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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Musicals (I) and the Usual New Announcements Update

I have for some time now been promising to take a look at musicals, so lest I lose all credibility when it comes to promises, this edition of Classic Coming Attractions takes a first stab at it. I'll confine myself to MGM, WB, and RKO musicals of the 1930s through 1950s this time out partly because so many of the queries about musicals that I receive deal with these studios, but also because WB holds the DVD rights to them. I'll provide some historical background (by no means exhaustive - just some of the key points), a summary of what's available or coming on DVD, and reviews of a few recent releases (The Cole Porter Collection, including Broadway Melody of 1940, Kiss Me Kate, High Society, Silk Stockings, and Les Girls). In the spirit of the topic, I also have several reviews of Fox musical releases even though Fox's output is not a focus of the column (Hello, Dolly!, All That Jazz, and Simon and Garfunkel: The Concert in Central Park). (I'll look at the history of the other studios' musicals in a future column.) The usual update of announcements of forthcoming classic films on DVD appears at the end of the column.


Like westerns, musicals are a quintessentially American movie genre and much like westerns too, a genre that has never really regained the popularity it enjoyed during the Hollywood Golden Age. The topic of musicals is a massive one when you stop to think that every studio (certainly all the majors, and even some of the minors) produced musicals, each with its own particular style and stars. After a series of popular operettas starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, MGM dominated the 1940s and early 1950s through an embarrassment of riches in its Arthur Freed unit with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse and many others. In the 1930s, WB had the incomparable Busby Berkeley with his carefully choreographed spectacles that could never have fitted on a stage in real life. The 1930s too were the years of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers teamings for RKO. At Twentieth Century-Fox, the late 1930s and 1940s saw the rise of Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, and Betty Grable. Columbia chipped in with musicals featuring opera singer Grace Moore in the 1930s, and Rita Hayworth and Larry Parks in the 1940s. Paramount (Bing Crosby and Bob Hope) and Universal (Deanna Durbin) musicals operated on a slightly lesser scale of extravagance than those of the other majors for the most part, but were thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless. Even minor studios like Republic got into the act during the 1930s and 1940s somewhat, with westerns featuring a passel of songs from the likes of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.

The gradual decline of the MGM Freed unit in the mid-1950s marked the end of production of the classic Hollywood musical. It would be replaced by films of major Broadway musicals (Oklahoma, The King and I, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, etc.) and programmers featuring the major pop stars of the day (Elvis Presley, Frankie Avalon, Pat Boone, the Beatles, etc.) There would be major talents in later musicals, like Julie Andrews, Liza Minnelli, and Barbra Streisand, but none of the films would have the embarassment of musical riches that so many of the top musicals of the Golden Age did. One has only to take a look at That's Entertainment (1974, MGM) and its two sequels to get a sense of that.

Warner Brothers ("Come and meet those dancing feet")

Although WB ushered in the sound era with Al Jolson singing in The Jazz Singer (1927), the studio offered little of musical substance for the next half-dozen years. True, Jolson appeared regularly in the likes of The Singing Fool (1928) or Mammy (1930), and the company did make one of the better of the large-scale revue shows popular at the time - Show of Shows (1929), but on the whole too many of the company's early sound musicals were ponderous and uninspiring.

That changed with 42nd Street (1933). The story was nothing special - big musical comedy director puts on his last but greatest show - and one had to put up with Dick Powell's sappy crooning, but the musical numbers were something else. They were staged by Busby Berkeley, who brought imagination, style, and nerve to the dance extravaganzas he devised. He opened up the stage to allow massive musical numbers and photographed them from all angles and altitudes, using cameras both moving and static. Far from a one-shot deal, 42nd Street kicked off three years of such Berkeley efforts, including Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade (1933), Dames (1934), Wonder Bar (1934), Go Into Your Dance (1935), and Gold Diggers of 1935. Although for an individual musical number it's hard to beat the "The Lullaby of Broadway" in Gold Diggers of 1935, the best of these films overall is probably Footlight Parade. As did most of the films, it featured many of WB's familiar company of players (which included Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert, and Guy Kibbee), but more significantly, it starred James Cagney who contributed one of the high-powered, energetic performances typical of his work at the time as well as some great dance work in his uniquely stiff-legged style.

Despite Berkeley's work on Gold Diggers of 1935, his following WB films were increasingly bland and repetitive. Dick Powell kept crooning away in the likes of The Singing Marine (1937) and The Cowboy from Brooklyn (1938), but Ruby Keeler made only Colleen (1936, with Powell) and Ready, Willing and Able (1937) before packing it in. The musical at WB declined into virtual obscurity until after America's entry into World War II. The only exception of note was Anatole Litvak's Blues in the Night (1941), which, one could argue, was as much drama as it was musical.

The Second World War brought two types of musical to the forefront - the nostalgic musical and the patriotic musical. The nostalgic musical usually focused on stories with settings early in the century and for WB, frequently meant Dennis Morgan in the title role. Morgan was an actor who either starred in WB's lesser dramas or comedies (he frequently teamed with Jack Carson) or appeared in secondary lead roles in the company's major A productions. He had, however, a pleasant singing voice and as the company lacked anyone else, became the male face of WB's standard musical fare of the decade - films such as Shine On, Harvest Moon (1944), My Wild Irish Rose (1947), and One Sunday Afternoon (1948).

The patriotic musical usually took the form of a musical revue, which had a thin plot normally focusing on two lesser stars. Then woven into the tale were a number of musical numbers featuring just about every major star on the studio's roster. WB actually produced three of these efforts. Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) managed to have most of WB's major players (Bogart, Davis, Garfield, Flynn, Sheridan, de Havilland, etc.) performing in some fashion or other, most in some sort of musical number. Davis and Flynn came off best. This Is the Army (1943) was a filmed version of Irving Berlin's stage show with Ronald Reagan and George Murphy prominent in the cast. Highlights were renditions of "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning", "God Bless America" (yes, with Kate Smith), and the title song. Hollywood Canteen (1944) was a tribute to the real-life Canteen where many of Hollywood's stars worked part-time in support of the Canteen's role as a place for servicemen to go when away from home.

The patriotic and nostalgic musical blended together to offer one diamond from WB, in 1942 - Yankee Doodle Dandy - with James Cagney playing the title role of the famous American musical performer and showman George M. Cohan. The songs are infectiously entertaining; the dancing is typically Cagney - strutting and pugnacious; and the staging is impeccable. Some of the story may be trite and typically Hollywood biography, but you can't take your eyes off Cagney's performance, which won him a well-deserved Academy Award as Best Actor of 1942.

The end of the War saw the beginning of the composer-biography musical. WB made two entries here. Rhapsody in Blue (1945) was supposedly the life of George Gershwin while Night and Day (1946) purported to be that of Cole Porter. The music in both was adequate to good, but each film was let down by derivative plots and Hollywood musical biography clichés. Robert Alda was nobody's idea of George Gershwin, and Cary Grant offers nothing as Cole Porter. Coincidently, Alexis Smith managed to be boring in both films. The only spark in either film seemed to come from actors who played themselves - Oscar Levant in Rhapsody in Blue and Monte Woolley in Night and Day.

In the 1950s, two main things of consequence that WB could offer to the musical genre were Judy Garland in A Star is Born (1954) and Doris Day in a series of pleasant if ultimately forgettable musicals. After gradually breaking into the genre in the late 1940s in Romance on the High Seas (1948), Day hit her stride with the likes of Tea for Two (1950), On Moonlight Bay (1951), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), Calamity Jane (1953), and The Pajama Game (1957). The work from Doris Day and Judy Garland were good contributions, but they paled in comparison to the efforts that were still going on over at MGM at that time.

MGM ("...a world of entertainment")

Despite being the studio with the largest stable of stars and the films with the richest production values, MGM was a little slow to react to the impact of the Busby Berkeley musicals coming out of WB in the early to mid-1930s. In Eleanor Powell and Jeanette MacDonald, they soon found they had part of the answer, however. The other part lay in the hands of two youngsters that MGM was gradually grooming for stardom - Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

Eleanor Powell's tap-dancing expertise became the centre-piece of a number of musicals that featured the same sort of large-scale production numbers that Busby Berkeley was fashioning at Warner Brothers. Born to Dance (1936) and Rosalie (1937) were two such films, but Powell is perhaps even more identified with the "Broadway Melody" series of musicals. These actually originated with 1929's The Broadway Melody - MGM's contribution to the spate of early-sound revue films (and one which won a Best Picture Academy Award). In 1936, they revived the idea with Broadway Melody of 1936 and then followed it with Broadway Melody of 1938 and Broadway Melody of 1940. In the latter, Powell and Fred Astaire teamed to create one of the greatest tap-dancing production numbers ever put on film, done to the music "Begin the Beguine". Powell would appear in a few musicals in the early 1940s (including Lady Be Good [1941] and Ship Ahoy [1942]), but her career slowly faded after that.

Jeanette MacDonald added some very pleasant singing to 1936's otherwise dramatic San Francisco, but her teaming with Nelson Eddy in Naughty Marietta (1935) and Rose Marie (1936) kicked off a very successful series of operetta films that would continue for five years (Maytime [1937] and The Girl of the Golden West [1938], for example) ending with 1940's Bitter Sweet. (The two would re-team for the less successful I Married an Angel in 1942.)

Mickey Rooney was a solid presence at MGM by the mid-1930s and he soon was starring in the Andy Hardy series as well as featured roles in other major MGM films of the time. Judy Garland had been signed to a contract in 1935 and after successes in Broadway Melody of 1938 and an Andy Hardy film among others, she would appear in a musical especially developed for her - the immensely successful The Wizard of Oz (1939). Capitalizing on Garland's building popularity, MGM also starred her with Rooney in Babes in Arms (1939). The success of these two films led to a succession of Garland/Rooney musicals - Strike Up the Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1941), and Girl Crazy (1943).

But of even more importance to the future of the MGM musical than Garland herself was the fact that her two successes of 1939 had been produced by Arthur Freed. Freed was one of MGM's resident songwriters, along with Nacio Herb Brown, during much of the 1930s. By the late 1930s, he had begun to acquire and develop properties for MGM and the success of The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms led to his heading up what would become known as the Freed Unit. Along with Roger Edens who was variously composer, arranger, musical director, and associate producer for the Unit for many years, Freed turned out a truly memorable parade of contemporary film musicals during the 1940s and 1950s whose like has never been matched. The stars included such names as Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, and Frank Sinatra. The films included: the Garland/Rooney musicals already mentioned, For Me and My Gal (1942), Cabin in the Sky (1943), Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), Best Foot Forward (1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), The Harvey Girls (1946), Yolanda and the Thief (1945), Till the Clouds Roll By (1947), Good News (1947), Summer Holiday (1948), The Pirate (1948), Easter Parade (1948), Words and Music (1948), Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), On the Town (1949), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Royal Wedding (1951), An American in Paris (1951), Show Boat (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Belle of New York (1952), Invitation to the Dance (1956, filmed in 1952), The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon (1954), It's Always Fair Weather (1955), Kismet (1955), Silk Stockings (1957), Gigi (1958), and Bells Are Ringing (1960).

There were, of course, other MGM musicals made during the Freed era and some of them quite entertaining. The excellence of the Freed ones just tends to make one overlook the films featuring Jane Powell, Marge and Gower Champion, Mario Lanza, and many others.

RKO ("...dancing cheek to cheek")

RKO's chief musical claim to fame was the duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In 1933, the pair first appeared in Flying Down to Rio in supporting roles, but they were headliners thereafter throughout the 1930s. Their films included: The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939).

Otherwise, musical fortunes at RKO were hit and miss. The company had its own major musical success at the dawn of sound in the musical western Rio Rita (1929) - a film that had a subplot featuring the comedy duo of Wheeler and Woolsey, and also a final sequence shot in two-strip Technicolor. The formula was repeated in 1930's Dixiana, but less successfully. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the studio had Lucille Ball under contract and several of her films could be considered to be minor musicals. More importantly, in the 1940s, the studio made Frank Sinatra's first films of consequence - Higher and Higher (1943) and Step Lively (1944) - before he moved over to MGM. Fred Astaire returned for a minor kick at the musical can in The Sky's the Limit (1943) and Eddie Cantor offered the pleasant Show Business (1944). The studio made a few films featuring the big bands of the time and some of its more minor contract players and even tried its own revival of the musical revue with George White's Scandals (1945). As the decade wound down, however, RKO's musicals became few and far between as the studio realized that its bread and butter lay in comedy, drama, westerns, and increasingly film noir.

WB, MGM, and RKO Musicals on DVD

A quick survey of what's available suggests that 32 musicals from these studios are currently available on DVD or reportedly in the works. Of course there are probably (and hopefully) others that we just haven't heard about yet. The following table provides some details. All are WB-produced DVDs unless indicated otherwise. Conspicuously absent are too many items: most of the Astaire/Rogers films, virtually all the Busby Berkeley films, many of Judy Garland's films including Easter Parade, all of Jane Powell's work, and most WB musicals of the 1940s. On the list, I've included mention of the fine compilation That's Entertainment and the American Masters program on Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer - a superior documentary with many fine and lengthy clips from Kelly's films. Please feel free to let me know of any that I may have overlooked.

Film Title (Production Company) Year Comments
Jazz Singer, The (WB) 1927 Rumoured to be forthcoming in 2004.
Dixiana (RKO) 1930 Roan Group DVD release. Includes the final Technicolor sequence. Recommended.
42nd Street (WB) 1933 Highly recommended.
Top Hat (RKO) 1935 Rumoured to be forthcoming in 2004.
Swing Time (RKO) 1936 Rumoured to be forthcoming in 2004.
Wizard of Oz, The (MGM) 1939 Highly recommended SE.
Broadway Melody of 1940 (MGM) 1940 Recommended. See review later in this column.
Ziegfeld Girl (MGM) 1941 Forthcoming during the 2004-early 2005 period.
For Me and My Gal (MGM) 1942 Forthcoming during the 2004-early 2005 period.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (WB) 1942 Forthcoming Sept. 30, 2003 in a 2-disc SE.
Meet Me in St. Louis (MGM) 1944 Rumoured to be forthcoming in 2004.
Anchors Aweigh (MGM) 1945 Recommended with caveat. Some of the DVD suffers from registration or differential shrinkage problems of the three-strip Technicolor image.
Harvey Girls, The (MGM) 1946 Highly recommended.
Good Times (MGM) 1947 Recommended.
Till the Clouds Roll By (MGM) 1947 Public domain. BFS and Madacy are among those who have released versions. None are recommended. A fine laserdisc was released by MGM/UA as part of a Composers Collection box set.
Inspector General, The (WB) 1949 Public domain. Roan Group release best bet.
On the Town (MGM) 1949 Recommended. Minor evidence of differential shrinkage of the three-strip Technicolor image.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (MGM) 1949 Recommended.
Annie Get Your Gun (MGM) 1950 Highly recommended.
American in Paris, An (MGM) 1951 Recommended.
Royal Wedding (MGM) 1951 Public domain. Brentwood, BFS, and Goodtimes are among those who have released versions. None are recommended.
Show Boat (MGM) 1951 Acceptable, but would benefit from a new transfer.
Singin' in the Rain (MGM) 1952 Both 2-disc SE and previous single disc versions highly recommended.
Calamity Jane (WB) 1953 Recommended.
Kiss Me, Kate (MGM) 1953 Mis-framing issues. See review later in this column.
Brigadoon (MGM) 1954 Decent, but needs anamorphic transfer.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (MGM) 1954 Decent, but needs anamorphic transfer.
Star Is Born, A (WB) 1954 Highly recommended.
High Society (MGM) 1956 Recommended. See review later in this column.
Girls, Les (MGM) 1957 Recommended. See review later in this column.
Pajama Game, The (WB) 1957 Recommended.
Silk Stockings (MGM) 1957 Highly recommended. See review later in this column.
Gigi (MGM) 1958 Decent, but needs anamorphic transfer.
That's Entertainment (MGM) 1974 Rumoured to be forthcoming in 2004.
Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer (WB) 2002 Highly recommended.


Cole Porter Collection

The Cole Porter Collection

Buy this DVD now at DVD Planet!

WB has packaged five musicals based on songs by Cole Porter and all originally made by MGM in a very welcome box set. The films (Broadway Melody of 1940, Kiss Me Kate, High Society, Les Girls, Silk Stockings) are also available individually. Porter was a prolific song-writer and there are numerous films dating back to the early 1930s that either are musicals for which he wrote all or most of the music, or dramas and comedies that happen to contain one or two of his songs, sometimes uncredited. I believe that these are the only musicals for which he wrote the bulk of the songs that are so far available on DVD (although 1941's You'll Never Get Rich is forthcoming from Columbia). Other Cole Porter films missing in action are the likes of The Gay Divorcee, Rosalie, Du Barry Was a Lady, The Pirate, and Anything Goes. The following five titles are all recommended although with the occasional caveat as detailed in the individual reviews.

Broadway Melody of 1940
(released on DVD by WB on April 22, 2003)

Of the four "Broadway Melody" films that MGM made, this vies closely with the 1936 edition for being the finest. It is best known for the famous tap-dancing number performed by Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell to "Begin the Beguine" - a number that Frank Sinatra introduced in 1974's That's Entertainment with the comment " You can wait around and hope, but you'll never see the likes of this again". Truer words were never spoken.

Broadway Melody of 1940

Buy this DVD now at DVD Planet!

The film marked the beginning of the second phase of Fred Astaire's Hollywood career, as he now joined MGM after being with RKO (and Ginger Rogers) throughout the 1930s. Eleanor Powell appeared in her third "Broadway Melody" picture in a row and George Murphy his second. Shooting was carried out during the autumn of 1939 and with the uncertainty caused by the beginning of World War II, the original plan to film in Technicolor was dropped although otherwise no expense was spared with perhaps one exception - the story. It concerns a mix-up between the two dancers in the Johnny Brett/King Shaw (Fred Astaire/George Murphy) dance act. When a Broadway producer (played by reliable Frank Morgan) looking for talent for his new show sees the act and likes what he sees in Johnny's performance, he summons Johnny to see him. Fearful that the summons is in regard to an unpaid bill, Johnny falsely gives his name as King Shaw thus creating a mix-up that requires the whole film to sort out. A rather thin plot-line, but we do get six Cole Porter songs to ease things along including "I Concentrate on You" and the aforementioned "Begin the Beguine". The other titles are somewhat forgettable, but as we always get some combination of Astaire, Powell, and Murphy dancing to them, the whole business is easy to take. Overall, this is quite an enjoyable film.

WB has done a nice job with its full-frame DVD transfer (in accord with the original aspect ratio), which manages to look quite sharp and bright. Black levels are deep and shadow detail is very good. There is some minor speckling, but it does not detract from the overall impact, which is quite positive for a film of this vintage. The mono sound track is also in good shape with but minimal hiss occasionally evident. The songs obviously lack the presence of today's more aggressive sound mixes, but at least are clearly reproduced. English and French language tracks are provided as are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Supplementary material consists of a short but informative featurette on the making of the film hosted by Ann Miller, an entertaining 1940 Our Gang short The Big Premiere, and the film's theatrical trailer.

Kiss Me Kate
(released on DVD by WB on April 22, 2003)

Not all of MGM's best musicals were made by the Freed Unit, as evidenced by this delightful 1953 filming of the 1948 Broadway musical. The story revolves around a back-stage love triangle involving the three principles in the staging of a musical adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" and is spiced up with 14 Cole Porter songs including "Too Darn Hot", "Wunderbar", "Always True to You in My Fashion", and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare". One of the last of the singing duos of note in musicals - Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson - star with Ann Miller, and are ably supported by Bobby Van, Keenan Wynn, and James Whitmore. The film was directed by one of MGM's reliables - George Sidney and benefits immensely from choreography by Hermes Pan.

The musical is one of those that has a background story of some consequence with great music logically incorporated into it. The numbers offer excellent singing and dancing opportunities for some of the best musical talent of the time. Howard Keel, nearly always effective as an actor and singer together, does particularly well as Fred/Petruchio. Ann Miller does a dynamic tap number in "Too Darn Hot", but the show is virtually stolen by Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore's delightful comic song "Brush Up Your Shakespeare". Bob Fosse, Bobby Van, and Tommy Rall provide one of the film's highlights with their own dance interpretations in the film's finale.

Kiss Me Kate

Buy this DVD now at DVD Planet!

The film was staged partially to take advantage of the brief 3-D rage of the early 1950s, and was widely projected in 3-D at the time of its initial release. WB has chosen to present it on disc in 2-D only. The results are an image that is certainly the best-looking that the film has ever looked on home video. Colours are sharp and vibrant while blacks are deep and whites clean. Shadow detail is very good. There is, however, one area of contention - that of the film's framing. The DVD's image appears very tightly framed on the left side particularly in comparison to previous home video versions including both an early laserdisc full frame release and a later laserdisc letterbox release. While the framing actually looks better on the latter, the DVD apparently does reflect 2-D framing as originally projected and also correctly reflects the 1.37:1 ratio in which the film was shot although allowance was made for projection at wider ratios. In the DVD transfer process, WB could have adjusted the framing to remove the left-side tightness, but apparently chose to reflect the original print framing. It was a judgement call that some will agree with and others not. Regardless, aside from the framing issue, the DVD looks great and is well worth having despite this issue. WB, by the way, was reportedly looking into the whole issue further, but that was several months ago and so far nothing has happened that I'm aware of.

WB has provided a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix for the release. For the musical numbers, this is generally successful in that they demonstrate some good separation and even the odd effective surround effect. The numbers sound dynamic although there is little in the way of bass. The downside is that the difference between the music and the dialogue is noticeable with the latter being rather flat in comparison. Still, the new mix's benefits won the day for me as I found the overall effect pleasurable. Some will, however, be disappointed in the omission of the original track as an alternative. The disc's supplements include a short but very informative featurette on the making of the film hosted by Ann Miller, a 1949 documentary short subject portraying Manhattan at that time, and the theatrical trailer.

On to Part Two

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