Last night’s viewing: eye-popping colour; leads who can neither sing nor dance but who nonetheless imbue the whole show with verve and charm;June Allyson at her prettiest; The film that made Mel Tormé — billed as The Velvet Fog of Radio and Recording Fame in the trailer — a teen idol; Big Band 40s doing Roaring Twenties in a college setting is its own particular delight and Chuck Walters brings joyous movement to the choreography AND to the mise-en-scene. Not the Freed Unit’s best but after the Varsity Drag Number and the film’s ending, I felt like applauding. Gorgeous Warners Archive print.
Here’ a clip of Mel Tormé singing ‘The Best Things in Live Are Free’ and giving them ideas during their French Lesson:
Helen Hanson is a Professor in Film History at the University of Exeter as well as Academic Director of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. I’m a great admirer of Hollywood Soundscapes: Film Sound Style, Craft & Production in the Classical Era, her new book. Hollywood Soundscapes not only provides us with new knowledge on the craft and production of film sounds styles in the classic era but is also an inspiring example of how to produce methods through which to do so.
Professor Hanson came to Warwick to talk on Lela Simone, the music supervisor of the great Freed Unit at MGM, and thus responsible for the sound of some of the greatest musicals of all time: An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953) and many others. I sought Professor Hanson out to talk at greater length about her superb book.
The discussion touches on how her initial research question, ‘who were the most significant people working in sound in the classic era?’ changed into an account of how style is framed around structures that develop from group work and the sharing of knowledges. We touch on how the structures surrounding the work and practices of a sound editor in the 1930s might be shaped not only by the technologies that he or she was using but also forms of knowledge, professional networks and the conventions and expectations of the work.
One of the wonderful aspects of Hollywood Soundscapes is how we get detailed accounts of stereophonic sound systems that did not quite succeed. We touch on the Vitasound system which added speakers and amplified sound and also on the Fantasound system Walt Disney developed for Fantasia, two examples on which there is a much more extended and detailed account in the book itself.
The discussion ranges from what constituted ‘ear appeal’ at any point in time to what she would advise a beginner to look for if he or she wanted to analyse and better understand the ways in which sound is created and deployed in film.
The conversation touches on generic expectations in relation to the crafting of soundscapes. Sound technicians had a sense of how to shape the sound for different genres. When mixing the sound for a drama, for example, they looked for high contrast sound. For comedy, there was a tendency to seek a louder sound mix. But different studios had different practice conventions. Warners, for example, liked to record wild sounds.
Hanson notes that, ‘The networks of professional and personal relationships made me understand how multi-talented technicians were. They understood aesthetics, technologies and economics. They understood how to please management.’
I hope the podcast sparks an interest in reading Hollywood Soundscapes, a very considerable contribution to what we know about sound in the classic era and an equally great contribution to methods of how to go about finding out more. The podcast can be listened to below:
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.
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.