Sunday, 18 September 2016

That's Entertainment! (1974)

Made to commemorate fifty years of MGM, That’s Entertainment is a nostalgic trip through the history of the studio's contribution to the genre that made them. It features the contemporary presence of several bona fide stars of the day, such as Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, Bing Crosby and Debbie Reynolds, all waxing lyrical about their experiences with the dances, songs and fellow artists, and clips from over sixty MGM films from the 1920s (starting with the first MGM musical, The Broadway Melody of 1929, the first film to feature the song Singin’ in the Rain) to the 1950s. Fascinatingly, when viewed together, the deluge of clips reveals some interesting things.

Firstly is the contrast between the sleek, extravagant sets in films such as The Band Wagon and Good News and the rather sad, dilapidated state of the MGM lot as it was by the 70s, on the verge of demolition. This certainly emphasises the gulf between the two eras, and increases the feeling of nostalgia. This is something that could well have been felt at the time of release, with the United States mired in the Watergate Scandal, and is tacitly acknowledged in the strapline on the poster (“Boy, do we need it now”).

Secondly, while we are used to seeing the likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Eleanor Powell in musicals, the ubiquity of the genre during the 30s and 40s meant that all of MGM’s talent were expected to be able to sing and dance, and the sight of James Stewart and Cary Grant giving it their best is wonderfully surprising.

Thirdly is the gradual evolution of cinematic style, from simply pointing a static camera at performers on a stage, to two distinctive directing techniques. On one hand is the style made famous by directors such as Stanley Donen in the likes of Singin' in the Rain, where the emphasis is very much on individual performers, with long unbroken takes as the camera glides up and down in their wake. The polar opposite of this is the Busby Berkeley style, of grand, often surreal spectacle, with scores of performers moving in sync amid lavish sets, or in the case of Small Town Girl, Anne Miller dancing through a sea of disembodied arms holding musical instruments.

One thing that all of the clips have in common is an energy and exuberance, which means That's Entertainment is never dull viewing. It works as a primer for those new to the genre and trip through memory lane for existing fans.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Cafe Society (2016)

After one or two recent misfires, Woody Allen is back on form with Cafe Society. More of a witty drama than an outright comedy, this is a film which harks back to the era of some of his earlier work such as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Bullets over Broadway, although with a completely different style to either of these.

Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) is the youngest child in a 1930s New York Jewish family, where elder sister Evelyn works as a school teacher, while his elder brother Ben is a gangster. Desperate to escape all of this, Bobby moves to Hollywood, getting a job running errands for his high flying agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell). From here, he falls in love with Bobby's secretary Vonnie, has his heart broken in a particularly cruel twist of fate, moves back to New York, starts managing his brother's high-end nightclub, meets and marries another woman called Vonnie - then meets the original Vonnie again.

The different story strands illustrate themes that have recurred throughout Allen's career, particularly in regard to chance, fate, and justice, summed up in Bobby's observation that ‘Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.’

Eisenberg does a great job of channelling the tics and mannerisms of Allen's onscreen character. He is aided by Kristen Stewart, who as Vonnie number one, switches gear believably between lowly secretary and Hollywood wife, Steve Carrel, who brings both toughness and vulnerability to the part of Uncle Phil and Blake Lively, who makes the best of an underused part as Vonnie number two.

It is also interesting to see Allen return to a subject that he seems to have left alone for a while. Jewishness is something that defines the Dorfman family, and while it does fuel a few trademark Allen one-liners, the abandoning of this by one of their clan drives one part of the story.

Allen is not afraid to both explore and criticise two big American mythologises of the 1930s, Hollywood and gangsters. While both are undeniably glamorous for the people viewing them from a distance, and financially rewarding for those involved, any wide eyed naivety is undercut by unpleasant bitchiness for the former and gruesome violence for the latter. He also, and not for the first time in his work, ends the film on a somewhat bittersweet note, with lives changed for the worse, hopes and dreams left unfulfilled and characters left wondering what could have been.

Friday, 2 September 2016

That's My Wife (1929) / Along Came Auntie (1926)


From their sometimes underappreciated silent era, That's My Wife is quintessential Laurel & Hardy, featuring the key ingredients of a well-structured script, great chemistry between the stars and a scheme that may be fool proof, but certainly isn't idiot-proof.

The script spends little time getting down to the action, and the gags are not strung together at random, but are driven by the plot, as well as driving it forward. Olly has a rich uncle who has promised him a large sum of money, provided he is happily married. Unfortunately, this is not the case, with Mrs Hardy having stormed out of the marital home in disgust at their malingering houseguest, Mr Laurel, just minutes before the arrival of said uncle. So, Stan is pressganged into putting on a dress and posing as the love of Olly's life, even when Uncle insists on a visit to a raucous nightclub.

Much mileage is got out of Stan’s poor attempts to pass as a woman, from his fondness for cigars to his dumbbell cleavage enhancement, but there is no shortage of slapstick, such as the recurring gag with a hapless waiter and a cake. Far from becoming repetitive, jokes like this start to take on a feeling of inevitability, that somehow when Laurel and Hardy appear in people’s lives, chaos and misfortune inevitably follow. But as well as their effect on other people, all the best Laurel and Hardy films are also about the effect they have on each other, and the way they seem inexorably stuck with each other. Indeed, by the end, Olly has lost his wife and his chance of getting his hands on a big sum of money, and all he has left is Stan.

For completists, a interesting companion piece to this film is a 1926 silent comedy called Along Came Auntie. Only Olly appears on appears on screen, Stan's contributions being purely on the writing side.

The plot has similar basis to That's My Wife, with a woman, played by Vivien Oakland, set to receive $100,000 and a truckload of diamonds from her aunt. Said Aunt is not a fan of divorce, which proves awkward as Vivian has, unbeknown to her current husband, taken in first husband Vincent Belcher (played by Olly, initially hard to recognise, being several pounds lighter than usual and hiding behind a big moustache) as a lodger in order to cover her mounting debts.

Much slightly strained farce ensues, with the film most noticeable for what it lacks compared to That's My Wife. Firstly the action all takes place in one house, often feeling like a filmed stage comedy, whereas the second part of That's My Wife moves out of the house and into the nightclub. Secondly the script does not have the same structure or pacing of That's My Wife, seeming both rushed and tiresome in places, and the characters bland and uninteresting. Thirdly, what is really lacks is the chemistry and partnership of Stan and Olly, again emphasising what a bright idea it was to pair them up together.

Along Came Auntie (B&W) 1926 - Laurel & Hardy by herbert-hueller