Monday, November 29, 2010

White Christmas: My Favorite Time of Year

It's Christmastime!!  Woohoo!!  Hip hip hooray!!  It's finally here!!  Yahooooo!!!  (Teeheehee!)  If you haven't guessed yet, I love Christmas.  It's most definitely my favorite time of the year.  And now that Thanksgiving is over (because no matter how much you love Christmas, you shouldn't squeeze out Thanksgiving by starting it too early!), it's also time to talk about all my favorite Christmas movies.  (Yay!)  So let's kick off the season with one of the best classics, "White Christmas" (1954).

Now a lot of people think "White Christmas" is just a remake of "Holiday Inn" (1942), the hit movie starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire that introduced the song "White Christmas" to the world, but it's not.  "White Christmas" the film, though originally crafted as a project for Crosby, Astaire, and songwriter Irving Berlin, has a different story.  It tells the tale of two World War II Army buddies who partner up after the war and make it big entertaining.  As they follow a beautiful sister act to Vermont, they run into their old commanding general, who's down on his luck because no snow is falling for his ski lodge.  So the men decide to bring their hit show up to his inn to help generate business for the general, all while romancing the two ladies.  It's a wonderful, classic-50s light romance with lots of fun songs, dances and comedy mixed in.

As I said, this was originally intended for Crosby and Astaire, but Astaire turned it down, having "retired" at the time.  The part of Crosby's costar then went to Donald O'Connor, but unfortunately he had to back out too because of illness.  So finally, Danny Kaye stepped in, and luckily he did, because the chemistry between Crosby and Kaye is perfect.  As for their leading ladies, Paramount cast Rosemary Clooney (George's aunt) and Vera-Ellen as the Haynes sisters.

I had never seen this film myself when I received it as a Christmas present.  Being an annoying teenager at the time, I thought that it was a lame gift because I was getting something for Christmas on Christmas, which meant I couldn't watch it after that day, and would then have to wait a year.  Oh how wrong I was.  I think I ended up watching it every day for a week...then some during the summer too...until the day after Thanksgiving when it was the first thing in the VCR.  Ever year since then I've watched it a couple of times a season, all on that old VHS tape (until a year or two ago when I got the DVD for Christmas...and couldn't be happier about it).

"White Christmas," though named after the famous song, was actually the third movie to include the tune.  The first was, like I said, "Holiday Inn," song by Bing Crosby and Martha Mears (dubbing for actress Marjorie Reynolds).  The second time was in Crosby's, Astaire's and Berlin's next project together "Blue Skies" in 1946.  (Crosby sings a verse of it in a melody montage.)  Of all the holiday songs Berlin wrote for "Holiday Inn," he had the most difficulty writing a Christmas tune.  Once it was finally complete, he played it for Crosby at rehearsals, but Crosby didn't think there was anything extraordinarily special about it.  He just said, "I don't think we have any problems with that one, Irving."  Bing Crosby's version of "White Christmas" is now the best-selling single of all time.

Berlin, of course, wrote all the songs in "White Christmas," but like most of his previous film scores ("White Christmas" being his last one), many of the songs were not written specifically for this picture.  Along with the title song, "Blue Skies" and "Heat Wave" also appeared in the film "Blue Skies."  Yet "Heat Wave" originally appeared in his 1933 Broadway show "As Thousands Cheer," as well as the movie "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1954 - sung by Marilyn Monroe).  Berlin wrote "Blue Skies" back in 1926 for his newborn daughter and became the first song heard in the first sound feature "The Jazz Singer" (1927), sung by Al Jolson.  The tune "Snow" was originally called "Free" and was written for the 1950 Broadway show "Call Me Madam," but was never used.  So Berlin kept the melody and changed some words and got a new song.  "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep" was written especially for "White Christmas" though, and garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Song that year.

Sadly, no original soundtrack exists for "White Christmas."  At the time, Rosemary Clooney was under strict contract with her record company Columbia Records and could not appear on any other label.  Yet, the soundtrack for "White Christmas" was being produced by Decca Records (the company who released Crosby's first "White Christmas" recording).  So Decca substituted Clooney with Peggy Lee for their soundtrack album.  Clooney made her own album under Columbia though, singing all the major songs from the film herself.  So, because of a contract, the only recordings of the actual cast singing together are the ones heard on film.

One person who is not on any song recordings though is Vera-Ellen.  She is actually dubbed by singer Trudy Stevens.  Also, if you notice, all of Vera-Ellen's costumes have extremely high necklines, even her pajamas.  This is because she was battling anorexia at the time.  With only a 21" waist, her anorexia had badly aged her neck.  Since she was supposed to be the younger Haynes sister (even though she was actually seven years older than Clooney), the aging had to be covered up.  (See Hollywood!!  Super, unhealthy skinny used to be bad, remember???)

So kick off the holiday season with "White Christmas"!  Pop it in the player and decorate your tree as you enjoy all the Christmas cheer.  Happy holidays, everyone!  Be back Friday.

(Post-tidbit:  The scene where Crosby and Kaye mimic the "Sisters" act was not originally in the script.  The two were clowning around with it on set, and the director liked it so much, it was written in, hence the men's laughter throughout the scene.)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Little Mermaid: Good Ole Family Fun

It's Thanksgiving time again here in the States, and that means football, food, and most importantly, family.  So what better time to talk about one of the best family films ever made from the mega-company of family entertainment?  And I can't tell you the number of random references I've heard regarding this flick over the last few days, which makes today's post even more perfect.  Therefore, without further adieu, Disney's classic "The Little Mermaid"!

Released in 1989, it is the beautiful tale of a young mermaid who longs to have legs instead of fins.  When she falls in love with a human prince, she gets help from a sea witch to be with her true love.  But she only has three days to get the prince to love her back (without the use of her voice, no less) before the witch strips her of her magic, and she becomes the witch's prisoner forever.  I don't think I can explain how much I love this film.  I know it backwards and forwards, and I can't count the number of times I've annoyed my friends and coworkers by singing these songs at the top of my voice.  (Luckily, I have friends who just sing along with me.)  And now, my little three-year-old niece is getting into Disney films, and I'm so excited for her to watch this film!  I hope we have many singing parties together in the future. 

This was THE film that put animation back on the map for both Disney and the world.  Throughout the 80s, animation had dwindled in quality and content.  Disney still put out animated films but their last big success was way back in 1977 with "The Rescuers."  Animation had become strictly for kids only.  But then studio heads Michael Eisner and Jeffery Katzenberg greenlit "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988) and a new vibe was sent into their expanded animation department.  Disney went back to its roots and began focusing on animation again.

The first film to come out of this endeavor was "Oliver and Company" (1988), based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist.  "The Little Mermaid" was pitched to Katzenberg and Eisner as part of the new animation push, but both turned it down, thinking it would be too similar to the sequel they were planning for "Splash" (1984).  Also, Disney had not done a film based on a fairy tale since "Sleeping Beauty" in 1959.  The "Splash" sequel never moved beyond development though so "Mermaid" was greenlit after all.  The idea of turning Hans Christian Anderson's tale into a film, however, had been around the studio before.  Back in Walt's day (aka the late 1930s), they had begun developing the story for a Hans Christian Anderson vignette film, but it was never produced.  So when the Eisner-Katzenberg studio started working on "Mermaid," the production found some of illustrator Kay Nielsen's original artwork and sketches from the 30s, and incorporated some of the story elements and designs into the new film.

One of the big changes the studio was gambling on for "Mermaid" was their desire to bring back the musical to animation.  Disney hadn't used music as a tentpole for the story, like Broadway did, for quite some time.  The music in "Oliver" was kind of a test to see if the audience was willing to watch a full Broadway production.  With "Oliver"s success, all doubts were put to ease.  One of the songwriters who contributed to "Oliver" was Howard Ashman.  After "Mermaid" was greenlit, Ashman and his musical partner Alan Menken were hired to write the score to "Mermaid," for they knew Broadway well, having written the successful musical "Little Shop of Horrors." 

As for the characters' voices, directors-writers Ron Clements and John Musker hired Broadway actress Jodi Benson for the voice of Ariel.  Ariel's personality and look were based on actress Alyssa Milano though, except for the bright vibrant red hair, of course.  Pat Carroll was hired to voice the evil sea witch Ursula but she was not the team's first choice.  The role of Ursula had actually been written with Bea Arthur in mind, based on the drag performer Divine.  Unfortunately, Arthur was too busy with "The Golden Girls" at the time and turned the role down.  Patrick Stewart turned down the role of Ariel's father King Triton, also because of a television commitment ("Star Trek: The Next Generation").  That part went to Kenneth Mars instead, who you may recognize as the musical Nazi in Mel Brooks' original "The Producers" (1968). 

Near the beginning of production on "Mermaid", Katzenberg told Clements and Musker that he anticipated it making less than it's predecessor "Oliver" because it was a "girls' film."  However, as production drew to a close, Katzenberg had changed his mind and predicted "Mermaid" would become the first ever animated blockbuster.  It ended up making $84 million at the US box office (over $100 million worldwide) and was a huge critical success as well.  "Mermaid" earned three Oscar nominations, for Best Score and two Best Song nominations for "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl."  It won Best Score and "Under the Sea" won Best Song.  The film also won the same at the Golden Globes, while being nominated for Best Picture - Musical or Comedy as well.   And thus, the "Disney Renaissance" had begun, continuing with "Beauty & the Beast" (1991), "Aladdin" (1992), and "The Lion King" (1994).

So, enjoy some quality time with your family this Thanksgiving weekend, both at the table and in front of the screen.  Rewatch (or show your little ones for the first time) the classic "The Little Mermaid."  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  Until next week.

(Post-tidbit:  "Mermaid" was the last feature film at Disney to use the traditional hand-painted cell method.  A little company called Pixar had created a computer system known as CAPS that helped animators get the depth in shots usually achieved with a multiplane camera and many individual cells.  A few scenes in "Mermaid" did use CAPS, like when Ariel runs down the stairs of Eric's castle, but the system would not be fully used until Disney's next film "The Rescuers Down Under" (1990).)

Friday, November 19, 2010

For the Weekend: Harry, of course!

Well, if you followed me on Twitter yesterday, you know I was one of the many people in America camped out in line to watch the first installment of the Harry Potter finale, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1" at midnight.  (Yes, I'm that kind of a dork.  A cute and adorable one though!  Heehee.)  And boy, was it worth the wait!  So I figured what better time to talk about my favorite film franchise than today!  And if you're heading out to the theaters this weekend to see the next chapter in the saga, here's a little refresher course and my review to excite that adrenaline again.

Ok, here's what you need to remember before you go.  (SPOILER ALERT if you haven't read or seen the first six books/movies...just for the next paragraph.)  Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived.  It's now been sixteen years since the day the evil wizard Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) killed little Harry's parents and tried to kill Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) too, only to have his spell backfire and almost destroy Voldemort instead.  "Almost" is the key word though.  Since then, he has regained his strength and power and is out to own the world again.  Harry grew up not knowing any of his past, not even knowing he was a wizard, until Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) the gamekeeper of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry came to take him there.  Since that day, he has learned more and more about his mysterious past and honed his craft, all the while narrowly avoiding death over and over again by Voldemort and his supports.  The last year gave Harry his final blow with the death of his last living parental figure Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) at the hands of his second most-hated rival Severus Snape (Alan Rickman).  But always by his side are his two best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson).  And now in "Deathly Hallows," the three find themselves all on their own as they search for the horcruxes to destroy, the only way Voldemort will be defeated.  (END of SPOILER ALERT)

I didn't get into Harry Potter until I saw the second film "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" in the theater with my family.  I had actually been banning it (stupidly) just because I grew up with a little, very cheesy film called "The Worst Witch."  (You may remember me writing about it for Halloween.)  "Worst Witch" is also based on a series of children's books, but centered on a girl instead of a boy.  Being young and feminist, I protested the world's placement of male over female in my own little battle.  But then I saw "Chamber of Secrets" and all my protesting went flying out the window.  I was hooked.  I borrowed friends' books, checked them out of the library, and finally bought my own copies to catch me up to date.  Since then, I have seen each remaining film at midnight, and purchased each remaining book at the midnight release parties.

All J.K. Rowling's books are great, but the conversion to film has always been iffy.  A lot gets lost in translation, as most adaptations do.  Of all the films, though, the fifth, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" was my favorite, because it managed to portray the growing anger and tension of the books in the film.  However, the sixth film "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" I liked the least.  One of my favorite books, "Half-Blood Prince" the film left out much of the elements needed for the final chapter.  Instead of focusing on the feelings and secrets that would soon be driving and helping the main trio, it focused on the lighthearted bits of adolescence only.  Since both these two installments were directed by David Yates, I was a little apprehensive about "Deathly Hallows," his next directing venture.  But I was thankfully pleased...and I now have a new favorite!

Luckily, because Warner Bros. decided to divide the final book into two parts, the film production had five hours to tell the story instead of two.  This allowed them to include every part in the conclusion.  You get each intense battle, each moment of fear, and each emotional outburst.  This also allowed the three leads (Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson) to stretch their acting wings and really dig deep into the characters they have been portraying for a decade now.  Every Potter fan will be itching for "Part 2" when the credits roll (which doesn't come out until July 2011...grrr!).

So, in my fan state but also my film fanatic state, I highly recommend "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" this weekend.  I already have my tickets to see it again!  I may have over-hyped it to some, but I think most Harry Potter fans will agree - it's the beginning of a magnificent end!  Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!

(Post-tidbit:  The main filming for "Part 2" finished about five months ago, and like graduating school, all were very emotional about leaving their magical world behind.  So Daniel Radcliffe decided to take some souvenirs home, two pairs of his famous glasses - one tiny pair from the first film and one from the final.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mrs. Brown: From the Incomparable Ms. Dench

In continuing my theme of strong women roles (started last Friday), I've decided today to write about truly a magnificent film that many people (in America at least) probably haven't seen.  It stars one of my idols and is something not to miss.  Today I introduce to you "Mrs. Brown."

You might remember me mentioning something of this film previously, when I was raving about Dame Judi Dench.  Sometimes referred to as "Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown" and released in 1997, it tells the story of England's Queen Victoria (Dench) the years after the death of her husband Prince Albert, where she made an odd friendship with a rough, Scottish servant named John Brown (played by Billy Connolly).  Dench won the BAFTA for Best Actress, the Scottish BAFTA for Best Actress, and the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her beautiful, heart-wrenching performance as Queen Victoria, but, sadly, was robbed of the Oscar (her first ever Oscar nomination), which was awarded to Helen Hunt instead for "As Good as it Gets."  However, the very next year she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her 8-minute performance as England's other great monarch Queen Elizabeth I in "Shakespeare in Love" (which many feel was to make up for her loss the year before).

"Mrs. Brown" is actually based on a true story.  After Prince Albert died, the Queen was so heartbroken she went into mourning for the rest of her life.  (She had also lost her mother the same year as Albert, so it was a double blow.)  Three years after his death, while secluded away from London, she sent for Brown, a servant of whom her husband had often spoken, from Balmoral Castle in Scotland.  It had the desired effect of getting her outside more, out of her mourning some, but they soon became close friends, and he her trusted confidant and right hand.  This, of course, concerned and angered the royal family and the rest of the political world.  Rumors started flying that they were lovers, and that they had secretly married, thus the crude "Mrs. Brown" moniker was given to the queen behind her back.  However, no one has ever been able to prove how deep their relationship truly was.

This film is what really gave Judi a film career though.  Before this film, she was mainly a stage actress, considered one of the best in British theater.  She had a few film roles under her belt, like Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" (1989), "84 Charing Cross Road" (1987) or "Jack & Sarah" (1995).  She also had a couple of hit television shows in the UK - "A Fine Romance" (1981-1984) with her late husband Michael Williams and "As Time Goes By" (1992-2002) with fellow "Mrs. Brown" costar Geoffrey Palmer.  Yet, she thanked Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax at the time, for catapulting her film career in her own special telling him she had his name tattooed on her bum.  (She really didn't, but she had a makeup friend of hers do up a fake tattoo to show him.  He got a big kick out of it.)

Originally, this was intended for television by the BBC.  But once Miramax saw the strong production values and the superb acting by all involved, they decided to distribute it theatrically.  Filmed over just five weeks on location in Scotland, there were struggles with weather and such (there were quiet a number of horse issues), but everyone, especially Ms. Dench, was extremely professional and good-humored about getting the project done.  And when it became such a success theatrically, everyone was shocked and proud beyond belief.

Now, as I mentioned, this was Dame Judi's first Oscar nomination after being in the business for forty years.  She has since received five more nominations (winning the one).  Not only with the fact that her first was gained at the age of 63, there has never been any other person, male or female, to receive that many Oscar nominations over the age of 60, period.  Even actors like Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Paul Newman didn't even come close, with three each after turning 60.  It just goes to show you that you never know when the good things will come in life, something I try to remind myself everyday.  All in all, though, Judi has won 10 BAFTAs, 7 Laurence Olivier Awards, 2 SAG Awards, 2 Golden Globes, 1 Academy Award, and 1 Tony.

So this week, rent "Mrs. Brown" and watch one of the best acting talents to ever grace the screen with Dame Judi Dench.  It was out of print for awhile, but it's finally back on DVD.  Or, if you can wait that long, it will air on TCM Jan. 8 at 1:30am EST (Jan. 7 at 10:30pm PST).  Have a wonderful week, everyone!!

(Post-tidbit:  "Mrs. Brown" is Gerald Butler's film debut.  During a break in filming, he took his mother on a picnic, and while there, heard someone calling for help.  A young boy swimming in a river nearby was drowning, so Butler jumped in and saved him.  He received a Certificate of Bravery from the Royal Humane Society for the act.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

For the Weekend: Girl Power

Another week has gone.  Another weekend is here to relax or catch up.  Another bundle of movie suggestions for you to enjoy.  And this time, it's all about strong women.

First up is "Mrs. Miniver" (1942), starring Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon and Teresa Wright.  Directed by William Wyler, this touching World War II drama tells the tale of a woman (Garson) struggling to keep her family safe and strong during the first months of the war in England.  "Miniver" received twelve Academy Award nominations, winning six of them, including Best Picture, Director, Actress for Garson, and Supporting Actress for Wright.  Wyler admitted after its success that he did make "Miniver" as a propaganda film, to help convince the United States to join in the war.  And it worked.  President Roosevelt had the final speech of the film printed in Time and Look magazines, broadcast over the Voice of America, and printed on leaflets in several different languages and then airdropped over occupied parts of Europe.  Winston Churchill even said one time that "Miniver" did "more for the war effort than a flotilla of destroyers."  After the film was complete, Wyler himself enlisted in the US Army.  He was stationed overseas when he won his Oscar.  You can catch this inspiring film on TCM tomorrow (11/13) at 11pm EST.

The next strong woman is "The Lady Eve" (1941).  This delightful screwball comedy, written and directed by Preston Sturges, stars Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, and Charles Coburn. Stanwyck plays Jean Harrington, a con artist who meets rich but socially inept Fonda on a cruise and falls in love with him.  However, some truth comes out and they part bitterly.  So, in an act of revenge, she pretends to be the English Lady Eve while visiting his family to torture him, causing hilarity along the way.  This film went through many casting changes in the two years it took to get made.  Originally, it was to be a vehicle for Claudette Colbert.  Then it went through Madeleine Carol and Paulette Goddard before Stanwyck ultimately won the role.  As for the male lead, Brian Aherne, Joel McCrea, and Fred MacMurray were all attached before Fonda was cast.  And luckily they did win out because Stanwyck and Fonda are just perfect together.  "The Lady Eve" airs on TCM this Sunday (11/14) at 3:45pm EST.

Finally, yet another Eve for your weekend, though much more vindictive - "All About Eve" from 1950.  This classic drama stars Bette Davis (in one of the best roles of her career), Anne Baxter, George Sanders, and Celeste Holm in a story that's all about what one woman will do to get the career and fame she wants.  Based on a short story by Mary Orr, this was another film that was originally supposed to star Claudette Colbert, as the aging Broadway star Margo Channing, but she injured her back shortly before filming and had to withdraw from the project.  Thus writer and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz cast Davis instead.  As for the ambitious, backstabbing Eve Harrington, Jeanne Crain was first cast in the role, but she also had to leave the project when she became pregnant.  Mankiewicz agreed that it worked out better this way because he didn't feel Crain had the "bitch virtuosity" needed for Eve, whereas Baxter did.  "All About Eve" went on to earn fourteen Oscar nominations, the first film to ever earn so many (and matched by only one other film since, 1997's "Titanic").  It also earned the most actress nominations in Academy history - Best Actress for Davis and Baxter, and Best Supporting Actress for Holm and Thelma Ritter.  It won six out of the fourteen, including Best Picture, but none for the actresses.  All the drama of "All About Eve" can be streamed instantly on Netflix right now.

So enjoy your weekend, everyone!  And if you're in the mood to watch some great female roles, be sure to catch the classic films.  Each is an essential part of your movie diet.  Until Monday.  Later, gators!

(Post-tidbit:  Only a year after finishing "Mrs. Miniver," Greer Garson married Richard Ney, the actor who played her eldest son in the film.  Twelve years her junior, they only remained married for four years.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Dirty Dancing: You Know You Love It

Last week I finally talked about the musical of musicals.  Now it's time to talk about the '80s movie of '80s movies...or at least to every girl alive in 1987.  It's "Dirty Dancing" today!

Do I even really need to talk about the plot?  I know you all know it...and love it!  (Come on, even you guys do too.  Admit it.)  Described by some as "'Star Wars' for girls," "Dirty Dancing" stars Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in their most memorable and profitable roles ever, as Johnny Castle and Frances "Baby" Houseman, respectively.  It's the summer of 1963, and young Baby is spending it in the Catskills with her family.  While there, she meets Johnny, a roughneck dance instructor.  When she steps in to help Johnny and his partner out of a jam, love blooms.  But can they truly be together on opposite sides of the track?

This story came about from some of screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein's own experiences.   She herself grew up going to the Catskills with her doctor father and family.  She was also nicknamed "Baby," which everyone used until she was about 22.  And she loves dancing, especially dirty dancing, even participating in competitions.  She came up with the idea for "Dirty Dancing" after writing "It's My Turn" (1980) for Michael Douglas and the late Jill Clayburn after having a scene cut from the script, a dancing scene.  After shopping the script around Hollywood for a long time, the small production company Vestron finally picked it up.  "Dancing" was given a small budget of $4 million and two months for rehearsal and filming, a mighty task for such a physical picture.

As for the leads, the producers really wanted actors who could actually dance so they didn't have to shoot stand-in shots.  ("Dancing with the Stars" had not been created yet so the choices were slimmer.)  Grey, the daughter of Broadway star Joel Grey, was a perfect fit for Baby.  She was already trained, and she could pass for 17, even though she was 26.  At first, Billy Zane was chosen for the part of Johnny, but the chemistry just wasn't there between the two.  (Also, he wasn't the best dancer.)  They decided to bring Swayze in, who was classically trained in dance, and the chemistry between Grey and him was perfect.  Unfortunately, Grey and Swayze didn't get along well off-screen, after working together on "Red Dawn" (1984), but they reconciled and put the past behind them for the film (which they had to remind themselves about a couple of times throughout the filming).

When the cast was set, they all left for Mountain Lake Resort in Virginia in August 1986.  After only two weeks of rehearsals, filming began, and it definitely wasn't easy.  Summer was almost over so they needed to work fast.  Unfortunately, the weather was not in their favor, with lots of rain and temperatures in the 100s.  Then it dropped to the 40s, and autumn leaves had to be painted green as they changed.  Because the weather drew the schedule on, the infamous practice scene in the lake wasn't shot until October.  By that time, the lake was freezing.  Grey and Swayze were both professional and did their job, but director Emile Ardolino couldn't get any close-ups of the two because their lips were turning blue.  But they got it all done, and much to everyone's surprise (the producers figured the film would be a flop and were ready to release it on VHS after opening weekend), "Dirty Dancing" was a huge success, making over $170 million, one of the highest grossing films of 1987.  It then went on to create two multi-platinum albums from its soundtrack.  And it became the first ever VHS to sell a million copies.

I remember watching this movie for the first time when I was a kid.  It was at a sleepover and of course, being the huge romantic that I already was at ten years of age, I fell in love with it - you know, just like every other girl back then.  I bought the soundtrack and listened to it over and over, and it wasn't even their first album.  It was the second one released called "More Dirty Dancing."  One thing I do remember vividly about watching this movie, though, was how rebellious I thought I was being.  This was definitely the most sexually charged film I had ever seen at that time.  And honestly, I don't think I quite got the abortion bit of the plot at first.  I was only ten, for crying out loud.  But since then, it has always remained in my favorites, no matter how cheesy it seemed at times.  It was always great to me.

One of those reasons is most likely the music.  The songs made the picture, as well as the dancing.  I still listen to "Hungry Eyes" and "She's Like the Wind" to this day.  And "(I Had) The Time of My Life" is still part of my friends' karaoke catalog.  "She's Like the Wind," the great song written and sung by Patrick Swayze himself, was actually not written for "Dancing."  He and his song cowriter Stacy Widelitz had written it for another Swayze film a few years earlier, "Grandview, USA" (1984), but it was never used.  So "Dancing"s music supervisor Jimmy Ienner decided it fit perfectly in this flick.  As for choosing the famous finale song, choreographer Kenny Ortega (who would later direct the "High School Musical" films) listened to hundreds of demo cassette tapes looking for just the right song.  On literally the last tape, he finally came across "Time of My Life" and knew it was a perfect fit.  It went on to win both the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Song, as well as a Grammy.

So, break out those moves you practiced in your bathroom mirror and watch "Dirty Dancing" again this week!  Have a great week, everyone, and I'll be back Friday with more great trivia tidbits and suggestions.

(Post-tidbit:  "Dirty Dancing" was re-released into theaters in 1997, the 10th anniversary.  Guess who was kind of responsible for that - Conan O'Brien!  He started asking his viewers to write a petition for the re-release.  After it was in theaters, O'Brien joked that he really didn't like the film after all.  Oh, Coco...)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

For the Weekend: Much Needed Smiles

If your week has been anything like mine, you are in need of some serious comedy this weekend.  So for your suggestions today, a few classics that will have you smiling, just as the doctor--I mean, blogger ordered.

First up, Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night" (1934), the first ever movie to win all five big awards at the Oscars - Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress.  (This has only been done two other times since, by "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) and "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991).)  The comedy, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, is about a spoiled heiress who runs away from her controlling father after he annuls her secret wedding.  While on the road back to her lover, she meets a reporter who helps her get to New York, only to fall in love with him on the way.  Colbert and Gable were not the first picks for the film's leads.  Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, and Margaret Sullavan are just some of the names that turned down the script, thinking it was horrible.  Colbert only agreed to the project after they accepted her double-salary demand.  Both Gable and Colbert hated the script too when they started.  Gable ended having fun during filming, but Colbert was still a diva, claiming this film was "the worst picture in the world."  Haha, little did she know...

Next, the classic rom-com "My Man Godfrey" from 1936.  The story tells the tale of a socialite who finds a bum in a scavenger hunt and hires him as her butler.  She then falls in love with him, to his annoyance, as he actually isn't poor at all but one of the wealthiest men in New York.  It stars William Powell and Carole Lombard only three years after they divorced each other.  However, when Powell was loaned out from MGM to do the part, he insisted on Lombard as his costar.  (Otherwise, it would have been Constance Bennett in the lead.)   "Godfrey" was the first ever film to receive nominations in all four Oscar acting categories (the year the supporting categories where introduced), also receiving nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay.  Yet, it's the only film in Oscar history to receive these six nominations and not get one for Best Picture.  "Godrey" also didn't win in any of the categories, a rarity in the Academy world.

Finally, how about "Desk Set" starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy?  This 1957 romantic comedy was the eighth film the classic duo did together and their first in color.  Based on the play "The Desk Set" by William Marchant, it's about a group of information women for a large network who have their world usurped by a gentleman and his fancy new machine EMERAC.  Thinking the machine will be taking their jobs away, they try to distance themselves from him as he works, but Hepburn and Tracy end up falling in love anyway, as only they can.  It's a wonderfully fun film and the last comedy the two did together.  Their ninth and final film was ten years later, the drama "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."  Tracy died soon after it was finished.

Each of these great romantic comedies is a current instant streamer on Netflix. So get your much-needed laughs and giggles in this weekend with these great classics.  Each one will make your day better, I promise.  Have a great weekend, everyone!  Until Monday.

(Post-tidbit: "Looney Tunes" creator Friz Freleng claimed "It Happened One Night" was one of his all-time favorite films and influenced some of the characteristics of his greatest character, Bugs Bunny.  The supporting role of Oscar Shapely was the basis of Bugs personality.  The character mentioned to frighten Shapely, "Bugs Dooley," of course influenced Bugs' name.  And the way Gable eats carrots and talks at the same time became a defining character trait of Bugs.)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Singin' in the Rain: True Hollywood Goodness

I can't believe it's November already!  Where has the time gone?  It really seems this year has flown by.  And looking back over the year, I noticed there are quite of few huge favorite films of mine that I have yet to write about.  So, since we've been getting a lot of rain lately here in LA (very odd for this time of year, or LA, period), what better time to finally talk about the musical of musicals - "Singin' in the Rain!"

This 1952 celebration of all things music, glamour and Hollywood history stars Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Jean Hagen.  I know you all know this's a given, right?  Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a silent film star whose career is about to go belly up with the new film fad "talkies," and his lead costar (Hagen) and her shrill voice aren't making it any easier.  But thanks to his old Vaudeville days and the help of a young ingĂ©nue (Reynolds), he is able to save his career by turning his latest picture into a musical.  O'Connor plays Kelly's best friend in this delightful musical comedy, considered by many to be the best musical ever made.

"Singin' in the Rain" was probably one of the first musicals I ever saw.  (I'm not sure which actually was though because all those years tend to blend together now.)  However, it was one of those few films that when I first saw it as a little girl, I was very nonchalant about.  It didn't fit into my star obsessions at the time, like Ginger Rodgers, Cary Grant, or even Lucille Ball, to name a few (I've had quite a lot over the years).  I didn't reach my Debbie Reynolds or Gene Kelly obsessions until my teen years.  (That's me to the left with Debbie oh so many years ago.)  By that time, though, "Singin'" had turned into one of my favorites.  And I think it's because as I got older, as I learned more about Hollywood and its history, I could finally see its brilliance.  Movie critics over the years have been the same way.  "Singin'" was a big box office success, but it wasn't until much, much later that it reached the iconic status we know today.  #5 on AFI's 2007 "100 Years...100 Movies" list and #1 on AFI's "100 Years of Musicals" list, "Singin' in the Rain" earned only 2 Academy Award nominations (one for Jean Hagen and one for Best Original Score) and lost both.  Funny how things change happen.

The simple story for "Singin'" came about when Arthur Freed, the musical genius of MGM, decided he wanted to make a musical using his repertoire of songs from the 1920s and 30s, co-written by Nacio Herb Brown.  Freed hired the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green to come up with a screenplay based on these songs.  They used thirteen already-released songs and came up with the storyline about Hollywood in the days from silent to sound.  Only one song was written specifically for "Singin'" - "Moses Supposes."  (O'Connor's famous song "Make 'Em Laugh" is also considered an original song, but its melody so closely resembles Cole Porter's "Be A Clown," from Freed's "The Pirate" in 1948, that many consider it stolen.  Story has it that Porter actually visited the set during "Make 'Em Laugh" and asked about the melody, only to have Freed quickly change the subject and lead Porter out.)

When Comden and Green were first writing the script, they had Howard Keel in mind for the lead, as more of a Western star.  But as they progressed, the lead morphed into a Vaudevillian song-and-dance man instead, with Gene Kelly fitting the bill.  Kelly decided he wanted to direct the picture as well, so with Stanley Donen co-directing and co-choreographing (whom he had worked with before in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "On the Town" (both 1949)), they managed to bring out the best in everyone, and make a beautiful ensemble picture.  At least that's what we see on the screen.  The production was not easy for his costars.

Kelly was known for his perfectionism, and the making of this film was no different.  Debbie Reynolds, only 19 at the time, was hired with no real dance background.  (She wanted to be a gymnastics teacher.)  Even though other stars like Judy Garland, June Allyson, Jane Powell, and Leslie Caron were considered for her part, Kelly and Donen insisted on Reynolds.  Thanks to her athletic background, she worked hard at the dance routines.  After finishing the "Good Morning" number, she had to be carried to her dressing room because her feet were bleeding so much.  However, Kelly still yelled at her for her inexperience, to the point where Fred Astaire found her crying under a piano, and hearing her story, volunteered to help her with her routines on his own time.  Kelly did feel bad for his tyrant behavior though, stating later "I wasn't nice to Debbie.  It's a wonder she still speaks to me."  Reynolds later chuckled herself saying working with Kelly and surviving childbirth were the two hardest experiences she's ever had to endure.

Donald O'Connor didn't have any easier of a time.  His part, originally written for Kelly's "An American in Paris" costar Oscar Levant, was very physically demanding.  O'Connor, having grown up around the circus (both his parents were circus performers), had a strong athletic history, which is why Kelly favored him over Levant.  But at the time of filming, O'Connor was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day.  O'Connor filmed his "Make 'Em Laugh" wall somersaults and dance routine with professionalism and perfection, but after it was over, he went to bed for three days from exhaustion, bruises and rug burns.  Unfortunately, something happened with the film, and it all had to be re-shot only a few days later.  In the true professional spirit, like all involved, he did it without complaint.

As for the role of the diva silent actress with the horrible voice, Comden and Green modeled the part for friend Judy Holliday.  However, after Holliday made such a splash with "Born Yesterday" (1950), she herself suggested her understudy from the Broadway version as a suitable second choice.  Thus, Jean Hagen got the part.  Hagen actually had a beautiful, rich voice.  So, in a funny twist, during the scenes where Reynolds is supposed to be dubbing Hagen's voice, that is actually Hagen dubbing Reynolds...dubbing Hagen.  As for the singing, beautifully voiced Betty Noyes dubbed Reynolds dubbing Hagen.  The only songs Reynolds actually sang were "All I Do is Dream of You," "Good Morning", and the final "Singin' in the Rain."

So get out your dancing shoes, your umbrellas, and go play in the rain!  (Just be sure to dry off and drink something warm when you get back.  I don't want to be getting everyone sick.)  Or just stay in and watch "Singin' in the Rain."  I dare you not to smile.  Have a great week, everyone!  Til Friday.  :)

(Post-tidbit:  The most famous trivia tidbit about "Singin' in the Rain" is completely true.  Gene Kelly had a 103-degree fever while filming the famous title number sequence.  They wanted to send him home to recover, but he refused, stating the setup would take too much time to begin again.  So, while be rained on by a mixture of water and milk (so it would show up better on film), Kelly got the shot in one take, went home, and recovered.)