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CLASSIC MUSICALS FROM THE DREAM FACTORY (1946-1955). It's a great month for lovers of MGM's lavish musicals from yesteryear: In addition to the That's Entertainment! CD anthology set (see story elsewhere in this section), next Tuesday will also witness the release of a DVD collection featuring five of the studio's popular musicals. Calling these titles "classics" might be stretching it, but with such luminaries as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Judy Garland on hand, they're easily recommended for fans of the genre.

Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) casts Robert Walker (five years to go until his career role in Hitchcock's Strangers On a Train) as celebrated composer Jerome Kern, reflecting on the many highlights of what (at least according to this biopic) was a charmed existence. In other words, there's not much dramatic urgency to the proceedings, with scenes from Kern's even-keel life punctuated by staged recreations of many of his biggest hits -- in fact, there are so many sequences from Show Boat (including one of Frank Sinatra singing "Ol' Man River") that interested fans might as well rent that musical. Many other stars turn up to belt out a tune or two; Judy Garland and Dinah Shore are among the singers, though the most enjoyable bit finds Angela Lansbury performing "How'd You Like to Spoon With Me."

Ziegfeld Follies (1946) opens with showman Flo Ziegfeld (William Powell reprising his role from the Oscar-winning The Great Ziegfeld) in Heaven, looking down and wishing that he could put together one final production packed with songs and stars. This setup leads to a compendium of musical numbers and comedy skits featuring approximately two dozen stars -- including two future I Love Lucy actors in Lucille Ball and William Frawley. The quality between sketches is inconsistent, though respectively taking the gold, silver and bronze are Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly (in their historic first teaming) performing "The Babbitt and the Bromide," a smokin' Lena Horne crooning "Love," and Judy Garland getting into the spirit of "The Interview."

Three Little Words (1950) tops Till the Clouds Roll By as far as biopics about songwriters are concerned. Here, Fred Astaire (in a Golden Globe-winning performance) plays Bert Kalmar while Red Skelton portrays Harry Ruby; although initially dismissing Ruby as a simpleton, Kalmar eventually recognizes his musical abilities and together they forge a camaraderie penning such standards as "I Wanna Be Loved By You" and the title tune. Astaire locates a suitable screen partner not only in Skelton but also in Vera-Ellen, who co-stars as Kalmar's sensible wife. And a young Debbie Reynolds turns up in a couple of scenes and instantly grabbed Hollywood's attention.

Summer Stock (1950) emerges as the best movie in this set -- not hard to imagine, since it combines the talents of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. Garland's a hard-working farm owner who's so busy trying to bring in the crops that she doesn't even have time for her nerdy fiancé (Eddie Bracken). Then her flighty sister (Gloria De Haven) unexpectedly arrives with a theatrical troupe in tow, stating that their barn will be the perfect place to stage a musical. Amid all the ensuing madness, the show's director (Kelly) does his best to keep matters civil. Phil Silvers (as an eccentric actor) lays on the shtick pretty thick, though his bumpkin routine with Kelly is a (pardon the expression) barn-raiser. Still, the classic number belongs squarely to Judy, as she belts out the definitive version of "Get Happy."

It's Always Fair Weather (1955), a sorta follow-up to 1946's On the Town, finds Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd playing three World War II pals who decide to hook up again in 10 years' time. A decade passes, but upon keeping their date, they all discover they no longer have anything in common. But circumstances keep them in the city for the entire day, meaning they'll have one final shot to establish some kind of bond. A musical that isn't always light on its feet (the midsection drags), the movie does take some humorous shots at TV advertising as well as offer Cyd Charisse one of her best roles as a brainy beauty who catches Kelly's eye.

There are no audio commentaries on any of the discs, but extras do include a making-of featurette on each film as well as assorted shorts, cartoons and outtakes.

Till the Clouds Roll By: **1/2

Ziegfeld Follies: **1/2

Three Little Words: ***

Summer Stock: ***

It's Always Fair Weather: ***

Extras: ***1/2

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996). Director Brian De Palma is clearly in gun-for-hire mode, and the Dream Team of screenwriters -- Robert Towne (Chinatown), Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) and David Koepp (Jurassic Park) -- similarly seem to be slumming. Still, viewers in the mood for turbo-charged escapism could do a lot worse -- for starters, they could be watching the clunky Mission: Impossible II. After a fabulous opening credits sequence, this initial franchise entry -- itself based on the popular '60s TV series -- centers on a computer disc containing the names of top undercover CIA agents located all over the world. An attempt to retrieve the disc from an informant leads to the deaths of several members of the Impossible Missions Force, and it's up to one of the few survivors (Tom Cruise) to smoke out the traitor, clear his own name and protect the identities of all those compromised by the list (apparently, he hadn't anticipated the current White House administration treacherously outing Valerie Plame). Character development counts for naught in this picture, but viewers may not mind as it hurtles from one impressively staged sequence to the next. DVD extras in this Special Collector's Edition include a look at the franchise's history, short pieces on various technical aspects of the film, in-depth agent dossiers profiling all the major characters and two Tom Cruise tributes (one in England, one by MTV).

Movie: ***

Extras: ***

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