Saturday, 2 January 2010

Musical Reflections: Christmas Project 2009

It feels somewhat cynical to write about a cinematic endeavour in the context of a personal fight against climate change, but these are two topics brought together by strange circumstances: my Christmas Project 2009, recently completed.


The Project

For years I had considered going paperless at home; that is, creating digital manifestations of as many scraps of paper in my possession as humanly possible.

There was lots of paper to consider: all my grad school material, 20+ big binders full; bank statements; insurance forms; taxes; photos; pay slips; receipts; and the unusual detritus I so effortlessly seem to collect.  I wanted to eliminate it, all of it, every last scrap.

Not only would it help me get organised, it would also facilitate secure, long-term archiving, allow for web-based retrieval, and (blissfully) prompt the reclamation of lots of physical space in my flat.

The downside, of course, the cost of buying the right hardware to archive such volume of paper, as well as finding the time required to do so. The time! It's not a five-minute job, by any means.

Extensive research led me to a piece of suitable scanning kit, the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500: it takes 50 pages at a go, scraping both sides, colour and black & white, output as PDF. Perfect.

As for time, the Christmas period is always quiet as I enjoy staying in London over the break. I therefore made plans to go paperless during the 2009 holiday on a back-of-the-fag-pack estimation that it would take approximately five to seven days to finish it all.  Clocking I would be sitting, doing little other than clicking 'go' on a scanner for a week, I considered ways I could kill a second bird by improving my flagging performance at Film Quiz. I settled on the idea of watching 25 films of a specific genre over the same period.


eBay to the Rescue

It's no secret my knowledge of pre-1960 film is spotty at best. I was looking for a specific subset of film I could focus on, one which I could really improve my knowledge after 25 sittings.  Musicals of that era seemed to represent a small enough pool where my effort would make a real difference.

I clicked over to eBay. An hour later – and my wallet a bit lighter – I had a fleet of used DVDs heading my way, the full list of titles watched is at the bottom of this post.

All the pieces were now in place.

I should also state for clarity that I enjoy more than just a passing acquaintance with this form of performance: I have a BA in theatre and plenty of experience producing musicals for the stage. It's by no means terra nova, just a period of cinema with which I'm less-than-familiar.

Liza Minelli in Cabaret
*So* the opposite of her mother. Yow.
I write this because I can say unequivocally from first-hand observation this is not a project for the unenthusiastic; musicals divide opinion dramatically and I doubt I would have been able to sit through two successive films – much less 25 – had I not a genuine appreciation of the genre.

To wit: three Jerry Bruckheimer films in succession would likely make me wretch violently (my next project, perhaps?).

That said, I do think there are plenty of accessible musicals for the open-minded but subjecting oneself to a cavalcade of chorus lines is testing for even the most fervent. Be warned.

I needed a goal, a clear propellant to overcome my cinematic inertia. Hours idle in front of a computer seemed the perfect time to tackle this deficiency.

What I've Learned

My project now successfully concluded – 29 musical films watched in the end in time for the new year after a few late additions. Upon reflection, I've learned a few things as part of the experience.

Talent Does Not Guarantee Success

As with any artistic and creative endeavour, individual chemistry and the ineffability of inspiration are as much at the heart of any successful film as perspiration.

Kelly and Garland in Me and My Gal.
Me and My Gal: two top talents with so little to do.
It's one thing to bring Big Name Talent (BNT) together; getting something special from it is an entirely different proposition. This is not a new idea but musicals heighten the impact because of the format. Time and again the studios would have BNT in place on set but either have weak material or actors playing characters completely wrong for their nature.

One clear example of this is For Me and My Gal (1942):  Gene Kelly and Judy Garland are, on paper, a cinematic match made in heaven and this film should have been a barnburner.  But they suffered from boredom, their soaring talents completely wasted in routines intended more for amateurs than professionals.

Also spare a thought for Ziegfeld Girl (1941): the mouth-watering BNT combination of Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner – even Jimmy Stewart – on screen should have been enough to set hearts racing; but they were kept so far apart and given such meagre scraps to perform it begs the question: why were they included at all?

But Lack of Talent Invites Doom

The corollary to the above is that without talent you're sunk. Consider the hapless Paint Your Wagon

Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon
Paint Your Wagon: wrong wrong wrong, on so many levels.
Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood are exceptionally skilled actors, they have produced some of the twentieth (and now twenty-first) century's most memorable moments; these are not lightweight Hollywood pretenders.

Yet I found them completely at sea in Wagon, and not for lack of effort; they huffed and puffed admirably, but both are simply unable to deliver the level of performance required for a musical motion picture.

Perhaps the best counter-point to these two performances was Angela Lansbury's turn in The Harvey Girls (1946). The film is not particularly influential and her role is hardly three-dimensional; yet Lansbury's quality and experience as a musical performer helped her character punch well above her weight, lifting the entire production.

Maybe we should call it the Ewan McGregor Principle? Or simply: stick to your knitting.

Don't Bank on Reputation

Coming into the project, I noted certain films which carried a reputation for quality, for entertainment and for value.  Some of them had BNT; others were famous for Broadway revivals or simply received glowing praise in my conversations past. Many failed spectacularly to meet their lofty reputations.

Garland in A Star is Born
A Star is Born: a star, sure, but what about the film?
I don't really want to name names for it awkwardly assumes I pre-judge films before I see them; yet, some simply didn't cut it, particularly considering the BNT on offer. Some films – such as State Fair – delight through confounding unassuming expectations; but the opposite is far worse.

High Society (1956), for example, boasts Frank Sinatra and the excellent Grace Kelly but could not rise above the mediocre. A Star is Born (1954), the Judy Garland vehicle so oft cited as her finest work, may showcase her individual skill but falters badly as a cohesive offering.

And, most egregiously, Oklahoma! (1955) was the biggest disappointment of the lot, considering the reputation which preceded it. In my view, there simply wasn’t enough within it to sustain the entire production.

Marriage: There's No Acqaintance Too Slight

If there was a singular thread weaving each film together, it was the recurring eventuality of marriage – no matter how fast, outlandish or inappropriate – as the Promised Land for every woman.

Spare yourself a furious retort: I'm not blind, I know these are musicals, they're supposed to be fun, idealised fantasy for kids of all ages. But I've watched 29 films and in all but one (Annie) marriage is either the pivotal plot device or the ultimate desired outcome; I suggest this preponderance of singularity may have had an undue impact on audiences over time.

There's nothing wrong (I guess) with marriage – knock yourself out – but here's one example where I think films go awry: in the boisterous movie Annie Get Your Gun (1950), the titular role played by the talented (if not overbearing) Betty Hutton, Annie surrenders her entire identity in the final scene as an act of submission to a man for the sole purpose of potentially winning an offer of marriage.

I can hardly think of a more sweeping assertion of male power than consigning the entire lifetime of a strong, independent woman to the dustbin based on the outcome of a single competitive shoot-out.

Musicals Remain a Social Mirror

Which brings us to the largest piece of reflection: musicals have been particularly well-placed to chronicle the long-term changes of women's role in (American) society since the two world wars. I'm not the first to say so but with so many films fresh in mind, I can't help but connect the dots.

Carousel: he's just saving his strength for later.
Interestingly, in the musicals of the 1930s gender roles were so assumed they hardly merited mention as a plot point. Though many women were presented as vaudeville show girls, their professional lives were intended less as a means of self expression and more as a showcase to a larger audience of (rich) men.

The films of 1940s and 50s displayed an interesting dialectic, trying to reflect the growing post-war ambition of women but also serving as a tool to rein in those ambitions.  In films of this era, expectations of women as home-makers were repeatedly emphasised and strictly enforced; women who strayed were punished – metaphorically or, sadly too often, physically.

In Carousel (1956), Shirley Jones – who suffered mightily on screen during the 1950s and 60s at the hands of rough lovers – faced Gordon MacRae’s fists for a perceived deviation from her place; and in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), women are reduced to the object of kidnap -- bounty for prairie pirates.

The tension continued to grow and found a face (and voice) in Doris Day, who embodied and reflected a growing social struggle with difficult and conflicting expectations of women as they began to both assert and push the boundaries of power.

The Thrill of it All
The Thrill of it All!: Day as Everywoman?
The Thrill of It All! (1963), for example, is a lightweight film which happens to feature Day unintentionally playing out this very scenario when she is thrust into the role of working mother. Both innocent and prescient, the film heralds larger, deeper introspection to be explored in the 1970s and beyond.

It may have been harmless at the time but seen in the light of history, The Thrill of It All! becomes a much more interesting artefact.

Lest we forget amid all the talk of gender roles, minority gains causing so much strain on communities across the country were nowhere to be found on screen. Audiences would have to wait until the 1970s (and 80s) before those changes were reflected in musicals.


That's it. I'm down the rabbit hole. I’m ashamed to say that one particular outcome of this project is that I’ve learned how many more I've yet to watch. There’s the entire Fred Astaire canon to consume, plus 42nd Street, Show Boat, Guys and Dolls, and ... and ...

List of Films Watched – December 2009 (in alphabetical order)


  1. A Star Is Born (1954)

  2. An American in Paris (1951)

  3. Annie (1982)

  4. Annie Get Your Gun (1950)

  5. Cabaret (1972)

  6. Calamity Jane (1953)

  7. Carousel (1956)

  8. For Me and My Gal (1942)

  9. Gigi (1958)

  10. High Society (1956)

  11. In the Good Old Summertime (1949)

  12. Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)

  13. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

  14. Oklahoma! (1955)

  15. Oliver! (1968)

  16. Paint Your Wagon (1969)

  17. Pillow Talk (1959)

  18. Scrooge (1970)

  19. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

  20. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

  21. South Pacific (1958)

  22. State Fair (1945)

  23. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982)

  24. The Harvey Girls (1946)

  25. The Thrill of It All! (1963)

  26. The Pajama Game (1968)

  27. There's No Business Like Show Business (1954)

  28. Young at Heart (1954)

  29. Ziegfeld Girl (1941)