Tag Archives: Fred Astaire

Doris dons blackface in ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’

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I always get sad and embarrassed when I see the great stars of the Hollywood musical don blackface, even when, as Fred Astaire does in Swing Time, it’s done as an homage to a black performer, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. I thought Doris Day might have escaped this blight merely by becoming a star a generation later than Astaire or Garland or so many others. But no, here she is in I’ll See You In My Dreams .(Curtiz, 1951) .and one feels ‘poor everybody’.

The image and the number condenses a concatenation of meanings that evoke both the push and pull, the inclusiveness and hierarchisation of American identity. The number is set in a WW1 camp where Gus and Grace Kahn are entertaining the troops. The film makes much of Kahn’s family having emigrated to America and of Kahn writing the songbook to the lives of several generations of Americans (‘Making Whoopee’, ‘Ain’t We Got Fun’, ‘My Buddy’, ‘It Had To Be You’, ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ etc). The film in a way charts a journey of assimilation and inclusiveness. Danny Thomas, gives a great performance as Gus: wide-eyed, wide-open emotionally, overly focussed to the point of autism, very endearing in expressing love of wife and children the character he plays can’t express except through song. Danny Thomas himself was famously of Lebanese origin. So Danny, Danny as Gus, Doris, Doris as Grace, Grace married to Gus, her blondness, his darkness, all speak assimilation and inclusiveness.

Except we have this number, which in spite of the flag and in spite of narrative speaks a hierarchy of exclusions. Doris is not just donning blackface. She’s donning blackface (and drag!) to imitate Al Jolson singing ‘Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye’, so a blond female Kapplehoff, Day’s real name, is summoning and superseding a male jew, Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson), who himself poked fun, embodied, reproduced and made himself superior to a derogatory stereotype of a black man.

So the image speaks of Doris Day (Doris Ma Anne Kapplehoff) and Danny Thomas (born Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz) coming together under a flag, just like the characters they play, speaks of assimilation and inclusiveness. But the blackface itself belts out the limits to that inclusiveness, a hierarchy of race and ethnicity, a hierarchy of power which is both gendered and racialised, differential access to belonging and a colour barrier to inclusiveness tout court.

 

José Arroyo

King Creole (Michael Curtiz,USA, 1958)

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I grew up in Montreal, where Elvis was King en français. The local commercial French station, TVA Canal Dix,  showed Elvis films regularly: the dialogue was in French but Elvis rocked in English. I must have seen all of them and had firm favourites: Viva Las Vegas (George Sidney, 1964) with Ann-Margaret,  Blue Hawaii (Norman Taurog, 1961), and this one, King Creole. I now see that it’s perhaps significant that these were all directed by old-timers of the studio system who knew their craft.

Some fans prefer Jailhouse Rock (Richard Thorpe, 1957), and certainly its famous and eponymous number is a delight. But King Creole is arguably Elvis’ best film. And it’s part of the tragedy of his film career that even his best film is but a derivative and pulpy melodrama. Themes of teenage rebellion, the relationships of fathers and sons, and children looking on pityingly at what they see as the emasculation of their fathers by society and societal institutions, are all themes that are better dealt with, in this very same period, by Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

As a teenager, I’d read and enjoyed the Harold Robbins novel  the film is based on, A Stone for Danny Fisher. And Curtiz’ film follows the plot quite closely, if exchanging Brooklyn for New Orleans, the boxing world for that of the nightclub scene on Bourbon Street and the 1930 Depression setting for the film’s present.

Presley’s Danny Fisher, a talented singer, is busing tables at a nightclub whilst trying to graduate from high school. The money he brings in is needed to keep the family afloat.  His father’s given up. He’s been a prominent pharmacist but lost it all when his wife’s death led to a spiral of depression and drink. They lost their house and now live in a slum tenement next to a brothel. Fisher keeps failing High School’s  cause he’s just got too much to do. In the meantime the streets offer lots of opportunity for easy money. Danny’s father is willing to lower himself so that his son can get a diploma but Danny can’t bear to see his father so bullied and humiliated. Also, he can make easy money singing. The tangles of family, show-business and the underworld lead to tragedy. King Creole is a mix of teen film, musical, and noir. There are few musical performers more exiting to watch in this period than Elvis. And almost no one in the Hollywood of this time is better at using the camera than Michael Curtiz. Elvis performing and how Michael Cutiz films him performing are what propel this otherwise pulpy melodrama into something great.

 

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King Creole is one of the few Presley films, the only one I remember, where he’s presented as a real film star. He gets a great star  entrance with the ‘Crawfish’ number, a duet with rhythm and blues singer Kitty White, written by songwriters Ben Weisman and Fred Wise as a street vendor’s cry, that starts off in the pre-credit sequence, continues on Kitty White post-credits, then cranes up and dissolves to introduce us to Elvis, who is framed behind lace curtains, in turn framed by the window, in turn framed by the shutters, in turn framed by balcony railings.

Elvis opens up the curtains, and comes out, to us, like a fancy chocolate in a box within a box within a box  and next to flowers.  As the song continues, Elvis is intercut with Kitty passing by on her cart, finally we get a reverse shot that shows us the other side of the street, with the ‘hostesses’ on the balcony on the nightclub next door soliciting Elvis. In the shot when he responds, ‘No you don’t, ya gotta pay me’, his sister appears on the right hand side to offer him breakfast. Curtiz masterfully presents what people have paid to see — Elvis — makes us wait for what he’s got to offer, frames him, teases us, and reveals his talent, desirability, family relations and a context in which the drama can unfold all in one scene. It’s a brilliant mise-en-scene of stardom. Something Curtiz is so expert at and that so few other directors ever offered to Elvis.

What Elvis was famous for in 1958 was conveying sex to teenagers. The Los Angeles Mirror-News entertainment editor wrote that  ‘what Elvis offers is not basically music but a sex show’ (cited on p. 438 in Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis (438).  Guralnick writes that Leber and Stoller’s ‘Trouble’, a Muddy Waters-styled blues was intended somewhat tongue in cheek but was delivered by Elvis with untempered ferocity. ‘It sounded sort of comical to us, but strangely enough to the mass market it wasn’t. It was somewhat generational and somewhat cultural, but they bought it’. (p.449).

In the film, Curtiz stages that sexy ferocity as a challenge to the gangster played by Walter Matthau, as something to entice the gangster’s moll played by Carolyn Jones, and as a source of conflict between the two nightclub owners. That talent, sex and ferocity are once more put in the scene in the context of different narrative threads where his very power and desirability originate the source of the tragedy to come. It’s a lesson in how to mobilise a star persona in narrative and how to narrativise stardom.

Julie Lobalzo-Wright in Crossover Stardom’ writes that there can be no doubt that Presley represented the rebellious image of the 1950s, both within America and worldwide, and his cultural impact cannot be overstated. (p.59)…Presley’s early live performances on The Milton Berle SowThe Steve Allen Sow, and The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956) created a stir displaying Presley’s overt sexuality that consistently presented his sexualized body as an object of desire. Thomas. C. Carlos has described his early television performances as ‘so sexy, not white sexy, not coy sexy, but so humping swaggering black r&b sexy” that they led to a national uproar’.

I’d also like to comment on the quieter ‘Young Dreams’ number (see above). This is such a joyful performance, the dip in his shoulder, the shake of his head during ‘kiss you morning, noon and night’ then again dipping his shoulders and opening his mouth in the pause as if to say, “‘wow’ isn’t this naughty and marvellous’. Presley conveys the saucy and the tender filtered through a joyful amazement, sex combined with feeling in gleeful wonderment. No wonder his girlfriend in the audience is on the verge of tears with longing. Seeing him, we understand her, and understand why Elvis was so appealing to both men and women for so long. It’s a quiet number in the film, but powerful. And made more so by Presley being at the centre of a pool of light amidst the shadows and darkness of the nightclub, a light also highlighted by wearing a shirt that photographs white. Thus in a longer shot he’s the focus bathed in light, and then of course, there are the close-ups, when it’s his singing, his sensuality, and the effect that these things are  having on his girlfriend that Curtiz draws our attention to.

As we can see in King Creole Crutiz constructs  a mise-en-scene of and around Presley’s stardom, both as a musical performer, a sensation really, and as a movie star. I’ve commented on some of the numbers above. But let me just draw your eye to other aspects:

See, for example, how in the scene where he takes his girlfriend to see his old home, the focus is on him even when she’s doing all the talking; and note how he’s lit (see below):

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See also how Curtiz present Presley to us in and through through light. Lighting is accentuating his features, his feelings, his very presence. He’s often shown coming in and out of the light. See some of the pictures below but further down you can also see how he’s lit as a kind of noir hero/film star in the scene were he watches his father get attacked.

 

Ultimately, the story is hackneyed but professionally told. Curtiz knows how to make his stars shine and how to use what they represent to create context, plot and convey feeling. Elvis’ stardom is part of the mise-en-scene of King Creole. It’s the same kind of care others took to present Judy Garland, Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire; it’s the same kind of care Curtiz used in his musicals with James Cagney and Doris Day; it’s the kind of care Elvis rarely got from any of his other directors.

José Arroyo

 

Butching up Fred

 

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There’s a lovely moment in Swing Time (George Stevens, USA, 1936) when Fred and Ginger finally kiss. She’s been after him for most of the movie by then. Bewildered by what she sees as a lack of response, she begins singing her reproach: ‘A fine romance, with no *kisses*’:

A fine romance, my friend this is
We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes
But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes
A fine romance, you won’t nestle
A fine romance, you won’t wrestle
I might as well play bridge
With my old maid aunt
I haven’t got a chance
This is a fine romance

When they finally do begin to kiss, a door closes so that we don’t see the kiss itself. We just know they have because when the door opens Fred’s face is smeared with lipstick, which I’m often tempted to colour in, badly, as above.

What compels me is not that I think that elegant symbol of love, romance and Hollywood cinema is gay or even ‘feminine’. Indeed the image above is a cut-out of the image below. I’ve removed and then restored Ginger from where she rightly belongs, figuring that dream of love and romance *with* Fred.

 

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The films, however,  in trying so hard to reassure the audience that Fred Astaire is *not* effeminate create so many spaces where other men can be: Fairies delightedly prance through the Astaire and Rogers series inciting dreams of being just as Fred and Ginger themselves incite dreams of love and romance.

Fred is usually surrounded by Eric Blore, or Edward Everett Horton or Franklin Pangborn or Erik Rhodes — all the lovely pansies of Thirties Hollywood — and often a combination of two or more in the same film — to shore up his masculinity. Sometimes as with Erik Rhodes, those characters are doubly othered by being shown as ‘effeminate’ AND foreign. It’ true that they’re there to be funny, to in some sense, be laughed at for their otherness. But they’re there. And they may be the butt of the joke but they’re also loveable and often elegant, witty, well-dressed and just as as at home in the Art Deco splendor of the world of the films as Fred and Ginger.

Thus, so often, butching up Fred results in gaying up the film and leads to moments like the lovely one below with Victor Moore (and let’s draw the veil over the blackface).

 

 

I wonder what those moments meant to a gay male audience, to a black audience, and to a black and gay audience in the 1930s?

 

Jose Arroyo

Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs

 

 

 

Since you are reading this, I assume you’re interested in movies; and if you’re interested in movies, you’ll be interested in the wonderful ‘Night & Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs’ exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, which runs until the 20th of January 2019.

The title of the exhibition, ‘Night and Day’ is taken from Cole Porter’s superb song which Fred Astaire introduced onstage in 1932’s The Gay Divorce and on film in 1934’s The Gay Divorcee. It is also the title of the famously terrible biopic of Cole Porter directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers (1946), in which Cary Grant plays Cole Porter. But it is Fred Astaire who the song is associated with.

‘Night and Day’ was written for Astaire. His recording was an enormous success which topped the charts for ten weeks in the early thirties; and indeed the spirit of Fred Astaire haunts this exhibit. Firstly because of the evening dress he so casually wore, the glamorous and glistening Art Deco which was the background to his dancing the final number in so many of his films with Ginger Rogers at RKO, and the beginnings of a sporty elegance he is associated with. Well-cut clothes that enhance and adorn the figure but also allow one to move in them well enough to burst into dance. Fred who from the twenties was a superstar of both Broadway and the West-End, embodied the mid-atlantic best of both worlds: He was always associated with ‘ Top Hat, White Tie & Tails’ but wasn’t limited to that look. His clothes and how he wore them is analogous to the sentiment behind Coco Chanel’s great contribution to fashion. She made the combination of casual and elegant possible for women in the way that it was for men like Astaire: American men who were as free in their movements as in their outlook but were dressed by Saville Row.

 

 

The Spirit of Fred Astaire

The movies in general and Fred Astaire in particular are everywhere evident in this exhibition. The sections are named after popular songs of the Thirties, which are either the names of movies or taken from movies of the period and which in turn evoke the period of The Great Depression (1929-1939): ‘Brother….can You Spare a Dime?’ (also written for the stage and made into a hit by Bing Crosby; ‘Whistle While You Work’ (taken from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1937); ‘I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams’ (Bing Crosby again from Sing You Sinners, 1938); ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ (Astaire again, this time from Follow the Fleet, 1936: you can see the marvellous excerpt below); ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, eternally associated with Judy Garland and from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz;’Life is just a Bowl of Cherries’ ; ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’; ‘The Way You Wear Your Hat,’ which is a lyric from ‘They Can’t Take That Way From Me’ Astaire again, this time from Shall We Dance (1936). 

 

 

More Movies:

Along with the glorious clothes, the exhibit also features movies stars, and shows them to us in the very collectible cigarette cards so evocative of a way of life and a structure of feeling in the Thirties. We also see how Madeline Carroll and Ronald Colman are featured in the Miss Modern magazine below, demonstrating how interlinked movies were with other mass media and how fashion was a thread which knit them together. Movie stars wore the clothes ordinary people dreamed of wearing and and manufacturers made sure they could, as for example with Joan Crawford’s famous Letty Lynton dress. The movie popularised the dress, the magazines popularised the dress and movie, the availability of the dress sanctified the star and increased the fandom for both magazines and movies.

 

 

Cecil Beaton: Thirty from the 30s: Fashion, Film and Fantasy

The exhibit also features a mini-exhibition within it with Cecil Beaton’s photographs of the famous: royalty, writers, society people but more than anything film stars (see below)

 

 

This being a British exhibition, royalty of course features:

 

 

But Hollywood’s influence dominates:

 

 

Sonja Henie, to left; Ruby Keller, top right; Tallulah Bankead bottom: From Cecil Beaton’s Scrapbooks

The exhibition is very good at contextualising the developments in fashion. The guide, for example, tell us: ‘Women’s fashions, which had reached giddy heights of youthful freedom (and brevity) during the Roaring Twenties, reflected the more mature and sober decade that followed. By the end of the 1920s the styles had already begun to change as the flapper grew up. Waits returned to a normal, rather than dropped, position. Skirts, which had begun to dip in the back by 1927-1928, fully descended to the knees and mid-calf for suiting, and the ankle for the afternoon and evening dresses. Structure infiltrated the relaxed shapes of 1920’s dressing: ‘hard chic’ became a watchword as couture houses such as Schiaparelli introduced a stylised and emphatic shoulder line.

As a decade the 1930’s presented the extremes: from the depths of poverty for many to a sparkling party-filled escape for the wealthy and international set’.

The exhibition’s great care with contextualisation really does pay off, though it also gives rise to moments of amusement, such as in the timeline below where Hitler’s rise is juxtaposed on the timeline right in between the drop of a hemline and the rise of the neckline.

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The the main reason to see this exhibition is the clothes. No photos do them justice. You really need to see them in three-dimensions to see how they hang, to get a real sense of what the fabric is like, to walk around them and get the whole picture. I really recommend the exhibition. But for those of you who can’t go, here are some examples of what you are missing:

 

 

 

 

 

José Arroyo

 

‘Ten Films in Ten Days – Easter Parade’

 

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Most musicals aren’t very good. But I love them. Even the worst have at least one great number; and when the whole film is good, there’s nothing better. The glories of the ‘Astaire and Rogers’ films have already been extolled here. And the best of the Freed Unit (Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bandwagon) needs no introduction. So today I’m going for ‘not quite top notch Freed-Unit’, which still probably makes it better than anything by anybody else. I’m thinking of films like The Harvey Girls, Show Boat, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Cabin in the Sky.


The reason for choosing Easter Parade (Chuck Walters, MGM, 1948) is simple. It’s the only film to star Astaire and Garland– to me the two giants of the genre. Each made films that are arguably better (much of the RKO series for Astaire; Wizard, Meet Me, and Star is Born for Garland). Irving Berlin raided his back catalogue and wrote new music for it: the score is a treasure box of standards, most sung by Garland and Astaire, of whom there’s no one better at singing the classic American songbook ,and at its very inception: this is the film that introduced ‘It Only Happens When I Dance With You’. Easter Parade was MGM’s biggest hit of the year one of the greatest successes of both of their careers. The ever-so alive Anne Miller helps anyone shake the blues away. Peter Lawford is the rich, charming but passive and not-fully-there fellar with an umbrellar. This is the film where Judy and Fred do the famous tramp number, ‘A Couple of Swells’. 


Judy was supposed to star with Kelly but he broke his leg and aren’t we glad he did? Breaking a leg can indeed bring luck. I used to watch this annually with my sister; and the only thing that’s changed about my feelings for it is that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate Garland’s performance more. She’s a truly great and truly inventive comic actress with crack timing. Just look at her parody of Ginger Rogers, feathers moulting off her dress in ‘Top Hat’ (see above). The DVD of Easter Parade has a wonderful series of out-takes on ‘Mr. Monotony’ which demonstrate so well how a film is pieced together of various takes. There are moments where she’s listening on the playback and then turns on the performance on a beat of the music — subtly projecting, fully present, eager to please and express — that are just astonishing to see. And you get to see how she does it the same but with slight subtle variations in take after take. Comparing the out-takes to the final number (excised from the print on its initial release) one realises that it’s almost always the first take that’s chosen.  It’s truly amazing.

 

José Arroyo

A favourite moment from Easter Parade (Charles Walters, USA, 1948)

Easter Parade is a treasure trove of delights. My favourite moment is not the great Anne Miller ‘Shaking The Blues Away’ number. Nor is it the legendary Garland-Astaire ‘A Couple of Swells’; nor any of the great Irving Berlin songs: (‘Stepping Out With My Baby’; ‘It Only Happens When I Dance With You,’ so many others. The moment I treasure most is this one above: Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) has been ditched by his elegant and sexy dancing partner Nadine Hale (Anne Miller). He vows that he can replace her with anyone and chooses Hannah Brown (Judy Garland), a singing waitress he picks up at a tavern.

Hewes tries to teach her how to dance, how to dress, how to walk. Hannah Brown’s not good enough if he’s going to be as big a hit as he was with Nadine. To replace a Nadine he needs a Juanita, not a plain Hannah Brown. But when that Hannah Brown is played by Judy Garland…. sigh, what bliss. This is the moment where Hannah Brown has to prove to  Don Hewes that she can become the sexy ‘Juanita’ he’s dreamed up for the act and where Garland shows us why plain old Hannah Brown is so much better. They might not look back to her for sex, but boy will they look back. I’ve always delighted in this moment. It seems to me to speak to the best bits of the Hannah Browns in each of us.

 

José Arroyo