FILM MARATHON #3: Movie Musicals (Broadway & Original)

The reason I started doing my marathon series was to finally start seeing films I’ve neglected and needed to see. Doing the filmography of Terrence Malick couldn’t have turned out better with some of the greatest works of cinema I’ve ever seen. Days of Heaven easily vaulted itself into my top 10 of all-time and The Thin Red Line wasn’t too far behind. Checking out Julia Roberts films might have made me realize I’ve been wrongly ignoring her abilities as an actor, but Malick has given me a new auteur to idolize and follow religiously. If my anticipation for The Tree of Life was high before, it’s astronomical now.

After checking my genre listings for numbers of reviews in each, I noticed that musicals—classic musicals—were sorely lacking. I’ve had to quiet down or sheepishly deflect the question of whether I had seen musical ‘X’ or ‘Y’ for too long. It’s time to delve into the back catalog of a genre I do not hate, Moulin Rouge! is a favorite of mine, and watching the style evolve over the decades should be a worthwhile exercise to do so.

Enlisting my friend David Wagner—a theatrical stage performer and director around WNY himself—I now have two lists to watch, one of Broadway musical adaptations and one of original work created for the big screen. To get my bearings, David also recommended I view The Jazz Singer from 1927 first, continuing on from there with the two sets of five (plus a few runner-ups for good measure). Composing a document with his reasoning behind each picture and its context in the genre, (reprinted below), I feel I am ready to take the plunge and invite you to join. Hopefully, once October rolls around, the viewing will begin.

From David Wagner:
A couple of comments about the movie musical …

The musical comedy is a distinctly American art form (it’s about 150 years old), and tradition has led to the establishment of certain unofficial “standards” within which writers must work if they expect their shows to be enthusiastically received. The movie musical has emerged from the musical comedy, and likewise, one can expect certain patterns to be followed. To be sure, you can pick any year from 1930 through the 1960s and find entertaining movie musicals—the Depression years, especially, produced them prolifically. This list is not concerned with average entertaining movie musicals, but rather with the “essentials”—the ones particularly satisfying to enthusiasts of the form, and specifically, films selected to represent subgenres or points of development. In a few cases I’ve named “runners up,” to identify a specimen of nearly the same interest and quality as the film discussed.

It’s worth pointing out that one of the most noteworthy changes over the years has been called the “Rogers and Hammerstein effect.” Prior to the World War II years, songs in musicals often had only a tenuous connection to the plot—at some logical plot juncture, a generic love song could be inserted, or a generic torch song, or a generic dance number. The Broadway musical Oklahoma! (1943) began a rapid metamorphosis in the form which now required music and dance to advance the plot. This change would soon have the same effect on movie musicals. In fact, this change ultimately led to the dwindling number of musical films produced, because audiences were finding the “old-fashioned” ones silly, and writers and directors began to shy away from a form that could no longer be counted on for acceptance. One thing didn’t change, however: the best examples of the genre always were and always will be “feel good” movies.

First of all, and to get it out of the way, you should watch The Jazz Singer (1927, dir. Alan Crosland, B&W), simply because it’s the progenitor of all that follows. I haven’t included this on either list-of-five, because it isn’t an exceptional specimen in either category. (It’s a maudlin, sentimental film, to be honest—in spite of, or possibly because of, an ingratiating performance by Al Jolson. It’s also been somewhat of a “guilty pleasure” for me, ever since I first saw it as a teenager and was affected by its sentimentality.) But its unique historical position requires a viewing by anyone who takes cinematic art seriously. The stageplay from which it was adapted is not, strictly speaking, a musical, but rather a straight play with a few incidental songs; the movies, to maximize exploitation of the Vitaphone process, added more numbers, only one of which, (“Dirty Hands, Dirty Face”) could possibly have been written for the film.

Here are five films adapted from stage musicals:

Stage-to-screen adaptations were treated pretty cavalierly in the thirties—plots were rewritten and most or all of the music was discarded, often in favor of inferior songs written for the movies. The outstanding exception is Show Boat (1936, dir. James Whale, B&W). The play had broken new ground in the theater nine years before by introducing a serious plot with tragic elements, and James Whale treated the property with respect, keeping several of the original leading players and most of the music (the score is by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein), although the final scene was totally revamped. Most critics agree that, William Warfield notwithstanding, the 1951 MGM remake (dir. George Sidney, color) is inferior.

Kiss Me Kate (1953, dir. George Sidney, color) dropped the comma from the title but retained nearly everything that was praiseworthy in Cole Porter‘s best stage musical. The film is in the finest MGM tradition of that studio’s golden era, with Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson heading a cast of the studio’s A-list players. The plot, dealing with backstage conflicts on the opening night of a production of Taming of the Shrew, is credible, and Shakespeare is given honest treatment. Historically, it’s the only major musical to be shot in 3-D, which is apparent in the framing of some of the shots—the original 3-D craze was at its peak in 1953; the widescreen aspect ratio eclipsed its popularity the following year.

If there is such a thing as a perfect stage-to-screen adaptation, I nominate The Music Man (1962, dir. Morton daCosta, color, Technirama). The movie has Robert Preston (the quintessential Harold Hill, I insist) and Pert Kelton from the original cast, but unlike nearly every other movie musical, it also has the original director to keep it from going astray. Meredith Willson wrote every word and every note of the Broadway show, and except for a few small changes to “open up” the play, the film is a nearly word-and-note-perfect-transfer. This is the rare film that will (I promise) get better every time you watch it, and the payoff is sublime. [Runner-up: The King and I (1956, dir. Walter Lang, color), by far the most satisfying of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon on film.]

Oliver! (1968, dir. Carol Reed, color, Panavision) is the sumptuous better-than-the-stage-play (which was a minimalist, bare-bones adaptation of the Dickens novel) screen version that won Best Picture and actually deserves its accolades. [Runner-up The Sound of Music (1965, dir. Robert Wise, color, Todd-AO) was an engaging film, and second runner-up West Side Story (1961, dir. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, color, Panavision) a strong adaptation, and both won Best Picture Oscars, but they pale beside this gargantuan Musical with a capital M]. The Lionel Bart score is practically intact, the cast is perfect, and the screenplay and direction would satisfy Dickens. (Its only fault, to me, is that the number “Who Will Buy?” balloons to absurdly behemoth proportions.) Like others in this list, it improves with repeated viewing.

Hairspray (2007, dir. Adam Shankman, color, unspecified anamorphic process) is what musicals adapted from the stage should look like in the 21st century. Never mind that it’s a movie derived from a stage show derived from a movie, or that it has its occasional “stagey” moments or that the score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman occasionally confuses outrageousness for style. The bottom line is that this is a movie that sweeps the audience into its proverbial palm and sends them out dancing—and c’mon, isn’t that what musicals have aspired to do for all these years? [Runner-up: The Producers (2005, dir. Susan Stroman, color, Panavision), this shares the screen-to-stage-to-screen genealogy and might be my one desert-island movie, if I ever had to make that choice.]

And here are five exceptional original musical movies:

Not many movies have had as much impact on the industry as 42nd Street (1933, dir. Lloyd Bacon, B&W). Within two years of the talkies becoming ubiquitous, the public had had enough of “all singing, all dancing.” Warner Bros. had electrified the medium by introducing “talking pictures”—and six years later they did it again, proving that a musical could deliver a gritty, compelling storyline and still be entertaining. It didn’t hurt that the four songs by Dubin and Warren (yes, only four) caught on in a big way. Suddenly the once-passé film musical had a future. [If you want to really examine the period, I suggest watching this in tandem with The Broadway Melody (1929, dir. Harry Beaumont, B&W).]

There have been many screen biographies, but Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942, dir. Michael Curtiz, B&W) is in a league of its own. George M. Cohan was not exactly revered by the theatrical community in 1942, but this film went a long way toward restoring his celebrity. James Cagney gave the performance of a lifetime, and even if the film lost the Best Picture Oscar to Casablanca (it was a busy year for Curtiz), neither Yankee Doodle Dandy nor Casablanca will diminish even slightly on repeated viewings. Expect a little overly-aggressive patriotism in a couple of the numbers, but after all, it was 1942.

42nd Street notwithstanding, the ultimate backstage musical for all time is Singin’ in the Rain (1952, dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, color). It’s MGM at its pinnacle, with engaging performances by Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds, a score by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed (including, of course, the iconic title song) … and a script that lovingly kids every aspect of Hollywood musicals. [Runner-up: The Band Wagon (1953, dir. Vincente Minnelli, color), which, like Singin’ in the Rain, has a script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.]

From the sixties on, there have been attempts to redefine the form—or at least to push the envelope. To me, the nonpareil among these is Bugsy Malone (1976, dir. Alan Parker, color, unspecified anamorphic process). Imagine a story of rival gangs in Prohibition-era Chicago. Add music (by Paul Williams) and dance. Employ a song-and-dance-cast in which the oldest member is 16 years old and the standout is 13-year-old Jodie Foster. (Parker actually was making a comment about childlike behavior of gangsters in films, if you want to get into that.) Even if all the singing is dubbed by adults, and even if the ending is slightly lame, the result is a uniquely satisfying movie. [Runner-up: Pennies from Heaven (1981, dir. Herbert Ross, color, Panavision).]

The state-of-the-art modern musical that has profited from all its predecessors has a refinement of form best epitomized by Victor Victoria (1982, dir. Blake Edwards, color, Panavision). This film has sophistication and style (as you would expect from Blake Edwards), songs by Henri Mancini and Leslie Bricusse, and masterful performances from Robert Preston, Julie Andrews, James Garner, and a terrific supporting cast. It also boasts moments of sublime outrageousness (Preston’s rendition of “The Shady Dame from Brazil” in the last ten minutes defies description.) Final note: To be fair about “originality,” Victor Victoria is a remake of a 1933 German film, Viktor und Viktoria. (And 42nd Street is based on a novel.)

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