ASTAIRE & ROGERS COLLECTION: VOLUME 2 (1933-1939). For those keeping track, Volume 1 (released August 2005) contained Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937) and The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). Now, at long last, Warner Home Video has made the other five titles in the immortal Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers series available on DVD for the first time.
The top-billed stars of the glossy RKO musical Flying Down to Rio (1933) are Dolores Del Rio (dull), Raul Roulien (duller) and Gene Raymond (dullest), playing the three points of a hardly scintillating love triangle. Enter supporting players Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: The moment they begin dancing The Carioca together, a star pairing is born. The suits at RKO immediately saw the writing on the wall -- or, in this case, the dancing on the screen -- and scrambled to find the duo their own vehicle.
That film turned out to be The Gay Divorcee (1934), which continues to rank as one of the best A&R offerings, a couple of notches below Top Hat (the pinnacle of perfection) but comparable to Swing Time and Shall We Dance. Adapted from the Broadway hit, this finds Rogers, anxious to divorce her stuffy workaholic husband, falling for hoofer Astaire. Fred sings Cole Porter's timeless "Night and Day," while supporting actors Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes are so hilarious that they all were asked to return in Top Hat. Nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this earned the Oscar for Best Original Song ("The Continental").
In between The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat, the dancing team managed to squeeze in Roberta (1935), a musical comedy in which they're billed below Irene Dunne. She plays the top assistant to a Parisian fashion designer (Helen Westley as Roberta); Ginger's an American posing as a European countess, while Fred and Randolph Scott are Yanks arriving in France with their band in tow. Scott's as boring here as he was in the team's Follow the Fleet, but our dynamic duo and another memorable song score (this one includes "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and "I Won't Dance") easily put this over the top.
The emphasis is clearly on comedy in Carefree (1938), which only occasionally bothers to toss in a song or dance number. Ginger won't commit to marriage to Ralph Bellamy (playing an amiable slow-wit for the umpteenth time), so he sends her to psychiatrist Fred to figure out what's wrong. Rogers has ample opportunities to show off her comedic chops, while Astaire performs a stunning dance number with the aid of a golf club and plenty of balls.
The final Astaire-Rogers film from RKO (MGM would reunite the pair a decade later in The Barkleys of Broadway), The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) is more plot-heavy than previous outings. Fred and Ginger star as the real-life husband-and-wife team who found great success as ballroom dancers in the years preceding World War I. Less effervescent than past outings, it's a poignant way to wrap the team's RKO years.
Assorted extras on the five discs include musical and comedy shorts, classic cartoons and theatrical trailers.
Warner Home Video is also offering Astaire and Rogers: The Complete Film Collection, which includes all 10 films, an additional disc titled Astaire and Rogers: Partners In Rhythm, a soundtrack CD featuring 10 classic tunes, replicas of the original Shall We Dance and Roberta program books, and 10 behind-the-scenes photos. If you've already bought Volume 1, don't worry: Warner is offering consumers the option of upgrading to the Ultimate Collection without having to buy the first set's five flicks again.
Flying Down to Rio: **1/2
The Gay Divorcee: ***1/2
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle: ***
Volume 2 Extras: ***
Complete Film Collection Extras: ****
COLUMBO: THE COMPLETE SIXTH & SEVENTH SEASONS (1976-1978). Because it was just one of the rotating shows on The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie (the other constants were McCloud and McMillan and Wife, with other, less successful series added and dropped each year), fans could only enjoy a handful of Columbo episodes per season. And because seasons six and seven contained only four apiece, Universal Home Entertainment executives wisely elected to place all eight entries in one box set rather than rook consumers by forcing them to buy two paltry collections. Cumulatively, these episodes don't compare to ones from earlier seasons, but there's still a great deal of ingenuity -- not to mention star Peter Falk's reassuring presence -- in these mystery tales featuring such guest stars as William Shatner and Ruth Gordon. The original series came to a close in 1978, though Falk would again don the raincoat for 24 more Columbo TV-movies made between 1989 and 2003. Except for some promos for other TV shows on DVD, there are no extras.
DR. SEUSS' HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! (1966). Network television in the 1960s produced a number of classic Christmas cartoons: A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and this perennially popular classic. Adapted from Dr. Seuss' children's book, this animated tale about a Scrooge-like creature whose heart was "two sizes too small" benefits from color-saturated animation (even more eye-popping in this remastered edition), Boris Karloff's double duty as the Narrator and the Grinch, and a heartwarming moral about the true meaning of Christmas. In addition to The Grinch, the DVD also includes another Dr. Seuss adaptation, Horton Hears a Who! Other extras include two making-of featurettes, a short look at the film's music, song selections, and brief biographies.