Monday, September 4, 2006

East Side Story

East Side Story(1997)
Directed by
Dana Ranga
Written by Dana Ranga, Andrew Horn
IMDB Entry

There are some concepts so goofy as to be irresistible. East Side Story is one of them.

It's a documentary about . . . Communist movie musicals.

Yes.  Communists liked musicals, too, and the film takes footage from them to make an entertaining glimpse of a side of the Iron Curtain that most people don't know existed.

The clips range from charming to just plain bizarre.  There are the singers sailing a boat in Volga Volga (Stalin's favorite film). The woman pig herders telling her pigs to eat up and get fat.  The farmworkers singing as they harvest wheat in Cossack of the Kuban River (perhaps the second greatest grain harvesting scene in film).  Midnight Review, where the songs comment on how hard it is to make a socialist musical.

And, inevitably, a real title that sounds like it's a Mad Magazine parody of a Soviet musical:  Tractor Drivers.

The footage is amazing, especially for the Soviet films.  There just something bizarre about people singing as they work (but then, in some ways, it's no stranger than people singing in an American musical).

After Stalin's death, East Germany became the heart of the Marxist musical: Hot Summer is the German Communist version of Beach Party. You really expect Frankie Avalon to show up. 

In addition to the footage, there are interviews with critics, moviegoers, and some of the actors and actresses (including Karin Schroeder, "The Doris Day of the East").  The films on the screen were lighthearted, but they were all a major battle to produce. The censors thought this was all pretty dicey material and forced the filmmakers to work hard to get approval both beforehand and after the film was shot.  One German film, My Wife Wants to Sing was only released because one of the songs got onto the radio, creating public demand for the movie.

The movie is vastly entertaining, when you're not staring at the screen in disbelief.  And, as the film asks, "Who know how things would have turned out if socialism could just have been more fun?"

Friday, September 1, 2006

Flower Drum Song


Directed by Henry Koster
Written by Joseph Fields (screenplay), C.Y. Yee (novel), Joseph Fields & Oscar Hammerstein II (stage play)
Starring  Nancy Kwan,  James Shigeta, Jack Soo,  Juanita Hall and Miyoshi Umeki
IMDB Entry

I'm a big fan of musicals -- both movies and on stage, and Rogers and Hammerstein are among the most successful composer/lyricist pairs in history.  I find they run hot and cold.  The King and I is a truly great musical.  Oklahoma! is close -- it's everything everyone says about it when it comes to influence, but is marred by ultimately disturbing main characters, who gratuitously mistreat Judd Fry.  South Pacific is good overall (though the movie is not as good as the stage show). 

On the other hand, I find Carousel incredibly overrated.  A weak score (except for the Carousel Waltz), dim and cloying characters that are treated with contempt by the script, and ultimately, it specifically equate spousal abuse with love.  Such things were looked down upon even when the play came out, and I can't figure why it's so highly regarded.

Then there's Flower Drum Song. Part of the reason it's less known is the subject matter:  the life of Chinese Americans.  Though Hammerstein was a devoted foe of prejudice, the attitude toward the people is a bit dated.  This is not an unusual issue:  some people who were quite advanced for their time in racial matters suddenly get charged with being racist simply because the tolerance they were trying to advocate has become the norm, and begin to look backward.  Will Eisner's The Spirit also is charged with this, even though Eisner was dead set against racisim.

In the movie, there is some stereotyping, but it is respectful of the people involved, and the characters  aren't ridiculed for their attitudes, even when they are meant to be humorous.

Miyoshi UmekiBut what really makes it work is the performance of Miyoshi Umeki.  I remember when she appeared on television in The Courtship of Eddie's Father, and the critics spoke of her so fondly.  When I saw the film, I could see why. Yes, she's Japanese, not Chinese, but that's not really important.  She is just plain charming, a delight in every scene she's in.  No wonder people wanted to see more of her.

The plot is typical romantic fluff, with the culture of Chinese-Americans adding to the mix.  Nancy Kwan was one of the most successful Chinese-American actresses of her time, and Jack Soo is fine as the man pledged to marry Umeki, but more interested in Kwan.  The songs are generally good, with "I Enjoy Being a Girl," (sung unironically by Kwan), "Chop Suey," "A Hundred Million Miracles," "Grant Avenue," and "The Other Generation" standing out.

A film that full of charm and music:  what more can you ask from a musical?