Monday, October 01, 2007

A Character Named "Character"

TCM showed Anatole Litvak's Blues in the Night the other day. I love this movie, which is a strange mish-mosh of every possible genre: the backstage jazz-band musical, the gangster drama, the social-problem picture, and elements of what would later become known as film noir. The songs are by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, including the title song, which could well be the best song ever written for a movie. The handling of what was obviously a low budget (even by Warner Brothers standards) is very clever -- the budget probably explains some of the noir-ish setups and shadows, and Don Siegel creates some great, kinetic montages that manufacture big scenes out of fast cutting, close-ups and disguised stock footage.

Unfortunately a DVD is unlikely because it has no big stars; it used mid-level WB contractees like Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson, Betty Field, Richard Whorf (later the director of The Beverly Hillbillies) and some actor named Elia Kazan.

The one thing I wish is that the songs had gotten more expansive treatment; the first performance of the title song deserves more than a minute and a half, though the way it's done is really interesting: it starts out sung a capella (this isn't a full-fledged musical, so people mostly sing in a realistic way) and the orchestra and chorus only enter when Don Siegel's fantasy montage come in. (This version edits out a little bit of dialogue in the middle of the song.)

And another song with a great Mercer lyric, full of '40s slang -- Mercer was one of the few great lyricists who really made an effort to keep up with developing trends in slang -- and preceded by another Siegel montage:


Anthony Strand said...

I've never heard of this movie before, but those songs, Jack Carson *and* Priscilla Lane? I must see it! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

it's jam-packed and action filled.

If anybody's thinking of yet one more movie to turn into a Bway musical, this wouldn't be bad to see.

Andrew S said...

Since the second video no longer plays, not sure which song it is. But this film also contains the Mercer-Arlan standard "This Time the Dreams On Me". It's also one of the most communist influenced American studio era movies (that's not saying much, but really it is), the writer and director and some of the actors were lefties, later blacklisted or friendly witnesses. The jazz group the movie is about pool their financial resources, always look to their leader to tell them what to do, and he gives what little they have to someone seemingly more needy. A most unusual and also enjoyable movie.