Saturday, May 17, 2014

Art Lessons in Films

Do your kids know the art of Monet, Modigliani, Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso?  They will if they follow the animated adventures of these two romantic cats in Paris.
This is a piece on how art influences films and how classic films can be the bridge to art museums and libraries for kids in school.  If I could make money teaching middle and or high schoolers about classic films -- and showing them classic films -- I'd take a gig like that in a heartbeat.  Movies were part of my fine arts education in high school.  Seeing good films helped me in the TV workplace years and years later in my professional broadcast career from Milwaukee to Manhattan.  I'll begin with a famous American comedian and a queen of Broadway musicals when they coupled up for a serious film.
Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters starred in the musical drama, Pennies from Heaven.  This was a Hollywood version of the outstanding BBC TV mini-series that starred the late Bob Hoskins.  The Steve Martin movie came out long before the age of Google.  I saw a shot in that film reminded me of a painting I'd seen.  I remembered the name of the painting but could not recall the name of the painter.  I went to my local library to look it up and confirm that the shot with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters did, indeed, replicate the painting.  The librarian was thrilled to be of assistance.

The top photo image is "Nighthawks at the Diner," the famous 1942 painting by Edward Hopper.  The image underneath is how Hopper's painting was referenced in a Pennies from Heaven shot with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters as the lead characters in a 1930s diner.  I learned more about Edward Hopper during that visit to the library.

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.

When the movie was released, America was in a sunnier mood and had some money during the Reagan administration.  If released today, there might be more of an emotional connection to it and an appreciation for Martin's commitment to playing the dark side of his character in this drama.  Martin's comedies, like The Jerk, his comedy albums and his appearances on Saturday Night Live were hugely popular at the time.  This was a musical drama with poverty, greed, selfishness, marital infidelity, sex and death.  America wasn't ready for a bitter Steve Martin character that wasn't played for laughs.

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."

The number may have been a big surprise to moviegoers who saw Walken's dramatic work in The Deer Hunter, the powerful Vietnam war drama that brought Walken the Best Supporting Actor of 1978 Academy Award.  It was no surprise to Broadway theatergoers who saw dancer Christopher Walken in the early 1960s revival of the musical comedy, Best Foot Forward.

Here's Christopher Walken in dance rehearsal with one the show's stars -- Liza Minnelli.
Liza Minnelli took on the role played in the 1943 MGM movie version by June Allyson.

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.

On the left, is director Bob Fosse's shot of a cabaret customer.  On the right is the 1920s painting "Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden" by Otto Dix.  Finding that answer took longer for me than finding my answer to "Nighthawks at the Diner."  At that time, I was totally unfamiliar with Dix.  That changed after I researched German artists of a certain age.

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.
On the bottom, is Cukor's shot a moment before Norman Maine charges through the curtain.  The top image is "Dancers Lace Their Shoes, a famous painting by French impressionist, Edgar Degas.

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.
The finale of An American in Paris is a visually dazzling and cinematically creative ballet to a minutely altered rendition of George Gershwin's composition, "An American in Paris."  In the above shot on the right, we see Gene Kelly as "Chocolat," the black dancer painted by Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1890s.  On the right, is the Toulouse-Lautrec painting.

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."

It was from Minnelli's Lust for Life airing on television that I learned of Vincent van Gogh having a friendship for a time with another painter -- Paul Gauguin played by Anthony Quinn.
Mom slyly used TV family time as part of our arts education.  And ours was not a financially comfortable upscale family.  Dad was a postal employee.  Mom was a registered nurse and we lived in South Central Los Angeles.  Ours was a working class family scuffling to make ends meet -- but that didn't keep us from experiencing the arts.  Also, my love for films started when I was in grade school and my parents realized it.  I didn't balk at watching an old movie on Saturday night TV.  In fact, many years later in my professional TV career, I was fortunate enough to interview both stars in the above picture -- Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn.

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.
The songs were written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, the team that wrote the songs Garland made famous in 1939's The Wizard of Oz.  In it, she introduced what became her signature song, "Over the Rainbow."  This 1962 feature was stylish and pretty sophisticated animated fare for kids.  Chuck Jones, the whiz behind many of the classic Warner Brothers "Looney Tunes" cartoons, worked on Gay Purr-ee.

In Paris, we see different versions of Mewsette (Garland) as painted by different artists -- like van Gogh and Picasso.  Kids can watch the kitties, enjoy them, and learn something about famous artists.

I don't know and I've never read if director William Wyler was ever influenced by the sentimental Americana of paintings by Norman Rockwell.  But I've always noticed a similarity in one particular scene of Wyler's classic, The Best Years of Our Lives.  In it, we follow the lives of three veterans as they return home from WWII.  This classic was Wyler's Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1946.  Forgive this photo not being high art.  I snapped it with my cellphone as the DVD played on my computer.  The vet played by Dana Andrews returns to his economically depressed home.  It looks shabby.  The inside of the home and his excited parents will match the look of the exterior.  That's the reality of this veteran's life.

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.
Compare and contract the black and white of the shot in Wyler's film and the bright colors of Rockwell's romantic view of a soldier's return.

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.

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