The Golden Age of Musicals: 17 Classic Films [5 Discs] [DVD]

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The Golden Age of Musicals: 17 Classic Films [5 Discs] (DVD)  (Black & White)  1952 - Larger Front
  • The Golden Age of Musicals: 17 Classic Films [5 Discs] (DVD) (Black & White) 1952
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Overview

Synopsis

Road to Bali
This sixth entry in the Crosby-Hope-Lamour "Road" series was the first (and last) in Technicolor. This time, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope play George Cochran and Harold Gridley, American vaudevillians stranded in Australia. To avoid a dual shotgun wedding, George and Harold sign on as deep-sea divers for sinister South-Sea-island prince Ken Arok (Murvyn Vye). After a contretemps with an octopus (courtesy of stock footage from Reap the Wild Wind), our heroes sail to the prince's Balinese homeland, where they meet and fall in love with gorgeous Princess Lalah (Dorothy Lamour). Though Lalah favors George, she feels obligated to Harold, because he resembles her childhood best friend -- a chimpanzee (this must be seen to be believed). When Ken Arok attempts to usurp Lalah's throne, she and the boys escape to a tropical island, where they meet the inevitable slapstick-comedy gorilla. More adventures await the intrepid trio on another island, this one dominated by an active volcano. Who gets the girl in this one? A hint: the loser tries to physically prevent the "The End" title from flashing on the screen during the final fadeout. Though not as fresh and spontaneous as earlier "Road" endeavors, Road to Bali has its fair share of non sequitur gags, inside jokes and unbilled guest appearances (including Martin and Lewis, Bing's brother Bob Crosby, Humphrey Bogart and Jane Russell). Best bit: when Crosby feels a song coming on, Hope turns to the camera and hisses "He's gonna sing, folks. Now's the time to go and get your popcorn." ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

The Pied Piper of Hamelin
The Pied Piper of Hamelin was originally filmed as a television special, then released theatrically outside the United States. The story is the familiar one: the town of Hamelin, plagued by rats, hires a mysterious piper (Van Johnson) to rid the town of rodents. The piper does so, on the promise that he'll be paid a handsome fee. But the duplicitous burgomeister (Claude Rains), on the advice of his Laurel-and-Hardy council (Doodles Weaver and Stanley Adams), reneges on his promise. In revenge, the piper lures all of Hamelin's children off to parts unknown. In a departure from the original, there's a happy ending this time. Most of the dialogue is spoken in rhyme (quite amusingly by Rains), while the songs are adaptations of Edvard Grieg tunes. In the musical department, Kay Starr comes off best as the grieving mother of one of the missing kids. Because it was filmed in color, The Pied Piper of Hamelin has remained in TV syndication into the 1990s. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Stage Door Canteen
This star-studded musical drama was largely financed by Theatre Guild, with all proceeds going to various wartime fundraising concerns. Most of the story takes place at the Stage Door Canteen, a Manhattan-based home away from home for soldiers, sailors and marines (the real-life Canteen on 44th street was too busy to lend itself to filming, thus the interiors were recreated in Hollywood). Within the walls of this non-profit establishment, servicemen are entertained by top musical, comedy and dramatic acts, and waited on by such Broadway luminaries as Lunt and Fontanne, Katharine Hepburn, Jane Cowl, Katherine Cornell, Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Sam Jaffe and Paul Muni. Though the plotline-one of the Canteen servers, a girl named Eileen (Cheryl Walker) falls in love with one of the visiting soldiers (William Terry), despite the establishment's strict "no dating" rules-is merely an excuse to link together a series of specialty acts, it is superbly and touchingly directed by Frank Borzage. Not all of the film has weathered the years too well: particularly hard to take is Gracie Fields' cheery ditty about "killing Japs!" For the most part, however, the film works, and the guest performers-including comedians Ray Bolger, Harpo Marx, George Jessel and Ed Wynn, and singers Ethel Waters and Kenny Baker-are in fine fettle. If nothing else, Stage Door Canteen offers the only appearance on film of the great Katherine Cornell, who offers a vignette of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Incidentally, the actor playing "Texas", Michael Harrison, later gained fame as cowboy star Sunset Carson. Originally released at 132 minutes, Stage Door Canteen is now generally available in the 93-minute TV version. The six big bands that appear and perform in the film are those of Kay Kyser, Count Basie, Xavier Cugat, Guy Lombardo, Benny Goodman and Freddie Martin. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Pot O' Gold
James Stewart once classified Pot O' Gold as his worst film, though this may have stemmed from his reported inability to get along with his costar Paulette Goddard (who is supposed to have dismissed Stewart's acting technique with a flippant "Anyone can swallow.") Inspired by the popular radio giveaway series of the same name, the film represented an ill-fated production venture for James Roosevelt, son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Stewart plays Jimmy Haskell, nephew of breakfast-food mogul C. J. Haskell (Charles Winninger). Befriending bandleader Horace Heidt (playing himself) and his orchestra members, Jimmy and his sweetheart Molly McCorkle (Paulette Goddard) tries to persuade C. J. to sponsor Heidt's radio program. The elder Haskell refuses until Jimmy and Molly's landlady mother (Mary Gordon) come up with a sure-fire "gimmick" for the program: they'll pick names from the phone book at random, call up those numbers, and give away huge prizes to whomever answers-provided that the call-ees are tuned into Heidt's show. This format worked beautifully for the real Pot O' Gold radio program, but tends to fall flat on screen, despite the energetic musical contributions of Horace Heidt and his entourage (including a very young and astonishingly articulate Art Carney, in his film debut). In England, Pot O' Gold was retitled The Golden Hour. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

This Is the Army
The splashy, star-studded This is the Army is based on the Irving Berlin Broadway musical of the same name, which in turn was a reworking of Berlin's WW1 "barracks musical" Yip Yip Yaphank. In both instances, the cast was largely comprised of genuine servicemen, many of them either recently returned from fighting or on the verge of heading off to war. The Hollywood-imposed storyline concerns Jerry Jones (George Murphy), a member of the original 1918 Yip Yip Yaphank cast. His showbiz career curtailed by a leg injury, Jerry becomes a producer during the postwar era. When the US enters WW2, Jerry gathers together several other cast members from the 1918 Berlin musical to help him stage a new all-serviceman show, titled (what else?) This is the Army. The show-within-a-show framework is able to accommodate a romantic subplot, involving Jerry's son Johnny (Ronald Reagan, later a political comrade-in-arms of George Murphy) and Eileen Dibble (Joan Leslie), the daughter of Yip Yip Yaphank alumnus Eddie Dibble (Charles Butterworth). Some of the best moments in This is the Army are from the Broadway production itself, though the lengthy Alfred Lunt-Lynn Fontanne imitation and incessant "gay" jokes may have been too smart for the room in 1943. Guest stars include boxer Joe Louis, Kate Smith (singing "God Bless America", naturally) and Irving Berlin himself, who steals the show with his plaintive rendition of "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning". All profits for the stage and film version of This is the Army went to the Army Emergency Relief Fund, which also controlled the rights to the film. Long withheld from TV distribution, the film finally hit the small screen when it lapsed into Public Domain in the mid-1970s. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Something to Sing About
Battling Hoofer is the reissue title of the 1936 James Cagney vehicle Something to Sing About. Cagney plays Terry Rooney, a New York bandleader who heads to Hollywood when he is offered a movie contract. The down-to-Earth Rooney resists the "star treatment," an attitude misinterpreted by movie executive Bennett O. Regan (Gene Lockhart) as arrogance. When Terry's first film is a hit, Regan orders everyone involved to keep its success a secret from Terry, lest he develop a swelled head! (We don't believe it either.) The best sequence has Rooney chewing out his Asian houseboy, Ito (Philip Ahn), whereupon he drops his "So solly" pidgin English and begins talking like a Harvard professor! Terry gets to romance newcomer Evelyn Daw, as well as veteran vamp Mona Barrie; he also gets to participate in several lively dance numbers. Something to Sing About was the second of Jimmy Cagney's films for Poverty Row studio Grand National: the production values and snappy script work that he might have enjoyed at Warner Bros. are noticeably lacking, but Cagney is always fun to watch. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

At War With the Army
Though At War With the Army was the third film appearance of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, it was the team's first starring vehicle. A pattern is set herein for all the Martin-Lewis flicks to follow: Martin plays a self-assured romeo, forever bursting into song, while Lewis is a hopeless screw-up unable to perform the simplest task without wreaking havoc (in this one, he can't even operate a Coke machine properly). Mike Kellin repeats his Broadway role as M&L's tough topkick while Polly Bergen makes a very brief appearance. Because it has lapsed into public domain, At War With the Army is one of the most available of the Martin and Lewis films. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

People Are Funny
Art Linkletter had only recently taken over the popular audience-participation radio series People are Funny from Art Baker when he appeared as "himself" in this lighthearted musical comedy. The film's plot concerns a rivalry between two radio producers, both of whom want to produce a weekly radio series in which audience members indulge in silly stunts for huge cash prizes. A romance develops between supposedly slow-on-the-uptake radio producer Pinky Wilson (Jack Haley) and writer Corey Sullivan (Helen Walker), while wealthy sponsor Ormsby Jamison (Rudy Vallee) tries to determine if People are Funny is a saleable concept. Ozzie Nelson costars as Wilson's business rival, Frances Langford shows up for a song, and future 3 Stooges member Joe DeRita has a funny bit as a contestant. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

The Fabulous Dorseys
Based on the lives of big-band stars Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, this biographical chronicle begins with their childhood in an industrial Pennsylvania town. Encouraged in their musical talents by their father, the Dorsey brothers' sibling rivalry proves to be a stumbling block until the their father's death gives them the momentum they need to rise to fame, and they are eventually considered to be among the best bandleaders of the swing era. Appearances by Charlie Barnet, Art Tatum, and Bob Eberly jazz up the musical numbers, featuring such songs as "Green Eyes," "Everybody's Doin' It", "Marie," and "I'll Never Say Never Again." ~ Iotis Erlewine, Rovi

The Duke Is Tops
Also known as The Duke Is Tops, this is one of the best examples of the many all-black films made in the 1930s for what were then designated as "colored" theatres. Looking about 15 years old, Lena Horne plays the main attraction for the stage shows put on by a fellow named Duke (Ralph Cooper). When she gets a chance at a Broadway show, Lena swiftly severs all ties with Duke. But when Lena's big-time debut threatens to be a disaster, it is Duke who saves the day. The dialogue is for the birds, but The Duke Is Tops is aces when it comes to musical numbers. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

All-American Coed
This 48-minute Hal Roach "streamliner" represents a rare directorial assignment for veteran Hollywood choreographer LeRoy Prinz, who also produced the film. Johnny Downs stars as Bob Sheppard of Quinceton University, who is appointed by his frat brothers to get even with the snotty sorority gals at all-female Marr Brynn U. This requires Bob to dress up in drag as a "blonde bombshell" and to enter Marr Brynn's annual beauty contest. When he's not flouncing around in curls and crinolines, Bob spends his time romancing pert co-ed Virginia (Frances Langford). The supporting cast ranges from silent-comedy veteran Harry Langdon to leggy newcomer Marie Windsor. The film's four musical numbers (representing approximately 25 percent of the running time!) include the Oscar-nominated "Out of the Silence". ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Second Chorus
Though not the best of the Fred Astaire musicals, Second Chorus is the most easily accessible thanks to its current public-domain status. Astaire and Burgess Meredith play Danny O'Neill and Hank Taylor, friendly-enemy musicians who after spending seven years in a college band aspire to join the Artie Shaw Orchestra. Danny and Hank also spend a lot of time vying over the attentions of their pretty manager Ellen Miller (Paulette Goddard). While Paulette Goddard later became Mrs. Burgess Meredith in real life, guess who wins her hand in this picture? Charles Butterworth steals the show as Mr. Chisholm, a music-loving eccentric who finances Shaw's "swing concerto" concert at Carnegie Hall. Oh, and Fred Astaire dances, too. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Royal Wedding
Two real-life events were incorporated into the plot of the 1951 MGM musical Royal Wedding. One, the marriage of Fred Astaire's sister Adele to a British nobleman had occurred years earlier; the other, the wedding of England's Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip was only four years in the past. MGM would probably have gotten Royal Wedding out closer to the Elizabeth-Philip nuptials, but the picture had leading-lady problems; every girl who was cast either became pregnant, ill, or otherwise unavailable. Finally, Jane Powell was cast as the sister and partner of American-entertainer Fred Astaire. The plot has Astaire and Powell heading to Merrie Olde England to perform at the palace. Once they've arrived, Powell breaks up the act when she falls in love with blueblooded Peter Lawford. Astaire himself finds romance in the form of Sarah Churchill (daughter of Sir Winston), and the four happy campers gleefully attend the titular Windsor Castle wedding. Also in the cast is Albert Sharpe, fresh from his Broadway triumph in Finian's Rainbow, and Keenan Wynn, hilarious as twin cousins. The plot is so light that it threatens to float away at times, but Royal Wedding sticks in the memory thanks to its first-rate musical numbers. The Astaire/Powell duets are entertaining enough; the real magic, however, occurs in Astaire's two solos: the hat-rack duet and the now-legendary tap-dance on the ceiling (even knowing how this cinematic legerdemain was accomplished does not detract from its brilliance and virtuosity). Because it has slipped into public domain, Royal Wedding is one of the most easily accessible of all the Fred Astaire musicals. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Career Girl
The career girl in this PRC musical is Joan (Frances Langford), a Kansas City gal with showbiz aspirations. She heads to New York, where she sets up residence in a theatrical boarding house straight out of Stage Door. A few setbacks later, Joan lands the lead in a Broadway musical revue, which despite its threadbare production values (a PRC trademark) bids fair to be the hit of the season. Endearingly old-fashioned, Career Girl puts over its clichés with energy and verve. Besides, any picture with wisecracking Iris Adrian in a large role can't be all bad. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

The Inspector General
The satirical bite of Gogol's play The Government Inspector is dispensed with in favor of traditional Danny Kaye buffoonery in The Inspector General. Kaye plays the illiterate stooge of two-bit medicine-show- entrepreneur Walter Slezak. Abandoned by Slezak, the starving Kaye wanders into a corruption-ridden Russian village, which is all geared up for a visit from the Inspector General. Mistaking Kaye for that selfsame royal inspector, the townsfolk fawn on the confused Kaye, granting him his every whim and plying him with all sorts of bribes. In the original Gogol play, the boorish phony inspector takes advantage of the villagers' error by laying waste to the town and seducing a few local maidens; in the film, Kaye is as pure as the driven borscht, as is his true love (Barbara Bates), the only honest person in town. The treachery is in the hands of Slezak, who fakes Kaye's death and tries to blackmail the crooked local officials. The deus-ex-machina arrival of the real Inspector General foils the crooks and places the nonplused Kaye in the job of town mayor. Those of you who read the play in college may remember it ends with everyone frozen in horror when the genuine inspector shows up, with Gogol's stage directions insisting that the actors hold their fearful poses for a full sixty seconds. Be assured that in the film version of Inspector General, nothing stands still--least of all Danny Kaye, who cuts quite a swath through several Sylvia Fine/Johnny Mercer specialty songs. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Till the Clouds Roll By
Private Buckaroo
This upbeat WW II-era musical features performances by the Andrews Sisters and Harry James as it tells the story of a rebellious young inductee who has trouble toeing the line until he meets a retired officer's lovely daughter. James and his band are also drafted and decide to perk up their camp by putting on a big show. Of the many songs featured, the best known is the Andrews' rendition of "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else but Me"." ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi

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