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WEST SIDE STORY: A Look Back

15 Oct

The recent centennials of Leonard Bernstein (August 25) and Jerome Robbins (October 11), composer and choreographer/co-director, respectively, of WEST SIDE STORY (1961), and the press coverage of Steven Spielberg’s planned remake compelled me to dig out my file of b&w stills from a press kit for a late 1960s reissue of the film that I’d acquired in 1969 from United Artists. I scanned them all and am posting them here along with color stills found on IMDB. I’m fascinated by the way publicity stills, staged for the still camera and not taken during the actual shooting of a scene, offer an alternate version of the film or images that can seem like deleted scenes.

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The Films of 1968, Part 1: What We Were Seeing 50 Years Ago

21 Aug

In 1968, Hollywood was undergoing quite a turbulent period. The studios continued to turn out lightweight studio entertainment as if it were 1938, while also contending with audience demand for greater frankness, more mature subject matter and fewer restrictions on language, nudity and violence. Foreign films and independent films were gaining greater critical and audience acceptance. The Motion Picture Association of America, long the guardian of the Production Code, with which films had to comply in order to get an MPAA seal of approval, first introduced a tag, “Suggested for Mature Audiences,” in late 1967 and then, when they realized that wasn’t enough, installed a full-blown ratings system for films in October 1968: G for General Audiences, M for Mature subject matter, R for Restricted, and X for adults only. So you had films like Robert Aldrich’s X-rated THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE, about a lesbian romance, and Christian Marquand’s  CANDY, about a young girl’s sexual awakening (invariably involving slumming over-forty Hollywood stars like Richard Burton, Marlon Brando, James Coburn and Walter Matthau), alongside sugary assembly line fare like Elvis Presley songfests; family comedies starring Doris Day, Jerry Lewis and Don Knotts, adaptations of Broadway musicals like FINIAN’S RAINBOW, FUNNY GIRL, and OLIVER!; and live-action Disney family features, five of them released in 1968: BLACKBEARD’S GHOST, THE ONE AND ONLY, GENUINE, ORIGINAL FAMILY BAND, NEVER A DULL MOMENT, THE HORSE IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT, and THE LOVE BUG. Continue reading

Dean Martin Centennial

7 Jun

Dean Martin would have turned 100 today, June 7, 2017. (He died on Christmas Day, 1995.) Martin was initially world-famous as the singing comedy partner of Jerry Lewis in an act that had extraordinary success on stage, in clubs, on TV and in the movies before it broke up in 1956 after escalating tensions between the two finally exploded. Martin went on to a successful solo career singing, recording, acting and teaming up with Frank Sinatra and other performers to make up what has affectionately been called “the Rat Pack.” I don’t recall what my first exposure to Martin was, although I’m sure I saw him on a TV variety show before seeing my first Martin movie, AT WAR WITH THE ARMY (1950), his third movie with Jerry Lewis, at summer camp in 1963.

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From Hong Kong and Japan: THE MERMAID (1965) and THE LITTLE MERMAID (1975)

23 Feb

Two of the loveliest films I’ve seen in a long time are THE MERMAID (1965, Hong Kong) and THE LITTLE MERMAID (1975, Japan), which I watched a day apart. It was my very first viewing of THE MERMAID, a Shaw Bros. Huangmei Opera, while I’d previously seen THE LITTLE MERMAID, a Japanese animated film, only in a poor-quality, severely cropped English dub on VHS. Seeing the widescreen version on DVD, in Japanese with English subtitles, was like seeing it for the first time. The two films have some elements in common, although I’m not sure if the Hong Kong film was inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen tale or by a much older Chinese folk tale. I’m guessing that the screenwriter drew on elements of both. The title mermaid in the Hong Kong film is not, technically, a mermaid as we’ve come to know this creature. Instead, she’s the spirit of a golden carp, a fish living in the pond adjacent to a garden in a Prime Minister’s villa in Old China. The carp takes on full human form, while retaining her magical powers, in order to console a poor scholar who’s been shunned by the family of the maiden to whom he was betrothed. The animated Japanese film is a direct adaptation of Andersen’s tale about a mermaid who trades in her fish tail for a pair of legs in order to live on land and try to win the favor of a prince and was made in 1975 to commemorate the centennial of Andersen’s death. Unlike the later Disney adaptation of the same title (1989), the anime version retains the tragic ending of the original story.

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Musicals or Films about Music? THE GREAT CARUSO, SERENADE and IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN

12 Feb

Last month I watched three films on Turner Classic Movies that made think about the relationship of music to movies and music to audiences. What struck me about all three films was the way music was part of the fabric of the society portrayed and played an integral role in community life. In two of the films and most of the third, the music is presented as performances in places and venues where it made perfect sense to perform songs and instrumental musical pieces. Only one of the films, IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN (1947), directed by Richard Whorf, featured people breaking into song amidst the settings and activities of everyday life, although this only happens two or three times in the movie. Every other number in the film is a performance number in places where it was perfectly logical to perform music. The other two films starred the great American tenor Mario Lanza: THE GREAT CARUSO (1951), directed by Richard Thorpe, in which Lanza played opera legend Enrico Caruso, and SERENADE (1956), directed by Anthony Mann, a grand melodrama based on a novel by James M. Cain about an opera singer’s rise, fall and rise again in contemporary America. One can make the case that THE GREAT CARUSO and SERENADE are not, strictly speaking, musicals but instead are films about music.

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The B-Movie Returns to Theaters: DANCIN’ IT’S ON

6 Nov

Once upon a time, B-movies regularly ran in movie theaters on double bills with studio releases that were bigger-budgeted and better-publicized. I saw quite a few of them in theaters when I was a kid. Some of them were more fun than the main feature (Mario Bava’s HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, anyone?), but often they were cheap, indifferent potboilers turned out on low budgets. They were often black-and-white and, in those days, often from other countries. PAYROLL, seen on a double bill with DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, and THE MURDER GAME, seen on a double bill with OUR MAN FLINT, were both English-produced crime dramas that I remember very little about other than that they were short on stars or thrills. The Rat Pack vehicle, ROBIN AND THE SEVEN HOODS, played on a double bill with RAIDERS FROM BENEATH THE SEA, a weak thriller about a team of bank robbers who wear scuba diving outfits to rob a bank on Catalina Island (hence the title) and make their getaway underwater(!).

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JANKEN MUSUME (1955): First “Sannin Musume” Musical

14 Jun

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Sannin Musume is the name given to the informal starring trio of Hibari Misora, Chiemi Eri and Izumi Yukimura, the three ranking pop singers in Japan in the 1950s, when they made movies together. They made a total of four and I’ve written about the second and third ones here, ROMANCE MUSUME (1956), on November 9, 2014, and ON WINGS OF LOVE (1957) on March 8, 2015. I’ve seen the fourth, HIBARI, CHIEMI, IZUMI SANNIN YOREBA (1964), but haven’t written about it here yet. The first was JANKEN MUSUME (1955), which I wrote about previously on my J-pop blog, but used lesser-quality screen grabs, so I decided it was high time to watch it again and cover it here. My emphasis in the earlier pieces was on the musical numbers and the films’ frequent uses of American pop songs of the era, sung in both English and Japanese.

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