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Fred and Ginger Step Out in Reissue of ‘Roberta’

In the ‘50s, MGM bought the rights to Jerome Kern’s Broadway hit “Roberta” so it could remake an earlier movie adaptation for its stable of stars: Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Marge and Gower Champion. The 1952 film, retitled “Lovely to Look At” and directed by Vincente Minnelli, was a nice enough piece of fluff but it resulted in the studio keeping the 1935 screen version out of circulation for a couple of decades. The film was feared lost until the studio uncovered the original negative in the early ‘70s.

That black-and-white version has now been reissued by MGM/UA Home Video on laser as part of a double bill with the 1933 “Dancing Lady” ($50, extended play, digital sound). There are some wonderful moments in the earlier RKO “Roberta” worth savoring. It was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ third film together and from their first number, “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” it’s clear that something very special is happening on the screen. Who could resist Astaire in “I Won’t Dance” or their marvelous dance of seduction to Kern’s classic “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”? Watching a lovely Irene Dunne sing “Yesterdays” is touching, but hearing a wooden Randolph Scott say “swell” every other scene makes you wonder if he didn’t personally drive the word out of fashion.

A young, blond Joan Crawford is the vulnerable seductress of “Dancing Lady” being romanced by a dashing if duplicitous Franchot Tone and seemingly ignored by the ever-seductive Clark Gable. “Dancing Lady” marked Astaire’s brief film debut (he played himself). Crawford proves beyond dispute that she was nobody’s “dancing lady.” Watching her, then the graceful Ginger Rogers, underscores how underrated Rogers was in the Astaire partnership.

Considering that these films are almost 60 years old, the black-and-white reproduction is remarkable. Both films were mastered from 35-millimeter safety composite fine-grain masters manufactured from the original, fragile nitrate camera negative.

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Part of the package is a short best left in the vaults, “Star Night at the Cocoanut Grove.” It proves that idiotic patter didn’t originate on Oscar or Emmy telecasts. The only thing it might do is send forth a wave of nostalgia for the nightspot in the once-posh, now-defunct Ambassador Hotel.

Unfortunately, nostalgia is the strongest emotion evoked by Jack Haley Jr.'s “That’s Entertainment!” ($70), which got everyone interested in the old MGM musicals when the compilation first came out in 1974. Watching various stars from Bing Crosby to Astaire and Gene Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney extol the wonders of the musical’s heyday, we are also given an unwitting glimpse of the studio’s fading heyday.

What’s left of Leo is hardly a roar. The Culver City back lot lingered over here has become a condo refuge; the rest of the studio property now houses Columbia and TriStar Pictures, under Sony Studios’ banner.

The bulk of the three-disc deluxe laser edition, released in standard play (CAV), was originally transferred from a 35-millimeter Metrocolor internegative and the wide-screen sequences have been restored. The sound was matrixed for Dolby Surround from the four-track stereophonic magnetic masters.

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As with most lasers, the treat is to zip past the dull spots and go directly to the dance chapter stops on “That’s Entertainment!” and especially “Roberta.”

Catching Astaire and Rogers mid-step, frame by frame, in perfect step through those long, incredible single takes can leave you breathless. That’ll have to do until we’re offered a laser with all the Astaire-Rogers RKO dance excerpts, so we can really stop action up one staircase and down the next.


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