Category Archives: Featured Actors

Happy Birthday, Judy Garland: Five Favorite Routines

Today is the anniversary of Judy Garland’s birthday. I’m a latecomer to Garland fandom, but I think I’ve made up for lost time in the last couple of years. It doesn’t hurt that she made three movies with Gene Kelly, of course. Since I’ve got a few major films still to catch up on, I didn’t want to do a “favorite movies” post; obviously, since she’s known for her singing talents, a “favorite routines” post was the way to go. Here they are in chronological order, and before you ask: no. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” isn’t one of them. Enjoy!

For Me and My Gal (For Me and My Gal, 1942)

This is the first Garland/Kelly collaboration, and I just think it’s so charming. They’re both young and gorgeous and have such great chemistry. If you’ve spent any time on this blog you’ve already seen this multiple times, but I hope you won’t mind watching it again. I never do!

The Trolley Song (Meet Me in St. Louis, 1944)

Meet Me in St. Louis is a great specimen of Judy Garland’s work. It was directed by Vincente Minelli, who married Garland shortly after making the movie. I think that viewers fall in love with Garland through Minelli’s lens, probably just as he was. “The Trolley Song” became a Garland standard for many years, and so it just barely edged out “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for this list.

We’re a Couple of Swells (Easter Parade, 1948)

Judy’s co-star this time around is Fred Astaire (stepping in for an injured Gene Kelly), and here’s my favorite number from this adorable movie. I love that it’s not the usual, glamorous kind of thing, and that both Garland and Astaire embrace the fun. Garland’s facial expressions and little added mannerisms prove what an amazingly talented and dedicated performer she was.

I Don’t Care (In the Good Old Summertime, 1949)

These last two picks are straight Judy with no help, and she nails them both. I just love this song, and it’s a major showcase for Garland’s singing. She looks like an absolute knock-out in that red dress, too, and a couple of shots of Van Johnson looking super-handsome in a tux certainly don’t go amiss. I highly recommend this movie, which is another version of “The Shop Around the Corner.” Johnson and Garland have fabulous chemistry, and as always, it’s such a cute story.

Get Happy (Summer Stock, 1950)

Summer Stock is the last movie that Judy Garland and Gene Kelly made together, and it’s the last musical she made for MGM. At this point, her many problems were working against her, and I think that seeps into the movie in some ways. It’s very inconsistent: there are some great numbers, but it lacks the sparkle of earlier Garland performances. The “Get Happy” number doesn’t entirely seem to fit the film, in some ways, but it’s such an electrifying moment that I always come back to it as a favorite. It’s a testament to Garland’s huge talent that even with all of her issues, she still commands the screen here.

Happy birthday, Judy!

Happy birthday, Cary Grant: Top Six Movies

As the quote goes, everyone wants to be Cary Grant. The talented actor was the picture of suave urbanity for more than three decades, and is still well-regarded today. I’m a latecomer to the charms of the erstwhile Archibald Leach, but I’ve become a huge fan in a few short years. But what I love about him isn’t his charm or his way with women: Cary Grant is HILARIOUS. He got his start in vaudeville and acrobatics (!), and while he eventually traded in the physical humor, his earlier films are what make him one of my favorite actors. Since today is the anniversary of his birth, I decided to share with you my picks for his six best films. Pay close attention to some of them: if I ever do a similar post for Katharine Hepburn, you’ll see them again. A very happy birthday, Mr. Grant.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Bringing Up Baby is a madcap adventure involving a dinosaur bone, a zany and free-spirited socialite (Hepburn, of course), and a leopard. Directed by Howard Hawks, the dialogue is so fast and witty that you’ll need to see the movie more than once. I do recommend doing so: it just gets funnier every time. Also, keep an ear out for the best Cary Grant line ever. I promise you’ll know it when you hear it.

Holiday (1938)

How did Grant and Hepburn manage to make two supremely funny movies in the same year? I don’t know, but Holiday is every bit as hilarious as Bringing Up Baby. This time Grant is all set to marry into a wealthy family, but you’ll figure out quickly that he’s marrying the wrong sister. He gets to show off some of his acrobatic abilities, and Hepburn turns on the charm. Meanwhile, Lew Ayres, Edward Everett Horton, and Jean Dixon all nearly manage to steal the show from its stars. Sadly, I couldn’t find a trailer, so you’ll just have to take my word for it: this is a really good movie.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The most famous of the Grant/Hepburn pairings; you knew I couldn’t leave it out. This time we throw in James Stewart just to make it even more awesome. Grant shows up to try and win his ex-wife (Hepburn) back before she marries another man, but a visiting reporter (Stewart) might throw a wrench in the works. Once again, this is fast-paced, brilliantly executed dialogue. Basically, if it’s directed by George Cukor (Holiday was, too), it’s hard to go wrong.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

In this adaptation (directed by Frank Capra) of a successful stage play, Grant stars as Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic. On his wedding day, he not only learns that insanity runs in his family, but that his two maiden aunts are serial killers. Despite how it sounds, this is a delightfully funny and heartwarming movie, and Grant’s impeccable comedic timing is on full display.

North by Northwest (1959)

Alfred Hitchcock’s tale of an ordinary man mistaken for a government agent is arguably his best film, and Grant’s, too. This is the suave Cary Grant, even as he is thrown into one extraordinary situation after another. Eva Marie Saint is an absolutely scorching femme fatale, and James Mason and Martin Landau are excellent villains. Simply an outstanding film.

Charade (1963)

Ah, that other Hepburn. Audrey, in this case, stars as a young woman whose late husband’s thievery has made her a target for some very bad men. She meets up with Cary Grant (who may or may not be a good guy) and the two must dash around Paris (how awful for them) trying to solve the mystery, outsmart the villains, and perhaps get in a little romance while they’re at it. Walter Matthau and James Coburn co-stars in this smart and stylish thriller, which, thanks to Grant’s wry wit, is also more than a little funny. This is later in his career, but he remains a joy to watch, particularly as he tries to rebuff Audrey Hepburn’s advances. Also, the score is excellent.

So, what’s your favorite Cary Grant? Did I miss it?

Review: Les Miserables (2012)

Translating a stage musical (let alone a wildly popular one) into a screen musical can’t be an easy task. There are all the issues of how faithful an adaptation one wants to make, and the use of Hollywood actors versus stage actors, and a myriad other questions that ultimately won’t matter because half of your audience is going to think you ruined the show, regardless of how hard you work at it or how well the other half thinks you’ve done. Tom Hooper took on all those challenges in bringing Les Miserables to the screen. He apparently chose to adhere very faithfully to the original show, albeit with some necessary cuts here and there. He opted for mostly known actors. And, to up the ante, he decided to film the singing live, as opposed to working with a pre-recorded soundtrack, in an effort to bring a new level of introspection and personality to the characters. Predictably, it’s proving to be a polarizing film in many ways.

Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a released French convict who breaks parole in order to start a new life for himself. He’s become the well-respected mayor of a small town, but he finds his steps dogged nonetheless by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), whose single-minded purpose is to bring Valjean to justice. When another man is captured in his place, Valjean comes forward, and must flee from Javert, even while he attempts to fulfill a promise to a dying fallen woman. Fantine (Anne Hathaway) has lost everything in attempting to care for her daughter Cosette, and Valjean promises to retrieve the girl and raise her as his own. To do this he must not only dodge Javert, but also deal with the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), crooked innkeepers who have been looking after Cosette. Valjean manages to settle down quietly with his new charge for many years, but on the eve of the 1832 Paris Uprising, everything comes to a head. Javert is back on Valjean’s scent, and to complicate matters, Cosette, now a young woman (Amanda Seyfried), has fallen in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young revolutionary. The second act deals with the failed revolution and its aftermath, in which many will die, and some few will find a happy ending.

Les Mis is an intense experience. It’s almost entirely sung, and well, the title translates to “the miserable.” It’s not a happy story for the most part. The music, however, is transcendent and makes the whole thing utterly worthwhile. To take that music and attach it to a big-screen film is a heady experience. The film, while not always beautiful, is visually stunning and sticks close to all of the iconic images that fans of the musical expect. There are, of course, technical complaints about the camerawork, particularly with regard to the practice of extreme close-ups during big solo numbers. I myself didn’t take issue with this, but I can see where it could be annoying to others. My main interest in a dramatic film is typically the acting, and since the camerawork was designed to heighten the performances, it worked for me. More problematic in my opinion was the heavy use of green-screen. It’s an epic show, and a few huge set-pieces and sweeping panoramas are not out of scope. I only wish they’d been slightly more realistic. However. Let’s get back to the performances.

With an oft-performed show like Les Miserables, it is to be expected that every single production will be different. Every actor has his or her own interpretation of the role, and every actor brings his or her own set of limitations. I found the performances across the board to be excellent. Much has been made of the performances of Jackman and Hathaway, and for the most part, the praise is deserved. Hathaway in particular maximizes her time on-screen and puts everything she has into the tragic role of Fantine. Because she has a smaller role, she is more able to find the right balance of melodrama and subtlety required. Similarly, the roles of Marius and Cosette and the Thenardiers don’t require a great deal of range, and as such Seyfried, Redmayne, Cohen, and Carter do a fine job. Samantha Barks (the lone stage actor) as Eponine, Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, and Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche are also worthy of mention, and provide some of the best singing.

Because of the size of their roles, Jackman and Crowe seem to have a much more difficult task in bringing the characters of Valjean and Javert to the screen. Jackman, of course, is an accomplished stage performer and was the only suitable option for the role of Valjean; I would argue that the same is true of Crowe. They seem to have chosen two different approaches to their roles here, with varying success. Jackman sinks his teeth into his musical numbers and nails them, but I found his acting to be a little too melodramatic and unnatural at times. It’s as though you can see the work he’s putting in. Crowe, on the other hand, gives a much more subtle performance. He does not have as robust a singing voice as might be wanted, and so his interpretation of the character of Javert is much quieter and introspective. Although it is a slightly different take on the character, I found it to be no less enjoyable or effective. It was an appropriate decision given his vocal abilities, and his acting is such that he carries it off well, if a bit too understated for the musical genre. His is the most natural and nuanced performance of the film.

While there are things that could be criticized (the afore-mentioned cinematography, a certain awkwardness of transition sequences, a few slow moments here and there), the overall effect is exactly what a fan of the musical would hope for. The decision to sing live, I think, paid off for the film as a whole, and for most of the cast (Crowe perhaps being the exception). It’s a much less polished sound that one would expect, but it fits so well with the story and its themes. Les Mis is a strange entry into the genre: the story (based on the novel by Victor Hugo) is highly dramatic and character-driven; characteristics that do not necessarily lend themselves well to the bombast and spectacle of a stage musical. What Hooper and his actors have tried to do here is bring the focus back around to the individuals and their lives. It makes the film somewhat uneven overall, but ultimately extremely satisfying.

Small Roles, Big Performances: Gladiator

FlixChatter has invited movie bloggers to “shine a spotlight on the ‘unsung heroes’ if you will, the overlooked performers who add so much richness & entertainment value to the film no matter how brief their appearance is, but yet they don’t get the credit they so deserve.” Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking at the title up there, and you’re thinking “Gladiator? Unsung?? This is just another excuse for you to talk about Russell Crowe, isn’t it?” I will grant you that I’m breaking a little bit with the spirit of this blogathon, but when I started thinking about “small roles, big performances,” Gladiator sprang quickly to mind. In part, perhaps, because I’ve seen it a number of times, but also because I think it is a movie full of really great moments, and those moments are created by really talented actors who, despite the movie winning Best Picture, were perhaps not noticed individually as much as they might’ve been. I want to talk about two of the actors featured in Gladiator particularly. Both gave fine performances that added greatly to the film overall, and both were actors from an older generation, here shown late in their careers. Neither was a complete unknown, but nor were they ever true household names. In my opinion, part of what makes their roles in Gladiator so important is the fact that this is a film for which they will both be remembered, and perhaps it will serve as an introduction for modern audiences to their earlier work.

Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius

Before he strode onscreen as Albus Dumbledore in the first Harry Potter film, Richard Harris made a big impression with new audiences as Rome’s “last good emperor,” the philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius. Harris fills the screen with his quiet dignity and whispered wisdom. Through his eyes, we see Crowe’s Maximus as more than just a good soldier; we see him as a loving and loyal man. Aurelius helps to shape the character of Maximus, and Harris imbues him with paternal pride, love, and the certain knowledge that those he loves are hopelessly flawed. Aurelius must make the difficult decision of either naming his son his successor, or choosing what is best for Rome, and returning her rule to a governmental body. In essence, he must choose between being an emperor and being a father, and Harris shows so clearly the heartbreak that Aurelius goes through in making that decision. Here we see him change between those two roles effortlessly; from the commanding emperor to a father at the end of his life, asking for forgiveness from the son he has disappointed.

Gladiator may have been the first film in which I saw Richard Harris, but his performance, brief yet lasting, has certainly assured that it will not be the last.

Oliver Reed as Proximo

Gladiator is, in fact, Reed’s final performance; he died before he had finished shooting all of his scenes in the movie. Special effects were used for those final appearances so that he wouldn’t be replaced. It is, in my opinion, the perfect tribute. Proximo, the slave owner who essentially kidnaps Maximus and transforms him into “The Spaniard,” is also a father figure, but one cut from an extremely different cloth than Aurelius. His business is the purchase and disposal of human beings, and most of his demeanor is accordingly blunt and disaffected. Still, in his later scenes with Maximus, we see the same paternal pride and even a measure of respect. He also conveys a great deal of intelligence and hard-fought wisdom. I like to think that this final role embodies much of what made Oliver Reed a great actor. He was rough-hewn but intelligent, full of bluster and heart. Like Harris’ Aurelius, Proximo adds layers of depth to the character of Maximus, and both Reed and Crowe portrayed their bond extremely well. Here, Proximo speaks to Maximus as an equal, showing his respect and pride.

In Maximus, Proximo finds someone to confide in; in a way, I think he also sees the younger man as someone who might succeed him. In the end, he chooses to embrace Maximus’ (and Aurelius’) dream of Rome’s restoration. Like Harris, Reed makes a transformation of sorts, from hard-bitten slave driver to a man willing to die for others’ freedom.

Gladiator was the biggest movie of the year. It won many, many awards, but neither Harris nor Reed were particularly recognized for their efforts (Reed was nominated for a BAFTA). And yet, without them, I don’t believe that Gladiator would be the film that it is. It is a testament to the abilities of all three men that we are able to see the extent to which both Aurelius and Proximo shape the character of Maximus and move him through his journey. In that way, I believe they truly exemplify the idea of “small roles, big performances.”

A Gene Kelly Retrospective

In the last few weeks, as the one hundredth anniversary of Gene Kelly’s birthday approached, I thought about how I wanted to commemorate. In looking at his screen credits, I realized that I had actually seen most of the “big name” movies that he is known for, and so I turned my attention to some lesser-known fare. What we discovered is that Mr. Kelly doesn’t seem to make a lot of particularly bad movies. Some are better than others, obviously, but what they all have in common is his signature brand of professionalism, humor, and charisma. I’ve assembled here a brief review of all of Kelly’s movies that I’ve seen to date. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about them, and maybe find something new to watch! They’re ordered chronologically; I thought about doing a kind of a rating system, but honestly, the spread just wouldn’t be that wide. Consider everything in the three-to-five-star range, and you’ll have it just about right. Here we go…

For Me and My Gal (1942)
Co-stars: Judy Garland, George Murphy
Director: Busy Berkeley

In this, Kelly’s screen debut, he and Garland star as vaudevillian performers. Kelly’s character deliberately injures himself to avoid being drafted, but ultimately serves his country in heroic fashion AND gets the girl. While his trademark polish isn’t fully developed here, Kelly holds his own against big star Garland, and definitely proves himself as one to watch. For Me and My Gal is the first of three partnerships for Kelly and Garland, and in my opinion, it’s the best one.

Cover Girl (1944)
Co-stars: Rita Hayworth, Lee Bowman, Phil Silvers
Director: Charles Vidor

Danny McGuire (Kelly) and Rusty Parker (Hayworth) have a great partnership: he’s a dancer and club owner, she’s his star attraction. But, when she wins a contest and heads for fame and fortune, their relationship will be tested. Kelly and Hayworth are young and gorgeous, and have good chemistry together, plus there are some really fun musical numbers. Even this early in his career, Kelly had a great deal of creative control over this picture, best exemplified by the ground-breaking “Alter Ego” number in which he uses fancy camerawork to dance a duet with…himself. What could be better than two Gene Kellys dancing together??

Anchors Aweigh (1945)
Co-stars: Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson
Director: George Sidney

The first of three pictures together, Anchors Aweigh stars Kelly and Sinatra as two sailors on leave in Los Angeles. Our heroes, one worldly (Joe, played by Kelly) and one naive (Clarence, Sinatra), meet and fall in love with an aspiring singer, played by Grayson. Joe offers to set her up with an audition, a promise he isn’t actually capable of keeping. Hilarity ensues, of course. Once again, great musical numbers, including Kelly’s duet with Jerry the Mouse, another innovative piece of work. Although Anchors Aweigh was hugely successful at the time and garnered Kelly his one acting nomination from the Academy, it doesn’t hold up well when compared with the far superior On the Town, which also features Kelly and Sinatra as military men loose in a big city.

The Pirate (1948)
Co-stars: Judy Garland, Walter Slezak
Director: Vincente Minelli

The Pirate is an example of what happens when you let some extremely talented people loose, and they get a little carried away. It’s the story of a young woman (Garland) obsessed with a local legend, the pirate Macoco. She’s engaged to a businessman but is looking for a little bit more excitement in life. Along comes a traveling musician (Kelly) who poses as her pirate ideal in order to win her heart. Garland has some stunning numbers, and the signature Kelly ballet sequence is incredible, but other than that, the movie’s rather ungainly and slow. Not the best example of work by Kelly, Garland, or Minelli, but worthwhile for fans of any of the three.

The Three Musketeers (1948)
Co-stars: Lana Turner, June Allyson, Vincent Price
Director: George Sidney

Kelly stars as D’Artagnan in this straightforward adaptation of Dumas’ classic novel. The cinematography is lovely and the choreography is swashbuckle-tastic. The acting runs the gamut from overly comical to downright dramatic, and Kelly’s counterparts in Musketeerdom, Van Heflin, Gig Young, and Robert Coote, acquit themselves well, as do Vincent Price and Lana Turner as villains, and June Allyson as Kelly’s love interest. The best thing about this one, though, is watching Kelly display his incredible physicality without dancing a single step.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949)
Co-stars: Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Esther Williams
Director: Busby Berkeley

Take Me Out to the Ballgame reunites Sinatra and Kelly, this time as members of a baseball team that finds itself acquired by a woman. Their characters are somewhat similar to those in Anchors Aweigh, and the plot seems to follow similar lines as well. Take Me Out to the Ballgame has some more enjoyable musical numbers, however, most notably “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg” (baseball nerds will recognize this as a reference to the poem “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon“). The inclusion of Esther Williams, the famous “aqua musical” actress, is a little odd in a film about baseball, but Berkeley still manages to get her into a pool, so that’s an added treat, plus we get Betty Garrett hamming it up as a love interest for Sinatra.

On the Town (1949)
Co-stars: Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Betty Garrett
Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

On the Town is not only the superior Kelly/Sinatra collaboration, it’s also one of the finest musicals Kelly ever made. Three sailors are on leave in New York. Their agenda is simple: to have a great time, and pick up some ladies. Betty Garrett, Vera-Ellen, and the fabulous Ann Miller fit the bill nicely, and so our heroes have themselves a fine adventure in the Big Apple. All of the musical numbers here are fabulous, and the only weak point would be Kelly’s usual third-act ballet, which in this instance has to replace four of the film’s leads (everyone except Kelly and Vera-Ellen), who had no ballet training. Famously filmed on location, On the Town marks the first product of Donen and Kelly’s collaboration, and is an absolute must-see if you’re a fan of anyone involved, or just of musicals in general.

Summer Stock (1950)
Co-stars: Judy Garland, Eddie Bracken
Director: Charles Walters

By the time Summer Stock was made, Kelly’s star was on the rise, and Garland’s was waning due to her myriad problems. This would be her last MGM musical. As a result, this enjoyable film is a little uneven, but it includes some absolute show-stoppers. Garland’s Jane is a no-nonsense girl who finds her family farm overrun by a troupe of theatricals when her flighty sister offers them the spot for their summer home. It’s up to the leader of the group, Joe (Kelly) to convince Jane to let them put on a show in her barn. Naturally, sparks fly, and eventually Jane gets into the act herself. Garland’s electrifying “Get Happy” number is here, as is Kelly’s mesmerizing “Newspaper Dance,” one of his more inventive creations. Less ambitious than The Pirate, this final pairing succeeds in its simplicity, and in the incredible talents of its two leads.

An American in Paris (1951)
Co-stars: Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant
Director: Vincente Minelli

I’m not entirely sure what to tell you about An American in Paris. It’s simply an incredible achievement. It’s beautiful, the numbers are all flawless, the songs are Gershwin, it’s Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron falling in love and dancing all over Paris, for pete’s sake. It won six Oscars, including Best Picture, in 1952, beating out heavy hitters like A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. The final act is a 17 minute ballet, which may put some people off (it did me, at first), but I think it’s the finest example of Kelly’s balletic aspirations. It’s simply one of the best musicals you will ever see, and you absolutely should see it.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Co-stars: Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds
Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

Though less successful than An American in Paris (at least on paper), Singin’ in the Rain is widely considered to be the best movie musical ever made, not to mention one of the greatest movies of all time. It tells the story of a movie star (Kelly) who must make the difficult transition from silent film to “talkies,” which he navigates by virtue of just happening to be quite the good singer and dancer. The titular number is an iconic scene in a film full of iconic scenes, and Kelly, in addition to co-stars O’Connor and Reynolds, appears to be at the top of his game. If you see one musical in your lifetime, please make it this one.

Brigadoon (1954)
Co-stars: Cyd Charisse, Van Johnson
Director: Vincente Minelli

I really love Brigadoon, but I can never quite shake the feeling that it ought to have been better. Tommy Albright (Kelly) and Jeff Douglas (Johnson) are hunting on the moors of Scotland when they stumble upon Brigadoon, a magical village that only appears to the outside world once every 100 years. Tommy is immediately smitten with one of the resident lassies, Fiona Campbell (Charisse), despite being engaged to a New York socialite back home. Tragedy strikes, the explorers go home, and Tommy mourns his lost love. If he returns to the site, will true love overcome the spell that keeps Brigadoon hidden? Obviously, the performers here are top-notch. Kelly and Charisse are an excellent pairing, and I adore Van Johnson’s curmudgeonly Jeff. I think the big problem is that Brigadoon encountered some big budget cuts during production, and so it was filmed on a sound stage instead of on location. Minelli can do great things with color and cinematography, but here, his attempts at a dreamy, pastel palate just give the whole movie an amateurish feel. It’s not bad; not even close, but it’s not truly great, either, in my opinion. Still, a really good Gene Kelly movie would be a masterpiece for anyone else, so it’s always totally worthwhile.

It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)
Co-stars: Dan Dailey, Michael Kidd, Cyd Charisse
Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

Originally conceived as a sequel to On the Town, It’s Always Fair Weather looks at what happens when three men brought together by their experiences in the Army reunite 10 years later. Ted (Kelly), Doug (Dailey), and Angie (Kidd) have gone their separate ways, and when they meet again, they find little left in common. Between a plot hatched by the CEO of Doug’s company and Ted’s trouble with some crooked fight organizers, not to mention the influence of a gorgeous businesswoman (Charisse), the boys eventually come to find out that they are more (and less) like their old selves than they realized. This is an uneven picture, notable only for a few fabulous dance scenes (the “trash can lid” scene and Kelly on roller skates). One can’t help but wish that Jules Munshin and Frank Sinatra had been available to reprise their earlier roles, although Dailey and Kidd both do a fine job. Charisse is almost criminally under-used, here, although she does get a chance to flash those fabulous gams. It’s still a fun picture, but it doesn’t measure up to earlier Kelly/Donen efforts.

Les Girls (1957)
Co-stars: Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, Taina Elg
Director: George Cukor

Lady Sybil Wren (Kendall) is being sued for libel. Her former co-star, Angele (Elg), disputes Sybil’s tell-all account of their experiences as part of the dance troupe Les Girls. Most of the trouble seems to center around head man Barry Nichols (Kelly) and his relationship with his trio of dancing beauties, which also includes Joy Henderson (Gaynor). The story is told in flashback sequences from three separate points of view, and it’s great fun. Kelly is charming as ever, and his three leading ladies all put in excellent performances as well. Les Girls combines the fun and shine of Kelly with the quick-paced humor of Cukor (with lyrics by Cole Porter!) to great effect. It’s a little short on big production numbers, but the “Why Am I So Gone” number is worth the price of admission for fans. Watching it, I realized something I’d never bothered to actually articulate about Kelly and his style of dancing: it’s SEXY. If you’ve watched all the usual suspects and are looking to branch out a little more, I’d highly recommend this one.

Inherit the Wind (1960)
Co-stars: Spencer Tracy, Frederic March
Director: Stanley Kramer

Inherit the Wind is based on the Scopes trial of the 1920s, in which a high school science teacher is brought to trial for teaching the theories of Darwin in the classroom. Spencer Tracy and Frederic March play opposing lawyers who are arguing for science (Tracy) and religion (March). Gene Kelly plays E.K. Hornbeck, a sharp-tongued and cynical reporter. This was my first non-musical look at Mr. Kelly, and I have to admit that I was worried about whether or not he would hold up well without any fancy footwork. I shouldn’t have. He’s enjoyably sly here, providing a humorous running dialogue amidst all of Tracy and March’s blustering earnestness. They are both on fire, by the way, and turn in magnificent performances. This is a really great dramatic piece that we found surprisingly resonant and relevant given today’s political climate.

What a Way to Go! (1964)
Co-stars: Shirley MacLaine, Dean Martin
Director: J. Lee Thompson

Let’s be honest: you want to see this movie for the cast. MacLaine stars as Louisa, who finds herself a widow four times over. She has a thing for underachievers, but apparently motivates them to work themselves literally to death. Consequently, she’s filthy rich, but is really only interested in getting rid of her wealth. Who does she marry? Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum, and Gene Kelly. For a start. This is a totally zany and fun little movie. As she recounts each relationship, Louisa envisions them as a certain type of movie, which we see in dream sequences. Obviously, the relationship with Kelly is a musical number. He starts out as sad-sack entertainer, but under Louisa’s influence, reaches greater heights. Watching Gene Kelly be a “bad” singer/dancer/performer is a singular experience. The cliche about how one needs to be really good to be convincingly bad holds true here. What a Way to Go! is a lot of fun, mainly due to MacLaine’s brand of wide-eyed charm, and her impressive list of leading men.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
Co-stars: Catherine Deneuve, Francoise Dorleac
Director: Jacques Demy

This is a weird little musical. We spent a lot of time trying to decide if it was weird because it was a “French musical,” or if it was just strange. I’m not really sure if there is a specific sub-genre that is “French musicals,” so it remains a mystery. Anyway. Twin sisters Delphine (Deneuve) and Solange (Dorleac) are looking to break out of Rochefort and head to Paris to pursue their dreams. Delphine wants to be a dancer, and Solange wants to be a composer. Both of them are looking for their romantic ideals as well. On their last weekend at home, the arrival of a carnival which brings a couple of traveling salesman types (George Chakiris and Grover Dale) as well as some other new faces, provides a tangle of romantic knots involving not only the sisters, but their mother as well. It’s one of those movies where the right people keep missing one another by a matter of seconds and key information keeps getting left out of conversations, driving the audience crazy. There are some great musical numbers, all very sixties-ish, along with bright colors and costumes. I think that explains the “weirdness” of it: it’s trying to hearken back to the great musicals of the 40s and 50s, but it does so through a very 60s sort of lens. Plus, it’s all very stereotypically French: ennui and cigarettes, romantic ideals and the acceptance of fate. It’s in French with subtitles, which are quite often hilarious. It’s hard to say if this movie is really for everyone or not; I think it’s interesting for Kelly fans to see him opposite a new generation, as it were.

So there you have it. A veritable smorgasbord of Gene Kelly movies in case you’re looking for something to watch this weekend in celebration of his birthday. Or just because you want to watch a good movie, even. Anything strike your fancy? Anything I’m missing out on? Let me know!

Favorite Gene Kelly routines

Tired of hearing about Gene Kelly yet? Too bad. I never really get tired of talking about him, and I definitely don’t get tired of watching him dance. You probably haven’t seen it, but he’s featured in a new car commercial, along with Donald O’Conner. My brother and I (also a big fan) are excited about the commercial, just because any time somebody wants to remind the world of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Conner is just fine with us. However, Linda Holmes over at NPR’s Monkey See blog has a reasonable argument for disliking the ad. I do see the point, as I also think that the commercial is pretty tacky-looking.

In reading that blog post, in which she highlights various routines of Mr. Kelly’s, I got to thinking about my favorite numbers. And then I thought, “Hey! That’d be a great post.” And so here we are. In chronological order, the very best (according to me) Gene Kelly dancin’ (and singin’) moments. I’m sure I’ll hear some argument, since I prefer these to some of the more well-known appearances, but if you don’t like my picks, well, go get your own blog!

“For Me and My Gal” (For Me and My Gal, 1942)
This is Gene Kelly’s first movie. He was already well-established in New York, and like many performers, made his way West to break into movies. Unlike some others, though, he had a reasonably powerful ally in the person of Judy Garland. She helped him learn his way around the movie-making biz, and they would ultimately do three pictures together. In this number, Kelly already shows himself to be a star, easily sharing the screen with the famous Garland, and performing a really charming routine. Plus, how handsome is he here??

“On the Town” (On the Town, 1949)
What I like about this number is that it shows us that Kelly could be a team player. He was a notorious perfectionist, and he was supposedly very picky about his co-stars’ dancing abilities, but here, in a movie he co-directed, he doesn’t put himself forward in this ensemble piece. He shares equal time with co-stars Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Ann Miller (Love her!!), Vera-Ellen, and Betty Garrett, and I think the result is perfect. Those harmonies! Sadly, the routine by itself is no longer available on Youtube. You’ll just have to enjoy the trailer instead.

Scene from Summer Stock, 1950
Summer Stock is the third and final collaboration between Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. This scene, in which Kelly incorporates a squeaky board and a newspaper into his dance, shows off Kelly’s innovative and inventive ideas, not to mention his talent. It’s a really nice little routine, subdued in comparison to the big show-stoppers, but no less impressive.

“I Got Rhythm” (An American in Paris, 1951)
I was already a pretty big fan of Kelly by the time I saw An American in Paris, but I was still blown away by the dancing in this routine. It’s pretty impressive, but what really makes this scene is Kelly’s interaction with the kids, and his ability to use big moves in close spaces. “Demain, le bubblegum pour tout!”

Embedding has been disabled, but you can check out the number HERE.

“Good Mornin'” (Singin’ in the Rain, 1952)
Yep. You didn’t think I’d leave it out, did you? The best movie musical (and the best movie, IMO) EVER. I know everyone loves the title number, but I seriously waffled between “Moses Supposes,” which you can see on the Monkey See post and “Good Mornin'”. I chose this one because of the fantastic way in which the three dancers (Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds) maintain the personalities and relationships between their characters throughout, and because I love watching Reynolds hold her own against two of the greats. And again, Kelly’s inventive choreography, utilizing his space and surroundings to the utmost degree. Have you seen this movie yet? Are you tired of me asking? Get on it!!

Geez, I love musicals. And Gene Kelly. How about you? Do you have a favorite scene that I didn’t include?

Gene Kelly Trivia

So, how much do you think you know about Gene Kelly? I’ve created a round of trivia for you; hopefully it’s not too difficult. Obviously, the answers are right there, so this is just for fun. I tried to find some clever way of doing a spoiler tag to hide the answers, but apparently WordPress is not on the ball with that particular feature. At any rate, I hope that you find these questions entertaining and edifying! Enjoy!

1. Kelly held a degree from the University of Pittsburgh in:
A. Choreography
B. American History
C. Economics
D. Trick question; he never went to college

Answer:  C. Kelly graduated in 1933 with a BA in Economics.

2. Kelly starred with Judy Garland in three films. In which of these movies did Kelly and Garland NOT star?
A. Easter Parade
B. For Me and My Gal
C. The Pirate
D. Summer Stock

Answer: A. Kelly was originally set to star in Easter Parade alongside Garland, but he broke his leg before filming began. Fred Astaire came out of retirement to replace him.

3. Gene Kelly got his trademark scar when a dancing partner accidentally kicked him in the face. True or False?

Answer: False. I have actually (I think?) read two different explanations for his scar. One is that he had a bicycle accident as a child, and the other, I believe, involved a fall from a fence he was climbing, also as a child. Either way, no kicks to the face.

4. With which leading lady did Kelly star most often?
A. Cyd Charisse
B. Judy Garland
C. Debbie Reynolds
D. Leslie Caron

Answer: B. Kelly and Garland starred in three movies together. Three seems to be the magic number for Kelly and any number of co-stars, including Frank Sinatra and Cyd Charisse, who appeared briefly in Singin’ in the Rain. Technically, that ties her with Garland, but for our purposes, we’re not counting it because she was not his “leading lady.”

5. What movie was originally conceived as a sequel to On the Town?
A. Anchors Aweigh
B. Take Me Out to the Ballgame
C. It’s Always Fair Weather
D. Les Girls

Answer: C. On the Town is about three sailors on shore leave in NYC. It starred Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin. It’s Always Fair Weather would catch up with the three men after 10 years of civilian life. Sinatra was unavailable, and so two different actors were cast opposite Kelly, but you can easily see how Sinatra and Munshin would have fit into the roles (and maybe have been better in them).

6. In how many films did Kelly portray a service member?
A. 3
B. 5
C. 7
D. 11

Answer: D. Kelly himself enlisted in the US Navy in 1944, and appeared in many movies as either active military or ex-military; most notably, perhaps, in On the Town.

7. Kelly won an Oscar for Best Director for An American in Paris. True or False?

Answer: False. Vincente Minelli directed An American in Paris, for which he was nominated for Best Director. Kelly did direct many of his own films and others, but was never nominated for an Oscar as a director.

8. Kelly was famous for his inventive and innovative dance sequences. Which of these did he not experiment with?
A. Breakdancing
B. Dancing with a cartoon character
C. Dancing on roller skates
D. Dancing with himself

Answer: A. To the best of my knowledge, Kelly never attempted breakdancing. He did, however, dance with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh, with himself in Cover Girl, and on roller skates in both It’s Always Fair Weather and Xanadu.

9. Kelly and long-time collaborator Stanley Donen were both married to actress and dancer Jeanne Coyne. True or false?

Answer: True. Coyne was briefly married to Donen from 1948 to 1951, when they divorced. She married Kelly, with whom she had two children, in 1960. They were together until her death in 1973. Incidentally, you can check out Coyne’s own footwork in Kiss Me, Kate. She’s dancing with Bobby Van in the “From this moment on” number.

10. Kelly’s first starring role on Broadway was in this musical; for a variety of reasons, however, he was never to star in a big-screen adaptation.
A. Guys and Dolls
B. Chicago
C. Pal Joey
D. Kiss Me, Kate

Answer: C. With the exception of Kiss Me, Kate, Gene Kelly was at least briefly considered for roles in Guys and Dolls and a film version of Chicago, but Pal Joey is what brought him to Hollywood in the first place. Sadly, by the time the film was set to be made by Columbia Pictures, Kelly was under contract with MGM and therefore unavailable. Instead, Frank Sinatra starred in the 1957 film version.

Did you learn anything? Check back tomorrow, when we’ll take a look at some of Kelly’s best routines!

Gene Kelly Week!

Loyal readers will know that I am a huge Gene Kelly fan, but what many of you may not know is that this Thursday, August 23, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Eugene Curran Kelly. And so, Banana Oil Movies is going to celebrate! Each day there will be a featured post; some will be old, some will be new. Today, for your viewing pleasure, an oldie but goodie: my Favorite Film Pirates. The list wouldn’t be complete without Kelly’s dashing Serafin. Check back in tomorrow for some Gene Kelly trivia!

Review: Prometheus (2012)

I’m just going to go ahead and get this out the way first: I’ve never seen Alien. Or any of the Alien movies. I know, I know, right? We didn’t do a lot of scary movies in my family, and I’m not really very big on scary/gory/horror in general, so it’s just never been a priority. I was actually all set to watch it before Prometheus, but then I decided it might be interesting to go into it with a slightly different perspective. So, you should stay tuned for future developments; I’ll probably get around to Alien in a week or two. For now, Prometheus! One of the most anticipated movies of the summer blockbuster season, Prometheus was touted as an “is it or isn’t it?” prequel to the Alien franchise. As I understand it, the stories are not directly related, but the events of Prometheus do a certain amount to set up the plot of Alien. Guess I’ll find out later.

Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her partner, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are anthropologists who have made a startling discovery. Ancient civilizations all over the world have depicted the same incident in their artwork: humans worshipping a larger humanoid figure, alongside a specific configuration of stars. Shaw and Holloway believe that the images are an invitation and a roadmap left by the creators of humanity. They convince Weyland Industries to fund an expedition, and are soon waking up from a two-year-long nap aboard the ship Prometheus, having reached their destination. Along for the ride are a handful of other scientists, the ship’s crew, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Weyland’s representative, and David (Michael Fassbender), the ship’s android butler. Upon landing, they quickly find signs of the civilization they’re looking for, but the “engineers,” as they have dubbed humanity’s creators, appear to be long dead, and it’s not very hard to guess why. As you might expect, things go downhill pretty quickly from there, and Shaw particularly is left with more questions than she had previously.

I want people to know that I actually enjoyed the movie, although I am really unclear as to why. The basis of the story is a pretty interesting one, certainly, but otherwise the plot seems to function mainly as a bare-bones means of moving from event A to event B and so on. This movie has no pacing whatsoever. I repeat: No. Pacing. Whatsoever. Scientists make discovery, then they’re in space. They wake up, they land, they find stuff immediately. All hell breaks loose for the next hour or so, the end. It’s like the writers started out wanting to make these interesting statements about the universe, or whatever, and then they thought “Enh, whatevs, let’s just do a lot of gross stuff and kill some folks off instead.” The same goes for the folks in question. Only two characters get any sort of development at all, and that’s rudimentary at best. A common theme that crops up in discussions about the film is “Why did any of those people do anything that they did?” There’s very little in the way of motivation, probably again because there’s no character development. There’s a subplot that seems like an attempt at explaining a few things, but it mostly ends up feeling extraneous and random.

What I’m saying here, reluctantly, is that this is a poorly constructed movie. Ridley Scott has been around a long time and made some really great movies (and some not great ones, too), but Prometheus somehow doesn’t feel like the work of an A-list director. Likewise, the cast is pretty classy (the main reason I was excited about the film to begin with), but the effort feels beneath them, with one, perhaps predicatable, exception. Michael Fassbender does a superb job. His David is creepy, exceedingly ambiguous, and decidedly NOT human. Most everyone else underutilized (most notably Theron), and I found Noomi Rapace to be a less than compelling lead, which was somewhat disappointing.

All of that said, I really did (somehow) enjoy it. It’s quite visually stunning, and the lack of pacing keeps you riveted, even as you’re wishing for more intellectual stimulation. It was not as gory, scary, or suspenseful as I feared, although there’s definitely at least one scene that will make you squirm. Overall, it’s a B movie wrapped in an A movie’s clothing. Looks great, has the flashy cast, but doesn’t deliver in terms of being the smart, intriguing film I think most fans were expecting. Whether or not I recommend it is largely irrelevant; I think this is a movie that you either already planned to see, or had no interest in. It seems to have ended up being rather polarizing as well; people either love it or hate it. I guess I can see both sides, although in the final analysis, I’d say I was rather disappointed.

Happy birthday, Geoffrey Rush!

In case you missed it, I’m a huge Geoffrey Rush fan, and today the talented Aussie celebrates his 61st birthday! In celebration, let’s look back at a couple of posts featuring the work of Mr. Rush.

Top Five Favorite Geoffrey Rush Performances
Favorite Movie Pirates
Review: The King’s Speech
In defense of: Shakespeare in Love