Musicals Like westerns_ musicals are a quintessentially American by qingyunliuliu



Like westerns, musicals are a quintessentially American movie genre and much like
westerns too, a genre that has never really regained the popularity it enjoyed during the
Hollywood Golden Age. The topic of musicals is a massive one when you stop to think
that every studio (certainly all the majors, and even some of the minors) produced
musicals, each with its own particular style and stars. After a series of popular operettas
starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, MGM dominated the 1940s and early
1950s through an embarrassment of riches in its Arthur Freed unit with Judy Garland and
Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse and many others. In the 1930s, WB had the incomparable
Busby Berkeley with his carefully choreographed spectacles that could never have fitted
on a stage in real life. The 1930s too were the years of the Fred Astaire and Ginger
Rogers teamings for RKO. At Twentieth Century-Fox, the late 1930s and 1940s saw the
rise of Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, and Betty Grable. Columbia chipped in with
musicals featuring opera singer Grace Moore in the 1930s, and Rita Hayworth and Larry
Parks in the 1940s. Paramount (Bing Crosby and Bob Hope) and Universal (Deanna
Durbin) musicals operated on a slightly lesser scale of extravagance than those of the
other majors for the most part, but were thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless. Even minor
studios like Republic got into the act during the 1930s and 1940s somewhat, with
westerns featuring a passel of songs from the likes of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.

The gradual decline of the MGM Freed unit in the mid-1950s marked the end of
production of the classic Hollywood musical. It would be replaced by films of major
Broadway musicals (Oklahoma, The King and I, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, etc.) and
programmers featuring the major pop stars of the day (Elvis Presley, Frankie Avalon, Pat
Boone, the Beatles, etc.) There would be major talents in later musicals, like Julie
Andrews, Liza Minnelli, and Barbra Streisand, but none of the films would have the
embarrassment of musical riches that so many of the top musicals of the Golden Age did.
One has only to take a look at That's Entertainment (1974, MGM) and its two sequels to
get a sense of that.
Warner Brothers ("Come and meet those dancing feet")

Although WB ushered in the sound era with Al Jolson singing in The Jazz Singer (1927),
the studio offered little of musical substance for the next half-dozen years. True, Jolson
appeared regularly in the likes of The Singing Fool (1928) or Mammy (1930), and the
company did make one of the better of the large-scale revue shows popular at the time -
Show of Shows (1929), but on the whole too many of the company's early sound musicals
were ponderous and uninspiring.

That changed with 42nd Street (1933). The story was nothing special - big musical
comedy director puts on his last but greatest show - and one had to put up with Dick
Powell's sappy crooning, but the musical numbers were something else. They were
staged by Busby Berkeley, who brought imagination, style, and nerve to the dance
extravaganzas he devised. He opened up the stage to allow massive musical numbers and
photographed them from all angles and altitudes, using cameras both moving and static.
Far from a one-shot deal, 42nd Street kicked off three years of such Berkeley efforts,
including Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade (1933), Dames (1934), Wonder Bar
(1934), Go Into Your Dance (1935), and Gold Diggers of 1935. Although for an
individual musical number it's hard to beat the "The Lullaby of Broadway" in Gold
Diggers of 1935, the best of these films overall is probably Footlight Parade. As did
most of the films, it featured many of WB's familiar company of players (which included
Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert, and Guy
Kibbee), but more significantly, it starred James Cagney who contributed one of the high-
powered, energetic performances typical of his work at the time as well as some great
dance work in his uniquely stiff-legged style.

Despite Berkeley's work on Gold Diggers of 1935, his following WB films were
increasingly bland and repetitive. Dick Powell kept crooning away in the likes of The
Singing Marine (1937) and The Cowboy from Brooklyn (1938), but Ruby Keeler made
only Colleen (1936, with Powell) and Ready, Willing and Able (1937) before packing it
in. The musical at WB declined into virtual obscurity until after America's entry into
World War II. The only exception of note was Anatole Litvak's Blues in the Night (1941),
which, one could argue, was as much drama as it was musical.

The Second World War brought two types of musical to the forefront - the nostalgic
musical and the patriotic musical. The nostalgic musical usually focused on stories with
settings early in the century and for WB, frequently meant Dennis Morgan in the title
role. Morgan was an actor who either starred in WB's lesser dramas or comedies (he
frequently teamed with Jack Carson) or appeared in secondary lead roles in the
company's major A productions. He had, however, a pleasant singing voice and as the
company lacked anyone else, became the male face of WB's standard musical fare of the
decade - films such as Shine On, Harvest Moon (1944), My Wild Irish Rose (1947), and
One Sunday Afternoon (1948).

The patriotic musical usually took the form of a musical revue, which had a thin plot
normally focusing on two lesser stars. Then woven into the tale were a number of musical
numbers featuring just about every major star on the studio's roster. WB actually
produced three of these efforts. Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) managed to have most of
WB's major players (Bogart, Davis, Garfield, Flynn, Sheridan, de Havilland, etc.)
performing in some fashion or other, most in some sort of musical number. Davis and
Flynn came off best. This Is the Army (1943) was a filmed version of Irving Berlin's stage
show with Ronald Reagan and George Murphy prominent in the cast. Highlights were
renditions of "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning", "God Bless America" (yes,
with Kate Smith), and the title song. Hollywood Canteen (1944) was a tribute to the real-
life Canteen where many of Hollywood's stars worked part-time in support of the
Canteen's role as a place for servicemen to go when away from home.

The patriotic and nostalgic musical blended together to offer one diamond from WB, in
1942 - Yankee Doodle Dandy - with James Cagney playing the title role of the famous
American musical performer and showman George M. Cohan. The songs are infectiously
entertaining; the dancing is typically Cagney - strutting and pugnacious; and the staging
is impeccable. Some of the story may be trite and typically Hollywood biography, but
you can't take your eyes off Cagney's performance, which won him a well-deserved
Academy Award as Best Actor of 1942.

The end of the War saw the beginning of the composer-biography musical. WB made
two entries here. Rhapsody in Blue (1945) was supposedly the life of George Gershwin
while Night and Day (1946) purported to be that of Cole Porter. The music in both was
adequate to good, but each film was let down by derivative plots and Hollywood musical
biography clichés. Robert Alda was nobody's idea of George Gershwin, and Cary Grant
offers nothing as Cole Porter. Coincidently, Alexis Smith managed to be boring in both
films. The only spark in either film seemed to come from actors who played themselves -
Oscar Levant in Rhapsody in Blue and Monte Woolley in Night and Day.

In the 1950s, two main things of consequence that WB could offer to the musical genre
were Judy Garland in A Star is Born (1954) and Doris Day in a series of pleasant if
ultimately forgettable musicals. After gradually breaking into the genre in the late 1940s
in Romance on the High Seas (1948), Day hit her stride with the likes of Tea for Two
(1950), On Moonlight Bay (1951), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), Calamity
Jane (1953), and The Pajama Game (1957). The work from Doris Day and Judy Garland
were good contributions, but they paled in comparison to the efforts that were still going
on over at MGM at that time.

MGM ("...a world of entertainment")

Despite being the studio with the largest stable of stars and the films with the richest
production values, MGM was a little slow to react to the impact of the Busby Berkeley
musicals coming out of WB in the early to mid-1930s. In Eleanor Powell and Jeanette
MacDonald, they soon found they had part of the answer, however. The other part lay in
the hands of two youngsters that MGM was gradually grooming for stardom - Judy
Garland and Mickey Rooney.

Eleanor Powell's tap-dancing expertise became the centre-piece of a number of musicals
that featured the same sort of large-scale production numbers that Busby Berkeley was
fashioning at Warner Brothers. Born to Dance (1936) and Rosalie (1937) were two such
films, but Powell is perhaps even more identified with the "Broadway Melody" series of
musicals. These actually originated with 1929's The Broadway Melody - MGM's
contribution to the spate of early-sound revue films (and one which won a Best Picture
Academy Award). In 1936, they revived the idea with Broadway Melody of 1936 and
then followed it with Broadway Melody of 1938 and Broadway Melody of 1940. In the
latter, Powell and Fred Astaire teamed to create one of the greatest tap-dancing
production numbers ever put on film, done to the music "Begin the Beguine". Powell
would appear in a few musicals in the early 1940s (including Lady Be Good [1941] and
Ship Ahoy [1942]), but her career slowly faded after that.

Jeanette MacDonald added some very pleasant singing to 1936's otherwise dramatic San
Francisco, but her teaming with Nelson Eddy in Naughty Marietta (1935) and Rose
Marie (1936) kicked off a very successful series of operetta films that would continue for
five years (Maytime [1937] and The Girl of the Golden West [1938], for example) ending
with 1940's Bitter Sweet. (The two would re-team for the less successful I Married an
Angel in 1942.)

Mickey Rooney was a solid presence at MGM by the mid-1930s and he soon was starring
in the Andy Hardy series as well as featured roles in other major MGM films of the time.
Judy Garland had been signed to a contract in 1935 and after successes in Broadway
Melody of 1938 and an Andy Hardy film among others, she would appear in a musical
especially developed for her - the immensely successful The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Capitalizing on Garland's building popularity, MGM also starred her with Rooney in
Babes in Arms (1939). The success of these two films led to a succession of
Garland/Rooney musicals - Strike Up the Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1941), and
Girl Crazy (1943).

But of even more importance to the future of the MGM musical than Garland herself was
the fact that her two successes of 1939 had been produced by Arthur Freed. Freed was
one of MGM's resident songwriters, along with Nacio Herb Brown, during much of the
1930s. By the late 1930s, he had begun to acquire and develop properties for MGM and
the success of The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms led to his heading up what would
become known as the Freed Unit. Along with Roger Edens who was variously composer,
arranger, musical director, and associate producer for the Unit for many years, Freed
turned out a truly memorable parade of contemporary film musicals during the 1940s and
1950s whose like has never been matched. The stars included such names as Gene Kelly,
Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, and Frank Sinatra.
The films included: the Garland/Rooney musicals already mentioned, For Me and My
Gal (1942), Cabin in the Sky (1943), Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), Best Foot Forward
(1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), The Harvey Girls (1946),
Yolanda and the Thief (1945), Till the Clouds Roll By (1947), Good News (1947),
Summer Holiday (1948), The Pirate (1948), Easter Parade (1948), Words and Music
(1948), Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), On the
Town (1949), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Royal Wedding (1951), An American in Paris
(1951), Show Boat (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Belle of New York (1952),
Invitation to the Dance (1956, filmed in 1952), The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon
(1954), It's Always Fair Weather (1955), Kismet (1955), Silk Stockings (1957), Gigi
(1958), and Bells Are Ringing (1960).

There were, of course, other MGM musicals made during the Freed era and some of them
quite entertaining. The excellence of the Freed ones just tends to make one overlook the
films featuring Jane Powell, Marge and Gower Champion, Mario Lanza, and many

RKO ("...dancing cheek to cheek")

RKO's chief musical claim to fame was the duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In
1933, the pair first appeared in Flying Down to Rio in supporting roles, but they were
headliners thereafter throughout the 1930s. Their films included The Gay Divorcee
(1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936),
Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle

Otherwise, musical fortunes at RKO were hit and miss. The company had its own major
musical success at the dawn of sound in the musical western Rio Rita (1929) - a film that
had a subplot featuring the comedy duo of Wheeler and Woolsey, and also a final
sequence shot in two-strip Technicolor. The formula was repeated in 1930's Dixiana, but
less successfully. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the studio had Lucille Ball under
contract and several of her films could be considered to be minor musicals. More
importantly, in the 1940s, the studio made Frank Sinatra's first films of consequence -
Higher and Higher (1943) and Step Lively (1944) - before he moved over to MGM. Fred
Astaire returned for a minor kick at the musical can in The Sky's the Limit (1943) and
Eddie Cantor offered the pleasant Show Business (1944). The studio made a few films
featuring the big bands of the time and some of its more minor contract players and even
tried its own revival of the musical revue with George White's Scandals (1945). As the
decade wound down, however, RKO's musicals became few and far between as the
studio realized that its bread and butter lay in comedy, drama, westerns, and increasingly
film noir.

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