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STUDIO: Warner Bros.
Five relatively obscure musicals, spanning MGM’s golden age from the mid-‘40s to the mid-‘50s, and running the gamut from multi-million-dollar prestige productions to modest programmers. Thankfully they’re all equal in the eyes of Warner Home Video, and each has been given a gorgeous transfer and fitted out with substantial special features. There’s even a Tex Avery cartoon on each one!
The discs themselves come in individual Amaray cases, a boon to the selective collector. Proceeding chronologically:
Till the Clouds Roll By (1946)
RUNNING TIME: 130 min.
• New Featurette: Real to Reel
• Vintage Fitzpatrick Traveltalk short: Glimpses of California
• Classic Cartoon: Henpecked Hoboes
• Outtakes: D’ye Love Me? and Music In The Air
• Theatrical Trailer
Robert Walker (Strangers on a Train) stars in this almost completely fictionalized biography of composer Jerome Kern. But even before we crank up the “and-then-I-wrote” machine: 15 minutes of excerpts from Show Boat, Kern’s crowning accomplishment.
Of all the films in this set, this is the one that benefits most from Chapter Search. Just jump straight to Lena Horne or Judy Garland and you’ll be fine. Maybe skip Frank Sinatra’s white, white take on Ol’ Man River though—it’s not his proudest moment. The documentary is honest about the film’s fabrications, and quite informative about the real Kern. The D’ye Love Me? extra has only partial sound, but as with the other discs in this set, it’s amazing that any deleted material exists at all.
4 out of 10
Ziegfeld Follies (1946)
RUNNING TIME: 117 min.
• New Featurette: An Embarrassment of Riches
• Vintage Crime Does Not Pay short: The Luckiest Guy In the World
• Classic Cartoons: The Hick Chick and Solid Serenade
• Three Audio-Only Outtake Songs
• Ziegfeld Movies Trailer Gallery
Gazing down from a heavenly box seat, legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell, reprising his performance from 1939’s The Great Ziegfeld) decides that the war-weary world could use some good old-fashioned entertainment. Cue a fascinating grab-bag of vintage vaudeville acts, gigantic production numbers, and contemporary comedians hot off the USO circuit. In addition to genuine stage veterans like Fanny “Funny Girl” Brice, William “Fred Mertz” Frawley, and Victor Moore, MGM dumps its galaxy of stars in your lap: Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, Red Skelton, Esther Williams, and more.
This picture’s greatest value is as a historical record, though if one is keeping score the best vintage routines hail not from Ziegfeld’s revue but from a rival production, George White’s Scandals. The big numbers are indescribably kitschy and your entertainment mileage may vary. The Crime Does Not Pay short seems an odd fit with the disc, but there is a connection to the main feature if you keep your ears open.
Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do.
6 out of 10
Summer Stock (1950)
RUNNING TIME: 109 min.
• New Featurette: Get Happy!
• Classic Cartoon: The Cuckoo Clock
• Vintage Pete Smith Specialty short: Didja Know?
• Audio-Only Outtake Song
• Theatrical Trailers
This is nothing more or less than a grown-up ‘let’s-put-on-a-show’ movie, and as such, a fitting bookend to Judy Garland’s MGM career. In place of Mickey Rooney we get Gene Kelly (good trade), and for comic relief the inimitable Phil Silvers, Eddie Bracken, and Marjorie Main.
There are worse things than spending an hour-and-a-half with some old friends. Two numbers stand out as classics: Kelly’s solo to Wonderful You, performed on an empty stage with a creaky floorboard; and Garland’s electrifying Get Happy. The documentary sets the record straight on something I’ve been curious about: Garland’s dramatic physical transformation for that particular number. I’d suspected it was an outtake from an earlier film, but a side-by side comparison with a similar deleted number from Easter Parade indicates otherwise.
‘Half-a-hat': Because you never know when your cranium will implode.
7 out of 10
Three Little Words (1950)
RUNNING TIME: 102 min.
• New Featurette: Two Swell Guys
• Vintage Fitzpatrick Traveltalk short: Roaming Through Michigan
• Classic Cartoon: Ventriloquist Cat
• Audio-Only: Paula Stone’s Hollywood USA radio promo
• Theatrical Trailer
Songwriters Bert Kalmar (Fred Astaire) and Harry Ruby (Red Skelton), best remembered for penning Groucho Marx’s theme Hooray For Captain Spaulding and indirectly inventing Betty Boop with I Wanna Be Loved By You, get the and-then-I-wrote treatment this time around, but with a little less fiction and a lot less pretension than was the case with Till the Clouds Roll By.
This is my favorite film in the set. I like how Astaire isn’t afraid to show the hard-working, short-tempered side of his art, and Skelton gives a surprisingly restrained performance. The ladies in their lives are played by the very welcome Vera-Ellen (On the Town) and Arlene Dahl (Slightly Scarlet), and if you look quick that’s 17-year-old Debbie Reynolds playing ‘boop-a-doop’ singer Helen Kane. Most importantly, the movie never forgets it’s a musical, and the high-flying dance numbers are well-placed throughout. The documentary reveals Skelton as a solid lookalike for the real Ruby.
8 out of 10
It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)
RUNNING TIME: 101 min.
• New Featurette: Going Out on a High Note
• Outtakes: Jack and the Space Giants and Love Is Nothing But a Racket
• Segments from The MGM Parade featuring Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly
• Classic Cartoons: Deputy Droopy and Good Will to Men
• Audio-Only Song
• Theatrical Trailer
Three Army buddies (Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd) fresh back from WWII promise to reunite in ten years, but when they do they find that civilian life has cast them far apart socially, professionally, and financially. Enter a beautiful, brainy TV executive (Cyd Charisse, whose magnificent legs previously enfolded Singin’ In the Rain and The Bandwagon) with a last-minute guest slot to fill for a This Is Your Life-type program…
It’s Always Fair Weather is surprisingly perceptive about they ways people can become disillusioned with their lives and take it out on others; it might have been a better film without the songs. The initial intent for this movie was to make a sequel to the 1949 classic On the Town (returning players included director Stanley Donen, co-director/star Kelly, and songwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green); ironically, the intervening real-life years effected similar friction among the talent involved, making the final product a bittersweet experience inside and out.
Even the deleted scenes are frustrating—both were abandoned in mid-production and pair brilliant dancing (particularly Kidd’s solo number) with incomplete soundtracks. Some subtitles for the lost dialogue would have been nice.
This is the only CinemaScope production in the set, and man is it scopey– 2.52:1. The frame repeatedly divides into thirds to follow the primary characters in splitscreen, and the compositions often take up the entire frame. This can be a problem for musicals since it has the effect of stranding the performers in open space, but it works for this particular story with its themes of alienation and disconnection.
Although MGM and the Arthur Freed unit continued to produce notable musicals for at least another three years, It’s Always Fair Weather feels like the end of an era. Perhaps it’s the acknowledgement of the growing role of television— sure, the actors were getting older but it’s hard to argue that they were past their prime when one sees Kelly tap-dancing in real, rolling, roller skates.
A minor note: there is a formatting error on the Deputy Droopy cartoon. It’s the only 1.33:1 content on the disc, but it’s displayed at 16:9, stretched sideways.
8 out of 10