The ASTAIRE and ROGERS COLLECTION -- Volume One (Includes TOP HAT, SWING TIME, FOLLOW THE FLEET, SHALL WE DANCE, THE BARKLEY'S OF BROADWAY) WARNER HOME VIDEO 

There are perfectly good reasons why August is often referred to as "the dog days of summer". The days are so humid and languid that those who wish can lazily frolic at the nearest beach or resort as the summer wanes. Film companies at this time of the year balk at releasing anything of value or promise and dump their unwanted trash into cinemas. Network television continues its deserved slide into oblivion by rerunning shows no one wanted to see the first time around. Home video outfits cautiously hold back their more elaborate and promising dvd releases until the presumed-to-be-more-lucrative Fall or Winter season. Except Warner Home Video. They've just released The ASTAIRE and ROGERS COLLECTION and in one fell swoop created Christmas in August.

There's no way to describe the lofty level of sheer joy that viewing the best of these musical gems provides. And rehashing the threadbare plots would be a tiresome waste of space, as they are mainly an excuse on which to hang some out-of-this-world dancing, monumentally splendid songs and hysterically funny comedy. 

Certainly TOP HAT (1935), with its memorable Irving Berlin score, is considered by most to be the finest musical concoction of the Thirties. It's hard to argue with that assertion as the giddy degree of pleasures it delivers in non-stop fashion is intoxicating to say the least. But pardon me, as far as I'm concerned, SWING TIME (1936) wins by a nose thanks to the direction of the legendary George Stevens, who adds a generous helping of humanity, spontaneity and genuine sophistication to the proceedings--and in doing so is miraculously able to make the incredible dancing, terrific Jerome Kern music and hilarious comedy of Victor Moore and Helen Broderick seem even more scintillating than they would normally appear.

Irving Berlin again provides the songs for FOLLOW THE FLEET (1936) and while not as good as those for TOP HAT they and one incredibly spectacular solo number by Astaire are reason enough to coast through an occasionally strained effort that is intermittently see-worthy. But Randolph Scott in a sailor suit? I don't think so. 

SHALL WE DANCE (1937) returns Astaire-Rogers to form as they (and we!) are swept away by the gorgeous George and Ira Gershwin songs and quite possibly the finest choreography of any of their films together. Their roller skate number is one for the books and no words can amply convey the ebullience that witnessing Astaire's solo in the art-deco boiler room provides the lucky viewer with.

After a decade apart THE BARKLEY'S OF BROADWAY (1949) teamed Astaire and Rogers for the last time. During that decade Rogers had thickened considerably and was hardly able to keep up with the still agile and youthful Astaire. Not helping matters at all was some less than imaginative choreography and Astaire, probably himself the greatest special effect ever seen on film, is severely hampered in his solo by an abundance of so-so special effects that only serve to minimize the legitimacy of his contribution. What is most surprising about BARKLEY'S is the fact that the Astaire-Rogers comedy timing is far sharper than any of their work in the Thirties. Indeed their handling of the rather smart Comden and Green dialogue is so deliciously deft that one almost wishes that they'd dispensed with the musical numbers entirely. 

To fully appreciate the care that Warner's took with this first dvd release of TOP HAT one only needs to cast a cursory glance at the muddy and murky images on display on the original laser disc, and the SWING TIME dvd debut disc is far superior in every way to the previous Criterion "Special Edition" laserdisc for which I paid $100. Indeed all four full screen R.K.O. films display surprisingly smooth, sharp and silvery black and white images but it must be admitted that THE BARKLEY'S OF BROADWAY transfer is too dark to accurately convey its original 3-Strip Technicolor luster. The monaural sound on all five titles is reasonably robust and distortion-free. 

--DICK DINMAN

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