TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection: Astaire & Rogers (The Gay Divorcee / Top Hat / Swing Time / Shall We Dance)
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THE GAY DIVORCEE (1934) Oscar winner* The Continental revels in precision-dance joy, Cole Porter’s Night and Day sways with timeless grace and Fred and Ginger’s first top billing sets the tone for more film hits to come. SHALL WE DANCE (1937) A George and Ira Gershwin score has Fred tapping to Slap That Bass rhythms of a ship’s engine room and the duo’s Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off skate routine. Pure bliss! SWING TIME (1936) One of the team’s greatest! The Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields score goes from jubilant (Pick Yourself Up, Bojangles of Harlem) to sublime (the Oscar-winning** The Way You Look Tonight, A Fine Romance). TOP HAT (1935) The pair’s best-remembered film features Fred’s signature Top Hat, White Tie and Tails, the incomparably romantic Cheek to Cheek and more in Irving Berlin’s tip-top score. DISC 1: SIDE A ~ THE GAY DIVORCEE INCLUDES: • 2 Shorts – Show Kids and Star Night at the Cocoanut Grove • Cartoon Shake Your Powder Puff • Audio-Only Bonus: Hollywood on the Air Radio Promo • Theatrical Trailer SIDE B ~ SHALL WE DANCE INCLUDES: • Commentary by Songwriter Hugh Martin and Pianist Kevin Cole • Featurette The Music of Shall We Dance • Musical Short Sheik to Sheik • Cartoon Toy Town Hall DISC 2: SIDE A ~ SWING TIME INCLUDES: • Commentary by John Mueller, Author of Astaire Dancing • Featurette The Swing of Things: Swing Time Step by Step • Musical Short Hotel a la Swing • Cartoon Bingo Crosbyana • Theatrical Trailer SIDE B ~ TOP HAT INCLUDES: • Commentary by Fred Astaire’s Daughter Ava Astaire McKenzie and Film Historian Larry Billman • Featurette On Top: Inside the Success of Top Hat • Comedy Short Watch the Birdie with Bob Hope • Cartoon Page Miss Glory • Theatrical Trailer All 4 Movies – Subtitles: English, Français & Español (Main Feature. Bonus Material/Trailer May Not Be Subtitled).
Turner Classic Movies' Greatest Classic Films Collection: Astaire & Rogers collects four movies on two double-sided discs, with the bonus features that appeared on the single-disc versions of the movies. The Astaire-Rogers films mix light romantic comedy (usually centered around mistaken identities and ending, inevitably, in blissful wedding promises) with elegant dinner wear and surreal sets intended to transport '30s audiences away from the Depression to such locales as Rio, Paris, and Venice. The two stars are also aided by a recurring stable of RKO players such as Edward Everett Horton (master of the double-take), Eric Blore, and Helen Broderick. And then there's that sensational dancing set to great songs by the likes of Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and Jerome Kern, numbers that are not merely entertaining but also innovative for their time in that they reveal character and advance the plot. Add it all up, and you have a recipe for an irrepressible joie de vivre that practically defines the movie musical.
The Gay Divorcee (1934) is their best early picture, a loose adaptation of Astaire's stage show, 'The Gay Divorce.' The only song retained for the movie is Cole Porter's smash hit "Night and Day," which is the setting for a sublime pas de deux between Fred and Ginger. The closer is the sprawling 17-minute ensemble number "The Continental." With a score by Irving Berlin, Top Hat (1935) is most famous for two numbers, Astaire's definitive tuxedo setting "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails" and the feathery duet "Cheek to Cheek." But other joys include Astaire's "Fancy Free" declaration, "Isn't It a Lovely Day," and the grand finale "The Piccolino." Maybe their most enjoyable picture, Swing Time (1936) features the set-piece "Pick Yourself Up," in which Rogers "teaches" Astaire to dance before they break into a spectacular number; the farewell ode "Never Gonna Dance," and the Oscar-winning "Just the Way You Look Tonight," from the team of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields.
Shall We Dance (1937) has a complex plot that has Astaire and Rogers actually getting married before the final credits roll, and turns George and Ira Gershwin's brilliant "They Can't Take That Away from Me" into a heartbreaking ode. Other great songs include "Slap That Bass," "They All Laughed," and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," unforgettably performed on roller skates. Bonus features include commentaries on the last three films, featurettes, and vintage shorts and cartoons. --David Horiuchi
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For those out there who have never seen these classics—I'm looking at you, youngsters—here's an approach to these films. First, forget the stories: they are the thinnest of clotheslines on which to hang the dance numbers. For this reason scene selection was created on DVD. Second, the comedy is innocent, broad, and has not dated well. The reason to see and treasure these films is to watch Fred and Ginger flirt, court, and make love by dancing—harmonious, graceful, blissful love. Balanchine compared Astaire to Bach in artistry, inventiveness, and elegance. Rogers was his perfect partner (who, it has been famously said, did everything he did but in heels while dancing backward). Along the way Astaire introduced to the public more standards of the Great American Songbook than anyone else, because their studio, RKO, hired the best American songwriters of the twentieth century. The evidence is here on these four discs. Although many of this set's extras—original trailers and so forth—are in sad shape, Turner Classic Movies has tried to give us a night at the cinema the way we would have known it ca. 1935. The movies themselves have been well restored. How fortunate we are still to have them—and, if we are lucky enough to own them, to see them whenever we wish.
Politically if not economically I feel as though America is now undergoing a Second Great Depression. Fred and Ginger pulled our parents and grandparents through the first. The sheer joy of watching A & R dance may yet pull us and our children through the second.