Monday, February 19, 2007

Fox Musicals

Just another reminder that tomorrow is the DVD release date of Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here. The New York Post has a nice review.

One reason I like The Gang's All Here so much is that it's one of the few Twentieth Century-Fox musicals where the imagination of the director is really worthy of the work of Fox's cinematographers. Starting in 1940, Fox used Technicolor for nearly all its musicals, and by the middle of the decade it had stopped making black-and-white musicals altogether; it was the first studio, as far as I know, to do that. And not just any Technicolor; Fox's use of Technicolor was so distinctive that it was almost a separate brand in itself. Fox had some of the best color cinematographers in the world, including the master of cinematic color, Leon Shamroy; and Fox Technicolor movies abounded in lush, vibrant colors. Fox stars like Gene Tierney looked so beautiful in Technicolor that it could take your breath away; I've said this before, but when I saw a screening of Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait (a Fox Technicolor film), there were actual audible gasps in the theatre when Tierney first appeared.

But the photography was rarely matched up with a director who had any imagination of his own. Fox didn't have a Vincente Minnelli or a Stanley Donen (and when it had a great director of musicals under contract, Rouben Mamoulian, the studio didn't give him any musicals to direct). It assigned most of its musicals to guys like Walter Lang or Irving Cummings, whose idea of how to stage a musical number was mostly just to plant the camera down in front of the performers and let something happen. Other studios had performers like Fred Astaire, who had strong creative personalities and would give their numbers some kind of imagination and shape, but at Fox, even the biggest musical stars didn't have that kind of clout in shaping their own numbers, so you'd get Betty Grable being handed virtually the same numbers in movie after movie.

This problem was compounded by the kind of musicals Darryl Zanuck liked to make. Fox musicals rarely had people actually breaking into song or expressing their emotions through dance. Instead, most of the musical numbers are diategic: they're performed on a stage, or in a nightclub. There are many Fox musicals where there are no "plot" songs at all (and in a sense, that means they're not real musicals at all, just non-musical comedies about people who happen to be stage performers). And that created the temptation for the director to just photograph the number the way TV cameras would later cover a stage performance: from a respectful distance. Berkeley, with his relentlessly moving camera, total insanity, and refusal to create numbers that could realistically be done on a stage, was one of the few directors to break that mold, but unfortunately The Gang's All Here was his only picture for Fox.

Still, despite the lack of visual imagination, typical Fox musicals do have their own pleasures. Here's one of the best moments from That Night In Rio (also included in the Faye) collection, Carmen Miranda singing the excellent Harry Warren song "I Yi Yi Yi Yi (I Like You Very Much)." As it's a night-time scene and a fairly drab one at that, it doesn't quite do justice to Shamroy's use of Technicolor (for that you have to go to the samba sequence in the opening number, "Chica Chica Boom Chic").

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