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HTF DVD REVIEW: The Busby Berkeley Collection: Volume 2



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#1 of 5 OFFLINE   Ken_McAlinden

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Posted September 20 2008 - 11:13 PM

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The Busby Berkeley Collection: Volume 2
Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936) / Varsity Show (1937) / Hollywood Hotel (1937)/ Gold Diggers in Paris (1938)
The Films

Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936 – Warner Bros. - 101 minutes)

Directed By: Lloyd Bacon

Starring: Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Victor Moore, Glenda Farrell, Osgood Perkins, Rosalind Marquis

Released in late 1936, this late entry in the Depression-busting "Gold Diggers" series of Warner Bros. musicals finds Dick Powell playing insurance salesman Rosmer Peck. Peck's heart is not exactly in his work, as he seems much more comfortable singing his company's inspirational theme song at a convention than actually peddling policies. He takes a renewed interest in office work after his boss hires ex-chorus girl Norma Perry (Blondell) as his new secretary. With Norma's encouragement, Peck manages to sell a million dollar policy to hypochondriac theatrical producer J. J. Hobart (Moore). Unbeknownst to both Peck and Norma, the policy is part of a scheme by two of Hobart's underlings (Perkins, Brown) to cover up some heavy embezzlement and save the theatrical company by cashing in when the fragile Hobart passes away. Enlisted in the scheme to drive Hobart over the edge is Norma's chorus girl pal, Gen (Farrell), but does she have a gold digger's heart or a heart of gold?

While the films in the Gold Diggers series were not exactly known for their sophisticated plots, Gold Diggers of 1937 sets itself apart somewhat with a darkly comic premise. The comedy is helped along immeasurably by veteran comedic character actor Victor Moore, who steals every scene in which he appears in a part tailor made for his comic persona.

Berkeley also experiments with the formula a bit by staging a couple of numbers spontaneously within the film's non-stage-bound scenes. This approach was in-step with other modern musicals of the late '30s. This is done most successfully with the amusing "Speaking of the Weather" number early in the film, and somewhat less inventively with the "Plenty of Money and You" song. Fortunately, in the latter case, the great song overcomes the dull staging. While the experiments with plot and structure are not universally successful, the film does conclude with one of the best signature Berkeley eye-popping musical extravaganzas of the series built around the song All's Fair in Love and War.

Varsity Show (1937 – Warner Bros. - 80 minutes)

Directed By: William Keighley

Starring: Dick Powell, Fred Waring, Ted Healy, Priscilla Lane, Rosemary Lane, Walter Catlett, Johnny Davis, Sterling Holloway, Buck and Bubbles

In Varsity Show, Dick Powell plays Chuck Daly, a Broadway Producer who has hit a dry spell. He is recruited by a group of students from his college Alma Mater to return to campus to help save their floundering annual musical show. Initially reluctant, Chuck's manager Willy (Healy) convinces him that they need the money badly enough to take the gig. Arriving on campus, Chuck finds himself attracted to lovely co-ed Barbara Steward (Lane), and at odds with stuffy and old-fashioned faculty advisor Professor Biddle (Catlett).

Of all of the slight and ridiculous plots in all of the Warner Bros. musicals in all of the 1930s, this may very well be the slightest and most ridiculous. Additionally, the film shows signs of heavy-handed editing as at a few points during the film major plot developments seem to have happened without the audience being privy to them (just try to follow who has the mumps, for how long, and why).

This film gets by strictly on the personalities of its stars and the entertainment value of its music, which is enough to make it watchable, but not nearly enough to make it memorable. That being said, Ted Healy (without his stooges) is very funny as Powell's prickly manager, Johnny Davis blows the roof off during his singing numbers, Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians provide some fine music along with Lane sisters Priscilla and Rosemary, and Ford Washington Lee and John William Sublett display high energy despite unfortunate stereotypes in their act as "Buck and Bubbles". The film marks the screen debuts of youngest Lane sister Priscilla and comedienne Mabel Todd, who serves as a broadly comic foil/unusual romantic interest for Healy.

Berkeley was not involved in staging any of the musical numbers in this film except for the blow-out finale, which features a "boolah boolah" tribute to various colleges with the obligatory overhead shots of massive groups of dancers forming into the logos of universities such as Wisconsin, Notre Dame, USC and others while the appropriate fight songs play over the soundtrack.

Hollywood Hotel (1937 – Warner Bros. – 109 minutes)

Directed By: Busby Berkeley

Starring: Dick Powell, Rosemary Lane, Hugh Herbert, Ted Healy, Benny Goodman, Louella Parsons, Glenda Farrell, Lola Lane, Johnnie Davis, Alan Mowbray, Frances Langford, Jerry Cooper, Ken Niles, Diane Thompson, Raymond Paige, Mabel Todd, Allyn Joslyn, Grant Mitchell, Edgar Kennedy

Dick Powell plays singer/saxophonist Ronny Bowers who is leaving his gig with Benny Goodman's band for a shot at stardom in Hollywood. His prospects look good at first when he is directed by the studio boss to escort starlet Mona Marshall (Lola Lane) to one of her movie premieres. What Ronny does not know is that he is actually escorting lookalike Virginia Stanton (Rosemary Lane) who is impersonating the temperamental Mona who went AWOL the day before the premiere. When Mona gets word of this, she throws a fit, and Ronny's contract with the studio is terminated before he can even figure out what happened. He tries in vain to find more work with the help of Virginia and shifty photographer turned manager Fuzzy (Healy). He has little luck until he is discovered singing at a drive through malt shop by a film producer. Ronny gets a gig dubbing the singing voice for Mona's obnoxious frequent co-star Alexander Dupre (Mowbray), but he seems destined to remain anonymous until his pals hatch a scheme involving the "Hollywood Hotel" radio program.

Plot-wise, this film is all over the place with enough supporting characters and story-lines for two or three other movies. Despite this lack of organization, the film is absolutely worth checking out for the amazing footage of Benny Goodman and his orchestra ripping through "Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)" featuring Gene Krupa on drums. Other highlights include: Johnnie Davis's enthusiastic run through of "Hooray for Hollywood" with Goodman's orchestra during the film's opening which introduced the song which would become the town's unofficial theme song to the world; an inventively staged "Let that Be a Lesson to You" that starts on a radio show and spills over to a drive-in restaurant where Powell and Healy's characters are working; an impressive run through of "Dark Eyes" by Raymond Paige and His Orchestra, and the expected whiz bang finale. Other than "Hooray for Hollywood", most of the film's musical highlights appear in its second half, which results in a somewhat slow, plot-heavy first half that is saved by occasional bits of comic business from the film's resident goofball supporting players including Ted Healy, Hugh Herbert, and Mabel Todd.

Gold Diggers in Paris (1938 – Warner Bros. - 97 minutes)

Directed By: Ray Enright

Starring: Rudy Vallee, Rosemary Lane, Hugh Herbert, Allan Jenkins, Gloria Dickson, Melville Cooper, Mabel Todd, Fritz Feld, Curt Bois, Ed Brophy

The last entry in the Gold Diggers series of films stars Rudy Vallee as Terry Moore, the proprietor of a New York nightclub called the Club Ballé. Losing money with every customer and under alimony pressure from his high living ex-wife Mona (Dickson), Terry and his business partner Duke Dennis (Jenkins) do not bother to correct a French cultural diplomat who mistakes them for the prestigious Academy Ballet company and offers them a contract to perform at the Paris Exposition. They hire a slightly kooky ballet master named Leoni (Feld) and his ballerina student, Kay (Lane), to teach their showgirls the basics of ballet on the ship to France. When word of this reaches the New York papers, it raises the ire of Padrinsky (Bois) the real master of the Academy Ballet of America as well as his chief patron, Mike Coogan (Brophy), a violence prone hoodlum with a soft spot for the fine arts.

The last entry in the Gold Diggers series is hampered somewhat by an extremely stiff lead performance by Rudy Vallee. While Vallee is in fine voice and is a comparable and possibly even superior singer to Dick Powell, he simply did not have the acting chops at this point in his career to carry a film or generate any comic or romantic chemistry with his co-stars. On the positive side of the ledger, the supporting cast, including Allan Jenkins in the familiar sidekick role, comedian Hugh Herbert as a none too bright French cultural diplomat, and Ed Brophy as a Damon Runyonesque gangster/art patron is as funny as ever, and Rosemary Lane has clearly come a long way as a screen actress in the year or so since Varsity Show.

The musical numbers are not quite as memorable as previous entries in the series and are staged in a way that probably seemed a bit old-fashioned even to 1938 audiences. The exception to this statement are the numbers performed by jazz novelty act Freddie Fisher and His Schnikelfritz Orchestra. These are hilarious, energetic, and probably the best reason to watch the film.

The Video

All films in the Busby Berkeley Collection Volume 2 receive black and white 4:3 transfers appropriate for their original theatrical presentations. They contain natural looking film grain and a large range of contrast with occasional minor nicks and scratches. Gold Diggers of 1937 looks especially impressive, and appears to have been sourced from an element very close to the original negative. Gold Diggers in Paris has slightly higher contrast and grain than the other titles in the collection with a few more noticeable instances of film wear and tear, but is still a more than acceptable presentation.

The Audio

All of the films are presented with Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks that have been cleaned up with minimal but noticeable hiss and crackle and a pleasantly surprising amount of dynamic range. Gold Diggers of 1937, the oldest film in collection, is a bit noisier than the other tracks, but still sounds quite good for a film of its vintage.

Extras

Extras consist entirely of vintage shorts, cartoons, and trailers. All extras are presented in black and white 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio unless indicated otherwise below.

Gold Diggers of 1937

Romance of Louisiana is a Technicolor two-reeler that dramatizes the political and diplomatic maneuverings by the likes of James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, Charles de Tallyrand, and Napoleon Bonaparte surrounding the Louisiana Purchase.

Plenty of Money and You is a Friz Freleng-directed two-strip Technicolor Merrie Melodies cartoon set in a barnyard where a Hen is surprised when one of her eggs hatches to reveal an ostrich who then gets into various comic predicaments culminating in being captured by a voracious weasel who sings a variation on the title song ("With Plenty of Gravy on You"), also featured in Gold Diggers of 1937.

Speaking of the Weather is a Frank Tashlin-directed Technicolor Merrie Melodies cartoon in which the covers of various magazines on a drug store stand come to life including a number of celebrity caricatures. It features a handful of songs that were also used in Gold Diggers of 1937 including Plenty of Money and You and its title song.

Gold Diggers of Broadway Excerpts includes two surviving segments from the lost 1929 two-strip color "talkie" Gold Diggers of Broadway: Tiptoe through the Tulips and Finale. This is the same feature that was supposed to be included on last year's three-disc deluxe edition DVD of The Jazz Singer but mistakenly substituted the Finale for the ...Tulips number and a ballet number from another film for the Finale. Here they are presented exactly as intended.

The film's Theatrical Trailer (3:54) starts off with enthusiastic voiceover narration emphasizing the pedigree of the Gold Diggers name with clips from all of the predecessors in the film series before becoming a standard series of clips emphasizing the film's comic and musical highlights.

Varsity Show

A Neckin' Party (11:02) Is a vintage Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy short where they travel to a ranch in Mexico and Charlie runs afoul of a tough hombre when he flirts with his girl. Charlie gets invited to the titular "neckin' party", which turns out to involve a hangman's noose. Bergen's Mortimer Snerd character also gets an amusing cameo scene.

Have You Got any Castles (7:25) is a vintage Technicolor Frank Tashlin-directed Merrie Melodies cartoon in which the cover images of various books on the shelves of a store come alive at night. It features a few songs that were also used in Varsity Show and includes numerous celebrity caricatures.

The Theatrical Trailer (2:39) is a standard clips with promotional text assemblage.


Hollywood Hotel

Double Talk (10:36) is a 1937 Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy short in which Charlie is an irascible orphan in an orphanage run by Edgar Bergen. Bergen tries to get Charlie adopted by a wealthy old woman, but Charlie goes out of his way to spoil the deal...to his later regret.

Romance of Robert Burns (15:45) is a 1937 Technicolor two-reeler that dramatizes the story of how Scottish poet Robert Burns came to compose Auld Lang Syne. It stars Owen King as Burns. King also has a small unbilled part in Hollywood Hotel.

Porky's Five & Ten is a 1938 Bob Clampett directed Looney Tune cartoon in which Porky Pig sets out in a boat to open up a 5 & 10 store on the troipcal island of Boola-Boola. Before he can get there, a group of fish steal his supplies and use them in various comical ways, inclusive of creating their own underwater Hollywood Hotel. Musically it draws from the same library of songs as Hollywood Hotel inclusive of "Hooray for Hollywood[/i] and Let that Be a Lesson to You.

The Theatrical Trailer for Hollywood Hotel (4:17) emphasizes the large cast and song selection. It includes a small amount of unique promotional footage not culled from the film during its introduction.

Gold Diggers in Paris

The Candid Kid (20:48) Is a vintage musical two-reeler featuring Josephine Huston and Phil Silvers. They participate in a candid photo contest where they are challenged to come up with difficult photos. Josephine needs a picture of herself singing in a Gondola and Phil needs a picture of himself in a padded cell eating a tamale. Comedy and music ensue. There is a nasty cycling distortion on the soundtrack of the first reel that makes it a difficult listen at times.

Cinderella Meets Fella(8:25) is a Technicolor Tex Avery Merrie Melodies cartoon from 1938 in which the Cinderella tale gets the full-on Tex Avery treatment with an inebriated fairy godmother and Egghead as Prince Charming.

Love and Curses (8:24) is a Technicolor Hardaway and Dalton Merrie Melodies cartoon that satirizes "gay 90s" melodramas. The pure hearted Emily and Harold look through a photo album and reminisce about how they were antagonized by the nefarious Roger St. Clair in the 1890s, with plenty of interludes of barbershop quartet music.

The Theatrical Trailer (2:28) Starts with an extended introduction from Vallee where he steps out from a curtain to introduce Freddie Fisher and His Schnikelfritz Orchestra. The amount of unique footage makes it worth checking out.

Packaging

All films are encoded on dual-layered "DVD-9" discs that are packaged in standard Amaray cases with cover art derived from vintage promotional art. The dics are in turn collected in a thin cardboard box with a foil enhanced image of Joan Blondell leading an army of chorus girls from the "All's Fair in Love and War" finale of Gold Diggers of 1937. All titles in the box set are also available separately.

Summary

These four somewhat unsung films featuring musical production numbers from the great Busby Berkeley are presented on DVD with excellent black and white video and very good mono audio. As films, they are not quite as high in quality as the titles in the first Busby Berkeley collection, but they all have entertainment value and at least a handful of exceptional musical sequences. Supplements consist of vintage shorts, cartoons, and theatrical trailers. The shorts generally are culled from the year of release of the feature films they accompany on disc while most of the cartoons feature songs that were also featured in the films with which they are paired.


Regards,
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#2 of 5 OFFLINE   Mike*HTF

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Posted September 21 2008 - 05:48 AM

Great review again, Ken - thanks!

Any insight on why they decided to drop the excellent documentary Busby Berkeley: Going through the roof? I believe it was part of the original annoucement.

#3 of 5 OFFLINE   Ken_McAlinden

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Posted September 21 2008 - 07:27 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mike*HTF
Great review again, Ken - thanks!

Any insight on why they decided to drop the excellent documentary Busby Berkeley: Going through the roof? I believe it was part of the original annoucement.
No insight whatsoever, although my uniformed speculation usually leads me to suspect rights issues of one sort or another that could not be resolved before the planned street date.

Regards,
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#4 of 5 OFFLINE   Billy Batson

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Posted September 21 2008 - 11:20 AM

Still waiting for Warner to release volume one in England!

#5 of 5 OFFLINE   Tim Tucker

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Posted September 22 2008 - 05:36 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ken_McAlinden
Additionally, the film shows signs of heavy-handed editing as at a few points during the film major plot developments seem to have happened without the audience being privy to them (just try to follow who has the mumps, for how long, and why).
And for good reason. The original cut of Varsity Show (now lost) was 120 minutes. Losing a third of its running time is going to be detrimental.
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