Appellate Judge James A. Stewart has never been as youthful as a 55-year-old Fred Astaire.
"Be glad they still make pictures like this."—from an ad for Star!
Sometimes studios make odd choices in box sets. For example, look over the movie titles on Fox's latest set: Fox 75th Anniversary Classic Quad: Set 3. If you look quickly, you might think that's four musicals. Actually, the set features three musicals and Anna and the King of Siam, the non-musical predecessor of The King and I.
Facts of the Case
Fox 75th Anniversary Classic Quad: Set 3 has four movies, each on its own disc:
Anna and the King of Siam
Daddy Long Legs
I'm puzzled as to why Fox included Anna and the King of Siam on this set instead of The King and I, but Anna is a good movie. The story of Anna Leonowens was, by the time this movie was made, quite removed from reality, first by Leonowens' polishing in her memoirs, then by Margaret Landon's fictional narrative, and then again by typical Hollywood touches, including a melodramatic ending. Nonetheless, it's an interesting drama about a fascinating period in the history of what is now Thailand, as the King stood firm against the colonizing forces of Europe.
Irene Dunne portrays Anna as a strong-willed woman, yet reveals enough kindness and doubt to make the governess sympathetic. Rex Harrison's King is full of manic energy and shifting moods, with an underlying conscience and concern for his country. He's also a "very strange man," to quote the prime minister in the film; perhaps Harrison gives the role a little too much manic energy. Still, Dunne and Harrison build the characters gradually, in the same way that their relationship grows, making the dramatic twists effective.
One key scene finds the King's favorite wife burned at the stake after she runs away. This didn't necessarily happen, but it was in Leonowens' accounts. It's one of the things that got the various versions of her story banned in Siam/Thailand, according to Biography: Anna and the King: The Real Story of Anna Leonowens, which is included with the movie. There's also a trailer and a Fox Movietone News clip of the celebrity studded premiere.
It's hard to tell what got the Can-Can banned. Two dance numbers in Can-Can, including one in which Simone and several suitors engage in stylized fighting, are steamier than the fabled forbidden dance.
I doubt anyone who's seen Can-Can has ever taken Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine for actual Parisians. MacLaine attempts an accent, while Sinatra gives Francois his modern cool persona. That lack of verisimilitude isn't much of a problem, though. What Can-Can goes for is a re-creation of the musical experience, and it does that well. Too-colorful sets and unconvincing accents only help. You've heard the songs, even if you haven't seen Can-Can before: "You Do Something to Me," "Let's Fall in Love," and "Just One of Those Things," to name a few. You might think your DVD player has gone haywire during the three musical overtures, which play over a blank screen, but other than that, it's a great way to spend an evening.
In Daddy Long Legs, the convoluted plot works as an excuse to get Fred Astaire onto the dance floor with Leslie Caron, and their moments dancing or singing together are enjoyable. They're even okay when they're just talking. Fantasy sequences, in which Julie pictures her dream benefactor and, later on, travels the world searching for Jervis, lead to elaborate, theatrical numbers. Those great surreal interludes are enough to hide any plot or logic flaws in the film.
Ava Astaire McKenzie, Fred's daughter, and film historian Ken Barnes provide a commentary that's both sentimental and well-researched. They discuss the many film versions of the novel, point out the one song in which Astaire's voice is dubbed by someone else, and recall sadly that Astaire's wife died shortly before filming began. Two Movietone News clips, also with commentary, show premieres for the movie; one has atrocious sound quality. A gallery includes family pictures as well as stills taken on the set, all in black-and-white. A "Correspondence" feature has text of Leslie Caron and Fred Astaire describing each other. Two trailers, one in Cinemascope and one for more conventional screens, are included; I liked the conventional trailer, which emphasizes the song and dance and doesn't give too much away, better.
Star! is irreverent and often laugh-out-loud funny in its treatment of Gertrude Lawrence, so much so that it's easy to forget that she was a real person. The tone is set early when she takes the stage with her father at Brixton Music Hall and, when challenged by tomato-throwing hecklers, wins over the crowd by confronting them and giving as good as she gets. Julie Andrews proves herself an able gymnastic klutz in slapstick scenes and gives viewers a sense that Lawrence was a definite stage presence, albeit one who made it difficult to be in her presence offstage for very long. Daniel Massey mostly wisecracks as sidekick and frequent stage partner Noel Coward, but he gets to show dramatic concern when Coward helps his co-star face financial problems. The music and dance come in the real context of performances and rehearsals, but there's lots of it, and Andrews does a first-rate job of that, too. At nearly three hours, it's a wearying but enjoyable experience.
When you see the eighteen names on the screen for the commentary, you might be thinking that there's a disaster in the making. Fortunately, director Robert Wise, as moderator, has a strong grip on the situation, so you can easily figure out who's doing the talking. There's also a lot of interesting information here. For example, Dick Wilson, best known as Mr. Whipple in the Charmin commercials, is pointed out in a small role. My favorite bit, though, is an explanation of the opening overture here that also explains the way it was handled in Can-Can. It's also noted in the extras that Gertrude Lawrence played Anna in The King and I on stage, tying in with another picture in the set.
Get your clicker thumbs ready, because there are a lot of text features and photos on the flip side. You'll learn that Star! was cut down twice and given a new title (Those Were The Happy Times) due to poor returns. Star! has bounced back in revival, though. There are also a lot of photos, including behind-the-scenes snaps, Julie Andrews' wardrobe tests, and pictures of the real Gertrude Lawrence. Other extras include "Star! The Sound of a Legend," a very promotional short from 1968; "Silver Star!," a twenty-fifth anniversary feature, trailers and TV spots, and screen tests with Julie Andrews and Daniel Massey.
For the most part, pictures and sound are good. The black-and-white Anna occasionally shows its age, and elsewhere there's a fleck or a spot here and there, but nothing major.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It appears that this package merely repeats previous single-title releases, bringing over whatever extras they had, so there's no reason for a double dip.
If you're looking for one of these movies and can get four for roughly the same price, do it. Even though Anna and the King of Siam isn't Yul Brynner's musical, it's one you'll want to see if you've ever seen Yul Brynner's version. A three-hour comic take on Gertrude Lawrence's life doesn't sound like a good idea on paper, but Julie Andrews' Star! is a well-done surprise treat. True, there's nothing really new or surprising about Frank Sinatra's Can-Can or Fred Astaire's Daddy Long Legs. However, if you like a good old-fashioned musical, Can-Can's a must-must, and Astaire and Leslie Caron keep Long Legs lively. I won't vouch for the authenticity of the two biographical movies here, but I'll vouch for their entertainment value.
Not guilty, except of doing the Can-Can.
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Scales of Justice, Anna And The King Of Siam
Perp Profile, Anna And The King Of Siam
Distinguishing Marks, Anna And The King Of Siam
Scales of Justice, Daddy Long Legs
Perp Profile, Daddy Long Legs
Distinguishing Marks, Daddy Long Legs
Scales of Justice, Can-Can
Perp Profile, Can-Can
Distinguishing Marks, Can-Can
Scales of Justice, Star!
Perp Profile, Star!
Distinguishing Marks, Star!
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