M&Ms for Christmas (Mamoulian, Minnelli and M. Mouse)

WEA Sydney Film Society, Sunday 19 December

At noon: The Night Before Christmas (aka Santa’s Toys) (1933) USA 8m Technicolor D: Wilfred Jackson. A Disney Silly Symphony of the classic poem reissued under its new title after deletion of racist humour.

12.15pm: Summer Holiday (1946) USA 92m Technicolor D: Rouben Mamoulian, with Mickey Rooney, Gloria DeHaven, Walter Huston, Frank Morgan, Agnes Moorehead, Butch Jenkins, Marilyn Maxwell. Light hearted musical version of Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy “Ah, Wilderness!”, displaying Mamoulian’s characteristic obsessions with colour and design and his belief that songs should grow naturally out of the narrative and carry it forward, not bring it to a halt.

2.25pm: Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) USA 26m Technicolor D: Burney Mattison. Disney version of the Dickens classic with Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit and Scrooge McDuck in the role he was born to play. Much more fun than it sounds.

3.50pm: The Band Wagon (1953) USA 112m Technicolor D: Vincente Minnelli, with Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Jack Buchanan, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray, Robert Gist. The MGM Freed unit at the top of its game with mise en scène by Minnelli, dancing by Fred and Cyd, a witty script by Comden and Green and evergreen tunes from Astaire’s early stage reviews topped of by the spoof Spillane Girl Hunt ballet. Now that’s entertainment!

The Night Before Christmas (aka Santa’s Toys)

1933 USA 8m Technicolor
directed by Wilfred Jackson

Walt Disney Productions. Producer, Walt Disney; animator, Dick Huemer (uncredited); score and adaptation, Leigh Harline (uncredited); poem, Clement Clarke Moore (uncredited); singer, Donald Novis (uncredited).

This cartoon was made when the studio was still exploring the possibilities of the new three-strip technicolor process. As a result it benefits from a rainbow collage of colours and experiments with more elaborate animation effects unusual at the time (National Film and Video Lending Service catalogue synopsis).

Disney’s version of the well-known poem The Night Before Christmas was reissued as Santa’s Toys after deletion of racist humour (a white child gets a black-face from chimney soot, Amos and Andy dolls play with a black doll that says “Mammy”) which was apparently OK back in 1933.

Disney was accused of refusing to list production credits on his short films to maintain the public’s belief that he made them all single-handed. Then, with Snow White in 1940, even he realised he could no longer maintain that illusion.

Summer Holiday

USA 1948 92m Technicolor
directed by Rouben Mamoulian

MGM. Producer, Arthur Freed; writers, Irving Brecher and Jean Holloway from the screenplay by Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett based on Eugene O’Neill’s play Ah Wilderness!; cinematographer, Charles Schoenbaum; film editor, Albert Akst; art directors, Cedric Gibbons, Jack Martin Smith; composer, Harry Warren; lyricist, Ralph Blane; musical director, Lennie Hayton; orchestrator, Conrad Salinger; assistant director, Wallace Worsley Jr.

Mickey Rooney (Richard Miller), Gloria DeHaven (Muriel McComber), Walter Huston (Nat Miller), Selina Royle (Mrs Miller), Frank Morgan (Uncle Sid Davis), Agnes Moorehead (Cousin Lily), Michael Kirby (Arthur Miller), Shirley Johns (Mildred Miller), Butch Jenkins (Tommy Miller), Ann Francis (Elsie Rand), Terry Moore (hatcheck girl), Emory Parnell (bartender).

A musical version of “Ah, Wilderness!”, Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, about an extended family living in an idealised small Connecticut town in 1906: Nat and Essie Miller, their four children and two unmarried in-laws live in the sort of loving family environment O’Neill never knew. His own family was much closer to the tragic Tyrones of his Long Day’s Journey into Night. Richard Miller, the sensitive intellectual middle son in Ah, Wilderness!, was O’Neill’s alter ego, railing against bourgeois morality, proclaiming revolutionary ideas from Carlyle and alarming his sexually repressed sweetheart Muriel with passionate verse from Omar Khayyam and Swinburne. Although alcohol played a disastrous role in O’Neill’s own life, here he treated it as a minor evil – Uncle Sid’s chronic inebriation is a source of merriment to the Miller family, although a barrier to his wooing of prim Cousin Lily.

Much was expected from Summer Holiday. Producer Arthur Freed hoped to repeat the success of Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St Louis, also a story about the little joys and sorrows of a middle class family around the turn of the 20th century. Mickey Rooney, who had played the youngest son in Clarence Brown’s 1935 film version, was now set to play the key role of Richard, and familiar MGM contract favourites would fill other roles. Hollywood veteran Harry Warren had written the tunes and Ralph Blane the lyrics, with the Stanley Steamer intended as a follow up to their popular Trolley Song from the earlier film. Vincente Minnelli would have been the obvious choice to direct but Freed chose Rouben Mamoulian.

Russian born of Armenian descent, Mamoulian trained at the Moscow Arts Theatre under Stanislavsky. After further study in London he migrated to the US in 1923, directed opera and operetta at the George Eastman Theater and later directed plays for the Theater Guild. He went on to reinvigorate the Broadway music theatre with serious musicals – Porgy and Bess (1935), Oklahoma (1943), Carousel (1945) and Lost in the Stars (1949) – where songs progressed, rather than punctuated, the story line.

He had also been an active innovator in cinema. For Applause (1929) he freed the early sound camera from its soundproof booth and, ignoring touchy sound recordists’ warnings, used more than one microphone, then dubbed and mixed sound as necessary. In Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) he achieved Frederic March’s transformations with lens filters and special makeup, to avoid cutting away. For Love Me Tonight (1932) he employed spoken rhymed couplets as bridges from the dialogue into Lorenz Hart’s sophisticated lyrics. In Becky Sharp (1935), the first feature in three-strip Technicolor, his overriding interest was colour co-ordination, sometimes using colour thematically rather than realistically.

Mamoulian personally secured O’Neill’s blessing for the adaptation, even after warning him “the more I revere your work, the bolder I must be in changing it”. On the set he was a formidable presence. He unnerved long serving MGM department heads by insisting on scrupulous accuracy in costumes and decor. Once more he clashed with an old adversary, Natalie Kalmus, wife of the president of Technicolor, who was contractually attached to every Technicolor production as a consultant and believed in maximum colour saturation to show off the process. On Becky Sharp Mamoulian had threatened: “Look, tomorrow either she is not there or I am not there”. Mrs Kalmus was still there in the credits of Summer Holiday but the Technicolor did seem less vibrant than usual.

After Mamoulian finished his contract, Freed tinkered with Summer Holiday for months. Four of the ten songs were deleted during post-production. One at least is sadly missed: Spring Isn’t Everything, with lyrics from the final lines of the play, sung by Walter Huston as he wistfully contemplates his son confidently facing his future. An elaborate Omar Khayyam fantasy was cut completely and the rousing third section of It’s Independence Day, where young couples polka exuberantly around a park, feels unduly truncated.

Summer Holiday still offers many pleasures, although its brasher post-war style allows Mickey Rooney to act his role like Andy Hardy, thereby losing much of the intellect and poignancy that the more sensitive Elisha Cook Jr gave the character in the original Broadway production. Mamoulian also seemed unexpectedly heavy handed in the “bad girl” Belle bar room scene. Even allowing for his characteristic use of the colour red for dramatic emphasis – her dress and hat change progressively from lemon to red as Richard gets tipsier – he over indulges Marilyn Maxwell with two songs and some menacing close-ups, possibly to underline O’Neill’s intended contrast between the reality of human sexuality and its attempted suppression by puritanical middle class morality. But these are quibbles – overall Summer Holiday is a charming and interesting piece of small town Americana, never more so than when Mamoulian unexpectedly cuts to tableaux vivants of three classic Americana paintings during the graduation day ceremony.

In 1982 the Directors’ Guild of America awarded Rouben Mamoulian its D W Griffith Award for his lifetime contributions to motion pictures.

Milne, Tom. Rouben Mamoulian: a critical study. London: Thames & Hudson, 1969.
Spergel, Mark. Reinventing Reality: the art and life of Rouben Mamoulian. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993.
http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents, follow link to cteq annotations 2004 for a review by Obruntoba John Olubunmi.

Mickey’s Christmas Carol

USA 1983 26m Technicolor
directed by Burny Mattinson

Walt Disney Company. Producer, Burny Mattinson; writers, Charles Dickens with assistance from Burney Mattinson, Tony L Marino, Ed Gombert, Don Griffith, Alan Young, Alan Dinehart; composer, Irwin Kostal, editors, Armetta Jackson, James Melton.

With the voices of Alan Young (Ebenezer Scrooge/ Scrooge McDuck), Wayne Allwine (Bob Cratchit/Mickey Mouse), Hal Smith (Jacob Marley’s Ghost/Goofy), Eddie Carroll (Ghost of Christmas Past/ Jiminy Cricket), Will Ryan (Ghost of Christmas Present/Willie the Giant), Jim Cummings (Ghost of Christmas Future/ Pegleg Pete), Clarence Nash (Nephew Fred/Donald Duck), Patricia Parris (Belle/ Daisy Duck), Dick Billingsley (Tiny Tim).

Mickey Mouse, back at work after 30 years, with a typecast Scrooge McDuck and the Disneyland All Stars act out a condensed version of the Dickens classic. Surprisingly entertaining, despite a few snappy 20th century wisecracks.

The Band Wagon

USA 1953 112m Technicolor
directed by Vincente Minnelli

MGM. Producer, Arthur Freed; associate producer, Roger Edens; writers, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Alan J Lerner; cinematographer, Harry Jackson; film editor, Albert Akst; art directors, Cedric Gibbons, Preston Ames; composer, Arthur Schwartz; lyricist, Howard Dietz; musical director, Adolph Deutsch; orchestrators, Conrad Salinger, Alexander Courage, Skip Martin; designer of music sequences, Oliver Smith; choreographer, Michael Kidd; assistant director, Jerry Thorpe.

Fred Astaire (Tony Hunter), Cyd Charisse (Gabrielle Gerard), Oscar Levant (Lester Marton), Nanette Fabray (Lily Marton), Jack Buchanan (Jeffrey Cordova), James Mitchell (Paul Byrd), Robert Gist (Hal Benton), Douglas Fowley (auctioneer), Leroy Daniels (shoeshine man), Thurston Hall (Colonel Tripp), Bobby Watson (Bobby), Steve Forrest, Barbara Ruick, Bess Flowers (train passengers), Julie Newmar (salon model), Ava Gardner (the film star).

1953 Academy Awards. Nominations for costume design, story and screenplay, music score.
1994. Listed for the US National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

In the early 1950s, original screen musicals (as distinct from filmed adaptations of stage musicals) from MGM producer Arthur Freed’s unit had reached a new high, both in popular appeal and critical respect. With successes like Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon and a Freed project passed to producer Jack Cummings, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), the future for musicals seemed nothing but blue skies. How could anyone have foretold that screen musicals would instead, quoting a Band Wagon song, “face the unknown”. In March 1955, out of a clear blue sky, fell a 45 rpm called Rock Around the Clock, a breezy rhythm and blues record which had been around for almost a year but hadn’t yet caught on. But as a music track in Richard Brooks’ schoolroom drama Blackboard Jungle, it became an instant catalyst for a major revolution in popular music. Within a year opportunistic producer Albert Zugsmith was turning out simple but highly profitable black and white musicals with formula plots featuring singers and small groups miming to their hit of the previous month, made cheaply and fast as only Columbia knew how. Teenagers rioted outside cinemas and danced in the aisles. A new pop musical era was born. The romantic film musical was doomed.

During the balance of the 1950s, traditional musicals lost most of their youth audience demographic, without which the cost of weeks of rehearsals for the scores of singers, dancers, musicians and technicians needed for most musicals became more of a gamble and harder to justify. Six months after Blackboard Jungle Freed’s next production, the sharp and cynical It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), faltered at the box office, and two years later musicals like Les Girls, with a Cole Porter score like flat champagne, seemed jaded and out of touch. Original screen musicals from all studios became endangered species. In desperation Hollywood turned to expensive versions of proven Broadway musicals, in an attempt to keep its dwindling older audience, with varying degrees of success. In 1940 more than 40 Hollywood musicals were in cinemas; twenty years later there were just five in one year, including two from Broadway.

The Band Wagon is one of the very best of the hundreds of original screen musicals produced over the previous quarter century that, to quote the same song “built worlds of their own”. It seems a more adult oriented musical than most, making no obvious attempt to woo a young audience – the average age of its three leading men is 55 and most of the songs came from a 1931 Broadway review, also called The Band Wagon, which starred the young Fred Astaire and his sister Adele (as well as Frank Morgan, Helen Broderick and Tillie Losch). Twenty-two years later Astaire, in his second Band Wagon, had lost none of his skills and little of his audience appeal. In fact, Freed had already twice pulled him out of voluntary retirement to replace Gene Kelly.

Astaire plays Tony Hunter, a fading Hollywood dancing star looking for a new career in New York, who joins writer friends Lester and Lily Marton in persuading Jeffrey Cordova, Broadway’s aging wunderkind, to stage the Martons’ latest happy go lucky musical. Instead Cordova visualises it as a serious dance drama about a modern day Faust, to co-star an unwilling Tony with Gabrielle Gerard, a haughty classical ballerina . . .

The character of Cordova (based on José Ferrer, who had recently produced four Broadway shows while starring in one of them, with touches of Orson Welles and Minnelli himself) had been written for Clifton Webb, a star of Broadway plays, musicals and revues for three decades before his screen success in Laura (1944). Webb demanded top billing and an unreasonable salary, which Freed refused. Webb then suggested the British Jack Buchanan, who had been writing, producing and treading the boards in plays, revues and farces for as long as Webb and had also been active in early British and US screen musicals.

Director Minnelli, together with writers Comden and Green, used their intimate knowledge of the New York theatre to create a loving tribute to show business, with much affectionate satire of artistic pretensions and backstage clichés. The biggest cliché of them all is delivered tongue in cheek by that wonderful grouch Oscar Levant who, after the disastrous first night closing, echoes scores of backstage movies with the deathless line, “Sa-ay, with all this raw talent around, why don’t we kids just put on our own show”. It’s an irresistable moment.

Because of its stage revue origins, The Band Wagon’s score has none of the sappy romantic songs that comprised the great bulk of popular music at the time. Minnelli used only one, Dancing in the Dark minus its lyrics, to convey the growing attraction between Tony and Gabrielle through their intense and graceful dancing to a luscious musical arranngement on the moonlit Central Park set – one of several examples of Minnelli’s skill with mise en scène which culminates in the Girl Hunt ballet, a highly inventive spoof of Mickey Spillane private eye novels in dance with the splendid Cyd Charisse playing another variation of good girl/bad girl.

Astaire worked long hours with his new choreographer Michael Kidd to achieve his usual perfection, insisting as always that his dancing be photographed in full figure and shown without any editing. He would never have stood for the MTV style of rapid cutting that has disfigured the dancing in more recent film versions of stage musicals, such as A Chorus Line and Chicago, where visual sensation is obviously preferred to the pleasure of watching performance skills. That said, there is an inexplicable edit in Astaire’s shoeshine dance, a (last minute?) deletion where little attempt seems to have been made to disguise the abrupt change in his position, let alone the musical key. You might also hear a trumpet hitting a clinker in the Conrad Salinger’s otherwise impeccable Dancing in the Dark arrangement and it’s hard to miss the sight of a crew member creeping out of frame in the middle of Louisiana Hayride. The Band Wagon is a jewel among screen musicals but even a diamond can have its small flaws.

Fordin, Hugh. MGM’s Greatest Musicals: the Arthur Freed unit. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.
Harvey, Stephen. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. New York: Museum of Modern Art, Harper & Row, c1989.
Minnelli, Vincente. I Remember It Well. London: Angus & Robertson, 1975.

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