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Published: Thursday, 8/4/2005

Pictures of grace and sophistication

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Of all the qualities we've lost at the movies - some for the better, others not so much - the one least likely to return any time soon is a certain uptown suavity, complete with coattails. The reason for its loss is not untimely and it is not hard to nail down. To watch The Complete Thin Man Collection ($59.92) and The Astaire & Rogers Collection, Vol. 1 ($59.92, available Aug. 16), both from the quality, archive-minded folks at Warner Home Video, is to watch a world as alien as 14th-century France.

Of course, the urbane sophistication of William Powell and Myrna Loy's society detectives Nick and Nora and the elegance of Astaire and Rogers was always alien to most of us. Few normal people were as fecklessly, effortlessly debonair as William Powell (though he was born of Pittsburgh stock, and reared in Kansas City). The cliche about Astaire and Rogers (attributed to Katharine Hepburn) was that "She gave him sex, and he gave her class." But it misses the larger point: Their currency was taste, but they made dancing look (almost laughably) simple.

Their world was as artificial as their sets. But their talent was real. Astaire and Rogers starred in a series of nine musicals made from 1933 to '39: The box includes their best, Swing Time (one of the loveliest song-and-dance pics of all), and most iconic, Top Hat, along with The Barkleys of Broadway, Follow the Fleet, and Shall We Dance (of '37, and as graceful as J. Lo's flick was stiff). Of course, Powell and Loy glided through their own series, which ran from 1932 to '47: The box includes all six of their Thin Man pictures and an additional disc with separate documentaries on both stars, as well as the pilot to the Thin Man TV series.

The quality of the prints varies wildly; Swing Time is not as monochrome as you hope, and The Thin Man is less scratched than you expect. What hasn't faded is how completely and delightfully glamorous their universes are:

Astaire and Rogers move in high society but they are not of high society (these were Depression years, after all), while Nick and Nora Charles (and dog Asta), much different than what Dashiell Hammett had in mind when he wrote Thin Man, can barely find the time between highballs and country clubs to solve their latest mystery. Astaire and Rogers had bad stories and transcendent bouts of dancing.

The plot of any Thin Man picture is incidental to the small moments. Nora: "Nick, did you remember to pack liquor?" Nick: "I am putting it away right now."

What they shared, and what they represent that is so rare in movies now, was simplicity. Certain stars still get this: George Clooney gets it, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie get in Mr. and Mrs. Smith - which is The Thin Man for an age when people demand a little storyline. (Pitt gets it, in fact, whenever he's not asked to take himself seriously). If you had to draw them, Powell and Astaire would be straight lines and Loy and Rogers, curls. Astaire insisted on shooting the dance scenes in real time, no cuts, no close-ups, and one take.

Nick and Nora were as dedicated to smoking and drinking as Cheech and Chong; Powell and Loy never pretended otherwise, and the droll dialogue has dated less than their lifestyle. In Swing Time, Astaire and Rogers luxuriate in the amazing score from Jerome Kern (songs include "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Pick Yourself Up") and never pretend anything is at stake. It's not, and it's not in either series. That's what we've also lost: a light touch. The first two Thin pictures apply it best (you have to buy the entire box set, though, for all six), but if you're on a budget, Swing Time and Top Hat (both sold separately for $19.97) are more than enough A&R. You watch them with a stupid smile.

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UNDER MY THUMB: I used to think those disclaimers studios tack onto the opening screens of a DVD release - the ones disavowing them of having anything to do with the contents of a commentary track - were silly. Do they claim to have nothing to do with what a film says as well? Or is that all the director, too? Then Alexander: Director's Cut (Warner, $29.95) arrived in the mail. And I kind of understood.

The director is Oliver Stone, and not that he says anything nutso, just that the potential is always there with some people.

In fact, with this new cut of Alexander, Stone presents himself as a voice of reason: His director's edit is actually 10 minutes shorter than the three-hour Colin Farrell bomb that clanked into theaters last fall. Some of the pontificating is gone. The action is punched up. But frankly short of adding an hour of Angelina Jolie shrieking and delivering Alexander: The Camp Classic Edition - this patient is too far gone.

Chalk that up to having enough poetic licence to hang oneself. It's an option German director Oliver Hirschbiegel doesn't allow for himself in the harrowing Downfall (Columbia, $29.95), an icy docudrama about the last days of Hitler's inner circle. If Alexander is determined to say its conqueror was as much unifier as tyrant, Downfall refuses to paint Hitler (played by Bruno Ganz) as anything less than human. He was nice to his secretary. He loved his dog. The film is cold-blooded and riveting but we're left no closer to an understanding of Hitler. Which, perhaps, is precisely the point.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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