THE DVD SHELF: Joshua Logan's "Fanny," Granada's "Brideshead," Chekhov, "Blues in the Night"

News   THE DVD SHELF: Joshua Logan's "Fanny," Granada's "Brideshead," Chekhov, "Blues in the Night" This month's column discusses the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Fanny (presented without songs), a box set featuring the legendary miniseries "Brideshead Revisited," a collection on Chekhov works the jazz-themed drama "Blues in the Night."
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There was a joke of the sniggering-teen variety making the rounds some 47 years ago, the punch line of which had to do with going to see Joshua Logan's "Fanny" on the big screen. An unappetizing prospect, no? Anyway, now you can see it on the widescreen, in the privacy of your living room. Invite your friends.

Josh Logan's "Fanny," of course, is the screen version of the 1954 musical with which David Merrick started his invasion of Broadway. This was intended to be an artistic blockbuster-of-a-follow-up to the 1949 South Pacific. Merrick enlisted Logan, who went about the task of attaching the Messrs. Rodgers & Hammerstein. All seemed to be progressing until Rodgers determined that he wasn't about to be presented by an uncouth novice lawyer from St. Louis. He tried to buy out Merrick, the latter wouldn't budge, and there went R & H. And there went a musical with the potential of being a great second to South Pacific. (In last week's column I introduced the notion of musicals featuring beautiful young girls falling for considerably older men, written by considerably older men. Add Fanny to the list.)

Even so, Fanny [Image] emulated South Pacific. Once again, Logan directed and co-authored the book. He also brought along the earlier show's two male leads, Ezio Pinza (Emile) and William Tabbert (Cable) as well as designer Jo Mielziner. With Rodgers & Hammerstein off the project, Logan went to composer-lyricist Harold Rome for the score. Rome, a Yale-trained architect, had started his career writing satiric songs of social significance. He had written Logan's most recent musical, Wish You Were Here, which was critically skewered but nevertheless went on to a successful run. Rome's musicals had been very much contemporary, marked by jaunty tunes and comical lyrics with a New York flavor. This made him an unlikely choice for Fanny, which took place along the waterfront of Marseilles. While Merrick's musical was a something of an overproduced bouillabaisse, it was stocked with a surprisingly romantic and effective score. "Fanny," "Restless Heart," "I Have to Tell You," and more filled the Majestic with romance and strings, in a manner that was not what one might have expected from Rome.

The songs — including the title tune, which was as omnipresent on the airwaves as Rome's title song for Wish You Were Here had been two years earlier — and Merrick's marketing pizzazz managed to turn Fanny into an 888-performance hit. If it wasn't another South Pacific, it outran the two musicals Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote instead, combined. These being the 1953 Me and Juliet and the 1955 Pipe Dream. In the latter case they did manage to buy out the originating producers, Feuer & Martin, so that they could produce it themselves. To little avail. In any event, Logan managed to parlay Fanny, the big Broadway hit, into "Fanny," the big Hollywood movie. He even managed to enlist the stars of the incredibly successful 1958 Hollywood musical "Gigi," Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier. With those two musical favorites plus that title song on the tip of everybody's musical tongue, the brothers Warner decided to make Fanny as a non-musical. That's right; cut out all those songs. Go figure. So we have Fanny, without music. Well, not without music; Rome's score is threaded through the film everywhere we turn, only without lyrics and without vocals. Look! there's a song cue: Marius looks at a boat in the harbor, the orchestra launches into "Restless Heart," and nobody sings. The moment passes.

This won't bother anyone who doesn't know the musical which, as these things go, probably meant the vast majority of moviegoers then and the vast majority of DVD buyers today. Hollywood has seen fit to occasionally buy hit Broadway musicals and then produce them with new songs added, by Hollywood hands; sometimes, they have even adapted them with all new scores that the show composers didn't recognize and no doubt fumed over. But rare is the musical adaptation in which all songs were simply adapted out of existence. This happened a couple of years after Fanny with Irma La Douce, another Merrick musical as it happens, but I can't think of another similar case. (The 1939 film version of On Your Toes cut Rodgers & Hart's songs, but it did reproduce the two Rodgers-Balanchine ballets, including Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.) Poor Harold Rome, who since 1960 or so hasn't gotten much respect. The "Fanny" film must have been quite a blow; he would be startled, no doubt, to find that this new DVD release includes, as a bonus, a separate CD of his score! His film score, that is, without the lyrics. If they did not use the Broadway songs for the film, they did use the logo — and adapt the lettering for all the credits, not just the title. (In the film itself, not on the artwork reproduced on the slipcase.) Those interested in such things will also note that Merrick gets sole credit as producer of the musical on the "originally produced on Broadway" placard, while in fact the show had been equally coproduced by Merrick and Logan.

Logan had enormous success in the theatre, through the '40s and '50s; beginning in 1960, though, every musical he directed was exceedingly dire (All American, Mr. President, Hot September, Look to the Lilies, Miss Moffat). But his movie musical career was always somewhat checkered, artistically speaking, consisting of South Pacific, Camelot and Paint Your Wagon. Film mavens have it in for "Fanny", anyway, because the movie — and the musical, for that matter — is a bowdlerization of Marcel Pagnol's trilogy of masterpieces (or near masterpieces) of the French cinema, "Marius" (1931), "Fanny" (1932) and "Cesar" (1936). These starred the great French actor Raimu, who first played Cesar in the 1929 stage version of "Marius," and they are indeed pretty wonderful. Joshua Logan's "Fanny" is something of a mishmash comparatively, although it has its attributes. It is beautifully photographed, for starters, and includes that glorious background score. Ms. Caron was young and delicious at the time — think "Gigi" — and properly French, as were her co-stars. Cesar was played not by Chevalier but by Charles Boyer, with Maurice playing Panisse, the much much much older man who marries Fanny even though she is pregnant with a baby by Joey, the foreman on the grape ranch. Oh, wait; that's The Most Happy Fella, another one of those middle-aged musicals (except in that case the 56-year-old composer wound up marrying the heroine in real life). In Fanny, the baby is courtesy of Marius, the young man "with no heart to give" who runs off "to the sea, my one love."

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Acorn Media, noting the new film version of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, has seen fit to bring us the fabled 1981 Granada Television miniseries in all its glory. Eleven episodes, eleven hours, eleven all-time great British actors. Actually, I made that part up; it does, though, have Claire Bloom and John Gielgud in five episodes each, plus Laurence Olivier in two, plus a castle-full of faces familiar to people who watched British stage and television back in those olden days. Most notably, this is the program that launched Jeremy Irons to stardom, while not quite launching his co-star Anthony Andrews to the same. "Brideshead Revisited" ranks high among the most beloved and respected television programs ever, and understandably so. The new film, with a cast headed by Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon in the roles formerly played by Bloom and Gielgud, has thus far received a moderately favorable reception. Just about everyone, though, says that of course, it's not the same as the real "Brideshead Revisited." Which is now available, in considerably better shape and more complete than when previously released in 1997. The "25th Anniversary Collector's Edition," they call this four-disc set. Very handsome, indeed. If this "Brideshead" is not loaded with special features — we get a retrospective documentary, plus some miscellaneous bonuses and commentaries on some episodes — they give us all 659 minutes-worth of footage. Set aside a spare weekend, or whatever, and immerse yourself in Mr. Waugh's "epic tale of love and loss amid the fading glory of the British aristocracy."

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If it's great British actors you want, BBC Worldwide has culled its seemingly bottomless archives for The Anton Chekhov Collection [BBC Worldwide]. Here we have Peggy Ashcroft, Eileen Atkins, Zoe Caldwell, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, John Gielgud, Rex Harrison, Ian Holm, Anthony Hopkins, Ian McKellen, Clive Revill, Patrick Stewart, and who knows how many others. The "big ticket" items, if you will, include a 1978 "Three Sisters" with Mr. Hopkins and Ms. Atkins; a 1978 "Seagull" with Ms. Caldwell and Mr. Gambon; two "Uncle Vanyas," one with Mr. Hopkins (from 1970) and the other being Greg Mosher's 1991 production starring David Warner; and two "Cherry Orchards," Richard Eyre's 1980 version starring with Ms. Dench as well as a 1962 version starring Ms. Ashcroft and Mr. Gielgud with a younger Ms. Dench playing Anya. These plus five short stories read by Ewan McGregor, three radio plays, a work session with director Oleg Efremov from the Moscow Art Theatre, and more. All this on six DVDs, two of which are double-sided, encompassing 1,095 minutes (which are far too many for me to clock).

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The great Harold Arlen and the great Johnny Mercer joined together in Hollywood in 1941 to write five songs for a relatively inconsequential tale of jazz and gangsters called, initially, "Hot Nocturne." This was Arlen after "Stormy Weather" and "The Wizard of Oz," Mercer after "Lazy Bones," "Too Marvelous for Words," and "Hooray for Hollywood" — which is to say, they were both already at the top of their craft. (They had actually collaborated on a song, in partnership with Yip Harburg, back in 1932. At the time, Mercer was singing with The Rhythm Boys, Paul Whiteman's backup trio, alongside Arlen's younger brother Jerry.)

An early scene in "Hot Nocturne" features the film's central quartet of musicians in a St. Louis jail. From the next cell over — the "colored" cell — comes a wail of the blues. Rather than just plugging in come generic film song, or simply using the standard "St. Louis Blues" (which might have been intended, as they are for no discernible reason in a jail cell in St. Louis), Arlen determined to write a real blues number. He even went so far as to actually do some research on the matter. He came up with "Blues in the Night," Johnny Mercer came up with that imperishable lyric ("my mama done tol' me, when I was in knee-pants. . .") and we had what remains on the short list of great American songs.

And not only that: Arlen and Mercer came up with another instant winner, an especially lovely ballad of love lost called "This Time the Dream's on Me." There are also two nifty if forgotten rhythm numbers, "Says Who? Says You, Says I!" and "Hang on to Your Lids, Kids." The main event, though, is "Blues in the Night," which is introduced a cappella by William Gillespie and is recurrent through the film. A jazz quintet, led by Richard Whorf at the piano and managed by clarinetist Elia Kazan, scrimps and scrapes and rides the rails in order to play their new-style music. They are taken under the sponsorship of small-time gangster Lloyd Nolan, who puts them up in a little joint he has in New Jersey. His partner is Howard da Silva, two years before he came East to play Jud Fry in Oklahoma! Oh, yeah, there are a couple of dames mixed up in it, Priscilla Lane and Betty Field; the latter was an Abbott comedienne in such plays as "Room Service" and "What a Life," which took her to Hollywood. She had her best role as Georgina Allerton in the 1945 play "Dream Girl," which was written and directed by her husband Elmer Rice. Blues in the Night [Warner], as the film was retitled as soon as the execs heard the song, is somewhat minor but eminently watchable. It is based on what they term "a play by Edwin Gilbert," although this seems to have been an unproduced opus (or perhaps merely a treatment). Kazan is in some places mentioned as an uncredited co-author, and his showy role — that of a bright and eager young law student with music in his veins, tied (by telephone) to his ever-lovin' mama — seems to be self-created. The film holds up well enough, even for those who don't care about those great songs, and the DVD has been outfitted with the usual interesting bonuses. In this case, there is a 1942 Oscar-nominated short about jazz musicians called "Jammin' the Blues," which offers a rare glimpse at authentic blues musicians of the time (Lester Young, Red Callender, Barney Kessell and more, with a vocal by Marie Bryant). Also on tap are three vintage cartoons. Remember Daffy Duck croonin' "my mama done tol' me," with Porky Pig in hot pursuit? Here 'tis.

(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.)