Wednesday, July 25, 2007

dvd review: classic musicals, vol. 2

I was a theater kid for many years. And as such, I was in several musicals, none of which were my favorites. I never got a chance to play in any of my favorite musicals growing up, but instead often had roles in dramas and comedies. But musicals were the thing to me, the type of play I wanted to really be in. The funny thing was that I only had a passable voice (which would have worked in some shows) and about zero dancing ability. So trust me when I tell you that my move from the stage to other things is no great loss to anyone. And as any other former "theater kid" will tell you, that longing to be on stage never really leaves you, and that never feels stronger than when you see musicals.

Last year, Warner Home Video released a box set of MGM musicals entitled, Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory. The films included in the set are true classics and belong on the shelf of any musical or classic film fan. In truth, there have been many musicals released on DVD in the last 10 years; the quality of the DVD and /or musical often depending on the film and company. There should be a great many classic musicals in your film collection, and while it may seem a lot, there are still many unreleased or released only on a poor quality print that could use a makeover. This week, WHV releases volume II of their Classic Musicals line and included are a set of films that are either making their debut on DVD or are finally receiving a quality release. Should you go out and purchase the set for your collection? Is it worth your hard earned dollars? Is the set a Shelf Classic? Find out in the Shelf's review of Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory, Volume II.

The Hard Facts:
Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory, Vol. II
Seven Discs in five slimline cases
Studio: Warner Home Video
Color (Technicolor)
Original Studio: MGM
Release Date: June 24, 2007
Rated: NR for All Films
Stars: Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Gene Kelley, Mario Lanza, Kathryn Grayson, June Powell, Vera-Ellen.

MGM studios has often been called "the dream factory", and with good reason. Studio Chief, Louis B. Meyer invested in stars and people who could create dreams on celluloid. Ray Bolger sums it up when he states in the documentary, That's Dancing, "MGM had assembled more creative musical artist at its studio than any where else at any other time. The top musical directors, producers, writers, composers, choreographers, conductors, arrangers, designers...the list was endless. You could dive into that pool of talent and never hit bottom." The best. MGM certainly was the studio to look to for great musicals in their golden age in the 40s and 50s. With an array of acting, directing, and musical and dancing talent and an astonishingly strong producing arm, MGM poured out the musicals into the theaters as if they were made of liquid gold. While things were tough and often hard wrought behind the scenes, audiences saw an effortless dream world on the screen. Careers were made and revived, stars were discovered and reborn through MGM musicals. Perhaps the greatest asset that MGM had during that time was the willingness to innovate and invest, but also the ability to strategically cut corners when necessary.

But even with all of this, MGM was a studio, and a large part of the studio system. It can be debated as to whether or not the demise of the studio system was ultimately for the best; many believe it was. But the golden age of the musicals was on the wane and ultimately ended when the studio system ended. Some stars have complained about the controlling manner of Louis B. Meyer, while others left MGM when Meyer left; especially when they discovered that Dore Schary was not the type of guiding figure to which they had become accustomed. Some things are gained, but some things were also lost. Fortunately we have preserved on film, many great performances. As we saw with last weeks review of the Esther Williams set, MGM did a variety of musical films: the aqua musical, the operetta, the "let's put on a show" variety, the biopic, the Broadway show, and so on. So, even with all the musicals out on DVD, there are still more to discover and rediscover.

The Films:
The seven films included in this set are Royal Wedding, The Belle of New York, The Pirate, Words and Music, That Midnight Kiss, The Toast of New Orleans, and the 1985 documentary, That's Dancing! We'll look at some in brief and discuss others at length and list the extras included on each disc. The films are on separate discs in slimline cases, and both Mario Lanza films and Fred Astaire Films are in two sided "Double Feature" slimline cases.

Royal Wedding
Stars: Fred Astaire, Jane Powell, Peter Lawford, Keenan Wynn and Sarah Churchill.
Director: Stanley Donen

Made in 1951, Royal Wedding takes many of it's plot points from Fred Astaire's real life, in which he had a successful act with his sister who also married a member of British royalty. Brother and sister dance team, Tom and Ellen Bowen (Fred Astaire and Jane Powell) have taken New York by storm , and have been asked to bring their hit show to London. Their agent, Irving Klinger, has everything set and his brother Edgar (Kennan Wynn in a dual role) looks after Tom and Ellen while in London. Tom is a confirmed bachelor, a result of having been jilted by a fiance. Ellen has no problem finding boyfriends, but all of them (and several at a time) are of the "not so serious" variety. On the way to London, Ellen meets a someone of a similar temperament, John Brindale (Peter Lawford). Ellen is soon falling in love, but somethings are fairly complicated- John is an English Lord, and Ellen is also concerned about what would happen to her brother and the act. Once in London, Tom and Ellen begin working on the show in earnest, while John and Ellen are earnestly pursuing their romance. While it seems Tom is left holding the bag, he meets a girl auditioning for their show, Anne Ashmond (Sarah Churchill). It isn't long before all four are falling in love and singing and dancing their way through the show and through romance, all set against the background of the Royal Wedding of the soon to be Queen of England.

This is a great Fred Astaire musical, and I'm not afraid to say, one of my favorites (it's one of Wolf's favorites also). The film includes some of Fred's most iconic work: the spinning room solo dance number, the hat rack dance number and the vaudeville number. Jane Powell is stunning and at her perky best. Her voice is fantastic and the film really gives her a chance to show her many talents. Perhaps one of my favorite numbers is the vaudeville number, "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You, When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life?" (The longest song title on record as of filming). And this is as close as you'll get to a special edition, folks. It's not just eye-poppingly beautiful, but it includes outtakes, radio interviews and background documentaries. I wouldn't be surprised if Warner's repackages this as a solo special edition disc somewhere down the line. This is the centerpiece of the set as far as I'm concerned, and many have looked forward to a great edition of this classic musical. For years Royal Wedding has languished in public domain hell, showing up on cheap discs with terrible prints. The difference is outstanding. The new print is nothing short of beautiful. Some have initially thought of this as a lightweight, but over the years it has come in for a re-assessment. I think it's a great film which features Fred and Jane at their best. Jane Powell could smile the apples right off the tree. As of this writing, I've watched this disc at least three time and am watching for the fourth while I'm typing. It's just great.

Extras: The extras are also great. It includes the episode of TCM's Private Screenings with Stanley Donen (which we reviewed here). Also included is a "making of" documentary, theatrical trailer, song outtake, radio interview with Jane Powell and Fred Astaire, and a classic MGM cartoons, Car of Tomorrow and Droopy's Double Trouble.

The Belle of New York:
Stars: Fred Astaire, Vera-Ellen, Marjorie Main and Keenan Wynn
Director: Charles Walters

Made the year following Royal Wedding, The Belle of New York is a more simple romantic musical of a rich bon vivant, Charlie Hill (Astaire again), who always seems to fall in love just as fast as he bores of it. His aunt, Mrs. Phineas Hill(Main), holds Charlie's purse strings and wants him to reform. Mrs. Hill also works with a local reform group the Daughters of Right (similar to the Salvation Army). In this group is also a young serious minded woman, Angela Bonfils, who also happens to be very beautiful and much admired. When Charlie happens to meet Angela, he is smitten and literally dances on air. Will Charlie be able to reform and convince Angela to marry him?

This was a very enjoyable musical, but is a bit more lightweight when compared to Astaire's previous work. It all seems a bit formulaic, but is fun nonetheless. There are some memorable numbers, but Vera-Ellen's considerable talents are vastly underused. She should have had some more dancing numbers at least. Fred plays a character that is a bit of a unsavory wolf in the beginning, which is something audiences weren't used to seeing in 1952 (or today).

Extras: Includes Musiquiz, a 1952 MGM Pete Smith short, the 1952 MGM Tex Avery cartoon:Magical Maestro, the unused alternate take of I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man, and the theatrical trailer

The Pirate
Stars: Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Gladys Cooper and Walter Slezak
Director: Vincente Minnelli

In the 18th century Caribbean, Manuela (Garland)is a young orphaned women about to be betrothed to the local mayor, Don Pedro Vargas (Slezak) by her aunt (Cooper). Even though Manuela is promised to another, she dreams of being swept off her feet by the legendary pirate Macoco. Mauela, full of romantic dreams, longs to see the sea, and she and her aunt travel to the port city to see her gown off the boat. While there she runs into travelling performer, Serafin. He falls for her, and once he discovers her secret passion for the pirate, Serafin pretends to be Serafin. This sets into motion a series of events that will provide comic problems, the revelation of true identities and ultimately, romance.

This is a musical that is both controversial and historic. The Cole Porter score is excellent, but it gives us the first appearance of the standard, Be A Clown. This is also the film that gave producers and others their first glimpse at Judy's true problems and meltdowns. She was often late for rehearsal and sometimes had to piece filmed sequences together in order to get a complete performance. Audiences didn't appreciate the film at first, and even though it did fairly well, Minnelli's budget still ended up being over. However, it's reputation has grown over the years and it has gained a larger audience. Included is an excellent making of documentary that really gets into the nooks and crannies of The Pirate.

Extras: Include Commentary by historian John Fricke, a new making-of featurette, a Pete Smith comedy short: You Can't Win, classic Tom and Jerry cartoon: Cat Fishing, "Mack the Black" stereo remix version, song outtakes, Roger Edens guide track versions, promotional radio interviews with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland and the theatrical trailer.

Words and Music:
Stars: Mickey Rooney, Tom Drake, and a bevy of MGM stars
Director: Norman Taurog

This 1948 musical biopic is the highly fictionalized account of the teaming of of real life songwriting duo Lorenz Hart (Rooney) and Richard Rogers (Drake). It is a loose telling of their story, structured around performances of their songs by a constellation of MGM stars.

The film is good viewing for the musical numbers, but not necessarily for the story. One of the more notable numbers is Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland reprising some of the Rogers and Hart numbers from their films. It's notable for the fact that it is the last big screen performance of Rooney and Garland. A lot of great numbers, but considering Rogers and Harts considerable contribution to America's songbook, a better film is deserved. In the interesting documentary about the reality behind their story, the commentator notes that Hollywood could not have really told the truth about Lorenz Hart's troubles and death at a young age. So the documentary and others about the duo are the next best thing to really understand the tragic story of a very gifted man.

Extras: Commentary by historian Richard Barrios focusing on Rodgers and Hart, a new featurette: A Life in Words and Music, the Theatre of Life 1948: Going to Blazes!, classic Tex Avery cartoon: The Cat That Hated People, Outtakes of the numbers: Lover, You're Nearer, Falling in Love with Love, I Feel at Home with You, Manhattan, My Funny Valentine, My Heart Stood Still, On Your Toes and Way Out West on West End Avenue, and the theatrical trailer.

That Midnight Kiss/ The Toast of New Orleans
Stars: Katherine Grayson and Mario Lanza
Director: Norman Taurog (both films)

That Midnight Kiss and The Toast of New Orleans both are about a young undiscovered, yet very talented singer played by Mario Lanza. He is partnered with a more experienced singer played by Kathryn Grayson. The professional and personal relationship between the two grows, but not with out ups and downs.

That Midnight Kiss was singing sensation Mario Lanza's debut film, with The Toast of New Orleans coming right after. I never knew much about Mario Lanza, so both of these films were a bit of a hidden gem. Lanza fans have probably committed both films to memory, and with good reason: Mario has a fantastic voice and his singing performances are hypnotizing. While the stories were on the formula side and the acting somewhat stiff at times, the music was incredible. I preferred The Toast of New Orleans to the former, because Lanza seems to be more at ease and because of J. Carroll Nash's hilarious performance as Mario's uncle. Don't miss the new documentary on Mario Lanza's short tragic life and career. It was an excellent portrait of a talented man and a sad life.

Extras: The extras on That Midnight Kiss: Pete Smith Short: Sports Oddities, classic cartoon: Senor Droopy, theatrical trailer and outtake of One Love of Mine. The Toast of New Orleans extras: Fitzpatrick Traveltalk Shorts, Modern New Orleans and Old New Orleans, theatrical trailer and the new documentary profile of Lanza: Mario Lanza- Singing to the Gods.

That's Dancing!
Stars: Gene Kelly, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ray Bolger and a host of stars.
Director: Jack Haley, Jr.

This is the 1985 feature length documentary that was made in the vein of the highly successful, That's Entertainment, but focusing primarily on dancing.

It's an interesting look at dancing on film, and the particular sequence with Ray Bolger was particularly enjoyable. Re-watchablity is fairly low on this film. It feels dated and, as the producers themselves admit, it overlooks quite a few dancers, movies and stars.

Extras: Theatrical trailer, introduction by Gene Kelly and Jack Haley Jr. and a series of making of featurettes.

The Video is fantastic and the audio is superb. When comparing the old prints of Royal Wedding to the new print, the difference is plain to see: sharper image, cleaner and clearer picture and vivid colors. Just see for yourself in the two images below, the first from the public domain print and the second from the new.

If you'll look at just the color of the costumes, you can see the difference. It's even more apparent onscreen. The video and audio used for the prints are striking in vivd color and detail. Especially in Royal Wedding, during the "I Left my Hat in Haiti" number, which has lots of rich and vibrant colors.

The Bottom Line:
There are some great musicals in the set making it a no-brainer for musical fans. Classic film fans will also find much to be pleased with in the set, especially with a great amount of behind the scenes and making of documentaries. You may think that studios are starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel, but there are many film musicals to yet get their due on DVD. And there are still more great or just plain entertaining musicals I'd love to see: I Dood It (Red Skelton), Two Girls and A Sailor, Million Dollar Mermaid (Esther Williams) Yolanda and the Thief (Fred Astaire), Grounds for Marriage and It Happened in Brooklyn (Kathryn Grayson) and the list goes on. I'm sure many of you have your own lists.

Royal Wedding is an absolute must in this set and most of the other films are very entertaining and rewatchable (except for That's Dancing and perhaps Words and Music unless you skip to the music). And the musical numbers are first rate. And I can't say enough about the vibrant prints and crisp audio tracks. Musical fans should consider this set a priority when making their DVD purchases.

Review Rating:
Individually grading the films, they would earn the following:
Royal Wedding: A+
The Belle of New York: B
The Pirate : B
The Toast of New Orleans: B+
That Midnight Kiss: B
Words and Music: C
That's Dancing: C
Overall rating: 4 stars (Groucho Glasses)

Royal Wedding is most definately a SHELF CLASSIC. The rest of the films are great, and a few, like The Toast of New Orleans and The Pirate, are must haves. That combined with some great extras, especially the documentaries and the biographical film on Mario Lanza make for a strong set in this line. One hopes that Volume III will be forthcoming next year with even more great musicals that haven't yet been released on DVD. Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory, Vol. II is a Must Have set.

Thursday Update!
If you love these films then you'll want to visit our friend Sallie at The Vintage Place who has posted about music from The Pirate and Royal Wedding in conjuction with this review! And tell her Loophole sent ya'!

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

Didn't your mother never teach you no manners?
I never had no mother. We was too poor.!


Laura said...

Wonderful writeup, J.C. -- thanks so much for the preview!

I linked to it and added some of my thoughts here.

Happy days for movie fans!

Best wishes,

J.C. Loophole said...

Thanks Laura- we always appreciate your comments and input!

Anyway you cut it, musical fans (and film noir fans- but that's next week :) are in the chips!

Anonymous said...

Alright- the royal wedding frames did it. I was wavering, but now I'm on my way to Best Buy to pick up the set. I saw several of these films many years ago and am looking forward to watching them again. Too bad they don't include soundtracks or a Mario Lanza CD with the set.

Anonymous said...

I agree - Jane Powell is a beautiful lady. Did she record a commentary track for Royal Wedding? You didn't mention it if she did.

J.C. Loophole said...

No, Ms. Powell did not record a commentary (there is no commentary on RW) but she is in the making of documentary.
It would be interesting to see if she records one for any of her other films if they hit DVD. Who knows? They should do so, if she is inclined, because she is still fairly active in the business.

ed- It would be neat about the soundtrack.Keep your eyes peeled here or at The Vintage Place. Sallie might have a surprise for us.


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