MGM Classic Musicals Collection

Here’s a grab bag of fairly notable titles from the MGM/UA catalogue. Most came fairly late in the development of the genre and not all are as interesting as their reputations but the dedicated musical buff will appreciate having them all in one place. The most celebrated of these is, of course, West Side Story, the Romeo and Juliet redux cast with street gangs. The plot involves a romance between a white hoodlum (Richard Beymer) and a Puerto Rican girl (Natalie Wood) as a gang war looms in the background. Its beautiful location shooting and fantastic Jerome Robbins choreography have firmly wedged it into the genre canon, though I feel a bit uneasy with its occasionally trenchant, more often facile attempts to grapple with its social realities. Less sticky is Guys and Dolls, an enjoyably lavish riff on some Damon Runyon stories. It has gambler Frank Sinatra betting shady colleague Marlon Brando that he can’t seduce missionary Jean Simmons. Director Joseph Mankiewicz makes this way too talky but once its huts up and gets on with the music it’s pretty entertaining. How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has ambitious schemer Robert Morse climbing the rungs of the business world through chicanery of all sorts, getting to the top with improbable speed. The direction is pretty flat but the songs are funny and the satire reminiscent of high-period Frank Tashlin. More satisfying is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with Zero Mostel as the Roman slave who causes chaos when he tries to arrange the marriage of his master’s son and the virgin courtesan across the street. Richard Lester’s clipped, dandyish style is totally at odds with the broad ribaldry of the script but the zesty cast and Stephen Sondheim songs triumph over adversity. No such luck with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, an impossibly annoying "family” picture in which inventor Dick van Dyke builds a flying car in which he and his children have fantastical adventures. Made in the twilight of classic Hollywood, just before the movie brat revolution, it’s a creaking old man movie that puts a gun to your head and says, "smile, damn it!” Finally, there is Fiddler on the Roof, where Jewish peasant Topol tries to navigate change and disappointment on a turbulent Russian shtetl. The pleasant surprise is that it’s soulful, emotional and very, very resonant. It’s the best film in the collection and the best reason to buy this. (MGM)