Film moments #26: Silk Stockings (1957)

4 November 2017

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Silk Stockings comes almost at the end of the cycle of musicals from MGM’s Freed Unit. It stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. He is an American film producer who has persuaded a Soviet composer (Boroff, played by Wim Sonnefeld) to stay in Paris to write him a score. She is the Soviet agent sent to retrieve both the composer and the Soviet commissars sent previously, now living it up in a Paris hotel.

It is a remake of the 1939 Lubitsch comedy Ninotchka, which had been adapted in the mid-50s into a Broadway musical with a fine set of Cole Porter songs (I particularly enjoyed the lyrics). It lost money.

Here’s some quick thoughts.

  1. This is 1950s Paris, and therefore still, in the minds of 1950s Americans it represents the emblem of the exotic, probably still living in the afterglow of Hemingway, Fitzgerald etc. Obviously MGM captured this to excess in An American in Paris, but it’s also the theme of another Astaire musical, Funny Face, released the previous year. Unlike An American in Paris, however, there’s no visual evidence that the film ever escaped from the studio lot.
  2. 1957 is the start of the “Soviet moment“, as I discussed in my Sputnik post. Even though it is the middle of the Cold War, the House Un-American activities Committee is in decline, and although the jokes are at the expense of the Soviet Union, they are mostly affectionate rather than critical.
  3. There’s lots to like about the film: the lyrics are clever, the plot is well-constructed, the script is light and knowing, some of the dancing is fine. It’s a film that puts a smile on your face. But it’s impossible to believe that Charisse would fall for Astaire; she was 36 when it was released, he was 58, and he looks old throughout the picture. Gene Kelly, maybe: but his stock had fallen at MGM by 1957 after a series of flops.
  4. It was Fred Astaire’s last film as a dancer (if you don’t count Finian’s Rainbow). One review takes the moment at the end of the last dance in the film where Astaire crushes his top hat as a symbolic ending. Maybe. Certainly in some of the dancing sequences he’s showing his age. Astonishingly, it was also Charisse’s last film as a dancer, though that may say something about the decline of the musical.
  5. Because Astaire’s character is a film producer, *Silk Stockings* is almost a commentary on the American film musical, written in the medium of film right at the end of the ’40s and ’50s musical cycle. I have borrowed this idea from Jane Feuer’s book The Hollywood Musical. By way of example: the Russians (Charisse and the three commissars) confront Astaire when they realise he has taken the melody of the Russian composer’s piece and turned it into a jazz number. “In America,” Astaire tells them, “we do this sort of thing all the time.”
  6. There’s more than a nod towards Singin’ In The Rain as well. The adaptation of *War and Peace* that Boroff thinks he’s scoring turns into a Napoleon and Josephine musical called “Not Tonight” because Peggy Dayton, the none-too-bright star (played by Janis Paige, with a touch of [Lina Lamont](http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0008638/), doesn’t like the story or the music.

Here’s Jane Feuer:

The entire sub-plot of *Silk Stockings* ridicules elite art through a farcical contrast between modern serious music and modern popular music… Peggy argues that Boroff is “too square” whereas Canfield [Astaire] counters that he will “lend prestige to the picture”, just as presumably the inclusion of concert music lent prestige to the MGM musicals.

But it’s 1957, and the arrival of rock and roll has just rendered the whole discussion obsolete. So this is the moment. Fred Astaire’s last on-screen dance number, in a song specially written for the film version of Silk Stockings, which tries, completely unsuccessfully, to co-opt rock and roll for the film musical.

The whole film seems to be online here. If you want to know more about the film, Alan Vanneman has a sardonic narrative reading at the Bright Lights blog.

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Sputnik at 60

26 October 2017

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It is the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik this month, in 1957, the moment when the Soviet Union arrived at the peak of its power and influence. It was 40 years after the Revolution, and only 32 years to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Francis Spufford, who wrote Red Plenty, captured that moment this way:

This was the Soviet moment. It lasted from the launch of Sputnik in 1957 through Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight in 1961 and dissipated along with the fear in the couple of years following the Cuban missile crisis in 1962… But while it lasted the USSR had a reputation that is now almost impossible to recapture.

John Naughton shared the front page of the New York Times on his blog.

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In the UK, The Engineer devoted more than a page to it, with a refreshing disregard of any concessions to design or layout. (You can read the whole issue here, in pdf).

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NASA added a poem by the then Democrat Governor of Michigan, G. Mennen Williams (I say ‘poem’, but it would hardly have troubled the Pulitzer Prize judges that year), in which he complained that Soviet satellites were beeping away overhead while the President was busy playing golf.

Oh little Sputnik, flying high
With made-in-Moscow beep,
You tell the world it’s a Commie sky
and Uncle Sam’s asleep.

You say on fairway and on rough
The Kremlin knows it all,
We hope our golfer knows enough
To get us on the ball.

10 years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary, NPR broadcast a piece on songs that had been influenced by Sputnik. A lot of these are really good fun, but the one I enjoyed most was “Beep Beep!” by Louis Prima.

And finally, a more recent contribution to the genre from the British band Public Service Broadcasting.

As Spufford says in his article on the USSR’s Sputnik moment:

While the Soviet moment lasted, it looked like somewhere which was incubating a rival version of modern life: one which had to be reckoned with, learned from, in case it really did outpace the west, and leave the lands of capitalism stumbling along behind.

Which didn’t happen. Which didn’t happen so thoroughly that the way the Soviet Union seemed to be between 1957 and 1964 or thereabouts has been more or less displaced from our collective memory.

 

 


Palaces of gold

22 October 2017

The English folk and blues singer Martin Simpson is touring at the moment to promote his latest record Trails and Tribulations. That’s not a misprint, though it plays havoc with Google; he once called a record Righteousness and Humidity after over-hearing someone say it in an American bar so perhaps has a soft spot for punning titles. He’s in his early 60s now, and after 40 years in the trade he’s almost certainly the finest folk guitar player in England. The new record is, as ever, a combination of traditional songs with fine new arrangements, versions of songes he admires, and some of his own compositions. (The record is reviewed here).

I went to see him in London last night at King’s Place. On stage, he talked about the Grenfell Fire, and explained that when he heard the news of it he resolved to play at every gig Leon Rosselson’s song ‘Palaces of Gold’, written as an elegy for the victims of the Aberfan disaster, until something meaningful was done about Grenfell. By chance, Aberfan happened 51 years ago to the day yesterday, but in 1966 the 21st October fell on a Friday, so 116 children and 28 adults were killed as a Coal Board slagheap rolled down the hillside and ploughed through the village’s junior school.


On Grenfell, where 80 people (or more) died, a firefighter who worked on the recovery operation after the fire told a meeting yesterday, in the spirit of Rosselson’s song,

“Why did Grenfell have flammable cladding and no sprinklers and only one dry riser? Because it was social housing and the decision makers don’t care about the social housing tenants… The minute rich people in Kensington and Chelsea decided they no longer wanted to look at an ugly building, those tenants’ fates were sealed.”

It happens that there’s a recording of Simpson singing the song a few years ago in Edinburgh that has been uploaded to Youtube, shared at the top of this post. And here’s Leon Rosselson’s version.


Film moments #25: My Favorite Wife (1940)

8 October 2017


The film moments idea was started in honour of the citic Manny Farber, who once said that, 

A lot of the movies I went for were very much like the way we see and remember films – as fragments, gestures. We don’t retain whole shapes, but a sight gag from one, the cliffhanger from another, someone’s trousers from a third.

That was in mind when I watched My Favorite Wife, effectively a remake of The Awful Truth, which I wrote about here recently. Leo McCarey reunited Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, and had intended to direct the film, until he was injured in a car crash. Like The Awful Truth, the story is also propelled by the wife-who-isn’t-married, in this case one (Irene Dunne) is declared legally dead seven years after a boat she was on sank in the Pacific. Grant re-marries, and Dunne turns up again, having been rescued from an island by a passing freighter. 

The film is less than the sum of its parts, and the ending is a bit disjointed, perhaps because Leo McCarey, as producer, re-shot part of it when he concluded that the first cut of the film did not work, adding a second courtroom scene to add some comic energy. The judge was played by Granville Bates. All the same, it did well enough at the box office, being the second-highest grossing film in the US in 1940.

The moment: Having got herself home, Dunne re-appears at the hotel just before Grant arrives with his new wife for his honeymoon. It happens to be the same hotel where he went for is honeymoon with her. This moment–a sight gag–was copied pretty much shot for shot in the remake of The Parent Trap.


‘See ancient beauty revived’

1 October 2017

Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/

One of my 2017 calendars consists of vintage travel posters, and the image for October is this: a ‘Visit Palestine’ poster. Some light digital digging discovers that it probably dates from 1947; ‘Loeb’ (bottom right) was Mitchell Loeb, a New York based artist who designed posters in support of the idea (and later the fact) of a Jewish homeland over a period of more than 40 years.

Loeb did two “Visit Palestine” posters for the Tourist Office of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, and the other one is sub-titled “The Land of the Bible”. 1947 might not have been the best time to visit. 91 people had died in the bombing of the King David Hotel by the Zionist paramilitary group Irgun in 1946, and more than a hundred Palestinians were killed in the Deir Yassin massacre two years later, carried out by Irgun and Lehi (“The Stern Gang”), another paramilitary group. Without delving too far into that history, let’s say that as holidays go, it might have been tense.

The Palestine Poster Project has around 20 of Loeb’s images. The first, from 1916, in a classic recruiting style, is headed, “For the freedom of Palestine; Jews of America organize”. The last one, in 1960, is for the New York-based Jewish National Fund: “Progress despite crisis“. Ironies abound in these images, with hindsight. “Progress despite crisis” features a man driving a bulldozer.

Oranges, villages, green fields, the mountains, the sea. Of course this image has been adapted and remixed for our times. David Tartakower‘s version, from 2004, seen below, is subtle. The image is all but identical, but bleached out. The caption, in Hebrew, says “Another Country”.

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The image of Eretz Acheret is taken from the collection of the Palestine Poster Project, and is used with thanks. The photograph of the “Visit Palestine” poster was taken by Andrew Curry.

 


Inspector Barlach

23 September 2017

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Pushkin Press specialises in classily produced versions of translated fiction. Their Vertigo imprint which features translated crime, is a welcome extension. I saw the recently re-published Suspicion, one of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s Inspector Barlach crime novels, on the counter of the excellent Riverside Bookshop in London, and surprisingly good value, too, at £4.99.

Durrenmatt is a Swiss writer whom I mostly know for The Visit, an entertaining play that has at its heart questions about money, morality and corruption.

Suspicion looks as if it was first published in instalments in a Swiss newspaper in 1951–2, and then in book form a year later. It is set in late 1948 and early 1949, and like the Philip Kerr novel featured recently on Around the Edges, trades in that grey world of the post-war war criminal. Is the doctor running a prestigious Zurich clinic really a notorious doctor from a concentration camp?

I’m not going to try to convey the plot, since I’ll give something away, but it’s fair to say that it is equal parts noir and metaphysics. It also has that now-familar trope (small spoiler) of the detective who puts himself in danger to catch his quarry, only to realise that his quarry is two or three steps ahead of him. As tropes go, it would have been a lot less familiar in 1951.

It’s closer to novella length, at 150 pages or so, and I kept turning the pages. I hadn’t come across Barlach before, but there are several more to read.


Film moments #24: The Philadelphia Story

22 September 2017

The-Philadelphia-Story-(1940)

The Philadelphia Story is a classic film, a romantic comedy starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart, who won an Oscar for it. The romantic comedy bit: Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a member of one of Philadelphia’s swankiest families, is about to remarry, but her first husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, played by Cary Grant, smuggles into the house party a reporter (Stewart) and photographer (played by Ruth Hussey) from the gossip magazine Spy, to get his own back on his ex-wife. It’s a fine film and I’d be completely happy to watch it again tomorrow.

The film is adapted from a play by Philip Barry that Hepburn also starred in, and it relaunched her then becalmed Hollywood career. The reason she’s surrounded by bankable leading actors is that Warners was trying to insure the success of the film, as it were.

Much of the comedy comes from the contrast from Hepburn’s high life (the musical remake is called High Society) and the more mundane worlds of Stewart and Hussey, where people actually have to worry about details like money. This is New Deal humour, with Stewart a year on from his breakthrough movie, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and arguably some of the earlier character washes through into Philadelphia Story. Either way, he and Hussey stand in for the audience in the face of the lavish wealth that’s on display in the story.

The script by Donald Ogden Stewart purrs along; the plot is tightly constructed; and the story is about climbing down off the pedestal and learning to live with human frailty.

A couple of moments. The first is in the office of Spy magazine, as reporter Macaulay Connor (Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Hussey) are summoned to the publisher’s office to be given the assignment and to meet Dexter Haven. Just because it says a lot about both character and the relationship of the two characters. Here’s the script; it doesn’t seem to be online as a clip.

Around The Edges-film moments-Philadelphia Story-James Stewart

The second, as Hepburn unfurls the wedding present that Cary Grant has left for her, a scale model of the boat he’s built that they’d sailed together when newly married. The scene tells you everything you need to know about the triangle between Hepburn and her past and future husbands.

The sequence that plays out between Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn just before the wedding ceremony at the end of the film (spoiler, but the link is here) was clearly filed away by the screenwriter Richard Curtis at some point, since a version pops up in Four Weddings and a Funeral. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.

The poster at the top of the post is via Wikimedia. 


Films and music

20 September 2017

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I found a note on film music in an old notebook on an interview with the Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner, perhaps still best known for his work with Krzystzof Kieslowski. Here are a couple of extracts.

The question is why should we use music at all. The connection between the film and the music is completely metaphysical because you never see the music; you only feel it, and in my opinion the best music for a film is total silence. Most American films use a composer like John Williams, when there is music all the time to tell you what to think and how to feel. A bit of danger: some scary horns. A love scene: romantic strings. But the French writer Baudelaire was right when he said that the matter for the artist is not to describe what he sees, but what he feels.

And this. It explains in part why, despite his reputation, he has only worked in European cinema. The other part of the explanation is about what Hollywood economics does to artistic endeavour.

When I see most American movies, I think they are providing instructions for terrorists. I was in Poland when I watched September 11 on television, and at first I thought it was a movie. Sure, Independence Day is fun, but films like this are wishing for something to happen, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And here, to troll the Brexiteers who are busy hating my recent Medium post on Brexit, is his ‘Song for the Unification of Europe’, from Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue.


Film moments #23: Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942) 

18 September 2017


I watched Sherlock Homes and the Secret Weapon because that series of films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes were a bit of a mystery to me. They certainly banged them out: 14 were made between 1939 and 1946, and updated to the present, often with the lightest of nods to the Conan Doyle canon.  

Rathbone plays Holmes, Nigel Bruce plays Watson, Moriarty appears, and is killed off a couple of times. But, as in the original, of course, Moriarty never dies. 

In 1942, in Secret Weapon, Holmes has to spring a scientist from Switzerland under the eyes of watching Gestapo agents, and once in London spring him once again from the clutches of Moriarty. Of course, it is a propaganda film. The MacGuffin is a bombsight that the scientist has designed that is far more accurate (yes, I heard it as “bombsite” in the film until I saw it assembled).  

The Conan Doyle reference is to the Dancing Men code, used by the scientists for a critical plot point. Watson is bluff. Lestrade is a comic plodder.

The moment is certainly a spoiler: yes, Holmes foils the plot and saves the scientist and the RAF gets its bombsights. This is from the very end of the film, when Holmes and Watson are watching squadrons of bombers equipped with the sights heading for Germany. (The usefulness of that is for another post on another day). Shakespeare is invoked. But unlike Nolan’s Dunkirk, when audiences first saw this film, in 1942, they didn’t know how things were going to turn out. The TV version I saw had left an advertisement for war bonds on the print they screened, after the credits.


Film Moments #22: Love Affair (1939)

17 September 2017


Director Leo McCarey made Love Affair twice, with almost the same script. The first time, it starred Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, a big ’30s star who has now slid from view. He remade it almost two decades later as An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr to considerably more acclaim, but there’s lots to like about this first version.

Same script, same plot. A couple fall in love on a transatlantic liner, but are each engaged to someone else, so can’t be together; they agree to meet on the viewing tower of the Empire State Building in six months; tragedy strikes; but (spoiler) they are reunited right at the end of the film. Yes, it’s one of those stories that would be so much simpler now they’ve invented the mobile phone. It’s a while since I’ve seen An Affair to Remember, but memory says that it laid the melodrama on with a trowel, partly through its score, which is probably why it is so popular. Love Affair seemed to have a lighter touch.

Love Affair is out of copyright, so can be found on the internet. There’s an elegant bit of visual design. On the boat, both are in white or cream clothes, until close to the end of the voyage. Once in America, both are predominantly wearing black. Right at the end of the film, when they meet again, the two colours are reunited through a payoff that has been set up in the first part of the film.

The moment is a visual one that would only work in film. The two are on the boat as it docks in New York, scanning the crowd for their respective fiance(e)s. She is far left, he is far right of shot. As they see them, they indicate them, wordlessly, to the other. After that there’s some business on the gangway that’s also worth looking out for. And listen for the nod to Gershwin.