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Tag: theatre

Behind the Camera for Porter’s Last Musical

Among the Merritt Room’s holdings are several continuity scripts for classic musicals, including one for Les Girls (1957) Cole Porter’s last major work (apart from a children’s television production of “Aladdin”) before his retirement in 1958. In tandem with the DVD, it offers a unique look over the shoulder of director George Cukor (legendary for his skill with “women’s pictures”) as he assembles a movie.

It seems at first ironic that this film is billed as “Cole Porter’s Les Girls“, when Porter himself admitted the Les Girls songs were not up to his usual standard*. Suffering from the cumulative effects of a host of physical ailments and a series of heavy personal losses, Porter had been unable to summon up the sparkle and gleam of the previous year’s “High Society” score. Yet the picture itself, helmed and staffed by some of the most elegant minds in the business and starring Gene Kelly and three beautiful lead actresses (including the blazingly talented Kay Kendall), is redolent of the world of accessible sophistication conjured up by a good Porter song.

Color consultant George Hoyningen-Huene (the man behind the haunting deep blues in Cukor’s “A Star is Born”) fills the frame with glowing blacks and startling pinks and rigs up a feathery collage for the credit sequence (note how he handles the transition between the credit for Porter’s music and that of Adolph Deutsch, who adapted and conducted it); John Patrick’s screenplay offers a clever, Rashomon-like plot (Taina Elg and Kendall play former showgirls with Kelly’s troupe, one of whom sues the other over an allegedly libelous memoir) and some wicked one-liners, and Jack Cole choreographs some lively dances (performed in clothes by Orry-Kelly).  Robert Surtees’ cinematography makes the most of the multiple points of view and flashbacks upon flashbacks.

Even tired Porter is still Porter. Les Girls is set mostly in Paris, in the backstage world of crowded dressing rooms, tiny, shared flats, cheap restaurants and third-class train carriages. In the musical numbers, this tawdry milieu suddenly becomes the scene for dazzling light romance. It’s not a bad last look at the man whose music and lyrics could confer instant urbanity on anyone who sang or played them.

– Sarah Barton

*Eells, George. The Life That Late He Led: a Biography of Cole Porter. Putnam, New York, 1967. p.307

Glamorous Nights and Music in May

Ivor Novello, LOC LC-B2-6025-8
Ivor Novello. Bain Collection,
Prints and Photographs Division,
Library of Congress, LC-B2- 6025-8

As May washes over Cambridge, no fan of Jeeves-era British popular music can pass a garden without thinking of Ivor Novello, who gave us several ravishing songs about lilacs and Spring. Novello ranked with Noel Coward as England’s top triple threat of the light spectacular. When not writing, scoring and starring in a procession of backstage comedies and Ruritanian extravaganzas which reigned over Britain’s stages for twenty years, Novello launched careers, fed out-of-work show people, fostered every kind of talent, threw thrilling parties and displayed his faultless profile to best advantage in a range of films.  His death in 1951 gave rise to public grief as intense as that for Princess Diana half a century later.

Ivor Novello. The Dancing Years, I.ii, p.2 (Loeb Music: ML50.N934 D3 1939)
The Dancing Years, Act I.ii, p.2
Loeb Music: ML50.N934 D3 1939
(click to enlarge)

Loeb Music Library recently acquired Novello’s personal rehearsal libretto (ML50.N934 D3 1939, typed on carbon paper in a clip binder) for his  1939 smash hit The Dancing Years. The pages explode with notes, eliminations, elaborations, mapping Novello’s legendary theatrical insight at work. If you can read his writing, he inserts a fairly important plot point – a scene in which Maria, the heroine, tells Rudi, the hero, that she has had his child – in longhand on the back of the previous scene.

It’s much easier to follow the final dialogue for the 1951 film version (PN1997.D362 1950.) Daringly for a show produced in Neville Chamberlain’s England, the stage version of The Dancing Years had concluded with Rudi and Maria’s last meeting in an Austrian prison, where Rudi is under arrest for aiding refugees.   By 1951, political defiance was slightly passe, and the film ends poignantly rather than tragically, with Maria introducing Rudi to his long-lost son.

For Novello, the “joy of giving” Maria sings about was not just a figure of speech: his time, his talent, his influence, his money, his company, he gave them all freely and gave great joy in the process.

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