Sunday, August 17, 2008

Great Movie Musical Numbers of the '60s?

Bob Fosse's Sweet Charity is probably my favorite movie musical of the '60s, which doesn't say a lot for the '60s. The movie has a lot of problems: Shirley MacLaine is merely a good dancer instead of the really spectacular dancer the lead role requires (though in fairness I don't know which established movie star would have been better, and Gwen Verdon just wasn't a big enough movie name to do the film), Fosse never settles on a consistent tone for the movie version, most of the characters are unlikable and the ending -- either version -- is terrible. (The original ending of the stage version is in keeping with the whole show, a whimsical, fairy-tale take on what is admittedly a dark and depressing story. That ending wouldn't have worked for the movie, but Fosse never came up with one that worked; actually, I think the "happy" ending he rejected is better than the one he wound up using, but neither one really plays.) What it has that most other '60s movie musicals don't have is a handful of really superb numbers. Not functional numbers that move the thing along; not numbers where you're supposed to be impressed at how much money they cost; and not numbers that come off as filmed stage plays (which is how a lot of good '60s musicals, like The Music Man, come off to me).

They're numbers that do what a great movie musical number must do: blow you away with the combined impact of music, choreography, performance and camerawork. Even though they're similar to the way they were done onstage, Fosse makes them cinematic, not so much with the flashy cutting and temporal tricks, but the more old-fashioned virtues of putting the camera in the right place and staging the numbers with the camera in mind. A great cinematic moment in the "Rhythm of Life" number, below, comes near the end at about 3:53 when Sammy Davis Jr. dances Shirley MacLaine across the Panavision frame; Davis runs out of frame, and then he and his two buddies pop up again from below the frame. That's staging a musical number with the boundaries of the frame in mind -- and that's genuinely cinematic because the staging is based on the fact that we can't see anything outside of the frame, instead of just seeing the frame as a way of zeroing in on bits of a stage picture. The best number in the film, "The Rich Man's Frug," is the same way.

By contrast, most movie musicals of the '60s, even the good ones, had numbers that didn't really stand out as brilliant self-contained conceptions where all the elements come together, like the best numbers of Fred Astaire, or the Trolley Song, or the "Isn't It Romantic?" sequence from Love Me Tonight (those last two aren't dance numbers; a great musical number doesn't have to have dancing). They're nice approximations of the stage versions, or they're big bloated overdone monsters like the Hello, Dolly! numbers, or they're numbers that do their job in moving the story along and don't -- and aren't meant to -- stop the show, like most of the numbers in The Sound of Music.

As I said, this applies even to the good or great movie musicals of the '60s. Oliver! is a very fine, cinematic musical, and a very good candidate for best musical of the '60s (it deserved the Oscar, in my opinion) but the numbers strike me more as very good versions of the typical '60s movie musical number: big, splashy numbers that depend more on size and scope than on the actual choreography or concept of the number -- they're much better than the numbers in Hello, Dolly!, but they're of the same type.

Whereas a small number, quickly-shot, can be a knockout moment if the director, choreographer and performers all share a really interesting, coherent concept for the number and execute it well. Take the "My Rival" number from Viva Las Vegas. That number shouldn't be anything and, by the standards of the big musicals of the time, it isn't anything; it's a not-great song and the number is confined to one room. But George Sidney, the director, shot the whole thing in one take, worked in precisely-timed and funny gags related to the fact that Ann-Margret is making lunch while doing the song, and came up with a number that is a little gem in the great tradition of '30s, '40s and '50s musicals -- and not at all in the tradition of big bloated '60s musicals.

What are some '60s movie musical numbers that work that way for you -- not necessarily the biggest, or the most expensive, or the ones that reveal plot and character the most efficiently, but just numbers that are truly effective, coherent, cinematic numbers that make you feel that you just have to rewind and watch that again?

Here are some others that come to mind for me:. Several of these numbers involve Ann-Margret, and that's not a coincidence; of all the '60s stars she's the one who was best suited to the old-school musical numbers favored by the old-school director George Sidney, and she was almost completely unsuited to the big-budget high-class '60s musical. (She was considered for the second lead of Mrs. Molloy in Hello, Dolly!, but she didn't get the part; there are persistent rumors that Barbra Streisand didn't want a second lead who might overshadow her. But A-M wouldn't have been right for such a bland part anyway.) She was basically a '40s musical star in the wrong era.

- "A Lot of Livin' To Do" from Bye Bye Birdie, which may be the single best number in any '60s movie musical; it's tasteless and garish, from a tasteless and garish movie, but everything, choreography, lighting, performance, composition and color, is working brilliantly and working toward the same goal. Also the opening and closing title song; just A-M and a wind machine and a treadmill, and that's all you need for a good number.

- "Cool" and "America" from West Side Story (two of the ones Jerome Robbins actually got to work on before he was fired).

- "C'mon Everybody," also from Viva Las Vegas, and you could also make a case for "What'd I Say" even though the choreography looks like it was done at the last minute (which it was).

Even though it's not well-directed at all, I might add "Mr Booze" from Robin and the Seven Hoods, the last of Bing Crosby's long line of "clowning around" numbers, where he actually manages to make the Rat Pack funny (they usually weren't when they did numbers like these). A fun '50s throwback, and much more fun than anything in the average '60s musical.

I love Les Demoiselles De Rochefort and I would really like to choose something from it... but the choreography just wasn't that good, and while many of the numbers are adorable, most of them feel like that last bit of brilliant execution is missing.


Anonymous said...

It's curious how Bob Fosse seemed to still be on the cinematic learning curve with "Sweet Charity", then, one picture later, his mature directing style emerged with "Cabaret", a style he stayed with for the rest of his movies.

Edward Hegstrom said...

I'd second "Cool" but emphatically include "Prologue" from WEST SIDE STORY. These numbers really do make great use of the camera to define space and act as an active participant in the numbers, and Robbins knew (with apparently no help from Wise) how to use lenses and camera placement to emphasize movement.

Can't leave out "Can't Buy Me Love" from A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, and nearly all of the song numbers from HELP. And as long as I'm on a Richard Lester kick, how about "Everybody Ought To Have A Maid" from A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM?

Also, not from a musical, but Stanley Donen's staging of the title song in BEDAZZLED is a thing of beauty.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

It's curious how Bob Fosse seemed to still be on the cinematic learning curve with "Sweet Charity", then, one picture later, his mature directing style emerged with "Cabaret", a style he stayed with for the rest of his movies.

Yes, but I actually (perversely) like Charity better than his other movies, maybe because he hadn't quite settled into the style he would use for the rest of his career. I think Fosse was more interesting in the '60s, when he tried a variety of subjects and dance styles, than in the '70s, where everything he did was about "show business as a metaphor for life." (Chicago was a masterpiece, but all his stuff in the '70s was like that.)

Anonymous said...

I'm not actually participating to this conversation, but I'd like to mention one of my favorite musicals from the 1960s: HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING. There. I said it.

Anonymous said...

The ending that Bob Fosse used for "Sweet Charity" is actually an updating of the ending of "Nights of Cabiria" on which Charity is based. In that film, Giuletta Masina is cheered by a group of teenagers who become hippies in Charity. The ending works better in Cabiria, but it's understandable that Fosse would go back to the original ending.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

My biggest problem with Fosse's attempt to re-work Fellini's ending for Charity is that by introducing Magical Redemptive Hippies, he expects us to cheer for this kind of '60s culture after he's been (hilariously) satirizing it throughout the whole show.

I think the "happy" ending works a bit better because this version of Oscar is basically a nice guy (unlike his counterpart in Cabiria) and his behavior never fully makes sense in any version of the ending (especially because the musical fudges so much on exactly what Charity does). But as I said, neither ending really works for me.