Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory Review
As the last paragraph to be written, I had originally planned to say much more than what I will do but given the size of the entire review, decided not to put too much strain on your patience by testing it at this early point. It is, therefore, best just to begin with the films and first, or simply the oldest, film in the set, Ziegfeld's Follies. Opening with a flight through Heaven - no stark impressionism here, more pink clouds, bright sunlight and the voices of cherubim and seraphim - to the celestial home of legendary showman Flo Ziegfeld.
As another day opens, Ziegfeld ponders the kind of show that he might be hosting were he still alive and after a tribute from Fred Astaire - unlike Ziegfeld, Astaire is still breathing - the show, with the help of MGM's vast array of stars, goes on. Structured like a revue show - the closest comparison is to Hollywood Revue of 1929 and not any of the other four films in this set - Ziegfeld's Follies opens with caricatures of its cast fashioned as puppets before Astaire returns with a whip-crackin' Lucille Ball for Meet The Ladies, the latter training caged showgirls dressed as quite the sauciest black panthers you'll ever have witnessed. Clearly, with Ziegfeld's imagination running to such a riot of colour and of playful sexuality, one's fantasies appear to remain in place even amongst the billowing clouds of Heaven.
The spirit of Ziegfeld Follies in place, Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball and the black panthers are followed by a water ballet by Esther Williams and the first comedy sketch in the film, Keenan Wynn's testing performance of Number Please. Thereafter, this mix of comedy and dance continues, as do the appearances by Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer, who are cast in the romantic This Heart is Mine and the dockside grit of Limehouse Blues. Of the gags, Red Skelton's When Television Comes is only a little better than Number Please whereas Fanny Brice and Hume Cronyn's The Sweepstakes Ticket may well be the dullest comedy sketch committed to celluloid. Pay the Two Dollars with Victor Moore and Edward Arnold is quite superb though, an extended impressionistic skit that sees Moore's drunk fined two dollars for spitting in a subway car but who is pushed through appeals by his lawyer Arnold before being sentenced to murder in the first by his spreading of deadly germs and owing thousands in legal fees.
But it's the dance numbers that will pull in the audience for Ziegfeld's Follies and although there's still low moments - Judy Garland's The Interview did little for me but I suspect that, for others, it will be their favourite - Lena Horne's Love is a terrifically staged number but one, I suspect, that may not have been included in counties in the south where lynchings were still a weekly occurrence. The sketch that's almost worth the price of the disc alone is the meeting between Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in The Babbitt and the Bromide, a tale of two men who meet once and then again until they enjoy a final meeting at the pearly gates. Coreographed by both dancers - Astaire the first third, Kelly the second and last - it's a number that shows off their different styles, Astaire's lighter touch contrasting with Kelly's more muscular steps with the older star sparring with Kelly, who may be young but who is coming up fast. And yet, Ziegfeld's Follies is, well, only a revue show and without a story to sustain it during it's less-impressive moments, one's fingers tends to drift towards the Next Chapter button during such sketches as When Television Comes and The Sweepstakes Ticket. Perhaps sensing, though, that the age of the revue show may have been passing, the next film in this set builds on the Follies with a film based on one of the songwriters who made it the success that it was, Jerome Kern.
In the manner of Ziegfeld's Follies but tying something of a tale around the musical numbers, Till the Clouds Roll By is a fictionalised account of the life of songwriter Jerome Kern (Robert Walker), who died shortly before cameras rolled on the production. A not-quite-rags-to-riches story, the movie opens with a staging of Kern's classic Broadway success, Show Boat but as he leaves for an opening night reception, he declares himself haunted by a figure from his past, one that he met in a boarding house in New York. Telling his driver to call by the old place, Kern says that the radio shop on the corner was once a bicycle shop and that his old friend...an arranger who gave life to his music. Beginning an extended flashback, Kern tells of his first meeting with Jim Hessler (Van Heflin) over roast beef and mashed potatoes and his making of a song that was but notes on paper.
As Hessler leaves for London, Kern tries to get a show sold to a Broadway producer but without luck, he follows his old friend across the Atlantic. There, less by a twist of fate than by breaking and entering, Kern meets the beautiful Eva (Dorothy Patrick), who would go on to become his first wife and hears the news that producer Charles Frohman (Harry Hayden) would like to buy six of Kern's songs for a new show. Leaving Eva in England, Hessler and Kern return to New York but six songs gone, Frohman stops taking their calls. Hessler and Kern even pursue him to the boarding ramp of a ship but the one on which Frohman leaves is the SS Lusitania and as news reaches them of its sinking, Kern prepares to close that chapter of his life. But powerful friends offer him a hand in the darkness of an office lit only by the neon lights of Broadway and soon Victor Herbert (Paul Maxey) and Oscar Hammerstein (Paul Langton) are guiding the composer through the doorways of theatres...Leave It To Jane, Sally and on to the success of Show Boat.
The biographical structure to the film isn't over by that stage but it certainly falls into the shadow cast by the musical numbers, which isn't at all surprising given the performers. June Allyson offers the coquettish Till the Clouds Roll By and Leave It To Jane, Judy Garland, who is also cast as Broadway star Marilyn Miller appears in the kitchen-sink drama of Look for the Silver Lining whilst Dinah Shore performs The Last Time I Saw Paris. Finally, as Jerome Kern is drawn out to Hollywood and to the studios of MGM - art being drawn closer to life in the film's final moments - Frank Sinatra closes the show with Ol' Man River, something that he would use to draw the curtain in his later solo performances. Sinatra's version isn't, however, a patch on the full cast rendition of the number during the abbreviated Show Boat, which shows up the problem with the film. In spite of the drama, the sometimes great performances - Van Heflin is particularly good as Jim Hessler but Robert Walker is a touch dull as Jerome Kern - and the spirited performances of June Allyson and Cyd Charisse, the film's first twenty minutes are its best with Show Boat outshining everything that follows. There's a good deal of drama, not least with Hessler's wayward daughter Sally (Lucille Bremer), her running out of one of Kern's shows and his searching for her, which, after stopping off in a nightclub in Memphis, ends with a fitting piece of closure in a soundstage at MGM. Not the best film in the set but one, like so many musicals, that's lifted into approaching greatness by some showstopping performances.
Much more frivolous is Summer Stock, a let's-put-the-show-on-right-here story about Joe Ross' (Gene Kelly) theatrical troupe arriving at a farm owned by Jane Falbury (Judy Garland), which he hopes to turn into a theatre during the summer months. Despite the chaos they cause - Herb (Phil Silvers) manages, in a single morning, to break all of the eggs, bring down a fence or two, crash Jane's tractor and let the pigs loose - Jane sticks by them, keeping in mind the financial trouble that her farm is in and figuring Joe's summer theatre may turn out a success. As the summer breezes blow through the farm, so too does love but as Joe's production nears its opening night - Variety even announce that six Broadway producers will be calling on the barn in its first week - his leading lady, Jane's spoiled sister Abigail (Gloria de Haven) walks out. What he needs is a female star but where can he get one in such short notice...
There is, of course, any number of movies based around the idea of a theatrical troupe putting on a show in the unlikeliest of locations - barns, crumbling theatres and, thanks to Simon Armitage, women's prisons - so the hackneyed plot of Summer Stock ought not to work. But to say so is to discount the considerable appeal of both Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, whose contrasting performances somehow gel to make this a memorable movie musical. Kelly is easygoing and charming, a dazzlingly handsome leading man who looks as though he dances, acts and sings without effort and yet with such confidence that it's hard to believe that the success of An American In Paris and Singin' In The Rain were still in his future. Garland, on the other hand, was heading towards a nervous breakdown outside of the movies and pulls her anxieties into an angsty, nervous character who sheds the earthiness of her farm to come alive the moment that she steps onto a stage, either real or in an imagination breaking out of the drudgery of smalltown life. For all of the efforts of Gene Kelly, though, it's the barnstorming performance of the legendary Get Happy by a tuxedoed Judy Garland that stands out but it's the sadness that's evident in Garland's performance that puts her in contrast to Kelly.
At the time of Summer Stock, Kelly's star was in the ascendancy - the next year's An American In Paris was a classic waiting to be made - whilst Garland would find herself excluded from Hollywood for another four years and A Star Is Born. Despite the words of Get Happy, Garland wearing her hat at a rakish angle and her strutting over a chorus of male dancers, what's clear is that she lost a good deal of weight in the months between principal photography and the filming of this one sequence. Wonderful it may be but the performance of Get Happy is tinged with one's knowledge of Garland's life within the studios and a diet of drugs to keep her ready for the stage and for the cameras - a diet of uppers that began with breakfast before sleeping pills last thing at night. Summer Stock may end with a kiss between Garland and Kelly but they were pulling apart with Garland, leaving MGM after this film, finding her best days behind her whilst Kelly had his yet to come.
After the familiar story of Summer Stock, it's also back to the musical biopic with Three Little Words and MGM following the story of Jerome Kern with that of songwriters Bert Kalmar (Fred Astaire) and Harry Ruby (Red Skelton). Both of them aspiring to be something else - Kalmar a magician and Ruby a baseball player - they somehow meet, become friends and begin writing together, eventually producing a string of classic songs that include Who's Sorry Now?, So Long Oo-Long and I Wanna be Loved by You. But like MGM's adding to the truth of Jerome Kern's life story in Till The Clouds Roll By, so the famously stable Ruby and Kalmar duo fall out over a misunderstanding, each one convinced that the other is more concerned with baseball and magic than in continuing their partnership. With a radio show announcing their reuniting for the following week, some careful planning of their movements will be required, not least when they suspect that their respective wives are involved...
Despite the presence of the real Harry Ruby on the set - he was cast as a baseball player during Red Skelton's breaking away from his partnership with Bert Kalmar - this is probably the least interesting film in the set, with none of the excess of musical numbers of Till The Clouds Roll By. Instead, we have the occasional appearance by a stage star - Debbie Reynolds plays Helen Kane, who's singing voice is dubbed by the real Helen Kane - but mostly there's no one other than Fred Astaire and Red Skelton as Kalmar and Ruby, rolling with the plot as it takes several inexplicable turns. With the plot that forces Kalmar to give up his magic act with dance through injury, it's somewhat odd to find him dancing later in the film. A contractual obligation, I'm sure, given Astaire's starring role in the film but odd nonetheless. Similarly, Ruby sits at his piano for a good deal of the film with only his trial at a baseball team giving him a moment away from the instrument. Much of what goes wrong with the film must lie with Astaire, who tends to overshadow his co-stars to the extent that Three Little Words does sometimes appear as little more than a solo vehicle. It's surely no coincidence that it comes alive in Ruby's trial for a baseball, when he breaks away for a moment on his own. Much as theres's a good deal of interest in seeing how the two women in the piece manage to bring Kalmar and Ruby together again, it's also nice to see Skelton without the overbearing presence of Astaire, leaving this an odd musical, one in which the leads don't appear to be terribly well-suited.
The final film in the set is Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's It's Always Fair Weather, a mix of a downbeat storyline with such dazzling song and dance performances that the post-war gloom is quickly ushered into the shadows. Featuring Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd as Ted, Doug and Angie, three returning GIs who have just been discharged from service and who agree, exactly ten years hence, to meet in the same bar at noon as good friends are wont to do. As the pages of the calendar turn and the screen splits to follow their respective fortunes, it isn't so much fair weather as distinctly cloudy. Ted, who'd dreamed of being a showbiz agent, becomes a small-time boxing promoter in debt to the Mob, Doug never travelled to Europe to become an artist but has instead become a stuffy advertising executive whilst the plans Angie had for becoming a great chef came to nothing as he married, had kids and opened a roadside burger joint.
The ten years pass and at noon on a certain day in 1955, the three friends meet and size one another up. As the barman - Tim (David Burns), the same one from 1945 - sets up the drinks, Doug complains that whiskey now gives him indigestion, has his failing marriage on his mind and looks down on Ted and Angie as a heel and a hick. Things are no better for either of his old army buddies with Ted worried about a fight that he's fixing for the Mob whilst Angie talks more about his wife and kids than about his friends, who he's shocked to find can't even remember Bootsie, an friend from the D-Day landings whose success they salute. As the day drags on, they all acknowledge to themselves that it's been a failure but then, through Doug, they meet television producer Jackie Leighton (Cyd Charisse) who has a great idea for her show...three GIs who meet ten years after the end of the war.
Something of a revisit of their On The Town from six years before, It's Always Fair Weather is a sharper-edged film that satirises the optimism of the post-war years to produce a film that's almost a salutary warning over the changing nature of friendships. Making full use of the Cinescope frame - a pan-and-scanned version of this film would be an utter disaster - the movie reveals the bitterness between the three friends at having to spend a few hours together. At an upmarket restaurant, they each have their moment in a split-screen to internally berate both themselves and their friends whilst planning to make their excuses and leave.
Then Cyd Charisse arrives and she and Gene Kelly spark off one another as successfully as they did in the Broadway Melody Ballet sequence from Singin' in the Rain. Early on, they spit and snarl in the back of a cab - kissing, kidding and quoting Shakespeare - before she awakens his dreams, quite apt given the earlier reunion with his friends. Soon, Ted, Doug and Angie are reliving the good old days with a punch-up with the Mob, downing liquor, figuring out Bootsie and find time for a new love (Ted) and for renewing old ones (Doug and Angie). Best of all, though, their reunion sees them dancing, perhaps not together in the style of the wonderful opening number of the film - a trash-can tap that finishes with them sprinting up a New York alleyway - but has Cyd Charisse swishing through a gym, Dan Dailey shaving off his moustache and drunkenly stumbling around a high-society party and Gene Kelly rollerskating out of a skating rink and through the streets and on the pavements of New York in a scene that's, typically of Gene Kelly, graceful, sometimes reckless but always captivating. But in spite of all of these moments, there remains a wariness of the optimism of the post-war years, shown to best effect in their grumbling at the television show. That may simply be casting a snook at the competition offered by the box in the corner but it's a welcome twist in a film that's full of them.
By now, you might expect one to be tiring of saying just how good these Warner Brothers archive releases look and sound but no, every time you think you've seen some great examples of their work, they surprise you yet again. These five films look and sound utterly fabulous with the oldest and the most recent - Ziegfeld's Follies and It's Always Fair Weather - looking the best. Whilst there's some print damage on Summer Stock and the colours look to have separated a little on Till The Clouds Roll By, there's nothing that one can't live with and these are but small complaints in a set that generally looks nothing less than wonderful.
With the exception of two features - Ziegfeld's Follies and It's Always Fair Weather - the set comes complete with the original mono soundtracks and they've each been restored to sound superb, being clear, richly detailed and rising to a peak during the musical numbers. The stereo remix included with Ziegfeld's Follies is fine but sounds a little thin when compared to the fuller mono - both the original audio track and remix are included as options - whilst the 5.1 remix on It's Always Fair Weather (no mono option) appears to direct most of the soundtrack through the centre speaker regardless of the rear channels being available or not. However, even in saying all of this, these five films sound cleaned up and quite marvellous. Finally, all five films come with English, Spanish and French subtitles.
As with Warner Brothers' recent release of The Busby Berkeley Collection, the extras are split up across the five discs, each one with features specific to it as well as complementary cartoons, shorts and audio-only bonus material.
Ziegfeld Follies: Opening with Ziegfeld Follies: An Embarrassment of Riches (14m30s), this behind-the-scenes feature looks at the background of the production and how Arthur Freed was given carte blanche to make the most fabulous looking musical on the MGM set. At a little less than fifteen minutes, this doesn't waste time and uses various movie historians to quickly take the viewer through the various shoots and sketches and on to its release, cut down to less than two hours from a three-hour sneak preview. Honest enough to admit the mistakes in the film - Chy Charisse appears in an archive interview explaining how the planned finale was a disaster - it ends happily with the film finally making it to the theatres.
Also on the disc are The Luckiest Guy in the World (21m08s), pre-titled by the finger-wagging A Crime Does Not Pay Subject, which stars Barry Nelson as a gambler who steals from his boss but who learns that fate plays a heavy hand. Next, there is the audio-only bonus material There's Beauty Everywhere (7m39s), We Will Meet Again in Honolulu (3m29s) and If Swing Goes, I Go Too (5m50s) before two cartoons Tex Avery's The Hick Chick (7m09s) and Hanna and Barbera's Solid Serenade (7m23s), which features Tom and Jerry - and a set of Trailers (10m00s) that includes those for The Great Ziegfeld, Ziegfeld Girl and Ziegfeld Follies.
Till the Clouds Roll By: New feature Till the Clouds Roll By: Real to Reel (13m20s) begins with footage of Busby Berkeley's stylish musicals before hearing of Jerome Kern's own thoughts on a story of his life, "How can you possibly make a story about my life...nothing that interesting has ever happened to me." The Show Boat montage certainly sidestepped that problem as did the musical numbers liberally spread throughout the film but as work on the screenplay began, out came the more fascinating moments in Kern's life, including his almost catching the SS Lusitania on its final, doomed voyage and his meeting with his wife, both of which appear in the film. Elsewhere, though, there's a great deal of laughter at what MGM invented to spice up Kern's life, including the characters of Jim Hessler and his daughter Sally. As for Hessler arranging Kern's music in the film, this is explained by a, "He did it all himself, thank you very much!"
Following this feature, there's a vintage James Fitzpartick Traveltalk, Glimpses of California (9m28s), Tex Avery's Henpecked Hoboes (7m56s) and two outtakes, Kathryn Grayson and Johnny Johnston's Music in the Air (4m44s) and Judy Garland's D'Ya Love Me? (4m58s), the latter beginning without sound before a very scratchy backing track fades in. Finally, there is a Theatrical Trailer (4m20s).
Summer Stock: Beginning with the news that Summer Stock was originally to feature Judy Garland reunited with her favourite co-star, Mickey Rooney before he was drafted into the army, new feature Summer Stock: Get Happy! (16m27s) is an excellent one - detailed, honest and always interesting. Discussing the problems behind the scenes - Judy Garland not showing up and then admitting herself to hospital to come off the prescription drugs that she was on - it also looks at the support that she got on the set from Gene Kelly and Phil Silvers. Most interesting though, and probably not something that you might expect from the head of a studio, is the support that she received from Louis B Mayer, who declared that with the millions that they'd made off Garland when she was healthy, that he wasn't about to cut her off now that she was unwell.
Following this, there's a vintage Pete Smith short, Did'ja Know? (7m49s), cartoon The Cuckoo Clock (7m04s) and audio-only bonus track, Fall in Love (2m00s). Finally, there is a Theatrical Teaser (34s) and a Trailer (2m54s).
Three Little Words: New feature Three Little Words: It's All True (15m12s) is the main extra on this disc and features songwriter Richard Sherman amongst a set of movie historians discussing the film. In keeping with the rest of the features in this set, it only lasts for a quarter-hour but fits in a good deal in that time, including the liberties taken by the screenwriters when bringing the story of Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar to the screen. There is also an archive interview with Arlene Dahl, footage of the real-life Harry Ruby on the set and Richard Sherman dismissing the entire ending of the film with a, "This is impossible!"
Otherwise, there's a vintage Traveltalk short with James Fitzpatrick, Roaming Through Michigan (8m49s), Tex Avery's Ventriloquist Cat (6m40s) and the audio-only radio promo, Hollywood USA (11m25s), which interviews Fred Astaire on the set of Three Little Words. Finally, there's a Theatrical Trailer (3m41s).
It's Always Fair Weather: The final disc in the set continues the pattern set by the others, beginning with a new feature, It's Always Fair Weather: Going Out on a High Note (16m19). As with the other features in the set, this is also excellent, explaining the background to the production, MGM's refusal to let this be an official sequel to On The Town due to their saying no to hiring Frank Sinatra and to the clashes between co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Suggesting that Gene Kelly may not have been quite as nice a guy as his onscreen character suggests, this also offers archive interviews with Cyd Charisse and songwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
There are also two excerpts from The MGM Parade, one with Cyd Charisse (4m33s) and another with Gene Kelly (4m55s), as well as four outtake numbers, Michael Kidd's Jack and the Space Giants (5m42s, which was cut, it is suggested in the feature, at Gene Kelly's insistence that any dancing with kids was his territory), Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly's Love Is Nothing but a Racket (6m40s), an alternate take from The Binge (51s) and the audio-only I Thought They'd Never Leave (2m32s). There's also the cartoons Deputy Droopy (6m32s) and the Christmas-themed Good Will To Men (8m28s) before the special features ends with a Trailer (3m16s).
Once, some years and a generation of hardware ago, I was a member of a video-swapping club that dealt almost exclusively in hard-to-find material. Hard-to-find by being the sort of thing that the Video Recordings Act was meant to stamp out of distribution in the UK. And yet in this DVD era, when I could, if I wanted to, buy almost anything in HMV, with the exception of much hardcore pornography, I find myself wanting to watch classic westerns, star-studded disaster movies and Technicolor musicals, including ones such as these.
It may be something to do with having children in the house - one doesn't really want the combination of kids and the more extreme Italian gut-crunchers - or it may be the innocent entertainment offered by the MGM Dream Factory is just that much more appealing than what were once classed video nasties. As much as there's no small amount of fun watching The Evil Dead, these musicals are entertainment of a very old school, wherein good looking singers/actors/dancers kicked up their heels in the simplest of stories but did so ever so stylishly. Some fifty to sixty years on from their release and thanks to the superb treatment these films have enjoyed from Warner Brothers - still the best at releasing archive material on DVD - these five musicals make for great entertainment as well as a eulogy to the passing of the MGM Dream Factory.
And eulogy is probably the right word for it was a long way down for the stars of these films after the high of the early- to mid-fifties. Gene Kelly enjoyed several more years of success but by the early-sixties he was starring in the TV series of Going My Way. Legendary MGM producer Arthur Freed produced such films as three of the five films here as well as Singin' In The Rain, Brigadoon, An American In Paris, Show Boat, On The Town and Easter Parade but after 1958's Gigi, there were only three more pictures and five Academy Awards. As the public turned away from the musical, so too did MGM and although there were successful moments, there is nothing to match the decade that followed the end of the war through to the mid-fifties. It probably even says a good deal that it's Warner Brothers releasing these films on DVD but I, for one, am glad that they are, content to see such wonderful films presented as beautifully as these are here.