We've seen Judge Bryan Pope dance. It's closer to Elaine Benes than Don Lockwood.
You really love this, don't you?
What? Show business? There's nothing else in the world.
That's the magic of MGM's musicals. What other class of film is so transporting, so able to make you forget that there's anything else in the world while you're watching it? This hefty set from Warner Bros. presents two of MGM's crown jewels along with one underrated gem and two that are, to complete the metaphor, cut glass-sparkly but of little worth.
Facts of the Case
• Ziegfeld Follies
• Till the Clouds Roll By
• Three Little Words
• Summer Stock
• It's Always Fair Weather
According to film historian John Kendrick, Jerome Kern himself couldn't see how his life could possibly be interesting enough to support a feature film. Still, with musical biographies like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Rhapsody in Blue packing the theaters, it was only a matter of time before Kern got the big-screen treatment. But Kern could not have been more perceptive, as Till the Clouds Roll By is about as bloodless a biography as you're likely to find on celluloid.
Like so many of the more than 200 musicals Hollywood cranked out during the '30s and '40s, this largely fictional account of the famed American composer's life is best viewed as a collection of snappy, over-produced musical numbers performed by screen legends. Clouds features musical cameos by Kathryn Grayson, Tony Martin, Angela Lansbury (at home in a perfectly English cabaret number complete with swings), Dinah Shore, and Frank Sinatra (embarrassingly out of place belting "Ol' Man River" in the film's splashy Hollywood finale).
Spare yourself the film's feeble attempt at fabricated drama and Walker's drab take on Kern, and skip straight to Judy Garland's staircase number to end all staircase numbers, "Who." After that, check out Bremer and Van Johnson's fun "I Won't Dance" duet. When you're done, go back to the beginning and catch the 18-minute opening, a spectacular montage from Kern's masterpiece, Show Boat. Here you'll find the film's best moment: the divine Lena Horne's performance of "Can't Help Loving That Man." It's heavenly.
Who else but MGM would have the chutzpah to dump $3 million—a king's ransom at the time—and its stable of impressive talent into a two-hour Technicolor musical that has no time for pesky things like character and plot? The result is 1946's Ziegfeld Follies, a movie that is two-thirds entertainment gold and one-third pyrite.
The great Florenz Ziegfeld looks down from the heavens and imagines the show he would produce if he were still on earth. After a brief, stop-motion animated historical recap of the Follies, Ziegfeld, with no small amount of help from producer Arthur Freed and director Vincente Minnelli, rolls out one extravaganza after another. And another. And another.
Astaire kicks things off with "Here's to the Girls," only to be answered by a parade of lovely ladies in pink asking to "Bring on the Wonderful Men." The sequence is 100% Ziegfeld, and keep your eyes open for a young and gorgeous Lucille Ball cracking a whip. Next up is Esther Williams, performing a solo water ballet that obviously would have been impossible on the stage, but is a welcome inclusion in this screen incarnation. Following the snoozer "Libiano" (from the opera La Traviata), Astaire returns with Lucille Bremer for "This Heart of Mine," one of the film's few plot-driven musical sequences.
The next five numbers are pure dynamite, beginning with "Love." I'm not sure whether it's the number's sultry Virgin Islands backdrop or Lena Horne's smoldering delivery, but "Love" generates enough heat to melt your television. While "Love" simmers with sex, the next number aches with melancholy. The moody, Singapore-set "Limehouse Blues" features Astaire and Bremer in another plot-driven fantasy number that is rich in opulent Oriental design. In "An Interview," Judy Garland owns the screen as a dramatic actress conducting a musical press conference in her Hollywood home. One part comical soliloquy, two parts patter song and dance, Garland elevates the material with 1,000 watts of honest-to-goodness star power. In the Gershwin tune "The Babbitt and the Bromside," Astaire and fellow cinematic dance icon Gene Kelly riff on each other's personas. Once their playful dance duet escalates into a game of good-natured one-upmanship, the real fun begins (Astaire, trying to recall where he might have seen Kelly: "Do you dance on street corners?"). Finally, Kathryn Grayson headlines the film's (in)famous "Beauty," a number known primarily for its showgirls dancing in and around mountains of soap suds. Ridiculous in its excess, but oh what a spectacle.
The four nonmusical comedy sketches are the only real clunkers in the bunch, but they pad a movie that's already exasperatingly long. "Number, Please," is the best, thanks to Keenan Wynn's amusingly exasperated turn as a caller who's ready to reach out and touch the incompetent operator. "Pay the Two Dollars" is an overlong exercise in absurdity; "A Sweepstakes Ticket" suffers from a mugging Fanny Brice, whose comic brilliance seems best left to the stage (as her husband, Hume Cronyn, gets far more mileage with his less-is-more approach to comedy); and "When Television Comes" features Red Skelton in a sketch that contemporary audiences will likely find baffling, boring, or both.
Skelton is much better served by Three Little Words, a slight but overlooked film biography that succeeds where Till the Clouds Roll By failed. Why? Because it bypasses the standard formula and instead structures itself as a romantic comedy, and Astaire and Skelton know how to sell comedy. Astaire's magic act-gone-awry—involving five doves, two ducks, a rabbit and an angry goose—is gut-bustingly funny, proving what an accomplished comedian he is.
If Three Little Words doesn't register strongly as biography, it's because Kalmar and Ruby, much like Kern, were rather ordinary subjects. The film wisely doesn't attempt to fabricate drama, but relies strictly on comic vignettes and the hyperkinetic numbers featuring Astaire and Vera Ellen. "Where Did You Get That Girl" and "Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer at Home" are sterling examples of their precision and dexterity. The numbers contain few cutaway shots, leaving one wondering how many takes it took to get them right. It's quite a show.
Now to the real cream of the crop.
Summer Stock marked the third pairing of Garland and old pal Kelly, and the film benefits immeasurably from their natural chemistry, as well as a handful of terrific numbers ("Dig, Dig, Dig, Dig For Your Dinner" and "You, Wonderful You" are standouts). And if you're willing to accept Garland as a farmer, you'll also be willing to let yourself be swept away by the film's broad sense of humor (Marjorie Main's battle-ax of a housekeeper is an especially amusing treasure, particularly when she's waking up snoozing gypsies with a shotgun blast).
With its "let's put on a show" storyline, Summer Stock echoes the old Judy and Mickey musicals. Kelly fills Rooney's shoes nicely, and he shows an uncanny ability to bring out the performer in Garland. Much of the fun is waiting for the moment when Garland's curmudgeonly Jane will cave in and join in the fun, and when she does (during the town's barn dance, for instance) the effect is electric.
This was Garland's last musical comedy for MGM—after her troubled, much-discussed attempt at filming Annie Get Your Gun—and it makes for bittersweet viewing. It's a typical, tremendously silly flight of fancy, but, as the film's accompanying featurette reminds us, it's also a sad reminder of the shadows that haunted Garland. For evidence, look no further than the moment her frump and frazzle is replaced by a svelte figure and confidence for her signature number, the glitzy "Get Happy." The change is jarring, the result downright spooky. As a piece of musical entertainment, Summer Stock has few equals, but there's no ignoring the demons lurking behind the curtain.
One of the last great musicals to come out of MGM's legendary Arthur Freed unit, It's Always Fair Weather reunites Kelly with Singin' in the Rain and On the Town codirector Stanley Donen and scribes Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and the result falls somewhere in between their previous collaborations. It may not be of the same caliber as Singin' (honestly, though, what film could be?), but it has a handful of high-octane numbers, that glorious Technicolor sheen, and the charismatic, imminently talented Cyd Charisse. It also bears the distinction of being the only film to put Kelly's talents on wheels. Weather has enough charm to hurry you past the screenplay's sobering theme about the erosive effects of time.
Let's start with Kelly on roller skates, a number that surpasses Singin' in the Rain's title number in technical difficulty and comes ever so close to matching the earlier film's uninhibited joy and spontaneity. Alternately rolling and tapping around a street corner on a pair of metal skates, boyish grin on his face, Kelly is having fun, and the fun is infectious. For a change, the always wonderful Charisse gets to cut loose in a rowdy gym number, "Baby, You Knock Me Out," featuring a mix of dancers and actual boxers in the chorus. Charisse is the only girl within a stone's throw, and she owns the number (and just check out those amazing legs). Interestingly, Charisse and Kelly never take to the dance floor together, but their relationship generates enough sparks that you'll never notice, and it's a pleasure watching her quick-thinking ad exec outsmart his two-bit gambler.
While Charisse is all spunk and style, stage actress Dolores Gray is all comic bombast as television hostess Madeline Bradville, a hilarious study in narcissism ("I don't mind if you don't love my performance, as long as you love me!" she gushes). Sadly, Gray stuck to stage and television, making few feature films.
Smart, sassy, sexy and brassy, It's Always Fair Weather is a rollicking good time, and a fitting finish to this collection.
Warner Bros. has again done a fine job with the transfers and audio. All five are presented in their original aspect ratios (only It's Always Fair Weather is in widescreen, and it receives an anamorphic transfer), and they look uniformly crisp and clean, with bold, beautiful colors nicely preserved. A few specks and blemishes are present, but they are few and far between. (Three Little Words contained the most, but they didn't detract from my enjoyment.) Although only one film, It's Always Fair Weather, receives Dolby 5.1 Surround treatment, the audio is strong across the board. The other four films have mono tracks only, but don't be fooled. These have been nicely cleaned up, making for an exceptional listening experience. English, Spanish, and French subtitles are provided for each film.
Like Warner Bros.' recently released Busby Berkeley Collection, this package includes a 15-minute featurette for each film. And, as with the Berkeley set featurettes, we get comments from various film historians, authors, and choreographers (John Kenrick, Hugh Fordin, Susan Stroman). The same names turn up time and again, leaving one with the feeling that Warner Bros. is taking a few too many trips to the well. "Till the Clouds Roll By: Real to Reel" reveals the film to be a largely fictionalized biography (Hessler and Sally, who figure so prominently in the film, didn't exist in Kern's life). "Ziegfeld Follies: An Embarrassment of Riches" chronicles the film's troubled history (two years lapsed between the time production started and the time the film premiered) and how much material had to be left on the cutting-room floor. "Three Little Words: Two Swell Guys" is unmemorable, but "Summer Stock: Get Happy!" and "It's Always Fair Weather: Going Out on a High Note" are surprisingly straightforward in their dissections of each film's troubled production (Garland's breakdowns on Summer Stock and Kelly and Donen's "creative differences" on Weather). Of course, much of this is common knowledge among fans, but the featurettes' frank attitudes are refreshing.
Till the Clouds Roll By includes two deleted musical numbers—the silly "Music in the Air" and "D' Ye Love Me?," a Judy Garland circus number that might be cute if it included the audio track. Also included are the Tex Avery cartoon short "Henpecked Hoboes," the live-action vintage short "Glimpses of California," and the film's original theatrical trailer in all its "Magnificent!," "Spectacular!" glory.
Ziegfeld Follies contains three shorts: the live-action "The Luckiest Guy in the World," starring a very young Barry Nelson; the Tex Avery animated short "The Hick Chick"; and the Tom & Jerry classic "Solid Serenade" (you know, the one where Tom croons "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby?"). Also included are audio outtakes for the numbers "If Swing Goes, I Go Too," "We Will Meet Again in Honolulu," and "There's Beauty Everywhere," and trailers for all three Ziegfeld films (The Great Ziegfeld, Ziegfeld Girl, and Ziegfeld Follies).
Three Little Words includes the live-action short "Fitzpatrick Traveltalk: Roaming through Michigan" and the animated short "Ventriloquist Cat." It also includes the audio-only "Paula Stone's Hollywood USA Radio Promo" and the film's theatrical trailer.
On the Summer Stock disc, you get the live-action short "Did Ja Know?" and the animated short "The Cuckoo Clock." Also included are an audio outtake for "Fall in Love" and the film's theatrical trailer.
It's Always Fair Weather gives you two animated shorts: "Deputy Droopy" and the Oscar-nominated "Good Will Toward Men." Kelly and Charisse make guest appearances on two episodes from the promotional program "MGM Parade." The disc also includes outtakes and the film's theatrical trailer.
Even the weakest films of the bunch have something to recommend them, but if you're watching your pennies and just want the top-tier stuff, you can always pick up Summer Stock and It's Always Fair Weather individually. For you diehards, though, this set is a no-brainer.
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Scales of Justice, Till The Clouds Roll By
Perp Profile, Till The Clouds Roll By
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Till The Clouds Roll By
• Till the Clouds Roll By: Real to Reel featurette
Scales of Justice, Ziegfeld Follies
Perp Profile, Ziegfeld Follies
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Ziegfeld Follies
• Ziegfeld Follies: An Embarrassment of Riches featurette
Scales of Justice, Summer Stock
Perp Profile, Summer Stock
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Summer Stock
• Summer Stock: Get Happy! featurette
Scales of Justice, Three Little Words
Perp Profile, Three Little Words
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Three Little Words
• Three Little Words: Two Swell Guys featurette
Scales of Justice, It's Always Fair Weather
Perp Profile, It's Always Fair Weather
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, It's Always Fair Weather
• It's Always Fair Weather: Going Out On a High Note featurette
Review content copyright © 2006 Bryan Pope; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.