The movie musical's greatest era lasted from roughly 1944 to 1958, and by the end, the genre's top directors, stars, and choreographers had figured out how to use the form to create ethereal poetry one moment and off-the-cuff social commentary the next. The five-disc box set Classic Musicals From The Dream Factory contains one of those late-period masterpieces, It's Always Fair Weather, co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, and starring Kelly as one of three World War II buddies who meet up again a decade after the war, only to find they have nothing in common. The song-score by Betty Comden and Adolph Green contains only one really memorable number—"Baby, You Knock Me Out," sung by Cyd Charisse with a chorus of pug-ugly boxers—but It's Always Fair Weather is an excellent showcase for dancing, marked by innovative, impressionistic routines that have Kelly tapping in roller skates, then with a trashcan lid attached to one foot, then in the middle panel of a three-way split-screen. Throughout, the movie maintains a mood of sorrowful post-war disappointment, as the men who opened the movie dancing together spend the rest of the film dancing alone.
The bulk of the Dream Factory set is taken up by lesser musical biographies: 1946's Till The Clouds Roll By and Ziegfeld Follies, and 1950's Three Little Words. Each has its highlights, but none is as consistent as It's Always Fair Weather or 1950's Summer Stock, which stars Judy Garland as a bachelorette farmer who lets Gene Kelly's theater troupe rehearse in her barn. Director Charles Walters keeps Summer Stock's singing and dancing grounded in real spaces, unlike the revue-style films of the '30s and '40s, where theater stages seemed to stretch to infinity. Here, Walters and company make magic on small, bare stages: Kelly with just a squeaky board and a piece of newspaper, and Kelly and Garland inside a tight circle of square-dancers. Summer Stock has its dry spots, but its highs rival the best of the MGM golden age, especially in the show-stopping finale "Get Happy!", where a stocky, sensual Garland single-leggedly kicks the musical into maturity.
Key features: Brief-but-informative featurettes and vintage short subjects.