Wednesday, January 31, 2007

ASTAIRE AND ROGERS: THE ULTIMATE EDITION (RKO/MGM 1933 - 1949) Warner Home Video


Astaire and Rogers: The Ultimate Collection is the complete filmic anthology of the screen’s most successful and fondly remembered dancing duo: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The set contains all ten of their efforts (9 made in B&W at RKO, the 10th and least memorable, conceived as a reunion at MGM nearly a decade after their partnership had ended) and is a comprehensive way to delve into an important part of Hollywood history in one fell swoop for a moderate purchase price.

The collection debuts with Thornton Freeland’s Flying Down To Rio (1933) – a film vehicle conceived for Gene Raymond and Dolores Del Rio. Raymond is cast as aviator and band leader of the Yankee Clippers, Roger Bond. So far, Bond’s penchant for the ladies has managed to get the band broomed from every hot spot in America. Bond’s latest conquest is Brazilian flame, Belinha de Rezende (Del Rio) who is already engaged.

But things really begin to heat up at the Hotel Atlantico when Roger and Belinha rekindle their romance under the radar of Belinah’s intended. The film is justly famous – and forever lampooned - for its flying circus finale in which a troupe of scantily clad ladies improbably tap dance on the wings of an airborne biplane. But it is also renown for ‘The Carioca’ a dance performed not so much ‘cheek to cheek’ as forehead to forehead by none other than Astaire and Rogers – cast as minor comic relief, Fred Ayres and Honey Hale.

On the strength of this film’s success, and the considerable notoriety that Astaire and Rogers generated with their routine, the two were paired for their first legitimate starring collaboration, Mark Sandrich’s The Gay Divorcee (1934). Presumably because the idea that marital discourse could hardly be considered ‘gay’, the original title ‘The Gay Divorce’ was altered to reflect that only the person being divorced could exercise such a privilege.

In this comedy of errors, Mimi Glossop (Rogers) is the divorcee – or rather, would like to be. Her Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) hires a professional to pretend to seduce her, thereby giving Mimi’s husband grounds for the divorce. But the plot goes awry as American dancer Guy Holden (Astaire) meets Mimi while visiting Brightbourne. She thinks he is playing the part of her paid seducer while he is actually falling in love with her.

A superlative Cole Porter’s score includes the elegant ‘Night and Day’ (sublimely danced by Astaire and Rogers) and the confounding ‘The Continental’ a twenty-two minute production number that unravels from poignant pas deux to all out tap dancing brawl for guests at a posh art deco hotel. This film set the standard for the rest of the Astaire/Rogers films – paper thin plot blown out of proportion by confounding and beautiful set pieces.

Next up is William A. Seiter’s Roberta (1935); Astaire and Rogers once again in supporting roles; this time to Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott. Football player John Kent (Scott) tags along with band leader and pal, Huckleberry Haines (Astaire) and his Wabash Indianans. The troupe arrives in Paris where John visits his aunt, Roberta (Helen Westley) the owner of a posh dress maker’s shop effectively run by her assistant, Stephanie (Dunne).

In Paris, the boys also run into former singer ‘Lizzie’ now masquerading as Comtesse Scharwenka (Rogers) who – no kidding - gets the Wabash Indianans a gig. Roberta dies. John inherits the business and thereafter plans to liquidate it to keep up his playboy lifestyle. But love predictably intervenes and the business is saved. Astaire and Rogers one grand moment to shine is in a dance to Kern’s haunting ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.’ For the rest, Roberta is elegant, if slightly off kilter entertainment.

Next, is the first hint that our duo is on the road to becoming legendary: 1935’s Top Hat. The film abounds with Astaire/Rogers clichés that, for their time were fresh and inviting and is a potpourri for Irving Berlin’s marvelous tunes including the sublime and romantic, ‘Cheek to Cheek,’ the charming, ‘Isn’t It A Lovely Day’ and the grandiose ‘Piccolino’ – a fiesta of tap set against the stunning backdrop of art deco Venice, complete with glistening black water canals.
Astaire plays showman Jerry Travers, a hoofer touring in a revue from producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). Through a case of mistaken identity, Jerry is presumed to be Horace – a married man – whom Dale Tremont (Rogers) has already fallen in love with. Emotionally scarred by her mis-realization, Tremont attempts to marry her dress maker, Roberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) instead, but with comical results. Throughout, director Mark Sandrich never once fumbles these loose narrative threads, delivering an impeccably crafted musical extravaganza that is riotous, engaging and decidedly above par for the Astaire/Rogers collaborations that preceded it.

Sandrich is up to his old tricks again in Follow The Fleet (1936) a film that miscasts Astaire as able bodied seaman Bake Baker. Baker is out to rekindle his romance with old flame and hat check girl cum dancer, Sherry Martin (Rogers). Bake's above board shipmate, Bilge Smith (Randolph Scott) is a bit of a rapscallion with the ladies, and he shows no signs of stopping when he takes up with Sherry's naïve sister, Connie (Harriet Hilliard of future Ozzie and Harriet television fame).

Here’s the wrinkle – Connie wants a home and family and Bilge just wants to have fun. Can love blossom under these circumstances? Of course, but not before Bake and Bilge are thrown into the brig for jumping ship and breaking curfew. Berlin’s score is the real star of the film with such standards as ‘Let Yourself Go’, ‘I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket’ and the haunting ‘Let’s Face The Music and Dance.’

Possibly the greatest of all Astaire/Rogers collaborations is George Steven’s Swing Time (1936). Astaire is put back in familiar garb – white tie and tails - as John Lucky Garnett. Garnett is engaged – repeatedly – to Margaret Watson (Betty Furness). But after being tricked out of his nuptials for the umpteenth time, Margaret calls it quits. Determined to win back her affections, Lucky decides to earn enough money to woo her.

But instead he accidentally runs into – and nearly tramples - Penny Carroll (Rogers) a winsome dance instructor who mistakes Lucky for a flat foot. That kink is ironed out in the charming ‘Pick Yourself Up.’ Penny and Lucky develop a successful dance partnership. But their burgeoning romance is blunted when Margaret returns to reclaim Lucky whom she now deems worthy of her affections.

The film features three of Astaire/Rogers best choreographed routines; the aforementioned ‘Pick Yourself Up,’ the passionate and playful ‘Waltz in Swing Time,’ and ‘Never Gonna Dance’ effortlessly conveyed inside a two-tiered glittering nightclub.

Arguably, there was nowhere to go but down and Mark Sandrich’s Shall We Dance (1937) does indeed begin that slow spiral – despite a brilliant score from George and Ira Gershwin. On this occasion, Astaire is miscast as ballet legend, Petrov Peters. Petrov orchestrates a not-so-chance meeting aboard an Atlantic luxury liner so that he can pursue a romance with Broadway musical star, Linda Keene (Rogers).

Unfortunately, reporters snap up the story and turn it into a nasty bit of gossip – touting a secret marriage that both Petrov and Linda feel they have to embrace to keep up appearances. The film’s key outstanding sequence is the delightful ‘Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off’ danced on roller skates presumably in Central Park – but actually on an RKO soundstage. The tragedy of the film is that George Gershwin did not live to see its completion – an immense loss to the artistic community that sent the production into a dower mood and tail spin even before its premiere. Though engaging enough, Shall We Dance is not vintage Astaire/Rogers, though frequently if gives a fairly good imitation of being as much.

The same is true of their next collaboration, Carefree (1938) – a politely amusing screwball comedy pretending to be a legitimate musical. Amanda Cooper (Rogers) is the on again/off again fiancée of Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy). Steve desperately wants Amanda to commit to him, so he sends her to his good friend, Dr. Tony Flagg (Astaire) to seek psychiatric counseling for her marriage phobia. One problem – Amanda falls in love with Tony and Tony is starting to dig Amanda. Amanda is hypnotized by Tony to hate him and love Stephen.

Despite having an Irving Berlin score, the film is really a one hit wonder – ‘Change Partners’ sung poignantly and with great affection by Astaire and later, and all too briefly, danced by Astaire and Rogers – presumably in a trance. Less successful is ‘The Yam’ – a colossally bad lyric and tune by Berlin and awkwardly danced by nearly everyone visiting a posh country club. The dream sequence that Amanda imagines dancing with Tony in a fairytale landscape is not much better.

By 1939, RKO was ready to abandon the Astaire/Rogers formula that had effectively kept them in the black for most of the 1930s. Hence, the studio’s farewell to their top box office draw (and Astaire/Rogers swan song for nearly a decade) was The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939): a musical biography of the once successful dance team who invented ‘the Castle-walk’ and changed the face of ballroom dancing forever.

The film begins in earnest with Vernon (Astaire) falling in love with the stage-struck Irene Foote (Rogers). A few light-hearted misadventures later and the two are married. At Irene's insistence, they embark on a dance career that nearly impoverishes them. Enter agent (and fairy godmother of sorts) Maggie Sutton (Edna May Oliver) who rescues the team from oblivion and transforms their meager beginnings into a brilliant career.

The chief problem with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is that it doesn’t adhere to any of the conventions of the typical Astaire/Rogers musical. It also does not have a very stylish ending. Vernon was drafted into service and killed in action during WWI. Because his widow had total creative control over the project, the film ends with Astaire’s death – hardly the sort of footnote any fan was expecting.

Nearly a decade passed before Astaire and Rogers reappeared on the screen together. In that interim, the Hollywood musical had greatly changed and so had Astaire and Rogers. Astaire became a highly successful dancer on a variety of projects at various studios in Hollywood. Rogers all but abandoned dancing to pursue her intentions as a ‘serious’ dramatic actress.
By 1949, producer Arthur Freed was ready to take a gamble on the old Astaire/Rogers magic at MGM with The Barkleys of Broadway – mishmash claptrap of clichés that ought to have stayed on the cutting room floor. Apart from reuniting the team to dance ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’ (originally sung but not danced in Shall We Dance), Barkleys is a miserable artistic flop with so many misfires it’s hard to imagine a superlative producer like Freed allowing such a movie to be released.

The story concerns married couple, Josh (Astaire) and Dinah (Rogers) Barkley. On the surface, the two are the toast of Broadway. Behind the scenes they can’t seem to agree on anything. Eventually, this rift leads to divorce and the possibility that things will never be the same again. Far less corrective in the film are the musical offerings which range from the hoaky ‘A Weekend in the Country’ to the charm-free ‘My One and Only Healing Fling’ to the contrived and gimmicky ‘Shoes With Wings On’. The one outstanding new routine is ‘Bouncing The Blues’ a mesmerizing precision tap routine done as a rehearsal.

After previously releasing only five of the aforementioned movies in a single box, Warner Home Video now makes the entire collection available in one slickly packaged, slim-case box set: Astaire and Rogers: The Ultimate Collection. Despite advertising that all films have been digitally restored and remastered, the collection in totem is a mixed bag of offerings that – for the most part – will surely not disappoint.

The best transfers in the collection are The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Swing Time and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Here, the B&W image has been impeccably cleaned up with fine details realized throughout. Solid deep blacks and very clean whites greet the viewer and the overall image is grain-free and quite smooth.

To a lesser extent Flying Down to Rio, Roberta and Carefree also deserve honorable mention for overall picture quality that is just a shade below the standard already discussed in the aforementioned titles. But Shall We Dance is a grainy, often softy focused, poorly contrasted and digitally harsh disappointment. Black levels are generally deep gray and whites are rarely clean. Age related artifacts are more prominent.

Finally, The Barkleys of Broadway – the only color film in the set – the Technicolor transfer is far from expectations. In fact, for much of the film, colors are quite muddy and softly focused. Flesh tones appear as garish orange or overly contrasted pink. There’s also an excessively dark haze that seems to plague much of the film. For example, Rogers’ green shimmering dress melts into the black background of the cab she shares with Astaire. Fine details are not realized.

Four of the films in this set come with an audio commentary and a featurette (the same four previously released in Astaire/Rogers Vol. One). This time around, all titles have been repackaged in Warner’s new slim-line cases. The rest of the films are only given bare-bones short subjects and theatrical trailers as their supplements. Extra disc: the exclusive to this collection and feature length documentary: Astaire and Rogers: Partners in Rhythm. The box set also includes a ten song digitally remastered CD of best loved musical moments and some vintage reproductions of art and press promotions for Roberta as well as publicity stills from behind the scenes. Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Flying Down To Rio 3.5
The Gay Divorcee 4
Roberta 2.5
Top Hat 5
Swing Time 5
Follow the Fleet 4.5
Shall We Dance 3.5
Carefree 3.5
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle 3
The Barkley's of Broadway 2
VIDEO/AUDIO
Flying Down To Rio 4
The Gay Divorcee 4
Roberta 3.5
Top Hat 4
Swing Time 3.5
Follow the Fleet 3.5
Shall We Dance 3
Carefree 3.5
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle 3
The Barkley's of Broadway 3
EXTRAS
4.5

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