Monday, October 8, 2007
Performance vs. Spectacle
Back in 2005, I saw the recent musical version of The Producers and very much enjoyed it. All three of the stars did great jobs, and there are some excellent supporting performances from Jon Lovitz and Will Farrell. But more than the fun of watching Lane and Broderick being funny and Uma Thurman towering over them being gorgeous, it was a great change of pace from the movies I had seen in the previous weeks.
I saw The Producers in December of 2005, after having seen an installment of Harry Potter, followed by The Chronicles of Narnia and the remake of King Kong. I didn't hate any of the other movies, though Kong was too long and the Tyrannosaurus and Vine scene pretty much made me stop caring what happened. Watching The Producers, I actually did care what happened, and I was also struck that I was watching people actually performing. Movie singing nowadays is largely lip-synching, but there were scenes of people dancing and acting and the special effects were next to none.
It got me to thinking about why I liked watching old movies when I was a kid. The technology wasn't very good, even by the standards of the 1960s, but because it wasn't, you were watching performers doing what they do best. It really was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing, not quick cuts of the best takes but real dancing without cuts for minutes at a time. Kids today don't think much of old style special effects, and to them "old style" means anything before Star Wars, but because the movie magic is so seamless today, you can't ever trust that you are actually watching a performance.
In Kong, there's a scene where Naomi Watts wants to entertain Kong and begins to juggle. She's really good, but then I thought "She's juggling in front of a 25-foot tall gorilla, and I know at least one of these things is fake." It turns out, as Ms. Watts admits in interviews, she wasn't juggling. It was all special effects. In other words, it was all cheating. It made me long for W. C. Fields.
Specifically, it made me long for this scene, available on the You Tubes, of W.C. Fields juggling in the movie The Old Fashioned Way. Fields plays The Great McGonigal, a leader of a theater troupe. The style of performing is the 1930's way of making fun of 19th Century show business, but the history is accurate. After performing a play, or sometimes at intermission, the star performer would come out and show some skill the audience wouldn't necessarily expect. For example, John Barrymore would come out and play saxophone after plays. Fields, a top star in vaudeville before the movies hired him, does hat tricks, juggles balls, balances a stick and ends with some work with cigar boxes that is absolutely fantastic, as good as the best Chinese acrobats I've seen live. It's just a fat guy in a girdle, but this fat guy has MAD skillz.
The music playing on Foxy Tunes is also from the era of the live performance. Backing up Ella and Louis are Oscar Peterson on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on bass and Buddy Rich on drums. In other words, a superstar at every position playing brilliantly as a team. It's like watching Brazil play football on a great day.
Now playing: Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong - Can't We Be Friends