THE DVD SHELF: Marilyn Miller in "Sally" & "Sunny," Plus Branagh's "Hamlet" and Victor/Victoria

The DVD Shelf   THE DVD SHELF: Marilyn Miller in "Sally" & "Sunny," Plus Branagh's "Hamlet" and Victor/Victoria We screen the almost astonishing appearance of Marilyn Miller in two Jerome Kern musicals from the 1920s, "Sally" and "Sunny"; the Blu-ray release of Broadway's "Victor/Victoria" starring Julie Andrews; and Kenneth Branagh's full-length "Hamlet."

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The Broadway musical, as we know, is ephemeral; once the final curtain falls and they send the set off to the place where all good sets go, you're simply not going to see that production no more. A revival, maybe; but the original show, with the original star, is gone. And let's not talk about Carol or Yul or Joel Grey coming back 25 or 30 years later. Not the same thing.

Technology has caught up with Broadway to some extent; original cast albums record the way the show sounded, of course, and in the past decades we've had filmed versions and taped versions and video versions and the like, allowing us to get an idea just what such and such looked like. But this is recent. Where are the stars of yesteryear? How were they on the stage? Performances of the '40s are remembered by the relatively few that saw them; the earlier you get, the less memories remain. I have a friend who conscientiously started going to musicals as a lad in 1924, so he remembers pretty much something about everything. But he is in his late 90s. There are not many who can tell you about the early Gershwin and Rodgers musicals, or the late Kern or Ziegfeld musicals. Or about the Astaire shows, and the Jolson shows, and the fabled Marilyn Miller.

Marilyn Miller. She was a Ziegfeld discovery, a singing and dancing ballerina who excelled in musical comedy. One of the highest paid stage performers of her time, and a perfect joy; perfect talent, perfect beauty, and apparently perfectly earthy. Mary Ellen was her name when she was appearing in vaudeville for the Shuberts; she decided to combine Mary with the name of her mother, Lynn, figuring it would look better on the marquee than Mary Miller. Her immense fame — she was one of the queens of testimonial advertising in the '20s — launched the name Marilyn to great popularity. (One of her boyfriends, and there were many, was actor Ben Lyons. Ten years after Miller's early death, Lyons — now a Hollywood agent — found a young blonde hopeful. Figuring that she was as beautiful as Marilyn Miller, he changed her name from Norma Jean Dougherty — nee Mortenson — to Marilyn Monroe.)

At any rate, Miller attained stardom in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918, holding her own against Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields and Will Rogers. She starred in two big Jerome Kern musicals, Sally (1920) and Sunny (1926); Gershwin's Rosalie (1928); Youmans' Smile (1930), co-starring Adele and Fred Astaire; and Berlin's As Thousands Cheer (1933). She died, under mysterious circumstances, in 1936 at the age of 37. The biggest Broadway star of her time, perhaps, and — due to the ephemeral nature of things — all but forgotten. She made three movies, in the early days of talkies: filmed reductions of "Sally" (made in 1929) and "Sunny" (1930), plus a somewhat baffling 1931 affair called "Her Majesty Love" — which, given a sudden glut of musicals, was made with most of the songs deleted. (Miller did bring along her Ziegfeld co-stars Fields and Leon Errol, as well as the above-mentioned Lyon as romantic interest.) "Her Majesty Love" has been seen over the years, infrequently (though frequently enough), but this unfunny drawing-room comedy doesn't present much of an idea of Marilyn. The "Sally" and "Sunny" films quickly disappeared and were long thought lost. "Sally" was reassembled in 1990 or so, and has just now been made available from warnerarchive.com. That's the video-on-demand site stocking hundreds of rarely seen items that are not otherwise available on DVD. So here is the great Marilyn Miller, adored by so many but out of view 70-odd years, on the screen for our delectation.

"Sally" is not a great film, certainly, and it is but a vague version of the stage musical. (Only two of the original songs remain, "Look for the Silver Lining" and "Wild Rose." The rest of the score is non-Kern Hollywood fodder; they even cut Kern's title song for a new one from Joe Burke and Al Dubin.) But what we get is Marilyn Miller, dancing and singing and clowning. I expected her to be a fine dancer (by 1920s standards), an adequate singer and pretty much charming. This assessment is reasonably correct; I did not expect, though, for her to be funny. And low-down, if you will. Miller started in vaudeville, and we see her clowning around somewhat raucously. Along with her ballet-oriented style, there is plenty of good old-fashioned show dancing, and eccentric dancing, and places where she might swing a leg and knock over her unsuspecting dance partner. So what we get is Marilyn Miller brought to life, in a way that we never expected to see. One could, I suppose, compare her to Gwen Verdon or — more precisely — Sandy Duncan. Miller's style is very different, needless to say; but there is that same ready-for-anything glint in the eye, along with a sense that she knows she is there to make fun of herself and share the joke with us. An even better comparison might be to Fred Astaire; there is that high level of talent, immense likability, unassuming comic sense, and an unexceptional singing voice that gets by nicely.

What makes "Sally" even more astounding comes along about an hour into the film. Marilyn is performing "Wild Rose," a lively production number in which she dances with 24 boys. (During one part of the refrain she seems to be locked, arm-in-arm, with eight at a time, a step which I've never seen anything like. Larry Ceballos is the credited choreographer for the film, along with Albertina Rasch for the ballets; my guess is that this dance might be carried over from the stage version — which could, indeed, have been the uncredited work of Ceballos.) At any rate, midway through the "Wild Rose" number the print slips into full, vibrant (if primitive) color. Turns out that "Sally" was filmed in Technicolor; it is said to be the third all-color talking picture ever made. The color version is long vanished, leaving only a black and white copy; but this small section of color footage — just over three minutes, with a few spots where damaged film has been replaced by sepia-toned black & white — has been rescued, restored, and inserted into the print.

So just when we've figured, "ah, here finally is Marilyn Miller, this is what she must have been like," along she comes — after an hour — in full color. And we get a jolt; this is the real Marilyn Miller! Imagine; the big Broadway hit of the 1920-21 season, and we get — for three minutes, at least — to see, and understand, her magic.

Miller is supported by comedian Joe E. Brown, who is still reasonably funny; leading man Alexander Gray, who is pretty old-fashioned for my taste; and soubrette Pert Kelton, who 30 years later played Marian the Librarian's mother in The Music Man on stage and screen. Kelton was also the original Alice Kramden of "The Honeymooners," hastily replaced due to the blacklist.

Warnerarchive brings us, along with "Sally," a separate release of "Sunny." This was the happy stage reunion of Miller and Kern, this time with book and lyrics by the new team of Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II. A similarly major success, the show — as best we can tell — was somewhat inferior. This is borne out in the film, although the weaknesses of the latter stem not just from the script but from poor filmmaking. The charm and magic of Miller in "Sally" is missing from "Sunny"; the movie musical form, after three years of talkies, was already in a temporary decline and things look pretty sloppy. Marilyn gets to sing her hit from the show, "Who?" She also performs the big "Hunt Dance," galloping around in a circle with a riding crop; this is presumably copied from the stage version, and pretty strange. Other stage songs are used as background music; Kern and H&H wrote one new song for the occasion, "I Was Alone," which does not have the distinction of the other songs Kern was writing at the time.

If Warner had only rescued and restored "Sunny," we might say — well, at least we finally get to see something of Marilyn Miller. Thanks to "Sally," though, we get a good sense of what made this biggest Broadway star of the '20s shine. What a happy surprise!

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Victor/Victoria was roundly and loudly dismissed when it arrived at the Marquis Theatre on Oct. 25, 1995. Those that found the affair an expensive mass of mediocrity might be so disposed to dismiss the video version of the show, which has just been released on Blu-ray by Image Entertainment. But hold on, not so fast; I found watching the disc interesting and thought-provoking.

Yes, Victor/Victoria was on the far side of mediocre; a team of Broadway outsiders (namely the director/librettist, composer and producers) seemingly came in determined to push their ticket-selling superstar — Julie Andrews — own the audience's throat. They put together a show that was glaringly wrong; I expect that experienced friends of the court offered helpful advice, which was blithely and foolishly ignored. A few elements were perfectly fine — beginning with the heroically valiant Ms. Andrews. And the material was dressed in a first class, spare-no-expense production from the likes of set designer Robin Wagner and costume designer Willa Kim. But oh that material! And oh those songs!

Blake Edwards, the skillful Hollywood farce director, deserves credit for the delicious 1982 motion picture "Victor/Victoria," a fine idea impeccably done. A stage version might well have worked, but Edwards was clearly not the man to write it, direct it, or pull the producorial strings. Bad ideas abound, typified by the overuse of a massive, two-sided duplex set representing adjacent hotel suites. Four distinct playing areas worked well for Edward's big door-slamming farcical chase scene at the climax, yes; but for endless stretches we were forced to look at all four areas, even when Julie or someone was singing a solo in one of the upstairs bedrooms. And the score! The film included six songs by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse, two of them perfectly satisfactory. The musical needed 15, some by Mancini (who died prior to rehearsals) and others by Frank Wildhorn. These included two of the worst songs I've ever heard on a Broadway stage, ever.

But let us address the video release. What we get is a well-reproduced example of a big-budget Broadway musical, circa 1995. The prime asset, not surprisingly, is Ms. Andrews as the woman playing the man playing the woman: out-of-work soprano Victoria instantly attains stardom when she trims her locks and acts the role of Victor, a Polish count who performs in drag. Andrews pulled it off — singing, dancing, acting, clowning, all of it, and looking pretty marvelous in the process. (Those familiar with Andrews from her recent movie roles will be surprised to see what she was capable of not so long ago, just as she turned 60.)

Next on the list of plusses, I suppose, should be the choreography by Rob Marshall and the work of his ensemble. No, this isn't a great musical and the material is subpar, but Marshall and his dancers seem to have chosen to pretend blissful ignorance. The "Le Jazz Hot" number, especially, is quite something, with Marshall paying homage to the late Bob Fosse. The rest of the cast? Well, they are doing their best. Anthony Roberts drew the role of Toddy, which was created in the film by Robert Preston. Consider the style, class, talent and show-biz flair of Bob Preston; now compare this to the style, class, talent and show-biz flair of Tony Roberts. And there, my friends, you have a pretty good image of what happened to Victor/Victoria in just about every department (save Ms. Andrews). Michael Nouri isn't James Garner, either, but he does somewhat better than Mr. Roberts in a role that is poorly written.

Speaking of poor writing, Rachel York is given ghastly material and direction to match; when Lesley Ann Warren did it in the movie it was funny. But I would place the blame on the director and writers, not the actress. Standing out in a relatively smaller role is Gregory Jbara, as the bodyguard Squash. Jbara has a keen sense of comedy; while the others are flailing and shouting and acting like they are being stalked by a pink panther, Jbara just stands around looking innocent until he is from time to time moved to lift an eyebrow and deliver a small line for a big laugh.

A poor show, yes, but Victor/Victoria on Blu-ray offers a look at the big-budget Broadway musical, circa 1995, and a lesson in film-to-stage adaptation as well.

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Time and space are short, but as I was about to finish this column in came the Blu-ray release of Kenneth Branagh's acclaimed 1996 motion picture version of Hamlet [Warner]. And not just another "Hamlet"; a full-length one, tipping the clock at four hours. Four hours and two minutes, to be exact. Which proved problematic upon the film's release; in spite of generally laudatory reviews, you couldn't get many showings in at the multiplex. Sitting at home, relishing the text and watching director Branagh and production designer Tim Harvey's richly ornate production on widescreen, "Hamlet" is something of a Shakespearean feast. With Blenheim Palace standing in for Elsinore.

Branagh plays the great Dane himself, naturally, with major support from Julie Christie as Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia and Derek Jacobi as Claudius. (Just before attaining stardom, Branagh toured in a 1988 production of Hamlet directed by Jacobi). By 1996, Branagh was true royalty — which enabled him to people his film "Hamlet" with more stars than "Around the World in Eighty Days " or "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." Billy Crystal and Simon Russell Beale as the Gravediggers? Robin Williams as Osric? The Player Queen and Player King in the persons of Rosemary Harris and Charlton Heston. By delving into the smaller roles and including visualizations of speeches delivered in the play, he also gives us cameos from John Gielgud, John Mills, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, Richard Attenborough, flashbacks and — why not? — Jack Lemmon.

The folks at Warner deliver "Hamlet" in Blu-ray Book format, the 36-page book including some fine photography (but no cast list). Special features include an introduction to "Hamlet" by Branagh and a piece called "To Be on Camera: A History with Hamlet" in which they make great use of all those cameo stars. Williams suggests that Hollywood would have forced Branagh to change the gloomy ending, Crystal talks about a "To Be or Not to Be" tap dance, and Mr. Heston says that he thinks Branagh will make a fine Hamlet. The piece delves not into the history of "Hamlet" or the history of "Hamlet" on film, but Branagh's history with the piece. Starting with the day he went, as a teenager, to see Jacobi playing the role — and on the instant decided to become an actor instead of a footballer.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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