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.
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.
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?
I’ve only just discovered Camera Over Hollywood: Photographs by John Swope 1936-1938, and a discovery it is. John Swope was a life-long friend of Henry Fonda, James Stewart and Josh Logan. They all met in their early twenties when they were part of the University Players theatre troupe in West Falmouth, Cape Code, Massachussetts; and they all found success: Josh Logan as a legendary writer and director in post-war Broadway (and a rather mediocre film director); Swope as a photographer and regular contributor to LIFE magazine; Fonda and Stewart need no introduction.
The book shows us photographs of Hollywood at work (extras waiting on sets, cinematographer James Wong Howe behind the camera, the building of entire cities on the lot) and at play (James Stewart on dates with Olivia de Havilland and Norma Shearer); in front of the camera (Anne Rutherford posing with her dog) and off-stage (Rosalind Russell reading the script for The Citadel in bed; Charles Boyer in his dressing room).
Swope had unparalleled access to the studios, not only through his friendships with Fonda, Stewart and Logan but also via his enduring marriage to Dorothy McGuire as well as his own considerable credentials as a photographer and theatrical producer. And he doesn’t just show us the insides of the studios. I was particularly interested in his documenting of film-going, the continued emphasis on sex (see two images below), and the changes in the fortunes of particular stars that narratives of their careers signal but don’t well convey.
In the image above, note how the cinema’s main feature is Stage Door but how they’re also showing Ellis Island and a Mickey Mouse cartoon as part of the bill. Note also how over the box office Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn are both billed above the title, though Hepburn’s name is misspelled. In the film print I saw Hepburn was billed first, probably a contractual obligation. But the manager of this particular theatre clearly thought Rogers was more of a draw in 1937. Moreover, if you look closely at the lobby cards and posters roughly pasted together between the two men, you’ll note that Ginger Rogers gets much bigger billing and that Hepburn and Adolf Menjou — immediately underneath her name — are barely discernible. A much clearer sign of the descent of Hepburn’s stardom with the filmgoing audience, in what is historically seen as one of her few hits of this period, and before she is officially designated box office poison, than any account I’ve ever read.
It’s a marvellous book of insightful photographs at a key period in Hollywood’s history. The introduction is by Dennis Hopper who credits Swope with getting him into pictures,