This box set offers entertaining proof that MGM made the best musicals during the Golden Age of Hollywood. These five movies, presented with a mixed bag of extras, are so pleasurable that chapter-skipping to the musical numbers isn’t even necessary.
The “Ziegfeld Follies of 1946” reps the best of the lot thanks to its audaciously plotless revue format, which almost seems made with DVD in mind. In these highly varied vignettes, a surreal version of “La Traviata” follows an Esther Williams ballet in an underwater netherworld, and darkly funny vaudeville sketches with Fanny Brice and Red Skelton precede a remarkable Fred Astaire-Gene Kelly pairing. Besides trailers, the extras include Tom & Jerry cartoons, short subjects, brief but illuminating “making-of” docus, and, of most interest to fans, several deleted sequences.
These outtakes are sound-only, reportedly because a warehouse fire destroyed the footage long ago; collectors should note the 1994 laserdisc edition had many more of these audio bits. But at least one can hear three of the potentially fascinating segments that did not survive the final cut, including an intricate composition Fred Astaire wrote for himself called “If Swing Goes, I Go Too.”
The other productions are less imaginative but still highly enjoyable. “Till the Clouds Roll By” purports to tell the life story of composer Jerome Kern, but boasts many of the same artists in front of and behind the camera as the Follies project. The great Kern songs get the royal Metro treatment, but the highlight is the postmodern oratorio finale (directed by George Sidney), which climaxes with Frank Sinatra singing “Ol’ Man River” in a white tuxedo. Outtakes include a charming tableau from “Music in the Air,” with Kathryn Grayson and Johnnie Johnston as Tyrolian lovers, and a strange circus set-piece with Judy Garland courted by two creepy clowns.
“Three Little Words” also boasts catchy tunes and a fine cast (including Astaire and Skelton as Tin Pan Alley composers Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby), but it rarely rises above the level of smooth competence. On the other hand, “Summer Stock,” the film in which Judy Garland performs “Get Happy,” gives a surprisingly stylish twist to the “let’s-put-on-a-show-in-a-barn” plot.
Finally, “It’s Always Fair Weather”, which signaled the end of Hollywood’s original musical comedy output, reps an unofficial sequel to “On the Town,” again starring Kelly and again co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen. The refreshingly clever use of split widescreen compensates for the tamely cynical spoof of Madison Avenue commercialism, and the outtakes are a special treat: They include a goofy backstage duet with Kelly and Cyd Charisse, and “Jack and the Space Giants,” a bravura showcase for choreographer Michael Kidd, who had his only major feature film role in “It’s Always Fair Weather.”