THE DVD SHELF: "Brief Encounter," "Vanya on 42nd Street," "A Night to Remember," Fred Astaire, "Car 54"

By Steven Suskin
22 Apr 2012

Cover art for "The Sky's the Limit"

RKO's 1943 Fred Astaire-vehicle The Sky's the Limit [Warner Archive] remains largely unknown, and not without reason. This is the Gingerless Fred, looking overaged and uncomfortable before his career reestablished itself. Overaged in that he is playing a WW2 flying hero on leave, and at 42 seems old enough to be father to most of his buddies. (His romantic interest is played by Joan Leslie, who had just turned 18.) This is also Fred with a serious twinge; his character is melancholy, or at least relatively so, and not too happy. But no matter.

No matter because of one intriguing sequence. Which leads us to discussion of the songs. This was not a musical, not in the Astaire sense; merely three songs, by the extra-special team of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer (who had established their joint pedigree with the 1941 "Blues in the Night"). The big ballad in "The Sky's the Limit" is an especially good one, "My Shining Hour." There is also an all-but-unknown comedy turn, "A Lot in Common with You."

But the showpiece comes late in the story, with Fred in his cups after a night of drinking with Robert Benchley. Benchley leaves Fred alone with bartender Joe, who's getting kinda anxious to close, and out pours the second great Arlen-Mercer blues classic, "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)." Why Fred is so upset, I can't tell you; not exactly derived from the story, or what there is of it. But he is. The camera follows him to a second saloon and a third, still singin' away. Finally, Fred jumps up on the bar and does an angry, drunken dance; the choreographer-within-him no doubt wondered what would happen if he put a lot of glasses up there and just started kicking them to smithereens, rhythmically. And the big bar mirror, too. How long for them to restore the set after each take, I wonder?



So here's Fred Astaire unlike you've ever seen him. For Gene Kelly fans, Warner Archive has simultaneously released a similarly obscure companion piece: the 1947 MGM comedy "Living in a Big Way." Gene dances with a dog in this one — "Fido and Me" is the song — but I don't think I'll bite.

*

Cover art for "Car 54, Where Are You?: The Complete Second Season"

Last April, the first season of the revered sitcom "Car 54, Where Are You?" was unexpectedly foisted on the market. Those unfamiliar with Officers Toody and Muldoon — Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne, that is — you can find my review here.  Now we have the final 30 episodes of this ridiculously enjoyable comedy from Nat Hiken (of "Bilko" fame), Car 54, Where Are You?: The Complete Second Season [Shanachie]. Fifteen hours (less commercial time), plus — as a bonus — what they call "Joe E. Ross' Stand Up Comedy Come Back Audition." Guest stars include Molly Picon, Larry Storch, Mitch Miller, Shari Lewis, Margaret Hamilton, Tom Bosley, and middleweight champions Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano and Sugar Ray Robinson. But the eagle-eyed viewer will find dozens of up-and-coming or already-arrived New York actors, including Jack Gilford, Hal Linden, Godfrey Cambridge, Jean Stapleton, Charles Nelson Reilly, Jules Munshin, and even Larry Hart's kid brother Teddy.

(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 also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

*

Visit PlaybillStore.com to check out theatre-related DVDs for sale.