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.
A Star is Born (1954)
Norman Maine (James Mason) is a has-been actor on his way out thanks to alcohol-fueled attitude problems, but when a fresh young starlet (Judy Garland) lends him a hand the two fall into a successful friendship and a doomed romance.
This is the restored cut (inexplicably on two DVDs), and it’s a pretty stellar drama. My familiarity with Garland extends only to The Wizard of Oz, but she’s fantastic here. Mason, by contrast, is always great and exceeds even his best work elsewhere with his turn as an alcoholic trying in vain to get straight. There are some truly heartbreaking moments here as his illness and behavior intrudes on her life in painful and embarrassing ways.
The Music Man (1962)
Harold Hill (Robert Preston) is a traveling salesman, sometimes, who arrives in small towns, cons his way into people’s pockets and then escapes into the night a richer man. His plans in River City run into some friction though in the form a suspicious populace and a librarian (Shirley Jones) who steals his heart.
Preston is a genius of rhythm and delivery, and he makes this delightful comedy come alive with wit and laughs. The songs are often worked into dialogue-like bits that mirror the setting resulting in a fantastic opening train car scene and a deliriously brilliant library-set number. I was sad that Preston never broke out into “Monorail! Monorail!”, but I’ll just have to revisit The Simpsons for that one.
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
Lucky Jackson (Elvis Presley) is a race car driver in search of a race, and a car for that matter, but it all goes wrong when he arrives in Las Vegas. Well, there is the beautiful redhead (Ann-Margret) who manages to distract him from his sorrows, but when a competing driver swoops in and threatens to win her too Lucky is forced to step up his game and pick up a guitar.
Elvis is as Elvis does, and this is an Elvis movie in every regard. The story is slight and most of the laughs are minor at best, but the man knows how to craft a fun and addictive tune. Even better than the King’s hip-swiveling antics though is the visual delight that is Ann-Margret. I don’t even like red-heads, and she had me rewinding like a madman.
King Arthur (Richard Harris) meets Guinevere (Vanessa Redgrave) one day in the woods and the two become fast lovers. Her new role as Queen finds her equally in love with the freedoms and power, and when a knight named Lancelot (Franco Nero) arrives she begins a game with deadly consequences. Further complicating Arthur’s new court and round table is the appearance of a son with bad things on his mind.
The story here is well known, and even with slight changes it’s easy to know what’s coming next, but some elements still manage to be exciting. Unfortunately there’s also quite a bit of padding throughout the three hours. The songs don’t impress either, and many of them are in need of a redesign as they’re lifted directly from the stage with directions that feel forced to keep the performers singing towards the audience. Redgrave does give a fantastically devilish performance though.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder), the world’s foremost candy maker, has come out of seclusion to offer five children and their guardians the chance to tour his world famous factory. Four of the winners are little shits, but one, Charlie, is a sweet and honest child. The wonders behind the factory walls will surprise everyone… including perhaps Wonka himself.
Like The Wizard of Oz, this is a musical that I’ve re-watched and loved for most of my life. The key to its success, for me at least, has always been Wilder’s portrayal of Wonka as a methodically unhinged madman in love with things that are smaller than him. Children, candy, Oompa Loompas, he loves them all… but he’s not afraid to send them packing if they don’t meet his standards. The film is very funny and occasionally frightening, and the songs are incredibly catchy. Well, all except for the mom’s laundromat song that grinds the film to a halt.
Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) is an American dancer in 1930s Berlin who earns her living by shmoozing and sleeping with the men who pass through the Kit Kat Club. She eventually falls for a bisexual Brit named Brian (Michael York), but their romance is complicated by a third party named Max (Helmut Griem). The sexually free club and its freewheeling morals existing at the center of a fascist country offers a world of contrasts.
Bob Fosse‘s film doesn’t really work for me, but before I blame my dislike of Miss Minnelli it should be pointed out that the video quality on this disc is pretty terrible. Every movie that precedes it in the collection is older but looks far better. That said, good god Minnelli annoys me. It’s a personal taste issue, but she sits amidst a special trio of women (including Cher and Bette Midler) whose open mouths make me want to jab pencils in my ears. York is good, and the story itself is interesting, but every time Minnelli opens her mouth I want the Nazis to rush in and smother her. Other than that, it’s pretty good!
That’s Entertainment! (1974)
MGM’s half century of musical films is celebrated with this documentary that mixes scenes from their many movies with new appearances by their cavalcade of legendary stars. Frank Sinatra opens the film and passes the narration baton to others like Elizabeth Taylor and Gene Kelly as they look back on the movies of their youth.
While the film features several scripted bits with past stars the majority of time is spent showing scenes from dozens of other movies. So yes, this is a clip show of song and dance numbers taken out of context. So yes, I don’t really care for it.
Victor Victoria (1982)
Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) is a British soprano in 1930s Paris who can’t catch a break. She’s broke, evicted and in need of a helping hand when she gets just that in the form of another down on his luck sort named Carole “Toddy” Todd (Robert Preston). Together they come up with a brilliant idea… Victoria will pretend to be a man performing in drag. Her unsurprisingly convincing performances wow audiences making her the talk of the town, but when a wealthy fan (James Garner) falls for the woman playing a man playing a woman things become understandably complicated.
Writer/director Blake Edwards was a comedy mainstay for many years, and this remains one of his most critically acclaimed films. It doesn’t shy away from the early drama, but when the comedy kicks in all three leads (along with several fine supporting players like Alex Karras and Lesley Ann Warren) bring the funny with great success. Preston and Andrews make a fantastic team.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Seymour (Rick Moranis) works at a failing florist shop with his boss (Vincent Gardenia) and coworker (Ellen Greene), but their lives turn around when he finds a plant sent from the stars and business suddenly picks up due to the little thing’s unspoken power of persuasion. Once it starts growing though Seymour discovers what it wants in return is people. For dinner.
Roger Corman‘s classic oddball of a film gets re-imagined as a musical, and the result is an entertaining romp filled with fun performances, great cameos and some impressive puppet effects work to bring Audrey the plant to life. Moranis in particular stands out and will have viewers wishing he would come out of retirement sometime soon. (Just not for another Honey I Endangered the Kids! sequel.) The famed dentist scene with Steve Martin and Bill Murray remains a fantastically funny bit.
Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) is a chubby teen in 1960s Baltimore with a dream of dancing for live studio audiences. She achieves that goal thanks to the Corny Collins Show, but when she attempts use her visibility to speak out against segregation she winds up going head to head against the city’s racist, upper class elites in a debate that can only be settled with a dance-off. If only Martin Luther King Jr. had thought of this.
John Waters‘ film got a bigger and higher profile remake a few years ago, but this original stands as a fun and energetic little comedy with a sincere heart. Divine‘s take on the role that John Travolta would later make his own is the less nuanced of the two, but the same could be said for the whole movie. Like most of Waters’ films it’s a simple affair, but instead of pushing the limits of good taste he’s focusing his wit and attention on social injustices and dance shows.
The Bottom Line:
Musicals in general still aren’t my favorite genre, but of the twenty films here I actually enjoyed more than half of them. Of course two of them were ones I previously loved and many of the good ones aren’t the “hey look we all know the same song and dance!” variety, but this is still progress right? The appeal of the three ’80s selections isn’t very shocking, but I’m more than a little surprised to have really enjoyed the two Gene Kelly films. Great stuff.
Movies aside the actual box-set is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s packaged nicely with three individuals clamshells housed in an outer sleeve and a booklet featuring information on each film, but the discs themselves are all from previous releases. They haven’t been remastered or redesigned for this set. This means that not only are the disc labels different (some saying Disc One as they’re clearly part of a previous two-disc release) but the menus and qualities are all over the place. At less than $4 per movie it’s still a great deal, but a more unified presentation would have been appreciated.
Still, the sheer variety on display here has expanded my view on musicals quite a bit. Am I going to rush out and watch South Pacific? Hell no. But will I stop generalizing and saying I don’t like musicals? Probably.
Buy the Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Musicals on DVD from Amazon