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MotherofZeus

Perfect Foils in Classic Musicals: Oscar Levant

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So, I know An American in Paris, is NOT recommended viewing for the "Mad About Musicals" course, but who can do a musical course without watching it?  Consequently, I'm thinking a great deal of how wonderfully Oscar Levant plays in this film. His cynicism and resignation to the status of obscure starving artist is played to perfection and contrasts so well with Gene Kelly's bright-eyed and busy-tailed lead. I think despite the age disparity between leading man and leading lady, the romance works in part because Levant's character helps to make Kelly's veteran of WWII still the cockeyed optimist musicals need at that time. 

What other foil or second banana in musicals makes the lead that much stronger? Or feel free to just bask with me with me in how Oscar Levant  reflects on one of Hollywood musicals' underrated joys of classic cinema.

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Glad you mentioned Oscar Levant.  He's an amazing talent as a pianist and I always enjoy seeing him in movies, even though he generally plays second fiddle to the star.  If you get a chance to see The Barkleys of Broadway (Fred and Ginger, 1949), just watch his fingers on the keyboard as he plays Tchaikovsky's 1'st Concerto, or Khatchturin's Sabre Dance, and you'll be blown away.   

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Couldn't agree more about his performance in Barkleys. I know he had his inner demons, but he is delightful on screen and tv.  I find him exceptionally talented, urbane, self-facing, and fascinating. His stories with harpo and John Barrymore are real gems.

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And as a friend of George Gershwin, he was a personal link to the film's composer.  He plays a hypochondriac again in The Band Wagon.

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Oscar Levant took the concept of foil or second banana to an entirely new level! He truly was a genius!

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On 6/13/2018 at 9:04 AM, MotherofZeus said:

 

What other foil or second banana in musicals makes the lead that much stronger? Or feel free to just bask with me with me in how Oscar Levant  reflects on one of Hollywood musicals' underrated joys of classic cinema.

        I have to agree that Oscar makes a great second fiddle (or banana). He is an amazing talent in his own right, but his piano talent doesn't compete directly with the singing and/or dancing of the lead. And he adds greatly to the humor in the film. Donald O'Conner and Danny Kaye filled these kinds of roles many times, but did so in ways that tended to compete with the lead - think of O'Conner dancing with Kelly in the Moses Supposes clip from "Singin' in the Rain" (1952).

        Another good pair of foils were Victor Moore and Helen Broderick playing second fiddle to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in "Swing Time" (1936). They were the humorous counter-point to the standard romance of Fred and Ginger in the movie. They provided comic relief to the story without interfering in the courtship ritual, and they do so without competing artistically with the leads. After Fred and Ginger do the classic "Pick Yourself Up" routine, Victor and Helen perform a hilarious and clumsy lampoon of it. This was a very different pairing than the one that played opposite Fred and Ginger in "Follow the Fleet" (1936). The pairing of Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard  in this film serves as a romantic sub-plot that competes with the romance of Fred and Ginger; they are co-stars, not second fiddles. This was a repeat of the formula that was used in the earlier Astaire & Rogers movie, "Roberta" (1935), where Randolph Scott and Irene Dunne co-starred with Fred and Ginger. The secondary love interests in these movies distracted from the primary one between Fred and Ginger and resulted in them being considered among the weaker entries in the series of films they did.

      

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Three other perpetual 'supporters' or second bananas that come to mind are the irrepressible Edward Everett Horton, Reginald Gardiner and C.Z."Cuddles" Zakall.

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I think I'm having a mild case of "Mad About Musicals" withdrawals, so I decided to revisit the message board.  I know it's weeks later but I thought I'd add "Gladdaseeya" Phil Silvers to the list since he actually was a "top banana", having won a Tony Award for the musical Top Banana and later recreated the role in a film version.  He was Gene Kelly's buddy in Cover Girl and Summer Stock and added his own personal touch of humor (I enjoyed all but the yodeling hillbilly number "Heavenly Music" in SS)

As to Oscar Levant, I am a big Gershwin fan and was aware Oscar was a friend of George so I read a book by Oscar entitled, "Memoirs of an Amnesiac" A collection of anecdotal vignettes, Levant offers the reader a roller-coaster ride through the ups and downs of an often troubled, often brilliant artist and critic of the human condition, let loose on the uneasy ground where art and commerce overlap (Barnes and Noble). 

THE MEMOIRS OF AN AMNESIAC: Levant, Oscar

This was decades ago but I recall this was the cover and that it was a very entertaining read.  I looked it up on Amazon and this is a more recent paperback publication.

 4112QNPZDXL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg


I also noted he wrote a couple more books: "A Smattering of Ignorance" and "The Unimportance of Being Oscar", I think I'll have to check these out.

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