve). Wilson explains: “Herrmann is the singlemost effective composer of music for films but it doesn’t always stand up as well on its own in concerts – it’s too repetitive, it hasn’t any organic development in it and it’s so married to the films. Things like Vertigo occupy such a unique sort of sound world that you can give them an airing because people have the images in their heads already – but a lot of film music doesn’t stand up on its own in concerts.”
Having said that, Wilson remembers that he’ll be conducting some music from Marnie, the only Hitchcock film which is outclassed by its score. “Oh, the music in Marnie is sumptuous. I love the unrestrained romanticism of it,” sighs Wilson. “It would be difficult for any film to come up to the level of that score. It’s one of my favourites.”
When it comes to great movie composers, they don’t come much hipper than Bernard Herrmann, whose centenary falls today. During his lifetime and in the 30 years before his death, Herrmann has regularly been rediscovered and championed by younger film and music aficionados.
How many long-dead composers have had their work recycled for a Quentin Tarantino? Bernard Herrmann did: his theme for the 1968 British film Twisted Nerve featured in Kill Bill Volume 1, in 2003.
While movies such as Psycho and Cape Fear have been remade for new audiences, their Herrmann-penned scores have been considered sacrosanct. Suites of timeless music for these films and other from the voluminous Herrmann back catalogue are regularly performed in concert halls.
But what is it about Herrmann’s music that has made it so enchanting and so enduring? It is catchy and memorable, but more importantly, it is an integral part of a movie. It is as much of a factor in the artistic success of a film as the image. A Herrmann score is never merely background music; it is always a partner to the action onscreen.
It’s impossible to recall Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) without hearing its throbbing, swirling, obsessive love theme, or to picture Cary Grant clambering atop Mount Rushmore without hearing the insistent, driving fandango which propelled the action throughout North By Northwest (1959), or to imagine that iconic shower scene in Psycho (1960), without hearing those shrieking, stabbing violins.
Herrmann and Hitchcock worked together on eight movies, the others being The Trouble With Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1956) , Psycho, The Birds (1963; on which Herrmann worked as a sound designer) and Marnie (1964). Torn Curtain (1966), the first Hitchcock film in a decade to not have a Herrmann score – or indeed any music during its extended music scene – was a flop.
What made Herrmann the ideal partner for Hitchcock was his groundbreaking way of using music. When he started in Hollywood, most film composers were churning out post-Romantic style scores, and the conventional function of music was to communicate intellectual ideas to the viewer in a shorthand form. Music could suggest period of a place; it could comment on the image onscreen, or hint at trouble immediately ahead.
Herrmann started his movie career at the very top, with Orson Welles’s iconoclastic Citizen Kane, and it was an apt debut because the young composer, like the young director, wrote his own rules.
He used music to communicate emotion, to reflect the psychological and emotional state of the characters. Period and place didn’t enter into it. (After all, what has the fandango, a Spanish dance form, got to do with the plot of North by Northwest? Absolutely nothing.) In some films, such as the beguiling supernatural romance The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947), the romance between a young widow and a dead sea captain is almost entirely created by the score which conveys longing and desire in a way that couldn’t work in the script.
Herrmann helped Hitchcock’s audience better understand the troubled minds of the characters they were watching onscreen. James Stewart’s obsession in both The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which he’s on a race against time to find his kidnapped son and prevent an assassination, and in Vertigo, in which his obsession with Kim Novak is fuelled by guilt and lust, is not only underlined by the repetitive, eerie score; it is partly evoked by it.
Herrmann started his career at the top – and he ended it there too. His last film was Martin Scorsese’s psychological study Taxi Driver, one of the most important movies of the 1970s.
In the years running up to his unexpected death, aged 64 in 1975, Herrmann, that most modern of movie composers, was enjoying collaborations with many rising stars of modern cinema. Since then, and thanks to them, his music has rarely been out of fashion.
* I’ll be discussing Bernard Herrmann’s work on the Movie Cafe, BBC Radio Scotland on Thursday at 1.15pm, and The Filmhouse cinema in Edinburgh is showing a terrific season of Herrmann-scored films from today.
Today would have been the 85th birthday of movie legend Marilyn Monroe – and I thought I’d take the opportunity to celebrate a less feted aspect of her career: her singing.
Monroe may have sung in more than a quarter of her films – including some of her best-loved ones – but her singing is rarely mentioned in any of the potted biogs written about her. And yet, her sultry, soulful and sumptuous vocals contributed enormously to her overall sex appeal (witness the fact that songs were shoehorned even into the western River of No Return) – it’s just that everyone has been distracted by her visual voluptuousness..
Nevertheless, her singing abilities were recognised by her employers almost from the word go. She sang various numbers in her first notable role – in Ladies of the Chorus, in 1949, and memorably crooned along to a record of Kiss in the thriller Niagara (1953).
Thereafter, Monroe gave a string of iconic musical performances. As Lorelei Lee, the archetypal gold-digging blonde, in the sparkling Howard Hawks comedy-musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), she guaranteed herself a place in the pantheon of great Hollywood musical moments when she sang Diamonds Are Girl’s Best Friend.
While Marilyn got to prance around in Schiaparelli-pink satin as debonair dancers draped diamonds on her, poor old Jane Russell (as her best pal, Dorothy) had as her featured number Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love. The song was okay, though hardly Hoagy Carmichael’s finest, but Russell had to perform it with a particularly camp-looking crew of scrawny, knobbly-kneed dancers who did not look in the slightest bit interested in her or her impressively upholstered chest.
Monroe and Russell actually made a pretty good team, both comically and musically: they duetted memorably on Hoagy Carmichael’s When Love Goes Wrong (Nothing Goes Right), and Jule Styne and Leo Robin’s Bye Bye Baby and A Little Girl From Little Rock.
There’s No Business Like Showbusiness (1954) also made good use of Monroe’s singing skills – notably on the sizzling Heat Wave.
But easily the most sexually charged of her musical performances were to be found in Some Like It Hot. As Sugar Kane, the emotionally fragile yet effervescent singer with Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters, Monroe only sang a trio of songs (Runnin’ Wild, I Wanna Be Loved By You and I’m Through With Love) but they make an indelible impression: indeed, she pretty much ruined them for anyone else. Even those who had sung them first..
I Wanna Be Loved By You may have been associated with another Kane – Helen, the original boop-boop-a-doop girl from the 1920s (and many a Betty Boop cartoon), but from 1959 onwards, it was Marilyn’s grown-up, sensual version that first sprang to minds, and poor old Helen’s girlish boop-boop-a-doops were forgotten.
The piece de la resistance was Monroe’s I’m Through With Love, the perfect song choice for a character who’s been bruised by bad love affairs before (and now thinks she’s in love with an impotent and somewhat camp millionaire with a Cary Grant voice). It’s difficult to conceive of a more exquisite reading of that song (though Goldie Hawn’s in Everyone Says I Love You comes a very close second): Monroe was never more vulnerable or more exposed. And I’m not just talking about the way she’s dressed.
Only one more musical outing remained for the doomed star: the pretty awful Let’s Make Love (1960) which has as its redeeming factor Monroe’s often-forgotten, but utterly fab, version of Cole Porter’s My Heart Belongs to Daddy.
Sadly, there’s not a lot of Marilyn Monroe on compact disc – just the afore-mentioned songs, plus a few other goodies (including a dreamy take on the Gershwins’ Do It Again which seems to have been recorded independently of any film), which are available on any number of cheap compilations. Still, they’re cheap compilations worth having.
It may not have glorious Technicolor, its leading lady may be completely out of her depth, and it may have been made by a studio better known for its gangster movies, but 42nd Street is undoubtedly the grand-daddy of the Hollywood musical. Not only did this 1933 film reinvent and revitalise the movie musical, but it also championed a new way of filming song and dance numbers, and became a template for generations of musicals that followed.
The story of a Broadway production, from the auditions through to the end of opening night, 42nd Street was not the first backstage musical. However, it was the first to contrast the dazzlingly flamboyant dance numbers with the grim, offstage reality of life in the chorus. It was the first to boast a one-liner-packed script (“She only said ‘no’ once – and that was when she didn’t hear the question…”) which was every bit as impressive as its songs. Most importantly, it was the film which changed the way the camera was used in the musical.
Before 42nd Street, the Hollywood musical was a stodgy, unimaginative affair. Studios bought hit Broadway shows and recreated them in front of movie cameras. There was nothing cinematic about the experience; the camera observed but barely moved. In 42nd Street, the camera moved almost as much as the dancers – thanks to the extraordinary vision of choreographer Busby Berkeley, whose embryonic style was first glimpsed in the 1930 Eddie Cantor film Whoopee.
Thanks to Berkeley’s work in 42nd Street, the camera in the movie musical graduated from being an observer to a participant. In the film’s Young and Healthy number, it looks down from high above the heads of the dancers and watches them move in military-inspired formations to create kaleidoscopic patterns and geometric shapes.
These immediately became a hallmark of the Berkeley style, which has been affectionately parodied in everything from Mel Brooks’s The Producers (its showstopping Springtime for Hitler number featured dancers forming swastika shapes) to the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (when the Dude’s pot-induced fantasy sees him floating down a tunnel of chorus girls’ legs).
The title number of 42nd Street is an entirely different matter. Whereas Young and Healthy is all about symmetry, and features its dancers clad in identical white costumes against a shiny, plain black background, in 42nd Street, everyone “onstage” is involved in their own little drama. The camera swoops and soars, glides from one cluster of people on the teeming street set to another, scales a building to the first floor room then pans right out to show the whole, breathtaking, scene. It darts about the way the viewer’s eyes would move about if he or she were in a theatre.
With its jazzy feel, bold staging and catchy, exhilarating tune, it is still exciting to watch – despite the fact that the main solo performer, Ruby Keeler (AKA Mrs Al Jolson), sings flat and tap dances like a marionette needing its joints oiled. It was unlike anything that had ever been seen in a movie musical, and it showed that anything goes.
It wasn’t just the style of the musical numbers that made 42nd Street stand out, but the contents of them. In the title song, which, unusually for a closing number, is sung in a minor key, everything from assault to murder is depicted. It fits in beautifully with the rest of the film which is populated with less than scrupulous characters and a surprisingly sordid storyline: the show is being bankrolled by the leading lady’s sugar daddy in return for her personal services. When the show’s desperate producer learns that his star is two-timing the backer, he gets a gangster contact to put the frighteners on her secret lover.
Not only did 42nd Street have a profound impact on the musical generally; it also put Warners Bros on the musicals map, with the result that the studio produced a collection of musicals in the 1930s which is as distinct and worthy of attention as the elegant Astaire-Rogers musicals made by RKO around the same time, or the Technicolor musicals produced by the Freed Unit at MGM from the late 1940s.
All subsequent Warners musicals starred players drawn from a pool which included Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and James Cagney; all boasted ever more ambitious flights of fantasy from Busby Berkeley as well as sassy, ballsy scripts, and all showcased the songs of Harry Warren and Al Dubin. The antithesis of the upmarket, escapist musicals being produced elsewhere in the 1930s, such Warners musicals as the Gold Diggers films, Footlight Parade and Dames were characterised by the studio’s gritty, realistic house style and were unique in their acknowledgement of the on-going Depression.
While MGM was making operettas with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and Fred and Ginger (who played Anytime Annie in 42nd Street) were introducing audiences to the exotic moves of the Carioca or the Continental
at RKO, Warners’ musicals had a sense of urgency about them: the characters’ very lives depended on their shows being hit. “You’re going out there a
youngster,” the producer tells Ruby Keeler’s character in 42nd Street, “but you’ve got to come back a star.” No pressure then..
Warners didn’t just allude to the Depression; they shoved it right in the audience’s collective face: Gold Diggers of 1933 opens with Ginger Rogers and a chorus line (pictured below) clad only in oversized coins, singing We’re In the Money. Before they finish the number, the bailiffs have moved in and are stripping the stage – and the girls. The movie ends with the spine-tingling, bluesy number Remember My Forgotten Man, a plea for dignity which became a Depression anthem and which, with its chorus line of down and out war heroes (there isn’t a scantily clad chorine in sight), is one of the highest high points of the Warners musical.
42nd Street is not the greatest musical ever made, but it is certainly one of the most daring and influential. The big parade goes on for years/ It’s a rhapsody of laughter and tears/Bawdy, gaudy, naughty, sporty – 42nd Street!
* 42nd Street (screening on Monday at the Glasgow Film Theatre at 11am) kicks off the Ginger Rogers retrospective at the Glasgow Film Festival (February 17-27; www.glasgowfilm.org/festival).