Friday, January 13, 2012

Jazz Gab-ies

Werth: Hello there, Wise!  

Wise: Oh, hi, Werth.  

Werth: Why so glum?  You weren't nominated for a Golden Globe?  

Wise: No, it's not that.  I always get a little blue this time of year.  I took down the Christmas tree, all the holiday lights are disappearing, and the only things I have to look forward to until spring are whiskers on kittens and snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes.  

Werth: You mean you've been having your very own Julie Andrews film fest. 

Wise:  I got a giant TV for Christmas; what else am I going to do with it?  I've climbed every mountain, taken a parrot-headed umbrella out for a spin, and gone cross-dressing with James Garner.  But one of my most enjoyable trips was a return to the Roaring Twenties of Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).  

Werth: Time travel with Julie Andrews. Sign me up!

Wise: Playing Millie Dillmount, Andrews bobs her hair, gets a swank Jean Louis flapper wardrobe, and sets her cap for her handsome, but dim boss Trevor Graydon (the similarly handsome, but wooden John Gavin).  Meanwhile, she becomes pals with beautiful orphan Miss Dorothy Brown (Mary Tyler Moore) who lives across the hall from Millie at the Priscilla Hotel for Single Young Ladies.  At a dance hosted by the hotel's matron, Mrs. Meers (Beatrice Lillie), Millie and Miss Dorothy strike up a friendship with gadabout paperclip salesman, Jimmy Smith (James Fox).  

Werth: Don't forget the elevator that only works if you tapdance in it.  

Wise: Oh, the whole film's a mess with crazy plot twists, ironic asides, mistaken identities, masquerades, unfortunate racial stereotypes, a 
white slavery ring, and Carol Channing as an oversexed society widow who dances on bi-plane wings, has a stable of lovers and belts a grab-bag of novelty tunes.  

Werth: Nothing says entertainment like Carol Channing being shot out of a cannon .  

Wise: Director George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The World According to Garp) keeps things moving cheerfully along, and screenwriter Richard Morris (The Unsinkable Molly Brown) sweetens his witty scenes with some great Tin Pan Alley confections, but attempting to make sense of the entire movie is nearly impossible. 
Audiences didn't seem to care about the lack of coherence when it premiered, and the film had an extended theatrical run that culminated in seven Oscar nominations.  I'm not sure it deserves recognition from the Academy, but Millie is certainly full of delights. 

Werth: Well, Julie Andrews must have really enjoyed her trip back to the Jazz Age because a year later in 1968 she starred as 20's British actress Gertrude Lawrence in the musical bio-pic, Star!

Wise: Isn't Star! supposed to be a legendary flop?

Werth: It was—and at the risk of upsetting Julie-Heads everywhere, it deserved to be.

Wise: I can see the hate mail being delivered by angry airborne nannies now.

Werth: With the talent involved, it's actually quite shocking that the movie is as lifeless as it is. Robert Wise and Andrews had so much fun working together on The Sound of Music (1965), and since she owed 20th Century Fox another picture, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for the two to create yet another timeless musical classic. But they overlooked one thing—a hugely successful bio-pic musical starring Barbra Streisand called Funny Girl

Wise: No one should ever overlook Streisand.

Werth: Released in September of '68, Funny Girl beat Star! out of the gates by about a month with a very similar "came from nothing" story about an entertainer from the '20's (in this case, Fanny Brice) and racked up big box office and critical acclaim for its music and star. 
Unfortunately no matter how much love was banked for Andrews from her previous work, Star! was a critical and financial disaster that paled next to the competition. Andrews tried valiantly to be fresh-faced and plucky as the scene-stealing, temperamental ham Lawrence, but she was hobbled by forgettable tunes (with the exceptions of "Someone to Watch Over Me" and the theme tune) and a clumsy script conceit that had Andrews as Lawrence watching a movie about her life—alternating between faux newsreel footage and flashbacks.

Wise: Was Julie's team too busy burnishing her adorability to bother reading her scripts? 

Werth: The sytlized naturalness that made Andrews so appealing in other films doesn't work here, and Wise's direction is strangely uninspired. It's almost as if the concept of a "show musical" where the music emanates from a stage instead of exploding forth from human emotion and relationships traps Wise in ways that West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music freed him. 

Wise: You know that old adage about if you can't say something nice...?

Werth: Raymond Massey's son, Daniel is wonderfully wry as Lawrence confidante Noel Coward and earned an Oscar nom for his performance. But after all, he was Coward's godson—so he had to have picked up something. Donald Brooks was also Oscar nommed for his period costumes which ranged from Victorian street garb to spangled pajamas. Some of the musical numbers are so strange 
they are actually worth viewing. "Parisian Pierrot" has Andrews dressed as a harlequin; in "Limehouse Blues" she's an Asian callgirl stuck in the seedy part of old Chinatown; and for "The Saga of Jenny," Andrews croons in a staged circus wearing a glittery pantsuit. So on the whole, the film is worth watching—if nothing else to see how Star! earned its stripes as a classic Hollywood misfire.

Wise: I'm feeling a lot better after taking these two little detours in Julie's career—as long as we eventually get back to her playing magical nannies and lovestruck nuns.  

Werth: Have one more spoonful of sugar with this little Julie web tidbit. Tune in for more supercalifragilistic cinema on next week's Film Gab.  

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