The King and I

For Seth and Susan

There’s a story behind the story of The King and I. Several stories, in fact, and the one we get in the musical is the least interesting of the lot. The real Anna Leonowens, as Susan Morgan reveals in her fascinating biography, Bombay Anna, was not the proper English lady that Deborah Kerr plays: the fair-haired, blue-eyed widow of a British officer stationed in India. The real Anna was an army brat born in India to a British father and an Anglo-Indian mother who was smart, good at languages, open-minded, and exceptionally adept at self-fabrication.

The real Anna was indeed a widow who was hired in 1862 by King Mongkut of Siam (Thailand) to teach his children. She did help the king with his correspondence, talked politics with him and the more educated wives and concubines in his harem. That much was true. As for dancing with the king, and the frisson that passes between Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, blame Rogers and Hammerstein.

But don’t be too hard on Margaret Landon, whose 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, was the basis for the stage play and 1946 film with Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, along with the 1951 musical version of The King and I that became the delightful 1956 film. Landon was taken in by Anna’s romanticized version of the events of her life and was taken to task for her gullibility, but I suspect that the truth would have been unpalatable to audiences in the 1940s and 50s.

Anna wanted to make a life for herself after her husband died, she wanted to support her children by working, and by using her mind, not by remarrying. She was strong, stubborn, a free-thinker. All this comes across in Landon’s novel, and is conveyed in the musical. What Yul Brynner’s king lacks (and I don’t blame Mr. Brynner for this) is the intellectual seriousness that Anna’s Mongkut possessed. “He was the most educated of any crowned head of the day—either Oriental or European,” wrote Landon.

Anna had privileged access to Mongkut’s harem and was the only Westerner to report on the city of women who lived sequestered behind the palace walls. She protested against their sexual subjugation and general lack of freedom, but she also admired a great many of the women she got to know, and not only for their moral courage. Some 9,000 women served the king, not merely as concubines or slaves, mothers to his many children, but as judges, scribes, artists and craftswomen. A female police force kept order, and proved to be as disciplined and as tough as any other militia.

Harem

Anna’s five years in Siam were invigorating because of her interactions with the women of Mongkut’s court and with the king himself. Susan Morgan suggests that she struggled to make her life as rich and fulfilling after she left, reinventing herself again and again. In her writings about the women of the harem, she made a point of portraying Siamese women as something more than victims, even as she showed the terrible restrictions and punishments inflicted upon them. She lived long enough to become a powerful spokesperson for women’s rights and helped to found a women’s college in Nova Scotia. Getting to know her, I came to admire her all the more.

Top Hat

As screwball comedies go, this one lacks the dash of, say, “It Happened One Night,” the punch of “My Man Godfrey.” The inspired silliness of “Bringing Up Baby.” But “Top Hat” has Fred Astaire. Watch him woo Ginger Rogers in a gazebo during a thunderstorm:

Roger Ebert nailed it in a 2005 review of “Top Hat.”

Because we are human, because we are bound by gravity and the limitations of our bodies, because we live in a world where the news is often bad and the prospects disturbing, there is a need for another world somewhere, a world where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers live. Where everyone is a millionaire and hotel suites are the size of ballrooms and everything is creased, combed, brushed, shined, polished, powdered and expensive. Where you seem to find the happiness you seek, when you’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.

The story is just filler, to keep audiences in their seats between dance numbers. Bates the valet is diverting, as he stalks the dancing duo in various disguises. The cartoon Italian, Alberto Beddini, is amusing, proclaiming in exasperation, “Never again will I allow women to wear my dresses.”

For the most part, though, it’s best to ignore the hijinks in Mussolini’s Italy. Stick with the dancing.

West Side Story

You can dismiss “West Side Story” as a racist musical that serves up all the negative stereotypes of Puerto Ricans, and demeans women too. Forget the inspired choreography by Jerome Robbins, the jangly-nerved moves crackling with angry adolescent energy. Ignore Rita Moreno’s dancing. Stop your ears so you’re not moved by Leonard Bernstein’s score.

Or you can enjoy the movie on its own terms, and in its proper context.

Think about it:  the play had been in the works for almost a decade before its 1957 premiere. During this period, the civil rights movement was gathering steam. You’ve got the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision outlawing segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The signing of the Civil Rights Act guaranteeing the right to vote to all Americans in September, 1957. These were significant milestones, but had the immediate effect of exacerbating racial tensions, provoking violence against African Americans and against other minorities as well.

The fifties was also a period of trying to understand troubled youths. It comes across in films like “The Wild One,” with Marlon Brando as the leader of a motorcycle gang, and “Rebel Without a Cause” with James Dean (indeed, the playwright Arthur Laurents wanted James Dean for the lead, but he had died by the time the production was being cast). Turf wars were common between rival gangs; the New York tabloids were full of stories about shootings and stabbings by juvenile delinquents.

Puerto Rican migration to the United States took off after World War II, with the majority settling in New York City. Viewed as “foreigners” and “colored” by whites, Puerto Ricans faced discrimination in finding jobs and housing. Add these ingredients together and you understand the motivations of Bernstein, Robbins, and Laurents.

We have Bernstein’s copy of “Romeo and Juliet” — the source of “West Side Story’s” story — with the composer’s annotation at the top of the first page: “An out and out plea for racial tolerance.” We have journalist Martha Gelhorn’s letter to Bernstein (or “Lenny Pot” as she calls him):  “With the visual picture there, and the murderous city outside, and in America, where ‘West Side Story’ becomes a sociological document turned into art, they made me cry like a sieve, from heart-broken pity.”

Audiences were shaken by the musical, with its bleak ending. The hijinks of Gee, Officer Krupke and the lively, bitter humor of America can’t compensate for the sadness of this modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers. And nothing in musical theater comes close to the haunting beauty of Somewhere.

 

Gypsy

As a pre-birthday treat (today I’m 56), I invited a friend over to watch “Gypsy” last night. We’d both seen the film as teenagers and identified with the daughters first time around.

If Momma was married

I’d get all those hair ribbons

Out of my hair

And once and for all

I’d get Momma out too…

Natalie Wood’s Louise was so lovely, so poignant! But this time we found Momma a much more sympathetic character. Rose is pushy, sure. She won’t let her babies grow up and get lives of their own. She wants them to live HER dreams and resents it when they break free to pursue their own. Her ambition for her daughters drives her to turn away the one man who truly loves her, warts and all. (And Karl Malden is sweet and funny, nose and all.)

But the incomparable Rosalind Russell brings such warmth to the character of Rose that you can’t hate her — not when you’ve got teenaged daughters of your own. Sometimes Momma does know best (not that you could ever tell them that…) and sometimes a push is what it takes to launch those babies from the nest.

Of course, it’s not only the story that makes “Gypsy” so delightful. The songs are unforgettable, with some numbers so over-the-top that you can’t believe they were from the unenlightened era of June Cleaver.  “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” for example:

Makes me feel old, watching this musical forty years later. But I feel lucky to have had such wonderful movies available when I was growing up, even if we did have to watch them with commercials. There I was this morning, humming “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” as I cleared away the breakfast dishes, ignoring out my seventeen-year-old’s morning grumpiness. With songs like that, you can ride out the storms of female adolescence.

Damn Yankees

Yankees haters are just as numerous today as they were in 1958, when this picture was released (following the successful run of the Broadway musical). Just about everything else has changed, though.

A rookie baseball star turning his back on fame to go home to his wife? A big home-run hitter not suspected of being on steroids? Pay phones— with dials, no less! — that require a pocketful of change? Who even carries change these days?

Ray Walston honed his skills playing the devil before he got stuck being a Martian (I will admit that I kept expecting to see his antennae pop up every time he appeared). He’s suave, sly, and delivers his lines with superb restraint.

“Hey, how’d you pull that off?” asks innocent Joe Boyd, watching the devil light his cigarette without a match.

“I’m handy with fire,” deadpans Walston.

They don’t make temptresses like Lola anymore. And nobody has pulled off a number like “Who’s Got the Pain” since Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse choreographed it together — that’s him dancing with her in the film, by the way.

On top of this, you get Tab Hunter, a sterling actor. And such fine harmonizing by the team and their manager in “You Gotta Have Heart!”

Sorry, just couldn’t resist. The devil made me do it.

Yankee Doodle Dandy

I meant to review this on July 4th. Then I might have been able to get away with my unabashed appreciation of Jimmy Cagney’s performance. Yes, the story of George M. Cohan’s life is as schmaltzy as they come. And the patriotic song and dance numbers are way over the top.

Ha! Now I’ll bet you’ve got “Yankee Doodle Dandy” stuck in your head, too. Later on, you’ll find yourself whistling it. Even if you’re a lousy whistler. The song was made to be whistled, and that’s part of the reason I love this film.

George M. Cohan was brilliant. The world would be a poorer place without his songs. Not only can’t I resist “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” but the chorus of “You’re a Grand Old Flag” is enough to get me waving the stars and stripes. And when patriotism gets tiresome, there’s still “Give my Regards to Broadway.” Listen to Judy Garland’s rendition:

But getting back to Jimmy Cagney, the way he threw himself into the part of Cohan, the sheer joy he displays every time he starts tap dancing, is impossible to resist. Cohan lived long enough to see the film. “My God, what an act to follow!” he’s supposed to have said.

Cagney claimed that he never prepared for his roles. “You either know what you’re gonna do or forget it,” he told the film critic Richard Schickel toward the end of his career. Hoodlum roles came easily. “I understood that type perfectly well.” Cagney found the bad boy in every character he played, even George M. Cohan. Here he is, improvising a little tap dance on the way out of the White House, after receiving a medal from FDR himself:

Who doesn’t love this picture?

Funny Girl

Watching this film again, I was surprised to find that I still have all the songs memorized.  Blame Gina Weiss, who was obsessed with Barbra Streisand and used to sing the soundtrack to “Funny Girl” during chemistry in eight grade.  It got so all of us at Gina’s table could join in, when we weren’t trying to set the lab on fire.

I’ve liked Streisand in a lot of films over the years, but none of her subsequent roles suited her as well as Fanny Brice.

Fanny Brice: If I can’t tell when you’re ordering roast beef and potatoes, how will I know when you’re making advances?

Nick Arnstein: You’ll know. I’ll be much more direct.

Of course, it helped that she was playing opposite Omar Sharif.  The two began an affair during the shooting of “Funny Girl,” and it shows.  You see it when they finally kiss, in the alley behind Fanny’s mother’s saloon after her first big success as a Ziegfeld girl, and when Nick makes that advance of his, between the paté (chopped liver) and the Boeuf  à la Bordelaise (roast beef).

But you REALLY notice it at the end, when they split up and she sings “My Man.”

Apparently their real-life romance was also ending, with both preparing to return to their respective spouses.  The director, Billy Wilder, kept Sharif on the set while Streisand was singing, just out of sight, because he knew that his presence would bring out her deepest feelings.

Sharif tells the story in his memoir of how the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt broke out while “Funny Girl” was being filmed.  Both Wyler and Streisand threatened to quit if he was removed from the cast.  Wyler, a Jewish refugee from Vienna, made the case most eloquently:  “We’re in America, the land of freedom, and you’re ready to make yourselves guilty of the same things we’re against?”  When the film was released abroad, with a publicity shot showing the two actors kissing, the Egyptian press agitated to get Sharif’s citizenship revoked.  In true Fanny fashion, Streisand got off the best retort:  “Egypt angry!” she said. “You should hear what my Aunt Sarah said!”

High Society

It’s probably unfair of me to start with this detail, but the opening of “High Society” rubbed me the wrong way.  There’s Louis Armstrong with his jazz band and they’re all in the back of the bus!  Yes, this is the 1950s remake of “The Philadelphia Story,” folks, and the status quo will be upheld, come what may.   All the style of the original has been lost, and they’ve added musical numbers to give Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby a chance to croon, in and around drinking cocktails.  But like a bottle of champagne that’s been sitting around, this one lacks fizz.

Where’s the chemistry, I ask you?  Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn had it.  Frank Sinatra’s just speaking his lines, waiting for the next occasion when he gets to sing with that twinkle in his eye.  And Bing Crosby’s just not up to playing against Celeste Holm — of course, James Stewart’s academy-award-winning performance in the role was hard to top.

Honestly, what were they thinking, remaking a picture that was already letter-perfect?  I feel sorry for Grace Kelly, who was lovely.  This dog was the last film she made before her marriage to Prince Rainier and there’s nothing wrong with her performance.  She just wasn’t Katharine Hepburn.  When she says the boat her ex-husband designed was “yar” you don’t believe she knows what the word means.

Watch Hepburn say it right:

Guys and Dolls

My Uncle Lou was a life-long bachelor who called women “dolls” and spent weekends at the racetrack.  His idea of a hot date was taking a “doll” along to the racetrack on Saturday night.  They’d eat dinner in the cafeteria and then he’d give her $20 to bet on any horse she wanted, but if she won, she’d have to split her earnings fifty-fifty.  Either that, or pay him back the twenty.

When I graduated college, I got a job working in a museum downtown, just a few blocks from his office.  We used to meet for lunch in this deli where all the waitresses knew him.

“Oh, no.  Look who’s back,” one of them would say when he walked in the door.

“Hey, Lucy.  Be polite.  I’ve got my niece with me today.”

“You’re related to him?  You have my sympathy, hon.”

“Just bring me a bowl of soup, wouldya?”

Watching “Guys and Dolls” put me in Uncle Lou’s world.  Okay, he never took part in a floating craps game (to my knowledge), but he knew guys like Nathan Detroit, Harry the Horse, and Nicely Nicely Johnson.  Miss Adelaide was the type of doll he’d have taken to the track, and I’m sure he’d have treated her no better than Nathan did.

But here’s the thing:  Marlon Brando’s Sky Masterson had no place in that world.  Leave the singing and dancing aside — you can see he was trying his best to keep up with Frank Sinatra — it’s like he’s in a different movie.  I mean, the guy needs to lighten up, he’s like grim death every time he walks into a scene.  Not even the lovely Jean Simmons could bring him out of his funk.  Watching him woo her in a Havana nightclub was worse than having a root canal.

One final complaint:  Frank Sinatra should have been the one to sing “Luck be a Lady.”  Here’s Old Blue Eyes in Vegas, singing “Luck be a Lady” the way it was meant to be sung:

(26 December 2010)

Auntie Mame

Rosalind Russell’s performance is over the top, from start to finish.  The costumes.  The arched eyebrow.  The tart one-liners.  Like Patrick, the orphaned nephew who is thrown into Auntie Mame’s crazy world, you really have no choice.  Either you go along for the ride, or you’ll turn into a stuffy old lawyer like Patrick’s guardian, Mr. Babcock.

“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” says Mame.  Take her word for it and load up your plate.  There’s so much to enjoy about this film.  Mame’s parties, where an avant-garde Russian composer rubs shoulders with an Indian Raja, the bohemian founder of a progressive school where children and teachers romp around stark naked, and other free spirits.  Mame’s around-the-world trips with her new husband, oilman and southern gentleman Beaureguard Burnside.  Poor Beau is always trying to get the perfect shot of Mame, climbing up the Eiffel Tower or dangling precariously—a tad too precariously, as it turns out—from the Matterhorn.

Russell isn’t the only one who’s first-rate in this movie.  Coral Browne is delightful as Mame’s best friend, the perpetually drunk actress Vera Charles.  Then there’s Peggy Cass (so this is what she did before To Tell the Truth…)  Cass plays Mame’s self-effacing secretary, Agnes Gooch, who lives it up, all right, but can’t remember a thing afterwards.  “I lived,” she tells Mame’s Japanese houseboy,  “I gotta find out what to do now!”  And don’t miss Lee Patrick and Willard Waterson as the idiot WASP parents of Patrick’s idiot WASP fiancée.  When they find out that she’s bought the property next door to their exclusive Connecticut estate and intends to turn it into a home for orphaned Jewish refugees, you can enjoy their horrified reactions without a twinge of guilt.  Snobs and stuffed shirts get their just desserts.  The rest of us will feast at Auntie Mame’s banquet of life.

(10 February 2011)