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On-screen musicals with backstage drama

April 23, 2006|Susan King

Classic Musicals From

the Dream Factory

(Warner Home Video, $60 for the set;

$20 each)

Ziegfeld Follies

AFTER MGM's success with "The Great Ziegfeld," the lavish 1936 biopic about showman Florenz Ziegfeld, which won the Oscar for best film, and 1941's musical drama "Ziegfeld Girl," the studio produced this 1946 extravaganza starring much of its top musical talent.

The movie was designed to emulate a Ziegfeld stage revue, complete with elaborate musical numbers, beautiful women and comedy bits.

William Powell, who played Ziegfeld in the 1936 movie, reprises his role -- but this time he's residing in a gorgeous apartment in heaven where he recalls the first performance of his follies back in 1907 and then wonders what kind of numbers he could create with the stars of MGM.

Shot in vivid Technicolor at a cost of $3.2 million, "Follies" has a lot to recommend it, but it is far from a classic.

Among the highlights are Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer in the dance story "This Heart of Mine"; Lena Horne performing "Love"; Judy Garland in the satirical "An Interview"; and Astaire and Gene Kelly hoofing it up for the first time together in "The Babbitt and the Bromide" by George and Ira Gershwin.

George Sidney was the original director when production began in early 1944; according to producer Arthur Freed's biography, Sidney left the project a month later because he was unhappy with the progress of the production. Vincente Minnelli replaced him.

Extras: A retrospective, an audio outtake and cartoons.


Till the Clouds Roll By

Moviegoers couldn't get enough of biographical portraits of composers in the 1940s -- "Night and Day" (Cole Porter) and "Rhapsody in Blue" (George Gershwin) are from that period -- even if the films played fast and loose with the truth. Such was the case with this tepid 1947 biopic of songwriter Jerome Kern (a miscast Robert Walker). The composer of such songs as "Ol' Man River" and the Oscar-winning "The Way You Look Tonight" had a happy marriage and a great career until his death in 1945. This Technicolor musical had to embellish the truth to make it more interesting, adding a fictional character, Jim Hessler (Van Heflin), who supposedly helped the young composer with his arrangements and became one of his closest friends.

Extras: A retrospective, audio outtakes, a short and cartoon.


Three Little Words

Hollywood yet again employed considerable dramatic license with this watchable 1950 biopic about the composing team of Bert Kalmar (Astaire) and Harry Ruby (Red Skelton), who wrote such standards as "Three Little Words" and "I Wanna Be Loved by You."

Look for a teenage Debbie Reynolds as "boop-boop-a-doop girl" Helen Kane.

Extras: A retrospective, a radio promo, a short and cartoon.


Summer Stock

This sprightly 1950 musical starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly was originally conceived as a reunion vehicle for the actress and Mickey Rooney, who early in their careers were a popular team in several MGM musicals and comedies. But by the time "Summer Stock" was green-lighted, Rooney's stock in Hollywood had fallen considerably, and Garland wasn't in great shape herself.

She had been suspended from the studio in 1949 after she was fired from the production of "Annie Get Your Gun" and had spent more months at a Boston hospital on drug dependency. So when she reported to work on "Summer Stock," she was noticeably heavier.

Kelly and director Charles Walters weren't fond of the script for the musical comedy about a farmer (Garland) who on the insistence of her sister (Gloria DeHaven) allows a group of actors to put on a show in her barn. But they had strong connections to Garland -- Kelly made his film debut opposite the actress in 1942's "For Me and My Gal" -- and did the movie as a favor to her.

The highlight of the film is the concluding "Get Happy" number. The noticeably sleeker Garland, who'd lost weight after being treated by a hypnotist, shot the sequence three months after principal photography was completed.

After being under contract to MGM for 14 years, she was let go after "Summer Stock."

Extras: A behind-the-scenes documentary, shorts and an audio outtake.


It's Always Fair Weather

This underrated 1955 musical comedy penned by Betty Comden and Adolph Green is sort of a sequel to their hit Broadway and movie musical "On the Town" about three sailors on leave in New York.

Gene Kelly, who starred in "On the Town," wanted his "On the Town" costars, Jules Munshin and Frank Sinatra, to reunite with him for this acerbic tale of three buddies who meet up 10 years after the end of the war in New York and discover they have nothing in common.

But when the casting didn't work out, Comden and Green turned the sailors into soldiers.

Song-and-dance man Dan Dailey and choreographer Michael Kidd ("Seven Brides for Seven Brothers") ended up playing the friends.

Kelly asked to have Stanley Donen co-direct the film with him; the two had directed "On the Town" and 1952's "Singin' in the Rain." But by the time "It's Always Fair Weather" went into production, Donen had more than proven himself as a director in his own right at MGM. Though Donen didn't want to re-team with Kelly, the studio insisted that he report to work on the film. According to the documentary on the making of the film, the two bickered throughout the production and the movie sounded the death knell for their professional relationship.

The musical features innovatively choreographed musical routines including Kelly performing "I Like Myself" down MGM's New York street in roller skates.

Extras: The "It's Always Fair Weather" documentary; two 1955 excerpts from the TV series "MGM Parade"; and two deleted musical numbers (with limited soundtrack) -- Kidd's 10-minute "Jack and the Space Giants" and "Love Is Nothing But a Racket" with Kelly and Charisse.

-- Susan King

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