Remembrance of Things Past

Most of us reflect on past events in our lives, some by looking at old photographs, or rereading diaries, and others by relying on their memories. For filmgoers the showing of old films on television and the occasional revivals in cinemas must suffice. But when one thinks of these old screen musicals, how nostalgic it all is. My own personal memories are truly overcrowded as I think of those old Busby Berkeley Warner musicals of the mid 30’s with stars like Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, James Cagney and Joan Blondell. As thoughts take us through the years of the musicals the casts become interchangeable. The late 30’s and the start of the successful Jeanette McDonald-Nelson Eddy teaming … Fox’s technicolor trifles with such stars as Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Don Ameche, John Payne, Jack Oakie and always somewhere in her outrageous costumes and hats the dynamic Carmen Miranda … all those Crosby musicals at Paramount … the Astaire-Rogers ones at RKO … the many magical moments spent watching those MGM musicals with a roster of talent like Garland, Home, Rooney, Kelly, Keel etc …

One good way of reviving one’s memones of old films is by playing through the sound track records of these films. For a long time many of these were unavailable, but now with the current wave of nostalgia riding high, the record companies are releasing a wealth of material for the film record collector fans. RCA is digging ud early talkies tracks that even include a song by Joan Crawford, whilst Decca have already given us some fine vintage stuff by Deanna Durbin, Carmen Miranda and Judy Garland.

But the best of the batch so far as filmgoers are concerned comes from the Phonodisc group on the MGM label. They have already issued over a dozen in this series and this month a further 4 arrive which comprise some 7 films of the 1950’s. Many of these have long been unavailable since being deleted from the original MGM label back in the early 1960’s.

These reissues are all nicely sleeved with some interesting line notes and pictures and credits for the films. Remember too that they are mostly recorded direct from the sound-tracks, long before stereo was invented. The mono recordings have been enhanced for stereo and a pretty good job they’ve made of them. Of all film records available to fans at the moment, I think that these Phonodisc reissues, priced at £1.95 are indeed the best buy.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes / Till the Clouds Roll By – MGM 2353067

The best buy of the current batch for collectors is undoubtedly this double feature. 20th Century Fox came out with their newly developed Cinemascope in 1953, launching it with block busters such as THE ROBE and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE. The first musical in this new process was GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES. This story by Anita Loos was previously produced on Broadway with Carol Channing in the lead, but when Fox transferred it to the screen they decided to use their Number One glamour girl Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei Lee, with Jane Russell co-starring as her friend Dorothy. The plot has the girls going to Paris to fulfill a nightclub engagement. Lorelei says goodbye to her rich fiancé before the boat sails and during the boat ride becomes involved with a rich elderly millionaire. The happenings on board ship and in Paris are fast and furious but like all good tales, ends happily with both girls getting hitched. Unfortunately in its translation to the screen a lot of the bright and bouncy Jules Styne songs were left on the cutting room floor, and only 3 survived the trip to the screen. Two new songs by Hoagy Carmichael added to the score were ‘Is There Anyone Here For Love’, featuring that brunette amazon Jane Russell cavorting round a gymnasium full of muscle men, and ‘When Love Goes Wrong’ featuring both female stars, and is not a particularly interesting tune. Of the old songs, ‘Bye Bye Baby’ is first sung as a slow seductive ballad by Monroe, and then bounced into a fast up-tempo song by Jane Russell. ‘Little Girl From Little Rock’, originally a solo for Lorelei becomes a bright opening song for both stars. There remains the famous ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’, sung by Marilyn Monroe. For those who saw the film ’nuff said, and for those who didn’t, if you use your imagination, you can visualise this lovely lady at her screen peak singing this song.

Till The Clouds Roll By

Jerome Kern, that much loved American composer, is said to have written over 1,000 popular songs. In 1946 MGM produced an all star technicolor musical titled TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY which was very loosely based on his life story. For many years this remained in my memory as one of the finest musicals of all time, yet when I saw it again recently, I was saddened to find how trite the story seemed by today’s standards. However, some two dozen of his songs used during the two hours running time have in the main remained as fresh as I recall them to be. What a pity that due to contract troubles MGM were only able to record a fraction of this film’s magnificent score.

Working in Hollywood at this time as musical director of most Metro musicals, was Lennie Hayton, and his scoring for this particular film is amongst his best work. Also worthy of praise for her work as vocal arranger in those days is Kay Thompson. Her close harmony arrangements are particularly noticeable in the songs ‘Leave It To Jane’ and Who’. I recall the latter number featuring a much pregnant Judy Garland portraying Marilyn Miller dancing up and down a moving escalator.

The film has a 20 minute sequence of Kern’s most beloved musical ‘Showboat’ early on, and this record features some of those songs: Caleb Peterson doing ‘Ol’ Man River’, the amusing ‘Life Upon The Wicked Stage’ sung by ‘Dead-pan’ comedienne Virginia O’Brien, the definitive version of ‘Can’t Help Loving Dat Man’ by Lena Horne, and ‘Who Cares If My Boat Goes Up Stream’ by Tony Martin, followed by some brief dialogue from Martin and Kathryn Grayson, leading into their duet of ‘Make Believe’. The film’s title song is sung by Ray McDonald and chorus, June Allyson does ‘Leave It To Jane’ and ‘Cleopatterer’ in her husky voice. Judy Garland sings ‘Look For The Silver Lining’ with great feeling and also the exciting version of that evergreen song ‘Who’. Altogether a bumper bundle.

Kiss Me Kate – MGM 2353062

Cole Porter’s score for KISS ME KATE is considered one of his finest, yet it is strange that none of the songs have become standards in spite of the fact that many of his songs are known as such. This MGM musical produced some four years after the show’s debut was made in the 3D process, which Hollywood attempted to make popular at the time. It can claim to be the only musical made in that process, but the company soon discarded their plans to give out free pairs of glasses for patrons to use when viewing the film. Here we have 14 songs which sound as fresh today both lyrically and musically as they first did back in the late 40’s. The teaming of Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson proved successful and they were particularly suitable for the roles of husband and wife continually battling offstage as well as on stage when portraying Shakespeare’s leading characters in ‘Taming Of The Shrew’. Ann Miller gives good support and 3 of Hollywood’s top leading dancers at the time. Tommy Rail, Bobby Van and Bob Fosse are also featured. Keel has several fine solos: ‘Were Thine That Special Face’ (surely one of Porter’s best love songs), ‘I’ve Come To Wife It Wealthily In Padua’ and the amusing ‘Where Is The Life That Late I Led’. Grayson solos on ‘I Hate Men’ and together they team well on ‘Wunderbar’, the title song and the show’s biggest hit ‘So In Love’. Ann Miller solos on ‘Too Darn Hot’, ‘Why Can’t You Behave’ and ‘Always True To You In My Fashion’ and brings her usual vivacity to every song. Cut from a 1950 stage show and added to this film score is the number ‘From This Moment On’ which Ann Miller sings along with the 3 featured dancers. There is also the amusing ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ performed by Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore. This record serves as a good reminder of Porter at his best ranging as it does from tender ballad to witty ‘point’ songs.

An American In Paris / Les Girls MGM 2353068

The pairing on one record of musical scores by both Gershwin and Porter sounds exciting. However this record features fewer artists than the others and unless you are a confirmed Gene Kelly fan, there isn’t much here to listen to other than a grand arrangement of George Gershwin’s AMERICAN IN PARIS suite. This film has probably had more bookings on the Classic circuit than any other Metro musical, with the exception of “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” (which always seems to be showing somewhere in London.) Kelly plays an impoverished artist surviving on the Left Bank of Paris, who meets a little perfume seller and falls in love with her. Partnered with Leslie Caron, he performs some of his best screen dancing in this film. Apart from the orchestral suite itself, Kelly is featured singing ‘Love Is Here To Stay’, the last song written by Gershwin before his untimely death in 1936. He also sings ‘I Got Rhythm’ accompanied by a chorus of street urchins, and is paired with George Guetary on ‘S’Wonderful’ Perhaps I’m biased, but for me the high spot of the whole record is Guetary’s dynamic rendering of ‘I’ll Build A Stairway To Paradise.’

I shall dispense with LES GIRLS as briefly as possible, as it really is one of the poorest Porter scores around. Indeed Porter is reported to have said that he was displeased with it. The title song, ‘Les Girls’ features Kelly with his three leading ladies, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg, and the ladies are together on another track ‘Ladies In Waiting’ without Mr Kelly. The lovely Kay Kendall joins him on ‘You’re just Too, Too’ but none of these songs have the usual verve and wit associated with Porter. Taina Elg solos on ‘Ca C’est L’amour’ which is too much like ‘I Love Paris’ to sound original. Kelly ends the record with his one solo from this film ‘Why Am I So Gone About That Gal’, which is also unmemorable, though I recall, in the film it was an amusing parody on Brando’s ‘The Wild Ones’.

Brigadoon / Two Weeks With Love – MGM 2353065

Long before GIGI brought the names of Lerner and Loewe to the public’s eye, they created an effective musical titled BRIGADOON back in 1947. This tale of a magic Scottish village which comes to life for one day ever 100 years was fairly successful both here and on Broadway, though coming as it did in the wake of those two colossal hits, OKLAHOMA and ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, it rather got lost in the shuffle. The film version was delayed several times and finally saw the light of day in 1955. It’s hard to believe that Vincente Minnelli could create such a heavy-handed film version from such a lovely stage musical. The record, however, can serve as a fond reminder of the fine score, though here again one would have to be a confirmed Gene Kelly fan for full enjoyment. His tendency to sing sharp proves a little irritating on the three fine ballads, ‘Heather On The Hill’, ‘Almost Like Being In Love’ and ‘There But For You Go I’. Carol Richards who dubbed for Cyd Charisse in the film sings ‘Waiting For My Dearie’ nicely, and the fine voice of John Gustafson does justice to ‘Come To Me, Bend To Me’. Gustafson is joined by Van Johnson in the sprightly ‘I’ll Go Home With Bonnie Jean’, and the orchestra and chorus make up the other tracks.

I can’t recall much about TWO WEEKS WITH LOVE as a film, but listening to the record I was reminded again how much I enjoyed Jane Powell’s singing in all her films. She uses her lyrical voice to fine effect on ‘A Heart That’s True’, ‘My Hero’ and ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon’. She seems equally at home with the jazzy ‘Oceana Roll’, ‘Row, Row, Row’ and ‘Aba Daba Honeymoon’ are the two remaining tracks, some with suitable buoyancy by Carlton Carpenter and Debbie Reynolds (NOT Jane Powell as wrongly listed on both disc and sleeve).

These then are the four current reissues. Offhand I can’t think of many more Metro musicals not rereleased, but I may be wrong. For full details of the previous issues in this series ask at your nearest record shop.