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Movie Reviews: Comedies and Musicals

Updated on July 21, 2020

THE JERK (1979)

Director: Carl Reiner
Cast: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, M. Emmet Walsh, Jackie Mason
Plot: A man accidentally invents a product that would make him a millionaire
Mood: A screwball one-man-show
Tags: Dumb man, Rags-to-riches, A dog named Shithead

Martin is Navin Johnson who was raised by a poor black family and now must go out into the world alone. After a couple of hitchhikes he ends up working in a gas station where he fixes a man’s glasses by attaching a nose break so it won’t slid off. The ingenious design prompts the man to develop it and promises Navin they would split the profits. Meanhwile, Navin then ends up working in a carnival where he hooks up with a daredevil woman on bike losing his virginity. But when he meets a lovely cosmetologist (Peters) it was love at first sight. The invention eventually becomes a hit and Navin becomes a millionaire but the product proves to have side-effects and he is taken to court and loses all his money. It was a time Steve Martin was gaining popularity as a host of Saturday Night Live, and The Jerk was his major starring role that showcased his comedic talents.

The Verdict: 7/10. Directed by the great Carl Reiner who appears in a cameo, The Jerk is a riot and the movie Martin is best known for.

THE BAND WAGON (1953)

Director: Vincente Minnelli
Cast: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan, Oscar Levant
Plot: A new broadway production is set to jumpstart the career of an aging actor but troubles arise
Mood: The glitz and glamour of Broadway is mostly fun but not when you’re down
Tags: Making of a musical, Costumes galore, Production woes

Astaire stars as Tony Hunter, a once top-billed movie and theatre actor seemingly forgotten by the mass agrees to a new broadway production to revive his career. Only it’s going to be handled by a Shakespeare-obsessed director (Buchanan) and would star a ballerina (Charisse), both of whom go against Hunter’s style. What’s supposed to be a happy broadway musical turns into a nightmarish Faustian tragedy. But its not too late to save the production if cooler heads prevail. Along with An American Paris, these are two of Minnelli’s most fun to watch musicals and is not without its share of memorable songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz among them “Dancing in the Dark,” “You and the Night and the Music,” and the ubiquitous “That’s Entertainment.”

The Verdict: 9/10. There are two dance numbers in the movie that made an indelible mark on me: the one where Fred Astaire was getting a shoeshine and Astaire and Charisse at the park. The latter, a romantic swing ballet combo (that I think partly inspired Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s number in La La Land) that made me immediately fall in love with the charming Cyd Charisse, and the former, was just too much fun it brought tears in my eyes. Astaire have said about Charisse, “When you danced with her you stay danced.” I think he was referring to this movie. She’s Ava Gardner (who appeared in a surprise cameo) and Ginger Rogers in one package. One other thing that makes this movie seem special is that there aren’t any tap dancing, which is very unusual, in turn Astaire found other ways to make use of his feet (and hands) which made him more animated and delightful.
7/20/20

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944)

Director: Vincente Minnelli
Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Tom Drake, Marjorie Main
Plot: A look at the life of a middle-class Missouri family through the passing of four seasons
Mood: Cheerful with lots of house parties and no heavy drinking
Tags: Teen love, Singing and dancing, Cute little kids

It starts in the summer of 1903 and ends on the onset of the 1904 World’s Fair. Between the months, siblings Rose and Esther Smith (Bremer and Garland) seek romantic relationships, their prime target being their elusive next door neighbor John (Drake) to whom Esther has a big crush on. When finally they meet, Esther and John immediately hit it off, while Rose also gets a newfound suitor. But all their hopes come crashing down when their father (Ames) announces that his company is sending him to New York and thus the Smith’s will have to say goodbye to St. Louis. This is regarded as one of the best musicals ever made and definitely among Minnelli’s masterpieces, and features among others, the songs “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “The Boy Next Door,” and “The Trolley Song.” The movie is preserved in the US National Film Registry.

The Verdict: 6/10. Meet Me in St. Louis is a delightful movie in eye-popping technicolor with its wonderful costumes, likable songs and inspired performances most notably by its star of stars Judy Garland. It is to some, a Christmas movie staple, and with all its accolades, remakes and stage adaptation, it is a must-see for all who love a worthwhile family movie. However, I didn’t enjoy it as much like I did other old classic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, The Sound of Music and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I kind of find this movie too old fashioned and watching it today, I feel a bit bored. I do take delight in the petty heart problems teens do ala-Little Women, but here it seems too cringy. And I have a problem with the father’s domineering, haven’t-I-done-everything-for-the-family attitude, and the downplaying of the mother (Astor). Where’s her voice in all of these? I thought, Astor’s one of the fragile ones, and someone like Myrna Loy would’ve stepped up. Even the rendition of “Have Yourself” didn’t impress me as much as I hope it would. I thought it would be in a much better, fitting scene and that Garland was obviously lipsyching. All of these made me think if this is really as good as they say it is. Is it overrated? Maybe I’d enjoy it if I have seen it earlier. Must be just bad timing.
7/16/20

THE BANK DICK (1940)

Director: Edward F. Cline, Ralph Ceder
Cast: W.C. Fields, Una Merkel, Grady Sutton, Shemp Howard, Franklin Pangborn
Plot: Bumbling jobless drunk is hired as a bank detective after accidentally foiling a bank heist
Mood: Alcohol-powered inzany-ity
Tags: Slapstick comedy, Bumbling hero, Car chase

Egbert Sousé is a work of art. A drunkard who often finds himself in the middle of odd situations including inadvertently foiling a bank holdup or getting hired as a movie director on the spot without prior experience, or being duped into buying worthless bonds. His constant though is getting his favorite drink on his favorite bar called the Black Pussy Cat Café managed by none other than one of the Stooges, Shemp Howard. But Sousé (the name is just too memorable) is not as bumbling as he seems, a man with high falutin jargon, and can be as cunning as he is naïve when he meticulously diverts the bank examiner (played wonderfully by Franklin Pangborn) from examining the bank’s records by getting him drunk and having a doctor examine him. And all those little accidents of his turn out to be blessings in disguise as he gets hired as a sort of bank dick, the movie producers find his stories worth filming, and the bonds turn him into a millionaire.

The Verdict: 9/10. Fields, whose brand of comedy I have just started to discover, does not possess the physical acrobatics of Chaplin or Keaton, nor the wisecracks of Groucho Marx, or that his comedy seem like combinations of other people’s sketches, but he is a genius in his own way. The Bank Dick is a fun watch and may be the man’s best. It has this car chase scene that’s absolutely hilarious.

THE PALEFACE (1948)

Director: Norman Z. MacLeod
Cast: Bob Hope, Jane Russell, Robert Armstrong, Iris Adrian
Plot: Calamity Jane and a blundering dentist try to collar a group selling guns and dynamites to Indians
Mood: Wild west wacky
Tags: Gunfight, Wagon train, Indian camp

Calamity Jane (Russell) is hired by the government as a secret agent to unmask smugglers arming Indians near Buffalo Flats. She ends up getting hitched to a travelling dentist named Painless Potter (Hope) as they join the wagon train set to travel to Indian territory where they encounter the notorious smugglers and a tribe of Indians. Directed by one of Golden Hollywood’s best comedy directors Norman Z. Macleod, The Paleface is Hope and Russell’s first of four movies together. The Paleface is the perfect lampoon of the wild, wild west and has everything from jailbreaks, assassinations, saloon encounter that leads to a gunfight at sundown, Indian attacks on runaway wagons to Indians dancing around captives about to be burned at the stake. On top of all that, there are song numbers with Bob Hope singing the Academy Award-winning song “Buttons and Bows.”

"I'm doing my trademark pout. What you got?"
"I'm doing my trademark pout. What you got?"

The Verdict: 8/10. It is not the funniest movie by Hope in terms of one-liners, the jokes are safe and mild, but he offers a physical comedy that’s absolutely hilarious, even though some are by stand-ins and stuntmen. As I’ve mentioned, the movie has everything a parody of the West needs which makes this one a classic.

FOLLOW THE FLEET (1936)

Director: Mark Sandrich
Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Randolph Scott, Harriet Hilliard
Plot: Two sailors find romance while on shore leave
Mood: It’s pre-WWII, the Navy is just sailing from here to there and everywhere.
Tags: Tap-dancing, Buddy movie, Happy sailors

1936. While Germany under Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party was hosting the Olympic Games, miles across the Pacific, Fred Astaire in blue and white uniform, was smilingly tap dancing on the deck of an American battleship in a musical called Follow the Fleet. Okay, maybe a studio set. Follow the Fleet is the follow-up to Top Hat and was the fifth Astaire-Rogers pairing. There’s not much to say about the story that you haven’t read in the plot above, you just need to squeeze in the dance routines. And while not as highly regarded as Top Hat, the movie still features many great dance numbers and songs and music by Irving Berlin and conductor Max Steiner, among them I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket, Let Yourself Go, and Let’s Face the Music and Dance being the crowning glory. The supporting cast led by Harriet Hilliard and a beaming Randolph Scott (Errol Flynn and Gary Cooper rolled into one) as Astaire’s womanizing pal, give delightful performances.

"You and me on the second billing,see."
"You and me on the second billing,see."

The Verdict: 8/10. Just to see Astaire and Rogers dance is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

7/4/20

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