THE DVD SHELF: Meryl Streep in "Mamma Mia!," and Buster Keaton's "The General"

THE DVD SHELF: Meryl Streep in "Mamma Mia!," and Buster Keaton's "The General" This month's column discusses the blockbuster film version of Mamma Mia!, starring Meryl Streep; and a meticulous new restoration of Buster Keaton's 1926 classic, "The General."
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Mamma Mia! opened on Broadway Oct. 18, 2001, on the heels of the musical comedy juggernaut The Producers. Mel Brooks' brainchild opened to the most extravagantly ecstatic reviews in memory, with an advance sale in the neighborhood of $15,000,000 (which in those days was some neighborhood). The ABBA musical, which had already enjoyed enormous success in London — where it opened in April 1999 — ran up against decidedly mixed reviews, albeit with an advance in the neighborhood of $30,000,000. Yes, that's right; thirty millions, double the strength of the blockbuster Producers.

I wrote at the time: "It remains to be seen which show has stronger legs, The Producers or Mamma Mia!. Mamma Mia! seems likely to be the bigger bonanza, as it needs no stars and presumably has a sizably smaller payroll; it is highly suitable for non-English-speaking tourist, a distinct advantage in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and etcetera years of the run."

This forecast turned out to be on the money, though I suppose "in the hundreds of millions" might be more accurate. Bialystock and Bloom were hoist on their own petard, or on their own star casting; once Lane and Broderick moved out of their star dressing rooms, the box office bubble deflated. And what's more, that touristic advantage turned out to be golden. The Producers was built on jokes and puns, which did not translate to foreign languages (including non-Borscht Belt American, it seems). It turns out that Mamma Mia! did not have that "advantage in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and etcetera years of the run"; there was no contest, as The Producers took down the shingle after six years and three days.

Even so, The Producers was established within hours of its opening as the biggest Broadway hit in the history of whenever. I recall seeing a front page story from a newspaper in China; the real one, not some Chinatown or other. That, my friends, is a hit. A fat and lucrative movie deal was soon in the offing, and the movie version of the musical version of the movie "The Producers" came to the screen — complete with the original stars and the original trappings — in 2005. And quickly fizzled. Today, eight years after the openings of the two musicals, Mel Brooks' extravaganza is gone and relatively forgotten, with his stage version of Young Frankenstein — or, to be more properly legalistic, The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein — providing something of a bitter aftertaste. (Perhaps it's time for Mr. Brooks to remove his name from the title? Maybe his brainchild would have a better afterlife if he called it The New Rodgers & Hammerstein Musical Young Frankenstein? Or better yet, The New ABBA Musical Young Frankenstein?) Dollar for dollar, the cumulative Broadway receipts for The Producers totaled $288 million, while Mamma Mia! at present has exceeded $350 million. That ill-starred film version of "The Producers" grossed a shade over $19 million, while "Mamma" — which opened five and a half months ago — is presently at a shade under $145 million. Word now comes to us that the DVD of Mamma Mia! [Universal], on its first day of release (Dec. 16), grossed over $30 million. That's one day's worth of sales; one can only wonder how much they did the second day, and on towards Christmas.

All of which is to say that yes, Mamma Mia! — on stage and on screen — has far outperformed the critic's darling The Producers, for the simplest of reasons; it has more mass audience appeal, and offers more entertainment to the masses. Mr. Brooks and entourage earned a record-breaking assortment of awards, and for the most part deservedly so. But The Producers, after only seven years, seems to be a relic of the past, while older shows — like Gypsy, A Chorus Line, and Sweeney Todd — still resonate. Mamma Mia!, meanwhile continues to entertain a vast proportion of its audience. (If not the portion of the audience that includes me.)

As with "The Producers," the producers of the motion picture version of "Mamma Mia!" retained their stage director Phyllida Lloyd. No film experience, but it doesn't seem to have had an adverse effect. (Artistically, yes, but not at the box office.) Most wisely, they expanded their casting horizons by placing the estimable and esteemed Meryl Streep in the lead. They surely paid her a bundle, which turned out to be worth way more than the amount lavished on the Bialystock and Bloom of Lane and Broderick. Ms. Streep, who was last seen locally hauling Mother Courage's cart around the Delacorte, has demonstrated over the years that she can do just about anything. Thus, she offers no surprises here, at least not to those of us who remember her chirping away in her first major Broadway role (as Hallelujah Lil in Kurt Weill's Happy End, in 1977 at the playhouse formerly known as the Martin Beck). She does, certainly, brighten up the screen as Donna Sheridan. Ms. Streep is assisted by Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, who are equally adept leading ladies. If they all seem to be slumming on this particular gig with sand slipping out of their sandals, that's more or less the point of Mamma Mia!, isn't it?

Bonus features include a deleted number, "The Name of the Game"; a music video featuring "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!"; and commentary by Ms. Lloyd, who by now must be richer than even Susan Stroman (her counterpart from that Mel Brooks musical).

"Mamma Mia!" is no more distinguished on screen than on stage, but $525 million — which is to add up the Broadway, screen and DVD dollars so far — is a mighty convincing number. And that doesn't include the stage productions in London, Canada, and on tour across the world; or the additional millions this ABBA juggernaut has raked in since last week. To quote Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, that's a whole lot of "Money, Money, Money."

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Fans of Buster Keaton's 1926 classic The General [Kino] — and that must include just about anyone in today's audience who has seen it — have a treat in store for them, as Kino has now released what they are calling the "Ultimate 2 Disc Edition" of that marvelous comedic thrill ride. The new release, they tell us, has been "mastered in HD from a 35mm Archive print struck from the original camera negative." The results are pretty exceptional, given the usual condition of reissues of 80-year-old silents. Most of the existing releases of "The General" start with poor prints, which understandably diminish the film's impact. Here we have a film in near pristine condition, color tinting and all. Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton), his beloved but trying Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), and his even more beloved locomotive live again. Keep in mind, this was not some throwaway production using whatever sets and props were hanging around on the back lot. The Civil War was only 60-odd years back when Keaton made his film, the same vintage as a film about World War II would be today — meaning that at least some old-timers had lived through the time. Experts consider "The General" one of the most authentic visual reproductions of the War, often comparing it to Matthew Brady's contemporary photographs; so we are seeing something more than just canvas and tinsel.

Kino gives us not one nor two but three soundtracks, a theatre organ score by Lee Erwin and full scores by Carl Davis (my preference) and Robert Israel. There is a piece on the original General — the historic Civil War train, sitting around in a museum in Kennesaw, GA — and another describing the filming locations in Oregon. (Keaton's plans to film near Chattanooga were scuttled when his hosts discovered that he intended to make light of their hallowed rebellion.) Also included are introductions to the film by Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson — not together! — and a montage of train gags from Keaton's films.

Keaton and his "General" are priceless, and Kino has once again done right by one of the treasures in its archives. "Love, Locomotives & Laughs" say the original ads, and they sure got it right.

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