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The Towering Inferno Review

There is so much to love about The Towering Inferno it's hard to know where to begin. Steve McQueen and Paul Newman are together at last! Fred Astaire gets drenched! O.J. Simpson saves a cat! Faye Dunaway wears Dacron! As one of the first mid-'70s disaster epics (produced by the King of Disaster, Irwin Allen), this supersized burnfest inspired countless star-studded copycats and lives on today as a sort of camp classic of its kind. It doesn't have Red Buttons like The Poseidon Adventure does, and it doesn't have Victoria Principal's cleavage jiggling in the tremors of Earthquake, but it does have pretty much everything else.

On the occasion of the dedication of the world's tallest skyscraper (which I for one would never consider building in earthquake-prone San Francisco, by the way), an A-list party is planned for the top floor. This way to the glass-enclosed elevator, please. Architect Doug Roberts (Newman) and builder Jim Duncan (William Holden) are proud, but they don't know that Duncan's cost-cutting son-in-law (Richard Chamberlain) has compromised safety for profit. Sure enough, when a small fire breaks out, things go really bad really fast, and firemen Michael O'Halloran (McQueen) and Harry Jernigan (Simpson) arrive on the scene holding their hoses.

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Funny Face Review

High powered fashion editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson), in a moment of epiphanic abandon in Stanley Donen's s'wonderful, s'marvelous Funny Face declares "Let's give 'em the old pizzazz." And Funny Face does just that, giving audiences one last blast in 1957 of the stylish charm of the great MGM musicals, which after that point were dead in the water (the bloated Gigi from 1958 exempted). After then the only original movie musicals churned out of Hollywood would be the penny-dreadful Elvis Presley musicals in the 1960s.

The only thing is that Funny Face was not an MGM musical -- it was produced by Paramount. MGM's Roger Edens was shopping around a film version of a play written by Leonard Gershe concerning the life of his friend, fashion photographer Richard Avedon and desperately wanted Audrey Hepburn as the photographer's love interest. But Hepburn was under contract to Paramount and Paramount wouldn't lend her out. Fred Astaire ambled into the mix, but he was no longer contracted to MGM and was freelancing. Eventually MGM's Arthur Freed magnanimously loaned out key figures in MGM creative staff to Paramount -- director Stanley Donen, musical director Adolph Deutsch, arranger Conrad Salinger, choreographer Eugene Loring, cinematographer Ray June -- and the MGM-at-Paramount unit was in place, where it proceeded to put together one of the finest movie musicals of all time.

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Ziegfeld Follies Review

Who knew they made clip shows into movies? Ziegfeld Follies is two hours of skits, songs, dances, and jokes from the dying days of vaudeville, brought to us by a who's-who of yesteryear performers. The film opens, believe it or not, with a deceased Florenz Ziegfeld, looking down from heaven, dreaming about his perfect variety show. What follows is that dream, put to film.

With a tagline like "The Greatest Production Since The Birth Of Motion Pictures," you get a little something like the unmanageable monstrosity that Follies ultimately becomes. Structured as a series of unrelated vignettes, directed by different people (not to mention that screenwriting credit list), it's ultimately just a jumble of parts that add up to less than a whole movie.

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On The Beach Review

Never mind the unfortunate title, this ain't Frankie and Annette. On the Beach is a movie that begins with the apocalypse: Nuclear war has wiped out the entire world except for Australia. (They were making movies like this in 1959???) It's here we find a U.S. submarine hanging out amidst Aussies living their lives, pretty much as normal only with less booze. The catch: Everyone knows the end is coming, as nuclear fallout makes its way across the Oceans, due to arrive in a month or two. But what's this Morse code signal coming from San Diego? Could someone be alive and transmitting? The sub's off on a recon mission to the wasteland, and meanwhile the Australians come to grips with certain death in a matter of weeks. While heartbreaking and touching, it's hard to imagine that riots aren't rampant and that martial law isn't required, but hey, it's a movie, and quite a good -- if overlong -- one, at that.

Ghost Story Review

Rather typical story (wrongful death, vengeful ghost) is masked by one of the most curious casts in horror history: Astaire? Fairbanks? Houseman? Holy crap! These guys would be watchable in an infomercial, and their cavorting with a mostly-naked Alice Krige makes for an unforgettable, if not terribly scary, Ghost Story.

Top Hat Review

Perhaps the definitive Fred & Ginger movie, Top Hat is a story of love and longing and... of course, dancin' galore! Some of the famed couple's greatest moments are on display here: "Dancing Cheek to Cheek" as a couple, and most memorably, Astaire's "Top Hat & Tails" number wherein he uses his cane to "gun down" a lineup of dancers, one by one, his tap shoes serving as the crack of the weapon.

The plot is thin, as is common in 1930s musicals: Astaire is a dancer that's just busting at the seams with his art. He shows off some moves one night in his apartment (and what moves they are, making excellent use of the props in the room), only this annoys the hell out of the woman (Rogers) living downstairs. It's one of the few times that a musical actually makes reference to the fact that it's not normal to break into song and dance whenever the mood strikes you, though of course, eventually, Rogers gets in on the act herself.

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That's Entertainment! Review

Like no other industry, Hollywood has the unique ability to celebrate itself. That's Entertainment! is nothing but the unabashed patting of itself on the back, but damn if it isn't a film that's as important as any other.

That's Entertainment! -- which would spawn two sequels and another DVD of extras (available on the box set, see right) -- is more accurately a celebration of MGM and its legacy of movie musicals. Shot in 1974, the film takes us on a tour of MGM's then-sprawling backlot (which was torn down shortly thereafter), radically contrasting the dilapidated sets with the films that were originally shot on them. Stars like Sinatra, Astaire, Crosby, Kelly, Minnelli, and Reynolds (Debbie, not Burt) are our tour guides, hosting us on our walkthrough the back lot and introducing the clips of past films starring themselves and their friends.

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The Barkleys Of Broadway Review

Ten years after what everyone assumed would be Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' last joint venture, they reunited for a final time. Unfortunately the result is a tepid Technicolor musical with little to recommend it aside from its historical value. The story is barely worth mentioning: Backstage histrionics surrounding a pair of Broadway theatricals and their power play. The dancing isn't much more noteworthy, mainly recycled Gershwin tunes that have been put to better effect in other films -- including ones starring this famous duo.

Swing Time Review

Fred Astaire's "Lucky" really is anything but. In the opening scene he's tricked into missing his wedding due to an argument over the cuffs on his pants -- all part of a bet... you see, Lucky's got a bit of a gambling problem, and this doesn't really get any better over the course of the movie.

Maybe it's for the best, though. Missing the wedding winds him up with Penny (Ginger Rogers), who we're sure is going to be a better match for Lucky, because, you know, she can dance. (Here, in a bit of comic kitsch, she's a dance instructor and he's never danced before... though he proves to be an exceedingly fast learner.)

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Follow The Fleet Review

A really tepid outing from Astaire and Rogers, Follow the Fleet has none of the flair of other hoofin' flicks of the era, giving us Astaire as an unbelievable navy sailor (who chastises his crewmates in an early scene for not letting him forget he "used to be a hoofer"). Of course he ends up wooing and dancing with Ginger Rogers -- but , alas, none of the songs are memorable.
Fred Astaire

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