Never lovers and reportedly somewhat formal off-screen, Fred Astaire (1899-1987) and Ginger Rogers (1911-95) danced with splendiferous finesse together through 10 movie musicals – nine of them in gleaming black-and-white for RKO Radio and the 10th in color for MGM.
Five of the 10, including the two generally regarded as their best, have been packaged in a new DVD collection. To watch those two limber bodies and four dexterous feet glide, leap and whirl through some of the most imaginative choreography ever set to film is to appreciate the incredible energy and diligence that went into perfecting each number.
Most of the plots are standard boy meets girl, loses girl, boy woos girl back exercises. It’s not what Fred and Ginger do but how they do it.
Three of the five DVDs have audio commentaries; all have numerous other extras.
The single most salient point made on any of them is that because the heterosexual Astaire was slightly built, hardly rugged and ordinary looking by film star standards, the supporting actors cast in his movies tended to be, well, exceptionally non-threatening; Eric Blore, Eric Rhodes and Edward Everett Horton were recurring co-stars. Starlets Lucille Ball and Betty Grable were among the bit players.
All are unrated but G in nature.
“Top Hat” (1935)
– The second biggest hit of ’35 (behind “Mutiny on the Bounty”) and RKO’s biggest hit in the ’30s. Set against white art-deco sets, a hallmark of their films. Irving Berlin’s songs include “Cheek to Cheek,” “The Piccolino,” “Isn’t It a Lovely Day?” and the title number.
Note that though Astaire’s singing voice is light, he’s pitch perfect. Berlin later said he preferred Astaire, rather than any of the great singers, to introduce his songs. Commentary by daughter Ava Astaire McKenzie and the amusingly obsequious Larry Billman.
“Follow the Fleet” (1936)
Randolph Scott (a macho co-star exception) and Harriet Hilliard (Nelson) provide support as Astaire and Rogers cut rugs to Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” and “Let Yourself Go.”
“Swing Time” (1936)
With a Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields score (“Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance”), “Swing Time” rivals “Top Hat” as the dance team’s masterpiece. It was Rogers’ favorite of the 10. She was having a romance with director George Stevens and felt more valued in this one.
The film contains Astaire’s only blackface number, “Bojangles.” The DVD commentary by John Mueller is one of the most informative extant.
“Shall We Dance” (1937)
The George and Ira Gershwin score includes “They All Laughed,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Isn’t This a Night for Love?” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” DVD commentators Hugh Martin and Kevin Cole jabber too much over key moments instead of informing. Martin knocks Astaire’s later “Finian’s Rainbow” as “a terrible movie.”
“The Barkleys of Broadway” (1949)
Here the dancers are married from the start – a switch for them; they do break up temporarily. They reprise “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” dancing to it this time. Pittsburgh native pianist-personality Oscar Levant hammers away at “Saber Dance.” Astaire just about levitates to “Shoes With Wings On.” Judy Garland was to have starred opposite Astaire, but when Garland became ill MGM paired Rogers with Astaire for the last time.
“I Love Lucy” (Season Five)
Unrated but G in nature; 1955-56
The sheer perfection of the performances and the very considerable invention of the scripts makes the first five seasons (and parts of the sixth) imperishable.
The 26 episodes of Season Five wrap up the Ricardos’ Hollywood trip, include a brief respite in New York and quickly move on to the complete European trip.
Although the season includes probably the weakest episode ever (the dream-sequence show called “Lucy Goes to Scotland”), it’s loaded with gems: “Lucy and John Wayne” (the corrupted boot print from Grauman’s Chinese Theater), “Lucy Meets Charles Boyer,” “Lucy Gets a Paris Gown” and two of the best, “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (the grape stomping) and “Return Home From Europe” (the 25-pound cheese disguised as a baby on the plane).
Note the hilarious interaction of Duke Wayne and William Frawley (as Fred Mertz) in “Lucy and John Wayne” and bear in mind they had co-starred a decade earlier in the films “The Fighting Seabees” (1944) and “Flame of Barbary Coast” (1945). But then, Lucille Ball had co-starred with William Holden and Van Johnson before they turned up as “I Love Lucy” guest stars.
“My Left Foot” (Miramax Collector’s Series)
Rated R; 1989
One of the most deserved Oscar winners was Daniel Day-Lewis’ uncompromisingly angry portrayal of real-life artist-author Christy Brown, who was born in Dublin “with some complications” – really, cerebral palsy – and regarded initially as a half wit, a vegetable and an idiot.
Ray McAnally, as his irascible working-class father, has a boundless need to control by force or intimidation.
A scene much more potent than a comparable one in “The Miracle Worker” occurs when McNally grasps that his son is a thinking, functioning person and gasps “Jesus! Jesus Sufferin’ Christ!” and carries him to a neighborhood pub drunk with exhilaration.
A scene in a restaurant involving Fiona Shaw as a therapist, who inadvertently attracts Christy’s ardor, evolves like no other.
Played as a boy by Hugh O’Conor and from 17-40 by Day-Lewis, Christy can move only his left foot but uses it to create a distinctive life.
The new DVD includes featurettes on the real Brown and on the film.
Rated R; 2005
Perhaps the most profitable of all purely stylized movies.
Director Robert Rodriguez credits Frank Miller as co-director in this thoroughly nihilistic film realization of three Miller graphic novels, “The Yellow Bastard,” “The Big Fat Kill” and “The Hard Goodbye.”
The loosely linked stories push film noir into a seemingly post-apocalyptic netherworld of low-lifes, sickos and despondent loners.
Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Michael Madsen and Clive Owen are among actors playing guys who wade through vermin and sometimes become one with it.
The DVD contains a behind-the-scenes featurette.