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Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Bursting with glorious Technicolor and boasting an array of Hollywood's finest and most beloved musical stars, the four films in Warner Bros. Home Entertainment's new 4-disc set BLU-RAY MUSICALS COLLECTION (available March 3rd)--THE BAND WAGON, CALAMITY JANE, KISS ME KATE, and SINGIN' IN THE RAIN--are a treasure trove for fans of the genre.

And if you have yet to discover that most unique of film genres, this is an ideal starting point from which to begin an in-depth exploration--four of the best in all their Blu-ray splendor (both the 3D and 2D versions of KISS ME KATE are included), attractively packaged in a rigid page-turner slip case splashed with photos from the films, and loaded with extras (included four collectible stills).






With THE BAND WAGON we get a taste of casual elegance and class a la Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, but with plenty of lowbrow comedy to even things out. This seemed to be Astaire's specialty--impossibly suave and debonair one moment, comically self-effacing the next, but always just plain cool without even trying.

Cyd Charisse, although often seen as a slinky seductress (as in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and THE BAND WAGON'S own elaborate finale), was also a graceful ballet dancer at heart and could put those long, willowy limbs of hers to use in the most elegant fashion. She was, to me, rivaled only by Esther Williams as the most beautiful of musical stars.

Here, the emphasis is on pure song-and-dance numbers and big-production indulgence splashed in vivid Technicolor--"musical porn", one might say--with a slender plot to hang it all on. Astaire plays washed-up Hollywood actor Tony Hunter, who has returned to New York in hopes of getting work on Broadway. His writer friends, married couple Lily and Lester Marton (an ebullient Nanette Fabray and endearingly grumpy Oscar Levant acting as surrogates for writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green), introduce him to eccentric producer Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who plunges Tony into the lead role of his grievously ill-conceived musical version of "Faust."

The play is a disaster, but while still on the road all the participants decide to totally overhaul it into a splashy, fun romp with all-new songs and dance numbers which they'll try out on the road before taking it back to New York. And aside from the requisite love story, with Astaire falling for the initially aloof primadonna Charisse while she still carries a fading torch for someone else, that's the extent of the plot--just a dazzling succession of unrestrained musical exuberance that lives up to the film's signature theme song, "That's Entertainment."

With Vincente Minelli (MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS) at the helm and a gaggle of delightful songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, watching THE BAND WAGON is like savoring a slice of seven-layer cake washed down with bubbling champagne. It's the classic backstage musical, with even the "real-life" settings coming off like stylized stage backdrops and a story that never takes itself too seriously--at least after Cyd's glum would-be boyfriend Paul (James Mitchell) makes an early exit.

Astaire's melancholy opening number "By Myself" (look for actor Steve Forrest as an extra) gives way to a colorfully idealized Times Square setting for the breezy "Shine On Your Shoes", a delightful romp in which the downcast Tony Hunter lifts his own spirits with the help of his fellow New Yorkers. Tony and Gaby (Cyd Charisse) overcome their initial stylistic and personality conflicts with a sleek, romantic dance interlude in Central Park to "Dancing in the Dark."

Cordova's "Faust" debacle yields some fun moments, but it's when the troup decide to bounce back with a newer, better show under Tony's direction that the fun really starts. The always dynamic Charisse performs "New Sun in the Sky", Fabray's talents are showcased in "Louisiana Hayride", and Astaire and Buchanan duet on the simple but sweet soft-shoe ditty "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan." For pure hilarity, nothing beats the sight of Astaire, Fabray, and Buchanan as babies with adult heads and infant bodies (a wonderful illusion), bounding out of their high chairs to pound out the supremely silly "Triplets."

The extended stage-show-within-the-movie ends with a lengthy Mickey Spillane-style segment entitled "Girl Hunt", with Astaire as a private detective named Rod Riley dancing his way through the shadowy criminal underworld in search of mystery woman Charisse. (Look for a young Julie Newmar in a bit part.) The whole thing's way too complicated and cinematic to be a stage number, but we don't really care since, aside from being just plain nutty, it's a thrilling performance by the leads with some of their most jazzy and sophisticatedly sexy dancing yet.

Naturally, everything turns out okay in the end, with all romantic and showbiz-related complications settled just in time for the cast to reprise "That's Entertainment!" with renewed vigor. As a story, the whole thing's paper thin and loaded with all the old "let's put on a show!" cliche's that could be stuffed into it. But neither Vincent Minelli, Fred Astaire, nor anyone else involved let any of that stop them from turning THE BAND WAGON into a non-stop celebration of music and dance that has become one of the most beloved musicals of all time. 


In addition to a bubbly commentary track by musical experts Liza Minelli and Michael Feinstein (who rate this as their favorite musical), there are two lengthy and informative documentaries--"Get Aboard! The Band Wagon" and "The Man Who Made the Movies: Vincent Minelli", the latter featuring Minelli himself commenting on his own brilliant career along with copious footage from his films. Then there's a 1929 Vitaphone short with a young Jack Buchanan doing some vaudeville-style comedy with the Glee Quartet, the delightful MGM Droopy cartoon "Three Little Pups", and a trailer.



CALAMITY JANE takes place in a dreamy Technicolor version of the Old West straight out of the matinee oaters of the 30s and 40s. In fact, when we get our first long shot of the town of Deadwood, it looks almost like a cowpoke version of Oz.

The film hits the ground running with Doris Day's rousing opening number, "The Deadwood Stage (Whip-Crack-Away!)", in which she sails into town riding shotgun on the stagecoach and then makes her way into the saloon-slash-theater "The Golden Garter" to regale all her friends with tall tales of her latest exploits.

Doris Day is a hoot playing a blonde, female version of Gabby Hayes who, as the film progresses and she acquires a few wardrobe and makeup refinements, gradually reveals her true hidden beauty to her stunned male friends including Howard Keel's "Wild Bill" Hickock.

Keel is his usual tall, oak-solid self with a singing voice as deep as the ocean. Philip Carey is adequate though a tad nondescript as dashing cavalry officer Lt. Daniel Gilmartin. The rest of the cast is populated by a delightful assortment of motley Western types along with Dick Wesson as tenderfoot actor Francis Fryer from back East (who must perform in drag when the Golden Garter's owner accidentally books him as a female performer). Keep a sharp eye out for Glenn Strange and Bess Flowers in bit parts as well.

Allyn Ann McLerie, who would later play a matronly schoolmarm in the John Wayne classic THE COWBOYS, makes a wonderful transition from shy, homely maid to ravishing dancehall singer as Katie Brown. When Calamity travels to Chicago to ask sought-after beauty Adelaid Adams to perform at the Golden Garter, she mistakes Miss Adams' maid Katie for the famous singer and fetches back her instead.

The nervous Katie's true identity is quickly revealed during her disastrous debut performance, but with Calamity's prompting the rowdy audience gives her a second chance and, with renewed self-confidence, she wins them over on her own.

While the first half of the movie is an endlessly frothy fountain of fun, the second threatens to bog down in romantic plot complications when the four main characters--Calamity, Bill, Katie, and Danny--all fall in love with the wrong people. Fortunately, the film is carried along by some genuine heartfelt sentiment (mainly through song) before bursting forth with the requisite happy-ending vibes as everyone gets paired up like we know they're meant to be.

The songs by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster are just plain delightful. In addition to the exhilarating "The Deadwood Stage (Whip-Crack-Away!)", Doris gets to perform such toe-tappers as "Just Blew in from the Windy City", "A Woman's Touch" (with Allyn Ann McLerie), and her duelling duet with Keel, "I Can Do Without You." I'd forgotten that the Billboard chart-topper "Secret Love" originated from this show, so it was to my very pleasant surprise to hear Doris' beautiful rendition of it late in the film.

Keel solos on the love song "My Heart Is Higher Than a Hawk (Deeper Than a Well)" and McLerie gets two onstage numbers, "Hive Full of Honey" and "It's Harry I'm Planning to Marry", while displaying one of the shapeliest pairs of gams you're likely to see in quite a spell. A reprise of the film's opening number takes us into the feelgood fadeout with a goofy smile on our faces and a renewed appreciation for the divine Dodo.


Not much related to the movie besides a couple of brief newsreels and a trailer. In addition to that, there's an amusing Joe McDoakes short, "So You Love Your Dog" (1953), with George O'Hanlon (the future voice of George Jetson) and a stunning blonde Phyllis Coates, and the vintage Daffy Duck-Porky Pig cartoon "Duck Dodgers in the 24th and a Half Century" with guest star Marvin the Martian.



KISS ME KATE is a fairly staid, traditional musical that's occasionally buoyed by a new wave of imaginative up-and-coming performers--such as the young Bob Fosse (soon to be a major choreographer himself) and Bobby Van--who were eager to infuse the art form with fresh, unconventional ideas and youthful enthusiasm. The sometimes bland story and execution are also carried along, at times almost singlehandedly, by that irrepressible force of nature known as Ann Miller.

The movie begins in the penthouse of Broadway actor and director Fred Graham (Howard Keel) who invites Cole Porter (Ron Randall) and his volatile ex-wife Lilli (Kathryn Grayson) over to look at a new script he wants to produce which is a musical version of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." What we're in for, as you might guess, will be a stage production which will parallel in many ways the temptestuous relationship and eventual reconciliation of Fred and Lilli, with plenty of song and dance numbers squeezed in along the way.

Just as this first section begins to drag a bit, Ann Miller (playing a dancer with the unlikely name of Lois Lane) comes in and blows the doors off the place with an incredible solo performance of "Too Darn Hot" that sets the bar high for the rest of the film. There was just never anything like her that I've ever seen in any musical--unlimited charm, energy, and blazing talent coupled with a seemingly insatiable desire to show it off. Not to mention an utterly uninhibited, sexy charm that you simply don't see every day.

Her appearances throughout the film are like B-12 shots that enliven and invigorate things whenever Howard and Kathryn's mildly amusing romantic conflicts grow a tad tiresome. Joining her in this is athletic hoofer Tommy Rall as her unreliable boyfriend Bill, another dynamo whose powerful dancing is augmented by gymnastic moves.

Bill, we find, is a gambling addict who tends to sign Fred's name to his I.O.U.'s, resulting in Fred being visited by a couple of thugs named Lippy and Slug who are played by the unlikely song-and-dance team of Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore. When they refuse to leave until they're paid, Fred gets them into costume and puts them into the show, which gives KISS ME KATE some of its more endearing comedy relief.

The stage production itself tends to slow things down when too much attention is paid to actually doing bad Shakespeare. However, things pick up when Fred and Lilli's personal problems start to get played out during the performance.

Most of Cole Porter's songs are top-notch as usual, as is the choreography by Hermes Pan. The sets are attractive and photographed in vivid Technicolor. Filmed in 3D (but released as the fad began to wane and thus distributed mostly in 2D), the action is filled with people throwing things at the camera throughout the entire running time. The cast is terrific, including small parts by "Pete Smith" regular Dave O'Brien, Kurt Kasznar, and Ann Codee, who was "Tante Berthe" in THE MUMMY'S CURSE.

Highlights include Keel and Grayson's duets on songs such as "So in Love" and "Wunderbar", Keel's solos on "Were Thine That Special Face", "I've Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua", and "Where Is the Life That Late I Led", and a couple of delightful numbers by Ann Miller and Tommy Rall, "Why Can't You Behave" and "Always True to You in My Fashion." Wynn and Whitmore even get into the act with their two-left-feet schlubfest "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." Grayson's main moment in the show, which the shrewish Lilli performs with conviction, is the song "I Hate Men."

For the lengthy showstopper number "From This Moment On", which comes before the story's inevitable happy ending, director George Sidney treats us to Ann Miller, Tommy Rall, Bob Fosse, Bobby Van, and Carol Haney in a dazzling exhibition of dance in which they were allowed to incorporate much of their own personal style into the choreography. This is one of the most thrilling sequences in the film and, among other things, reaffirmed my newfound admiration for Ann Miller. (I can't wait to see my old favorite ON THE TOWN again in which she co-stars with the likes of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen, and Jules Munchin.)

While not as fresh and fun as SINGIN' IN THE RAIN or as sophisticated and insouciant as THE BAND WAGON, KISS ME KATE still remains one of old Hollywood's most solid, lavish, enjoyable musicals from the glory days of MGM.


Ann Miller hosts the documentary "Cole Porter in Hollywood: Too Darn Hot", followed by the short film "Mighty Manhattan: New York's Wonder City." Also included are a hilarious 1951 MGM cartoon "Barney's Hungry Cousin" and the film's trailer.



Some musicals are great comedies, others great love stories. Some are known for their music and songs, some for the wonderful dancing. But when a musical excels at all four of these--as does SINGIN' IN THE RAIN--then you're looking at a prime candidate for the best and most popular musical of all time.

SINGIN' IN THE RAIN comes about as close to creating a colorful explosion of pure, undiluted joy as a movie can get. Basically a "jukebox" musical--that is, a collection of already-existing song favorites written (mostly) by producer Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown which have nothing to do with each other besides being fortuitously inserted into the same story--it's a labor of love in which co-directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly teamed up to make sure the music and dance numbers were intertwined seamlessly with the narrative and staged in the most artistic and gloriously cinematic style possible.

The handsome, charismatic Kelly, who shows off his robustly masculine, athletic style in a succession of wild yet precise song-and-dance workouts, plays silent film idol Don Lockwood. We see him starting out in vaudeville along with his lifelong buddy Cosmo (Donald O'Connor) before becoming a lowly Hollywood stuntman and finally graduating to stardom along with ditzy blonde Lina Lamont, who believes the publicity about their torrid romance even though he can't stand her. Don, meanwhile, has become smitten with a cute aspiring actress named Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who intially feigns aloofness even though she's secretly a big fan of his.

Wildly comical self-parody abounds as this big Hollywood production pokes fun at big Hollywood productions such as Don and Lina's corny silent epics. An early highlight is a typical gala premiere where the faux couple display their artificial "lofty artist" personas for an adoring crowd. But with the release of the surprise smash sensation THE JAZZ SINGER, silents are out and "talkies" are suddenly all the rage, throwing the studios and their stars into a chaotic scramble to give the public what they want.

Several real-life silent stars such as Garbo's leading man John Gilbert found their careers on the rocks when their voices proved inadequate for sound. Such is Lina's problem when it turns out her grating accent and horrendous diction threaten to make her a laughing stock on the screen. Oscar-nominated Jean Hagen (PANIC IN YEAR ZERO) is hilarious in the role, as in frazzled director Roscoe Dexter's (Douglas Fowley) vain attempts to master the new art of sound recording during a florid love scene in which Lina doggedly refuses to speak into the hidden microphone.

The solution? Hire Kathy Selden to dub both Lina's speaking and singing voices and then turn Don and Lina's latest silent picture into a musical, "The Dancing Cavalier." But while this arrangement is meant to be only temporary, Lina demands that Kathy henceforth secretly do all of her dubbing, and nothing else, thus derailing Kathy's own promising career.

While all this is going on--which we know will eventually work itself out in wonderful and amusing ways--Kelly, O'Connor, and Reynolds are working overtime to give us the best show that the film medium has to offer. The results, under the direction of stern, uncompromising choreographer/taskmaster Kelly, are nothing less than incredible.

SINGIN' IN THE RAIN bursts forth with song at the slightest provocation, yet it never seems less than spontaneous or perfectly fitting for the occasion. Don and Cosmo's breathless vaudeville montage "Fit as a Fiddle (And Ready for Love)" is just a warm-up for their screamingly funny precision dance duet "Moses Supposes" as well as O'Connor's absolutely astounding solo sensation "Make 'Em Laugh", a whirlwind of frenetic energy which he ends by literally running up the walls. It's one of the most astonishing physical performances in any musical, ever.

Debbie gets into the act with the delightfully breezy "Good Morning", which shows how impressive a dedicated song-and-dance novice can be with Gene Kelly as her tutor. While the number was obviously an ordeal to get just right, these three make it seem effortless. With "You Were Meant For Me", Kelly emphasizes the artifice of filmmaking by having Don stage an impromptu love song for Kathy in an empty studio soundstage complete with wind machine and painted backdrop. It's an elegant moment amidst the frivolity.

Still moreso is Kelly's dazzling movie-within-a-movie, "Broadway Melody Ballet", a lengthy interlude in which he plays an ambitious young hoofer arriving in town looking for stardom, only to be seduced and then discarded by a gorgeous goodtime gal played to perfection by she of the long legs and slinky shape, Cyd Charisse. Their dance incorporates several styles from jazz to ballet, all of it mesmerizing.

But most memorable of all is Gene Kelly's immortal "Singin' in the Rain" sequence, in which the lovestruck Don expresses his boundless feelings for Kathy by singing and dancing gleefully down a dark city street in the middle of a downpour. It's one of cinema's most endearing expressions of pure, uninhibited optimism, made all the more impressive by the knowledge that Kelly performed it that day with a raging fever of 103 degrees.

One of the best things about SINGIN' IN THE RAIN is that the story of Hollywood's painful transition from silents to talkies is fun and entertaining on its own, while serving as an ideal vehicle for the seemingly unrelated songs--most already decades old, including the 1929 title tune--which are somehow perfectly incorporated into it. It's a giddy, affectionate, super-charged celebration of song, dance, movies, romance, and sheer joy.


The main extra here is a commentary featuring Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, Cyd Charisse, Kathleen Freeman (who plays Lina's harried vocal coach in the film), Stanley Donen, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, filmmaker Baz Luhrman, and film author/critic Rudy Belmer. This is followed by the feature-length documentary "Singin' in the Rain: Raining on a New Generation", in which current song and dance stars talk about how the film has influenced and inspired them. A jukebox feature allows viewers to create their own playlists of songs from the film. The original trailer is also included.


Buy it at the

Own "BLU-RAY MUSICALS COLLECTION" on March 3rd. KISS ME KATE, CALAMITY JANE, and THE BAND WAGON will also be available as singles.

KISS ME KATE is presented here in both 3D and 2D versions. This is the Blu-ray debut of THE BAND WAGON and CALAMITY JANE.

(Images used in review are not taken from the Blu-ray discs)


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