Summer Stock (1950)

Summer has always seemed like the perfect time for musicals, and this is a perfect musical for summer. It stars Gene Kelly doing his dancing best, and Judy Garland singing the heck out of her songs. It also has a stellar supporting cast, and it boasts a really fun script complete with a compelling story.

The film follows Jane Falbury, played by Judy Garland, she’s a New England farmer on the verge of bankruptcy. She goes into town and begs for a new tractor from her soon to be father in law and her nebbish weakling of a fiancé, played by Ray Collins, and Eddie Bracken respectively. When she returns home she finds her wayward actress sister has volunteered the family barn to be used by a ragtag theater troupe she’s gotten involved with. The troupe is led by the charismatic Joe Ross, played by Gene Kelly. At first reluctant, Jane sees the value in having helping hands around the farm and maybe finds that she likes the theater and the handsome man running the show.

A discussion of this film has to start with the two leads. Kelly and Garland are wonderful here. Kelly was hot off a success the year before with On the Town, and he was still a year away from his magnum opus An American in Paris. His energy and athleticism is on full display here. His dancing is impeccable and transcendent. What really caught me off guard here was his acting in the quiet moments. He has a lovely little moment with Garland where he shares his reasons for loving theater so much. It’s tender and wistful and he comes across as so authentic. I love it.

Garland opens the film with a lung blasting rendition of “If You Feel Like Singing, Sing!” Her voice is strong and powerful, and her performance is so joyful it’s infectious. She conveys all the harshness of a woman in a tough situation as well as the girl slowly falling in love with a boy. She is brash and charming at the same time. When she gets her tractor and drives it back home, she belts out the bouncy “Howdy Neighbor, Happy Harvest.” Which just lifts the spirits and makes me feel like anything is possible in the summer time.

These two have one of my favorite dances ever in which Garland is hosting a square dance with he locals and instructs those theater people not to interfere. However, Kelly finds himself interfering. He and Garland begin an antagonistic dance that shifts into a duet of sorts. They become partners before our eyes. Animosity melts away and turns into cooperation. A really nice touch is Garland’s dress. It has a pleated skirt with red panels sewn in. When she twirls and spins the red flashes bright. Not too read too much into it, but the red rebellion inside her shows forth both visually with the dress and in her performance as she cuts loose. It’s great stuff.

The supporting cast is phenomenal. What an amazing time this was, when you could get Eddie Bracken as a hilarious weakling and Ray Collins as his blowhard father. A perfect comedy duo. On top of those two, we are also treated to a brassy Marjorie Main as Jane’s housekeeper and sassy confidant. And don’t forget the over the top comic antics of Phil Silvers who makes a meal out of every line.

What I loved most about this one though is the story. It has real stakes and real human interest. Jane is in real trouble with her farm. She needs help to get through. Joe is struggling with his show. He has bet it all on this one, and he has nothing left if it’s a flop. When an accident leads to Jane’s new tractor getting damaged we feel it so much more knowing what it means to Jane and how much more difficult life is going to be for her. We worry for Joe when the show begins to go wrong. We know how much he loves the theater and how badly things could go wrong for him. All these elements make the joyous moments that much more joyful. It strikes a good balance and culminates in a satisfying conclusion. Unlike some musicals, this one actually tells a story with stakes.

Having done some research it is unbelievable this movie is any fun to watch at all. Judy Garland was just out of rehab and in the worst shape of her life up to that point. She was struggling with an addiction to the pills the studio had prescribed her since childhood to maximize her performance ability. She was weak, insecure, and erratic. The film was on the verge of not happening when Gene Kelly and director Charles Bracken stepped up and agreed to do the film for Judy. They both did everything they could to help her in the production and at times literally carry her through. Kelly always felt he owed Judy so much for her help with his career and worked hard to make sure he movie happened for her. She couldn’t keep a regular schedule, and the filming was shifted to the late afternoons to accommodate her. She was insecure about her appearance, and constantly tortured herself with the idea that she was letting Kelly and Bracken down. Knowing what a dark and desperate emotional place Garland was in makes her performance borderline miraculous. The fact that her inner turmoil, physical weakness, and emotional distress isn’t visible on her face in every shot is testament to her incredible skills as a performer.

All that said, this movie is just a fun time. It’s funny. It’s heartfelt. It has a good story. It has amazing performances. It has some beautiful dances. I forgot to mention Gene Kelly’s dance with the newspaper! Another classic. The movie is full of fun and joy. Please check it out. It’s worth your time and will give you a lift this summer.

It is my cup of tea A+

Chinatown

Well it’s a classic for a reason. I went into this rewatch with an expectation that it wouldn’t be as good as it’s reputation, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well this cynical, slow burn of a movie holds up.

Chinatown tells the story of private investigator played by Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, who is hired by a suspicious wife to see if her husband is having an affair. Jake gets a lot more than he bargained for when his investigation uncovers murder, corruption, and the dark side of sunny Los Angeles.

I first saw this movie probably 15 years ago when I was just diving into classic cinema. It didn’t do much for me at the time. I was young and found it slowly paced, quiet, and convoluted. When I saw it was now streaming on Netflix, I thought it might be time to give it another shot. I’m glad I did because this movie is excellent.

It has a stellar screenplay by Robert Towne. It tells so much of the story through visuals and action. When dialogue and exposition are used they employ masterful subtext to get the point across. The story unfolds in a true slow burn. If you pay attention to what’s happening the story just crackles all the way through. I don’t recommend trying to watch it on your phone while you do other stuff. In order to get the most out of this movie you really have to commit to watching it and pay attention to the nuances on screen.

I was really struck by the world the movie creates. It paints an idyllic and idealized version of Los Angeles in the 1937. The sunshine is beautiful. The clothes are impeccable. The suits and hats are neatly tailored and worn just so. Jake apologizes to a lady for using the word broad to describe a woman. But at the same time it shows a gritty violent and realistic depiction of the world. When Jake gets into a fistfight it is messy and ugly and feels very real. When his nose gets cut in a very famous scene the violence is quick and shockingly painful to watch. I found this dichotomy of impossibly perfect and realistically messy incredibly engaging.

The acting here is also fantastic. It’s very naturalistic and understated. We all know Jack Nicholson can go over the top, but here he feels so natural and at ease. Faye Dunaway gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as a sort femme fatale with deep wounds and deeper secrets. John Huston is iconic with that drawl of his talking about the future.

The direction here is self assured and steady. The camera lingers and the edits are methodical. This is a movie that is in complete control of its vision. It was refreshing to see something so stylistically different from what we get these days.

Now the big question is does this movie hold anything for a modern audience? Some classic are amazing but won’t do much for the average viewer. I think this one will. I think that if you’re looking for a good crime thriller this one will hold up and be a great surprise to many viewers. It feels oddly contemporary while still feeling timeless. I think if you give it a real chance you’re going to get a lot out of it.

This is my cup of tea. A+

The Red Shoes

Released in 1948, this British classic is well regarded among film lovers for its stunning visuals, but does it hold up?

The Red Shoes is a film I’ve avoided watching for years. It’s one of those film student assignments everybody knows they should watch but usually don’t because it’s reputation looms too large. Like Citizen Kane, the weight if it’s reputation can diminish the viewing experience.

However, due to an excellent video essay by Royal Ocean Film Society and my resurgent interest in expressionistic filmmaking, I decided to finally give this one a look. I wasn’t disappointed, but I know it won’t be for everyone.

The story follows the Ballet Lermontov a renowned ballet company run by the meticulous and demanding Boris Lermontov played by Anton Walbrook. The young ballerina Victoria Page played by the stunning Moira Shearer, joins the company and becomes a star with the production of their latest ballet The Red Shoes based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name. When the new star Victoria page falls in love with the young composer Julian Craster, played by Marius Goring, a jealous Lermontov forces her to choose between her career and her love.

The film is often described as being about Moira Shearer’s character, and she is the standout. But the movie is really about the ballet company itself. It is about the artistic process. Conceiving a show, designing the production, dance rehearsals and all the personalities that collide in that act of artistic expression.

The film is not constructed in the modern fashion of following one character to the exclusion of all others. There are really three main characters who all have complete arcs and full stories. It doesn’t pick it’s lane and charge through to the end. It builds its story slowly. It adds layer upon layer until it’s ultimate story is revealed in its final moments.

Modern films try to immerse us in one characters perspective and make the experience as realistic as possible. This movie paints with a much broader brush. It incorporates multiple characters perspectives and it goes as wild and impressionistic as possible.

The centerpiece of the film is The Ballet of the red Shoes performed in surreal fashion in front of vivid impressionistic backgrounds. If you know anything about The Red shoes you know that it is beautifully shot. It was filmed with Technicolor’s three strip process which essentially involved exposing three strips of film and dying each one a different primary color. This created the incredible colors seen in old Hollywood films. Technicolor is the reason the yellow brick road is so yellow in The Wizard of Oz and why the red shoes are so startling red in this film.

The colors here are stunning and produce a dreamy effect. Every frame is a painting here with colors and composition combining to form a deeply expressionistic experience. The skin tones are heightened the set pieces look like something out of a half remembered dream. The entire film feels like a dark fairy tale.

The acting here is superb especially from Anton Walbrook and Moira Shearer. Her dancing is especially exquisite. The movie walks an interesting line between hammy and naturalistic. Some moments feel contemporary as when Victoria is congratulated by the choreographer after her big performance while other moments feel like dated melodrama. Marius Goring in particular feels over the top as Crastor.

The big question though is of course is the film worth watching? For film students? Yes. Watch it and take notes. I wish I had watched it sooner. For film lovers and lovers of film history? Yes 1,000%. It is a really fun really entertaining ride. It deserves its place in the pantheon of film greats. For the average viewer looking to have a good time this weekend? No. I think it’s surrealist style is going to be off putting for someone just cruising through HBO Max looking for something fun. I think if you want something very different. If you’re tired of gritty realism and predictable story structure this will be breath of fresh air.

I loved it, but I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Don’t let it’s reputation as one of “the greats” put you off the film. There’s a lot to love here. It’s my cup of tea. A

This is the video essay by Royal Ocean Film Society definitely worth your time.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

The Lodger is a 1927 silent film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and oh boy is it fantastic. The direction is inspired. The creativity on display is unparalleled. This is a silent film for people who don’t like silent films.

The story follows a mysterious man who takes a room in a boarding house in the middle of a murder spree by a Jack the Ripper-like serial killer.

To begin, the performances avoid the over the top style normally associated with silent films. There isn’t the wide eyed mugging of most silent actors. There isn’t the hand wringing and wild gestures commonly found in films of the 1920’s and early 30’s. The actors behave more naturally and more organically on screen. Time is devoted to establishing their relationships and allowing them to live and breath within the story.

The direction is unbelievable. Hitchcock really pulls out all the stops here. His editing is faster paced than the average film of the time. He cuts more quickly and between a wider variety of shots. He keeps his story moving. It never falters or lags. This is especially visible in the way he edits together the opening montage. He generates the sense of fear and paranoia that the city is feeling, all the major characters, and the entire premise in a few short minutes of screen time.

The most spectacular thing about the film is his innovations in communicating sound in a silent film. There is a sequence when the mysterious lodger leaves his room at night. The housekeeper hears him leave his room. She hears him creep downstairs. She hears the door close. How does he communicate all this without sound? He uses eye line and cross cutting to tell the audience everything. His atmosphere is so thick the audience can practically hear the door close when he finally leaves.

The lodger paces in his room. The people down stairs are annoyed by the sound. How does he show us what is bothering them? Not through title cards, but by removing the ceiling and showing the lodgers footsteps above the people. He then returns the ceiling and shows the chandelier swaying with his pacing. This swaying is then linked with the pacing throughout the rest of the film. Instantly when the swaying chandelier is shown the audience knows exactly what is happening.

There are some classic issues with the story. This isn’t a perfect film. The conclusion feels abrupt. The plot wraps up a little too neatly. A main female character swaps love interests rather flippantly as the story requires, but these are minor and do not detract from an amazing film experience.

This is absolutely my cup of tea. Rating – A