TopBilled

TopBilled’s Essentials

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The Sheryl Crow song seems a little bland to me, though she's a great singer.

 

I think the best themes go in one of two directions: either an intentional throwback sound, as in the next film's theme by the band Garbage (one of my favorite themes) or the more recent hits by Adele and Sam Smith; or they allow the artist to work in their preferred, modern style, as in the 80's themes by Duran Duran and a-Ha, or the upcoming Madonna track that you mentioned as a favorite. For the former style to work, the artist and songwriters have to be in sync with that kind of big, almost overwrought sound (think the early songs by Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones), and the vocalists have to be capable of carrying that type of song. And when the latter tone is agreed upon, the artists have free rein to do what they do best.

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Essential: THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999)

 

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When watching this movie, a viewer quickly realizes there isn’t enough oil in the world, or enough money or enough power. And if you’re a fan of 007, there is never enough James Bond either. This was Pierce Brosnan’s third turn playing the character, and the last time Desmond Llewelyn played Q (the actor died shortly after the premiere). Despite the nonstop high voltage thrills, the story is a sobering late 20th century treatise on greed.

 

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Bond’s love interests are played by Sophie Marceau and Denise Richards. Marceau has more screen time and much better close-ups. As oil heiress Elektra King, she’s gorgeous and dangerous. She beds the super agent in record time, but he notices there is much more to her than meets the eye. The film’s prologue details a botched mission where she was kidnapped and then used as bait by M to draw out a Russian terrorist named Renard (Robert Carlyle). Elektra’s father had refused to pay the ransom and he was subsequently killed. We find out that his death came at the hands of his unforgiving daughter who committed patricide with Renard’s help.

 

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Initially the British intelligence agency is unaware of this double-cross. During the early portion of the story M sends Bond to the Middle East to protect Elektra from Renard. He gradually learns that Elektra has a twisted relationship with her former kidnapper and things become increasingly dicey. Caryle is perfectly creepy as the villain (he has a face that would have made him a star in F.W. Murnau’s silent films about vampires). He brings the right amount of understated menace to the role.

 

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I like how Judi Dench has considerably more to do in this installment. At one point M is tricked by Elektra to visit the site of her pipeline, which is to ensure that M will be on hand to watch the killing of Bond, before Elektra turns M over to Renard. Of course, Bond has faked his death with the help of nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones (Richards’ character), and he works with a Russian casino owner to thwart Renard and rescue M. The casino owner Valentin is portrayed by Robbie Coltrane, reprising his earlier part from GOLDENEYE.

 

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There are many exciting action sequences. The first one involves the use of Q’s new unfinished boat which Bond races down the river Thames in pursuit of an assassin working for Renard. A skiing segment that takes place in the mountains is also breathtakingly good. And I thought the part where Bond and Christmas try to defuse a nuclear reactor was suspenseful if far-fetched.

 

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However, some things might have been better. For instance, I felt the gunfire and explosions became very repetitive, as if the producers were afraid that if there wasn’t a loud boom every five minutes the audience might get restless. And some of the dialogue needed fine-tuning. There was a strange line where Bond told Elektra that because of her relationship with Renard, she had suffered from Stockholm Syndrome. It didn’t feel right for him to tell her this in such academic terms. Instead he should’ve just said “you’re hung up on Renard” or “you have an unusual connection to Renard.” Viewers could’ve figured out she was experiencing the effects of Stockholm Syndrome without Bond having to tell her this for their benefit.

 

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I did enjoy most of the characterizations. M realizing she had caused some of Elektra’s psychological problems was excellent. Valentin turning out to be a good comrade in the end was great. And Bond understanding that sleeping with Elektra was in essence like sleeping with Renard. Brosnan played the scene perfectly– his repulsion when he figured out he had slept with the enemy couldn’t have been topped by any other actor as James Bond.

 

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THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH is directed by Michael Apted.

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"... a sobering late 20th century treatise on greed"

 

All the more sobering as it became increasingly in-our-faces by the 21st, especially in politics.

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Great write-up, TopBilled. If you'll forgive me, I'm a bit under the weather this week, so I'll forego my usual lengthy response. I just want to mention a couple of things.

 

Imagine a big-budget action movie that was part of a series featuring a long-running hero character. This latest installment features a bad guy that is an internationally wanted terrorist. He has a bald head and a scarred face, and is played by an intense British actor. The film also features a seeming love interest for the hero played by a beautiful, acclaimed French actress. Her character is a wealthy heiress interested in business deals, but in actuality she's a villain, too, and is in league with the terrorist, with whom she has a shared past. Would you think I was describing The World Is Not Enough? The description fits, but in fact, that's the set-up of 2012's The Dark Knight Rises. Much was made online of the similarities, even to the point of accusing the Batman film's writers of plagiarism.

 

Also, since I mentioned it in the previous post, I have to show the theme song by Garbage, one of my favorites of the Bond themes.

 

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Thanks Larry for sharing the song. Yes, it's quite good. 

I watched DIE ANOTHER DAY last night and am in the process of transferring my notes into a full review.

DIE ANOTHER DAY is a lot more experimental than the other Bond films. But I enjoyed it.

I've already come to the conclusion that Judi Dench was the best thing to happen to this franchise.

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1 minute ago, TopBilled said:

I've already come to the conclusion that Judi Dench was the best thing to happen to this franchise.

Yeah, there was a reason they carried her over to the rebooted series with Daniel Craig.

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Essential: DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002)

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This is probably a film Bond fans either love or hate. Interestingly, Roger Moore did not like it– he thought it went too far into the realm of the unreal and made MOONRAKER seem more believable. But I feel that if you allow the filmmakers to just tell the story they had in mind and suspend disbelief in certain parts, it’s actually very imaginative and entertaining.

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Moore didn’t like the invisible car. And yes, it’s a stretch– representing the latest and greatest gadget created by Q (John Cleese, who was called R in the previous flick). The car’s a gimmick, but it allows us to delve into science fiction AND fantasy. Such technology seems amazing and undefeatable, but Bond still has to know how to use the invisible vehicle with skill. Especially if the camouflage mechanism fails to operate correctly.

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In addition to two Bond girls, there are two Bond villains (Rick Yune and Toby Stephens). This means two thrilling climaxes where our super agent battles and defeats each one in separate locations. Both of the bad guys are North Koreans, something some Korean moviegoers objected to– though one camouflages himself as a westerner thanks to a fantastic bit of plastic surgery and reprogramming where he doesn’t have to sleep.

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The action begins and ends in North Korea. As events come full circle, Bond is on a quest to find out who betrayed him and caused him to be a prisoner of war for eighteen months. The P.O.W. scenes are not glamorous at all, and Brosnan looks rather unkempt in those scenes. This segment of the film is like I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG meets THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, but it works.

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Bond’s relationship with M in this installment feels a bit more prickly and has a little more dimension to it. She says getting him out of North Korea cost the British government too much. Not exactly what you’d call gratitude after so many successful missions in the past. Yet when Bond goes AWOL, she realizes what he is up to and develops newfound respect for him.

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While he’s on the run, Bond beds several sexy women. We wouldn’t expect anything less, would we? One is the American agent Jinx (Halle Berry), and another is a British double agent (Rosamund Pike). Berry seems harder than other Bond girls– but her no-nonsense attitude is refreshing. She kicks butt and gets the job done. In that sense, she’s perfectly matched with our hero. Bond also kicks butt. Except for those months as a P.O.W., there was never a time when he didn’t.

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DIE ANOTHER DAY is directed by Lee Tamahori.

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Die Another Day was very divisive. I personally consider it decent (7/10), but a friend of mine who was always a Bond fan, and with whom I watched many of the films over the years, absolutely despised this outing, for many of the reasons you outline: the science fiction nature of many of the gadgets and plot developments, and the scenes of Bond as a P.O.W. Despite being a huge box office success (#6 in the top ten of the year), this was still considered a disappointment, and marked Brosnan's end in the franchise, with 4 years passing before the series was "rebooted", starting over from scratch (sort of: Judi Dench continued on as M) with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.

Halle Berry's appearance overshadowed Brosnan in the advertising for this outing, as she was coming off of her Oscar win for Monster's Ball as was routinely cited as being one of the most beautiful women in film. There was even talk of a spin-off series focusing on her character, but alas it never happened. 

Unlike most Bond themes, Madonna's participation was established fairly early on, with her even making a cameo in the film as a fencing instructor. The dancefloor-friendly electronic theme was a modest hit, and earned a Golden Globe nomination for best movie song. Ironically, it also earned a Golden Raspberry Award nomination for worst movie song!

TopBilled, I've enjoyed this latest batch of Bond reviews. Perhaps sometime in the future you can watch and review the others that you have not featured.

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Thanks Larry. I kind of felt the POW scenes were meant to give us "Pierce Brosnan acting" which is smart because if he knew it was going to be his last Bond film, he'd have to start making the transition to more character roles. It also felt like a tip of the hat to Sean Connery's prison scenes in THE ROCK.

Re: Berry...in a way this seemed as if she and Brosnan were co-leads (though he's billed before the title), and almost that he was playing her Bond boy. LOL

I might go on later to cover the Daniel Craig entries. I was kind of hoping that if I delayed doing those, the last one could coincide with Craig's very next Bond film in theaters. I plan to do a Sean Connery month next spring, and one of the month's titles will be an early Bond flick.

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This month I'm covering four Deanna Durbin films.

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I re-watched IT'S A DATE (the review I'm posting tomorrow) plus another one. And I must say, she's so charming. TCM should lease a bunch of Universal films to make her Star of the Month. She did 21 features for the studio and almost all of them were hugely popular with audiences.

She's wholesome like Shirley Temple with the musical ability to match Judy Garland. And as she got older, she blossomed into an even lovelier leading lady. She really had it all. One thing I like about her is there's a sassiness in her line deliveries that I think people overlook. She was in control of her scenes; she wasn't a moppet or a naive ingenue.

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I recall when I first got serious about watching classic films, and not just the occasional one here or there, I started watching AMC, which had recently been added to our cable lineup. This was before TCM, which we didn't get locally until around 1999 or 2000. Anyway, I started recording a lot of movies off of AMC, and they had Stars of the Month like TCM does, and that month it was Deanna Durbin. I had honestly never heard of her, and even having worked in video stores for a long time, I had never run across one of her movies. I recorded and watched Three Smart Girls as it was nominated for Best Picture. Much later I finally caught up with One Hundred Men and a Girl, which was also a Best Picture nominee. 

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Those are two that I have seen more than once, having them both on DVD. They are her most fondly remembered titles.

She reminds me a lot of Kathryn Grayson, but with more emotion and comic skill. Kathryn had a great voice that matched Deanna flawlessly and many of their musical selections were the same. Yet once Kathryn stopped singing, there was a certain stiffness in her performances. Not that she didn't do well. While poor Gene Kelly works awfully hard with her in Anchors Aweigh, Howard Keel did pretty well pushing her as a co-star in Show Boat and Kiss Me Kate. Basically her career was a post-war continuation of Deanna's, whose retirement was rather abrupt.

Deanna, of course, competed with Judy Garland in that delightful "test" short Every Sunday in 1936 and you get the impression (watching it repeatedly) that MGM really wanted Deanna (and had initially signed both until something went wrong with Deanna's contract). Today Judy is more famous as a household name than Deanna, but Deanna still made a fortune for Universal.

The only problem is that her films are more "of their era", while Judy appeared in more "timeless" material (including The Wizard of Oz). I personally feel that Judy was the greatest musical "method actress", not unlike Marlon Brando or Meryl Streep in straight acting. There was so much emotional expression in Judy that aped Deanna and everybody else. She literally exhausted herself to death.

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Essential: IT’S A DATE (1940)

For a month-long review of Deanna Durbin films, I'm starting with one of the more well-known productions. Like her other hits, IT'S A DATE was made by Universal and she's surrounded by a cast of veritable pros. When producer Joe Pasternak moved over to MGM, he remade the story with Jane Powell as NANCY GOES TO RIO. Both films are in the TCM library and receive frequent airplay on the channel.

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I think the earlier film is a little more special. It doesn't have Technicolor or Metro's glossy production values, so it must rely on the charm of the performances which it has in spades. Durbin plays a Broadway hopeful eager to duplicate the success of her mother (Kay Francis), a fading stage actress. As the story gets underway, she is offered an important role that was initially promised to her mother, now deemed too old. This of course causes complications between the two.

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A romantic problem also occurs. The owner of a pineapple plantation (Walter Pidgeon) becomes a prospective beau for them both, though he's more suited to the mother. Kay Francis had recently finished her long run at Warners; and Walter Pidgeon was borrowed from MGM-- and they give credible performances. The film also showcases the comedic genius of Eugene Pallette; Fritz Feld; and S.Z. Sakall before his days as "Cuddles" Sakall.

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Though the story begins in New York, it quickly moves to Hawaii where there are plenty of island rhythms and dance numbers. The remake switches the exotic setting to Brazil, and it attempts sensational musical sequences (with Carmen Miranda). But the original story keeps things simple, less grand, and as a result, we really do feel the struggles faced by the female characters. The mother is afraid her career is in decline; and the daughter fears her own talent and skill as a singer might throw too much of a shadow on her mother. It's sensitively portrayed.

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At this point Deanna Durbin had been churning out hit films for a few years. All of them had been big moneymakers for Universal. She was now beyond her apprentice period-- a guaranteed box office attraction. There's great competence in her musical scenes, and she plays her dramatic scenes with considerable skill. And while other young actresses might have let the stardom go to their heads, Deanna would always retain a down-to-earth quality that made her one of the most beloved sweethearts of her generation.

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IT'S A DATE is directed by William A. Seiter

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Back in 1977, Michael G Fitzgerald published Universal Pictures: A panoramic history in words, pictures, and filmographies, a book you would absolutely adore, TopBilled. It had all of the feature films profiled from 1930 through '76 and short films pre-1950, but curiously not after. My information for the shorties threads needed other sources besides him since Universal was still making short films well into the seventies. Remember there was no internet when Jimmy Carter was president so he was more limited in his information than me.

To get more on topic. Deanna gets plenty of attention since she is just as important as Abbott & Costello and Frankenstein. He argued in a great essay that Universal made better musicals than MGM despite lacking all of that production gloss, simply because Universal's were more often grounded in real life situations. Not that MGM's weren't sometimes too. The performers resembled people you recognized in your neighborhood (even if there were more Caucasians on screen than other races). Warner's '30s products could reflect the Depression a.k.a. 42nd Street, but they still ventured into make believe in their dance scenes (that Busby Berkeley!) while a Universal musical stage show was usually just a realistic stage show that you could see in real life.

I do like the Pasternak musicals of MGM for some of the same reasons. Yes, Arthur Freed had all of the prestige and big budgets, but the other kind often had more "story" than elaborate ballet. Additional plus: he molded Kathryn in Deanna's image rather well too. Too bad Deanna wasn't available to co star with Mario Lanza.

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7 hours ago, Jlewis said:

Back in 1977, Michael G Fitzgerald published Universal Pictures: A panoramic history in words, pictures, and filmographies, a book you would absolutely adore, TopBilled. It had all of the feature films profiled from 1930 through '76 and short films pre-1950, but curiously not after. My information for the shorties threads needed other sources besides him since Universal was still making short films well into the seventies. Remember there was no internet when Jimmy Carter was president so he was more limited in his information than me.

To get more on topic. Deanna gets plenty of attention since she is just as important as Abbott & Costello and Frankenstein. He argued in a great essay that Universal made better musicals than MGM despite lacking all of that production gloss, simply because Universal's were more often grounded in real life situations. Not that MGM's weren't sometimes too. The performers resembled people you recognized in your neighborhood (even if there were more Caucasians on screen than other races). Warner's '30s products could reflect the Depression a.k.a. 42nd Street, but they still ventured into make believe in their dance scenes (that Busby Berkeley!) while a Universal musical stage show was usually just a realistic stage show that you could see in real life.

I do like the Pasternak musicals of MGM for some of the same reasons. Yes, Arthur Freed had all of the prestige and big budgets, but the other kind often had more "story" than elaborate ballet. Additional plus: he molded Kathryn in Deanna's image rather well too. Too bad Deanna wasn't available to co star with Mario Lanza.

What a great post. I think the MGM musical I enjoy most is TWO SISTERS FROM BOSTON, directed by Henry Koster and produced by Joe Pasternak (Deanna's old team). I can very easily imagine her in Kathryn Grayson's role. 

One of the films I will review later in the month is Universal's SOMETHING IN THE WIND which combines the musical talents of Deanna and Donald O'Connor. Many of O'Connor's musicals at Universal had that realistic stage show feel you describe. 

Thanks for mentioning the Fitzgerald book. It sounds like a fantastic resource.

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Essential: IT STARTED WITH EVE (1941)

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When Universal decided to tinker with its winning formula, Deanna Durbin's films lost a lot of their earlier charm. But it didn't start with EVE. That's because EVE starts off and ends quite well, thanks to smart musical selections and delightful romantic comedy. The team of producer Joe Pasternak and director Henry Koster who guided Deanna's earlier successes, were responsible for this confection. It was the last picture they did with her before Pasternak moved over to MGM.

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Critics consider this one of Deanna's best motion pictures. Again she's surrounded by an exceptional supporting cast. Robert Cummings is the love interest. He plays the son of a dying millionaire (Charles Laughton) who wants to please dear old dad before it's too late, and introduce him to the girl he's chosen to marry. Laughton is a rascally old coot who thinks a stranger from a train station (yes, you guessed it) is his son's fiance. It wouldn't be a problem, but Laughton's health dramatically improves and of course he's so taken with this girl that the real fiancee and her mother get shoved into the background. Deanna tries to run away from an impossible situation, until she realizes there's a lot in it for her-- so she decides to stay and fight for what should be hers. It becomes a farce of epic proportions, and they all have a blast with the material.

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One critic thought Laughton was very inventive as the elderly character who gets a miraculous second chance at life. And I would agree. Not only is Laughton inventing new ways to be funny in this film, he is doing it with remarkable restraint, which is certainly an accomplishment if you've seen his other exaggerated performances. Laughton and our young leading lady work so well together that Universal paired them in another story five years later-- BECAUSE OF HIM. It's clear they enjoy working with each other.

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What makes the film great, in addition to the concept and performances, is there's a deeper meaning. We get the sense that father and son did not know how to live life to the fullest until this outside person came into their home. It might have seemed random in the beginning, but it probably was fate. They make a complete unit, and the word "in-law" takes on a very positive connotation. If she hadn't shown up when she did, there would have been no merriment or joy for them. And there would have been no movie for us. To have no movie like this would just be so wrong on so many levels.

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IT STARTED WITH EVE is directed by Henry Koster.

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15 minutes ago, Jlewis said:

Saw this one a looooong time ago. The plot is eerily familiar and I can't remember exactly what it was remade as.

It was remade in the 60s with Sandra Dee as I'D RATHER BE RICH.

TCM aired IT STARTED WITH EVE as part of an In Memoriam tribute the year Deanna passed away. It was the first time I'd seen it, and it truly gets better with each subsequent viewing.

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Tomorrow I'm reviewing Deanna Durbin's only Technicolor film. To my knowledge it has only aired once on TCM (a few years ago) and should definitely be scheduled again.

Recently it showed up on the Encore Westerns channel since it is technically a western musical.

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Essential: CAN'T HELP SINGING (1944)

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Deanna Durbin passed away in the spring of 2013, and in late December, TCM aired this film as part of its In Memoriam tribute. It made a memorable impression on me, and I still remember some of Robert Osborne's wraparound commentary. He mentioned how it was her only Technicolor film, and it had the largest budget of any motion picture Universal had made up to that time. In other words, it was big and important in every way imaginable. But I think the smaller, more whimsical elements of the story are what make it so much fun to watch.

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The comedy is very well played-- I would even go so far as to say the light humorous moments are as painstakingly choreographed as the musical numbers. There's a smooth and airy feel to the proceedings that carries the story along from one grand show-stopping number to the next. Another thing that works in the production's favor is that Deanna is obviously quite happy while making this film. From her very first moment on screen singing the title song in a carriage, she is full of joy. In previous films, her leading men tend to be comedians, but this time around she's paired with Robert Paige who did plenty of musicals at Universal.

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Comic relief duties are handed over to Akim Tamiroff and Leonid Kinskey. They are a pair of lovable crooks who tag along as our heroine joins a wagon train out west. In Mr. Osborne's 2013 commentary, he said these roles were originally planned for Abbott and Costello, the studio's other big moneymakers. But there was a disagreement about billing; and the duo did not want to be regarded as playing supporting roles. I'd say the three roles are fairly even in terms of screen time but of course Deanna gets to play the love story and sing, so it really does become her movie. Nonetheless Tamiroff and Kinskey are able replacements for Abbott and Costello. In fact Tamiroff's performance probably couldn't have been topped.

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The film was shot largely in Utah. Notes in the TCM database indicate the producers chose Utah because of the lush green scenery, the cloud formations and the lack of modern technology in remote outdoor settings. Capturing the glorious landscapes are countless panoramic shots of the wagon train, and some excellent tracking shots.

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There's a sequence where Deanna wanders off and performs a song in a forested area. It reminded me of the opening number in 'The Sound of Music' and is probably the highlight of the film. With Deanna singing and relating to her natural surroundings, it's so sublime that you can't help loving it.

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CAN'T HELP SINGING is directed by Frank Ryan.

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