The holiday season brings a plethora of newly released theatre-related DVDs of interest. The two biggest titles, I suppose — and sure to be major best sellers — have their roots in television.
High School Musical 2: Extended Edition [Disney] is the sequel to the first "High School Musical," although by this point — given the numerous lucrative offshoots of the original film in concert, in arenas, on stage, on ice and who knows where else — this seems like the fifth or sixth generation already. The new version first aired in August to record-breaking viewership, and the DVD will no doubt further establish the strength of the franchise. An unofficial survey of preteens who happened to be hanging around finds that they like this one even better than the first, which is a considerable recommendation. Not all that surprising, upon reflection; the unfathomable success of "HSM1" no doubt gave Kenny Ortega — the canny director-choreographer responsible for this thing in the first place – a freer hand, a larger budget, and the time to really put on a show. Which is what he has done, in a manner that might turn Busby Berkeley the black & white equivalent of green.
Matt Groening's "The Simpsons" has always had a special affinity for the Broadway musical, with any number of deliciously wicked interludes over its 20-year TV reign. This sensibility is carried over to The Simpsons Movie [Fox], although the only stage-worthy segment comes from Homer's paean to "Spider Pig." A cappella, fleetingly brief, and it doesn't even rhyme; but here's a show tune for you. Present, too, is "Simpsons" veteran Hank Azaria, just now starring at the Music Box in The Farnsworth Invention. "The Simpsons Movie" is a rude, wildly funny, belly laugh-filled treat for adults. And savvy kids, too. *
These spanking-new 2007 productions are joined by no less than 14 films of interest, musical and non-, which have been released in three box sets by Fox.
A six-disc set called MGM Classic Musicals Collection [Fox] could contain any number of titles, couldn't it? We've seen so many similar sounding collections that the umbrella title is just about meaningless. The box in question is rooted in the 1950s and 1960s, with five of the six entries having originated on Broadway. (The sixth, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," made the reverse trip, and none too happily.) Not all of the films are even from MGM, technically, but let's not be technical about it. This collection is especially strong for Broadway fans, some of whom — alas — might already have two or three of the titles, namely "West Side Story," "Guys and Dolls" and "Fiddler on the Roof." (The extensive bonus features found on the two-DVD sets of these films are, naturally enough, not included in this relatively low-priced set. All six films are in widescreen.)
The fifth and sixth are the least "Hollywood" and might be the most interesting to musical comedy fans. Richard Lester's 1966 version of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is problematic, yes; but even with its flaws, it brings us Zero Mostel's Pseudolus filmed within four years of the Broadway opening. (Between 1962 and 1968, Zero went from "Forum" to "Fiddler" to the "Forum" film to "The Producers.") Jack Gilford recreates his Hysterium as well, and they are accompanied by the grand Phil Silvers and Buster Keaton. (The young hero, Hero, is played by Michael Crawford.) Finishing the set is Broadway's other long-titled long-run hit, "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." This adaptation, too, has some flaws; still, the presence of Bobby Morse is enough to make it required viewing. He is accompanied by stage co-star Rudy Vallee and Broadway replacement Michele Lee. Enough of the spirit of the original Broadway production is present to give you an idea of how very good Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows' Pulitzer Prize-winning musical really was. Those who know "How to Succeed" only from the 1995 revival, which seemed determined to wring every bit of humor out of the thing, are urged to take a look at this DVD, which is the closest we shall ever again get to the real thing.
Alongside the "MGM Classic Musicals" comes the MGM Holiday Collection [Fox]. Not quite so stellar, but the three films make suitable holiday viewing. "The Bishop's Wife" is one of those touching Christmas-time romantic comedies (though a little less inviting than other examples of the genre such as "Miracle on 34th Street" or "Christmas in Connecticut"). This is the one where an angel (Cary Grant) steps in to save the marriage of a bishop (David Niven) who is neglecting his wife (Loretta Young). A 1947 Goldwyn production, the screenplay is co-authored by Robert E. Sherwood. Prominently featured are four very good character actors, Monty Woolley, James Gleason, Gladys Cooper and Elsa Lanchester. Next up is Frank Capra's "Pocketful of Miracles," the 1961 remake of his 1933 film "Lady for a Day" (based on a story by Damon Runyon). Bette Davis stars as the Broadway peddler Apple Annie; her daughter, who has been educated abroad and has no idea that her mother is — well, Apple Annie — is played by the young Ann-Margaret. I've always preferred the earlier version, in part because I find the top-billed Glenn Ford particularly cold. (Ford was one of the producers and shares the copyright in the film.) Capra, apparently, didn't much like "Pocketful of Miracles" either. Still, the character actors — including Arthur O'Connell, Thomas Mitchell, Edward Everett Horton and Peter Falk (who received an Oscar nomination) — help carry the day.
Most interesting of the trio is "March of the Wooden Soldiers." "Based on the operetta by Victor Herbert" it says, although nowhere on the packaging do we see the words "Babes in Toyland." That's what this is, in fact, or as close as it can be considering that it was retooled by producer Hal Roach to star Laurel and Hardy. As I recall — perhaps erroneously — the title was changed to "March of the Wooden Soldiers" when Disney purchased the rights to do their 1961 version of "Babes in Toyland." This is one of those films that has a complicated copyright setup, resulting in several competing editions of the film already available on DVD (including a colorized one, if you like such alterations, which I certainly don't). While I've not seen all the prior editions, I recall the scratchy, edited versions of the film that used to appear on TV. This new DVD is as pristine as you can get for a long-neglected 1934 film, looking close to glorious in black & white. Much of the cut material seems to have been restored and they use the original credits, beginning with the film's MPPDA certificate (No. 401) — "This picture approved by the production code administration of the Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America." which means, in short, that "Babes in Toyland" is suitable for children — and the "Babes in Toyland" title card. The film itself is altogether watchable; I suppose you can say that it is more Victor than Stan & Ollie, and infinitely stronger than the Disney version (which starred Ray Bolger).
For those in search of intelligent, offbeat (and non-musical) entertainment, The Coen Brothers Movie Collection [Fox] offers five treats. "Fargo" takes top honors, I suppose, with the uproarious "Raising Arizona" coming next. Also included are "Miller's Crossing," "Barton Fink" and "Blood Simple." The key to this quintet, besides the direction and writing, is the casting. The Coens feature such actors as Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, William H. Macy, Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro and John Goodman. Joel Coen's wife Frances McDormand is present in four of the five, which I suppose you might call nepotism in reverse. She is quite an actor, with a well-earned Best Actress Oscar for "Fargo." Broadway will get Ms. McDormand back later this season when she plays the Uta Hagen/Grace Kelly role, opposite Morgan Freeman and Peter Gallagher, in the Mike Nichols production of The Country Girl.
Three short plays by Ethan Coen (under the title Almost an Evening) will be seen in early 2008, presented by Off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company at Atlantic Stage 2. F. Murray Abraham is among its stars.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)