Friday, December 17, 2004

New Sun in the Sky

The next bunch of notable DVD releases comes March 15, when Warner Home Video releases "Broadway to Hollywood - the Classic Musicals Collection." As usual, the five titles are available individually or in a boxed set, and they are:

The Band Wagon (2 disc special edition) -- commentary, making-of documentary, documentary on Vincente Minnelli, outtake number "Two-Faced Woman"

Easter Parade (2 disc special edition) -- commentary, making-of, documentary "Judy Garland: By Myself," outtakes

Brigadoon (remastered) -- outtake musical numbers: Come to Me, Bend to Me, From this Day On and Sword Dance; also audio-only outtake of "There But For You Go I"

Bells are Ringing -- making-of featurette; outtake musical numbers Is It a Crime, My Guiding Star and alternate takes of The Midas Touch

Finian's Rainbow -- commentary by Francis Ford Coppola

The highlight here, of course, is The Band Wagon, a movie so good that even the then-obligatory Big Ballet, "The Girl Hunt," is actually a highlight rather than a distraction (whereas in Singin' in the Rain, the "Broadway Ballet" holds up the film at a point when it really ought to be getting back to the story). It's Minnelli's best musical, and quite possibly the best of the M-G-M musicals, period.

Like a lot of movie musicals from the early '50s, and especially those written by Comden and Green, it's also sort of a self-referential argument about the artistic stature of musicals. Singin' in the Rain celebrates the musical as the best argument for the superiority of sound films over silents -- since that's the only genre you can't do in silent pictures. At a time when many critics still felt that sound films were inferior to silent films (pick up James Agee and you'll find him returning to this theme on page after page), Singin' celebrates the artistry and craftsmanship of the ultimate in sound filmmaking, the musical. And Band Wagon is a celebration of the old-fashioned, pure fun musical comedy, at a time when stage musicals were becoming more and more serious and determined to compete with serious theatre. Fred Astaire returns to New York and finds that not only has the town changed, musicals have changed too, importing people from High Culture (Jack Buchanan's "genius" actor/director, loosely based on Jose Ferrer; Cyd Charisse's ballerina; James Mitchell's ballet choreographer) and inflating everything with Big Themes. But Astaire's old-school showmanship wins out, and he reshapes the show into something fun and unpretentious -- while still utilizing the talents of some of the High Culture people, much in the way that, say, Rodgers and Hart's musical comedies used the talents of highbrow guys like George Balanchine.

Of the others, Easter Parade is a good, solid Arthur Freed production with the characteristics that most of his films had, no matter who was directing: -- solid story construction, long, fluid takes, and good "blending" of performers whose talents might not seem at first glance to have much in common. Bells are Ringing has Judy Holliday in her stage role, Minnelli directing, Comden and Green adapting their excellent stage show. It's entertaining, but it should be better than it is; cutting Holliday's big comedy number, "Is It a Crime," didn't help, but the whole thing somehow seems less fun than it probably did on stage. Maybe Minnelli is to blame; I'm a big fan, but this material needed somebody a little looser and more whimsical, whereas Minnelli's thing was the carefully-composed, elaborately planned extended shot. Also, Dean Martin didn't seem to be trying very hard in this one, though I don't agree with people who think he's miscast (Dean Martin is playing an artist whose longtime partner has broken up with him, but who finds he can succeed on his own -- how can you say that's miscasting?). Still, Holliday is brilliant, the material is good, and it'll be great to see it in widescreen format at last. I have no such enthusiasm for Brigadoon, where nearly everybody is miscast and where Minnelli hasn't really figured out how to use CinemaScope effectively. But Finian's Rainbow, one of the last of the big '60s roadshow musicals (though, contrary to what I believed, it wasn't a flop), is well worth a look; young wunderkind Coppola used the original Broadway script almost unchanged, and if you can grit your teeth through Tommy Steele, there's a lot of good stuff here, particularly since the score -- by master lyricist Yip Harburg and one of American pop's greatest melodists, Burton Lane -- is one of Broadway's best.

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