Release Date(s)1946 (March 22, 2022)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
[Editor’s Note: The Blu-ray release of Blue Skies shipped with an audio error, but Kino Lorber is rectifying the situation. You can read more about it below.]
In 1942, the screen pairing of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in the Irving Berlin musical Holiday Inn yielded big profits for Paramount Pictures and gave the world one of its most famous holiday songs, White Christmas. Four years later, the stars were once again teamed up in Blue Skies, a romantic triangle featuring Berlin’s songs, Crosby’s crooning, and Astaire’s fancy footwork.
Related in a series of extended flashbacks by radio star Jed Potter (Astaire), Blue Skies takes place during the years between the two world wars. Jed and Johnny Adams (Crosby) are former vaudeville partners. Jed falls heavily for showgirl Mary O’Hara (Joan Caulfield) but he’s too fast for her. She falls for Johnny, now a nightclub owner, and eventually marries him, but the marriage turns out to be rocky. She wants stability and security but Johnny has a penchant for buying and selling nightclubs all over the country. Reliable Jed is always on hand to offer Mary a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to lean on.
The slight plot is peppered with mostly old songs, including A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody, A Serenade to an Old-Fashioned Girl, How Deep Is the Ocean, You’d Be Surprised, and The Little Things in Life. The best new number is the Academy Award-nominated You Keep Coming Back Like a Song, given a lush presentation by Crosby.
Crosby, laid back as usual, goes through the film with as much passion as a wet pillow though he comes to life briefly in his duet with Astaire, A Couple of Song and Dance Men, in which the crooner actually looks like he’s having fun. Since it’s a comedy number, Crosby’s less-than-stellar dance moves don’t really hurt the sequence.
Astaire comes off best, playing a version of himself, a professional dancer. An excellent solo number, Puttin’ On the Ritz, offers a chorus of Astaires backing him up thanks to special effects magic. Reminiscent of the title number in Top Hat, made eleven years earlier, it showcases Astaire at his best. He’s also the centerpiece of a big production number, Heat Wave, toward the end of the film, with a dance chorus and Olga San Juan singing and partnering with Astaire in a driving dance sequence. It’s a shame that Astaire is relegated to second fiddle status, since his numbers enliven an otherwise uninspired picture.
Joan Caulfield is dull and bland as the woman two guys are crazy about. Her chemistry with Astaire is non-existent and her dramatic scenes with Crosby lack passion. She recites rather than acts her part and her reactions are blank, emotionless stares. She’s beautiful, but that’s all.
Director Stuart Heisler was a replacement for Mark Sandwich, who died prior to filming, and his unfamiliarity with the musical genre is detrimental to the film. Caulfield couldn’t dance despite intensive efforts by dance teachers, director Hermes Pan, and Astaire himself. Heisler wanted to replace her but she was having an affair with Crosby at the time, so he was stuck with her.
The picture appears to be a cobbled together series of numbers loosely tied together with a dull plot enlivened only slightly by comedian Billy De Wolfe as Johnny’s friend and Olga San Juan as nightclub singer Nita Nova. As the story progresses, Caulfield’s fashions seem permanently locked into the 1910s, another indication that the film was a patchwork of musical scenes shuffled around willy-nilly. Almost complete reliance on the Berlin songs to carry the picture was a mistake. With the right material, Crosby could turn in a decent bit of acting, but here he simply coasts through the dramatic scenes. At the time, he was Paramount’s cash cow and could have demanded better material.
Blue Skies was shot by directors of photography Charles Lang and William E. Snyder on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. This brand new 2K transfer has heightened the lavish Technicolor, which is showcased best in the musical numbers, most shot with high key lighting. A blaze of primary hues showcases Edith Head’s costumes and Sam Comer and Maurice Goodman’s set design. An exception is the lullaby Johnny sings to his daughter (Karolyn Grimes) at bedtime, with only a table lamp providing illumination. Caulfield’s white fur outfit, a bouquet of roses, red lipstick, a bright neon sign, and a brilliant blue sky really pop. Blacks are rich and velvety and look excellent on Astaire’s top hat and tails in the Puttin’ On the Ritz number. Complexions are natural, but Joan Caulfield’s make-up tends to give her face a pinkish hue. The title number, sung by Johnny to Mary, features shifting light patterns on the actors to suggest a sunny day suddenly obscured by rain clouds and then once again brightening. Director Heisler films the musical numbers without much cinematic pizzazz, which mutes their effectiveness. Astaire’s two numbers are the exceptions. Typical of studio films of the period, a process screen behind a car mock-up suggests that the car is moving along a road. Trick photography in the Puttin’ On the Ritz number treats us to multiple Fred Astaires dancing together. There are no age-related defects, such as scratches, dirt specks, or emulsion clouding. The presentation looks superb for a film that’s over 75 years old.
The soundtrack is presented in English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. Clarity overall is very good, with the musical numbers sounding especially rich. Heat Wave, in particular, has a driving rhythm that builds to a dramatic crescendo as inebriated Jed dances among a chorus of girls, making his way up a long staircase and onto a bridge where he spins and dances in circles. Robert Emmett Dolan’s score adds appropriate atmosphere and punctuates dramatic scenes. In a lengthy comic monologue, Billy De Wolfe takes on the identity of a middle-aged woman who stops at a bar after a hard day of shopping to enjoy a few stiff drinks. (For more information about the audio error, see below in the Additional Notes section.)
Bonus materials include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Simon Abrams
- Road to Morocco Trailer (2:13)
- Daddy Long Legs Trailer (2:42)
- Love Me Tonight Trailer (1:46)
- Thoroughly Modern Millie Trailer (2:39)
Film critic and author Simon Abrams refers to Blue Skies as a “jukebox musical” because it features a catalogue of Irving Berlin songs. The film looks back to happier times post-World War I and before World War II. Abrams provides an analysis of Astaire’s moves in the Puttin’ On the Ritz number, relating them to the character he’s playing. Crosby was a “workhorse” during this period with bond tours, a radio show, records, and movies. Crosby hated to rehearse, so Hermes Pan gave him steps he could easily memorize. His self-assurance makes him seem to be a better dancer than he is. Crosby and Astaire admired each other. Director Stuart Heisler was in over his head helming a musical. Heat Wave is a melodrama within a production number with nightmarish overtones. Other Crosby films are recommended. Though Astaire intended to make Blue Skies his final picture before he retired, he was called upon to replace Gene Kelly in Easter Parade with Judy Garland. and went on to make Royal Wedding with Jane Powell and The Band Wagon with Cyd Charisse. Caulfield was in The Unsuspected (1947) and made many guest appearances on TV.
Blue Skies offers a threadbare plot about a girl and the two guys who love her and is really an excuse to present a collection of songs by Irving Berlin. The film lacks charm, style, and energy. The best way to enjoy it is to focus on the musical numbers, especially those with Astaire.
- Dennis Seuling