Sunday, March 30, 2008

TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (MGM 1946) Warner Home Video

In the great pantheon of MGM’s celebrated film musicals, Richard Whorf’s Till The Clouds Roll By (1946) is a colossus – uniting the studio’s justly celebrated and formidable roster of diverse musical talents (including Judy Garland, Van Johnson, Angela Lansbury, Lucille Bremer, Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson and Lena Horne) into an epically mounted – if superficially fictional - super-production.

The narrative by Myles Connelly and Jean Holloway is reported to be the life and times of Broadway legend Jerome Kern. Don’t you believe it! Behind the marvelous performances there is nothing more than pure confection that, while engaging and melodic – is as fanciful as Kern’s own melodies; in ample supply on this outing. Reportedly, Kern discouraged screen scenarists Guy Bolton and George Wells in drawing inspiration from his own life – presumably because it lacked narrative intensity. The reconstitution however does not fair much better.

The film opens with a lengthy prologue of standards from Jerome Kern’s (Robert Walker) most successful stage play – Showboat. Kathryn Grayson and Tony Martin make an engaging couple, warbling ‘Make Believe’; Virginia O’Brien does her usual deadpan in ‘Life Upon the Wicked Stage’ and Lena Horne, coos a positively sultry interpretation of ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine.

From here, the story digresses to the youthful days of Kern’s consternation and his chronic inability to gain outside interest in his songs. He meets musical arranger, James I. Hessler (a wholly fictional character, though adequately embodied by Van Heflin) who works diligently to help launch Kern’s career.

The early tunes in the Kern catalogue may be somewhat lesser known today, but MGM’s art department gives each and every one a glorious visual interpretation. Angela Lansbury coos ‘How’d You Like To Spoon With Me’ atop a swing. Dinah Shore warbles ‘They Didn’t Believe Me’ under a stylized magnolia tree. A non-singing June Allyson accompanies Ray MacDonald in the brilliant pas deux with a chorine of boys and girls toting pink and blue umbrellas in the rain.

The most ambitiously staged sequences are those reserved for Judy Garland’s cameo – cast as the sympathetic stage star, Marilyn Miller. Her first song is ‘Look For The Silver Lining’ – a poignant ballad sung purposefully behind a stacks of dirty dishes to conceal the fact that Garland was, in fact, pregnant at the time with daughter Liza. The second Garland appearance is a tour de force – ‘Sunny', Who?’; beginning with an elaborately staged circus vignette that effortlessly dissolves into Garland atop an escalator surrounded by elegant men in top hats and tails.

The film’s finale is a compendium of Kern standards staged atop a towering edifice of gleaning white art deco pedestals and sung by every performer except Garland. Lena Horne offers ‘Why Was I Born,’ Tony Martin/You Are The Promise of Springtime, and Kathryn Grayson/Long Ago and Far Away; capped off by Frank Sinatra’s electric rendition of ‘Ol Man River’ – so vibrantly solemn in his early Brooklyn crooner’s style that it provides the perfect finish for this monumental musical achievement.

Till the Clouds Roll By was MGM's first all-star 'bio' musical and its overwhelming success at the box office ensured that more like minded fare would follow. Viewed today, the production values alone are mind-boggling. This is a colossus in every sense of the word, staged with MGM's chic good taste for pictorial value. If one ever doubted the appeal of star power, this film confirms its strength in spades. Only MGM could pull off such a feat and the results yield an embarrassment of artistic riches. 

After having to contend with numerous public domain copies of this film on DVD (none up to par where quality is concerned) Warner Home Video’s transfer on Till The Clouds Roll By is much welcomed – easily eclipsing all others. For the most part, colors are bold, vibrant and full saturated – thanks primarily to a major restoration effort undertaken in the early 1990s for a long overdue and highly anticipated laserdisc release.

Contrast levels are nicely realized. Fine details are present throughout. Grain and age related artifacts are practically nonexistent. Misregistration difficulties that were inherent on the aforementioned laserdisc release have been corrected on this DVD. The audio is mono but very nicely cleaned up. Extras included a brief featurette, audio only tracks and the film’s theatrical trailer. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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