Friday, October 31, 2008

My Rodgers & Hammerstein Dilemma

I've something of a love-hate relationship with Rodgers and Hammerstein - mostly love, of course. Who couldn't love their melodies?


Case in point: Walter Lang's lavish widescreen version of the team's popular but problematic stage hit, airing Wednesday, November 26th at 10:45 p.m. (est). As is true with most of R&H's shows, the glorious songs are the point here. But are we really expected to forget the deadly dull stretches and arch dialogue that invariably come in between?

Some people do. Most people.

For the record, composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein collaborated on one original screen musical ("State Fair"), one musical conceived directly for television ("Cinderella") and nine stage musicals, six of which have been filmed. The shows that never made it to the big screen are "Allegro," "Me and Juliet" and "Pipe Dream."

The two "State Fair" films (1945 and 1962), "Carousel" (1956), "The King and I" and "The Sound of Music" (1965), for example, were all produced by 20th Century-Fox, while the films of "Oklahoma!" (1955) and "South Pacific" (1958) were produced independently by Rodgers and Hammerstein's own Magna Corporation but released by Fox. (They are now both owned by the Samuel Goldwyn Company.)

Only "Flower Drum Song" (1961) was made by another studio, Universal, and for me, it's the most durable of the Rodgers and Hammerstein films.


The fact is, as grand as they may seem on the surface, just about every one of the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals comes with a nagging sense of déjà vu. This is something that's particularly evident on film because of the camera's relentless knack for picking up every flaw.

I call it The Rodgers & Hammerstein Formula.

"Oklahoma!" successfully introduced this formula, something that Rodgers and Hammerstein would slavishly rework and rehash for the rest of their careers together - namely, the confrontation between an innocent but headstrong young heroine (gingham-clad Laurie in the case of "Oklahoma!") and an incorrigibly sexist guy (cowboy Curly in the same piece). This basic theme would resurface between lovelorn Julie Jordan and petty criminal Billy Bigelow in "Carousel," between hayseed Nellie Forbush and shady Emil De Becque in "South Pacific" and between the title characters in "The King and I."

Even the modern, jazzy "Flower Drum Song" was affected by this by-the-numbers plotting, pairing sweet Mei Li with swinging Sammy Fong.
If "The King and I," based on a true story, seems slightly more progressive than the team's musicals that preceded it, it's because at least its heroine, Anna Leonowens, is drawn as a mature, intelligent woman who's as savvy as the King and knows it. She doesn't take any guff from him; she doesn't back down. The battle of the sexes - something on which Rodgers and Hammerstein commented with some regularity - is much more evenly executed in "The King and I."

The show was a huge family success, both on stage and film.

So, it's little wonder that, toward the end of their united careers, when they were in need of a hit, the team did something shameless:

They ripped off "The King and I."

"The Sound of Music" may be based on a true story of its own, but it is a virtual clone of "The King and I," what with its story line about a man with a lot of children and the feisty woman who invades his household as the children's teacher. Along the way, she teaches the man something, too.

The similarities are striking, down to the heroine-sings-with-the-kids novelty numbers - "Getting To Know You" in "The King and I" and "Do-Re-Mi" in "The Sound of Music." Oddly enough, "The Sound of Music," a show not considered top-notch Rodgers and Hammerstein when it opened on Broadway, has managed to surpass its inspiration in terms of popularity.

Just as the use of children in "The King and I" revitalized Rodgers and Hammerstein's schtick, the addition of nuns and Nazis in "The Sound of Music" somehow made their formula even more irresistible to the public.

This formula, of course, doesn't stop with their plotting or characters. If their heroes and heroines are interchange-able from show to show, so are the big dramatic numbers - the songs with a message, if you will - that are always belted across by a secondary older female character.

In "Carousel," this big inspirational number is "You'll Never Walk Alone"; in "South Pacific," it's "Bali Hai"; in "The King and I," it's "Something Wonderful"; in "Flower Drum Song," it's "Love Look Away"; and in "The Sound of Music," it's "Climb E'vry Mountain." Not to diminish any of these songs - they're all genuinely beautiful, after all - but there's something gnawingly familiar in the way that they are all utilized.

Still, the assembly line quality of these songs is much less offensive than Rodgers and Hammerstein's penchant for always finding new ways to slip a wildly sexist song - one that denigrates women - into their shows.

At least, "The King and I" avoided this.
We all know about "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" in "South Pacific," but in the same show, Nellie Forbush also gets to sing about what a silly little "Cockeyed Optimist" she is. It's a shrewd conceit about Rodgers and Hammerstein shows - having women sing sexist things about themselves.

In "Flower Drum Song," for example, just about every condescending female stereotype is dragged out for Linda Low's "I Enjoy Being a Girl." In "Oklahoma!" Ado Annie sings that she's just "A Girl Who Can't Say No." During the big wedding scene in "The Sound of Music," the nun chorus does a reprise of "Maria": "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" How?

You marry her off, of course.

Even worse is Julie Jordan's "What's the Use of Wondrin'?" in "Carousel," in which all you women out there are advised to put up with grief and abuse because "he's your man and you love him so."

The topper, however, came in a song that was added to the 1962 remake of "State Fair" for musical veteran Alice Faye (making a comeback) to sing to her screen daughter, Pamela Tiffin. It's called "Never Say No." *

Here's how it goes:

"Never say "no' to a man
Simply avoid saying "yes' to him
That leaves the ultimate guess to him
Darling, don't ever say 'no'!"

(* - Rodgers wrote this one on his own after Hammerstein died.)

How's that for a musical invitation to date rape? (The makers of the constantly tourning stage version of "State Fair" have wisely elected to pass on this particular song for its current incarnation.)

There were never any equivalent songs for Rodgers and Hammerstein's male characters to address questionable things about themselves.

With the exception of "The Sound of Music," all of Rodgers and Hammerstein's stage musicals have been filmed with some fidelity to the originals (although "Carousel" and "The King and I" both had numbers deleted after their previews). In the case of "The Sound of Music," however, scenarist Ernest Lehman ("West Side Story") revamped the material with the active cooperation of Richard Rodgers. (Hammerstein was deceased by the time the 1965 Oscar-winner was made.)
The changes that Lehman made didn't improve "The Sound of Music"; they only Disney-fied it. While the stage play had a certain rumpled maturity about it, the movie is all sun and sugar. (Christopher Plummer has called it "The Sound of Mucous.") Rodgers, for example, was encouraged to drop three of the less showy stage songs and replace them with new two ones, for which he wrote the music and lyrics - and both of which proved to be wildly mediocre.

Actually, "There's No Way To Stop It," one of the original songs to be eliminated from the film, is excellent and "How Can Love Survive" is the one (the only) truly adult song in the original score.

And the sturdy "An Ordinary Couple" is a far, far better song than the one that replaced it, the terminally inane "Something Good." Julie Andrews has noted how she and Plummer had a difficult time with "Something Good." "We kept getting the giggles," she reminisced.

One can understand why. The song is unsingable.

(Artwork: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein on the dustjacket of "The Rodgers and Hammerstein Encyclopedia by Thomas S. Hischak; Nancy Kwan and company in the "Grant Avenue" number from "Flower Drum Song," the refreshing oddity in R&H's canon, and the poster art for "The King and I" and its companion film, "The Sound of Music")

Monday, October 27, 2008

cinema obscura: Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson's "Song of the South" (1946)

Movies are demonized for the most facile reasons and Disney's "Song of the South," directed by Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson, has been treated as the studio's bastard child far too long.

There's nothing wrong with it, at least not in terms of sociology and race. Nevertheless, it remains perhaps the only Disney title that has never been hyped to death as a DVD studio "treasure." This is one film that has never been out of the nfamous Disney "vault."

To say that it's been ostracized or suppressed or that it has become Disney's pariah is putting it mildly.

What's weird is that Busby Berkeley's genuinely offensive "Babes on Broadway" (1942), replete with Mickey and Judy in blackface for their jaw-dropping "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" finale, is an MGM favorite and a Turner Classics staple, screened (way too often as far as I'm concerned) with nary a complaint.

For the record, "Song of the South" - half-live action, half-animation - is about how Uncle Remus (played by James Baskett) uses his tales of Brer Rabbit to help a little boy (Bobby Driscoll) handle his parents' separation and his new life on a plantation. Remus' tales include "The Briar Patch," "The Tar Baby" and "Brer Rabbit's Laughing Place," which come alive in sparkling, charming animation - and a great deal of wit.

As critic Sam Adams has pointed out in Philadelphia's City Papter in 2007, "rumors circulated in 1996 and again last year that the movie might finally be committed to disc, but after publicly hemming and hawing over a period of months, Disney announced there were no plans to release 'Song of the South' in any form."

I have only one word for such behavior: Cowards!

Release it already, preferrably with someone credible, say Whoopi Goldberg, asking (as she did for Warners' racially-based cartoons) exactly what all the fuss is about.

Or how about Oprah?

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Brer Rabbit is captured by Brer Fox and Brer Bear in Disney's punished-forever "Song of the South")

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

pesky question: "The Birds Redux"

Yeah, but who will be playing Suzanne Pleshette?

The remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" that Dave Kehr referred to on his blog several months ago is still active - unfortunately.

Yes, friends, Hollywood is still creatively bankrupt. Apparently, no one can think up original ideas anymore. And it's been asked before but here goes: If Hollywood is so bent on doing remakes, why doesn't it pursue older films that don't fully work, rather than those movies that do?
And why does the place always tackle the classics?

Anyway, checking out its status on IMDb, I learned that Naomi Watts is still the only star on board (in the Tippi Hedren role, natch) and that Martin Campbell is the latest director attached to it. Nothing on who will be playing the Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy roles, although I'm sure it doen't matter, given that the computer-generated avians will probably be the focus, getting preferential treatment.

But what caught my attention is that no fewer than six - count 'em - six writers are working on it. Six. The original needed only Evan Hunter. Six writers working on an adaptation of Daphne De Maurier's short story.

Why on earth would such miminalist material need six writers? Any one out there have any theories?

And wanna bet that De Maurier's short story will be barely recognizable?

Note in Passing: The original Hitchcock film airs on Turner Classics at 2 p.m. (est) on Sunday (October 26th).

(Artwork: The attack begins, Pleshette and Hendren in the original version of "The Birds," and Hedren in the throes of an attack)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" (1959)

Disney's most sumptuous "Sleeping Beauty," directed by Clyde Geronimi - summarily/hastily underrated and dismissed when it was first released in 1959 - is back (well, on disc, at least) in all its Super Technirama 70 glory.

With its magnificent villainess, Maleficent (voiced by the inimitable Eleanor Audley), and songs set to lilting Tchaikovsky melodies, it remains one of my very favorite Disney animations, if not my all-time favorite.

Check out the astute comments on Disney's new "Sleeping Beauty" discs by Dave Kehr in his DVD column in The New York Times.
(Artwork: Widescreen images from "Sleeping Beauty")

Monday, October 13, 2008

Lost TV Musicals

One of the neglected sources of enterainment and musical-comedy history is that curious sub-genre of the film musical - the musical made for televison, usually as a special.

Mary Martin's recorded TV version of "Peter Pan"(which originally aired on NBC's "Producer's Showcase" on December 8, 1960, under the direction by Vincent J. Donehue) is inarguably the best-known of this limited species and, thanks to the ever-resouceful Michael Arick, was restored several years ago and made available on DVD.

Martin also did two live early color versions of "Pan" - aired March 7, 1955 and January 9, 1956.

Mounted for Broadway by Jerome Robbins, it originally had only a few incidental songs by Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh, but was later expanded with added songs by Jule Styne and the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Also once available on VHS was director Delbert Mann's musical version of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," which aired on "Producer's Showcase" on September 19, 1955, and starred Frank Sinatra as the stage manager and Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint (in their singing debuts) as the young love interests, George Gibbs and Emily Webb.

The score by James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn included the haunting title song and the popular "Love and Marriage."

And bootleg versions of Rosalind Russell and Leonard Bernstein's musical, "Wonderful Town," based on Russell's "My Sister Eileen" and co-directed by Herbert Ross and Mel Ferber, have been occasionally available. It originally aired on November 30, 1958.

At least these three titles are still remembered, especially by Broadway afficionados, but there are several more - more than you'd expect. Anyway, listed in no particular order and all waiting to be re-discovered on DVD, the assortment includes:

 "Damn Yankees!": The fabulous Lee Remick, who always wanted to be a musical-comedy star, got her chance in the role of Lola in director Kirk Browning's TV version of the Richard Adler-Jerry Ross musical, televised on NBC's General Electric Theatre on April 7, 1967. The superb cast also included Phil Silvers as Mr. Applegate, Broadway's Jerry Lanning as Joe Hardy, Linda Lavin as the reporter Gloria Thorpe, Jim Backus as Benny, Ray Middleton as Joe Boyd and Fran Allison (of "Kookla, Fran and Ollie") as his wife Meg. Unlike the excellent 1958 Warner film version by George Abbott and Stanley Donen, this version kept the Ross-Adler score intact, reinstating "Near to You," "The Game" and "A Man Doesn’t Know."

 "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's ... Superman!": Back in 1966, Harold Prince joined forces with "Bonnie and Clyde" scribes Robert Benton and David Newman for an ambitious musical version of the "Superman" comic, with songs by by "Bye, Bye Birdie's" Charles Strouse and Lee Adams. It was an exhilarating show but it lasted at the Alvin Theatre for only 129 performances.

Nine years later, for some bizarre reason, ABC-TV decided to resurrect the material for an abbreviated 90-minute adaptation, which it then promptly abandoned. It was televised only once - and in an 11:30 p.m. time slot - and then disappeared. The cast included David Wilson as the title character/Clark Kent, Lesley Ann Warren as Lois Lane, Kenneth Mars as columnist Max Mencken (Jack Cassidy on stage), Loretta Swit as reporter Sydney Carlton (Linda Lavin on stage), and David Wayne, a hoot as the villain, mad scientist Dr. Abner Sedgwick.

(Note: Benton and Newman also collaborated on the 1978 Richard Donner "Superman" movie with Mario Puzo, an uncredited Tom Mankiewicz and Newman's wife, Leslie.)

 "Applause": Larry Hagman stepped in for Len Carious for the filmed TV version of Lauren Bacall's Tony Award winning musical version of "All About Eve." It was shot during the production’s London run, with most of the West End cast, and televised on March 15, 1973.

Penny Fuller and Robert Mandan joined the cast, recreating their original Broadway roles. Also starring Harvey Evans, Sarah Marshall, Rod McLennan and Debbie Bowen.

 "The Fantasticks": The legendary Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical, directed by David Greene and Fielder Cook. Starring John Davidson, Susan Watson, Ricardo Montalban, Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway. Broadcast date: October 18, 1964 (Hallmark Hall of Fame).

(Note: "The Fantasticks" would, of course, be eventually filmed by Michael Ritchie for United Artists - and deconstructed mercilessly (i.e., heavily edited) by Francis Ford Coppola. Funny how Coppola adds extra footage to his own films and subtracts it from the work of other directors. Hopefully, one day, MGM Home Entertainment will distrubute Ritchie's original version.)

 "I Do! I Do!": Another musical by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, based on the Jan De Hartog two-character play, "The Four Poster," which takes place entirely in the bedroom of a couple married for 50 years. Lee Remick and Hal Linden played the roles essayed by Mary Martin and Robert Preston on stage. Directed by Gower Champion, who originally wanted to do it as a film with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Included in the score: "My Cup Runneth Over with Love." Broadcast date: 1982.

 "Dames at Sea": The campy off-Broadway musical, filmed with Ann-Margret, Anne Meara, Ann Miller, Havey Evans and Fred Gwynne. Broadcast date: December, 1971.

 "Meet Me in St.Louis": The estimable George Schafer directed - now get this - Jane Powell, Tab Hunter, Jeanne Crain, Myrna Loy, Lois Nettleton, Ed Wynn, Reta Shaw, Walter Pidgeon and Patty Duke, as Tootie, in this version of the enduring Vincente Minnelli-Judy Garland original film musical. Broadcast date: April 26, 1959.

 "Kiss Me, Kate": Shot several times for TV - in 1958 by George Schafer with most of the original Broadway cast (Alfred Drake, Patricia Morrison and Julie Wilson), and ten years later, in 1968, by Paul Bogart with then-husband-and wife team, Robert Goulet and Carol Lawrence, and Jessica Walter, Michael Callan, Jules Munchin and Marty Ingels. Broadcast date of the 1968 version: March 25.

 "Carousel": With Robert Goulet (again) as Billy Bigelow and then-newcomer Mary Grover as Julie Jordan. Broadcast date: May 7, 1967.

 "Brigadoon": Yet another with Goulet, who starred under the director of Fielder Cook with Sally Anne Howes, Peter Falk and Marlyn Mason. Broadcast date: October 15, 1966.

 "Annie Get Your Gun": Mary Martin played Annie Oakley to John Raitt's Frank Butler in Vincent J. Donehue's televersion of the Irving Berlin musical. Broadcast date: October 28, 1957.

 "Evening Primrose": An original Stephen Sodheim musical, written especially for TV by playwright James Goldman from a short story by James Collier. Anthony Perkins starred opposite Charmian Carr (of "The Sound of Music") as a poet who lives clandestinely in a department story. (It was filmed at Stern Brothers Department Store on West 23rd Street by director Paul Bogart.) Broadcast date: November 16, 1966.

And, finally, getting back to "Peter Pan," there was yet another version - shown on December 12, 1976 and starring Mia Farrow as Peter and Danny Kaye as Captain Hook. It had a new score by by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse.

(Artwork: Publicity shot of the TV cast - John Davidson, Susan Watson, Ricardo Montalban, Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway - of "The Fantasticks," and Ann-Margret in "Dames at Sea")

Saturday, October 11, 2008

cinema obscura: René Clement's "Le Passager de la Pluie"/"Rider on the Rain" (1969)

The Charles Bronson film, "Rider on the Rain," is hardly remembered these days. But even less known is its original French version, "Le Passager de la Pluie."

Say what?

When director René Clement and Bronson got together in 1969 to film a disturbing thriller about rape, they elected to film each scene twice -- first in French (with Bronson speaking French) and then in English. The film is "Le Passager de la Pluie"/"Rider on the Rain." Both versions were released in the United states - the French version in New York and the English-language version, well, everywhere else.

Today, only the English language version prevails. The French is even difficult to find in France. So why doesn't some resourceful DVD genius put out a two-disc version of the film with both languages represented?

Certainly René Clement - who also directed "Forbidden Games" and "Plein Soleil" ("Purple Noon"), among other French-language classics - deserves it.

BTW, the script was written by Sebastien Japrisot, one of the great French mystery writers.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Posters for the respective French and American releases of "Le Passager de la Pluie"/"Rider on the Rain," distributed in America by AVCO-Embassy)

Friday, October 10, 2008

cinema obscura: Sidney Lumet's "Child's Play" (1972) and John Mackenzie's "Unman, Wittering and Zigo" (1971)

Effectively buried by the Chucky franchise, Sidney Lumet's "Child's Play" was the second film produced by stage hand David Merrick under his contract with Paramount Pictures. (His first was Robert Redford's "The Great Gatsby.") Merrick, who also produced the Robert Marasco play that starred Pat Hingle, Fritz Weaver and Ken Howard, had recruited Marlon Brando, James Mason and Beau Bridges, respectively, to play the lead roles.

Brando, his career at a low point (remember, this was prior to his "Godfather" comeback), balked when he realized Mason had more lines and bolted the production. Merrick, true to form, sued Brando, bringing in Robert Preston, then enjoying a post-"Music Man" career revival, to take over the role. Preston also starred in "Junior Bonner" for Sam Peckinpah the same year.

Marasco's play, adapted here by Leon Prochnik, is a tingly to-do set at an all-boys Catholic boarding school where two teachers - one, played by Preston, popular with the boys, and the other, played by Mason, despised by them - are engaged in a nasty feud that seems to have brought out the darker side of the school in unsettling ways. Suddenly, violence overtakes the student body. Caught between the two teachers - and caught up in the rampant sadism overtaking the school - is its new gym instructor (Bridges), a former student there.

This is by no means a great film - it is clearly second-tier Lumet - but the filmmaker effectively creates a creepy ambience and Mason, Bridges and particularly Preston do wonders with their roles. All in all, it works as an unnerving provocation. Its bizarre disappearance from the movie landscape is hardly deserved.

Working as a companion film to Lumet's movie - and working more successfully in general - is John Mackenzie's "Unman, Wittering and Zigo," made a year earlier, also by Paramount, and also based on a play (by Gilles Cooper) and also set in a boys' school where mayhem reigns.

David Hemmings plays a new teacher who comes to suspect that the man he replaced was murdered by the students, with escalating paranoia and mistrust taking over.

Mackenzie, who would go on to direct "The Last Good Friday," "The Honorary Consul" and "The Fourth Protocol," oversees everything with a chilly precision that Hitchcock would appreciate. Mackenzie takes familiar material and reinvents the form with a disconcerting jump-cut style that effectively keeps us on edge and with luscious and scenic cinematography.

The film's unusual title, incidentally, refers to the last three names on Hemmings' daily role call. Of course, the Zigo of the title could be a left-handed trubute to French filmmaker Jean Vigo who directed the grand-daddy of all malevolent boys-school thrillers - "Zero for Conduct"/"Le Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au collège"(1933).

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Poster art from Paramount's "Child's Play" and "Unman, Wittering and Zigo"; still shot of Robert Preston in "Child's Play")

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Who Is Sarah Palin?

OK, here's a new parlor game, inspired by the recent debate between the vice presidential nominees and the various "folkisms" (is that even a word?) and the ubiquitous winks that Republican nominee Sarah Palin affected for the occasion:

Which movie character best represents Governor Palin?...

Tracy Flick
Alexander Payne's
"Election" (1999)

Suzanne Stone Maretto
Gus Van Sant's
"To Die For" (1995)

"Lonesome" Rhodes
Elia Kazan's
"A Face in the Crowd" (1957)
Raymond Shaw
John Frankenheimer's
"The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)

Marge Gunderson
The Coen Brothers'
"Fargo" (1996)

Suggestions? Complaints? Feel free to disagree, participate or comment.

(Artwork: Sarah and her would-be interpretors - Reese, Nicole, Andy, Laurence and Francis)