Musical Comedy

Hairspray

2007

New Line Cinema

Directed by Adam Shankman

Produced by Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Bob Shayne, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman and Tony Emmerich

Written by John Waters, Thomas Meehan and Leslie Dixon

Based on the 2002 musical “Hairspray” and the 1988 film “Hairspray”

As you can tell from the credits, HAIRSPRAY has had a convoluted history.  It started out as a movie which launched Ricki Lake’s career (and her talk show sank what little there was of it).  But only did moderate business and became a cult favorite.  It then was turned into a Broadway musical that won a ton of Tony Awards and that’s when it became a hit.  It became an even bigger success when it returned to the screen as a big-budget musical.  And let me tell you, HAIRSPRAY did a whole lot to make me feel better the first time I saw it during a bad time in my life and when I saw it again recently I was happy that it had the same effect on me and made me feel good all over again.  Only a total Blue Meanie could dislike HAIRSPRAY and its right up there with musicals such as “Mamma Mia” and “Chicago” and classics such as “Little Shop of Horrors” “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas” and “Grease” that are among my favorites.

It’s Baltimore, 1962 and Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonski) dreams of only one thing: her favorite TV teen dance show: ‘The Corny Collins Show’.  The problem is that Tracy is what we today call “full-figured” but back in 1962 the ‘f’ word is used right to her face when she’s turned down at an audition to dance on the show.  That’s because all of the girls on the show are broomstick thin.  Tracy’s mother Edna (John Travolta) and her father, joke shop king Wilbur (Christopher Walken) in their own ways encourage Tracy to follow her dream and Tracy does have an advantage over most kids: despite her size the chick can shake her moneymaker like nobody’s business which is an attribute noticed by the black kids when she gets thrown into detention with them.  One of the kids, Seaweed Stubbs (Elijah Kelley) teaches Tracy some of his moves which are noticed by Link Larkin (Zac Efron) the lead singer/dancer on ‘The Corny Collins Show’.  Link’s never seen any girl move like Tracy and he insists that she try out again for Corny’s show.

Tracy tries out again and she does indeed land a spot on the show, much to the chagrin of Corny’s producer Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is using the show to promote her daughter’s future as a beauty queen.  Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) is not only Link’s girlfriend but also the front runner for “Miss Teenage Hairspray” both of which are challenged not only by Link’s growing interest in Tracy but Tracy’s increasing popularity not only among white teenagers but black ones as well since Tracy is very outspoken for integrating the all-white Corny Collins Show.  The show is notable for having a once-a-month Negro Day hosted by Seaweed’s mom, Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah).  Corny Collins (James Marsden) himself is with Motormouth and Tracy against Velma’s racist policies against having black and white kids dance together on the show since they see the changing times and know it isn’t long before some very old walls come tumbling down.

HAIRSPRAY covers a lot of ground for what is essentially a Feel Good Musical and I appreciated that.  It surely didn’t have to stretch itself to cover the rising Equal Rights Movement in America and address it through Tracy’s embracing friendships with blacks and a romantic subplot involving Tracy’s best friend Penny (Amanda Bynes) and Seaweed.  There’s a nice scene where a popular song ‘New Girl In Town’ is sung by a white girl group and intercut with a black girl group singing the same song.  When Velma complains to Motormouth about this, Motormouth responds by saying that the black girl group not only wrote the song, they recorded it first.  One is reminded of the Little Richard/Pat Boone ‘Tutti Frutti’ debacle.

The racial subplots don’t get in the way of the main story and in fact do exactly what subplots are supposed to do: support the main story and give us insight into other aspects of the characters.  But at the same time they put more meat on the bones of the main story and it would be hard to imagine HAIRSPRAY without them.  The interracial romance between Seaweed and Penny is handled with a lot more sensitivity than you would expect and it’s made clear that these two would have fallen for each other no matter what color they are.  In fact, due to Penny’s high school status as a Plain Jane and Tracy’s being overweight it’s made clear that they’re considered just as much outsiders by the white kids in their school as the blacks.  Which makes it all the more sweeter when by the movie’s conclusion, Tracy and Penny both get their hearts desire on the merits of their staying true to who they are.

I really love the acting in this movie.  Everybody looks to be having a total blast but nobody more so than John Travolta and Nikki Blonski.  Yes, that is John Travolta in a fat suit playing a woman and while it may come off at first as stunt casting, pay close attention.  Travolta wasn’t hired to convincingly play a woman: he was hired because he can dance and can do so in a sixty-pound fat suit and make it look graceful.  Which he does.  Travolta and Nikki Blonski have a great number together ‘Welcome To The 60’s’ and there’s a number where Travolta sings and dances with Christopher Walken that has to be seen to be believed.   It also helps that Christopher Walken himself is an old song-and-dance man from way back.  Travolta looks like he’s having so much fun that you can’t help but grin when you see him dance around in the outrageous 60’s dresses he wears.

Nikki Blonski carries a lot of the movie on her back and she does it willingly.  Her character is so full of energy, optimism and sheer joy that I fell in love with her right from her opening number ‘Good Morning, Baltimore’.  And I was rooting for her through the whole movie for her to steal Link’s heart as she stole mine.  Adorably cute doesn’t begin to describe her.

Queen Latifah has already proved in other movie musicals she knows how to steal a scene and she does so several times here.  But in fact, just like “Chicago” “Best Little Whorehouse In Texas” and “Little Shop Of Horrors” every song in HAIRSPRAY is an opportunity for whoever is singing to steal the scene and they do so.  Even Michelle Pfeiffer who doesn’t really sing but does that Talking-A-Song-Routine that Rex Harrison and Richard Harris perfected. Elijah Kelly and Taylor Parks steal ‘Run And Tell That’  Christopher Walken and John Travolta steal ‘You’re Timeless To Me’.  Hell, everybody steals.  And with good reason as they’re all great songs and great showcases for their talent.

So should you see HAIRSPRAY?  I’m gonna be honest with you guys: when I first saw HAIRSPRAY I was at a low point in my life.  In the hospital, flat on my back, unable to take ten steps without gasping for air.  So my emotional state at that time perhaps colored my perception of the movie.  But you know what?  I really don’t care.  HAIRSPRAY made me feel good then and it makes me feel good now.  It helped me get through a rough patch I was experiencing and I can think of no higher praise for a movie.  By all means check it out.  Matter of fact it would make a terrific Saturday Night Musical Double Feature with “Little Shop of Horrors”

117 minutes

Rated PG

Paint Your Wagon

1969
Paramount Pictures

Directed by Joshua Logan
Produced by Alan Jay Lerner
Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

In the late 1960’s Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood were at the top of the heap based on the tough action movies and westerns they both enjoyed immense success with. It seemed to be a no-brainer to put them in the same movie. So for their only film together what did they make?

A gritty, bloody western full of gunsmoke and dead bodies all over the place? No.

A suspenseful modern day urban crime thriller? No.

A stirringly glorious war epic with them heroically slaughtering Nazis by the thousands? No.

They made a musical comedy set in the days of The California Gold Rush called PAINT YOUR WAGON.

I’ll be honest here: for years I avoided PAINT YOUR WAGON because I want to see Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood killing folks, kicking ass and busting heads, not trying their best to sing. But every year Turner Classic Movies runs their annual “31 Days Of Oscar” where they show nothing but Oscar winning and nominated movies all month long. So it’s a great opportunity for me to catch movies I’ve never seen so I said what the hell and sat down to watch PAINT YOUR WAGON. And surprise, surprise, surprise: after about a half hour I found I liked the movie a lot and by the end I was satisfied that I had been thoroughly entertained.

Mountain man and gold prospector Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) crosses paths with a wagon train on its way west. There’s an accident where one wagon goes over a cliff and Ben rescues a young man who suffers a broken leg.  The young man’s brother is killed.  It’s while Ben and some of the men are saying a few words over the dead man that Ben spies gold in the grave. He promptly throws out the body and stakes the claim in the name of the young man he saved. The young man (Clint Eastwood) who Ben calls ‘Pardner’ all through the movie (he does have a real name but we don’t find out what it is until the very end of the film) throws in with Ben and they prospect for gold together while a rough mining camp springs up around them.

Into the camp comes a Mormon with two wives in tow and he’s persuaded to put up one of his wives, Elizabeth (Jean Seberg) for auction. Through a bizarre set of circumstances Ben ends up with the wife and the relationship turns out to be nothing like what either one of them expected. Ben finds that he actually begins to care for the well being of Elizabeth and he builds her a fine log cabin some distance away from the mining camp. Which really isn’t a camp anymore but has grown into No-Name City, a bustling pit of vice, sin, drunkenness, lawlessness and who knows what all else that actually looks like a lot of fun.

The situation gets complicated when Pardner and Elizabeth fall in love while Ben is away hijacking a stagecoach full of French prostitutes on their way to another town and brings them to No-Name City instead. Now Ben and Pardner each are willing to go away and let the other man have the woman but Elizabeth comes up with a novel solution: if a man can have two wives then why can’t a woman have two husbands?

The arraignment is satisfactory to all parties concerned until farming families come to No-Name City and Elizabeth develops a hankering for a more respectable way of life. In the meantime, Ben has found a new way of prospecting along with Pardner and Mad Jack Duncan (Ray Walston). It involves digging an extensive and complex series of tunnels under No-Name City itself and collecting the gold dust that falls between the floorboards of the various buildings. Miners are so careless with their gold dust that soon Ben, Pardner and Mad Jack are collecting more gold than they ever did prospecting. The mining scheme takes up a good deal of the last 45 minutes of the movie and comes to an ending that made me laugh out loud at its total lunacy. And yes, the unique marriage arraignment between Ben, Elizabeth and Pardner comes to a resolution as well before the final song.

Let’s get the first thing out of the way; PAINT YOUR WAGON is nowhere near as bad as I’ve been told all these years. Matter of fact, it’s a lot of goofy fun and that is thanks to Lee Marvin, who walks off with this movie from beginning to end. It always amazed me that for an actor known mainly for his tough guy roles, the only Oscar Lee Marvin won was for a comedy; “Cat Ballou”. But after watching PAINT YOUR WAGON I’m no longer surprised. The man actually was very gifted at comedy and 90% of the laughs in PAINT YOUR WAGON come from him. Lee Marvin had me hooked right at the beginning where he’s delivering the eulogy for Pardner’s dead brother. And there’s a bit he does at the end where he’s walking away from the devastation of No-Name City that he caused. There’s something about the way he’s trying to pretend he’s got nothing to do with what’s happening that cracked me up.

How about his singing you ask? Well, Lee Marvin doesn’t actually sing. He does that Rex Harrison/Richard Harris style of singing where he’s more or less talking along with the music. But he pulls it off. And there’s a song near the end called “Wand’rin’ Star” that he actually does really well. It’s worth sitting through the movie waiting for that number.

Clint Eastwood is very laid back and likeable in this movie. His crooning isn’t that bad, either. It’s certainly not anything memorable and his “Gold Fever” number is hideous but the other songs he does are okay. Jean Seberg is the acting disappointment in this movie. She comes off as a bland and uninteresting actress and the relationship between Ben and Pardner are much more interesting than the relationship Elizabeth has with them. And her singing is atrocious. Actually the singing of whoever dubbed her is atrocious. If you decide to watch this movie, when they get to her big (and only) number “A Million Miles Away Behind The Door” feel free to head to the kitchen for snacks or take a bathroom break. You won’t be missing anything.

Probably the only song you’ll recognize right away is “They Call the Wind Maria” sung by Harve Presnell. I also liked “The Gospel of No-Name City” and “Hand Me Down That Can of Beans” Try your best to keep a straight face when Clint sings “I Talk to the Trees” and don’t listen too closely to the lyrics.

So should you see PAINT YOUR WAGON? I don’t see why not. It’s nowhere near in the league of classic movie musicals, that’s for sure and it’s the only musical I can think of where none of the leads can sing. But it does have that wonderfully loony Lee Marvin performance and I liked the way the story bounced from one goofy scene to the next without stopping to catch it’s breath. Clint Eastwood and Ray Walston both look as if they’re having a good time and if you can stay awake through the scenes where Jean Seberg is on screen I think you’ll have a good time as well.

164 minutes
Rated PG-13

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

1967

MGM/United Artists

Directed, Produced and Written For The Screen by David Swift

Based On The Novel by Shepherd Mead

Adapted From The Broadway Play by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert

Original Music by Frank Loesser

I once received an email from a reader who wanted to know why I had reviewed “a corny old movie nobody is interested in” like the 1966 BATMAN instead of reviewing the Tim Burton version.  The reader went on to suggest that if I wanted people to read my reviews, I should spend more time reviewing “movies people want to see” instead of “all that old crap”.

I sent the reader a pleasant enough response, informing him that the reason I was doing this was to review movies I liked and the movies I like cover an enormous expanse of territory and I don’t like to limit myself to whatever happens to be the hottest movie in the Cineplex this weekend.

I went on to further explain that one of the many reasons I love movies is that in their own way, they’re time capsules that can tell you a lot about the fashions, slang, attitudes and customs of the time period that movie was made in.  My feeling is sometimes you can get more out of understanding the ‘60’s from a movie like HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING than you can from a History Channel documentary of the same period.  HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING was made back when musicals didn’t have to have a reason for why the actors were singing, unlike modern musicals such as “Pennies From Heaven” or “Chicago” where a considerable amount of screen time is used to explain why everybody’s bursting out into song.  It never fails to amaze me how people can go see a movie where a guy in red underwear climbs up walls and swing from webs or an eccentric billionaire clones living dinosaurs from cells that have been sealed in amber for millions of years and they accept it with no problem.  But let ‘em go see a movie where someone suddenly starts singing and they start asking; “where’s the music coming from?”

J. Pierpont Finch is a window washer filled with ambition and bursting to make his mark in the business world.  One day he picks up a book entitled “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” and armed with the advice the book provides, starts a meteoric rise from mail room clerk to Chairman Of The Board Of World Wide Wickets, a company so huge that nobody is sure of exactly just what a wicket is.  Finch is helped along his climb up the corporate ladder by Rosemary Pilkington, a secretary who is convinced Finch needs her help and tries her best to get him to see how much she loves him but Finch is too interested in brown-nosing the top executives or pulling underhanded tricks to get promotions.  Finch’s main rival is Bud Frump, the nephew of J.B. Biggley, President of World Wide Wickets and much of the movie has Finch and Bud trying to double-cross and backstab each other while they jockey for promotions that quite frankly neither one of them deserve.

Now, when I lay out the story like that, you would think that it sounds like a pretty grim story of corporate greed and bitter rivalry.  But remember, this is a ‘60’s musical we’re talking about.  Everything is in glorious Technicolor and the songs are big, beautiful numbers with lots of lavish dancing (the original choreography was done by Bob Fosse) There’s a ton of laughs as Finch charms and bullshits his way around the company, making friends through song and dance and seeming to extricate himself from one crisis after another with a cheerful, gap-toothed grin.

I like the cast in this musical a lot.  Robert Morse plays J. Pierpont Finch with loads of energy and vitality.  He’s  one of the few actors to have won a Tony for both a musical role as well as a dramatic one playing Truman Capote on Broadway.  If you only know Robert Morse from “Mad Men” you really ought to see this one when he was in his incandescent prime.  Watching him in this movie, he reminded me a lot of a ‘60’s version of Michael J. Fox.  He may be playing a sneaky, manipulative double-crossing weasel with two faces and a forked tongue in both of them but dammit, he makes us like J. Pierpont Finch and we find ourselves rooting for him.  Michelle Lee is endearing as Rosemary Pilkington and she gets to sing the big romantic number ‘I Believe In You’.  Rudy Vallee is J.B. Biggley and there are a lot of funny bits with him and Morse as Morse worms his way deeper and deeper into his confidence.

A lot of the humor in the movie comes from Anthony Teague as Bud Frump, who looks like he could be James Coburn’s sneaky kid brother and Maureen Arthur as Hedy LaRue, the cigarette girl who blackmails J.B. Biggley into giving her a job at World Wide Wickets.  Maureen Arthur is hilarious playing a drop-dead gorgeous bimbo who is hopeless at anything else except for Finch using her as a lure to trap other company executives into situations where they’re caught with her by J.B. and summarily shipped off to Venezuela.

And as for the songs, I like ‘em all and much as I like musicals, I find that there’s one or two clunkers except for this one and “Guys And Dolls” where I look forward to each and every number.  Especially the show-stopping ‘Brotherhood of Man’ number near the end.  It’s probably no coincidence that both musicals had songs written by the same man, Frank Loesser.

By the time it’s all over, Finch has achieved his goal of rising to the top (and if I’ve counted right, it only took him six days…allegory anyone?) married Rosemary and even made friends with Bud Frump and the last scene of the movie shows that Finch has set his sights even higher.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING probably looks clunky, old-fashioned and plodding to modern day audiences who insist on more razzle-dazzle and MTV style editing in their movies nowadays.  But this was a musical that was made when they knew how to film one so that you could see that it was the actual person you paid to see singing and dancing actually doing it.  It’s a movie musical that has nothing but charm, good songs, good performances and a lot of laughs.  It demands no more from you that you sit back and let yourself be entertained.

121 minutes