Sunday, January 2, 2022

Slender man


Directed by Jean Negulesco
Written by Henry Ephron, Phoebe Ephron, and Johnny Mercer (based on the novel Daddy-Long-Legs and play Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster)

Spoilers: moderate

There's a few ways to frame 20th Century Fox's 1955 musical, Daddy Long Legs.  On a basic level, it was one more adaptation of Jean Webster's 1912 novel, concerning the romance between an orphan and her benefactoran adult orphan, mind you, which shouldn't need to be specified, but this is, after all, a world where Gigi, sharing this film's female lead, won Best Picture just three years later.  Webster's story had been adapted by Hollywood three times before at various levels of fidelity; Daddy Long Legs '55 wasn't even the first musical.  (Though the '55 film boasts its own songs, words and music courtesy Johnny Mercer.)  It was the first in color, and the first in any widescreen process, in this case original CinemaScope.  Another way to begin, then, would be to call it a musical made during the doldrums of the mid-50s, when the genre's prospects had begun to temporarily decline, and a lot of experimentation was happening as regards how to put over a film musical in these new formats, not to mention for a new generation.

Daddy Long Legs, however, was a defiant hold-out, in musical genre, in choreography, in filmmaking; if it weren't in 'Scope, and you somehow didn't know the biographies of its stars, and you confused its Eastmancolor for Technicolor (to his credit, cinematographer Leon Shamroy makes this an easy mistake to make), you might as easily pin it down to the late 40s as the mid-50s.  It was not necessarily a deliberate attempt to sustain the styles of the art-minded MGM musicals that had been so dominant a few years earlier, but by its very conception (and whether it was made at MGM or not), it could scarcely have been anything else.  This is certainly no guarantee of qualityGene Kelly stumbled (not literally) through the mixed bag of his mid-career, with only the beautiful mess of 1955's It's Always Fair Weather to show for itand somebody else could easily say something similar about the late career of this film's male lead, Fred Astaire, whose films (including this one) were beginning to flatline commercially.  Personally, I tend to find Astaire's 50s work his most exciting period, but either way, with the hindsight of almost seventy years, Daddy Long Legs feels like the perfection of everything that had made the late 40s and early 50s the musical's golden age.  And yes, as we probably would start to feel increasingly weird (turned on? that's your business) about that title, I shall begin abbreviating it, going forward.

That's all useful for context, but the real choice about how to frame Long Legs is which of its stars to do it withshould we lead with Astaire or Leslie Caron, who in 2022 remains one of our few living links to these bygone days?  Let's try both: there are several unique things about Long Legs in connection to Astairehis first 'Scope musical; the only time he ever danced for Fox unless we're counting The Towering Infernobut the big one, the selling point, is that it was the one and only time he ever danced with Caron.  This remake only even exists as a musical because producer Darryl Zanuck was inspired by a chance run-in with Astaire, but once Astaire came aboard, he took over, insisting that, somehow, some way, Fox acquire Caron from MGM.  They did, and her first ballet director, Ballets des Champs-Élysées founder Roland Petit, came with her, having just finished the ballet sequences of The Glass Slipper with her just before production began.  With this, Zanuck's project was decisively re-oriented towards another studio's past glories.  Astaire had admired Caron since her ballet with Kelly in 1951's An American In Paris; likewise, he plainly admired An American In Paris itself (he'd just done The Band Wagon with Vincente Minnelli).  It might not be too much to say that Long Legs was Astaire's answer to it.

It wound up inaugurating an unofficial trilogy of "French" musicals for Astaire (the pretty-great Funny Face arriving in 1956, the more-or-less-watchable Ninotchka remake Silk Stockings in 1957), but this was only an accident of Caron's nationality.  Long Legs itself only cares about "being French" to the extent that "France" was necessary to motivate Caron's accent; based on a book that had nothing to with France, it moves things to America just about as soon as Astaire finds her there.  This has an unexpected benefit: she says "ooh-la-la" at least twice, but Long Legs is so much less invested than Caron's MGM musicals in turning her into an irritating cartoon.

No, I don't care much for Caron's post-Paris MGM musicals.  Indeed, they could prompt the question, "Did Leslie Caron, the ballerina, even like musicals?"  Caron has answered us forthrightly: no, she didn't.  But you might not either if you'd been in Lili or The Glass Slipper.  That's reductive, yes, but suffice it to say, thanks to various unpleasant formative experiences (and an eye towards career longevity), Caron conceived of the opportunity Kelly gave her as a way out of dancing.  Perhaps that could help explain why Lili and The Glass Slipper are such limp film musicals.  (Which pains me to say, because both were directed by the great Charles Walters.  Failures for different reasons, until I saw Lili I didn't know Walters could make a truly bad movie; and while The Glass Slipper at least exploits Caron's skillset well enough that it's not a waste, it's a terribly inapt "Cinderella.")  On the other side of Long Legs, of course, is the aforementioned Gigi, the musical that nobody dances in (and, ahem, has other problems besides).  This means that Long Legs was the final showcase for Caron's prowess, and it's always a pleasure to see a career climax on a note as high as this one.  Or her dancing career, anyway: Caron made tons more movies.  I understand she eventually even became what people call "a good actor," a phenomenon that, for all I know, began right here.

Perhaps Astaire's invitation reawakened some passion for her first profession, though.  There's not the least sense of hesitation or disdain here; the second half, where Caron comes into focus, isn't merely as jam-packed with music and dance as almost any musical of its decade, it has the decency to integrate them inordinately well narratively, too.  Even the ballet, somewhat glued-on, I find to at least be in some kind of emotional conversation with the storymoreso, anyway, than "Broadway Melody" or, God save us, "Girl Hunt."

As for that story, what we have is something that has all the appearance of a fluffy MGM-style musical romantic comedyand certainly delivers on all the fun that appearance promisesbut it turns out to conceal more sharply-defined edges than you'd expect.  It's brave enough to actually handle those edges, too, even if Henry and Phoebe Ephron's screenplay is always careful with them.  So: Long Legs introduces us to our hero by way of the art gallery adjoining his office in New Yorkpresumably, some manner of tax dodge.  We're presented with the evolution, or degeneration, of his family via a history of art, and portraits of a very familiar face line the wall, though the series ends with a two-faced cubist abstraction that our guide explains, amused but sneering, is Jervis Pendleton III (Astaire).  He is the source of the loud banging that can be heard from above: that's Jervis wailing on his drums, driving his poor assistant Griggs (Fred Clark) to distraction.  This is something of a blind, however, for while Jervis really likes jazz, and dancing with drums in ways that suggests Jervis is a fan of Fred Astaire in movies like Easter Parade, he also really likes being a titan of American industry.

Soon sent on a government-sanctioned goodwill trip to France, mechanical difficulties compel Jervis to seek assistance at a rural orphanage, and it's here that he spies Julie Andre (Caron), whose way with the younger orphans and kindness in the midst of her reduced circumstances captivates him.  Without ever meeting her, he impulsively contrives to give her a scholarship to study in America at a women's college he happens to contribute millions of dollars to (given the surprisingly-nonjudgmental lesbian joke later, it's an unheralded eighth member of the Seven Sisters).  Julie is obliged only to write once a month to keep Jervis apprised of her progress, though by the time Jervis has returned to America he's practically forgotten her.  Thus Julie's letters get tossed in a filing cabinet by Griggs and Griggs's tender-hearted, sharp-tongued secretary Pritchard (Thelma Ritter), without ever being answered.  But as the years pass, her feelings toward the man she calls "Daddy Long Legs" (thanks to the orphan children's fanciful interpretation of Jervis's long shadow upon a wall*) become slightly bitter, expressing a confused hurt that someone could be so generous materially while not actually giving a damn about her personally.  When this is brought to Jervis's attention, his own heart is touched, and he decides to meet, incognito, this strange French person upon whom he once bestowed a boon, and, oops, it turns out Jervis does have personal feelings for her nownot feelings befitting an aging benefactor, eitherbut she likes him, too.

Oh, I see that face, registering the untenable horror of a 22 year-old exercising sexual agency in ways you don't like, or, even worse, a narrative that's more interested in being a fantasy (written mostly by women) than a morality play.  But yeah, it's suspect, and for all the old movies that impose a middle-aged man on a much younger womana list of hundreds that includes basically every Astaire movie since the 1930sLong Legs is one of the few that doesn't seem petrified of bringing it up, like doing so would pop the bubble.  The Ephrons attack it directlythat 32 year age gap is the subject, implicitly or explicitly, of possibly half the film's dialogueand between the Ephrons' innovation of just acknowledging it, like actual human beings would, and the chemistry between the two leads (Astaire retreats into his well-honed "harmless self-amused gentleman" persona while Caron runs as far away as possible from the awful "stupid baby" persona MGM had thrust upon her, and they meet above the fray), we have a romance more credible than virtually any other movie with this kind of pronounced, undeniable age gap.

Being romances and romantic comedies, those other movies always needed to invent obstacles for its leads' coupling; Long Legs just makes the age gap itself the obstacle, comprehending better than usual (even for movies made today) the power dynamics at play, which of course isn't only a May-December thing, but involves class and deceit, toobut then, the truth of Jervis's identity as "Daddy Long Legs" would threaten to poison any possibility of love, by turning it into the satisfaction of a debt.  Quite the pickle!  By no means is this some dour drama adjoined by dance numbers, though: the Ephrons make it the stuff of bright comedy, with a fantastic supporting cast constantly commenting on the situation, some more pointedly than others; Jervis's sister (Kathryn Givney) has a lot of snotty, superior fun reminding Jervis not to leer at the teenagers when they visit the college (and, as not every joke boils down to "hark! a pervert", Givney also has fun upbraiding Jervis for forgetting what his niece, Jervis's ostensible reason for being there, looks like).

The best, however, comes from the stick-in-the-mud ambassador (Larry Keating), perhaps unrealistically concerned with the affairs of a billionaire and an adult foreign nationalthen again, Long Legs dips its toes into contemporary politics when he asks "Do you know how easy it is to lose a job at the State Department right now?"but he's sort of an externalized incarnation of Jervis's own conscientious worries anyway.  This isn't even taking into account Astaire himself, who might be the most reliable source of comedy here in his reactions to being treated like an old man (and, gallingly, treated by Julie's college suitor as a complete non-threat).  Astaire's sarcastic grousing and general scowling arrive with enough theatrical flourish to be hilarious, but maybe Jervis (or just Astaire) finds it all the more annoying because he's beginning to suspect they're right.  They even put him in an old man hat, from the 30s; they even obliquely acknowledge the dude's been bald for fifteen years.  (That it's one of Astaire's very best performances, and in this particular register, is all the more admirable and heartbreaking considering that Astaire was often crying very-much-for-real between takes, as he was widowed just as production began.  It almost ended the film, but Astaire persevered; God bless him, I don't think you'd ever know if you weren't told.)

And this is on top of a miraculously mechanically-sound screenplay, which manages to ground the logistics of the second act's turn toward melodramaobviously, Jervis is eventually going to have to foreswear any romance with Julie, and Julie must be suitably devastated, and Julie's devastation must serve as proof that Jervis is doing the wrong thing even if it's for the right reasonsin a pair of well-drawn, relatable, sympathetic characters.  (Caron transcends her early-career archetype: the difference between Julie and Lili, Gigi, and Cinderella is, fundamentally, a difference of about forty IQ points, and while there's a similar coming-of-age element in Long Legs, "young woman who becomes wiser and more aware of what she wants at college" is rather more palatable than "teenager who acts more like a toddler accedes to the sexual attention of sad and largely mean-spirited men.")  The Ephrons realize we like the supporting characters, too, so even Clark and Ritter's own combative office dynamic winds up paying off, almost as sweetly as the leads' relationship.  Hell, they even pair off the niece and Julie's ex, in case you were worried about them.  It might be a movie with some genuine substance, then, but it still pursues its genre's soft thrills with flawless discipline.  It would be a worthy-enough romcom without music and dancing.  If it even has good music and dancing, you're basically dealing with something extraordinary.

Long Legs has great music and dancingmore the dancing than the music, I suppose, though Mercer's soundtrack (plus Alex North, for Petit's ballet) is resoundingly solid.  Astaire was wise enough to prevail on Mercer to deploy a banger, "Something's Gotta Give," which serves as prelude to Jervis and Julie's whirlwind tour of NYC (and even Mercer's lyrics here aren't romantic placeholders, tackling the central conflict as directly as the script does, albeit with rather more genteel horniness).  Mercer and the Ephrons evince strong and non-dogmatic ideas about how to make their integrated musical integrated, ranging across the full spectrum of musical realism: diegetic numbers like the pompously-named "History of the Beat" (Astaire's rad spin-heavy dance with his own drumkit and drumsticks, unfortunately cut down for "pacing issues," rather bafflingly, considering it's the only dance number for almost an hour); non-diegetic-let's-break-into-song numbers like "Something's Gotta Give," accompanied by a romantic but cautious dance, utilizing the full possibilities of the 'Scope frame to represent both hesitation and an undeniable attraction; and the full-tilt fantasy of dream sequences.

The first of the three big numbers, going by "Daydream Sequence," is actually three numbers in one, choreographed by Astaire.  These bring Julie's long-deferred letters to life, specifically the one in which she imagines her benefactor; allowing her fancy a free rein, she pictures "Daddy Long Legs," in turn, as a rich Texas oil baron, an international playboy, and a straight-up guardian angel.  These colorful dances against abstracted backdrops are where Long Legs becomes all-but-indistinguishable from an MGM musical; in both "the international playboy" and "the guardian angel" phases, Astaire is presumably referencing his first collaborations with Minnelli in Ziegfeld Follies and the ambitious-but-lousy Yolanda and the Thief.  I don't know where the idea came from for the Texan, maybe just a nod to the prominent subgenre of Western-themed musicals.  But I do know that Astaire's "country" dancing, his cowboy hat filled with gold doubloons (what?), and the dubbed vocals of lyrics like "daddy, daddy, where'd you get them stilts?" are fall-off-the-couch funny.  The international playboy part toys with movement and stillness (not unlike Eugene Loring or Roger Alton's choreography, that) in neat ways, too.

The guardian angel part, however, brings in Caron: as a metaphor for Julie's dreams coming true thanks to her benefactor, naturally Astaire's angel "invisibly" assists Caron in becoming a ballerina, most charmingly as Caron cutely pretends not to be able to go en pointe till Astaire's sorcery gives her that power.  Astaire always liked and respected ballet, and, from time to time, particularly in Shall We Dance, he attempted to forcefully acknowledge its influence on him.  He's 56 now, though, and ballet is hard; he can't do what Caron does and I think he acknowledges that by gesturing at moves more than actually doing them.  The ideas are great, however; the chemistry between the two is unimpeachable even if Astaire's "puppeteering" isn't, so best to grade this pas de duex on a curve.  It's Caron's show anyway, and it's completely enchanting; the ending, when Astaire pulls a star optical effect from the sky, is corny and beautiful.  Each mini-segment, mind you, is briefly narrated by Caron; Julie's audible revulsion over the Texan and especially the womanizing playboy is pretty funny, too.

If Astaire doesn't quite wow in the finale of "Daydream," that's okay, because he's got his own showstopper to come.  Long Legs is curiously inexhaustible, with yet another MGM riff in the vein of Good News (this Caron vehicle is somehow more of "a Charles Walters musical" than either of her Charles Walters musicals).  Long Legs has dabbled with the college setting in a chorus number already, "Welcome Egghead," introducing Julie to dorm life.  It's extremely flamboyant but not really what the movie's about; it's only 125 minutes, so it can really only allude to Julie's college experience.  But it gives it the old, um, post-secondary education try with "Sluefoot," sung by the Pied Pipers, and nakedly designed to spark a youth dance craze.  It didn't, but it's a damned ecstatic collegiate musical sequence, and one of my favorite Astaire numbers, as the "old man" shows the whippersnappers what a legend is still capable of.  It establishes Jervis as a plausible lover for the 22 year-old, which is helpful, and with dozens of dancers besides Astaire and Caron (though it narrows things down to just Astaire and Caron, as the riff-raff get danced off the floor), it's pure, simple joy.  It's testament to cinematic dance as something that can benefit from an engaged camera and all the stuff that Donen & Kelly innovated, building off Astaire's earlier work, but sometimes doesn't really require anything but some precise blocking, judicious editing, and wide 'Scope shots that variably show off dozens of moving bodies, or just two, head-to-toe and right in the center of the frame, doing their thing.

And so I should, at some point in this monograph, discuss Jean Negulesco's direction, which has much the same ideas in the conversation scenes.  Negulesco had, I suppose, gotten a little hidebound at this stage; with this, How To Marry a Millionaire, and Three Coins In the Fountain, he'd carved out a niche at Fox as a maker of CinemaScope romantic comedies that don't necessarily take advantage of CinemaScope's strengths, and practically go out of their way to wallow in its compositional weaknesses.  Yet I've wound up liking the, let's say, extremely efficient style he'd settled into by the 50s, crafting functional stageplay-like blocks of narrative with minimal camera movement, practically letting entire dialogues play out in master shots with somewhat artificial blocking, cutting rarely even when cutting more seems necessary.  It has its upsides, though: for one thing, it doesn't feel like a prosceniumit feels like a lush theatrical-film version of 50s TV, which I mean as a genuine complimentand it shows off art directors Lyle Wheeler and John DeCuir's sometimes-shiny, often-pastel-colored sets, as Negulesco had a great eye for using the space between set decorations and people in a wide 'Scope frame to quietly insist upon garish-elegant mid-century luxury.  (If someone can explain to me the weird floor cushion next to the couch in the hotel room, though, I'd be thankful.)  It's a well-arrayed aesthetic for this particular storymaybe for Negulesco's whole brand of romance, for I love Three Coins, tooas Long Legs benefits a great deal from Negulesco's gentle storytelling and the general unhurriedness of the performances.  It helps that the Ephrons' sharp script doesn't need directorial punching-up, but Negulesco acquits himself well for someone who hadn't been a musical guy in two decades, and then only in shortsthis was his first musical feature, and, obviously, Astaire, Petit, and Caron probably really directed a solid third of this movie's footagebut some personal touches become apparent anyhow.  At least I don't think it's a coincidence that the director who started out in his youth as a painter begins and ends this movie in an art gallery.

That leaves "Nightmare Ballet," a twelve-minute structural reversal of "Daydream," and the first thing shot for the film (I infer to take advantage of Petit while he was still in America).  Jervis is present, but not a participant, reduced now to a memory for Julie and an object of lovelorn desire as she wonders why he's abandoned her.  It's more an exposition of Petit and Caron's artistry than it is a literal explication of the narrative around itJulie's "nightmare" is structured as a Carmen Sandiego-esque chase across the cities Jervis has been spotted in, Paris, Hong Kong, and Riobut it has echoes of Julie's personality in it, as she takes on a different persona in each location and imagines what she would "need" to become to earn his love, moving from classy Parisian ballerina to sultry man-eater in Hong Kong (dancing with sailors, thus completing this film's compendium of all the major MGM musical character classes, well, besides "aquaballet swimmer").  Ultimately, she's made a French clown lost at Carnivale, the one sad face in a sea of revelers.  It's not altogether world-shatteringRio particularly seems a little under-realized choreographicallybut it's all very lovely and sincere, easily in the top third of the 50s fad for dream ballets, and it's tied together by a dreamspace rendering of the hotel they'd fallen in love in back in New York, every door marked "4203," Julie's room.  Thus it becomes a trippy Wong Kar-Wai sequel for a reel, albeit one with a happier ending.

There is very little not to adore here.  You can get bent out of shape over the premise, but it's as good as that premise is going to get; the only things I don't like about it are a few individual design decisions, e.g. "Sluefoot's" a fully-diegetic number in a college gymnasium, and it's a miscalculation to think an abstraction of a basketball goal would be "good enough."  That, of course, is trivial.  The biggest "real" problem is that it takes a while to gear up (the first hour is worrisomely arid, dance musical-wise), but even when it is still gearing up, the comedy's working; on a rewatch I didn't even notice it.  As a summing up of its genre in 1955, you couldn't ask for more: it does everything, and does it all perfectly.

Score: 10/10

*In the South we called them "grand-daddy long legs," because I guess "daddy long legs" wasn't folksy enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment