Musical Interlude: Musicals of Hollywood’s Greatest Year
It’s known as Hollywood’s greatest year: 1939.
As we celebrate films released 80 years ago, we think of some of the most obvious film achievements the storied year brought us: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach … The list could go on and on and on.
No doubt, these films are great, but let us consider the musicals of 1939. Many of these musicals are good, and though perhaps not of the caliber as those listed above, they hold their own level of importance.
The year 1939 isn’t just magnificent for the films, but also how it shaped or catapulted the film careers of some of the stars, or how it helped change the landscape of film. Here are just a few musicals that did just that:
Babes in Arms (1939)
The children of vaudeville stars want their parents to take them on the road with them. When the parents say no, Mickey (Mickey Rooney) and Betsy (Judy Garland) decide to organize their own show with the help of their friends. While Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland already co-starred in Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937) and Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) together, Babes in Arms marked their first musical together. Babes in Arms also kicked off the successful “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show” format, which their next films followed, and was director Busby Berkeley’s first full-length directorial project at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Set before the Russian Revolution and World War I, Nelson Eddy plays a Russian prince (posing as a commoner) and Ilona Massey is a singer that is also the daughter of a political activist who opposes of the royalty. The two fall in love but their difference and World War I drive them apart. Speaking of separating screen teams, Nelson Eddy made only two films from 1935 to 1945 without Jeanette MacDonald, both in 1939, first another musical Let Freedom Ring, followed by Balalaika. Balalaika was also the first Hollywood film for Hungarian actress and singer, Ilona Massey, who was later built up as a threat to stars like Greer Garson.
Broadway Serenade (1939)
Mary and Jimmy (Jeanette MacDonald and Lew Ayres) are a married performing act — Mary sings while Jimmy accompanies her on piano. Mary is noticed by a producer and is asked to audition for a Broadway part. Cast in the show, her role and fame grew as her talent is noticed. On the other side, Jimmy’s music career is stalled and his wife’s success drives them apart.
As you can see, while Nelson Eddy was off performing without Jeanette MacDonald, she was doing the same. In the only film, she released in 1939, MacDonald co-stars with Lew Ayres. However, this wasn’t MacDonald’s first film without Eddy; she performed with other actors from 1935 to 1939.
First Love (1939)
In a Cinderella-like story, Connie (played by Deanna Durbin) is an orphan whose only relatives don’t care for her and she is brought up by servants. She falls in love with Ted Drake (Robert Stack) and wants to go to a ball with him, and the servants help her. Deanna Durbin started out as a child star, and First Love is a coming-of-age teenage role for her. She even receives her first on-screen kiss in First Love from Robert Stack. The film is also Robert Stack’s first credited film role.
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)
As the title suggests, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is a biographical film about married couple Vernon and Irene, played by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who rise to fame as ballroom dancers. Their happiness and careers are threatened when World War I begins. The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is different from the 10 other films Astaire and Rogers made together. It is the only biographical film the dancing actors made together and the only one of their films that didn’t have a happy ending.
But what really stands out about The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is that it’s the last film Astaire and Rogers made together until they reunited again 10 years later in 1949 in The Barkleys of Broadway. The separation allowed both to go in slightly different directions. Astaire continued in musicals, but with different leading ladies and more varied plots. Rogers was able to stretch her acting abilities a bit more — performing in films ranging from comedies to drama.
That’s Right – You’re Wrong (1939)
Popular bandleader Kay Kyser (as himself) leaves his radio show gig to start a career in films in Hollywood. The trouble is, his wild and jokey persona doesn’t seem to fit any script Hollywood has to offer. This may seem like a really odd pick. However, I find That’s Right – You’re Wrong notable for a reason. This is the first film starring bandleader Kay Kyser and his band, who made nine films from 1939 until 1944. Most popular during the World War II-era, North Carolinian Kyser would don a graduation cap and gown, host a quiz show and perform music with his band. While some songs were straight romantic ballads, others were a bit more whimsical and band members would be engaged in singing or other noises during a performance.
While Kyser himself may not have been important in the grand scheme of musicals, his appearance in musicals marked a departure from the old style of musicals and a new variation. Kyser’s big band music in the films generally didn’t help move along the plot (as in traditional musicals); they generally were band performances. This would go on to be mimicked when other bandleaders like Tommy Dorsey and Harry James began appearing in films — but none of them were the star of the show like Kyser.
Which musical will you celebrate 80 years of 1939 with?
– Jessica Pickens for Classic Movie Hub
Jessica can be found at cometoverhollywood.com and on twitter at @HollywoodComet. In addition to her overall love of classic movies, she has ongoing series on her site including “Watching 1939″ and “Musical Monday.”