Last fall, Warner Home Entertainment released the "Astaire & Rogers Collection, Volume One." This included five of Fred and Ginger's movies: the great "Top Hat" and "Swing Time," along with "Follow the Fleet," "Shall We Dance" and "The Barkleys of Broadway." Warner, which controls the old RKO catalogue, has now followed up with the Astaire & Rogers Collection, Volume Two. More to the point, they have given the purchaser several options, the others being the Astaire & Rogers Ultimate Collector's Edition and the Astaire & Rogers Partial Ultimate Collector's Edition. However you call it, or however you order it, it is quite something. Indispensable for the Astaire-Rogers fan, needless to say, and for the movie musical fan as well.
The newly-released films are led by "The Gay Divorcee," one of the best of the series (and a pretty good farce comedy as well). This 1934 film, the team's first starring vehicle, was adapted from Astaire's 1933 stage musical The Gay Divorce. A minor hit along Depression-era Broadway, the show ran on the power of Astaire and the one knock-out songhit, "Night and Day." The studio rather oddly decided to retain the plot and the three major male actors, but almost totally ditched the score. "Night and Day" was retained, naturally enough, resulting in a filmed sequence that can be said to have set the movie musical on a new course. This was matched by Con Conrad's "The Continental," which received similarly exquisite staging as well as the first Oscar for Best Song. ("You kiss while you're dancing. It's continental!") Between "Night and Day" and "The Continental," Astaire and Rogers were here to stay.
Of almost similar interest is the 1933 "Flying Down to Rio," with a score by Vincent Youmans. This is not an Astaire-Rogers film, per se; they were merely the fourth and fifth featured actors, filling negligible parts. Their shared film time, though — especially as they danced to "The Carioca" — was enough to rush "Gay Divorcee" into production.
Also in the new set are "Roberta," from the lukewarm "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" -Kern musical of the same title; "Carefree," with a Berlin score (including the extra-fine "Change Partners"); and "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," which is a rather minor affair. Let me add in passing that during teenage years I spent about eight weeks working at the ANTA (now Wilson) Theatre, selling scotch and sodas and etc. during the run of The Last of Mrs. Lincoln (which won Julie Harris one of her Tonys). Hanging on the wall by my shoulder was an absolutely stunning floor-to-ceiling portrait of Irene Castle, which is hopefully being properly cared for nowadays. The Astaire-Rogers films, both the first set and the second, have been transferred with the utmost care and look smashing in their black & white; they are also fitted out with interesting extras, as is the case with most of the Warner Home releases. In this case, Warner has outdone itself. The DVDs are packed in individual slipcases of clear plastic (with full-color inserts), rather than those thick, black cases that we are accustomed to. Thus, the packaging is sleek and smart (and takes up far less shelf space). The "Ultimate Collector's Edition" also includes campaign books for two of the films, "Shall We Dance" and "Roberta"; a set of 4 x 6 black & white photo reproductions; and a mail-in offer for four movie posters. Along with all this comes the DVD "Astaire and Rogers, Partners in Rhythm," which allows you to watch the best dance numbers without changing discs. Last but not least comes an audio CD of Astaire and Rogers singing the songs.
Which brings us to that familiar question, what do you do if you already bought the first five movies last year? That's where the so-called "Partial Ultimate" edition comes in. Warner will sell you the complete box with empty slipcases for the first five films; simply take the discs out of the old packaging and slip them in place. (This last is available exclusively on Amazon.com.) All the films are available individually as well. While we needn't get into questions of pricing, let's just say that the 12-disc set [11 DVDs, 1 CD] is reasonably priced, and the folks at Warner seem to have gone out of their way not to penalize people who bought the "Astaire & Rogers Collection, Volume One" in the first place.
Two recently-released DVDs bring back memories of Broadway's-own Gregory Hines, the much missed actor-singer-dancer who died in 2003 at the age of 57. "White Nights" (1985) sets Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov on their toes in St. Petersburg; ballet-meets-tap in a James Goldman espionage thriller. Also on hand are Isabella Rossellini, Gerry Page and Helen Mirren, with choreography by Twyla herself. "Tap" (1989) gives us Hines as an ex-con, with Sammy Davis as his dad and even Savion Glover kicking around. The three are, one might say without dispute, tops in taps.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)