“I hate musicals.”
We’ve all met someone who tries to rain on a musical lover’s parade with this phrase. Maybe they once watched The Sound of Music (1965) and thought it was way too long or perhaps had a hard time with gang members pirouetting down New York City streets in West Side Story (1961).
That makes me wonder if sometimes people skip musicals they might enjoy more. Here are five musicals I suggest as “must see” that are somewhat off the beaten path. It’s easy to suggest Singin’ in the Rain (1952) or any film with Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers, but here a few that may have been missed:
Footlight Parade (1933)
After the dawn of sound, filmmakers and studios making musicals struggled to find a formula that worked. Choreographer and director Busby Berkley and his kaleidoscope choreography are credited with helping save the movie musical. Footlight Parade exhibits some of that fancy camera work and I feel it’s some of Berkley’s best – especially with the complex “By a Waterfall” number, which kept swimming chorus girls in the water for hours on end for six days! Musicals in the 1930s were pure escapism for audiences during the Great Depression. I also wanted to pick a film with screen team Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, who co-starred in seven films. Footlight Parade is also notable because it was James Cagney’s first Hollywood musical. He was a dancer before coming to Hollywood. Prior to Footlight Parade, audiences only knew Cagney as a gangster and a mug. Imagine only knowing him that way and seeing him dance on screen for the first time! Outside of the cast and choreography, Footlight Parade is a funny film (I especially like Frank McHugh’s role as the harried choreographer). Without the songs and dancing, this would stand on its own as a hilarious Pre-Code comedy.
Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)
Broadway Melody of 1940 is part of a musical series with unrelated plots. It began with Broadway Melody (1929) followed by Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935) and Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937). Broadway Melody of 1940 is the last of the Broadway Melody films and, in my opinion, is the best. Everyone knows Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as a dancing team, but Astaire and Eleanor Powell are an amazing dancing duo who were unfortunately paired only this one time. Not as well known today, Eleanor Powell is one of the greatest tap dancers recorded on film. At the time this film was produced, Powell was at the top of her fame, but also nearing the end of her film career. This is amazing to consider because she is the star of this film. Watch for the magnificent and creative dance numbers and Astaire and Powell dancing as equals.
Bathing Beauty (1944)
Director: George Sidney
Starring: Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Basil Rathbone, Bill Goodwin, Jean Porter, Janis Paige
As themselves: Harry James, Lina Romay, Xavier Cugat, Helen Forrest, Ethel Smith, Carlos Ramirez
Musicals can be defined as songs and dance numbers that help to express emotion and drive a plot forward. But not all musicals are like this. Some musicals had music for the sake of including popular performers of the time. Bathing Beauty is a good example of this. Big bands and popular music stars Harry James, Xavier Cugat, Helen Forrest, and Ethel Smith are all showcased in the film — these were the “rock stars” of their day. So if you like big band music, this is a treat. But outside of the music, Bathing Beauty has a musical “novelty” — swimming star Esther Williams. Williams was an Olympic hopeful who had to reinvent herself when her athletic swimming dreams were dashed when the 1940 Olympics were canceled due to World War II. Williams transitioned into entertainment and after playing bit parts, Bathing Beauty was her first starring role and the first film to include lavish water ballets. The idea was fashioned after 20th Century Fox’s novelty star, Olympic gold medalist Sonja Henie who ice skated in musicals. Williams wrote in her autobiography that MGM “melted the ice” and had a swimming star. Outside of the big band music and a few swimming numbers, Bathing Beauty is also a comedy, with Red Skelton performing in several comedic skits. Bathing Beauty isn’t a typical musical, but it is fun, has colorful Technicolor, and is a great example of escapist entertainment released during World War II.
Jane Powell, Howard Keel, Jeff Richards, Matt Mattox, Marc Platt, Jacques d’Amboise, Tommy Rall in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).
Director: Stanley Donen
Starring: Jane Powell, Howard Keel, Russ Tamblyn, Jeff Richards, Tommy Rall, Julie Newmar, Ruta Lee, Ian Wolfe, Marc Platt, Matt Mattox, Jacques d’Amboise, Nancy Kilgas, Betty Carr, Virginia Gibson, Norma Doggett
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is an “all singing, all dancing” musical; one that has songs that move along the plot. And while this could be off-putting to people who don’t enjoy that, I do think Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is one of the best musicals ever released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. There are several things notable about this musical. First of all, it was a sleeper that almost wasn’t made. Brigadoon was the film MGM thought would be the successful moneymaker of the studio, but it was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers that was the success. Of all the phenomenal song and dance numbers in the film, one of the most notable includes the “Barn Raising” dance, which combines dancing and acrobatics. Seven Brides… is a great example of the lavish MGM musical when the genre was at the top of its game, but it was also the beginning of the end of musicals for the studio. After the successful release of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, studio head Dore Schary wanted MGM to go in a different direction and cut the budget for further musical films. While the budget was cut from Seven Brides… during production, you would never know it from the mountain-like sets, top-notch dancers (performing numbers choreographed by Michael Kidd), and beautiful music by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul.
Flower Drum Song (1962)
By the early 1960s, most movie musicals were adaptations of Broadway plays. This stage musical was the eighth Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration and it is often overlooked compared to the team’s shows like The Sound of Music or South Pacific (1958). While the film was not a financial success (it was the only Rodgers and Hammerstein film to lose money), I selected it because it is often unfortunately forgotten. Today, many people are discussing Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and how rare it is to feature a cast of Asian actors, but Flower Drum Song is another one of those rare American films (classic or contemporary) with an all-Asian cast and all-Asian leads (except for Juanita Hall). Miyoshi Umeki and Juanita Hall reprised their roles from the Broadway play and are both wonderful in the film. And then there is the fabulous Nancy Kwan. Kwan was one of Hollywood’s hottest new actresses after starring in The World of Suzie Wong, but unfortunately after this film, she was no longer cast in high-quality films. By the early 1960s, movie musicals were declining, but this movie is so colorful and enjoyable that more people should know about it. Be sure to watch this one to view the full scope of the Rodgers and Hammerstein repertoire as well as for a rare chance to see an all Asian cast in a pre-1970s film.
– 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.”