Oct 2, 2015
On DVD: Gene Kelly Dances in Television Extravaganza Jack and the Beanstalk (1967)
Eight-year-old Bobby Riha and Gene Kelly are a charming pair in the 1967 Hanna-Barbara television production of Jack and the Beanstalk, now available on DVD from Warner Archive.
This animation and live action hybrid musical features high spirited dance numbers and pleasing, if not especially memorable tunes written by industry veterans Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen.
To stretch out the orgin story, the old English folktale Jack the Giant Killer, to a fifty minute length, there are additional characters added to the mix, including an army of mice and a pair of dancing birds. Kelly also plays the role of Jeremy, the magical bean seller, whose part is greatly extended to give him opportunities to dance and sing.
While adding new character arcs to classic tales can be tricky, the inclusion of Gene Kelly turns the story into an agreeable buddy picture. The dancer was apparently fond of working with children, and he has a nice rapport with Riha. While understandably not as complex as Kelly's movie routines, their dances have a cheerful energy that makes up for the simplicity required by a time-intensive television production.
Bobby Riha was fairly new to the entertainment industry when he was selected to play Jack. In the decade to follow, he would have a modest career in television, appearing in several guest roles on various series. He would eventually leave acting behind to become a journalistic photographer.
Riha was clearly hired for his dancing ability (Dick Beals would cover his vocals), but that is as it should be and he is a strong partner for Kelly, matching the legendary star step for step. Considering the pair had three months of rehearsal to perfect several fast-paced routines, all of them eventually performed in front of a blank screen on which they had to imagine all sorts of amazing sights, it is remarkable what they were able to achieve.
The voice talent includes Ted Cassidy (Lurch on The Addams Family) as the giant and voiceover queen Marni Nixon (The King and I , West Side Story ) as an enchanted princess who has been transformed into a singing harp.
Kelly had previously worked with the Hanna-Barbera team on Anchors Away (1945), where he filmed a memorable routine with Jerry the Mouse. Two decades later, technology still had not advanced to the point where animation and live action could be easily integrated. The success of the film depended on precise performances from Riha and Kelly and frame-by-frame integration by animators.
While the special effects here are understandably not as slick to modern eyes as they were at the time, they do not significantly date the show. It is still delightful entertainment, appropriate for families and of interest for Kelly fans.
Though Kelly fretted over the loss of craft necessary to keep with a tight television filming schedule, he was able to create an enduring work. While clearly not a lavish MGM production, it never feels cheap or slapdash. In recognition of his success, the dancer won an Emmy as producer of the program.
The picture quality is good and relatively sharp and clean. There are no special features on the disc.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.