Good News

Good News (1947)
Warner Home Video
Cast: June allyson, Peter Lawford, Patricia Marshall, Joan McCracken
Extras: Excerpts, Deleted Musical Scene, Trailer, Production Notes
Rating:

From Broadway in the Twenties came the ’college musical, ’ a genre unto itself. "Good News" (1927) was a prime example of it. The plot posed two burning questions: will the home football team win? and will the paths of true love run smooth?

The bloom was apparently off the rose when the film reached the silver screen as an early talkie a mere three years later. Its look was earnest but effortful. Unfortunately, the 1929 stock market crash intervened, thrusting America into a tailspin of economic depression. For audiences with more pressing things on their minds, the folly of ’flapper’ innocents doubtless had a hollow charm. By the time the show was given a second chance in the movies, in 1947, another event of consequence had just transpired, the Second World War.

MGM’s Freed Unit, established in 1940, was the brightest and best that Hollywood had to offer in musical talents. Composers, arrangers, costume designers – everything was top of the line. Into this fray, producer Arthur Freed introduced a team new to movies, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Comden and Green were writer/performers familiar from Broadway theater for their skills in both the book for musicals and lyrics for songs. Charles Walter, whose feature film debut as a director this was as well, benefited from his choreographic skills to communicate with another up-and-coming dance director, Robert Alton. Their collaboration here produced some of the most zestful dance sequences ever conceived for movies.

On such occasion as June Allyson took to song and dance, she used roughly the model that Judy Garland had founded in musical ingénue. Somehow, no one ever thinks of Allyson first and foremost as a musical performer, yet in this her shining hour she is every bit in command. She demonstrates impeccable precision and expressiveness.

The rest of the cast is in itself a range of unexpected surprises. A sylph named Joan McCracken leads the rousing title song that opens the film. Yet another newcomer to movies, McCracken was so fascinating to watch in action that the powers that be must have felt her worthy of something more to do. The result was a new number called "Pass that Peace Pipe" which ranks amongst the greatest production numbers ever devised for the camera. McCracken was scarcely ever heard from again in movies, though she at least wowed Broadway both before and after her screen triumph here.

Most surprising of all is Peter Lawford as the juvenile lead, belting out numbers with 100% charm and commitment. His dusky voice gets by but in dance challenge he’s up to the most death-defying, never missing a beat.

Something about this mix was clearly magic because the product was a seamless meld of the 20s of yore with the 1947 of the here and now. So filled was the show with engagingly kinetic musical numbers, it could easily have coasted from hoary plot point to song cue. Instead, it had the decency to make getting there part of the fun. The frivolity is laced with wit.

Even so, there’s never a long wait between great tunes, many of which are production numbers that are models of pep and ingenuity. Whether a classic standard from the original De Sylva, Brown and Henderson score ("The Best Things in Life are Free"), or one written especially for the new edition ("The French Lesson"), each number has flair and integrates naturally into the featherweight plot.

The show is bright and colorful, and is served here by a print that is excellent but for the occasional Technicolor misalignment. MGM prints of this period have a tendency to betray color edging. This can become distracting, but the problem is minimal here compared with another recent release, "Anchors Aweigh," which tries the patience at times.

The opening titles for "Good News" had such coarse edge enhancement and minor artifacting that I really feared the worst. The color, black level and sharpness are all consistently full enough to compensate for some otherwise disappointing qualifications. The picture is often noisy, and this noise is more consistent with digital processing than film grain. This can’t really be said to be overly distracting, but it does have a tendency to infer a slightly muddy look when the color is actually just fine. Apart from the titles, in fact, the picture is wonderfully detailed, sharp without any apparent edge enhancement or color bleed.

Amongst the handful of vintage MGM releases we’ve had so far from Warner Home Video, some soundtracks seem excessively compressed. "Anchors Aweigh" bordered upon the oppressive. Today’s technology can un-squeeze this sound, as Warner recently did to reasonable effect in its own catalogue classic, "A Star is Born" (1954). Obviously, there are limits to the audio fidelity and fullness of corrected sound. But when dead audio can be prodded back to life with a simple pass-through sound shape processor, it is frustrating to have to listen to sound that really dates its source. At the very least you can unbind the shroud that smothers it. Warner has provided us with this service here.

Rumor has it that the long lost final reel to the 1930 version of "Good News" was recently discovered. Whether it was or not, DVD is the collectors’ medium to treasure what IS there, especially if an attempt is made to bridge whatever is missing so we can at least get a sense of its complete state. The superb LaserDisc set "The Dawn of Sound II" contained the titles and seven musical numbers from the 1930 version.

The supplements here do at least include two key excerpts from the 1930 "Good News," one of which is the title song. The other is "The Varsity Drag." It starts twenty seconds or so later than the excerpt on LaserDisc, but the scene conclusion we get on this DVD extends the clip by about two minutes and hints that the original had at least some of the freewheeling spirit that went into its remake. In the 1930 version, both the included numbers are given to Dorothy McNulty who would later become better known as Penny Singleton, the title character in the Blondie series.

Another extra is a fairly elaborate deleted number entitled "An Easier Way" created expressly for the film. I suppose, even its added weight might have been feared sufficient to sink the show, what with the excess of excellence, which already crowded it. We have to give thanks for a little gem we can enjoy now that original audiences were denied. A trailer rounds out the pleasing set of extras all which are in more than just serviceable condition.

"Good News" lives up its title. Its cares are innocent and personal. It admits no hint of gravity in any sense of the word. Its spirit is of optimism, and the way to it at worst breaks the heart a little that such innocence is gone. At best, it restores our faith in the American musical as the well source of drive and delight.

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