January 3, 2014 at 2:12 PM

Media Rare: Two Too-Cool Oldies at the Jean Cocteau

"Jean Cocteau Cinema time travels backwards this week with a couple of great classic musicals..."

By Casey St. Charnez

Media Rare

Casey St. Charnez has been video editor for Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide since 1986 and buyer for Lisa Harris' Video Library since 1981. He likes Lisa, cats, crosswords, and the Metropolitan Opera, probably in that order.

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Background Image: Frederick Dennstedt

The one-screen multiplex that is the Jean Cocteau Cinema time travels backwards this week with a couple of great classic musicals, personally chosen by JCC owner George R.R. Martin and his bride Parris McBride Martin.

Their individual choices--Footlight Parade (1933) and Roberta (1935)–have several separate showings, and they’re worth seeing, each with its own unique merits.

Warner Bros.’ Footlight Parade is one of those great old extravaganzas choreographed by Busby Berkeley (42 St., Gold Diggers Of 1933). A prototypical backstage Broadway musical, it stars James Cagney, who often played gangsters but who personally considered himself a song-and-dance man. He and Ruby Keeler (she, in Asian makeup) are the centerpiece of the number “Shanghai Lil,” while Keeler and Dick Powell also perform the ribald, pre-Code “Honeymoon Hotel,” with Billy Barty as a leering child. 

The highlight, however, is unquestionably “By a Waterfall,” which I think is the greatest musical number ever filmed. (Not the greatest dance number ever, though—that would be Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell’s “Begin the Beguine” in Broadway Melody of 1940.) But the surreal “By a Waterfall,” as the screen’s first prismatic aquacade (over a decade before Esther Williams), remains utterly jaw-dropping over 80 years later. You won’t believe what studios got away with before censorship struck the industry the very next year.

Appositely, RKO’s classy Roberta—the third Astaire and Ginger Rogers collaboration after Flying Down to Rio and The Gay Divorcee—is about a football star who improbably inherits a Parisian fashion house. This realigned adaptation of a 1933 stage musical relegates its stars to second leads, after fashionista Irene Dunne and gridironer Randolph Scott, and it’s surprisingly serious. However, it boasts the duo’s first work with composer Jerome Kern (Swing Time would come in 1936), and the songs are simply swell: “I Won’t Dance,” “Lovely to Look At,” “Yesterdays,” “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” and the stunning dance duet everyone always waits for, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

There are some intriguing things to watch for in Roberta. You don’t have to look hard to find a young Lucille Ball as one of the salon mannequins (it’s a wordless role, as all her lines were deleted). Ball, under the Desilu brand, ended up owning RKO a quarter-century later. Moreover, please note that the tiara Dunne wears as she sings “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is made of real emeralds, some $300,000 worth. And I’m sure you’ll catch that lyric about "The Continental" as Ginger warbles “I Won’t Dance.” All told, sung, and danced, it could not be more meta.

What I think is the coolest thing about these two movies at the Cocteau is that, according to theater manager Jon Bowman, the booking has come at the urging of Mr. and Mrs. Martin themselves. George, says Bowman, “has a particular affection for the singing, dancing Jimmy Cagney,” while Parris, a major fan of musicals in general, “is partial to the Depression Era.”

Further, both films will be projected digitally. The availability of titles on 35mm “is dwindling,” Bowman told me, “and rapidly.” He feels sure there will be more offerings this year: “I’m sure we’re going to try some more Golden Age musicals from the MGM catalog,” and he adds, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we returned with Yankee Doodle Dandy, maybe around the 4th of July.”

More information on the JCC. Footlight Parade data from tcm.com and the Roberta information also from tcm.com

Oh, yeah, the Cocteau is also showing something called Game of Thrones, whatever that is. It isn’t a movie, but perhaps I should look it up, just to see…

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