WHAT I’M SPINNING NOW

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This album gave the Beatles a run for their money in the 60s, especially in the U. K.  Help replaced it in the number one spot, but it came back.  Then Rubber Soul replaced it and it came back again.  Then Sgt. Pepper’s replaced it and it came back again, rising to the top only to be replaced once again by Sgt. Pepper’s.  The two albums went on to trade places in the top spot two more times.  The Sound Of Music made it into the top spot one last time between Sgt. Pepper’s and “The White Album”.

The battle was similar, though not quite as protracted and closely fought, in the U. S.

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The Sound Of Music soundtrack album is not quite as appealing as the Broadway cast recording.  Maria’s numbers in the film are aided immeasurably by Julie Andrews’s visual performance of them and by the cinematic settings created for them by director Robert Wise.  It’s still a delightful album, and you can see why it was so persistently popular, perhaps as much as a souvenir of the wildly popular movie as for its musical charms, considerable as those are.

TWO MUSICALS

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In 10th grade I entered a high school public speaking contest.  I took it upon myself to compare and contrast two recent movie musicals — The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg and The Sound Of Music.

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I was at the time a big fan of the French New Wave and almost completely immune to the genius of classic Hollywood musicals.  Naturally I proved by unassailable logic that The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg was a masterpiece while The Sound Of Music was a bit of commercial fluff.

I just watched the two films again on Blu-ray.  My thoughts about them . . . have evolved.

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This may sound ridiculously obvious but when considering a musical it’s really important to consider its music.  The music Richard Rodgers wrote for The Sound Of Music is, quite simply, beyond praise, beyond critical appraisal.  Michel Legrand’s music for The Umbrellas Of Cherborg is also very fine, but not in the same league as Rodgers’s.  Both serve the artistic ambitions of their respective movies with equal felicity and skill, but Rodgers’s score has a timeless brilliance that transcends its emotional or dramatic functions.  He wrote melodies that have a life of their own, that are immortal.

Only one of Legrand’s melodies has something of that quality:

Still, there are half a dozen songs in the Sound Of Music in the same class, and no others in The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg.  To be fair, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is not a musical structured around set-piece numbers.  It’s all sung but most of it is jazzy recitative evoking normal spoken dialogue.  What this means in practice, though, its that the great set-piece melody at the heart of the movie has to carry the whole emotional weight of the film, musically speaking.

There are no memorable melodies that provide contrast, that embody the various ancillary moods of the film — it’s either vernacular recitative or the grand lyrical passion of this one melody . . . ultimately a tenuous structure.

Demy’s lyrics for the recitative and for Legrand’s great central tune are purely functional dramatically.  Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics for the Rodgers tunes are exercises in virtuoso wordsmithing — bordering on the treacly in passages, perhaps, but mostly dazzling in their simplicity and ingenuity, a combination of qualities that only a poet of genius can pull off.

Hammerstein died soon after the premiere of the Broadway play.  The last lyric he completed before he died was the one for this song:

What a way to go out, on an accomplishment of pure perfection.

In general, looking at the two movies today, I find that I’m better able to appreciate the uses of virtuosity, the emotional effectiveness of virtuosity, and the dramatic satisfactions of the traditional book-musical structure.  By the same token, Robert Wise’s impeccable cinematic technique, rooted in Hollywood studio practice, seems as potent as Demy’s more personal and inventive style.

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I still get choked up, as I did as a teenager, at the ending of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, but I get choked up more often throughout The Sound Of Music, at the simple sweetness conveyed by virtuoso technicians of the musical form, a sweetness conjured up without insistent aesthetic pretension.

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As a teenager I used to think it was more important to be cool than to be kind — cool by my own quirky standards, perhaps, not by anyone else’s, but still . . . cool.  Now I know that kindness is the greatest of all virtues, that without kindness, life has no meaning whatsoever, however cool you are or think you are.

I still think that The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is a kind of masterpiece, but I now think that The Sound Of Music is a masterpiece, too, and in some ways a greater one.  The Umbrellas Of Cherboug remains cooler than The Sound Of Music but it’s not a whit more powerful as a expression of life-changing human kindness.

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One thing I didn’t appreciate as a teenager is the key thing the two films have in common — radiant and stupendous performances by their female leads, performances that don’t just redeem the films’ faults but obliterate them.

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However saccharine The Sound Of Music is tempted to get, Julie Andrews’s English country-lass sexuality and music-hall good nature ground the film back in the real world.  However arty and artificial The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is tempted to get, Catherine Deneuve’s utter commitment to her role grounds the film back in authentic and persuasive emotion.  Performances like those have a kind of music all their own.

[Note — when I say I get choked up by the ending of The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg what I mean is, not to put too fine a point on it, that I cry like a baby.  By contrast, the idea that The Sound Of Music would also make me cry like a baby one day would have astonished my 16 year-old self.  But I was so much older then — I’m younger than that now.]

EDELWEISS

This song was written by two American Jews, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, in 1959, for their musical The Sound Of Music.  It was the last lyric that Hammerstein completed.

Why would two American Jews write a song that sentimentally evokes the homeland of Austria, which wasn’t exactly kind to Jews, historically speaking?  Because they were Americans — because they were thus bigger than the antisemitism of any country, because they could afford to transcend it.

This song demonstrates why America won the war against the Nazis.  America was bigger than Naziism, grander, sweeter and more generous.  We won’t win any future wars if we lose that grandness and sweetness and generosity.

ESSENTIAL

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This is one of the greatest of all Hollywood musicals and one of the greatest of all Hollywood movies.  It represents a confluence of virtuosity in a number of different disciplines, principally songwriting, screenwriting, cinematography and directing.

It is not perfect by any means.  The choreography is often merely serviceable, some of the numbers are indifferently staged, some of the acting and singing is acceptable at best.  The brilliance of the other contributions, however, far outweighs the film’s flaws.

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Forget your prejudices, if you have them, against musicals, against Rodgers and Hammerstein, against Julie Andrews, and surrender to their collective genius.  Forget your prejudices, if you have them, against simplicity and implausible redemption, and surrender, at least for a few hours, to hearts that are lighter and brighter than yours is.

The Blu-ray of The Sound Of Music belongs in every civilized home.

ESTHER WILLIAMS

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. . . in Hawaii (doubling for Tahiti) — Pagan Love Song, 1950.

This was Arthur Freed’s only try at producing an Esther Williams film — his innovation was shooting a lot of it on location.  The film made a little money but not as much as most Esther Williams vehicles, because of the cost of the location work.

Click on the image to enlarge.

VICTOR FLEMING: AN AMERICAN MOVIE MASTER

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The director Victor Fleming was what used to be called a man’s man, back when such people existed in Hollywood.  A hunter and a fisherman, he loved flying planes, skippering boats and tearing around on motorcycles.  Dashing and handsome, outwardly gruff but unabashedly sentimental, too, he was known for exceptional gallantry towards the many women who fell for him and became his lovers, including Clara Bow and Ingrid Bergman.

He wasn’t, however, “a man’s director”, as some have argued.  He had great rapport with Douglas Fairbanks and Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, who liked to think of themselves as regular guys, too, but he guided Bow and Judy Garland and Vivian Leigh through some of the best performances by female actors ever recorded on film.

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He made first-rate films in many different genres, which has affected his reputation as an auteur, but he was much more than a journeyman.  In 1939, he pulled off what may be the most impressive feat of any director in history, “saving” over the course of that one year two of the best movies ever made, both of which were productions in serious trouble when he arrived to take them in hand — The Wizard Of Oz and Gone With the Wind.

Both were unusually collaborative projects, “created” by vast numbers of brilliant people who concocted the ingredients that made their magic possible — but it’s hard to imagine any other director who could have organized those ingredients as Fleming did, infused them with the momentum, complexity and feeling that make them great.

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Fleming did it by his combination of strength, sensitivity and mastery of his craft.  He brought out the child in Garland, who was anything but a child when she ventured into Oz.  He brought out the larger-than-life vulgarity in Leigh, who wanted to play Scarlett as a grand and great lady, a creature of the drawing room rather than the center of a sprawling epic.  He got Clark Gable to cry, in violation of Gable’s strongest instincts about how his star persona had to behave on screen.

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Fleming imbued both those films with humanity and emotion without any cheap appeals to the heartstrings.  He gave them pace and nuance.  He made them classics, which play as well today as they ever did.

Michael Sragow’s wonderful new biography of Fleming gives the director his due without romanticizing the man or making greater claims for his artistry than his work can sustain, great as though claims may be.

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Almost everyone agrees that The Wizard Of Oz and Gone With the Wind rank among the greatest glories of the Hollywood studio system.  Hardly anyone thinks of their director as a major artist.  Sragow’s book tries to resolve that paradox.

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Ironically, it’s a paradox that probably wouldn’t have bothered Fleming.  Being known as a fine and reliable director of commercial fare, having a reputation as a singular artist, were only important to him as levers he could use to get his way as a filmmaker, among the studio brass and on the set, where it mattered.  Otherwise, he did his work, then went home and lived his life.

He just happened to do some of the best work ever done in the history of cinema.

AN ORDINARY COUPLE

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You couldn’t overstate Oscar Hammerstein II’s influence on the American musical if you tried.  He wrote the book and lyrics of Show Boat in 1927, the most important show in the modern history of the American musical, as well as the book and lyrics of Oklahoma! in 1943, which firmly established the dramatically coherent book musical as the primary form of musical theater on Broadway from then on.

His lyrics were often simple and sentimental, or simple-minded and treacly depending on your taste, but sometimes they were perfect, the way the simple, sentimental lyrics of early Beach Boys songs can be perfect.

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The lyrics below are from the song “An Ordinary Couple”, a last-minute addition to the Broadway production of The Sound Of Music, the last musical Hammerstein worked on, which wasn’t included in the screen version of the show.  They’re perfect.

An ordinary couple
Is all we’ll ever be,
For all I want of living
Is to keep you close to me,
To laugh and weep together
While time goes on its flight,
To kiss you every morning
And to kiss you every night.

We’ll meet our daily problems
And rest when day is done,
Our arms around each other
In the fading sun.
An ordinary couple,
Across the years we’ll ride,
Our arms around each other
Our children by our side;
Our arms around each other.