Friday, April 12, 2013

It's Miller Time!

Wise: Howdy, Werth.  Have a piece of cake!  

Werth: Is it already birthday time again at Film Gab?  No wonder I can't fit into my Z. Cavaricci jeans.

Wise: Quit your bellyaching and put on these tap shoes.  It's Ann Miller's birthday.  

Werth: Why didn't you say so in the first place?  Make it a big piece of cake and I'll break out my dancing fan.  

Wise: Just be sure to leave some room for soup.  

Werth: All that's missing from that number is a giant saltine.

Wise: Miller's career really took off in the late 40's when she landed at MGM.  Her tough girl style and gorgeous gams injected a jolt of electricity into the sumptuous musicals produced by Arthur Freed, but few films take as full advantage of her talents as On the Town (1949).  The film follows three sailors on shore leave—Gene Kelly as Gabey, Frank Sinatra as Chip, and Jules Munshin as Ozzie—as they sing, dance and find sweethearts while exploring New York City.  
Miller plays Claire, an anthropologist with a penchant for prehistoric man, who eventually falls for Ozzie, while Chips falls for Hildy (Betty Garrett) and Gabey falls for the elusive Miss Turnstiles, Ivy Smith (Vera-Ellen).  This was the first movie that Gene Kelly co-directed with Stanley Donen, and his signature, muscular style of dancing infuses the film with the kind of aggressive exuberance that was so much a part of his persona.  

Werth: You say aggressive exuberance, I say unrelenting ham.

Wise: At Kelly's insistence, a fair amount of the film was shot on location in New York—most notably the American Museum of Natural History, Rockefeller Center, the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge—instead of recreating those landmarks in the studio, and, surprisingly, the juxtaposition of the real and the manufactured works incredibly well.  
Cinematographer Harold Rossen makes the city look like a picture postcard, transforming the streets and avenues into a fantasy landscape that blends seamlessly with the Hollywood sets.  

Werth: The one downside of shooting on location was the crowd of screaming fans that showed-up wherever Sinatra appeared.

Wise: The screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green is full of zest and wit while highlighting each member of the leading sextet.  Sinatra shares a duet with Betty Garrett that manages to be both funny and touching, and Kelly leads Vera-Ellen in one of the dream ballets that were rapidly becoming part of his movie signature.  
But it's Ann Miller who steals scene after scene, not just with her top notch dancing skills, but with the incredible force of her personality as it bursts from the screen.

Werth: Before Miller was known for tap-dancing her way through scenery, she appeared in 1938's Best Picture Oscar-winner, You Can't Take It with You. Based on the Pulitzer prize-winning George S. Kaufman play of the same name, You Can't stars Jean Arthur as Alice Sycamore, a secretary who has a yen for her young boss, Tony Kirby (a pre-Mr. Smith James Stewart.) Their romance is running hot and heavy until Tony tries to introduce his upper-crust mother and father to Alice's bohemian family.

Wise: This is beginning to sound like the plot to a Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell flick.

Werth: Besides the fact that the Sycamore clan is a bunch of artistic, anarchist goofballs led by the folksy Grandpa Vanderhof (a usually seated Lionel Barrymore), their home is the last holdout on the block that Tony's dad (Edward Arnold) is attempting to buy out before demolishing it to make way for his new munitions plant. 
This makes for an uncomfortable dinner, made even more uncomfortable by sister Essie's (Miller) clumsy attempts at ballet in the living room. According to her teacher, Kolenkhov, "Confidentially, it steenks."

Wise: I'm sure Ann Miller mostly smelled of Jean Naté and shoe polish.

Werth: Social stratum collide in a courtroom and love has to find a way to overcome the gap between the haves and the have-nots all while Essie twirls and falls on the carpet. The little man versus corporate greed story was one that director Frank Capra made his stock in trade. 
He'd already won two Oscars for Best Director (It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and the Academy would add another one to his mantle for You Can't. Capra had a knack for kooky characters, like the denizens of the Sycamore home, and created supportive, tough communities on screen that resembled his ideal of America.  
You Can't isn't as compelling as Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), or It's a Wonderful Life (1946), partly because it feels preachy in a way that those other films don't. But it's still a great example of the successful post-Depression/pre-WWII films that gave cinematic voice to the political struggle going on in America, all while audiences munched away on their popcorn.

Wise: And on that note, I think I'll try to hunt down a video of Ann Miller with Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies.

Werth: You're welcome. Tune-in next week for more fancy footwork here at Film Gab. 

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