Thursday, April 24, 2008

A DATE WITH JUDY (MGM 1948) Warner Home Video

One of MGM’s most perennially charming and effervescent, minor musicals, Richard Thorpe’s A Date With Judy (1948) is a tuneful winner starring MGM’s resident teenage chanteuse Jane Powell as a precocious young girl in love. After misappropriating Deanne Durbin’s contract to Universal in 1933, MGM began its own search for another young soprano to add to their ever expanding roster of young talent. Powell fit the bill; a pert and plucky, bright-eyed child whose vocal abilities easily outshone her years. Viewed today, almost all of Powell's early musicals at MGM are suspiciously similar in plot. 

MGM musicals from this vintage in general may have repeatedly borrowed on the tried and true principles for their assembly line bread and butter, but no one can deny that when it came to assembling a diversionary song and dance spectacle, no studio hit their mark quite so regularly – or with as much spellbinding perfection on display – as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the studio with “more stars than there are in the heavens”. A Date With Judy's screenplay by Dorothy Cooper, Dorothy Kingsley and Aleen Leslie is light on plausibility and heavy on the schmaltz – always a recipe for success, especially with Hungarian Joe Pasternak producing.

On this occasion Powell is Judy Foster, a winsome teenager whose world is turned upside down with the arrival of handsome, Stephen Andrews (Robert Stack) – newly installed at Pop Scully’s (Lloyd Carrigan) Drug Store; a popular teen hang-out. After a misunderstanding between Judy and her beau, Ogden ‘Oogie’ Pringle (Scotty Beckett), Judy decides to take Stephen to the local school dance instead; thereby creating a bit of homespun jealousy. The lure backfires however when Stephen takes a very active interest in Judy’s close friend and Ogden’s sister, Carol (Elizabeth Taylor at her most smolderingly sinful).

Carol and Ogden come from a wealthy background. Unfortunately, their widowed father, Lucien (Leon Ames) has become so engrossed in establishing a family fortune to leave his heirs that he’s quite forgotten how to be a caring parent. Meanwhile, at the Foster home, Judy’s father, Melvin (Wallace Beery) has decided to take private rumba lessons to surprise his wife (Selena Royle) for their pending 20th wedding anniversary. With only two left feet as his guide, Melvin employs South American singer, Rosita Cochellas (Carmen Miranda) to ease him into the celebrated Latin rhythms.

The wrinkle in the plot arises when Carol – discontented with Stephen’s mis-perceived lack of interest in her – tells Judy that all men suffer from mid-life crises that can lead to discourse and even infidelity in what was once a solid relationship. Shortly thereafter, Judy accidentally walks in on her father with Rosita hiding in the closet and jumps to the worst of all possible conclusions. Her father is having an affair!

Given that MGM’s debut starring vehicle for Powell had been the lavishly mounted super production, Holiday In Mexico (1946), the musical repertoire for A Date With Judy plays it remarkably safe; relying on standards ‘Love Is Where You Find It’ and ‘Through the Years.’ So too is the scope and lavishness of this follow up minor by direct comparison. Nevertheless, A Date With Judy contains the only Oscar-winning Best Song to be featured in any Powell movie, the forever remembered, ‘It’s a Most Unusual Day’ – sung as bookends to the narrative. Xavier Cugat is in this one too, playing – what else? - himself, this time engaged to Rosita.

It must be stated for the record that there are musicals and then there are MGM musicals. Only MGM could offer us such a delightful melding of talents into one utterly cozy classic such as this. A Date With Judy may not be spectacular, but it hits the high notes where so few movie musicals do – in our hearts.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is just a tad above average. The Technicolor image is remarkably resilient in spots – with vibrant colors, warm flesh tones and a crisp solid appeal. However, there are whole portions where the color falters, or that is to say, is weaker than expected. Age related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum and there are no obvious examples of Technicolor shrinkage creating those appalling halos we’ve all seen elsewhere in Warner’s Technicolor product of this vintage (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex 1939, Dodge City 1939 and That Midnight Kiss 1949 come immediately to mind).

Flesh tones look remarkably natural at times, then pasty and overly orange. With all the digital tools at our disposal today, there ought to be a cost effective way of restoring Technicolor movies on DVD without performing new and expensive dye transfers so that future generations will be able to enjoy these movies as originally intended. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras are limited to two short subjects and a theatrical trailer. Recommended!

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



Wednesday, April 23, 2008

EASY LIVING (Paramount 1937) Universal Home Video

Based on a story idea by Vera Caspary (who would later write the classic noir, Ring Twice for Laura – made into the film, Laura 1944), director Mitchell Leisen’s Easy Living (1937) is a divinely inspired screwball comedy scripted by Preston Sturges. Sturges would soon become a celebrated writer/director of like-minded fare at Paramount, primarily due to this film’s success. Easy Living stars winsome scatterbrain Jean Arthur, fresh from her triumphant star turn in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town opposite Gary Cooper.

The plot begins in earnest when 3rd richest financier, J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold), the so called ‘Bull of Broad St.’, tosses his wife, Jenny’s (Mary Nash) sable coat off the roof top of their fashionable penthouse. For J.B. the coat represents yet another tangible and expensive point of frivolity that his family has become accustomed to; including his spendthrift son, John Jr. (Ray Milland) who has just purchased a foreign automobile on credit. The coat floats down to street level, striking poor working girl, Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) in the head, ruining her hat and prompting her to go door to door in search of its rightful owner.

As luck would have it, Mary and J.B. meet on the street – he imploring her to keep the coat as compensation for her troubles. After Mary informs J.B. that she is late for work at The Boy’s Constant Companion – a periodical for young men – J.B. not only offers to drive her to work, but also buys Mary a new hat. Unfortunately, J.B. gets more trouble than he bargains for when the hat shop’s owner, Van Buren (Franklin Pangborn) leaks the sale to Mr. Louis Louis (Luis Alberni) who is about to have his hotel foreclosed on by J.B.

Assuming that Mary is J.B.’s mistress, Louis Louis sets Mary up in a fashionable suite inside his hotel where he is certain J.B. will come to call – hence, establishing a blackmailing enterprise to save his hotel from foreclosure. Instead, Mary accidentally meets John Jr. at the local automat where he has temporarily found employment.

These two hapless souls become soul mates – a wrinkle that gets misconstrued by the hotel management and a Wall Street trader as a perpetuation of the ‘so called affair’ between Mary and J.B. After overhearing a conversation between Mary and John, one of the traders makes the erroneous assumption that steel stock is going down, creating a sudden panic on the U.S. market that threatens to create another Great Depression.

The great good fun in most screwball comedies is to be found in their superb observation of how a seemingly hapless chain of inconsequential events can snowball into a situation entirely out of control. Easy Living is no exception. From the moment the coat hits Mary her good fortunes hit the ground running – creating an avalanche of misfortune for any and all who come in contact with her. 

Director Leisen revels in the implausibly humorous tanglings in Sturges' screenplay, the delightfully wacky absurdities that ladle hyperbole upon cliché, marrying misfortune to utter elation and creating one grandly amusing roller coaster ride for our protagonists. Easy Living is a crazy quilt of a comedy with some grand old masters of the nuttier but nice crowd unleashed with silly aplomb. 

Jean Arthur, a sadly underrated actress today, is a genuine treasure to behold as her Mary inadvertently sets off a fire storm of controversy simply by trying to do the right thing. Arthur's exuberant frustration, the modest trembling in her voice, create a pleasantly frazzled heroine. She and Ray Milland - still going through his congenial every man phase in films herein - have genuine on screen chemistry. His stoic confused playboy/fop is the perfect foil for Arthur's no nonsense, and occasionally flustered, innocent. 

Universal Home Video’s DVD is just average. The B&W image maintains an obvious patina of film grain but the overall image looks quite gritty rather than grainy. The gray scale is adequately balanced, though whites are rarely clean and blacks are more a deep gray than black. A slight hint of edge enhancement intrudes periodically. Age related artifacts are present throughout but generally do not distract. The audio is mono and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras are limited to a brief introduction by TCM host, Robert Osbourne.

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



SHE DONE HIM WRONG (Paramount 1933) Universal Home Video

Nominated for Best Picture Lowell Sherman’s She Done Him Wrong (1933) is 66 minutes of volatile sexuality; a subversive, naughty Pre-Code classic starring resident bad girl of the double entendre, Mae West. Based on West’s play ‘Diamond Lil’ the screenplay by Harvey F. Thew and John Bright delivers a one-two punch of sultry danger – its espionage and racketeering subplot lending a distinct air of illicitness that proved intoxicating for film audiences back then. 

Today, West still gets a lot of mileage out of her husky whiskey voice, a raised eyebrow and lazy-eyed come hither glance, accoutrements of a flashy/slightly trashy vixen who was undeniably ahead of her time. What West might have done in today's socially lax laissez faire climate is anybody's guess. But she generally gets away with murder in this film, tempting an teasing the hapless male population into seeing everything her way.

Lady Lou (West) is a bawdy chanteuse in New York circa 1890 – peddling her particular brand of lowbrow ‘elegance’ at the Bowery saloon of boss and benefactor, Gus Jordan (Noah Beery). Though Jordan has lavished his favorite working gal with diamonds aplenty, Lou is not merely content to be with one man. She is, after all, a gal for the ages and with enough brazen ‘come hither’ in her to make the Marquis de Sade blush.

Furthermore, Lou is completely oblivious of the fact that Jordan is a bad lot, training young women as pickpockets and running prostitution and counterfeiting rings to finance her luxuries with his partners in crime; Russian Rita (Rafaela Ottiano) and her lover, Serge Stanieff (Gilber Roland) – a pair of ruthless cutthroats.

A taut friction develops between Jordan and Captain Cummings (Cary Grant), the director of the City Mission adjacent Jordan’s saloon. Jordan worries that Cummings frequent visits to his establishment are in support of some misguided reformation movement that will prove unappealing to his lowly clientele. Little does Jordan realize that Cummings is keeping a very close eye on his spurious activities for an ulterior purpose: Cummings is actually ‘The Hawk’; an undercover Federal agent!

Lou finds Cummings attractive and flippantly goads him into accepting her invitation to a private supper. Shortly thereafter, Cummings begins to develop definite affections for Lou.

Meanwhile, in another part of town Lou’s incarcerated beau, Chick Clark (Owen Moore) has a murderous jealous streak – threatening harm to Lou if she double-crosses him before his release. Little does Chick realizes that his worse insecurities have already begun to be realized. Lou has fallen for Cummings.

Jordan inadvertently brings about his own demise when he provides counterfeit for Rita and Serge to spend, thereby alerting Cummings to his racket. Chick makes a daring prison escape, returns to Lou at the saloon and threatens to kill her unless she steals away with him into the night. A raid on the saloon thwarts Chick’s escape. Clark, Jordan and Serge are also apprehended and taken away to jail. Lou, however, is loaded onto a wagon with Cummings who, after removing all of her ill-gotten jewelry, replaces her ring finger with a single band of gold, thereby implying marriage.

Director Sherman delivers a fairly slick and action-packed melodrama/comedy. West is sinfully charming. In later years, she would muse that it was her ‘discovery’ of Cary Grant that made him a star. Certainly, Grant’s costarring with West advanced his status as a leading man in Hollywood. However, Grant had already received costar billing opposite Marlene Dietrich by the time he appeared opposite West in this film. Hence, ‘discovery’ seems a gross exaggeration on West’s part.

In 1996, the National Film Registry elected She Done Him Wrong for preservation. Tragically, Universal Home Video has done nothing to ‘restore’ the film to its original glory. The B&W image is grainy and slightly blurry. The grayscale exhibits weak balance. Whites are a dirty gray. Blacks are a dull, deeper gray. Age related artifacts are present throughout. Film grain is excessive and distracting at times. The audio is mono and rather strident sounding in spots. The opening lyrics to West’s classic rendition of Frankie and Johnnie are distorted and inaudible. Extras include a brief intro by TCM host, Robert Osbourne and a cartoon short – She Done Him Right.

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



THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (Paramount 1942) Universal Home Video

Based on Fanny Kilbourne’s ‘Sunny Goes Home’ – later translated into Edward Childs Carpenter’s play ‘Connie Goes Home’ – Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor (1942) is an immensely charming light comedy of errors that continues to delight, primarily due to Ginger Rogers’ convincing central performance as the adult revisiting her second childhood out of necessity.

In retrospectives, Rogers’ career has often been primarily – and rather unfairly - relegated almost exclusively as the ‘other half’ of Fred Astaire’s galvanic tenure at RKO. In truth, Rogers had a lucrative career before and after her teaming with Astaire. The dancing duo split in 1939. Afterward, Rogers continued to regularly work, though rarely in musicals, turning in a fine dramatic performance in Kitty Foyle (1940).

In The Major and The Minor, Rogers is New York scalp massage treatment therapist, Susan Kathleen Applegate. Assigned to a private session at the apartment of wily middle-aged playboy, Albert Osborne (Robert Benchley), Susan quickly discovers that Al wants more than his scalp massaged. After assaulting him with some raw eggs, Kathleen makes haste to Grand Central Station – resigned to give up the big city and go back home to Iowa. One problem, the original fare she saved for this rainy day has since been increased by the railroad.

However, Susan gets the bright idea to impersonate a child of twelve, thereby only having to pay half fare for her trip. Cleverly disguising herself sans makeup and with pig tails, bobby-socks and a balloon no less, Susan convinces a conman (Tom Dugan) to impersonate her father and buy her train ticket. He does – then absconds with the remainder of Susan’s money leaving her penniless.

After some awkward business with the train conductors, Susan hides in the traveling compartment of Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland at his most handsome and charming) who, believing Susan to be a 12 year old child, takes pity on her and offers his lower berth for the night. Philip even encourages Susan to call him ‘uncle.’ However, when the train becomes stranded in the middle of nowhere, Philip is retrieved by his fiancée, Pamela Hill (Rita Johnson), who first ‘mistakes’ Susan for his love interest, then accepts ‘Su-Su’ as a child and moves her into her home until suitable transportation can be arranged.

Pamela’s home is conveniently located on a military training academy base run by her father, Colonel Oliver Slater Hill (Edward Fielding) where Philip is one of the school’s instructors. Hence, ‘Su-Su’ quickly finds herself at the mercy of adolescent testosterone kicking into overdrive. She is fawned over and pawed by the cadets in some truly inspired hilarity.

While the adults are fooled by Susan’s baby talk, Pamela’s younger sister, Lucy (Diana Lynn) isn’t buying the act for a minute. Confessing the truth to Lucy, Susan becomes involved in Lucy’s plan to free Philip from her sister’s clingy reserve that has thus far stifled his desire to travel the world as part of the Armed Forces.

The Major and the Minor marks Billy Wilder’s directorial debut at Paramount. Wilder reportedly chose the project because of its commercial viability – a ploy to win points with the studio’s top brass so that he could pursue more ambitious projects later on. Indeed, in retrospectives of Wilder’s career, this film is often only briefly mentioned or entirely overlooked – a shame, since the script by Charles Brackett and Wilder is a winning succession of twists and surprises, freshly blended into one effortless narrative.

Ginger Rogers excels so completely at faking adolescence that she easily turns back the clock as ‘Su-Su.’ Ray Milland has never been more charming as a leading man – with few exceptions, an underrated actor of considerable scope and depth. The supporting cast all perform with agility. Watch for a glimpse of Rogers’ real mother, Lela cast as Mrs. Applegate. In the final analysis, The Major and the Minor is a movie to be revisited over and over – a rare gem from a vintage when such gems were plentiful indeed.

Universal Home Video’s DVD transfer is adequate rather than exceptional. The B&W image exhibits an acceptably balanced grayscale. Slight edge enhancement intrudes frequently as do age related artifacts including dirt and vertical scratches. A hint of film grain creates a less than smooth visual presentation. The audio is mono but adequately represented. Once again, Universal scrimps on the extras; only a brief introduction by noted film historian and TCM host Robert Osbourne. Again, for the record, this critic continues to find Universal’s uniform lack of including a menu for Chapter Stops on their classic releases irksome. Otherwise, this title comes highly recommended!

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



Tuesday, April 22, 2008

MIDNIGHT (Paramount 1939) Universal Home Video

Based on a story idea by Edwin Justus Mayer and Franz Schulz, director Mitchell Leisen’s Midnight (1939) is a superior example of the romantic screwball comedy in all its turbulent, quick shot, ‘shoot from the hip’ hilarity. The screenplay eventually ironed out by writers Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder teems with an elevated sense of utter frivolity, greatly enhanced by an all-star cast that includes Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, Mary Astor and John Barrymore.

Midway through Midnight, Leisen discovered that Astor was pregnant, necessitating clever camouflage of her ‘condition’ in several key sequences yet to be shot. Reportedly, tensions on the set between Leisen and his writers reached a fevered pitch after the director began tampering with Brackett and Wilder’s light construction and dialogue. Leisen banned both Brackett and Wilder from the set, causing Wilder to retreat in a huff to Paramount’s front offices and demand that he be allowed to direct future assignments he wrote so that no one would have the right to bastardize his work.

The story begins predictably enough with unsuccessful gold digger Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) departing a late night train in Paris after a fling at Monte Carlo’s casino has left her virtually penniless. Parisian cabby, Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) takes pity on Eve’s predicament. In fact, after driving her all over town for free in a fruitless search for employment, Tibor is all set to offer Eve sleeping accommodations at his meager flat while he continues to drive his taxi throughout the night.

Instead, Eve steals away into the night, with Tibor – who has fallen in love with her - in hot pursuit. Accidentally crashing a hoity-toity musical recital given by stuffy socialite, Stephanie (gossip columnist Hedda Hopper), Eve comes in contact with wealthy aristocrat, George Flammarion (John Barrymore). George’s wife, Helena (Mary Astor) is having a very public affair with notorious playboy, Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer). To save his marriage and Eve’s face, George concocts a deliciously devilish plan. He will afford Eve all the expenses for her to impersonate a Baroness – clothes, jewelry, chauffeur, fashionable address at the Ritz – if she will agree to seduce Jacques, thereby ruining his wife’s love affair.

After all, Eve could do worse. Jacques is from a wealthy family and marriage to him would certainly make her financially secure. Eve agrees to Georges plan and the foursome (George, Helena, Jacques and Eve) make ready for a weekend getaway at George’s chateau in the country.

Learning of Eve’s whereabouts, Tibor crashes the retreat in the hopes of winning Eve back. Instead, he is caught in a web of Eve’s lies that present him to this entourage as her ineffectual and mentally unstable husband, Baron Czerny, whom Jacques must conquer in order to maintain Eve’s affections. Eventually, the whole darn mess unravels inside the courtroom of a curmudgeonly magistrate (Monty Woolley) who refuses to grant the fictional couple a necessary ‘divorce’ so that Eve can marry Jacques.

In the final analysis, none of the backstage nattering impacted either performance or production. Midnight emerges as 99 ½ % pure magic; a delightfully obtuse comedy of errors that continues to charm with it sex appeal and great good humor. It deserves a top slot on everyone’s shelf of cherished movie memories.

Universal Home Video’s DVD is quite nicely realized. The B&W image exhibits a reasonably refined grayscale with smooth contrast levels. Occasionally, film grain and a hint of video noise distract, but these instances are rare and kept to a minimum. For the rest, whites are relatively clean. Blacks are generally solid and deep. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. The image and sound will surely not disappoint though they are less refined than one might expect.

Universal continues to skimp on its classics. Extras are limited to a very brief intro by noted TCM host, Robert Osborne and the film’s original theatrical trailer. This critic continues to find Universal’s uniform lack of including a menu for Chapter Stops on their classic releases irksome. Otherwise, this title and this disc come highly recommended!

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



LA VIE EN ROSE (Picturehouse 2007) HBO Home Video

Few bio-pics about the rich and famous do justice to their intended subject matter. Instead, most regress to a level or artistry trapped somewhere between glamorized glossed-over truths and utterly dull concocted fiction. Olivier Dahan’s La Vie En Rose (La Mome for the French release, 2007) is the exception to that rule; a viscerally engaging, brutally tragic tone poem that embodies the heart-breaking complexities of legendary chanteuse, Edith Piaf without remaining a literal tapestry of her life.

There are really two parallel narratives simultaneously at work in this magnificent film: the first documenting the singer’s tumultuous childhood and youth; the second charting Piaf’s fragile decline in health, her addictions and ill-fated love affairs in the few months preceding her death. Dahan’s direction reveals the vibrant, textured intricacies of a woman who too late in life discovers her own inner strength pieced together from the tattered remnants of shattered, bittersweet memories.

There are no superlatives that can effectively summarize Marion Cotillard’s hauntingly sublime central performance. In manner, visage and sheer acting prowess she does everything but call out Piaf in an otherworldly resurrection; sending chills down the spine as she ignites the inner lantern of Piaf's passion in our own hearts. When Cotillard steps before the microphone to recreate Piaf’s ‘Non je ne regretted rien’ we experience the essence, the very translucence of Piaf's soul through her performance; Piaf herself having somehow migrated into this new and most inspired living tabernacle.

Wisely eschewing a literal adaptation of Piaf’s troubled life, director Dahan instead adapts a non-linear narrative of defining moments to etch out his story. We are first introduced to 5 year old Edith Giovanna Gassion (Manon Chevallier) a child of the hard-knock Belleville district in Paris, crying her eyes out while her mother, Annetta (Clotide Courau) sings for coins tossed in the street.

Assessing the toxicity of this neglectful relationship, Piaf’s father, Louis-Alphonse Gassion (Jean-Paul Rouve) removes Edith from her mother’s care. However, as he is about to be shipped off to war, he leaves the child inside the whorehouse he frequents where thankfully one of the working girls, Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner) dotes on Edith, bonding and rearing the child as her own.

Blinded by keratitis between the ages of three and seven, Edith is sent on a recovery to Saint Therese de Lisieux after the whores pool their monies together to pay for her treatments. At wars end, Louis returns to collect his daughter, making her a part of his failed circus act where she begins to sing for her supper on the streets.

The film narrative jumps ahead to Edith’s teenage years. Her first love, Albert (Dominique Bettenfeld) proves to be a disreputable pimp who takes most of her earnings as remuneration for not selling her into prostitution. However, a reprieve comes in the form of nightclub impresario, Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu). Impressed with Edith’s virtuoso singing style, Louis offers Edith her first real taste of showbiz. Rechristened Edith Piaf, the young chanteuse proves an instant, if volatile stage sensation – connecting with her audiences on an emotional level. However, the mystery surrounding Leplee’s murder does much to tarnish Edith’s reputation.

Edith’s personal life is a shambles. She is nearly killed in a car accident with lover, Charles Aznavour (Alban Casterman). Life threatening injuries sustained in the crash necessitate the administration of morphine injections that render Edith an addict. She travels to the United States under the watchful eye of mentor/trainer Bruno Coquatrix (Jean-Paul Muel), arriving in New York City where she falls in love with married prize fighter, Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) – by all accounts, the one great love in her life. Cerdan’s premature death in a plane crash sends Edith over the edge once again and, though her first husband, Jacques Pills (Laurent Olmedo) vows to commit his wife to a sanitarium for treatment, the cure is never quite successful.

Many events in Piaf’s life have been excluded from this film; her second marriage to Greek hairdresser, Theo Sarapo; French Resistance activities during the war and her film career in totem are never even mentioned. Still, what remains in the screenplay by the director and Isobella Sobelman reconstitutes enough of the flavorful élan of Piaf’s colorful life to provide more than a snapshot of her tragic struggling toward greatness.

This is not a musical bio-pic but rather a finely tuned and deeply textured melodrama with portions of Piaf’s musical brilliance woven into the artistic mélange for counterbalance and effect. Although original Piaf recordings were used for much of the film, four of the songs featured are sung in the great lady’s style by singer, Jil Aigrot.

Piaf died of liver cancer on October 10, 1963 – a national treasure whose funeral procession stopped traffic cold in the streets of Paris. The film chooses to end on a more whimsical note of hope and promise, with Piaf on her death bed recalling the performance she gave at the Olympia; singing the inspirational ‘Non je ne regretted rien.’ In a film of many darkly poignant scenes, this finale creates an almost liberating reflection on an extraordinary life beyond the footlights. In the final analysis, La Vie En Rose is a ‘must see’ motion picture experience.

Be forewarned: there are TWO versions of La Vie En Rose currently in circulation - the superior of these held under license and distributed by HBO and with the above DVD cover art. This version has been anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. The widescreen image exhibits a dark, brooding and richly saturated color palette with superior contrast and fine details evident throughout. Flesh tones are stylized and beautifully realized.

Now for the bad news: the alternate version inexplicably owned and distributed primarily in Canada by Sony Home Entertainment (cover art, right) is appallingly bad! Despite being labeled on the back packaging as 16/9 2:35:1, the transfer is non-anamorphic and non-progressively mastered in letterbox. The image throughout is much too dark with an incredible loss of fine detail. Edge enhancement is evident and extremely distracting.

The audio on both versions is identical in 5.1 Dolby Digital. Extras are limited to an all too brief ‘making of’ featurette. There are two other discrepancies between these two versions worth noting. First, the HBO version is clearly labeled as an ‘Extended Version’ but both copies contain the same, presumably ‘theatrical cut’ of the film running 143 minutes.

Second, The Sony edition contains subtitles for all of Edith Piaf’s songs (which is a bonus) while the HBO version regrettably and inexplicably omits any English translation of the songs in its subtitles. I cannot comprehend what possessed Sony to relocate the English subtitles on their non-anamorphic transfer below the actual screen image.

In the theater, these subtitles were laid over the bottom portion of the actual film image. On the DVD, they are presented in the black band below the letterboxed image. This presents the viewer with a problem when attempting to reformat the image using ‘aspect ratio’ controls on a widescreen television to recreate the 2:35:1 ratio not provided on the DVD since the subtitles are then cut off at the bottom!

Bottom line: La Vie En Rose is exceptional film making featuring a most extraordinary Academy Award winning performance by Cotillard as Piaf. If you live in Canada, special order the HBO version instead of buying the Sony edition off the rack and be prepared for one of the most haunting translations of actress into character ever achieved in movies.

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

HBO version 4
Sony version 1

Both versions 2

Sunday, April 13, 2008

THE VIRGIN QUEEN (2oth Century-Fox 1955) Fox Home Video

Despite its subject matter – that of political intrigue in the court of Elizabeth I, and a cast that includes Bette Davis, Richard Todd and Joan Collins, Henry Koster’s The Virgin Queen (1955) is a turgid unremarkable retread of English history made fictional for the benefit of a not terribly prepossessing romantic yarn.

Davis had already shaved into her hairline once before to play the enigmatic English ruler for 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Then, the wordy foreplay between Davis and costar Errol Flynn had been based on a magnificent stage work from imminent playwright Maxwell Anderson, generating considerable sparks beneath the Elizabethan collars and cuffs.

On The Virgin Queen, the script by Mindret Lord and Harry Brown is leaden and dull – moving its characters like chess pieces about a board and very boring faux history. Originally, Lord and Brown had wanted to write a story, not about Elizabeth, but Sir Walter Raleigh. Davis’ involvement on the project necessitated a rethinking of that idea and hence the film developed along the lines of a tailor-made vehicle for Davis’ talents.

The story opens with the arrival of Lord Leicester (Herbert Marshall) on foot at an inn after his carriage has been trapped in the mud. To the inn’s carousing inhabitants Leicester offers a small purse of gold as remuneration if they will help him get on his way as quickly as possible. Sir Christopher Hatton (Robert Douglas) laughs off the suggestion that he sully himself even in service to the Queen. Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd), however, takes heed of the proposition as a means of positioning himself within the Queen's court.

The ploy works. Raleigh meets Elizabeth (Bette Davis) and the two shares an initial intimacy of sparring remarks overheard by one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting - Beth Throgmorton (Joan Collins). Beth immediately catches Raleigh’s eye. However, recognizing his opportunistic streak, Beth discourages Raleigh’s advances shortly thereafter. Raleigh next asks Elizabeth for three ships that he will sail in her name to the new world for treasure. Unable to convince Elizabeth of the feasibility in his plan, Raleigh sulks off like a petulant child. However, Elizabeth’s loss is Beth’s gain.

A quite romance develops between Beth and Raleigh – a pas deux thwarted when Elizabeth has a sudden change of heart. She grants Raleigh his commission to build one ship to suit his own fashion and purpose – The Golden Falcon – which she also commands him to sail to the new world in England’s name. Driven by ego, Raleigh temporarily forsakes Beth to toil on the designs of his grand vessel with friend, Lord Derry (Dan O’Herlihy). Meanwhile, court spy, Chadwick (Jay Robinson) alerts the Queen of a cautious secret; that Beth and Raleigh have not only become lovers, but have, in fact married without her consent. Beth is currently with Raleigh’s child.

Furious, Elizabeth orders Raleigh’s imprisonment as a traitor. Learning of Beth’s pregnancy too late, Raleigh instructs Lord Derry to flee with his wife into the Scottish highlands. The pair is captured on the road by Sir Christopher and Derry is killed in the resulting duel. Locked in the Tower of London, Raleigh faces certain death – more so after Elizabeth arrives to command that he repent for his sins against the crown only to discover that he is more obstinate than ever. In reply, Elizabeth cannot bring herself to kill Raleigh. Instead, she commands him to board the Golden Falcon with Beth and bring back to her the promised riches from the new world.

The inconsistencies between history and fact are many and obvious, beginning with Lord Leicester’s initial befriending of Raleigh at the inn. Lord Leicester was in fact Robert Dudley (played by Errol Flynn in 1939’s Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) – the Queen’s great love during her youth whom she was forced to behead after Robert’s determination to rule England by marriage threatened Elizabeth’s own political safety.

Compared to The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Virgin Queen is a more restrained and subdued production. Its sets are less spectacular, though not perhaps its costumes. Davis is in fine voice and temperament as Elizabeth – pouring out equal portions of womanly contempt and authoritarian command. Richard Todd makes a valiant enough Raleigh, though he is not the man of history as much as he has been forced into that romantic mold for women who fancy their heroes in tights and a cod piece. In the final analysis, The Virgin Queen is second tier entertainment; just another period drama from a vintage when such offerings were plentiful.

Fox Home Video’s anamorphic Cinemascope image exhibits a rather appealing visual presentation. Colors are rich, bold and vibrant. Flesh tones are a tad pasty at times. Fine details are generally realized, though image sharpness is often less than stellar. Age related artifacts are absent for a very smooth quality throughout. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital remastering of the original 6 track stereo. Dialogue is directionalized. Music cues have a very nice spread. Extras include an isolated music track and ‘making of’ featurette.

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



PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER (2oth Century-Fox 1952) Fox Home Video

Star billing in ensemble acting is always a problem. In Jean Negulesco’s Phone Call From A Stranger (1952) – a uncanny amalgam of noir styling, conventional melodrama and a touch of screwball comedy - it becomes downright confusing. Shelly Winters is given above the title credit even though Gary Merrill has infinitely more screen time. The script by Nunnally Johnson and I.A.R. Wylie is a tedious mishmash of clichés and uncertainties with a few brief nuggets of hidden surprise that seem to come out of nowhere.

The story concerns David L. Trask (Merrill) an attorney running away from his home life after he discovers that wife Jane (Helen Westcott) has been unfaithful. Telephoning Jane from the airport, David next buys his ticket under an assumed name. He is ‘picked up’ by lonely ex-actress/former stripper Bianca Carr (Shelley Winters) while waiting for their flight in the terminal and thereafter also becomes friends with two other passengers; traveling salesman Edmund Hoke (Keenan Wynn) and Dr. Robert Fortness (Michael Rennie).

The flight takes off under a terrible storm and is grounded in Vegas overnight. Dr. Fortness confesses a deep dark family secret to David, whom he is hoping will be able to provide some much needed legal council. It seems that one night not so very long ago the good doctor departed a fashionable party with fellow colleague, Dr. Tim Brooks (Hugh Beaumont) en route to treat a patient at a nearby hospital. Unfortunately, David’s cockiness and the influence of alcohol contributed to a head on collision where Brooks and all of the passengers in the other vehicle were killed instantly.

Lying on his hospital bed, Fortness tells presiding physician, Dr. Luther Fletcher (Harry Cheshire) that it was Brooks, not he who was driving the car. Fortness’ story is backed by his dutiful wife, Claire (Beatrice Straight) even though she knows the truth about the accident. The secret eventually tears Fortness’ family apart.

Meanwhile, inside the airport terminal, Edmund is proudly passing around a picture of his wife, Marie (Bette Davis). * Aside: the photo is actually an airbrushed image with Davis’ face pasted onto the body of a bathing beauty pin-up. Bianca jokingly tells Edmund that he is far too lucky to have Marie as his wife. Fortness agrees. For both Fortness and Bianca, Edmund is misperceived as boorish, grating and nonsensical. However David finds Edmund – if not enlightening – then, at least amusing.

With weather conditions all clear, their plane takes off the next morning only to suffer ice build up on its engine and wings. It crashes, killing all but three on board. David is the only member of his troop to survive and he spends the rest of the film’s run time reluctantly contacting the family members of Dr. Fortness, Edmund and Bianca to relay their final hours and provide closure and solace to each family.

In Fortness’ case, David is able to reunite Claire – who had become estranged from her husband - with their embittered son, Jerry (Ted Donaldson). In Edmund’s circumstance, David learns that Marie has been paralyzed for many years following an ill-fated elopement with her lover that Edmund forgave.

The most peculiar of all reconciliations, played out in flashback like a bad screwball moment ripped from another film, involves David’s brief interaction with nightclub proprietor Sallie Carr (Evelyn Varden) and Bianca’s estranged husband, Mike (Craig Stevens). Possessive mother-in-law, Sallie hated Bianca’s independence – fabricating a persona for her that reads more that of the heartless vixen. Sensing Sallie’s relish in demonizing Bianca, David fabricates a bit of his own wish fulfillment about Bianca’s audition with Rodgers and Hammerstein; thereby deflating Sallie’s claim that her daughter-in-law was a no good useless failure.

As film entertainment, Phone Call From A Stranger is acutely convoluted; it’s plot suffering from too many half ideas that never meld into one complete narrative. Merrill does his usual laconic ‘world weary’ loner routine with aloof disenchantment. He doesn’t seem terribly engaged, but rather trudging from one plot point to the next with a ‘am I there yet?’ mentality that, at times, is rather oppressive.

Bette Davis is wasted in her near cameo. Truly, Davis’ acceptance of the part of Marie (something any actress could have played blindfolded) has to be one of the all time cinema curiosities. How desperate for work was she? Winters is a bit long in the tooth to be the tart with a proverbial heart of gold but she pulls it off for the most part. Wynn overplays his hand with a painful example of ham acting. In the end, the characters and the plot do not gel the way they should. The results are mediocre at best.

Fox Home Video provides a beautiful DVD transfer. The B&W image exhibits exceptional tonality in its grayscale. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are nearly pristine. Contrast levels are perfectly balanced. Age related artifacts are rare and do not distract. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras are limited to an interactive press book and lobby and stills gallery.

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



THE NANNY (20th Century Fox/Seven Arts 1965) Fox Home Video

Based on Marryam Modell’s mystery novel, Seth Holt’s The Nanny (1965) emerges as a rather disjointed thriller in which bewilderment and uncertainty generate more questions than answers. Initially, the project had been proposed to Greer Garson – who wisely could not see her way to playing either dowdy or demonic and thus bowed out of the film. In restructuring the novel in movie format, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster omits Modell’s references to possible sexual abuse, thus diffusing much of the logic for all the tension that is to follow.

Bette Davis is ‘Nanny’ – a proper English governess and housekeeper employed at the home of the Queen’s messenger, stoic Bill Fane (James Villier) and his emotionally fragile wife, Virginia (Wendy Craig). The two are supposed to retrieve their son, Joey (William Dix) from a nearby sanitarium where the boy had been placed for observation and disciplinary reformation after the death of his sister, Susy (Angharad Aubrey).

The institution’s headmaster, Dr. Beamaster (Maurice Denham) informs Bill that Joey is far from cured. In fact, Joey has recently accelerated his devilish pranks to terrorize the institution’s matron Mrs. Griggs (Nora Gordon). Joey reluctantly returns with Bill and Nanny to the family’s fashionable London flat, but he is increasingly bitter, rude and condescending to everyone – particularly Nanny and his mother.

Joey’s allegations – that Nanny is evil and out to poison him – seem unfounded conjecture at best. Indeed, Nanny goes out of her way to be kind to Joey. Meanwhile, Joey befriends Bobbie Medman (Pamela Franklin) the randy teenage daughter of Dr. Medman (Jack Watling) who is their upstairs neighbor. Bill is called away on weekend business. That evening, Virginia succumbs to a curious poisoning of her meat pie at dinner and is rushed to hospital by Dr. Medman to have her stomach pumped. Virginia’s sister, Pen (Jill Bennett) is called by Nanny to baby-sit for Joey.

So far, the narrative makes perfect sense with Joey being perceived as the evil in the Fane family home. Ah, but then screenwriter Sangster interjects a few plot twists which damage the credibility of his entire story. First up is a flashback sequence in which the audience is privy to Susy’s death. Previously, Joey has told Bobbie that Nanny forcibly held Susy’s head underwater in the bathtub.

Instead, the flashback reveals that the child lost her footing on the tub’s edge while trying to retrieve her doll – falling unconscious into the tub with the curtain drawn. Making ready a bath for the children, Nanny – who was not home at the time of the accident – starts the water without drawing open the curtains first. The tub fills with water and the child drowns accidentally. This big reveal deflates the prospect that Nanny is deliberately homicidal.

The second problematic element that Sangster infuses into the latter half of the film has to do with a rather sudden and unexpected escalation in violence directed at the family by Nanny. It begins with the reveal that Pen suffers from a heart ailment that requires her to take a daily regiment of pills in order to survive. Waking in the middle of the night, Pen – who does not believe Joey’s claims about Nanny – suddenly becomes suspicious when she finds Nanny standing in the kitchen with a pillow. Pressed to the point, Nanny reveals that the pillow is for Joey’s bed. Pen suffers an attack and Nanny, rather than saving her life, carries her to bed where she patiently waits for her to die. Nanny attempts to break into Joey’s bedroom where he has barricaded himself and smother him with the pillow. He is spared such a fate at the last minute and Nanny is brought to justice.

What is most confusing about these final few moments in the film is that they shift the onus of evil incarnate away from Joey – who until then has been the sole purveyor of diabolical mischief that he genuinely seems to derive pleasure from – to Nanny – who has displayed not one iota of referenced tendencies to do harm to the family unit.

The screenplay by Sangster offers no explanation for Nanny’s psychosis – no logical reason why she should suddenly turn on her lifelong commitment to the Fane family whom she has been involved with since Virginia’s rearing. If anything, the flashback reveal of Susy’s accidental death weakens the story’s credibility that Nanny is our villain. If anything, Nanny is a tragic figure – the wrong person at the wrong time whose actions unintentionally takes the life of an innocent child, but haunts her memory for the rest of film.

In truth, the character of Joey is the most problematic aspect of the film. As played by Dix, Joey is entirely unlikable or, for the most part, unredeemable. Take for example Joey’s emotionless response to being informed by Dr. Medman that his mother has been poisoned and will have to be rushed to the hospital. Herein, a ‘normal child’ might have seized the opportunity to inform Medman of his suspicions about Nanny and use the situation more wisely for leverage. Instead, Joey’s aloofness and lack of allegations play more like an extension of some innately perverse need to be self-destructive, conniving and manipulative.

Bette Davis’s performance is exemplary throughout – the very embodiment of English propriety and decorum. Pamela Franklin is enigmatic in the few brief scenes that she appears. The least affecting turn comes from James Villier – more menacing than fatherly and quite suspect for the chills and thrills until the screenplay jettisons him from the duration of the story. In the final analysis, The Nanny is diluted entertainment.

Fox Home Video’s DVD is disappointing at best. The anamorphic B&W image is faded throughout. Blacks are dull gray. Whites are dirty. Film grain is present as are age related artifacts. Contrast levels are weak and inconsistently rendered. The audio is mono but has a muffled characteristic at the beginning that renders some of the dialogue virtually inaudible. The orchestral music over the main title is shrill. Extras include a restoration comparison, TV spots, trailers and interactive press book.

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



Thursday, April 10, 2008


For this critic it is a modest curiosity in ‘direct to video’ marketing – particularly with classic movies – that so often, sequels, remakes and/or particular installments to film series have their DVD debut outside of natural continuity. As example; Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938); the fourth film in the Andy Hardy series from MGM has been made available via Warner Home Video since 2002 while the rest of the films in that series – including 1937’s A Family Affair; the one that inspired the series – remain in absentia.

Warner also released box set tributes to Doris Day, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and so forth with many of these actress’s newer movies (meaning those derived from the later period in their career) turning up in Volume One retrospectives while withholding titles of older films for a Volume Two or Three. Presumably, this lack of continuity madness also has meaning – or at least practicality. Earlier films in an actor’s career are perhaps less known and therefore less marketable at the start of a promotion. They also generally require far more restoration work than newer titles.

After a long awaited debut, Warner Home Video has finally released a few films from singer/dancer Jane Powell’s career, though perhaps not the ones expected. The first film that starred Powell to make its DVD debut was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) from MGM Home Video back in 1997 – then later repurposed by Warner for a reissue in 2002. The second film to be released by Warner and featuring Powell was Royal Wedding (1951) – just last year.

Now, Warner Home Video gives us a pair of Powell’s later offerings from her initial cycle in ‘teen romance’ that kicked off her career at MGM: Roy Rowland’s contrite Two Weeks With Love (1950) and Robert Leonard’s infinitely more charming, Nancy Goes To Rio (1950). Only the latter film continues to hold up under contemporary scrutiny.

In Nancy Goes To Rio, Powell is a bit long in the tooth – though nevertheless engaging - as frenetic teen, Nancy Barklay – with big dreams of following in her mother’s footsteps. Nancy’s mother, Francis Elliot (Ann Sothern) is a glamorous Broadway star who has just wrapped up the last night of a successful show. Set to take a trip to Rio, Francis throws a house party to kick off her bon voyage with her father, Gregory (Louis Calhern) and Nancy’s beau, Scotty Sheridan (Scotty Beckett) in attendance.

Arriving in Rio, Francis begins to bone up on a script for her latest stage project. In one of those gracious whims of fate that can only happen in the movies, playwright Ricardo Domingos (Fortunio Bonanova) meets Nancy after already having discussed the play with Francis and thereafter decides for himself that Nancy, not Francis, would be a better fit for his heroine.

Fran’s manager, Arthur Barrett (Glenn Anders) agrees with Ricardo. However, Arthur makes Nancy promise not to say a word to anyone about the project. Not realizing that the lead in the play has first been promised to her own mother, Nancy accidentally stumbles upon Fran rehearsing for the part, and thereafter becomes heart sore over the prospect of telling her the truth.

Meanwhile, on the cruise to Rio Nancy accidentally meets Paul Berten (Barry Sullivan) – the man who will eventually become her mother’s beau – and instantly falls in love with him. Paul overhears Nancy rehearsing a passage from the play about an unwanted pregnancy and mistakenly misinterprets the dialogue to mean that Nancy is with child. Also on board is Marina Rodrigues (Carmen Miranda) who further muddles the waters of speculation when she erroneously concludes that Nancy’s unwanted baby might in fact be Paul’s.

Miraculously, the script by Ralph Block, Jane Hall, Frederick Kohner and Sidney Sheldon manages to keep all of these plot elements in play throughout the film’s scant 99 min. running time while infusing an ample musical repertoire into the proceedings. Powell sings several arias and standards. The emblematic Miranda charms us to distraction with two glossy standout performances – said to be her favorites. In her last film for MGM, Sothern exits her illustrious career on a high note. In the final analysis, Nancy Goes To Rio is diverting entertainment; bright-eyed and mindlessly enchanting

As scripted by Dorothy Kingsley and John Larkin, Two Weeks With Love plays much more like a stock company version of Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) than a stand alone period piece. The film stars Powell as Patti Robinson – a forlorn seventeen year old desperate for her first great romance. A successful orchestra conductor and creature of habit, Patti’s father, Horatio (Louis Calhern) takes his family to a summer retreat in the Catskills for two weeks out of every concert season.

Suffering from harmless teen angst, Patti abhors the prospect of spending another summer single, though she is mooned over incessantly by Billy Finlay (Carleton Carpenter) – the awkward son of the hotel’s proprietor who, in turn is ogled to distraction by Patti’s younger sister, tomboy Melba (Debbie Reynolds). However, with the arrival of handsome man about town, Demi Armendez (Ricardo Montelban) Patti’s romantic prospects certainly seem to be looking up – that is, until notorious mantrap Valerie Stressemann (Phyllis Kirk) makes every attempt to delineate their differences in age to Ricardo and suggest that he needs a ‘real’ woman, not a child.

The film’s optimism is infectious; treating its subtext of ‘when does a girl become a woman’ with great humor and charm. Reynolds and Carpenter perform the film’s most memorable number ‘Abba-Dabba Honeymoon.’ Powell is given a few brief songs and a garish dream sequence to contend with, though on the whole she doesn’t seem to make much of a splash. Montelban is adequate, but he’s perhaps a bit too elegant and too refined to spend his vacation with these ‘commoners’ in the Catskills. In the final analysis, Two Weeks With Love really doesn't have much to say. Once seen it doesn’t stick in the memory after the footlights have come up.

Warner Home Video’s 2 disc offering is a mixed blessing. Although Nancy Goes To Rio was the benefactor of some digital clean up for its laserdisc release back in 1995, Two Weeks With Love has been neglected for the same treatment and thus fares less winningly in this DVD incarnation. Colors are generally vibrant, bold and pronounced on Nancy Goes to Rio and less so on Two Weeks With Love – becoming muddy at time and belying a definite hint of fading.

Flesh tones adopt a garish orange hue on Two Weeks With Love. Contrast levels are more refined on Nancy Goes To Rio and much to low on Two Weeks With Love, particularly during night scenes with a loss of fine detail. Age related artifacts are present, though not distracting, on both movies. The audio for both is mono and adequate for this presentation. Extras are limited to several short subjects.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Nancy Goes To Rio 3.5
Two Weeks With Love 3

Nancy Goes To Rio 3.5
Two Weeks With Love 2.5


BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936/1938 (MGM 1936/37) Warner Home Video

The predigested and formulaic nonsense encompassed in the Broadway Melody franchise - first launched by MGM in 1930 as their ‘all singing/all dancing’ musical spectacle - should not diminish the many happy returns audiences have been reaping ever since. To be certain, the latter three films in this four film franchise gave MGM’s star tap dancer, Eleanor Powell a glorious reason to take to the floor and do what she did best – mesmerize us with the supple allure of her fluid body in motion.

The first and last installments in this series have long been available on DVD. Now, Warner Home Video gives us the middle two offerings in one 2-disc collector’s set. The plots are suspiciously alike. Roy Del Ruth’s Broadway Melody of 1936 casts Powell as whimsical charmer, Irene Foster. Irene’s an idealist and a dreamer whose one aspiration is to make a success of herself on Broadway. With practically no experience, her dreams seem impossible fancy at best.

Across town, director Robert Gordon (Robert Taylor) is having a heck of a time convincing potential backers that his new show is a winner. It’s a tough sell, all right…that is, until Bob’s ace in the hole materializes in the form of a rich young widow, Lillian Brent (June Knight) who takes an immediately non-professional interest in the handsome Gordon as potential husband #2. Lillian agrees to fund the exercise in its entirety with the caveat that she headlines the show on opening night. Bob agrees. After all, Lillian can both sing and dance – talents she proves in the delightfully insincere musical extravaganza ‘I’ve Got A Feeling You’re Foolin’ performed as a casino rooftop buck and wing with hoards of dancers.

In another part of town, newspaper hound, Bert Keeler gets wind of Bob and Lillian’s arrangement, taking his poisoned pen to task to deflate Bob’s dream show and expose their would-be romantic relationship that seems to hint a stage-door Johnny-isms yet untold. Irene proves to be the proverbial fly cast into this artistic ointment. A former classmate of Bob’s, Irene arrives with all the fresh-faced eager charm of an up and comer. 

Furthermore, she is ten times the musical talent that Lillian will ever be and Lillian knows it. Masquerading herself as a French star – for reasons so ridiculous it’s best left for the first time viewer to discover – Irene gets the show’s lead. But where will Bob be if Lillian decides to pull out at the last moment?

Blindingly all-star, with a spectacular finally to the tune ‘Broadway Rhythm’ – sung by Francis Langford and danced by practically everyone else, Broadway Melody of 1936 is gargantuan amusement. It should be seen and enjoyed for some time.

Roy Del Ruth’s follow-up, Broadway Melody of 1938 (released in 1937) is another matter. Coming as it did quickly on the heels of its predecessor, in content and style it seems a rather poor cousin by direct comparison; its one big standout being Judy Garland (who has absolutely nothing to do with the central narrative), whose two relatively minor production numbers create a very big impact. Garland, who had been signed by MGM in the early ‘30s, but relegated to minor effect until a loan out to 20th Century-Fox mid-decade, proved what a major talent she could be if marketed properly, necessitated her quick interjection into this otherwise pedestrian narrative.

Plot wise: producer Stephan Raleigh (Robert Taylor again) is set for a stage smash with financial backer, Herman J. Whipple (Raymond Walburn) and unknown starlet, Sally Lee (Eleanor Powell). Unfortunately for all concerned, Whipple’s sister, Caroline (Binnie Barns) insists on security for the project – hence, only a star talent at the helm will do.

Determined to help Steve produce his own show, Sally purchases a race horse that she trains for Derby racing with the aid of two ex-Vaudevillians; Sonny Ledford (George Murphy) and Peter Trot (Buddy Ebsen). The horse wins and, with the prize money accrued, plans are set into motion for Steve and Sally’s big Broadway debut.

A mixed bag of artistic offerings follows, the Jack McGowan screenplay digressing from this romance to showcase MGM newcomer Judy Garland; herein cast as the precocious Betty Clayton – a singing dynamo looking for her big break. Betty’s Aunt Alice (Sophie Tucker) is determined to see her niece a star. Indeed, at a public audition Betty wows the crowd with the showstopper; ‘Everybody Sing’. In truth, Garland gets the most plum part in the film, offering audiences one more great moment as she affectionately warbles the now standard, ‘Dear Mr. Gable/You Made Me Love You’.

True to the conventions of the series and the musical genre, happy endings all around with Steve and Alice falling madly in love by the final fade out. Initially, Garland was slated to reprise the ballad ‘Yours And Mine’ - heard earlier, presumably sung by Taylor and Powell (their vocals were actually dubbed) – for the film’s big finale. For reasons of time constraint, this reprise was excised and eventually destroyed. Garland does appear briefly in the show’s finale, tapping with Ebsen against a delightfully obtuse art deco backdrop depicting the Great White Way.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is fairly impressive. The B&W image on both films has been given a considerable upgrade since its old laserdisc release – particularly Broadway Melody of 1936 which appears to have had significant restoration work on both its video and audio: result – superior in virtually all respects to Broadway Melody of 1938, which contains more age related dirt and a less refined image throughout. Contrast levels are beautifully realized. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are pristine. Fine detail is evident throughout on BM ’36 and slightly less so on BM ‘38. Extras are confined to a few short subjects. The audio is mono but has been restored with minimal hiss. Recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Broadway Melody of 1936 4
Broadway Melody of 1938 3

Broadway Melody of 1936 4
Broadway Melody of 1938 3.5