Monday, 18 March 2019

On Blu-ray - David Hare recommends DADDY LONG LEGS (Jean Negulesco, USA, 1955)

These two screens (above and following this paragraph) from the 12 minute "Nightmare Ballet" choreographed by Roland Petit hopefully give some hint of the extremely high voltage sexuality on display. The film is Daddy Long Legs directed in 1955 in Scope by Jean Negulesco for Fox and shot by Leon Shamroy in their proprietary Deluxe Eastmancolor. The slamdunk Johnny Mercer score is a doozy, perhaps the biggest number musically from the show is "Something's Gotta Give." Fox's great Lionel Newman oversaw the entire musical treatment for the picture. 
And we have Fred to thank for casting Leslie Caron, then 24 in her last dance movie musical - in 1958's Gigi she doesn't dance and I frankly find the film one of Minnelli's absolute worst. Daddy Long Leg's provenance goes back to the early 20th century and a 1912 novella adapted for the movie by Henry and Phoebe Ephron.
It's one of three ingenue/older man tropes to star Caron, beginning with Minnelli’s An American in Paris in 1952, and ending with Gigi in 1958. Donen's sublime Funny Facein 1957 with Audrey Hepburn replacing Caron completes this trilogy-rondelay of older-younger narratives that was a staple for so many 50s screenplays, like BIlly Wilder's two movies with Audrey, Sabrina (1954) and Love in the Afternoon (1956)
But one decade's PC nightmare is another decade's lollipop and in any case the ongoing performance genius of artists like Kelly and Astaire generates a base and an audience for these movies. To say nothing of the old world-new world theme of dance Astaire incorporated into his 50s movies, with Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon(with a nod to Kidd). And this neglected treat from the much maligned post-Scope Negulesco, with triple choreographic credits for Roland Petit (ballet), Astaire himself and superb chorus work, from Dave Robel. 
Negulesco is not taken seriously these days but one ongoing feature of his movies is his own interest and skill in 20th century art and design. There's an office scene here with Mondrianesque walls composed of blocks of color which harks forward to the superb sets he designed for the Office girls' workplace inside the newly opened Seagram building in Manhattan for the 1959 adult soap, The Best of Everything
The sexual politics of that movie, including a hinted abortion, are a testing point for a movie made the year before Preminger busted the Code. As for the 12 minute Roland Petit work for the "Nightmare Ballet", maligned as ever by critics across the globe, it is in fact textually infused with a hugely Freudian visualization of Caron's own adult sexuality, and that of the men young and old dancing around her. One doesn't often think of Petit's work as particularly butch, but here it's redolent with fleshy legs-astraddled, crotch bulging sailors and other specimens of male debauchery and priapic horniness. Negulesco drags the testosterone and sweat out of Petit here in spades. I think the ballet is one of Petit's best works on film. 
The movie is impeccably staged and directed, and while the longer numbers may incline some to sign it off to Minnelli's influence, that is surely a good thing in what was one of the first Scope musicals, with its fantastic opportunities for large scale chorus staging, blocking and fluid cameras. And a musical not made by the Freed Unit. 
The new Kino Lorber Blu-ray of this movie presents a slightly cool but very beautiful color print, true to Negulesco's fantastic palette. The audio appears also to replicate the wowza original Magnetic four channel track. 
A real doozy of a picture.

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