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Fred Astaire's first and last dancing films highlight vintage releases

Posted April 1

Fred Astaire’s first film and his final dancing role highlight these vintage movies on Blu-ray and DVD this week.

“Finian’s Rainbow” (Warner Archive, 1968, G, introduction/audio commentary, featurette, trailer). Young Francis Ford Coppola directed this adaptation of the stage musical about an Irish scoundrel (Fred Astaire, in a wonderfully energetic singing and dancing performance at age 69) who steals a pot of gold and travels to America, where he must contend with a wily leprechaun (Tommy Steele). Petula Clark co-stars with Keenan Wynn as a racist Southern senator getting his comeuppance from Al Freeman Jr. There are good songs (“Old Devil Moon,” “If This Isn’t Love”) too. (The Blu-ray debut is available at warnerarchive.com.)

“Dancing Lady” (Warner Archive, 1933, b/w, trailer, two short films). Joan Crawford and Clark Gable star in this by-the-numbers MGM backstage musical, bolstered by Franchot Tone, May Robson, Robert Benchley, Sterling Holloway and Ted Healy and His Stooges (Moe, Larry and Curly). But the film is most notable for marking the screen debut of Fred Astaire, a Broadway star at the time, who plays himself, singing and dancing in two numbers with Crawford (who’s no Ginger Rogers). Watch for Nelson Eddy and Eve Arden. (The manufacture-on-demand DVD-R available is at warnerarchive.com.)

“Strange Cargo” (Warner, 1940, b/w, featurette, trailer, short film, short cartoon). This is an intriguing allegory about prisoners escaping from a French penal colony, with Clark Gable picking up Joan Crawford and Ian Hunter as a gentle, Bible-spouting Christ figure. Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas co-star. In “Dancing Lady,” Crawford received billing above Gable, but in their eighth and final film together, it’s the other way around. (Other Crawford films reissued in this cycle include “Flamingo Road,” “Sadie McKee,” “Torch Song” and “A Woman’s Face.”) (This manufacture-on-demand DVD-R is available at warnerarchive.com.)

“Demon Seed” (Warner Archive, 1977, R for violence and partial nudity, trailer). Proteus IV (creepily voiced by Robert Vaughn) is a highly advanced form of artificial intelligence that plots to take over the world by procreating in this scary story of a robot run amok. Based on a Dean Koontz novel, this is a skillful and effective film, which seemed very far-fetched in 1977, but is less so today. Julie Christie is great as the woman targeted by Proteus. (This Blu-ray debut is available at warnerarchive.com.)

“The Valley of Gwangi” (Warner Archive, 1969, G, featurettes, trailer). A gorgeous Blu-ray remaster and Ray Harryhausen’s first-rate monster effects are the main draw for this hybrid of “The Lost World” and a traditional Western. James Franciscus discovers dinosaurs in a hidden Mexico valley at the turn of the 20th century and puts a vicious allosaurus on display in his traveling carnival — bad idea. (The Blu-ray debut is available at warnerarchive.com.)

“When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” (Warner Archive, 1969, G, trailer). Rivalries between cave-dwelling tribes and battles with dinosaurs make for an enjoyable, if anachronistic, effort. This was Hammer Films’ bid to cash in on “One Million Years B.C.,” which was an unexpected hit for the studio four years earlier. (The Blu-ray debut is available at warnerarchive.com.)

“Wanted: Jane Turner” (Warner Archive, 1936, b/w). This is a fast-paced B-movie of postal inspectors on the trail of mail thieves, tracking an envelope full of cash on its way to “Jane Turner” at General Delivery, Los Angeles. Lee Tracy is at his wise-cracking best, though a romance with his partner (Gloria Stuart) feels shoehorned in. (In 1997, Stuart was the elderly Rose in the opening and closing scenes of “Titanic.”) (This manufacture-on-demand DVD-R is available at warnerarchive.com)

“S.O.B.” (Warner Archive, 1981; R for language, sex, nudity, violence; trailer). A movie producer (Richard Mulligan) tries to salvage his big-budget, G-rated flop by having his wife, the film’s squeaky-clean star (Julie Andrews), do a nude scene. Blake Edwards (married to Andrews in real life) wrote and directed this dark ensemble satire of Hollywood, an angry insider screed. It is alternately funny and tasteless. William Holden, Robert Preston and Robert Vaughn co-star. (This Blu-ray debut is available at warnerarchive.com.)

“The Handmaid’s Tale” (Shout Select, 1990; R for violence, sex, nudity, profanity; trailer). This is a strange dystopian allegory with a “1984” atmosphere, set in the near future where 99 percent of the population is sterile and young women are made concubines for leaders in an effort to propagate. The great cast (Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, Aidan Quinn, Faye Dunaway) is thwarted by a script and direction by two big talents (Harold Pinter and Volker Schlondorff, respectively) with no grasp of this genre.

Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at hicks@deseretnews.com.

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