Warner Brothers Musicals Collection

The Musicals Collection Blu-ray set from Warner Home Video contains four Hollywood classics of the genre, at least two of them among the greatest of all time: Kiss Me Kate, Calamity Jane, The Band Wagon, and Singin’ in the Rain. And all except for Singin’ in the Rain are making their Blu-ray debut. While the films may not rank equal in terms of quality—those latter two titles are the all-time greats—each of the transfers are outstanding, the movies themselves are still nevertheless enjoyable, and the set is a terrific bargain.

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Kiss Me, Kate is offered in 2-D and 3-D versions. Though the 3-D is certainly not the best to grace a Blu-ray, it’s still the version to watch, even with the clich├ęd, though occasionally amusing gimmick of characters throwing things at the camera. However, it’s the color cinematography by the legendary Charles Rosher—this, his penultimate picture—that really pops. We get a sense of just how vibrant the color is going to be during the early “Too Darn Hot” performance by Ann Miller, who, more than the leading lady Kathryn Grayson, is the most interesting actress and female protagonist of the film. Her pink dress explodes off the screen as she shimmies seductively around the room, and for the first time it’s made lavishly clear just how astounding this film is going to look. For much of the picture’s basic plot, the colors are relatively subdued, but when the focus turns to the dance numbers that later make up the performance within the film, the results are likewise dazzling.

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The storyline of Kiss Me, Kate runs along familiar backstage lines, with its show business setting, the drama in front of and behind the curtain, blending in some cases, and the anxiety caused by comical misunderstandings. Howard Keel is Fred, an actor who convinces his ex, Lilly (Grayson), to appear in a musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew,” written by Cole Porter, who appears as himself. Jealousy (this is when Miller’s Lois Lane comes in) and some confusion about an unpaid debt result in the relatively inauspicious narrative motivation. Once the play within the film begins, there are four musical numbers by the movie’s intermission, and these performances take up about 20 minutes of screen time, while the film’s off-stage story essentially stops dead. The halves of the film are subsequently uneven, with the first part providing the necessary setting of the scene only to give way to the theatrical performance, slowing down the plot until they begin to merge in the end.

To director George Sidney’s credit, he does a good deal to open up the restricted spaces through camera placement and set design, as well as some creative uses of the 3-D. Somewhat unique to 3-D films are repeated appearances of mirrors. On occasion, this creates an interesting composition (reminiscent of Sirk’s melodramas), but Sidney doesn’t utilize the reflections to manipulate the depth perception as much as he could have, with a flattening out of space via the mirror shown in depth by the 3-D.

Of only minor genre and technical interest, Kiss Me, Kate is still one of the more visually appealing films of this set, but compared to the other three films, it doesn’t stack up in any other regard.

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Aside from the singing cowboy films of yesteryear, musical Westerns are few and far between. For the most part, that’s probably a good thing, as the two genres don’t always mix well. One exception—arguably the greatest exception—is Calamity Jane, a pleasantly surprising film.

Doris Day in the title role is delightfully infectious from start to finish. She performs everything with great exuberance and humor, with lots of comic mugging, an impressive physicality—particularly during the extended take dance numbers—a rootin’ tootin’ rowdiness, and a surly adoption of rough and tumble Western slang. Calamity is well liked and apparently quite a skilled shot (though she does seem prone to embellishment; tall tales, of course, in the best Western tradition), but due to her tucked away hair and buckskin attire, she’s commonly mistaken for a man. With various statements suggested or noted explicitly concerning masculine and feminine Western tropes, Calamity Jane is an unexpectedly provocative look at sexual identity, certainly in ways other Westerns wouldn’t dream. There’s gender lopsidedness in the film’s Deadwood town—”Gentlemen and, uh, gentlemen,” says Henry Miller (Paul Harvey) as he announces performances—and as such, the film points to the same deficiency in the Western genre as a whole.

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When Francis (not Frances) shows up to entertain the citizenry, he is forced to perform in drag, as the men of the town expected a female entertainer. Calamity aims to help Henry, the beleaguered inn/theater owner, and so travels to Chicago to employ star Adelaid Adams. A fish out of water in the big city (where she assumes a wig shop is displaying scalps), Calamity instead brings back Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie), under the assumption that Katie is Adams. Thus, we have another musical with its basic premise born from misunderstanding, and another musical with entertainment itself as a key part of its narrative (see also the remaining two films of this set).

Back in town, the truth is revealed, but all is forgiven when Katie turns out to be quiet the girl herself. Unforeseen contention, however, comes when Calamity, apparently having been the only white woman in town, suddenly has some competition when it comes to male companionship. Though she had never expressed much romantic interest in a man, her gradually more ladylike transformation at the hands of Katie gets her emotions reeling and her (perhaps now outdated) feminine instincts kick in, or at least do so on occasion. But the transformation is a false one, and so is doomed to fail. Authenticity of character is crucial to Calamity Jane, just as it is in most Westerns. But in a male-dominated genre like the Western, this musical variation with such a prominent and endearing female focus is certainly something unique.

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The versatile and vastly underrated Vincente Minnelli directs the third film in the set, The Band Wagon. Shot in gorgeous Technicolor and produced by the famed Arthur Freed unit at MGM, the film follows fading—no, faded—movie star Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) as he makes the shaky transition from screen to stage. Joining him are the husband and wife writing team of Lester and Lily Martin (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray), who are first seen as Hunter’s two-person fan club, famed ballet star Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse), and producer/director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan). The alliance isn’t always a sturdy one, but once everyone gets on the same track, it exemplifies the “no business like show business” adage. Like Kiss Me, Kate and so many other musicals, The Band Wagon is set primarily behind the scenes of a theatrical production as it goes from initial inspiration to opening night, with all the creative differences along the way—so many, in this case, it’s a wonder the show comes off at all. But even in this tried and tested set-up, Minnelli and company create something special.

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Primary reasons for the film’s excellence are the extraordinary dance numbers and the music and lyrics by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. Form the early “Penny Arcade” sequence, with Astaire’s ode to a shoeshine, to the grand finale, the genre-bending noir-tinged “Girl Hunt,” the film’s most iconic number and its most brilliantly designed, all involved do flawless work. The only exception is the “Triplets” number, which is truly bizarre. Astaire and Charisse make a dynamic duo, even if at first seeming to be personally and physically mismatched (IMDB claims they were actually the exact same height and weight). Astaire in particular displays a stunning range of movement in his straightforward dancing, his casual shuffles, and his mannerisms—in everything he does really.

The second key feature of The Band Wagon is its recurring thematic discrepancy between light, box office fun and serious, classic productions. When the film begins, Cordova’s current work is the gloomy and somber “Oedipus Rex.” Hunter wonders if he is really the right man for the job when it comes to a musical. Indeed, as it turns out, Cordova does envision a modern day “Faust,” not what anyone else had in mind, and, as we see, not what audiences want. Things get turned around and all is well, but the theme pervades. The “That’s Entertainment” sequence, which Cordova actually instigates, gets to the heart of the film and its artistic conflict. The artificial barrier between high and low art, typically designated by critics and subsequently influencing product accessibility and audience perception, more often than not hinders both categorizations. As The Band Wagon shows, there may be differences in subject matter and tone, but entertainment is entertainment, be it ballet and Sophocles or tap dance and a gangster movie. Just put on a good show.

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Finally, there is Singin’ in the Rain, arguably the best musical ever made (it certainly is for my money). Stanley Donen and star Gene Kelly direct this American movie essential about the transition from silent pictures to the talkie. With Kelly’s Don Lockwood are musician Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) and chorus girl/wannabe actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), as well as Lockwood’s perpetual co-star, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who, like so many real silent stars, struggles to make the transition into talking pictures.

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The music of Singin’ in the Rain is famously fantastic and the dance numbers are inventive and enjoyable. The performances are amusing (Selden is particularly funny) and the look of the film is dazzling (thanks largely to the cinematography of five-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner Harold Rosson). But why the film holds up best has to do with the fact that it’s a great movie about movies. As is evidenced by just the three other films in this set, so many great musicals have Broadway or similarly theatrical scenarios as their backdrop. Rare is the movie musical about a movie musical. Behind the scenes musicals about what it takes to put on a stage performance can obviously be entertaining and even enlightening, but they can also do a discredit to what it takes to make such a film itself. Singin’ in the Rain not only takes that as its primary concern, but does so in a time period setting just at the dawn of the musical genre. Subsequently, it’s a fascinating movie that bears historical significance beyond its own standing as one of Hollywood’s finest achievements.


1 comment:

  1. I just love the collection. I am planning a small party based on music theme and I think this collection and ideas behind it will definitely help me a lot and that is why I am planning a party at New York venues.