The DVD Report #21

The movie musical has a long history going back to the first talking film, The Jazz Singer . In the first few years of the talkies it seemed every other film was a musical, from 1928’s The Singing Fool to 1929’s The Broadway Melody , Applause , The Love Parade and Hallelujah to 1930’s Under the Roofs of Paris, Monte Carlo and The Lottery Bride, then just as quickly as they came into fashion they went out. Films were becoming more sophisticated and so were depression audience tastes.

Musicals didn’t stay out of fashion for long. They bounced back bigger than ever with Busby Berkeley’s larger than life choreography highlighting four spectacular films in 1933 and 1934: 42nd Street, the grand-daddy of the backstage musical; Gold Diggers of 1933 with its witty screwball comedy punctuating the music and ending with a lavish tribute to World War I’s “Forgotten Man”; Footlight Parade in which James Cagney first kicked up his heels and danced on screen; and Dames in which Dick Powell sings “I Only Have Eyes for You” to fifty Ruby Keelers.

Even more popular were the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals from 1934 to 1939, in which screwball comedy blended nicely with elegant dancing and music by some of the greatest composers of the 20th Century including George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. Critics and fans still argue over which one of the team’s nine musicals was their best. Let’s end the argument by conceding that Porter’s The Gay Divorcée is the best expansion of a Broadway musical, Berlin’s Top Hat is the most stylish, and Gershwin’s Swing Time is the one with the greatest score.

As the Astaire/Rogers collaborations came to an end, the young team of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland was just getting started. The Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collection, out today, features the four musicals they made together between 1939 and 1943: Babes in Arms, Strike Up the Band, Babes on Broadway and Girl Crazy, all of them either directed or co-directed by Busby Berkeley.

The first three of these films are of the “let’s put on a show” variety and the simplistic story lines do not hold up very well, though the music and the energy of the performers still does. Rooney even won an Oscar nomination for Babes in Arms which jettisons much of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s original score. “The Lady Is a Tramp”, for example, was considered too sophisticated for the teenaged Garland and had to wait until Lena Horne sang it a few years later in Words and Music
. The ever popular “Where or When” is retained, however, and baritone Douglas McPhail does a rousing rendition of the title song.

Nicely incorporating the Oscar-nominated “Our Love Affair” and the rousing title tune, Strike Up the Band features the duo in top form but is otherwise a disappointment as it abandons the rest of the score and the plot from Gershwin’s original stage musical. Of interest to film buffs, Enid Bennett and Helen Jerome Eddy, fondly remembered as the mothers of Skippy and Sooky in the Oscar-nominated Skippy and its sequel Sooky have featured roles as mothers here. Norman Taurog, who directed them in those films, winning an Oscar for the former, was later to co-direct Rooney and Garland in Girl Crazy.

The only completely original film of the set is Babes on Broadway, which includes the Oscar-nominated song, “How About You?”. Virginia Weidler co-stars. Margaret O’Brien, in her film debut, and Donna Reed have bit parts and Ava Gardner is an extra.

The most enduring of the four films is Girl Crazy, which retains most of the Gershwin score and was successfully remade by MGM as When the Boys Meet the Girls in 1965 with Connie Francis and Harve Presnell. Retaining the dude ranch setting of the original stage musical, the score includes “I Got Rhythm” and “But Not for Me”.

Musicals in which the actors express their feelings in song rather than in the lines between the songs was a convention long used in opera and operetta. The first modern musical to utilize this device was Show Boat, filmed as a partial talkie in 1929, later as a full blown musical, and a great one, in 1936. The device was not utilized again until 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis, in which Garland was directed by her future husband, stage-trained Vincente Minnelli.

The only other musical of the era to utilize this device was State Fair, the only musical written directly for the screen by Rodgers and Hammerstein, who perfected the device in Oklahoma!, which ten years after State Fair would become the first of the blockbuster screen musicals adapted from Broadway shows.

Both Meet Me in St. Louis and State Fair were musicals about families in hometown America. Both offered a treasure trove of hits. From Meet Me in St. Louis came “The Boy Next Door”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the Oscar-nominated “Trolley Song” as well as the title tune. From State Fair came “Our State Fair”, “That’s for Me”, “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” and the Oscar winning “It Might as Well Be Spring”. The 1962 remake featured additional music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers that included “Willing and Eager” and “Never Say No to a Man”.

State Fair had of course been previously filmed in 1933 and was, in fact, one of that year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture. Some prefer the original non-musical version with Will Rogers, Janet Gaynor, Lew Ayres, Sally Eilers, Norman Foster and Louise Dresser, but I prefer the first musical version with Charles Winninger, Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews, Vivian Blaine, Dick Haymes and Fay Bainter in those roles. The original, which I finally caught up with recently, seems like just another Will Rogers film to me, despite the fine acting of Gaynor, Ayres and Foster, whereas the 1945 version seems more like a lived-in piece. That is especially true of the character of the mother. Dresser, who could be a fine actress in films like The Scarlet Empress, plays the part in State Fair, much as she did her part in David Harum, as a foil for Rogers. Bainter’s line readings are more like a real down-home mother would say them. Her exasperation at not getting just the right amount of ingredients into her mince pie, and her later giddiness at winning the blue ribbon at the fair, seem quite real. Shoot me, but I also prefer Alice Faye to Dresser in the 1962 version.

Between State Fair and the film version of Oklahoma!, there were occasional transfers of Broadway book musicals such as Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam, but for the most part movie musicals were either heavily fictionalized biographies of great composers and the occasional performer, or musical compilations of scores by composers such as Berlin and Gershwin.

Gershwin’s music is the main ingredient of the Oscar-winning An American in Paris, whereas Berlin’s music first showed up in a compilation in 1938’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band, a device later used in 1942’s Holiday Inn, which included a new song among the oldies, the Oscar-winning classic, “White Christmas”. Two 1943 musicals, This Is the Army and Thousands Cheer incorporated Berlin music that was both old and new. Apparently no one wanted to tamper with a proven formula when it worked, so along came 1946’s Blue Skies, 1948’s Easter Parade and 1954’s White Christmas and There’s No Business Like Show Business, all of them huge box office successes and all of them fondly remembered today.

Compilations of the music of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, and Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz respectively were the chief ingredients of the two best musicals of the era, Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon.

Musical biographies covered the lives of composers such as George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. All of them were heavily fictionalized: in the Gershwin biopic, Rhapsody in Blue, to make the composer’s short life seem longer than it was; in the Kern biopic, Till the Clouds Roll By, to hide the dullness of his private life; the Porter biopic, Night and Day, to hide his homosexuality and the Rodgers and Hart biopic, Words and Music, to hide both the dullness of Richard Rodgers’ life and Larry Hart’s homosexuality. See them for the music, not to gain any real insight into the lives of the men being portrayed.

One of the best, and more truthful, of the composer biographies was 1951’s I’ll See You in My Dreams in which Danny Thomas played composer Gus Kahn and Doris Day his wife.

Musical biographies of performers had been around for some time when James Cagney made perhaps the most celebrated of them all, 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, the biography of George M. Cohan, who was, of course, also a composer. Next to the Cagney film, the most popular of the star biographies was 1946’s The Jolson Story. The Cohan biography featured several fictional characters along with the real ones and hid the fact that the Irish Catholic performer was married more than once. The Jolson biography played like a remake of The Jazz Singer, so much of Jolson’s alleged early life seemed to have gotten confused with the early life of the character he played in that film. Totally ridiculous was the re-naming of Jolson’s ex-wife so audiences wouldn’t know she was supposed to be Ruby Keeler. Despite the disingenuousness of the enterprise it was a huge hit and Jolson became a bigger star than ever having recorded the songs to which Larry Parks lip-synced.

Notable biographies of female stars include 1940’s Lillian Russell with Alice Faye as the great turn-of-the-century star and 1953’s So This Is Love in which Kathryn Grayson plays Oscar-nominated opera star Grace Moore (One Night of Love).

Susan Hayward won an Oscar nomination impersonating Jane Froman who sang her own songs to Hayward’s superb lip-synching in 1952’s With a Song in My Heart, which was so heavily fictionalized that the character of Froman’s nurse/companion for which Thelma Ritter also won an Oscar nomination didn’t exist in real life.

1955, the year in which Oklahoma! forever changed the look of screen musicals, was the last gasp for musical biographies. Sure, there were later attempts such as 1957’s The Helen Morgan Story, but the three big female star biographies of 1955 pretty much ended the era in high style.

Susan Hayward, who only three years earlier lip-synched her heart out in With a Song in My Heart, was back, this time getting her wish to sing the songs herself as Lillian Roth in I’ll Cry Tomorrow. So impressed was Roth with Hayward’s interpretations that she changed her own singing style to suit Hayward’s in later life.

Doris Day gave what is arguably her greatest performance as singer Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me opposite a highly-effective James Cagney as her brute of a husband.

Not to be outdone, Eleanor Parker pulled out all the stops to play Australian-born opera singer Marjorie Lawrence, who went on despite being afflicted with polio, in Interrupted Melody. Parker’s voice was dubbed by Eileen Farrell.

Hayward and Parker received Oscar nominations for their interpretations of Roth and Lawrence. Day went on to become the number one box office star in the world after Pillow Talk four years later.

I’ll have more to say about movie musicals beginning with 1955’s Oklahoma! at another time.

Peter J. Patrick (September 25, 2007)

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