Knight at HOME at the Movies
Classics Roundup Summer 2007
It looks like I'm only about to recommend six titles here but look again - there's actually a WHOPPING 26 movies here. That should
be enough to hold even the most die hard classics movie fan for a week or so. Let's get started.
Just when it seemed that there wasn't much left in the MGM musical vaults, here come two more stellar boxed sets from Warner
Bros. Home Video. The first is the five disc Classic Musicals of the Dream Factory, Volume Two. On the face of it, it
would seem that the Judy Garland-Gene Kelly cult film, The Pirate from 1948 would be the jewel in the crown in the set. And it
certainly has its rabid followers. The movie, featuring a medium score highlighted by "Be a Clown" by Cole Porter, is an
unabashed example of studio artifice with its garish sets and costumes, and nervous lead performance by Judy Garland. The
film does have its bright spots (though Garland throughout looks distracted and exudes anxiety). Kelly has never been sexier
and more acrobatic in his dance work and he is matched by the amazing Nicholas Brothers. So yes, there is much to
recommend here and there's more Garland (in a last MGM re-teaming with Mickey Rooney) in Words and Music, the 1948
fictional biopic of Rogers & Hart, noted mainly for its superb musical numbers. The set also includes two operettas from Mario
Lanza and Kathryn Grayson, That Midnight Kiss/The Toast of New Orleans and the Fred Astaire vehicles Royal Wedding/The Belle
of New York. This quartet are each presented as double features on separate discs. The sets real triumph, however, is the
1985 documentary That's Dancing, produced and directed, like That's Entertainment its precursor by ten years, by Jack Haley, Jr.
For fans of screen dancing (and I'm a big one), this is perhaps the greatest assemblage of clips you're likely to see. It's a
tremendously entertaining documentary hosted by Kelly, Liza Minnelli, and several others. And the disc includes several
vintage featurettes that are fascinating.
The second new boxed set from Warner that I'm thrilled with is the five-disc TCM Spotlight - Esther Williams, Volume
1. As that title infers, the set was produced in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies and for the DVD debut of Williams, five of
her most enchanting movies - all musicals - have been selected. The titles are the justly famed Bathing Beauty (1943)
(Williams' first starring role), Easy to Wed (1946), On An Island With You (1948), Neptune's Daughter (1949), and Dangerous When
Wet (1953). Each one ends with a spectacular sequence that finds former Olympic champion swimmer Williams in increasingly
lavish water ballets. The previous 90+ minutes usually finds Williams playing a variation on herself - a no-nonsense career girl
(but a nice one) who was nobodies fool yet was human enough to fall for the overt charms of hunky male co-stars that ranged
from Ricardo Montalban to Peter Lawford. Comic support was supplied by everyone from Red Skelton to Betty Garrett, Lucille
Ball and Jimmy Durante. All of Williams' movies tend to blur together but that's not to disparage them, quite the opposite.
The standard MGM opulent production values and eye for detail in sets and costumes are hallmarks of these superb light
entertainments and with their eye-popping color supply examples of why Technicolor was invented. Neptune's Daughter is one of
my favorites. By this point Metro was sparing no expense and let's face it, who wouldn't fall for dreamy, hunky Ricardo
Montalban? It also has the Oscar-winning "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and other Frank Loesser tunes to keep it humming. The
set includes a slew of extras and I'm especially happy to see the long one on one interview Williams did with TCM's host Robert
Osborne that's an extra on Bathing Beauty.
Warner Home Video also gives us another boxed set dedicated to film noir. Like the MGM musical set above, it wouldn't seem
there was much at this point left to savor. But as the 5-disc Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4 proves, that's far from
the truth. The set includes a whopping TEN films each a nice example of the dark noir genre and includes They Live By Night
(1948), a bona fide classic. Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell star in the exciting debut feature from director Nicholas Ray as
a pair of ill-fated lovers caught up in a live of crime. Based on the novel "Thieves Like Us" (which Altman would film decades
later), the movie has a number of memorable scenes, the typical terse dialogue and sumptuous, deep focus black and white
photography typical of noir. The intensity of the performances by Granger and O'Donnell and the expert supporting cast make
this a stunner. The duo were re-teamed in Side Street (1950) which is again helped by their on-screen chemistry. Both titles
are given double feature status as are several other titles in the set. Other highlights include a re-teaming of Out of the Past's
Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in 1949's The Big Steal (on the lam down Mexico way tough talkin' at every turn), Mitchum again
(this time with Faith Domergue) again on the run in 1950's Where Danger Lives and 1948's Act of Violence about ex-GIs in a
heap of trouble (Fred Zinnemann directed, marvelous Mary Astor has a great cameo as a "good time gal"). My new favorite
noir, which I hadn't seen until now, is the film that closes out the set, Tension from 1950. Audrey Totter, a staple of the genre,
plays another blond tramp whose milquetoast husband Richard Basehart comes up with an ingenious murder scheme after
being humiliated by Totter's new lover. Cyd Charisse co-stars. Each of the films has commentaries from noir experts and
there are also several new making of featurettes. And bargain priced to boot!
Now onto a trio of welcome classics titles from 20th Century Fox. The first up is the The Jeeves Collection which includes
both titles in the series. Thank You, Jeeves! (1936) is on Side A of the disc and Step Lively, Jeeves! (1937) on the reverse. We
are introduced to Arthur Treacher as the uptight though loving gentleman's gentleman in the first film. Treacher as Jeeves is
the essence of British refinement who clucks disapprovingly at the antics of his wealthy playboy boss (played by David Niven).
He keeps a stiff upper lip as Niven in the role of dunderheaded Bertie Wooster goes from one madcap episode to the next.
The film made Niven a star and this prevented him from returning the following year for the sequel in which the snobbish
Jeeves is sent to America as part of a con in which he believes he's heir to a fortune himself. 20th has beautifully restored
both black and white titles (the restoration shows) and has added some thoughtful featurette material detailing the life and
esteem that P.G. Wodehouse, the author and renowned raconteur who created the characters, continues to be held. The
Jeeves butler has become an iconic part of American culture (look no further than the search engine bearing his name and
likeness) and its fun to see again the first film versions of the character.
Next up is the Jack Benny vehicle Charley's Aunt (1941) that was based on a long-running hit British play. Another madcap
comedy of manners, this one involving a group of college chums who blackmail Benny, another student, into dressing up in
drag as the title character so they can go on "chaperoned dates," the movie sparkles with its literate script which owes much to
Oscar Wilde's "Importance of Being Earnest." The beautiful brunette Kay Francis and the little known but expert Laird Cregar
offer wonderful support. Fox has packaged the disc with a set on vintage postcard-sized stills and several featuretes.
Jane Eyre from 1944 is given the same treatment by Fox and its well worth it. Of all the many adaptations of the famous
Bronte novel this is my favorite. Perhaps because Orson Welles essays the role of the fearsome though fascinating Rochester
and because his influence can be felt on the dark, brooding production (it feels and looks very similar to his masterpiece, The
Magnificent Ambersons). Joan Fontaine playing another frightened woman role, very similar to her Rebecca, is the skittish
governess of the title who falls under Rochester's spell. A young Elizabeth Taylor has a heartbreaking cameo as the young girl
forced to stand out in the rain of the orphange of Jane's childhood. The film is a gothic romance writ large and Fox gave it
their all in terms of production and design (it also features an intensely emotional score by Bernard Herrmann). Several
featurettes, documenting the making of the film are also included.