All I Do the Whole Day Through is Dream of You: The Death of the Hollywood Musical

Vietnam? AIDS? The Internet? The War on Terror?

When did we get so restless, so cynical, so jaded that we no longer enjoy musicals? And I’m not talking about the modern movie musical that either has to have a rock score (Rent, Hedwig and the Angry Inch), use existing pop music (Moulin Rouge!, Mamma Mia, the impending Rock of Ages, starring Tom Fucking Cruise) or make the entire thing a fantasy in the main character’s head (Chicago, Dancer in the Dark). I’m talking about the classics starring Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire; movies where characters broke into song and dance for no reason and no one batted an eye. If the Academy is any arbiter of greatness (which is a dubious statement at best), then the shift must have happened, along with the death of the auteur movement, at the end of the 70s. Before Moulin Rouge‘s nomination in 2001 (and Chicago‘s subsequent win the following year), a musical hadn’t been nominated for Best Picture since All That Jazz in 1979 (or 1991, if you count Beauty and the Beast, which I will address shortly). Before Jazz’s nomination, 23 musicals gained a bid for top honors (winners have been marked with an asterisk):

The Love Parade, 1929

The Smiling Lieutenant, 1931

One Hour with You, 1932

The Gay Divorcee, 1934


Naughty Marietta, 1936


Top Hat, 1936


The Wizard of Oz, 1939

Anchors Aweigh, 1945


*An American in Paris, 1951

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 1954

The King & I, 1956

*Gigi, 1958

*West Side Story, 1961

The Music Man, 1962

*My Fair Lady, 1964

Mary Poppins, 1964


*The Sound of Music, 1965


Doctor Dolittle, 1967


*Oliver!, 1968


Funny Girl, 1968

Hello, Dolly, 1969

Fiddler on the Roof, 1971


Cabaret, 1972

All That Jazz, 1979

[I have purposefully omitted fake musicals such as *The Broadway Melody, 42nd Street, *The Great Ziegfeld, Yankee Doodle Dandy, *Going My Way, and Nashville –  just because there is music or musicians (or Bing Crosby singing a ditty) in it doesn’t make it a musical! A musical is where characters sing their feelings and dance as an extension of their emotions, not merely a film that has the protagonists perform a number or boogie to the Bee Gees while rocking chest hair and ridiculously tight pants. This also eliminates eventual Oscar winners *Amadeus (1984) and Ray (2004) from the pantheon of “musicals” as well as the films of Shirley Temple and Abbott and Costello; however, Marx Brothers’ films Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1934) do count as musicals because the songs comment on the action and emotions of its characters and progress the story]

Then of course there are the innumerable crowd pleasers and masterpieces that never got to dance with Oscar:

For Me and My Gal (1942)

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Easter Parade (1948)

Summer Stock (1950)

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

The Band Wagon (1954)

White Christmas (1954)

Guys and Dolls (1955)


South Pacific (1958)

Peter Pan (1960)

Gypsy (1962)

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)


Jesus Christ Superstar
(1973)



The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)


Tommy (1975)



Pete’s Dragon (1977)



The Wiz (1978)


Grease (1978)

Annie (1982)

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982)



Little Shop of Horrors (1986)


The Chipmunk Adventure (1987)

Just to name a handful…

[Again, I have omitted one of the greatest “musicals” of all time, A Star is Born, because it is not a musical in the traditional sense, but a showcase for Judy Garland to perform – brilliantly]

If you want to watch some of the best musicals made post All That Jazz, you have to look to Disney. Not only does the  incredible output of The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), Hercules (1997), and Mulan (1998) challenge the great and powerful MGM for greatest film musicals of all time – how Louis B. Mayer would have used and abused Ashman and Menken! – but they are contenders for some of the best films ever made, period.

But even Disney has veered from the musical formula when they started hiring Phil Collins and Randy Newman to write (and sing) all of the numbers as voice over commentary instead of direct professions of faith from the characters.

It has been ten years since Chicago won Best Picture and the Academy has yet to honor a musical since, despite incredible films Dreamgirls (2006) and Sweeney Todd (2007) winning nominations and awards in the acting categories. But to be fair, the pickings are slim. Sure, we have had The Producers (2005), Idlewild (2006), Hairspray (2007), Nine (2009), Burlesque (2010) – although that seems to be more in the vein of 42nd Street than the Cabaret it blatantly is ripping off – and the High School Musical saga, but long gone are the days of the Freed Unit. Why? The dismantling of the Studio System?

People claimed that the musical was back when Glee hit the scene, but again, most of their music is pop based, not original, and very rarely stemming from the Broadway stage.

Now we have Smash, which seems to be a true resurrection of interest in the genre because it is at least about the making of a Broadway show instead of about sexy kids who are incredibly talented yet are somehow the outcasts, but how long will it last? Musical variety shows certainly don’t. Remember The Nick and Jessica Variety Hour? Or Rosie Live? Or The Wayne Brady Show? Didn’t think so. Dinah Shore, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, and Sonny Bono must be turning in their graves. Could Carol Burnett or Cher even have a variety show now? Why not? People love musicals. The Phantom of the Opera has been running on Broadway for almost 25 years because people from all over the world still want to see it. Mamma Mia, Chicago, The Lion King, and Wicked still have their doors open. American Idol, America’s Got Talent, The X Factor, and The Voice prove that Americans love singing and dancing so why is it still a risky venture for producers and stars alike? It’s not like we don’t have the talent to make big musicals anymore. Nick Jonas, Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, Usher, Justin Bieber, Hugh Jackman, Beyonce, Goldie Hawn, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, and numerous stage stars like Bernadette Peters would not only draw in the audience, but tear down the house. So why aren’t we?

Is it because most of the big (and small) stage musicals have already made it to the screen? Since when has that stopped Hollywood from remaking them? Gypsy is heading back to the cinema, but that’s because Barbra Streisand – one of the last stalwarts from a bygone era – is the producer and star. And Les Miserables is finally happening with of course an A-List cast. But where is Into the Woods? Company? Pippin? Follies? The Apple Tree? The Secret Garden? You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown? The Drowsy Chaperone? Miss Saigon? Avenue Q? To be clear, I am not clamoring for remakes of West Side Story or Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris; please, no – Heavens, no. But why don’t we have the stomach for 15 – hell, even five – minute dance sequences anymore? Has MTV ruined our appreciation of the epic dance? Maybe?

Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video – borrowed heavily from Bob Fosse – was an international sensation and the musical theatre inspired works of Madonna, Janet, and Michael Jackson are still loved and emulated by their disciples, but when was the last time you saw a dance routine in the movies just allowed to unfold in front of the camera without Baz Luhrman epilepsy?

Michel Hazanavicius channeled Astaire and Rogers in the climax of The Artist, but that was an arty-farty foreign film set 85 years in the past; America has clearly lost its spunk.

So how do we get it back? Busby Berkeley is dead. Vincente Minnelli is dead. So are Jerome Robbins, Fosse, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Gershwin. But their work lives on. Have the people in power truly forgotten it or has our culture “evolved” so much that this a futile battle cry? Watch this and tell me it is stale. I dare you.

Black, White, and Blue: Or If You Want to Catch the Bad Guy, You Better Get Bi-Racial With It

As reparation for its embarrassing depictions of African-Americans in cinema from The Birth of a Nation (1915) forward, Hollywood began teaming blacks and whites as “the unlikely duo in pursuit of a common goal” as a way to combat its guilt. One could say they had been “teamed” before, if you count Scarlett O’Hara’s Mammy, Shirley Temple’s Bojangles, Charlie Chan’s Mantan, or Jack Benny’s Rochester, but no matter the star billing (or Academy recognition), these were ancillary characters designed to comfort, placate, or build up the established white star by playing stereotyped versions of happy Negroes serving “massa.”

Liberal stalwart Stanley Kramer ushered in a new cinematic day by teaming Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as convict runaways in The Defiant Ones (1957; in 1973, Pam Grier and Margaret Markov were teamed in the blaxploitation remake Black Mama, White Mama).

Poitier had begun his Good Negro image in No Way Out (1950) as a young doctor who must nurse a white racist back to health, won an Oscar for helping white nuns turn around their convent in Lilies of the Field (1963), and aided white students, white cops, and white millionaires to achieve their goals (hope for the future, solve a crime, overcome their racism) in the successful trifecta of classics To Sir, With Love; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night (all 1967). It is the latter that created what has been deemed the “buddy-cop movie”.

In the Heat of the Night was an enormous hit, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture and spawning a very successful television series. Ironically, or tellingly, it was Rod Steiger as the racist old-guard police office that won the Best Actor Oscar and Katherine Hepburn for Best Actress in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (a consolation prize for recently departed lover Spencer Tracy losing) while Sidney Poitier was not nominated for either film, the two most important of his career. (Fittingly, Poitier’s first nomination, and the first for any African-American male, came with The Defiant Ones; however, as the genre of the biracial buddy film dictates, Tony Curtis was also nominated; they both lost to David Niven for Separate Tables)

Night sets up the dynamic that countless films have duplicated: white establishment must deal with black “insubordination” to get the job done. The film deals with it in a blatantly racist manner as Gillepsie makes no qualms about his feelings toward Mr. Tibbs. Similar themes are explored in Night of the Living Dead (1968) as the black protagonist must overcome the dominant white male’s attitudes that he knows best. In 48 Hours (1982), cop Nick Nolte is teamed with convict Eddie Murphy to solve a crime. Instead of his equal, Murphy plays the “tamed dangerous other,” a role tailor made by Hollywood for black men from King Kong to Martin Lawrence.

Murphy moved into lead status with Axel Foley, the rogue cop who plays by his own rules in the Beverly Hills Cop franchise (1984, 1987, 1991) with Judge Reinhold as the “token” white guy that represents the establishment. Will Smith and Chris Tucker took the reins in their own respective series (Men in Black with Tommy Lee Jones, Rush Hour with Jackie Chan) while Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder escaped their predicaments through Wilder learning how to “act black.” Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57 (1992) reminds his white targets (and the police force that at first takes him as a terrorist) to “always bet on black.” While not in the same vein of insubordination, white crime fighters Walker, Texas RangerMatlock, and Judge Judy must count on their trusty black sidekicks to solve the case, kick some ass, or eject unruly witnesses.

Of course, the opposite exists: black establishment (or more appropriately, a black figure in the white establishment) must call upon a white rogue for assistance.  The most obvious example is the Lethal Weapon franchise (1987. 1989, 1992, 1998). Responsible family man and dedicated servant of the people Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) must put up with the suicidal tendencies of Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson, back when he was a heart throb and not a documented racist). When Roger’s extremely light skinned daughter – the Hollywood epitome of black beauty; i.e. Halle Berry, Dorothy Dandridge, Thandie Newton, etc. – is kidnapped, it is Martin that must save the day through his martial artistry (the lethal weapon of the title), emasculating her very dark skinned father. Arnold Schwarzennegger fulfills a similar purpose saving the light skinned Vanessa Williams in Eraser (1996) while her husband lies dead on the floor. Die Hard (1988) may not seem to fit into this category because it pits a white rogue against the white Chief of Police, but the initial battle of wills is shared between Bruce Willis and Reginald Veljohnson (who went on to famously play a cop in the hit TV series, Family Matters, where he employed the help of Steve Urkell – turning the white stereotype of nerd on its ear – to solve crimes and overcome his white boss – winkingly named Murtaugh – and his arrogant disbelief in his abilities). Veljohnson, along with Willis’ chauffeur Argile (a name as silly as the Sambo he recreates), quickly become his trusted accomplices on hand to take down another “dangerous other”: the European terrorists with thick accents and bad attitudes.

Somewhere along the line, feminism snuck its head into the genre. One could look at the careers of Pam Grier or Tamara Dobson as signposts (and the rare examples of women of color as the crime fighters), but the primary cinematic relationship is ironically Black Man/White Woman, ironic for its historic fears of rape and predatory advances. Non-threatening Negroes Morgan Freeman teams up with hotties Ashley Judd in Kiss the Girls (1996) and Monica Potter in Along Came a Spider (1999); Samuel L. Jackson with Geena Davis in The Last Kiss Goodnight (1996) and Ashley Judd in High Crimes (2002); and Denzel Washington with Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief (1993), and Angelina Jolie in The Bone Collector. (Denzel also gets to play the Good Negro in Man on Fire protecting Dakota Fanning) Not surprisingly, none of these pairings end up in romance the way countless film noirs, Get Smart, or films starring Katherine Heigel do.

While on the one hand, teaming white people with black people in the pursuit of a common goal can be seen as “progressive” and a microcosm for the state of the nation, the way in which it is done speaks volumes. Hollywood’s long disgusting history of marginalizing, subjugating, and pigeon-holing African-Americans on screen is well documented and sadly not anachronistic. If black people are part of a bi-racial team, they either play the bug-eyed, jive-talking buffoon or the asexual “Uncle Tom” trying to save white people in a white world. If the point of these pairings were to subconsciously parlay to the American people, “Blacks and Whites can work together,” then their portrayals would be more three-dimensional and black writers, directors, and producers would be allowed at the table (over 20 years after Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee still struggles to get funding for his films). But since like everything in Hollywood – and by Hollywood I mean the people with the money, not the ones with ideas and consciences – the only goal is to make money. As we have known since Griffith first stepped behind a camera, the best way to do that is to give the people what they want. I do not claim innocence from hypocrisy; I have enjoyed many of the films previously listed for an amalgam of reasons. I am not berating anyone for enjoying these or other films. I bring these examples to light because seeing these archetypes through a different prism may perhaps make you see people like them through a different prism. The more informed we become on the ramifications of our opinions, biases, and taste, the more we are able to see how to change the things we dislike about our culture.

Have You Seen?: An Affair to Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957)

 

My beef with An Affair to Remember is not that it is romantic, therefore, nausea-inducing; one takes on this possibility if choosing to watch what is universally praised as a paragon of its genre. I wasn’t looking for realism – one can’t in melodrama – but surprisingly found it for over 60% of the film. And if we compare it to the gajillion films that have followed in its wake, mainly the horrible, horrible (did I say horrible?) “homage” or whatever Nora Ephron wants to call Sleepless in Seattle, An Affair to Remember looks downright cinema verite.

It would be impossible to find fault in the performances of Cary Grant or Deborah Kerr, two of the greatest and Academy ignored actors to sashay in front of a lens. Who else would you want to play your strong, gorgeous, witty leading lady in the 50s than Deborah Kerr? (If it were the 40s, you would want Barbara Stanwyck; the 30s, Irene Dunne, who without coincidence, played this same character in Leo McCarey’s original version of the film, then titled Love Affair). And has their ever been, now or then, a leading man that projected sophistication, intelligence, confidence, and sexuality like Cary Grant? (George Clooney runs a close second, but modernity has tweaked this formula). Their interplay is seductive without being trashy, romantic without being unrealistic. But the problem with the film is something out of their hands: its script.

The plot, and forgive me if I am insulting your film knowledge, is very basic. Boy meets Girl on an ocean liner. They are both engaged to marry others; Nickie for money, Terry for duty (?). They fall in love. What to do about it? If they both still want to marry the other, meet atop the Empire State Building in six months. Simple.

The first two acts are incredible. Mostly comprised of long dialogue scenes between Kerr and Grant, McCarey in that Old Hollywood way, trusts his actors to know how to act and is as unobtrusive with the camera and the editing as possible, giving us glorious Technicolor and obvious back lot scenery to transport us to the fantasy land of the movies in which we all wish to live. The pacing is slow without being laborious and every scene matters – the highlight a sojourn to a villa in Italy to visit Nickie’s enchanting grandmother, played by Cathleen Nesbit.

Where the film falls apart is when (Spoiler Alert!) Terry gets run down with a car moments before she is to meet up with Nickie.

She doesn’t die. That would have been a horrible idea. Where could you go from there? And what would that say? “Don’t follow your heart”? “Stay miserable when you don’t have to”? No. But she does become a paraplegic. What does that say?! Perhaps nothing. Perhaps it was just a conceit to keep them apart for another 45 minutes of screen time (as if six months apart wasn’t torture enough for their characters) to make their reunion even more triumphant (of course, they get together in the end. This ain’t a romantic classic for nothing). I have accepted this cataclysm as a plea for tears from the women who lust for Grant and his ilk. What left me scratching my head in cinematic bewilderment is why she didn’t rush to the phone and call him immediately. Or even have her pining ex track him down, which he was pathetically ready and willing to do! Fine. She missed the rendezvous. Big deal. Would have been a cool story to tell their kids, but shit happens. Instead, she decides to be miserable and alone as a cripple instead of with the man she loves. Either way she is a cripple. Why punish herself?

The kicker is that she doesn’t even have to be a cripple! There is a surgery. Ex-man offered to pay and clearly Nickie would pay, but she doesn’t want to be beholden to no man for saving her life. So let me get this straight. She would rather remain crippled than live with a feeling of obligation. She’s an idiot. And how expensive is this surgery that she couldn’t afford at least half of itself herself? You want to be independent? Great. Put up some dough and pay back the rest as a loan. And if part of her reasoning for not contacting Nickie was because she didn’t want to feel as if she were guilting him into staying with her because she was an invalid, what does that say about her confidence in the relationship? One minute she is ready to get married after not speaking to him for six months, the next she doesn’t want to be a burden? Newsflash. Love is at least 25% burden. For a film that freely acknowledges the complexities of romance and its realities, something its disciples have all sugar coated to disgusting proportions, An Affair to Remember certainly misses the boat.

 

Good Cinema: Rufus Jones for President (Dir: Roy Mack, 1933)

75 years before Bam and 65 years before Morgan, Sammy was our first black president.

Ok. So it’s 1933, immediately following the Aunt Jemima eye rolls of Imitation of Life Round One and decades before Sidney demanded we call him Mr. Tibbs; clearly, a film starring black people is going to be full of racial stereotyping (the most egregious being the bug-eyed Sambos shucking and jiving literally while eating pork chops). Wikipedia claims it is “satirical”. Perhaps. Maybe that would explain why the President-ess appoints two senators to be the Minister of the Chicken Coops (you know, so theys can get in thar and steal thems pesky chickens!) and the Minister of the Watermelon Vines, but I have a hard time buying it as satire during Jim Crow America, directed by a cracker; Bamboozled this ain’t. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I found this film by accident. I am reading the most fascinating book on pre-1950s Black Hollywood called Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams by Donald Bogle, who I have come to understand is the preeminent scholar on African-American cinema. Perhaps at some point I will write a piece chronicling my experiences with the films I have discovered through the tutelage of Bogle, discussing how we still propagate a filmdom of mammies, coons, and Uncle Toms (Precious, The Help, The Blind Side, The Princess and the Frog – shame on you, Disney!), but this is not the time or the place in my education to tackle a task that daunting. So back to Rufus.

Little Rufus (a seven year old Sammy Davis, Jr.) gets into a scuffle with a neighborhood boy. He runs to his mother (the awesome, enchanting Ethel Waters), his face covered in a whipped cream like substance. We never see the altercation, nor the offender. Hold that thought. We will come back to it.

She takes him in his arms in full Mammy regalia (similar to the way she looked in Pinky, minus about 50 pounds) and reassures him that he can be anything he wants when he grows up. Even President! Begin the dream sequence where Rufus gets elected because he promises to go easy on those shyster gamblers and thieves (you know, something all black men are) and dances his way to victory! (Amazingly, I must add. A little Bieber, that Sammy!)

Which brings us to the only reason to watch this (besides as a historical document of racism): following the aforementioned appointments, the President-ess (self-ascribed because her son is too young to run the country alone) takes a break from the film and Ethel Waters emerges to sing two of her signature tunes – “Am I Blue?” and “Underneath a Harlem Moon.” Back in the days when films didn’t need rapid editing to keep the audience alive, musicals could have master shots of performers doing their thing, maintaining their magic (imagine the power “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” could have had if Condon didn’t feel the need to fucking cut to Jamie Foxx doing nothing!). Ethel Waters is alive and well, belting out in all her glory. Just think what else she or Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt, or Billie Holiday could have given us onscreen if Hollywood/America hadn’t been so stupid.

And what of the whipped cream – or whatever it is (icing?). Maybe I am giving too much weight to this – as critics tend to do:

The closing line is “Just stay on your own side of the fence and no harm will come to you.”

Perhaps the moral of the story is “after you colored folk have your high faluting uppity dreams of power and prestige, you will remember that you belong back down on the plantation with a bandana on your head, where Whitey will always be off screen ready to shove our icing in your face.”