Is La La Land an Homage to Something that Doesn’t Exist?

la-la-land-vinyl-cover-2On Christmas Eve, like may good gays, I saw La La Land with my mother. At the time, I had pretty much only read about it via Kyle Buchanan’s Oscar Futures column at Vulture, which lead me to believe there was a generally unified positive consensus about this movie. But the audience response at the theater was decidedly mixed–some people loved it, some were confused, one guy kept complaining about spending 2 hours and 4 minutes watching it–and the twitter-verse seems to be the same. I personally loved it. I loved its visual style, the fine performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, the elegant and wistful choreography by Mandy Moore (not to be confused with the one from This is Us), the way it tempers dreamlike fantasy with somber reality, and what it says about defining success and succeeding on one’s own terms.

One thing I think La La Land was NOT was a “throwback to classic movie musicals,” mostly because I don’t know if that’s a thing that really exists. I mean, yes, obviously, there are non-animated musicals written directly for screen that are classics. But I don’t know if, as a genre, the Original Movie Musical (OMM) ever fully developed into a recognizable, codified, art form.  What are the “tropes” of the genre?

I can identify a few major types of OMM:

  • “Let’s Put on a Show!” (Summerstock, things with Mickey Rooney)
  • Elegant Ballroom Dancing (things with Fred Astaire)
  • Family Fantasy (Songs by the Sherman Brothers, The Wizard of Oz)
  • Almost a Regular Musical (Gigi, Calamity Jane, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Vincent Minnelli movies)
  • Jukebox OMMs (Holiday Inn, White Christmas, Singing in the Rain)
  • ARTISTIC (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg)
  • Huh? (Repo: The Genetic Opera)

While some of these types can coexist in a single movie, for the most part they only seem at all similar if they share major performers, directors, or writers. Perhaps that’s why there’s always something a little uncomfortable about watching an OMM–there’s never anything to hold on to, nothing to let you know what to expect. They haven’t sung for 20 minutes, will the ever sing again? MAYBE. Are these secondary characters going to get story lines and songs or even a second scene? COULD BE. Oh, so now there’s just a 20 minute impressionistic dance sequence? IS THERE A QUESTION? The OMM isn’t a style of how movies are made so much as a list of things that happened.

So what is La La Land an homage to? I think it bears the strongest connection–in terms of visual style, tone, theme, and musical sensibility–to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but a case could be made for almost any of the types identified above. There’s a tension in the fact that you think La La Land *should* feel familiar, but instead it feels like they’re making up the rules as they go along. Maybe it’s this reckless unruliness that most connects La La Land to the Golden Age is seems to allude to (even if it never existed).

The King and me2ism: Anna and the King of Siam (1946 Film)

The mythology surrounding where Rodgers and Hammerstein’s impetus to musicalize Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam is a bit fuzzy. Gertrude Lawrence had her lawyer acquire the stage rights and asked Rodgers and Hammerstein to musicalize the property (after previously approaching Cole Porter). The respective wives of R&H, unaware of Lawrence’s intentions, also suggested the material. The fuzziness in lore lies in the sequence of those two requests/recommendations particularly with respect to the 1946 film (the rights for which were purchased before the biographical novel even hit shelves). Some sources say Lawrence was inspired by the movie and the wives seem to be generally regarded as having based their recommendation on the book. Legend also states that Hammerstein was unsure of his ability to reign in the novel’s episodic sprawl to a conventional theatrical arch, but was convinced by the film’s treatment to do his own adaptation. On its own merits, the film is elegant and engaging, if a bit overlong and dated. Its screenplay (by Sally Benson and Talbot Jennings) and Bernard Herrmann score were nominated for Oscars, as was Gale Sondergaard’s stately portrayal of Lady Thiang. The film won Oscars for it’s cinematography and art direction.

anna-and-the-king-of-siam-149400 poster

Of all the adaptations of Margaret Landon’s novel, this movie is probably the least culturally sensitive. Before any actors appear on screen the 1946 movie is clearly states its viewpoint of Anna as a saintly educator of the otherwise barbaric Siamese, as stated in the conclusion of its written prologue: anna king prologue

It should also be noted that almost none of the actors playing Siamese characters are of Asian decent with bronzer seemingly accounting for the bulk of it’s production budget.



Rex Harrison is an impish King with a frequently childlike sense of wonder and amusement and gives a winning performance, though he occasionally adopts certain physical and vocal mannerisms that can evoke unpleasant “yellowface” stereotypes. Those issues aside, Harrison brings warmth, dignity and humor to the role and one sees why he was an early choice for the musical.

miss annaIrene Dunne makes a wonderful Anna and would surely been a wonder in the musical if given the chance. She has a particularly strong moment when she realizes the rooms provided for her at the palace have her situated in the middle of a harem: she initially reacts with incredulous, almost crazed laughter that soon segues into disbelief and ultimately despair. The film dramatizes the novel’s scenario involving Anna being told she has a house only to be led to a decrepit residence in a fish market, and Dunne’s reaction is as satisfying as it is in the harem scene.

burning tuptim

A most unfortunate ending for Tuptim

The ’46 film’s portrayal of Tuptim (played by Linda Darnell) follows the book with respect to her demise (complete with her disguise as a priest and the false accusal–and execution–of the man suspected of being her accomplice and lover), but takes liberties elsewhere, inserting her into scenes that were about other palace women in the novel and setting her up as a rival to Anna. Anna and Tuptim first cross words when, to Anna’s dismay, Tuptim arrives in class with a monkey on her shoulders–a gift from the King and a sign that Tuptim is the current favorite. Later Anna discovers a slave chained to a post with a baby. She learns this slave has a husband who wishes to pay for her freedom but that the sale is stopped by the slaves owner, Tuptim. Anna appeals to the King on behalf of the slave and the slave is released. When Tuptim realizes it was Anna who convinced the King to rule in the slave’s favor she runs off proclaiming, “If I am not first, there is nothing here for me.” This is the incident that prompts Tuptim to disguise herself and hide in the monastery.

As in the musical, Anna’s anger at the King over this treatment of Tuptim (here he refuses to halt her execution or hear evidence of her innocence) leads Anna to declare that she is leaving Siam. But in the 1946 film she is stopped not by news of the King’s ill health, but by the untimely death of Louis in a horse-riding accident. The King writes Anna a letter of apology for his previous behavior (similar to that in the musical) and tells her that Louis will be honored with a royal burial.

Gale Sondergaard's Lady Thiang was the only Oscar-nominated performance in the film

Gale Sondergaard received her second Oscar-nomination for Anna and the King of Siam. She was the first ever winning of the “Best Supporting Actress” category for her film debut a decade earlier 

But Anna’s decision to forgive the King and stay in Siam is ultimately inspired by a touching conversation with Lady Thiang. Thiang expresses regret and frustration at her inability to provide the education and guidance Chulalongkorn needs to become an effective leader and implores Anna to stay for his sake. Anna stays on, even after the King’s eventual death, with the express mission of educating the prince and the film ends with her looking radiantly on as Chulalongkorn takes the throne and issues his first proclamations of reform.

The films strongest performance is delivered by Lee J. Cobb as the Kralahome. He has one stirring scene with Harrison in which they described the annexation of Cambodia by France and it’s implication of threat to Siam as an independent county. In the movie’s best scene, the Kralahome explains to Anna the central dichotomy of the King’s persona:

Cobb overcomes his unfortunate bottle-tan and offers an insightful take on the Kralahome

Cobb overcomes his unfortunate bottle-tan and offers an insightful take on the Kralahome

He is an old world King raised in the manner and traditions of his father and charged with maintaining the customs and spirit of Siam while who must also try and modernize the country so it can remain strong in the face of foreign influences seek to colonize the country. Though Siam’s political situation is mentioned in the book, the discussion is typically in the form of dry history and is not integrated into the emotional framework of the Anna/King relationship. The fear of becoming a protectorate of a foreign crown factors into the musical as the reason for the dinner party of Edward Ramsey, but the ’46 film gives this fear greater weight, and the result is revelatory.

The King and me2ism: 1956 Movie

Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_The_King_and_II had initially thought I would save watching the acclaimed 1956 movie version of The King and I for the end of my trip through this wormhole devoted to the R&H classic, but with no other activities planned last night, a bf as willing as he’d ever be to sit through it, and the blu ray tantalizingly sitting on the shelf, we hunkered down for a technicolor trip to Siam. Continue reading

Only hoop-de-doo songs…

kmk posterIt has been over 20 years since I’ve seen the 1953 film version of Kiss Me, Kate, and I remembered it mostly for the ways it was different than the stage version. So I was delighted to discover that–a few significant, and I do mean SIGNIFICANT, exceptions aside–the movie is actually one of the more faithful stage-to-screen adaptations, with musical numbers that are well sung and cleverly staged, sumptuous and colorful production design, and considerable wit. Continue reading

What is it about the woods?

Anna Kendrick (and her cheekbones) as Cinderella

This has been a big 24 hours for “Disney’s Into the Woods” updates. A series of 10 still photos AND the first official trailer (and not the fake “teaser” that has infuriatingly been passed around for months) have been released. Taken together, they don’t really tell us anything we don’t already know. But after months filled with nothing but concerns about cut scenes and songs (which might not be cut in the first place/second place)–and during which the bizarre ANNIE remake has gotten TWO trailers–I’m willing to savor the potato caught by the slotted spoon and not worry about how little soup is there. Continue reading

The Hawks Test


Hawks (according to Wikipedia)

As I begin to talk about cast recordings I’ve listened to, or movies I’ve seen, I plan on using “The Hawks Test” as a foundation for discussion. But before I can do that, I think I should define my understanding of how the “test” works.

Celebrated film director Howard Hawks had a famous criteria for what makes a “good movie”: Three great scenes, and no bad ones.

I was probably ten years old when I first heard this rubric mentioned on an episode of Siskel & Ebert & the Movies (I think in reference to True Lies or something like that), and have always loved it’s simplicity. It wasn’t long before I started mentally applying a similar grading system to musical scores: three great songs and no bad ones. Continue reading

There’s a bright golden haze…

r&hI recently purchased the Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection on Blu-Ray. This is the first Blu-Ray I have ever owned. (Fitting, since The Sound of Music was the first DVD I ever bought). I don’t have a blu ray player, but my gentleman friend does, so when the collection was on sale as an Amazon “Gold Box” deal, I couldn’t resist the temptation to buy it. The collection has come under some user-generate criticism for the uneven quality of the restoration/color correction. Two films (The Sound of Music and South Pacific) had been received top-notch restorations  individual releases prior to the creation of this collection. Carousel, The King and I, and State Fair have been “color corrected” with what appears to be questionable success (I have not yet look at them).  Oklahoma! is given two releases. One, a “Road Show” version, is taken from the 70mm Todd-AO print, while the other is based on the Cinemascope print.  I, along with my patient gentleman friend, watched the Todd-AO print, which one reviewer dubbed “the jewel of the collection.” (Click here for information on why the film exists in these two formats.) Continue reading