Friday, March 30, 2018

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS: Blu-ray (RKO, 1956) Warner Archive

Coming attraction trailers for Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956) billed it as the super crime caper headlining 10 great stars. I count only five: Dana Andrews, George Sanders, Vincent Price, Ida Lupino and Thomas Mitchell.  While Selznick discovery, Rhonda Fleming had already earned the moniker ‘Queen of Technicolor’, well on her way in a career to include 40 films, none could be counted upon as bona fide classics; nor, could Fleming, stripped of her henna-haired glamor gal image, ever carry a picture alone. In the role of mama’s boy/serial ‘lipstick’ killer, Robert Manners, John Drew Barrymore – heir apparent to his father’s acting legacy – instead proves the singular misfire in this otherwise slick and witty melodrama. Casey Robinson’s engrossing screenplay departs from the usual whodunit template, taking the audience behind the scenes of petty squabbles, sexy intrigues and emotional turmoil afflicting an enterprising troop of newspaper hounds competing for the latest scoop about a string of notorious killings. James Craig, Sally Forrest, Howard Duff and Robert Warwick are other notables in the cast - none truly distinguished, despite given some superior dialogue and a few choice scenes interpolated between the better bits of business afforded the real ‘stars’.   
At its core, While the City Sleeps is an uber-sophisticated drama analyzing the meteoric highs and niggling lows to which humanity will stoop in competition for the brass ring of success.  We give it to Fritz Lang for his topnotch and near impossible balancing act with all of the intricacies in Robinson’s deftly interwoven byplay. The picture harks all the way back to Lang’s immortal German classic, ‘M’ – reworked from a completely different angle, but with similar intensity and attention to detail, profiling the back story and set of circumstances to have shaped the warped/frustrated mind of a serial killer. Yet, despite its affecting deconstruction of this dog-eat-dog megalomania – more the stuff of po-faced, disenchantment and nightmares, While the City Sleeps is a movie that, upon first glance, is much harder to swallow than admire; and this, despite its myriad of treasures Lang and his cast have wrought with all their finely-honed precision in front of and behind the camera. Arguably, While the City Sleeps is Lang’s best movie since The Big Heat (1953). It is questionable, whether or not it remains his most undervalued.
Perhaps it is the misdirection Lang offers us during the pre-credit sequence, forever to taint and disillusion the first-time viewer with expectations for a seedy crime thriller/even a middling police procedural to follow. We are treated to a big build-up, where an unsuspecting young lass, Judith Fenton (Sandra White) is ruthlessly butchered in her tenement apartment by a drug store delivery boy, who scrawls the cryptic message ‘ask mother’ on her wall in blood-red lipstick. And yet, nothing about the salaciousness of this crime – the others to follow it, or Lang’s ‘Third Man’- esque chase through the damp tunnels of the New York subway system - ever comes close to rivaling the backroom intrigues in this ongoing battle royale. With a callous smirk of improbability, Lang and Robinson have concocted something of red herring for the murder angle. It remains ever-present in the competitive race to the bottom for all of our presumably aboveboard bottom feeders, clawing for a chance to make their bones on the lurid details splashed across ‘extra-extra’ front page headlines.  While the City Sleeps is a great movie at a glance but only a good solid one upon a second, more clear-eyed inspection. As schmoozing/boozing nationally syndicated author/broadcaster, Edward Mobley, Dana Andrews is top-billed here and does his utmost to play a roadshow offspring of his luminously hard-boiled dick, Mark McPherson from 1944’s perennially fascinating, Laura, directed by Otto Preminger. It’s a good imitation…for the most part, and cleverly downplayed with half-ambitious defeatism for the whole disillusioning and ugly mess modern journalistic integrity has become.
The other great performance goes to Ida Lupino’s smoothly malevolent viper in mink, woman’s columnist, Mildred Donner. And it is saying a great deal, that in only a few carefully timed scenes, Lupino, looking sublimely indelicate and exuding far more jaded sex appeal than the Production Code ought to have allowed, runs off with virtually every scene she shares with her co-stars. She slinks about, a perpetually smoldering cigarette firmly tucked between her fingers, always with an indignant flash of petty larceny twinkling in her eye. Thomas Mitchell is almost as good as Jon Day Griffith, the perennial worrywart, professing an arrogance that could backstab his own mother for a good story, though never quite able to make good on such cold-bloodedness without feeling the distinct pang of sweaty-palmed guilt. Of the five ‘big names’ previously mentioned, Vincent Price and George Sanders are the most underused as Walter Kyne – heir to his late father’s journalistic empire, and, wireless editor, Mark Loving. Sanders adds another reptilian portrait to his stock gallery of slithery rogues. But Price’s career, in retrospect, remains the more fascinating; certainly, the more resilient, thanks to the actor’s seemingly effortless migration from male beauty to brooding cad, and finally, horror movie icon. In While the City Sleeps, Price again gets the short end of the stick – taken none too seriously by the seasoned staff as a foppish middle-aged playboy who knows absolutely nothing about the biz, and, Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming) his sexpot trophy wife, two-timing him right under his nose.  
While the City Sleeps begins with the vicious slaughter of Judith Felton. Almost immediately, Lt. Burt Kaufman (Howard Duff) suspects the building’s super, George ‘Pop’ Pilski (Vladimir Sokoloff), particularly as his finger prints are found on the murder weapon. But after this brief pre-title sequence we settle in on the machinations of bedridden media giant, Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick), still doing armchair warrior duty from his nurse-monitored bedside, keeping the heads of his three divisions, Mark Loving, Jon Day Griffith and ‘Honest’ Harry Kritzer (James Craig) on their toes. Amos orders them to splash the salacious details of the murder, he dubs the ‘lipstick’ killer, across every headline, wireless service and television outlet in his vast media empire. Next, he sends for anchorman, Edward Mobley. Ed has always been Amos’ favorite; perhaps, even the heir apparent to step in and take over. One wrinkle: Ed doesn’t want the job. In fact, he is content to do his television program and write the occasional book now and then to supplement his income. Amos confides in Ed, that in giving his son, Walter (Vincent Price) the luxuries he could never afford in youth, he spoiled him to becoming a middle-aged milksop.
Before the broadcast can commence, Amos suffers a fatal heart attack. Ed makes the announcement on his program; the lights dimmed to honor Amos’ passing. Assuming control over this vast empire he knows nothing about, Walter blunders into a hornet’s nest of men loyal to his late father. To unsettle them, Walter concocts a devious scheme. He invents a new position; Executive Director of the whole ménage…but with a caveat. The first head of his division to solve the lipstick murders will be appointed to this ceremonial post. Ed shows little interest in jockeying in this horse race. Let the others grovel to Kyne. He is gratified to remain as he is, much to the chagrin of his ever-devoted lover, Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest). She is secretary to wire-service chief, Mark Loving and yearns for Ed to step up to the game. Jon Griffith agrees. Though he offers Ed nothing for his participation, he pleads with him to take his side in the fight.
In the meantime, Loving works on his star writer, Mildred Donner to squeeze Mobley for information. None of this bodes particularly well for television chief, Harry Kritzer, presently inveigled with Walter hot-to-trot wifey, Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming). Harry’s intension is for Dot to use her influence on Walter to win him the coveted post. She’s intrigue and even willing, but later makes her own intensions quite clear. If she gets Harry the job he will belong to her completely. She will use him for sex whenever the spirit moves her and be glad of their affair in a way that forever threatens Harry’s leverage within the organization. Cool customer, that Mildred. A real slut, too. At the same instance, Ed proposes to Nancy. She loves him dearly…perhaps a little too much. Ed gleans some background on the lipstick killings from his police informant, Lt. Kaufman.  Rather insidiously, Kaufman and Ed conspire to use Nancy as bait for the killer. Ed confronts the unnamed assassin via his nightly broadcast, calling him out as a ‘mama’s boy’ with a sick fetish and insisting his autonomy will not endure for much longer.  Listening to this broadcast, Robert Manners becomes agitated. Indeed, he is a mama’s boy, Mrs. Manners (Mae Marsh) doting on her son in a very creepy scene where Bob appears to be very close to committing a Norman Bates’ styled matricide.  Ed hires a bodyguard (Ed Hinton) to shadow Nan’ wherever she goes; security and peace of mind.
Alas, Ed ought to have hired another for himself as Mark sends Mildred to go slumming on his behalf. Mildred has always harbored a romantic yen for Ed. Now, she wastes no time getting him drunk with a planned seduction in the back of a taxi cab. To no avail, and very much to his own detriment, Ed quickly realizes he has been duped; news of their so-called ‘affair’ spreading like wildfire through the office gossip grapevine. Knowing the truth of it, Nan’ breaks off her engagement and refuses to even entertain Ed’s various attempts at a most sincere apology. Meanwhile, Dorothy has been lying to Walter about going to visit her mother. In fact, Dot has rented the apartment directly across from Nancy where she and Harry indulge in their hot and heavy trysts, far away from prying eyes. Regrettably, Dot uses the same drug store as the late Judith Felton. Robert Manners bides his time, planning to break into Nancy’s apartment and kill her as part of his revenge on Ed. Instead, his killer instincts are diverted to Dorothy, returning to the apartment across the hall. Robert barges in with the intent to commit another murder. Instead, Dot spiritedly defends herself and escapes to Nancy’s flat across the hall. From Nan’s upstairs window, she signals Ed and Lt. Kaufman. Manners is on the prowl. The boys make chase in a taxi cab, Ed hunting down Robert in the cavernous bowels of the New York City subway. After a few struggles and a display of fisticuffs, in which Manners manages his escape after narrowly pushing Ed in front of an oncoming subway, the killer is caught by Kaufman and another officer at street level.
A short while later, Griffith is fed the story by Ed who also informs him to send Mildred to Dorothy’s apartment to cover the scoop from the ‘woman’s angle’. Instead, she unearths the truth about Dot’s adulterous affair with Harry. Cynical about the outcome, Ed informs Griffith that despite their victory, Harry will be appointed Executive Director of Kyne’s media empire. Why? For Walter to save face and keep his wife’s adulterous affair out of the papers. Disgusted by this hypothesis, Ed informs Walter, in Nancy’s presence at their favorite watering hole, that although the cold light of jaundice-eyed journalism might stand for such hypocrisies, he certainly will not. Ed tenders his resignation, effective immediate. He is followed out of the bar by Nancy who has decided to forgive him. We rejoin Ed and Nancy in Florida…on their honeymoon. Ed is happy to be free of the newspaper biz. But Nan’ discovers an article in the local paper, explaining how Walter (presumably, having reconsidered his decision) has appointed Griffith as Executive Director, given Mildred a justly deserved promotion too, and, appointed Ed to the post of Managing Editor of the Sentinel – since vacated by Griffith.  As for Harry – he has been afforded a paid ‘leave of absence’ and sent on a ‘goodwill tour’ of Europe to promote Kyne publications abroad. As Ed and Nancy embrace, the telephone next to their bed begins to ring, presumably to recall Ed back to New York to begin his new job.
While the City Sleeps is a far more involving picture than anticipated; Casey Robinson’s script, a miracle of concision. In only 95 min. Robinson manages to pack in enough top-tier plot for at least two movies and with some inspiring dialogue and situations that never seem rushed or perfunctory. Ditto for Fritz Lang’s swift and assured direction that moves the story along at a brisk clip without leaving any dangling plot points to chance. The performances throughout, save John Barrymore Jr.’s as the lipstick killer, are uniformly solid and interesting. Some, arguably, rely on the iconography of the actor playing the part to carry the load; as in George Sanders’ Mark Loving. One always knows what to expect from Sanders – that superbly slick and ever-so-slight oily charm devoid of humanity: a total cad. He carries this cache of character traits like a calling card and we love him for it. Thomas Mitchell’s iconography is a little more difficult to peg; his chameleon’s skin affording the ability to craft a performance as unique as he is. This too works – particularly as Mitchell possesses uncanny intuition when designing his portrait from the ground up.  

Ida Lupino and Dana Andrews are a pair…or rather, ought to have been. Each of their characters seem to be cut from a similarly primitive cloth, saturated in rank cynicism and primal urges, satisfied in tandem by the baseness of being instinctual and reactionary creatures. It’s therefore something of a disconnect to find Andrew’s Ed faithfully pining for Sally Forrest’s Sweet Polly Purebred; flaxen-haired, dull and too temperate and loving for her man. It’s not a major casting flaw, however, and thus our interest in the outcome of their on again/off again romance is assured. In the final analysis, While the City Sleeps is engrossing entertainment; solidly crafted and expertly played. That Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography fails to go beyond the appearance of a vintage TV serial, creating virtually no noir-ish mood, except perhaps during the subway chase sequence, is regrettable. But the script and performances are good enough to excuse even this. While the City Sleeps is decidedly not Fritz Lang’s finest hour. But it does prove a fairly good way to spend 95 min.
Warner Archive’s Blu-ray is justly a cause for celebration. This SuperScope production from RKO looks fabulous in B&W. Transitions between scenes bear a slightly softer characteristic with marginally amplified grain. For the rest, everything is crisp, clean and razor-sharp, with a good solid smattering of indigenous grain to boot. It’s being advertised as sourced from an original fine grain negative and we really see no reason to dispute this. The results are ab/fab. Fine details abound, particularly in close-up. This Blu-ray has been remastered from original camera negatives and looks as good as one could possibly hope. The audio is 2.0 mono and adequate, with zero hiss or pop. Regrettably, no extras – save a badly faded theatrical trailer. Bottom line: while not superb, While the City Sleeps is fairly entertaining and gets my recommendation for a great way to pass the time.  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5
EXTRAS
0  

Thursday, March 29, 2018

BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT: Blu-ray (RKO, 1956) Warner Archive

The all-pervading moral ambiguity engulfing master director, Fritz Lang’s Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (1956) is really not enough to escape its rather perfunctory plot. The characters are stock company cardboard cutouts at best – and worse, quixotically positioned and posturing within a thoroughly idiotic hypothesis. To prove that ‘capital punishment’ is cruel and outdated, a gentleman newspaper magnet and his writer friend (who is really a cad, unbeknownst to all, including his ever-devoted socialite fiancée) conspire to subvert justice and an enterprising District Attorney out to make his bones and ascend to the seat of the Governor. The wrinkle: the man on trial and convicted of the crime of murdering a nondescript burlesque queen really is guilty of the crime. Regrettably, it makes no sense (even in the fanciful Lalaland of Hollywood hokum) for the killer to play along with this social experiment just to see if he can get off Scott free; particularly, as a thorough police investigation has been unable to drum up any tangible evidence other than what’s been deliberately planted by the accused and his highfaluting cohort. And Lang, like his titular hero (who turns out to be anything but) ought to have known this one wouldn’t work.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is a gutless tale so full of pot holes, it quickly devolves into a very bad case of too much cleverness (or perhaps lack thereof) run hopelessly – and haplessly – amuck. I suspect Lang was aiming for an edgy deconstruction of the American legal system with this B-grade potboiler; proof positive the system works, despite its rougher edges and varying safeguards that, occasionally, fail the innocent and let the guilty run free. But the pieces in this jigsaw simply never add up to anything other than definitive proof Lang’s best work was definitely behind him. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was, in fact, Lang’s last hurrah, but a real fanny twitcher; its premise, dangling by a thread with the promise of a slam-bang finale never to occur. Instead, we get syrupy melodrama…a lot of it; Dana Andrews, looking more careworn from his real-life alcoholism than any concocted angst or residual sense of guilt/panic his alter ego, Tom Garrett might be feeling. Andrews sleepwalks through a series of bleak and unresolved flagrante delictos with Tom’s virginal ice queen/fiancée, Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine) and a flashy/trashy plaything, Dolly Moore (Barbara Nichols), who gets Garrett’s number long before any of these sanctimonious and moralizing uptown amateur sleuths even think to consider he might already be the guilty party.
But again, its Douglas Morrow’s preposterous screenplay that repeatedly gets in the way of this otherwise straight-forward police procedural: a thoroughly flat-footed film noir wannabe. Tactless twists in this strangled/mangled narrative do little to unravel the truth. Indeed, not until six minutes before the end are we given the skinny on Tom Garrett’s previous dalliances with a burlesque queen, Patty Grey, whose real name is Emma Blucher. Grey’s battered remains were discovered in a canyon just outside the city limits with virtually no clues to connect her demise to Garrett. Meanwhile, back at the posh digs of newspaper magnet, Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), a romance is roiling between Spencer’s daughter, Susan and Tom. Having just attended the latest public execution of a death row inmate with Tom, Austin is determined his paper should rub the nose of District Attorney Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf) in the liberal op/ed declaration: capital punishment has no place in civilized society. In retrospect, and given Garrett’s guilt, one would think him to harbor a natural mode of self-preservation, and thus equally as instinctive aversion to witnessing a fate he might similarly befall, should the cops ever figure out who killed Patty Grey. Alas no, Tom’s a very cool customer. But is he a sadist (sexual or otherwise), a psychopath or just plain nuts to subject himself to Austin’s plan for a deliberate ‘frame-up’, just to prove he ‘didn’t’ do it, when, in fact, he really did. Huh?!?!
Morrow’s screenplay lumbers along with a lot of talk, though regrettably, very little action. Fritz Lang takes us on Austin and Tom’s rather macabre road trip to the spot where Grey’s body was recovered; Tom planting a $200 gold-plated zippo lighter, engraved ‘To Tom from Susan’ as ‘evidence’ overlooked by the police the first time around. He and Austin meticulously stage further ‘proof’ to infer Tom’s guilt; buying him a grey trench and brown fedora (presumably, to match the vague description police have of the ‘actual suspect’), rubbing body makeup into the seat cushions of his newly acquired black sedan and leaving one silk stocking in the glove compartment, blatantly to be found when police finally elect to search Tom’s car. All of this is documented by Austin using his new ‘self-developing’ camera; the wily news mogul chronicling the time and dates in their conspiracy to obfuscate the law. Austin also encourages Tom to take up with Dolly Moore, a crass burlesque dancer, presumably to establish his M.O. for slumming with cheap tricks. Naturally, Susan cannot be a party to their scheme. So, when Tom’s picture winds up in the gossip columns, sipping drinks with this platinum sex pot, Susan’s moral high ground will not permit the incident to go unnoticed. She breaks off their engagement. Truth to tell, Tom is not all that wounded by her exit. After the briefest of investigations, D.A. Thompson has Lt. Kennedy (Edward Binns) pick up Tom for suspicion of murder.
A trial commences, with Tom providing just enough incriminating evidence to stir the specter of ‘reasonable doubt’ from the jury. Practically assured of a conviction, an ebullient Austin packs up his photographic substantiation, previously stored in a safe in his study, and backs out of his driveway without first looking for oncoming traffic. His vehicle is T-boned by a semi. The car overturns and bursts into a ball of flame, killing him instantly and destroying all evidence of Tom’s supposed ‘innocence’. Awaiting the verdict, Tom is informed of Austin’s death by his attorney, Jonathan Wilson (Shepperd Strudwick). Their gentleman’s experiment at a terrible end, the jury now convicts Tom of Grey’s murder. Refusing to accept the judgement, Susan implores a former flame, Det. Bob Hale (Arthur Franz) to investigate Tom’s claim he and Austin were in cahoots on a deliberate ‘frame-up’ simply to prove their point about capital punishment. Hale traces Grey’s shady employment to another nightclub run by Greco (Dan Seymour) – a rather scummy saloon keeper. Greco informs Hale that Grey’s real name was Emma Blucher. He also gives a plausible alternative for the crime: Grey’s former boyfriend, not above batting her around when the spirit and booze moved him, might have returned with more sinister reaction.  Despite being unable to corroborate this conjecture, or even identify Tom in a photograph presented to him by Hale, Greco’s lead comes to a dead end – literally – as Hale unearths that Grey’s bad boy died five years ago in Chicago.
Susan and Hale discover the charred-beyond-recognition remnants of photographs in her late father’s car. Mercifully, a letter is also unearthed from a safety deposit box kept in trust with Austin’s attorney; the letter, addressed to DA Thompson, outlines in great detail the plot to deliberately frame Tom for Grey’s murder. Elated, and still naïve enough to believe this means Tom is innocent, Susan rushes to his aid. As a pardon is sure to follow, Tom clumsily reveals to Susan he knew Grey earlier when he refers to the deceased by her real name – Emma Blucher. As only Hale, Susan and the girl’s killer would have known this tidbit, Susan realizes Tom is actually guilty of the crime with which he has been charged. In fact, he has played all of them, including Austin, for the fool. And so, the truth comes out: Tom was married to Emma – a bad lot. She refused to grant him a divorce to marry Susan so he murdered her, leaving virtually no trace for the police to uncover. Unable to bring herself to this bitter truth, Susan departs the prison, knowing the Governor (Charles Evans) will be forced to sign Tom’s pardon. But back at home, Susan breaks down and confesses what she knows to Hale. As he has always carried a torch for Susan, Hale now presses his beloved to telephone the Governor with the truth. At the last possible moment, she does, and Tom – inches away from freedom - instead realizes he is destined for the electric chair; carted back to his cell to await the hour of his fate.    
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt would be a passable B-programmer if its plot were not as dull as watching paint dry. There is virtually no spark to the story – no suspense either. Bunching up the back story related to Tom and Emma’s fatal marriage just seems a quick n’ dirty way of tying up loose ends, albeit, with a twist. William Snyder’s cinematography is a snore; ditto for Herschel Burke Gilbert’s melodramatic score. What ought to have been an atmospheric noir crime thriller plays instead like a fifties’ C-grade TV cop serial. Lang’s schematic for this seedy drama is strictly ‘connect-the-dots’ and lumbering/bumbling to a fault. His pacing throughout is glacial and stifling. There is no romantic edge to Tom and Susan’s relationship, and, barely enough tawdry byplay between Tom and Dolly to convince us this ditzy showgirl is just smart enough to outfox the mastermind, thus far, having gotten away with the perfect murder. Nothing is taken too seriously, not even Tom’s confession at the end. His revelation provides little beyond the obligatory thirty-second ‘shock’ for which any electric cattle prod or taser would have otherwise sufficed.  Forgettable and frivolous, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt flops as Fritz Lang’s farewell to the movies. He ought to have quit while he was ahead.
The Warner Archive’s Blu-ray is a mixed bag at best. Although WAC has obviously cleaned-up the image for this hi-def debut, it continues to suffer from an inherent softness throughout. I suspect some of this footage is from dupes and/or second generation print masters, despite claims made elsewhere, the entire image harvest has been derived from a fine grain master. Frankly, I don’t see it. While certain shots (mostly medium and close-ups) are exquisitely contrasted with superb reproduction of a thicker than average film grain, long shots exhibit a very softly focused characteristic that makes background information look very blurry to downright out of focus. Yes, this is an RKO picture, made at a time when the studio’s imminent demise was entering its home stretch; hence, cheaply shot and even more cheaply produced, in 2:1 SuperScope, no less; a process derived from re-matting originally composed 1.37 elements. So, this may account for the inconsistently rendered visuals too. The audio is 2.0 mono and adequate for this presentation. Save a trailer there are NO extras. Bottom line: pass and be very glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
1
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS
 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

ASTAIRE and ROGERS: THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION (RKO/MGM, 1932 - 49) Warner Home Video

At the 1967 Academy Awards, Fred Astaire made the impromptu decision to depart from his scripted entry, calling for him to appear from stage left and take the hand of co-presenter, Ginger Rogers, entering from stage right, leading her to the podium. Instead, Astaire gave the audience and his long-time screen partner one last opportunity to experience the timeless appeal of their long-enduring partnership; locking a visibly startled, but equally as elated Rogers in an embrace, pirouette and brief pas deux to the tune ‘I Won’t Dance’. In good ole-fashion terms, Astaire’s impetuosity and the subsequent whirl of feet in perfect time that followed it literally stopped the show. Despite lingering rumors to the contrary, most begun by RKO’s publicity department to drum up curiosity with fans back in the late 1930’s, the affection between Astaire and Rogers had always been genuine; tempered, perhaps after Astaire married wealthy socialite, Phyllis Potter, whose jealousy for Rogers could not be contained. But by 1967, all this had been forgotten. Phyllis had died in 1954. Even before this, the screen’s most glorious dance team had separated to pursue independent ventures; Rogers – as a ‘serious’ actress, and Astaire, to trip the light fantastic with a myriad of accomplished dancers elsewhere, though arguably, never to as unique an effect.
Yet, never were they better than when they appeared as ‘a team’ – a tribute both Astaire and Rogers would have likely abhorred. Indeed, after Astaire’s sister, Adele (his first partner on the stage) elected for early retirement to start a family, the void left behind caused Astaire to question his own validity as a solo performer; an anxiety of self-doubt compounded after some misguided RKO talent scout famously documented Astaire’s early screen test thus: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little!” Adele and Fred had been the toast of Broadway and London throughout the 1920’s. Indeed, Fred was already a seasoned performer by the time of his first casual ‘cute meet’ with Rogers in New York; Rogers, then – a chorine on the cusp of breaking into the big time in Broadway’s Girl Crazy, thanks to the machinations of her stage mom, Lela.  If Astaire and Rogers were seen about town briefly thereafter (and…they were), their casual flirtations did not lead them into any great romance. And it was not until Fred was free from Adele (who left the biz to marry an English lord), that he and Ginger would once more reconnect in far closer proximity in Hollywood. By then, Ginger was the more established talent, having appeared in a handful of undistinguished movies. Then, in 1932, Rogers began dating producer, Mervyn LeRoy. She also made her first notable splash as a saucy hoofer in 42nd Street (1932), her razor-backed line, “It must have been hard on your mother not to have any children” eliciting riotous laughter from the audience. She followed this up with an even flashier moment in Gold Diggers of 1933, warbling the ironic Depression-era anthem, ‘We’re in the Money’ forwards and backwards with fresh-faced sex appeal.
Astaire’s ascension to Hollywood royalty was neither as swift nor as assured. After signing a contract with RKO, he remained conspicuously out of the running; his first screen appearance opposite Joan Crawford, on loan out to MGM for a brief musical interlude in Dancing Lady (1933). Astaire was to rather ruthlessly judge this debut with skin-crawling disgust adding, “I just looked like a knife out there!”  As fate would have it, Fred would not have much to squawk about from then on. Famously, it was written then that Rogers did everything Astaire did, only backwards and in heels. But Katharine Hepburn’s astute remark rings truer still, “Fred gives Ginger class and she gives him sex.” Whatever the truth, the passion and grace Astaire and Rogers exuded on screen undeniably revolutionized the movie musical at a time when America and the world at large were struggling for hope, meaning and escapism. Their movies remain a tonic to the weary today and reveal an impossibly diverting paradise a la art director, Van Nest Polglase’s gleamingly white art deco sets. And with Astaire’s perfectionism, an assist from choreographer, Hermes Pan and, of course, Rogers’ uncanny ability to pick up a step with almost instant finesse, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were destined to enter the history books as ‘one for the ages’. There was absolutely nothing they could not do together.
And all of this lovable nonsense began inauspiciously with Astaire and Rogers near cameo appearance in RKO’s big-budgeted super musical, Flying Down to Rio (1933); conceived under the guidance of Production Chief, Marion C. Cooper (who had neither the ambition for movie musicals nor dancing, but harbored a distinct yen for both South America and flying – hence, the setting and grand aerial maneuvers to conclude this show). The stars, however, were not Fred and Ginger, but contract players Gene Raymond and Dolores Del Rio. Raymond is Roger Bond: an aviator and band leader of The Yankee Clippers. So far, Bond’s penchant for the ladies has managed to get the band broomed from every hot spot they have ever played in America. So, Bond’s latest conquest is Brazilian flame, Belinha de Rezende (Del Rio) who is already engaged to another.
Things really begin to heat up at the Hotel Atlantico after Roger and Belinha rekindle their romance under the radar of her intended. Justly famous – and forever lampooned - for its flying circus finale featuring a troop of scantily clad ladies improbably tap dancing on the wings of an airborne biplane, Flying Down to Rio’s grace note is ‘The Carioca’; an elaborate dance routine performed not so much ‘cheek to cheek’ as forehead to forehead by Astaire and Rogers – rechristened as minor comic relief, Fred Ayres and Honey Hale. Astaire remained circumspect about his teaming with Rogers. Indeed, throughout the shoot, he was nothing if not professional, almost to the point of becoming slightly aloof; perhaps, to assuage his wife’s jealousies. It mattered not what was chaste behind closed doors as once Astaire and Rogers took to the dance floor sparks of their inimitable on-screen chemistry were clearly on display. As RKO was in dire straits just prior to the picture’s release, the whopping success of Flying Down to Rio did much to lighten the mood on the back lot; a spirit dampened when Marion Cooper suffered a near-fatal heart attack and was forced to step down as head of the studio. His replacement, Pandro S. Berman proved part cagey showman/part savvy businessman. But Astaire and Rogers’ popularity was not lost on Berman, who quickly elected to create a co-starring vehicle built around them.
The result, Mark Sandrich’s The Gay Divorcee (1934); a project to incur displeasure from the Hollywood censors even before a single strip of celluloid had been exposed. Presumably, as marital discourse could hardly be considered ‘gay’, the original Broadway title ‘The Gay Divorce’ was altered to reflect that only the person getting the divorce was allowed to exercise such a privilege. Today, RKO’s marketing campaign for the picture – “The whole country’s gone gay” – has taken on an unintended picaresque quality. And indeed, in transposing the plot from stage to screen, Berman and Sandrich made the executive decision – either for better or worse – to jettison the entire Cole Porter/Broadway score, save one tune, in favor of an interpolated soundtrack from Herb Magidson, Con Conrad, Mack Gordon and Henry Revel. Sandwiched between the ebullient ‘Needle in a Haystack’ and gargantuan-staged ‘Continental’ was Porter’s ‘Night and Day’ – something of a signpost for subsequent Astaire/Rogers movies to emulate; a number where Astaire and Rogers’ alter egos are allowed to explore the home fires of a mutual passion through the art and expression of the dance.   
In this comedy of errors, Mimi Glossop (Rogers) is the divorcee – or rather, would like to be. Her Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) hires ‘a professional’ (code for ‘gigolo’) to seduce her, thereby giving Mimi’s husband grounds for a divorce. But the plot goes awry when American dancer, Guy Holden (Astaire) meets Mimi while visiting Brightbourne. She thinks he is playing the part of her paid seducer while he is actually falling in love with her. While nothing could match the elegant ‘Night and Day’ (sublimely danced by Astaire and Rogers inside an abandoned canopied ballroom by moonlight), the mind-boggling ‘Continental’ remains a close second for audiences: at twenty-two minutes, by far one of the most elaborate production numbers ever conceived for the screen, with sixty dancers forming Busby Berkeley-esque geometric patterns in the fancifully lit and towering courtyard of an impossibly grand hotel.  The Continental set a new standard for the rest of the Astaire/Rogers movies yet to follow it – fleshing out paper thin plots with confounding and beautiful set pieces.
Neither Astaire nor Rogers had wanted to make The Gay Divorcee; each, fearing the move would indenture them to a lifetime of association. It did. To sweeten the deal, Pandro Berman promised Astaire 10% profit sharing from the grosses. For Ginger, Berman assured the enterprising actress opportunities to make pictures apart from Astaire; thereby allowing her to pursue dreams as a serious actress. In the meantime, no one could argue with the box office returns. The Gay Divorcee literally pulled RKO from the brink of bankruptcy. With the balance sheet back in the black, Berman quickly acquired another hit Broadway show – Jerome Kern’s Roberta (1935) for Astaire and Rogers to co-star. Actually, Roberta is a throwback of sorts; Fred and Ginger taking a backseat to Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott, cast in the leads. Nevertheless, under William A. Seiter’s direction Roberta proved an inspiration with enough examples of Astaire and Rogers doing what they did best to keep the paying public happy. The plot concerns beefy football player, John Kent (Scott) who tags along with band leader/pal, Huckleberry Haines (Astaire) and his Wabash Indianans. The troop arrives in Paris where John visits his Aunt Roberta (Helen Westley), the owner of a posh dress maker’s shop effectively run by her assistant, Stephanie (Dunne).
In Paris, the boys also run into former singer ‘Lizzie’ now masquerading as Comtesse Scharwenka (Rogers) who – no kidding - gets the Wabash Indianans a gig. Tragically, Aunt Roberta dies. John inherits the business and thereafter plans to liquidate it to keep up his playboy lifestyle. But love predictably intervenes and the business is saved. Despite offering Astaire and Rogers one grand moment to shine – their elegant pas deux to Kern’s haunting ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, in retrospect Roberta remains a sublime, yet slightly off kilter entertainment. Behind the scenes, Astaire began to question the influence Rogers mother, Lela was having on her daughter’s career. The relationship between mother and daughter had always been hermetically sealed; the pair perfecting a sort of fractured pig Latin baby talk to get around others listening in on their conversations. To dilute Lela’s authority, Berman agreed to a truce; hiring Lela to establish an on-sight ‘school’ where she might educate the studio’s roster of starlets in the subtle art of acting.  Keeping Lela busy was only half the battle. As Berman prepared for 1935’s Top Hat, he was met with fresh concerns from Astaire that the formula behind their pictures was already getting stale. 
In retrospect, Astaire showed remarkable foresight here. Beginning with The Gay Divorcee, the Astaire/Rogers’ pictures fell into a sort of predictable stock company with reoccurring faces in grand support. These included Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes and Alice Brady. At the time of Top Hat, these beloved old hams were very much ensconced as part of the Astaire/Rogers ‘stock company’, as was the slavish devotion to hand-crafting art deco interiors so fanciful and spectacular they could only exist as back lot facades to another realm of absolute make believe, far removed from the world at large. With Top Hat, the Astaire/Rogers chemistry reached its zenith. The film abounds with clichés that, for their time at least, were as fresh and inviting as its potpourri of Irving Berlin songs; each to become a standard on the hit parade, including the sublime and romantic, ‘Cheek to Cheek,’ the charming, ‘Isn’t It A Lovely Day’ and the grandiose ‘Picolino’ – a fiesta of tap set against the stunning backdrop of an art deco Venice, complete with glistening black water canals. The picture is also infamous for a near falling out between Rogers and Mark Sandrich after Astaire illustrated his displeasure over a gown Rogers had helped to design, made entirely of pale blue ostrich feathers for their penultimate pas deux to ‘Cheek to Cheek’.  The gown shed atrociously all over Astaire’s tuxedo. But Rogers refused to budge on her decision to wear it. After several takes, the molting subsided to a degree where Astaire could complete the dance without too many feathers getting on his clothes.
In Top Hat, Astaire plays showman Jerry Travers, a hoofer touring in a revue from producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). Through a case of mistaken identity, Jerry is presumed to be Horace – a married man – with whom Dale Tremont (Rogers) has already fallen in love. Emotionally scarred by this misdirection, as Horace is the husband of her best friend, Dale attempts to marry her dress maker, Roberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) with comical results. Throughout, director Mark Sandrich never once fumbles any of these loose narrative threads, delivering an impeccably crafted musical extravaganza that is riotous, engaging and decidedly above par for the Astaire/Rogers’ collaborations that preceded it. The relationship between Sandrich and Rogers was never on solid ground. In fact, Sandrich often treated Rogers with considerable disdain, prompting Berman to draft a rather forthright and stern letter to his director, encouraging him to reconsider where his own bread and butter resided; in keeping both Rogers and Astaire happy and making more of the same at RKO.  To this end, Berman assigned Sandrich directorial duties on Follow the Fleet (1936) a film that haplessly miscasts Astaire as able-bodied seaman, Bake Baker.
The move to de-glamorize Astaire’s trademarked ‘top hat, white tie and tails’ image was deliberate; perceived to make him over as more of a proletariat than a paragon. But Astaire just looks silly, and gaunt in sailor’s garb. Despite some wonderfully comedic moments, it remains more than a little challenging to accept Astaire as the GOB on a manly 48 hour leave in New York City; particularly, as the infinitely manlier, Randolph Scott is once more cast as his best friend. Baker is out to rekindle a romance with old flame and hat check girl cum dancer, Sherry Martin (Rogers). Baker’s ‘above board’ shipmate, Bilge Smith (Randolph Scott) is a rapscallion with the ladies and shows no signs of stopping when he takes up with Sherry's naïve sister, Connie (Harriet Hilliard of future Ozzie and Harriet television fame). The wrinkle is Connie wants a home and family while Bilge just wants to have fun. Can love blossom under these circumstances? Of course, but not before Bake and Bilge are thrown into the brig for jumping ship and breaking curfew. Once again, the picture’s salvation is Irving Berlin’s magnificent score, introducing such standards as ‘Let Yourself Go’, ‘I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket’ and the haunting ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance.’
Immediately following the picture’s success, Berman elected to give Rogers a break from Sandrich – or vice versa; the next Astaire/Rogers’ collaboration, Swing Time (1936) directed by master storyteller, George Stevens. Rogers could not have been more pleased, particularly as a romance quickly blossomed between her and Stevens; short-lived, but great for their working relationship. By now, Rogers had proven her personal life could be as difficult to downright flawed. Her second marriage to actor, Lew Ayres was on the rocks, and Rogers – ever the perfectionist – invested herself body and soul in this, arguably, the very best of her on-screen partnerships with Astaire. Alas, the public perception at the time was not quite as assured. Although Swing Time features some of the most sublime imagery in any Astaire/Rogers musical, and songs as memorably written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, box office returns were less than impressive. For this outing, Astaire was put back in familiar garb – white tie and tails - as John ‘Lucky’ Garnett. Garnett is engaged – repeatedly – to Margaret Watson (Betty Furness). But after being tricked out of their nuptials for the umpteenth time, Margaret calls it quits. Determined to win back her affections, Lucky decides to earn enough money to prove himself. Instead, he accidentally runs into – and nearly tramples - Penny Carroll (Rogers) a winsome dance instructor who mistakes Lucky for a flat foot. This kink is ironed out in the charming dance-off; ‘Pick Yourself Up.’ Afterward, Penny and Lucky develop a successful dance partnership; their burgeoning romance, blunted when Margaret returns to reclaim Lucky whom she now deems worthy of her affections.
Swing Time features three of Astaire/Rogers’ best choreographed routines; the aforementioned ‘Pick Yourself Up,’ the passionate and playful ‘Waltz in Swing Time,’ and the spellbindingly brilliant, ‘Never Gonna Dance’, effortlessly danced inside a two-tiered glittering nightclub after all the other patrons have gone home. Arguably, there was nowhere to go but down and Mark Sandrich’s Shall We Dance (1937) marks the beginning of this slow spiral – despite a brilliant score from George and Ira Gershwin. On this occasion, Astaire is miscast as ballet legend, Petrov Peters. Petrov orchestrates a not-so-chance meeting aboard an Atlantic luxury liner so he can pursue Broadway musical star, Linda Keene (Rogers). Unfortunately, reporters snap up the story and turn it into a nasty bit of gossip – touting a secret marriage both Petrov and Linda feel they must embrace to keep up appearances. The picture’s outstanding sequence is the delightful ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’ danced on roller skates presumably in Central Park – but actually on an RKO soundstage. The tragedy of the picture is George Gershwin did not live to see its completion – succumbing to a brain tumor. An immense loss to the artistic community, Gershwin’s passing sent the tail end of the shoot into a dour mood and tail spin even before its premiere. Although engaging enough, Shall We Dance is not vintage Astaire/Rogers, though frequently if gives a fairly good imitation of being as much.
The same is truer still of their next collaboration, Carefree (1938) – a politely amusing screwball comedy masquerading as a legitimate musical. At 88 minutes, Carefree is the slightest of the Astaire/Rogers’ pictures and very much more Rogers’ movie than Astaire’s. She is Amanda Cooper; the on again/off again fiancée of Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy). Steve desperately wants Amanda to commit to him. So, he sends her to his good friend, Dr. Tony Flagg (Astaire) to seek psychiatric counseling for her marriage phobia. One problem – Amanda falls in love with Tony and Tony starts to dig Amanda. She, in turn, is hypnotized by Tony to hate him and fall in love with Stephen. But the plan backfires when Tony refuses to entirely surrender his love for Amanda. Irving Berlin’s score is really a one hit wonder – ‘Change Partners’ sung poignantly and with great affection by Astaire and later, all too briefly danced by Astaire and Rogers – presumably in a trance-like dream sequence. Less successful is ‘The Yam’ – a colossally clumsy lyric that Berlin promoted as a valiant successor to ‘The Picolino’ and ‘The Continental’ but that Astaire absolutely refused to entertain. Throughout the 1930’s Fred Astaire actually introduced more hit standards in these pictures than Bing Crosby on the hit parade. To break this stalemate, Sandrich coaxed Rogers to sing the lyric to The Yam, thereafter awkwardly danced by Astaire and Rogers inside a posh country club. Carefree was not a hit for RKO. In fact, it became the first Astaire/Rogers picture to lose money.
Desperately, Berman gambled on a reprieve for his most enduring screen team. Alas, his decision to re-tell the story of famed 1920’s dancers Vernon and Irene Castle was a miscalculation from which the Astaire and Rogers’ partnership at RKO would not survive. By 1939, audiences had tired of the formula to their pictures. Ironically, this should have made The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle a big hit, as it is nothing like any of the Astaire/Rogers’ musicals that preceded it. For one, it is a biopic, staunchly dictated by the taste and temperament of the real Irene Castle, who vehemently disavowed Berman’s decision to cast Ginger in the lead. Irene would have preferred an international search for a virtual unknown. Due to a clause in her contract, Irene also had sway over the dances created by her late husband and how these were to be depicted on film. Hence, Astaire and Rogers were confined to emulating the Castles’ without embellishing their style. Finally, the picture presented a real problem for producers as Irene insisted it conclude with the death of her husband.  
For all these restrictions, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is hardly the musical turkey it was perceived as in 1939; the year of so many stellar entertainments on Hollywood’s horizon.  Astaire and Rogers portray this team who invented ‘the Castle-walk’ and changed the face of ballroom dancing forever with great fidelity and reverence. And, they manage, despite their conflicts of interest, to convey a genuine warmth throughout. The film begins in earnest with Vernon (Astaire) falling madly for stage-struck Irene Foote (Rogers). A few light-hearted misadventures later and the two are married. At Irene's insistence, the couple embarks upon a career devoted to their love of dance. But this nearly impoverishes them. Enter agent (and fairy godmother of sorts) Maggie Sutton (Edna May Oliver) who rescues the team from oblivion and transforms their meager beginnings into a brilliant career. The chief perceived problem with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle in 1939 was it did not adhere to any of the conventions of the typical Astaire/Rogers’ musical. And yet, in hindsight, this seems an almost refreshing departure. Regrettably, Vernon’s draft into service and his being killed in action during WWI concludes the picture on a maudlin note. As something of a compromise, the picture ends on something of a fantasy memory; Irene and the ghostly apparition of her husband whirling about the grounds of a stately garden.
Nearly a decade passed before Astaire and Rogers reappeared on the screen together again. In that interim the Hollywood musical had greatly changed and so had Astaire and Rogers. As he had in 1930, Fred once again contemplated retirement; lured on as an independent into various projects throughout the decade at Paramount and RKO, including the perennial Christmas favorite, Holiday Inn (1942), the less than stellar, The Sky’s the Limit (1943), and, lavishly appointed Blue Skies (1946) in which Astaire famously danced with eleven carbon-copies of himself. But in 1948, Astaire was successfully encouraged to partake of a multi-picture contract at MGM. He had already done a picture for Metro, Broadway Melody of 1940; costarring their ‘tops in taps’ leading lady, Eleanor Powell – the pair’s tap routine to Cole Porter’s ‘Begin the Beguine’ a mesmerizing and unequalled display of spellbinding talent that ought to have led to more. Alas, Astaire refused to partner up with any ‘one’ dancer ever again; a sincere loss to audiences. Had it not been for Gene Kelly breaking his ankle just prior to the start of Easter Parade (1948), Astaire might have quit the screen for good after Blue Skies. Instead, he came on board at the last minute, and proved yet again he could dance with the likes of a temperamental Judy Garland. Astaire’s tenure at MGM would see him appear opposite various leading ladies, including Jane Powell (Royal Wedding 1951), Vera Ellen (The Belle of New York 1952), and the leggy Cyd Charisse – with whom he partnered twice (first, in The Band Wagon 1953, then again, for Silk Stockings 1957).
Amidst this regal assemblage, Astaire’s re-teaming with Ginger Rogers for The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) went practically unnoticed. Indeed, by the end of the 40’s, Rogers had established herself as an Oscar-winning actress; her gold statuette for Kitty Foyle (1940), launching a lucrative string of serious and comedy hits that included The Major and the Minor, Roxie Hart (both in 1942), the war-time weepy, I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) and the all-star remake of Grand Hotel, rechristened as Week-end at the Waldorf (1945). The reunion of Astaire and Rogers occurred almost by accident after Astaire adamantly refused to work with Judy Garland again. In fairness to Garland, she was greatly suffering from an addiction to studio-sanctioned pills; her emotional fragility compounding anxieties and stressors that had resulted in repeated delays throughout the shooting of Easter Parade. In a moment of pure inspiration, producer Arthur Freed turned to Rogers as Garland’s replacement. But even before this, Rogers had signaled her openness to do another picture with Astaire. Hence, Barkleys became a reality for them both. Regrettably, and despite its use of Technicolor, The Barkleys of Broadway is not so much a final installment in the Astaire/Rogers canon as a painful reminder of how time had altered the chemistry in their coupling. Barkleys features some very fine choreography, particularly ‘Bouncing the Blues’ – an electrifying ‘rehearsal’ tap routine.
The picture also rectifies a sin committed on Shall We Dance. In that movie, Astaire had warbled the melodic ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’ – a song begging for an elegant pas deux to follow. It never happened. The musical highlight of The Barkleys of Broadway is thus, the delayed reprise of this moment; Astaire, once again serenading Rogers with the sublime George and Ira Gershwin ballad before taking her for one final spin around the ballroom floor. The chief hurdle of Barkleys is its otherwise gimmicky numbers; that, and the fact its feeble plot does everything to keep Astaire and Rogers apart, or, at the very least, feuding as old marrieds on the cusp of either a divorce or reconciliation.  Astaire’s solo, ‘Shoes with Wings On’ relies much too heavily on special effects, while his partnering with Rogers for ‘My One and Only Highland Fling’ affords little opportunity to perform anything but perfunctory steps that never truly test – much less strain – their abilities. The pair are virtually obliterated during the ‘Swing Trot’, a bouncy tune featured under the main titles. This leaves us with the finale, ‘Manhattan Down Beat’ – a garish mishmash of styles; Astaire and Rogers flanked by a rotating platform of dancers strutting to a truly awkward and rather sour, Harry Warren/Ira Gershwin tune.    
The plot concerns marrieds, Josh (Astaire) and Dinah (Rogers) Barkley. On the surface, the two have everything that is good and enviable; each other and a string of hit shows having made them the toast of Broadway. But behind the scenes they cannot seem to agree on anything. She wants to break free of musical comedy, and he, perceiving himself as her rather arrogant Svengali, thinks she will miserably fail without his constant guidance. Enter Jacques Pierre Barredout (Jacques François); producer of ‘serious’ theater, who encourages Dinah to spread her artistic wings for him. Barredout casts Dinah in his production of ‘Young Sarah’ – the story of Sarah Bernhardt. With all due respect to Rogers’ abilities as a dramatic actress, her penultimate, and supposedly impassioned recitation of La Marseillaise is laughable at best. Despite her overwhelming success in Barredout’s play, Dinah elects to return to her husband and open in another musical comedy; particularly after she discovers how utterly forlorn and lost he has become without her.
Although The Barkleys of Broadway made money for MGM, it was not a mega hit for the studio, quashing any future plans for another re-teaming of Astaire and Rogers. In hindsight, the picture’s luke warm response also seemed to suggest the era that had cemented the Astaire/Rogers’ iconography, still highly prized in theatrical re-issues of their old RKO movies throughout the 1940’s had since passed them by. Times had changed. Tastes too. It is one of those rarities in Hollywood that in the interim since, the names Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers have only become more synonymous with each other; their careers apart – particularly Ginger’s – eclipsed by the enduring memory of these nine memorable outings at RKO. There has never been, nor will there likely ever be ‘another’ Astaire and Rogers in the movies. Despite the timeless appeal of their work together, the present era, alas, is hardly suited to elegance. And yet, the power of their screen presence continues to hold us spellbound in the dark. As ghost flowers from an entirely ‘other’ generation, steeped in tactful repose virtually unfathomable to today’s, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers continue to exude an intangible brand of screen magic even more unique now, as it remains humbling to observe, even at a glance. And as the years continue to pass, the likelihood their ilk will ever entirely diminish in prestige seems very dim indeed. For real/reel taste, elegance and style never goes entirely ‘out’ of fashion. And Astaire and Rogers possessed these qualities in spades.  
Were that someone at Warner Home Video or the Warner Archive would agree to as much. It is positively obscene to be extolling the virtues of Astaire and Rogers in 2018, in review of a DVD box set released by Warner Home Video back in 1999 with virtually none of their movies available on Blu-ray since. For decades, this absence on home video stemmed from a rights debacle between Warner – the present custodians of the RKO library – and Robyn Smith; the horse jockey whom Astaire wed in 1980; seven years before his death and whose demands for compensation were difficult, if not impossible to meet – thereby holding the entire Astaire/Rogers’ catalog hostage. Negotiations inevitably were resolved in 1999, enough for Warner to release two individual sets timed almost a year apart, and then, this compendium ‘complete’ box featuring all 10 movies, plus an hour-long documentary on the legendary teaming. Astaire and Rogers: The Ultimate Collection advertises all 10 films have been digitally restored and remastered. Alas, the results are something of a mixed bag. For the most part, nothing represented here will truly disappoint. And yet, there are misfires to be discussed.
The very best standard-def transfers in this collection are The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Swing Time and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Here, the B&W image has been impeccably cleaned up with fine details realized throughout. Solid deep blacks and very clean whites greet the viewer and the overall image is, if not perfect, then without incident, save some light speckling and a few age-related artifacts. To a lesser extent Flying Down to Rio, Roberta and Carefree also deserve honorable mention for overall picture quality that is just a shade below the standard already discussed. Regrettably, Shall We Dance is a grainy, often softy focused, poorly contrasted and digitally harsh mess. Black levels wallow in a nondescript tonal gray and age-related artifacts are everywhere. Lastly, The Barkleys of Broadway – the only color film in the set – sports an unresolved transfer that belies its Technicolor origins and is far below expectations. Colors are quite muddy. The image is also rather softly focused. Flesh tones veer between garish orange and piggy pink. There is also an inexplicable milky haze afflicting this transfer that distills contrast levels to a mid-range of dullness. As example, Rogers’ shimmering green sequin gown melts into the black background of the taxi she shares with Astaire. Overall, fine details are not realized.
Four of the films in this set include audio commentaries and a featurette. For the rest, Warner has padded this set with short subjects and theatrical trailers. All are packaged in slim-line cases. Apart from some nicely put together swag (reproductions of poster art and stills) the only extra worth noting is the feature-length documentary: Astaire and Rogers: Partners in Rhythm. As a documentary, it only scratches the surface. There’s virtually little to no back story on either star’s private life, no intimate details excised from well-researched archival interviews, journals, etc. We do get snippets and sound bites taken from several vintage interviews and some commentary from the likes of Astaire’s daughter, Ava, and, composer, Michael Feinstein among others. But overall, the results are more truncated than comprehensive and that’s a shame. One yearns, as example, for the sort of immersive storytelling shown in documentaries like MGM: When the Lion Roars or Cleopatra: The Film that Changed Hollywood. But alas, Partners in Rhythm is more of a glowing ‘puff piece’ – good, but not great. Given the girth of both star’s careers, and all the literature available on them, this could have been much better. We also get a ten song CD sampler of some of the best loved musical moments in the Astaire/Rogers’ canon. Bottom line: by now all of these movies ought to have made the leap to hi-def. We’ll wait in the hope of better things to come.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Flying Down to Rio 3
The Gay Divorcee 4
Roberta 2.5
Top Hat 5+
Swing Time 5+
Follow the Fleet 4.5
Shall We Dance 3.5
Carefree 3.5
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle 3
The Barkley's of Broadway 2

VIDEO/AUDIO
Flying Down to Rio 4
The Gay Divorcee 4
Roberta 3.5
Top Hat 4
Swing Time 3.5
Follow the Fleet 3.5
Shall We Dance 2.5
Carefree 3.5
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle 3
The Barkley's of Broadway 2,5

EXTRAS

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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

THE THIN MAN (MGM, 1934) Warner Home Video

Celebrated mystery/crime author, Raymond Chandler once remarked that his contemporary, Dashiell Hammett “took murder out of the drawing room and put it back in the gutter where it belonged.” Indeed, though perhaps he elected to keep one foot in the parlor…for propriety’s sake, or simply to plumb and straddle both ends of the spectrum. Eulogized in the New York Times as ‘the dean of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction’, Hammett’s penchant for stylish thrillers has become something of the model for anyone attempting the genre since. Hammett’s trademark was forever shaped by his participation in both World Wars, and, his former life as a Pinkerton Guard before embarking on his second career as a lucrative writer. Repeatedly stricken with tuberculosis, a condition worsened by his chronic addiction to tobacco (this would ultimately lead to his death from lung cancer at the age of 66), Hammett wrote, drank and smoked – prolific in his craftsmanship of the hard-bitten realist thrust in the middle of some wildly original and usually salacious crime du jour; the crime solver with a passion for truth, justice and the American way, though, even more tantalizing, not always keen about solidifying the ‘moral good’ in his characters.
The Thin Man is one of Hammett’s most enduring crime/thrillers, not the least for its witty sex/comedy banter between newlyweds Nick and Nora Charles, nor because of its immortalization on celluloid at MGM in 1934, one year after its runaway success in book form. Ironically, this was to be Hammett’s last novel. For the record then, none of the cinematic sequels that spawned the lucrative Nick and Nora franchise at Metro were inspired by Hammett books, although Hammett was hired by the studio to write screenplays for two subsequent installments; 1936’s After the Thin Man and 1939’s Another Thin Man. In hindsight, these remain the best of the six atmospheric outings to co-star William Powell and Myrna Loy. The character of Nick Charles shares many of Hammett’s virtues and vices; Nora, his Nob Hill heiress/wife, modeled on wry playwright and authoress, Lillian Hellman whom Hammett wed the second time around and stormily lived with until his death. Nick is a breezily boozy, if occasionally jaded ex-Pinkerton detective, repeatedly dragged into the thick of some sensational society murder that fascinates his upper-crust wife, unaccustomed to the darker side of humanity.
Indeed, very little translation was required by the screenwriting team of Albert Brackett and Francis Goodrich to finesse the prose of The Thin Man into Metro’s smash hit of 1934. Under the direction of W.S. Van Dyke, known for his prudence, economy and straight-forwardness, The Thin Man remains as urbane, acidic and charming as Hammett’s page-turning novel; a gutsy, occasionally ghoulish whodunit with Powell and Loy as the quintessential saucy and sexy screen couple. Powell’s Nick Charles is playfully glib – when he is not drinking – and utterly immune to taking his work seriously – ever! Loy’s Nora is the lanky brunette with a wicked jaw and a taste for fashion; the pluperfect gal Friday with a penchant for excitement to invigorate their marital sparring. Together, and much to Nicky’s chagrin, they become inveigled in an investigation over the disappearance of a scientist, Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) after his anxious daughter, Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan) implores Nick that foul play has befallen him. If The Thin Man (and is subsequent sequels) do have a flaw, it’s that to today’s more jaundice eye Nick’s frequent frolics with the bottle are taken far too lightly. Alcoholism is not a joke – true. But this franchise treats it with invigorating jest; typified in the telephone query about their whirlwind honeymoon made to Nora by her mother in the first sequel, whereupon Nora nonchalantly replies, “Yes, we had a good time. Nick was sober in Kansas City” to which Powell’s Nick, casually chomping on an ice cube, turns to an over-sized stuffed teddy bear to comment, “That is a bitter woman.”
The teaming of William Powell and Myrna Loy is one of those inspired decisions, so succinctly fitted into our collective movie-land folklore that one cannot imagine one without the other today. And yet, each embarked upon a star-making career apart and with varying degrees of success. In the days long before the internet ruined all hope of any star living a private life, many a fan chose to believe either a real romance was brewing between these frequently pitted co-stars or that, in fact, they were already secretly married. In reality, Loy was wed to MGM producer, Arthur Hornblow Jr. – the first of four husbands – and Powell, then engaged to Metro’s platinum sex bomb Jean Harlow, after the untimely death of her first husband, producer, Paul Bern. Harlow’s tragic demise at the tender age of 26 in 1937, coupled with Powell’s discovery he was stricken with cancer that same year created a 2-year hiccup in The Thin Man franchise, from 1937 to 1939. Over time, Powell and Loy’s reputation as the ‘perfect marrieds’ became overshadowed by that other iconic coupling of Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. But it was Powell and Loy who set the standard in the thirties, their appearance together in 1934’s Manhattan Melodrama – co-starring Clark Gable, leading MGM’s raja, L.B. Mayer to reteam them - sans Gable - in The Thin Man, and subsequently, other Thin Man sequels, as well as such memorable fare as 1936’s Oscar-winning musical biopic, The Great Ziegfeld and 1941’s ebullient screwball comedy, Love Crazy.
Truth to tell: Mayer had very little faith in The Thin Man; just another B-thriller likely to fade into obscurity, though perhaps, also to turn a tidy little profit for the studio besides. Herein, we pause. One has to sincerely admire both Mayer and the studio system – neither perfect, yet both willing to take a gamble on projects and programmers that, more often than not, hit the bull’s eye with astounding accuracy to meet and exceed the pulse of the public. Reportedly shot in two weeks, The Thin Man is a superb example of the system with all its pistons firing in unison. At $226,408 The Thin Man may have been budgeted only as a disposable programmer (today, you cannot even shoot a 30 second Super Bowl commercial for this). Nevertheless, Van Dyke delivers a movie so chic and funny it easily caught the public’s fascination. The same year as its debut, in a national poll conducted by Look Magazine, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy were awarded the coveted titles and crowns as ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ of the year, prompting Powell – a celebrated raconteur, to send Loy a conciliatory flower box loaded with old, dirty and rotting grapes, and, a card that read, “From William – the fourth”. As Loy later explained with a chuckle, “He had come in fourth in the poll and these, of course, were sour grapes!”
The success of The Thin Man (it grossed $1,423,000 worldwide) was not lost on Mayer. Indeed, by the mid-1930’s, Mayer had suckled a franchise from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s vine-swinger, Tarzan and was about to launch two more enduring series with Dr. Kildare and Andy Hardy. His V.P. in Charge of Production, Irving G. Thalberg, did not care for this sort of economizing in picture-making. Thalberg’s passion leaned rather severely toward the costly and opulent. In the end, both endeavors turned a profit for Metro, though only Mayer’s would outlast the decade after Thalberg’s untimely passing in 1936. In the decades since past, the infectious teaming of Nick and Nora Charles has become the inspiration for such smash hit television series as Moonlighting and Hart to Hart. But even before these valiant successors, Metro was not above re-mining its fortune and glory for ripe new profits; The Thin Man translated into a 1950s TV serial costarring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. Running from 1957 to 1959, it had limited appeal and distribution. Yet, it is primarily for the galvanized reputations of William Powell and Myrna Loy that The Thin Man endures to this day; Powell’s debonair, yet casual good nature, and Loy’s delicious flippancy, a perfectly baked soufflé of wit and sophistication, unimpeachable at a glance, and thoroughly Teflon-coated from the misnomers of ever-changing times and tastes. 
The plot of the original Thin Man is subdued and tame by today’s ‘in-your-face’ standards, but revolves around newlyweds, Nick and Nora Charles. Nick’s early retirement is predicated on the fact he has married a wealthy socialite who does not seem to mind his inexplicable lack of interest in supporting her, but rather relishes being her ‘kept man’. Although based in San Francisco, the couple have already embarked upon a whirlwind honeymoon, stopping in New York for the pending Christmas holidays. Alas, joy galore and the quiet life are not to be for this serenely contented, if slightly screwball marital coupling. Nick encounters Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O'Sullivan) inside a fashionable downtown club. She reminds him of an earlier meeting; her father, scientist, Clyde Wynant (the eponymous ‘thin man’) – a former client, since vanished into thin air. Arriving late to this party, her arms full of Christmas packages and mercilessly tugged at the end of a leash by their beloved wire-haired terrier, Asta, Nora is also introduced to Dorothy. Nora takes pity on the girl, despite Nick’s protestations of wanting ‘a quiet life’ free of his former career.   
Thus, the investigation begins. It seems the curmudgeonly Clyde was toiling on a mysterious experiment for Washington when Dorothy arrived on the arm of her fiancée, Tommy (Henry Wadsworth); the couple announcing their intentions to marry with all speed. Pleased, though distracted, Clyde promised Dorothy he would be back from his secret business trip in time for the wedding. He never arrived. Regrettably, what began as a ‘missing person’ case takes on more sinister undertones when Wynant's ex-secretary and love interest, Julia Wolf (Natalie Moorhead), is found murdered; all evidence pointing to Wynant as the prime suspect. Ever the devoted daughter, Dorothy refuses to believe her father is guilty.  Meanwhile, Wynant’s ex, the money-grubbing Mimi Jorgensen’s (Minna Gombell) only concern is her former hubby’s disappearance will put a stop payment on her ‘hush money’ since re-marrying to one Chris Jorgensen (Cesar Romero) – an elegant gigolo. Frustrated by Wynant’s absence, and coaxed by Nora, Nick and Asta revisit the old scientist’s laboratory. Asta unearths skeletal remains. Although the police still believe Wynant killed Julia, Nick proves the body in the lab is Wynant, based on some shrapnel lodged in one of the femur bones. 
Already suspecting the real murderer, Nick and Nora stage a lavish whodunit dinner party. After some polite badinage, Nick settles into the real purpose for their gathering, laying out the clues as he as discovered them. It is revealed Mimi was aiding Wynant’s attorney, MacCaulay (Porter Hall) in an embezzlement scheme in exchange for more money on the side. Having exposed Chris as a bigamist, Mimi is free to divorce him now and inherit all of Wynant's money. Ruthlessly, she incriminates MacCaulay whose fraud eventually caught Julia’s eye. Rather than remain loyal to Wynant, Julia began blackmailing MacCaulay and this directly led to her being murdered by him to keep her silent. MacCaulay is also responsible for Wynant’s untimely demise after he finally discovered what had been going on right under his nose. MacCaulay’s escape at gunpoint is foiled by Nick. After a brief struggle he is subdued and taken into custody. Nick, Nora, Dorothy and Tommy board a train; a newlywed foursome happily bound for the sunny shores of California. 
Despite its meager budget, The Thin Man is an A-list release from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the studio then, with ‘more stars than there are in heaven’. L.B. Mayer paid Dashiell Hammett $21,000 for the rights to produce it with director, W.S. Van Dyke encouraging his writing team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich to concentrate their efforts more heavily on the repartee between Nick and Nora, using Hammett’s authorship merely as their guideline.  Van Dyke was also instrumental in convincing Mayer that William Powell was not ‘too old’ to play the part, and Myrna Loy – then, being groomed as something of an exotic ‘bird of paradise’ – could equally don the garb of a cosmopolitan sophisticate. Skippy, rechristened as ‘Asta’, proved a star in his own right, in huge demand shortly thereafter and cast in two screwball classics, The Awful Truth (1937) for Columbia, and, Bringing Up Baby (1938) made at RKO. Alas, his high-spiritedness on the set of The Thin Man caused him to bite Loy on the finger. For the record, Hammett’s novelized hound had been a schnauzer, not a wire-haired fox terrier.
Affectionately known around the MGM lot as ‘One-take Woody’, Van Dyke’s economy in picture-making has never been equaled. He seems instinctually to have known when and where to place his camera and what to cover in a single shot, rarely photographing a scene more than twice. In fact, for William Powell's first scene in The Thin Man, Van Dyke instructed the actor to play around with mixing a cocktail, feeling his way through the nightclub set while improvising his dialogue. The legend is Van Dyke told Powell he was merely blocking of the scene, the camera lazily following Powell around the set as he performed these perfunctory duties, though hardly in a perfunctory way. When the scene was finished, Powell was startled to hear his director holler, “That’s it! Print it!” Indeed, cast were soon to discover this as the order of the day, kept on their toes, learning new lines and bits of business on the fly and then shoot the sequence with little time to fully prepare.
One scene became the exception to this house rule: the penultimate dinner party, where Powell became so thoroughly confounded by the intensity of his dialogue he repeatedly flubbed his lines. The result was an unanticipated consequence; the real oysters being re-served to dinner guests putrefying from the intense heat given off by overhead arc lamps. It created quite a stench on the set. While co-star Maureen O’Sullivan did not appreciate Van Dyke’s technique, some years later, Myrna Loy would recognize the genius in Van Dyke’s ‘off the cuff’ precision, crediting him with The Thin Man’s brisk pacing and spontaneity. “He paid attention to our easy conversations between takes,” Loy later recalled, “…and worked as much of that into the picture as he could.” And Powell, for his part, absolutely adored working with Loy. “We forgot about technique, camera angles, and microphones,” he admitted, “We weren't acting…just two people in perfect harmony. Myrna has the happy faculty of being able to listen...she has the give and take that brings out the best.”
The Thin Man was a colossal hit for MGM, racking up the dollars as well as unprecedented unanimous critic’s praise for its lithe concoction of comedy and thrills. Today, it remains one of the cleverest adaptations of a popular novel ever turned out. In 1997, The Thin Man was added to the United States National Film Registry of culturally, historically and aesthetically significant motion pictures.  As with all of its subsequent Thin Man sequels, (there are five all told) the plot is incidental to the on-screen chemistry of William Powell and Myrna Loy. Given the virtues of the piece, it is positively repugnant Warner Home Video, or the Warner Archive (WAC) have avoided re-issuing The Thin Man (and its sequels) to Blu-ray. But no, like so many truly golden offerings from the retired MGM and Warner catalog, the present custodians of such iconography have given preferential treatment to remastering ‘B’ and ‘C’ grade sci-fi and horror flicks from the late fifties and beyond to re-releasing such classic stuff as this.
So, it is 2018 and film lovers must still content themselves with Warner Home Video’s DVD release from 1998. Perhaps it’s not as much of an oversight as back then the studio – paying attention to its riches – elected to restore and remaster The Thin Man to the best of standards available back then. Gone are the ravages of age-related damage and disrepair. The Thin Man’s B&W visuals are heartily represented; crisp, clean and with very clean whites and decidedly rich and deep solid blacks. Contrast is bang on. The audio is mono and just as well, with minimal hiss during quiescent scenes and virtually zero pop throughout. Given its social significance, its fairly disgusting not to have even an audio commentary to accompany this movie. But there it is. No extras. Bottom line: while we continue to wait for the executive brain trust at Warner to get off their collective lump and start releasing the ‘good stuff’ to Blu-ray, their DVD incarnation of The Thin Man suffices. Recommended, but in the hopes a 1080p offering in the works…pretty please!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS

0