John Barton, who co-founded the Royal Shakespeare Company with Peter Hall in 1960, has spent decades studying, teaching and directing the works of William Shakespeare. In 1982, Barton assembled 21 RSC members for nine master classes that were filmed and eventually telecast in 1984. These have now been issued in a four-DVD set under the title Playing Shakespeare [Athena/ITV/Acorn], and they will certainly open the eyes of anyone interested in Shakespeare (and especially actors, directors and the like) and/or the craft of acting. What we get is eight or so hours with Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, David Suchet, Alan Howard, Sinead Cusack, Jane Lapotaire, Roger Rees, Donald Sinden, Peggy Ashcroft and more. Among the highlights are one episode centering on Twelfth Night, with Ms. Dench among the participants; and another in which Mr. Stewart and Mr. Suchet work, individually, on Shylock. This one is a treat, all right, and comes with a 16-page viewer's guide geared to classroom study.
Standing high among last year's Oscar parade was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" [Criterion], which received an impressive 13 nominations (taking three of the statuettes). "Benjamin Button" is by any standards a strikingly original film; director David Fincher offers provocative entertainment with lightning-flash glimpses of eighty years-worth of Americana (from Armistice Day in 1918 through Hurricane Katrina). Fincher and his screenwriter, Eric Roth unspool their cavalcade in two directions at once; their opening sequence tells of a train station clock which runs backwards. (That Mr. Roth wrote the screenplay for "Forrest Gump" is perhaps a hint to the nature of this film.) While the whole thing doesn't quite add up — or perhaps adds up to too much — it certainly can mesmerize the viewer for the nearly three-hour length. Brad Pitt plays the title character through much of the film, and effectively so. He is supported by Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Taraji P. Henson and numerous other actors who sketch memorable portrayals. Theatre fans will be interested in seeing that one of the main characters herein dances the role of Louise in the original 1945 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel. Mr. Pitt goes to see it at the Majestic, festooned with the artwork from the original production. While this Majestic is located directly across the street from the St. James, it is also next to the Barrymore which is across from the Globe. Which is to say, this is simply a Majestic on a movie set somewhere. Even so, it's nice to see the beach ballet of Carousel — and the leading lady's participation as a dancer in same — play a major part in this major motion picture. Let it be added that "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" has been released in three editions: a single-DVD edition from Paramount, the "Two-Disc Special Edition" from the Criterion Collection, and a Blu-Ray version from Paramount. The differences between the three are not readily apparent. The film quality and bonuses of the two-disc review copy is very much up to the high standards of Criterion: A joy to watch and a joy to have on the shelf for repeat visits.
Two Samuel Goldwyn musicals have also come along. A Song Is Born [M-G-M] features Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo in a 1948 remake of the 1941 Howard Hawks classic "Ball of Fire." Hawks himself was on hand to redraft the story. The burlesque queen who takes refuge in a house of professors (who are compiling an encyclopedia) becomes a nightclub singer taking refuge in a house of musicologists (who are compiling a musical encyclopedia). Danny Kaye is Danny Kaye, and the music is jazz (with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey leading the musical contingent). Fans of Kaye and fans of '40s jazz will find plenty to like, but I certainly miss Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. And screenwriter Billy Wilder, needless to say.
It is safe to describe the 1938 extravaganza The Goldwyn Follies [M-G-M] as a hodgepodge. The Ziegfeld Follies was still very much a powerful title, with two successful editions on Broadway and the road in the mid-1930s; Sam Goldwyn presumably figured that he could boost the allure of this typical backstage — or rather back soundstage — story by naming it after himself. Instead, the grandiose moniker might have served to make the film look even weaker than it was. Coming from Broadway — and, in fact, from Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 — were choreographer George Balanchine, composer Vernon Duke, and lyricist Ira Gershwin. The similarity ends there, though. Balanchine also brought along Broadway ballerina Vera Zorina (his soon-to-be-wife, for a while); the Balanchine/Zorina/Duke ballets are interesting, at least. The score was credited to George and Ira Gershwin. This is what George was working on when he started developed the blindingly painful headaches that turned out to be an inoperable brain tumor; he died on July 11, 1937, six months before the film was released. Four Gershwin-Gershwin songs were used, including "Love Walked In" and the imperishable "Our Love Is Here to Stay." As a viewing experience, "The Goldwyn Follies" is hard-going; Ms. Zorina and Edgar Bergen (with Charlie McCarthy) are the highspots, along with some eye-opening visuals courtesy of one of Technicolor's early feature-length forays. (Steven Suskin is author of "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" as well as "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)