A discussion of Youssef Chahine’s very first feature, Baba Amin/ Papa Amin/ Daddy Amin. We discuss how the first half seems like the work of a different, less talented filmmaker, how the second half comes alive with charm, inventiveness, song; how Faten Hamama once more comes across as one of the great presences of world cinema; the connection to the Astaire/ Rogers Swing Time; its interesting mix of musical and melodrama, and how auteurism here results in an enhanced appreciation of the work.
I have made a little video demonstrating the influence of George Stevens’ Swing Time (1936) on Chahine:
The Criterion edition of Swing Tiime is so good I feel the need to publicly voice my appreciation. It´s a new 2K restoration that looks smashing, deep blacks and with a satiny, not too sharp look to the image. It´s gorgeous. But what really made me want to shout from the rooftop were the extras, not just Ginger and Fred talking about their experience of making it, or George Stevens Jr. talking about his father, but the way the disk brings scholarship in to enhance our appreciation of this glorious film.
I´m an admirer of Gary Giddins books on Bing Crosby, and it was a joy to hear him speak about the music. What did Jerome Kern provide, which elements were added in by the rehearsal pianist and orchestrator, how do themes from earlier in the film get repeated in different orchestrations later on and why? It´s wonderful to hear from someone who really knows their stuff and can help you understand (and admittedly he´s better on the music than on film history. Katharine Hepburn did not become a star with Alice Adams, her billing on Little Women, a box office sensation of two years earlier should be enough to convince anyone (see below)
Likewise do you know about Dorothy Fields? Deborah Grace Viner explains why you should. The only woman to figure amongst Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins and other great writers of the American songbook. She won an Oscar for the score of Swing Time, the first woman to do so, and she´d already had hit tunes in the twenties and continued to do so until the sixties. She wrote the lyrics for Sweet Charity, which Bob Fosse directed, a big hit for Gwen Verdon on state (and a big flop for Shirley McLaine on film)
Brian Siebert made me see things I´d not noticed before, how Astaire picks up on steps, bits of choreography, that get repeated throughout the film, purposefully, like elements of the score, so that Astaire and Hermes Pan not only provide choreography for a particular number but how that choreography is woven through thematically through the whole of the film. He´s brilliant at illustrating and making things clear.
Gary Giddens is also very good at talking about the problematic Bojangles number and Mia Mask is terrific at explaining the history of blackface, why Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson was such a significant figure historically, and why issues of race should become central to any discussion of the film. It´s a package that really made me see and appreciate the film better, and I´ve still not exhausted the extras.
One of the things it made me see better was the choreography, and I here want to end with two images from the ´Never Gonna Dance’ number that seem to express the essence of the number (see below)
The two images are images of loss and dejection, defeat, regret. They´re what the number is about. Lucky has blown it. He knows it. He´s trying to win her back. They dance together so beautifully. There´s a lyric in ´Never Gonna Dance´where he sings And to heaven, I give a vow
To adore you. I’m starting now
To be much more positive
But in each instance that positivity returns to dejection, as in Fred´s posture on the image on the left as Penny (Ginger Rogers) walks away; or defeat, sadness, regret, as in the final image of the number on the right. The images are like choreography frozen in time, though that´s a contradiction in terms as choreography is all about movement in time, flow, even a stop in motion has meaning because of the stopping and the duration of that lack of movement.
Really, to get the full effect one has to see the film, the Criterion edition, so that one sees that beautiful restoration and one can watch the extras and understand how the repetition in choreography, the re-orchestration and repetition of musical motifs, recur, evoke, rhyme but also bring meaning and resonance to that number and are an organic part of why we think it so great.