Warner Bros. have made available most of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films separately or in five-disc sets, but in the event you want them all in one place, they have provided the "Ultimate Collector's Edition," a big twelve-disc box of all of their movies. Titled "Astaire and Rogers: The Complete Film Collection," it contains, alphabetically, "The Barkleys of Broadway," "Carefree," "Flying Down to Rio," "Follow the Fleet," "The Gay Divorcée," "Roberta," "Shall We Dance," "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," "Swing Time," and "Top Hat." The set also includes a newly made documentary on a disc to itself, a CD of soundtrack songs, and a ton of supplementary items.
Of the ten films Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together, starting with "Flying Down to Rio" in 1933 and continuing through "The Barkleys of Broadway" in 1949, many of their fans consider "Top Hat" from 1935 and "Swing Time" from 1936 the best of the lot. You won't get an argument from me. But because I can't possibly do justice in one review to all of the films in the set and because I have already reviewed some of the team's earlier movies, I'll spend the next few minutes telling you a little about one of their more-unusual pictures together, "Carefree" (1938).
You could probably call "Carefree" more of a screwball comedy than a typical Astaire-Rogers musical. It has fewer dance routines and more zaniness than the team's previous eight films. Additionally, it is more about the Ginger Rogers character than about Fred Astaire's. As a result of its being the odd-man-out of the group, it was the first Astaire-Rogers film to lose money, and the most-famous dance in the history of motion pictures wouldn't do another movie together for over a decade. But there are still a few good dance numbers in the picture and more than enough Irving Berlin music to go around, if you don't mind that the filmmakers appear to have rather casually dropped them into the comic story line.
This time, as unlikely as it sounds, Astaire plays a psychiatrist, Dr. Tony Flagg. Rogers, more appropriately, plays a radio singer, Amanda Cooper. Tony's best friend, Steve Arden (Ralph Bellamy, who never seemed to get the girl), is engaged to Ms. Cooper, but she has called off the wedding three times already for reasons unknown. Steve thinks that maybe Amanda needs to see a shrink and get psychoanalyzed, and so he sends her to Tony. Bad idea, because you can guess what's going to happen. After the usual misunderstandings and complications that always arise after the initial meeting of a leading man and woman in a romantic comedy, the two fall in love. Expect no surprises, but do expect more slapstick than is common from Astaire and Rogers, with a supporting cast of screwball comedy pros like Jack Carson and Franklin Pangborn.
The filmmakers set the story among New York's upper crust, the country-club set. Astaire always wears a suit, even riding a bicycle, and more often than not a tuxedo. Everyone lives in a penthouse, and everyone has a maid who looks like Hattie McDaniel. In fact, Amanda's maid IS Hattie McDaniel, a year before "Gone With the Wind." I'm sure people only lived this way in the movies, but as the Depression was still going in 1938, Hollywood figured it was the kind of far-fetched escapism moviegoers wanted.
As I've said, there are fewer musical numbers than usual for an Astaire-Rogers film, and the script does not integrate them too smoothly into the fabric of the lighter-than-air plot. Astaire suddenly breaking out into song and dance on the golf course, for instance, is actually a bit awkward and without much cause. Nevertheless, Astaire was always in top dance form, and the routine is fun to watch, executed with consummate skill. The film projects another musical number, "I Used to Be Color Blind," as a dream sequence, which looks lovely and airy in slow motion. Astaire flatly refused to sing a tune called "The Yam," insisting it was too silly, so Rogers takes it solo. The film concludes with a graceful dance duet that, like the others, comes out of nowhere.
The actors did give it their best shot, though, as did RKO Radio Pictures, who assigned old hand Mark Sandrich ("Top Hat," "Shall We Dance," "Follow the Fleet," "The Gay Divorcée," "Holiday Inn") to direct, Pando S. Berman to produce, Hermes Pan to do the choreography, and, as I mentioned, Irving Berlin to do the music. Berlin had been doing hit songs since before the First World War, eventually writing some 800 tunes, 19 Broadway shows, 18 motion pictures, and living to be over 100 years old. Nothing, however, could quite bring "Carefree" to life or overcome its lighter-than-air script. 6/10
"Carefree" is another of WB's excellent transfers of older material. Although it does not appear to be a frame-by-frame restoration, it looks like a good print, touched up. There are very few age marks to speak of, maybe the occasional fleck or line; there are strong black-and-white contrasts throughout; there is always a fairly sharp object delineation; and there is hardly any visible grain.
The audio engineers remastered the sound in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural, with a playback level a tad lower than usual for an older film. As a result, there is a touch more background hiss than on some other films in the set, and from time to time one hears an odd, soft buzzing noise. It is not annoying, so forget about it. The sound comes to life during the musical interludes, which is what really matters.
"The Complete Film Collection" contains a number of items in the set. The most important is a new, 2006 documentary profile, "Astaire and Rogers: Partners in Rhythm," lasting about eighty-six minutes. It occupies a disc to itself and provides biographies of the two stars and chronological information on each of the ten films they made together, and then some. Also, Warner Bros. include a ten-song Astaire-Rogers CD, with tunes from the original soundtracks; a folder of behind-the-scenes photo cards; replicas of original "Roberta" and "Shall We Dance" première program booklets; and a mail-in offer for four full-sized, 27" x 40" reproductions of original Astaire-Rogers theatrical posters.
What's more, the individual movie discs contain audio commentaries, special featurettes, vintage short subjects, classic cartoons, audio-only bonuses, radio promos, and theatrical trailers. So you get quite a lot of extras for your dollar.
Specifically, the "Carefree" disc includes a vintage gangster-musical short, "Public Jitterbug No. 1," eighteen minutes; and a classic cartoon, "September in the Rain," complete with a disclaimer saying it contains characters that reflected some of the racial prejudices of the day. In addition, the disc has twenty-four scene selections, and like all of the ultrathin disc cases in the set, this one is transparent and allows one to view the chapters printed on the inside back cover. WB provide only English as the spoken language, but there are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
You can purchase "Carefree" in several configurations: (1) You can buy it separately, or (2) you can buy it in Volume 2 of the Astaire and Rogers series, or (3) you can buy it in the Ultimate Collector's Edition reviewed here, with all of their films in one big box, or (4) if you already have Astaire and Rogers Volume 1, you can buy through Amazon the Ultimate Collector's Edition with five empty, matching, ultrathin cases (with appropriate covers) into which you may transfer your first five movies so they'll all be in the one box. Anyway, all those extras in the Ultimate Collector's Edition are nothing to sneeze at, and my film-value rating below is a cumulative score for all ten films and the documentary.