Sorority Girl; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

sorority girlOriginally released 18 Sep 1957
Written by Ed Waters; Story by Leo Lieberman

Directed by Roger Corman

Starring Susan Cabot, Dick Miller, Barboura Morris, and Fay Baker

My rating: ★ 1/2 stars

Disappointing character study of a sadistic co-ed.

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The Gilded Age, Season One; Review by Robert Pruter

gilded age posterOriginally aired 24 January 2022-21 March 2022
Created by Julian Fellowes

Starring Christine Baranski, Denée Benton, Carrie Coon, Taissa Farmiga, Louisa Jacobson, Cynthia Nixon, Harry Richardson, Blake Ritson, Morgan Spector

My rating: ★★★★ stars

Historical drama of the Gilded Age society of New York City by Julian Fellowes that captures the era with its sharp dialogue, compelling storytelling, and high production values, which make viewers feel they have been really transported back in time.

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21 Hours at Munich; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

21 hoursOriginally aired 7 Nov 1976
Written by Edward Hume and Howard Fast

Directed by William A. Graham

Starring William Holden, Franco Nero, Shirley Knight, and Anthony Quayle

My rating: ★★ stars

Bleak recreation of the hostage crisis and subsequent massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

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The Best Movie Songs Year by Year: 1929-1939

I have big ambitions. One of them is to do a “Best of” list for films. But that requires watching a lot of films. Listening to a lot of songs takes less time. I listened to hundreds of songs in 2021 to create this list. A lot of them were pretty bad, but I also found a few treasures. And I learned a lot about movies on the way. I tried to stick with some core principles.

  • All songs had to be original to the movie. So, for example, “As Time Goes By” (Casablanca) wouldn’t count.
  • All songs had to have lyrics. Thus, I had to avoid “Theme from A Summer Place” even though 1959 was a desert for good movie songs.
  • All songs were judged by the version of the music and lyrics that appeared in the movie. For example, “Mrs. Robinson” was incomplete when The Graduate was made, so I considered only the version of music and lyrics that appears in the film, not the famous one. Thus, it wasn’t chosen. “Isn’t It Romantic?” however, makes the cut even though the lyrics in the film are almost completely different from those of the romantic standard. The lyrics in the film work for the film.
  • Songs are judged on the composition and lyrics, not on the performance.
  • In the case of close calls, I tried to give an edge to songs that reflected something about the film narratively, thematically, or in terms of character, and to those that were used in the body of the film not just the end credits.
  • As this is my blog, I chose personal favorites over songs that would be more universally acknowledged as classics if they were close.

I have not seen all the films in question. When there was a clear choice, hearing the song was enough.

I must say that I am not a musician. In describing the songs, I do my best explain what I feel is significant about them and why I consider them great. I can read music (treble and bass clefs—I sang alto (poorly) in a choir and played the string bass), but my knowledge of musicology and music terminology is limited.

1929 “You Were Meant for Me,” The Broadway Melody (Music by Nacio Herb Brown, Lyrics by Arthur Freed)

This year, the choice came down to two Brown/Freed songs that were later included Singin’ in the Rain: “Singin’ in the Rain” and “You Were Meant for Me.” If they had been written for the 1952 classic, the choice would be the former. The scene of Gene Kelly in the rain is one of the great iconic moments in cinema history. But the songs were written for The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and The Broadway Melody respectively, and, in determining my choices, when the quality of the songs were close, I used how well the song served the movie for which it was written. “Singin’ in the Rain” is peppy and catchy. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it as the old American Bandstand saying goes. Yet, as the title of the film suggests, it’s from a revue and, thus, is unconnected to the film as a whole.

On the other hand, “You Were Meant for Me” is part of the narrative of The Broadway Melody, the Best Production (Picture) winner for its year. Songwriter Eddie Kearns (Charles King) sings it to Queenie Mahoney (Anita Page), revealing that his affections have shifted from her sister, Hank (Bessie Love), to her. It’s a major turning point in the film. The lyrics convey the emotions of the scene. The gentle melody is also a little sad, which is fitting because as Eddie is falling in love with Queenie, he’s also breaking up with Hank.

1930 “Happy Days Are Here Again,” Chasing Rainbows (Music by Milton Ager, Lyrics by Jack Yellen)

The year on this choice is odd. “Happy Days Are Here Again” was released in 1929 and became a hit that year. That’s because Chasing Rainbows sat on the shelf for a half of a year before it was released in February 1930. The song, however, was written for the movie and meets the requirements I set for this blog. Like The Broadway Melody, Chasing Rainbows stars Charles King and Bessie Love, but this time the setting is vaudeville. I haven’t seen the film, but the song is a clear choice. It’s gone on to appear in dozens of films. It became FDR’s campaign song. It was one of the defining songs of its decade and one of the most notable of the whole 20th century.

1931 “One Heavenly Night,” One Heavenly Night (Music by Nacio Herb Brown, Lyrics by Arthur Freed)

After the advent of sound in the late 1920s, the cinema landscape was flooded with musicals. I was surprised to discover, however, that by 1931 that flood had dried up. It was difficult to find a song. Any song. Let alone a good one. Richard Barrios in A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film calls 1931 “the most sonically arid year in sound-film history” (321). I even had to bend a little on the date to use the title song from noted critical and commercial failure One Heavenly Night. The movie was released in Los Angeles on Christmas Day 1930. It got its wide release in the second week of January 1931, so I’m going with that date.

The plot involves a poor girl (Evelyn Laye) impersonating an opera star and catching the eye of a Hungarian count (John Boles). The song is a waltz, but, according to musician Valerie Dorr, “a lot of sentimental ritardando is holding it back from really functioning as a dance.” Instead, it’s presented as a romantic duet. Dorr continues, “It’s perfectly reasonable to take the romantic associations of the dance and bury it in ritardando to make it feel like time is standing still for dramatic effect.” (I had to look up ritardando; it’s a gradual decrease in speed.) The drama and the romance of the song fit the descriptions of the movie that I’ve read. This recording appears to be the original performed by Boles and Laye, but I couldn’t find a copy of the movie to verify it.

1932 “Isn’t It Romantic?” Love Me Tonight (Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Lorenz Hart)

With Rogers and Hart, we are on firm ground musically. No one except my father, a born contrarian, would argue that “Isn’t It Romantic?” isn’t a great song. It’s a classic from the Great American Songbook. The film version has different lyrics than most recordings. The song begins in a tailor’s shop and the tune and title lyric are passed along from the tailor (Maurice Chevalier) to his customer to a cabbie to a composer to a group of soldiers to a Roma camp to a princess (Jeanette MacDonald) on her balcony, the lyrics changing as the situation changes. The fullest expression of the song comes in the last situation and one line of the famous lyrics appears, “Music in the night, a dream that can be heard.” What’s remarkable is how transformable the song proves. Over the last 90 years, it’s been a durable romantic ballad. Yet, in this one sequence it morphs from a comic ditty to a march to a yearning aria that wouldn’t be out of place in Viennese operetta. The melody is unmistakable. The six notes of the title line are instantly recognizable and infectious (as the scene from the movie shows).

1933 “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” Sitting Pretty (Music by Harry Revel, Lyrics by Mack Gordon)

By 1933, the movie musical was back. In a big way. Warner Brothers found big success with Busby Berkeley, a former Army field artillery commander turned choreographer who used his military techniques to create elaborate musical production numbers in a series of backstage musicals. Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics) provided the songs for these numbers, and they were almost all pretty good. Yet, with one exception (see my next choice), they were never as good as when they were paired with Berkeley’s production numbers. It was the presentation that sold the songs, not the songs themselves. Instead, I went with a song from a Busby Berkeley-inspired production number in the Paramount film Sitting Pretty. The song, here performed by Arthur Jarrett and Ginger Rogers (a veteran of two of the Warner Brothers/Busby Berkeley pictures), is better than its Berkeley-rip-off presentation. The wonderful version by Fats Domino demonstrates how flexible the song is, and its use in the atmospheric 1980s ghost story Lady in White shows how haunting the melody can be.

1934 “I Only Have Eyes for You,” Dames (Music by Harry Warren, Lyrics by Al Dubin)

“I Only Have Eyes for You,” written by the team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin for the Busby Berkeley musical Dames, is the one song from a Busby Berkeley musical that thoroughly transcends its original production number. Indeed, the song is initially presented in the film in a simple set up of Dick Powell singing it to Ruby Keeler as they cuddle on a ferry. The shots in the number are static and the actors remain in place. Powell’s flowing tenor over the skipping triplets of the song is enough movement to carry the scene. The song is so strong that the flamboyant production number that follows dilutes the power of the song, rather than enhancing it. The intimacy is lost. However, the number does highlight the concept of the lyrics that has the lover hyperfocused on his beloved rather than the crowd of similar young women.

Most people today, if they know this song at all, know it from the extraordinary doowop version released by The Flamingos in April 1959. Rolling Stone included this version among its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” at #158. Flamingos member and arranger Terry “Buzzy” Johnson must be given credit for reimagining the song. At the insistence of record executive George Goldner, Johnson was charged with arranging a number of romantic standards for The Flamingos to try to emulate the success of The Platters, who had scored on the charts with similar remakes. Goldner wanted Johnson to bring more “white flavor” to the group to achieve crossover success. (See Todd R. Baptista’s The Flamingos: A Complete History of the Doo-Wop Legends for more information on the history of The Flamingos version.) What Johnson brought to the song was hardly “white flavor” and nothing like The Platters. It was altogether unconventional. The chords, the reverb, the background vocalists all are Johnson’s inventions. Nate Nelson’s smoky vocals that border on recitation are light years away from Powell’s melodic crooning. (I would love to know what Powell or Warren thought about this new version; Dubin had died of a barbiturate overdose in 1945.) It’s almost a different song. Almost. What The Flamingos version reveals is the brilliance of Dubin’s lyrics. They’re not elaborate or florid. They sound almost like spoken dialogue. The meter doesn’t quite match the rhythm of the song. Yet, the central conceit of visual hyperfocus unifies the whole song. They’re clever without sounding like they’re trying to be clever. And, above all, they’re intimate, suggesting what a lover might say in the quiet of a darkened room.

1935 “Cheek to Cheek,” Top Hat (Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin)

Heaven. Simply heaven. By 1935, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had emerged as a dominant force in the movie musical. Top Hat was their first starring vehicle with all the music written specifically for the film. Irving Berlin, who despite having had a long and successful career as a composer, was in slump, and it was a break for him to get the job of creating songs for Fred and Ginger to dance to. He wrote 13 songs for the film, of which five were used. All became hits. “Cheek to Cheek” was the most successful, not only hitting number one on the charts, but becoming the top song of 1935. In 2011, Time magazine included it in their top 100 anglophone songs since the beginning of Time magazine in 1923.

The stories of its composition vary. One source says Berlin wrote it in a day. Another says he was tinkering with it for a while. One source says he intended it for a different project. Another source says that Berlin wrote this song with assistance from Hal Borne, Astaire’s rehearsal pianist, in sessions specifically for this project. (Berlin could not read or write music, so he needed such assistance.) Regardless, the song suited the style of the Astaire/Rogers dances perfectly. Astaire may have had partners who were technically more proficient than Rogers, but he never had another partner who was as good an actress as she was. The dances he did with her told stories. “Cheek to Cheek” is no exception. It’s form comprises three distinct sections in an AABCA pattern. Each section has its own mood, the most prominent shift coming when the bubbly B section switches to the dramatic minor key C section. (The end of the dance climaxes with a repetition of the C – A sections.)

“Cheek to Cheek” is arguably Fred and Ginger’s best dance. It certainly epitomizes the elegance, grace, and narrativity that characterize their best collaborations. And the song facilitates that.

1936 “The Way You Look Tonight,” Swing Time (Music by Jerome Kern, Lyrics by Dorothy Fields)

That I can say that Cole Porter’s marvelous “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Born to Dance) was not the best movie song of 1936 means that there must have been something extraordinary that came out that year. That would be “The Way You Look Tonight.” Musically, it’s a song of simple beauty—32 bars in an AABA structure, an ascending melody, and a couple of downward leaps—perfect fifth (“Some-day,” “Love-ly”) and full octave (“of-you,” “love-you”)—that are not exotic or difficult. Lyricist Dorothy Fields said she was moved to tears by Jerome Kern’s melody when she first heard it. The music is astonishingly graceful and seemingly effortless, from a mature composer confident in his craft. Fields’s lyrics are unpretentious, but effective, the speaker imagining a future time where he will look back to the present and the beauty of that moment in time. Thematically, we’re in the realm of poets here. Yet, the words are straightforward with only one moment of unusual turn of phrase. (I’m not exactly sure what “breathless charm” is, but it sounds wonderful.)

In the film, the song is used by Fred Astaire’s character Lucky Garnett to convince Ginger Rogers’ Penny Carroll to forgive him for his foibles and to help him at an audition. Unlike “Cheek to Cheek,” it’s not introduced as a dance (although the melody is later interwoven into the final dance of the film that begins with “Never Gonna Dance”). Memorably, Penny is washing her hair at the time, and I guess the implication is that she didn’t look as “lovely” as the song suggests all lathered up in shampoo, an implication undermined by the way director George Stevens makes her look fetching in close up. The song proves a successful gambit. It would be difficult for anyone to say no to “The Way You Look Tonight.” It’s irresistible.

1937 “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” Shall We Dance? (Music by George Gershwin, Lyrics by Ira Gershwin)

Three years in a row my selections come from Astaire/Rogers movies. Astaire and Rogers were the premier musical performers in the mid-1930s and got to work with the best composers in the business. And the outstanding music contributed to their success. The Oscar loss of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” to the awful “Sweet Leilani” (Waikiki Wedding) is one of the great injustices in the history of the awards. According to Academy lore, the loss was blamed on the fact that screen extras were allowed to vote for the first time, and thus the rules were changed to exclude them as voters for Best Song so the Oscars wouldn’t be tainted by their undiscerning taste. Not only is “Sweet Leilani” unlistenable schmaltz, it also wasn’t original to its film. It had been previously recorded as “Leilani” by Native Hawaiian musician Sol Ho’opi’i in 1935, two years before the Bing Crosby version from the movie became a smash hit. (While nothing in the Academy rules at the time prevented a previously recorded song from competing in the category, for the purposes of my project, I am including only those songs that were originally written for the particular film.) “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” is a vastly superior song and was the sentimental favorite as composer George Gershwin had died shortly after the film’s release and had been nominated posthumously. Alas, it lost.

As with “The Way You Look Tonight” from the previous year, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” was not used for a dancing scene. Instead it appears as a serenade by Fred to Ginger at a poignant moment in the movie’s story. Like with so many of the Astaire/Rogers films, the plot has a man and a woman who don’t have much use for each other thrust together out of necessity. In the case of Shall We Dance, they are erroneously believed to be married. Through screwball comedy logic, in order to move on with their lives, they have to get married in order to get divorced. “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” appears after their hasty wedding when they’re contemplating the impending divorce, which, by this time, neither wants because they’ve fallen in love with each other. While the song is often treated as a simple celebration of love, at its essence it’s a sad song because the lyrics are premised on the idea of the impending separation of the lovers. The greatness of Ira’s lyrics comes with their celebration of the mundane, idiosyncratic qualities of the one being addressed by the song. It’s not that person’s excellence being lauded, it’s the peculiarities that make them them, even if those characteristics aren’t innately positive (like singing off-key). After George’s death, Ira fell into a deep depression. His personal assistant noted that this song helped him assuage his grief.

George’s composition is built on the rhythmic repetition of a single note in the verses until the last syllable of each line, which moves up or down at increasing intervals. Thus, the verses build a tension that is released by liltingly melodic “can’t take that away from me.” The harmonics in the song are apparently very sophisticated in contrast with the simple melody, but that is beyond my knowledge of music composition.

The song was used again in The Barkleys of Broadway, a reteaming of Astaire and Rogers in 1949, and there used as a dance.

1938 “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” Hard to Get (Music by Harry Warren, Lyrics by Johnny Mercer)

By 1938, the movie musical had cooled off a bit, and the classic songs were no longer abounding. The Oscar winner that year was “Thanks for the Memory” (music Ralph Rainger/lyrics Leo Robin) from the variety film The Big Broadcast of 1938 where it was performed by Bob Hope and Shirley Ross. It’s such a boring melody, I can’t even make it through the whole song. As follow-up to the success (sigh) of that song, the duo were paired in a movie called Thanks for the Memory (in which that song doesn’t figure at all), where they were given the Hoagy Carmichael/Frank Loesser tune “Two Sleepy People,” which covers similar thematic territory of a couple reflecting on their past, but much more adeptly. The melody is stronger and the lyrics cleverer. I was tempted to choose it.

Instead, I went with the bouncy “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” (music Harry Warren/lyrics Johnny Mercer) from the romantic comedy Hard to Get starring Dick Powell and Olivia de Havilland, in which it is sung by Powell. With it’s more conventional melody than “Two Sleepy People,” it’s far catchier. There’s a momentum in the song that other song lacks. Both are used significantly in the film; both have had a life after their original appearance in the films. In the end, “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” gets the edge because it’s more original than “Two Sleepy People,” which is too obviously inspired by “Thanks for the Memory.”

1939 “Over the Rainbow,” The Wizard of Oz (Music by Harold Arlen, Lyrics by Yip Harburg)

Of course.

“Over the Rainbow” might be the greatest movie song ever. Certainly, no one would disagree that it would deserve to be among the top contenders for that title. In 2004, the American Film Institute (AFI) chose it as the #1 movie song. That it was still considered the best despite all the changes in musical tastes in the 65 years between its 1939 introduction in The Wizard of Oz and 2004 demonstrates how timeless it is. As recently as 2017, a live version by Ariana Grande made the charts. In 2001, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and Scholastic Inc. teamed up on a project called Songs of the Century to “promote a better understanding of America’s musical and cultural heritage” in American schools. The hundreds of voters for this project chose “Over the Rainbow” as the #1 American song of the entire twentieth century.

The concept for the song came from lyricist Yip Harburg, who conveyed his idea to composer Harold Arlen. Arlen, although he understood what kind of music the concept needed, was unable to come up with anything. All the other songs for the movie were done, and he was feeling pressure to complete the composition. He described inspiration coming to him suddenly while driving with his wife. After asking his wife to pull over, he composed the song on the side of the road. Unfortunately, Harburg didn’t like what Arlen had come up with. He thought it too fancy for a 12-year-old farmgirl. Arlen played it for Ira Gershwin, an old friend of Harburg. Gershwin’s approval of the song won over Harburg. According to oft-published claims, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer wanted to cut the song because it slowed down the film and would go over the heads of children, the intended audience. Luckily for all of us, wiser heads, most notably that of Arthur Freed (then an in-house lyricist for MGM and an uncredited associate producer on Oz), prevailed. The interventions of Gershwin and Freed (who appear on this list for their own contributions) suggest that there was some community among Hollywood composers of the time.

Despite the apparent disagreement between Arlen and Harburg, the song meshes beautifully the music and the lyrics. The octave leap (“some-where”) that begins each A section of the AABA-patterned song suggests a leap over the rainbow. The melody then flows down throughout the A section as if coming down to earth. If Harburg still held doubts that Arlen’s music didn’t fit for a child character, he covered them with allusions to childhood things in the lyrics.

Yet, despite these references to childhood, the song never seems childish. The plaintive yearning of the song is universal to all ages. The song couldn’t have found a better singer to introduce it to the world than Judy Garland, whose voice is characterized by plaintiveness and yearning. As perfect as her rendition is, the song has been remade, redone, and recreated by multitudes of singers, some with great success. Some listeners have even said that Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s ukulele version is better than Garland’s. Those people are wrong, but the point is that the song doesn’t need Garland to be great. According to Billboard, nearly 20 different versions of the song have made at least one of their charts over the years.

The song proved malleable to renditions across genres. In 1955, the Chicago vocal group The Moroccos recorded a doowop version. One record distributor in Virginia rejected the song, saying, “We can’t sell this. They don’t even like King Cole down here,” the implication being that the song sounded “too Black.” (Thanks to Robert Pruter, who told me that story when I said in frustration, “What could I possibly say about ‘Over the Rainbow’ that’s new?”)

The best movie songs are those that are great in the movie moment and can also be great in other contexts. None proves that as well as “Over the Rainbow.”


TV 101 (1988-89); Review by Robin Franson Pruter

tv101-4Premiered 29 November 1988
Created by Karl Schaefer

Starring Sam Robards, Brynn Thayer, Matt LeBlanc, Andrew White, Teri Polo, Stacey Dash, and Mary B. Ward

My rating: ★★ 1/2 stars

Late 1980s teen show is a goldmine of nostalgia.

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Ten Little Indians (1989); Review by Robin Franson Pruter

Originally released November 1989
Screenplay by Jackson Hunsicker & Gerry O’Hara
Directed by Alan Birkinshaw

Starring Donald Pleasence, Brenda Vaccaro, Frank Stallone, Herbert Lom, Sarah Maur Thorp, and Warren Berlinger

My rating: ★ star

Dreadful, pointless version of Agatha Christie’s much-adapted story.

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Odds Against Tomorrow; Review by Robert Pruter

Originally released Nov 1959
Written by Abraham Polonsky (as John O. Killens)
Directed by Nelson Gidding

Starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, Gloria Grahame, Ed Begley

My rating: ★★★1/2 stars

The last 1950s-style noir film shows classic strengths in the genre with strong acting by top actors performing as noir archetypes and with stark grey urban imagery but is somewhat undone by weak story telling.

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Best Movie Song 2017; Selection by Robin Franson Pruter

I’ve been doing a lot of movie writing on social media during my Covid-19 quarantine. None of these writings fits my traditional post format, but I’m going to share them nonetheless.

I’m trying to come up with the best movie song of every year. That leaves me listening to a lot of bad songs. The first year I finished is 2017. I’m finding that most of the songs for that year blend together, and a lot of them have a Diane Warrenesque quality that makes me throw up a little in my mouth. There were far too many “inspirational” songs, which seems to be typical of film music in recent years. And the year produced a couple of songs that I really wished were better, like the Stevie Nicks song or the Mary J. Blige song.
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Top TV Couples of 2019, by Robert and Robin Franson Pruter

We’re running a little late on our year-end, wrap-up lists for 2019. This post was supposed to come two months ago. However, Valentine’s Day is as good time as any to celebrate the top TV couples of 2019. We had hoped to have a number of contributors to this post, but three backed out. Unfortunately, that means we won’t be mentioning any LGBT couples (there had been two planned), and our ethnic diversity quotient is reduced to two women of color. Sadly, there isn’t enough time in the day to watch all the worthwhile TV shows of this peak TV era. Thus, we can’t say that these are truly the greatest TV couples of the last year, but these are the couples that moved us the most.

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PCR’s Television Wish List for 2020

I have some year-end and decade-end features left to post, but let’s look forward first. Here are nine things we at Pop Culture Reverie would like to see on TV in the upcoming year. (There’s no hard and fast rule that every list has to have ten items.)

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