Thursday, April 20, 2017

Night and Day (1946) and De-Lovely (2004)

Night and Day (1946) and De-Lovely (2004), both about the life and career of Cole Porter, are equally entertaining and equally artificial.

This is the last entry in our series in musicals about composers.  Cole Porter was a difficult subject to tackle for these films, but not solely because of the subject of his homosexuality – which was not explicitly discussed in Night and Day – but because Cole Porter was a complex individual who, maybe more than other composers and lyricists we’ve discussed in the series, really was his music.

Unlike the other composers we’ve covered, he wrote both the music and the lyrics to his songs – wickedly clever and complex, so intricately and perfectly joined.  It was a perfect marriage.  But both movies dwelled more on his other marriage.

Night and Day, directed by Michael Curtiz, stars Cary Grant as Cole Porter, and Alexis Smith as Linda Lee, his wife.  Monty Woolley, who was a lifelong friend, played himself, as does Mary Martin.  Others presenting songs but playing fictional characters are Jane Wyman, Ginny Simms, and Eve Arden.  Early scenes in the film depicting how Cole and Linda met and their World War I adventures are fictional. Cole's leading cheers at Yale is not as spurious as we might think – he was very prolific in his music in college and did create fighting songs still used at Yale today.
The musical numbers are staged in a style of the 1940s – leisurely, lavish, and glamorous.  There is much visually in the movie to appeal to the eye, most especially leads Cary Grant and Alexis Smith.  Linda is supportive of his career and encouraging, but eventually feels neglected when his work pulls him away from her.  There is a strange aloofness in Grant’s portraying of Cole – which may be a veiled intention to refer to his homosexuality.  It’s a line this 1946 film is obviously not going to cross.

De-Lovely deals with that subject in a very warm and gentle way.  Cole’s liaisons with men are a drain on his marriage when Linda, who otherwise accepts Cole for who he is, feels he is being too indiscreet, but this film is frank about their love for each other as much as about his extramarital liaisons.  Cole and Linda genuinely are devoted to each other; to dismiss her as only a marriage of convenience is to not do justice to their real and enduring bond.  (The exact nature of their sexual relations is illustrated by suggesting they have at least occasionally shared a bed and that Linda has become pregnant after they decide they would like to start a family; she afterwards suffers a miscarriage.)

Cole here is not aloof and strangely cold as was Cary Grant, but he is often so immersed what interests him that he displays only the most fleeting sensitivity for others: his liaisons are demonstrated as casual brief encounters with male prostitutes arranged for him by friends – not loving relationships. There appears to be little feeling behind his appetites, even his music is presented less as a passion and more as another hedonistic urge.

Perhaps this is the difficulty at the root of presenting the life and work of Cole Porter on film; and both movies dance around it.

Kevin Kline plays Cole and Ashley Judd plays Linda in De-Lovely.  Kline is playful, boyish, much warmer than Grant, but neither actor actually looks anything like Cole Porter.

Pop singers perform the Porter hits: Robbie Williams, Elvis Costello, Alanis Morrissette, John Barrowman, Sheryl Crow, Diana Krall, and Natalie Cole among them. None of the singers perform in the style of the 1940s, though Krall as a jazz singer and Natalie Cole as an interpreter of the American Songbook have a leg up on the others.  The songs are presented in a kaleidoscope of images always shifting, always moving, somewhat off-kilter – as the movie is actually a kind of dream sequence – as Cole Porter looks back on his life in the form of a musical. We do not hear most of the songs in their entirety, which is a shame, but the use of the songs within the framework of the narrative is so creative that it doesn’t seem distracting to have this modern style interpretation.  If anything, it may bring a younger generation to appreciate Cole Porter’s music.  (Although director Irwin Winkler does use an Ethel Merman impersonator for “Anything Goes.”)

Jonathan Pryce, who plays Gabe, or the Angel Gabriel, ushers Cole Porter through his personal life musical and also launches the cast in an exuberant “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” as a finale.  This and the whimsical number on the movie studio lot featuring, among others, Louis B. Mayer singing and dancing to “Be a Clown” are entirely fanciful and do not match the “realism” of the other musical performances.

In De-Lovely, Linda and Cole meet in Paris in the 1920s, which is true, and their exploration on how far Cole’s music, his “promise” will take them brings us to Broadway and Hollywood, and the tragedies of Cole’s crippling horse riding accident, as well as Linda’s illness and death from emphysema.

Perhaps the greatest similarity between the films is the several cigarette cases Linda gives Cole one for each of his new shows, with an appropriately themed design engraved, and also the fact that his equestrian accident nearly killed him and left him physically handicapped for the rest of his life.

De-Lovely gets closer to the mark depicting the terrible toll the accident took on him, when both his legs were crushed, but neither film explores the decades-long pain, suffering, multiple operations, eventual amputation in so far as what it was like for a man who created lighthearted, playful lyrics, who seems to take nothing seriously – to still be able to create, as he did, under terrible circumstances. It was after he lost Linda that most of his music and his delight in life left him.  He ended his days as a recluse.

Neither film covers more than but a handful of his songs.

De-Lovely acknowledges Night and Day with a brief clip which Cole and Linda watch in a Hollywood studio projection room – without much enthusiasm.  We are shown the final scene when Cary Grant as Cole, stiffly walking on crutches, reunites with Linda, played by Alexis Smith, at a celebration of his work. Radiant Alexis rushes towards him.  He mechanically puts his arms around her, but stares over her shoulder with an enigmatic, almost grim expression.

Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd watch as Kline says, “If I can survive this movie, I can survive anything.”

“Why on earth does Linda come back to Cole anyway?” she asks.

“Because he’s Cary Grant.”

“We should be grateful to them.  They found us a happy ending.”

But Cary doesn’t really look happy in that scene; it is a most unromantic ending.

De-Lovely concludes with Cole and Linda, elegant and young again, reunited in the hereafter as darkness falls over the city out the window of their apartment and the gentle strains of “In the Still of the Night” wash over them.

Which film is more true?  They both are true, and they both are fictional, and I like each for what it is.  I do not regard De-Lovely as a replacement for Night and Day, it is just a revisiting of the story.

During this series about musicals we’ve discussed the sometimes fractious collaboration of a composer and lyricist.  Here we have both in one man.  He was delightfully, impossibly, maybe tragically schizoid, and neither film comes close to exploring or explaining his genius.  It was too private and too personal and beyond description.

Next week, I’d like to share a few thoughts on the series Feud and how modern filmmakers and a modern audience look back on the relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

Other entries in our series on musicals about composers are here:

Rhapsody in Blue (1945) – George Gershwin.

I Wonder Who’s Kissing her Now (1947) – Joe Howard.

The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956) – Buddy DeSilva, Ray Henderson, Lew Brown

My Wild Irish Rose (1947) – Chauncey Olcott

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Rhapsody in Blue - 1945

Rhapsody in Blue (1945) presents George Gershwin’s piece “Rhapsody in Blue” almost in its entirety.  This, and cameo appearances by some who knew and collaborated with Gershwin: Paul Whiteman, Oscar Levant, and Al Jolson – playing themselves, make this film a worthwhile entry in our series on musicals about composers.  However, it’s so lacking in factual material, or even an interesting fictional tale – that there’s not much else to recommend the movie.

Adding to these detriments is a dour subplot of the main character plodding through life to his well-telegraphed doom.  The film was made some eight years after George Gershwin’s death at the age of 38 from a malignant brain tumor.  The story is told through that lens.  It is less a celebration of his life, ambition, and his prodigious contribution to American music, than it is a quietly haunting march of the walking dead.  Perhaps it was difficult not to film this movie within a prism of grief.

There are bright spots in the film, most notable of which is jazz and classical pianist Hazel Scott, who appeared in a handful of 1940s musicals as a specialty act.  A class act she was: elegant and stunningly beautiful, as well as being sublimely blessed with talent.  She is the most sparkling image in this movie.

Alexis Smith and Joan Leslie are also on hand as George Gershwin’s two (fictional) romantic relationships, with Miss Smith in her customary cool, intelligent beauty role, and Joan Leslie as the loser in the triangle when Gershwin cannot commit to her but seems to forget her in the dust of his ambition. Miss Leslie loses her all-American girlishness in this film that brought her to stardom at Warner’s, and instead appears quite moving and lovely as a sadder-but-wiser woman. 
Robert Alda plays George Gershwin (his screen debut), and though Alda is likable, it’s a performance so low key that it is hard to appreciate what drove this clearly driven man.  Perhaps it is just too difficult to visually depict the inner turmoil and ecstasy of the creative process.

Herbert Rudley is his brother and lyricist Ira, who was his closest relationship.  Sweet and reliable Morris Carnovsky and Rosemary DeCamp are Mama and Papa.

Eddie Marr plays lyricist Buddy De Silva, who we saw portrayed by Gordon MacRae earlier in this series here in The Best Things in Life are Free (1956).

Will Wright plays Rachmaninoff, the thought of which still cracks me up.

Mark Stevens, who we saw earlier in this series in I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now has a brief uncredited role as a singer. I’m pretty sure his tenor voice is dubbed here.

When first viewing Rhapsody in Blue years ago, I remember thinking how unrealistically stupid it was that when George Gershwin’s headaches seemed so severe, nobody thought of taking him to a doctor. I have since learned that when he finally did seek medical help in June 1937, he was ironically given a clean bill of health and told that his problem was hysteria.  A month later he fell into a coma and then it was decided that he had a brain tumor.  Gershwin died having emergency surgery.  So what is least believable in old movies is sometimes what we must believe.

The movie takes us from his childhood days in New York, to Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Paris, and the Hollywood Bowl.  We are treated to “Swanee,” by a hyperkinetic Jolson, and snippets of “The Man I love” and “Yankee Doodle Blues” from Hazel Scott, a bit of “Embraceable You,” from Joan Leslie, who was unable to finish overcome by her hurt that Gershwin has brought Alexis Smith to a party.  We have Anne Brown and Todd Duncan recreating their Broadway roles as Porgy and Bess, but not enough of them.  Just bits.  We don’t get enough of Gershwin in this movie about Gershwin.

Oscar Levant and Charles Coburn are welcome additions to the cast, as they anchor the dreaminess of the proceedings with invariably caustic but sensible remarks, but as mentioned in our last entry in this series, I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, the film would have been better served – especially with the shocking passing of the man still clearly mourned by the entertainment world – with a greater tribute by just presenting performances of his music, and not reminding us with foreshadowing at every turn that he was doomed to live a short life.

I would have rather had a film that left the audience lost in the rapture of his music, and observing the busy course of his full life, have had the sudden end of his life come as a shock, as indeed it did for people in 1937.  That way we can better appreciate his work, and also share in the sense of loss, coming to understand its magnitude on the American Songbook.

“Work is a compulsion.  It’s an obsession,” George says, but the obsession of this movie is not his work; it’s his death.

Come back next Thursday when we cap off this series on musicals about composers with a double-header: a look Cole Porter’s career through Night and Day (1946) and De-Lovely (2004).

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now - 1947

I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (1947) is a delightful scrapbook of turn-of-the-twentieth century song hits by composer Joe Howard.  The biography is typical Hollywood fiction; and one wonders why the Dream Factory even bothered to concoct a biography at all when it seems never to have the intention of telling the facts.  The tunes are the real draw of the show.  If crafting a credible script is difficult for legal reasons, or just the lack of a dramatic story, why not just let the music stand for itself?

We continue our series on musicals about composers.  Looking back to a film we discussed previously, Deep in My Heart (1954), about the life and work of Sigmund Romberg, that was a movie in which a parade of stars took turns singing Romberg’s hits.  The story starring José Ferrer was entertaining (especially his comic masterpiece scene), but using this template of showcasing the music through the talents of a stable of stars would have worked well for I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, certainly preferable to the story that was cobbled together.

Mark Stevens, who played opposite Ann Blyth in Katie Did It (1951) previously discussed here, stars as Joe Howard, an affable composer in Gay Nineties New York City.

June Haver plays his “sister”—the daughter of the man who took him in when he was orphaned as a boy.  June will eventually develop into his love interest, a job she wants sooner rather than later.

She is a bouncy teen, prone to stringing a series of white lies, and her spunk gets her in and out of trouble.  Some of her targeted “innocent” backhanded compliments to various leading ladies who have an eye for Joe are pretty funny.

Her character was made up for the movie, by some sources made up just for her.  
Interestingly, both Mark Stevens and June Haver were second stringers in Hollywood at this time, but putting two second-stringers together make for refreshing exuberance.

She’s a great singer and dancer, and Mark Stevens also shines as a song-and-dance man—pretty impressive for somebody who was also groomed for film noir parts. I am not really certain at this time if Stevens did his own singing (maybe a reader has more information) but since he did start his career as a singer in nightclubs, I’m prepared to believe it is really his voice.  If so, it’s absolutely beautiful.  His singing is one of the very best things about this movie.  I’d love to have the soundtrack.

The songs include “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now,” of course, but also the rousing “Goodbye, My Lady Love” (which, if you are familiar with the stage musical Show Boat, is usually sung by the characters Ellie and Frank in their act), “Honeymoon” (accompanied by a “magic lantern” show so evocative of the era), and ”Hello, My Baby!” (which most of us associate with the singing frog leaping out of the strong box in the Warner Bros. cartoon).

Regarding “Goodbye, My Lady Love,” June Haver is wearing darker body makeup to suggest a “mulatto” character because the song is performed as a cakewalk, in the setting of the period style of entertainment.  Mark Stevens, who leaves the piano to escort her in a few steps and sing of his “heart on fire”, with top hat and cane, is not wearing darker makeup.  Did the southern movie distribution market tremble at the suggestion of this romantic pairing?  Were the miscegenation riot police busy somewhere else burning crosses?  I have to smile, wondering if Hollywood inadvertently pulled a fast one on the racists who were so careful to avoid such cozy interracial images.

Martha Stewart (not that one) and Leonore Aubert play two veteran ladies of the stage who lead Mark Stevens astray for a little while. It’s funny how, along with young June Haver, a trio of women deceive poor Mark.  William Frawley plays Martha's manager, and any movie with him is aces.  We last saw him a few weeks ago in My Wild Irish Rose, and he just seems a natural for this era.  He started in vaudeville in 1914, and though we've seen Mr. Frawley in many movies, and on TV, he seems most natural scowling backstage at a vaudeville theater, cigar in his teeth.  How many times did Fred Mertz reminisce with Ethel about their vaudeville days?  It's just in his blood, and on his face.  He wears it like a carnation in his buttonhole. 

Reginald Gardner has a brief, but standout role as the real-life partner of Joe Howard, William M Hough (or one partner. Howard worked with several lyricists – at the time this movie was produced, one such person came forward with a lawsuit to demand credit for his part in creating the title song).

The movie is richly filmed with wonderfully staged musical numbers (in Technicolor, despite these black and white studio publicity photos), some cleverly framed shots, and dialogue lines that are treasured reflections of the time – but only if you know the era. Most viewers today might not guffaw over the line, “She’s a beautiful woman, not one of the Cherry Sisters.” If you have never heard of vaudeville’s worst ever act, that might pass right by you. I laughed my head off.  At the time this movie was made, two generations of Americans still remembered. 

Admittedly, I have a fondness for this type of movie, especially when it aspires to nothing more than being an earnest valentine to the subject matter. Deep probing into what haunts composers is best left for documentaries – if there are any. George Jessel, the chief ambassador of vaudeville, produced this movie.  He and director Lloyd Bacon present it with nostalgic affection.  It might well have been better to just give up the pretense about presenting a biography of a composer, and just let his music tell us about him.

Next week, we turn to more musical fare with Alan Alda and Alexis Smith in Rhapsody in Blue (1945), the life and work of George Gershwin.

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.