Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bloomer Girl, Dearest Enemy

Santa, who knows my passions, gave me two videos that I cherish.  One is the Rodgers & Hart musical Dearest Enemy, the other is Bloomer Girl, written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg.  Both shows were television productions, in 1955 and 1956.  They are black and white videos, and the technical quality is, well, primitive. But the material! Let me tell you about them.

Both are set against the definitive wars of our country. The American Revolution supplies the plot for Dearest Enemy, which opened in 1925, just months after the Rodgers & Hart breakthrough review, The Garrick Gaieties.  Dearest Enemy was thus the first book musical written by the pair of youngsters. (Rodgers was only 23.) The story line: General Howe and his contingent of British soldiers are bent on capturing George Washington, who is planning to rendezvous with one of his officers. The British are staying at the New York inn of Mrs. Murray, and Mrs. Murray and the other women at the inn contrive to detain the British long enough to spoil their plan. You can fill in the blanks. The romantic leads are played by Robert Sterling (a British officer) and Anne Jeffreys (one of the American contrivers).  The comic relief is furnished by two old pros, Cyril Ritchard as General Howe and Cornelia Otis Skinner as Mrs. Murray. Only one song had lasting popularity: Here in My Arms.  Here’s a Kiss gave a hint of the melodic treasures that Rodgers would give us over the decades to come, and Cheerio and Sweet Peter (Stuyvesant) were good  novelty songs. The show was telecast (live, of course) on November 26, 1955.  The credits include co-scripter Neil Simon and producer Max Liebman, best remembered today (by those old enough) as the creator of Your Show of Shows.

The other video, Bloomer Girl, is one of the great musicals of the 40s.  Composer Harold Arlen and lyricist “Yip” Harburg had teamed up five years earlier to give the world the score for The Wizard of Oz, and the two outdid themselves in Bloomer Girl, with one blockbuster song after another, including Evelina, The Eagle and Me, Right as the Rain, When the Boys Come Home, and Sunday at Cicero Falls (with the memorable line “virtue is its own revenge”).  The television cast is top-drawer, headed by Barbara Cook (pre-Marian the Librarian, pre-Cunegonde), with Keith Andes, Carmen Mathews, and Paul Ford providing strong support.  Agnes DeMille  staged the dances, and four of the dancers were in the original cast in 1944. (The television production was aired on May 28, 1956.) The title refers to the women’s campaign to replace hoop skirts with bloomers, but the weightier theme is the country’s schism over slavery. Harburg, always an ardent liberal, wrote one of his best lyrics for The Eagle and Me. (“What makes the gopher leave its hole, trembling with fear and fright?  Maybe the gopher’s got a soul, wanting to see the light…”)  This is a more serious play than Dearest Enemy, but it is still a musical comedy.  There is a war in the wings in both plays, but not a drop of blood is spilled in either.

Any lover of musicals will value the chance to see these telecasts – the only surviving record of either play. It is hard to understand how Arthur Freed let Bloomer Girl escape the MGM treatment.

When watching these grainy kinescopes, it is easy to cluck at the their technical shortcomings. But wait.  Viewers in 1955 and 1956 may not have had Blue Ray or Surround Sound, but they could watch good studio productions of important musicals. What do we have in their place?  Two and a Half Men?  CSI?  People 50 years ago could watch good variety shows, with Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Carol Burnett.  They had The Bell Telephone Hour, Playhouse 90, Studio One. We have big, flat screens – and very little of quality on them.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Newtown, CT

The simplest course for President Obama is to make some nice speeches – as his predecessors have in similar circumstances – and hope that other problems take people’s minds off Newtown, Connecticut.  There is no shortage of other problems.  In a pre-election blog we wrote that, given the state of the country and the world, the winner of the election might be the real loser.  Tonight, as he ponders the wisdom of taking on the NRA, he may wish Romney had won.

But that would be wrong.  He could be the right man in the presidency at the right time.  For if the massacre of 20 little children can’t move this nation to end its gun culture, then nothing can.  If Obama, one of our most gifted orators, can’t move the public to demand tough federal gun-control laws, then no one can.

 The NRA is politically very powerful, with many Congressional allies.  For any politician, a cardinal rule of self-preservation is: Don’t upset the NRA.  Yet the NRA has 4.3 million members. That means that there are about 296 million people in the United States who are not members of the NRA.  How many of those 296 million believe that this nation, more than any other developed country, has tolerated for far too long an obsession with guns – not the kind one hunts with, but the kind that is manufactured for one purpose and one purpose only:  to kill other human beings, as many as possible in the shortest possible time?

In the eighteenth century this country’s founders crafted the second amendment as a counterweight to an oppressive government, and many believe that freedom to bear arms is still our best defense against tyranny.  But that’s nonsense. We live in an age of drones and wiretaps and security cameras and Navy Seals and the CIA.  Does anyone really think that a stash of firearms will defend him and his family against a rogue government? 

It is time to outlaw the private possession of automatic weapons and to require a background check before issuance of a gun permit.  If the NRA is smart, they will take the lead in the movement to enact sensible gun laws.  But if they do not, they will incur the public scorn they will deserve.  It is all up to Barack Obama.  In the weeks ahead, we are going to find out what kind of a leader we have elected.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Old Movies Recently Watched


One of my all-time favorites, this was Billy Wilder’s best movie, much better than Some Like it Hot. If you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat.  A wonderful plot for an off-beat romantic comedy, starring Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills, with the incomparable Clive Revill and a host of wonderful Italian character actors lending support.  It was filmed on the Italian island of Ischia and released in 1972.  As the movie opens, executive Wendell Armbruster Jr. is boarding an Al Italia flight for Italy to claim the body of his father and return it to Baltimore for a huge funeral, to be attended by everybody who is anybody in 1972, including Henry Kissinger and Billy Graham. To tell you more would be criminal.  By all means see it.

Pride and Prejudice

The 1940 film starred Green Garson as Elizabeth Bennett and Laurence Olivier as Darcy. Squeezing the story into two hours required some compromises, which limit the impact of this one and the 2005 film starring Kiera Knightly.  Still, if you have only two hours, the 1940 black-and-white film is the better movie.  Most Jane Austen aficionados (like me) prefer the 1995 miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.  A special delight is David Bamber’s portrayal of Mr. Collins. But my favorite production of an Austen novel is the 2008 miniseries

Sense and Sensibility

which is outstanding.  Hattie Morahan (sense) gives what may be the truest depiction of an Austen heroine that I’ve ever seen, and Charity Wakefield is almost as good as Marianne, her sister (sensibility). A bonus, for Downton Abbey fans, is the opportunity to see Dan Stevens before he was Matthew Crawley.  This is a first-class production, with good writing (Andrew Davies), excellent acting, and beautiful scenery.  Best of all, it ties everything up in three one-hour episodes.

Woman Times Seven

Speaking of Downton Abbey, which adds Shirley MacLain to the cast in Season 3, those who want to see Shirley as she was in 1967 might sample this series of seven short stories, all starring Ms MacLain. Only two of the seven are worth your time – the first, co-starring Peter Sellers, and one other, featuring MacLain as a Parisian grande dame who is infuriated to find that the dress she plans to wear to the Paris Opera has been copied by a rival. The entire movie was filmed in Paris. A much better look at la MacLain in her youth is The Apartment, filmed in 1960.

Romantics Anonymous
Death at a Funeral

By no means a memorable movie, Romantics Anonymous is a harmless way to spend an hour and a half. It is a French romantic comedy about two socially inept people, one of whom, the lady, works at a failing chocolate factory run by a man even more socially awkward than the lady.  Death at a Funeral is a British farce starring Matthew Macfadyen. It has some hilarious moments, but not enough of them to warrant my recommendation.

Bottom line: See Avanti! and the 2008 miniseries Sense and Sensibility.