There was a Busby Berkeley blogathon a few days ago, which I missed. I hate not participating in blogathons, because I just love connecting with other bloggers, but I was working and I just couldn’t do it. I mean, I did talk about 42nd Street the other day, but that was just a coincidence. My friend Virginie over at The Wonderful World of Cinema did a fantastic post about five of his musicals (check it out if you can), and now I’ve made a mental note to have a Busby Berkeley marathon one of these days. Can’t wait. This type of thing really comes in handy when you just can’t decide what to watch.
So, I’ve been trying to re-watch a lot of films lately. And for some reason, this was one of those films that I kept forgetting to re-watch. I saw it millions of years ago, probably 2009 or 2010, and then I just forgot to watch it again. I liked it the first time, so I don’t know why I left it this long. But this week, I finally saw 42nd Street again.
The grand-daddy of all showbiz musicals takes us through the production, rehearsals and backstage antics of Pretty Lady, Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter)’s last Broadway show. At the last minute, newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) has to replace leading lady Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), when the latter breaks her ankle. Welcome to show-business.
Despite it being a great film overall and throughout, it’s the final moments that firmly cement 42nd Street in its iconic place. Those wonderful, extravagant, lavish Busby Berkeley numbers that everybody loves, not to mention Ruby Keeler’s rendition of the title number. This is what makes 42nd Street what it is. The plot it as straight-forward as can be, and some say there are a few clichés here and there. And of course there are, but this is where they came from.
I like those 1930s showbiz movies (Stage Door (1937) comes to mind). I think they’re as timeless and current as ever. I’m talking about the ‘behind-the-scenes’. You know, sleazy producers, casting couches and all that. I mean, sure, 42nd Street is lovely and adorable and full of great numbers, but it also shines a light on that, with plenty of suggestive scenes and carefully placed innuendo. Right off the bat, in the opening scene, Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), the show’s producer, tells Dorothy that he wants her to do something for him… Cut to the next scene, and we see that they’re going ahead with the stupidly named Pretty Lady and that it’s going to be a success. Obviously.
I like 42nd Street. It’s not one of my biggest favorites (no particular reason), but I like it. I’m glad I could finally watch it again, after so many years. I like this ‘re-watching’ thing. When your ‘to re-watch’ list gets nearly as big as your ‘to-watch’ list, it’s quite nice to finally get through it.
The privileged class enjoying its privileges, as Mike Connor (James Stewart in an Oscar-winning role) puts it. And why not? The Philadelphia Story is high society at its best. Or is it worst? Either way, it’s marvellous to watch as the cracks start to show. Everything from failed marriages, to infidelities, to excessive drinking… all with a touch of class and humor that will make you want to reach for the champagne. This is the greatest romantic comedy of all time, in my opinion.
Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is about to marry George Kittredge (John Howard), when her ex-husband C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) shows up unannounced the day before, with reporter Mike Connor and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) – pretending to be Tracy’s brother’s friends – sent there by Spy Magazine, who want to get the scoop on the wedding. Chaos, naturally, ensues.
We all that George Cukor was the greatest director of actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He knew how to get the best performances out of his actors and he knew how to let them shine. And The Philadelphia Story is probably the greatest testament to this. Full of wonderful performances, from Hepburn’s haughty, spoiled rich woman with a heart, to Virginie Weidler’s Dinah, the sister, who might just be one of the funniest characters ever. For some reason, this hardly ever comes up under ‘ensemble cast movies’, maybe because there are three well-defined leads, but by golly, isn’t it just a wonder to watch all those people interact with each other? I mean, they had such phenomenal chemistry, all of them, including Cary Grant and Ruth Hussey, in the regrettably few scenes they have together – particularly the scene when they talk about Mike (‘Why don’t you marry him?’). A lovely moment and one that shows that The Philadelphia Story has a heart too, on top of being hilarious. And that’s one of the things I love about it. Those little moments. Like Tracy and Dexter’s conversation on the morning of the wedding (I’m such an unholy mess of a girl’). Such a tender moment.
Of course, one of the things everybody talks about when it comes to The Philadelphia Story is that ridiculously great (and Oscar-winning) script by Donald Ogden Stewart, based on the play by Phillip Barry. Nearly every line is dripping with wit and class and I’d say it’s probably in top 10 most quotable films of all time. I myself am still trying to work ‘Hello Dexter, hello George, hello Mike’ into a casual conversation. Not easy.
The Philadelphia Story has been my ultimate desert island movie for about ten years. It is always the first one that comes to mind when that question comes up. I guess it’s because it’s got everything. It’s got three of my favorite people of all time, it’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s sophisticated (is soph-com a thing? If not, it should be), and it’s comforting. Like a warm blanket. Let’s raise a glass to The Philadelphia Story!
Pre-Code. The forbidden era where anything goes. Wonderfully risqué, daring and freeing, Pre-Code is a goldmine of genres, thoughts and attitudes, all rushing to get their point across before the enforcement of the Hays Code in 1934. Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Baby Face (1933) are two of the era’s most iconic films and they are strikingly similar in many ways.
In Red-Headed Woman (dir. Jack Conway), Jean Harlow plays Lil Andrews, a secretary who will do anything to move up the ladder and make a better life for herself. She seduces her boss Bill Legendre (Chester Morris), breaks up his marriage, then marries him, has affairs, becomes a social pariah in the high society she desperately craved, then does it all over again. She uses sex to get what she wants and she doesn’t care what anybody thinks.
In Baby Face (dir. Alfred E. Green), Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) does exactly the same. Brought up in the rough part of town, pimped out by her father (!) to the male customers of his speakeasy, Lily just wants to get away from it all and start a new life. She and her maid and friend Chico (Theresa Harris) – her truest and longest relationship – head for New York City, where Lily begins to use her sex appeal and prowess to get ahead.
What I love about these films – and indeed most films of the Pre-Code era – is how frank and brutal they are. Both Lil and Lily shamelessly use sex to get what they want and what they want is a better life. The life they deserve. The life they were denied. They refuse to spend their ‘whole life on the wrong side of the railroad tracks’, in Lil’s words. So they use men. They use men and they use their own bodies. It’s not commendable and you could argue that it’s morally wrong, but it’s understandable. We are meant to root for them as they go about their journey. We are on their side. Neither of these women ever had a lot, so why shouldn’t they go get it? In Lil’s case, we don’t get to see much of her beginnings like we do with Lily, but we can imagine they couldn’t have been that much different. She made up her mind a ‘long time ago’, she says to her best friend Sally (Una Merkel). Just like Lily. In Baby Face’s opening sequence, we walk into her sleazy, disgusting world: a speakeasy run by her father, where she has been sexually exploited by dirty men since she was 14. She’s angry, she’s bitter, she’s sick of it all and she won’t stand for it anymore. Can you blame her?
In hindsight, both of these characters are a couple of badasses. And they were quite progressive. Sure, it’s not an overwhemingly positive portrayal, but that’s the thing with Pre-Code. It is simultaneously progressive and old-fashioned. Well, it had to be, it was the early 1930s. It is glorious, though. It’s raw, it’s honest, it’s challenging and it’s out in the open. Tastefully, of course.
What better way to start off 2018 than with the darling and ludicrously lavish Easy Living (1937)? The screwball comedy that should be a lot bigger than it is. Like, My Man Godfrey (1936) big. The Mitchell Leisen-directed, Preston ‘Mighty’ Sturges-penned Easy Living is an easy-going, well-balanced sophisticated piece of comedy gold with everything going for it.
Last year, I talked about how much I love it and how my favorite thing about it is the wonderful Mr Louis (Luis Alberni), who might actually be one of my top 5 favorite screwball comedy characters ever. I mean, every single thing that comes out of his mouth is absolutely priceless! However, despite it being an fantastic screwball altogether, the car ride in the beginning is a standout. Not THE standout, but a standout nonetheless.
In it, J. B. Ball, played by the grumpy cat of screwball comedies Edward Arnold and Mary Smith, played by the always exceptional Jean Arthur, are on their way to Mary’s workplace, the offices of the Boys Constant Companion magazine. On their way there, Mary mentions that she was going to buy a fur coat, like the one she now has, thanks to Mr Ball. This leads to a hilarious and nauseatingly confusing discussion about installment payments and percentages, that keeps going around in circles, with neither of them backing down, culminating in the most elegantly delivered insult. It is such a screwball comedy moment, so effortlessly funny and perfectly well-timed. Not to mention that Edward Arnold with his facial expressions, and Jean Arthur and her impeccable timing and delivery are probably the only two people who could make such a conversation funny.
This scene should be a must-watch for actors everywhere. Although to be fair, every scene in Easy Living is fantastic. The hotel suit scene? Outrageously good. ‘Golly!’, Mary cries. Golly is right.
Happy new year, everyone! May 2018 bring you all that you wish for. May all your dreams come true. Well, not all of them, ’cause then you wouldn’t have any left for 2019.