1981's Pennies from Heaven was not a big box office hit but it's a film that moved me deeply. The heartbreaking surreal story (fantasy musical numbers with popular songs of that time provide a point/counterpoint to the action and the characters' inner feelings) takes place during America's Great Depression.
Martin and Peters copied the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers "Let's Face the Music and Dance" number from Follow the Fleet in their Pennies from Heaven.
One of the Pennies from Heaven highlights was the wild, lascivious barroom tap number performed by Christopher Walken to Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave."
Here's Christopher Walken in dance rehearsal with one the show's stars -- Liza Minnelli.
Speaking of Liza, she won the Best Actress of 1972 Oscar for Cabaret. It was nominated for Best Picture. When I saw her in Bob Fosse's Oscar-winning and innovative film version of the Broadway hit, I saw of shot of a woman in the cabaret audience that reminded me of another painting I'd seen. Again, I was prompted to do some research. I found my answer.
Liza's mother. legendary singer/actress Judy Garland, was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for her extraordinary performance in George Cukor's 1954 remake of A Star Is Born. Cukor's visuals in movies were influenced by great artists. In the first ten minutes of A Star Is Born, we see drunken movie star Norman Maine (played by James Mason), making a scene backstage at an all-star Hollywood benefit. He'll disrupt some ballet dancers preparing to go on.
Classic French painters got lots of love from Liza's father by Judy Garland, director Vincente Minnelli, in An American in Paris. Actor/dancer/choreographer Gene Kelly increased the love by bringing a work by Toulouse-Lautrec to life in Minnelli's musical Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1951.
When I was a boy, I learned about art from another Vincente Minnelli movie. NBC had a prime time weekend show called NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies. Many films that now get frequent airings on TCM made their network TV debut on that NBC show. One night, NBC aired Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life, a 1956 biopic about Vincent van Gogh starring Kirk Douglas as the brilliant but emotionally tormented artist.
My mother turned the movie on and gently coaxed my younger sister, our little brother and me to watch it with her. It was from Minnelli's film that I learned Vincent van Gogh did a painting that was called "Wheatfield with Crows."
Youngsters love animation. It's not mentioned a lot when folks talk about her film work but Judy Garland, like Gene Kelly, went to Paris and introduced us to the unique styles of famous painters. Judy Garland and Robert Goulet voiced and sang the lead character roles in 1962's full-length animated release, Gay Purr-ee.
It's not a pretty place, but it's his home. And that is a cinematic truth that probably resonated with millions of men who came back from the war.
That shot is the emotional opposite of this homecoming piece by Norman Rockwell that graced a magazine cover in 1945. The soldier has a visually appealing and homespun welcome. It's the way America wanted to believe all G.I. homecomings were like.
Those are just a few examples. There are many other references to classic art in films.
We all know that arts funding in our schools has been reduced. It's long been a struggle to get a better budget for fine arts in schools. I'm passionate about classic films being used for arts education. Rent films and show them to classes. Six years ago, when I lived in New York City, I took acting classes. The classes were full of 20somethings who were very much of the American Idol generation, one that likes microwave celebrities. Instant fame and overnight red carpet photo opportunities. Many of the students had no interest in watching movies that were well over 20 years old -- especially movies in black and white. That changed when casting directors came to class and told students how much respect and attention they give actors who treat classic films as part of their audition homework. Watching those movies, studying those movies and the stars at work in them, makes for better auditions. It makes for better entertainment journalists too. A friend of mine was the make-up person for cast members in Sydney Pollack's 1995 remake of Billy Wilder's Sabrina when they were doing weekend publicity junket interviews.
She told me that the junket production crew -- and, frankly, the actors -- were stunned at how many entertainment "reporters" had not taken the time to rent and watch the 1954 film starring Audrey Hepburn. Some didn't even know there was a 1954 version starring Audrey Hepburn. There were better, more intelligent questions from the reporters who had watched the Billy Wilder original.
The art used in some classic films, like the examples I posted above, could be art lessons for children at home and children in the classroom. As I wrote, it could be that bridge to the library and to art museums. If you can't get to art museums, introduce kids to art books in sections of your local bookstores. That is, if you can still find a bookstore nowadays. Utilize the internet with them so make sure their online diet includes some cultural fare. Watch movies with them. Engage them in conversation afterwards.
Classic films -- if you don't have big funds, they're a great source of inexpensive arts education for kids. Trust me on this.