The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Nine

Friday, January 20, 2012

Fanny

July 6, 1961   Warners  134 minutes


At the start of the most commercially and artistically successful decade the Bway musical would ever enjoy in Hlwd, Warner Bros. bought one of the biggest hits of the '50s and promptly cut the songs. All of them. And this, under the supervision of the show’s director, who was also the co-author and co-producer as well. Joshua Logan had been riding the Bway gravy train for over twenty years, and was now as much a Hlwd A-lister as Elia Kazan. Fanny was his third Oscar-nominated Best Picture (he lost the directing nom in favor of Fellini for La Dolce Vita), and tho there were high profile projects ahead, this was the last unqualified success Logan would have on either stage or screen.

Fanny began as the mission of an ex-St. Louis lawyer to break onto Bway. A famous trilogy of films by French auteur, Marcel Pagnol caught the fancy of David Merrick in the late ‘40s, and he pursued the rights all the way to Pagnol’s doorstep in Monte Carlo. Merrick conceived  the  show  in  the  R&H  blueprint (much as Liliom transformed into Carousel); shifting the story to New Orleans, securing Harold Arlen & E.Y. Harburg for the score, and screenwriters, Albert Hackett & Francis Goodrich for the book. Somehow it didn't jell, but then Josh Logan entered the picture; and thus instantly within reach was the brass ring: R&H themsevles. No surprise they were keen on the material, but Rodgers refused to share producing credit with a novice such as Merrick; and Merrick's ego, even at such an unearned stage, would not accept an "In Association With" credit. He was right, of course, for he parlayed the musical into a hit and himself into a career. But was it right for the show? It was the 10th longest running musical in Bway history when it closed in '56--but where is it today in the canon? Is there any doubt it'd still be in circulation had R&H taken it under their wing? Merrick took songwriter Harold Rome under his wing instead (and became his primary employer); but what does it say when a show's director, co-author & co-producer allows the entire score to be scuttled in Hlwd?

Poor Harold Rome., you might think. I don't. Upon consideration, he seems the luckiest of Bway's tunesmiths. Thru the auspices of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Rome broke thru as composer & lyricist of a non-professional revue (think Pajama Game's Union meeting entertainment: "Steam Heat") fittingly titled, Pins & Needles. (My Baba a one-time "Aristorcrat"-by-marriage, was a longtime member of the ILGWU; working well into her 70s on a sewing machine in New York's garment district.) Pins & Needles became a downtown sensation that wound up running 1,108 performances on Bway during a Depression that barely supported runs one quarter as long. Pegged as a writer of social liberalism Rome went on to a successful string of Bway revues, including the post-war Army show, Call Me Mister--which we have already seen, and from which but two of his songs were retained for the movie.  In 1952, Joshua Logan recruited Rome for his summer-camp musical, Wish You Were Here--his first book show, but not much of  a  stretch  given  Rome's  own  experience writing for camps in his youth; nor were the characters much deeper than those in revue sketches. Fanny was a far more challenging assignment. This was pure R&H territory: character, story, an operatic depth. The result is no embarrassment, but neither is it distinguished. Most critics and historians write respectfully of the score--but with little hint of affection. Ethan Mordden rhapsodizes on Rome's growth as a composer, and technically he may be right. But try as I might I have never been able to get much out of it myself, which inclines me to agree with Warner's decision to strip the movie of its vocals. And in truth, I never feel--even when  nudged by the underscoring--a pang of disappointment that the song is held back--like I did, say, with "Hello, Hello There" in Bells Are Ringing. Warners was counting on the audience to feel the same way; and far as I know, there was never much outcry over their decision.

Rome's other '50s musicals, Wish You Were Here and Destry Rides Again, were equally lacking for me in the tunestack department. And it's likely I would write him off entirely as second-rate were it not for my unexpected reverence for his final Merrick musical, I Can Get It For You Wholesale. In combining his Jewish ancestry with his old ILGWU roots on Seventh Avenue, Rome did some astonishing (and too easily dismissed) work on Wholesale --which is known today almost solely for La Streisand's Bway debut, in the supporting role of "Miss Marlmestein." But there is much more to the show; and the score on the OCR, under Lehman Engel's crystalline direction, sounds every bit as crisp and biting today as it must have in 1962. The musical has a dark center, much like the acidic film noir from 1957, Sweet Smell of Success--another brilliant Naked City tale which didn't engage the public at large; but which achieved a true cult status over time. Unfortunately the same can't be said for Wholesale--not even Encores! has gotten around to it yet. As for Fanny, the bargain struck in Hlwd was to retain Rome's motifs for the film's scoring; but even here it's questionable whether the film wouldn't  have been  just as good with  a soundtrack by Miklos Rozsa or Dmitri Tiomkin (composers in contention for the 1961 Oscar, along with Morris Stoloff & Harry Sukman--but not Rome--for their work on Fanny--bizarrely in the category of "Original Score.") In truth, only a handful of Rome's tunes are carried over: "Restless Heart," "I Like You,"  "Panisse & Son," "I Have to Tell You," and of course, "Fanny"--heard thru-out, ad infinitum. The unsung lyrics: "Only you, long as I may live, Fanny, Fanny, Fanny/You long as I may live, Fanny" And so it goes... Rome hammers home points with repetition:

     Take us away with you, we cry
     My restless heart
     My restless, restless, restless, restless
     Restless, restless heart and I.

Do you think he's restless? Or Fanny's plea:

     I have to, I have to, I have to tell you
     I have to but I don't know where to start
     I have to, I have to, I have to say
     What I'm shouting in my heart
     I love you, I love you, I'll always love you
     Love you, want you, need you
     My life through!
     I've said it, I've told you, and now forget it
     Unless you have to say it too
     Maybe you do

That's the entire song. Another major basso-aria for Cesar, plods along, "Welcome home says the chair. . . bed/lamp/clock;" the sort of checklist any four year-old could digest. With so little poetry in the lyrics, nothing is lost with their excision. That said, the few musical leitmotifs recycled from Rome's score do not sound pedestrian--but neither do they sound "French"--no accordians here. There's a very effective use of "I Have to Tell You" as underscoring to Fanny's climb up to the basilica, Norte Dame-de-la-Garde--looming high above the Marseille waterfront. "Restless Heart" arises any time a ship is in view, and "Panisse and Son" follows Chevalier around like a toy poodle. But "Fanny" plays thematically thru-out, and effectively so. The screenplay by Julius Epstein (yes, the one who wrote Casablanca), improves on the Bway book by Logan and S.N. Behrman., particularly in the latter scenes of the story, where key scenes (such as Cesario meeting his father, Marius for the first time) are seen and not just spoken of. But Logan doesn't simply open up the film, he takes it off the soundstage entirely; heralding the other major trend of musicals in the '60s: location. Marseille is so sumptuously featured here, it could serve as a brochure for the tourism board. (Of course, this is before The French Connection and a slew of other crime dramas, exposed the modern city's underbelly.) But here it's visually rapturous. Cesar's cafe, the Bar De la Marine, looks directly across the inner harbor up to Notre Dame-de-la-Garde, a spectacular vista we're given to soak in at various times of day & night. After the photographic debacle of South Pacific, it was a relief that Logan chose not Leon Shamroy again, but master British cameraman (and sometime director) Jack Cardiff. A longtime collaborator of The Archers (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressberger), Cardiff won an Oscar for his saturated Technicolor masterpiece, Black Narcissus, but was no less memorable for The Red Shoes or The African Queen.--He had just earned an Oscar nom as director, and for Best Picture, the previous year for Sons & Lovers. His work on Fanny deservedly earned him another nod as cinematographer, but tho he lost to another musical that year, his work here is among the film's greatest assets. Look at the entrance of Fanny, as she strolls into the Bar de la Marine in her summer dress; or the ancient street steps in the light of a midnight lamp, as the lovers retreat to Fanny's home--a most painterly composition.

There's a breathtaking moment when Caron enters the street from her doctor's office, and we know instantly that she's pregnant; but even more astonishing is how that single shot seems to presage the look of the coming decade. The '60s mode begins with this face. Caron looks so fresh, so sharply different from all the familiar--albeit fabulous--styles of the sophisticated '50s, including her own. There's a looser, modder feel to her hair; a thicker, more natural brow; lips of shocking apricot. She's the "It" Girl of the moment (with Warren Beatty for an off-screen Boy Toy)  --no  longer  a   girl   or   gamine,   but  a Woman--and a Parisienne, no less, who conquered the hearts of an American public. (Americans loved the French in those years--a far cry from the ignorant and unwarranted snobbery they maintain these days.) The former ballerina, who didn't even dance in her last musical, now does a musical without songs. Leslie Caron never lost her unique Gallic charm, even as she shed her youthful skins and slipped into a long acting career. She earns her top-billing here, giving a warm, sexy, luminous, and natural performance.
But tho she's the linchpin, the catalyst, the vessel of the tale, Fanny is almost peripheral to what is, at heart, a story about fathers and sons. Cesar & Marius take central focus in their child-parent embrace; Panisse is more passionate about being a father (even if not his own) than a husband; and Marius lastly agonizes over his own son lost to Panisse. Watching the film for the fifth time, I couldn't stop wondering what it would have been like if Boyer & Chevalier had switched roles. Perhaps I'm warming up to Chevalier, as he seems almost welcome here, and yet there is still something unpleasant about the 72 year old courting the 29 year old Caron. The story lays it on a bit thick; does Fanny really have no other options?  The fact that local  culture thinks nothing of such an old goat taking a young wife--even supports and extolls him for it--feels a bit icky. Somehow the thought of Boyer as Panisse (a one-time celluloid hearthrob--and a sprightly 61 here) seems a bit less unsavory. There's a lot of Grumpy Old Men repartee in their scenes together--much of it straight from Pagnol's original plays. Some of it is timeless schtick, some of it hopelessly dated. It's hard to get a bead on time here. Virtually nothing suggests a world tainted by technology, yet no effort is made to disguise contemporary automobiles--tho nothing else (but Caron's makeup) indicates the modern world. Horst Buchholz plays the lovelorn Marius, torn between his passion for Fanny and the sea, with his face a mask of perpetual torment. Riding the new wave of young German actors (Maxmillian Schell, Oskar Werner) breaking thru the Teutonic ceiling, Buchholz flashed briefly across American screens in a trio of films: The Magnificent Seven, Fanny and Billy Wilder's One Two Three. Just as quickly he rejected Hlwd for Europe, returning on rare occasions such as MGM's misbegotten remake of The Great Waltz in 1972. In Fanny he's a credible stud; a Germanic Frenchman (hence the torment) whose smoulders with Caron are convincingly heated. The fifth principal, Fanny's mother, Honorine, is played by the very French volcano, Georgette Anys who plays everything from her bosom. You can smell her perfume thru the screen. It's such a European cast, yet it's interesting how American the film feels. Hlwd was making movies in Europe then in every genre (even Westerns); and imports from the Continent were routinely making a splash as well: Summertime, To Catch a Thief, Never on Sunday, Come September, Topkapi, Charade, La Dolce Vita, Bonjour Tristesse, Breathless, Black Orpheus (a French film in Brazil), Light in the Piazza, It Started in Naples. The visual record they have left of the mid-century world is priceless. Nowadays it seems Hlwd uses the foreign climes only for props in chases and thrillers, or as sets for fantasy worlds. Maybe the Marseille of the French Connection or Transporter films is the more accurate picture, but how much lovelier the view in Fanny. It's enuf to make you want to go there.
Beyond the seductive atmosphere, the story has a solid emotional hold--it's a lovely tale with untypical main characters entwined by strings of paternity. Marcel Pagnol took three leisurely films (which are considered classics of early French cinema) to tell the story. MGM condensed the trilogy into a single film (at a fast 81 minutes) in 1938, titled Port of Seven Seas. Written by Preston Sturges; and directed by James Whale (after his Show Boat) the film starred Wallace Beery, Frank Morgan and Mia Farrow's mother, Maureen O'Sullivan. Despite this lineup the film was quickly dismissed, while Pagnol's only grew in reputation. (His influence would extend as far as Berkeley, California where chef Alice Waters would name her cafe, Chez Panisse to conjure the aura & flavor of southern France.) A musical version was inevitable, and tho it did well on Bway, it wasn't the final word on the matter as far as Hlwd was concerned. "Joshua Logan's production of Fanny"--as it was billed, for they couldn't quite call it Josh Logan's Fanny--was the Cinemascope edition, and a happy success for Warner Bros. And that seems to be the final word on the subject so far. Certainly the film didn't help boost interest in further productions of the musical. By the '70s it was virtual extinct from the repertory. Encores! got around to the show in 2010; and to no surprise received polite, not enthusiastic, reviews. But if a film of the sung-musical might have raised the show's fame, it would just as surely have diminished the success of the movie.

The film opened at Radio City on July 6, 1961. Among the current films around town were The Guns of Navarone, The Parent Trap, Two Women, Never on Sunday and La Dolce Vita. Altogether a dozen shows were running on Bway that soon would become films--tho not the newest smash hit (again produced by David Merrick): Carnival, based on the MGM film Lili--and yet another page in the Leslie Caron scrapbook--reversing the usual tragectory in coming from Hlwd--it almost made it back, but that's another story.  As the summer attraction of the Music Hall, Fanny was a huge hit, holding for 9 weeks, nearly double the run of any other film in the gigantic palace that year. It was among the top-grossing dozen films of 1961, earning $4,500,000 in rentals. It was critically well received as well, among the NYTimes top ten films of the year; and 5 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and a Best Actor nod for Charles Boyer. Alas, not for Leslie Caron--tho she, and Chevalier (not Boyer) received Golden Globe nods, as did the picture. Many nominations, but no awards.
I first saw the movie in October 1970, on the ABC Sunday Night Movie in what was likely its network TV premiere. It was then common practice  for  a  film--especially one  with any prestige or huge success--to take as long as a decade or more before reaching television. Among the more exciting pages of TV Guide's Fall Premiere Issue, was the listing of movies set to debut on the three networks. Early fall would be front-loaded with the bigger hits of years past, in showcase timeslots, attracting titanic ratings; tho of course the price to pay was the inevitable insertion of commercials. But that's how we watched TV then--there wasn't any other way--and where we caught so many of the movies of our youth (the '50s & '60s) for the first time. Little did we know how accessible--and commercial free--the whole universe would one day become. My 17 year old self loved that first viewing of Fanny --and I have to say I'm sufficiently impressed by it some 40 years later. The story retains its potency and doesn't feel cliched. And how refreshing to see characaters (no matter their conflicts) all love and care for each other. Still there's plenty of drama here, and no villain. That, in itself, is rather rare. Previously, I hadn't noticed a corollary of the story with my own, in that I, too, once tore myself away from an intense and passionate relationship in pursuit of a deeper passion: pursuit of a career, in another town. Ultimately there was an equally histrionic reunion with dramatic consequences; and even an (unborn) child in the mix. But that, too, as they say, is another story.

Next Up: West Side Story

Report Card:    Fanny
Overall Film:    A-
Bway Fidelity:  for score/ B+  for story
Songs from Bway:  0 
Songs Cut from Bway:  18
Casting:    The Royal Hlwd French
Standout Cast:   Leslie Caron, Charles Boyer,
               Georgette Anys
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction:  Sweeping, cinematic
Choreography: None
Scenic Design: Romantic waterfront
Costumes:  Rustic, summery
Standout Sets: Cesar's cafe looking out
                across the wharf up to Notre Dame. 
Titles:  Flying into the Port of Marseille
Oscar Noms:  5:  Picture, Actor (Boyer),
         Cinematography, Scoring, Film Editing

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