Tag Archives: Ginger Rogers

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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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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42nd Street

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).

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