Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Favorite Musical Numbers in Blake Edwards Movies?

I've been re-watching some Blake Edwards movies lately, with my usual mixture of admiration and frustration: he really was a brilliantly talented filmmaker (in my opinion), and I admire him for managing to preserve his basic style -- an Old Hollywood approach in almost every aspect of moviemaking, really -- through all the changes in film in the '70s and '80s. But he could hardly ever make a movie that was good all the way through. I know I said a lot of this a few years back when I wrote about S.O.B. (a movie I still love in spite of its terrible scenes, maybe because I turn to it as a corrective to '70s movie nostalgia), but I wanted to say a bit of it in new words.

Edwards reminds me of what Bill James said about the baseball player Mickey Vernon, that if you took his best seasons and filled in just regular average seasons between them, you'd have a Hall of Famer. If you took the best scenes of Edwards' movies and just balanced them with scenes that aren't embarrassingly bad, you'd have a great body of work. (This explains, by the way, why Howard Hawks said something to the effect that the secret of a good movie is to have three great scenes and no bad ones. The rest of the movie doesn't have to be as good as the best bits, it just has to be without bits like the Mickey Rooney scenes in Breakfast at Tiffany's) Vernon had an excuse: he played injured a lot of the time. Edwards, I'm not sure. I thought back in 2004 that his unevenness was a sign of his insecurity, a lack of knowledge of or interest in what the public wanted. That could be; he certainly seems to be saying in S.O.B. that he either doesn't know what the public wants or, insofar as he knows, he hates what they want. But I don't think it explains everything. It might be that he just didn't have the capacity for self-correction, the ability to throw out bad ideas and keep good ones.

Well, his films are what they are. One thing I usually enjoy in Edwards' movies are his pointless musical numbers. Coming along after the original movie musical died, and having such a close working relationship with Henry Mancini, Edwards liked to work Mancini's songs into his movies -- but oddly enough, in my opinion, the more integrated the songs are into the film, the less well they work. Victor/Victoria is the closest thing he made to a real musical, and except for Robert Preston's simply-staged "Gay Paree" song I don't find the musical sequences terribly impressive (it doesn't help that the songs, with Leslie Bricusse lyrics, aren't up to Mancini's earlier work). Darling Lili works better, but only "Whistling Away the Dark" is really stunning.

But when Edwards just puts a number in for no good reason, it can be a highlight. Obviously I'm thinking primarily of "Meglio Stasera" in The Pink Panther, which is so pointless that Edwards can't even remember (on his commentary track) why he put it in. Yet it's one of the great scenes of '60s cinema, and in a strange way sums up the whole point of the film, its beauty and cruelty and jet-set snobbery and the tragic figure of Clouseau, who is considered out of step (literally, in this number) because he's the only decent human being in the movie. By the way, I have no idea why this upload is missing Jeffries saying "Ragazzi!" -- it must be from a foreign dub where they forgot to put it back in -- but it's the best-quality upload currently online.

And then there's Dorothy Provine's similarly out-of-nowhere number in The Great Race. It's not as memorable a tune or as beautifully-staged a number (though Johnny Mercer's lyrics are an asset as always); parts of it look like they shot a master and some close shots and then ran out of money. But I've always found it the most purely entertaining four minutes in a bloated movie, filled with scenes that want to be the funniest ever, and don't quite make it. The best moments in this film are the small ones, and this is just fun, in a way that most movies from the era never were. Again, if Edwards' comedies as a whole were anywhere near as uncontrived and entertaining as this one scene, he'd be a pantheon moviemaker, instead of a guy who created some good scenes.


J Lee said...

The problem with Edwards' movies is so many of them tend to lurch from trying to pull one emotion or the other out of the audience. In the case of the musical numbers in his broad comedies, Edwards' films seem to channel the post-Irving Thalberg musical numbers MGM stuck in the Marx Brothers movies, which always seemed more designed to broaden the potential audience demographic for the movie than to advance the plot. Even if the musical numbers are good, the main story just comes to a dead stop.

(And of course, for someone so involved with trying to keep the musical number alive, Edwards' opening scene from S.O.B. did more to trash where the Hollywood musical made its last successful financial stand -- in family films featuring his wife during the 1960s -- than anyone else this side of the original Saturday Night Live cast.)

Unknown said...

"He Shouldn't-a, Hadn't-a, Ought'n-a Swang On Me" is my favorite. I don't think it's staging is a result of running out of money, more like impatience to get to the big brawl that follows it. Dorothy Provine steals the show.

In fact, along those lines Lesley Anne Warren's "Chicago" is pretty good precisely 'cuz it's NOT supposed to be good.

Anonymous said...

I also like the "You and Me" number from Victor/Victoria, which is staged in the same setting as "Gay Paree" and is a marginally better song. Preston's easy manner seems to have rubbed off on Andrews, and they're quite nice together. I sure miss you, Mr. Preston.

Steve said...

I get the impression that Edwards was trying to make slyly cynical (hip)adult live action cartoons. I think he keeps us at a distance through most of these musical numbers so we can say, "Hey, man, dig this shot at corny Hollywood musical numbers." Either that, or he's reminding us the film is in Ultra Superdooper Pana-CinemaScope. Irony alert.