Sunday, August 30, 2020

Brooklyn, James—Cinderella wants to take another look at the ashes


Directed by Charles Vidor
Written by Marion Parsonnet, Paul Gangelin, Erwin Gelsey, John H. Kafka, and Virgina Van Upp

Spoiler alert: moderate

It's kind of hard to pin down exactly when Gene Kelly became Gene Kelly.  It had decidedly not happened by 1942's For Me and My Gal, his first film as well as his first collaboration with Judy Garland, Busby Berkeley, and Arthur Freed, and surely a very fine motion picture to boot, albeit a motion picture that demonstrates little-to-no awareness that all those names have certain expectations built into them that it's bound to leave unsatisfied.  Still, it was successful enough for Freed to put Kelly on salary at MGM.  But while Du Barry Was a Lady and Thousands Cheer in 1943 were getting us incrementally closer to a figure who would become synonymous with Freed's musicals (and Thousands Cheer even featured a bit of Kelly's own choreography), that probably wasn't his moment either.  You could push it all the way out to 1951's An American In Paris, if you wanted: this was where the overtly arty impulses that Kelly'd been toying with for half a decade exploded out into full force, defining his career for a half a decade more.  But that seems too far.  If we were to ask Kelly where he would've placed the proper start of his cinematic legacy, I think he gave us our answer in 1980.  When he came out of retirement to co-star in Xanadu, quite aware that it would be his final performance, he played the role of a certain "Danny McGuire."  This was, also, the name of his character in 1944's Cover Girl.  It's hard to escape the conclusion that Kelly wanted his end to be the same as his beginning, and Cover Girl has a number of other features to recommend it as the first true "Gene Kelly" movie besides its star's own suggestion—though there's an irony here, because the Freed Unit's legend had to leave MGM before he could remake their musicals in his image, with Cover Girl being a vehicle for another star at another studio altogether.

And so that takes us over to Columbia Pictures, to whom MGM loaned Kelly in late '43 to work alongside their star Rita Hayworth in their very first Technicolor musical, and one could just as easily frame a review of Cover Girl with the question, "When did Rita Hayworth become Rita Hayworth?", though it's probably fair to say that Cover Girl only made her more famous, and I'll confess I've not so far managed to comprehend why anything ever made her as famous as she was.  (And she was hellaciously famous: she may be the only actor to ever have their image painted onto an atomic bomb, which mortified her.)  Hayworth was a great dancer, but an uneven actor, and while she resented being dubbed, she evidently had no singing talent that Columbia felt was worth developing.  Moreover, if obviously through no fault of her own, she appeared in uneven projects, so that even when she's decent (e.g., You'll Never Get Rich, her first outing with Fred Astaire), the movie might not be, though on the plus side, sometimes this meant that even when she was mediocre, the movie could survive.  Sometimes, of course, she was in Down To Earth, where she's bad and the movie's terrible; but in almost everything I've ever seen her in (somehow even in non-musicals) she feels like a chorine who keeps getting the lead for no apparent or at least no good reason.  Still, as this is literally the plot of Cover Girl, I guess that fits well enough, though it's the plot of, like, five hundred different movies.  I mean, it might be the first "major" Kelly, but the revolution that removed the film musical's diegetic shackles and allowed plots beyond theater people, which had tentatively begun with the Astaire/Rogers vehicles and which Kelly and his collaborators would make the dominant mode in the genre, was not close to finished yet, and there were plenty more backstage dramedies left to go.

This chorine, anyway, is "Rusty" Parker, a dancer for a troupe who work out of Danny McGuire's nightclub in Brooklyn.  She is somewhere in the vicinity of happy, for Danny loves her, and she loves him, but like anybody in her position, she yearns for something more, for fame and fortune and the real happiness she thinks comes with it.  It's with this in mind that when Rusty learns of a contest being held by the magazine Vanity for a pretty unknown to appear on their cover, she decides to put her hat in the ring.  Considering how bored and hostile Vanity's editor Cornelia Jackson (Eve Arden) is to the crowd of wannabe cover girls, it's not clear Rusty had much of a chance in the first place, but when a colleague sabotages Rusty with a piece of bad advice and Rusty storms into her interview, Cornelia can't get her out of her office fast enough.

But fate has a good turn in store for poor Rusty when Vanity's publisher John Coudair (the always-welcome Otto Kruger) sees her photo.  In her face, he discerns the spitting image of the woman he loved and lost forty years ago, Maribelle Hicks—which checks out, since Maribelle was Rusty's grandmother (and who, when Coudair remembers Maribelle on our behalf, is also Hayworth).  Determined to give Rusty the high life that her grandmother refused, Coudair declares Rusty the victor of his contest; the fame she expected comes, along with the legion of fans, and the offers of vastly more glamorous work across the river in Manhattan.  This arrives, ultimately, with the romantic attentions of the impresario who spread Broadway out before her, Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman).  As you might expect, this takes her relationship with Danny, already strained by her continued absence at rehearsals and shows, beyond the breaking point.  Danny tells her to go, to his regret, but also hers, as she learns that all the things she thought she wanted cannot make her happy.

Cover Girl has a lot going for it despite its bone-deep clichĂ©s, and its finest quality, perhaps beyond even Kelly's specific contributions, is that it operates in the register I think I might prefer my mid-century musicals to operate in, that is, humane and bittersweet and nice.  So when its central relationship collapses, it's not because anyone's done anything wrong.  Indeed, they only briefly raise their voices at each other.  Even the "villains" aren't raging monsters—they concede with a smile when they're beat.  It's a pleasant story and easy to invest in, and Virginia Van Upp's screenplay, if only intermittently, is mostly snappy enough to keep your interest, with fairly harmless comic relief on Danny's side (Phil Silvers, the self-proclaimed "King of Chutzpah," plays a vaudevillian comedian named "Genius") and genuinely good comic relief on Coudair's (Arden's bitchy magazine editor has the lion's share of the film's funniest lines, though Bowman's impresario has the best, the one about Cinderella, which is the closest Cover Girl gets to being mean).  But then, while "nice" might be enough for it, it's not necessarily filling.  You're always aware there's a more incisive, more psychological story trying to be told here that only manifests in incipient ways, with Coudair fading more into the background than even his screentime warrants, despite probably being the most interesting character in the film, in large part because he's so utterly fucked up, in ways that the film can't directly acknowledge without breaking itself.  (The fact that his fascination with Rusty isn't even sexual arguably makes it even more terrifying and pathetic; he's playing at nostalgia in some downright gnarly ways.)

But it at least gestures toward these things, and Kelly is more than sufficient in the role of wounded lover, blessed with a sensitive and retiring role of the kind that seemed to suit him.  He's good enough that it mostly makes up for Hayworth's general stale stiffness.  (Though it's instructive to compare how the two actors portray sadness and depression.  Kelly, who as far as I can tell had a fairly happy life once he got out of Pittsburgh, and wasn't exactly drowning in despair even when he was here, is customarily note-perfect at essaying Danny's sad, regretful, lovelorn man.  Hayworth, meanwhile, does okay "happy," but once things take a turn for the worse she's more comfortable with phony histrionics and, ironically, some pretty bad "drunk" acting, and it makes me wonder if accessing the actual sadness that dominated her whole life from childhood till her death was beyond her capacity to bear—not that, I suppose, I would have the heart to blame her for that.)

It helps further that Kelly the Actor was also Kelly the Choreographer, and adding to our "major" Kelly argument, Cover Girl was his first screen collaboration with the great Stanley Donen—not as a director, which came later, but as Kelly's assistant, though here he gained the valuable behind-the-camera experience that would very soon lead to On the Town, Royal Wedding with Astaire, and Singin' In the Rain.  Besides a good and colorful (if narratively-inessential) balletic stage number, Kelly also engages in a small ballet-informed dance with Hayworth, which elevates her performance along with his.  More importantly, Kelly choreographed a bounding number down city streets for Hayworth, Silvers, and himself that looks ahead to some of the dancer's most iconic routines, and for which he reconfigured the already-built sets, which is starting to sound fairly close to "filmmaking" already.  The film's centerpiece, however, was just straight-up directed by Kelly and Donen, and in this we finally arrive at something that doesn't need to be qualified with "it reminds me of something in another, later, better Gene Kelly movie."  This was Kelly's first foray into purely cinematic dance, using special effects to do something that couldn't even be attempted on the stage.  Dubbed the "Alter-Ego Dance," it's just plain great, beginning with a forlorn Danny spying his reflection (that is, a double exposure), which rapidly makes itself known as his conscience, telling him to let Rusty go for her own good; and despite Danny's violent efforts to outdance his conscience, he can't very well escape the truth.

Unfortunately, Cover Girl makes it blisteringly apparent when Kelly is choreographing and when its credited choreographers Val Rasset and Seymour Felix are in charge, as well as when Kelly and Donen are shadow-directing and when Charles Vidor is directing-directing.  If the number doesn't involve Kelly on the screen, it's like night and day: the camera, which we find dancing with Kelly, becomes a locked-down object (a trio of objects, in fact; three cameras were used to film whole routines at once, which makes whole boring swathes of Cover Girl just literal filmed theater).  The dancing likewise becomes inordinately flat, incapable of taking advantage of 3-D space, nor even for the most part 2-D space.  And the songs...

Cover Girl, featuring a soundtrack by lyricist Ira Gershwin sans George (he worked instead with composer Jerome Kern), was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song for Kelly and "Hayworth's" ballad together, "Long Ago (And Far Away)," and it is noodly and wet and was unaccountably very popular—but, y'know, it's fine.  A lot more of the songs are bad, and what I suppose must have been an attempt on Gershwin and Kern's part to ape early 20th century musical styles by way of Coudair's flashbacks to his affair with Maribelle makes one grateful they hadn't invented talkies yet.  The single lyrically-cleverest song in the film, "Poor John," belongs to one of these flashbacks (it's posited as Maribelle's diss track to her shitty lover and his disapproving mommy), and, in a musical where virtually all the lyrics are neither germane nor good, it's almost a light in darkness.  And then Hayworth's dubber, Martha Mears, ladles a "Brooklyn" accent from outer space onto it, and takes it right up to the border of the genuinely unlistenable, which I suppose matches some stage costumes that are blindingly ugly.  Generally, the funnier the song is trying to be, the worse it is; and most of them do try to be funny.

The best music in the film winds up being just the wordless, manic jazz of "The Alter-Ego Dance"; the best song with lyrics, by default, winds up being "Cover Girl," which is merely forgettably soothing, and has the significant benefit of coming with the only non-Kelly/Donen musical number that has anything whatsoever to offer.  It's not unappealing, anyway: part of Rusty's show with Wheaton, it showcases the kind of indulgent production design more usually associated with a mid-30s Berkeley effort, and involves a giant camera, through the lens of which we are presented a montage of real cover girls from various real magazines.  Some of them are quite hot and not undermined by 40s hair and make-up styling, which is pleasant, though as a faintly Berkeleyesque "parade of faces" it tends to lack the technique's key features: first, the democracy of the real deal (these women were already semi-famous, rather than nobody chorines); second, it's a little slow, and not even the best possible showcase for their attractiveness.  (One of them, meanwhile, is about five.  If you wanted to complain about sexualizing children, I guess I wouldn't stop you, but as her cameo isn't sexual beyond the faintly-uncomfortable way they dressed little girls in the 40s, and it's clear they were just trying to be cute, personally I'd just let it be.)  It concludes in a mammoth piece of architecture, a mountain on the stage, descended and ascended by Hayworth and her chorus boys, and again the camera just soaks that right the fuck in, with a little bit of evocative editing and none of the cinematic elaboration you'd get from its inspiration.  But at least it does look a damn sight more impressive than Brooklyn vaudeville.

Otherwise, Vidor does an adequate if unremarkable job with shepherding Cover Girl through its paces.  The most visual flair comes from below-the-marquee sources, particularly the splendid color art direction, augmented by some very-1944 costume design, and captured by cinematography that isn't terrifically inspired but does reproduce all those weird mauves and greens with a Technicolor glow.  It's a movie, then, with several great individual beats, and generally looks good (or at least interesting); but it's damned hard to escape feeling that the story ought to be sharper than it is, and that it ought to have far better ideas on how to exist as a film musical in the first place, especially by 1944, when even the backstage musical had spent eleven full years being less-awkwardly geared toward cinematic expression.  Nevertheless, the strongest aspects of it would bloom fully in the years to come, and if I struggle to say it's worth watching for anyone besides a Gene Kelly completist, neither would I say it's a waste of time.

Score: 6/10

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