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Warner Home Video presents
Jim Hessler: Look. Jerry, I just want you to write some good music, some real music. That's all the thanks I want. Don't waste your time fussing with those wheezy little tunes. Think big. Try to be somebody.
DVD ReviewAfter the backstage formula went stale in the early 1940s, Hollywood scrambled to find a new hook on which to hang its lavish musicals, and it wasn't long before Tinseltown struck gold. The runaway success of Yankee Doodle Dandy—the story of George M. Cohan—paved the way for a series of splashy songwriter biographies that featured a cavalcade of both top stars and beloved standards. The composers' lives, whether beefed up or—in the case of Cole Porter—watered down for public consumption, often received short shrift, but if moviegoers cared, they didn't complain. Music was the order of the day, and the more numbers a studio could squeeze in, the better. MGM lived by that mantra, and Till the Clouds Roll By, its ambitious Technicolor biography of the esteemed Jerome Kern, might just contain more songs per capita than any other musical in history.
Kern was a personal favorite of producer Arthur Freed, who was determined to mount a mammoth tribute to the man best known for penning the Show Boat score. As evidenced by the cover art above, Freed crammed no fewer than 13 stars into the picture, and almost twice as many songs, ranging from little-known early efforts (How'd You Like to Spoon With Me?) to gooey romantic ballads (They Didn't Believe Me) to a vast array of bona fide Kern classics, including Ol' Man River, Why Was I Born?, A Fine Romance, All the Things You Are, and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, to name but a few.
It doesn't matter that the story plods along, or that Kern's humdrum life doesn't merit a big screen treatment. (Okay, okay, so he came within a whisker of sailing on the Lusitania—big deal!) We don't watch Till the Clouds Roll By to witness the dignified composer (ably acted by Robert Walker) form a friendship with his arranger (Van Heflin), mildly struggle to achieve success, or propose to an English country girl (portrayed by Dorothy Patrick without the slightest hint of an accent). We watch it for the music, and to see star after glittering star warble Kern's time-honored tunes. And with names like Garland, Sinatra, Horne, and Grayson doing the crooning, how can the movie miss?
It can't. Sure, it's too long, too lumbering, and at times too pompous, but such was the style and manner of the day. Hollywood revered the great composers like gods, and never thought twice about canonizing them on celluloid. Kern, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, and Berlin wrote the era's soundtrack, infusing America with hope and optimism during the darkest days of the Depression and World War II, and that made them, in the eyes of many movie moguls, vital patriotic symbols on a par with Uncle Sam. A sumptuous musical salute was the least these chieftains could do to express the country's gratitude—and make a bundle of dough at the same time.
To lend Kern's story necessary drama, MGM's writers took several liberties with the truth, but wisely let the man's songs stand on their own, keeping the staging simple and (for the most part) within the theatrical realm. Director Richard Whorf makes sure the beauty of Kern's music is never eclipsed by massive set pieces, hordes of extras, or gimmicky camera angles, and as a result, the performances resonate more deeply. The opening Show Boat sequence alone is worth the price of admission, and features a heartfelt duet of Make Believe by Kathryn Grayson and Tony Martin, a jaunty Life Upon the Wicked Stage by Virginia O'Brien, and Lena Horne's electrifying Can't Help Lovin' That Man. Later on, Dinah Shore brings a melancholy yearning to The Last Time I Saw Paris, perky June Allyson sashays through Cleopatterer, and Lucille Bremer and Van Johnson tear up the floor while proclaiming I Won't Dance. (Van may look a bit clunky with the polished Bremer, but don't be fooled; he can hoof like a pro! Who knew?) Skinny Frank Sinatra (saddled with an awful bouffant hairdo) may not immediately spring to mind when one thinks of Ol' Man River, but the baritone raises the song to a comfortable key and closes the show with a sincere reading of the powerful Kern anthem.
All 13 stars shine, but one burns brighter than the others. Judy Garland effortlessly steals the picture as the "wistful, lovely, unforgettable" Marilyn Miller, the reigning Broadway queen of the 1920s. Pregnant with Liza at the time and still basking in the glow of her marriage to Vincente Minnelli (who directed her sequences), Garland never looked lovelier on camera, and sings two terrific Kern standards—the plaintive but hopeful Look for the Silver Lining and the exuberant Who?, the movie's most lavishly produced number. Judy also figures prominently in a memorable dramatic scene, in which Marilyn informs Kern's young, stagestruck protégé (Lucille Bremer) she must give up the song Kern wrote for her "for the good of the show." Garland's resolute firmness nicely offsets Bremer's hysterics, and the confrontation adds welcome (if only fleeting) fire to the film.
When compared to such classic musicals as Singin' in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Gigi, Till the Clouds Roll By pales significantly, but in the songwriter biopic niche—narrow though it may be—it's without a doubt one of the best. Sadly, Kern died during the film's production, but he surely would have been touched by this well-crafted, entertaining, and reverential tribute, which presents his music in the finest possible light.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: Till the Clouds Roll By languished in public domain hell for years, spawning a flurry of cheapo DVD releases struck from beat up old prints that should have been tossed on the scrap heap decades ago. I should know; I actually owned one of those unwatchable discs for a few minutes (before I pitched it in the trash) back in the medium's infancy. Fans of this film have ceaselessly begged for a legitimate release, and at last Warner has obliged, producing a stunning transfer that will please the most discriminating eye. From the opening title sequence, gorgeously saturated hues burst forth, flooding the screen in deep blues, vibrant reds, and sunny yellows. Clarity, while not always razor sharp, is still excellent across the board, and grain is kept to a healthy minimum. Solid contrast, well-defined shadow detail, and stable, natural fleshtones top off this superior, thrilling effort.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: The mono track supplies clear sound with a minimum of surface noise. Dialogue is always easily understandable, and the all-important Jerome Kern songs enjoy fine presence and depth of tone. A faint bit of hiss remains, but you really have to listen for it, and it never disrupts the film's flow.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 39 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Deleted Scenes
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Layers Switch: 01h:20m:59s
Up next, veteran globetrotter James Fitzpatrick sticks close to home for the vintage short, Glimpses of California, part of his popular Traveltalk series. The nine-and-a-half-minute film opens with a salute to the Golden State's gorgeous wildflowers, then swings down to Hollywood, where we "glimpse" Grauman's Chinese Theater, the famed Farmer's Market, and Forest Lawn Park. The classic cartoon Henpecked Hoboes lightens the mood as it chronicles the futile (and violent) efforts of a pair of hungry bears to catch a chicken for dinner.
Of course, true-blue musical fans will immediately access the outtakes, and the two included here don't disappoint. The Swiss-themed Music in the Air allows coloratura soprano Kathryn Grayson ample opportunity to warble and trill alongside her husband at the time, Johnny Johnston, whose bland vocals and blander screen presence add little to the sequence. Much more interesting (and noteworthy) is the ultra-rare D'Ya Love Me, a tender, winsome ballad sung by Judy Garland. As an added bonus, Warner includes a lengthy prologue to the number, in which Garland clowns with a couple of mimes. Unfortunately, the prologue's soundtrack no longer exists, so the interplay is silent, but as any Garland fan will tell you, it's always a treat to see any new footage of the star, no matter the material's condition. As per the Warner norm, both outtakes have been beautifully restored and look as clear, lush, and saturated as the main film.
The movie's original theatrical trailer completes the extras package.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsOne of Hollywood's better songwriter biographies, Till the Clouds Roll By showers us with a bevy of first-rate musical talent singing standards by the incomparable Jerome Kern. Producer Arthur Freed slathers a heavy coating of MGM gloss over the picture, making this tuneful salute a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Warner does its part by at last rescuing this classic film from the public domain and restoring its original splendor. Finally, the clouds really have rolled by, and we have a definitive release of this beloved MGM musical. Recommended.
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