I don’t like movie musicals.
It’s probably more accurate to say that I strongly dislike the vast majority of musicals. Too often I find that the songs and dance numbers take priority over the film’s story and characters, and that disparity leaves me disinterested in the whole shebang. And if I’m being honest, I really hate it when complete strangers suddenly bust out with the same songs and dance moves as if they’ve been secretly practicing them for weeks. (Unless the story is about the history of flash mobs of course, but who the hell would want to watch that?)
There are exceptions, but they’re usually films that place as high a value on the story being told and the characters within as they do on the music and dancing and other gibberish. Ones I do like include Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 8 Women, South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut and Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris. You could say I lean toward less traditional examples of the form.
Warner Bros. just released a series of 20 Film Collection box sets broken down by genre, and when the opportunity arrived to take a look at the one focused on Musicals I literally stood still at the chance. And yet… here we are.
The Jazz Singer (1927)
Little Jakie Rabinowitz is the son of a Jewish cantor, but while his rabbi father expects him to continue the tradition of singing for God Jakie has his heart set on show business. The boy eventually leaves home, and several years later he’s performing on stage as Jack Robin (Al Jolson). On the verge of a big break he reunites with his parents but finds his father still refusing to accept him and his choices.
While technically a musical, this is one of several that fall into the genre even though the singing and dancing are relegated entirely to the stage and rehearsals. (This is a good thing.) Story and character aren’t all that deep here, obviously, but it remains a historical winner thanks to its status as the first talkie. Although maybe the whole “blackface” thing negates that… Either way, I can only imagine the reaction of audiences in 1927 to seeing and hearing a character speak onscreen, and I can’t see how we’ll ever experience a change like that again.
The Broadway Melody (1929)
Two sisters, Harriet and Queenie Mahoney, take their vaudeville act to Broadway with dreams of stardom, but competition on the stage and of the heart stand in their way. While one sister finds herself courted by a member of high society the pair are also wrapped up in a love triangle with the composer/performer friend who got them their first big gig.
Another case of the music and dancing staying on the stage, this is basically a fine and occasionally funny little comedy. The dialogue has some zing to it, and the musical bits are frequent but far from overwhelming. There is a derogatory attitude towards a flamboyant costumer, but hey, it’s 1929!
42nd Street (1933)
A superstar Broadway director is setting up a new show, but as the clock counts down to opening night all manner of behind the scenes drama unfolds. The wealthy producer funds the show due to his love of the leading lady, Dorothy, but her heart belongs to her ex, Pat, who’s falling for a background dancer named Peggy, who just might get her big break when Dorothy’s ankle has a mishap…
I’m a fan of this one thanks to its sharp and snappy dialogue reminiscent (?) of comedies from the ’40s that offers up plenty of great one-liners like “You mother have any children who lived?” The story itself has become well-worn, and those of us who watched the first season of Smash will recognize that the show borrowed liberally from this movie.
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (William Powell) begins his life of ambition as a sideshow barker at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago with an eye towards being the world’s biggest showman. It also marks the beginning of his life-long competition with Jack Billings (Frank Morgan, the wizard from The Wizard of Oz) as well as the revolving door of his great lady loves.
This is a long-ass movie. Three plus hours is a long time to spend on any biopic, especially one focused on someone I’m unfamiliar with, but the movie paces itself fairly well. It moves between Ziegfeld’s story and recreations of his shows, and it’s jazzed up with appearances by real stars playing themselves. Not the kind of thing I’d ever watch again, but it has its moments… spread across three plus hours.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Dorothy (Judy Garland) is living a depressing life in a b&w land called Kansas when a tornado sweeps through and rips her and her house from the earth. When she awakens she finds herself in landscape of bright colors, odd characters and magical feuds. Targeted by a misunderstood witch (seriously, go read or see Wicked people!), she sets off on a quest to find the Wizard for help getting home.
This is the first of the set to cross the line into full blown musical with characters inexplicably breaking into unrehearsed song and dance, but the fact that it’s in a magical realm pretty much excuses all of that. It remains a classic for so many reasons, and while I’ve seen it before I continue to love its mix of joy, wonder and flat-out terror. Now where’s my movie adaptation of Wicked?
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
George M. Cohan (James Cagney) is honored by President Franklin Roosevelt with a private audience, and when FDR asks for a story about Cohan’s varied career the performer obliges with his entire life story. It begins with his time as a child star performing alongside his parents and sister before jumping to his adult life with him struggling to make his own mark on the stage.
This biopic is good fun and anchored with an energetic and snappy performance by Cagney. (He would revisit the role 13 years later in cameo form for Bob Hope’s The Seven Little Foys.) It’s a ‘ra-ra America’ kind of musical, and really frames Cagney in a far different light then his traditional gangster fare. He’s incredibly light on his feet for someone whose torso never seems to move and just exudes positivity.
An American in Paris (1951)
Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) is an ex-GI trying to make it as a painter in Paris while his friend Adam (Oscar Levant) is a concert pianist without a concert. An heiress with a thing for Jerry takes him on as his sponsor while unbeknownst to her he falls for a store clerk named Lise (Leslie Caron)… who unbeknownst to him is actually engaged to another friend. Uh oh.
This one was slow to win me over thanks to its odd opening structure that seemed to introduce three lead characters with little follow through, but once things start moving it becomes a fun and creatively designed romantic comedy. Kelly’s good, but I was won over by Caron’s beauty and Levant’s grumpy comic presence. The film’s literal last minute blows, but the 10-15 minute imagined dance sequence that precedes it is a marvel of choreography and set design as Mulligan moves in and out of paintings.
Show Boat (1951)
The Cotton Blossom is a traveling riverboat that spreads musical joy all throughout the South, but a stop in one town shakes things up a bit with departures both intentional and forced. One couple leaves when it’s discovered that they’re a quarter African American, and they lose another talent when she falls for a local gambler. Can the power of song, dance and ridiculous costumes repair this broken family?
Ugh. This is the kind of musical that gives musicals a bad name. The plot proper is romantic dribble that veers dangerously close to the melodramatic at times, and even the efforts to find social relevance with its daring criticisms of the racist South aren’t nearly as powerful as they should be. None of it engages enough to justify the reality break when these folks start randomly singing about their uninteresting lives though.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are two of the silent era’s biggest stars, but when the first talkie (The Jazz Singer) makes waves with audiences they find they’re livelihoods threatened. Lina in particular is a problem as her voice and lack of singing talent makes future questionable. Good thing Don has fallen for a girl (Debbie Reynolds) who can sing, dance and make him happy.
Good stuff, but it’s no The Artist. I kid! This classic film falls right in line with An American in Paris for me, and it’s not due solely to Kelly’s presence. He’s pretty much the same here, and that’s not a bad thing, but both films have the same kind of energy and romantic comedy momentum. They also both see Kelly upstaged by his romantic lead and male sidekick. Reynolds is just a spunky delight, and Donald O’Connor does his best Danny Kaye impression consisting of laughs and fantastic physical bits.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Adam returns to the mountain cabin he shares with his six brothers, but they’re surprised to see he’s not alone. He’s picked up a wife from town, and it’s not long before the others decide they want some women too.
If that sounds like the beginning of a horror movie you’re not far off… but no, it’s just a rowdy and mildly obnoxious romantic comedy that teases political incorrectness as the men decide to simply grab some women and have them do housework. Cue the romance! The film’s singular highlight is a big barn dance that sees the brothers engaging in some admittedly impressive and high-flying dancing, but that one scene isn’t enough to carry the rest of this simplistic and annoying film.