Tag Archives: MGM musicals

Varietés (J.A. Bardem, Spain 1971)

 

Sara Montiel, with the most intricate eye-shadow I’ve ever seen a film star wear in a movie, is the main reason to see Varietés. The film was her idea. In her memoir, Sara Montiel, Memorias, Vivir es un placer (Barcelona, Random House 2000), she writes of how she convinced producer Eduardo Manzanos that  ‘we could make a film to our taste, a musical, luxurious, if that’s what he was interested in making. And Juan Antonio said yes; even though he’d never made a musical, that was no problem, because I could take care of that aspect’. She writes of how she loved his script so that she didn’t change a thing. How she believed he’d been a marvellous director and how she needed a film of a director of that calibre. ‘For me’, she adds like the diva she is, ‘Juan Antonio’s best film is Varietés; (pp. 367-368).

varietes disco

For fans of Sara Montiel, and they were legion at that time — she was not only the superstar of Spanish cinema but also box office throughout Latin America and in countries like Italy and Roumania —  the film is full of pleasures, many of them campy. She sings some beautiful standards (Te lo juro yo, Lagrimas negras, La bien pagá, Toda una vida), is carefully photographed through more gauze than Doris Day in her later years, is always at the centre of everything — this is a true vehicle for her — and brings that slightly ironic naughtiness around issues of sex, interwoven with and superseded by the full-blown romanticism that is a trademark of her films.

For fans of Juan Antonio Bardem, Varietés is a sadness. Here he is cannibalising one of his great 50s films, Cómicos (1954), which in turn had been derived from All About Eve (Joe Manckiewicz, USA, 1950)As you can see in the two clips below, Varietés borrows not just plot and structure but situation, lines of dialogue, even, later on in the film, tropes like the use of mirrors.

Varietés is a musical remake of Cómicos: instead of telling us about the life of actors in provincial theatre troupes, he tells us the life of performers in provincial music-hall troupes. But the older film is more concrete, more complex, with more inventive compositions. It’s not quite up to his collaborations with Berlanga like Bienvenido Mr. Marshall or his own  Muerte de un ciclista (1955) or Calle Mayor, but it’s very good indeed and has become a classic. Varietés is a great vehicle for Sara Montiel, which is why she thinks its his best film, but those are quite different things.

 

As a musical, Varietés if full of pleasures: Sara herself, the great songs, the clear attempt at making glossily produced musical numbers à la MGM. Sara and her producer had set out to make a luxurious musical, by which I think they meant expensively produced, and by the standards of Spanish cinema they succeeded. The songs, the costumes, the back-up dancers, the choreography. It’s all there. But Spanish cinema’s idea of luxury in that period was often not much more than a musical number in the Sonny & Cher Show: the back-up dancers are relatively meagre in number and not always in step, the costumes are embedded with shiny rhinestones but nonetheless look a bit cheap, the choreography lacks inventiveness and rarely done for the camera as in the great Arthur Freed musicals. The film aims for an international standard but succeeds only on a national one.

There are two further things about Varietés that caught my eye. In the original Cómicos, shot at the height of Franquist repression, the young ingenue Ana Ruiz (Elisa Galvé), tired of waiting by the wings, is offered the opportunity of headlining her own show but the price is that she’d have to sleep with the producer Carlos Márquez (Carlos Casaravilla). She considers it, struggles with it, but ultimately turns him down. In this film, Sara being Sara considers it all too briefly, wishes that that weren’t the bargain, but succumbs. The change in representation marks a difference between what was permissible in the dictadura (the hard dictatorship) and the later dictablanda (the soft dictatorship).

The last thing that I’d like to comment on here is a question. Did Bardem invent the musical montage of the kind so typical of the 80s, where a series of shots are rendered coherent by a song so as to evoke a feeling? See the montage below, where Sara succumbs to her producer’s demands but instead of feeling shame she feels joy (very Sara: It’s why so many gay men loved her). It’s from 1971.

José Arroyo

 

A Thought on a Moment in Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1944)

In a lovely note on his memories of seeing Meet Me in St. Louis as a four year old in 1951, critic David Ehrenstein writes, ‘I didn’t understand what was going on in the Halloween sequence. But then neither did (Margaret) O’Brien’s character, ‘Tootie’. She’d elected to ‘kill the Brokoffs (neighbors who lived down the street on the beautifully detailed set) by throwing flour at them as demanded by the other children. Walking away from the bonfire, wind and shadows whipping around her, she’s clearly terrified.’ But she succeeds, runs away from the Brokoff house and to her gang, the community she is now a part of, and is accorded the ultimate accolade of being the most horrible. ‘And indeed she is,’ remembers Ehrenstein,  ‘But that was in 1945. And that was in 1951. And now it’s 1998. And I’m dreaming of MGM’[i] It is now 2014 and MGM musicals in general, Meet Me in St. Louis in particular, and the Halloween sequence most precisely, are still the stuff that dreams are made of.

fig A
fig A

Amongst the many pleasures of watching the very greatest films over and over again is that the remembered pleasures are anticipated but also re-experienced as if for the first time. I remember sitting behind a gaggle of girls at a screening of Titanic and when Kate Winslett and Leonardo Di Caprio are holding onto the ice-flow one of the girls said, ‘Shh, this is the moment were we cry’; and then Di Caprio died and they did, loudly. But one of the joys of re-viewing great films is that whilst re-experiencing remembered pleasures one also discovers new things about the film, new reasons as to why those pleasures occur in the first place. Sometimes, it can just be that you’re at a different point in your life and the films mean something different to you; other times that you see things you’ve not quite registered before (it took a few times for me to delight in the frozen bloomers in Meet Me); other times still, that you notice elements that enhance your understanding of why the film in questions achieves its particular effects. After all, it’s not magic or alchemy; someone arranged, orchestrated, chose.

fig b - Mr. Brokaff by the window as if from Tootie's point-of-view.
fig b – Mr. Brokaff by the window as if from Tootie’s point-of-view.

Seeing Meet Me in St. Louis for the upteempth time earlier this week I had one of those moment of – revelation might be too strong a term – let’s say insight into why the Halloween sequence, a sequence without a ‘number’ in a musical, remains so memorable. Minnelli claimed that that sequence was the principal reason he did the film[ii]. And it’s a sequence justly famous for its formal elegance — the crane shot at the beginning, the long slow travelling shot as Tootie heads towards the Brokaffs, the much more quick rhyming shot heading back to her gang once she’s succeeded in killing Mr. Brokaff – its technical complexity – the orchestration of all of those elements, often within a shot, and which focuses on a child – the achievement of such varied effects –fear, humour, relief, excitement, creepiness, tension – all the while tying in to the theme of a child excluded from her community, sent on a dangerous quest, overcoming her fear, accomplishing her mission, and returning in triumph to be admitted into the group and garlanded as one of its heroes that but foreshadows the threat to the whole Smith family that Mr. Smith will announce at the end of the ‘Autumn’ sequence to the film, just after the Halloween sequence and before its triumphs have been fully savoured, as a ‘move to New York’.

Tootie enters the shot from screen righ
Tootie enters the shot from screen right

The moment I want to point to is but a simple cut; or rather how the elements surrounding that cut are orchestrated. It takes place immediately after the long shot where Tootie is slowly and fearfully heading towards the Brokoff house (see clip above for a view of part of the sequence). Her friends and  the fire they are feeding have completely receded into the background. She’s already passed that horse that has scared her so and has made us laugh. The shot ends with Tootie looking fearfully at the house (see fig. a), we’re then shown the house as if from Tootie’s point of view (see fig. b) but then we’re shown that it couldn’t be Tootie’s point-of-view as we see her enter the shot (fig c).

Now, what’s gained by this? Minnelli could have shown us the house, then returned to Tootie and then showed us Tootie heading towards the house; Or we could have seen Tootie gazing at the house and then cut directly to Tootie heading toward the house. What’s gained by showing us the house first as if from Tootie’s point of view and then having Tootie enter the shot (i.e. it becomes a false point-of-view shot). Watching the film this week I posed myself these questions for the first time;  and of course, the answer is simple: it’s to achieve particular effects, it’s why we feel what we feel when watching that moment.

Tootie’s scared, she looks at the house with fear; we then see what she sees: a massive house shown from a low angle and with a wide lens to make it as imposing as possible. The choice to have Tootie enter that scary image has the effect of showing us that Tootie’s scared, she’s not wrong to be scared but, aware of the dangers, she confronts them and enters into the realm of action. That’s why Tootie is the ‘most horrible’ why it doesn’t matter that she’s a girl or that she’s smaller. That minute difference of where, how and on what to cut makes a huge difference in how we see and evaluate what Tootie does. It makes her seem conscious, aware, courageous. She knows that it’s an arena of danger, chooses and acts in spite of her fears. It’s marvellous. And it’s one of a whole array of minute but decisive choices that makes Meet Me in St. Louis such a great film.

José Arroyo


[i] David Ehrenstein, ‘David Ehrenstein; writer, critic’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 1. (Autumn, 1998), pp. 59-60.

[ii] Gerald Kaufman, Meet Me in St. Louis, London: BBI, 1994, p. 53.