In appreciation for giving birth to this comprehensive review, Judge Bryan Pope has been awarded one year of free lessons at his local Astaire Dance Studio. Polish up those tap shoes, big boy!
Dance and art deco. Laughs and sophistication. Astaire and Rogers.
Film lovers who picked up Astaire and Rogers' first five films (Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, Swing Time, Shall We Dance and The Barkleys of Broadway) will not want to miss this gorgeously packaged set, which wraps the dancing duo up in high style.
Facts of the Case
Flying Down to Rio
An orchestra loses its gig at a ritzy hotel when its leader, Roger (Gene Raymond), is caught romancing Belinha De Rezende (Dolores del Rio), a spicy, Brazilian guest. So it's off to Rio de Janeiro, where the band tries to save a hotel in peril and Raymond tries to woo Belinha from her fiancé.
The Gay Divorcee
Ginger is the unfortunately named Mimi Glossop, a young woman unhappily married to a geologist. Accompanied by her dotty Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady), Mimi hires a lawyer (Edward Everett Horton) to help her obtain a divorce. Complicating matters is American dancing sensation Guy Holden (Astaire), who falls madly in love with still-married Mimi.
After bandleader Huckleberry Haines (Astaire) and his Wabash Indianians lose a gig in Paris, Haines' buddy John Kent (Randolph Scott) Kent hookes them up with his aunt, who runs a fashion house. One of Minnie's clients, nightclub singer Comptesse Schwarenka (Rogers), promises to get Haines a job if he won't reveals that she's a simple Indiana girl.
Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy) hopes his psychiatrist friend Tony Flagg (Astaire) can cure Arden's fiancée, Amanda Cooper (Rogers), of her fear of marriage. Complications arise when Tony falls in love with Amanda.
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
Astaire and Rogers portray real-life dancers Vernon Castle and Irene Foote, the "King and Queen of the Ballroom" who created the Castle Walk, Maxie, Texas Tommy and other dancing sensations.
Flying Down to Rio may offer the first pairing of Fred and Ginger, but that doesn't excuse the drab story, flat comedy bits, and complete lack of chemistry between del Rio and Raymond, the film's intended romantic leads. The screenplay occasionally raises the viewer's eyebrow with a naughty, pre-code zinger ("What have those girls got below the equator that we haven't got?" asks one American starlet about a bevy of Latin beauties), but it wastes far too much time on silly, unfunny plot contrivances like Roger and Belinha being stranded on an island while en route to Rio.
Fortunately, Astaire and Rogers are having a fine old time in their supporting roles, going forehead to forehead to steal the film's big number—"The Carioca"—from the rest of the ensemble and turning out a couple of great songs by Gus Kahn, Edward Eliscu and Vincent Youmans. Performing "Music Makes Me" as chanteuse Honey Hale, Rogers suggests things that would make most decent folk blush. (Apparently, music makes her do the things she never should do. Do tell, Honey.) Rio also helped Astaire and Rogers establish the personas they would use in most of their later films together: he as the proper dandy, she as the sassy spitfire.
Produced by that grand master of excess, Merian C. Cooper, Rio also features one of cinema's most whimsical flights of fancy. Never minding how improbable it is or how transparent the special effects are, the site of several dozen chorus girls cheerfully dancing atop a fleet of biplanes while Astaire sings the title number still makes one smile.
By contrast, Fred and Ginger's next outing gets almost everything right. Based on the hit play The Gay Divorce (prudish sensors insisted on a slight name change for the film), this Oscar nominee for Best Picture established the template for all future Fred-and-Ginger films: gorgeous costumes, sprawling art deco sets, top-drawer supporting players and elaborate dance numbers.
The story couldn't be sillier, but Fred and Ginger share their usual easy rapport. The film's big musical number, "The Continental," fails to outdo Rio's "The Carioca," but the dancing duo are still just as delightful to watch.
Another one of the duo's films with a distinctly European flavor, Roberta isn't one of the most memorable in their oeuvre, but it's certainly not without its pleasures.
Irene Dunne sings, and Lucille Ball pops up in the lengthy fashion show finale (a favorite device of this era. And check out that dazzling Jerome Kern score, which includes "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," "I'll Be Hard to Handle" and "I Won't Dance" (danced so memorably by Astaire).
The screwball comedy Carefree may be one of the pair's most underrated offerings, but it features another delightful Irving Berlin score and gives the daffy Rogers a chance to really cut loose as the funny lady she is. (For another example, check out her work in "Follow the Fleet.")
For the record, Berlin's score includes "I Used to Be Color Blind," "The Yam," and "Change Partners."
The last of Astaire and Rogers' RKO films (their final film, 1949's The Barkleys of Broadway, was an MGM enterprise), The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle can't possibly measure up to its predecessors, but it's still fine entertainment.
The film lacks the silliness served up by previous films, but it also lacks the strong scores provided in the past by such legends as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and the Gershwins. And because this is a tribute to two other dance legends, it also lacks Astaire's and Rogers' signature dance style.
Still, there's much to enjoy, including Rogers' solo "The Yama Yama Man," and the film displays a surprising awareness of the political climate at the time.
Now, for the rest of the package…
This partial collection will undoubtedly please cineastes who purchased Astaire and Rogers' first five films. In addition to providing the duo's five remaining films and a bevy of quality extras, the set includes empty slipcases for the first five films and packages them all in a slick and sturdy cardboard box. Very handsome.
On the whole, the films look fantastic. There is some grain present here and there, but it's hard to complain with films of this age. Warner has restored the audio to remove most rough spots, and the results are very pleasant. Each film includes English, French and Spanish subtitles. The package especially shines with its extras, which include a large mix of live-action and animated shorts, but also a nifty documentary, music CD and printed materials.
Flying Down to Rio includes Ted Healey and the Stooges' comedy short "Beer and Pretzels," the hillbilly flavored cartoon "I Like Mountain Music," and an original theatrical trailer.
The Gay Divorcee features two vintage musical shorts, "Show Kids" and "Star Night at the Cocoanut Grove," and the rather creepy Friz Freleng/Leon Schlesinger cartoon "Shake Your Powder Puff." A radio promo and original theatrical trailer for The Gay Divorcee is also included.
Roberta presents another Technicolor short, "Starlit Days at the Lido," the cartoon "The Calico Dragon," and a radio promo and original theatrical trailer for Roberta.
Carefree includes the black-and-white short "Public Jitterbug #1," starring Hal Leroy and a very young Betty Hutton, and the cartoon "September in the Rain," which earns a disclaimer thanks to a bit of blackface work.
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle features the infamous cartoon "Puss Gets the Boot." Considered by many to be the first "Tom and Jerry" cartoon, the cartoon features a cat named Jasper who lives with a "Mammy" character, thus earning the package another disclaimer. The vintage musical short "Happily Buried" finishes off the package.
A separate disc contains a 77-minute documentary that chronicles the sensational careers of Astaire and Rogers. It establishes a historical context with a brief discussion of the Depression, then moves through the stars' films. The doc features interviews (ever-knowledgeable filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich is a highlight) and archive footage, and it's hard to imagine a more complete examination of this enchanting era of film.
A music CD features ten of the best-known songs from Astaire's and Rogers' films. Finally, two folders contain stills and reproductions of premiere press books.
Combined with the five discs from the first volume, this is an outstanding addition to any musical lover's collection, and the final word on Fred and Ginger.
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Scales of Justice, Flying Down To Rio
Perp Profile, Flying Down To Rio
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Flying Down To Rio
• "Beer and Pretzels" (vintage comedy short)
Scales of Justice, The Gay Divorcee
Perp Profile, The Gay Divorcee
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Gay Divorcee
• "Show Kids" (vintage musical short)
Scales of Justice, Roberta
Perp Profile, Roberta
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Roberta
• "Starlit Days at the Lido" (vintage musical short)
Scales of Justice, Carefree
Perp Profile, Carefree
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Carefree
• "Public Jitterbug No. 1" (vintage musical short)
Scales of Justice, The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle
Perp Profile, The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle
• "Happily Buried" (vintage musical short)
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