February 20, 2013

A Great DVD Set for Musicals Lovers

The folks at Warner Bros. emailed to ask me if I’d be interested in receiving and reviewing their new DVD box set of movie musicals. I get offers like this a lot and I tend not to respond because I don’t want B&Me to become a shill for companies that can afford to pay for their own advertising.  But this offer was too good for any lover of theater or movie musicals to ignore. For the “Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Musicals,” issued as part of the studio’s 90th anniversary celebration, brings together 20 of the top movie musicals of all time.  

And that’s not an exaggeration. Warner Bros. produced the first feature-length talkie in 1927 and it was a musical, “The Jazz Singer,” starring Al Jolson. Over the next 60 years, Warners released such classics as “42nd Street,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “The Wizard of Oz,” ”Singin in the Rain,” “A Star is Born,” “Cabaret”, “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Hairspray.”

My technical knowledge of DVDs could be packed into a sewing thimble with room to spare so I can’t say much about the aspect ratio, resolution, sound quality or any of those terms that techno buffs toss around, except to say that the movies I checked out looked and sounded OK to me.

However I can say that most of the titles in the set are as evocative for me as a madeleine was for Proust. I spent hours watching James Cagney’s portrayal of master showman George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” because it was a standby on the old “Million Dollar Movie” series that used to air repeat showings of one film for a week when I was a kid.  And I still got a kick out of watching the jaunty Cagney perform his distinctively stiff-legged dance numbers, including the title song and Cohan's signature "Give My Regards to Broadway."


Similarly, I have seen every incarnation of “A Star is Born” (including the 1976 remake with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson) but there is no besting the  1954 version of this showbiz morality story with Judy Garland and James Mason (although I can’t figure out why the set producers left out all the great extras that are on the disc already in my DVD library).

Meanwhile, the movie version of John Kander & Fred Ebb’s Cabaret, which two friends and I enjoyed so much when we first saw it that we stayed for a second showing (which movie theaters used to be more tolerant of) is slightly different from the staged version but just as terrific and showcases Liza Minnelli at the top of her game. Plus its disc includes several featurettes including one in which Minnelli and her co-stars Joel Grey and Michael York reminisced in 1997 about the making of the movie and the genius of their director Bob Fosse.

It was great to make some discoveries too. I’d never seen “Broadway Melody,” which like so many of the films in the set is a backstage musical.  It opens with a cacophonous scene that recreates the music rooms of Tin Pan Alley where songwriters hawked their ware to publishers and producers, signaling right from the start that this movie is going to be a loud-and-proud musical. The film’s not-so-subtle “nancy boy” jokes made me flinch but it was sweet to see how fleshy chorus girls used to be.  

The entire 20-disc set is just $70 on Amazon.com, which is a bargain when you consider that watching these films, particularly if you do it sequentially, is like taking a course in the history of movie musicals, where almost everyone involved deserves an A.

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