Fifty years, five decades of movie musicals! What could have been more fun? From the 1930s right into the 1980s, Hollywood kept turning out one musical after another, songs that became classics, and performers who became superstars. What great memories they left us!
THE JAZZ SINGER starring Al Jolson, produced in 1927, was the first of the real movie musicals. Silent movies were being replaced by “talkies” and our viewing habits were changing rapidly.
Musicals came into their own during the 1930s. The trend at first was toward depicting Broadway type stage productions. Ziegfeld Follies, George White Scandals and Earl Carroll Vanities were some of the early extravaganzas. Before long story lines began to develop. Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, soon to be famous as “America’s Singing Sweethearts,” appeared in classics such as NAUGHTY MARIETTA, ROSEMARIE and NEW MOON.
Jimmy Cagney and the great Fred Astaire added their dancing talents to many memorable musicals. Astaire and Ginger Rogers partnered in 10 musicals such as TOP HAT and SWING TIME and became lasting sensations. You’ve probably heard the old joke that Ginger could do everything Fred did, backwards and in high heels.
My research turned up some interesting tidbits. Actually, Ginger Rogers wasn’t considered that great a dancer, she didn’t even do tap, but her enormous appeal came from making Fred Astaire look like the only man alive. The saying was that she provided the sex and he provided the class. Astaire also danced with Eleanor Powell, the most talented female dancer of the decade. Unfortunately she lacked the crowd appeal others had.
Shirley Temple as THE LITTLE COLONEL stole everyone’s hearts, as did Mickey Rooney in the ANDY HARDY series. The Marx brothers were hilarious in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. By now humor and wit were being added to the genre. A Latin theme became popular with movies such as FLYING DOWN TO RIO.
The decade ended with the blowout ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND. That title song has been recorded by every major singer and band over the last fifty years. And let’s not forget the enormous hit that made Judy Garland a mega-star. The classic WIZARD OF OZ is still popular today.
HELLZAPOPPIN’ opened the 1940s with a bang, showcasing the comedy duo of Olsen and Johnson and also Martha Raye, one of the first really successful comediennes. The Latin trend continued with PANAMA HATTIE, WEEKEND IN HAVANA and RIO RITA. Carmen Miranda, with her outrageous headgear loaded with flowers and fruit, became another big star.
With a major World War raging, several musicals aiming to raise the nation’s spirits appeared, I LEFT MY HEART AT THE STAGE-DOOR CANTEEN and THIS IS THE ARMY, MR. JONES were among them.
FANTASIA was another milestone in movie making, a visual treat and the first in a long tradition of animated films.
Jimmy Cagney’s little dancing feet were flying in his greatest hit, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, which came out in 1942, still a staple on late night TV. CABIN IN THE SKY and SONG OF THE SOUTH left their influences, and Judy Garland starred again in HARVEY GIRLS and MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS among others. Another hit that soon became a classic was EASTER PARADE, once again showcasing those two great stars, Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. SHOW BOAT was enormously popular.
The 1950s and 1960s became the heyday of the musicals, bringing us one hit after another. ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, MY BLUE HEAVEN, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and the ABBOTT AND COSTELLO movies. Also SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, CALL ME MADAM, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and THE GLEN MILLER STORY. And the list goes on, KISS ME KATE, CARMEN JONES, WHITE CHRISTMAS, GUYS AND DOLLS and OKLAHOMA!
Elvis Presley burst on the music scene, truly an overnight sensation. More and more wonderful stories poured out of Hollywood including FUNNY FACE, PAJAMA GAME, PAL JOEY, DAMN YANKEES and GIGI. Never to be forgotten; SOME LIKE IT HOT, PORGY AND BESS and SOUTH PACIFIC. Next came WEST SIDE STORY, GYPSY, MUSIC MAN, STATE FAIR, BYE BYE BIRDIE, SOUND OF MUSIC, MARY POPPINS and MY FAIR LADY. We spent those two decades relishing one timeless treasure after another.
CAMELOT, FUNNY GIRL, OLIVER, MY FAIR LADY, HELLO DOLLY and PAINT YOUR WAGON; looking back we now realize how lucky we were. There were so many others, I’m sure I’ve overlooked a lot of favorites. Many of them enjoy a second life on television today.
The 1970s had their share too, but television was demanding more and more of our free time. We still took the time to watch such blockbusters as FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, WILLY WONKA, CABARET, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, A STAR IS BORN, and ALL THAT JAZZ.
The most recent decades have had fewer major musicals but the ones we’ve seen have all been hits. BLUES BROTHERS, ANNIE, GREASE, MARY POPPINS and CHORUS LINE, also DIRTY DANCING, HAIR SPRAY, THE LITTLE MERMAID, MOULIN ROUGE and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA to mention just a few.
Animation is more popular than ever today, and in the past few years we’ve had a new approach with GLEE and LA LA LAND keeping the tradition alive.
Wouldn’t it be fun to be ushered down a shadowy aisle with your sweetie, each carrying a tub of hot, buttered popcorn, a box of Milk Duds and a giant Orange Crush, ready to lean back in a squeaky seat as the music to “Seventy Six Trombones” swells around you and the credits for THE MUSIC MAN begin to roll?
Oh, the good old days of the movie musical.