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New Blu-ray release offers examples of what great musicals can be
Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dance the famous "Girl Hunters" spoof of private-eye melodramas in the classic musical "The Band Wagon," making its Blu-ray debut this week. - photo by Chris Hicks
This past holiday seasons movie offerings got a real boost from Into the Woods, a clever adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapines musical riff on childrens fairy tales. The PG-rated Into the Woods is dark (though the violence is off-camera), but its also funny and smart and filled with witty sequences.

Which is more than can be said for most other musicals from the past few years Annie, Jersey Boys, Les Miserables, Rock of Ages, Footloose, etc.

Except for Footloose, which is a remake of an original movie musical, these are all films that sprang from stage productions. And while the stage shows all have their merits, the movie versions were uniformly lacking. Whatever magic accompanies these shows live did not translate to film. (Or perhaps we need to start saying digitization instead of film, pixilation instead of celluloid.)

This is a situation I consider rather sad since musicals were once a welcome staple of the studio system from the 1930s through the early 1960s. So many of them were and still are so enjoyable.

Just dropping the names of some of the stars of that era can evoke wonderful memories of great films that are filled with delightful songs and engaging dances Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds, Donald OConnor, Doris Day, Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, Ann Miller, Bob Fosse.

And all of those folks appear in the new release Musicals: 4-Movie Collection (Warner/Blu-ray, 1952-53, four discs, four movies, 2-D and 3-D versions of Kiss Me Kate, audio commentaries, documentaries, featurettes, trailers, cartoons, short films).

The four movies are Kiss Me Kate, The Band Wagon and Calamity Jane, all from 1953 and all making their Blu-ray debuts, along with the 1952 film that is widely hailed as the greatest musical of all time, Singin in the Rain, which has been on Blu-ray for a couple of years.

Singin in the Rain is no doubt the most recognized title here, a hilarious retelling of movie history as talkies replace silents in the late 1920s. A movie star (Kelly) decides to revamp his most recent swashbuckling silent film into a song-and-dance musical with a young starlet (Reynolds) dubbing the songs for his leading lady (Jean Hagen), whose screechy voice threatens to ruin the film.

OConnor co-stars and performs his justly famous Make Em Laugh number, and Charisse is captivating in Kellys extended Broadway Melody ballet. Also fun are the comic routines built around Good Morning, Moses Supposes and Fit as a Fiddle (and Ready for Love).

Next is The Band Wagon, a bright and very funny comedy starring Astaire, a film that is often cited in the same breath with Singin in the Rain as one of the finest musicals to come out of MGMs Dream Factory.

Astaire still in top form in his mid-50s plays an insecure stage/screen star who fears hes all washed up until he signs on for a stage production he hopes will reinvigorate his career. But after he signs, the show morphs from a light musical comedy to a dark take on the Faust legend. Whats more, his co-star is an intimidating prima ballerina (Charisse).

The Band Wagons pacing is fast and furious, if more sophisticated than Singin in the Rain, and co-stars Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan take care of the farcical heavy lifting. And the songs include Thats Entertainment (introduced in this film), a gorgeous rendition of Dancing in the Dark and the riotous Triplets. Other memorable highlights include Astaire and Charisses private-eye spoof The Girl Hunters, and Astaires infectious Put a Shine on Your Shoes with Leroy Daniels.

Also in this collection is Cole Porters very funny Shakespeare spoof Kiss Me Kate, which was originally released in 3-D before it went out flat, aka 2-D. And for those with 3-D televisions, that version is included here (along with the 2-D version for the rest of us).

Keel and Grayson star as a divorced pair of theater performers playing the leads in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. Keels feisty and fickle new girlfriend (Miller) is also in the show, and a couple of hoods (James Whitmore, Keenan Wynn) are hanging around backstage to collect a debt.

Kiss Me Kate allows Miller to shine with Too Darn Hot and Always True to You in My Fashion, and demonstrates Whitmore and Wynns comic chops with Brush Up Your Shakespeare, while Grayson and Keel (previously paired in Show Boat and Lovely to Look At) demonstrate their chemistry with So in Love, Wunderbar and other fine Porter tunes. And young Fosse has a wonderful dance he choreographed for himself and Carol Haney (and which led to his stage career).

Finally, theres Day paired with Keel for Calamity Jane, in which she is the title character and hes Wild Bill Hickok. Forget history and just enjoy Days exuberant performance as a temperamental tomboy who eventually has to let down her defenses to convince Bill that shes a woman. This films score includes several showstoppers, but its most memorable tune is Secret Love, which won an Oscar and became one of Days biggest record hits.

Calamity Jane doesnt hold up quite as well as the other three, but its still colorful fun, especially for fans of Day and Keel.

So if youre unfamiliar with any musicals that are pre-Chicago, you owe it to yourself to take a look at these four all color films with palettes that are enhanced wonderfully by these new Blu-ray transfers.

They just may encourage you to dig deeper into the cinematic reserve that now exists on DVD, Blu-ray and various streaming outlets a cache of great movie musicals that were once churned out on a regular basis.
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