Posts Tagged ‘Busby Berkeley’

You Can’t Judge a Movie By Its Credits

Monday, April 26th, 2010

I had the television on the other night just in time to catch the opening credits of the 8:00 movie on Turner. It reminded me of just how fine some of those title sequences can be.

Of course one would never buy a movie ticket just because of its titles. But that may be mostly because you’ve already committed to the ticket price of a movie before you ever get to see them. Nevertheless, the best examples do seem to set a tone for what’s to follow, if not really lay out (in some coded way) everything that lies ahead for the next 90 to 120 minutes.

Through most of the 1920s and 30s, American movies followed a style of introduction that was pretty much standardized for the studio that produced them. It was as if the purpose of those introductory screens was to announce the studio’s brand rather than anything too particular about this individual product. That fact makes some examples of title sequences truly remarkable.

Things had changed by the 1940s when each movie seemed more overt in its inclusion of the opening credits inside the world of its story. But even with this shift in norms, there are examples that stand out among their peers. Here’s a sampling from each of the decades up through the 1970s.

1920s

Sunrise (F. W. Murnau, 1927)

SunriseMurnau had made a name for himself as a director of remarkably subtle and expressive movies before he come to Hollywood. Nosferatu (1922) and Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924) push the limitations of storytelling in their inventive uses of framing, movement and multiple exposures.

So it makes sense that his first American movie, Sunrise, wouldn’t be just another product of its studio, Fox. It presents itself as a work of fine art. And that presentation begins with the title sequence, using stylized type, a statement about the nature of the human condition, and a cast of characters without proper names.

And it’s pretty, too.

1930s

Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933)

Gold Diggers of 1933Warner Brothers had brought the movie musical back from an early grave with the success of its 42nd Street (1933). The backstage melodrama of that story mixed with the inspired camera work and choreography of Busby Berkley made for a winning combination that the studio would try to recycle several times over.

Gold Diggers has no pretensions to fine art. And, appropriately, its opening credits prepare the audience for what lies ahead, much as the overture to a stage review would. What’s so lovely about this example is the way it slides nearly seamlessly from the static title cards over that overture into its opening number. It blends the cast credits right into the first appearance of the chorus and Ginger Rogers’s inspired delivery of “We’re In The Money.”

(If you’re at all interested, I’ve babbled on at length about this remarkable movie in a series of earlier posts.)

1940s

Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)

Mildred PierceA melodrama steeped in the dark shadows of film noir; a woman’s picture crossed with a crime drama; a story of a mother’s love amidst tawdry sexual intrigue. Mix a Hollywood star in the second phase of her impressive career with a really dirty story by James M. Cain and you get this Warner Brothers spin on the original novel.

I love this movie as only a middle-aged homosexual could. But I still can’t decide if these opening credits are inspired or just insane. Whichever it is, they do seem to encapsulate the tone of the movie that follows.

1950s

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

VertigoHas there ever been a darker and more moving dive into the depths of sexual obsession than Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo? Well, I won’t get into all of that just now; this movie is too close to my heart not to bore you with a long series of emotional posts about its majesty and wonder at some later date.

But, for the present, I will ask you to consider how beautiful the opening titles are, crafted by the brilliant designer, Saul Bass (who gave us the corporate logos for Dixie, Geffen Records and United Airlines, as well as the title sequences for Psycho, North by Northwest, The Man with the Golden Arm and Around the World in Eighty Days).

Everything you need to understand about this movie is contained in this opening sequence, encrypted in such a way that it demands your full attention and participation before you can unfold its meaning. The deconstruction of a beautiful woman’s face; the spirals that grow out of and recede back into her iris — abstractions of form, color and movement; and the whirling, circling, haunting score by Bernard Hermann. Hell, it’s worth owning the disc just to play these opening credits over and over again.

1960s

The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, 1968)

The Thomas Crown AffairIt was watching the opening credits to The Thomas Crown Affair that got me started down this path in the first place.

First of all, they’re just so much fun to watch. They’re stylish, they’re inventive and they seem to have about as much to do with a romantic cat-and-mouse crime story as they might with a mid-60s editorial spread in Vogue.

But then you realize that this movie has very little to do with its surface story of Faye Dunaway, the insurance investigator, pursuing Steve McQueen, the rogue-playboy-millionaire-bank-thief and everything to do with sports cars, fabulous outfits and lots of mascara. What circumstance of profession or hobby throws them together is much less important here than how great they look once they find themselves in the same well-appointed rooms, sipping cognac and playing chess.

He in his blue blazers and fast cars. She in her Mary-Quant-inspired dresses and Carnaby-Street eye makeup. The Michel Legrand song performed by Noël Harrison (who, to me, will always be the very well-dressed sidekick to Stefanie Powers, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.) And the multiple frames with the images moving within: the whole sequence is a study in graphic mannerism (carried through in the movie). This is a slice of style out of time that makes me salivate for monkstrap shoes, pegged trousers and long sideburns.

1970s

Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)

NashvilleAt the end of this rather long list is a movie that seems to make fun of popular culture at the very same time as it’s presenting us with a marvelous work of art.

Like most of Robert Altman’s movies, Nashville is a loose and somewhat irregular piece of fabric, woven from an odd selection of individual narrative threads. As those threads pass in and out of view, the whole piece threatens to unravel all together. It’s both satire and a sincere portrait of its characters’ lives. It feels like a snapshot of a specific moment in American culture, and a vivisection of the larger essence of what defines Americans in the 20th Century.

Its story, its structure threaten to come undone, but they never do. And somehow, that possibility that it may all spin out of control keeps us on the edge of our seats. It’s exhilarating and moving and deeply beautiful, even as it makes us titter and guffaw.

These opening credits are somehow part of its message. But to say exactly what message they might contain would somehow cheapen the whole thing. So I’ll just let you take it in.

Remember My Forgotten Man

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

(the last of three installments)

While Gold Diggers of 1933 certainly lifts the spirits, it isn’t the sort of feel-good movie one might expect from 1930s Hollywood. It doesn’t deny the Depression. Instead it shows us three fast-talking, hard-boiled show girls coping pretty well with the period’s bleak economics. (Well, two fast-talking, hard-boiled show girls and Ruby Keeler, who always seemed to me a little slow in the wits department.)

And the backstage comedy ends happily for all three:

Keeler gets to marry her boyfriend, Dick Powell.
Powell’s snooty brother, Warren William, falls for Joan Blondell and proposes.
And Aline MacMahon snares Guy Kibbee, their family lawyer.

But then we experience a big shift of tone and focus as we move from the happy ending in our characters’ lives to the movie’s big musical finale.

Sure, it’s a bit dark as big movie musical numbers go;  but it’s also exhilarating. We’ve moved away from hard-boiled humor into a really grim portrait of American society. But that portrait sets your pulse to racing with the beat of its march, its swelling choruses, startling camerawork and imagery.

Gold Diggers of 1933

In case you weren’t paying much attention to the presidential campaign of 1932, the reference here — the “Forgotten Man” — is to the speech FDR gave that year to lay out the spirit of his political platform. His Forgotten Man is the one at the bottom of the economic pyramid, the “infantry of our economic army.” Like this musical number, FDR makes careful reference to the mobilization efforts of the World War and to the American farmers on whose backs rests a large part of the national economy. But the movie shifts the meaning of that phrase to focus on the women left behind when we forgot those men.

In the opening, Joan Blondell plays a lonely streetwalker who reaches out affectionately to a hobo. As she speaks the lyrics to the song, we understand that she arrived at this lot when left behind to fend for herself.

And once he used to love me;
I was happy then.
He used to take care of me.
Won’t you bring him back again?

‘Cause ever since the world began
A woman’s got to have a man.
Forgetting him, you see,
Means you’re forgetting me,
Like my forgotten man.

She seems to be on a real theater stage: stark, even Expressionistic in its styling, and a bit claustrophobic. The camera hardly moves.

But when Blondell finishes her reading, the camera comes loose from its moorings and rises up to Etta Moten, framed in a window and singing a soulful rendition of the same lyrics. It pans across the building to show us two more solitary women.

These two, along with Moten and Blondell are the only single figures on which the camera spends much time. Their faces are the first focus of our interest and empathy. And their importance in the frame shifts the meaning of the song for us: it may talk about the Forgotten Man, but the women left behind in his absence are the real hook for our emotions.

The Forgotten Women

The visuals still feel plenty stark and melancholy; this is a Blues song, after all. But as the camera pans across the building’s windows, we lose track of where the edge of the stage might be. The scene is quietly opening up the closed space of the theater. The picture we see may seem bleak; but the way we see it is inspiring.

Blondell Rescues the HoboAs Moten sings above, a cop in the doorway below starts to rough up a second hobo. Blondell intervenes: she grabs the cop’s arm and draws his attention to the war medal behind the lapel he holds in his fist. Properly embarrassed, the cop retreats from the very two types — a prostitute and a bum — who would have been at his mercy in most any other movie scenario.

With a sudden break in the narrative, the number shifts into big-production mode. The style moves from stark to pure metaphor, replacing the sparse set pieces with black space as if to locate it outside of any real place. Gone is almost every pretense that this musical production could be taking place on a Broadway stage. The story it tells isn’t a happy one. But the way it tells that story — quick-cut shots from impossible angles, big choruses, huge crowds, a stage that spreads further than the eye can see — turns that story into a call to action. It’s exciting. It’s inspiring. And, caught up in it as we are, it doesn’t even seem strange that this is the subject of a big Hollywood musical number.

Gone, too, are those individual characters, like Joan Blondell and Etta Moten. Crowds become our main characters: first a crowd of Dough Boys, replaced by a crowd of wounded soldiers, and finally an endless bread line. It sounds a little high-brow, but it works. All these figures, shot from extreme camera angles against a black background, create sharp-edged graphic compositions. The men become at once abstractions of an idea and abstractions of pure shape and movement, set to the marching beat of the music. What’s not to like?

The Forgotten Men

Finally, the number builds to its climax. Silhouettes of Dough Boys marching through a semi-circular set piece. Beneath them, the mass of out-of-work heroes, returned from the war. And to either side, the legion of women left behind. Right there in the center is our street walker, no longer a character in a musical number, but elevated to the role of the Spirit of the Depression.

Forgotten Man FinaleIt’s just astounding that a movie musical could end on such a note. It’s astounding that a major studio would risk its box office receipts to a message that might not play well in the heartland. And it’s most astounding of all that no one seemed to bat an eye. In fact, the New York Times‘ review of the movie made only passing reference to the number, focusing instead on the comic talents of some of the cast members.

Such was the birth of the 20th Century American liberal ideal.