Thursday, May 19, 2016

As You Get Older

Past midnight at the Formosa Café is no place to be when you’re not drinking but that’s where I recently found myself. The details of why I was there at that hour are not important. Suffice it to say that it involved a conversation which was rather heated and, as often happens in real life, very little was resolved in the end. After midnight in Hollywood, very little gets resolved anyway. Flash-forward less than a week later and there I was further down La Brea at the New Beverly, on a night when ordinarily I would have been at home completely exhausted since the TCM Classic Film Festival had ended just the day before. This was no ordinary night at the New Beverly however, but a double bill of Billy Wilder films that seemingly never play. Anywhere. I do not expect it to happen again. I had to be there. This was Wilder, after all, so as far as I was concerned church was still in session and for this one final night it simply moved over to another venue.
The two films, AVANTI! and FEDORA, have never been the most popular Wilder titles but putting aside how much I love them they made sense as a pairing—both from the 70s and set over in Europe, they each are rather wistful meditations on the past and what it means to us, what it can continue to mean for us. Essentially, they are Billy Wilder as Old Man. Both films have also been largely forgotten about and FEDORA, completed in 1978, never got much of a release at all. With issues that compounded its making, FEDORA is a problem film. Once the full scope of its plot has been revealed it’s easy to imagine how it might have worked better in its original literary form anyway. But along with the right amount of acidity within its story and compassion for its characters, FEDORA also has a power within the greater context of Wilder’s career. This is it, the film says, there are no other chances. This is the only opportunity you have to get everything right and, face it, you probably won’t. It’s a film that basically says ‘Fuck it’ to everything. Like many problem films, it’s rather beautiful in its freakishness. It’s also a reminder that most desperate conversations you have in bars late at night never result in anything you desire.
Legendary film star Fedora has died after throwing herself in front of a train. As her body lies in state in Paris, film producer Barry Detweiler (William Holden) flashes back two weeks to when he traveled to the Greek island of Corfu looking for the reclusive Fedora (Marthe Keller) in the hopes of luring her out of retirement to star in his new version of “Anna Karenina”. Long ago in the MGM days Detweiler had a brief fling with the star which he doesn’t even expect her to remember but upon seeking the legend out he discovers that the shockingly young-looking Fedora appears to be virtually held prisoner in a villa on a tiny island owned by the elderly Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef) and the mysterious plastic surgeon Dr. Vando (Jose Ferrer). Detweiler seeks out the residents of the island to get the script to her but when he attempts to get Fedora away from them that only makes things worse, leading to revelations of what really happened to the star since her glory days at MGM long ago.
With a screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond based on a novella in the collection “Crowned Heads” by Tom Tyron, FEDORA is about the ghosts of the past both in the deep recesses of our mind and in Hollywood as well. The subject of old movie stars was certainly nothing new for Wilder and in spite of how well the film played with AVANTI!—the much more hopeful half of the pairing—it feels like FEDORA was specifically designed to play in rep houses following Wilder’s masterpiece SUNSET BOULEVARD, the most obvious reference point. With some of the film told in flashback narrated by Holden, even if he’s not the dead body this time around, it’s hard to avoid that feeling and at one point when the star launches into a speech of his woes where he complains how “the kids with beards have taken over” decrying the Hollywood of the 70s, it’s as if Wilder’s main direction to him was to simply play it as Joe Gillis thirty years later. Or maybe, having seen it all himself, the character is simply Billy Wilder. Although presumably not in terms of material—though one of Detweiler’s films, something called CHINAMAN’S CHANCE, ‘received three nominations’ his “Anna Karenina” remake has the title THE SNOWS OF YESTERYEAR which is pretty much the most corny, sentimental way of thinking about the past imaginable. It sounds like the sort of sludge Billy Wilder would probably never want to see, let alone make and although Detweiler does his best to push the script whenever given the chance it’s as if he can’t see how empty the whole thing, along with his futile mission to track down this old movie star, really is.
Whichever of Wilder’s post-APARTMENT films feel stifled by their strict plotting and maybe also a little too lumbering in how they’re paced (some more than others) FEDORA actually feels a little like he’s managed to break free of those old structural habits for the first time in years and found a new way to explore his preoccupations. Narratively speaking, it’s one of his most daring films with an intricate structure that almost shouldn’t work, essentially a plot that takes up the first hour followed by a flashback heavy second half in which everything gets explained a la Agatha Christie. I’m hardly the first to point out that just about anyone could guess where things are going within the first 30 minutes (in spite of this, I’ll try to keep the twists and revelations of the film under wraps) but for once the strict mechanics of the plot feel secondary to Wilder. FEDORA is not SUNSET BOULEVARD of course, few films ever can be, and it almost has no choice but to live in the earlier film’s shadow while still offering some intriguing differences to make it a distorted mirror image--the movie star in the earlier film has been forgotten about by the world, left to rot even if she is only a few miles away from Paramount. The title character of FEDORA, on the other hand, has traveled far away to live in exile and is still remembered but can’t return no matter how much people apparently long for the glamour that she represents. There’s a broken beauty to FEDORA which makes perfect sense since that’s much of what it’s about anyway.
The expected wit of Wilder/Diamond is there with an extra degree of bitterness to some of the dialogue but also feels a little buried this time out. Maybe the director doesn’t want to shine too much light on the inherent absurdity of the story, maybe in the end he’s just unable to find very much humor in it like he used to. It’s a film made by someone who’s seen too many people die, had too many people fall out of his life for him to want to make jokes about it anymore. Annoyed at still being alive while looking back on outliving one’s beauty one character observes, “Monroe and Harlow, they were the lucky ones.” There’s a streak of humor the film almost doesn’t want to acknowledge, a deadpan nature never more apparent than when Jose Ferrer’s Dr. Vando carefully explains how he pulls off the plastic surgery miracles to keep his patients young, mentioning items like sheep embryos and baboon semen. His speech actually got one of the most audible laughs during the New Beverly screening, causing me to really pay attention for the first time to the madness he was describing. “How much of that is really true?” Holden asks him after listening. “All of it. None of it,” is the reply which could describe the logic of what we’re seeing as well (although, considering what Ferrer is seen doing during one flashback, maybe more of it is true than we’d rather know).
One almost imagines Wilder standing off to the side of the screen as the film plays glaring at us, daring us to acknowledge the sick joke of it all as if there’s more he identifies with here than he wants to admit. Early on Holden is given some worry beads as a totem to help solve the problem of finding Fedora—an AVANTI!-like touch where the main character begins to give in to local customs—and much to his surprise they do the job almost instantly, something of a reversal from Wilder’s often pragmatic plotting. The message is clear: be careful what you wish for. Don’t go rooting around in echoes of the past since, just like MGM, it’s all dead and buried. When someone wonders who won the Oscar in a certain year, the closest they get to an answer is a vague, “The one who played that nun with tuberculosis.” The Oscar itself, for that matter, is derided as “just another knick knack that needs dusting.” Wilder doesn’t even seem to revel in the nostalgia of the THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT 70s—realizing that the concept of ‘old times’ sake’ is useless, Detweiler literally burns the letter he writes Fedora about their one night together and at another point tells her about old props being sold off at MGM saying, “Remember that big gold bed where you made love to Robert Taylor? It went for 450 bucks.”
There may be echoes of Wilder’s own past associating with the likes of Garbo and Dietrich (asked to play a key role here, she flat out refused) and maybe even the dangers of getting too close to one of those godessess. “I wouldn’t wish that on any man to be married to a movie star, carrying her vanity case, it’s too demeaning,” goes one line and in some ways it could all speak to a mixture of what some feel is Wilder’s own misogyny combined with his fascination with these women who still baffle him. Discussing Tolstoy and ANNA KARENINA one character decries, “He knew nothing about women,” as if Wilder is all too aware of what they’ve been saying about him. The portrayal here of the women in question mixes love in with that hatred, a total empathy combined with a sad acknowledgment that he’ll never have all the answers. It also veers closer to being a horror film than any Wilder ever had before, all set to a score by Miklos Rosza of the DOUBLE INDEMNITY and LOST WEEKEND days, insistently trying to bring the spirits of the past back to life. The treatments Norma Desmond went through to restore her beauty as she prepared for the film she’ll never make are turned into something much more horrifying this time out. Just as locks were removed from her house in case she tried anything once again, mirrors are removed from Fedora’s house to make it clear how much the villa is essentially being occupied by a vampire is living there. The character in this film is a monster but retains sympathy nevertheless because of what Hollywood has done to her, what the world has done to her, the very thing that causes those women to sob over what they’ve done to themselves. It makes them hate you as well. If it feels like that sympathy only goes so far on Wilder’s part maybe that’s because the film makes it clear he doesn’t claim to have any answers to this. Holden, playing the alleged lead role, listens and acts concerned and tries to understand but he’s forever an outsider to the real drama--if the film is viewed from the point of view of one other character (maybe two of them) it becomes an absolute nightmare. Wilder knows how little he really understands them, it’s just the way it is and always will be.
There’s a ludicrous majesty to it all, presented with an old world feel in a place where traditions must be upheld, complete with a bit involving putting out a cigarette that feels left over from the world of Lubitsch. In every scene there’s a consistent discipline to the framing, not in Scope like many of Wilder’s later films, and the scenery is lush but the local flavor of Corfu is almost presented as incidental which makes sense since Detweiler barely cares anyway. Visually speaking it doesn’t quite have the power in some of his other films with Fedora’s villa certainly seems like an attractive hideaway which is appropriately isolated but doesn’t quite speak to the madness we know is in there. But there is imagery which feels appropriately unnerving such as countess pairs of white gloves in a dresser drawer allegedly meant to cover up Fedora’s aged hands, a single haunting phrase scrawled countless times in multiple notebooks and even the name of Ferrer’s ‘Dr. Vando’ sounds like a character who should be played by Boris Karloff. Nods to films not make by Wilder are in the air as well such as essentially opening the film with someone declaring, “Fedora is dead,” followed by the twists to come the film offers echoes of Preminger’s LAURA as well and it’s hard not to think of Robert Aldrich’s impossible THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE (I still watch that every now and then, desperately looking for the good film in it) from a decade earlier which contains more than a few similarities—it’s not too much of a stretch to call this the Wilder rewrite of that film’s concept but his particular point of view gives FEDORA both the satirical slant as well as the sadness. There’s no getting away from this in Wilder’s eye, there’s no way out but the death that, if one faces facts, is most likely not too far off.
Detweiler refers to ‘tax shelter guys’ helping to get his Fedora movie off the ground which also seems to be how Wilder would up making the film after Universal put it into turnaround and was by accounts apparently not an easy shoot. The casting of Marthe Keller was seen as an issue with the actress never quite coming off as the right sort of Garbo-like enigma, which, no spoilers, led to extensive dubbing by German actress Inga Bunsch. When Holden encounters Keller at the Countess’ villa her behavior plays like an actress overdoing an actress overdoing it—one half expects him to realize it’s all for naught within five seconds and just leave. In interviews Wilder wasn’t too kind about the finished product saying to Cameron Crowe, “I wanted to stop the whole thing after we were shooting for a week or so, (but) I couldn’t…I mean, I could, but it would have been a loss of income, so I just finished it. It never became a sort of second SUNSET BOULEVARD,” sounding a little like he wants to move on to another topic. But he’s sadly no longer here to fault us for liking his own film and looking at it now FEDORA plays as Wilder’s ultimate statement about the ugliness of Hollywood and the allure it will always have. It’s his own THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and all that comparison entails but here, instead of a stately intonation along the lines of Ford’s “When the legend becomes fact…” as someone muses over the façade of Hollywood and all that goes into keeping it alive Holden simply replies, “Magic time.” That’s about it.
As a result, it could almost be seen as a summation of Wilder’s entire filmography as well as a conclusion. Of course there was still BUDDY BUDDY to go just a few years later just as it always seems BUDDY BUDDY still lies ahead in life. But FEDORA has an awareness of that end and of how there’s no going back. The film ends on a brief, quiet acknowledgement of the past between two characters which is maybe all the lead was really looking for. Maybe that’s all we can ever get. Also found within the cracked beauty of the final moments of FEDORA is a last line in Holden’s narration which has to rank among my favorite things in all of Wilder—a deceptively flat statement of fact which also reveals a lifetime of dreams and regret that will never be fully reconciled. It haunts me, just like the film does. Within the sense of majesty and irretrievable fate is a feeling that it just misses greatness, maybe because it has to answer so many questions during the second half that the story telling becomes didactic but as flawed masterworks go, FEDORA possesses a bitter grace unlike anything else.
Serving as the sad conscience of all this, William Holden delivers a strong performance which is also free of ego, since he has to take a back seat for much of the second half. He seems to be in better shape than his last film, Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. just a few years later, and his strength is what’s needed particularly since it doesn’t always come from Keller’s performance in spite of her valiant work. It needs to be the performance of a lifetime but, of course, Fedoras don’t come along every day and at least Hildegard Knef as the Countess does manage to find the weary tragedy in the story when it’s most needed. Jose Ferrer also brings the needed wit to his part as if his character is continually annoyed by the events of the movie and would much rather sit down with yet another bottle of cognac. Frances Sternhagen is Fedora’s loyal secretary/companion, Mario Adorf (who took part in one of the best car chases ever in Fernando Di Leo’s THE ITALIAN CONNECTION) is the friendly but ignored hotel manager assisting Holden in some of the material that most closely resembles AVANTI! and Stephen Collins is the young William Holden in flashback. Henry Fonda is President of the Academy Henry Fonda while Michael York appears in what has to be one of the strangest ‘as himself’ cameos ever (of course, making me wonder if Wilder ever actually sat through LOGAN’S RUN).
FEDORA was the second film shown on the bill at the New Beverly and it ended late. That was bound to happen, considering how long AVANTI! is—incidentally, the first film of the night looked immaculate while the 35mm print of FEDORA was faded and a little scratchy but considering the miniscule release the film got that there’s a print of the film at all is miraculous; the Blu-ray released by Olive Films is also highly recommended. Either way, it meant that the long glorious weekend of the TCM Fest was finally, completely over. FEDORA was the perfect film to end it on, with William Holden’s last line sticking in my brain, a reminder of everything in the world, or maybe just in Hollywood, that doesn’t work out the way you want it to. There wasn’t a return to the Formosa that night. I had experienced enough late night cruelty there already and didn’t want to revisit the feeling at that time. Besides, as Holden’s Barry Detweiler quotes Samuel Goldwyn in this film, “In life, you have to take the bitter with the sour.” Since then I’ve gone back again to visit Billy Wilder as I’ve done before so at least I got him to talk to while continuing to look for answers. As for FEDORA, Billy Wilder actually said once that he’d like to remake the film then immediately contradicted himself to say there wasn’t much point in doing that adding, “I want to move ahead to new errors.” Which maybe in life is about as optimistic as you can ever get.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Nothing But A Dream

The TCM Classic Film Festival should not be interrupted by a fire alarm. When you attend it you should be ensconced in some sort of filmgoing bubble that keeps the outside world away. That’s the way it should be. Unfortunately, a fire alarm going off is exactly what happened on opening night during the final minutes of ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO being screened in a rare 35mm print and no one wanted to leave. There wasn’t much we could do, however, but fortunately thanks to some fine organization by the staff we did make it back inside to see the end and all was well. But even this festival isn’t perfect as was also proven by the two screenings of the pre-code DOUBLE HARNESS up in the 177-seat theater #4 which both times over the weekend filled up faster than anyone could have suspected (why the frenzy for DOUBLE HARNESS and not one of the other pre-codes? Don’t ask me--it actually airs on TCM on May 27 so I'll be watching). Even TCM’s Charlie Tabesh issued a mea culpa on Twitter about this but, hey, nobody’s perfect. The festival officially kicked off on Thursday, April 28 and I’m proud to say my team won Bruce Goldstein’s annual trivial contest—I’d like to think my input on a few answers was what pushed us over the top and I’ll stick with that. The big red carpet opening of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN began across the street as the opening night party kicked off in the Roosevelt and gradually people began to make it over to the first films in the Chinese 6. The weekend had begun.
As usual, some of the most memorable selections for me over the next few days were films I hadn’t seen before—the 1964 ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO with director Larry Peerce in person talking about making this genuinely powerful low-budget look at interracial marriage several years before GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. Gina Lollobrigida made several appearances through the weekend including before my first ever viewing of Carol Reed’s TRAPEZE—an imperfect print with faded color but containing CinemaScope imagery that was nevertheless jaw-dropping on the huge Egyptian screen. The premiere of a restored version of the micro-budget and completely unknown PRIVATE PROPERTY which I highly recommend. Shot in only five days, it’s Warren Oates’ first film but also a sexually taut, effective slow burn of a thriller with some genuinely evocative cinematography and it seems like a case where a small cult for it could easily build over the next few years. Plus there was Jack Cardiff’s 1959 HOLIDAY IN SPAIN aka SCENT OF MYSTERY shown at the Cinerama Dome in the one-time-only gimmick of Smell-O-Vision. It’s essentially a Cinerama-type travelogue through Spain starring Denholm Elliott and Peter Lorre in a very light, bare bones chase plot with the gimmick of various scents such as perfume, flowers, tobacco, garlic, etc. wafting through the air. There really isn’t very much to say about it as a film (produced by Mike Todd, Jr. and if you know who he was married to you can guess who makes a surprise appearance at the end) but I doubt I’ll get another chance to experience Smell-O-Vision anytime soon. Maybe that’s for the best but I’m still glad I went. I particularly liked the garlic scent, actually.
And there were the films I’d already seen and chose to revisit for the pure pleasure of it—John Garfield’s final film HE RAN ALL THE WAY playing to a packed house at the Egyptian, for one. Director John Berry’s son Dennis was there to discuss his father’s life and how his family fled the country via Canada for France after Berry was named before HUAC. It’s very much a blacklist film what with the involvement of Garfield, Berry as well as Dalton Trumbo among the writers and such paranoia informs everything about it. Those extra layers give sympathy to the two-bit crook played by John Garfield while adding depth to this fairly grimy DESPERATE HOURS knockoff as it reaches its final moments. 101 year-old Norman Lloyd, also in the film, was there as well and waved to the crowd who gave him a rousing ovation. The restored version of Godard’s BAND OF OUTSIDERS also played with Anna Karina in attendance to discuss how she first came to work with the director she later married and Alec Baldwin interviewed Angela Lansbury at the Chinese before Frankenheimer’s forever brilliant THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. On Saturday, also playing to a packed house at the Chinese, was Carl Reiner’s DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID followed by an hour-long discussion with actress/author/TCM host Illeana Douglas and 94-year-old Reiner about his legendary career, ranging from his beginnings to the film we had just seen. It was a true highlight of the weekend, with Douglas once again proving herself as one of the best interviewers among the regular TCM faces and Reiner was in top form. No one there will ever forget his story about asking George Burns about his sex life during the making of OH, GOD!, that’s for sure. Plus there were multiple talks with Elliott Gould including a career discussion with Baldwin and another one before a 35mm screening of THE LONG GOODBYE which, of course, I’ll gladly see any time. Life seems to change faster than I want these days and THE LONG GOODBYE seems to change with me but it still gives me joy like few other films in my life so I have no problem with saying that it’s probably my favorite (or at least close to it) right now.
As for one that I was particularly looking forward to, the premiere of the digital restoration of the Marx Brothers’ HORSE FEATHERS may have been slightly disappointing in how it didn’t seem any different from the way it’s looked my entire life, complete with the flaw of missing frames in some shots. There also was no additional footage despite the occasional rumors of longer overseas versions from various sources through the years. I’m never going to complain about the chance to see HORSE FEATHERS again but when someone asked me about the restoration afterwards there wasn’t much to say since the film is essentially the same—maybe those extra pieces are just gone forever. This aside, the biggest disappointments of the festival were my own choices of what not to see since at times there’s almost too much to choose from, such as the screening of VOICES OF LIGHT: THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC with live orchestra which I heard raves about afterward as well as a few other 35mm screenings that most likely aren’t very common. But these decisions have to be made at TCMFF and, like I said, nobody’s perfect.
There have also been some grumblings online about the number of 35mm screenings at this year’s festival which were considerably fewer than in the past and, unless I’m mistaken, only two houses actually projected that way this time around. By this point even I have to be aware that this is the way it is (the main Chinese, for one, is no longer equipped to screen 35mm) and it’s very clear the DCP format is what the studios have gotten behind. Plus it also makes sense if we’re going to be able to see certain films like the reconstruction of PRIVATE PROPERTY which is not only worthy of being screened at this festival but it also looked impeccable in its presentation. I’m still going to hold out hope that the festival won’t turn its back on 35mm too much—it’s such a part of the pre-codes and other such older titles that largely get relegated to theater #4 in the Chinese 6-- this year, they also included Ida Lupino’s NEVER FEAR introduced by Illeana Douglas, possibly the one connection at the festival to her excellent Trailblazing Women series which aired on the network last fall. I imagine part of it is trying to find the balance between the classic oldies with sparkling new DCPs that often (but not always) draw big crowds to the main Chinese theater and the deeper cuts that the hardcore fans often seek out. Some of my best experiences over the past several years at this festival have involved films that I’d barely even heard of before entering the theater and those can often be the ones mainly found on 35mm—certainly here in L.A. we just got the annual Noir Festival which this year was entirely 35mm as well as Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema runs 35 every single night, both serving as reminds that such prints are out there in the world--for an extensive discussion of these matters and others at the festival, including the marginalization of such titles in favor of new films screened digitally at the Chinese to half-filled houses, check out this lengthy podcast with Miguel Rodriguez and Will McKinley. I fully get that there has to be a balance but it seemed that this year, maybe because projecting 35mm is becoming that much more of a specialized concept, the balance seemed slightly off.
Of course, in addition to the issue of film vs. digital there’s the daze of it all, the people you see only briefly between the screenings you race down the street to get to on time. And every now and then you decide to see a film for no reason other than the simple pleasure of what it is. Going with Vincente Minnelli’s THE BAND WAGON for my final film of the festival on Sunday night wasn’t something I needed to do plus it unfortunately was one of those not being shown in 35mm but it seemed the right note to end the weekend on. Long maybe a second choice to the likes of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN on the rankings of MGM musicals I can’t tell if the reputation of THE BAND WAGON has been growing over the years or if I just find myself watching a little more each time it comes on and it’s somehow been gaining for me as I settle further into myself.
Well, you know what THE BAND WAGON is, at least I assume you do (the friend I was with had surprisingly never seen it before)—his screen career over, song & dance man Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) returns to New York to do a show with old playwright friends Lester & Lily Marton (Oscar Levant & Nanette Fabray) to be directed by egomaniac Broadway powerhouse Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) and co-starring ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse). Instead of the light musical that’s already been written, Cordova has a much more ambitious idea in mind to do an update of Faust and even though it isn’t what Tony wants he joins in with the gang, even getting close to Gabrielle after their initial meetings prove rather icy. But when disaster looms after the first preview everyone scrambles together to do what they do best, the sort of thing that made Tony a star in the first place. With story and screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, it’s easy to compare THE BAND WAGON with SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, the equivalent for Gene Kelly that this one is for Astaire — a behind the scenes look at show business where everyone comes together to salvage a potential disaster, a romance where of course the two leads can’t stand each other at first, a climactic set piece with only the slimmest connection to the story at hand and ultimately the whole thing is a pretty much a cheerful excuse for a bunch of songs. SINGIN’ has long been the one anointed by the world maybe because its musical numbers, including the title song, are a little catchier, the whole thing is a little bit cheerier. On the other hand THE BAND WAGON, as breezy and uncomplicated as it ultimately is, feels slightly more adult through Vincente Minnelli’s Technicolor eye, offering an impeccable ambiance that resonates each time I see it again. In an odd way, it tells me more about pursuing what you want to do for the pure love of it and the camaraderie that comes out of doing it for the right reasons. And it’s set it the most perfect idea of a New York theater world imaginable, the sort of perfection that I suppose you’re only going to get at the MGM lot in Culver City.
It’s all an idealized adult world, of course, a New York that it’s hard not to wish was the one really there when we arrive on the train at Grand Central. Of course, cross-country trains don’t even come in to Grand Central anymore and if they did Ava Gardner wouldn’t be on any of them. But the New York here is one that’s bustling, busy, ambitious and full of life, it’s that fantasy of where we want to be. Not to mention how the story is ultimately about limitations, about finding the joy in what we love while also trying to figure out how we still fit into the world. Tony Hunter is facing a dead end in life and he seems accepting of being out of the movie business. He’s not depressed about it but self-deprecating in an endearing way and I always like the bit where, after his train has just pulled in, asks the porter if he could make up his berth for the night before he pauses for one more moment, waiting to head back out into the cruel world. Sometimes we all feel that way, that we’d rather avoid it out there while singing “I’ll go that way by myself all alone in a crowd…” with some small speck of hope still deep down. And when Astaire does that here it’s a lovely moment, almost the most offhand musical number I’ve ever seen and speaks to a quiet pull that the film has beyond the most elaborate numbers.
Along with her introduction, Illeana Douglas discussed the film with special guest Susan Stroman (director of both the stage and film musical of THE PRODUCERS along with many other theater credits) each speaking of their love for it while Stroman talked about how some of her own career including one particular frantic rewrite on a show could very easily have been made up of scenes from the film. No surprise considering all the people involved, the details feel like they come from people who’ve been there and who love every piece of madness of it as if there’s nothing better than going several night without sleep while putting a show together. The nuts and bolts we see of it getting made is appropriately larger than life but never feels too exaggerated. Even as the show is falling apart it feels like the most tension comes from a brief spat between married couple Oscar Levant & Nanette Fabray—I imagine it’s not the first fight the two characters have ever had nor will it be the last but even that is presumably taken care of by his visit to that ‘We Never Close’ bar next door--I still dream of visiting that place which I’d imagine would be swankier than the real world equivalent.
There’s a spirit of total enthusiasm the whole way through, it wants to love everyone onscreen and I imagine another film would push to make Jeffrey Cordova even more of a satirical lampoon if not an outright bad guy. But here it simply feels like a gentle tweaking of someone else in the arts who’s just been carried away in the wrong direction, as he puts it—he may be an egomaniac, but a well-meaning egomaniac. Any change of heart Cordova has when the show crashes in previews is mostly silent and he makes Tony the leader as if he’s remembering what it is to have fun in this world again. There’s no Lina Lamont-type bad guy and the closest it has to an adversary is wet blanket choreographer Paul Byrd played by James Mitchell, who it’s easy enough to forget he’s even in the film (Mitchell appears in the DVD extras sounding a little bitter about the whole experience and it really isn’t much of a part). The whole thing is so cheerful and everyone seems so upbeat about getting things right that when Astaire angrily makes a mess of his hotel suite I almost don’t buy that he, or the character, would act that way. Still, he talks about being cooped up doing their show and that frustration is what leads Astaire and Charisse out into the real world, or at least the MGM soundstage version of the real world, silently joining together in this fantasy Central Park, working out their problems in dance with nothing needing to be said beyond every single movement they make together as “Dancing in the Dark” plays. Damn, that’s cinema.
The film also breaks down my own prejudice to the usual MGM product from the golden age where everything seems deliberately just right and a too-perfect aesthetic always floats in the air. But the Minnelli style it all seems like perfection in how he always knows how to frame things through shots that go on for an eternity and you can’t imagine them flowing otherwise. As he visualizes his world, the artificiality to the elegance feels totally genuine. When two leads break each other up at the impending disaster of their show the bit may very well have been rehearsed multiple times down to the gesture but the looseness is almost surprising and totally human. The songs are what matter, of course, with the boisterous “A Shine On Your Shoes” and “That’s Entertainment” numbers along with the or the ultra-simple and elegant “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan” in its elegance among my favorites all of which got rousing ovations from the crowd (even I have my limits of course—let’s just say you may like the “Triplets” number better than I do) The thrill and sheer pleasure of those songs almost meant that much more on this particular night as a reminder that this was all almost over—we’ll be forced back into the real world soon enough anyway, let’s just enjoy this for a little while longer.
The climactic “Girl Hunt” ballet is particularly inventive, more thematically complicated that the equivalent number in SINGIN’ and a little more fun as well—of course, they both share Cyd Charisse and each seems to be a subtle recapitulation of the film’s themes but the Girl Hunt goes deeper, looking at what art is to each person who creates it all in the guise of a particularly sharp Mickey Spillane parody. “Broadway Melody” in SINGIN’ ends with Gene Kelly alone but in this number at the end of THE BAND WAGON, a film with the earlier number “By Myself “which is meant to be at once wistful and hopeful, has Astaire walking off with his fantasy girl, the two of them perfect together. But the fantasy goes further than that in the ‘real world’ ending which makes it not just about the romance but everyone around Astaire in the final shot who has been part of putting this show together, all finally as one. You have to be who you are. That’s the best you there is.
It all feels like a high point of the entire history of Arthur Freed musicals at the studio from everyone in front of the camera including the charm of Astaire, the glacial sophistication of Charisse, the complaining of the great Oscar Levant and also behind it including Minnelli, the work of Comden & Green and of course choreographer Michael Kidd. Not being the biggest expert on the history of MGM musicals I imagine it also may have been made at just the right time—if made just a year later it probably would have been made in CinemaScope (as BRIGADOON, Minnelli’s next musical, was) a format which might have overwhelmed the intimate goals of the story, forcing it into the too-big Jeffrey Cordova style. If made a few years later it also might have had to contend with budgets being cut as musicals declined and television gained on the movies. The magic might have been lost. Even MGM didn’t last forever, after all. But the final shot of THE BAND WAGON betrays none of this, simply saying that even if lots of things have changed, even if they’re not as simple as they were when Fred Astaire was a star in the 30s, there’s always going to be a place for this sort of elegance, this sort of enjoyment, this sort of, well, entertainment. In her introduction at the final night of the festival, Illeana Douglas (so good throughout the weekend and clearly such a favorite of everyone that hopefully this means a larger role for her on TCM in the future) stated the one word that comes to mind when she thinks of THE BAND WAGON is ‘Joy’. That sounds about right.
I’ll admit, I was in a frame of mind through some of the weekend that was slightly off. Maybe part of it is that pressure of wanting to have the best time possible, worried about what’s being missed, while at the same time knowing that it’s the best weekend I’m going to have all year. Maybe that’s one reason I went for THE BAND WAGON to close it out. I needed that reminder of why I was there in the first place. With all of these thoughts swirling through my head the emotion I felt after the screening of THE LONG GOODBYE made me tweet that maybe it was the only happy ending in the history of the movies. A slightly flip thought, obviously, but if you approach me to debate it late at night I might be up for the challenge. Having said that, it’s fair to point out that THE BAND WAGON, with every ounce of joy that it truly projects, is the rare exception to that nonsense rule I just made up. After the closing night party at the Roosevelt I went down the street with some people to In-n-Out Burger to end things. And we got to hang out and talk about movies. With no rush to get anywhere. With no interruptions. Joy. I miss some of those people already and wish I could have spent even more time with them over the weekend. But eventually it all had to end so I could get some sleep--there was a Billy Wilder double bill the next night at the New Beverly to get to, in 35mm of course. So until next year. For now, it all continues.