[Fresh on Blu-ray] Kino Lorber smiles down with ‘BLUE SKIES’ and ‘SHAKEDOWN’

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

BLUE SKIES (1946)

Not Rated, 99 Minutes
Director: Stuart Heisler
Starring: Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Joan Caulfield, Billy De Wolfe, and Olga San Juan

BLUE SKIES, by all accounts, is a jukebox musical. But the victrola isn’t spinning malt shop melodies. The song selection ranges from Irving Berlin to, well, Irving Berlin. Thirty little ditties, in fact, in less than two hours.

The title takes its name from Berlin’s 1926 tune, which would be one of the first songs to be performed in a “talkie” picture (by Al Jolson in THE JAZZ SINGER) and later covered by Ella Fitzgerald and Willie Nelson among others. In this film, the singing honor goes to Bing Crosby as carefree crooner Johnny Adams. The setting is a rained-out picnic with Johnny and his on-screen love Mary O’Hara (Joan Caulfield). Odd timing to be singing about blue skies during a downpour, but the musical moment in vivid Technicolor quickly washes those troubles away as the sequence ends on a high note with clear skies above.

Framed as a radio story recited by dancer-promoter Jed Potter (Fred Astaire), BLUE SKIES finds Mary pitted between two suitors who happen to be old friends. Jed and Johnny have no hidden grudges or animosity towards each other. Jed takes a shine to Mary early on and wants to get her out from being a chorus girl to be a headline attraction. But when a nightcap finds the two running into Johnny, his charms make Mary’s heart flutter and Jed finds himself to be the third wheel. Yet, he’s always there for Mary when the raconteur with steely blue eyes gets antsy and wants to move to a different town and open a new nightclub.

Berlin’s songs highlight the joys and the regrets the three go through over the years. The musical is also a reunion for Crosby and Astaire, who co-starred in 1942’s HOLIDAY INN, another film with Irving Berlin’s musical and the two having a romantic rivalry. It was a hit and Paramount Pictures wanted lighting to strike twice. Unfortunately, Astaire and Crosby have better chemistry when they are together and not opposite the woman they love. Their rendition of “A Couple of Song and Dance Men” compliments both men’s strengths in a single ballad, while Astaire shows he’s not quite ready to take off his tap-dancing shoes with “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”    

The performance is a total showstopper; the choreography and camerawork are cinematic perfection. The high point is the appearance of a hall of a mirrors where rear-projection gives us multiple Astaires dancing virtuosically with our star in the foreground. Everything after seems like a letdown by comparison. Not even supporting players Olga San Juan singing “Heat Wave” in the film’s largest production number nor Billy De Wolfe’s comedy chops and pencil mustache can get BLUE SKIES back in sync.

Special Features: With a new 2K master and remastered audio, the film has never looked better. Critic Simon Abrams provides an audio commentary for Berlin’s musical compendium balancing the historical context of what we’re seeing on screen while making the connections between the performers and the composer. 

Grade: C


SHAKEDOWN (1950)

Not Rated, 80 Minutes
Director: Joseph Pevney
Starring: Howard Duff, Peggy Dow, Brian Donlevy, Lawrence Tierney, and Anne Vernon

I’m an unabashed film noir aficionado, and Kino Lorber’s licensing deals has afforded the label to release titles that likely would be left in studio vaults. Universal Pictures, who has such noir classics as Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY and Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL, has relegated to having most of its classic noirs released on Blu-ray by other distributors. SHAKEDOWN is such a title. Released in September 1950, the 80-minute noir gets off to a running start where we see a man fleeing a group of men.

The man is Jack Early (Howard Duff), a photographer in need of a job. He’s a risk-taker in getting the pictures other pressmen can’t. If it means getting a shiner or punched in the gut, it’s a small price. Jack chats up racketeers like Nick Palmer (Brian Donlevy) to get a profile shot for the San Francisco rag that originally hires him to take dog photos. Notoriety for shooting the notorious gets Jack thinking bigger. How can I benefit the most? He sells his services to the highest bidder, sometimes playing them to protect himself from incrimination.

One such bidder is crime boss Harry Colton (Lawrence Tierney). For those who know Tierney from his supporting performance as another crime boss in RESERVOIR DOGS – thus perfectly bookending his film career playing gangsters (his breakthrough was playing bank robber John Dillinger in 1945’s DILLINGER) – his imposing presence envelopes the scenes he shares opposite Howard Duff. While Duff’s Early is not easily intimidated and even smacks Tierney’s Colton at one point, you get the sense that the first punch is free but the next one might put you in a body bag. 

SHAKEDOWN’s cast includes two females, but in an odd chance of fate neither is a femme fatale. Newspaperwoman Ellen Bennett (Peggy Dow), who is the most developed and well-rounded character, is the first to spot Jack’s talent and takes him to see the paper’s editor. But Jack is the one who seduces her before moving on to Palmer’s wife, Nita (Anne Vernon). As his pride inflates and bank account grows, Jack gets foolhardy. From getting an explosive money shot to helping orchestrate a small heist to net him some more dough, Jack’s tenacity for being first (or in this case, Early) gives the film a great send-off while also complicating matters when it comes to framing the story for the newspaper the following day.         

A fun B-noir from Joseph Pevney in his directing debut and co-written by Martin Goldsmith (DETOUR), SHAKEDOWN moves at a quick clip giving us an amoral schemer who would likely share a toast with Kirk Douglas’s Chuck Tatum (ACE IN THE HOLE) and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom (NIGHTCRAWLER) if given a chance. They are all deserving of each other.     

Special Features: Professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney provides an insightful commentary about the film sharing stories like Universal’s failed attempt in making Howard Duff a leading man on the heels of his successful radio stint as Dashiell Hammett’s famed Sam Spade. The best bit is his incorporation of audio recordings of New York photojournalist “Weegee” (the basis for Joe Pesci’s “Bernzy” in 1992’s THE PUBLIC EYE) as he talks about getting the shots nobody else can.

Grade: B-