Monday, May 26, 2014

Singin' in the Rain

Singin’ in the Rain
Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Starring: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Jean Hagen

Alright, ladies and gents.  This is a big one.  A BIG one.  When I think about “perfect movies,” only very few films come to mind, but Singin’ in the Rain… wow, this is definitely one of them.

1927 is a time of great change for Hollywood.  Successful screen couple Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Hagen) have chemistry onscreen and vicious hatred offscreen.  When sound comes roaring to Hollywood, Lockwood and Lamont have to find a way to adjust to the new technology.  While Don can sing and dance, most frequently with his best friend Cosmo (O’Connor), Lina is another story, having a voice akin to a dozen screeching raccoons.  Don and Cosmo devise a plan whereby newcomer Kathy Selden (Reynolds), who has the voice of an angel, records Lina’s lines.  Lina, though, is more than a bit of a snake in the grass and hopes to derail both Kathy’s budding career and Don and Kathy’s romance.

I mean… where to begin… so much… so awesome… so perfect…

I, like many others, am fascinated by movies about the movies, and Singin’ in the Rain is easily one of the best movies about Hollywood.  I have a feeling this is the film’s biggest draw to those people who aren’t huge fans of musicals.  The little hints, jabs, winks, and references that abound in Singin’ in the Rain make it a rich tableau for those who know ANYTHING about early Hollywood history.  Nearly every supporting character is a direct reference to an early Hollywood legend, including Arthur Freed, Clara Bow, Pola Negri, and even Erich von Stroheim.  I love all these fun little bits, but it’s much more than just the characters.  I love how Don’s career, pre-Dancing Cavalier, is nothing but the same melodramatic love story rehashed over and over and over again, because YES, that is precisely what early (and, well, current) Hollywood did when they found a successful formula for anything.  And then, once sound comes barreling onto the screen, how there’s an onslaught of loud, noisy, and superficial musicals that are little more than vapid showcases for the new technology.  I love the montage where Don and Cosmo walk through the sound stage and there are three or four different movies filming all at once – and they all look like crap.  Singin’ in the Rain is about as vicious as an MGM musical could get when it comes to calling out Hollywood on its mediocrity, mass production, and lack of originality.  Although it definitely has a happy ending and creativity wins out, I love all the jabs at Hollywood that Singin’ in the Rain takes, probably because the film manages to do it in the least bitter way possible.  There’s fun to be had at Hollywood’s expense, to be sure, but Singin’ in the Rain does it in a “Hollywood may be ridiculous, but by gum we love it, warts and all” kind of way. 

So we’ve got the fun due to tongue-in-cheek Hollywood mocking in place.  Add on top of that the fun of some top-notch songs.  What’s so fantastic about the musical numbers in Singin’ in the Rain is that they all come from other shows or movies that were written right around the time the film is set.  (And don’t try to tell me “Make ‘Em Laugh” is an original song, not until you’ve heard “Be a Clown” from 1948.)  Long before someone had the cash cow idea of making a musical from ABBA songs, it was done in Singin’ in the Rain.  I like the idea of pulling from existing songs rather than using new ones because it adds to feeling of late twenties Hollywood. 

Has Technicolor ever looked more exquisite than when it was illuminating the GORGEOUS costumes and production design of Singin’ in the Rain?  No, I think not.  The costumes are beyond heavenly.  The silks, the lace, the satin, the colors… I could gaze at this film all day and never get tired of it.  The costume designer seemed like they had so much fun making all the costumes for this film; even a “throwaway” costume for Jean Hagen that she wears in one scene that gets less than 30 seconds of screen time is beyond fabulous.  And it’s not just the women who get the great costumes; Gene Kelly gets to flounce about in plus-fours, wearing an argyle sweater vest that matches his socks, for crying out loud.  Everything is illustration-perfect, everything.  This film is visually sumptuous. 

And how about funny!  I contend that Singin’ in the Rain is not just one of the best musicals ever made, but one of the best comedies ever made.  Barely a few lines go by without some sort of gag coming from somewhere.  Sometimes it’s lowbrow physical comedy, sometimes it’s some high culture reference, but crap it’s funny.  Leading the comedic aspect of this film is, without a doubt, Jean Hagen.  She goes to town as Lina Lamont, playing her as a full tilt idiotic evil genius (yes, I don’t know how she does it, but she’s the stupidest evil genius you’ve ever met).  O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” always did when I was a kid, and was probably my single favorite musical number when I was growing up because it was so amazing and hysterical. 

The previous points are reasons that I believe the average, ambivalent-to-musicals viewer might enjoy Singin’ in the Rain.  But jesus, if you love musicals (like I do), then there’s even more to discuss.  Because this is the most hyper-musical musical to ever musical.  It’s brilliant.  The musical numbers are staged to perfection; this is Gene Kelly at the height of his creative genius.  His tap dance solo in the rain (performed while he was allegedly sick with a 100+ degree fever) is the stuff of Hollywood legend, the extended “Broadway Melody” ballet dream sequence is beyond heaven, but the other numbers are just as much fun.  Personally, I always like to call attention to some lesser-remembered musical numbers.  First is the “All I Do the Whole Night Through is Dream of You” song, when Kathy jumps out of the cake at R.F.’s party.  There’s something about the ridiculous sweetness and sassy twenties attitude of the girls as they sing the chorus that I find completely charming.  I adore the costumes with those perfectly pink caps.  Next up is the very first musical number in the film, “Fit as a Fiddle.”  I am so in love with this number and it gets constantly overlooked.  I love that Gene Kelly was all “screw that, the first number is gonna be a wham-bam tap dance duet where Donald and I impress the shit out of everyone.  That’ll wake them up.”  And given my love for “Fit as a Fiddle,” it should surprise no one that I MUST TALK ABOUT “MOSES SUPPOSES.”  “Moses Supposes” is… should I say it? Yes, I’m going to say it.  “Moses Supposes” is my favorite number in the whole movie.  And easily in my top five favorite musical numbers of all time.  I love love LOVE this song and routine.  It’s so high energy and so much fun and so ridiculously insane to watch.  I’ve said it before, but I love it when Gene Kelly (oh my heart, Gene Kelly) dances with other people in duets or trios, mostly because it’s then that you truly understand his brilliance.  Because try as he might to tone his level down to match that of the other dancer, he can’t help but be SO MUCH BETTER than whoever he’s dancing with.  Donald O’Connor was no hack.  Donald O’Connor was insanely talented.  But in both “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Moses Supposes,” when I compare him to Kelly, I see a bit of strain come through on his face, whereas Kelly makes it look thoroughly effortless.  The greatest geniuses make their craft seem ridiculously easy, and man if that isn’t the best description of Gene Kelly’s dancing I’ve ever heard.

Oh, and did I mention that I’m madly, passionately, and eternally in love with Gene Kelly?  Because I am.  Utterly and completely.  Forever and always.  And I’m sorry, but wow is he sexy in Singin’ in the Rain.  I love how he’s always clad in tight-fitting tweeds, how his hair is always coiffed with that middle part of the twenties, and especially how he embraces every opportunity to roll up his shirt sleeves.  ROLLED UP SHIRT SLEEVES.  I just… no.  Done.  Gene Kelly is sex on a stick and always will be.  I will always love him with the passion of a thousand fires, and YES, please, SHOW THE SCAR.  THE SCAR MAKES HIM EVEN SEXIER.

Stop it, Gene.  Gene.  Cut it out.  My ovaries cannot handle that expression.

Excuse me, I'm dying from the rolled up shirtsleeves.

I had the chance to see this on the big screen at the Dryden a few years ago.  Now, Singin’ in the Rain has long been one of my favorite movies, ever since I was old enough and interested enough in films to compile such a list.  In fact, it (and a few others) holds the distinction of being one of my favorite movies both before and after my epic 1001 Movies journey.  So when I walked into the Dryden screening, I knew what I was going to see.

Except that I didn’t.

I don’t through around the word “transcendent” all that often, but watching Singin’ in the Rain on the big screen with a packed and appreciative audience was a transcendent experience.  It was like I was seeing it for the very first time.  I never stopped smiling, not once.  The seven year old boy sitting next to me kept singing along with the numbers, a fact which made me smile even more (to his parents: you’re doing it right).  I was brimming with joy from the minute the movie started to when it ended, and I was on a Singin’ in the Rain high for the rest of the evening.  It was, simply put, one of the most amazing theatrical experiences I’ve ever had, and it was with a movie I’ve seen easily fifty times.

It’s remarkable that a movie that was my favorite as an eight year old child is still my favorite as a thirtysomething adult.  But that is Singin’ in the Rain.  That’s why it’s as epic as it is. 

Always and forever, Singin’ in the Rain.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10.  Funny side story: my sister and I, growing up in the late eighties and nineties, requested my parents to rent this movie so often from the video store that this was one of the first films my family bought – because my parents realized it would be cheaper in the long run than renting it every weekend.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up Baby
Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant

Every filmgoer, no matter how hard they may try to be pretentiously objective and critical about the movies they watch, has a weak spot.  Maybe a certain director, maybe a certain actor or actress, maybe a certain genre.  Me?  I have plenty.  Loads, even.  And one of them, a huge one, is Cary Grant.

Cary Grant can do no wrong.  Cary Grant is reason alone for me to watch – and most likely love – a film.

Paleontologist Dr. David Huxley (Grant, the original GQMF) thinks he’s having a good day when the last missing fossil for his dinosaur skeleton is found AND he’s about to marry his boring-as-dirt fiancée Alice (Virginia Walker).  But fate has other plans and soon, while trying to solicit donations for his museum, he meets madcap heiress Susan Vance (Hepburn) who starts by stealing his golf ball, then steals his car, then rips his suit jacket, then tries to get him to take care of a pet leopard, then steals his clothes and makes him wear marabou-trimmed nighties and ill-fitting equestrian costumes. 

When it comes to screwball comedies, Bringing Up Baby might possibly take the largest piece of cake in the entire world, because I don’t think it gets much screwier than this.  All hope at sticking to a strong central and sensible plot gets thrown maniacally out the window as soon as a leopard, of all things, gets thrown into the mix about a third of the way through the film.  It was hardly tending towards sanity previously, what with ripped clothing and mad dinner parties and Cary Grant riding a side board, but a leopard?  And then a dog stealing a dinosaur bone?  And a kooky uncle back from big game hunting in Africa?  AND THEN A SECOND LEOPARD WHO IS NOT TAME LIKE THE FIRST ONE?!?!?!?  Bringing Up Baby does not do shenanigans by halves, oh no indeed.  You want screwball?  This, THIS is screwball.

Really, though, considering this was directed by Howard Hawks, this makes sense.  Hawks directed a myriad of genres of films, but even if he was making a western (Red River, Rio Bravo) or a noir (The Big Sleep) or a historical drama (Sergeant York), there is always a sense of zaniness somehow, somewhere.  Frankly, it’s something I’ve come to appreciate about his films, something I actually look forward to when I see his credit at the opening of a movie.  Hawks has a habit of embracing the crazy and being unafraid to let a situation escalate quickly and not at all realistically, and I like that.  I’ve come to the realization in the past year that I tend to prefer films that eschew reality.  I like suspension of disbelief; it’s a good friend that has served me well over the years.  You certainly need quite a bit of suspension of disbelief for Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby but if you’re willing, it’ll take you on quite the ride.

On several occasions, Bringing Up Baby’s kookiness threatens to derail completely and fall apart at the seams, but somehow it manages to maintain forward momentum, thanks both to Hawks and to its two legendary leads.  I adore Katharine Hepburn as Susan in this film because she is utterly bereft of seriousness.  Susan is all over the place, a perfectly addle-brained, madcap heiress.  She goes from zero to sixty in about two seconds and then maintains that speed for as long as the scene requires it.  Most Hepburn films I’ve seen have Hepburn playing something more serious than this, but man, is she great at playing funny as well.

And what’s more, I like Susan’s character.  I think she’d drive me crazy in real life, but that’s the thing: she doesn’t exist in real life, she’s a crazy fictional character from a movie that’s practically a Looney Toons short.  What I like about Susan the most is her take-charge attitude towards… well, her entire life.  She meets David quickly, drives him crazy, then decides that he’s in love with her, then finds out he’s actually engaged to someone else, then she immediately decides it doesn’t matter and by gum she’s going to do what she needs to do to win her perceived man.  It’s the not-so-hidden feminist in me that responds incredibly well to a film from the thirties showing a woman with a backbone.  The fact that Susan is also utterly crazy is just an added bonus. (And shoot, she goes out and catches the un-tame leopard on her own.  She’s kind of badass.)

And then there’s Cary Grant.

I honestly don’t know where to begin because it’s goddamned Cary Grant.  He’s perfection.  Utter perfection.  In everything.  Ever.  EVER.  And the fact that he spends a majority of this film with that little wayward curl falling over his forehead just makes… oh, oh no, there go my ovaries.  Blast. 

Trying to be a bit more objective, I love Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby because he isn’t afraid to play the fool.  David Huxley spends most of the movie in over his head and dumbfounded, and Grant plays befuddled incredibly well.  David walks around in a daze, and I just can’t get enough of seeing Cary Grant – usually so damn suave and sophisticated – taking pratfalls, wearing silly negligees, and exerting utterly no control over a zany situation.  The stuttering and hapless Cary Grant, contrasted with, for example, his role as uber-serious and sadistic government agent in Notorious, is a reminder that Grant wasn’t just famous for his looks.  Dude had it in him to play such a great variety of roles.  And while I think I personally prefer my Grant suave and debonair, I do rather adore him all geeked out, bespectacled, and nebbish as well. 

Basically, as I said at the beginning, Cary Grant can do no wrong.  And him continually saying "intercostal clavicle" is like a gift from heaven.

There is little in this world I find sexier than my Holy Trinity of Classic Hollywood Actors, of which Grant is most definitely a part, and I love watching him stand absolutely no chance against the force of nature that is Katharine Hepburn in this film.  This film is fun and zany and absolutely unrealistic but for me, that is its charm.  

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10. 

Short version: Not Dead

And I shall be celebrating my not-dead-edness with an entry this evening.

Warning: complaining ahead.  This is my blog so I am allowed an occasional moment of self-indulgent whining.  If not interested, the gif above tells you all you really need to know. ;)

Could this school year have been more demanding?  No, I don't think it could have.  My blogging wasn't the only thing that suffered.  I stopped exercising with my usual regularity because I was pulling 10-12 hour days, some of my friends have been (rightfully) complaining that I REALLY need to call them back, and when my husband and I actually spend a week night in each other's company, we're amazed. (to be clear on this one, though, he works even longer hours than I do, so... well, there's that.)

Why was this school year hard?  Three main reasons.
1. I'm the new head of the department.  Yayz for that, but jezus, was it a lot of time.  I mean, I knew I was capable of doing it and I don't think I made a total muck of things in my first year, but it was a big step up in terms of commitment.
2. I had double the number of students in my AP Chem course from any previous year.  Great, right?  Kids are interested and signing up for my course, huzzah!  Well, yes, and naturally I was stoked, but holy cow did the workload for prep/planning/GRADING double as well.
3. AP Chemistry changed.  The College Board, aka the group that runs all AP programs, ran a new curriculum this year.  Which means I had to run it.  Which means GOODBYE OLD LESSON PLANS I SHAN'T BE NEEDING YOU ANYMORE HELLO HOURS OF WORK PLANNING NEW LESSONS!



But the AP Chem exam was two and a half weeks ago, I have five more weeks until summer vacation, and my life is suddenly much more my own.

Honestly, it feels so very very nice to have the time and mental energy and desire to think about films again.

I'm planning on trying to get back to blogging by focusing more on my "happy" movies, movies that don't bring me down too much because after this year, I want to focus on happy diversions.