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The Varsity Drag


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#1 miliosr

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Posted 04 July 2014 - 04:55 AM

A friend of mine gave me a 2-CD set titled Music Inspired by The Great Gatsby - 48 Tracks That Defined the Roaring Twenties.  One of the tracks on the set is George Olsen's 1927 version of "The Varsity Drag" from the musical Good News.  Here's the Olsen version:

 

https://www.youtube....h?v=Ivfy2AInsZw

 

And the 1930 movie version:

 

https://www.youtube....h?v=z9FJ-NLM8Xs

 

And the 1947 movie version with June Allyson and Peter Lawford:

 

https://www.youtube....h?v=ObpRtEgIc0Q

 

I give the 1930 version the edge for the galumphing Pre-Code ridiculousness of it all!

 

Whatever version you prefer, have a Happy 4th of July.  Be free!  Be happy!!



#2 sandik

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Posted 05 July 2014 - 12:03 AM

What a treat -- many thanks!



#3 dirac

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Posted 05 July 2014 - 11:53 AM

These are fantastic, miliosr. Thanks!

 

I tend to agree with you about the 1930 version, much as I like the '47 Good News.



#4 miliosr

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Posted 06 July 2014 - 06:02 PM

The 1930 version has an anarchic lunacy to it that captures both its time (just past the Roaring 20s) and an era in filmmaking when people were literally making it up as they went along.  I do think the 1947 version does show what M-G-M was capable of when it pulled out all the stops for a production number.



#5 sandik

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Posted 06 July 2014 - 07:02 PM

The choreography in the earlier version seems more connected to the social dances of the time, while the later version is a great example of film choreography.  The later version may be more sophisticated, cinematically, but I think it's slightly more contrived.



#6 dirac

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Posted 07 July 2014 - 10:47 AM

There's a lot to appreciate in the 1947 Good News, but a strong feeling for the period isn't really one of them.



#7 miliosr

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Posted 11 July 2014 - 05:10 AM

I finally got the links above to work!

 

Adding "Pass That Peace Pipe" from the 1947 Good News:

 

https://www.youtube....h?v=9_6CzxyWGj4



#8 dirac

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Posted 11 July 2014 - 08:50 AM

Thanks. That's  a great number.

 

The girl in "Pass That Peace Pipe" is Joan McCracken, who was married to Bob Fosse and did a great deal to help his career. Her career and life ended prematurely because of ill health. RIP.



#9 Quiggin

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Posted 11 July 2014 - 11:30 AM

The earlier Good News is more Paul Whiteman/Bix Biederbecke hot jazz in style and the later version has a big band cool style. June Allyson, whose singing voice is much more natural sounding than her talking voice, has a little of Ella Fitzgerald's phrasing, holding back a note, though her tone sounds like Bibi Osterwald's or early Elaine Stritch's.

 

The 1947 choreography looks heavy handed to me, everything happening-at-once, compared to other MGM and earlier RKO musicals – though Tommy Rail is somewhere among the dancers according to the credits. Is the Native American peace pipe song done in the same spirit as Irving Berlin's "I'm an Indian Too" from Annie Get Your Gun of 1946? (And a strange spirit it is, of appropriating the culture of a displaced people and making quaint sayings out of it. In a law firm I once worked in, in interviews from the fifties and sixties there were references to "being a one-feather Indian", "all braves and no chiefs" and "[she'll] have my scalp"; the Standard Oil partner, when he was going out of town, would tell his assistance to "hold down the fort" until he got back.)

 

And how Technicolor overcooks certain colors and yet the pastel dresses are so subtle and uniquely rendered. Joan McCracken for a moment looked like Mathilde Froustey.



#10 dirac

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Posted 11 July 2014 - 02:50 PM

Hi, Quiggin.  Good points. No, it's not the most ethnically sensitive number. Times were different then, as you observe. I like the number, and for some reason I find it easier to accept than Fred Astaire's Bojangles turn in blackface in "Swing Time" - and that routine is a superb piece dancing and cinema choreography, one of Astaire's best. Go figure.

 

However, I do think “Pass That Piece Pipe” is highly defensible as cinema choreography as well. Charles Walters may not be Vincente Minnelli, but he could be awfully good, and I think he handles the very big groups in “Peace Pipe” and “Varsity Drag” in masterly fashion. Notice, for example, there are relatively few cuts in two very large and quite long numbers. That takes a lot of skill from director, choreographer (Robert Alton worked with Walters) camera operators, and performers, and plenty of sustained energy from the latter, as well.

 

(I do not like McCracken's makeup - too much - characteristic of MGM in that period.)

 

I agree that Allyson's singing voice is pleasingly different from her speaking voice. I like very much her rendering of "The Best Things in Life Are Free" in Good News.

 

Off topic - perhaps I’m oblivious, but I don’t see anything particularly offensive to Native Americans in the phrase “holding down the fort,” which I have heard regularly, usually around offices on short-staffed days.  Yes, early America had forts and some Native Americans did attack them, but forts have gotten attacked in many places in many eras, no?



#11 miliosr

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Posted 11 July 2014 - 03:28 PM

Put me in the camp of not being terribly bothered by "Pass That Peace Pipe".  I think it was more a case of being painfully naïve about the plight of Native Americans in the United States than trying to be willfully offensive.  In any event, I separate out the clearly outdated content and just focus on the excellence of the dancing.

 

Charles Walters did a great job filming this.  I especially like how he films the guys jumping off the counter top.  He films them jumping from overhead which makes the jumps more kinetically thrilling than if he had filmed them from eye level.

 

Sadly, Ray McDonald, who is the male lead dancing opposite Joan McCracken, also died quite young.  For unknown reasons, he never quite established himself at M-G-M and this would be his last film at the studio.  (Maybe his looks weren't quite leading man handsome?)



#12 sidwich

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Posted 11 July 2014 - 09:16 PM

I've always been a fan of the Walters/Alton Good News, and leaving aside the significant ethnic insensitivity of "Pass that Peace Pipe," it's one of my favorite numbers in the film.  Actually, I've found Walters to be a very underrated member of the MGM musical unit.  He also staged one of my favorite of Judy Garland's less famous numbers:

 

 

Walters is the dancer partnering her in the clip.

 

Joan McCracken was one of Agnes DeMille's dancers, and was one of the featured dancers in the original production of Oklahoma! and Bloomer Girl.  It's a shame there's not more footage of her dancing.



#13 sandik

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Posted 11 July 2014 - 10:29 PM

Lisa Jo Sagolla wrote a very well-received biography of McCracken, "The Girl Who Fell Down."



#14 dirac

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Posted 25 July 2014 - 11:54 AM

There are some odd judgments and infelicitous editing choices, but overall Sagolla's bio is a good one. She's stronger on the dance world than on Broadway or Hollywood, but she makes an honorable effort to address all aspects of McCracken's career. 

 

Sadly, Ray McDonald, who is the male lead dancing opposite Joan McCracken, also died quite young.  For unknown reasons, he never quite established himself at M-G-M and this would be his last film at the studio.  (Maybe his looks weren't quite leading man handsome?)

 

 

Could be. And/or maybe they just didn't see a need or niche for another dancing man.

 

He did a wonderful softshoe to "By the LIght of the Silvery Moon" in Babes on Broadway. 



#15 miliosr

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Posted 25 July 2014 - 03:02 PM

I bought the limited edition Rhino Records release of Good News on e-Bay.  Good times!  I was surprised, though, at what a big vocal part Mel Torme played on the soundtrack.  Incredible to think that MGM had Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme under contract at this time.

 

From the soundtrack, I can see why MGM didn't keep Joan McCracken after filming was complete.  Her vocal style is very 'Broadway belter' and kind of sticks out from everything else.




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