Title: Meet Me in St. Louis
Release Date: November 22, 1944
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
A romantic comedy musical in vivid Technicolor, Meet Me in St. Louis is set in 1903-1904. The movie is a series of vignettes for each season leading up Louisiana Purchase Exposition focused on the Smith family of St. Louis. The oldest daughter Rose (Lucille Bremer) is concerned about getting a marriage proposal from her beau, while Esther (Judy Garland with an unfortunate hairstyle) has a crush on the boy next door, John (Tom Drake). The younger girls Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) are more interested in mischief. The focus on sisters hosting parties, attending dances, and concerned about marital prospects is reminiscent of the Bennet sisters of Pride and Prejudice, but these sisters have a brother, Lon Jr. (Henry H. Daniels Jr). The family is rounded out with their mother Mrs. Anna Smith (Mary Astor), Grandpa (Harry Davenport), and the maid Katie (Marjorie Main). Their workaholic father, Mr. Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames), presents the major plot twist to the story when he informs the family they will be moving to New York.
The movie is full of song and dance from the period, including several renditions of the title song. It also introduces several new songs that would become standards: “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Garland is clearly the star, but O’Brien steals every scene she is in. In fact, the Halloween segment where Agnes and Tootie go out to participate in basically widespread vandalism and violence may be one of the best things ever put on film.
The film is light and fluffy but its fun and the songs are joyous. Watch it with your favorite misanthrope and see what happens.
Title: Stormy Weather
Release Date: July 21, 1943
Director: Andrew L. Stone
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Back when I reviewed Swing Time I noted that it would’ve been better if Fred Astaire include African American artists in his tribute to Bill Robinson. Then I realized I was a hypocrite since my list of classic movies had no Bill Robinson films. So I had Stormy Weather, a musical-dance-romance movie featuring the top African American performers of the era.
The movie is a loose biography of Bill Robinson’s career. How loose? The movie begins with Robinson’s character Bill Williamson returning from the First World War. In reality, Robinson fought in the Spanish American War, and entertained the troops in WWI. So we just ignore that the 64-year-old Robinson is playing a much younger character, especially when he strikes up a romance with 25-year-old Lena Horne’s character Selina Rogers.
The film is essentially a tribute to a quarter century of African American entertainment and follows Bill Williamson through a film packed with with song and dance numbers. I was actually surprised that the plot actually holds together based on the standard of movie musical plots. The movie begins with Bill going to a Harlem nightclub with his army buddy Gabe (Dooley Wilson) where he meets Selina and her manager/band leader Chick Bailey (Emmett ‘Babe’ Wallace) who becomes Bill’s romantic rival.
Bill returns home to Memphis, stopping to scat on a riverboat, and taking up a job as dancer/waiter in a night club where Ada Brown and Fats Waller sing the blues. They’re all hired to join Chick’s touring act and eventually Bill outshines Chick and leaves to start his own company. Bill and Selina split up but get back together in a night club scene featuring Cab Calloway (the generational difference between the two performers is acknowledged in a humorous scene where Robinson can’t understand Calloway’s jive talk). Lena Horne sings the stunning “Stormy Weather” and the brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas perform a remarkable dance where they leap down steps and land in splits and don’t suffer groin injuries!
It’s an amazingly entertaining film, and I’m leaving out a lot of the great performers and numbers. There are times where the movie leans into the stereotypes of African Americans that Hollywood audiences expected (for example, a comedy duo perform in blackface). But there’s also a sense of these artists reclaiming something from these stereotypes and showing how hard they strive toward excellence.
Title: Swing Time
Release Date: September 4, 1936
Director: George Stevens
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Having had mixed feelings about Top Hat, I was a bit dubious about watching another Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie. The film starts with Astaire’s character John “Lucky” Garnett attempting to make it to his wedding on time but the other members of his dance troupe sabotage him. When the wedding is cancelled and Lucky makes his way to New York City to prove himself worthy, he meets Rogers’ character Penny and they squabble over a stolen quarter. The first 15 minutes or so of this movie is full of cringe comedy that set my teeth on edge.
But it turns out Penny is a dance instructor, and once made aware of Lucky’s dance ability, they are paired up to perform. Unlike Top Hat, they seem to genuinely like each other early on and scenes alternate among their dance numbers, scenes of gambling (Lucky is a gambler as well as a dancer), and their shyness about admitting they are falling in love (it strikes me that this is also the basic plot of Silver Linings Playbook, although they’re veeeeery different movies. The movie also introduces standards like “The Way You Look Tonight” and “A Fine Romance.”
I was thoroughly enjoying the movie when I saw that the next number would be called “Bojangles of Harlem.” I said to myself: “Please don’t come out in blackface. Pleeeeaaase don’t come out in blackface.” Folks, Fred Astaire totally came out in blackface, leaving me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Whatever Astaire’s intentions that this was a tribute to African American tap dancers, the fact is that it is nothing but black caricature. It’s doubly insulting because Bill Robinson, despite all his talents, wouldn’t get a chance to do a showstopper like this in a Hollywood film. It wouldn’t have been objectionable if Astaire had performed without blackface and the black caricature props alongside some African American performers (which is plausible since he would do that very thing in his very next film). It’s too bad it’s so racist, because this dance sequence does have a great special effect of Astaire dancing with his own shadows.
It was hard to settle into watching the movie again after this (especially since Astaire doesn’t remove the blackface for the dramatic scenes that follow). But there is a beautiful number “Never Gonna Dance” where Lucky and Penny dance their sorrow when they believe they’ll be going their separate ways. The conclusion of the movie is kind of odd, because the whole cast ends up giggling uncontrollably as if they were all high, or someone told an inside joke. Nevertheless this was a pretty great movie with one exception, but it’s a pretty big exception.
Rating: **1/2 (might’ve been ***1/2 without “Bojangles of Harlem”)
Title: Top Hat
Release Date: August 29, 1935
Director: Mark Sandrich
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
In all my life, I’d never before watched a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie. Much of the plot is a thin link between the wonderful dance sequences. This movie is also the origination of “Cheek to Cheek,” which was the first dance at my wedding reception. Nevertheless, much of this movie left me cold.
This movie is divided into two parts. The first is in London where American dancer Jerry Travers (Astaire) has come to star in a show. His love for dance leads him to tapdance around his hotel suite awaking the guest downstairs, Dale Tremont (Rogers). When Dale complains, Jerry falls for her and begins following her around London. This is a romantic comedy trope that’s supposed to be romantic, but comes across as really creepy in this movie. His dance performance also involves him miming shooting all his back up dancers with his cane. Maybe its my modern sensibilities but I don’t find a massacre to be a fun thing to incorporate in dance.
The second part of the movie takes place in Venice where Dale travels for work and Jerry (creepily) follows her there. The set design for Venice only superficially resembles the city, but it’s great in its own right, and provides lots of steps and bridges for the dance sequences. I suppose if you ignore everything but the dance sequences, it’s really quite enjoyable, but I found much of the plot here, with Dale believing Jerry to be married, and then deciding to up and marry someone else, to just be obnoxious.
Title: La La Land
Release Date: December 9, 2016
Director: Damien Chazelle
Production Company: Summit Entertainment | Marc Platt Productions | Impostor Pictures | Gilbert Films
This romantic comedy is built on the premise of big song and dance numbers from the Golden Age of Hollywood but set in the present day. The movie stars Emma Stone as Mia Dolan, an aspiring actor frustrated by dead auditions, and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian Wilder, a jazz pianist taking on cheezy pop music gigs while hoping to open a classic jazz cafe. They meet cute, of course, and after some acrimony, they fall in love. I’ll have to say that Gosling’s character comes across as a jerk, and unlike other romantic comedies, doesn’t soften that much over the course of the film.
Stone and Gosling aren’t trained dancers but that gives their performances a certain charm of ordinary people trying to fit into the Hollywood dream. Los Angeles plays a big role in the film with many shots on-location at noted landmarks, and shot against the magic hour of sunset skies.
The song and dance numbers are great within the context of the film, but there’s nothing here I’d really want to listen to again. The one exception is a song Mia sings for her big audition “The Fools Who Dream,” which reminds me a lot of the finale to The Muppet Movie thematically. As strange as it may sound, La La Land and The Muppet Movie would make a great double feature. It has is similar in some ways, but less cynical, than Steve Martin’s L.A. Story.
Not to get too spoilery, but after a year of romance, set against the seasons, Mia and Seb go their separate ways. In a coda set five years later, they’ve each achieved their dreams, with Mia a movie star and Seb performing at his successful jazz club. There’s a dream sequence with a highly-stylized Hollywood rendition of what there life would be like if they’d stayed together. But what I really appreciate about this romantic comedy is that Mia and Seb do not get together at the end, nor do they mourn their lost love. They recognize that their time together was valuable, but have moved on to other things, and that’s ok. For all the tributes to Hollywood, that’s a message you rarely get from a Hollywood movie.
Release Date: June 23, 1995
Director: Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
When Pocahontas was released in 1995, I lived in James City County, Virginia, basically the same land where the real Pocahontas and the Powhatan people lived nearly 400 years earlier. I worked at Colonial Williamsburg and remember a visitor telling me “Disney is giving you a great tourism boost!” Well, it was the museums down the road at Jamestown that would have to deal with any Pocahontas-driven tourism. But, having seen the trailers for Pocahontas, it became a running gag among my co-workers that visitors to the flat, marshy Tidewater region would be asking “Where are the waterfalls?”
I won’t go into the many other historical inaccuracies this film creates from the life of Matoaka (later Amonute and Rebecca Rolfe). Disney almost always makes massive changes from the source material, but I find it unsettling that they would take a story about a real person – an indigenous person, at that – and take nothing from her many remarkable adventures in real life. Disney’s Pocahontas is a mystical, new age character and the film is a clichéd retelling of the Romeo and Juliet plot. With so many options available to tell a new and refreshing story with a historical figure, it’s disappointing that Disney chose to tell an obvious retread.
With all that being noted, I have three nice things to say about Pocahontas:
- It is a beautiful film to look at with the pristine American forests richly animated with great attention to water, leaves, and animals.
- Speaking of animals, I love the animal sidekicks, Percy the pampered pug, Flit the hummingbird with anger issues, and especially the mischievous and always hungry raccoon Meeko. Unlike other Disney films, the animals don’t speak, but they mime in hilarious ways. I’d watch a movie just about these three characters and their adventures.
- Disney doesn’t flinch about depicting the English colonists’ prejudices and avarice. Yes, the villain Ratcliffe is an over-the-top buffoon, but even the “good guy” colonists aren’t exactly “woke” at the end of the film. If would’ve been bad if Disney had brushed over the exploitative nature of colonialism, but that hasn’t stopped them from avoiding uncomfortable issues in other movies, so I’ll give them credit for doing it here.
Release Date: June 27, 1997
Director: Ron Clements and John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney adapts ancient Greek mythology – albeit using the Roman name Hercules instead of the Greek Heracles – with a story of an idealistic hero’s journey mixed with an old-fashioned screwball comedy and a sports drama (a la Rocky). And it’s all scored with gospel music, which is a strange, even subversive, contrast to the story. The artistry of the movie draws on Greek art and architecture which is then punctured with visual puns and pop culture references effectively. But acting carries the movie. The slimy, villainous James Woods does a great job bringing to life the slimy, villainous Hades. Susan Egan channels the wise-cracking, world-weary female characters of the golden age of Hollywood into her peformance of Megara. And Danny Devito steals the show as the grumpy satyr who trains Hercules to be a hero. While I wouldn’t count on this movie to get you a good grade on your Classics course exam, it is an entertaining way to spend 90 minutes.
Release Date: June 22, 2012
Director: Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Production Company: Walt Disney Picture / Pixar Animation Studios
Pixar’s story of a rebellious Scottish princess is another instant classic. Merida enjoys a life where she can spend her time on horse riding and archery and has no interest in her parents’ expectations that she marry a suitor from of the kingdom’s three clans. The story is very familiar, and one true to life to feudal societies, but it is all a frame to the much more relatable struggles of a her girl with her mother.
Seeking to change Queen Elinor’s mind, Merida asks the help of a hilarious witch – er, wood carver – whose tricky solution is to literally transform Elinor into a bear. Girl and bear then must face various challenges together that bring them closer together and better understand the other’s point of view.
In addition to a satisfying story, this movie also has a ton of humor, including the comical body movements of characters like King Fergus, Merida’s mischievous triplet brothers, the aforementioned witch, and Elinor’s efforts to learn to be a bear. It’s also beautifully animated and I was stunned when freezing the movie how lifelike the scene appeared.
If you are like me and haven’t seen Brave up until now, it’s definitely worth checking out.
Title: The Princess and the Frog
Release Date: December 11, 2009
Director: Ron Clements and John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Disney made a number of interesting decisions when adapting E.D. Baker’s The Frog Princess, itself an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Frog Prince” as an animated feature. First, they returned to a traditional animation style after making several CGI-animation films. The artists really embrace the classic style by making visual references to Disney classics of the 1950s & 1960s, particularly in the dance scenes which emulate Cinderella, while the animals playing jazz on the bayou are reminiscent of The Jungle Book.
The biggest decision was in making the lead character, Tiana, an African-American young woman – the first black Disney princess. Tiana is a lovely character, a hard-worker trying to fulfill her dream of opening a restaurant. She is, of course, paired with Prince Naveen, who cares for nothing more than to eat, drink, and be merry. The opposites attract plot has Tiana learning to have a little fun while Naveen becomes more responsible. The weakest part of the plot is that it never really allows time for these two to fall in love, so when they start talking marriage it feels very rushed. Otherwise, their time together on the bayou as frogs is delightful fun.
The final big decision was to set the story in New Orleans in the Jazz Age as well as more rural bayous in the vicinity. New Orleans is a romantic location on its own, and in a sanitized version it’s a beautiful backdrop for the story. Unfortunately, there’s an uncomfortable undercurrent of knowing that this story takes place during the time of vicious segregation. The depictions of black and white people cheerfully rubbing elbows and Tianaand Naveen’s interracial marriage just wouldn’t have been allowed to happen. To its credit, the movie does depict the inequality of New Orleans as Tiana and her mother ride a streetcar from the mansion of Tiana’s friend Charlotte to her own community of shotgun houses, and a pair of real estate agents basically try to cheat her out of buying an old mill for her restaurant unless she can come up with more money. While it can be argued that a light family film is not going to be the best place to address Jim Crow, it should also be noted that they film didn’t need to be set in 1920s New Orleans.
All in all, this is a fun, entertaining movie with great visuals and musical numbers.
Title: Robin Hood
Release Date: November 8, 1973
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Robin Hood is a strange movie. The English legend is loosely adapted with all the characters portrayed as anthropomorphic animals, which is an interesting touch. Doubly odd, despite the English setting, the music has a country twang and some – but not all – of the characters have a drawl rather than an English accent (I do like the music by Roger Miller, even if it doesn’t seem to fit). Although the movie was made in 1973 (in fact, it was the #1 movie in the United States the week of my birth!), it feels much older. The animation is limited and lacks the artistry of earlier Disney films. Dance sequences were recycled from earlier Disney animated features, and other elements feel derivative, like Little John essentially being the same as Baloo from The Jungle Book. The movie is episodic with each sequence generally being different ways that Robin Hood & co can humiliate Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. While Robin Hood has its charms, I did find myself wondering when it was going end, which is not a good sign for a movie that is only 80 minutes long.