Saturday 27 February 2021

On Blu-ray - David Hare directs attention to "the greatest number ever written for a musical or a movie!" 'Make Believe' from SHOWBOAT (George Sidney, USA, 1951)

Watch Kathryn Grayson (above) in this duet by clicking here, especially from 4m 15s to the end of the number.  

Charles Rosher photographs her with enough space and height to actually ACT the song while she sings it with a soaring vibrato, within the 1.37 frame, and this she does with devastatingly expressive body and facial expression. And so they sing the number out. She is so fantastic in this, but so is everyone in the picture. You might also note Rosher's sublime gesture for the last verse of every song or duet for which he slowly, slowly moves the camera from medium close into a tight ultra-classical close shot. 


I cannot think of a single musical number in which the Director of Photography has given so much visual consideration to the sequence, and such a glorious definition of the Academy Ratio frame. He even shoots the end of Act 1 with the two big choruses of Ole Man River within magic hour, and a sublime early morning fog/mist that envelopes and caresses William Warfield. The mise-en-scène cuts back and forth in Joe's second long chorus between Joe to Julie and Bill leaving in disgrace along the shore, which has been visible throughout the entire first act of the movie. 


The setting and execution is a direct reference back to Rosher's photography of George O'Brien cutting across the marsh in misty twilight to meet Margaret Livingston in one of the greatest scenes in all of cinema from Sunrise, which Rosher shot for Murnau in 1927. Rosher and Sidney then repeat the motif in the final shots with Gardner/Julie semi-hidden in the shadows of the wharf blowing a kiss to the Show Boat. Sidney's 1951 picture constantly operates at this astonishing level of excellence and depth and passionate artistry. 

Much as I love the 1936 Whale movie, and its cast and his superb direction of it, this version remains my all-time favorite. Is "Make Believe" the greatest number ever written for a musical or a movie?


I must be becoming an old man. It wasn't until very recently, two years ago or so when I was watching Till the Clouds Roll  By  again, a jumble if ever there was one. Grayson plays Magnolia - for the first time, in the Show Boat extracts segment in that portmanteau exercise and she's also directed in the role for the first time by Sidney. The staging throughout that 15 minutes is static and dull, and obviously under the supervision of Freed for whom Whorf and Sidney as directors were obliged to stage the numbers this way in deference to the movie's clumsy proscenium "Shape". 

So not only is Lena Horne as Julie for her only time shot almost entirely in a single semi-profile close for the whole of "Can't Stop Loving", so are the rest of the singers including a very young Grayson. Sidney mentions her on the commentary for Show Boat (ported from the ancient 2002 MGM DVD) and remembers her with very great affection, especially her nose which he muses might have been matched with Bob Hope's to produce a unique child. I think he's saying as diplomatically as possible she was not a very great beauty. But he sees a great deal in her, and that extraordinary high soprano. And the shot quoted from Show Boat here really made me stand up and pay attention. He's directing her to act in every shot no matter how vocally based, and she acts the pants off troupers like Agnes Morehead and even gorgeous but dumb Keel. 


Sidney even digs deep enough into Keel to get the sheer callowness of Gaylord out of him, and he's not always anything like a sympathetic character. But as singing sopranos go my own personal bête noir is Jeanette Macdonald whom some of my heterosexual friends worship as some sort of sex goddess. Even in a negligée in her Lubitsch pre-code period she fails to move me one iota.


The new Warner Archive Blu-ray is an early contender for disc of the year. The MPI Team scanned the original three strip nitrate negs at 4K with pin sharp alignment restoration, color grading and resolution, along with newly remastered original multi channel magnetic audio tracks which have been remastered from the original mono track to multi channel stereo with breathtaking clarity. That excerpt from Till the Clouds is an extra in1080p on the disc. 

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