THE DVD SHELF: Classic M-G-M Musicals, Lucy and Desi and "Kind Hearts and Coronets"

The DVD Shelf   THE DVD SHELF: Classic M-G-M Musicals, Lucy and Desi and "Kind Hearts and Coronets" This month’s column discusses the new box set of M-G-M musicals, a slimmer box featuring the three features made by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (including the Rodgers and Hart musical Too Many Girls, and Alec Guinness in the splendid black comedy "Kind Hearts and Coronets."
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Ah, those great M-G-M musicals! "The Wizard of Oz," "Singin’ in the Rain," "The Bandwagon," "Gigi," "An American in Paris." None of these titles are included in Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory [Warner Home Video]. There is not what one might call a great film among the titles. But the assembled parts! Here is a five-DVD treasury of movie musical scenes, many of them all-the-less-familiar because said scenes are not part of the universally beloved and oft-watched films listed above.

"It’s Always Fair Weather" (1955) is a five-star vehicle led by Gene Kelly. Cyd Charisse and Dan Dailey have their adherents, but Broadway fans will be most interested in the other two. Dolores Gray was an acknowledged scene stealer, who had earned her wings playing Merman’s role in the smash London company of Annie Get Your Gun. Even more interesting, perhaps, is Michael Kidd, who by this point had already choreographed Finian’s Rainbow and Guys and Dolls. Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the screenplay and lyrics, to music by Andre Previn. While "It’s Always Fair Weather" is relatively unknown – all five of these films are making their DVD debut – it provides refreshing viewing, especially with the Kelly-Dailey-Kidd trashcan dance and Kelly’s "I Like Myself," on roller skates.

"Till the Clouds Roll By" (1946) purports to be the biography of Jerome Kern, who died in 1945. Robert Walker plays Jerry, and not so believably. Even so, the film is filled with Kern songs and overloaded with movie stars. Garland, Sinatra, Lena, Dinah Shore, and even our own Angela, two decades before she came to Broadway singing Sondheim. "Three Little Words" (1950) is another composer biopic, this time focusing on Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, a pair of relatively forgotten songwriters from Broadway and Hollywood. Fred and Red – Astaire and Skelton, that is – portray the pair, with young Debbie Reynolds stepping in to sing "I Wanna Be Loved by You."

"Summer Stock" (1950) isn’t much of a movie, but it includes Judy Garland – in black fedora, suit jacket and tights – giving her iconic performance of Arlen’s "Get Happy." Gene Kelly costars, with comic relief from Phil Silvers. Most interesting, perhaps, if somewhat uneven, is the colorful but overblown "Ziegfeld Follies" (1946). Astaire dances with Kelly, to the Gershwin’s "Babbitt and the Bromide"; Fanny Brice, Lucille Ball, Red Skelton and Victor Moore clown (although not together); Esther Williams swims; and Lena Horne heats up the place with the steamy "Love."

As with most of the recent Warner Home Video box sets, the films are in pristine condition and absolutely peppered with special features: documentaries, shorts, trailers, outtakes and cartoons. If none of the "Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory" are classic musicals, in my book at least, they sure pack hours of entertainment.

Hollywood overflowed with musicals imported from Broadway in the early years of the talkies, but most were altered beyond recognition. Too Many Girls is the exception; while it necessarily underwent adaptation, it is perhaps the most authentic 1930s Broadway musical on screen. The reason: George Abbott, who produced and directed the show on Broadway (1939), was brought west to produce and direct the film (1940). He brought along librettist George Marion Jr. (who had 20 screenplay credits, including "The Gay Divorcee," "Love Me Tonight" and "You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man"), seven cast members, and even vocal director Hugh Martin.

The plot told of a debutante shipped off to good old Pottawatomie College, chaperoned by four football players in disguise. Abbott brought three of his Broadway football players with him. One, Eddie Bracken, turned into a comedy star. For the duration of the War, anyway, with memorable performances in Preston Sturges’s "Hail, The Conquering Hero" and "The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek." Another was Cuban exile Desi Arnaz, who was on hand to sing the rumba numbas. The role of the debutante was assigned to the up-and-coming screen comedienne Lucille Ball (with singing dubbed by Trudy Erwin). Lucy and Desi had little to do with each other onscreen, but they quickly linked. "Too Many Girls" was released in October 1940, the pair were wed in November.

The musical was a good-natured affair, marked by a young and energetic cast and a tuneful score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The entertainment translates quite well to the screen, although dated and a little clunky. The songs are the thing, I suppose. They include an especially wonderful ballad, "I Didn’t Know What Time It Was" and a second beauty added for the film, "You’re Nearer." You might also want to watch for Ann Miller, tapping away, and (from Broadway) Van Johnson, in the chorus but standing out.

"Too Many Girls" has been brought to us as part of the three-DVD Lucy & Desi Collection [Warner Home Video]. This is tagged as "the first couple of comedy in the only movies they made together!" Also included are "The Long, Long Trailer" (1954) and "Forever Darling" (1956). Let’s just say these two are perfect for Lucy-Desi fans, and perhaps less so for people who enjoy subtlety in their comedy.

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Here comes Lord Ascoyne d'Ascoyne, Lady Agatha d’Ascoyne and all the related d’Ascoynes – each in the person of Alec Guinness – in Kind Hearts and Coronets [Criterion], which might be the finest black comedy in cinema history. Guinness gives one of his best performances — or rather eight of his best, of so many "best" performances — in this 1949 Ealing comedy, directed by Robert Hamer. Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) is out to reclaim the family title and must do so by chopping down the family tree, head-by-head. Guinness is murdered again and again, in wickedly sardonic fashion. Alec’s Lady Agatha, the only distaff member of the group, is an especial treat While we are not surprised by Guinness’s versatility, "Kind Hearts and Coronets" was only his third film. A supporting role in "Great Expectations" (1946) and the leading role of Fagin in "Oliver Twist" (1948) surely left viewers unprepared for Guinness’s octet of sterling comic impersonations.

Price is perhaps too easily overlooked, playing only a single role. He is, in truth, the leading character, scratching off his relatives one by one. He does a wonderful job – imagine, a well-mannered, highly sympathetic serial killer – and holds together the film. Price appears to have been a fine actor, although his brief stardom quickly disintegrated. By the early seventies he was starring in exploitation flicks, like "Lesbian Vampires" ("A Psycho-Sexadelic Horror Freakout!") and as the good Dr. in "The Erotic Adventures of Frankenstein." But he is a fine match for Guinness in "Kind Hearts and Coronets." Joan Greenwood, too, does a scrumptious turn as Sibella.

If it’s fine acting, wickedly comic writing and a perfectly crafted film you’re after, "Kind Hearts and Coronets" — in good old Ealing Studio black and white, lusciously restored and packaged in a two-DVD set filled with interesting extras — is a bejeweled treasure.

—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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