More than anything, Judge Bryan Pope wants to be a dancin' man.
"I can tell you your past, your present and your future."
"You don't have to tell me my future, I know my future."
"Am I in it?"
"Then you don't know your future."
-- The Pirate
Now that the crown jewels of the MGM "dream factory" have been rolled out in souped-up special editions—chiefly, Singin' in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Easter Parade, and The Bandwagon—what else is left besides, say, An American in Paris? Not so, says Warner Bros.
Like last year's splashy Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory, Vol. 1, which featured the excellent Summer Stock and It's Always Fair Weather, this second celebration of producer Arthur Freed's heyday contains two top-drawer pictures and a selection of cool extras from a deep dip into the Warner Bros. vault. That should be enough to keep film cineastes singing a happy tune, even if other titles in this collection suggest Warner Bros. is beginning to draw from the bottom of the well.
Facts of the Case
The seven-disc Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory, Vol. 2 contains the following films:
The Pirate (1948)
The Pirate, Words and Music, and That's Dancing are each packaged in its own digipak case. A fourth case contains both That Midnight Kiss and The Toast of New Orleans, giving Kathryn Grayson and Mario Lanza the double-feature treatment. A fifth case contains both Royal Wedding and The Belle of New York (Fred Astaire double feature).
Popping in the delightful The Pirate, it's tempting to skip ahead to Gene Kelly's and Judy Garland's exuberant, toe-tapping "Be a Clown" finale, but think of all the fun you'd be missing. In this colorful, splashy, even kinda sexy comedy about an actor posing as a legendary pirate in a seaside Caribbean town, the music is sparse (it takes 15 minutes for the first number to arrive), but director Vincente Minnelli makes every Cole Porter song count. The ensemble number "Nina" is bursting with gorgeous gals, Garland owns the screen in her sultry ode to "Mack the Black," and Kelly, with a sly wink to swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks, gives one of his trademark muscular performances in the crimson-hued "Pirate Ballet."
Minnelli stages the action around gorgeously stylized, multi-tiered sets, and Garland proves that she was ready to graduate from kiddie musicals to more adult material (too adult according to Arthur Freed, who requested cuts of the more risqué numbers). She also revealed herself as one of the film industry's most skilled comediennes. According to film historian John Fricke in his informative but scholarly feature-length commentary, even future comedy queen Lucille Ball crowned Garland Hollywood's funniest lady. After The Pirate, it's hard to argue.
The film was a flop when it was originally released, but like so many of MGM's best musicals, it has acquired a devoted following in the years since. Fans will pore over this disc, which includes the new, 19-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, "The Pirate: A Musical Treasure Chest." Although it's a standard talking-head piece (featuring, among others, Liza Minnelli and Kelly's widow, Patricia Ward), "Treasure Chest" boldly addresses production problems that were escalated by Garland's and Minnelli's dissolving marriage and by Garland's drug addiction.
Also included are the comedy short "You Can't Win," starring Dave O'Brien; the Tom and Jerry cartoon "Cat Fishin'" (one of my personal T&J favorites); the "Mack the Black" number in stereo; audio outtakes for "Love of My Life," "Mack the Black," and "Voodoo"; piano tracks by Roger Edens; radio promos featuring Kelly and Garland; and the film's theatrical trailer.
The Rodgers and Hart biopic Words and Music is further evidence that neither Arthur Freed nor MGM took the musical biopic seriously. Like Till the Clouds Roll By, MGM's "tribute" to Jerome Kern, Words and Music is an overblown, overlong affair that plays carelessly with the facts but enables the studio to trot out the studio's biggest stars for a string of loose-fitting production numbers. Even if June Allyson's "Thou Swell" isn't as naughty as one would like, you still get Lena Horne scorching the screen with "The Lady is a Tramp," and Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen razzle-dazzling in the film's finest moment, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue."
As Lorenz Hart, Mickey Rooney is all nervous energy and weird tics. Unless you dig that (I don't), most of the joy in Words and Music will be derived from film historian Richard Barrios, who, in his excellent feature-length commentary, isn't afraid to tackle the seedier aspects of the film. Barrio takes the studio to task for embellishing Richard Rodgers' (a bland Tom Drake) uneventful life while cleaning up the more fascinating Hart, an alcoholic and closeted homosexual.
The 20-minute featurette "A Life in Words & Music" touches on much of the same material covered in the commentary. This time, though, Barrios is joined by, among others, Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers. Also included is a 21-minute profile of the L.A. Fire Department titled "Going to Blazes!"; the Tex Avery cartoon "The Cat that Hated People"; video outtakes for "Lover" and "You're Nearer"; audio outtakes; and the theatrical trailer.
That's Dancing! is both timeless and of its time. Gene Kelly, once the most prized show pony in MGM's musical stable, opens with a load of codswallop about the evolution of dance. The latest craze? Breakdancing. Whether that made this compilation of dance film highlights relevant to audiences in 1985 is anybody's guess, but Kelly and company quickly dismiss with the pointless commentary and get to the good stuff. Namely, lots and lots of production numbers from dozens of great and not-so-great movies: Singin' in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, West Side Story, Oklahoma, Gold Diggers of 1935, Sweet Charity. In another bid to make musicals cool to young audiences, Saturday Night Fever, Fame, Flashdance, and Michael Jackson's "Beat It" also make the cut.
It's a fine collection of moments, even if most of the numbers are second-rate. Celebrity dancers—among them, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Sammy Davis Jr., and Liza Minnelli—pop up occasionally to provide context, but there's no need really since the clips speak for themselves. There's little overlap between this and the That's Entertainment films, and a couple of rare clips (the Scarecrow's extended dance from The Wizard of Oz, Carol Haney standing in for Gene Kelly's animated dance partner in Invitation to the Dance) make this worth adding to your collection.
The package opens with a brief introduction by Gene Kelly and Jack Haley Jr. Also included are the film's trailer and four making-of featurettes—the nearly six-minute "Invitation to the Dance" and, at more than two minutes each, "The Search," "The Cameras Roll," and "The Gathering" (the last being the most noteworthy thanks to rare interview footage with Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers).
Beautiful of voice but lacking chemistry, coloratura soprano Kathryn Grayson and tenor Mario Lanza were paired together in only two MGM musicals, both included with this set. In That Midnight Kiss, Grayson helps her wealthy grandmother (the incandescent Ethel Barrymore) start an opera company in Philadelphia by finding the perfect lead tenor. Imagine her surprise when she finds him in handsome truck driver Lanza. A year later, Lanza becomes The Toast of New Orleans when opera producer David Niven visits Cajun country and thinks he has found the next Caruso. Grayson, the company's lead soprano, has her doubts about the boisterous new star.
Neither film is without its pleasures. Chief among them is New Orleans's glorious production design, which serves up delicious eye candy in every frame. But mostly they're cinematic footnotes—experimental blends of musical comedy and operatic voices in films so lifeless not even costars David Niven and Rita Moreno can resurrect them. If anything, both films stand as mementos of Lanza's short career and tragic life. An alcoholic with a reportedly volatile temper, he died of a heart attack at the young age of 38, leaving behind a wife and four children.
Lanza's tumultuous career is examined closely in "Mario Lanza—Singing to the Gods," a fascinating, nearly 60-minute documentary that frankly addresses the singer's professional and personal demons. Also included with The Toast of New Orleans are two appropriate entries in James A. FitzPatrick's Traveltalk series—"Modern New Orleans" and "Old New Orleans." Rounding out the package is the film's theatrical trailer.
That Midnight Kiss contains an outtake for "One Love of Mine," the comedy short "Sports Oddities," the cartoon short "Señor Droopy," and the film's theatrical trailer.
Royal Wedding stands next to The Pirate as the best in this set, and one of the best musicals to roll off the MGM assembly line. Judy Garland was signed to star alongside Fred Astaire in this story about a brother and sister who take their musical act to London around the same time England's Princess Elizabeth is getting married. Garland was eventually replaced by June Allyson, who became pregnant and had to be replaced by Jane Powell. It's hard to imagine anyone else in the role.
While it's fun watching tiny soprano Powell cut loose in numbers like "How Could You Believe Me?," this is Astaire's show, and watching him dance up the walls and across the ceiling of his hotel room in "You're All the World to Me" still makes my jaw drop. Art does indeed imitate life, and movie buffs will enjoy picking out the parallels between Astaire's and Powell's onscreen brother/sister act and Astaire's real-life act with his sister Adele.
Fred pairs up with Vera-Ellen in The Belle of New York, and if she doesn't have Powell's natural knack for comedy, she's still a wonder to watch when she dances. She's a charity worker who falls for playboy Astaire and his dancing feet. Famous primarily for giving us "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man," The Belle of New York is forgettable but fun.
As one might expect, Royal Wedding contains the most substantial extras of the two. First up is Turner Classic Movie's 53-minute "Private Screenings" featuring director Stanley Donen, who helmed some of MGM's most beloved musicals, including Royal Wedding. As with all of TCM's "Private Screenings," this is a treat for movie lovers and an excellent inclusion here.
At 16 minutes, "Royal Wedding: June, Judy and Jane" is a brief but fascinating overview of the film, with a particular focus on the multiple recastings the film underwent before Powell was finally hired. Also included are two fun classic cartoons—"Droopy's Double Trouble" and "Car of Tomorrow"—an outtake of "Ev'ry Night at Seven," a radio promo featuring Astaire and Powell, and the film's theatrical trailer.
The Belle of New York contains an alternate version of "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man," the amusing music quiz short appropriately titled "MusiQuiz," the cartoon short "Magical Maestro" (another favorite of mine), and the film's original theatrical trailer.
Except for That's Dancing! all films are provided in their original full-frame aspect ratios with Dolby mono soundtracks, and it's hard to find much to complain about. The films look spectacular, as any colorful MGM musical enterprise should. The audio is nothing special, but both music and dialogue is crisp and clear.
That's Dancing! is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen format with an anamorphic transfer, and, being a compilation of clips that were used before they could be properly restored, it's rougher on the eyes. It may not be as pristine looking as the other six films, but its Dolby 5.1 soundtrack makes it the best sounding.
English and French subtitles are provided on all films.
Even the weakest of MGM's musicals make fun rainy day viewing. As with its previous musical boxed sets, Warner Bros. earns extra points for providing the kinds of extras (cartoons, live-action shorts, radio promos) that recall what it was like to be a moviegoer in the 1940s and 1950s, when the feature presentation was only half the fun.
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Scales of Justice, The Pirate
Perp Profile, The Pirate
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Pirate
• Commentary by Historian John Fricke
Scales of Justice, Words And Music
Perp Profile, Words And Music
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Words And Music
• Commentary by Historian Richard Barrios
Scales of Justice, That Midnight Kiss
Perp Profile, That Midnight Kiss
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, That Midnight Kiss
• "One Love of Mine" (outtake)
Scales of Justice, The Toast Of New Orleans
Perp Profile, The Toast Of New Orleans
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Toast Of New Orleans
• "Mario Lanza--Singing to the Gods"
Scales of Justice, Royal Wedding
Perp Profile, Royal Wedding
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Royal Wedding
• "Private Screenings with Stanley Donen"
Scales of Justice, The Belle Of New York
Perp Profile, The Belle Of New York
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Belle Of New York
• "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man" Alternate Version
Scales of Justice, That's Dancing!
Perp Profile, That's Dancing!
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, That's Dancing!
• Introduction by Gene Kelly and Jack Haley Jr.
Review content copyright © 2007 Bryan Pope; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.