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Posts Tagged ‘Stanley Donen’

Retentive masochists who’ve been hanging around this blog for a number of years may recall that a while back I looked at a number of famous musicals, mainly ones that I really liked: Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver!, and so on. I have to say that I did tend to find myself in a sixties and early seventies sweet spot, mostly containing films which used the soothing and appealing nature of the non-diegetic musical as a way of addressing challenging real-world issues such as racism and political extremism. On the other hand, I didn’t really care much for Guys and Dolls, which is really just a whimsical romantic comedy.

Perhaps there is a place for the musical purely as a piece of escapist entertainment, though. On a whim I sat down and watched On the Town the other night – I’d sort-of watched it before (this is code for ‘had it on TV in the background while I did something else’) and clearly it made some sort of impression on me. This is a film that was originally released at the back end of 1949, based on a stage show from a few years earlier (with many of composer Leonard Bernstein’s songs cut and replaced by new ones, which caused a few ructions). The film is directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (his first time in this particular role).

This is one of those films which is really a love letter to New York City: it’s not just that practically the whole thing is set there, some of it is even filmed there, which I would suggest is a lot less common. It opens at 6am at the docks, with excited sailors on leave spilling off their ship, much to the amusement of the passing workers. Amongst their number are the trio we will follow: Gabe (Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra), and Ozzie (Jules Munshin). The three of them have never been to the Big Apple before, and have only twenty-four hours to avail themselves of its various distractions.

A somewhat improbable whistle-stop tour of various sites ensue, as the trio belt out ‘New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town’ – a sentiment I would certainly agree with myself, although my Significant Other might be a bit less generous in her praise. However, the three guys just rattling around tourist sites wouldn’t be much of a movie, and so we get to an inciting incident: while travelling on the metro, Gabe spies the poster of ‘Miss Turnstiles’ (Vera-Ellen), a promotion which he assumes is a big deal but means nothing to most Manhattanites. Needless to say he is instantly smitten and resolves to find her so he can take her out dancing that night. This being a musical, however, he and the others actually bump into her having her photo taken, but she gets away before he can ask her out (her real name is Ivy Green).

With the help of a passing lady cab driver, Hildy (Betty Garrett), the sailors set off in pursuit of Ivy, based on the personal bio on her poster. Hildy seems rather taken with Chip, hence her willingness to help out. They end up visiting a museum, where Ozzie is bagged by a passing anthropologist (Ann Miller) allured by his resemblance to a prehistoric man and a dinosaur skeleton falls down, before they decide to split up and help Gabe find Ivy again (some of them take rather idiosyncratic approaches to this task). Is Gabe going to be stuck without a date on his one and only night in New York?

As I say, there’s a time and a place for dealing with serious themes in a musical entertainment, but New York City in 1949 is clearly not it: the Second World War is not long over, America is bursting with confidence and energy, and anything is possible if you put your mind to it. This is one of those quite rare movies without a single really unsympathetic character in it: certainly people have their problems, but these are just issues of circumstance and misunderstanding – when it really comes down to it, everyone turns out to be decent and sympathetic. Films like this have the knack of completely bypassing the shell of cynicism I habitually operate within: I find it very hard to be genuinely critical of them.

Not that there is much here to be critical of, anyway. Perhaps the least positive thing I can say is that it comes close to breaching my usual guideline that a great musical should have (mostly) great songs. You can perhaps detect the difference between the small number of original Bernstein songs that have survived and the new ones added from other composers (Bernstein’s seem to be more ambitious musically); most of them are certainly agreeable to listen to, but I don’t think you really go home whistling selections from the film. Instead, I would suggest this is an example of a musical where the dancing is probably more distinguished than the vocal work – Ann Miller’s performance of ‘Prehistoric Man’ gets better and better as it goes on, mainly because it turns into a dance number: she’s a good singer, but a sensational mover. The same is also true of Gene Kelly, of course, and you remember the footwork from a number like ‘Main Street’ more than the vocal.

Just as charming as the musical numbers is the general tenor of the piece, which I suspect may have been slightly daring back in the 1940s. You might expect a story about three sailors looking for fun in New York City to get fairly raucous and suggestive (cue jokes about the fleet being in, and so on), but the film very sweetly flips this on its head: the three guys are all basically hicks, and very innocently so. Gabe is the only one who actually chases a girl, but does so entirely honourably (this being Gene Kelly, you completely buy into it) – the other two sailors are basically picked up by women who are, to put it mildly, romantically pro-active (Garrett and Sinatra perform ‘Come Up to My Place’, which she sings to him, and she’s not looking to show him her stamp collection).

Despite the fact the film is basically about young (or fairly young: Kelly was 37, Sinatra 35, and so on) people looking to hook up on a night out, On the Town retains that sweetness, innocence and optimism I was talking about earlier. It’s not about anything more serious than being excited and hopeful in one of the world’s great cities. You can possibly dig deeper for a more substantial subtext, but I doubt you’ll get anywhere with it. A great piece of escapist entertainment.

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It falls to few people, no matter how naturally talented they are, to be good at everything. (This feels entirely just and comes as something of a relief to those of us who frankly often struggle to be good at anything.) And so there is surely something reassuring about the fact that, despite a massively successful and influential career as a novelist, author, essayist, critic, and memoirist, Martin Amis will still be remembered as a crappy writer of SF movie screenplays.

To be fair, he only had one go at this, and the experience seems to have been sufficiently unpleasant to put him off having another try. The film in question is Saturn 3, directed by Stanley Donen and released in 1980 under the auspices of Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment. Amis apparently used his experiences on the movie as material for his novel Money, which I haven’t read; Saturn 3, on the other hand, I have experienced, as both a movie and a tie-in novel.

saturn 3

(Not that it matters much, but I once interviewed the writer of the Saturn 3 tie-in – this was not the major focus of our chat – who was a fellow named Stephen Gallagher. Gallagher, a bit like Amis, went on to do many much more distinguished and interesting things, but as he is primarily a genre writer he is not nearly as celebrated for them. His main recollection of the Saturn 3 job was that he was writing the novelisation before the film was actually finished – I think this is standard practice – and had only a copy of the shooting script to work from, along with a photo of one of the sets and another of the film’s robotic antagonist. My recollection is that the book changes the end of the film subtly but considerably, but as I’ve observed before it’s not unheard of for tie-in writers to quietly try and improve on the original script.)

Your first sense that things are going somewhat adrift with Saturn 3 comes very early on, when it is revealed that Kirk Douglas, superstar of the Golden Age of Hollywood, is only second billed on the movie. The coveted top spot is given instead to Farrah Fawcett, star of TV’s Charlie’s Angels. Hmmm. Rounding out the cast is Harvey Keitel, sort of (yes, this is another of those British movies which recruited an almost entirely American cast in an attempt to secure a US release).

In time-honoured post-stellar conflict post-Alien style, the film begins with a hefty model spaceship crawling from the top of the screen to the bottom, more than slowly enough for the viewer to discern that they are in for some duff special effects in the course of the next 88 minutes. All is not well inside the ship, either, for Captain Benson (Keitel), disgruntled at being barred from a mission on the grounds of mental instability, decides to murder his replacement and impersonate him on the job. (As this is the premise for the whole movie, you just have to accept how ill-thought-through and implausible it seems.)

Benson is soon rocketing off to Saturn’s third moon, Tethys, which is the location of a hydroponics research station operated by a couple named Adam (Douglas) and Alex (Fawcett). Both of them have been isolated for a long time – Alex has never been to Earth – and perhaps don’t notice that Benson is acting a bit strangely (nor that Keitel is obviously, and rather distractingly, having all his dialogue dubbed by Roy Dotrice).

The couple, who to judge from the film spend much more time in bed together than actually doing any hydroponics research, are displeased to learn that Benson’s mission is to oversee the construction of a shiny new robot which will make the station much more efficient and allow one of them to be reassigned elsewhere. But it turns out they have bigger problems. Hector the robot, who appears to be half-Terminator, half-anglepoise lamp, is programmed by Benson using a direct brain interface, and is inadvertently getting all of the captain’s homicidal tendencies and lustful thoughts about Farrah Fawcett in addition to his basic training. Trouble is bound to ensue…

Hard to believe it may be, but there was once a time when a film like Saturn 3 (current Rotten Tomatoes rating: 18%) could be broadcast as the BBC’s big Saturday night film. I should know, I was there: 8.20 p.m. on September 6th, 1986. My main memory is of acute surprise when the film turned out to have much more nudity and gore in it than I had expected (this must have been before they instituted the 9 o’clock watershed on UK TV). Apparently Lew Grade envisioned Saturn 3 as being a slightly disreputable exploitation movie (you can see how the plot might lend itself to this sort of approach), but Stanley Donen (who took over when original director John Barry was dismissed) presumably wanted something a bit more high-minded.

And so we end up with something which is neither intelligent or especially fun to watch. In addition to some of the most dubious spaceship models and special effects of its period, the film notably fails to present a coherent or convincing vision of futuristic society – this is obviously a second-wave SF knock-off film, post-Alien, but unlike that film and other ones deriving from it, you get no sense of recognition of the world or how it functions. Amis tries to create a sense of time and place by dropping cod-futuristic expressions and slang into the script (the base is ‘shadow-locked’ for most of the movie, which is why no-one can call for help, while the ageing Adam (Douglas was in his early sixties at the time, which if you ask me is too old to be doing nude fight scenes) is approaching his ‘abort time’, whatever that is), but it just feels intrusive.

Without much of a wider context having been established (the film’s Wikipedia page claims that it occurs in a future where Earth has become immensely overpopulated, but there’s barely any reference to this in the actual movie), Benson’s attempts to get his hands on Alex (‘You have a beautiful body. Can I use it?’) just feel contrived and leery for all his assertions that this is how it’s done back home. There’s an attempt at conjuring up some kind of sexual tension between the three leads, but the weak script and the lack of chemistry between any of them scuppers this (the most interesting relationship in the film is the one between Keitel and the prop robot).

Luckily, this is not a long movie and relatively soon we come to the bits with the robot on the rampage. I suppose it’s a testament to the achievement of Isaac Asimov that he managed to banish the ‘killer robot’ story from respectable SF (this was his intention with his ‘laws of robotics’ stories). Saturn 3, which is one of the purest ‘killer robot’ stories in cinema, is therefore something of an aberration. Nevertheless, the film’s most effective sequence comes near the end, with the human characters stalked through the base by Hector (who, being a clanking seven-foot machine, develops an almost supernatural ability to sneak up on them). There is not much in the way of characterisation or context here, but it does function on a cinematic level.

The rest of the film doesn’t, really. There is an identifiable story going on, there is the most basic kind of characterisation, and the film doesn’t contain the more egregious violations of the laws of physics that some more distinguished professional film-watchers would have you believe are present. But it never engages and never persuades, and the story isn’t fun enough to make you overlook its various shortcomings. A rather ugly and primitive movie; the kind of thing that gives incompetent SF a bad name.

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