Monday, December 24, 2012

Fred and Ginger: 'Carefree'

I must admit I have a soft spot for “Carefree,” the eighth film with Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers and the first after a 15-month break.

“Carefree” is a breezy, fun film that works like a screwball comedy with music than what is expected from an Astaire/Rogers film. Even the look sets it apart from what had come before, ditching the art deco and urban glitter for wood and fieldstone, replacing swanky nightclubs with a country club.

Astaire plays Tony Flagg, a psychiatrist approached by friend Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy), who is having some problems with his fiancé Amanda Cooper (Rogers). Amanda initially rejects Tony as a quack but ultimately falls for him. Tony tries to get Amanda to refocus on Stephen but is drawn to her after she fabricates an elaborate recurring dream in order to continue seeing him.

“Carefree” reunites several key players from the Astaire/Rogers series, including Irving Berlin and director Mark Sandrich. Ginger was not happy that Sandrich was directing again, and she felt he treated her as a supporting member of the team. However, Ginger loved the role of Amanda, and it was a substantial one. She made three films during the break – “Stage Door” with Katharine Hepburn, which didn’t make money but was a hit with the critics; “Having Wonderful Time” with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; and “Vivacious Lady,” opposite Jimmy Stewart, a delightful romantic comedy that demonstrated that Ginger didn’t need Fred to succeed in films. “Carefree” is really Ginger’s film, allowing her comedic abilities to shine, and it’s telling that the movie was renamed “Amanda” for its European release. 

Both Fred and Ginger were eager for the break. It wasn’t that they disliked each other; each wanted to demonstrate his/her individual abilities. Ginger succeeded; Fred less so. While he had spent his career first on stage with his sister Adele at his side and on film with Ginger at his side, Fred didn’t choose well for his first starring film role without either. “A Damsel in Distress” has its charming moments, but it plays like a Fred and Ginger film – minus Ginger. Joan Fontaine, in her first big role, isn’t a singer or dancer and looks lost in this film, and it only emphasizes how much the audience wishes she was Ginger. The film should have been far different in order to demonstrate what Fred was capable of, despite his doing some terrific solos. Thankfully that would come later.

So Fred and Ginger are back together in “Carefree,” and both are in terrific. The film was supposed to be filmed in color, and Berlin actually changed lyrics in songs to emphasize color. Unfortunately, due to cost, the idea of color was scrapped, so both Fred and Ginger would have to wait for their first color film appearances.

The first big number in “Carefree” is a marvelous Fred solo, one of his best in the series. “Since They Turned ‘Loch Lomond’ into Swing” puts Fred on the golf course and manages to incorporate golf clubs and some perfect golf drives. It’s one of Fred’s favorites and, like most of his solos, pure delight to watch. 

“I Used to Be Color Blind” would have been sensational in color (two of my books contain conflicting facts – one says a test of this sequence was filmed in color but it didn’t turn out, while another states color was vetoed before any filming began). Still, it’s marvelous to watch. It’s actually a number that Amanda dreams about, and the trick here is that it is filmed in slow motion. It’s a number filled with more lifts and jumps than most of the Fred and Ginger numbers as they move through a dreamy garden and over streams, the slow motion often leaving them airborne. The segment captures the pure joy of their movements and the expressions on their faces register that joy. The dance ends with a long kiss – actually a short peck extended due to the slow motion. It’s a rare occurrence in a Fred and Ginger film, because the dances always represented any physical displays of affection or passion. 

Ginger said Fred didn’t think much of “The Yam,” which is why she sings it initially before they begin dancing. This is the big production number, and it was created to cash in on such popular dances as the Big Apple and the Lambeth Walk. Although the name probably sank its popular appeal, it’s a tremendous sequence in the film as it physically moves in and out and back inside the country club, starting between the stars, engaging all of the guests. It then climaxes with a breathtaking display of physicality as Fred extends one leg onto various pieces of furniture around the room and then lifts Ginger as she leaps across his leg, the two flying around the room until the number ends.

Perhaps the best song in the film is the lovely “Change Partners,” which begins with Fred singing to Ginger as they dance with different partners across a crowded dance floor. Once alone outside, he entrances her in a lovely dance that is simply done. Such straightforward elegance is what the story demands at this point, and it’s that elegance that has always defined them and is what the audience wants.

The supporting cast may be new to the series but they are in fine form, including Jack Carson, Bellamy and Luella Gear.

Even though “Carefree” may not be considered by some one of the duo’s best films, I think it is underestimated. The tight story, marvelous numbers and confident performances from Fred and Ginger make this one a winner. Unfortunately, the end was drawing near for this dynamic duo for a number of reasons. First, Sandrich, unable to negotiate a better contract with RKO, left to set up a production deal at Paramount. Second, RKO – the major studio that seemed to teeter on the brink of financial ruin more often than the other major studio – was suffering once again. Third, because of the 15-month break, Fred and Ginger fell out of the top ten box office draws by the end of 1938, and while “Carefree” made money, it wasn’t the smash that earlier films were. Fourth, since Ginger had proven herself during the break, RKO was viewing her as one of its top stars and wanted to use her as such.

But Fred and Ginger still had one more film left before the end of the decade, and it would be very different from what they had made before. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Fred and Ginger: 'Shall We Dance'


“Shall We Dance” is an intriguing entry in the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers series for a myriad of reasons. Depending upon when you see this one in relation to the others, it either plays as charming and fun or labored and rehashed.
As the seventh entry in the series, the film features a variation on the formula that has worked so far, although perhaps it’s a bit forced if you’ve seen the other films. The music is by the Gershwins and it’s marvelous. But what’s shocking is that it takes nearly an hour for Fred and Ginger to dance together. Since the endings of the Fred and Ginger films are a foregone conclusion, it’s the chase and the dances that matter at this point.
Fred plays the amazing Petrov, whose real name is Pete Peters. He’s infatuated with the idea of combining tap dancing with ballet. Ginger plays Linda Keane, a successful singer and dancer, and this is the first film where both play successful entertainers from the start. In fact, we see Linda dancing with a different partner first, but she’s tired of her partners making passes at her.
Petrov is eager to meet Linda, and both are traveling on a cruise ship from Europe to New York City. Somehow it’s reported that Petrov is married, and so the two need to pretend to be married.
“Shall We Dance” at it best showcases Fred and Ginger as fully developed stars. Her acting has sharpened; his sense of choreography on film continues to become more inventive and exciting. Together they are as mesmerizing as ever. If “Swing Time” constructed a strong plot that concludes in an anticlimactic way, “Shall We Dance” provides a nondescript plot that builds to a fun climax.
As for the numbers, the audience is teased right off the bat with a one-minute solo from Fred called “Beginner’s Luck.” Unfortunately, this immediate tease makes the wait for the real thing all that more agonizing. “Slap That Bass” is Fred’s solo number on the cruise ship. He’s dancing in fantastic art deco engine room that’s unrealistically spotless. The machinery provides the rhythm; choreographer Hermes Pan said Fred got the idea from a cement mixer on the lot. The dance reflects the conflict of Petrov – ballet vs. tap, and it’s a joy to watch.
There’s a charming scene with Linda walking her dog and Petrov finding a dog to walk so he can speak with her. The rhythmic walking of the animals back and forth sets up a delightful meeting between the two, but again we are waiting for them to ditch the puppies and dance on their own. 

Finally it happens with “They All Laughed.” After Linda sings the song at a rooftop restaurant, Petrov swoops in and essentially challenges her to dance with him. It combines the improv nature of “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” from “Roberta” with a more classic Fred and Ginger line. It’s a terrific dance, but it’s the only “traditional” number the two perform together in the entire film. 

In reality, it’s the next number, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” that makes you wonder if Fred and Ginger could jump on pogo sticks and make it work. Here they start with an argument that launches into the famous lyrics, which then launches the duo – who are on roller skates, no less – into an energetic number that manages to infuse dance moves, including tap dancing, as they whirl around the floor. While this may be a novelty number, it’s an uplifting one.
Then comes the lovely “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” which Petrov sings to Linda as they travel to get married so they can divorce (don’t ask). However, instead of bringing the two back together again, Petrov attempts to combine his two favorite art forms into a new Broadway show and brings out ballet star Harriet Hoctor, whose contortionist backbends while on point are of interest as a side show would be. Unfortunately, it simply emphasizes how much Fred and Ginger should be dancing instead. Hoctor had played herself the year before in “The Great Ziegfeld,” but she had worked with Ziegfeld so her presence in that film makes sense. Here it’s a distraction from what we want to see, which is Fred and Ginger in the reprise of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” 

Thankfully, the film climaxes with a wonderful bit where Petrov, unable to dance with Linda, instead is surrounded by a chorus of girls all sporting Linda Keane masks. But the joke is on him when Linda grabs a mask and slips into the lineup.
Interestingly enough, the Gershwins were initially unhappy with the result. The songs didn’t click with audiences at first, and George wrote to a friend, “The picture does not take advantage of the songs as well as it should.” Ira later said that they really were happy with their contributions to the film and perhaps the note was a momentary frustration. The brothers were nominated for an Oscar for their song “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
The supporting cast includes usual players Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore as well as Jerome Cowan and Ketti Gallian. Mark Sandrich returns as director, which Ginger was not too happy about as the two didn’t get along well with each other. 
Despite its faults, “Shall We Dance” is easy to watch, and if seen before others in the series can be a lot of fun. However, the formula is showing its age, and the lack of dancing between the stars during the film’s first half is a detriment. After seven films together, everyone needed a break, and that’s what happened before being reunited more than a year later.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Audrey of the Month

Only Audrey could make cooking look so lovely. Do you think she's preparing a turkey? 

Yes, I'm interrupting my schedule of Fred and Ginger posts to bring you my Audrey of the Month in honor of Thanksgiving. Also, since I'm cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 10 this week, I haven't had much time to write up the next Fred and Ginger post, which I will have up this weekend! 

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and show off your best holiday style this Thursday just like Audrey!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fred and Ginger: 'Swing Time'

I have a love-hate relationship with “Swing Time.”

I love this film because the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dances are, dance for dance, some of their most spectacular. George Stevens directs with assurance, the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields score is a knockout, and the leads so relaxed, so charismatic at this point in their careers that watching them is rewarding.

But I hate this film because of the ending. It falls flat – a resolution that feels anticlimactic, and it breaks the mesmerizing spell of everything that has come before it. It makes me mad because this entry, while still one of the pair’s best efforts, could have been a true masterpiece.

Astaire plays Lucky Garnett, a dancer and gambler who loves his flash and style. He’s set to marry Margeret (Betty Furness), but his buddies don’t want to see him leave their show for the proverbial jail sentence. So they stall the wedding by holding his pants hostage … and it works. But Lucky promises Margaret’s father (played by director Stevens’ father, Landers Stevens) that once he makes $20,000, he will return to marry her.

Lucky and pal Pop Cardetti (Victor Moore) set off for the city, dressed in their finest but broke. An encounter with Penny results in a lost quarter but a lovestruck Lucky follows Penny to her work, a dance academy where she’s employed as an instructor by Gordon (Eric Blore). Penny is enraged when Lucky shows up, but he saves her job and the two are set to audition for a show as a couple.

While Lucky’s gambling continuously gets in the way, he and Penny are a dynamic dance team. While Lucky fights his feelings for Penny while earning money, he also keeps himself from making enough money to marry Margaret. Then there’s bandleader Ricky Romero (Georges Metaxa), who’s in love with Penny and wants to get rid of Lucky.

Unlike Fred and Ginger’s last outing, “Follow the Fleet,” where they had to share the lead duties, “Swing Time” focuses on them, and how wonderful it is. The plot is a fun nod to their own popularity, which led to the proliferation of dance academies across the country. While “Follow the Fleet” features the duo playing working class characters, here they follow that theme but with more glamor, a way of combining the sophistication of “Top Hat” with a touch of reality.

The dancing in this film certainly adds to their growing portfolio of brilliant numbers, and the numbers often are woven into the plot. And their first one, “Pick Yourself Up,” is simply spectacular. He’s still wearing his formal attire, but she’s in a simple black dress trying to teach him to dance, unaware that he already knows how. The number starts with Lucky clumsily trying to learn his steps, but once his secret is revealed, the dance soars with a lightness and, by the end, they literally are soaring as they jump over the short fence surrounding the academy’s dance floor. It’s hard not to feel good after watching a number that was also a nod to Depression-era audiences, who took to the notion that they needed to just pick themselves up and keep going.

“Waltz in Swing Time” is a dance performed in front of an audience at a club, and it’s a one-take wonder filled with abandon. It’s intricate but never slows, and it’s pure dance at its exhilarating best.

Stevens’ direction can be lovely, such as in the winter scene for “A Fine Romance,” one of the film’s most charming pieces. In it, Penny is trying to seduce Lucky, who wants to be seduced, but he told Pop to keep him an honest man. So Pop tries to sabotage the romance, much to Penny’s frustration. But the snowfall and snow-covered trees are gorgeously captured as Stevens slowly works his way through this winter wonderland.

The sumptuous 1930s art deco style of the Silver Sandal, the nightclub, is captured in all its glittering splendor. It’s the perfect setting for the dramatic “Never Gonna Dance” number, where Penny has decided to marry Ricky so Lucky can be free to marry Margaret. While “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” number in “Follow the Fleet” is boldly dramatic, it’s also a stage piece within the film, a self-contained number. “Never Gonna Dance” takes that drama but applies it to the film’s plot. The result is a dance filled with emotion as Lucky tries to keep Penny. The duo starts on the dance floor but cascades up the stairs to a platform, when Penny finally departs. So many takes were done of this number that Rogers’ feet reportedly were bleeding through her shoes, but she nailed it on the last take. 

The other great number occurs just before this one, and it’s Astaire’s requisite. Lucky is paying tribute to Bill Bojangles Robinson. While Fred in blackface is not acceptable today, it’s clear Astaire was paying tribute to the great Robinson is as sincere way as possible, and the style of the dance perfectly captures Robinson’s. Astaire dancing in front of a screen showing silhouettes of himself was groundbreaking at the time.    

But Stevens also seems a bit off with some of his touches. For example, the opening gag with Lucky’s tuxedo pants seems to go on and on. The lovely “The Way You Look Tonight,” with Lucky singing to Penny, who is giving way from anger to affection, should have been a touching moment. Instead, Penny has been washing her hair, and while Stevens captures her glowingly listening to Lucky sing the song, the number ends with the gag of Lucky turning around and reacting to Penny’s head covered with shampoo. The magic of this love song is broken by a misplaced gag.

The ending, though, really rankles. For those who don’t want it spoiled, please jump ahead to the next paragraph. With Penny set to marry Ricky, I expected something more exciting that Margaret showing up and simply announcing she wasn’t going to marry Lucky. This is an easy out to the plot and a letdown for the audience, which is primed for some last-minute stroke of genius. You would expect Lucky, who is gambling throughout the film, to risk it all for Penny and somehow win her back in climactic, breathless fashion. Instead, after Margaret’s announcement, everyone gets a fit of the giggles, and it goes on and on, long after I stopped laughing. Another gag with pants falls flat, and suddenly Penny and Lucky are together and the film ends.

Thankfully, the cast is terrific as always. The supporting cast includes the wonderful Helen Broderick who play’s Penny’s pal Mabel, although it’s the equally fun Moore who has most of the supporting screen time. Blore isn’t around long, but just relish how deliciously he pronounces the name “Penny.” It’s elocution at its best. Only Metaxa seems rather drab as the two-dimensional bandleader Ricky.

“Swing Time” was a huge success upon its release, and Ginger considered this her favorite of the Fred/Ginger films, mainly because of the chance to work with George Stevens. The film also won an Oscar for Best Song for the lovely “The Way You Look Tonight.” 

“Swing Time” is fun, the dance numbers brilliant, and everyone should make this a must. Just lower your expectations for the ending, and you’ll have a grand time.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Fred and Ginger: 'Follow the Fleet'

I’ve always felt that “Follow the Fleet” is one of the odder Fred and Ginger films because of its structure and where it fall within the series.

Coming off of the sublime “Top Hat,” Fred and Ginger’s success is unquestionable. So why RKO chose to pair them with Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard as co-stars seems like a step down for the famed duo. In fact, “Top Hat” was opening when “Follow the Fleet” started filming. Perhaps the studio felt that their success could rub off on Scott and newcomer Hilliard. But the main thrust of the plot – and there’s not much here to work with – is tied to Scott and Hilliard. While Fred and Ginger have plenty of screen time, they feel like second bananas and almost function as the humorous supporting cast, roles that normally are played by Edward Everett Horton or Helen Broderick.

In fact, because there are four stars, that wonderful supporting cast is sorely missing here. You do get Lucille Ball in a small role and Betty Grable in an even shorter role, but it’s mainly of interest because of who they are and what they would later become, not because of what they are doing here.

And yet, oddly enough, this film is easy to watch. It zips along as if none of these detriments matter. Fred and Ginger sparkle, and when they dance, it’s a dream. 

As the title denotes, “Follow the Fleet” has Fred and Randolph playing Bake Baker and Bilge Smith (gotta love the names), two sailors who get shore leave when the fleet pulls into San Francisco. The two and their pals head off to the Paradise Club, where Bake tries to reach his old girlfriend Sherry Martin (Ginger), unaware that she actually works at the Paradise.

Meanwhile, Sherry’s sister Connie (Hilliard) comes to the Paradise for a visit. The unglamorous Connie cannot gain entrance to the club without a male escort, so when Bilge arrives with beer, she buys his ticket and explains her predicament once they are safely inside. He barely acknowledges her, and she heads off to Sherry’s dressing room. While there, Sherry asks friend Kitty (Ball) to spruce up Connie, who has never been anything but a wallflower.

But when Kitty is done, a glamorous Connie heads out to the dance floor, where Bilge immediately gravitates toward her, unaware that Connie is the woman he entered with.

Meanwhile, Bake and Sherry reunite. And frankly, for the plot, there’s not much else. Sherry wants to audition for a real show, while Connie wants to refurbish their dead father’s ship so she can marry Bilge and give him a ship of his own. Bilge doesn’t want to feel tied down, so he dates someone else.

One fact that sets this entry apart from the other Fred and Ginger films is the setting. Typically, Fred and Ginger are dressed to the hilt, even if they aren’t rich. Here they are working class, and while their show biz dreams haven’t changed, the venue has.

The enjoyment of “Follow the Fleet” is in the dances and interplay. If Hilliard and Scott provide the main plot, it’s Fred and Ginger who provide the sunshine. Thankfully, they have a terrific Irving Berlin score to help them along. The film starts off with the delightful “We Saw the Sea,” which Fred is singing as they pull into dock. 

Next we switch to the dance hall, and Ginger is singing “Let Yourself Go” with a trio that includes Grable. Then Ginger and Fred dance to it to win a dance contest. Interestingly enough, choreographer Hermes Pan recruited actual dance hall contestants from around Los Angeles to show off their best moves. Fred and Hermes had fun with their take on the latest dance crazes, and yet it’s Fred and Ginger who ultimately lend a timeless energy to this sequence by creating their own routine rather than merely mirroring those of the other couples. 
Hilliard actually has two solos in the film: “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan” and “But Where Are You?” Both are nicely presented, and it makes sense she would have these solos, as this was her first film after establishing herself as a radio vocalist with Ozzie Nelson’s orchestra – whom she would marry and become a TV fixture in the 1950s (and to think she and television icon Lucille Ball were both in this film). Apparently Hilliard was a blond but dyed her hair dark so as not to compete with Ginger.

In “I’d Rather Lead a Band,” Fred has a terrific solo in which he’s teaching his fellow sailors how to dance. The number beautifully ties into the Navy theme as he taps out commands and drills the sailors through the routine. And, for the first time, Ginger receives her own solo as she auditions for a producer by reprising “Let Yourself Go.”

The “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” number allows both Ginger and Fred to have some fun as their “practice” consists of pratfalls and gags. This one shouldn’t work but it does because of their enormous chemistry and the artistry they lend to what is essentially a vaudeville routine.

In fact, author Arlene Croce calls this the film where Ginger truly blossoms and shows her range, from the comic in both of these numbers to her seriousness in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

And “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is a killer. This number is self-contained piece that is part of the show everyone is putting on to save the two sisters’ father’s ship. In fact, it’s the third time, following “Flying Down to Rio” and “Roberta,” that a Fred and Ginger film ends with the gang putting on a show.

But “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is a brilliant piece of melodrama scored and danced to perfection. This number could have easily backfired – he’s a gambler, in his tuxedo, who has lost everything and contemplates ending his life by shooting himself. However, when she appears in a gorgeous beaded gown and wants to jump to her death, Fred saves the both of them. Yes, it appears the routine could be headed down a very hokey road. Instead, the two take this very somber mood and build a mesmerizing number, reveling in its theatricality by dancing as if no one else is around. The music and movement enhance the melodrama rather than fight it, and both Fred and Ginger are breathlessly hypnotic.

It’s worth noting that Ginger’s gown weighed about 20 pounds, and Ginger said she had to really focus on her balance. The gown’s momentum and weight often caused her to move when she shouldn’t. In addition, during the first take, her sleeve smacked Fred in the face, and he said he was seeing stars throughout the rest of the number. Yet after many takes, it was determined the first one was the best, so it’s the one that’s in the film (and you can see Fred discreetly flinch early on when the sleeve hits him).

Regardless, the number is sublime, and while the movie ends with the resolution for Hilliard and Scott’s characters, it’s this number that carries us out of the film and stays on our minds.

Thankfully, this would be the last time Fred and Ginger would share the spotlight with anyone else, and they would be the sole leads in their five final films together.

But “Follow the Fleet,” despite its many shortcomings, is far more enjoyable than it should be. And audiences seemed to agree, making this a big moneymaker for RKO and cementing Fred and Ginger’s popularity. Thankfully, there was plenty left to come. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Return of Fred and Ginger

Hi Everyone! Well, October was a rough month, but it ended on a very positive note with the wedding of my lovely niece Jenni this past Saturday. She is the first of my nieces or nephews to marry, and the entire family was in town, which is always something to celebrate.

Now that October is almost past, I can return to my regular postings. And, the rest of the year is dedicated to my favorite screen duo, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Remember back in November 2010 when I reviewed "Flying Down to Rio"? Well, it was my plan to do all ten of the duo's films within one year. However, I got sidetracked in fall 2011 and stopped after only four movies.

My holiday treat is to do the other six between now and the end of December, followed by a special countdown devoted just to them.

In case you missed the previous posts, here they are:

"Flying Down to Rio" 
"The Gay Divorcee"
"Top Hat"

Starting on Sunday, I'll resume the reviews. Thank you for your patience with Classicfilmboy!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Audrey of the Month

Hey all ... here's the lovely Audrey making a hat look chic that would probably look horrible on anyone else :)

In the middle of teaching a class but have some fun stuff coming up that I've already written, so stay tuned!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

'Ten-A-Week Steale' by Stephen Jared

“Ten-A-Week Steale” is a new novel by Stephen Jared.

Stephen is a movie lover who lives and works in the L.A. area. His first book, “Jack and the Jungle Lion,” is about an action movie star from Hollywood’s golden era who finds himself plunged into a real-life adventure. I had the great pleasure of interviewing Stephen upon the release of that book in 2010.

“Ten-A-Week Steale” is an even better book about a World War I veteran who lives in 1920s Hollywood working as hired muscle for his politician brother. It’s a breezy read that appeals to classic movie lovers.

Below is a conversation I recently had with Stephen about his new book.  Feel free to leave questions for Stephen in your comments, as I’m sure he will be happy to answer them for you. 

CFB: I really enjoyed the new novel, “Ten-A-Week Steale.” What was your inspiration behind it?

SJ: I think Hollywood in the 1920s was as romantic and as full of geniuses as Paris in the 1920s. I’ve always been fascinated by old Hollywood. I love silent films. I wanted to write a story in that setting. I wanted to walk those streets and maybe catch a glimpse of some of those people. I wanted to write something that moved fast and had a lot of surprises, and I wanted the psychological motives of the characters to be expressed visually, much like Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Movies are always an enormous source of inspiration and I’d say “L.A. Confidential” and “Chinatown” were targets I aimed for in the type of story I wanted to tell.    

CFB: All of this clearly shows in this book, which has a vivid feel for the time period. It was fun working my way around Hollywood with Walter Steale. It felt alive. Steale fits into that hard-boiled detective mold but I like how you connect him to World War I, which helps to explain his character.  He’s not your typical run-of-the-mill detective.

SJ: He’s not as clever. He’s a man whose engine is fueled by tenacity and guts. I wanted to him to get snared in a web of lies. He allows himself to become the fall guy—he didn’t see it coming. So, it was important that he not be a character who connects complicated puzzle pieces too easily as the story unfolds. That would have contradicted how he got into this mess. I thought there could be tension found in a story about a guy returned from the war feeling beaten and bruised and alienated; he’s trying to get reacquainted with civilian life, picking up the odd job here and there, and then all of a sudden, because he’s unwilling to compromise his own morality, the whole world turns against him. His brother betrays him. The police are after him. The newspapers are after him. But those who want to destroy him underestimate the fight still in him.    

CFB: He may not be clever, but he’s nobody’s fool, either. He has keen instincts, even if he can’t connect the dots. I like the fact that he lives in Hollywood but is fairly clueless about its number one commodity – movies. It’s something that Gin (a platinum blond movie star) recognizes and likes. Her instincts are right as well, which makes them a good pair. Did you have someone in mind when creating her character? Or are you just attracted to smart blondes? J

SJ: Gin’s fun, right? She’s sassy and flirtatious and cute. She allowed me the chance to open up the gates of 1920s Hollywood for readers, given that she’s an actress. But more important than that, she is the sunshine to Steale’s darkness. She has a lot of friends. She’s under contract at Paramount, play-acting in silly fantasies; she’s fairly oblivious to the hell Steale has been through.  Life’s good for Gin. It’s easy. And so, it’s easy to see why he’s drawn to her. What they have in common is that they both lost their fathers at a young age. Additionally, when we meet Gin’s mother we find out that, although it’s a troubled relationship, Gin has great love and respect for her mother, and her mother has spent her life fighting injustice—she’s a suffragist. So, when Gin sees a similar fighting spirit in Steale—someone who refuses to back down no matter the odds against him—it makes him even more attractive to her. Did I have someone in mind when writing her? I suppose she’s a cross between Jean Harlow and Clara Bow. She’s got the toughness of Harlow, but she’s also adorable.  

CFB: She is adorable. I actually was picturing Laura LaPlante, I must admit, but Gin definitely can hold her own. Another character I like is Heywood Farnham (candidate for governor), who is also strong. There’s no mistaking he is a politician, but he quickly understands that the case against Walter Steale isn’t what it appears to be. When compared to Gov. Davies or Walter’s brother, Farnham is the poster boy for ethics and morality!

SJ: Farnham is shrewd and disciplined because he wants power. Governor Davies and Walter’s brother have power, and as a result of their desperation to maintain power, they’ve become weak. The big trick among powerful people throughout history is—how do you not allow the arrogance that inevitably comes with power to weaken you? So, you’re right, Farnham seems less ethically challenged than the people he goes after, but that might be due to the fact that people tend to be more disciplined in their pursuit of power. Once they have power, they often change, and there are signals indicating that could be the case with Farnham.

CFB: Farnham is no saint, but at least he is someone Steale can trust, and I like the irony that Steale’s small circle features a politician, a police chief and a Hollywood star. Quite ingenious, if I may say so.

SJ: The attempt was to write a fast moving, fairly short read on a big canvas. More than a character portrait of Walter Steale, it’s a portrait of Los Angeles at that time. There are a couple other characters that lend sympathy to Steale. One is an immigrant from Japan, and the other is an Indian Theosophist. If the book were a painting it probably would have a mural-like quality to it. The little building where Theosophists would meet is still in the Hollywood Hills today, not far beneath the Hollywood sign. When Farnham gives his first political speech, it’s to the Mexican community. All of these locations are real, and many of the names mentioned are real. Police, politicians, movie stars, immigrants from all over the world, new spirituality—all of these things are vital elements to the story of Los Angeles in the 1920s and still today.   

CFB: That’s fantastic. All I can say at this point is to encourage people to read the book and enjoy doing so. What else are you working on these days?

SJ: I finished a follow-up to my first release, “Jack and the Jungle Lion.” Paul Shipper returned as cover artist and did another amazing job. I’m hoping that will be out in early 2013. I’m currently writing another crime fiction set in Hollywood; this one takes place in the 1930s. The occasional acting job comes my way, and I always consider that a huge privilege. I shot a crime drama called “Salvation” in Kansas this summer, and I’ve just been cast in a movie called “Fort Bliss,” which I’ll shoot in a couple weeks. It stars Michelle Monaghan as a woman who returns home after serving in Afghanistan. Aside from that, not long ago I jumped onto twitter (@stephen_jared) where I’ve especially enjoyed meeting classic film enthusiasts.

CFB: I am glad you are doing well and keeping busy. Stephen, it was a pleasure “chatting” with you. Can’t wait to read your follow-up to “Jack and the Jungle Lion,” after which we’ll get together again to discuss on CFB. Until then, I encourage everyone to check out “Ten-A-Week Steale,” which you can buy on Amazon.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Audrey of the Month

I didn't have an Audrey of the Month for August, so I'll squeeze this one in and blame it on the blue moon (wink wink). Have a great Labor Day weekend!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Gene Kelly Blogathon: 'Invitation to the Dance'

“Invitation to the Dance” is a curious piece from Gene Kelly

The 1956 film is clearly a labor of love, as he choreographs, directs and stars. The film consists of three unrelated segments, each told through dance and music – no dialogue, no singing. I’ve always admired that Kelly and counterpart Fred Astaire never relied on their expected personas as they tried to push what could be accomplished within the movie musical genre. 

“Invitation to the Dance” follows up on ideas introduced in other Kelly films, such as “Anchors Aweigh” and “An American in Paris,” and throws in a dash of “Fantasia,” which is taking classical pieces and providing a narrative for each. But the results are uneven, an idea that is more admired than enjoyed. 

The first segment is “Circus,” and the story is simple: Pierrot the clown (Kelly) is in love with a fellow performer (Claire Sombert) who is partnered with a different performer (Igor Youskevitch). Nothing is unexpected, so the presentation needs to be exceptional. Unfortunately, the lovely Sombert is given nothing to do but look pretty and dance. It’s a role that requires an expressive and enchanting presence for an emotional payoff. She then has the misfortune of having her dancing overshadowed by Youskevitch, one of the greatest male ballet stars of his era, and Kelly. The two are such powerful dancers that the accomplished Sombert pales in comparison. 

Kelly’s best dance is with his fellow circus performers, but as director he must have been influenced by the ballet sequence in “The Red Shoes.” Sadly, “Circus” isn’t nearly as cinematic, and the piece has an almost dreary feel. 

Thankfully, the tempo picks up for the film’s second segment, “Ring Around the Rosey.” In fact, the segment begins at a party in which the film speed is increased to convey to the event’s mayhem.  The general theme revolves around a bracelet that travels from husband to wife to artist to model to boyfriend and on and on until it returns to the husband. 

Don’t worry about the details of who’s giving it to whom or for what reasons. Just go with it and enjoy the energy of the segment. The sets are more abstract that the first piece, which adds a dream-like quality to what could be called a romantic fable. Each exchange of the bracelet has its own personality and dance – especially fun is one involving a crooner, and remember there are no words in this movie. The segment nicely culminates with a terrific number between Kelly and Tamara Toumanova (above), a steamy street dance between a Marine and a streetwalker. 

The final segment is “Sinbad the Sailor,” with Kelly as a sailor who ends up with a lantern. As expected, he rubs the lantern and out comes a boy genie, played by David Kasday. The two become fast friends, and once the genie adopts his own sailor suit, the two perform perhaps the most endearing dance of the entire movie, with Kasday perfectly in synch with Kelly.

Sadly, the genie leads Kelly into an animated segment and leaves. Then, like Kelly dancing with Jerry the mouse in “Anchors Aweigh,” Kelly finds himself opposite two animated Arabs chasing him and finally Scheherazade (modeled after Carol Haney), with whom he frolics through an animated landscape. Unfortunately, the cartoon Scheherazade has even less personality than Sombert from the first segment, and the piece feels amateurish and flat. It makes you wish young Kasday had remained and the segment built around him. 

“Invitation to the Dance” should have been better, but the film never reaches the same level as the “American in Paris” ballet or even the Jerry the mouse segment. The lasting effect is one of familiarity. 

But it does have some fine moments throughout. And Kelly should be commended for trying something different at a point in his career when he could have but did not want to do the same old thing.