Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Musicals Repost: 'Snow White'

Note: This past weekend, I wrote a piece on "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" for the blog Wonders in the Dark, which is counting down its favorite musicals. Due to several requests, I am reprinting the article here.

Casual Walt Disney fans may be aware that “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was his first feature-length animated film, but they are unsure how to place it within his career.

The enormous and ongoing success of Mickey Mouse can overshadow Disney’s tremendous output during the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, and some just think he came up with Mickey and followed it with “Snow White.”

In reality, you can chart Disney’s progress as an innovator during the decade before “Snow White.” That film wasn’t a happy accident – although detractors called the notion of a full-length animated film “Disney’s folly” – but a natural extension of what Disney was producing since the beginning of his career. To fully appreciate “Snow White’s” impact, it’s important to understand his career leading up to that achievement.

Before Mickey Mouse made his auspicious debut in 1928, there were Alice and Oswald. And between Mickey Mouse and Snow White, there were the Silly Symphonies. All told, Disney made hundreds of short animated films between 1924 and the release of “Snow White” in late 1937.

Did you know, for example, that Walt Disney was the first recipient of the animated short film Oscar in 1932? And, did you know he would go on to win that category for eight consecutive years, through 1939? Most of those winning shorts were Silly Symphonies, and it’s here that Walt honed his studio’s storytelling flair, animation techniques and use of music that led to “Snow White.”

But let’s start with the Alice comedies. Perhaps, in a very general sense, Alice is Disney’s first princess. In 1923, influenced by Max Fleischer and his “Out of the Inkwell” series, in which animation was inserted into live action, Walt began working on “Alice’s Wonderland” and reversed the situation by inserting a live action little girl into a world of animation. At the age of 21, Disney wrapped up his completed film, grabbed a train and headed to California.

A New York distributor looking for short films ordered six Alice comedies with an option for more. Although the animation was crude on the Alice comedies, you get a sense of Walt’s sense of humor and the beginning of a musical rhythm in his work, despite these being silent. The shorts were popular, but by 1926 the comedies featured less of Alice and more animation. In 1927, by the end of Alice’s run, 56 shorts had been made.

Jump ahead past Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (a successful yet heartbreaking chapter in Disney’s history) to the creation of Mickey Mouse. Walt decided he needed something to set himself apart from the competition. With the release of “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, sound put the movie business in a tizzy. As studios scrambled to adapt to the new technology, Walt realized he has an opportunity. He spent weeks in New York City before finding an inexpensive recording company to help him add sound to “Steamboat Willie.” Nearing bankruptcy, he found one theater to show “Steamboat Willie.”

And history was made. This first animated short with sound was a huge hit. All of the studios wanted Walt, but he remained independent and went with a distributor that allowed him to maintain ownership of Mickey. In less than one year, Mickey was a worldwide sensation.

However, in 1929, Walt recognized that he would be very bored just producing Mickey Mouse shorts for the rest of his life. Carl Stalling, his first musical director, suggested the idea of taking famous music and animating it. Thus, the Silly Symphonies were born.

The first, “The Spook Dance,” which was later changed to “The Skeleton Dance,” is a simple midnight dance by some skeletons in a graveyard. When Walt tried to sell it to the New York distributors, they balked and asked only for Mickey. Ever persistent, Walt found a theater in L.A. willing to show “The Skeleton Dance,” and it became a hit.

The Silly Symphonies allowed Walt to experiment. Initially, there would be no sequels or characters used from one short to another. Each was original and unique.

In the early 1930s, Walt again did something to set himself apart: He inked an exclusive two-year deal with Technicolor, and his first color cartoon was “Flowers and Trees,” a Silly Symphony. Sid Grauman, of Grauman’s Theater fame, saw a minute rough cut and loved it so much he booked it into his theater upon completion.

Much like sound made Walt and Mickey Mouse a sensation, color did the same thing, and Silly Symphonies gained in popularity. “Flowers and Trees” won the very first Animated Short Oscar.

In 1933, Walt won another Oscar for the “Three Little Pigs.” The success of the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” caught Walt off-guard, as he never dealt with a hit song before. And, breaking his own rule, Walt agreed to two sequels to “Pigs.”

But you can see how all of this built toward another innovation. Shorts like “The Tortoise and the Hare” continued Walt’s development of fairy tales and fables as subjects for his work. Much like Irving Thalberg at MGM and Sam Goldwyn, Disney had the gift of storytelling. Watch one of my favorite Silly Symphonies, “Music Land,” and see his take on a Romeo and Juliet story that brims with originality and storytelling flair.

Walt realized that he needed to push his craft yet again, and this time the path was clear: feature-length animation. He chose “Snow White” in 1934 and used the Silly Symphonies to testing various animation techniques. He developed the multi-plane camera to add depth and dimension to the animation and used it on “The Old Mill,” a simple tale filled with a style that’s detailed and sophisticated.

Finally, Walt knew that his animated shorts rarely contained humans, so he pushed his animators to learn how to draw people. As “Snow White” went into production, the perfectionist in Walt went into overdrive. The budget ballooned from $500,000 to $1.5 million, and the studio teetered on bankruptcy.

If “Snow White” looks old school when compared to Pixar’s computer wizardry of today, there’s a beauty to that old school look. It’s like storybook art come to life, with vibrant colors as well as deep, rich tones. Even today, the film spills over with charm, vivid characters and memorable songs.

Walt was adamant that this film not play like a live-action Hollywood musical. He wanted his songs to continue the storytelling. The songs were by Frank Churchill, Larry Morey, Paul J. Smith and Leigh Harline and are woven beautifully into the story – “I’m Wishing,” “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” “Heigh Ho” and “Whistle While You Work.”

His attention to detail also included the girl or woman who would supply the voice of Snow White. One talent man thought he had the perfect candidate in a 14-year-old soprano, but Walt thought the voice sounded like a woman between the ages of 20 and 30 and rejected her. That voice belonged to Deanna Durbin! Finally, when Walt heard 18-year-old Adriana Caselotti, he knew immediately that she was perfect.

The Dwarfs provide an engaging group of supporting players who provide a dose of comedy and friendly companionship for Snow White as she escapes the evil Queen, who is truly frightening. A terrifying climax with the dwarfs and the queen in a raging thunderstorm is still riveting.

What Walt may not have realized was how “Snow White” would be a blueprint for Disney films to come, with a sweet heroine, an evil female villain, and appealing supporting characters to provide comedy and help the heroine. The blandly handsome prince provided a happily ever after, but the joy was in the journey.

On Dec. 21, 1937, the film opened, and the impact was immediate. Disney wowed both the critics and the public. The film grossed $8 million in its initial run and was one of the highest grossing films of its time, running for an unprecedented five weeks at Radio City Music Hall. While the film was re-released over the years, which added to its box office take, the web site Box Office Mojo lists “Snow White” as the 10th highest grossing film of all time after adjustments for inflation, which puts its total take at $868 million.

The Academy awarded Walt a special Oscar for that achievement, which consisted of a regular Oscar and seven miniature ones.

Regardless of its box office clout and awards, “Snow White” was a labor of love for Walt Disney and a groundbreaking achievement. The abundance of animated feature films today can trace their lineage to “Snow White,” which remains an arresting, charming tale with superb music and memorable characters.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Musical Countdown #65: 'Snow White'

The movie blog Wonders in the Dark is counting down its 70 favorite musicals, with guest bloggers providing the articles.

Posted today is #65, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," by yours truly, Classicfilmboy. You can read the full article here. You can leave comments either on the article or on my blog, as I am replying in both places.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Coming Attractions

All work and no play ... means I'm writing a lot!

During the next few months, I've got some exciting stuff planned. Starting this weekend, I will be contributing three columns to the blog Wonders in the Dark, which is counting down its 70 top musicals. While I can't reveal what I'm writing, I'll be posting there on Sunday, Aug. 28; Tuesday, Sept. 20; and Monday, Oct. 17. I will post a link to the article on my blog, and I'll try to answer comments there. I'm looking forward to it!

The Classic Movie Blog Association will hold its Guilty Pleasures blogathon on Sept. 18 to 20. This one's no secret -- I'll be reviewing "What's Up, Doc?" So come by and check that out.

I am going to debut a new feature called "Take Two," in which two bloggers have a conversation about a single topic. I have been working with The Lady Eve, and we are putting the finishing touches on our entry. Look for this most likely in September.

Carole & Co. is sponsoring its first ever "Carole-tennial(+3)" blogathon on Oct. 6 to 9 to commemorate the 103rd anniversary of Carole Lombard's death. I really want to participate but have not chosen a subject yet. With luck I will do so soon.

I hope to continue my look at Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films as well as Humphrey Bogart's early career. I'll do my annual year-end countdown in December.

Plus I have film classes beginning on the Production Code at Waubonsee and the Silent Screen Comedians at College of DuPage.

All told, I'm busy! So stay tuned ... it should be a fun fall!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Audrey of the Month

Isn't this an awesome photo of Audrey Hepburn? A friend who understands my obsession -- er, I mean he understands I'm a fan ... a really big fan -- sent this to me. It was taken by Bob Willoughby, a photographer who took so many magnificent photos of Audrey.

I don't think of Audrey as being the cowboy type, but this one just blows me away. Sexy, cool, classic.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Fred and Ginger: 'Top Hat'

“Top Hap” is the quintessential Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film.

It’s definitely my favorite, and it contains all the elements that people associate with this great duo: sophistication, stylization, elegance, tuxedos and glamorous gowns, art deco sets, Irving Berlin music, and above all glorious dancing.

In their fourth film together, Astaire and Rogers radiate Hollywood glamour. If their last film, “Roberta,” forced them into glorified supporting roles, “Top Hat” takes advantage of their star power and charisma. Each has a distinct personality, yet their undeniably chemistry together links them as one.

“Top Hat” also rounds up the best of the Astaire/Rogers supporting players: Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore, all of whom were in the “The Gay Divorcee,” and the wonderful Helen Broderick, making her first appearance in the series. Director Mark Sandrich returns for a second time and Hermes Pan again works with Astaire on choreography.

It all works, even the mistaken-identity, boy-meets-girl plot. Jerry Travers (Astaire) is in London to open a new show. Producer and friend Horace Hardwick (Horton) is staying with Travers at an elegant hotel, where one night he explains his exuberance at being single with “No Strings.”

A brilliant number, it also functions as a way to move the plot along by setting up the Astaire/Rogers romance. Jerry’s singing and dancing wakes up the occupant of the room below – Dale Tremont (Rogers, looking lovely as she awakes with full makeup and not a hair out of place). She files a complaint and storms up to confront the occupants, where a smitten Jerry agrees to keep it down. She leaves with a wry smile, and the audience knows that sparks are flying.

To help lull Dale back to sleep, Jerry appoints himself as her sandman and spreads sand from the hallway ashtray on the floor. His resulting soft shoe does the trick – and puts Horace to sleep at the same time. The next day, Jerry hi-jacks Dale’s carriage to the park, and the two find themselves in an empty bandshell as thunder and lightening lead to a torrential downpour.

This begins their duet “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” The dance is reminiscent of “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” in “Roberta,” in that the two are more casual, and Astaire’s steps are then repeated by Rodgers. The bandstand provides an isolated stage for the number that develops the romance between these two. The claps of thunder send Dale into Jerry’s arms and provide a musical accompaniment of their own, and the pair are as lovely as the song they sing.

Later, Jerry uses Horace’s account to buy a boatful of flowers (from clerk Lucille Ball) for Dale, who mistakenly believes Jerry is Horace. What’s worse is that Dale’s good friend is Horace’s wife, Madge, who is waiting in Italy for Dale to arrive so she can introduce Dale to her husband and his single friend – who happens to be Jerry.

Meanwhile, Jerry and Horace believe that Dale is romantically involved with Alberto Beddini (Rhodes), who actually is a clothes designer paying Dale to wear his fashions.

When Dale slaps Jerry across the face in the hotel lobby and storms away, Horace frets about the publicity and its impact on his show. He sends his valet, Bates (Blore), to follow Dale, which he does all the way to Italy.

Meanwhile, Jerry needs to open his show, and Astaire gets a brilliant solo in “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.” Apparently this number was part of a Ziegfeld show called “Smiles,” which Astaire appeared in on Broadway. The show was a flop, but Astaire always liked the number and asked Sandrich to incorporate it into the movie. The result is a marvelous bit that features a male chorus and ends with Astaire using his cane to shoot down each member of the chorus as if in a shooting gallery. Only Astaire could make this look both elegant and thrilling.

After opening night, Jerry and Horace dash off to Italy for the weekend so Jerry can see Dale. Once there, Madge – unaware of the mix-up – keeps pushing Jerry at Dale, who believes Madge is giving her the OK to have an affair with her husband!

One night at dinner, Dale finally gives in to Jerry in what may be the perfect dance of seduction in the entire series, “Cheek to Cheek.” In “The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book,” Arlene Croce writes of the two singing this song, “Astaire’s face is peculiarly beautiful when he sings; the strain of his features when he hits the difficult notes gives him an intense look of romantic ardor. And Rogers is perhaps never more beautiful than when she’s just listening; she never takes her eyes off him and throughout the scene I don’t think she changes her expression once. The modesty of the effect makes her look like an angel.”

If Rogers looks like an angel, the dance is a dream as they float across the floor, combining elegance and drama. Rogers infamous ostrich-featured gown (which shed throughout the dance) moves as if defying gravity, and without ever kissing Jerry completes his seduction of Dale by the end. Compare “Cheek to Cheek” with “Night and Day” (itself an excellent number) in “The Gay Divorcee,” and you see just how far these two have come in such a short period of time. In particularly, Rodgers carries herself more elegantly, which adds an impeccable grace to her chemistry with Astaire.

As the plot comes to an end, the final number is “The Piccolino,” the large group dance in the same vein as “The Carioca” and “The Continental.” But here the dance is short, and while delightful, its placement in the film almost feels like filler. If anything, it would have been nice to see Astaire and Rogers participate more in the number like they did with “The Continental.”

But that’s quibbling. “Top Hat” is truly brilliant from top to bottom, the pacing expert, the actors delightful, the dancing sublime. I tend to hate movies that resort to mugging, and yet the broad playing of the supporting cast is so funny that I relished their every raised eyebrow, from Blore’s reactions to Rhodes’ mangled phrasings to Horton’s double-takes. Broderick delivers her retorts with straightforward zest (in contrast to Alice Brady’s fluttery mannerisms in “The Gay Divorcee”).

As for the stars, they truly are magnetic. Most satisfying is how Rogers blossoms as a leading lady. Known for being an expert comedienne as a supporting player, particularly showing her flair in “Roberta,” she takes it down a notch here and simply glows. As for Astaire, it would be nice to see him play someone who isn’t a musician or a dancer. That’s a minor point, because he does it so well. His persona may be set, but his dances allow him the expression to create unique characters.

Also working is the art deco set. No one will ever mistake the movie’s Venice for the real city, yet it’s a set that looks like a whole lot of fun and one that evokes early 1930s Hollywood glamour. RKO pulled out the stops by using two adjoining studios for the set.

If movies helped people forget about the Depression, “Top Hat’s” stylized elegance did the trick. If the series feels familiar with its similar elements, it’s a welcome kind of familiarity that is never stifling here.

The movie went through several changes before it was released in 1935, including the deletion of several scenes in Venice capitalizing on the large set, as well as a paring down of “The Piccolino.” “Top Hat” opened at Radio City Music Hall and became one of the biggest box office hits of the year. The film scored four Oscar nominations – for Best Picture, Best Song (“Cheek to Cheek”), Best Art Direction and Best Dance Direction – but unfortunately didn’t win any.

As I mentioned in my review of “Roberta,” Astaire and Rogers came of age with this film. You would think that they would no longer be treated as second bananas – which is why “Follow the Fleet,” their next film, is so surprising, as they are co-leads with Randolph Scott and Harriett Hilliard. But you’ll have to wait until that review to find out if it works. Just enjoy the clip from “Top Hat” below and you’ll be in heaven.


This is the fourth in my look at all of the Astaire/Rodgers films. Please read my reviews of “Flying Down to Rio,” “The Gay Divorcee” and “Roberta.”

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Lucille Ball: A Cultural Phenomenon

My friend Frank teaches an “I Love Lucy” class at the local community college. I have not taken the course (shame on me), but when you can earn college credits while studying about Lucille Ball, you know she’s achieved a rare cultural status.

All these years after her success, people love her. I’m currently watching the first season of “I Love Lucy” while walking on the treadmill at night, and for all of the episodes I have seen, I’m discovering several that are unfamiliar to me.

In honor of Lucy’s 100th birthday today, True Classics is hosting a blogathon. Please check their site for the many entries saluting this great lady.

What I want to share are a few thoughts from several years ago when we were in Los Angeles. We were joined by several friends and took one of the star homes tours just for kicks. We even joked about climbing over Richard Widmark’s wall to get an orange – or was it a grapefruit? – which in itself reflects the enduring popularity of that particular “I Lucy Lucy” episode.

During the tour, we drove by Lucy’s former home (below), and the guide said her home is the most popular among his fans.

However, the most amusing stories came several days later when we took the Paramount Studios tour. Paramount now includes the RKO studio which was located on adjoining property and later was Desilu. As we walked through the complex, we passed Lucy’s office, and then the tour guide pointed out the below piece of land right outside of her office windows.

According to the guide, Lucy was under fire from people who felt that, as a mother, she should be spending more time with her children. So she had this area created to resemble her home’s backyard. Then she would stage publicity photos of her playing with her kids in this area, and a press release would talk about how much time she spent with her kids at home!

Off to the left, you can see a two-story brick building front with an overhang above the front door. That front apparently looks just like the front of her parents’ home in New York, and she would stage photos of her “visiting” her parents back home.

I have no idea if these stories are true, but they are intriguing on several levels. First, she was criticized as a working mom so she had to conform to the ideals of motherhood at the time to prove she was a good mother, which is a sad reflection on working women in the 1960s. Second, I find them very funny because it sounds like something that Lucy and Ethel would dream up.

People forget how much influence Lucy had after “I Love Lucy.” When she began to run Desilu and started “The Lucy Show,” she wielded power as both a top performer and a businesswoman. I’ve read unflattering portraits of her from this period, but she was doing something few women did and should be considered a trailblazer.

I’ll always be a Lucy fan, and on her 100th birthday, I raise a glass of Vitameatavegamin to toast her career, her success and her influence that we still feel today.

Please read some of the excellent blog posts at True Classics.