Thursday, December 16, 2010

Soul sold

Though I've seen it many times, I just re-watched the 1958 film version of the Broadway musical Damn Yankees (I got a very good price on a DVD). The film settles a long-standing argument between Broadway and film aficionados, specifically the claim that the movies change Broadway shows too much and all that is needed is to take the Broadway script and cast and "open it up" a little and you have a good movie. Damn Yankees is proof positive that it ain't so. The film uses the entire original cast, save the exchange of one insignificant juvenile lead for another, one substituted number, another cut and some slight shuffling of the running order.

Yet despite the fidelity to a 1,000-performance Broadway show, the film feels flat. A little film history suggests exactly what went wrong. Production was rushing to beat the deadline of a threatened musicians' strike. The deadline was missed, so the actors lip-synched to the Broadway cast album. Later the film music was recorded in Rome (with the orchestrations almost identical to the originals--an unusual situation for music supervisor Ray Heindorf, who usually put his stamp on the scores he worked for), and the voice tracks recorded to fit (often badly) the lip movements already filmed. The result is that when the singers are performing, they cannot fully concentrate on the performance, but in both the filming and the recording process had technical procedures foremost in mind.

That rush to finish the film may explain why the scenes are often played in long takes and long shots with occasionally badly cut inserts. And of course, the actors are stuck with Abbott's strange text with the inept attempt at aping natural speech and all sorts of non-sequiturs that are meant to sound like breezy chatter. None of this explains why the dialogue scenes proceed at such a leisurely tempo. I suspect the actors were just reading the lines the way they had been for two-and-a-half years, but why couldn't Stanley Donen (who despite the co-directing credit, was the only person on the stage actually directing the film) have gotten the actors to pick up their cues, and even perhaps interrupt or overlap? The word "stilted" doesn't begin to describe the effect. (Walston, who later became a good movie and television actor is the worst offender here. You can almost see his eyes scanning the seats in the back of the orchestra.)

Nonetheless, no one is going to burn the negative, because the film is the best record we have of the great Gwen Verdon at her height. A lot of people feel that she didn't become a star because her performance was stagy. That's nonsense. First of all, as the clip below shows, Gwen is quite subtle and knowing in "A Little Brains, A Little Talent." Some people are upset that the movie powers insisted she omit her hip bumps, but I don't miss them -- they help to bring the tone of the number down to an appropriate level for the movies. "Whatever Lola Wants" is, of course, deliberately stagy, not only because the intent was to record Bob Fosse's original staging and Verdon's performance, but because the song is not meant to be actually arousing and sexy. It is a satire of sex appeal and the sirens who are supposed to have it. The whole sequence is deliberately ridiculous. To have Lola be actually sexy and desirable to Joe would complicate the entire story.

This viewing I really sat up for a number that I barely remembered from previous viewings. Here in, "Two Lost Souls" Fosse seems to be on his way to film directing in a way he hadn't before. Sure, the lighting and camera staging probably had contributions from Stanley Donen and cinematographer Harold Lipstein, but like no Fosse number before, this seems to have been designed for the camera. Not that it's all cuts and close-ups, but it has a fluidity of movement and of changes in scale and focus that recall the best work of Vincent Minelli, Chuck Walters and Donen and Kelly at MGM in the glory days.

But finally the film will be remembered and copies treasured by every dance fan and aspiring dancer for this next clip, which is the only color footage of Verdon and Fosse together in a typically irrelevant Adler & Ross specialty called "Who's Got The Pain?" (The joke, lost to pop culture history, is that the mambo seems to always incorporate strange vocalizations that sound like bird squawks or cries of gastic distress. Get an old Xavier Cugat or Perez Prado mambo record from the mid- to late-50s and you'll see what they mean.) On stage, Verdon had done the number with a company dancer named Eddie Phillips. But this was film and film lasts, so Bob Fosse (who had already appeared on film in Kiss Me Kate and Give A Girl A Break alongside later choreography-director rival Gower Champion) took the stage shoulder to shoulder in one of the most raucous love duets you'll ever see. Because that's what this is -- the love of two performers and artists for each other and their work. They married shortly after this was filmed, and although they didn't live together for the rest of their lives, they never really fell out of love. How could they have?

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