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Wednesday, June 4, 2008


The calculus on M-G-M songsmith bio-pics turned out pleasant enough films on second-tier talent, and out & out stinkers on composers of genius. Poor Jerome Kern, beloved, brilliant & recently dead; he probably got the worst of the lot in this mind-bogglingly stupid, fact-free story megged by studio hack Richard Whorf. Even the musical numbers, which you count on saving these things, are squarely staged by Robert Alton, while the famously 'rangy' Kern’s melodies bring more than one performer to grief. A few numbers make their mark, the wonderful title song (a SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN precursor) & "I Won’t Dance" which shows off some eccentric low center-of-gravity hoofing from ex-chorus boy Van Johnson. But certainly not the big, clutzy SHOW BOAT abridgement that opens the pic. Here's Lena Horne trying on her dream role as Julie, the mulato singer with the white husband and she's just plain lousy.

Yet the film is required viewing for anyone who wants to see what happens when a great director like Vincent Minnelli briefly takes over for the Judy Garland sequences. (Judy plays the great, but little remembered Marilyn Miller.) A quick flourish of Minnelli's signature red background & the entire movie apparatus springs to life, acquiring pace, composition, energy, taste, movement, depth in staging & even dramatic edge. And that's before any of his musical numbers get going. Seen in the context of so much mediocrity, Minnelli's brief contribution is a lesson in great moviemaking. A mini-masterclass beyond price. A knockout.

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