Musicals on DVD I

Reviews by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2007)

Alexander's Ragtime Band (20th Century Fox)

This is the way all classic screen musicals should be released on DVD! Along with a first-rate remastering of the picture and sound, we get an informative commentary track by film restorationist Ray Fiola, three fascinating deleted numbers, A&E's Biography of Alice Faye, and Movietone newsreel footage, as well as the usual trailer.  In other words, you get a lot more for your buck than just the film, which is packed with great Irving Berlin songs, mostly performed with tons of style and talent. Faye and Tyrone Power are excellent as the battling romantic leads, Don Ameche and Jack Haley are charming sidekicks, and young Ethel Merman is a vocal knockout. (Be sure to catch her sensational cut solo "Time Marches On," complete with a long signature belt note.) Well worth owning!

An American in Paris (WB/Turner)

The original DVD release was a major disappointment with no additional features, but a new edition has commentary, first rate remastered picture and sound -- the works. The film is still a cavalcade of great moments, with my personal favorite being when "By Strauss" sets all habitu├ęs of a Parisian cafe into musical motion. A classic musical, it deserved this upgraded DVD package.

Astaire & Rogers Collection

It took an unconscionably long time for the Astaire-Rogers films to get to DVD. The first volume of this set included some extremely well made documentaries -- the second volume limits its special features to cartoons and studio shorts. The good news is that the films are still wonderfully entertiaining and all of the restorations in this set are superb, with crystal clear visuals and greatly improved sound. Each has memorable numbers written by some of the greatest songwriters ever -- Berlin, Kern, Dorothy Fields, the Gershwins. And few could present a song as stylishly as Astaire and Rogers. If you only know these landmark films from scratchy late night reruns, these DVDs will be a revelation.

The Band Wagon (WB/Turner)

A must-have in every musical buff's video collection! The film  has been handsomely restored, and along with an engaging commentary by Michael Feinstein and Liza Minnelli, whose father directed the film with exceptional style. There is an entire second disk of special features, including two documentaries, the lost number "Two-Faced Woman," and a vintage Jack Buchanan musical short. Betty Comden and Adolph Green's screenplay offers a hilarious look at backstage tensions in a Broadway-bound musical. The Schwartz-Dietz score includes such treasures as "Dancing in the Dark," "By Myself," the comic classic "Triplets" and the song that became the Freed unit's trademark, "That's Entertainment." And when Fred Astaire and Jack Buchanan don top hats and tails to perform "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan," the result is one of the most achingly stylish numbers ever captured on film. A superb packaging for one of MGM's best.

Beauty and the Beast - (Disney)

Platinum Edition

Disney redefined the art of animated features with this film, and the second DVD release offers plenty of special material to feast on. In particular, this two disc set includes the "unfinished" print shown at the NY Film Festival -- giving a thrilling insider's glimpse at how scenes are developed from sketches to fully realized animation. There are games included for the kids -- be warned that few DVD players can handle all of the graphics, making one game almost impossible to play. Most of Disney's "Platinum Editions" are just an overblown excuse to get the public to re-buy films they own already, but this one definitely offers enough to make the investment worthwhile.

Blueray Edition

The latest excuse to make fans shall out fresh bucks has a few interesting features, including an excellent new documentary on how this film was made, and an option to watch the full film in an early animatics format.  But I cannot honestly say that Blueray technology does much to improve the appearance of the finished film versus the previous DVD release.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (Disney)

The "30th Anniversary Edition" DVD release includes no commentary and only one really interesting feature -- the "Portobello Road" recording session with David Tomlinson. However, by all means indulge yourself. Angela Lansbury gives her best musical film performance as an apprentice witch whomagically thwarts a Nazi invasion of England during World War II. There is a charming and underestimated Sherman Brothers score, super Disney pre-computer age special effects, and a seamless blend of live film and animation in the fantasy sequences. This was a worthy successor to Mary Poppins, and never not get the praise it deserved. Great fun!

Bells Are Ringing (WB/Turner)

Some fun special features make this DVD a tempting choice for collectors. The soundtrack has been nicely remastered, and along with a new "making of" featurette, we get outtake numbers and an alternate take of "The Midas Touch." Judy Holliday recreates her Tony-winning performance as an answering service operator who cannot help getting mixed up in the lives of her clients, and Dean Martin is perfect as the handsome playwright she falls in love with. The last musical filmed by MGM's now legendary Freed unit, Bells may not be a bona fide classic, but it is still a solid pleasure to watch and hear it again.

Bernadette Peters in Concert (Acorn)

A little slice of heaven for musical theatre lovers! Bernadette Peters appears live at the London Palladium singing 23 numbers -- mostly Sondheim, but her signature rendition of Herman's "Time Heals Everything" is happily included. Marvin Laird conducts the Orchestra of London, and its all a sophisticated treat. The "special features" are of the useless variety -- a song index, a brief bio of Peters, etc. This DVD is all about the performance, and a glorious performance it is.

The Best of Broadway Musicals (Good Times/Sofa)

Many great musicals and stage stars made appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. A dozen such moments are preserved on this DVD. Highlights include Celeste Holm's still-definitive "I Cain't Say No" from Oklahoma, Julie Andrews and Richard Burton singing "What Do the Simple Folk Do" from Camelot, Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert in the "Tonight" scene from West Side Story, Pearl Bailey and the full cast of Hello Dolly  in "Before the Parade Passes By" . . . there is a lot of wonderful viewing here. Since the clips cover more than a decade, the picture quality varies a bit, but all these clips are taken from the best archival copies, giving us a fresh chance to relish performances that otherwise survive only on cast recordings and in fading memories. If you love musicals and can find a copy of this DVD, grab it!

Brigadoon (WB/Turner)

This film always gets a bum rap because it was filmed inside MGM soundstages and not on location, but there is much to enjoy when the likes of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse are dancing their way through a classic Lerner and Loewe musical. The score is well served, and the DVD release lets us enjoy the film in its full wide screen version. No special features, but this disc is worth seeing if it comes your way..

Broadway: The Golden Age (RCA/BMG)

Filmmaker Rick McKay interviewed every theatrical legend he could get in front of a camera, and from hundreds of hours of interviews he has gleaned this engrossing look at Broadway's lost golden age. Anyone with an interest in theatre is going to love seeing this parade of beloved legend share their memories of times and performances gone by. A particular treat is a moving tribute to actress Laurette Taylor, which includes a rarely seen and mesmerizing video of her in action. Added features include a generous amount of additional footage and a tempting preview of McKay's next project, Broadway: The Next Generation.

Broadway Melody (WB/Turner)

This clunker was the first talkie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture? Yikes! A silly backstage romance, ponderous performances and uneven early sound technology make this less film than ideal viewing, but the landmark score by Freed & Brown includes some wonderful songs, and the DVD edition offers a small but choice selection of hard-to-find vintage musical shorts. Most notable are the short spoof "Dogway Melody" and some clowning by vaudeville legends Van & Schenck. This may be of some interest to serious students of the genre, but I think a film this historic deserved a commentary track or at the very least a background documentary. Your call.

Calamity Jane (WB/Turner)

Warner Brothers tried to emulate MGM's Freed Unit here, with mixed results. Doris day is a lot of fun as the title character, who must leave behind her beloved buckskins and six-shooters if she is to capture the heart of hunky Howard Keel. It is a blatant rip-off of Annie Get Your Gun, but that is no sin in Hollywood. The Sammy Fain-Paul Francis Webster score includes the hit ballad "Secret Love," but otherwise rarely rises above the pleasant. There is no commentary, and the special features are limited to a few newsreels and useless production notes. Not filmed in widescreen.

Call Me Madam (20th Century Fox)

If you can find a copy of this DVD, treat yourself to Ethel Merman at her peak. This is one of only two times that Merm got to recreate one of her stage roles on the big screen, and her 1936 version of Anything Goes is not nearly as much fun as this first rate adaptation. The sound and picture have been handsomely restored, so we can relish great performances by Donald O'Connor, Vera Ellen and some amazingly good singing by George Sanders -- yes, he most certainly did his own singing. That wonderful comic actor Billy DeWolfe is on hand as a persnickety diplomat who gets the full Merman treatment. Historian Miles Kreuger provides detailed, fascinating commentary, and the original trailers have been thrown in. As soon as Ethel smiles a mile wide and belts out "Hostess With the Mostest," you'll know you're home. A joyous musical lovers feast!

Camelot (Acorn)

Originally broadcast on HBO in 1983, this version is the best Camelot on video to date, which, I admit, is not saying too much. Skip owning the dreadful big screen version, all copies of which should be stored on Pluto to prevent contamination of the human race. In this TV adaptation, one still has to suffer the painfully self-indulgent performance of Richard Harris, whose numbers had to be re-dubbed after the taping, with predictably clumsy looking results. On the other hand, we also get a lavish stage presentation of the full show, with the divine Meg Bussert as Guenevere and Richard Muenz at his sexy baritone best as Lancelot. Alan Jay Lerner made some revisions to the libretto for this revival, turning most of the action into a flashback. Lerner & Loewe fans will want this one, and students of musical theatre performance will be fascinated to watch Bussert & Muenz sing and act rings around their creaky co-star.

Back to: Musicals on DVD Index