When Artistic Boldness Is Unethical: The “Merrily We Roll Along” Movie

In an epic and unprecedented project, auteur director Richard Linklater will direct a film adaptation of “Merrily We Roll Along,” the cult 1981 Sondheim musical fashioned from the 1934  George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart Broadway play.

The production, which will begin next year,  will take 20 years to shoot, so the actors can age with their characters. You see, the story in “Merrily We Roll Along” is told backwards, with the audience meeting the characters as jaded middle-aged adults, and then watching how they got where they are, until they are seen as idealistic young students preparing to go out into the world. Linklater is probably correct that this is the only way to film such a plot credibly, and he is a bold and courageous artist to commit to an artistic endeavor requiring such a long time commitment, extreme expense, and uncertainty.

He’s also deluded and irresponsible. The project will cost many millions of dollars, and tie up not only his talents but many others to varying degrees over 20 years. The film is quite likely never to be completed, and if it is, likely not to be any good. Even if it is good, it will have no market, and is guaranteed to lose money. Continue reading

“Singin’ In The Rain” Ethics: The Strange Saga of “Make Em’ Laugh”

Last month Turner Movie Classics arranged for MGM’s classic musical “Singin’ in the Rain” to be shown on big screens in selected theaters around the country.  At the theater where I saw the film again with my wife and some friends, the place was packed with a multi-generational crowd including many children seeing Gene Kelly-Donald O’Connor-Debbie Reynolds (and Jean Hagan…mustn’t leave out “Lina Lamont”!) romp for the first time. Of course, they loved it; I’m worried about anyone who can see the film and not love it.

The timing of TCM’s limited revival was felicitous in two ways. One was that  it occurred just after the death of Debbie Reynolds, and provided a lovely way to salute her memory. Another was that “La La Land” was surging in buzz and box office around the country, culminating in last week’s 14 Oscar nominations. There are several visual references to “Singin’ in the Rain” in the film; ironically, enjoying “LaLa Land” may rely on unfamiliarity with its 65-year-old predecessor, because calling what the stars in “La La Land” do “dancing” seems unduly generous compared to the performances of Gene, Donald and Debbie.

Seeing the film reminded me, however, of the strange ethics breach behind one of the movie’s most famous numbers. Donald O’Connor’s solo “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the high point of the movie for me, and I am not alone. It finished at #49 in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema, but that doesn’t do it justice: this is not just a great musical number, it is one of the greatest four minutes of physical comedy ever put on screen, featuring dozens of jumps, pratfalls, and as its grand finale, O’Connor running up two walls and flipping backwards to the ground. (He checked into a hospital for several days as soon as filming  the routine was over). The problem is that “Make ‘Em Laugh” was plagiarized, and everyone knew it. Continue reading