Musicals on the Silver Screen: A Guide to the Must-See Movie Musicals

Musicals on the Silver Screen: A Guide to the Must-See Movie Musicals

by Leonard Kniffel


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Musicals on the Silver Screen: A Guide to the Must-See Movie Musicals by Leonard Kniffel

Musicals adapted to the big screen—from West Side Story to The Phantom of the Opera—have enjoyed a staggering amount of success since the 1940s, and this guide is especially tailored to library patrons looking for help selecting the right flick to watch. The book is organized by decade, allowing readers to learn about the nuances of each era of musical movie production, and a description is paired with each film along with an explanation of why it is worth viewing. Watching musicals and learning their history by way of libraries and archives where such films are preserved and made available is heavily emphasized.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781937589301
Publisher: Huron Street Press
Publication date: 06/01/2013
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 971,543
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Leonard Kniffel was editor in chief of American Libraries magazine from 1996 to 2011 and worked as a librarian for 18 years at the Detroit Public Library. He is the author of A Polish Son in the Motherland and the editor of Reading with the Stars. He lives in Chicago.

Read an Excerpt

Musicals on the Silver Screen

By Leonard Kniffel

American Library Association

Copyright © 2013 American Library Association
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-937589-52-3


All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Dancing, All-Mixed-Up


When you watch these early musicals, notice how the singing and dancing are often filmed as if they were being performed on stage, with the camera being merely a substitute for a seated live audience. During this period, musicals were mostly variety shows with cockamamie plots holding the acts together. Exceptions to this format can be seen in operettas such as Naughty Marietta, which features the legendary singing duo Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in realistic settings. I have to admit that if fast-forward had existed when I first watched many of the musicals of the 1930s, I would have used it to speed past some of the dialogue that fills the space between production numbers.

Filmmaking itself had just begun around the turn of the twentieth century; movies were silent and shown with live musical accompaniment in local movie theaters. When movies began to talk in the late 1920s, the musical was born, and The Jazz Singer is credited with starting the sound revolution. Busby Berkeley became the director and choreographer who most experimented with what the big screen could do; lavish, kaleidoscopic, precisely choreographed song-and-dance sequences characterize his direction.

In the mid-1930s, the censorious Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) began controlling the content of most movies in the United States. Movies made before the Hays Code are often risqué, witty, sophisticated, and laced with double entendre, with stars like Mae West bumping and grinding her way through comedy films that pushed puritanical buttons.

Although film techniques were still evolving, a couple of all-time great film musicals premiered during the 1930s — the authentically revolutionary Show Boat and the authentically weird The Wizard of Oz. I remember seeing the latter in a movie theater as a preschooler and being terrified, not by the witch or the flying monkeys, but by the tornado. Did you know that the tornado scene was done with muslin and wind machines and that Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow" was almost cut from the film?


Even though it is essentially a silent picture, this film gets the credit for revolutionizing movies and ushering in "talkies." Its star, Al Jolson, was already a vaudeville legend and, at age forty, really too old for the part of a rebellious Jewish youth who's forced to leave home to pursue his dream, but audiences were thrilled when he opened his mouth and songs came out. Among the best in the film are "Blue Skies," "Mammy," and "Toot, Toot Tootsie!" While this film is essential viewing when learning about musicals, it seems at best a curiosity, and Jolson singing in blackface is more ridiculous than charming today. It's ironic that the first sound musical featured a white Jew imitating African American performance style for a primarily WASP audience, setting up America's racial divide as a subtext or theme in musicals for years to come. The wildly popular Jolson quickly made four more similar films — The Singing Fool (1928), Say It with Songs (1929), and Mammy and Big Boy (1930). Other noteworthy Jolson flicks, such as Hallelujah I'm a Bum (1933) and Go Into Your Dance (1935) give more insight into his talent and the great songs he popularized. The Jazz Singer was remade in 1953 with Danny Thomas in the lead; it's worth seeing if you remember TV's Make Room for Daddy and for a rare film role by the incomparable singer Peggy Lee. It was also remade in 1980 with Neil Diamond, but that version is worth seeing only if you are a devoted Diamond fan.


Significant as the first real Hollywood musical, this Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) production featured music by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, including the film's biggest hit, "You Were Meant for Me." Freed stayed on at MGM and was responsible for some of the studio's most successful musicals, continuing into the 1950s.


Warner Bros. studios produced this first screen operetta, largely a film version of a Sigmund Romberg stage operetta with some added outdoor scenes. Watching the film gives you a real sense of the times in which it was made, what audiences responded to, and how thrilling sound must have been in early talkies. John Boles and Carlotta King earnestly trill their way through the movie, clips of which are readily available on YouTube. The movie was redone in 1953 with Kathryn Grayson and Gordon MacRae, and their romantic duet of the title song is beautifully filmed, demonstrating how far filmmaking had come in less than a quarter of a century. Both versions reflect the public's ongoing fascination with exotic portrayals of sheiks and all things Arab.


This musical comedy was the third movie released by Warner Bros. in color, and it was a box office smash, making Winnie Lightner a star and bringing greater fame to guitarist-crooner Nick Lucas as he sang two songs that became twentieth-century standards: "Tiptoe through the Tulips" and "Painting the Clouds with Sunshine."

[] HALLELUJAH (1929)

This clichéd and stereotypical film nevertheless represents a sincere effort on the part of director King Vidor to draw attention to the lives of poor black people in the American South. The film showcases traditional spirituals, including "Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child," "Go Down Moses (Let My People Go)," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Get on Board, Little Children," and "Gimme Dat Old Time Religion," along with "Waiting at the End of the Road" and "Swanee Shuffle" by Irving Berlin, "St. Louis Blues" by W. C. Handy, and "Old Folks at Home" by Stephen Foster. It's also interesting to note that the film's star, Nina Mae McKinney, was the first black woman to be offered a contract by a major Hollywood studio, MGM.


The well-known song "Singin' in the Rain" was introduced not in the 1952 movie of the same name, but here, played during the opening by the MGM Symphony Orchestra, then on the ukulele and sung by Cliff Edwards and the Brox Sisters, and reprised by the major stars at the end. This enormously successful variety show featured American songs written by nineteenth-century composer Stephen Foster, "Old Folks at Home" and "Old Black Joe," reviving interest in that bizarre and racist American entertainment form known as the minstrel show. This film also features dramatic actress Joan Crawford singing and dancing "Gotta Feelin' for You" (and offering pretty clear proof for why she stuck with acting). "You Were Meant for Me" is another fine featured tune that has held up well over time, and the John Philip Sousa marches "The Stars and Stripes Forever" and "The Washington Post" are used to great effect. This film intentionally lacks a story line; rather, it served as a showcase for the MGM contract players of the time, which even included comedian Jack Benny and the immortal comedy team Laurel and Hardy.

[] ON WITH THE SHOW! (1929)

This was the first all-color, all-talking musical feature, and the best thing about it is watching the brilliant Ethel Waters sing "Am I Blue?" In the second half of the number, Waters is accompanied by the Harmony Four Quartette. A victim of the haphazard early efforts of American film preservation, copies of this movie survive only in black-and-white.

[] RIO RITA (1929)

Hollywood's second all-color, all-talking feature film broke all box office records and for ten years after remained the highest grossing film ever produced. In it, moviegoers first heard Bebe Daniels's singing voice on the silver screen, and it was a sensation. Teaming her with handsome John Boles proved to be good casting, because he also had a wonderful singing voice. Their duet in counterpoint at the beginning of the film (he sings the title tune while she sings "River Song") must have made audiences swoon. You really have to project yourself back in time to appreciate this one.

[] SUNNY SIDE UP (1929)

Notable for its ridiculous musical number "Turn On the Heat," this film also serves as a great example of the talents and appeal of Janet Gaynor, one of the most popular and versatile actresses of her time, who retired from films in 1938 at the age of thirty-two. She sings the title tune, which became a real anthem of optimism during the Great Depression.

[] THE BLUE ANGEL (1930)

This is not a musical, but it is a must-see because of the classic moment in cinema history when Marlene Dietrich sings "Falling in Love Again (Can't Help It)" and Emil Jannings's obsession with her begins reducing him from distinguished professor to cabaret clown.

[] KING OF JAZZ (1930)

One of the first films to use an editing technique that made the camera keep better time with the music, this film showcases popular Paul Whiteman and his band playing songs that are largely unheard today, with the possible exception of "Mississippi Mud." Look for Bing Crosby as one of the Rhythm Boys. It was his first screen appearance, before it was clear that he would become one of the most enduring leading men in twentieth-century movies.

[] A LADY'S MORALS (1930)

Metropolitan Opera soprano Grace Moore stars in this melodramatic biopic loosely based on the life of Jenny Lind. Known as "the Swedish nightingale," Lind was an enormously popular opera singer in the nineteenth century, made even more so when she toured America under the direction of the great circus man P. T. Barnum.

[] WHOOPEE! (1930)

Whoopee! is considered a turning point in the development of film musicals, when they stopped being stage productions on film. Thanks are due to the arrival of Busby Berkeley, the most influential choreographer of all time, who directed and edited lavish production numbers in entirely new ways, including using color. This film also offers insight into the popularity of Eddie Cantor, whose appeal is not always easy to fathom today. He sings "Makin' Whoopee!" and "My Baby Just Cares for Me," songs so clever and singable that they have became American standards. Brace yourself again for the bizarre and racist convention of blackface, in which white performers blacken their faces and behave like Negro stereotypes, a practice that pervaded Hollywood musicals through their first thirty years. The film and song also established "makin' whoopee" as a permanent euphemism for "making love."


Maurice Chevalier stars in this romantic comedy directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch. One of the most memorable songs is "Jazz Up Your Lingerie," during which costar Miriam Hopkins burns her underwear in the fireplace.


Not the first musical one should see when studying the history of musical films, this German curiosity nevertheless features the classic "Mack the Knife." It was also released in French as a completely separate film with a different cast. It's worth hearing in German and marveling at the fact that this classic collaboration between Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht was released in 1931, when Germany was already rumbling with the rise of the Nazis, who banned the film. Set in England, it's a dark story about a murderer, a real contrast to the happy-go-lucky musicals that Hollywood was producing, in complete denial of what was going on in Europe. Lotte Lenya is one of the stars, and if you listen to the popular English-language version of "Mack the Knife," you'll notice that the actress became part of the lyrics. This is definitely a film for the advanced movie scholar. In 1990 an American version (renamed Mack the Knife) was released, starring the often-underrated Raul Julia, Richard Harris, Julie Walters, and Roger Daltrey. It's more fun to watch than the 1931 version.


An interesting example of the filmed radio broadcasts that were popular in the 1930s, this movie offers dozens of performers who were enormously popular in their day singing songs that became standards in the American songbook or doing the shticks for which they were famous. Among the best are Kate Smith singing "It Was So Beautiful," bandleader Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher," and Bing Crosby crooning his classic "When the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day)."

[] BLONDE VENUS (1932)

This iconic melodrama is the kind of film that makes Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant Hollywood icons. Dietrich's performance as a cabaret singer in a blond afro singing "Hot Voodoo" is over the top.


Teaming Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, with Rouben Mamoulian directing, this musical is an early example of the effective integration of dialogue, song, and scoring. The music, by the inspired team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, is a preview of greater things to come when Rodgers would team with Oscar Hammerstein II. MacDonald's rendition of "Lover" is a magic moment, and Chevalier sings the great "Isn't It Romantic?" and his signature song "Mimi." Chevalier had enormous influence on and an enduring career in musicals over four decades.


Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald are once again paired in this racy romantic comedy that plays fast and loose with infidelity. Listen for their duet "What a Little Thing like a Wedding Ring Can Do."

[] DUCK SOUP (1933)

Without highbrow Margaret Dumont as the unwitting butt of their jokes, the Marx Brothers — Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo — wouldn't have been half as entertaining. As the imperious dowager, she is a striking contrast to their nonsense, totally oblivious to Groucho's puns and sarcasm. "This is a gala day for you," says Dumont. "Well a gal a day is enough for me. I don't think I could handle any more," Groucho snaps. Apropos of nothing, people break into song, and the make-believe country of Freedonia erupts in chaos at the hands of President Rufus T. Firefly, played by Groucho. "Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report," he says. "Run out and find me a four-year-old child; I can't make head or tail of it." This is not a musical in any true sense of the word, but there are plenty of familiar tunes and obscure musical references to satisfy your curiosity about how well these zany comedians hold up.


This energetic film features some musical daredevil stunts by beautiful women on an airplane. It also features the first pairing of dance sensations Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who do not get top billing in the film — that honor goes to the beautiful Dolores del Rio. There's never been a better example of the styles and conventions of the 1930s or American audiences' fascination with Latin America. Be sure to catch African American singer and actress Etta Moten as one of the Brazilian entertainers singing "The Carioca," while Fred and Ginger dance.


Billed as "the greatest musical extravaganza of them all," Footlight Parade puts James Cagney in the lead role, singing and dancing along with the superb Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler, straight out of 42nd Street. The songs and dances are unforgettable, especially as they are supposedly being performed on a stage. "By a Waterfall" boasts three hundred girls in a Busby Berkeley number that defies logic, as there is no way, with all those girls and all that water, it could have been performed on stage. But who cares? Cagney and Keeler are at their best in "Shanghai Lil," and Blondell is sharp and saucy in one of her best screen roles. Ever-reliable Dick Powell also delivers the goods in his cocky style, singing "Honeymoon Hotel" with Keeler in a clever and naughty vignette.

[] 42ND STREET (1933)

This is the one that started it all, from the catchy title song to Warner Baxter's advice to newbie Ruby Keeler as she steps in for the star of a show who has broken her ankle: "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" Bebe Daniels sings the classic "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me," and nearly twenty minutes of the movie are devoted to three Busby Berkeley production numbers: "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "Young and Healthy," and the title song. The lavish sets paid off, with high profits and a lasting legacy that has brought talented hopefuls to New York ever since (even though it was filmed entirely in California).


This film contains four song-and-dance sequences designed, staged, and choreographed by Busby Berkeley: "We're in the Money" sung by Ginger Rogers, accompanied by scantily clad showgirls dancing with giant coins (note that Rogers sings one verse in pig Latin, which was all the rage with young people at the time); "Pettin' in the Park," with Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, which includes a tap dance by Keeler and a surreal section featuring a dwarf actor as a baby who escapes from his stroller; "Shadow Waltz," sung by Powell and Keeler and featuring a dance by Keeler, Rogers, and many female violinists with neon-tubed violins that glow in the dark; and "Remember My Forgotten Man," recited by Joan Blondell and sung by Etta Moten (with some question remaining over what parts of whose voice were dubbed by the legendary Marian Anderson). Sets influenced by German Expressionism evoke Depression-era poverty. It is said that Berkeley was inspired by the May 1932 war veterans' march on Washington, D.C. Trite it may be, but this is the best segment in the film.


Excerpted from Musicals on the Silver Screen by Leonard Kniffel. Copyright © 2013 American Library Association. Excerpted by permission of American Library Association.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Gregg Opelka ix

Learning Guide: Movie Musicals and Their Stars xi

The Beginning to 1939: All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Dancing, All-Mixed-Up 1

1940s: The Greatest Generation: Patriotism, Family, and American Values 27

1950s: Enter the Golden Age: Cinemascope, Technicolor, and the Advent of Television 57

1960s: Social Change: Values, Virtues, and Validation 87

1970s: Days Not So Clear: Civil Rights, the Sexual Revolution, and What to Sing About? 105

1980s: Anything Goes: Fame and the Me Generation 119

1990s: Downtrodden and Misunderstood: Boys, Bodyguards, and Ballroom Dancing 131

The Twenty-First Century: Something Different: Bizarre, Macabre, Retro 141

Learn More: Recommended Reading, Viewing, and Websites 157

Index 161

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