Let’s Make Love (1960) ***

Despite a luminous performance by Marilyn Monroe (Some Like it Hot, 1959) , in revealing outfits half the time, this backstage musical drama barely staggers over the line. Whatever relationship the actress enjoyed off-screen with co-star Frenchman Yves Montand (Grand Prix, 1966) fails to register here. In this fish-out-of-water tale of the Broadway intrigue involved in putting a musical together, watching klutz billionaire Jean-Marc Clement (Montand) getting his act together as neophyte actor-cum-singer fails to fly.

It’s always difficult observing a good actor trying to be bad. If he’s a really good actor, it’s going to be an awful watch. And unless he’s got the comedic chops to trigger a bucketload of laughs it’s painful to observe. Gregory Peck reportedly quit this role in favour of The Guns of Navarone (1961) because there was too much Marilyn Monroe in it, and possibly an awkward Peck would have been more fun to watch though comedy was scarcely his forte, but without Monroe the movie would have been virtually unwatchable.

The story’s familiar, a twist on Cinderella with Clement being the ugly duckling in terms of talent. The billionaire businessman, notorious for his love life, attends a rehearsal of a show intending to register outrage at its veiled portrayal of him. Instead, he is mistaken for an auditioning actor and offered a role. He falls for Amanda (Monroe) but she shows little interest, either obsessed with her knitting or trying to improve her education at night class, and appears far more interested in her stage co-star Tony (Frankie Vaughan).

In order to sharpen up his act, Clement hires a bunch of well-known thespians: Milton Berle, Bing Crosby and Gene Kelly.

This is where the show could be get interesting. Genuinely learning the secrets of a great comedian, singer and dancer should at the very least provide a fascinating insight into their skills. Of these, Crosby is the pick, demonstrating the importance of raising or dropping your voice at various points in order to maximize the emotion in a song, in other words a singing masterclass. Berle has too much screen time and does little to justify it.

Whatever, regardless of what the script says, Clement seems to take on board little of what he is taught. Montand was a gifted crooner in any case, having begun his career as Edith Piaf’s protégé, and it just seems like he switched instantly from being a bad singer to a good one. In contrast, when Amanda has to take direction, she immediately shows how simple it is to improve a number by adding some actions.

Luckily, Monroe is such a mesmeric screen quality that she can rescue any indifferent movie.  This would work better with a more charismatic leading man – and the prospect of Peck teaming with Monroe was intriguing – but regardless of who she acts opposite Monroe will always blow them away. This is a different kind of role for her because in a sense she is neither the girl adored nor the victim of romance gone wrong. For the most part she’s just a career girl focusing all her attention on getting on. She’s almost just the foil in the dramatic sequences for Montand. But once she has the stage or screen or to herself she dazzles.

Robin and the 7 Hoods (1965) ****

I’m still trying to work out why I enjoyed the Rat Pack’s last hurrah so much. Sure, it’s the knockout debut of “My Kind of Town,”  the last tune Frank Sinatra performed on the big screen and one that would have epitomised Ol’ Blue Eyes had it not been supplanted a few years later by “My Way.” And Bing Crosby, also in top crooning form, would have stolen the show except for Peter Falk’s gangster and Barbara Rush weaving a seductive web around all the males.  But, actually, it’s mostly because this one time, far more than in the three preceding pictures, there’s a match between story and stars, as if at last the whole idea has come together. The gimmick of transplanting the Robin Hood legend to 1920s Prohibition Chicago works a treat, a gentle spoof rather than an awkward one.

The notion that you would bring together three of the greatest singers – Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. – of their generation and deny audiences the chance to hear their voices was anathema to audiences. As if nobody could make up their mind which way a Rat Pack vehicle was headed, Martin and Davis were accorded tunes in Oceans 11 (1960) but the next two pictures, westerns of one kind or another, appeared tuneless. Robin and the 7 Hoods is a proper musical, all the stars sing, some even get to dance, and the story carries a lot more heft than your usual musical, some decent running gags, and an affectionate nod to the old Warner Brothers gangster pictures.

Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk), having taken control of the city by rubbing out his rival, comes up against Robbo (Frank Sinatra) refusing to bow the knee. Naturally, both decide the only solution is to bust up each other’s joints. Even more naturally, this ends in stalemate. Cue the entrance of Marian (Barbara Rush), the dead mob boss’s daughter who wants her father avenged. As a by-product of her involvement, Robbo ends up donating $50,000 to the poor, a good deed turned into public relations bounty by orphanage chief Allen A. Dale (Bing Crosby), reviving the legend of the outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

Complications arise when Robbo refuses to fall for Marian’s wiles and is framed for the murder of a corrupt Sheriff Glick (Robert Foulk). Marian proves far smarter than her male counterparts and when bribery, seduction and corruption fail she turns to politics.

While Sinatra’s rendition of “My Kind of Town” is the standout, tunesmiths Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen showcase some terrific numbers, in particular the gospel-style “Mr Booze” performed by Bing Crosby, “Style” involving Sinatra, Martin and Crosby, a Martin solo “Any Man Who Loves His Mother,” Sammy Davis with “Bang! Bang!”  and even Peter Falk makes a decent stab at “All for One and One for All.”  Once Sinatra, Martin or Crosby wrapped their larynxes round a particular song, they claimed ownership for life, you can’t imagine anyone else doing it better. And so it proved here.

In acting terms Sinatra, Martin and Davis are on cruise control, although Sinatra, the butt of the conspiracy, tends to have to work a little harder. The supporting cast relish the opportunities presented. Peter Falk (Penelope, 1966) makes the most of a made-to-order role as the back-stabbing mob chief, his fast-talking style little match for more superior brains, and you can see a screen persona develop in front of your eyes. Bing Crosby (Stagecoach, 1966) starts out as a joke with his outlandish language but soon comes to represent a different perspective on legitimate illegitimate moneymaking schemes. Barbara Rush (Come Blow Your Horn, 1963) is quite superb as the conniving sophisticate, all long dresses and innovative ideas.

Although Gordon Douglas (Stagecoach, 1966) would hardly be your go-to director for a musical, he acquits himself very well, incorporating a great deal of the style he evinced in Claudelle Inglish (1961). There are two marvellous running scenes. The first is that whenever the municipality sees fit to lay the foundation stone of some great new building you can be sure the block contains a corpse. But the second is just wonderful. Any time Marian has a man in her lounge, she goes round switching off the lamps until the room is in darkness. Each time, the scene is played in exactly the same way and of course the minute she starts switching off the lights, moving as sinuously as a spider from lamp to lamp, you know where this scene is going. I should also mention the “Mr Booze” sequence in which an illegal nightclub is transformed into a gospel meeting.

Edward G. Robinson (The Biggest Bundle of Them All, 1968) has a cameo and also look out for Oscar-nominated Victor Buono (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, 1962).   

Viva Las Vegas (1964) / Love in Las Vegas ***

Screen chemistry, a great racing sequence and some good songs set alight this typical Presley vehicle. Unlike previous recording giants Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley had not made much attempt to be anything other than himself on screen, nor elevated his status by taking on adaptations of hit Broadway shows, so his movies tended to need a certain extra something to set them apart, if only from his other pictures  – he was churning them out at the rate of three or four a year. The certain something, a whole bag of je ne sais quoi, came in the shape of Ann-Margret.

Garage mechanic Lucky (Elvis Presley), a racing driver wannabe, gets the hots for Rusty (Ann-Margret) after he tunes up her car. Chasing her to Las Vegas where she is a swimming instructor rather than a hot-shot performer, he takes a job as a hotel waiter. He has a rival, both in driving and romance, in Count Emo Mancini (Cesare Danova). Initially, Rusty  brushes Lucky and even when they get closer she fears getting too close since the consequences of falling in love with a man who chases danger are obvious.

There’s no danger of a picture like this straying from the most obvious path and helping fill in the screen time are nods to tourism, excerpts from Vegas shows, some water ski-ing and a helicopter ride over the Boulder Dam (Rusty supplying an earnest educational lecture). There is some lackluster comedy and not much in the way of subplot.

The race is well done for the times (i.e. pre-Grand Prix, 1966) with plenty of crashes, and it looks realistic enough although probably the cars were speeded up in the cameras.

But the pairing is dynamite. Rusty, all sizzle, smoky eyes and pout, dances Presley off the screen. She has the curves and she has the moves. Not a great deal of acting is required by either – they were in the early throes of an affair – but Rusty, a homely girl after all, keeps her sexuality in check long enough to hook her suitor.

The title song – shot in one take – is a winner but what lingers in the memory is the dazzling choreography (involving multiple camera) for Lucky’s dance numbers. And Lucky dancing. Only so many ways to say that that woman can shake her booty, but she shakes it in so many different ways the outcome is sensational.

But in the end just as dancing in an Ann-Margret picture was never enough to hit the box office heights so singing, except in his first screen forays, was not enough to create the longest queues for a Presley picture. Although previous Presley movies had featured the likes of Ursula Andress (Fun in Acapulco, 1963) and Stella Stevens (Girls! Girls! Girls!, 1963) none had the impact of Ann-Margret.

Perhaps fearful that audiences might respond more to his co-star, Ann-Margret’s musical contribution was limited. The pair performed a duet on one number, “The Lady Loves Me” – two other duets were recorded but dropped from the film – and she contributed two solo songs. By comparison, Presley was accorded eight solos. The theory being, I suppose, that audiences had come to hear Presley sing. And that might have been correct, in theory, but once the public saw Ann-Margret on screen they would surely have been calling for more.

It was both the shortest film of Presley’s career and the highest grossing. While Ann-Margret was entitled to have her name above the title – not equal billing as some would have it since his name came first (equal would have put them in alphabetical order) – some cinemas took matters into their own hands and on the marquees, over which studios could exert no contractual control, put Ann-Margret’s name first.

Perhaps more interesting was the question of career development. Presley kept on doing the same old stuff until Charro (1969) by which point it was too late to save his career. Within a year, however, she was moving on to more serious roles such as Once a Thief (1965) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965).   

Taking the helm was veteran George Sidney who had directed Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie (1962) and was also responsible for Pal Joey (1957), Show Boat (1951)  and Anchors Aweigh (1945). He could have done this kind of picture in his sleep, so all credit to him that he brought it to such life.

Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness (1969) **

One of the biggest-ever movie follies, an overblown vanity project with Fellini-esque overtones – written, directed, produced and starring British crooner Anthony Newley (Doctor Dolittle, 1967) – that turned into the first X-rated musical. Bob Fosse mined a similar, almost as seedy, sex-obsessed autobiographical vein in All That Jazz (1979) to critical acclaim whereas the Newley effort met with critical coruscation.

Although primary known as a Broadway star (Stop the World, I Want to Get Off), he had a small but reasonable movie portfolio, star of The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963) and male lead to Sandy Dennis in Sweet November (1968), so in a sense he was ready for the leap into movie stardom, though perhaps not in such grandiose fashion. Had the movie shown the slightest touch of irony, that might have been its saving grace, but the main theme is that women queue up to bed a star who is fed up with bedding women yet appears to revel in his own moral decadence.

The story is so slim it defies belief or arrogance. Hieronymous Merkin (Newley) is preparing to make a film about his own life though he feels he has been controlled from the outset, his child view is that of a marionette with someone else pulling the strings. Once Goodtime Eddie Filth (Milton Berle) sets him on a stage career beauties flock to his side. Although married to Polly Poontang (Joan Collins) he longs to be reunited with earlier lover Mercy Humpe (Connie Kreski). Basically, he keeps asking the universal question besetting all men – if I can have all the sex in the world, why am I not happy?

On the plus side it is certainly audacious, surreal, pretentious, unconventional and gives a good idea of what would happen if a director turned up on a beach in Malta with $1.25 million to spend on whoever happened to be available plus assorted nudes and rolled the camera to see what would happen and then argued with his crew or critics about what was taking place. One big minus is the songs. Newley was a talented lyricist (Goldfinger) and composer as well as performer. But the material here is poor and Newley, despite his Broadway experience, has no idea how to stage a musical.

Cameos abound. You can spot famed comedian George Jessel, singer Stubby Kaye, British entertainer Bruce Forsyth, Tom Stern (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968), and British character actors Patricia Hayes, Victor Spinetti and Judy Cornwell. You may be surprised to learn that the script written in tandem with Herman Raucher (Sweet November) was named Best British Original Screenplay by the Writers Guild of Great Britain.

Theoretically, this is now regarded as a cult classic but I’ve yet to come across a review that treats it as anything other than a self-indulgent curiosity rather than a must-see.

Studio Universal was so embarrassed by the final outcome that it released it in the U.S. under its Regional Film unit “which handles product Universal doesn’t care to go out under its own banner.” The picture was not quite the box office disaster many anticipated after poor runs in New York and Los Angeles. Helped along by a 10-page spread in Playboy it scored substantial business in cities as diverse as Detroit, Louisville and Minneapolis, though not enough, ultimately, to break even.

Given Newley did not make another picture for six years, you might have imagined Hieronymous Merkin spelled the death-knell for his career. But that was not so. After the film opened, he signed a $1 million four-year deal at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, was lining up a Broadway musical about Napoleon and Josephine with Barbra Streisand and was in talks to star in a movie adaptation of his hit musical The Roar of the Crowd.

Afraid you’ll have to dig around on Ebay to find this.

SOURCES: “Newley Making Vegas Bow Aug 7 at Caesar’s Palace,” Variety, June 11, 1969, p76; “Newley-Streisand for B’way Tuner on Nappy-Josie,” Variety, July 2, 1969, p1; “Merkin Dates Overcome Jinx,” Variety, July 9, 1969, p3; “Jack Haley Jr. Setup To Produce, Direct,” Variety, December 24, 1969, p6.

Can-Can (1960) ****

A sterling cast does justice to some great Cole Porter songs in an entertaining musical typical of the period. Apart from appropriating some stock footage, nobody was going to bother to head out on location when a Hollywood-ized version of Paris could be recreated on the set. While the film is ahead of its time in several ways – Simone (Shirley Maclaine) owns the nightclub and the women in the title dance are meant to be minus their panties, hence attempts by authorities to shut it down – the plot features an old-fashioned love triangle.

While the chief magistrate (Maurice Chevalier) turns a blind eye to the lewd dance, his younger colleague Phillippe (Louis Jourdan) does not and ensures Simone is arrested. Complications arise when Philippe falls in love with Simone who already has a lover, the lawyer Francois (Frank Sinatra) who is averse to committing to marriage. The four stars are all very charming and there is gentle comedy and effortless acting as the romantic knots are tightened and then unpicked. Hypocrisy is tested and found wanting. The courtroom scenes are amusing and most of the story focus is on how Phillippe can get round his principles and legal obligations to successfully woo Simone.

But in reality, the audience is here for the music, and to hear classic Porter songs interpreted by Sinatra and Chevalier. While the songs are top-drawer, what captured my imagination most was the “Garden of Eden” ballet with a stunning design and superb dancing by Simone and Claudine (Juliet Prowse).  The “Apache Dance” also boasts some singular choreography but otherwise while the “Can-Can” itself is rousing and well-done this is for obvious reasons a censored version.

The Cole Porter contribution includes: “I Love Paris,” “C’Est Magnifique,” “It’s Allright With Me,” “Let’s Do It,” and “Just One of Those Things.”

Walter Lang was a safe pair of hands in this genre having helmed Call Me Madam (1953), There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) and Oscar-nominated for The King and I (1956). The screenplay was a harder slog. The original Broadway musical was a romance between the judge and the nightclub owner. Adding the lawyer Francois to the mix necessitated major changes to the story. But Dorothy Kingsley also had form, having been responsible for the screenplays of  Kiss Me, Kate (1953), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Pal Joey (1957). Co-writer Charles Lederer, although involved in Kismet (1955), had a better grasp of comedy, as seen in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and It Started with a Kiss (1960).

Although not universally admired by the critics, it won two Oscars – color costume design for  Irene Sharaff and best music for Nelson Riddle. It didn’t hit a home run at the box office either and the finger was pointed at Twentieth Century Fox for committing the mortal sin of inflating revenue figures on its initial launch.

While not one of the all-time great musicals and put in the shade when compared to West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), it’s an enjoyable confection, the easy screen charisma of Sinatra, Chevalier, Jourdan and MacLaine holding it all together.

Annette (2021) * – Seen at the Cinema

Contender for the weirdest film of the year and a truly bonkers misfire, this is a musical only in the sense that much of it is sung in the vein of Tommy (1975) but completely lacking in the kind of memorable songs that would make it qualify for the genre. It is the most over-ripe of conceits, actors who can’t sing, a story that doesn’t fly, characters whose characteristics are endlessly laboured, little development, and a director who clearly believes audiences will swallow anything.

World-famous soprano Ann (Marion Cotillard) marries agent provocateur stand-up comic Henry (Adam Driver). Her stage act consists of dying and bowing, his of heckling his audience. The relationship soon hits the rocks but not before she has given birth to Annette. This is where it becomes even more tricky because Annette more closely resembles an offspring of Chucky, the horror doll, rather than, as was clearly intended, Pinocchio. The story takes an odd turn, which I won’t reveal, but it fails to redeem the project.

While Driver (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, 2019) is quite convincing as the bonkers comedian – especially in one skit where he has the audience believing he has killed his wife – and it is virtually impossible for Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, 2007) to be bad in anything, the film needs more than repetitive scenes of her singing and him upbraiding the audience. Cotillard actually has a reasonable voice – and has cut a few albums – but what she is given to sing here makes a mockery of her talents.

With names such as director Leos Carax (Holy Motors, 2012) and screenwriters/ composers Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks fame this was clearly always going to err on the side of cult. It might have worked if the director could have seen his way to a bit of brevity. At 90 minutes or so it might have been an interesting trifle. At 140 minutes, it outstayed it welcome.

Wonderful Life (1964)****

I have just discovered a new guilty pleasure. I was too young to remember when Cliff Richard was the British equivalent of Elvis and by the time I became aware of him he was already in the family-favorites league with his own television show and popping up in the wider consciousness from time to time with a number one single. But I was conscious that Cliff’s aspiring film career was totally obliterated by the emergence of the Beatles. I found Wonderful Life to be totally innocuous, highly enjoyable, charming fun. There’s no story to speak of beyond an affectionate spoof of Hollywood but it has zest and exuberance and some decent choreography by Gillian Lynne who went on to be deified for her work on the original London productions of Cats and Phantom of the Opera.

But there are some very funny visual gags, beginning with the opening scene when Cliff and Co are waiters on board a ship attending to a drunk whose glass moves out of reach every time the ship rolls. Having caused a power outage, they are chucked overboard in a dinghy and turn up in the Canary Islands where Cliff becomes a stunt man on the terrible Foreign Legion movie directed by a Hollywood ogre (Walter Slezak) and starring incompetent actress Susan Hampshire who has made a career of sorts playing the daughter of a sheik or sultan. You have to like a movie with lines like, “Follow that camel” and a geek (Richard O’Sullivan) whose scientific predictions invariably come undone. Cliff, realizing the lines are better sung than spoken, begins to make a musical on the back of the drama. And it’s true – the lines are good lyrics.

Britain had no reputation for musicals among the Hollywood cognoscenti unless you count the Jessie Mathews and Gracie Fields films of the 1930s which were far too parochial and contrived for American tastes and in terms of invention and musical technique a far cry from Lionel Bart’s Oliver! which would be filmed a couple of years later and in terms of originality not a patch on A Hard Day’s Night (1964) the same year. The songs are evenly contributed by various members of the Shadows – Bruce Welch composed the standout “A Matter of Moments” and with Brian Bennett the theme song – and the Peter Myers-Ronald Cass team who also wrote the screenplay. But this film comes across as naturalistic, rather than the contrivances of most Hollywood musicals. It doesn’t take much for these lads to strike up a song, any excuse will do. And the film is better for the lack of high emotion attached to every lyric.

You would be mightily surprised to learn that director Sidney J. Furie’s next film was stylish spy thriller The Ipcress File (1965) followed by Appaloosa (1966) with Marlon Brando and The Naked Runner (1967) starring Frank Sinatra. Here, he is in free-association mode, the ideas tumbling out, especially in the Hollywood parody dance numbers sections where we go from Chaplin pastiche to Greta Garbo and Groucho Marx, Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers, West Side Story and James Bond. We have gangsters whose violin cases contain violins, a singing cowboy with subtitles (to explain the growth of the foreign movie) and a song about homesickness played out with Battersea Power Station in the background. If anybody can actually act they’re not putting any great effort into it. And that doesn’t matter either. The storyline is no more preposterous than many of the great Hollywood musicals. Everyone looks as if they’re having a whale of a time and I guess that would include the audience because the movie was the fifth-best performer of the year in Britain. This was the type of movie, during the rise of the permissive cinema, that you could take your grandmother to see and still come away surprised you had enjoyed it so much yourself.

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