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Dec 2010
 Music Man [dvd]

It all started with "The Music Man" (©1962) — you know the one: "Seventy-six Trombones" · "Ya Got Trouble" · "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little" · "Marian the Librarian" · and a munchkin-sized Ronny Howard spluttering out "Gary Indiana" while convinced, apparently, that spitting all over the camera (no matter how far away) would earn him extra candy with every exacerbated syllable. My middle daughter had seen some clip from "The Music Man" in school or something and kept pestering us about * how great * it was . .  So one fateful day, I rented it so we could all decide for ourselves .. .

 Little Shop of Horrors [dvd]

Actually, it really started a while before that and, in the clarity of hindsight, I realize now that I alone am to blame. I clued my kids in to the high-brow visions and doo-wop tunes found in the "Little Shop of Horrors" (1986) . . I did it mainly for Steve Martin's show-stopping rendition of "I Am Your Deh-hen-TIST!" ♫ That and the incredible puppetry and effects! For months afterward, under no duress I could perceive, while at our neighborhood grocery store for instance, my chicklettes might suddenly bust out with an arms-flung-wide crescendo of "SUH-DEN-LEE SEYMOUR .. is standing beside you..!" .. . I should have recognized then how dangerous be the shores I had sailed them to . ..

You see, like most standard-issue Americonians, we had our obligatory DVD's of "The Sound of Music" and "The Wizard of Oz", "Mary Poppins", other dancing/singing Disney critter movies, with a few Miyazaki's thrown in just to round things out. And that was safe... safe enough, I thought. But Andrea was forever-besotted with the dramatic flair of "The Phantom of the Opera" —( and in all honesty, who isn't? )— Meanwhile, Danielle sought out every Jane Austen movie she could lay her mitts on . . . virtually memorizing "Sense and Sensibility" and a couple different versions of "Pride and Prejudice" . . even plying into "Little Women" territory. I did my best to properly balance their appetites with occasional servings of sci-fi and fantasy fare. But their grandmother didn't help matters when she gave them a sparkling brand new copy of "Hairspray" last Christmas... I think they wore that disc out watching it. So at last, in hopes of calming their savage, Musical-loving little hearts, I broke down one day and rented "The Music Man".

And Jessi was RIGHT!  It really is great!  And Shirley Jones is in it (the mom from the 70's TV show "The Partridge Family") - and not only was she a stone-cold *babe* in this movie (she was 27 at the time) but she could *SING*!  ~  I mean .. who knew..?  Obviously, of course, a whole generation before me . . . but ~ i ~ certainly didn't have a clue!  Whereas I joined the girls on the couch somewhat grudgingly at first, curious only to perceive how an early-60's production of a 1912 small town might look .. . I was floored by how good this was! And though I am no dancer, I could certainly appreciate the wild and intricate choreography.. especially in the "Marian the Librarian" number. When we weren't just laughing outright at "Professor" Hill's bogus attempts to woo an 'older and wiser girl', our jaws were on the floor at some of the steps and syncopated moves on parade. And if that wasn't enough, just when you thought things couldn't get any freakier, Buddy Hackett comes out amid dozens of spazzy teen dancers and starts poppin' off with a rousing song called — I kid you not — "Shipoopi"!  ( what an unfortunate title for a dance number! )

  Whatayatalk?
                  Whatayatalk?
              Wheredayagitit?
Whatayatalk?      
But he doesn't know the territory!

I was so stunned by the whole experience that I only dimly recall nodding afterward to Jessica's full-throttle raves about how she loves * loves * LOVES * this movie, and how she wanted to check out some Gene Kelly flicks next. I proffered some vague consent, still dazed by the astounding presentation -- Gene Kelly .. who..? I had heard the name, sure .. but . .. wasn't he some old-time dancer or singer, or something..?

 Band of Brothers [dvd]
 thePacific [dvd]


A few years ago, I had the good fortune of acquiring Steven Spielberg's & Tom Hanks' epic account of E Company's strenuous tour through the European theater of WWII as portrayed in "Band of Brothers" (2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment). I was positively mesmerized with the experiences shared by these stalwart soldiers .. as well as the writing, direction, and production values I love to scrutinize in massive, well-conceived projects like this. It just so happened that Jessi's class was beginning to study WWII around this time. She also found it unbelievably fascinating (under certain parental discretion, of course). Soon even Danielle joined us. This opened up a number of real-world discussions and grave considerations of Right and Wrong, ranging from personal levels all the way to matters of foreign policy. So you can imagine how psyched I was when Spielberg & Hanks finally got around to providing the same treatment for the men in WWII's Pacific theater. Released on DVD just last month, I picked it up and we started watching it together (*not* with Andrea.. definitely).

What a difference 10 years makes... I understand it was a 'different' sort of war experience . . but . . . subject matters could have been handled *very* differently . . portrayed in a more judicious fashion. It .. appalled me. Not so much the stories of the war (which were in themselves horrific enough) but the manner in which everything played out. So. Much. Harsher. In every way. .. I couldn't allow my girls to even watch some of it. Whereas 'Band' amply demonstrated the brutality of war . . 'Pacific' . . . I don't even know where to begin .. . detestable, beyond-nightmarish stuff . .. and that doesn't even touch the shore-leave sequences, showing long, lingering bouts of sexual intercourse just as bold as you please. I skipped past entire chunks of plot to avoid alla that . . stunned that the producers, in seeking to honor our nation's heroes, felt it necessary to showcase in lurid detail the sexual escapades of these characters as up-close and personal as watching someone conduct matters in a doorless bathroom stall. What were they trying to prove with this? ..That they are so 'enlightened' now they can film and show what amounts to porn in their war-time narrative?  I was mortified --- this.. in my own house, my own children nearly subject to viewing such stuff . . .  Thank God for 'Chapter Next' on the remote control!

 

 American in Paris [dvd]

I bring this up because it was around this time when we happened to watch "The Music Man" ~ and shortly thereafter, "An American in Paris" (1951) — What a breath of Fresh Air by comparison! Gene Kelly was a revelation in entertainment .. and Leslie Caron ... holy *cats* where did they FIND these incredibly talented and gorgeous young women back then?!  I never was into George Gershwin's music so much, but coupled with this story in Paris, and the tremendous choreography by Gene . . .  Once again I found I couldn't draw my eyes from the screen! Even to watch Oscar Levant play his piano as effortlessly as my fingers dance upon my computer keyboard . . very humbling for this piano player .. but also exhilarating, and even challenging, encouraging! What Wonderful Material my young daughter had discovered and introduced into our family! What gems of joy and creative passion — I had never even considered exploring such films before . . . I considered them old-fashioned and outdated . . .  MAN · was I wrong!!  Compared to the "envelope-pushing" filth most folks pay to watch on their TV these days, and the reckless liberties taken by once trusted producers and directors such as Spielberg & Hanks, I have to say that for artistic inspiration, let alone sheer decency (and Real CLASS), I believe my own children have unearthed a veritable Gold Mine of Wonder, Music, and Magic!

She wouldn't stop humming "S'Wonderful" so I took my chicklettes to a music store to pick out some songs to learn on piano. Of the rows and rows and shelves upon shelves of contemporary and seasonal music, they skipped right past it and dove straight into the Gershwin songbooks! Now Danielle and Jessi are learning to play a variety of tunes from these new favorite movies of theirs. The whole thing is just amazing to witness, and so incredibly cool to be a part of!  It's like our own private Renaissance or something, with wonderful music flowing through the house . . . and my children so excited for, of all things, our next visit the public Library!

Honestly, though . .. I wondered if all of this was just some weird kid-related fluke . .. if my state of mind due to shock over "The Pacific" just made these older movies shine by comparison. So, to test the merit of this genre, we started checking out whatever films jumped at us from a Gene Kelly book Jessi is tearing through these days.

"For Me and My Gal" (1942) – Gene Kelly's screen debut – was next up, starring Judy Garland as the female lead. And like "An American in Paris", we were just blown away by the music, the dynamo that was Judy Garland, and even this weird little 1936 short film found as an 'extra' on the DVD: "Every Sunday" with a younger, pre-'Oz' Judy singing in tandem with a 15-year-old operatic wonder, Deanna Durbin.

 Gene & Jerry

Next, we caught "Anchors Aweigh" (1945), a buddy comedy featuring Frank Sinatra, and co-starring Kathryn Grayson. Besides seeing Mr. Sinatra looking like some willowy kid, this farce showcased some really grand comical stuff . . ."We Hate To Leave", "If You Knew Susie", and a dazzling dance number with Jerry the mouse (from 'Tom & Jerry') that seamlessly integrated he & Gene together in a rousing routine that still holds up against anything produced today. Especially when you think this was all conceived and produced back in the early 40's, it's some crazy delightful wonder to behold! And to consider Gene's 40-foot climb and swing across the entire set just dangling from some tapestry — remember, no space-age special effects to stand in for that kind of move — makes it all the more impressive!

Then there's "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), the grand-daddy of them all!  Besides showing off Gene's always entertaining skills, this ensemble tour de force also demonstrated the multiple talents of one Donald O'Connor, who played piano, sang, danced, and acted with unparalleled comic timing. We were in stitches virtually every time he showed up onscreen! Debbie Reynolds also sang and danced her brains out, especially in "Good Morning". And besides the eponymous signature showpiece, there's also "Moses Supposes" and Donald's extravaganza "Make 'Em Laugh" which requires two or three viewings to really catch all that he's doing. And this doesn't even touch the marvelous plot regarding the birth of 'talkies' (motion pictures with audio tracks), their movie production vs. 'The Jazz Singer', and the hilarious Jean Hagen as their squeaky voice silent-era diva. Her bouts with her many microphones are priceless! Actually, even Gene's audio moments in the 'original version' of The Dueling Cavalier had us nearly falling off the couch with laughter . . from the car-hood smashing "KA-KLUNK!" of his dropped cane to the lip-smacking "I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU!" suction-popping up Lina's arm .. . oh man .. . What a great show!

     
 For Me and My Gal [dvd]  Anchors Aweigh [dvd]  Singin' in the Rain [dvd]

 

 

Next to Check Out:

  "Cover Girl" (1944)
  "The Pirate" (1948)
  "On the Town" (1949)
  "Summer Stock" (1950)
  "Brigadoon" (1954)
  "It's Always Fair Weather" (1955)
  "The King and I" (1956)
  "South Pacific" (1958)
 Xanadu [dvd]

Here's a freaky bit of trivia:

The character Gene plays in "Cover Girl" – a club owner named 'Danny McGuire' – resumes his role in Olivia Newton John's roller-skating disco-esque "Xanadu" (1980). What kind of weirdness is this?? Of course, as most teen-age boys in 1980 discovered, seeing ONJ float around in rainbow colors with ELO playing in the background was nothing short of Wondrous. . . but I had no clue who that old dude was... I wonder if there would be any merit to checking out 1944's "Cover Girl" followed straightaway by the 35-years-later "Xanadu" . . ? Or if it would just bend Reality too much and cause some kind of temporal vortex .. ?

Sure, there's "Grease", "Fiddler on the Roof", and "My Fair Lady", all of which had been seen in our home years ago. But with these newfound treasure troves of Entertainment and Inspiration, I wonder just how far to go..? Would "Jesus Christ Super Star" be worth a look with/for them? Or the early 70's trip-fest "Godspell"?  Surely "West Side Story" would be a decent choice, and "Cats" most likely . .. but I'll probably draw the line at "OOOOOOH-klahoma!" where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain . . . but I hear "How the West was Won" is pretty epic . . .  (oh wait - that's not a musical)

I guess what I mean to highlight is the fact that a LOT of really excellent talent and magnificent movie experiences may be found in those productions from yesteryear. Virtually anything with Gene Kelly during his heyday seems guaranteed to be a winner! It is so *very* worth the time to check around for these older films, best when viewed with your favorite family/friends. What a wonderful lesson my own children have taught me! ~ However, before I wrap this up, I would turn your attention to one last point for consideration . . .

 Elegy

In these days of James Cameron's mind-blowing 3D "Avatar", where now even routine TV production standards are expected to at least match the fabulously-realized "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, there still seems to be a diehard contingency of hand-drawn film producers/story-tellers out there . . . such as the married team of Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, or Sylvain Chomet's "Les Triplettes de Belleville" and "L'Illusionniste", not to mention the staggeringly rich catalog of Hayao Miyazaki, just to name a few. Last year's "The Secret of Kells" comes to mind as an example of painstaking, hand-crafted creative detail. Virtually every frame could be reproduced on a large canvas as an original work of art (harkening to its very subject, but that's another topic in itself).

 Secret of Kells [dvd]

Such ornamented efforts spanning a wide variety of film styles can be captivating, sure . . . but what matters most is the STORY after all – the heart of the matter. Take Nadine Takvorian's 2005 animated short "Elegy" for example. What this young woman achieves in a scant 2 minutes of monochrome slow-frame animation touches me more than virtually all the movies or books I have chanced upon during the past decade. No kidding ... It is amazing what she achieves in just a few hand sketches and model props. Check it out here (or over here if that link doesn't work) if you want to see how powerfully effective the simple measured execution of a universal idea can be. . . . I warn you ... it's a sad sentiment.. . . but MAN what a display of artistry using the most basic of methods!  So wondrously realized!

While there * IS * a time and a place for "Avatar" and Pixar, and Dreamworks, exploding space ships, raging dinosaurs, and daring heroes from Jack Sparrow to Jack Bauer, it would seem that the stories that really touch the heart and stick to the soul contain these certain * moments * woven into the plot in films like the ones outlined above, or found in some modest offering like Nadine's "Elegy". As I have learned to explore what I might otherwise avoid simply due to the dated cover on the box, I implore you, kind reader, to Take A Chance and dare to pick up one of these I have shared about today.

You will be glad you did!

 

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