‘S Wonderful

Funny Face is the first Audrey Hepburn musical and one of the last to feature Fred Astaire. Both are screen legends with a serious age gap. Since Hepburn was just getting started, most of her romantic co-stars were a lot older than her. Funny Face is actually based on a 1927 Broadway musical starring Astaire and his sister. The movie has almost nothing to do with the original show. Aside from Gershwin music and Astaire in a different role. Singin’ in the Rain director Stanley Donen turned Funny Face into a colorful affair filmed in VistaVision.

The titular “funny face” is an intelligent bookworm named Jo Stockton. Hepburn is as beautiful and elegant as ever, so I’m not sure what it is about her face. Funny Face isn’t particularly deep apart from all of Jo’s talk about philosophy and empathy. Overbearing fashion designer Maggie Prescott takes Jo upon her photographer’s suggestion, and molds her into a model. Eloise creator Kay Thompson makes a rare on-screen appearance as Maggie.

Jo falls for her photographer Dick Avery during their stay in Paris. Although her interest in philosophy doesn’t go away, Jo does come to love her many costumes and themes. Funny Face was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, but it wasn’t a financial success. Only after My Fair Lady did it get the appreciation it deserved. Songs like the titular “Funny Face” or “‘S Wonderful” are upbeat and dances have plenty of energy. Though the most memorable dance actually comes from Hepburn in an iconic all-black beatnick ensemble. Funny Face is ‘s wonderful.

Funny Face

Maggie examines Jo’s funny face

Getting to Know You

The King and I is an extravagant musical production etc, etc, etc. The 1956 film is based on the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, based on the 1944 Margaret Landon novel Anna and the King of Siam, based on the 1860’s memoirs from Anna Leonowens etc, etc, etc. There have been many adaptations before and since, but only The King and I was nominated for Best Picture etc, etc, etc. 1956 was packed with epics that included Around the World in 80 Days, Giant, and The Ten Commandments etc, etc, etc.

Yul Brynner made his mark playing Rameses II, but it was King Mongkut of Siam that won him Best Actor etc, etc, etc. Brynner was Russian with an exotic look and shaved head that made him convincing for the role etc, etc, etc. Mongkut is an old fashioned, but eccentric king willing to modernize his country etc, etc, etc. Anna Leonowens is a British school teacher who educates the King’s many wives and children etc, etc, etc. Deborah Kerr stands equal with Brynner and plays off him well etc, etc, etc. There are hints of romance, but their relationship is more about mutual understanding etc, etc, etc.

The King’s youngest concubine Tuptim stands out since she’s played by Rita Moreno etc, etc, etc. Her forbidden love of a commoner puts the King’s ancient customs into question etc, etc, etc. The King and I also won Best Art Direction, Costume Design, and Scoring etc, etc, etc. Musical numbers benefit from distinct Rodgers and Hammerstein songs like “Getting to Know You” etc, etc, etc. An extended Siamese interpretation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin stands out as well etc, etc, etc. The King and I knows just what to say etc, etc, etc.

The King and I

Anna and the King of Siam

I Got Rhythm

An American in Paris is the first technicolor film to win Best Picture since Gone with the Wind. At this point in 1951, color was slowly becoming more common. Black & white features continued to thrive, but An American in Paris was a colorful production that deserved to win big at the Academy Awards. Awards like Best Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design were all won in the color specific categories. Vincente Minnelli failed to win Best Director, but Best Screenplay and Scoring were equally worthy wins. An American in Paris is just a lot of fun to watch and dance along to. None of the cast was nominated, but Gene Kelly received a much deserved Honorary Oscar for being the triple threat that he was.

Not only does Kelly sing, dance, and star, he also choreographed the whole picture. As the title suggests, Jerry Mulligan is an American ex-GI living in Paris, France as a happy-go-lucky painter. All of his songs are upbeat and filled with infectious tap dancing energy. Jerry lives a bohemian lifestyle alongside his failed musician neighbor Adam Cook played by real life concert pianist Oscar Levant. Georges Guรฉtary plays their mutual friend Henri “Hank” Baurel, a more successful French singer who shares an awkward connection with Jerry. Since Paris is the city of love, there’s bound to be romance.

Jerry is first pursued by Nina Foch as wealthy heiress Milo Roberts. She promises fame in exchange for love, but Jerry only has eyes for Lise Bouvier (who happens to be with Hank). Jerry is a little persistent in his conquest, but luckily Kelly has amazing chemistry with newcomer Leslie Caron. The French actress is a natural dancer with expert ballet skills. In fact, Caron’s chair dance was so steamy that the Hays Code nearly had it cut. Although Jerry and Lise’s love is complicated by their respective relationships, they manage to live happily ever after in the end. But not before an extended 17 minute stage number set to George Gershwin’s original An American in Paris orchestral piece. It’s a long time to go without talking, but sets are so colorful and the dancing is the best that Hollywood had to offer. An American in Paris is magnifique.

An American in Paris

Jerry dances with Lise

Would You Like to Swing on a Star

Going My Way is the right way to go. Singer Bing Crosby was a big star in the 1940’s with hits like Holiday Inn. Not only did Going My Way win Best Picture, Crosby also won Best Actor for his portrayal of Father Chuck O’Malley. The charming young priest was practically tailor-made for Crosby. Father O’Malley is an unconventional priest who plays golf, attends sporting events, and sings his own songs. “Going my way” is his motto for bringing joyful noise to the gospel. Going My Way centers around Father O’Malley joining a struggling parish and having a positive effect on the people around him.

Though most of the subplots feel disconnected until the end. His primary relationship is between the much older church pastor Father Fitzgibbon. O’Malley and Fitzgibbon couldn’t be more different, but they develop a mutual understanding. Barry Fitzgerald is arguably a co-lead, but in the end he’s more of a supporting player. The Academy didn’t see it that way since he was both nominated for Best Actor and won Best Supporting Actor. Leo McCarey did win multiple awards for Best Director and Best Original Motion Picture Story on top of Best Picture.

O’Malley’s other relationships include his equally laid back colleague Father O’Dowd, opera singing former flame Jenny, young aspiring singer Carol, father & son mortgage handlers, and a group of troubled youths that he transforms into a boys choir. Going My Way won Best Screenplay, but it’s the music that stands out. Crosby’s smooth crooning vocals are great for familiar songs and originals like “The Day After Forever,” the titular “Going My Way,” and catchy Best Original Song winning “Swinging on a Star.” Father O’Malley leaves when his job is done, but his mission continues in The Bells of St. Mary’s. I’ll look at the sequel at a later date since I had no idea it existed despite its equal acclaim. Going My Way is just a bit more worthy of praise.

Going My Way

“Would you like to swing on a star”

Followed by: The Bells of St. Mary’s

A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody

The Great Ziegfeld is a lavish production filled with glitz and glamour. Such was the taste of the man the movie is based around. The Great Ziegfeld is the first biopic to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It tells the life story of the great Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. Even if you don’t know the name, chances are you’ve seen the impact of his extravagant shows. The Great Ziegfeld is so larger than life that it took 3 hours to tell. Making it the longest Hollywood sound picture made at the time. Although Ziegfeld passed away in 1932, his widow Billie Burke sold the rights to make a film almost immediately.

A lot of money went into the massive sets and flashy costumes. Making fellow musical The Broadway Melody look almost pedestrian by comparison. I fully understand why The Great Ziegfeld won Best Picture, but a lot of its strengths become weaknesses overtime. We see Ziegfeld’s life as a struggling producer scouting for talent wherever he can find it. A great deal of it is exaggerated and not entirely historically accurate. Ziegfeld first promotes a strongman named Sandow, he later meets Polish performer Anna Held, he gets the idea for Ziegfeld Follies, and produces multiple Broadway shows. All while competing with his friendly producer rival Jack Billings.

William Powell captures Ziegfeld’s determination and passionate love of women. Including his desire to give them expensive jewels and show them off in his Follies. Luise Rainer deserves her Best Actress win for playing his first wife Anna Held. Although Burke was a working actress at the time, her role went to Myrna Loy instead. Ray Bolger does play himself during an extended tap dance. The Great Ziegfeld may be excessive, but that’s the star attraction (and the main reason why it’s so long). The “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” sequence is the best that classic Hollywood has to offer. Earning a now outdated Oscar for Best Dance Direction. There are so many performers and the “Wedding Cake” set is simply astounding. The Great Ziegfeld is showy in the best way.

The Great Ziegfeld

The Wedding Cake

Dancing Cheek to Cheek

Top Hat is a good old fashioned excuse to sing and dance. After the success of The Gay Divorcee and Roberta, Top Hat was written especially for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It’s arguably their most well known pairing and it’s the film I wanted to see the most. Even though it’s very similar to The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat was a Best Picture nominee with a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. The director Mark Sandrich, almost the entire cast, and the general theme is the same as The Gay Divorcee.

Top Hat is also about a misunderstanding between dancer Jerry Travers and the mysterious Dale Tremont. This time Rogers’ character mistakes Astaire’s character for the husband of her older friend Madge. If Alice Brady played Madge instead of Helen Broderick, then the entire Gay Divorcee cast would be complete. Edward Everett Horton plays Madge’s mixed up producer husband, Erik Rhodes plays Dale’s fool hardy Italian fashion designer, and Eric Blore plays the hilariously incompetent valet. It’s another fine screwball romance that works itself out in the end.

Song and dance are very much the star of the musical with catchy songs from Irving Berlin and showstopping dance numbers. Truly a winning combination. The relationship only takes off when Jerry taps above Dale. Astaire is a high energy acrobat, but Rogers keeps up very well in heels no less. “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” puts them on equal footing and “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” gives Astaire time to shine in his titular top hat. The most classic number will always be the joy filled “Cheek to Cheek” recognized for Rogers’ feather dress and the lyric “Heaven, I’m in Heaven.” Top Hat is top notch entertainment.

Top Hat

Jerry dances with Dale

Chance is the Fool’s Name for Fate

The Gay Divorcee is a gay old time. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the biggest dancing duo in the Golden Age of Hollywood. They danced together in over 10 different musicals, but this was only their second time sharing the screen and dance floor. After Flying Down to Rio, a Broadway musical titled Gay Divorce was the next project with them in mind. Since the Hays Code was implemented at the time, the original title became controversial.

Not for the word “gay,” which meant happy or joyful at the time. Calling a divorce gay was controversial since it was disparaging marriage. A gay divorcee on the other hand is perfectly fine. Ginger Rogers is said gay divorcee who’s more bitter than gay in the beginning. Mimi is seeking a divorce from her absentee husband in England. Fred Astaire is a famous dancer who falls madly in love the moment they meet. Guy Holden almost obsessively searches for Mimi, but they conveniently wind up staying at the same continental hotel.

Together they team up with Alice Brady as Mimi’s chatty aunt, Edward Everett Horton as their confused lawyer, Erik Rhodes as a bumbling Italian co-respondent, and Eric Blore as a half witted waiter. They all end up sharing a connection through a series of ironic misunderstandings. The romance is swell and the comedy is fun, but it’s obvious the entire movie centers around song and dance numbers. “Night and Day” is a great song for the couple’s first dance, but “The Continental” was the first song to win Best Original Song. The 17 minute long sequence is a major production that gives The Gay Divorcee its pep.

The Gay Divorcee

Guy dances with Mimi

You Were Meant for Me

The Broadway Melody is a product of its time. It was the very first sound film to win Best Picture at the 2nd Academy Awards. Making Wings the only Silent Era film to win the Oscar. The Broadway Melody is also the first musical to win. There was even an early Technicolor scene that inspired more color in cinema. I think The Broadway Melody mostly won for its technical achievements. Hollywood was so ready for sound that story and/or performances weren’t as important. The Broadway Melody is a fine production on its own, but it hasn’t aged too well.

It centers on a Broadway performance produced by Francis Zanfield. An obvious take on real life theater producer Florenz Ziegfeld (more on him later). The Mahoney Sisters dream of taking their vaudeville act on Broadway. Hank is the older sister dating singer Eddie Kearns and Queenie is her younger more naive sister. Since it’s pre-Code, the sisters are given unnecessary bathing scenes. The Broadway Melody is an early musical that isn’t entirely dominated by music. Songs like the titular “Broadway Melody” or the original “You Were Meant for Me” more or less remain on Broadway.

More attention is arguably given to love triangles centering around Queenie. Despite dating Hank, Eddie is kind of a jerk who turns all of his attention to the younger, more beautiful Queenie. The producer chooses Queenie over Hank and Queenie gains the attention of a playboy named Jock Warriner. I feel bad for Hank, but Bessie Love gives the best performance out of anyone. Enough to earn a Best Actress nomination. The Broadway Melody is dated, but it puts on a good enough show to inspire many more sort of sequels for years to come.

The Broadway Melody

Zanfield’s revue

I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World

The Singing Fool tries to replicate the success of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer. By essentially making the same movie all over again. Although it lacks the name recognition of The Jazz Singer, The Singing Fool did cement the staying power of talkie pictures. The 1928 film has way more sound moments than silent moments. Sound continues after the first song and it remains that way for a majority of the story.

Though the only song I recognized was “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Jolson got so popular in Hollywood that pretty much every character he played had to be named Al. This time Al Stone is a waiter turned singing fool who wants to make it in show business. This time his strained relationship is with his fickle wife Molly and his most loving relationship is with their son Sonny Boy. Precocious young child actor Davey Lee became very successful after the film’s release.

The Singing Fool is another objectively great movie with an unfortunate use of blackface. This time it comes at the last minute and ruins a heartfelt song that Stone sings for his son. The Jazz Singer is still well preserved on all forms of media, but The Singing Fool was very difficult to find. Luckily the library had what may be the last known copy in existence. Although it didn’t receive any Oscar attention, The Singing Fool was another key contributor to talking in cinema.

The Singing Fool

Al sings for Grace

You Ainโ€™t Heard Nothin’ Yet!

The Jazz Singer has aged gracefully and horribly at the same time. Gracefully, because it was the very first motion picture to incorporate synchronized sound into the production. Horribly, because of its extended use of blackface. I always wanted to see The Jazz Singer for its historical significance. Even though 1927 was a different time with a lot of outdated material. Vitaphone was a positive cinematic advancement that made sound possible in Hollywood. Something I learned while watching Singin’ in the Rain. Although The Jazz Singer is remembered as a talkie, a majority of the movie remains silent. Al Jolson was a major star at the time who wanted his voice to be heard. 

So Jolson plays an aspiring singer who wants to make it in show business. All of his songs can be heard, but it’s the first spoken words in film that sent 1920’s audiences into a frenzy. The line is appropriately, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” Although The Jazz Singer won an Honorary Oscar at the 1st Academy Awards, it wasn’t nominated for Outstanding Picture due to its use of sound. In the movie, Jakie Rabinowitz is a young Jewish boy who shames his devout cantor father with his love of jazz music. If that sounds similar to the Simpsons episode “Like Father, Like Clown,” that’s what they were parodying. Though The Jazz Singer was parodied early on in the classic 1936 Merrie Melodies short I Love to Singa starring Owl Jolson.

Similar to those stories, Jakie is forced to leave his home and his loving mother in order to follow his dreams. He changes his name to Jack Robin and becomes a successful jazz singer thanks to the help of dancer Mary Dale. The film deals with Jack’s struggle with choosing between faith and fame. Jack singing to his mother should be a beautiful moment, but it’s tainted by his use of blackface makeup. There’s no way to remove the scenes, because they’re too crucial to the climax. Although Jolson might have appreciated black music back in the day, the scenes are racist and uncomfortable no matter how you look at it. Especially since the final song is called “My Mammy.” Nevertheless, The Jazz Singer was a major accomplishment that brought the Silent Era to an end.

The Jazz Singer

Jack sings for his mother