Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Decline of the Musical? Says Who?

The album cover of the original soundtrack of 'Camelot' (1967)
The decline of certain genres of Hollywood movies is not something to be celebrated. I was raised on a heavy dose of musicals a a time when the genre was in decline. It comes to something when you're eleven years old and after the movie is finished you turn to your mother and say: "That was terrible. Why did we come to see this for??" There was a rash of musicals released roughly between 1966-1971 that are now almost canonical in their badness. They are blamed for such things as sinking their studios because they were too expensive to make, turning audiences off in droves, wasting the talent of performers and technicians and generally giving the genre a bad name and reducing it to a sad oblivion in contrast to the glories of its past achievements. I was taken to see most these 'canonically' bad musicals, and wasn't impressed at the time. But they've kind of grown on me down the years, and I have reserved a soft spot for them in my heart. They weren't all bad I guess, and it's true that despite the mediocrity, the music itself could not be disparaged, that is if it had any merit at all, and it usually did.

The remake of  'Goodbye Mr Chips' was not a success. But  it has its admirers today.
 The point I'd like to make is that one generation's decline in interest in a genre, may be another's rise. I checked on the IMDB lately to find out if westerns were still being made, and it seems they are. The westerns that I remember, when they were made at all, questioned the notion of manifest destiny, say, in a way that more traditional westerns made in the forties and fifties wouldn't have dared. But there was a revolution in social mores going on in the late sixties, so that if  westerns got made at all, we were expecting them to question the conventions of the genre they supposedly represented. That's just the way things were back then. These days, I think that audiences prefer not to have their basic assumptions about life questioned, and maybe that's a good reason for a lot of the pedestrian entertainment we have to tolerate. And I now proceed to directly contradict myself by coming to the defence of a collection of films that were deemed to be, exactly that: mediocre, trite and a complete waste of time to anyone with an IQ above their shoe size.

Bet you didn't know that Lee Marvin could sing. Well  he couldn't...exactly.
You could hardly call the following titles a mixed bag. None of these received much in the way of critical acclaim and they didn't do very well at the box office either.  And I got to see them all, thanks to my overzealous family who wanted me to have an appreciation of musicals. And I guess that's what I got, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this post. My life wouldn't  be the same without them, although that can't be said of most people. So, hold your breath for a collection of '60s kitsch that will make you wonder what you may have been missing, that is if you hadn't been born yet to appreciate it.

Vanessa Redgrave looking beautiful in 'Camelot' as Lady Guinevere, who marries Arthur and becomes  queen.
As a genre, the musical was popular and profitable from the advent of talking pictures onwards. But by the late sixties, the musical was having a difficult time surviving the new Hollywood of raging bulls and easy riders.Fantasy became frowned upon by a new sense of realism, the abandonment of the Hays Code, and a societal shift that thought it was pretty silly having people singing their thoughts out aloud and dancing in the rain. After the success of 'The Sound of Music' (1965), the musical took a turn for the worse, and the following, are held to blame for what is still thought of today as the decline of the genre. Since I've become more sentimental down the years, I have chosen to abandon my ridicule, and thank my lucky stars instead that I had a chance to see them at all, and leave it up to others to judge whether they should be so unfairly treated.

CAMELOT (1967): Starring Richard Harris Vanessa Redgrave Franco Nero. Music and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. I was taken to see 'Camelot' three times by an older sister who had a crush on Richard Harris. I rightly felt it was a little above my head. I didn't understand the romance and could only see the pain that people go through when they fall in love and didn't have an explanation for it. But the songs were bewitching and I always remembered them. Standards like 'If Ever I Would Leave You', 'What Do the Simple Folk Do' and many others guaranteed that this Broadway hit would be transfered to the screen. The part of King Arthur on-stage was played by Richard Burton, who apparently talked the song lyrics as if he were reciting poetry because he couldn't sing. Richard Harris plays Arthur in the movie and he went on to have a successful recording career as a singer, most notably with 'Macarthur Park' which was a worldwide smash hit in 1968. It's a very long film which runs for at least two hours, and when there is no music, it tends to lag. It's beautifully photographed and won an Oscar for Best Costume Design. To me, Vanessa Redgrave who plays Queen Guinevere will always be 'the pretty lady wearing the pretty costumes' in 'Camelot'. And they were beautiful. Franco Nero makes a dashing French knight and there is plenty of whimsy combined with the more adult storyline of a woman loved by two men who want her exclusively for themselves. I own 'Camelot' on DVD and watch it every now and then for the music and if I'm feeling a bit blue on a Sunday afternoon. It's that kind of movie.

Julie Andrews had 125 costume changes in 'Star'. This is one of them.

STAR! (1968): Starring Julie Andrews Daniel Massey Richard Crenna. Music arranged by Lennie Hayton. Director Robert Wise enjoyed working with Julie Andrews so much in 'The Sound Music' that he suggested  they re-unite for a biography of British stage actress Gertrude Lawrence. Most of the musical numbers take place as I recall, on the stage which does away with characters suddenly breaking out into song for no apparent reason. Whilst receiving mixed reviews on its release, 'Star' has stood the test of time and has a loyal following of fans, who make sure that its virtues are not glossed over. Daniel Massey received an Academy Award nomination for his role as Noel Coward, a life-long friend and supporter of Lawrence's as she went through the many ups and downs of her private and public lives. The film was hacked about a bit, and taken away from Robert Wise by 20th Century Fox because hopes dimmed of recouping the money it took to make it. Julie Andrews is required to use some salty language in keeping with Lawrence's roots in working class London, which came as a bit of a shock to those of us who were more comfortable with her image as a goody-two-shoes. My favourite musical number in 'Star' is 'Has Anybody Seen Our Ship', a hilarious music-hall number with Andrews and Massey dressed up as two drunken sailors who remain landbound after a hard night. See the video below.

SWEET CHARITY (1969) Starring Shirley MacLaine John McMartin Chita Rivera Paula Kelly Sammy Davis Jnr. Music by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields. Choreography by Bob Fosse. Originally a stage musical, this was adapted by Bob Fosse from the Fellini film Nights of Cabiria, about the life of an optimistic Italian prostitute. The character became instead a taxi dancer in New York who has bad luck with men but remains hopeful of finding true love. What sells 'Sweet Charity' is firstly the great costumes, secondly its setting in the present-day, and thirdly, the spectacular dance numbers. MacLaine gives it all she's got and had been a dancer when she first started in show business. Paula Kelly and Chita Rivera are prominently featured as Charity's friends and their dancing is really amazing.  Charity is a sympathetic character, if a little dim as she confides in her dance hall girlfriends about how badly men treat her. Unfortunately, the space between the musical numbers isn't terribly interesting. Sammy Davis Jnr sings and dances to 'The Rhythm of Life' and other great songs include 'There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This', 'Hey Big Spender, and 'Rich Man's Frug' which is actually a dance number with no singing. I enjoy" 'Sweet Charity', it's charming but wafer-thin especially on the story side but the music is very entertaining and will keep your toes tapping for most of its 149 minute running time. Below is the 'Hey Big Spender' dance number.

SONG OF NORWAY (1970) Starring Florence Henderson Toralv Maurstad music by Robert Wright and George Forest, based upon the music of Edvard Grieg. This was an attempt to cash in on the success of  'The Sound of Music', but it is a very pale imitation. Harry Secombe, who had a supporting part commented later that "Song of Norway is the kind of film you can take the kids to see....and leave them there" and he's not far wrong. Shot on location, the only thing spectacular about this is the scenery. I simply do not remember the music, because it was that awful. A supposed biography of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, who wrote 'In the Hall of the Mountain King', this is really terrible. It didn't make a nickel and everybody hated it. 'Song of Norway' is by far the worst musical on this list. It deserves its obscurity and if any single film is to blame for the decline of the musical, this must surely be it. No previews of this one, you may not be able to take it. I know I couldn't.

FINIAN'S RAINBOW (1968) Starring Fred Astaire Petula Clark Tommy Steele, music by Burton Lane. 'Finian's Rainbow' is a harmless piece of whimsy, unkindly described by one critic as a 'cheesy, joyless thing'. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, it is difficult to believe that this is as disappointing as it is, but it is. Warners had the rights to the stage play for twenty years, and hoping for musicals to have a resurgence, Jack Warner got back into the dangerous waters of predicting audience interest after the success of 'My Fair Lady', but this may have been a miscalculation.  Petula Clark is the best thing in it, she has a lovely voice and a warm personality on-screen and was well-known at the time for pop hits such as 'Don't Sleep in the Subway' and 'Downtown'. This was Fred Astaire's last dancing role and critics complained that he looked too old. Tommy Steele plays Og the leprechaun and he may be energetic, but it is tiring to watch. I thought the story was convoluted when I saw it as a youngster and there is a racial sub-text which the Wiki page labels 'pre-Civil rights' in its depiction of race relations, and I'm inclined to agree. The fantasy aspects of the plot never quite merge to make the film a whole, and it just comes across as simply unbelievable. The songs include 'Old Devil Moon', 'Look to the Rainbow' and 'How are Things In Glocca Mora'. The film was partially choreographed by Astaire's long-time collaborator Hermes Pan who was fired by Coppola before the film was finished. See Petula Clark sing 'Old Devil Moon' below.

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