Thursday, March 15, 2018

SALUDOS AMIGOS and THE THREE CABALLEROS: Blu-ray (Walt Disney, 1942-44) Disney Exclusive

Encouraged by President Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘Good Neighbor Policy’ (legislation drafted in 1933 that effectively launched a PR campaign to better the U.S.’s relations with Latin America), Walt Disney’s Saludos Amigos (1942), and its subsequent ‘sequel’ of sorts, The Three Caballeros (1944) can hardly be counted upon as ‘great art’ in the vein of Walt’s Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio, Fantasia (both released in 1940) or Bambi (1942). Commercially, however, they proved far more successful at the box office than virtually all of the aforementioned except Snow White.  Indeed, Walt’s flourish of success with Snow White had been lavishly exported on these subsequent projects. And yet, the public failed to take to them as they should. Though justly regarded as classics today, at the time, each did little except to strain the studio’s coffers. And Walt, true to his genius, had pushed his animators hard on the craftsmanship of these iconic milestones; perhaps too much, resulting in the legendary strike of 1941. 334 employees walked the picket line in a nasty display that dragged on from May until the Fall (another 303 remaining at their posts). The workers’ demands for higher wages and security against arbitrary layoffs (among other grievances) deeply wounded Walt’s belief he had built ‘a family’ business founded on mutual respect and trust.  
Barely escaping bankruptcy, Walt’s survival during this fallow period depended upon the reissue of his animated Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy shorts; also, the production of more of the same, and finally, his relinquishment of authority to the U.S. military, who not only commandeered several sound stages to use as a repair shop for their antiaircraft unit, but also effectively took over whole portions of its production facilities to make instructional films for the war effort. With America’s entry into WWII, the U.S. government’s grave concern, that the spread of fascism would infest its neighboring nations, and thus present a far more immediate threat to its own sovereignty, resulted in a direct response from Hollywood; the industry en masse throwing itself into exhalations of Latin American culture and, even importing a few of its most popular stars; Carmen Miranda, Xavier Cugat and Ricardo Montalban among them.  The government and the industry’s overnight amalgamation of talent and resources could hardly be counted upon for its altruism. Indeed, several South American nations had already allied themselves with the Nazis. Besides, the war in Europe had effectively cut off Hollywood’s highly lucrative marketplace for their product. 
Even Walt’s participation had an angle. His company was overextended in debt. Now, under safe conduct from the U.S. State Department’s Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, Nelson Rockefeller, Walt and a select troop of his most trusted journeymen made their pilgrimage to Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru. Disney’s cartoon shorts had always been popular in these countries. But it was Rockefeller’s sincere hope a ‘goodwill’ tour would inspire even more U.S. loyalty to follow it. To this end, Walt proposed producing not only a movie about their trip abroad, but perhaps several more, celebrating the culture as well as these burgeoning alliances.  After some finagling, Rockefeller secured federal loan guarantees to produce both Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros for $50,000 each. Today, we are so inundated with global connectivity, the resources of the world at our fingertips via even the most basic computer access, it behooves us to reconsider for a moment the morale boost each of these movies gave toward fostering friendly relations between the Americas. At a time when most Americans could scarcely afford to travel, impressions of foreign cultures remained in the dark ages. Hence, Walt’s live-action inserts, depicting the modernity and affluence of cities like Rio de Janero and Buenos Aires startled many when Saludos Amigos premiered.
Initially, four short subjects were planned for independent release. Instead, Walt elected to combine them into what would become a brief main staple at the studio – the package deal –  ‘feature-length’ releases with dubious artistic distinction, except to say Disney’s artisans continued to put their best feet forward, ensuring the quality of animation was not sacrificed. At 45 minutes, Saludos Amigos is Walt’s shortest ‘feature’; comprised of brief live-action inserts depicting his journey abroad and four short subjects, strung together with the flimsiest of connective tissue. The first of these is no better than a half-dozen Donald Duck cartoons from a similar vintage; Walt’s most lovably short-tempered fowl, decidedly out of his element and suffering for it against the serene splendor of Lake Titicaca in the High Andes. The second short, Pedro, is a cozy little story about a single propeller mail plane forced to pick up the slack when his more robust, four-propeller father develops a severe cold in his pistons.
This ‘little plane that could’ endures a hellish thunderstorm and downdrafts that threaten to dash him to pieces on the mountainside. Pedro soars, chiefly because of the animators’ uncanny sense of space and depth achieved during its flying sequences. And while the third segment in Saludos Amigos, ‘El Gaucho Goofy’ is decidedly amusing – if hardly innovative – it is for the film’s finale, Aquarela do Brasil, that the picture is best remembered today; chiefly for the creation of the cigar-smoking parrot, Jose Carioca. Of all the sequences in Saludos Amigos, ‘Aquarela’ is most authentic to the flavor of Latin America; Carioca, a breezy and fun-loving ‘bon vivant about town’, introduces his American cousin, Donald Duck to the pleasures of Copacabana Beach and, better still, the samba Donald performs with a silhouetted dancer, suspiciously resembling the Brazilian bombshell, Carmen Miranda.
Two years after Saludos Amigos, Walt returned to the pampas for his second outing – The Three Caballeros (1944). And while more ambitiously mounted in its live-action/animated sequences, it more or less follows the same episodic format as its predecessor. The picture’s premise is threadbare at best. Donald Duck receives a very large crate wrapped in paper; a present from his Latin American friends to mark the anniversary of his birthday. Unpacking the box, Donald discovers a movie projector, screen and film reels. We delve into the first of seven segments, ‘The Cold-Blooded Penguin’ – narrated by Disney fav, Sterling Holloway. Disgusted by his natural inability to adapt to the frigidity of the South Pole, a penguin named Pablo elects to sail away to a warmer climate. His first several attempts end in near fatal freezing to death, saved only by the goodness of two non-descript penguin buddies. Pablo lashes a potbellied stove to his back, erects a wind sail and cuts free a block of ice using a handsaw. His makeshift boat sails down the South American coastline, eventually landing on a small parcel of palm-treed dirt in the Galápagos Islands.
The second cartoon, The Flying Gauchito, depicts small boy (in the English-speaking version, from Uruguay/from Argentina in the Spanish dub) who, in his search for a condor’s nest, unearths a miracle instead; a winged Burrito (Spanish for ‘little donkey’).  After a playful pursuit, the boy harnesses the mule’s energy and they become inseparable, eventually entering and winning the grand derby, despite their remote chances against some beefy competition. In Baía, the third sequence, singer Aurora Miranda (yes, Carmen’s sister) takes Donald and Jose Carioca through a pop-up TripTik through the Brazilian state. This sequence was meant to recapture the joie de vivre of Saludos Amigo’s finale. Yet, despite Miranda’s infectious voice and some stunning visuals, it somehow never rises to the occasion; noisy and colorful, but otherwise never rekindling the magic as before.
The movie’s fourth vignette is Las Posadas (literally translated as ‘inn’ or ‘shelter’), depicting a small group of Mexican children celebrating Christmas with a re-enactment of the journey of Mary and Joseph.  Repeatedly denied refuge, the children are eventually welcomed into a stranger’s home, culminating with the breaking of a piñata. We regress to Donald’s discovery of his own piñata in the gift box. Now, we are reintroduced to Jose Carioca and a new edition; Panchito Pistoles – a gun-toting Mexican rooster who elects to take his cohorts on a flying sarape to Pátzcuaro, Veracruz and Acapulco. The trio sails overhead, hunting down bathing beauties on a beach and indulging in some Latin rhythms along the way.  Over the skies of Mexico City, Donald falls in love with the disembodied head of singer, Dora Luz, warbling the melodic ballad, ‘You Belong to My Heart’: a phantasmagoric display of colors and shapes. This bizarre ‘dream sequence’ segues into the picture’s finale, as Panchito leads his cohorts in the title tune. “We’re three caballeros, three gay caballeros, they say we are birds of a feather…we're happy amigos, no matter where he goes, the one, two, and three goes, we're always together.” The lyrics to this infectious ditty are a joyous celebration of cross-cultural camaraderie, written by Ray Gilbert and performed by Clarence Nash (the voice of Donald Duck), José Oliveira (Jose Carioca) and Joaquin Garay (Panchito). But the song is actually based on Ay, Jalisco, no te rajes: a Mexican tune composed in 1941 by Manuel Esperón with lyrics by Ernesto Cortázar. We follow ‘these three happy chappies, with snappy serapes, who party beneath their gaudy sombreros. They sing and they samba, and shout, ‘Ay caramba!’ until ‘some Latin baby, says yes, no or maybe.’
In this case, the girl happens to be Carmen Molina from Oaxaca, miraculously transformed via Donald’s hallucinations from a cactus into A Charro-wearing dancer with a riding crop. Donald and Carmen perform the spirited ‘La Zandunga’, accompanied by other dancing cacti, and then ‘Jesusita en Chihuahua’, a trademark of the Mexican Revolution. This sequence is notable for its masterful combination of live-action and animation. Carmen and Donald effortlessly engage one another as the other colorful cacti swirl around and swarm them. Now, Panchito and José intrude. Donald battles a toy bull on wheels, loaded with firecrackers. The toy explodes, its display of pyrotechnics spelling out ‘the end’ – first, in Spanish (Fin), accompanied by the colors of the Mexican flag; then, similarly, in Portuguese (Fim) and the colors of Brazil, and finally, in English, and American ‘red’, ‘white’ and ‘blue’.
In hindsight, Saludos Amigos plays like a ‘coming attraction’ trailer for The Three Caballeros; a far more flamboyant excursion. While the live-action sequences in Saludos Amigos were all photographed in Technicolor, under less than perfect natural lighting conditions, they pale to the lush and fully-saturated hues of Walt’s studio-bound reincarnations of Latin Americana on display in The Three Caballeros. The integration of live-action and animation in this latter movie is also far more accomplished. And yet, many of The Three Caballeros’ animated sequences lack heart; particularly ‘The Cold-Blooded Penguin’ that gets the movie off to a very rocky start. It seems almost sacrilege to criticize Walt’s legendary nine old men for a lack of originality here. But this sequence alone simply fails to engage the viewer as it should. The animators have better success with ‘The Flying Gauchito’, and, of course, the finale: a tour de force where all stops are pulled out for a chaotic display of color and noise; easily, the most excised and revived sequence, endlessly featured on the Disney Channel, at the Mexican pavilion of Florida’s Epcot Center, and, rumored to have been the inspiration for John Landis’ 1986 comedy, Three Amigos, costarring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short.
Disney Inc. bows Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros on Blu-ray, together for the first time. Alas, this disc is a Disney Exclusive, costing big bucks on Amazon for those of us whittled out by the studio’s present shortsightedness not to include anyone residing outside of the U.S. into their ‘exclusive’ club membership. Walt’s only goal was always to unite the peoples of the world in harmony. Not so much, the custodians presiding over his legacy today! The good news: great pains have been taken in the remastering of each of these features in 1080p. Neither presentation will disappoint. In previous releases, Disney Inc. had elected to digitally remove the cigar Jose Carioca perpetually chomps on, as well as the cigarette loosely dangling from Goofy’s lips during the ‘El Gaucho’ sequence. Mercifully, both have been reinstated herein. This Blu-ray features the unaltered and original theatrical releases of each movie, albeit with a disclaimer about the perils of smoking.
Colors are eye-popping. As with other animated features released to Blu-ray, Disney has homogenized film grain to the point of obliteration. By my eyes, it doesn’t impact one’s enjoyment of either film, though, undoubtedly there will be those who poo-poo its removal. Even so, there are no ‘waxy’ misfires a la The Sword and the Stone here. Contrast is beautifully balanced and fine detail is revealed throughout. As already stated, the live-action sequences in Saludos Amigos appear less luminous, owing to their natural lighting conditions. But the vibrancy of 3-strip Technicolor ensures virtually everything presented is sparkling, crisp and absolutely gorgeous – even at a glance. The one unforgivable sin all Disney Inc.’s ‘exclusive’ Blu-rays share in is the absence of ‘extra features’.
Personally, I do not see the point in such omissions. The archival work has already been done for prior DVD releases, ergo, it costs the studio nothing to include them on their Blu-rays. We will forgo attempting to deconstruct the current executive mindset of Disney Inc.’s home video apparatus. In my not so humble opinion, they possess none!  If Walt were alive today, I have no doubt the progressive mogul would have seen to it by now that virtually all of his hard-achieved monuments to animation and live-action – including Song of the South – had found their way on Blu-ray for everyone to enjoy. We will wait in the hope of better things and see if the current brain trust (and I use this term quite loosely) at the Mouse House gets their act together. Where for art thou, Melody Time, Make Mine Music, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the original The Parent Trap, That Darn Cat, The Moon Spinners, The Happiest Millionaire, The Journey of Natty Gannoh heck, my head hurts. Bottom line: Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros come highly recommended. Good stuff here, but if you don’t live in the continental U.S. expect to pay through the nose for it! More back catalog – pretty please!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Saludos Amigos – 3.5
The Three Caballeros – 3


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

THE ALICE FAYE COLLECTION (2oth Century-Fox 1937-43) Fox Home Video

Sandwiched somewhere between pint-sized Shirley Temple and leggy Betty Grable is the brief but no less meteoric career of Alice Faye; a platinum blonde, whisky-voiced chanteuse who made her stage and film debuts before she had even turned eighteen. A street-savvy, sassy performer with inimitable gifts as both a singer and dancer, Faye was Fox’s glamour gal for a brief wrinkle in time. Indeed, long before Marilyn Monroe blazed a trail of sex appeal across the Technicolor and Cinemascope screens, production chief, Darryl F. Zanuck possessed and eye, and a yen for sexpots (stories about his ‘five o’clock girls’ – starlets, Zanuck would invite to his office after hours, dangling the carrot of fame before them…for a price – are legendary).  2oth Century-Fox certainly had no shortage of attractive blondes to grace the gloss of their garish Technicolor fantasies back then. And Faye, above most others, proved equally a wry comedian and raconteur.  Lying about her age, Alice Jeane Leppert landed her first role on Broadway, in 1931’s George White’s Scandals. By the time she appeared on the radio opposite pop singer, Rudy Vallee, Faye was already a pro; her first movie, a reprise of ‘Scandals’. It became her calling card to securing a long-term contract at Fox.
Alas, Zanuck struggled to find a home for her. His first inclination was to remake Faye as a platinum knock-off of MGM’s reigning sex symbol, Jean Harlow. And while Faye’s innate talent shone through this war paint, her infectious personality was considerably buried underneath its artificial façade. Zanuck would have cast Harlow in 1938’s In Old Chicago. In fact, the ink had already dried on a deal brokered between Zanuck and Metro’s raja, L.B. Mayer when Harlow fell ill on the set of Saratoga. Her tragic passing at the tender age of 26 ironically proved Faye’s good fortune. Zanuck cast Faye in this personally supervised picture. Again, she sported a plaster-pound of makeup to conceal her wholesomeness from the public, playing the hard-edged tart with the proverbial heart of gold.  And, again, she bypassed Zanuck’s zeal to mold her into something she was decidedly not. In Old Chicago was an enormous hit, and Faye’s transparent winsomeness, not to mention her screen chemistry with co-stars, Don Ameche and Tyrone Power ensured the trio would continue to re-appear together in subsequent movies.
With 1939’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band – the studio’s costliest film to date – Faye, again, illustrated a penchant to headline a prestige picture. Her salary increased and so did her stardom. That same year she ranked among the top ten box office draws in the nation. Faye rounded 1939 with another winner, Rose of Washington Square; a very loose adaptation of comedian, Fanny Brice’s life story. Evidently, there was enough truth in its lithe mixture of drama and song to cause Brice to sue Fox.  It is one of the studio system’s niggling ironies that as quickly as stars were created, they were indentured to appear in movies of questionable artistry, simply to capitalize on their popularity. Tail Spin and Barricade (both made and released in 1939) – two very inconsequential melodramas - were little more than ‘B’ programmers. But they did business almost exclusively on the weight of Faye’s name on the marquee.
In 1940, Faye was cast in another prestige picture, Lillian Russell – a leaden but glossy and thoroughly fictional biopic of the gilded age’s most celebrated performer. By now, Faye was Fox’s premiere glamor girl; the wind in her sails knocked free by illness that forced her to drop out of Down Argentine Way. In Betty Grable, her replacement, Zanuck possibly saw a glimpse of the future, and although no clairvoyant, he would continue to mine Faye for her talents afterward, though increasingly, coming to favor Grable for the spotlight. The Grable and Faye were successfully paired in Tin Pan Alley (1940). They actually became very good friends on the set – despite the publicity department’s attempts to craft an imaginary feud.  In 1941, Faye made two more winners: Week-End in Havana, and, That Night in Rio – slickly packaged entertainments to showcase Zanuck’s newly acquired zeitgeist – Brazilian bombshell, Carmen Miranda.
The birth of a daughter to Faye with second husband, radio sensation, Phil Harris delayed her return to the screen by a whole year. This rather infuriated Zanuck. He did not care for Harris’ influence on ‘his’ star. Perhaps the feeling was mutual. Zanuck would have preferred Faye’s first marriage to singer, Tony Martin had been a success; two stars of similar temperament and working in the same profession, both kept busy until their respective studios were ready to let them go. Nevertheless, Zanuck gave Faye a big build up upon her return to Fox. 1943’s Hello, Frisco, Hello was typical Fox turn-of-the-century musical Americana. But Faye’s rendition of ‘You’ll Never Know’ became an instant valentine to American servicemen overseas – winning the year’s Oscar for Best Original Song and selling well over a million copies in sheet music. With this one movie, Faye again was ranked in the top ten.  
But 1941 also marked a shift in the actress’ personal interests. After the birth of another daughter, she renegotiated her contract at Fox to make only one movie per annum; two, if the spirit moved her. Of particular interest to Faye was Fallen Angel; ironically, the picture that effectively put a period to her career. Begun as another star vehicle built around her talents, in mid-shoot Zanuck ordered considerable re-writes and re-shoots when rising starlet, Linda Darnell showed considerable promise in a supporting part. Always gracious to newcomers, Faye was nevertheless miffed at Zanuck for throwing her participation on this passion project under the proverbial bus. Screening the rough cut of Fallen Angel it was plain to see Zanuck had sacrificed Faye to build up Darnell. Without further pause, Faye left the studio of her own accord, simply tossing the keys to her dressing room to the gateman, adding “Tell Mr. Zanuck he knows what he can do with these!”
Her impromptu farewell made Alice Faye ‘the one that got away.’ Despite initially incurring Zanuck’s wrath, for nearly a decade thereafter the mogul tried without success to woo Faye back into the fold. Refusing any and all offers, Zanuck instead blackballed Faye from appearing in movies for any other studio, claiming she still owed Fox two pictures. While Faye did continue to work on the radio opposite Phil Harris, and, made an auspicious ‘comeback’ to films with 1962’s abysmal remake of State Fair, for all intent and purposes Alice Faye left the spotlight for good in 1943; yet, rather sincerely without any personal regrets. Secure in her role as wife and mother, Faye never looked back on her former life – a rather gutsy move she shared with the likes of Greta Garbo and Luise Rainer until her death from stomach cancer in 1998.
Some years ago, Fox Home Video honored their reluctant star with The Alice Faye Collection – a scant 4-disc affair that barely scratches the surface of Faye’s charming movie career. Even in the echelons of mediocre Fox musicals, Roy Del Ruth’s On the Avenue (1937) is a quiet little nothing – a congenial passing of the time with enough Irving Berlin songs to anesthetize the mind, even as it exonerates the eardrum. The film stars Dick Powell as Broadway star turned producer, Gary Blake. All is well in stage-land until uppity, Mimi Caraway (Madeleine Carroll) and her equally tenacious father, the Commodore (George Barbier) decide that a sketch in Blake’s new show, depicts Mimi in an unflattering light, must be stopped at all costs. Of course, this does not prevent Mimi from falling hopelessly in love with Blake once the two adversaries meet cute socially.
So, where is Alice Faye in all this? As aspiring, but spurned love interest and star of Blake’s new show, Mona Merrick. Determined that Blake’s affections should be channeled toward her, Mona embarks on a series of manipulations that end badly and with quite predictable results. Although Faye is third billed in this tired programmer, she virtually dominates the show; singing many of the film’s best songs including a delightfully Ziegfield-ish number, ‘I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm’ opposite Powell. Curiously, the title song ‘On The Avenue’ was left on the cutting room floor prior to the film’s general release. Next up, Irving Cummings’ Lillian Russell (1940); a thoroughly lavish affair and personal project of producer, Darryl F. Zanuck who sought to immortalize on celluloid the legacy of one of the theater’s great ladies. However, under the aegis of a convoluted screenplay by William Anthony McGuire, the final film takes so many artistic liberties with Russell’s colorful life, very little except melodramatic ennui remains. After briefly glossing over Lillian’s (Faye) birth and tangled youth, involving an unrequited chance meeting with struggling newspaper hound, Alexander Moore (Henry Fonda), the narrative jumps into a travelogue of Russell’s great stage successes as a glamorous musical star in a series of lavishly executed numbers; the best of these - the stage tableau, ‘Ma Blushing Rosie’, followed by her backstage rendition of ‘After The Ball’ for the President.
The film distills Russell’s four marriages down to two; the first, to jealous composer, Edward Solomon (Don Ameche) – who dies from a heart attack at his piano; the latter, to Moore after an insufferably long courtship from afar. The movie also ignores Russell’s first child – a girl who tragically died of shock while still an infant – and gilds the unflattering truth that Russell was something of a career-driven monster for whom all personal relationships were a distant second in her life, and, eventually discarded. Irving Cummings’ That Night In Rio (1941) is the quintessential ‘40s Fox musical; over-blown, over-produced and spectacular in lurid Technicolor. Eclipsed by the enormity of its costumes and sets is a wafer-thin script cobbled together by George Seaton, Bess Meredyth and Hal Long; all about American ham actor, Larry Martin (Don Ameche) who bears a striking resemblance to Rio’s most prominent citizen, Baron Manuel Duarte (also Ameche).
The Baron and his wife, Cecilia (Alice Faye) catch Martin’s act and are impressed by his talent; particularly Cecilia who asks Martin to go on playing her husband after a scandal at his bank threatens the Baron with personal bankruptcy. Unfortunately for all concerned a mix-up between these two men leads to a romantic rift. Suffering from too much star power and not enough plot, That Night in Rio is a riotous cornucopia of vignettes; most having to do with Martin’s hostile love affair with Brazilian bombshell, Carmen Miranda (playing a variation on herself). The film gives Miranda two of her best numbers; ‘I Like You Very Much’ and Chica, Chica Boom, Chica’ the latter breathtakingly staged by choreographer, Hermes Pan. Faye warbles the best song in the film – the haunting and mysterious ‘They Met in Rio’. Alas, she is very much a tertiary character; two steps behind Miranda and Ameche.
The last movie in this collection is also the first choreographer extraordinaire, Busby Berkeley directed in Technicolor: The Gang’s All Here (1943). It also proved to be Alice Faye’s farewell to the big and glossy entertainments that had helped launch her career. A gargantuan – but otherwise sloppy – blend of clichés that had made Berkeley’s contributions to the Warner Bros.' musicals of the thirties such lavishly appointed escapist entertainment, The Gang’s All Here is mindbogglingly eclectic, but stumbles by direct comparison. Its plot concerns showgirl, Edie Allen (Faye) who accidentally meets soldier/man-about-town, Andy Mason (James Ellison) at a posh New York nightclub. Edie becomes smitten with Andy. But before their romance can follow its natural course, Andy is shipped overseas. While Edie plans a lavish charity benefit for Andy’s homecoming, she inadvertently discovers Andy already has a fiancée, Vivian Potter (Sheila Ryan). The two are fated to marry as soon as Andy returns on leave. So, what’s a homespun good-nature gal to do?
Not to worry. The plot is superficial at best, and secondary to a series of gaudy musical offerings that showcase Berkeley at his best and featuring Carmen Miranda in a supporting role as entertainer, Dorita. ‘You Discover You’re In New York’ is a playful introduction to the spectacle that will follow, designed to get audiences thinking about Latin America (odd, because the rest of the film supposedly takes place in New York). Miranda is lowered from a cargo hold of crated fruit and proceeds to weave her way from the stage through the crowd, extolling the virtues of being in the Big Apple. Later, Miranda is surrounded by a bevy of chorines toting some decidedly phallic bananas for the absurdly ambitious spectacle, ‘The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat’. Faye performs a sultry ballad, ‘A Journey To A Star’ (rather transparently conceived to rival the runaway success of ‘You’ll Never Know’) and, caps off the show with the light-hearted ‘Polka Dot Polka’. With its stylized 1880 milieu, Faye flanked by children dressed as little lords and ladies and miming words to adult voices, the number dissolves into Berkeley’s most surreal creation – a futuristic multi-tiered platform with spandex-clad ‘space girls’ wielding neon-lit hoola-hoops.
It is important to remember Alice Faye today, particularly as Fox Home Video appears to have zero interest in resurrecting her reputation by bringing any of these movies to Blu-ray. In retrospect, all of the studios have been remiss in extolling the virtues of even their greatest stars from the golden age. No, today’s asset management holding companies (for this is precisely what modern-era studios have become; that, and rather begrudging repositories and archives for content they otherwise appear to be quite unwilling to make available to fans or new audiences beyond limited standard def releases without restoration work done to preserve the legacy for future generations) are content to let the past molder with those of us who are old enough to recall what Hollywood used to represent, but no longer does.
Fox Home Video’s DVD transfers are as mixed a blessing as the films selected for inclusion herein. The two in B&W (On The Avenue and Lillian Russell) have fairly smooth presentations. ‘Avenue’ is a little worse for the wear, with a soft characteristic and frequently low contrast. Age-related artifacts are present and occasionally distracting. Lillian Russell begins with a disclaimer (this film has been mastered from the best possible surviving source elements). The first half of this DVD is very nice; crisp, refined with great detail revealed throughout and minimal amounts of age-related artifacts. Unfortunately, from the mid-way point onward the print master used for this release must have been stored in another vault or under a rock. It is riddled with intense streaks, amplified grain, a barrage of scratches, chips, tears and - during one scene in a park - a disturbing tear that flutters back and forth across the screen.
Of the two Technicolor features The Gang’s All Here is the more pleasing. Colors are bold and vibrant. Flesh tones are not very natural – either too orange or pink. The overall quality is smooth and refined, with a minimal amount of grain and age-related artifacts. Matte process shots exhibit a slightly less refined quality. That Night In Rio is rather inconsistently rendered. At times, colors appear rich and vibrant. But occasionally there is a ‘thick’ characteristic that creeps into the image. Color dims or, on rare occasions, looks muddy; the entire image appearing grainier than normal. Flesh tones are also very pasty. Neither of these transfers will win any awards for quality. On the flip side, both are highly watchable.
For those unaware – neither of these Technicolor classics looks anywhere near what it did back in the 1940s as Fox’s previous administration, in their infinite wisdom – not! – elected to junk all archival 3-strip Technicolor negatives in favor of poorly processed Eastman print masters instead, just to save on storage space. Yes, they were that short-sighted. The audio across all four movies included herein has been cleaned up and presented as both mono and rechanneled stereo. Extras boil down to two informative retrospectives on Alice Faye’s career; an overview on the real Lillian Russell, informative audio commentaries on three of the four movies; theatrical trailers, and Alice Faye’s promotional featurette as a spokeswoman for Pfizer; We Still Are. Bottom line: as the years pass and legacies like Faye’s continue to fade into obscurity, it behooves movie lovers everywhere to snatch up box sets like this one to remember the good ole days in style. The Alice Faye Collection features some fanciful and fun outings and should not be overlooked.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
On The Avenue 3
Lillian Russell 3.5
That Night In Rio 3
The Gang's All Here 3.5


On The Avenue 3
Lillian Russell 3
That Night In Rio 3
The Gang's All Here 3.5



Monday, March 12, 2018

THE OUTLAW: Blu-ray (RKO, 1943) Kino Lorber

What a queer one Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw (1943) is – and not just for its gay subtext; a fairly transparent lover’s triangle between Thomas Mitchell’s portly Pat Garrett, Walter Huston’s lanky reincarnation of Doc Holliday, and, Jack Buetel’s pubescent Billy the Kid The iconography of these towering ‘real life’ figures from the ole west get the lavender whitewash herein – all of it over a red-haired pony! But no, all this went completely over the heads of Hollywood censors, ironically more concerned with flashes of female flesh heaving heavy sighs. Those seeking truth in cinema or an exaltation of these aforementioned legends would do wisely to steer clear of The Outlaw. It has virtually no basis in fact. For the record, Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday would have been in their early thirties when this story takes place, not Mitchell’s 56 years young to Huston’s spry 60. Alas, it makes the homo-erotic spectacle, watching two old queens via for the affections of a virile young stud, all the more salacious. Either Billy wants to ride Doc’s pony – literally – or Doc, Billy’s – leaving poor Pat resentful he has not been invited to their coming out party.
The Outlaw is a western in name only, far more hyped as a showcase for the natural-born assets of its costar, Jane Russell. In reflection, playwright and wit, George S. Kaufman squarely surmised the strength of The Outlaw’s infamy at the time as ‘a tale of two titties’. Aptly put, indeed, and point to Mr. Kaufman, considering Hughes’s mad obsession to mold Russell’s grand canyons into great movie art. Alas, the chasm between them proved an even greater divide amid ‘good taste’ and ‘personal best’. This resulted, first, in the firing of Hughes’ original choice of director, Howard Hawks (Hughes, assuming the reigns) and then, Hughes, plying his engineering skills to a new cantilevered underwire bra; the impetus for a decade’s launch into pointy rubber-cupped braziers, guaranteed to knock men’s eyes out if not actually poking them blind. Of course, the real irony for those who care about such things, is Jane Russell never actually wore Hughes’ contraption in The Outlaw, nor was there anything in the movie to arouse the male gaze, much less rival Russell’s sultry and provocative posing for stills, embellished by Hughes’ publicity department for the movie’s marketing campaign and poster art.
As for Hughes’ bra - its crude construction cut into Russell’s flesh (how sexy is that?), causing her to discard it after only a few moments. Instead, Russell wore her own bra, padding the cups with tissue and lying to Hughes during the shoot. “He wasn’t going to take my clothes off to check if I had it on,” Russell later reflected, “I just told him I did.” Although The Outlaw was completed early in February 1941, Hughes’ personal investment of nearly $2 million looked as though it might be lost after Hollywood’s Production Code Administration denied him their coveted Seal of Approval. What followed became a legendary ‘pissing match’ of sorts; Hughes, using all his wiles as a marketing prodigy to fuse, fuss and finesse his chances of getting the picture into wide release. This would take nearly six years. In the interim, and, at their behest of the purveyors of the Code, Hughes did remove roughly 30 seconds of ‘breast baiting’ from the final cut, only to have 2oth Century-Fox cancel their arrangement to distribute the picture anyway. 
Ever resourceful, Hughes set about concocting a ‘negative’ marketing campaign to encourage public outcry from religious and women’s groups. Naturally, this made the picture’s viability as a potential money maker even more tantalizing to ole Hollywood. Nevertheless, and in hindsight, Hughes’ epic battle with the Hays Office helped to loosen the yoke on ‘permissible kink’. By today’s standards, the conflict to get The Outlaw ‘out’ to the public is laughable. It was effectively released for one week only in 1943 by RKO before receiving world-wide distribution thru United Artists three years later when it instantly became a huge hit, earning back double Hughes’ initial investment.  It’s really too bad for The Outlaw Hughes knew absolutely nothing about picture-making, despite knowing an awful lot about the biz. Howard Hughes is certainly no Howard Hawks. And replacing legendary cinematographer, Lucien Ballard with the as accomplished, Gregg Toland isn’t exactly the problem either, despite their stylistic disparities. No, the most egregious misfire is Hughes’ disregard for Jules Furthman’s carefully constructed screenplay, originally hewn along the lines of enmity, amity, and honor; edicts that, in Hughes’ hands, are transformed into a rather seedy gumbo of sex-starved innuendo and cliché.  
Despite its general lack of tact and disregard for the truth, never to be unearthed in these legendary knock-offs, actors Thomas Mitchell and Walter Huston make up some enviable ground on the sheer temerity of their acting chops. Huston gets the lion’s share of juicy dialogue; Mitchell, the doleful dotage.  Not so much, Jack Buetel – whose interminable pauses between lines gives the distinct impression an off-camera assistant is not toggling through his over-sized cue cards fast enough. And Jane Russell, naïve at nineteen, is hardly up to the challenge of playing the sexy half-breed spitfire, Rio; as uncomfortable at wielding a pitchfork in faux anger at Buetel’s Billy (he killed her brother), as later, to surrender the night in his bed (albeit, after Billy is stricken with the fever). It must be love.
The Outlaw begins on a pleasant note: Sheriff Pat Garrett informed by his deputy (Ben Johnson) that Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) has arrived in Lincoln, New Mexico. Doc’s reputation as a notorious gambler/gunslinger has preceded him. But Doc is Pat’s friend…or so he believes. Actually, Doc is in search of his stolen pony. Informed by the saloon keeper, Pablo (Julian Rivero) the horse is in the possession of Billy the Kid, Doc hurries to reclaim the animal. But then something unexpected occurs. The old campaigner takes a shine to this brash young buck who refuses to back down. Pat tries to twist his hand. Instead, the Kid flattens him with a single punch. Pat is humiliated, even more so when Doc elects to back Billy up. The two are seen around town, partaking of poker matches and enjoying each other’s slightly adversarial company. Doc still wants to reclaim his horse, leaving Billy to bunk with the animal in the stable and thus, ensure it remains exactly where he left it. Regrettably, Billy encounters Rio MacDonald – the sultry peasant girl whose brother he murdered in another town before the plot to this movie began. Rio fires several shots at the Kid but is unable to wound him. The two adversaries wrestle in the barn and Rio next attempts to stab Billy with a nearby pitchfork. Again, she loses. Billy straddles the girl, and in barely recognizable silhouette, Hughes implies a rape has occurred.  
The next day, a complete stranger (Gene Rizzi) proposes to remove a thorn from Billy’s side. The murder of Pat Garrett would certainly be a feather in the Kid’s cap. Billy wisely concurs he is being set up. The stranger draws his gun on him and Billy – a superior shot – shoots the stranger dead instead. As there are no witnesses, and owing to the Kid’s reputation, Pat tries to pin the crime as a cold-blooded murder rather than self-defense. Surrounded by his deputies, Pat endeavors to place the Kid under arrest. Instead, Doc sides with Billy and effortlessly shoots the gun from Pat’s hand, killing two of Pat’s deputies in the process. More embarrassed by the ineffectiveness of his men, and, wounded by Doc’s renewed shift in his loyalty, Pat dissolves his friendship with Doc and vows to avenge the dishonor should their paths ever cross again.
Believing they can now exit the saloon without further reprisals, Doc and Billy’s slow retreat is met with surprise gunfire from Pat, who wounds the Kid in the gut. Doc helps the Kid to his feet and the two flee to a small stucco ranch on the outskirts where Rio and her aunt, Guadalupe (Mimi Aguglia) reside. Doc makes Rio promise to look after the barely conscious Kid. Rio is Doc’s girl and has been for some time. Despite her willfulness to avenge her brother’s murder, she agrees to care for the Kid. In a months’ time, the Kid is nursed back to health. The implication is Billy and Rio have also become lovers during this time.  Having eluded Pat’s posse, Doc doubles back, only to bitterly learn Rio is now Billy’s girl – not his.  After Doc’s anger subsides, the Kid gives him a choice: the horse or Rio. Disgusted both men should prefer the horse to her, Rio vengefully fills their canteens with sand. The men ride off together without noticing. However, only a short while later, Doc and Billy are pursued by Pat and his posse. Doc postulates Rio has tipped off the sheriff. While the Kid rides for higher ground Doc picks off a few of Pat’s men from a nearby rocky turret but leaves his ‘old friend’ unharmed.
Treason is the order of the day – perhaps, as Doc awakens at dawn to find Billy has fled and Pat is waiting to take him by force to hang for the murder of his men. Pausing for a moment’s respite at Rio’s farm, Doc and Pat discover the girl bound and gagged near the well – obviously, the Kid’s revenge for her filling his canteen with sand. Doc proposes he and Pat hide out and wait for Billy’s return. Despite his actions, the Kid is obviously in love with the girl and sure to return for her. Sure enough, the Kid arrives and is taken prisoner by Pat. Regrettably, on the way back to town the trio encounters hostile Mescaleros. Pat is compelled to free his prisoners and give them their revolvers with the understanding that if they survive they will agree to accompany him into town to stand trial. Making good on their getaway, Doc refuses to honor his word. Billy is disappointed. Even among thieves there is such a thing as a ‘code of honor’. So, Billy and Doc elect to duel it out on the count of eight from a nearby cuckoo clock as Pat and Rio look on. Pat believes Billy will lose. But even after Doc has strategically fired three bullets, superficially grazing the Kid’s ears and his hand, Billy refuses to draw on him.
Sincerely touched by this gesture, Doc and Billy reconcile, much to Pat’s chagrin. In an effort to provoke a fatal confrontation, Pat calls Doc out. But Doc makes no attempt to shoot his old friend and pays the supreme price when Pat fatally wounds him instead. Aghast by what he has done, Pat helps Billy bury Doc in a grave adjacent the farm. After the burial, Pat suggests the Kid take Doc’s pistols and give him his. Pat claims he can tell everyone he shot Billy the Kid, the bounty on his head expunged, affording the Kid a fresh start in life. Once again, this proves a ruse – Pat, having removed the firing pins from Doc’s pistols. The Kid hands over what he believes to be his own guns to Pat and Pat, now points them at the Kid, vowing revenge. Too bad for both men, each has inherited one of the pistols with the missing pin. As neither gun will fire, but Billy is faster on the draw, he now holds Pat at gun point; the scene dissolving to Pat, handcuffed to a wooden pillar on the front porch. Annoyed for the last time, Pat chooses to remain silent rather than disclose to all the Kid got the better of him. As the Kid prepares to hightail it out of town for good, he pauses for just a moment, beckoning Rio to rejoin him. Ebulliently, she mounts Doc’s horse, the pair riding into the sunset.  
The Outlaw hails from a period in Hollywood’s mythologized western folklore rife for experimentation. In Hughes’ case - for parody too.  The picture’s offbeat plot and torpid pacing turn the conventions of the western movie on end with an almost sensational indifference for good – even competent – storytelling. Hughes’ twin passions – a.k.a. Jane Russell’s bosom – are the only assets front and center, if slightly wobbling from side to side; the one constant in two disposable hours of meandering nothingness.  I am sincerely amazed Jack Buetel had a career after The Outlaw; his undeniably appeal as male eye candy blunted by the fact he cannot act his way out of a paper bag. I have even more admiration for Jane Russell who rebounded from this inauspicious debut. By 1951, Russell could be counted upon for her razorback sass and telescopically focused comedic timing, appearing to great effect in movies like His Kind of Woman (1951), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and, The French Line (both in 1953). Decades later she would mark a ‘return’ of sorts to her infamous reputation from The Outlaw; this time, as spokeswoman for Platex’ ‘Cross Your Heart’ bra.
Kino Lorber’s 2K restoration of The Outlaw is a mixed blessing at best. While ahead of various bootlegs to have proliferated the home video market since the mid-1980’s, most taken from poorly contrasted 16mm dupe negatives, this 1080p remastering offers only modest improvements in both picture and sound. The image is soft. Film grain is amplified. Scenes shot at dusk or night suffer the most, with a barrage of optical streaks and age-related debris taking their toll. Certain scenes fare better than others. But this transfer falls well below acceptable standards. As The Outlaw is unlikely to ever inspire a ground-up restoration (it’s no Citizen Kane!) this is likely the best the movie will ever look on home video. The audio is scratchy in spots, exhibiting an extremely strident characteristic. You will want to keep your speakers tuned to a slightly lower than usual decibel level to avoid undue crackle and a wafer-thin layer of background hiss.  

Kino affords us an informative audio commentary from critic/author, Troy Howarth. I confess, I enjoyed Howarth’s track more than I did the movie. He speaks with an ease that belies the fact he must be reading some of this stuff from well-researched notations. And he can almost make me believe the end result is worthy of preservation as a cultural artifact in the cinema firmament. We also get trailers for The Outlaw and a few other westerns Kino is hoping you will want to buy from them. Bottom line: The Outlaw is a pretty silly and egregiously juvenile picture; Hughes’ female fixation exposed for what it is. Oh, what he might have created if his level of good taste had rivaled his bank account and showman’s chutzpah! Final thoughts: pass and be very glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

CINDERELLA: Blu-ray (Disney Inc. 2015) Walt Disney Home Video

Kenneth Branagh directs an almost too faithful adaptation of Charles Perrault’s 1697 fable, Cinderella (2015), imbued with all the digital wizardry capable of transforming the author’s perennially appealing ‘simple’ story into grandiloquent tripe of the glossiest, but otherwise mostly vacuous order. What’s missing herein, unlike Disney Inc.’s first stab in animated form, circa 1950, is heart, and joy, and those great Mack David, Jerry Livingston, Al Hoffman songs; once heard, never to be forgotten. It’s always disappointing to see a silk purse get magically transformed back into a sow’s ear (or, in this case, the proverbial coach turned pumpkin orange and smashed alongside of the road), especially when so much obvious time and expense has been lavished on such an elaborate display of affectation, rather than affection for the time-honored and true. And Branagh – no stranger to storytelling of the highest order – ought to have known better. Regrettably, Chris Weitz’s screenplay gets the featured points right, but adds a minor twist at the end – this vicious reincarnation of Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) smashing Cinderella’s glass slipper against the stone wall of her gloomy attic, allowing ‘Kit’ – the gallant Prince Charming (Richard Madden) to slip the other shoe left behind at the ball onto the tender bare foot of Lily James’ eponymous scullery girl. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
It only took Walt 75 minutes to tell his animated version with precisely the sort of lithe enchantment Perrault’s immortal and beloved tale requires. It takes Kenneth Branagh 106 minutes to do not nearly as well, despite some stellar talent in front of the camera thrown into this mishmash; Helena Bonham Carter (a rather dotty Fairy Godmother), Stellan Skarsgård (the conniving Grand Duke), Derek Jacobi (an ailing King) and Ben Chaplin as Cinderella’s doting – if thoroughly misguided papa.  Perrault’s classic tale – and the 1950 film for that matter – did not dwell for more than a sentence or two on the circumstances of the wicked Lady Tremaine to become entrenched in Ella’s familial home with her two mindlessly malicious offspring, Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger). But Branagh squanders nearly 40 minutes of precious screen time in exploring the ever-increasing misery befallen our winsome heroine; her ousting as the rightful ‘young Miss’ of this former merchant’s maison, relegated as a guest – and finally – no-account servant girl in her own home. Yet, even affording the backstory such a luxury, the short shrift from 1950 gets it more than right and covers infinitely more ground most economically of all. In a sentence or two we could almost believe Ella’s father was blinded by the tragic loss of his first wife (Hayley Atwell) to suspend belief – and the good sense God gave a lemon - that he might be happy again with the thoroughly wicked widow Tremaine.
Stretched to 40 minutes of ineffectual madness, as Tremaine populates his pastoral digs with fair-weather sycophants – a cacophony of gamblers, gluttons and goony potential ‘next’ husbands for her two daughters – Ella’s father, increasingly finds escape in travels abroad while he leaves his ever-devoted daughter to bear the brunt of their envy and disgust. This leaves one deeply to suspect his motives as well. As such, death is too good for Ella’s father and just seems like the last straw in a terribly cruel and arduously drawn out bad joke perpetuated on our lovely young lass. Taking a page out of Sleeping Beauty’s playbook, Weitz retreats to the forest for Ella’s first ‘cute meet’ with Prince Charming. She is genuine in her resolve but abstains from telling him her name. He is false – sort of – pretending to be ‘an apprentice’ instead of the heir apparent of this far off and fictitious land. It’s still love at first sight. But romance between the Prince and his future Princess is poorly delineated. Walt had similar concerns in 1950, resolved by transforming his Cinderella into a musical. You can economize a great deal of needless doe-eyed adoration by simply inserting a song or two to clearly delineate a character’s intensions. After all, ‘A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.’ You better believe it!
The real difficulty Branagh’s Cinderella has is neither in overcoming the legacy of Walt’s original animated classic or even bulldozing past the infinitely more affecting ‘re-imagining’ in Fox’s Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998) – directed by Andy Tennant and co-starring Drew Barrymore and Dougray Scott: an infinitely more magical coupling. In fact, it’s the opposite; Branagh cherry-picking elements from the Disney animated feature he believes he can make better by relocating the story from ancient France to some fanciful principality of no particular nation known to mankind then or now, and, populated with a healthy dollop of politically correct/non-Caucasian courtiers; where our handsome Sport n’ Shave Ken doll of a Prince is progressively expected to wed the suspiciously Spanish Princess Chelina of Zaragosa (Jana Perez) in a marriage of state to secure his future empire, despite the fact she considers his palatial digs ‘the little kingdom’. Oh yeah...that’s definitely the way to a man’s heart. ‘Mine’s bigger than yours is.’ Not! And into this rather serious distortion of Perrault’s classic, Branagh re-introduces Walt’s penchant for cutesy animals; the mice, including Gus (now digitally enhanced, though regrettably, non-verbal), the malevolent, Lucifer (only briefly, and rather pointlessly glimpsed) and inexplicably, recasting Cinderella’s beloved horse, Major, and adorable hound, Bruno as a pair of lizard coach men, who use their slithery tails to trigger a drawbridge and continue to eat flies even in their sub-human form while waiting for their mistress to return. Yuck!
But perhaps the worst of the misfires is Helena Bonham Carter’s Fairy Godmother, performing an almost Beauty and the Beast-like transformation from ‘old hag’ – slovenly dribbling cream from a cup, to an elegant enchantress, much too flighty in her flights into fancy. In 1950’s Walt’s cartoon incarnation was voiced by Verna Felton, whose vocalization conveyed so much maternal warmth it was simply impossible not to fall instantly under her spell. By contrast, Bonham Carter’s glittery gowned and sparkle-haired goddess owes a good deal more to Billie Burke’s Glinda – the good witch of the North from 1939’s Wizard of Oz, except without Burke’s ability to make the height of such glamorous frivolity appear, if not only excusable, then equally as lovable. In lieu of generating this intangible quality of mercy and kindness, Bonham Carter merely puts on a show with plucky sass. 

Her Fairy Godmother is a zeitgeist of energy but virtually no compassion. Her forewarning to Cinderella about the stroke of midnight stealing away all of the loveliness she has briefly wrought just seems mean-spirited. Hurry up, girl. Time is wasting. But have fun. The grave difficulty here is that Lily James’ doe-eyed lass is attempting to live by the precepts instilled at an early age by her mother: above all else, be kind and courageous. The ‘message’, if one can call it that, of the 1950 classic was simply, that ye pure of faith could reap the generous rewards of a life well-lived by virtue of their adherence to an ethical mindset. Branagh’s version adds soul-searching forgiveness to this mix. Cinderella forgives Lady Tremaine her transgressions against her before embarking upon a new life as the future Queen. But is forgiveness truly necessary? Walt didn’t seem to think so. It was enough for him that evil, in any of its many forms, should and could be vanquished in a penultimate display of soft rose-petaled confetti being cast behind the marital coach.
Branagh’s Cinderella begins thus: with nearly an hour of back story that needless elongates the narrative while stealing precious run time from the exquisite Grand Ball sequence much later on – still, much too short to be the impetus for the Prince’s enduring infatuation with this ‘mystery girl’, inexplicably to have run off with his heart. We see young Ella (Eloise Webb) having a happy childhood. Her mother, something of a throwback to the sixties flower child, preaches courage and kindness to fight the injustices of the world. Alas, before long, mama succumbs to an undisclosed disease, leaving Ella and her father deeply distraught. She escapes into her daily regiment and her books. But the master of the house can find no solace except in the arms of another woman. If he had to pick one – why the heartless Lady Tremaine?  Surely, Ella’s father has eyes to see beyond her fashionable trappings, and her perversely ill-mannered and stupid daughters, Drisella and Anastasia. Not nearly as naïve, Ella nevertheless welcomes her new stepfamily into her home, though arguably not her heart.
A short while later, Ella's father elects to go abroad on business, leaving his daughter to endure Tremaine’s cruel and jealous nature. In his absence, Tremaine relocates Ella to the attic (in the 1950 version, cramped but cozy/herein, taking on the dank and depressing attributes of The Tower of London). Lady Tremaine also indulges her own offspring in their teasing of the girl; nicknamed ‘Cinder-Ella’ because she has fallen asleep more than once on the tile grate near the dying embers of the kitchen fire to keep warm. News arrives. Ella’s father has died abroad. Heartbroken, Ella is now made to bear the brunt of Lady Tremaine’s haughty demands. She is a servant in her own home.
Wounded by their cruelty, a tearful Ella escapes on horseback into the nearby woods. Inadvertently, she encounters ‘Kit’ – the crown Prince who is on a stag hunt. Ella cautions prudence. The majestic beast should not be hunted down and killed. Aside: we suspect PETA had something to do with this. Evidently, the Prince is easily persuaded to see things Ella’s way. Without learning her identity, Kit has fallen hopelessly in love with this mystery girl. Returning to the palace and thinking with the wrong head, Kit informs his father he would pursue this girl for his own. Alas, the King is aware his time on earth is short and demands his son marry a lady from his own strata to expand both the wealth and nobility of his kingdom. Despite never having met her, the King is certain the Princess Chelina of Zaragosa will suffice for this marriage of state. To blunt the effect, Kit has his father break with tradition by inviting virtually the entire nation to a grand ball, at which time Kit’s marriage to Chelina will be announced. This narrative wrinkle in Weitz’s screenplay actually blunts the whole purpose of the ball in Perrault’s original story; namely, to act as a sort of ’50 first dates’ by exposing every eligible maiden in the land from which the Prince may choose for himself his future wife.
As Lady Tremaine has been quite successful at delaying Ella’s arrival at the ball by tearing apart the old dress that once belonged to her mother on which Ella has lavished her considerable skills as a seamstress, Lady Tremaine and her daughters are equally unsuccessful at catching the Prince’s eye. Meanwhile, a tearstained Ella is afforded a rare opportunity – to go to the palace in style a la her very own Fairy Godmother. Arriving in a gilded coach, Ella majestically strolls into the grand ballroom, taking everyone’s breath away. Despite her elegant camouflage, the Prince instantly recognizes her as the self-same peasant girl he encountered in the woods. The two share a spirited pas deux on the dance floor before the Prince whisks Ella into the cultured gardens beyond the palace walls. Now, he takes her to his secret garden, complete with a swing. After several meaningless lines of genteel dialogue, the clock strikes twelve and Ella is forced to retreat from the ball, accidentally losing one of her glass slippers on the grand staircase as she races for the coach. The ball sequence, and its subsequent departure into the garden is executed with such perfunctory short shrift, one sincerely wonders what the point was to all the Fairy Godmother’s hard work. All this magical expenditure for what barely amounts to 15 minutes of screen time – shameless and wasteful!
Barely escaping the Grand Duke and his pursuing militia, Ella retreats home and into the kitchen where she momentarily hides her remaining glass slipper in the fireplace ashes, seconds before Lady Tremaine and her girls arrive. Although Drisella and Anastasia do not suspect as much, Lady Tremaine begins to believe the girl at the ball and Ella are one in the same. Days pass. The King dies, though not before having had a change of heart. He orders his son to marry for love. After a period of mourning, the Prince commences on his search for the mystery girl. He is momentarily dissuaded by the Grand Duke to reconsider marriage to Chelina, should the girl of his dreams not be found. The Prince agrees, but only after his proclamation for an intense search for Ella is announced throughout the land. Eager to fulfill her destiny, Ella hurries home and up to the attic where she has since hidden the glass slipper – proof positive she is the girl everyone has been talking about these many months.
Regrettably, Lady Tremaine has beat her to this hiding spot. She smashes the glass slipper against the attic’s stone wall, locking Ella inside and hurrying to the Grand Duke’s offices to reveal the truth. The Prince cannot marry a scullery girl. The Grand Duke concurs. In return for her silence, Lady Tremaine demands a title and money to procure a lavish lifestyle for herself and her daughters. The Grand Duke agrees to these terms. But shortly thereafter, inexplicably, he arrives at the Tremaine household with the Prince in tow and the remaining glass slipper to test it on the foot of all the eligible maidens who dwell there. As Ella is still locked in the attic, the slipper is tried on Drisella and Anastasia’s feet to no avail. Mercifully, Gus and the rest of the mice unhinge the latch on Ella’s attic window; her lithe voice carrying down to the courtyard just as the Prince, Grand Duke and his armies are preparing to depart. The Prince orders the girl to try on the slipper. Predictably, it fits and Ella, bearing no malice, forgives Lady Tremaine her many indiscretions. The happy couple departs. When next we see them, they are man and wife, exiting to a palace balcony to welcome the kingdom in their rejoicing. We learn Lady Tremaine and her daughters soon left the kingdom for parts unknown and that Ella and the Prince lived ‘happily ever after’. Did we ever doubt as much?
Re-telling such a well-known story as Cinderella may not leave much room for originality. In point of fact, none ought to have been expected.  But it ought to have allowed for a margin of better character development than this. Virtually every figure populating this gaudy milieu is a cardboard cutout, lacking the intrinsic spark of joy to make good on the celebratory quality so essential to this narrative.  Haris Zambarloukos’s lush cinematography shows off Dante Ferretti’s garish production design to its fullest, with Gary Freeman’s art direction and Francesca Loschiavo-Ferretti set design taking center stage. Everything looks exquisite – if slightly over-stylized and gaudy to a fault. But the style overcompensates for lack of substance. This is not the Cinderella of Walt’s heart or even another distant cousin, predicated on the dreams a wishful heart makes, once upon a star or otherwise. It’s simply a retread, lacking the sincerity of its time-honored predecessor, and quite unable to stand on its own merit as anything better than a needless, if occasionally visually spellbinding update. At 106 minutes, this Cinderella decidedly outstays its welcome. Walt’s 1950 classic knew when to graciously bow to a fanfare of music and merriment. Were that director, Kenneth Branagh had done the same herein. Regrets.
Walt Disney Home Video bowed Cinderella on Blu-ray some years ago. I am playing catch-up these days with movies I missed the first time around; Cinderella being one of them. In hindsight, I could have easily skipped it and been as contented. There is virtually nothing to complain about regarding this 1080p transfer. Visually, it remains a feast, exercising a bold palette of colors and excellent contrast levels. Everything is razor-sharp without appearing to have suffered any untoward digital tinkering beyond the obvious Disney universe recreated mostly from digital composites and green-screen work. Personally, I hunger for the days when Hollywood actually had to build most of their imaginary worlds from scratch and full-scale, with only the occasional matte painting employed to extend their make-believe beyond its unnatural borders. The DTS 5.1 audio is as perfect at recreating the original theatrical experience. Disney has gilded the lily with some nicely produced extras, including a short subject and featurettes that superficially cover the creation of this latest version from top to bottom. Bottom line: for those who loved it, Cinderella on Blu-ray is a treat. But I will stick to my Blu-ray of the 1950 animated classic and be very glad its legacy long endures – hopefully, much longer than the memory of this cheap cut-glass imitation.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Saturday, March 10, 2018

THE BUSBY BERKELEY COLLECTION (Warner Bros. 1933 - 1937) Warner Home Video

The term ‘genius’ gets bandied about so much these days it is in danger of losing all original meaning. In its purest form, ‘genius’ is ascribed to someone of exceptional intellect or creativity. But rarely does a genius possess strengths in both areas. In art it is sometimes difficult to label a genius as such – particularly if the abilities in question appear so extraordinary they register in the public consciousness as avant-garde or ahead of their time. The latter generally doesn’t win a lot of points with the critics either. And genius can sometimes miss its mark with the paying public too; particularly in the collaborative medium of film where credit and creativity are compartmentalized as components of the creative assembly line. In Hollywood, today’s genius can quickly become tomorrow’s has-been; a precarious seesaw balanced on the public’s insatiable need to see something new – something different – something ‘entertaining’ all the time. As such, one of the hallmarks of a true creative genius is staying power. What is quite fashionable today may fall out of favor tomorrow. But if it is truly imbued with that spark of…well…genius, then, it isn’t likely to be forgotten, even if it occasionally gets set aside. It may also be lampooned or even mocked – the cheapest forms of flattery. It most certainly will be copied, though arguably never duplicated. But in the end, genius never dies: revisited, not simply for nostalgia’s sake, but for an innate fascination and the perennially renewable pleasures it provides.
Movie lovers label this intangible quality as ‘magic’. But there really is no word to quantify what the images of Busby Berkeley have given to us over the generations. From 1930 to 1962 Berkeley dazzled with his confounding geometric kaleidoscopes. During his own time, Berkeley saw his reputation spectacularly rise and almost as dramatically crumble, only to be resurrected in the late seventies. By then, Berkeley had garnered new fans and a newfound respect from both the industry and students studying his work in film schools. More recently, homages to Berkeley have appeared in everything from commercials for Daisy sour cream, The Gap and Old Navy to Disney’s Beauty and The Beast (1991). In fact, his style is so easily identifiable at a glance, anyone attempting to emulate it is forced to reference it as having a Berkeley-esque quality. Even the American Thesaurus of Slang has identified Berkeley’s name as synonymous with ‘any elaborate dance number.’ All of this lovable nonsense came to Berkeley at a very exacting price. Frequent co-star, Dick Powell once commented, “Buz usually works in sweats…and sweats!” And indeed, Berkeley toiled with an almost religious fervor to achieve his art. And art, it irrefutably remains.
Not bad for an uneducated, brash New Yorker whose stint as a drill sergeant in the army during WWI would become the inspiration for his second career as a much sought-after Broadway and Hollywood choreographer. Berkeley’s approach to dance had very little to do with the dancer as artiste. Some of his harshest critics would also argue it had absolutely nothing to do with dance - period. But it had everything to do with the utilization of a dancer’s entire body, often as a mere cog in a great wheel, performing perfunctory movements, requiring more athleticism than terpsichorean finesse.  Over the years, some have argued Berkeley had absolutely no talent at all, just a self-indulgent thirst for industrialized absurdity, making machinery out of the human form; his camera doing most of the work, his maneuvering minions, just that – never achieving a level of individuality on those endlessly rotating platforms and rising staircases to nowhere.
But Busby Berkeley never professed himself as a great choreographer. He had even less interest in extolling the virtues of a dancer’s fluidity and form. No, that was not the point at all – except, perhaps in Lullaby of Broadway from Gold Diggers of 1935. Here, Berkeley allowed his dancers to be more than chess pieces infinitely moved around his gigantic erector set.  In a routine that can still stop the show, Berkeley gave us a tragi-love story within a song with astonishing precision in the art of ‘hoofing’. A musical number by Busby Berkeley is really all about Berkeley’s fascination with form in lieu of content. His numbers are big – gargantuan, in fact – and mind-bogglingly intricate. One marvels, for example, at the endless rows of billowy hula-hooped skirts and neon-tubing employed during the staging of The Shadow Waltz from Gold Diggers of 1933; the way sixty young women, clutching art deco Stradivariuses, suddenly come together to form one monumentally massive violin before dissolving into an fluttery army, endlessly mirrored against impossibly pristine poured-glass and mirror floors.
The Shadow Waltz is perhaps the most perfect musical number ever executed on celluloid. Most definitely it remains the one to which Berkeley’s iconography is forever linked. If it all looks effortless – it wasn’t. Dancers endured repeated shock from the short-circuiting battery packs hidden beneath their skirts to power the neon-lit violins. And shooting was interrupted by a sizable earthquake. But in the end, nothing could prevent Berkeley from getting his vision up on the screen. The Shadow Waltz also exemplifies Berkeley’s way of getting ‘into’ a musical sequence. Start off with a great Harry Warren/Al Dubin song sung by Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell. Cleverly move in on one dancer, then two; then, a whole army doing exactly the same thing, the ensemble photographed from every conceivable angle; all of it in service to Berkeley’s dream-like surrealism.
Other studios, most notably, MGM – and occasionally Paramount – tried to mimic Berkeley’s style. In fact, MGM quickly snatched up Berkeley’s contract after Warner dropped him from their roster in 1940. But MGM’s glamour and attention paid to its stars never entirely meshed with Berkeley’s vision of the dancer as ‘extra’. In retrospect, his contributions at MGM are radically different from his work at Warner Bros. Worse, Berkeley’s penchant for inspiring wrath among MGM’s roster of enviable talent only seemed to exacerbate his chronic alcoholism.  Judy Garland, as example, famously began as an ardent supporter of Berkeley’s talent, but wound up despising his fanaticism for ‘energy’ - always more energy – on the set of Girl Crazy (1943); their fourth collaborative effort in the popular Mickey Rooney/Garland musicals that effectively led to Berkeley being replaced as director by Norman Taurog. Garland’s own chronic addiction to pills might have played a part in their mutual frustrations. In fact, Garland suffered a ‘nervous breakdown’ while shooting the penultimate ‘I Got Rhythm’ finale. But Berkeley damn near killed Esther Williams during the staging of his grand water-skiing aquacade in Easy to Love (1953), so engrossed in ‘getting the shot’ that his speed boat narrowly missed clipping Williams’ water ski that would have sent America’s mermaid head first plummeting into the boat’s wildly spinning outboard.  “Buz always used to get his best ideas in the bathtub,” Williams later explained, “…in a tub at two a.m. with a stiff drink in one hand and a telephone in the other…and he’d wake you up out of a dead sleep to say, ‘hey, I’ve got an idea’ at which point you just had to rub your eyes and use a pillow to prop yourself up and listen, because most of what he came up with was damn good.”
Today, Busby Berkeley is primarily known, beloved, occasionally reviled, but most often revered for the ten short years he spent on the Warner back lot. He has been earmarked in the annals of Hollywood history for two trends; the aforementioned geometric placement of his dancers, and, for his equally famed and oft copied overhead crane shot. “Buz would take his viewfinder high up on a platform in the rafters and be concentrating so hard on getting the angle just right he’d have to be tied with a rope around his waist, because a couple a times he almost fell off,” Mickey Rooney explained. “Everything was in service to that shot,” Ruby Keeler concurred, “Buz would say ‘stand here’ and I’d stand there. He’s say, ‘do this’ and I’d do it. He wanted things just right for the camera and that’s all that mattered. How you looked in relation to the shot…but I adored that man. He was truly gifted.” The Berkeley style is as much an exercise in the proficient micromanagement of a multitude of chorines as a genuine sense of finding the collective in the individual through Berkeley’s stunning use of highly stylized camera movements. Much more than superficial flights into fancy – at the heart of each frothy confection remains a semisweet center of conformity bordering on the fascistic – a ‘parade of faces’ oddly alike and indistinguishable.
In the early years, Berkeley’s legacy was precariously perched. As a dance director he was restricted to training dancers and staging routines. The film’s director – not Berkeley – chose the camera angles; Berkeley’s contributions further blunted by an editor’s decision as to what made it into the final cut. Berkeley wanted total control over this process and was granted it by Samuel Goldwyn for 1931’s Flying High – something of a last-ditch effort to revitalize the Hollywood musical. Berkeley’s numbers for Flying High were brilliant, but the movie was not a success. Next came The Kid From Spain (1932), an Eddy Cantor vehicle where Berkeley planned for a revolving platform to showcase his chorines. “I don’t want them to revolve,” Goldwyn reportedly told Berkeley during rehearsals, “Do it the way it is now and if you must revolve them do it at some other studio.” Berkeley begrudgingly agreed. He also took Goldwyn’s advice to heart, moonlighting over at Warner Brothers. Although The Kid from Spain was a solid hit, from this moment on, Berkeley quietly vowed to someday have his girls revolve.
After Berkeley began scoring one hit after another over at Warner Brothers, Goldwyn attempted – unsuccessfully – to suspend Berkeley’s release from his contract – claiming he still owed him two pictures. In the meantime, Mervyn LeRoy, who was a close personal friend and successful director at Warner Brothers urged Berkeley to stay on in Hollywood, offering to put in a good word for him with WB’s production chief, Darryl F. Zanuck. Berkeley was reluctant. Musicals had fizzled all too quickly with the dawn of sound. As a genre they were now considered passé. Even before his career had begun, it appeared to be over. But Zanuck had an idea for a ‘new’ kind of musical; the backstage drama with songs. The result was 42nd Street (1933). Zanuck’s timing could not have been better. Regrettably, LeRoy, who had been slated to direct the movie, came down with acute tonsillitis and had to withdraw. Zanuck’s replacement was Lloyd Bacon, a no-nonsense contract director whose style was not unlike W.S. Van Dyke’s over at MGM – namely, he shot quick and cheaply. It didn’t hurt the film, as 42nd Street straddles two genres; the musical and the ‘ripped from the headlines’ melodrama that was Warner’s bread and butter. The amalgamation of these two styles bode well for the finished product. More important to Berkeley, he was largely left to his own accord, shooting with a second unit at Warner’s Sunset Studios while Bacon made the rest of the movie on six sound stages at First National.
Berkeley committed three numbers to 42nd Street; the chirpy ‘Shuffle Off To Buffalo’, the energetic ‘Young and Healthy’ and the grandiose moving tableau to gaudy, bawdy urban excess – the finale ‘42nd Street’.  Viewed today, only the latter two are memorable, imbued with Berkeley’s spark of ingenuity. In hindsight, ‘Young and Healthy’ clearly illustrates where Berkeley’s future endeavors would reside. Begun with a crooning Dick Powell, the number evolves from one beautiful girl (16-year-old Toby Wing, ravishing in white fox fur and slinky, bare-back gown) into two, then four, then quite suddenly a sequined militia of nearly carbon-copied blonde bombshells, flanked by male ushers. The dancers mount a spinning platform, marching, strutting and even jogging in unison, counterclockwise to the movement of the floor beneath their feet. It is a stunning effect, creating motion within motion, the whole spectacle strangely caught in pace and ‘in place’ with the final shot photographed between silk-stocking legs in high heel shoes: Powell and Wing, blissfully smiling into the camera.
For 42nd Street’s finale, Berkeley uses his camera to pan over a recreated stage-bound street scene, showcasing the various scamps, tramps and other spurious characters populating his faux New York landscape. Peering into various brownstone apartment windows we see a barber at work, a crap shoot in progress, and, a foiled rape. Ruby Keeler, who would become the other mainstay during Berkeley’s tenure at Warner Bros., appears in straight skirt with oversized buttons and a slit up the leg.  The relatively realistic set parts down the middle and Keeler makes her way up a gigantic staircase to nowhere, a small army of male dancers with their backs turned to the camera, carrying blacked out/life-sized placards as they ascend on either side. Only when the stairs have been completely filled does this troop turn around, and then, to conceal their own identities behind the placards, made to resemble towering replicas of the New York City skyline.    
42nd Street was a colossal hit. Berkeley and composers, Harry Warren and Al Dubin all received 7-year contracts as a result. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler became the reigning musical sweethearts of Berkeley’s subsequent excursions into sweet escapism at Warner Bros. In November, the studio announced they were giving their most valuable player ‘time off’ to raid the various chorus lines and sign 60 dancers to a long-term contract. Berkeley gave a puff piece interview to the press where he laid out ‘the rules’ each chorine was expected to follow if she should wish to keep her job. This rather silly roster of edicts included daily regimented outdoor exercise, three square meals a day (at least one consisting of steak or chop) and a glass of orange juice, minimum make-up (NO mascara), and, no high heel shoes while rehearsing. Berkeley’s $1,500 weekly salary made him one of the highest paid ‘stars’ on the Warner back lot, although much of this profit was eaten up by Berkeley’s alimony.
For his next feature, Gold Diggers of 1933, Berkeley’s extravagance was given exceptionally free reign and he proved that, left to his own devices – and vices – he could concoct some of the most breathtaking feats of undiluted escapism yet seen in the movies.  Warren and Dubin kick off the film with a true oddity of the Depression era, ‘We’re In The Money’ - sung by a sassy Ginger Rogers bedecked in a glittery mass of faux coins. The song suggests an end to hard times, despite the fact the Great Depression was at its zenith in 1933. Berkeley employs slow-motion and skewed camera angles; Rogers and her chorines flouncing rather haplessly about the art deco proscenium before being interrupted in their rehearsal by bill collectors. This number is but a prelude to two of Berkeley’s most thrilling confections. ‘Pettin’ In The Park’ features a pint-sized and slightly perverse Billy Barty skulking around a lady’s changing room after an impromptu thunderstorm has chased everyone from the art deco park inside. The girls completely undress as Barty leers on. The number is impressive not only for its execution but also for its sidestepping of the newly instituted Production Code that absolutely forbade sexual explicitness of any kind on the screen. Yet, Berkeley manages to get up close and personal with his female chorines, shooting from angles that go right up their stocking legs from ankle to inner thigh, and later, by concealing their naked forms behind the flimsiest of translucent screens.
If the number remains slightly risqué, even by today’s standards, Berkeley’s other memorable contribution ‘The Shadow Waltz’ is anything but, and one of the undisputed highlights to emerge from Depression-era Hollywood; the chorines redressed in tri-hooped billowy satin white skirts, coddling neon-lit violins. Midway through shooting this elephantine production number the studio was rocked by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake whose epicenter in Long Beach rattled Burbank to its core. The set was plunged into darkness and several of the dancers were injured by falling debris. Berkeley, thirty feet up in the rafters at the time, clung perilously to his rigging while encouraging the frightened dancers to remain where they were until the gigantic bay doors could be pried open to allow in the natural light.
Thankfully, damage to the set and the studio were minimal – a minor miracle, even if it delayed shooting by a few days, in order to assess structural damage. When the company did reassemble, Berkeley dove headstrong into the film’s penultimate number, Remember My Forgotten Man, featuring Joan Blondell talking her way with considerable emotion through a great Warren/Dubin song that squarely addresses the unemployed and down-trodden. The song is an uncharacteristically potent social commentary - pure Berkeley’s vision of it, no less so; the foreground cluttered with hungry, panged, expressionless eyes; the backdrop, a fascinating bridgework of soldiers proudly marching across a rainbow-like proscenium as Blondell passionately implores the audience to never forget the men who made sacrifices for freedom.  At a time when movies in general, and musicals in particular, all but ignored the nation’s woes, choosing instead to divert audience’s anxieties with escapist fluff and nonsense, Berkeley brought the Depression front and center, and, to a fevered pitch – boldly, concretely and with immeasurable artistic flair making it the focus of his narrative.
Assessing Gold Diggers of 1933 for the Los Angeles Record, critic Relma Morin astutely surmised that “it’s a dazzling, eye-paralyzing, ear-tickling creation that makes all other musicals look like a Delancey Street peep show. The star of the picture is a gentleman who does not appear in it. Busby Berkeley, the geometrically-minded lad…has done a perfectly amazing job!” Jack Warner too was most impressed by Berkeley’s innovations – less so when the front office informed him that his star director had ordered studio craftsmen to cut holes in the ceiling of the sound stage to accommodate his ever-increasing need to rise higher and higher into the rafters. For Berkeley’s next endeavor, Footlight Parade (1933) he was given James Cagney – numero uno ‘hot stuff’ at Warner Bros. Cagney had begun life as a dancer, before being relegated to playing gangsters in the movies. But he proved every bit up to the challenge of high-stepping in Footlight Parade. Yet, in hindsight there seems a curious disconnect between this film and Berkeley’s two aforementioned efforts, Cagney’s presence, so formidable, it forced Berkeley to concoct more intimate numbers to showcase his male star.
Even so, Berkeley could not resist indulging his creative verve on two mammoth set pieces; the first, at least in hindsight, foreshadowing the MGM career of Esther Williams a full eleven years before it came to pass. ‘By A Waterfall’ is perhaps the most lyrical water ballet ever put on film. Undeniably, it remains one of the most intricate and, for its time, was the most expensive production number in Berkeley’s career.  It begins in a faux forest setting, the show within a show starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell serenading each other with a few bars of another sublime Harry Warren/Al Dubin melody. Powell falls asleep on the grassy knoll and Keeler disappears behind a rock to disrobe. Now, she dives into a gargantuan pool near a paper mache grotto, complete with waterslides and fifty swimmers bedecked in spangled one-piece bathing suits and matching skull caps. For the next ten minutes, Berkeley repeatedly dazzles us with one memorable sequence after the next, the swimmers retreating to an art deco pool, before rising as water sprites atop a massive revolving fountain. Berkeley compounds this mesmerizing spectacle by shooting the fountain girls from every conceivable angle; his overhead symmetry revealing a fetishistic conglomeration of scissor-kicking legs.  At one point, Berkeley provides a startling overview of the pool, illuminated from within only, the swimmers in silhouette spreading from a hub to create baffling rotations of amoeba-esque geometric patterns, locking ankles around each other’s necks as a cylindrical human chain in perfectly-formed concentric circles beneath the water.
The other outstanding moment in Footlight Parade is Shanghai Lil’ – a spirited buck and wing performed in a brothel between Keeler (dressed in silks as a Chinese concubine) and Cagney as an American sailor who departs for the streets where a small army of marching soldiers evoke the U.S. military’s might and its heroes. These give way to a series of placards that form a gigantic head shot of President Franklin Roosevelt. In some ways, Footlight Parade marks a definite period to the first half of Berkeley’s preeminence at the studio, his subsequent efforts becoming variations on formulas already patented and perfected in these three movies. After staging production numbers for the musical short, Plane Nuts and loan out to RKO for the feature film, Roman Scandals, Berkeley was primed to have his first creative misfire. It came to him in Wonder Bar (1934). ‘Going to Heaven on a Mule’ remains a grossly prejudicial representation of the black race – even for its time – the cliché of the simpleton ‘darkie’ – hapless and leering - exploited ad nauseam. It is exceptionally difficult to reconcile this queer and unflattering portrait with Berkeley’s otherwise Teflon-coated reputation as an arbitrator of ‘good taste’. But there it is.
Mercifully, Wonder Bar also features one of Berkeley’s most heartbreakingly gorgeous dream sequences, ‘Don’t Say Goodnight’ – an intimate pas deux between stars, Delores Del Rio and Ricardo Cortez. The sequence begins in an art deco and silver-leaved forest with an artificial wind loosely tugging at Del Rio’s gown and hair. This dissolves into a sublime white-pillared and chiffon velvet temple where gargantuan rotating mirrors reflect the image of sixty dancers, multiplying their procession into an infinite backdrop of kaleidoscopic patterns.  The effect is uncanny; the real dancers indistinguishable from their mirror images, the walls constantly pivoting to reveal an ever so slightly different angle to the action, thus creating the illusion hundreds – even thousands – are partaking of this moment.  Berkeley worked out the camera angles down to a finite science, using miniatures to ensure neither he nor the camera operator would be seen in any of the reflections. By placing his camera ever so cleverly in just the right position, facing one of the white pillars and, with the camera operator lying on his back in a trench dug just below floor level, both remained virtually invisible.
Wonder Bar may very well have created the impetus for more stringent reinforcement of the newly instituted Production Code of Ethics. For it tested the boundaries of what was then considered ‘indecent’ behavior; beginning with its reference to a boudoir as being more like ‘a playground’ and suggestive nods to homosexuality and sadomasochism. At the start of the movie a man and woman are seen dancing inside an ultra-chic nightclub presided over by Master of Ceremonies, Al Jolson. From the peripheries of the frame an effete gentleman approaches, tapping the woman on the shoulder and inquiring if he might cut in. When the woman receptively agrees, the man takes her partner around the waist and dances off with him instead. Leering at the spectacle, Jolson slyly comments “Boys will be boys.” Wonder Bar also featured a tango between Ricardo Cortez and Delores Del Rio in which he repeatedly assaults her with a bull whip as part of the act. The moment is capped off by Del Rio, whose character is in love with Cortez’s man-about-town but has since discovered his gross infidelity with other women, mortally stabbing him. The audience assumes this is part of the act and applauds its daring, even as Cortez slinks off into the wings to die. Del Rio’s scorned murderess is never brought to justice.  
Berkeley topped out the year with one minor programmer (Fashions of 1934, for which he staged a feather and harp spectacle to Warren and Dubin’s sublime, Spin A Little Web of Dreams) and a towering achievement - Dames, featuring three memorable excursions into Berkeley-ana – the whimsical The Girl at the Ironing Board, the lyrical ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’ and a confounding finale built around the title song. In the first, Joan Blondell imagines a romance between the various clothes drying on her laundry line. The number is a good counter-reference to ‘Shuffle Off To Buffalo’ from 42nd Street; occasionally coy and cloying, but notable for its technical prowess and Blondell’s way with the lyric. Berkeley, however, is on full display in ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ – the film’s love ballad, co-starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, rekindling fond memories of their pas deux in The Shadow Waltz.  Berkeley reasoned if the public adored one Ruby Keeler they would go positively gaga over an army of Ruby Keelers; logic so absurd it proved equally as sound, the floor and platforms suddenly rising in rotating art deco Ferris wheels with each dancer eerily resembling the star. These likenesses rush Keeler on all sides, flipping their skirts to form a gigantic placard of Keeler’s face with its left eye opening like the gun barrel trademark from the James Bond franchise to reveal the real Ruby Keeler in full form, rising to the surface. 
Initially budgeted at $15,000, Berkeley was able to cajole producer, Hal B. Wallis into giving him $40,000 to perfect his vision. Earlier, Wallis had denied Berkeley’s request for $50,000 and 250 chorines saying, “We have been warned not to have this kind of number and I personally will not approve anything of this kind.” Nevertheless, it was increasingly a challenge to disagree with Berkeley’s judgment. After all, his pictures were making a lot of money.  For the finale of Dames, Berkeley instituted his most lavish series of kaleidoscopic imagery to date; his chorines decked in black tights and flouncy white blouses, flying into the camera lens with a black ball in their hands, casting these orbs downward into the center of a gathered crowd who seemed to explode on cue into a variety of geometric patterns. Once again, the effect was an ingenious reverse shot; the girls individually lowered away from the camera rather than towards it, the film sped up to suggest more forward-thrusting jet propulsion. 
Gold Diggers of 1935 brought Berkeley back into his own for two spectacular sequences; The Words Are In My Heart’ and the iconic Lullaby of Broadway – eleven minutes of titillating taps to tell the tragedy of a beloved Broadway baby. Better still, Berkeley was assigned to direct the entire film and proved (as though proof were required) he knew his way around melodrama and comedy as well as the music. Still, it is for the numbers that Berkeley undeniably remains in his element. The Words Are in My Heart features fifty-six sparkling white baby grand pianos, complete with corresponding female pianists in gossamer gowns, fluttering around the ever-moving set. Berkeley employed a bit of slo-mo trickery for the finale of this number, as the pianos are seen coming together from all corners of the stage to form one gigantic rectangle. Once again, this sequence was actually photographed in reverse; the pianos actually being split apart by invisible tow lines and men cloaked in black, crouching to conceal them from the camera’s view, the film printed in reverse to achieve the opposite result.
For Lullaby of Broadway, Berkeley endeavored to tell a mini-movie within his film; the tale of a Broadway gadabout played by Wini Shaw who parties all night and sleeps all day. Returning home from another night’s carousing, Ms. Shaw falls into a deep sleep. In her dreams she meets up with paramour, Dick Powell at an implausibly swank and multi-tiered nightclub, the female and male dancers challenging one another to a spirited tap routine that culminates with Ms. Shaw inadvertently being knocked from a balcony to her death; a rather gruesome end – particularly for a musical – but still one of the iconic exemplars of tap-dancing precision ever put on film. The expenditure of time and effort Berkeley gave Gold Diggers of 1935 physically wore him down – that, and his increasing dependency on alcohol.
The studio took little notice of this ‘exhaustion’ but did not relieve Berkeley of his directorial duties on In Caliente (1935); perhaps the least distinguished of Berkeley’s Warner musicals. Berkeley staged ‘The Lady In Red’ – a tango-esque routine with comedian Edward Everett Horton and a bevy of beauties. Although the film reunited Berkeley with Latin superstar, Delores Del Rio neither seems particularly engaged with the material. The film did respectable business. But its failure to out-gross Gold Diggers of 1935 signaled to the studio brass that perhaps Berkeley’s popularity had begun to cool. By 1937’s Varsity Show Berkeley found his supremacy at Warner Brothers repeatedly challenged. Indeed, in the intervening period he was given only a modest programmer to direct, I Live For Love, before assigned to create musical sequences for William Keighley’s Stars Over Broadway (both in 1935).
Arguably, Berkeley’s absence from the screen had more to do with his near fatal car wreck and incarceration for vehicular manslaughter than any downturn in his popularity. Berkeley’s attorney judiciously rallied support for his client in the court room. But only after two lengthy trials ended in hung juries, and a third had already begun in earnest, were the charges finally dropped. Berkeley was acquitted of any wrong doing. Alas, Berkeley’s conscience bore the brunt of responsibility. He became reclusive and severely depressed.  But then came Varsity Show; a lavish affair concocted along the lines of Good News – a 1927 Broadway smash Warner Bros desperately wanted to produce as a movie but to which it did not own the rights.  Varsity Show has Fred Waring and his glee club Pennsylvanians to recommend it. It also cast Dick Powell in a familiar role. Alas, Jack Warner was dissatisfied with Berkeley’s final cut. At 121 minutes, Varsity Show ran considerably longer than most Warner movies of its vintage – certainly much longer than any musical the studio had produced to date. After tepid previews, Warner ordered the footage cut down to a scant 98 minutes - foreshortening Berkeley’s lavishly staged finale.  
Berkeley was on very familiar ground in Gold Diggers of 1937, staging the lavish ‘All’s Fair In Love And War’ – a rousing march that gave audiences a chance to see what a real military parade might look like if staged by the master. Dick Powell and Joan Blondell face off in what can accurately be described as the first musicalized ‘battle of the sexes’ – boys against the girls, each dressed in their best and prepared to duke it out, if only making love were not more appealing. Berkeley pulled out ever cliché and metaphor for this spectacular number. Told he would have to cut back on expenses, Berkeley ordered only one thing built for this gargantuan finale: a shiny black poured glass and mirror floor. After a brief interlude, the various male/female couplings share a seat on oversized white rocking chairs. After that, Berkeley relies almost exclusively on his dancers, decked in brilliant white-on-white uniforms and carrying various implements – bugles, bayonets, flags – to charge the screen, marching back and forth and from side to side in seemingly endless alignment. By now, the formula to a Berkeley musical sequence was not only ensconced – but predictable. Despite the ever-evolving glamor of his execution, the plots were so transparent the box office was beginning to reflect it.
Berkeley’s next effort – Hollywood Hotel (1937) was a fluff piece about a musician (Dick Powell) who becomes a big sensation in the movies. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. It also featured Ronald Reagan and a cameo from noted gossip columnist, Louella Parsons playing – what else? - herself.   Heavily laden with largely forgettable songs – and one true treasure, Hooray for Hollywood (an anthem on par with ‘That’s Entertainment!’ and There’s No Business Like Show Business) - Hollywood Hotel is a compendium of musical performances by the likes of Powell, Louis Prima, Francis Langford and Rosemary Lane – all of them ably assisted by Benny Goodman and his orchestra. Nevertheless, it remains a revue-styled turnip, loosely strung together by the most threadbare of plots. Regrettably, it also leaves Berkeley with very little room to exercise his imagination.  Viewed alongside Berkeley’s other creative efforts, Hollywood Hotel really is a ‘distant’ rather than ‘kissing’ cousin. 
The time had come for a change. Thus, Berkeley bid farewell to the Warner musical with Roy Enright’s Gold Diggers in Paris (1938); by far the most restrained installment in the franchise.  If nothing else, it illustrates that together with Harry Warren and Al Dubin, Berkeley had lost none of his touch to concoct memorable and creative production numbers. The opening credits use stock footage to plump out the movie’s opulence, the titles appearing over outtakes from Spin A Little Web of Dreams – re-orchestrated with an arrangement of Gold Diggers in Paris penultimate number, The Latin Quarter. Forced to economize, Berkeley nevertheless found innovative ways of taking his modest chorines and multiplying their effect through lighting and shadows.  Gold Diggers in Paris is also blessed by radio sensation cum movie star, Rudi Vallee’s breezy presence and stylish rendering of the aforementioned, as well as the movie’s other memorable tune, ‘I Want To Go Back to Bali’. The song acts as bookends to the story, first as a nightclub sequence sung by Vallee, and later as its splendid farewell in which all of the principals partake.  By the time Berkeley staged ‘The Latin Quarter’ Warner Bros. had already decided it was time to retire their once popular backstage series. For this finale, Rosemary Lane climbs a ladder into Vallee’s Parisian atelier as part of a stage show. There, he is painting headshots of women who miraculously come to life. We dissolve into a characteristic can-can, shot uncharacteristically by Berkeley using deep focus and shadows on a severe bias to mask the fact his request for 100 chorines had been vetoed by less than half. Only 30 are ever featured in a single shot; the number concluding with Rudi Vallee and Lane atop an oversized naval officer’s cap, reprising, ‘I Wanna Go Back To Bali’.
Warner Home Video’s 9-film compendium, The Busby Berkeley Collection, reunites some of the master’s best work in one box set. There is really no point in deconstructing plots on a picture by picture basis. All are suspiciously alike: excursions into the cynical backstage backstabbing of Broadway divas and their rich, but naïve sugar daddies (most regularly played to perfection by Joan Blondell and Guy Kibbee); the ingénue and dapper leading man (most habitually Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell), each discovering love and tenderness before the curtain goes up. Featured in this box set are 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, 1935, 1937, and, in Paris, along with Hollywood Hotel, Footlight Parade, Dames, and, Varsity Show.  Warner Home Video has done a fine job cleaning up these 70+ year-old films for DVD; although it seems sacrilege to discover only 42nd Street has made the leap to hi-def Blu-ray as yet. Uniformly, picture quality is excellent, with 42nd Street marginally etching out the competition; it’s grain slightly more resolved and sporting exquisite black levels. Fine detail is impressive for standard DVD. But the outcry should be heard over at the Warner Archive to get more Berkeley magic debuted in 1080p. Permit us to champion this cause – loudly!
Several of these classic musicals are derived from 35mm prints – the original camera negatives long ago deteriorated beyond repair. Occasionally, dupes have also been incorporated with less than perfect video quality as the direct result. Overall, there is absolutely nothing to complain about here. Given their vintage, lack of proper archival care over the years, and the ravages of age, these movies look amazingly sharp and pristine. The audio across all is mono, impressively remastered at an adequate listening level. Warner Home Video has jam-packed these discs with a stunning array of extras – some ‘newly’ produced; others, vintage examples of the studio system hard at work. In addition to several featurettes on Busby Berkeley – exploring both the man and his sense of style, we also get copious nods to Harry Warren, the making of 42nd Street, the Gold Diggers franchise, Footlight Parade and Dames, plus a barrage of vintage WB cartoon shorts, gag reels and theatrical trailers. 
Warner Home Video caps off the excess with The Busby Berkeley Disc: originally released on LaserDisc in 1989 and covering virtually all of the master’s musical moments except for Wonder Bar’s ‘Going To Heaven on A Mule’. Regrettably, none of these numbers have been restored since 1989. The audio/video quality is, frankly, weak – riddled with age-related damage and a considerable amount of chroma bleeding. Not good! Should have been better! Finally, it is important to note that Warner Home Video previously released all of the films in this collection as two separate box sets. No content has been added to this re-amalgamated compendium. So, if you already own the other sets there really is no point to acquiring this one. Bottom line: Busby Berkeley was a genius – period. While this set omits Fashions of 1934 and Wonder Bar (both readily available from the Warner Archive as single disc/bare bones offerings) the examples of Berkeley’s legacy collected together herein are spellbinding reminders of a sort of lyrical exquisiteness that, for a few short years, set a standard for the Hollywood musical unlikely to be rivaled, much less so surpassed. Enjoy these movies for what they are – plot-thin, pure escapist fantasy: entertainment with a capital ‘E’.   
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4 (overall)
3.5 (overall)