Monday, October 13, 2008

THE GREAT AMERICAN BROADCAST (2oth Century-Fox 1941) Fox Home Video

Archie Mayo’s The Great American Broadcast (1941) is a rather loving tribute to radio technology and the impact it had on shaping America’s popular entertainment. The flimsy screenplay by Edwin Blum, Robert Ellis, Don Etlinger and Helen Logan begins in earnest with a predictable lover’s triangle but becomes bogged down by a litany of specialty acts that come and go with lightening speed. Basically, this is yet another attempt at the 'all-star' extravaganza, the film's plot serving only as background to string the novelties along.

The film’s unusual credit sequence makes deft use of a montage of radio greats – including Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny – reminding the audience of careers that were made with the debut of radio broadcasting.

From this rather auspicious introduction we move to a private landing strip owned by square jawed fly boy and entrepreneur, Rix Martin (John Payne) who is in chapter eleven and eager to pick a fight with telephone company workmen stringing wire across his field. After portly short wave enthusiast Chuck Hadley (Jack Oakie) helps Rix get out of a jam the two become best friends.

Chuck shows Rix his concept for radio with a homemade receiver built inside his apartment. Chuck also introduces Rix to his favorite girl, Vicki Adams (Alice Faye): big mistake! For in short order the rather tempestuous relationship between Vicki and Rix will blossom into romance. In the meantime, Rix needs some quick cash to take radio technology to the next level. He turns to recovering alcoholic and moneyed swell, Bruce Chadwick (Cesar Romero). Sober, Bruce wouldn’t think twice about investing in such a risky venture. Drunk, he’s all too eager to cut Rix a check for any amount he desires.

From a purely narrative perspective, only the first thirty minutes of the story prove engaging with Chuck eventually realizing he has lost Vicki to Rix. However, what the rest of the film lacks in narrative structure it more than makes up for with a mind-boggling cavalcade of top flight performers giving it their all. These include the melodic sweet tones of The Ink Spots, electric high stepping from The Nicholas Brothers and a thoroughly engrossing myriad of spectacular routines featuring The Wiere Brothers; a European dancer/juggler trio that are spellbinding entertainment unto themselves.

Another of studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck’s personally supervised productions, The Great American Broadcast was a big hit for 20th Century-Fox. Today, it seems more dated than other Fox musicals – if only from the perspective that we currently live in an age where radio technology seems rather quaint by comparison to our other forms of mass entertainment (movies, the internet, WiFi, digital downloads, et al).


Nevertheless, the film greatly benefits from solid performances by Faye, Payne and Oakie. The word 'troopers' comes to mind. What is so impressive about talent from Hollywood's golden age (as opposed to our current crop of celebrities) is how frequently and willingly they were able to sell absurd notions as high art with, not only a straight face but also, complete conviction.

Name me one celebrity living today who can do screwball comedy and not come across looking absolutely ridiculous. In The Great American Broadcast we have stars of the highest magnitude giving it their absolute all. If the plot has its failings (and it does) then Faye, Payne and Oakie never do. They're professionals through and through and know how to market themselves to the public with great wit, charm and soul. In the final analysis, The Great American Broadcast is total fluff - but sold with sincerity and that sincerity goes an awfully long way.

Fox Home Video’s B&W DVD is fairly impressive with strong contrast and tonality throughout. The image is very sharp with fine detail evident throughout. Occasionally, edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details momentarily distract. Otherwise, this is a fine visual presentation that will surely not disappoint. The mono audio has been cleaned up and is presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a featurette on the history of radio, a restoration comparison, advertising and stills gallery and original theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
2.5

FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP (2oth Century-Fox 1944) Fox Home Video

William A. Seiter’s Four Jills In A Jeep (1944) is not an Alice Faye musical (as Fox has billed it as part of their Alice Faye Collection)! Faye appears in the movie for exactly 3 minutes to reprise her Oscar-winning song ‘You’ll Never Know’ from Hello Frisco Hello. The central narrative concocted by Robert Ellis (first novelized by Carol Landis) is all about four USO entertainers who commit themselves to the war effort; body, soul and oodles of talent, to provide laughter and tears for the boys overseas.

Verisimilitude is the order of the day since the four featured stars of the movie – Kay Francis, Carole Landis, Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair – are, in fact, the original four Jills who toured Europe and Africa with the USO. The film opens with Betty Grable singing Cuddle Up A Little Closer on Command Performance Radio as MC Kay Francis looks on.

Afterward, Francis and her cohorts make a fuss about their desire to tour with Jimmy Dorsey and his band. Their wish comes true when the USO commissions the girls to leave America to entertain U.S. troops abroad. Thus begins an odyssey into danger, adventure, stolen kisses and meaningful romance.

Landis’ real life marriage to an army officer is recreated in the film with the fictional Ted Warren (John Harvey) standing in. Other highlights include Martha Raye’s usual quota of mugging for the cameras, and Landis’ bittersweet ballad. Presumably, Darryl F. Zanuck felt that the story and its four stars needed a bit more entertainment bang for the audience buck. Hence, Zanuck threw in some of the studio’s top flight talent into the mix to assist in this fictionalized USO entertainment. These include the aforementioned Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, Dick Haymes and George Jessel.

The disappointment herein is that none of these cameos bring anything new or fresh to the movie. No new material has been written for them. Instead, each reprises a moment from a movie they have already made which begs the question of ‘why bother to include them at all’? We’ve already bought what they are selling!

Ultimately, Four Jills in a Jeep is wartime entertainment; a time capsule from a period in American history when stars not only backed the war effort and the military but took the cause to heart and marketed it to the American public to sell war bonds and boost morale and good cheer back home. The film is pure fluff and not terribly convincing at that, but it allows us to see and appreciate the Hollywood pro-WWII propaganda machinery hard at work, all pistons firing at once.


Fox Home Video’s DVD is adequate, though hardly exceptional. The B&W image can be smooth; though on occasion grain and a digital harshness intrude for a quality that is inconsistent at best. The gray scale has been nicely rendered with good tonality. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are pristine, though occasionally blooming. The audio is mono but adequately balanced. Extras include an isolated score, deleted scenes, restoration comparison and advertising/stills galleries.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
2.5

HOLLYWOOD CAVALCADE (2oth Century-Fox 1939) Fox Home Video

Okay, someone at Fox Home Video has fallen asleep at the controls because Irving Cumming’s Hollywood Cavalcade (1939) is NOT a musical – so billed on its cover art and as part of the Alice Faye Collection Vol. II. Rather, the film is supposed to be a loving portrait of the early days of movie-making in California. Unhappy circumstance that, as an entertainment, the film tends to fall apart into turgid recreations of actual events we remember more fondly elsewhere in the cinema firmament.

Based on an idea from Lou Breslow, the screenplay by Ernest Pascal takes the fictional character of Michael Linnett Connors (Don Ameche) and runs amuck in visualizing him as an all-in-one movie mogul who basically created the film industry single-handedly.

At varying points in the screenplay, Mike takes on the flavor and coloring of a Mack Sennett, Cecil B. DeMille, Louis B. Mayer and even, Darryl F. Zanuck (the real man who discovered Rin-Tin-Tin). However, in fusing all of these great men into one, Linnett’s humanity evaporates with a machine-like precision: his only love being the movies.

Unhappy circumstance for Molly Adair Hayden (Alice Faye) who long suffers in her unrequited desire to have Mike take notice of her as anything but a film star. When first Mike and Molly meet, she is a Broadway understudy who has had a breakthrough performance after the star gets sick.

Mike is in the audience that night and, with buddy Dave Springold (J. Edward Bromberg) the two men cajole Molly into accepting a contract in California. Molly is skeptical, of course; a curiosity confirmed after she reluctantly makes the journey to the coast and learns that Mike is in fact an office boy aspiring to greatness within the fledgling movie industry.

Nevertheless, Molly is a big hit in pictures when she accidentally takes a pie in the kisser from Buster Keaton in her first silent short. Soon, Mike is brimming with ideas. He creates the spectacle of the ‘bathing beauty’, then moves into the realm of slapstick with Ben Turpin and later, The Keystone Cops. Finally, Mike launches into the epic a la Cecile B. DeMille.

What is particularly frustrating about the film is its rather slap-dash plot structure; moving through an endless series of vignettes depicting Hollywood’s early history with only Mike’s unbounded determination to act as our narrative coupling. Having Alice Faye in a movie where she does not utilize her great singing talent is, frankly, a travesty.

Throughout, one waits in baited anticipation for these turgid snippets and sound bytes to dissolve into a ballad or dance routine from the elegant Ms. Faye. Honestly, with so many Faye performances still absent on DVD, why this film was chosen ahead of others to be included in a ‘musical box set’ remains a mystery to this reviewer.

Fox Home Video’s DVD is a disappointment. Though restoration efforts have managed to more closely align the mis-registered 3 strip Technicolor negative, the color palette is faded and continues to be slightly out of focus on several glaring occasions. Furthermore, the spectrum of color does not hold up to other Technicolor films from this vintage (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind).

Presumably, the original camera negative to this feature no longer exists, since colors are clumpy and flat throughout. Flesh tones are a pasty pink or orange. Fine detail is lost for the most part, particularly in facial features. Contrast levels seem to be a tad too low as well. The audio is presented at an adequate listening level.

Extras include 3 featurettes (one on the film and two more on Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle), a Movietone short, restoration comparison and advertising/stills galleries.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2

VIDEO/AUDIO
2

EXTRAS
3

Saturday, October 11, 2008

HELLO FRISCO HELLO (2oth Century-Fox 1943) Fox Home Video

H. Bruce Humberstone’s Hello Frisco Hello (1943) is fairly representative of the Fox formula musical from this vintage; frothy and mindless and harkening back to the simpler turn-of-the-century bric-a-brac that seems tailor-made for the studio's garishly vibrant use of Technicolor. The Robert Ellis, Helen Logan and Richard Macaulay screenplay is pedestrian at best and largely forgettable; all about a heel who eventually finds himself in the eyes of the woman who never stops loving him.


What helps move the narrative along is its glowing song catalogue of standards. With so much nostalgia readily on tap, ironically the film’s most outstanding musical moment derives from Alice Faye’s throbbing rendition of ‘You’ll Never Know’ – a new song expressly written for the film that won an Oscar and quickly became a war time staple amongst G.I.’s stationed overseas.


The narrative begins on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast – in reality, a seedy waterfront hotspot for hedonism and lowbrow entertainments, but on this occasion a glossy playground where the swells from Knob Hill rub elbows with the social climber set. Of this latter ilk is aspiring song and dance man, Johnny Cornell (John Payne); part of a quartet that includes comedian Dan Daley (Jack Oakie), fresh mouth Beulah Clancy (June Havoc) and chanteuse, Gertrude Trudy Evans (Alice Faye).


Johnny has big plans that never seem to come to fruition. Always pushing the boundaries of their current place of employment, Johnny and his entourage are fired by saloon keeper, Sharkey (Ward Bond) after trying out a new number on his stage without permission. Seemingly destitute once again, Johnny resurrects the act as part of a free Salvation Army street show.


The quartet raise money for the cause, but they also force all of the neighboring saloon keepers to ante up some personal patronage on the side to keep their own stage shows alive. With his modest bankroll, Johnny opens his own saloon – swankier than most and with a fervent determination to cater to the jet set as well as the common folk.


The ploy works, attracting the fair weather interests of (S)Knob Hill socialite Bernice Croft (Lyn Bari). Croft’s late father was a staunch supporter of the high brow arts (opera, ballet). However, Bernice has largely squandered that reputation and her late father’s fortunes on a series of lavish private parties.


After meeting Johnny at his theater, Bernice finagles an invitation to one of her parties for Johnny, Dan, Beulah and Trudy. At that gathering one of the swells, Ned Clark (John Archer) takes a personal interest in Trudy, though she continues to only have eyes for Johnny. Unfortunately, Bernice has her cap set for Johnny as well.


As Johnny’s fame and success lead to a string of popular night spots along the Barbary Coast, Bernice’s lavish spending forces her into personal bankruptcy. Johnny foolishly proposes marriage to Bernice. She marries him – then sets about spending his money as idiotically as she squandered her own. All the while, the long suffering Trudy continues to sing at Johnny’s clubs. However, when Trudy is offered the chance to sing in Europe, her departure threatens an end to both her partnership and friendship/nee ‘love’ interest in Johnny.


Hello Frisco Hello derives its title from a pop tune written in 1916 marked by the first transcontinental telephone service established in the United States. The film’s wafer thin plot is fleshed out by some justly celebrated musical sequences including ‘By The Light of The Silvery Moon’, the film’s title number and the aforementioned ‘You’ll Never Know.’ Gloss and surface sheen go a long way in saving the film from becoming just another nondescript song and dance cavalcade.


After dropping out of Down Argentine Way to have a baby, Alice Faye was given a star’s regal comeback by Darryl F. Zanuck. Hampered by rationing during the war years, Zanuck spared virtually no expense in mounting this super extravaganza with lavish costuming and sets; proof positive that his commitment to Faye’s enduring popularity with the public remained galvanic and in tact.


Hello Frisco Hello was a colossal hit. Today, it’s easy to see why. Faye is engaging and endearing. The camera makes love to her from a respectful distance and she in turn allows it to lovingly moon over her with one glorious close up after the next.


Despite a rather ominous disclaimer at the start of this DVD that suggests the film has been mastered from the best possible surviving elements, Fox Home Video’s digital transfer is practically perfect in every way. The 80 hr. restoration efforts on Hello Frisco Hello have yielded much of the sumptuous glow of Technicolor.


For the most part, colors are consistent and vibrantly rendered. Contrast levels are bang on. About two thirds into the film a very minor vertical imperfection in the color is detected running along the right side of the frame – but this is a minor quibble. The audio has also been remastered and is represented at an adequate listening level with fine tonality.


Extras include a very informative featurette on the film and Alice’s career, stills and publicity galleries, an audio commentary, restoration comparison and theatrical trailer. Recommended!


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3.5

Thursday, October 2, 2008

BOOMERANG (2oth Century-Fox 1947) Fox Home Video

Based on a Reader’s Digest article by Anthony Abbott, director Elia Kazan’s Boomerang (1947) is a compelling indictment against small town political hypocrisy and the overzealous machinery of jurisprudence that fuels its need for a scapegoat. Cutting edge and controversial for its time, Boomerang provides a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of a man’s conscience. As with all Fox movies personally supervised by Darryl F. Zanuck, the film carries a social morality in its side purse of entertainment value.

When a beloved Connecticut priest, Father George Lambert (Wryley Birch) is gunned down on a public street the outcry for justice is both swift and immediate. Seven onlookers are certain they can identify the man responsible for the crime; a consensus that sparks a ‘witch’ – rather than ‘man’ - hunt for the perpetrator.

Eventually Police Chief Harold F. Robinson’s (Lee J. Cobb) men bring in John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy) as their suspect. Waldron’s failed affair with Irene Nelson (Cara Williams); a waitress at the Coney Island Café leads the unscrupulous Irene to side with these seven onlookers who have already made a positive I.D. on Waldron as the killer. Fueled by pressure from the local press, supplied by newspaper columnist Dave Woods (Sam Levene), and motivated by unseen politicized forces who have their own agendas in making the case stick, John Waldron’s fate rests on local prosecuting attorney, Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews).

Despite encouragement from local state officials including Mayor Swayze (Walter Greaza) and Public Works Commissioner Paul Harris (Ed Bagley), Harvey is a straight arrow who will not be swayed by the fickle authority of mob rule. Harvey’s wife, Madge (Jane Wyatt) agrees with her husband – though she adds that only he can decide for himself what is just and proper. To this end, Harvey decides to go it alone – against the advice of fair-weather friends and all the state’s evidence in order to exonerate Waldron of the crime of murder.

The screenplay by Richard Murphy is fraught with great tension and introspection; despite a rather heavy-handed voice over narration that intrudes mostly at the beginning and end of the story. Like other crime/noir thrillers from this vintage in Fox’s history (The House on 92nd Street, House On Telegraph Hill, Somewhere In The Night), Boomerang benefits greatly from its use of actual locations instead of sets. The exteriors add realism.

As he proved in Fox’s Laura (1944) Dana Andrews is the ideal sleuth. There is conviction to his gesture and credence to his posturing that make it all believable. Like a variation of James Stewart, Andrews plays Harvey as an ‘everyman’ – that rare solid citizen we would all like to place our faith and trust in with absolute certainty.

The rest of the cast, apart from Arthur Kennedy and perhaps Ed Bagley, do not quite measure up in either presence or purpose, but it doesn’t really matter. The story is true to life and compelling. Andrews’ central performance remains the necessary glue that keeps our interest alive throughout. Although the ending of Boomerang leaves the real killer’s identity something of an enigma, the film carries a very powerful message; one man against the odds can make a difference.

Fox Home Video’s DVD represents something of a curiosity. Originally slated for release over a year ago, the film was pulled at the last minute – presumably because of a rights issue – then re-slated for general release several months ago. It finally arrives on home video as part of the ‘Fox Noir Series’, its skewed cover art and numbering on the show box spine suggesting where in the line up it ought to have originally appeared. (Aside: Fox cover art for their noir series has long since adopted a full front cover design and no numbering).

It is important to note that early titles in Fox’s noir series were a hit or miss in terms of quality and Boomerang is no exception to that rule. Although this transfer is not the worst of the lot, it is hardly a concerted effort to bring the film to home video at a level of quality befitting the digital format. Video noise and slight edge enhancement are the biggest culprits in this transfer. At times the image can appear quite free from these distractions, though many of the exterior long shots are plagued by distortions in vertical and horizontal straight lines.

Otherwise, the B&W image appears adequately contrasted. Certain scenes hint at slight fading of the original film stock. Obvious grain is also an issue during several scenes, as are age related artifacts. The audio is generally smooth and adequately represented. The only extra worth mentioning is an informative audio commentary. For the rest, we get a theatrical trailer, minus its voice over and overlay of credits; more trailers for other Fox Film Noir and a brief stills gallery. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
2

HOLLYWOOD HOTEL (Warner Bros. 1937) Warner Home Video

Busby Berkeley’s Hollywood Hotel (1937) represents the final flowering of his meteoric success as a choreographer/director at Warner Bros. – the studio that made his inimitable brand of kaleidoscopic super kitsch world famous.

The film is a mind-bogglingly lavish spectacle hinged on a wafer thin plot knocked out by screenwriters Jerry Wald, Maurice Leo and Richard Macaulay. Ironically, Hollywood Hotel sparkles with an unusual brilliance not merely limited to its musical performances; perhaps because, for once, the studio allowed Berkeley to direct an entire feature. Hence, the inevitable break between Berkeley’s sumptuous escapism and the rather pedestrian staging of some other director for the non-musical portions is absent on this outing.

The screenplay casts Dick Powell as Ronnie Bowers, a singing saxophone player who warbles his way into a talent contest that leads to a contract at a major Hollywood studio. Unfortunately for Bowers, like so many star struck kids of his vintage, his dreams are quickly relegated to the background scenery of other stars’ pictures.

Worse, after hearing Ronnie sing, the studio decides to exploit him as a vocal dub for their current male star, ham actor Alexander Dupre (Alan Mowbray). After witnessing Dupre’s fracturing of his tender lyric on the big screen, Ronnie has had enough. He walks out of the theater and even contemplates walking out on his contract.

However, Ronnie believes that his luck is about to change for the better after he mistakenly assumes he will be escorting film legend Mona Marshall (Lola Lane) to a world premiere. In fact, he has been assigned to accompany Mona’s understudy, Virginia Stanton (Rosemary Lane) – a dead ringer for Marshall - instead.

Predictably, after some initial angst Ronnie and Virginia begin to fall in love. Combining their dreams toward a common goal, the two conspire to make Alexander miss his big debut as part of gossip columnist Louella Parson’s radio program, broadcast live from the lavishly appointed Orchid Room inside the Hollywood Hotel. Virginia pretends to be Mona, driving off with Alexander while Ronnie takes his place opposite Mona at the broadcast. By the time Alexander realizes he’s been duped its’ too late. His career is over and Hollywood has its new male star.

The musical program of Hollywood Hotel delivers many a delight; but its iconic song will always be ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ – an anthem to the fiction that anyone can be a star with just a little luck. For the rest, Benny Goodman and his Orchestra (including a cameo of a very young Harry James) provide some wonderful swing tunes. The finale, set to a revamped full orchestral and choral arrangement of the classic Otchichornya is a knockout. With this film, Warner Bros. may have closed out the decade on vintage Busby Berkeley, but it did so on a very high note.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is very pleasing. A few minor instances of edge enhancement do not impact the overall quality of the B&W transfer. Contrast levels are solid and bang on. Blacks are deep and velvety. Whites are generally clean and never blooming. Fine detail is evident throughout. The grayscale exhibits a smooth tonality. The mono audio is adequately represented. Extras are limited to a few vintage short subjects and theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
2

GOLD DIGGERS IN PARIS (Warner Bros. 1938) Warner Home Video

Arguably one of the most light-hearted movies in the ‘gold digger’ series from Warner Bros., Ray Enright’s Gold Diggers In Paris (1938) is a sprite and obtuse romp through the glittery backdrop of gay Paree; employing a tried and true formula of mistaken identity – jam packed with talent and a really snappy screenplay by Earl Baldwin and Warren Duff.

Musicals in general tend to get a bad wrap from the critics for sacrificing plot in favor of spectacle. But this critic would remind of the fact that musicals are hardly meant to be practical. They are never grounded in realism. Hence, the best level of expectation is to simply go along for the ride with a smile. The best of the genre balance spectacle with moderate substance – but the latter is hardly required to get the best bang for one’s buck.

Plot wise: when overzealous ham Maurice Giraud (Hugh Herbert) is sent as a representative of the Paris International Dance Exposition to America to invite its ballet to compete in France for cash prizes, he accidentally arrives at the Club Balle instead – a New York hot spot where nightclub entertainer Terry Moore (Rudy Vallee) is performing a rather goofy south seas routine. The club’s owner Duke Dennis (Allen Jenkins) is beside himself. His establishment is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. But then an idea strikes the boys; why not go to Paris and wow the French with their show?

To this end, Terry and Duke hire ballet instructor Luis Leoni (Fritz Feld) to educate their chorines on the boat ride across the Atlantic. Luis brings his protégée Kay Morrow (Rosemary Lane) for company. Also along for the trip is Terry’s ex-wife, Mona (Gloria Dickson); a tough gal determined that her alimony checks keep coming. Predictably, Terry and Kay strike up a winning friendship that quickly translates into a budding romance.

There are several plot wrinkles to contend with: the first develops after legitimate ballet master, Padrinsky (Curt Bois) reads about the ship’s departure in the newspaper and decides that he must compete in Paris. Since only one corps de ballet from each country can enter the contest, Padrinsky brings along his ballet-loving gangster pal, Mike Coogan (Ed Brophy) with orders to eliminate Terry and Duke from the competition. The second wrinkle involves Kay’s burgeoning love for Terry that gets sidetracked after she learns he was once married to Mona. The third and final wrinkle involves Padrinsky securing deportation visas for Terry, Duke and their dancers to prevent them from performing at the competition.

Despite the fact that Gold Diggers In Paris was produced during one of the studio’s cost cutting periods, the inventiveness of its choreographer Busby Berkeley is on very solid ground. The most winning aspect of the film is its inventively staged musical sequences to tunes that have since become standards; The Latin Quarter, I Wanna Go Back To Bali, Put That Down In Writing, A Stranger in Paree, Day Dreaming All Night Long, and Waltz of the Flowers. Gold Diggers In Paris may not be high art, but it is certainly a very entertaining film with much to admire.

The biggest drawback is Rudy Vallee as the film’s star – in fine voice, but tragically bland by design. He fades into the backdrop so readily that we have to keep being reminded he is the star. Nevertheless, the Baldwin/Duff screenplay keeps the story’s pace moving swiftly. Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic visions of dancers as objects in a grander matte of superficial perfection secures the film’s place as a memorable musical worthy of rediscovery on DVD.

Warner Home Video’s DVD delivers a very pleasing B&W image. Although grain and age related artifacts intrude, for the most part the image is quite smooth. Fine detail is generally nicely realized. Contrast levels are also adequately rendered. Blacks are solid and deep. Whites are mostly clean and never blooming. The audio has been cleaned up in mono. Extras are limited to a few short subjects and theatrical trailer. Recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
2

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1937 (Warner Bros. 1937) Warner Home Video

Based on a play by Richard Maibaum, Lloyd Bacon’s Gold Diggers of 1937 is a fairly light-hearted and amusing musical diversion co-directed by Busby Berkeley. By 1937, Berkeley’s security at Warner Bros., as their foremost choreographer had begun to wane. Cost cutting on the back lot precluded Berkeley from indulging in the sort of lavish spectacle that had accompanied earlier Gold Digger movies in the franchise. But that did not stop Berkeley from creating his inimitable brand of cinema magic.

Plot wise, the film is on very shaky ground. Dick Powell is Rosmer Peck, an insurance agent whose heart just isn’t in his work. He’d rather be a song and dance man. While on a train, Rosmer meets Norma Perry (the very pert and plucky Joan Blondell); or, that is, she meets Rosmer after ducking into his private compartment to escape a pack of horny insurance salesmen who want to get to know her better. Norma has just been cast out of a seedy Vaudeville show. Rosmer promises Norma that his boss, Andy Callahan (William Davidson) will give her a job as a stenographer.

Indeed, Rosmer is true to his word. Norma gets the job and to repay the favor, she inadvertently sends Rosmer out on a false claim to insure Broadway producer J.J. Hobart (Victor Moore). It seems that Hobart is unaware that his partners have lost all of the backing for the new show on the New York stock exchange. At 59, Hobart signs for a $1 million insurance policy to get his money back, equally unaware that he must die to collect. After an assassination attempt by his partners fails, Norma’s girlfriend, Genevieve (Glenda Farrell) begins to develop affections for the wily old gent. But when Hobart learns that he is broke he suffers a breakdown, forcing Rosmer to go on with the show in spite of their obvious lack of money.

Flimsy at best in terms of plot, the screenplay nevertheless finds plenty of smart-cracking one liners for its cast to rattle off, thereby deterring us from the fact that there is very little to sustain our interest. The film’s other saving grace is choreographer Busby Berkeley’s two mind-boggling musical routines that bookend the story; Let’s Put Our Heads Together and All’s Fair In Love and War; the latter taking Berkeley’s days as a drill sergeant in the army to new and extreme heights. Blondell and Powell act as generals in an all out battle of the sexes set to music. Not much substance here, but oh, how style manages to mask that imperfection in a patina of gloss that continues to shine.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is nicely rendered, though not without its imperfections. Process shots in the film’s finale suffer from aliasing and edge enhancement, and there are times when film grain and age related artifacts seem harsh and distracting. Overall, however, the image is adequately rendered with fine detail throughout. Contrast levels are bang on for the most part. The mono audio is adequately represented. The only extras are a few vintage short subjects and a theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
2

VARSITY SHOW (Warner Bros. 1937) Warner Home Video

William Keighley’s Varsity Show (1937) is virtually void of a sustainable plot – its ‘hey kids, let’s up on a show’ variation from screenwriters Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay, Sid Herzig and Warren Duff so tired and out of step that it is mildly in danger of sinking the film’s entertainment value as a whole.

All the more reason to have faith in the inimitable talents of choreographer Busby Berkeley and his seamless staging of the grand finale ‘Love Is On The Air Tonight. Employing several hundred dancers on a massive sixty foot wide by fifty foot high series of steps Berkeley’s inventive choreography pays homage to some of the biggest college football teams; his overhead shots capturing this massive chorine in varsity letter formation.



The plot unravels with Professor Washburn (Roy Atwell) protesting the introduction of swing music to Winfield College’s annual varsity show. Students Barbara Steward (Rosemary Lane), Betty Bradley (Priscilla Lane) and Trout (Sterling Holloway), among others, protest the rigidity with which the college is being run. They appeal to the sensibility of Dean Meredith (Halliwell Hobbes) who backs up Washburn's decision. The students' next course of action is to contact, Charles Daly (Dick Powell); a local boy and Winfield alumni who made good as a Broadway producer. The students hope to convince Daly to stage their campus show.

Daly's stage manager, Willy Williams (Ted Healy) isn't so much sympathetic to the students' cause as he sees a way for he and Daly to get back on top and in good with both Broadway and a new deal to make a film in Hollywood. What none of the students realize is that Daly’s success on the Great White Way has long since turned to vinegar. He desperately needs a hit to prove to his backers that he is still a viable commodity. Meanwhile, the college’s precarious financial situation threatens cancellation of the show.

A rather perfunctory story to say the least, Varsity Show’s salvation is its musical program that frequently, and happily, interrupts its leaden plot conventions with oodles of talent showcased, arguably, to its best in song and dance. In her film debut, Rosemary Lane makes an extremely winsome heroine out of her fluff piece. Dick Powell is in good voice and spirits, still playing the half optimist/half cynic/all boy wonder that made his early career as a crooner at Warner Bros. so wildly popular with the bobby-soxer set. Sterling Holloway and Ted Healy deliver bits of welcomed comic relief. Varsity Show may not be a superior musical offering, but it has sparks of brilliance and a memorable cast who sell the whole contraption as though it were legit.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is most impressive; a very crisp, clean B&W image with solid contrasts and fine detail evident throughout. Occasionally, grain and age related artifacts intrude, but these are mostly during dissolves, wipes and fades. The audio is adequately represented. From a transfer perspective, there is absolutely nothing to complain about herein. Extras are limited to a few vintage short subjects and theatrical trailer.

*Please note: 2 sources consulted in the writing of this review list Varsity Show's running time at 120 min. and make special mention of the fact that it was one of Warner's most ambitious movie musicals of the decade. The DVD contains an 80 min. cut, meaning that roughly 40min. of material has been excised.

In fact, upon careful review of the DVD there are many sequences in the film that abruptly end with a fade out and dialogue that appears to fade out before the scene is actually over - leading this reviewer to believe that this cut of Varsity Show was, in fact, mastered from a reissue print that might have been released by the studio some years later as part of a double bill.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
2