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Fred Astaire

Review: That’s Entertainment

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

I have never counted myself among the musical buffs. It’s mainly been the arousal of interest in a director—Donen, Lester, Minnelli, Cukor, et al.—that enticed me into a theater or in front of a TV screen where a musical was playing. Conversely, taking Groucho’s advice in Horse Feathers, I have more often than not seized on the unwelcome musical interludes in essentially nonmusical films to go make a sandwich or flip over to another channel to check out the credits of the movie starting there. So if I tell you That’s Entertainment is just utterly swell, I’m telling you. And it is. Utterly. There’s nary a ringer among the numbers selected—except for episodes like Jimmy Stewart c. 1936 singing “You’d Be So Easy to Love” without benefit of redubbing, or Clark Gable doing a semi-improvisatory vaudeville song and dance number in the salon of a resort hotel (Idiot’s Delight), and of course those too become marvelous in their very unexpectedness and forgotten-biographical-footnote splendor (Gable is having such an outrageously good time, Stewart an outrageously uncomfortable time). When a sequence has been compressed or otherwise excerpted, it’s been excerpted sensitively and intelligently. And “director” Jack Haley Jr. has exercised impeccable judgment in deciding when to stay with the original 1.33:1 format, when to go with the full 70mm aspect ratio, and when to let the image grow from one to the other. The color has been faithfully transferred (if it hurts your eyes it would have hurt them in 1948, or whenever), and the black-and-white looks more like black-and-white than in any other color movie in my experience. Some of the newly stereophonicked sound is a trifle distracting, the mobility of the voices occasionally getting away from the less agile figures onscreen; but mostly the great care taken with every facet of the technological renovation has paid off many times over.

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Review: The Towering Inferno

The Towering Inferno is a good movie about a fire. That is its strength. Its weakness is that, despite a promising array of characters and several passable actors, it is a very bad movie about people. Time was when virtually all disaster movies were essentially character studies, and examined (with varying degrees of success) how extreme circumstances bring out the best and the worst in human beings. The concerns of films as diverse as W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) and William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954) were essentially the same: how will the characters behave under stress? Will the ordeal change them dramatically, or simply reaffirm already existing strengths and weaknesses? Even the big revival of the disaster epic, George Seaton’s Airport (1970), attempted a modest amount of character study, most notably in its treatment of the Guereros (Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton). But already types had begun to replace characters.

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Blu-ray: ‘Second Chorus’

The American musical is anything but a homogenized genre. Second Chorus (1940) is one of the stranger riffs on the genre, not for any stylistic daring or musical experimentation, mind you, but for its weird twist on the buddy film / romantic triangle. Trumpeters Danny O’Neill (Fred Astaire) and Hank Taylor (Burgess Meredith) are ostensibly partners in a successful college dance band but they harbor such a competitive streak that they become vicious rivals who turn on one another at every turn with a wicked vindictiveness. And it is all played for comedy.

Paulette Goddard, surely one of the most underrated stars of the classical Hollywood era, is Ellen Miller, is a smart, savvy woman who plays on Danny’s vanity to great effect in the opening scene and goes on to manage their band to even greater effect. She shifts personas with every sales call and comes off just as dazzling with each role, more playful than mercenary as she applies her sex appeal to the art of making a deal. Under her management, their college swing band, Danny O’Neill’s Perennials, becomes a hot regional favorite and the only thing that could ruin their success is graduating college, something they been able to put off for years. Sure enough, professional and romantic rivalry sends Danny and Hank sabotaging one another, first in school, then in auditions with Artie Shaw’s band. Ellen is one of these sweet and sexy screen women whose affection for these tirelessly competitive and annoyingly (and unjustifiably) arrogant two men allows her to forgive the most juvenile, self-centered, and cruel behavior, but their feud finally pushes past her limits when they go about sabotaging her own life and career out purely selfish, short-sighted reasons.

That kind of brutal edge is nothing new to comedy partners out of the vaudeville tradition — it’s the foundation of such classic team-ups as Abbott & Costello and Hope & Crosby — and Fred Astaire is no stranger to playing the cocky opportunist, but these boys (and these actors are playing men much younger than their actual years) are utterly self-centered, ruthlessly mercenary, and reflexively destructive. They aren’t pals, they are unstable elements in a combustible relationship that explode upon contact with any outside object or force, be it success, opportunity, or a pretty girl. The only time they manage to work together is when they have mutual goals. In those instances they manage to double-team with the best of them, whether it’s a dual onslaught of double-talk or a scheme worthy of con-artists targeting a patsy.

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Review: That’s Entertainment, Part Two

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

That’s Entertainment, Part Two begins where the first compilation should have ended, with (a portion of) the first performance of “That’s Entertainment” by Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan and Oscar Levant in Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. Around this footage Saul Bass has devised one of the most delightful main titles seen in a long while—albeit one that seems, with its cast lists being washed out to sea by the tide or consumed by flames—to hark back to the elephants’-graveyard atmosphere of the first That’s Entertainment’s guest narrations filmed amid the crumbling and deserted MGM studios. The and-this-too-shall-pass-away suggestion proves inapt to an anthology that dwells very little on the fact that “they don’t make ’em like that anymore,” and indeed pays little explicit homage to MGM itself (the only mention of Metro I can recall occurred in a song lyric, from long ago and far away). But MGM films are still the subject of That’s Entertainment, Part Two—and not only MGM musicals but also some of their comedies and, more glancingly, dramatic and adventure films.

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