Friday, April 27, 2012

High kickin' it Old School

I'm not sure how I missed At Long Last Love (1975) when it first came out -- I was in college, I was a big fan of its director Peter Bogdanovich, who had pulled a hat trick with The Last Picture Show (1971), What's Up Doc (1972) and Paper Moon (1974), and had the time and inclination to see almost everything that came out, or at least that was showing in nearby South Hadley, Mass.  For all I know, it never arrived in Western Massachusetts, as it was savaged by the critics, (who it would have needed in order to succeed) got a reputation as a mega-flop (although it wasn't that expensive), was slightly recut, quickly played off and disappeared.  The devastation was so complete, that the film still has never received a homevideo release.  The clips floating around are evidently homevideo air checks, like the rather fuzzy potpourri I've embedded above.

I just caught up with it on Netflix, although it will be expiring soon from that site.  The good news for buffs is that it will finally get a legitimate home release and we can have a debate about its merits or lack thereof on an equal footing.  The rather interesting story of how the film was rediscovered and partially restored is told here, but in short, an employee of the Fox Archives who liked the movie, restored some cut material and circulated that version as the standard television cut.  No one, not even the director, is calling it a lost masterpiece, but it is not at all as bad as its reputation.

The bad

-  There is no story.  Really.  Two couples, switch partners Shakespeare-style, and the servants chase each other in the pantry.  End of synopsis.  Evidently screenwriter Bogdanovich is one of those people who became so enamored with the sheer spectacle of people singing and dancing on film, they failed to observe that is only interesting over the length of a feature if one is engaged in their characters, and if the songs reflect the inner narrative.  This is even true of the Fred-and-Ginger whose stories are often dismissed as piffle.  Piffle they may be, but a great deal of energy was put into keeping the lovers apart, so that when they could be together and especially dance together, the relief of tension was palpable.  The conventions of romantic comedy and/or farce may not be dramatically intense, but they will suffice to support the tension-and-release contours that drive the musical.  Just as 1 is infinitely greater than 0, so a "light story" is infinitely more substantial than no story at all.

-  Diulio DelPrete has no business in this movie.  He's not terrible, but he doesn't sing, dance, perform comedy or possess either sex appeal or charisma sufficient for him to belong in a quartet with Cybill Shepherd, Burt Reynolds and Madeline Kahn.  It's no disgrace to him.  I don't belong in that company, either, but so far, Hollywood has shown immensely good sense by not co-starring me in major films.

-  Madeline Kahn is permitted to sing under pitch, which she had a tendency to do if not curbed.  Burt Reynolds frequently tries to mask his lack of ability by slurring and sliding around, but he's not as bad as he thought, and should have been encouraged to sing his songs straight.

- The choreography is uninspiring and ill-considered, a problem compounded by the lack of dancers.  Stage veteran Eileen Brennan is at least relaxed in comparison to the rest of the cast, but Bogdanovich's model, Lubitsch (more about that later) dispensed with choreography, and Mr. B should have considered it.

- The first scene and song of the movie are terrible, Kahn sings it "drunk" and it takes quite a while for the film to recover.  I am sure this really hurt during its initial theatrical release.  Everyone experienced knows how critical it is for the first number to not only land just right, but to define the show.  Think of "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof, "Rock Island" from The Music Man, "Racing With The Clock" from Pajama GameA Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum almost closed in infamy until it changed its opening number.

The good:

-  Cybill Shepherd sings very well, on key and with a well-controlled vibrato to give her notes a good finish.  Often the only way she can sing high notes is loudly, but that doesn't mean they are piercing or off-key, they're just not subtle.  Her dancing is a little studied, it's true, but,as discussed above, no one in this film is dancing with carefree abandon.

- Bogdanovich's controversial decision to do live recording on the set gives the musical performances an authenticy and a sense of reality that breathes a great deal of energy into the film.  Instead of the overly-processed sound of a voice pressed up against a microphone, we feel the entire space that the performer is in, and (unlike present theater, where everything is now miked) it makes a difference which way a performer is facing, or if they leave or enter a room.  Some of the traveling shots with music are applause-worthy.

-  Similarly, the long uninterrupted takes hand control of the musical performance back to the performer.  Yes, this would be a better idea if the two romantic leads had had more experience at these things, but it doesn't negate the principal that this is the right way to stage and shoot musical numbers.

-  The Porter numbers are great, there's a number of little-known, but top-drawer songs and the music direction overall is just fine.  Not infrequently, a song ends, then resumes a few minutes later reaching into that enormous lower drawer full of extra verses that Porter always seemed to write.  This is a film for fans of song lyrics, even when the lyrics don't suit the characters or the situation all that well.

-  The production design is clean, satirical (clearly it is poking fun at the "Big White Set" seen in later musicals of the 1930's), lavish without being overpowering in that "70s period movie" way.

Why did it take such a beating?

-  It's not perfect, and parts of it are not good at all.  (Although most of it is entertaining.)

-  Many critics seem to feel Bogdanovich had been overpraised (often by those very critics) and it was time to lower the boom.  Musicals are always a sitting duck for these things. (e.g. New York, New York).

-  The low standards of film history in 1975.  Most critics thought  At Long Last Love was meant to be a gloss on or an homage to the Astaire-Rogers series.  After all, those were musicals made in the 30s, right?  Few of them had the knowledge or the thought to realize that Bogdanovich's models were the MacDonald - Chevalier or even MacDonald - Buchanan musicals of the very early sound period.  First of all, that should have been obvious because by the time Astaire entered the movies, musicals were shot to playback, not with live recording on the set.  That idea by itself sets the model back to the 1929-1931 period, when musicals were either the godawful 100% talking 100% singing 100% dancing "let's-get-everybody-in-the-studio-in-this-thing" revues, a sprinkling of transcriptions of Broadway shows like Rio Rita and The Cocoanuts, or the witty Lubitsch musicals.  Again, Reynolds and Shepherd confuse the issue, as they resemble none of the actors in Bogdanovich's models, although butler John Hillerman and personal maid Eileen Brennan do.

The point is, ALLL got panned for not being a Fred & Ginger movie, when it had no intention of being one.  It's like criticizing me for my embroidery work.  (Which I would call pointless if I was inclined toward puns.)

Neither a mass market pleaser nor caviare to the general, At Long Last Love rewards the curiosity of anyone with interest in and knowledge of movie and stage musicals.  And, really, it its present age of 37 years, it really can't hurt anyone.

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