Fantasia (1940). 126 minutes. Starring Deems Taylor (as Master of Ceremonies). Music conducted by Leopold Stokowski and performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Story direction by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer. Produced by Walt Disney and Ben Sharpsteen.
Fantasia is almost a complete anomaly in the Disney film canon. The third feature-length animated movie to emerge from Disney’s studios, it does not tell one overarching story but rather is a collection of eight short films inspired by and set to classical music. The sequences range from an abstract depiction of sound (Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”) to a grim scientific odyssey (Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”), from light comedies (Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”) to somber material (Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria”). The movie is one of Disney’s finest achievements, and it elevates animation by pairing cartoons with some of the greatest instrumental music in history. But due to its considerable budget, the … Read the rest
Ziegfeld Girl (1941). 132 minutes. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Starring James Stewart (as Gilbert Young), Judy Garland (as Susan Gallagher), Hedy Lamarr (as Sandra Kolter), Lana Turner (as Sheila Regan), Tony Martin (as Frank Merton), Jackie Cooper (as Jerry Regan), Eve Arden (as Patsy Dixon), Philip Dorn (as Franz Kolter), Charles Winniger (as “Pop” Gallagher), Ian Hunter (as Geoffrey Collis), and Edward Everett Horton (as Noble Sage). Musical sequences directed by Busby Berkeley.
Ziegfeld Girl is intended to be a follow-up to 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld, but whereas The Great Ziegfeld focuses on Florenz Ziegfeld (founder of the Ziegfeld Follies) and his rise to fame, Ziegfeld Girl charts the careers of three fictitious Follies showgirls. The similarities between the two movies are numerous, and towards its end, Ziegfeld Girl even recycles some of the footage from the earlier film, including The Great Ziegfeld’s famous rotating wedding cake set. While Ziegfeld Girl has many failings—including the fact that it … Read the rest
San Francisco (1936). 115 minutes. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. Starring Clark Gable (as Blackie Norton), Jeanette MacDonald (as Mary Blake), Spencer Tracy (as Father Tim Mullin), Jack Holt (as Jack Burley), Jessie Ralph (as Mrs. Burley), Ted Healy (as Mat), Shirley Ross (as Trixie), Edgar Kennedy (as sheriff), Al Shean (as professor), and William Ricciardi (as Signor Baldini). Songs by Walter Jurmann, Bronislaw Kaper, and Edward Ward.
San Francisco has the potential to be a good movie. It has great music, including the song “San Francisco,” which was composed especially for it; features Jeanette MacDonald, Clark Gable, and Spencer Tracy; makes use of contributions from directors D. W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim; and is set in one of the greatest cities in the world in the days before its most impressive catastrophe, the 1906 earthquake. Yet San Francisco’s story is both fairly conventional and a strange compilation of genres, with the plot beginning as a familiar story … Read the rest
King of Jazz (1930). 105 minutes. Directed by Paul Fejos and John Murray Anderson. Starring Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, The Rhythm Boys (Bing Crosby, Al Rinker, Harry Barris), Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Willie Hall, Jeanie Lang, George Chiles, John Boles, Wilbur Hall, Al Norman, Jeanette Loff, Stanley Smith, The Russell Markert Girls, The Sisters G, Glenn Tryon, Laura LaPlante, and The Brox Sisters. Art direction by Herman Rosse. Animation by Walter Lantz and William Nolan.
The American King of Jazz, like the British Elstree Calling (1930), is a surviving musical revue from the early days of sound. Filmed in two-strip Technicolor, which emphasizes shades of turquoise and rose, it, unlike Elstree Calling, is a lavish production with impressive sets and gorgeous costumes. Herman Rosse, who created King of Jazz’s often remarkable visual style, won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction for his work on the film. King of Jazz was not successful upon its initial … Read the rest
Top Hat (1935). 101 minutes. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Starring Fred Astaire (as Jerry Travers), Ginger Rogers (as Dale Tremont), Edward Everett Horton (as Horace Hardwick), Erik Rhodes (as Alberto Beddini), Helen Broderick (as Madge Hardwick), and Eric Blore (as Bates). Music by Irving Berlin.
Top Hat remains the most commercially successful musical made by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers during their film partnership in the 1930s. In it, Astaire plays dancer Jerry Travers, who is headlining a revue on the London stage. While noisily tap-dancing in his producer and friend Horace Hardwick’s hotel room, Jerry encounters the woman in the room downstairs, Dale Tremont (played by Ginger Rogers), who complains about Jerry’s impromptu performance to the hotel. He falls in love instantly. She, however, cannot stand him, his noisy tap-dancing, or his efforts to woo her. Through a series of misunderstandings, she also comes to confuse him with his producer Hardwick, whose wife Madge she happens to be friends … Read the rest
The Jazz Singer (1927). 96 minutes. Directed by Alan Crosland. Starring Al Jolson (as Jakie Rabinowitz/Jack Robin), Warner Oland (as Cantor Rabinowitz), Eugenie Besserer (as Sara Rabinowitz), May McAvoy (as Mary Dale), Otto Lederer (as Moisha Yudelson), Richard Tucker (as Harry Lee), Bobby Gordon (as Jakie Rabinowitz at age 13), and Yossele Rosenblatt (as himself).
It occurred to me recently as I was watching The Jazz Singer that I had seen two of its musical sequences before: the famous “My Mammy” number that Al Jolson sings in blackface, of course, but also the “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye)” performance. The latter is shown playing on a television in the movie Goodfellas (1990) when federal agents arrive to search the home of Karen Hill (played by Lorraine Bracco). Karen’s husband Henry is a gangster, and the family home is frequently raided, but Karen has become inured to the presence of the agents. When they show up on this particular occasion, she … Read the rest
Dumbo (1941). 64 minutes. Directed by Ben Sharpsteen (supervising director). Starring Edward Brophy (as Timothy Q. Mouse), Verna Felton (as Elephant Matriarch), Cliff Edwards (as Jim Crow), Herman Bing (as the Ringmaster), Margaret Wright (as Casey Junior), and Sterling Holloway (as Mr. Stork). With the Hall Johnson Choir (as Crow Chorus) and the King’s Men (as Roustabout Chorus). Music by Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace. Produced by Walt Disney.
I first saw Dumbo when I was very young, along with a slew of other Disney movies, but it was Michael Wilmington’s article on it in The American Animated Cartoon: A Critical Anthology that really made me think of it as a work of art. Wilmington argues that Dumbo is Disney’s finest achievement, both in terms of its visual artistry and its storytelling, and when I viewed it recently, I had to admit that I was astonished by both its innovative style and its maturity. Given that its protagonist Dumbo never … Read the rest
March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934; also known as Babes in Toyland). 77 minutes. Directed by Gus Meins and Charles Rogers. Starring Stan Laurel (as Stannie Dum), Oliver Hardy (as Ollie Dee), Charlotte Henry (as Bo Peep), Henry Brandon (as Silas Barnaby), Felix Knight (as Tom-Tom, the Piper’s Son), Florence Roberts (as Widow Peep), Virginia Karns (as Mother Goose), and Kewpie Morgan (as Old King Cole). Music by Victor Herbert, Frank Churchill, and Ann Ronnell. Produced by Hal Roach.
This 1934 comedy, based on the Mother Goose stories and starring Laurel and Hardy, is known alternately as March of the Wooden Soldiers, Wooden Soldiers, Babes in Toyland, Laurel and Hardy in Toyland, and Revenge Is Sweet. I have a general feeling when I watch a movie that the more titles it has, the worse it is going to be (I think, for example, of 1962’s deliciously awful The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, which … Read the rest
Elstree Calling (1930). 86 minutes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, André Charlot, Jack Hulbert, and Paul Murray. Starring Tommy Handley (as host), Gordon Harker (as man with faulty television), Will Fyffe, Lily Morris, Teddy Brown, The Three Eddies, Anna May Wong, Bobbie Comber, Hannah Jones, Cicely Courtneidge, Helen Burnell, and Donald Calthrop.
Elstree Calling is a 1930 musical variety film, designed by British International Pictures to show off Elstree Studios’ nascent sound technology and to compete with the opulent musical revues coming out of the United States at the time. (You can think of its title, Elstree Calling, as a version of the well-known “London Calling” that had been BBC radio’s signature call sign in London since 1922.) It is notable for being a an early British sound extravaganza, for the many musical artists who appear in it, for its use of the early tinting technique Pathécolor in select scenes, and for the involvement of Alfred Hitchcock as one of … Read the rest
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). 83 minutes. Directed by David Hand (supervising director). Starring Adriana Caselotti (as Snow White), Lucille La Verne (as Evil Queen Grimhilde), Harry Stockwell (as the Prince), Roy Atwell (as Doc), Pinto Colvig (as Grumpy and Sleepy), Otis Harlan (as Happy), Scotty Mattraw (as Bashful), Billy Gilbert (as Sneezy), Moroni Olsen (as the Magic Mirror), and Stuart Buchanan (as Humbert the Huntsman). Songs by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey. Produced by Walt Disney.
The story of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is probably familiar to most: the young and beautiful princess Snow White lives in a castle and is governed by her evil stepmother the Queen, who forces her to wear ragged peasants’ clothes and perform menial tasks. Snow White encounters a prince one day while cleaning and is smitten. Meanwhile, the Queen asks her magic mirror who the most beautiful woman in the land is. When the mirror tells her … Read the rest