Sunday, May 2, 2021

I wouldn't want him if he were the last man on the campus


Directed by Charles Walters
Written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (based on the play by Lew Brown, Laurence Schwab, Frank Mandel, Buddy G. DeSylva, and Ray Henderson)

Spoiler alert: mild

There is, I've gathered, fairly ample controversy about the evolution of the integrated musical over the course of the first decades of the 20th centuryyou know the kind, the musical that uses music to advance plot and character, rather than using plot and character as a scaffold to contain a bunch of otherwise-unrelated song-and-dance routines, assuming it uses plot or character at all.  It's always kind of baffled me that this took development: you'd think this would be obvious.  Of course, it sort of isoperas and operettas are "integrated musicals," even if they're usually considered different artsbut Western musical theatre, emerging out of the class distinctions in the early 1900s, was strangely resistant to it.  The integrated form coalesced slowly as stuff like the Princess Theatre shows and Show Boat came along; you'll find reference to the trend not being fully-fledged until Oklahoma! in 1943.  1943.

The film musical, anyway, took even longer for the format to become ascendant.  As any fan of 30s, 40s, and 50s musicals is very well aware, the modal story of a 30s, 40s, or 50s musical involves showpeople who want to put on a show, and sometimes we see part of that show and sometimes we don't (or, in a Berkeley musical particularly, we see something that is obviously not the show, and rarely seems like it could even be the idea of the show), but in either event, this is the flimsy excuse for why these weirdos keep prancing around and singing at each other (and, again, that's if most of the film even bothers to be a musical at all).  You frequently wonder if the show-within-a-show does the same thing, and if it's therefore all a recursive nightmare of nested realities.  The MGM musical is as guilty of this as anything, though by the 1940s there were real steps being taken to do something besides "Eleanor Powell wants to be a tap-dancing star," not, of course, that this was ever a bad foundation for a movie.  Liza Minnelli calls 1944's Meet Me In St. Louis a big first step.  I presume this means she somehow blanked on The Wizard of Oz (or, you know, she was being paid to talk about Meet Me In St. Louis on a DVD extra), but that seems forgivable in its way; the more I learn about Golden Age musicals, the more bizarrely sui generis Oz seems.  As for St. Louis, leaving aside whether Liza Minelli might've been ever-so-slightly biased towards the production where her parents began the process of procreating her, I daresay it's no great feat to integrate plot into music if you have precious little of either.

None of this is to say that Arthur Freed's 1947 production of Good News was any first itself, besides, anyway, being the first feature of director Charles Walters.  For starters, the 1947 Good News was only a new adaptation of a 1927 play that got an MGM adaptation once already in 1930, which, from surviving clips (it's now lost), looks pretty funno mean feat for an early sound musicalthough by the same token, "the early sound musical" part means a very proscenium-based visual scheme, while those clips suggest a song-and-dance revue was never too far from anybody's mind while they were making it.  What I am saying, then, is simply that Good News is extremely good at being an integrated musical in an era where that was almost radical filmmaking by itself.

I expect the play was toothe only part of the film that stands out, unhammered-nail-like, is its one original number, though even this makes a half-assed attempt to pretend it's part of the story, and it's good enough you might not begrudge it its intrusion (well, not just because it's an add-on, at least)though the film's screenwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, saw fit to perform a major overhaul, with pretty much no element of the book failing to be changed either slightly or significantly.  Comden & Green couldn't have taken all that much of their lead from the 1930 Good News; the pre-Code film's bawdy humor ensured it would remain in the dustbin.  The '47 version certainly goes hard at comedy, and finds a lot of it, but outside of a few biting exchanges, it's funny in that endearingly-dorky, whitebread way that's nearly as much a part of the MGM-style musical as singing and dancing.  The genius of it is that it's so aggressively whitebread that it tends to reach a level of self-parodying sublimity.  It's so pronounced that it's practically kitsch, though I'd be more inclined to call it knowingly camp, and not just because Walters was more-or-less openly gay.  He intensifies it, but it's already present in the script: the sarcastic nostalgia it has for its time periodfor, naturally, between 1927 and 1947 Good News had become a period piecesuggests, along with Corden & Green's more famous Singin' In the Rain, that their attitude towards their own childhood decade was best expressed with something like a smirk.

And so we're thrown back 20 or 94 years, depending, and arrive at Tait, a college presumably somewhere in the Northeast, but could exist only on the MGM backlot.  At Tait, football is king, and the king of football is Tommy Marlowe (Peter Lawford, doing an amusing job of hiding an English accent inside a caricature of an early 20th century Midatlantic one).  Tommy is joined on the team by towering Beef (Loren Tindall) and runty scrub Bobby (Ray McDonald).  As Tommy is also the reigning sex champion of Tait, he offers poor Bobby words of wisdom on how to make chicks think you're cool; he articulates an early theory of negging in the process.  In truth, Bobby requires no mentoring and Beef could use more, for Beef's own gal-pal Babe (Joan McCracken, of Oklahoma! itself) has developed an overpowering crush on the skinny dweeb, expressly because he's not really a football player, and, more fundamentally, because he's the reverse of her current testosterone-poisoned boyfriend.  (Beef has lately developed some pretensions toward intellectualism by way of the study of psychologybut mainly, it seems, so he can better-rationalize his constant, comical temper tantrums.)  Beef's proprietary attitude toward Babe launches the three into their own subplot that can be briefly described as "Popeye, but Olive Oyl is a boy and therefore subject to getting the shit kicked out of him by Bluto," and it intersects only occasionally with the actual plot until it's time to wrap things up in a nice bow, and every problem for every charactereven the villainsis solved in a single stroke.

The actual plot finds a new student at Tait, Pat McClellan (Patricia Marshall), a haughty social climber constantly spouting quasi-accurate French, and, according to dialogue, the hottest babe Tait's ever seen (nothing against a very lovely Marshall, but she's on a movie campus where even almost every non-speaking extra is a flawless ten, so you're just going to have to spot a film its premise here).  Tommy arrogantly resolves to bag the new girl, but gets off on the wrong foot with the first try and falls so flat on his ass with the second that even the classmates who adore him think it's hilarious to see him get knocked down a peg.  Piqued, however, he keeps trying.  But Pat is here to get her Mr.S. degree; gridiron skill doesn't interest her, only "wealth" ("of culture") does.  Tommy is naive enough to think that "wealth" ("of culture") means "wealth of culture" and determines to learn French to impress her.  It is in this capacity that he makes the acquaintance of Connie Lane (June Allyson), the poor girl working her way through college at the library, who's managed to make herself unattractive to college boys by dint of being intelligent and prickly, something that fortunately is communicated via direct address in a song, since they don't even put Allyson in glasses or anything.  Connie is clearly the better partner and even Tommy seems to realize this, given that he can plant a very romantic kiss on her as thanks for giving him the world's best French lesson, though literally a second later he's enthusing over how this is sure to put him in Pat's favor.  Unbeknowst to him, he only has a shot because Babe's played a joke on Pat and tricked the snob into believing Tommy is actually the heir to a fabulously-rich "pickle king."  But the damage has been done: Connie's in loveand hateand she'll have to figure out which one matters more as Pat ruins poor Tommy for football and scholastics alike, and only Connie's tutoring can save the big game.

It is shameless fluff, even for what it is, to the point it's slightly mysterious to me how it's rocketed up to be something like my second or third favorite mid-century musical, and it's obviously not the deep characterizations or the meaningful themes.  It's not even the dancing: though it has two very fine dance numbers, one of which readily occupies a spot in the mid-century's top quarter, there's nothing especially choreographically or athletically mindblowing about it the way my mind can be blown even in musicals I don't like (for example and just because I watched it yesterday, Rosalie's drum dance).  What I suspect it must be, then, is that Good News is the most Goddamned consistent MGM or MGM-style musical I've ever seen (even more than Singin' In the Rain), and that comes through in every single element of its creation.  The dialogue is consistently snappy, and often laugh-out-loud funny; I don't know if it has a single miss (okay, one: Marshall screws up the emphasis on one of Comden & Green's lines so that it feels like Pat is mechanically repeating an insulting brush-off rather than elaborating on it).  The plot is consistently in motion, never allowing any downtime in a spectacularly efficient 93 minute package, which slackens only very slightly in the third act, and then, I'd bet, only because it's forced to cut back on the music somewhat, in order to actively pursue its narrative endgame, and it still retains a great musical finale.  As for those musical numbers overall (most by Ray Henderson, Lew Brown, and Buddy DeSylva), at first they're practically piled up one atop the other, yet it never feels crowded; a mid-century musical that's this much a musical but also this well-paced is gratifying indeed, particularly so since at least one songs's a banger and most of them are very good, and this is highly gratifying for a film of this era.

It is also just remarkably consistent at managing a very difficult tightrope walk between pointless film musical product and sincere film musical sentiment, and it makes it look downright effortless.  It's gossamer-thin, but gossamer-thin in ways that feel halfway honest about co-eds in 1927, or 1947, whose chief concerns were always going to be football and fucking.  (And of course Babe doesn't care about the football.)  The latter pursuit, obviously, is channeled through the corny woo and/or funny stalking that almost every Golden Age age film pretended was how people expressed sexuality, but it comes off with a bit of a winking spin because while it's not that different than the romance expressed in contemporaneously-set pictures, this 1947 film clearly marks it out as charmingly old-fashioned and the product of a nostalgized past.

It's part and parcel of a manufactured fantasy that's more consistently-applied than almost anything in a genre that is about manufactured fantasy.  Everything is done well: from Cedric Gibbons's and Edward Carfango's expansive if not-super-credible Tait campus, with its spaces blatantly subordinated to the needs of the choreography (sometimes even when they must've changed their mind about having a dance number, as in "The French Lesson" at Connie's library, which boasts a huge amount of unclaimed floorspace, eschewed in favor of focusing on the song's difficult and funny French wordplay), to the pleasantly poppy Technicolor, to the fact that the period and setting permit MGM's costume designers to impose bold costumes on men and women alike.  Movies of the era frequently had a men's and women's designer, and Good News is no exception, but if there's one place where Good News does in fact uniquely excel, it's that the men's designer, Fred Valles, outshines Helen Rose in creating a bunch of cartoonishly Archie-esque outfits for his 1920s college boys.  Rose is still in fine form in terms of pretty dresses, pretty suits, and pretty pyjamas, though she's demonstrably less aggressive and ambitious about her work, tacking decisively toward more current fashions, and I feel like there should be somewhat more hats on her 1920s college girls than "one."  You can easily find another musical that beats it in terms of any one categorySt. Louis has lusher Technicolor, almost any Champions or Kelly or Astaire movie has better dancing, The Belle of New York and Lovely To Look At have more elaborate costumes, and numerous musicals have more fanciful and imaginative setsbut so few combine their elements so well.  But I am coming around to the idea it might be the funniest, and more than that, the one that grounds its laughs the best in its characters and story.

And because of that, there is no indication whatsoever that this was Walters's very first try.  Of course, in a way it wasn'the'd been a choreographer on over a dozen MGM films, he'd directed shorts and sequencesbut this first feature film could easily be his best-directed.  It's quietly stylish, rather than show-offy the way, e.g., a Stanley Donen movie might be.  The cinematic choreographer in Walters informs every frame nonetheless, with a superb instinct for shot scales and how to change them, particularly in terms of moving his camera in carefully-chosen lines through the set.  There's a lot of little ways this is visible even in the "normal" parts of Good News, but naturally it comes most fully alive in the musical numbers, where we find Walters preferring to cut only when useful or absolutely necessary.

The original number, "Pass That Peace Pipe," gets the most attention, despite being the one least-connected to the plot.  I assume this is because, along with the big thronging finale, "Varsity Drag," it's the only number in the film that really demands actual dancing; it's certainly the one that comes off most impressive if you're watching it, say, on YouTube or in That's Entertainment.  It's a showcase for McCracken, who is far and away the most enjoyable member of the cast and not only because she's the best dancer (it's also because she's inexhaustibly energetic as she chases down poor terrified Bobby, and the Babe/Beef/Bobby triangle is the fizziest fun in the movie, despite being so lightweight that it could never be more than a subplot, even in these frivolous circumstances).  So, it deserves its honors: bouncing like a live wire around a soda shop and filmed with a lot of z-axis movement that enshrines McCracken as the center of the universe for the space of her big scene, it's downright mesmerizing.  The song itself is interestingly rhythm-heavy and catchy albeit (you guessed!) fairly racist, with a chorus that depends so heavily on wisdom sourced from a panoply of Native American tribes whose names start with a "ch" sound that I'm sure that Comden & Green (Roger Edens did the music) started making new ones up.  Perhaps some enterprising theater major could reimagine it as a land acknowledgment.

For all that, my favorite musical number doesn't even involve dancing, but does involve almost as much choreography, as Walters winds his way through a sorority party and nearly every new shot occupies a new, distinct emotional state; effectively the conclusion of the first act, "Lucky In Love" confirms the personalities we'll be spending our time with, by way of how lucky (or unlucky) they feel, binding them together in a single coherent tale of romance so that the screenplay, ultimately, doesn't have to.  (It's also the banger I mentioned, and ends with some actual melancholy, thanks to the foggy, velvety crooning of Mel Tormé.)  Even before this, there's "Be a Ladies' Man," involving men marching and posing across campus, singing about how to be masculine, and solemnizing their agreement to be more successful heterosexuals with a handshake after a tousle through a bush.  Because I'd just watched Crybaby, this is where I realized that John Waters was never as good at camp as the things he's poking fun at already were.

The remaining question is whether it has room for any actual drama, and I'd cautiously hazard "maybe? slightly?": it's more amusing than it is anything else, but Tommy is such an asshole idiot, that it's easy to sympathize with Connie's frustrations with him; and, in a sense, this is maybe one of the most pointed turns a mid-century musical ever managed, because could you really expect the most popular and desirable guy in school to be anything else?  Meanwhile, Connie's enmity with Pam results in some satisfying nastiness that permits Allyson to make Connie the funniest character in the film.  The plot is solidly-built enough, and though it resorts to contrivance by the end (really, it resorts to contrivance well before the halfway point), it's avowed farceit plays completely fair on that count.  Half the reason I love it might be that it doesn't fuck up its ending.

As for the rest, I suppose it's simply that Good News represents the mid-century musical operating at a level that, for all I adore the genre, it usually doesn't reach; it is the best embodiment of movie musical fun this side of, well, Singin' In the Rain.  "Consistent" might be the least ecstatic-sounding compliment you could pay a movie, but quantity can have a quality all its own, they say, and a musical that never sets a foot wrong is rare indeed, whereas a 1940s musical where every single scene is good or greatlet alone where almost every scene has an actual pointis scarcely anything short of miraculous.

Score: 10/10

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