Merry Christmas from Premium Hollywood, Part 1

I love “It’s a Wonderful Life” and really like “A Christmas Story” and numerous versions of “A Christmas Carol,” but this the “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sequence from “Meet Me in St. Louis” is so simple and so beautiful I just get all verlept every time I watch it. Talk amongst yourselves.

  

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The logic of casting

Yesterday, Mike Fleming reported that Nick Cassavettes was in talks to direct the fourth, or possibly fifth — depending on how you reckon it — version of “A Star is Born,” a perpetually successful property that dates back to the 1930s.

You can complain about remakes all you want, but this is one story that really begs to be remade with every generation, as it’s always pretty much always relevant and only more topical with each new decade. In case you’ve never seen any version, it’s the story of a young actress and/or singer on the way up who becomes involved with a star very much on the way down, mostly because of substance abuse. Apparently the thinking is to once again make the on-the-go female a singer, as in the now iconic 1954 version starring Judy Garland and James Mason directed by George Cukor, and the commercially huge but critically dissed 1976 Barbara Streisand/Kris Kritofferson version directed by Frank Perry and, perhaps, an uncredited Streisand. Names like Beyoncé and Alicia Keys are being mentioned for the female lead.

The two male stars Fleming mentions are interesting. I don’t need to say why Robert Downey, Jr. is either too on the nose or absolutely and utterly perfect for the role. Real-life parallels and method acting possibilities aside, he’s a intriguing choice also because of his own forays into singing. Could make for a dramatic duet or two.

The other name being floated according to Fleming is Jon Hamm of “Mad Men.” This would presumably take the film more in the direction of the 1954 version, which featured James Mason as the alcoholic movie star in love with Judy Garland’s singer. Hamm’s a terrific and versatile actor and I’m sure he’d be very good. I just hope, however, they’re not just mentioning his name because just he does a great impression of Mason.

This Mason, by the way, is mainly inspired by his “A Star is Born” character. In real life, it was Judy Garland who had the drinking and drug issues. As for Hamm, let’s hope we see his impressionistic skills again — and the writers can again figure out something funny for him to do with them — when he returns to SNL later this month.

  

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Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me

Though he was a rich man, an underrated singer in his own right, and the co-founder of Capitol Records, Johnny Mercer is, 34 years after his death, nowhere near as famous as the author of such brain-burrowing mid-century lyrics as “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)”, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” “That Ol’ Black Magic,” “Satin Doll,” “Laura,” and “Moon River” really should be. Lyricists rarely get the respect composers do. Moreover, Mercer worked primarily in Hollywood, which in his day meant more money but less prestige than writing songs for Broadway. That’s show business.

“Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me” suffers slightly from the ill-fitting inclusion of some new material featuring super jazz fan and executive producer Clint Eastwood chatting with film composer John Williams and others, but overall, this TCM documentary written by Ken Barnes and directed by Bruce Ricker is a massively engaging documentary look at Mercer’s often surprising career. The 90-minute film efficiently covers his personal riches-to-(not quite)-rags-to-greater-riches story and tumultuous personal life, including a lifelong affair with Judy Garland, but wisely focuses on the music and takes full advantage of some priceless archival footage. Performances and interviews featuring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Julie Andrews, Blake Edwards, Ray Charles, a young Barbara Streisand, a middle-aged Bono, and new performances by Jamie Cullum, Dr. John and others (seen in their entirety on the DVD bonus disc), beautifully illustrate Mercer’s gifts and chart his extraordinary influence. An obvious labor of love, “The Dream’s On Me” is not exactly great filmmaking but it’s got great taste and is a must for fans of great popular music.

Click to buy “Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me”

  

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“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

Since it’s a nostalgic bittersweet, family-oriented musical comedy set in the turn of the century midwest starring Judy Garland, some of you might assume that “Meet Me in St. Louis” is kind of a drippy, saccharine movie. Trust me, it’s sweet but anything but drippy and established Vincente Minelli as one of the greatest of Hollywood directors. If your cable system has TCM, you can see for yourself; it’s showing at 10:00 pst/1:00 a.m. est tonight.

In the meantime, here’s big sister Judy Garland trying to console Margaret O’Brien with one of the loveliest pop Christmas songs ever written. This always gets to me.

  

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Blu Tuesday: The Wizard of Oz: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition

When it comes to movie classics, there is none more beloved than Victor Fleming’s 1939 musical, “The Wizard of Oz.” Based on the popular children’s book by L. Frank Baum, the film has been featured on numerous “best of” lists and continues to captivate people of all ages to this day. In celebration of its 70th anniversary, Warner Home Video is releasing the movie for the very first time in high definition in a special collector’s set designed exclusively for the hardcore “Oz” fan. This four-disc box set includes over 16 hours of bonus material, a 52-page commemorative book about the making of the film, a reproduction of the original 1939 campaign book, a replica of the film’s budget sheet, and a limited edition watch.

Of course, the main draw of the set is the film itself, and while many have logged complaints about the film’s new hi-def transfer following the one-night special engagement in theaters across the country, there’s no truth behind any of them. Though a movie as old as “The Wizard of Oz” is never going to look as pristine as one from the last decade, the hours of work that went into restoring the film for its Blu-ray debut can be appreciated the minute Leo the MGM Lion comes on screen. It’s not perfect, mind you, but when compared to the many reissues over the years, this version is hands down the best one yet. Colors pop off the screen without looking oversaturated, while the sepia-toned segments look sharper than ever.

As expected with a movie as legendary as “The Wizard of Oz,” Warner Bros. has crammed as many special features onto the four-disc set as possible — to the point that it’s almost overkill. Granted, one of those discs only contains a digital copy of the film, but the other three more than make up for it. Disc One features the movie, as well as a new audio commentary by “Oz” historian John Fricke and a sing-along track. The previously released TV special, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic,” hosted by Angela Lansbury also appears, as do featurettes on music, costumes and production design (“The Art of Imagination”) and the legacy of the film (“Because of the Wonderful Things It Does”).

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