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DVD: Notable by their contrasts

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 26, 2002


Singin' in the Rain (2-disc special edition) and Grease (widescreen edition)

photo
[Photo: Paramount Pictures]
The special DVD package of Grease, starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, is perfunctory in its use of bonus material.

Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's 1952 classic Singin' in the Rain is widely regarded as the best movie musical of all time. Grease (1978) is the most profitable live-action example of that genre. The difference between those reputations is clear with both films' releases in DVD packages this week.

Singin' in the Rain deservedly is treated like a classic in a 2-disc set filled with historical perspective and archival footage. By comparison, the throwaway treatment afforded Grease proves that Paramount Home Video is content with simply cashing in.

The best thing to say about the DVD version of Grease is that it's finally here in its original widescreen format with a crisp digital soundtrack. That's standard for practically any DVD these days, but the disc is woefully lacking in bonus material. Sorry, but a theatrical preview trailer and superficial VH1 interviews with John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John and others recorded for the movie's 20th anniversary rerelease just don't cut it. The next-best extra is an option of using Spanish or English subtitles, demonstrating how little imagination Paramount invested here.

Oh, there's also a Grease song booklet containing lyrics for the movie's 1950s-style rock 'n' roll tunes, as if we don't already know them by heart. The real grease in this release can be found on Paramount's palms.

Singin' in the Rain is another story. This is a fascinating set, beginning with a startlingly clear digital transfer. It even improves on the restored version used for the film's brief theatrical run this year to celebrate its 50th anniversary. A remastered digital soundtrack is literally music to our ears.
photo
[Photo: MGM]
Singin’ in the Rain, with Gene Kelly doing just that in this memorable scene, gets the DVD treatment it deserves as both a classic film and a classic musical.

An alternate commentary track features Donen and surviving co-stars Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor and Cyd Charisse waxing nostalgic about the production. The track occasionally shifts attention to director Baz Luhrmann explaining how Singin' in the Rain influenced his own stab at reviving the musical genre with Moulin Rouge. Film historian Rudy Behlmer makes a strong case for Singin' in the Rain as not only the best musical ever but also one of the best films of any kind.

Disc two features a 96-minute PBS tribute to producer Arthur Freed, whose resume is dotted with classic film musicals, including Annie Get Your Gun, On the Town and An American in Paris. Another half-hour featurette, What a Glorious Feeling, was produced exclusively for this DVD set. The history lessons continue with a feature that traces the evolution of talking pictures; it starts with sound effects for Don Juan (1926), with a film clip example from each milestone.

Freed's favorite composer, Nacio Herb Brown, gets his due on another bonus, a collection of rare excerpts of his songs performed in nearly forgotten musicals. We hear Singin' in the Rain in its first incarnation in The Hollywood Review of 1929 and You Were Meant for Me from The Broadway Melody (1929). Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney are Babes in Arms crooning Good Morning in 1939. A dozen clips, a dozen songs that will stick in your head for days.

One of those compositions, You Are My Lucky Star from The Broadway Melody of 1936, was lip-synched by Reynolds (to Betty Noyes' voice) for Singin' in the Rain, presented here as an outtake. Since the movie was itself a tribute to Hollywood, a hidden footage option allows viewers to detour into films that inspired screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green. This special edition DVD is a must-own for film buffs.

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