Sunday, February 28, 2010

John Reed and the Sound of G&S

John Reed died two weeks ago at the age of 94. He was the D'Oyly Carte's lead patter performer -- the guy who handled the George Grossmith parts -- for 20 years. Because he was on most of the company's stereo recordings (which were the ones most easily available) he pretty much was Gilbert and Sullivan for me, since I learned most of the patter songs from his recordings.

The exception was the role of Ko-Ko in The Mikado, because I learned that score from the D'Oyly Carte's recording of 1958 -- one of the few recordings made by Reed's predecessor, Peter Pratt. (Pratt did not stay with the company as long as Martyn Green or Reed, but I think there's an argument that he was the best of them, at least as a singer.) Reed recorded Ko-Ko both in audio and video versions, but it's Pratt's voice I hear in my head whenever I think of the score.

We all tend to associate scores with the people who are singing them when we first hear them. But I find it's even more pronounced (for me) with Gilbert and Sullivan, because the recordings were the only chance I usually had to hear them in fully professional productions, with a good orchestra (or, sometimes, even an orchestra). So the inflections of Reed and his D'Oyly Carte colleagues of the era -- from quality opera singers like Valerie Masterson and Gillian Knight to not-so-great singers like Mary Sansom or Christene Palmer -- essentially defined what the scores should sound like.

That said, I sometimes think it's unfortunate that the Grossmith roles are rarely cast as true "singing" roles. It's true that Grossmith himself was not really a singer and Sullivan wrote with that in mind. But when people are trying to cast the G&S operas in a fresh or different way, they rarely consider that it might be genuinely fresh and different to cast these important parts with a solid, true baritone voice, the way Papageno in The Magic Flute (also written for a "performer" rather than a singer) usually is. Instead the casting always trends even more toward acting over singing -- even with the Judge in Trial By Jury, which wasn't written for Grossmith and really needs a good singer.

The Malcolm Sargent recordings on EMI started out trying to do something like that by assigning the patter parts to Geraint Evans, the prominent British opera singer. Evans sounded like he didn't enjoy the parts (he didn't) and he was replaced on later recordings by the veteran (and kind of over-the-hill at that point) patter singer George Baker. But I still think the operatic casting of the Grossmith parts could pay off.

In the meantime, Reed's voice is going through my head even more than it usually does. And here again is the clip of him singing Ko-Ko's "Tit-Willow" song.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

It's Like Shakespeare, But With Victor Moore

I don't have much to say about the new DVD of Make Way For Tomorrow that I haven't said many times before: I might have preferred more special features or a non-windowboxed transfer, but compared to the version I had (a third-generation copy taped off AMC back when they showed good movies), having this version is absolute paradise.

One thing I hadn't really noticed before is that Leo McCarey seems to be setting up some King Lear parallels in the opening scene, where Bark (Victor Moore) gathers his children together and informs them that the bank is taking his house. The fact that he's constantly sitting in his chair, with Lucy (Beulah Bondi) standing next to him and his children seated in front of him, gives a sort of "a man's home is his castle" feel to the scene. And his decision to wait until the last minute to tell his kids, leaving them with no time to chip in and buy or rent them a new place, is suggestive of Lear putting his children on the spot. He doesn't want them to pool their resources and help him; he wants one of them to prove he or she is a better child than the others.

It's one of the reasons that the movie doesn't just straightforwardly celebrate the good old people against their evil offspring. There is some of that, yes; McCarey said at the time that he wanted to make a movie that was not only about the tragedy of old age, but "old age's gifts of serenity, tolerance and humor." But he doesn't let the parents off the hook, right from the start: Bark is almost unbearably selfish at times, and his behavior in the opening scene suggests a certain enjoyment of the situation and an indifference to how it's affecting Lucy or his kids. And this test of his children's love backfires on him as surely as it did on Lear. That's one of the elements of the movie that makes it (as I've said) one of the few "Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?" type of projects that turned out as great as the director thought it was going to be.

There's also a discussion going on in Dave Kehr's comment section about the social/political context of the film. It's clearly about the suffering that old people endure when it falls entirely to their children to take care of them in their old age. On the other hand, even though McCarey wasn't as conservative in the '30s as he later became, it's doubtful that he would have wanted this movie to be seen as some kind of New Deal endorsement. If anything, the "kindness of strangers" section of the movie, where Bark and Lucy receive better treatment from strangers than they ever did from their children, can be seen as a sort of non-governmental alternative to government action, where the solution (as in Dickens) is for individuals to step up and help even people they don't know.

But of course, since there's no happy ending, McCarey doesn't really present that as a solution per se. I suppose you could argue that McCarey is trying too hard not to propose that government intervention is the answer. But in any case, part of the power of the movie comes from the fact that it offers no clear solution. That doesn't mean it's not a political movie (not advocating a particular political solution doesn't make a story non-political). It does mean it can be frustrating for someone trying to read it didactically.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fake Gospel Songs, I Love 'Em

This isn't exactly a post, more of a random observation: if I have a favorite type of musical-theatre song, it's not the comedy song or the ballad or the "charm" song. It's the fake gospel song. And if there's one type of number that I think Broadway musicals need to bring back, it's the "Blow, Gabriel Blow" type of gospel extravaganza.

"Blow, Gabriel, Blow" (Anything Goes) was not the first mock-gospel song in musicals; it wasn't even the first hit mock-gospel song. (It might have started with Vincent Youmans's "Hallelujah" from Hit The Deck, though there was also one in Rodgers and Hart's Peggy Ann in 1926, and it probably goes back farther than that.) But it provided the template for that kind of number. For no good reason -- often in the second act when things are getting slow -- a character leads the ensemble in a song that both parodies and straightforwardly incorporates gospel elements: call-and-response, references to Gabriel and judgment day, and such. Often the character starts the song alone and then everyone else on stage gets into the spirit of the thing.

The key point, of course, is that the song is sung by characters and choruses who have no business singing like this. (If you have a gospel song in a Baptist church scene, that's not the kind of song I'm talking about.) So it's a parody and a joke, but it's also exciting, providing lots of opportunities for an applause-milking climax.

Cole Porter frequently incorporated songs like this in his shows after Anything Goes; Irving Berlin did some (in act two of Louisiana Purchase, Carol Bruce led everyone in a song called "The Lord Done Fixed Up My Soul"). And these numbers didn't die out with the coming of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era. One of the most famous examples of the form was made in 1961, in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, the "Brotherhood of Man" number. The hero starts the song, pulls in everyone else in with him, and by the end of it, the boss's prim secretary is standing on the desk and singing about brotherhood and "You, you got me, me, I got you."

Though there have been some examples after 1971, the fake gospel Broadway number kind of climaxed that year with two superb numbers: the epic twelve-minute "Babylove Miracle Show" from The Grass Harp, and "See the Light," introduced by Lillian Roth in John Kander and Ebb's flop 70, Girls, 70. The latter is my favourite song written by Kander and Ebb in their distinguished but uneven career.

I don't know exactly why I love this type of song, though I think it might have something to do with its basically ironic nature. It's a straightforward Broadway showstopper, but it's also ironic because it's a song sung by characters who really shouldn't be singing that way, written by songwriters who usually don't write that way. The result: showbiz pizazz with an edge.

Update: A more recent example is noted in comments: "Run, Freedom, Run!" from Urinetown. There are others, too; I shouldn't have implied that the form went away completely. But it seems to me that that basic combination of gospel pastiche and silliness is harder to find; shows that do pastiche numbers are more likely to take the style somewhat seriously, which kind of misses the point. Even "Run, Freedom, Run," a fun number, leans in the direction of imitating a real gospel number, whereas your "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" type of number is really just a regular Broadway song with a gospel flavor grafted onto it.

Still, there's a reason why "Run, Freedom, Run" was chosen to represent Urinetown at the Tonys: from the '20s to the '00s and hopefully beyond, nothing is as much fun for a Broadway audience as ersatz gospel.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Who Is This Guy Next To Sam Schwartz?

This is one of the first conventional "blegs" I've done in a while: can anyone identify the older man who is seated in this photo? The man standing is Sam Schwartz (or "Samm Schwartz" as he usually signed his name in comics), but I have no idea who the other man is.

And speaking of Schwartz, I recently happened upon a few comics from the "Tippy Teen" series, which actually didn't have as much of his art as I would have expected -- probably because his editorial work at Tower Comics took up much of his time. There's quite a bit of identifiably Schwartz art in these books, but much of it is by Doug Crane (who signed his own work; the others didn't), Sol Brodsky. And the best art in the books is by the moonlighting Harry Lucey, who handled most of the pilot issue for the Tippy spinoff, "Tippy's Friends Go-Go and Animal."

The interesting thing about "Tippy" compared to the many other knock-off comics is the weird sense of passive-aggressiveness that runs through it, as if the publisher was not merely trying to imitate "Archie" but show it up. This may have been because Tower Comics' president, Harry Shorten, was the brains behind "Archie" -- literally all their best people were hired by him, before he left in 1956. According to the Joe Edwards interview I cited in an earlier post, Shorten asked John Goldwater to make him a partner in recognition of what he had done for the company. Goldwater "told him where to go. Soon after, Shorten was asked to train Goldwater's son Richard as his successor.

So Shorten (who was best known as the creator and writer of the strip "There Oughta Be a Law," a successful imitation of "They'll Do It Every Time") may have seen Tower Comics as a challenge to Archie more than any other company, including the superhero companies: "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents" was an attempt to cash in on the superhero and spy crazes, but "Tippy Teen" was personal, a challenge to the franchise he helped build up. That would explain the tone of ads like this, from "Go-Go and Animal" -- I don't know who the artist is, though it might be Schwartz:

Whatever the motives behind "Tippy," it had all the usual problems of the ripoffs -- characters who were at once ill-defined and obvious imitations of better-known comic characters. But it did outlast the other Tower titles, and was reprinted in the early '70s under the title "Vicki." Despite the chagrin of Jeff Rovin, who couldn't understand why anyone would reprint it, "Tippy" usually had better art than Tower's better-known but stiffly-drawn T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. Some examples:

Samm Schwartz:

Harry Lucey:

Dan DeCarlo:

Doug Crane:

Sol Brodsky, moonlighting from his editorial job at Marvel:

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mary's Incredible And Very Expensive Dream

Of all the many variety shows and specials on network TV in the '70s, the strangest may have been Mary's Incredible Dream. This was a Mary Tyler Moore special that aired in 1976. Moore had already decided that the next season of her show would be the last, and was hoping to launch a variety show as her next project. And she made it clear in interviews that she saw this special -- created and written by Jack Good, who also did the Monkees' "33 1/2 Revolutions Per Monkee" special -- as a test run for what a Mary Tyler Moore variety hour might be like: "As a performer I can go to my grave happy now. I've done everything I want to do," she told Marilyn Beck. "I'm talking to Jack Good about doing a weekly musical variety show. Since he created and produced my special, I'm convinced he can do anything."

Beck also revealed that Moore was really enthusiastic about the special -- or if she wasn't, she was at least trying to seem that way:

Mary's so convinced the special is the best thing ever to hit the airwaves she's been talking it up to anyone who will listen. And has been cornering so many of her friends for preview cassette-unit glimpses of the all-musical hour that actress Betty White finally told her teasingly, "It's a shame you don't put it on TV, instead of showing it door to door."

It's basically a standard variety special in a lot of ways: glitzy, cheesy musical numbers, and a song list that spans about five decades (making sure everyone in the audience will like at least some of the songs). But it has no sketches or any dialogue for anyone except the narrator -- plus one line of dialogue for Mary at the beginning -- and instead connects the musical numbers with what Moore called "a story of the eternal cycle of man. If viewers don't want to follow the story they can just enjoy the music and dancing." (Update: There is also a bit of talking in the form of Chicago-style introductions to the songs, and Moore has one other line of dialogue in the course of the special, to someone on the phone: "I can't talk now, I'm having this incredible dream.")

The fact that Moore, who usually kept a low media profile at the time, was out there plugging the special in the press was an indication that she really wanted to make a case for it, and for Jack Good's bizarre mish-mash of music, religion, philosophy, and high-in-every-sense-of-the-word camp. Of course, you could read some of her praise for Good as being almost the same as blame, pointing out in advance that the whole concept was his, not hers: "When he came to me with the idea," Moore told UPI's Vernon Scott, "I told him he had carte blanche. Without any structure or guidelines from me, Jack produced a unique, no-holds-barred musical happening."

At least it was an attempt to do something different; that can't be denied. And it's remembered a bit more fondly than the variety show she finally did do (without Good) after her sitcom ended: Mary was a disaster, and so was the retooled sitcom/variety hybrid The Mary Tyler Moore Hour. Moore was like the opposite of singer/dancers who want to prove they can act: she'd proved herself as an actress, but wanted to be taken seriously as an all-around entertainer.

But whether it's this special, where she tries to talk-sing her way through "I'm Still Here" or make a decent try of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields's "Nobody Does It Like Me", or her flop stage musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany's, she's not exactly a top-tier entertainer. Even on her own show, Georgia Engel's version of "Steam Heat" was better than most musical numbers Moore did without Dick Van Dyke around. And this special probably is a better showcase for Ben Vereen, in one of his first big TV parts, than Moore, who gets to do all the stuff she's only OK at and little of the stuff she's great at (delivery of and reaction to dialogue).

But it is what it is, and I can't help enjoying it just for the strangeness of it all. This is a special that ends with Mary Tyler Moore as a pink angel, floating and spinning in front of religious symbols and clouds while singing "Morning Has Broken." This is a special with Arthur Fiedler conducting the "Hallelujah Chorus" in heaven; a historical version of "Sh-Boom," and Jerome Kern's "She Didn't Say Yes" retrofitted as a song about the temptation of Eve. TV really could be pleasantly insane in the mid-'70s.

Also, any special that begins with the "CBS Special" logo and ends with the MTM kitten is a special that gets a few extra points just for logo coolness.

Mary's Incredible Dream Act 1
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Mary's Incredible Dream Act 2
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Mary's Incredible Dream Act 3
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Mary's Incredible Dream Act 4 and credits
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Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Mystery Inker

Doug Gray's wonderful comics blog (a treasure trove of Barks, Stanley, Wiseman/Toole, Bolling, et al) whets the appetite for the upcoming book collection of Bob Montana strips by collecting some black and white Montana Archie strips.

As a kid, the only place I ever saw any Montana strips was in the digests, where they were reprinted as four-panel "gag bags." I can't wait to see the strips in chronological order -- especially since some of those daily strips seem to suggest that it was more than the pure gag-a-day strip it later became. (Some of the 1946 strips appear to be from a larger story about going to a camp for the summer.) Also, it demonstrates that "it's Frankie!" gags were absolutely everywhere in 1946:

Except for some covers and short gags, Montana basically removed himself from the comic books quite early on and, until his untimely death in 1975, handled only the newspaper strip. Newspaper strips were more prestigious and more widely-read than comic books at the time, and it was the strip, not the comic books, that probably did the most to establish Montana's creation as a pop-culture icon.

What I love most about these strips -- apart from the pleasure of seeing Montana fully credited in a way that he hasn't been since he died -- is the way they look, especially the inking; I'm not usually one to notice inks or even fully understand what an inker does, but the inks are so strong and solid that it almost seems a shame that the Sunday strips had to be printed in color. I wish I knew who inked for Montana. According to an interview of Joe Edwards (Li'l Jinx) by Jim Amash, he did some inking and lettering for Montana, and there was a short period when Montana would do only "the heads, and the fingers if it's related to the gag, and even the shoe if possible," with Edwards finishing the rest. But he didn't say how long this arrangement lasted, and I don't know that a lot of the inks or letters have much in common with Edwards' style.

Edwards didn't mention who Montana's regular inkers were, but he did explain the kind of inking that gives the strip its flavor: "the inkers started to pick up his technique of thick outside. If you look at it carefully, it's a heavy line outside, but it's almost a steady line, almost like you took a ballpoint and did it, so it's the same weight."

The other thing I love about these strips is Montana's Betty, which I don't think has ever been bettered; we're so used to thinking of her as a goody-two-shoes, or a psycho stalker lunatic, that Montana's sexy, catty, reasonably well-adjusted character -- like the heroine of a Hollywood teen movie of the era, but with more edge and even tighter sweaters -- is a relief. I think the strip, at least early on, is the only incarnation of the franchise that portrayed Betty as sexier and less innocent than Veronica.

After Montana died, most of the strip was turned over (like everything else in the '70s) to Dan DeCarlo; it's gone through a number of artists since then, but has never been particularly above the level of a half-page gag in the comic books. But as for the Montana strip, I've known people who prefer it to any of the books.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Why A Great Movie Musical Number Is So Great

I've said before that even though I don't care for the movie of Bye Bye Birdie overall (almost all the charming satire has been bled out of the original, and what George Sidney puts in its place is exactly the kind of showbiz phoniness that the original version was making fun of), the "A Lot of Livin' To Do" number is one of my favorite scenes in any movie musical. It may well be the best movie musical number of the '60s, and it surpasses the very different stage version.

Because I was watching that number again, and because the disaster of Nine has made it clear that Hollywood still doesn't really know how to make a musical number for the screen, I was thinking about what goes into the creation of a great cinematic musical scene in the "classical" style. That means, roughly, doing it without a lot of cuts or close-ups, capturing the singing and dancing in long shot, and still making it look like cinema rather than filmed theatre. That's incredibly difficult to do, which is why it's easier to put a number together in the editing room.

So I decided to watch the number again and try to identify, step by step, what director George Sidney and choreographer Onna White (Canadian alert!) do to convey character, emotion and conflict cinematically, while still filming the dance number in full view. Sidney was a director with an incomparably vulgar, brash visual style, and his vulgarity overwhelms this film at key points, but his MGM training and visual sense made him years ahead of almost anyone working in movie musicals in 1963, let alone now. And what he and White do here (I'm saying "he and White" because it's hard to know where the director leaves off and the choreographer begins in the way these numbers are filmed) is to make the tools of filmmaking -- camera movement, lighting, color -- work with the singing and dancing at every point, enhancing it and helping to make this a true scene, rather than just a variety number on film.

Before I start, I want to say that while I may be over-analyzing a bit, I'm not identifying anything that isn't there on the screen. That is, I'm not talking about hidden political/social subtexts (there's a place for analyzing that, but that's not what I'm doing right now). I'm just talking about the way the tools of cinema (including what the actors are doing and where they are) are used, and to the question "does a director really, consciously use these tools to create these specific emotional effects?" the answer is "yes." If the director is any good, he knows that doing X will have X effect on us, the viewers, whether we're conscious of it or not. And George Sidney, when he was good, was very good.

So, here's The Number. I would suggest watching this clip in full screen if possible, since some of the things I'm going to talk about aren't easily identifiable in the small embeddable box.

And now, here's The Analysis

The number begins on Hugo (Bobby Rydell) in the parking lot outside the hangout where the number takes place. He sees Conrad Birdie's motorcycle outside, so he knows Birdie is in there with his girl Kim (Ann-Margret). He makes an angry gesture at the motorcycle and then walks toward the club. The camera moves with him, and as he gets to the swinging doors of the club, we move without a cut into a different world: from the night and the placid town, we're hit with bursts of color. Hugo himself passes through a reddish light on the way to the door -- introducing us to the main visual motif of the scene, people moving from one colored light to another. And the bright color of the door suggests that there's something inside that is different from, and crazier than, the world outside. Again without a cut (but with the movement of Hugo's eyes cuing the camera movement), we go to Conrad Birdie, a cartoon of sexual confidence, the opposite of everything Hugo is.

Though there still hasn't been a cut, Conrad now takes over the scene, moving to show us the decor of the club -- a combination of weird (the masks at the back) and early '60s commercialized normalcy (the soda machine). Conrad starts to sing the song as the girls gather around him. As he sings, the camera tracks back, revealing red and yellow streamers hanging just above the characters; the streamers give us an almost jungle-like sense of what the place is like, subliminally telling us that normal rules don't apply here.

Finally there is a cut, to a long shot, as Conrad jumps down to another group of girls. We are able to orient ourselves, to know where the door is, where the bar is, where the streamers are. And Sidney uses the Panavision frame to tell us, very simply, where things stand here: Hugo on the left, alone and frustrated; Conrad on the right, surrounded by girls. And it's not only composition: the light and color are different on the two sides of the screen, with Hugo's area looking drab while Conrad is bathed in color. And as Conrad walks across the club floor and the camera (and girls) follow him, he walks through several changes of color. Color and change, the visual themes of the scene, and he controls them.

The movement of Conrad and the camera reach Kim, sitting at a table with friends. Though her bright, all-pink outfit and equally bright hair immediately set her apart from everyone else at the table (plus that she's Ann-Margret and they're not), she is lit in a fairly harsh way, covered in shadows; Conrad's world is right near her, but she's not quite part of it. But then (and here we get another cut; there haven't been many) Hugo approaches her. Now notice that Hugo is not walking through changes of color; he's walking through shadows. That's the visual motif of the "normal" world.

Kim moves away from Hugo, singing her refrain (these lyrics were mostly written for the film) about how she's going to start living it up. But Sidney does not flood her with color, not yet. She's still in normal light and going from shadow to shadow, the way Hugo did when he approached her. It's only near the end of her refrain ("Drink champagne...") when the boys start following her the way the girls follow Conrad, that she moves into a rapid succession of different-colored lights, as Conrad did. Kim has embraced Conrad's philosophy and has won control of the number...

...And then there's an offscreen rhythm. Sidney starts close on the faces of Kim and the boys, reacting to the rhythm, and then uses the zoom lens -- still unusual in big-studio American movies in 1963 -- plus a fast pan to get us to the source of the rhythm, Hugo. He looks almost as surprised as Kim that the rhythm is coming from him, but he goes with it, pounding on the table and then snapping, as the rhythm attracts the girls. The girls are bathed in greenish light (color, again) as they join him, snapping along with him. This gives him confidence and he stands up to lead them, imitating Conrad; both Kim and Hugo have now imitated what Conrad did in his first refrain, but they've each done it in different ways. (That's the point of different refrains in a musical number: each refrain has the same music and theme, but each one does it a little differently.)

While Hugo is doing his number, we get two reactions from Kim. Sidney moves the camera in a little, but just a little, on her first reaction, when the boys are still with her. As even the boys get up to join Hugo, Sidney does a fast tracking shot in on her; the further and quicker you track in, the more you convey the intensity of the character's emotion, and the shot conveys Kim's realization that she's lost control of the scene.

Trying to regain control, Kim grabs the first boy she can find and -- running through red light and heavy shadows -- begins to dance. Hugo, accepting the challenge, grabs the first girl he can find and imitates her steps. We now get a very traditional moment in the movie musical number, the "challenge" dance, with two (in this case two pairs of) people trying to outdo each other at the same steps. Part of the challenge dance is that when one challenge is met, another, tougher one is offered, and in this case Kim and her partner increase the stakes by doing the famous move that Onna White created for this film: arms out, legs apart, head tilted to the right.

Now, without a cut, Kim and her partner move into the centre of the dance floor, as the challenge dance becomes an ensemble dance. (The "challenge" part couldn't last long, because Bobby Rydell wasn't really a dancer.) Kim leads the dance, an expression of the kids' sense of new-found freedom; the streamers are clearly visible in the shot, bringing back the "jungle" motif. We're increasingly conscious that the lamps are blinking on and off, and this becomes part of the rhythm of the dance.

Then, a sudden cut, the dancers freeze, Sidney executes an elaborate and smooth camera move to show us Conrad, the man who started all this, arms outstretched as if conducting the kids like an orchestra. The lighting scheme of the scene changes, becoming dimmer and darker (but still colorful). We follow Conrad onto the dance floor until he seems to choose a girl. As he does, the lighting changes again and the scene is flooded with red light. At this point, Sidney has completely given up the idea that the colored lights are coming from anywhere. He started semi-realistically, and he is building on that to create a sense of pure fantasy: the light and color of the scene changes according to Conrad's will and Conrad's mood.

Conrad continues to walk around, as girls follow him, and every time he decides to lead them in a few dance steps, the scene explodes in red. (Though it changes in reverse-angle shots, probably mostly because they couldn't light it that way from both ends.) But when it does, Kim and Hugo -- at opposite sides of the frame -- don't get the full effect of the color change. They aren't sure if they want to be part of this. And they are, at all times, connected to each other: whatever visual motif one is involved with will soon be taken up by the other.

But now Conrad decides to test his effect on Kim, the one woman who has not completely succumbed. Walking in front of him, seemingly hypnotized, she walks toward Hugo, and we're subliminally asking the question: is she under Conrad's influence, or is she trying to get to Hugo? Hugo knows what he thinks the answer is, because he grabs another girl and runs onto the dance floor. Kim looks upset; it was Hugo she wanted, not Conrad. Accepting Hugo's challenge as he accepted hers, she grabs a boy and joins Hugo on the floor.

Once again, a brief challenge dance gives way to an ensemble dance. The camera tracks back and up, to a bird's-eye-view shot of the floor, shot through those streamers again, and with the lantern in the middle of the shot blinking on and off. The blinking originally could have had something to do with the changing colors (a combination of that and all the streamers), but at this point, it has nothing to do with any light effects we've been seeing in the number. Again, the light is not naturalistic and it would be a mistake for the director to try and justify the light. The blinking is just something to underline the wild dance, to create the sense that things are out of control.

Sidney cuts in as everyone steps back and lets Hugo and Kim have the floor to themselves, in a dance that is like a combination of challenge and mutual attraction, and combines steps from the second, wilder dance with hints of the first step Kim did to kick off the dance in the first place. Everyone freezes and Conrad enters the shot, walking between Hugo and Kim (again, it's obviously a conscious director/choreographer choice to have him walk between them, not past one or the other). The camera moves up a bit as he exits the shot, and as it moves up, it reveals the row of streamers and the multicolored lamp: color, light, jungle rules.

The kids flood back onto the dance floor; as they do, the camera tracks back to reveal Conrad, in the left-hand corner, admiring his handiwork while doing the things associated with him: snapping his finger and being bathed in colored (yellow, in this case) light.

Now comes the big climax of the dance. Kim is leading it, happy, confident, but not imitating Conrad's method; she is sometimes a bit out of step with the rest, enjoying herself and not worrying about making everyone else follow her. Hugo is standing behind her, looking a bit lost; he doesn't know how to express himself. (Again, this is making a virtue of necessity, since Bobby Rydell can't fully participate in this part of the number.) And here's where White brings back the famous head-tilting move, now fully established as Kim's move, the move that gives her control of the number.

Conrad starts singing again, and after a bit of biplay with him, Kim and Hugo -- showing that Kim is still attracted to Hugo but won't let him see it, finally causing him to leave in disgust -- he stands in the middle of the floor, singing, enjoying what's happening. The number is not the number Conrad began, and he's no longer in control of the kids: instead of doing what he tells them, they are taking his advice ("live!") and expressing themselves through the dance moves that they own. In this part of the number, Kim is more part of the ensemble than the leader; there is no leader at this point because they don't need one.

His work done here, Conrad starts toward the door, the camera following him over to the crowd of non-dancing girls that met him there (bringing the number full circle). Sidney cuts to a medium close shot of Conrad at the door, and takes the shot through several quick color changes. We cut back and forth between these two compositions: Conrad at the door, constantly changing his color environment; the kids on the dance floor, with their light environment defined by the blinking lamps: not drab and shadow-y like their original environment, but not garish like Conrad's world.

With a cry of "Live!" Conrad leaves (we don't follow him out; as he goes, the kids remain in control of the shot). The kids complete the number. Again, Kim stands out from the number by her outfit and hair, but at this point she is a happy part of a group that knows what it wants. The number ends with White's trademark move repeated over and over; it has "won" the number over the various competing movement ideas that have been presented.

As the number ends, the light fades. Again, completely un-natural light, and unlike lesser directors (Rob Marshall) Sidney feels no need to explain it or present it as a fantasy. He knows that as long as the number starts kind of normal, we will follow it as it builds, and the light will have a logic of its own. So what happens next -- Kim, hearing Hugo drive away, rushes into the foreground, and is fully lit while the kids resume dancing in the darkened background, with only blinking lamps to guide -- makes no sense in terms of a real club with real light. But it makes complete sense as visual storytelling: Kim, who has grown as a woman in the course of this number (there's a reason Sidney photographs A-M more seductively than ever before), now realizes what this whole number was about. She gained that confidence and power so she could realize what she really wants. And what she really wants is Hugo, whom she lost (seemingly) in the course of that same number.

Finally, The Conclusion For Those Who Have Read This Far

There are other great numbers and great non-musical scenes in film that could be analyzed bit-for-bit this way, I did this one because I happen to love it so much, and because A-M's opening and closing number seems to get all the attention these days (it's cool, but this is better). Writing this has made me feel exhilarated in a way that blog posts rarely do, becasue watching the scene and picking out every detail and how it works didn't make me love the scene less, but more. Looking at it and realizing how much hard work and conscious effort goes into the total effect this scene has -- well, damn, great cinema is hard to make, and it's so wonderful when it all comes together. And a musical number without fast cutting and thousands of setups doesn't require less cinematic imagination; done right, there's nothing that is more truly cinematic than a musical number filmed mostly in long shot.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Maybe He Knows Where To Find Those Hanna-Barbera "Zap" Effects

This wasn't co-ordinated in any way, but it's been brought to my attention that John Kricfalusi just wrote about his miserable experience working on "Fonz and the Happy Days Gang."

As he notes, one of the thing that made TV cartoons so dismal in the early '80s is that the two styles of cartoon -- action-adventure and comedy -- had sort of blended together into one all-purpose style, so all the humans had stodgy "realistic" designs with those scary flesh-colored eyes. A commenter on my blog once called this era of Hanna-Barbera something like "the flesh-colored eye era," and nothing sums up that era for me quite as much as the idea that cartoon humans would look more like humans if they didn't have eyeballs.

Having said that, here's kind of a pointless question: of the big Sat-am providers in the early '80s, which is your favorite? Or least un-favorite? I think the scripts at DePatie-Freleng/Marvel/Sunbow were sometimes a notch above the others (and their musical shows had some decent songs, courtesy of Broadway songwriter Barry Harman).

And while Ruby-Spears had the ugliest-looking cartoons of the era, they did have some pleasantly insane premises from contributors like Steve Gerber. Though I'm only bringing that up so I can post this intro again, a show that appeared to be Ruby-Spears' mashup of Richie Rich, Aaron Spelling, and Jack Kirby (who was a character designer for the show).

On a message board, Buzz Dixon recalled that the network wanted Goldie Gold to have her own Freckles-style friend:

I remember one network imbecile wanting Goldie to have a homeless friend who lived in a cardboard box and I said, "Would that make Goldie a real yutz, having all that wealth and not being willing to shell out a few bucks to rent a warm room for her friend?" and the network moron said, "Oh, no, he likes living in a cardboard box."

And that anecdote may be all we really need to know about cartoons in the early '80s.

Addendum: Though I actually think Saturday morning cartoons were a little worse in the '70s than in the '80s. The quality of animation in the early '80s did not improve, and the design probably got worse, but the scripting got... not good, just a little bit better in some places.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Shows What You Can Do If Your Horse Can Act

I've never figured out why Busby Berkeley's Hollywood Hotel has never been released on DVD, either in the retail sets or in the Warner Archive. Maybe there's some sort of rights thing. But wait, according to comments, it was released in a second Busby Berkeley set of weaker late '30s Berkeley movies. So the first sentence of my post officially makes no sense, due to my poor use of Google. At least I can (for now) stand by the rest of the post:

It's one of Berkeley's weaker films, and disappoints a lot of people because he didn't do his trademark gigantic production numbers (for budgetary reasons or because he wanted to try something different, I don't know). But with all the big musical names in the film, and "Hooray For Hollywood" as one of the songs, I'd have thought it would have turned up somewhere it still has some fun moments. Anyway, as a clip in lieu of a longer post, here is the "Hooray For Hollywood" number as performed in the movie.

Numbers like these bring home the importance of the moving camera to Berkeley and other great directors of musicals. At Warner Brothers, he didn't use the fluid, gliding camera moves that MGM did; WB was a more editing-happy studio, and did musical numbers with more cuts. And yet the camera is constantly on the move in this number, and one of Berkeley's favorite tricks is to suddenly pan to the side, changing from one composition to another in a split second without a cut. It's a completely different aesthetic from the modern one, which is that the foundational technique of a musical number should be editing: the idea is to create the rhythm of the number through cutting. The ideal of the "classical" musical is to let the song and the staging (the movements of the characters) set the rhyhm, and to try and create the illusion that it's all happening continuously, right in front of us.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Crossing Over

Since I posted a few excerpts from John McGlinn recordings recently, I thought some people might be interested to know that EMI has bundled many of his recordings into a new boxed set. The set does not include all the recordings he made for them, but includes the five complete scores of classic musicals -- Show Boat, Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me Kate, Brigadoon -- the "Broadway Showstoppers" and "Jerome Kern Treasury" albums, and the recordings of overtures by Gershwin, Kern and Porter (the Porter overtures are on disc 2 of Kiss Me Kate). Missing are his recital albums with various singers, the most valuable of which is Frederica Von Stade's fine Rodgers and Hart recital.

The recordings have their ups and downs in terms of McGlinn's conducting, which can sometimes be a little stodgy, and the casting. (The Kiss Me Kate was supposed to have Teresa Stratas in the female lead; Josephine Barstow, a British opera singer who wasn't even particularly fun to listen to in opera by that time, was a last-minute replacement. When she's paired with Thomas Hampson, who knows what to do in this repertoire but can't really do it right, it's a recording where the leads just aren't up to it a lot of the time.) Some of it sounds more like a preservation project than theatre music. At the same time, these recordings are invaluable for preserving a ton of music and arrangements that had never been recorded before, and in many cases weren't recorded again. There's never been another recording of the original 1934 version of Anything Goes, without the interpolations and re-arrangments that go on in every revival, and there likely won't be one again. The Brigadoon has all of Trude Rittmann's superb ballet music; the Kiss Me Kate has a whole appendix of cut songs. The Annie Get Your Gun went back to the 1946 version (which had more orchestrators than any other show up to that time, because Phil Lang's original orchestrations were thrown out at the last minute) whereas most revivals were based on the heavier-sounding 1966 Lincoln Center version. And so on.

The set comes with a CD-ROM that includes the original notes and lyrics from most of the original recordings. (Miles Krueger, the musical theatre historian who supposedly has a huge collection of Broadway theatre footage that he won't let anyone see, wrote great notes for most of the recordings.) Unfortunately I'm told -- I haven't received the set yet -- that the Show Boat booklet is the one prepared for its remastered reissue in EMI's "Great Recordings of the Century" series, which means it's missing Krueger and McGlinn's notes and the interview with Ziegfeld's assistant. (Who, when asked what he thought of the recording, said "They're all better than the originals." I loved that for some reason.) But at the price, the set is a great investment for anyone interested in show music of the classic era.

Here's another song from the "Broadway Showstoppers" album, the original version of "September Song" with Kurt Weill's typically offbeat orchestration (he almost always did his own), with a more prominent use of the electric guitar than you'd expect in a 1938 musical. The performer is Kevin Colson, who had just been in the original cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love.