Christopher James continues his coverage of the 2023 TCM – cpn

Christopher James continues his coverage of the 2023 TCM Film Festival. Check in for daily…

If the first two days of the TCM festival were dominated by bad boys fighting the establishment, day 3 was all about the movie musical. Out of the four films I screened today, three were musicals from different eras. It was a fantastic example of the breadth and depth the genre has to offer.

Today was also the day of big stars. For the first screening, Shari Belafonte had a discussion with TCM host and Academy Museum programmer Jacqueline Stewart. Later on in the same room, Ann-Margret arrived and blew out a birthday cake inspired by her legs. Then, right before a screening of Carmen Jones, legendary film historian Donald Bogle was awarded the Robert Osborne award for achievement in classic film preservation…


The African Queen (1951)
News doesn’t reach the remote jungles of Africa quite as quickly as it does a London parlor room. Rose (Katharine Hepburn) is a preacher alongside her brother (Robert Morley), no doubt acting as a missionary to the rural African tribe. Yes, colonialism is alive and well as a side flavor of this adventure. The brutish mailman of sorts, Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) comes bearing bad news. World war is afoot across all of Europe and the German troops have mobilized in Africa. Almost on cue, Germans march in with an African army and burn the tribe’s homes to the ground, killing Rose’s brother in the process. Thus, Rose must team up with Charlie on his boat, The African Queen, to help aid the British in their war efforts. Hardly a documentary, the war is just set dressing for the real strength of The African Queen. It’s an adventure romance that excites on both an adrenaline and emotional level.

The African Queen remains a stone cold classic thanks to the dexterous chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn. The smartest thing about their characterizations is how they nimbly turn the tables on each other. What initially appears to be a tale of a stuck-up church girl and rogue drunkard convincingly turns into a rousing adventure and romance. After going down the rapids, Rosie experiences a thrill she’s never felt and insists on risking life and limb for their quest, while the normally brave Charlie wants to quit and retire to his rum. Throughout the many perils of the journey, Rosie becomes more emboldened and confident, while Charlie embraces his mortality, discovering what it means to try to lead a more fulfilling life. The way the characters are eventually drawn together romantically never feels forced. Each trial and tribulation brings them convincingly closer together, while also bringing them on their own unique arcs.

Much has been written about the perilous on set conditions, as John Huston led cast and crew into the jungles of what is now known as Uganda and the Congo. All of the special effects in the world can’t recreate the authenticity of having Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn sailing down river. From frame one, the movie feels alive and real. Though select green screen moments are clearly spliced in for the waterfall antics and more clear moments of danger, the movie always feels alive and treacherous. Similarly, the moments of beauty pop in beautiful technicolor. Shooting on location, especially in Africa, was rare for the time, yet the results cannot be argued with. The actors sell us on the characters’ relationships and the setting gives us the stakes. It’s a beautiful land, one that gives just as much as it takes as this mismatched couple heads down the river. Grade: A-


Bye Bye Birdie (1963)
Having great energy can help one get away with just about anything. Bye Bye Birdie is the definition of cheesy. Made in 1963, it feels deeply rooted in the family values of the 50s and satirizes the adoration teen girls had for Elvis and rock n roll. When the film leans into the outlandish and absurd, such as a candy colored party line opening called “The Telephone Hour” as word spreads of a new teen coupling. However, the film’s sensibilities and awe-shucks-ness even feel at odds with the changing times of 1963. Elements of individuality and spunk sneak through the otherwise squeaky clean musical. Still, one can’t deny the movie is chock full of cheesy fun.

It’s official: Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson), an Elvis type matinee idol, has been drafted. This galvanizes teen girls to protest, giving some on Birdie’s team an idea for a PR stunt. Rosie (Janet Leigh) convinces the Ed Sullivan show (complete with the real Ed Sullivan) to have Conrad on the show to promote a new song, written by her destitute songwriter boyfriend, Albert (Dick van Dyke), and to kiss one lucky fan. That random lucky fan is a small town girl from Sweet Apple, Ohio, Kim McAfee (Ann-Margret), who has recently started dating local boy Hugo (Bobby Rydell). Insanity ensues as Conrad, Rosie and Albert descend on this not-so-sleepy Ohio town.

It’s fitting a few months after filming wrapped that director George Sidney decided to film an intro and outro with rising star Ann-Margret. She takes over as leading lady in the musical, commanding every moment she’s on screen. Textually, the character of Kim McAfee can be a drip, a boy crazy girl caught between a movie star and her new high school boyfriend. In her first interactions at school, Ann-Margret makes interesting choices with the character. She gives winks and nods, suggesting that Kim understands that she now has the power to manipulate men particularly. She’s coming into her power. This is why “I Got a Lot of Livin to Do” stands out as the most dynamic number of the film. Shared between Kim, Hugo and Birdie, all characters sing about their desire to experience more of the world. Though much of it is framed as Kim and Hugo making each other jealous, Ann-Margret taps into the reading that Kim now finally understands that the world can be her oyster and there’s plenty of life outside of Sweet Apple.

The characters of Sweet Apple have a lot more depth and humor than those coming from the Big Apple. Both Leigh and Van Dyke are consummate professionals and give each one of their musical numbers great life. However, their relationship is far from believable. Albert is tied to the hip with his mother, always introduced squeaky-clogs first and played with incredible gusto by Maureen Stapleton. While every member of this strange, Oedipal love triangle is very fun, it never makes sense that Rosie would stay this long with Albert. We rarely get much inferiority to understand what she’s waiting for, other than vague notions of loving this man who never puts her first.

Speaking of vagueness, it may be sacrilegious to say but Jesse Pearson whiffs it as Birdie. He never possesses the charisma needed to sell the level of fandom he possesses. Even more damning, in a movie full of stars and big personalities, he fades into the background almost every time he’s on screen.

On the complete other end of the spectrum, special attention needs to be paid to the legendary Paul Lynde, hamming it up as Kim’s disapproving, yet game-hungry father. He never misses a moment for a one-liner, stealing every frame he’s a part of. The sassy supporting star manages to expertly mock his character’s toxic masculinity, while still imbuing him with great heart and fondness. “Kids,” the musical number he and Stapleton share, marks the highest comic moment of the film and shows what happens when you pair the best character actors together with sky high fun parts. Grade: C+

Carmen Jones (1954)
After being presented with the Robert Osborne award, author and film historian Donald Bogle waxed poetically about his love for Dorothy Dandridge. He had grown up watching films where black actors were sidelined in stereotypical roles, always prompting him to wonder what their lives were like when the camera panned away from them. In Carmen Jones, he felt electrified by Dandridge’s full bodied, leading lady performance, which earned her the first leading acting nomination at the Oscars for a person of color. It’s hard to argue with Bogle’s love. Carmen Jones comes alive thanks to Dandridge.

The opening teases a sweeter tale than we get, as a young girl named Cindy Lou (Olga James) visits her love Joe (Harry Belafonte) on base. No sooner do they hug then Carmen Jones (Dorothy Dandridge) bursts into the luncheon in song and dance. Men fall over for her, but she has her sights set on Joe. He’s dead in the water before she even says a word. An incident in the parachute department between Carmen and another woman lands Carmen in custody… Joe’s custody. After a series of incidents, Carmen finally seduces Joe. Shortly after, she leaves him in the dead of night, leaving behind a note professing her love for him. He’s locked away for letting Carmen go, but holds out hope that they’ll reunite. Meanwhile, Carmen and her friends are courted by a boxing champion, Husky Miller (Joe Adams). Will they follow him to Chicago, or will Carmen remain faithful to Joe?

Dorothy Dandridge dances on an acting high wire, making us fall in love with Carmen even as she sends Joe’s world into a spiral. The titular Carmen Jones is a prime role – a self possessed woman who dreams of control and freedom. She loves passionately but moves on easily. The operatic songs convey the deep, burning passions within Carmen’s soul. She may love Joe more than Husky Miller; but she loves herself above all else. Self centeredness gets a bad rap. Carmen is a tragic figure in Dandridge’s performance; a woman who dared to love herself and look out for her own self interest. Pulling the nine of clubs provides her with the knowledge that she may end this story dead. It knocks the wind out of her, but nevertheless she persists and enjoys her final days. Husky may have won the fight, but it’s Carmen who goes down swinging to her dying breath.

While Dandridge takes us on a journey with Carmen, the script threatens to undermine her nimble character work. Each scene jerks us into a new set of given circumstances. Is Carmen risking it all for Joe, or is she moving on and looking for something better?. The ground constantly shifts beneath the performers, making the audience doubt what the characters’ motivations are, not in any way that is intentional or productive to the film. While Dandridge charts an emotional journey for Carmen, the incredibly talented Harry Belafonte is given a harder role to sell. Joe is an idealistic hunk who falls for Carmen hard. Yet, when it comes down to it, rejection turns him into a killer. Belafonte has amazing chemistry with Dandridge, the two absolutely sizzle together. Yet, the hairpin turn from love to hate never quite feels earned. It’s more the fault of the story than the actors.

Putting aside problems, Carmen Jones is a wonderful to behold, especially on the big screen. Director Otto Preminger has crafted this exquisite love letter to Dandridge, whom he was having an affair with at the time. By proxy, this all black musical bursts with life and color. Among the supporting cast, Pearl Bailey steals every scene as Carmen’s best friend, who urges her to use Husky Miller to get ahead and experience the life she’s always wanted. The world feels so alive and vibrant, giving new life to the classic opera. Grade: B+

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