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Four-disc set compiles 34 MGM films made between 1928 and 1948 that feature singing and dancing

Susan King
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

When movies began to sing and dance in 1927 with "The Jazz Singer," the studios began to pillage Broadway, vaudeville and the big-band circuit for actors for musical shorts. "The Warner Archive Collection" has compiled 34 of those films that MGM produced between 1928 and 1948 on a toe-tapping, four-disc, eight-hour set.

Disc 1 features 12 Metrotone shorts and two-reel specials, including several from 1928 with red-hot orchestra leader Walt Roesner and the Capitolians; the Locust Sisters singing group; Leo Beers, a popular whistler and singer of sexually suggestive songs, and scat singer Fuzzy Knight, who later went on to become a cowboy sidekick in movies and TV.

By 1930, MGM was making musical shorts in two-color Technicolor, often venturing into the surreal as with 1930's "Crazy House," seen on Disc 2. It stars Benny Rubin, who discovers most of the doctors and nurses at a sanitarium are crazier than the patients. The film also highlights Danish actor Karl Dane, who played John Gilbert's friend in "The Big Parade." Dane's strong accent basically destroyed his career once talkies came into play; "Crazy House" was just one of the few he made before committing suicide in 1934.

Equally mind-blowing is 1931's "The Devil's Cabaret," which finds Satan asking one of his workers to travel to Earth to convince people that life is literally a cabaret in hell. In the middle of the shenanigans is a ballet sequence in which the music is supplied by a young Dimitri Tiomkin.

Though MGM didn't make a three-strip Technicolor feature film until 1938's "Sweethearts," the studio did produce several shorts in three-strip color from 1935 to 1937. Six of them are featured on Disc 3, all following the same pattern: an actor whose career has seen better days — including Leo Carrillo, Chester Morris, Lee Tracy and Elissa Landi — hosting extravaganzas set in often exotic locations such as Palm Springs, the Lido at the Ambassador Hotel and Catalina Island. Orchestras, singers and dancers would perform and the host would always point out stars sitting in the audience, including Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Errol Flynn and Clark Gable.

There are also some great surprises in these films. In 1934's "Star Night at the Cocoanut Grove," a young Ann Sheridan can be spotted as a model. In 1935's "La Fiesta de Santa Barbara," Judy Garland and her sisters sing. And 1937's "Cinema Circus" was actually shot next to the Pan Pacific Auditorium.

Disc 4 features three more all-star shorts, including 1938's "Billy Rose's Casa Manana Revue," which was shot at his massive 4,000-seat nightclub in Fort Worth. The disc ends with six shorts from 1948's "Martin Block's Musical Merry-Go-Round" series, which featured the famed disc jockey exploring how several popular orchestra leaders became stars.

For more information, go to www.warnerarchive.com.

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