THE DVD SHELF: Busby Berkeley, Tennessee Williams and the "Glamorous" Carole, Marlene and Mae

The DVD Shelf   THE DVD SHELF: Busby Berkeley, Tennessee Williams and the "Glamorous" Carole, Marlene and Mae
 
The talking film was launched in 1927 with a musical, and musicals played a large part in the Hollywood dream factories for a good 30 years or so.
Promotional art for the Tennessee Williams Film Collection set.
Promotional art for the Tennessee Williams Film Collection set.

(Movie musicals still make periodic, and sometimes quixotic, comebacks.) The brothers Warner, who brought us "The Jazz Singer" – Hollywood’s first talking picture and first movie musical – recognized that there was gold to be made in song-and-dancers; they also, apparently, realized that musicals were the most respectable way to give the audience near-naked girls (or, to borrow the title of a popular Warner musical, dames).

Six years after "The Jazz Singer," the Warners -- producing a backstage musical with songs – saw fit to hire one Busby Berkeley as dance director. Berkeley was a former Broadway hoofer, who had been featured with Ray Bolger in Rodgers and Hart’s 1928 Present Arms! (Busby was the “sentimental sap” who introduced the song “You Took Advantage of Me.”) He arrived in Hollywood soon enough. Eons later we take Berkeley’s style for granted, but it must have appeared invigorating and startling in 1933, when his first major film – "42nd Street" – was released. Geometrically kaleidoscopic dance direction, I suppose, is the best way to describe it.

Warner Home Video has packaged five of these musicals into The Busby Berkeley Collection. Watching them now, in pristine condition, we find them to be – well, invigorating and startling. (A sixth DVD, "The Busby Berkeley Disc," ditches the stories in favor of a cavalcade of 20 musical numbers. This compilation, created for laserdisc release in 1992, is especially fascinating.) Along with "42nd Street" – the only one of the six DVDs previously released (and the only one sold separately) -- we get "Footlight Parade," "Dames" and two entries in the "Gold Diggers" series (1933 and 1935). Berkeley standbys Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell are joined by the likes of Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, James Cagney and all those WB character actors.

* * * *

The plays of tortured Broadway genius Tennessee Williams were right at home on the big screen, although they had to be tamed down a bit to pass muster with the morals crowd. In fact, the “newly remastered two-disc Deluxe Edition of 'A Streetcar Named Desire,'” included in The Tennessee Williams Film Collection, gives us a three-minute section excised at the demand of the Legion of Decency. (Yes, children, there was indeed a Legion of Decency back in the primitive days of yesteryear, with stern moralists endeavoring to protect the public from nefarious smut peddlers.) Bonus features include an early Brando screen test, circa 1946 — before the Broadway Streetcar -- showing a moody-but-polite, 23-year-old charmer. Jessica Tandy won a Tony Award for Blanche, while Vivien Leigh won an Oscar for the screen version. Brando won neither Tony nor Oscar as Stanley Kowalski, but he seems to have done all right. The Tennessee box also includes a new, “Deluxe Edition” of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," as well as first-time-on-DVD releases of "Sweet Bird of Youth," "Night of the Iguana," "Baby Doll," "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone," plus the documentary "Tennessee Williams’ South." Headliners include a garland of top movie stars, including Paul Newman, Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty; included as well are notable performances from Karl Malden, Kim Hunter, Burl Ives, Judith Anderson, Rip Torn, Lotte Lenya and Eli Wallach.

Warner Home Entertainment lavishes full-disc treatment on each of its features, with supplemental documentaries, shorts, cartoons and more. Universal demonstrates a very different philosophy with its "Glamour Collections." Movies, just movies. Five or six of them, on two, two-sided DVDs; no bonuses, no extras, no nothing other than an occasional trailer. (Universal does encase the packaging in a handsome, see-through plastic slipcase.) If what you are looking for is the movies in question – most of which have never been released on DVD – this works out just fine. The major advantage to this treatment is that a six-DVD set might retail at $59.92. Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection features six films, complete, on two discs, at $26.98. You do the math.

Glamour is a personal judgment. The three actresses presently accorded treatment by Universal are Lombard, Mae West and Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich, I suppose, epitomized a certain type of glamour. For others, Ms. West was the height of – well, something. For me, I’ll take Lombard any time. Lombard is less known today, by virtue of the fact that her career was cut short when she was killed in an airplane crash – en route from a War Bond rally -- in 1942 at the age of 33. Lombard was a firecracker comedienne, in glamorous blonde packaging; I suppose you could class her with Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur and Rosalind Russell, with looks closer to Harlow. Two of Lombard’s leading men fell for and married her, William Powell (in 1931) and Clark Gable (in 1939). A few minutes of "Hands Across the Table," say, and you can easily see why.

The Lombard set includes "Man of the World" (starring Powell); "We’re Not Dressing" (with Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman [circa Anything Goes], and others); "Hands Across the Table" (with Fred MacMurray); "Love before Breakfast"; "The Princess Comes Across" (with MacMurray); and "True Confession" (with MacMurray and John Barrymore). There is not an all-time great film among them; Lombard’s best films, "Nothing Sacred," "Twentieth Century" and "My Man Godfrey," are available elsewhere. But "Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection" is pure joy.

Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection, as with Dietrich’s early-to-middle career, starts out strong and devolves into middling “star vehicles.” Not coincidentally, the early films were directed by Josef von Sternberg. The five movies included are "Morocco" (with Gary Cooper); "Blonde Venus" (with Cary Grant); "The Devil Is a Woman"; "The Flame of New Orleans"; and "Golden Earrings."

And then there’s that dirty blonde in Mae West: The Glamour Collection. ("Smart, seductive and undeniably funny,” goes the packaging blurb). The films are "Night after Night"; "I’m No Angel" (with Cary Grant); "Goin’ to Town"; "Go West Young Man"; and – in a departure – the minor classic "My Little Chickadee," boosted by the presence of W.C. Fields.

-- Steven Suskin, author of the recently released “Second Act Trouble” [Applause Books], “A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork,” “Show Tunes,” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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