Top Hat

January 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’m probably going to lose all my musical-loving street cred by saying this, but I’ve never been the biggest fan of Fred Astaire musicals. This has less to do with Fred himself than it does with the form the musical took at the peak of Astaire’s career: pre-Oklahoma!, they’re intended to be nothing but trifles with spun-sugar plots and no character development, no emotional journey. While plenty of people love them, it’s not my favorite era of the musical’s development. Most of the Fred Astaire movie plots seem to take the same basic format: either he or his romantic interest (or both) are involved with other people, but they fall in love instead. This is a solid enough plot with enough variations to base a handful of movies on, but not an entire career, sorry to say.

Still, it’s not just the musical’s fault. There’s a line in movie-musical fandom that says you’re either an Astaire fan or a Kelly fan, never both, with the implication always that Astaire’s dancing was the purer version of the art form. Astaire was sophisticated, made it look easy, was always in a top hat and tails while he did it. Gene Kelly wasn’t a dancer, he was an athlete. He did musicals where he wore a baseball player’s uniform or a sailor suit or a terrible mustache. You see him sweat! You never see Astaire sweat. The idea that I have to pick just one seems overly restrictive to me, but if I have to limit myself, I’m a Gene girl all the way. The problem with Fred is that even here, when he’s young, he just comes off as old. Fussy. Ineffectual. I can never suspend my disbelief enough to buy the idea that women are chasing after him, fighting over him, can’t stay away from him. It’s a problem I have with Fred, with Bing Crosby, sometimes even with Frank Sinatra. Sometimes the qualities that made someone a star don’t universally translate over the decades. Seventy years from now, I imagine classic film fans will wonder why we were so hot for George Clooney.

But the biggest hurdle for me to jump is that Astaire always plays the same character. Always lovesick, always walking that tightrope between smarmy and charming. Never convincingly hot-blooded, never in over his head. Refusing to be seen in anything other than that damn top hat and tails. Would Astaire ever wear a terrible mustache or a baseball uniform if it fit the character? Never. Astaire’s a dancer, not an actor. And certainly there’s some comfort to be derived from that, a comfort that was probably more welcome during the Great Depression when Astaire’s career was at its peak. If you went to an Astaire film, you knew what you were going to get: Astaire, always in fancy dress, always calm, cool and collected, always twirling you away from your problems. It’s these traits that many Astaire fans still love in him to this day. Just not me.

With that introduction in mind, I enjoyed Top Hat more than most Fred Astaire films. Astaire is the same as ever–put-together, tuxedo-clad, head over heels in puppy-love. The plot is similar to other Astaire plots, albeit with a mistaken identities twist that I enjoyed more than most–while Astaire is trying to romance Miss Rodgers, she’s convinced that he’s the husband of her close friend. A comedy of errors ensues. But despite the same ol’ Fred and same ol’ plot, the movie has other charms. First there’s Ginger, whom I love anywhere. Then there are those absurd, amazing Art Deco sets, culminating in the wonder of a Disneyland-esque Venice pictured above. I could love this movie for those sets alone, and of course the highly artificial Fred & Ginger films work better on highly artificial sound stages than they would have on location. And the costumes–Ginger’s riding pants, that infamous feather dress during the “Cheek to Cheek” scene! The dancing, it goes without saying, is phenomenal. The supporting cast is stellar, the script is funny–basically everything except Fred works for me here. Sorry, Fred.

While the film is intended to be wholly superficial, the mistaken identity plot functions here as it does in many Shakespearean comedies, allowing the characters to allude to sex and adultery in a way that never could have been addressed in a 1935 movie if played straight. At one point, Ginger believes that her friend Madge is literally offering to share her husband with her–and Ginger, if we’re to take the movie seriously, considers it (despite being slightly appalled). The Breen Office only allows this because we, the audience, know they’re actually in love with different men. I’m not one of those Hays Code afficionados who believe that the Code made everything better by forcing filmmakers to allude to things and audiences to use their brains rather than having things spelled out for them, but Top Hat is a perfect example of films that are made better by implication only.

Christmas in Connecticut

December 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

The set-up for this movie is utterly ridiculous, but the pay-off is so adorable I can forgive it. The first time I watched Christmas in Connecticut, I texted my best friend, “I’m watching this bizarre movie where soldiers pretend to propose marriage to nurses, solely to get home-cooked meals out of them.” And that’s half the premise for this movie: sailor Jefferson Jones, rescued from a raft after his ship was sunk by a u-boat, flirts with his nurse so that she’ll hook him up with better food. He eludes her suggestions of marriage, though, which she ascribes to his “never having had a real home” growing up–so she arranges for him to spend the holidays at the home of Smart Housekeeping columnist Elizabeth Lane, a home front Martha Stewart type. And here’s the other half of the movie’s premise: while Mrs. Lane depicts herself in the magazine pages as a model housewife, complete with doting husband, bouncing baby, and Connecticut farmhouse . . . in reality she’s an unmarried New Yorker, dependent on take-out and putting off marriage offers from a long-term boyfriend. After her publisher forces her into the bring-a-soldier-home-for-the-holidays publicity scheme, she’s forced to cobble together something resembling domestic perfection on the fly. Screwball antics ensue, but Elizabeth doesn’t find it quite so funny when she starts falling for Mr. Jones . . .

Old comedies can be touchy–to modern eyes, the humor can be too hokey, too dated, too wacky. But the humor really worked for me here; it was enjoyable without going to too far over the top. And while I liked the two leads together, the film did, unfortunately, strike one of my old movie nerves in regards to its love triangle.  In 1930s and ’40s movies, and occasionally even into some later ones, a woman is generally considered “single” until she’s married, with the unattached partner in a love triangle free to guiltlessly pursue her until the moment she actually says her vows–and even then it’s no serious moral failing to keep pushing her to stray, as Jefferson Jones does here. (Of course, if they do actually stray, then by Hays Code injunction, they must be Severely Punished to Discourage Copycat Offenders. But here it’s okay because even though he thinks she’s married, she’s not! Nothing wrong with that!) To a modern viewer, this comes off as mighty cold–modern rom-coms generally require a little more compunction for chasing after a taken woman. I should be used to it by now, fan of golden-era musicals (in all their partner-swapping glory) that I am, but it still always throws me for a loop, as it did here. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to shake my preference for the men who stand politely on the sidelines until their number’s called, so to speak.

To make up for it, though, we have all that glorious food. I love to cook, butone of my niche obsessions is cooking history–the trends and dishes associated with a particular era–and for that, Christmas in Connecticut is a goldmine. A few years back, Raquelle put together a menu based on the movie: Chicken Maryland! Plum pudding! Strawberries Chantilly! They don’t make food like that anymore . . . which, in some cases, is probably for the best.

Mildred Pierce

December 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

Mildred Pierce is a women’s weepie baked in a film noir crust. Knowing that the source material was from crime writer James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), I assumed that the noir aspect of this film was his, too. After watching, I was surprised to find out that Cain’s novel pretty closely follows the “weepie” portion of the film, with nary a bullet fired. The noir framing device was added by screenwriters due to pressure from the Breen Office, for reasons I shall not spoil. (The Kate Winslet Mildred Pierce miniseries follows the book much more closely, if that’s what you’re into.)

The movie opens with bullets fired in a beach house, taking down mustachioed Monty Beragon. We don’t see the killer, although we do hear Monty gasp, “Mildred!” before he dies. Shortly after, we see a fur-clad Mildred on a foggy pier, appearing to contemplate jumping off. A policeman persuades her not to, and in the extended intro that follows, she has a drink with old friend Wally Fay, who expresses surprise that she’s learned to drink good liquor, and invites him back to the beach house where Monty’s body still lies on the floor. They head downstairs without noticing him, though, and here Mildred slips out the back, leaving Wally to be apprehended by the police when he finally discovers the corpse in the living room. Soon afterward, the cops take Mildred down to the station to get her side of the story, where we get into the flashbacks that form the bulk of the film.

The film deliberately plays with us here, with the fur coat, taste for expensive booze, and the disappearing act all implying that Mildred will be the femme fatale in what is already a very shadowy noir . . . then immediately flashing back to a sunny California bungalow where the very same Mildred wears an apron and bakes pies. She’s the mother to two children, spoiled Veda and tomboyish Kay, and wife to Bert, although their marriage is on the rocks. As the flashback unfolds, Bert and Mildred divorce, and Mildred must learn to support herself and the girls–at first as a waitress, much to Veda’s dismay, and then as the owner of an ever-increasing chain of restaurants. Meanwhile, Mildred is falling for her business partner, the wealthy playboy Monty Beragon.

Still playing with us, the film’s actual femme fatale is the innocent-looking Veda. And Mildred’s fatal flaw is that she can’t see her daughter for what she really is, toiling at the restaurants so that V. can have the best of everything–dresses, singing lessons, new cars–while Veda schemes and social-climbs behind her mother’s back and humiliates her to her face. Equally spoiled is Mildred’s boyfriend Monty, who grew up rich but no longer has as much money as everyone thinks, and who’s taken to accepting handouts from Mildred as her business empire grows. Slightly better at recognizing his sins than Veda’s, Mildred breaks up with him, but their separation doesn’t last long . . . which leads us to the disastrous conclusion of our story: a retelling of the murder in the opening scene, this time with the blanks filled in. Throughout Mildred’s tale, evidence has mounted up as to exactly who committed the murder in the opening scene. The question that remains is why?

Mildred Pierce is a one-of-a-kind film. Most noirs are centered entirely around the worlds of men, detective offices and dark alleys–but this one takes place in sun-soaked kitchens. Women in traditional noir play victims or femmes fatales, but never does the story center around them. In Mildred Pierce, the entire film is about Mildred and Veda’s relationship with each other; the men in their world are merely satellites. (In fact, the gender flip is completed by Monty functioning as something of a femme fatale–homme fatale?–himself.) Despite this, one can also make an argument for the story’s inherent sexism. While Mildred is a business tycoon–far more successful in that realm than any of the film’s men–by the end of the story, she’s lost it all. As in all good Greek tragedies, Mildred’s inability to see Veda clearly causes her own downfall, the decimation of both her career and personal life. Are we supposed to see this as a punishment for her stepping beyond the traditional confines of the “woman’s sphere”? Or is it simply collateral damage, with Mildred casting off all her tethers into the proverbial fire, in order to start anew?

The Rise and Fall of the College Widow

May 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

While watching A Yank at Oxford, I spotted a real, live endangered species of the film world: the college widow. TV Tropes refers to the college widow as a “forgotten trope,” in that it was once a commonly accepted cinematic shorthand but has fallen out of favor. Originally “college widow” referred to a single woman–not necessarily a widow–who hung out with the college men year after year, sometimes hoping to find an educated husband after she had graduated without snagging an engagement ring, sometimes just looking for a good time. On film, directors sometimes made her into an actual widow in order to make her promiscuity slightly more palatable to the audience. Thus the Hollywood college widow is usually a woman whose husband (often a member of the university faculty) died young, leaving her all alone in the full flower of her beauty and sexual experience–which, of course, attracts the attention of the young college men that surround her. This being the first half of the twentieth century, though, the college widow is usually painted as predatory rather than preyed upon, with the men who get involved with her treated as innocent victims.

The reason this trope was invented seems obvious, the reasons it disappeared even more so. Filmmakers had to assure us that our heroes were healthy, red-blooded American men, who would never resort to all that Brideshead Revisited stuff that was rumored to go on at many an all-male campus. Obviously in the 1910s-1940s (the heyday of this trope), prostitution couldn’t be depicted on screen, so our protagonists couldn’t get their kicks that way. Once the Hays Code came into effect, adulterers must be punished. And for a hero to seduce an unmarried young woman would be caddish. So the college widow served as an effective outlet for all of our heroes’ wants and needs (and those of the writer): it proved the protagonist was straight, sexually desirous and desirable, and yet still a gentleman. Of course, the trope began to be played for laughs even more often than it was played straight, in movies like Horse Feathers. With the rise of co-education and the fall of the production code, the college widow found herself expelled from campus in favor of flirtatious co-eds.

One Yalie described the college widow thusly:

“For the college widow had a depth and richness of emotional experience never developed in American life of that day outside of a few metropolises, and seldom there. She began at sixteen or eighteen, as a ravishing beauty, the darling of freshmen; she passed on in the years of her first blooming from class to class of ardent youngsters, until, as her experience ripened, she acquired a taste, never to be satisfied by matrimony, for male admiration, abstracted from its consequences; and more subtly, for the heady stimulant of intimacy with men in their fresh and vigorous youth. By her thirties she had learned the art of eternal spring, and had become a connoisseur in the dangerous excitement of passion controlled at the breaking point, a mistress of every emotion, and an adept in the difficult task of sublimating love into friendship. The students lived out their brief college life and went on; she endured, and tradition with her, an enchantress in illusion and a specialist in the heart. Twenty, even thirty years might be her tether; when suddenly on a midnight, a shock of reality, or perhaps only boredom, ended it all; she was old — but still charming and infinitely wise. To smoke a cigarette with her when cigarettes were still taboo for women, and drink her coffee and liqueur, was a lesson in civilization.”

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