Sunday, September 12, 2010

No. 90: The Jazz Singer

The Jazz Singer (1927)

Starring: Al Jolson, May

McAvoy, Walter Oland

Director: Alan Crosland

Awards: Special Oscar to Darryl F. Zanuck for producing the “revolutionary” motion picture (But not a real Oscar!)

When I say "silent films," is the first word you think “snoozer?” Well, not for me. Even though I’m supposed to be a 14-year-old teen girl with no attention span, I actually like silent movies. A lot!

I think silent films require a completely different type of attention. The acting isn’t always stellar and seems herky-jerky at times, but something about the stark silence is mesmerizing. In The Jazz Singer, there’s a weird blend of silence and then sudden blasts of musical noise. It’s a strange mix – but it works.

I should probably clarify a bit. The Jazz Singer isn't a completely silent film. In fact, the reason it was revolutionary was because of its incorporation of dialogue and recorded music. The tagline says it all - "See him, and hear him sing!" Even though most of the film isn't talking, and the sound quality is horrible, this film was a big deal.

Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson) is a Jewish cantor’s son who’s expected to become a cantor himself - but all he wants to do is sing jazz. He runs away from New York City, and his disapproving father (Oland), to become a vaudevillian. Ten years later he returns home to star in a Broadway show, but on opening night - which coincidentally happens to be a Jewish holiday - he’s informed that his father is dying and he must choose between his family/religious values (i.e., singing in synagogue) and his blossoming career. He picks family values. But his father dies anyway! And he still gets to be a Broadway star! Great moral-of-the-story, right?

Anyway. Let’s talk about the movie. I found The Jazz Singer had a lot of pros and only a few minor cons. I liked the film’s themes – they were simple but provocative, and left you thinking about choices and decisions. The raw emotion in silent films always interests me because it puts the acting so over-the-top, you know? I also liked the way they used black and white in this film. It’s not meant to be artistic, because they weren’t that technically advanced yet, but today, it looks really complex.

A few minor cons. I was – how do I put this? - a wee bit scared of Al Jolson’s acting and singing style, especially his strange puppet-like dancing. It may have been popular then, but it comes off a bit frightening today. I definitely didn't like the use of blackface, but I guess that was - unfortunately - part of entertainment culture.

So in short, if you like:

* Lotsa good jazz tunes

* Super-extra stereotyped Orthodox Jews

* Flapper dresses

* Strange, marionette-ish dancing

* Broadway musical numbers

* The mesmerizing lure of silent movies

..then you’ll probably like The Jazz Singer.

Coming up next: Patton (1970), starring George C. Scott and Karl Malden. This is another one that I’ve never seen, so I’m intrigued – stick around and read about it!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

No. 91: My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady (1964)

Starring: Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn, Stanley Holloway

Director: George Cukor

Awards: 8 Oscars, including Best Picture

I don't think I've ever started writing a post with negative thoughts about the movie. Well, that’s not true anymore – because you know what? I’m throwing this down: My Fair Lady is not a good movie. I know, it’s a shock. I’m usually a pretty positive person. But to my surprise, I found it so bad that I admit: there may have been fast-forwarding. Yep, that painful.

In the case of this movie, the problems far outnumbered the shining moments. Audrey Hepburn’s character is annoying and over-the-top, and seems ill-cast. The songs aren’t all that great, and the script adaptation seems awkward at times. In short – eh. Not so great.

I may dislike My Fair Lady, but I’m still obligated to summarize the horrors, so here goes.

Professor Henry Higgins (Harrison) is a misogynistic and bad-tempered phonetics genius who overhears ill-mannered Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn). He’s appalled by her poor speaking, and makes a bet that he can turn her into a “lady,” and take her to a society ball. After months of hard work, Eliza goes to the ball and it’s a great success. But Higgins takes all the credit for Eliza’s work, and she leaves in a rage. After she's gone, Higgins realizes that for all his mocking, he misses her. He finds her, they squabble, and she swears to never return. BUT - of course, she does, and it’s a sort-of-happy ending. I suppose.

So. Why on EARTH is this movie on the AFI’s list? I really don’t quite know. There are many far more deserving musicals that were omitted. Films like Cover Girl (1944) or Shall We Dance (1937) – now those are good musicals. Good songs, good scripts, and most important – no Audrey Hepburn squawking in a painfully shrill voice.

It's not like there are absolutely no good things about My Fair Lady. Rex Harrison is hilariously rude, and even though he acts atrociously to Eliza, she’s so annoying you don’t even mind. Stanley Holloway turns the bit role of Eliza’s comically drunk father into one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie. And admittedly, some of the Lerner and Loewe songs like Why Can’t The English? are pretty good.

So not everything is bad - just most of it. Sadly, I’m not in a hurry to recommend it.

Next up, The Jazz Singer (1927) – starring Al Jolson. This movie is all about film-industry firsts; it was the first film to incorporate sounds and dialogue. Should be interesting, so stick around and read about it!