Art Vs Commerce: End of History (1960s)

1968

Welcome to the final year of the Hays Code, but we’re keeping it light and musical, apparently.

And The Oscar Goes To…

This musical adaptation of Oliver Twist sees young Oliver raised in a cruel workhouse run by people who think feeding the kids actual food leads to rebellious behaviour; sold to a funeral parlor staffed by people so miserable in their lives they need to bully an orphan to feel big*; escaping that to be lured by a well-dressed urchin called Artful Dodger into a life of petty crime working for orphan-wrangler Fagin and his brutal number two Bill Sikes; escaping from it all into wealth and comfort when a would-be mark takes pity on him; being snatched back into crime because Sikes is convinced that he could snitch to the coppers and thus inevitably will snitch to the coppers (despite refusing to do so to save himself in court); Oliver’s benefactor learning that Oliver’s mother was his long-lost niece and that the assholes from the workhouse should be ruined for keeping the proof of that to themselves (sadly their ruin is only implied, unlike the novel); and Sikes being so bad at ensuring that nobody narcs on him that he incites a mob to hunt him through the streets and shoot him to death. There’s also Nancy, a nice lady who works for Fagin and sleeps with Sikes, and is so broken by a lifetime of abuse and poverty that even though she’s the only one trying to protect Oliver and get him back to the rich guy, she still won’t drop a dime on Sikes, singing a song about how she’ll stick with him to the end, which… happens in a predictable fashion.

*Unless they… and by “they” I seem to mean all of Dickensian England… had bought into the evangelical myth of “wealth=righteousness” so hard that they assume being poor with dead parents is a sign of low moral character? In which case… still assholes, still huge gaping assholes.

In the end, Oliver is back with his rich great-uncle, Sikes is dead, Nancy seems to be too, and Fagin and Dodger consider going straight but don’t. It’s a very The Wire ending, with one speck of positivity surrounded by the bleak reality that the system is too broken for anything real to have changed.

With incredibly upbeat songs. Like, incredibly upbeat, weirdly almost inappropriately upbeat. “Consider Yourself” is the happiest tune this side of The Music Man, that has half of working class London doing merry dances to it, but it’s about Oliver being drafted into life as a street criminal. “I’d Do Anything” starts about how the urchins would dote on Nancy but ends with Fagin ensuring they’d all die in prison to keep him from being arrested. “Reviewing the Situation” is a happy little song about how Fagin knows he should give up crime but never will. “Food Glorious Food” is a merry little ditty about how the workhouse orphans dream of being fed something other than gruel, custom designed to starve them into compliance, while the fatcats who profit from their labour feast. At least “Where is Love” (Oliver wonders if anyone in the world will ever care for him) and “As Long As He Needs Me” (Nancy sings about why she’ll stay with her abuser no matter what, because if he needs her he might not kill her) have the decency to be minor-key, but overall it is filled with tonal dissonance. It’s a light, happy, toe-tapping cheery musical about an incredibly bleak situation that is four different arguments against anyone saying socialism is inherently bad and capitalism is great.

I mean I do like some of the songs but in context it is impossible to ignore how bleak everything is, and the contrast hurts my brain. If you want to write a happy musical, maybe basing it on a Dickens novel isn’t the way to go.

Anyhoo here’s some thoughts I tweeted as I watched it.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s all the way down at #79, the lowest ranked musical that’s actually a musical. (I maintain Broadway Melody isn’t a musical, it’s just about musicians.) I’m not mad about that, I’m more mad that Gentleman’s Agreement and Going My Way are down there with it.

What’s Good, Hays Code? Honestly I could see someone on the Hays Code board or however it was enforced having an issue with Fagin and Artful Dodger just going back to crime without any lasting consequence. Dodger is back to picking pockets before Sikes is done bleeding out.

Audiences didn’t hate this one, they just preferred a musical that’s bright and happy and only sometimes really bleak.

The Box Office Champ

Based loosely on the life of Ziegfeld Follies leading lady Fanny Brice, with Barbra Streisand making her film debut, reprising her role from the musical’s Broadway run. (Featuring the star of How Green Was My Valley and Mrs. Miniver as Florenz Ziegfeld, those were two blasts from this project’s past I didn’t ask for.)

Using the “Don’t you know that before Dewey Cox sings, he has to remember his entire life” framing device, Funny Girl chronicles two arcs of Fanny’s life: building a stage career through her gift of humour and making some potentially career-ending swings that become career-making performances because the audience enjoys them too much for her to be fired; and her romance with gambler Nick Arnstein (Lawrence of Arabia’s Omar Sharif) which is happy until a career based on gambling goes the way any such career tends to, and Nick chooses crime over accepting help from his wife. It was the 20s, and the patriarchy was never smart.

Act one does the career stuff, until Fanny quits the Follies to follow Nick to Europe, then act two is their marriage forming, then beginning to collapse because Nick’s lucky streak gambling has ended and his pride means he chooses jail over needing his wife to support him.

I initially had issues with Fanny as a character, as she has zero chill, makes big dumb decisions, and listens to no advice… the song “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is about how she will hear not one word of advice over a potentially disastrous life choice… but on reflection everything I just said (except the bit about the song) could also be said about Yancey Cravat, so I guess I take it back. Any issue I have with her choices could also be used as arguments about why she’s great, and if she wasn’t a brash, flawed character I think the story would lose some spark. And I have to say, Streisand kind of kills it. She’s funny and she nails every song she’s given (which is almost every song).

Sure no other actress in a musical we’ve covered was as fond of milking glory notes as Streisand is, and only sometimes because they were overdubbed by Marni Nixon… but musicals didn’t really seem to have glory notes before now. Funny Girl feels like a whole new style of musical, bridging the gap between the sedate stylings of Rogers and Hammerstein (The Sound of Music) or Lerner and Lowe (Gigi, My Fair Lady) and latter-day Steven Sondheim or 80s Andrew Lloyd Webber. And sure she’s constantly portrayed as “not conventionally hot enough” but shot like she’s sex icon Barbarella, but maybe her issues with her appearance are supposed to be mostly in her head. Especially since it’s ultimately more a love story than it is about her career arc.

I dunno, I guess it ultimately works pretty well.

Twitter thoughts!

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s certified fresh at at 93%, which is even higher than Oliver’s adjusted score, so the critics (and audiences) certainly prefer this one.

What’s Good, Hays Code? Well the rules about “lustful kissing” sure get ignored, and having Egyptian Omar Sharif play the love interest might go counter to their rules on interracial romance.

Other Events in Film

Seems to me 1968 was as filled with classics as 1966 wasn’t.

  • TV writer/actor Mel Brooks took on the big screen with The Producers. You could say he had a bit of an impact on comedy. Wouldn’t be a stretch to claim so.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey came within $4 million of letting me talk about how Stanley Kubrick challenged everything about how movies tell stories. Maybe that’s just as well, I’d have had to do some additional readings to properly dig into that one…
  • The Odd Couple so perfectly encapsulated a comic set up it became the Xerox or Kleenex of mismatched comedic double-acts. Every similar mismatched pair since became known as an “odd couple.”
  • Charlton Heston encountered one of cinema’s most iconic twist endings and launched a franchise that is somehow still going and was just recently the best it ever was in The Planet of the Apes.
  • Mia Farrow tied Apes at the box office in horror icon Rosemary’s Baby.
  • For the first and only time, the Best Actress Oscar was a tie, going to both Streisand for Funny Girl and Katherine Hepburn for period piece The Lion in Winter, which also tied for Adapted Screenplay with The Producers.
  • An entire horror subgenre was forged with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, I don’t have a jokey way to underplay that.
  • My single favourite Beatles movie, the animated Yellow Submarine, came out this year. There was almost a remake a while back. I can’t tell if I’m disappointed it didn’t happen, or grateful it didn’t have a chance to be terrible.
  • Sergio Leone decided that the Man With No Name Trilogy wasn’t epic enough, and made Once Upon a Time in the West.
  • The last of Walt Disney’s final projects, a Winnie the Pooh short, also came out.
  • Some schmucks tried to make a Pink Panther sequel without either Peter Sellers or director Blake Edwards. Very few people talk about Alan Arkin replacing Sellers in Inspector Clouseau, and I assume there’s a reason.
  • I recall hearing once that Blake Edwards’ The Party, starring Peter Sellers in an incredibly problematic role that inspired both Mr. Bean and Apu from The Simpsons (you’re figuring out why it’s problematic, aren’t you), is considered the first big post-Hays Code movie. If it wasn’t, well…
  • I name-dropped Barbarella earlier… well, this was the year it came to the US, jump-starting some puberties with Jane Fonda’s zero-g striptease and bringing America some very European-horny sci-fi. And also inspiring the name of the 80s’ single greatest band, Duran Duran*.

Next Page: The Code is Dead, All Hail New Hollywood

*That’s just my opinion but search your feelings, it’s true

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