Musicals on the Silver Screen: A Few Dozen More

Musicals on the Silver Screen]

Nothing to do with things Polish, my third book was published in 2013 by Huron Street Press. Called Musicals on the Silver Screen, it’s a simple family guide to must-see movie musicals, from their very beginnings in 1927 up to 2011, when The Artist, a throw-back to silent films, was released. Meanwhile my love affair with movie musicals continues as I discover some of the hundreds of other Hollywood musicals that are not in the book but worth a look, if not for the music, then as reflections of their times, not so very long past. The list below is my selection of movie musicals that I will have to include in the next edition of my book!

There is only one reason to suffer through this appalling movie and that is to see the great Duke Ellington and his Orchestra playing “Three Little Words.” Arguably the best jazz band leader of the 20th century, Ellington made his screen debut here, and he played himself in several films after this. Beyond that, the film stands as an example of the state of American apartheid before the Civil Rights Movement, with white actors in blackface mocking and belittling black men as Amos and Andy, radio (and later television) characters who were enormously popular for their baffoonery. The condescension and racism of the “high society” whites in the film stands in contrast to the dignity and talent displayed by Ellington and the men in the band.

Probably the most watchable of opera singer Grace Moore’s nine motion pictures, this one was a hit with audiences of the time as well. A love story about an aspiring opera singer, the movie contains thirteen songs, my favorite being “Ciri-Biri-Bin.”

[] DIMPLES (1936)
When you stop to consider that the Civil War ended just 60 years before this film was made, watching it becomes more a social study than entertainment. The American system of apartheid ended only in the 1960s, and while some may believe that its effects evaporated along with legal segregation, this film is a reminder that the role of racism in the shaping of America had everlasting consequences. Set in 1850, Dimples reflects not only the racism of antebellum America but its manifestations in the 1930s when the film was made. Don’t get me wrong, Shirley Temple as Dimples Appleby, a street performer who lives in poverty with her thieving grandfather on the streets of New York, is remarkable, but the pleasure of watching this gifted child star is diminished by the racism implicit in the writing, direction, and acting. I watched Stepin Fetchit’s bumbling “coon” character with disbelief, but one is inclined to feel sorrier for the audiences that found him amusing than the actor who did what he could to have a movie career. Musically, this film features some familiar Stephen Foster tunes as well as Negro spirituals, especially when Dimples is cast in a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although her dance routines (especially with two guys billed as “The Two Black Dots”) show the sophisticated choreography of the great Bill Robinson, the remaining songs are less than great. A rather pleasant love song called “Picture Me without You” becomes a little creepy as Dimples sings it to her grandfather. The concluding minstrel show is equally cringe-worthy, but fortunately Dimples is not in blackface. As you watch this movie, remember that as an adult Shirley Temple gave up on the Hollywood scene and became a diplomat. By 1989, under her married name Shirley Temple Black, she had became U.S. Ambassador to Ghana.

Idiotic as its plot may be, this early musical fantasy is worth watching just to witness Hollywood’s impossibly silly version of native life on an exotic island ruled by a floozy during the height of the Great Depression. The film tries (in vain) to milk comedy out of pitting the nouveau riche against the nouveau broke in a ridiculous plot that ends up with a yacht blown up and its stranded passengers frolicking with the oversexed natives (who all look like Midwestern chorus girls and bodybuilders slathered with bronzer). Unfortunately, none of the songs in the film is particularly memorable, but the cavorting about during “South Sea Bolero” is a hoot.

[] CAR OF DREAMS (1935)
This obscure bit of romantic silliness stars John Mills, the talented British actor who went on to many great dramatic roles in American films. The plot involves a factory girl (played by Grete Mosheim with her unexplained German accent) who loves to shop and ends up with a free Rolls-Royce. An obscure little gem full of art deco sets, anti–Great Depression optimism, and cheerful tunes, especially “Do a Little Good to Someone.”

This is an extraordinary British film, featuring six songs in the glorious voice of Paul Robeson, a performer ahead of his time. The story line is a bit preposterous, but it is also a peek into the times during which the movie was made. Robeson plays a black British dockworker named Johnny Zinga who becomes a famous singer but learns that he is the rightful king of the African island of Casanga, to which he returns.

Opera great Lily Pons plays a French singer who flees the altar looking for adventure and true love and ends up joining an American swing band (their hopped-up version of “The Blue Danube” is a real treat). Charming as it is silly, the film is memorable for the way Pons bursts into song. Her version of “Una Voce Poco Fa” shows why she was such a magnificent stage presence. It’s a shame this charisma did not quite make it on screen in the three movies she made for RKO (the other two being I Dream Too Much with Henry Fonda, 1935, and Hitting a New High, 1937). Also notable is Lucille Ball’s funny dance scene in which her character is sabotaged with soaped-up dancing shoes, causing her to slip and fall every time she tries to dance; only a well trained dancer could have pulled it off.

A cross between The Grapes of Wrath and The Harvey Girls (both of which were made later, the directors having presumably learned not to mix genres) this musical drama with its David and Goliath message clearly sets out to expose the kind of greed that made America grate time and again, grinding the honest working man to shreds for the sake of company profits. Told through the courtship and marriage of a farmer and the star of a traveling entertainment troupe, the film is set against the historical backdrop of the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859 and the ruthlessness of the railroad barons who tried to prevent the poor landowners from building a pipeline. With music by two of the greatest American composers, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, this movie should have been greater than it is–not for want of trying, perhaps too hard, causing a confusing split between drama, romance, and musical. Only two songs really stand out, sung by the inimitable Irene Dunne: “Can I Forget You?” and the classic “The Folks on the Hill.” The supporting case is outstanding, with character actress Elizabeth Patterson as Grandma and Dorothy Lamour as the sultry woman of ill repute. Check out William Frawley (Fred Mertz on television’s I Love Lucy) singing “Will You Marry Me Tomorrow, Maria?”

[] ON THE AVENUE (1937)
Among the reasons to see this film: Dick Powell and Alice Faye singing Irving Berlin’s classic “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” one of the Ritz Brothers singing in drag, and Cora Witherspoon as Aunt Fritz swinging from a trapeze and gliding around the living room to “Skaters Waltz,” oh, and song lyrics that rhyme “Jupiter” with “stupider.” The musical numbers belong to the show within the show, and Powell, Faye, and the Ritz Brothers (who prove to be remarkably good dancers) doing “Slumming on Park Avenue” is the stopper. Harry Ritz’s version of “Ochi Chyornye” is pretty funny as well. What spoils this movie for me is the intermittent appearance of Stepin Fetchit, whose portrayal of idiocy exposes the racist social norms of the times. While Fetchit enjoyed a prolific film career, his portrayals of black people as stereotypically stupid remain controversial to this day.

Remembered best for his convincing roles as a tough guy, James Cagney dances here as if on air, and that is the main attraction of this film. Evelyn Daw, who retired from films early in her career, does most of the singing. Cagney’s prowess as a song-and-dance man came to full fruition in Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which he portrayed the legendary George M. Cohan.

Here is a “screwball comedy” with music. Cary Grant and Grace Moore play two screwballs stranded in Mexico who must wed in order to solve their problems with the border patrol. The film seems designed to firm up opera singer Moore’ movie-star status and establish Grant as Hollywood’s most charming leading man, and it does so quite amusingly. The top musical treat is seeing Moore perform “Minnie the Moocher,” Cab Calloway’s decidedly unoperatic signature song. Along the way we get to hear Puccini and Schubert as well as couple of songs written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. Favorite line: Cary Grant saying he needs “a martini, with the speed of an antelope.”

Like most Shirley Temple movies, this one showcases the remarkable talents of this irresistible child performer who was able to memorize lines, learn dance steps, and sing so beautifully she could charm the birds out of the trees. The special musical numbers to watch out for in this essentially nonmusical are a rousing tap dance with the great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to the tune of “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” and little Shirley’s rendition of “An Old Straw Hat.”

Cowboy movies and early television shows did more to shape the romantic American view of the old west than any history book, and this early Roy “King of the Cowboys” Rogers flick is a fine example. Interspersed with musical numbers, it’s an anachronistic shoot-‘em-up tale of cattle rustling and “heading ‘em off at the pass.” The title tune, sung on a hayride, is an American standard, and Lulu Belle (Myrtle Wiseman) singing “I’m dying to git a nice feller” is worth waiting for.

[] HONOLULU (1939)
The only reason–and it is a good one–to watch this nonmusical is for its dance scenes performed by the remarkably athletic Eleanor Powell. Her dizzying spins in her “tap hula”–as drums beat out a “Hawaiian Medley” behind her–have never been equaled.

[] THE MIKADO (1939)
The Mikado is one of the most popular of fourteen operettas created by librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan between 1871 and 1896. This whimsical creation makes fun of English bureaucracy, thinly disguised by a mythical Japanese setting. The work of Gilbert and Sullivan influenced musical theater throughout the 20th century. Filmed in Britain in technicolor, this version is notable for its sparkle and generally excellent interpretation of the music and lyrics, although fans will notice that many songs were cut to keep the film at ninety minutes. It’s the characters’ names that amuse me most: Nanki-Poo, Pish Tush, Yum Yum, and of course Pooh-Bah (a word that persists to this day to describe a person holding a grand office, especially one perceived as pompously self-important).

In a film that may have insprired “fast forward” technology, dancer extraordinaire Fred Astaire has exactly two memorable moments. Those moments, plus the music of Artie Shaw and his band, make it the kind of film best left to excerpting. Astaire and Burgess Meredith (who seems to be auditioning for The Penguin, a television role he played on Batman in the 1960s) play two foolish trumpeters (quite obviously dubbed, by the great Bobby Hackett and Billy Butterfield). The idiotic script makes you want to tell Astaire to shut up and dance, which he does once with co-star Paulette Goddard and at his best during “Poor Mr. Chisholm,” when he conducts the band while tap dancing. Shaw’s band playing “Sweet Sue” is also one of the few delights of this film. Shaw’s skill with the clarinet is legendary, but his music cannot make up for the bandleader’s acting, which is so bad he even has trouble playing himself.

Perhaps best described as a screwball costume comedy, this musical is notable for the voices of Risë (pronounced REE-zah) Stevens and Nelson Eddy, in the least wooden of all his film performances. As a bickering theatrical couple, he the jealous one and she the flirtatious one, their romance is put to the test when Eddy tries to seduce his wife masqeurading as a Russian Cossack. It’s all nonsense, of course, but it offers up some great music as the pair perform in a “play within a play,” Oscar Straus’s operetta The Chocolate Soldier.

One of Betty Grable’s best films, this romantic romp yanks two single sisters and their aunt out of Texas and plops them in Miami blissfully conspiring to get the girls married off to rich men. Along come sappy playboys Don Ameche and Robert Cummings, and the deceptions and misconceptions are set loose between production numbers around the hotel pool. The title song is unfortunately only heard as dance music without lyrics. It is lovelier than the other numbers, which support the dance sequences. “Solitary Seminole,” embarrassing Native American stereotypes notwithstanding, features the talents not only of Grable but Frank and Harry Condos. This is escapist entertainment at its best, and foretells Betty Grable’s role to come as the favorite “pin-up girl” of World War II. Sexy gowns and dance moves show off Grable’s assets effectively, especially those million-dollar legs. It’s easy to see why the GIs loved her. “Oh Me, Oh Mi Ami” and “You Started Something” are cute, and “Kindergarten Congo” provides plenty of laughs. Watching the incredible Charlotte Greenwood, as the aunt posing as the sisters’ maid, throw her legs up to impossible heights is a scream, as she sings “Is That Good?” with Jack Haley (the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz).

From the opening scene of African drums and images of the Atlantic slave trade, you know this is not going to be a conventional Hollywood production. The scene switches to New Orleans in 1906, and the movie becomes a paean to the city’s black residents, their religiosity and creativity, clearly credited with the origins of jazz. Covering the evolution of ragtime, blues, jazz, swing, and boogie woogie through prohibition, the stock-market crash, the Great Depression, and the outbreak of World War II the story is told through a romance in which the characters, played by Bonita Granville and Jackie Cooper argue over the need to stay true to their musical roots and the need to make money and popularize the new musical styles. Meanwhile, she bangs out tunes on the piano and he toots his heart out on the trumpet. The credits don’t seem to indicate who is dubbing whom, but the final scene showcases some of the finest musicians of the 1940s. Prior to the making of the film, RKO studio held a contest for the readers of the Saturday Evening Post to vote on the musicians they would choose to make up an All-American Dance Band. The result is a pseudo jam session with Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Jack Jenney, Gene Krupa, Alvino Rey, and Joe Venuti. Singer Connee Boswell also makes an appearance in the film with her rendition of “Under a Falling Star.” Syncopation is not a musical where people burst into song for no apparent reason; the music is carefully integrated into the story. Some of its content was daring for the time—friendships between white and black musicians, for example. In one scene, an admiring Jackie Cooper says to Todd Duncan, “You fellas are terrific,” to which Duncan replies, “Thanks, boy.” You can bet that in apartheid America that line kept the movie out of a lot of theaters. Among the other surprises in this film: an astounding apache dance, quotes from Walt Whitman’s poetry, and a stunning performance by Jessica Grayson as the long suffering nanny.

With too little music to call it a musical and too silly a plot to explain why it drew audiences at the height of World War II, the movie is best remembered for its early mix of animation and live action, wherein the wall paper comes to life as the cast mutilates “The Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Richard Wagner’s opera “Tannhauser.” Also worth noting: the unmistakable voice of Billie Burke (the good witch in The Wizard of Oz), June Havoc singing “The Man with the Big Sombrero,” and a rare film appearance by gorgeous Pola Negri, the Polish silent film siren who once called Rudolph Valentino the love of her life.

Talented Eddie “Rochester” Anderson stars in another fine example of racism at work in America, namely the unwritten rule of black actors not being allowed to perform with their white counterparts unless they are domestic servants. The one exception here is the George and Ira Gershwin number, “Sombody Loves Me,” performed by Lena Horne. Many scenes with black performers, including the Hazel Scott piano swing version of “Minute Waltz,” are positioned in such a way that Southern theaters could cut them without losing the storyline. Archie Savage is Horne’s dance partner in “Brazilian Boogie-Woogie,” another noteworthy number, and leading lady Ginny Simms does a good job with “All the Things You Are.” Nancy Walker and Ben Blue are hilarious in the “Milkman Keep Those Bottles Quiet” number with Tommy Dorsey.

[] STEP LIVELY (1944)
A screwball comedy, Step Lively is a remake of the Marx Brothers’ Room Service, with a B-level musical score made listenable largely by the crooning voice of young Frank Sinatra. Released at the height of World War II, this farce does not pretend to make sense; it clearly was made to showcase Sinatra’s talents as a singer and sex symbol. It works; you can’t take your eyes off the skinny little guy from Hoboken, New Jersey. Supported by an enormously talented cast that includes Gloria DeHaven, Anne Jeffreys, Walter Slezak, Adolphe Menjou, and George Murphy. The choreography, however, could have used a hand from Busby Berkeley.

This biopic casts Cornell Wilde as Polish composer Frederic Chopin and Merle Oberon as his Parisian friend and mentor George Sand. To appreciate the film, you must forget about historical accuracy and enjoy the sumptuousness of the sets and the drama, which is enhanced by the heavenly music of Chopin played by popular bandleader Jose Iturbi.

[] DOLL FACE (1946)
Although it is also loosely based on the life of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, this uninspired film is much less interesting than the 1962 musical Gypsy with Natalie Wood in the title role. Here, Vivian Blaine struggles through a tedious script, with Dennis O’Keefe blustering his way through as her lover. The best reason to watch this film is to see Perry Como, later to become a crooning television superstar, in a rare film role and Carmen Miranda dancing and camping her way through “Chico Chico.” Como and Blaine bring some culture shock to the film when they sing “Dig You Later (A-Hubba Hubba Hubba),” mocking Japan for losing World War II and homogenizing African-American hep-cat style for a white audience. Available on DVD in the 20th Century Fox “Marquee Musicals” series, Doll Face is a curiosity, not a classic.

The film is a classical music field day. Some of the geat performers of the time are seen in concert–Leopold Stokowski conducting Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony in E Minor,” Artur Rubenstein doing Chopin’s “Polonaise” and “The Ritual Fire Dance” at the piano keyboard, Jascha Heifetz on the violin for Tchaikovsky’s “Concerto for Violin,” all performed brilliantly and making for a memorable soundtrack. It is interesting to see how this film tried to manipulate public taste with a mawkish love affair plot that carries the performances along. Opera great Lily Pons, Rise Stevens, Enzio Pinza, and Jan Peerce are featured in great arias. The performing scenes were filmed at the then newly refurbished Carnegie Hall.

A little Meet Me in St. Louis, a little I Remember Mama, and a little bit of razzmatazz are rolled up into one big family saga showcasing the considerable comedic and dancing talents of Betty Grable and Dan Daily as married hoofers who make it to the big time while trying to raise two girls to be refined young ladies. This film was very popular in its day probably because it combines nostalgia for the vaudeville stage with post-World War II sentimentality. It works for me, and this seldom screened gem uses the musical numbers to advance the story seamlessly. The Christmas scenes alone make this a great family film, and ventriloquist Señor Wences steals the show with his hand puppet—literally made by applying lipstick and a wig to his hand. The mixture of pure 1940s tunes like “Kokomo, Indiana” with old familiar songs like “Silent Night” is what must have made this movie such a hit. Ignore the mocking of various ethnic accents and try to ignore the fact that Mona Freeman as the eldest daughter is clearly dubbed by Imogene Lynn.

[] ROAD TO RIO (1947)
Two inept vaudevillians (Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in another of the seven satirical “Road” pictures they made together) come across as two Hollywood ego maniacs making insider wisecracks and acting goofy between production numbers of dubious quality. The smart and suave idiots shtick wears thin faster than the Three Stooges, who at least never pretended to be anything but idiots. The Andrews Sisters deliver one of their less memorable screen appearances singing “You Don’t Have to Know the Language,” the Wiere Brothers make for a weird novelty act doing “Batuque Nio Morro” or “Jam Session in the Hills,” and lovely Dorothy Lamour sings a couple of forgettable songs, but the topper in this silly film is Crosby and Hope behaving very queerly, pun intended, in the bedroom scene with “two grooms and no bride.”

[] SONG OF LOVE (1947)
Definitely a movie for classical music lovers, this romanticized account of the marriage of pianist Clara Wieck Schumann and composer Robert Schumann, with Katharine Hepburn playing the lead and believably fingering the piano keyboard, even though it is actually the great Arthur Rubenstein making the sounds. Johannes Brahms is taken in as a boarder by the Schumanns, who have a houseful of children, and he falls in love with Clara. Robert Walker, who in 1946 played composer Jerome Kern in Till the Clouds Roll By, is not only in love with a married woman but a woman who is more than a decade older. Complications ensue, with the beautiful music of Schumann, Brahms, and Franz Liszt wafting throughout. The Polish-born composer Branisław Kaper served as musical director for the film and later went on to win an Oscar for scoring the film Lili, which made famous the song “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo.” This is an underrated and seldom seen film that shows Hepburn off at her acting best.

This little satire is one of Bing Crosby’s less appreciated efforts, but watching him stroll through the countryside yodeling is worth the whole film. In the wake of World War II, genius director Billy Wilder wisely chose to mock the Austrian Court and its rituals at the beginning of the 20th century. The Americanized ridicule of the Hapsburg Empire is typical Crosby fare as the great crooner ba-ba-be-ba-boos in Joan Fontaine’s face and she later mimics him. The scene of villagers fiddling is charming, and there is a very cute dance trio on the “I Kiss Your Hand, Madame” number. There is not enough music in the film to make it a good musical, but it is about a gramophone salesman! The movie does eventually go to the dogs, but you have to see it to understand what that means. Favorite line: “I think you’re full of pickled pumpernickel, the both of you!”

It is interesting that this film is not better written, having been based on the work of two of the most acclaimed writers of the day, S.J. Perelman and Ogden Nash. Fans of romantic farce seem to find this movie quite satisfying. To me it is more an exercise in watching Hollywood’s star-maker machinery at work on Ava Gardner, starring as a statue of Venus, goddess of love in Roman mythology, come to life. Robert Walker is quite likeable as the fluff-brained window dresser who breathes life into Venus with a kiss. Eve Arden quips her way through the film with her usual aplomb. And the fascinating Olga San Juan is perfectly cast as Walker’s jealous girlfriend; she and Dick Haymes seem to be the only two cast members who can actually sing. With music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Nash, it is unfortunate that there are only three musical numbers in the entire movie, and only one is truly memorable, namely “Speak Low,” but Ava Gardner is obviously dubbed as she sings it.

[] A SONG IS BORN (1948)
After years and years of thinking Danny Kaye was the most ridiculous movie star Hollywood every produced, I finally watched this odd combination of comedy, romance, and music with a new appreciation for his audacity. First, I noticed that this is yet another movie (the sister act in White Christmas being the other obvious example) that includes a comedy bit involving a man behaving like a woman. Then I noticed that for this film the legendary clarinetist Benny Goodman actually has a role, instead of his usual cameo, as one of the seven bachelor professors holed up with Kaye and a cranky old housekeeper in a book-filled mansion, where they are working on a serious history of music. Gorgeous Virginia Mayo (her singing dubbed by Jeri Sullavan) plays a slutty gangster’s moll who ends up falling for the innocent professor, but not before delivering some hilariously 1940s lines: “I want you to look at me, Professor Frisbee, as another tomato…just another tomato.” But none of this nonsense is what makes this movie special. The reason to watch it is the incredible musical talent director Howard Hawkes assembled for this film, most notably the African American musicians included in a series of jam sessions the likes of which you will never see again on screen. Highlights: a duo called Buck and Bubbles giving boogie-woogie lessons to the old professors, “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho” by the Golden Gate Quartet, “Redskin Rhumba” by Charlie Barnet & His Orchestra, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” played by Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra, “Flying Home” performed by Benny Goodman and other musicians, and “Goldwyn Stomp” with Lionel Hampton and the incomparable Louis Armstrong.

There are a couple of reasons why lovers of musicals on the silver screen might want to watch this old stinker, none of them having to do with its quality as a film. One is the musicals numbers themselves, of which there are many, including great old standards by Harry Warren and George Gershwin. The other is to watch the unbelievably corny schtick performed by Milton Berle and Bert Lahr. It’s hard to explain Berle’s popularity as a television pioneer; his jokes and routines reek of someone who wants to be the life of the party but ends up being just annoying.

Notable for its silliness, this take on Mark Twain’s famous satire casts Bing Crosby as the Yankee who gets a bonk on the head that transports him from 1912 back to King Arthur’s court in Camelot. It seems fairly clear that the filmmakers chose to throw some songs into the mix so fans could hear Crosby crooning to his lady love, played by Rhonda Fleming. The trouble is, there’s not much memorable music in the movie, which seems squarely dated in 1949. “Busy Doing Nothing,” with Cedric Hardwicke singing, is fun and reminiscent of “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” in The Wizard of Oz. Crosby was a bankable movie star for many years, and his cocky dialogue seems to show that he knew it. At one point, ogling Fleming, he says to the viewer, “Methinks I like Camelot…a lot.”

Doris Day stars as a movie star wannabe who falls into the clutches of Hollywood goofballs Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan, playing themselves for some odd reason. This comedy is cute and silly and a showcase of nonmusical cameos of Warner Brothers studio’s major movie stars, including Joan Crawford, Edward G. Robinson, Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Eleanor Parker, Danny Kaye, Jane Wyman, Errol Flynn, and future president Ronald Reagan. The musical high spot is Day’s rendition of “Blame My Absent-Minded Heart,” solo and in a duet with Morgan. Favorite line: Unexpectedly surrounded by a gaggle of babbling Frenchmen while she is pretending she speaks French, Doris Day says, “Parlez-vous Francais?” Day has such a flare for comedy that I never fail to laugh every time she makes goo-goo eyes at the big-shot director she is trying to impress under Carson and Morgan’s hare-brained tutelage.

Beautiful Anne Baxter stars in a completely nonmusical role as the starstruck female equivalent of a “stagedoor Johnny,” conniving her way into marriage with her song-and-dance-man idol played by Dan Dailey. One thing leads to another and she becomes a silent movie star who then, inexplicably, forbids her daughter from going into show biz. Baxter whines and Dailey lies and it all culminates with their Shirley Temple wannabe daughter (played by Shari Robinson) singing “On the Good Ship Lollypop–in a movie set in 1924, even though the song was not published until 1934. There are only two reasons to watch this film: the high point with Dan Daily showing his skill as one of the best movie dancers of his time and the low point with Dailey doing a cringe-worthy turn as a stereotypical “Uncle Tom” looking and acting like a fool in full blackface. Oh, and along the way you get to hear some really great songs: “Varsity Drag,” “Charleston,” “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Would You Like to Take a Walk?” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (which was written in 1941). Fast forward button highly recommended.

[] LET’S DANCE (1950)
It’s interesting to see Betty Hutton and Fred Astaire competing for center stage, with Hutton the clear winner. Unfortunately, the songs are mostly forgettable, and Hutton’s antics are embarrassingly over the top. “Jack and the Beanstalk” is Astaire’s finest moment in the film, sung to Hutton’s movie son, played by Gregory Moffett, who must have taken shouting lessons from his movie mom.

Seeing this film for the first time almost seventy years after it was made was a revelation. The film casts Mario Lanza as a country boy who rises to fame as an opera singer. Never much of a Lanza fan, I was mesmerized by his charisma and that beautiful voice, which outshines even the magnificent singing of costar Kathryn Grayson as a snooty soprano who eventually falls for him. Filled with shots of the Big Easy in all of its diversity and European style and scattered with the colorful faces of extras looking like authentic residents, it is a visual as well as audial treat. It is also delightful to see a very young Rita Moreno demonstrate some of the dancing and acting ability that will earn her an Oscar for West Side Story eleven years later. Although the movie is filled with great opera snippets, the song that put Lanza at the top of the sex-appeal heap is “Be My Love.”

Danny Thomas, much better known for television than movies, is amazing in this role as songwriter Gus Kahn. Doris Day is even more so as his wife. Although he was not as hyped as contemporary songwriters like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, Kahn wrote the lyrics to many beautiful tunes, many of which are exquisitely performed in this film: “Pretty Baby,” “The One I Love (Belongs to Somebody Else),” “My Buddy,” “It Had to Be You,” “Carolina in the Morning,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” “San Francisco,” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Thomas and Day are so genuine, so earnest, so loving, and so symbolic of their times that only the most cynical of cynics could find this biopic trite.

After the opening credits run while the title tune plays, Doris Day leaps onto the screen singing “It Was Just One of Those Things,” tap dancing in a tux. Her energy level never wavers as she belts out songs from the American canon, by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Harry Warren. “Somebody Loves Me” is a real show stopper, as Day and Gene Nelson sail across the screen with a pair of glass doors as their tap dancing prop. Given that many Hollywood musicals have nonsensical story lines, this one works rather well, with the comical S.Z. Sakall, Billy DeWolfe, and Anne Triola trying to protect Day from the knowledge that her wealthy and successful mother is really a down-and-out alcoholic. Favorite line: “The young at heart never grow old.” That certainly describes Doris Day, whose heart has remained as golden as her smile, which lights up the silver screen whenever the camera is on it.

Alimony and amnesia are the movers of the lame plot that makes this film almost ridiculous. Almost, but Betty Grable saves the day. She shimmies and shakes and shows off her million-dollar legs, delivering wisecracks that typify the times, frequently surrounded by a bevy of hunks. While the music is not particularly memorable, the dance sequences are full of fun. The battle of the sexes being the film’s theme, “The Male Sex” is a clever switch on the male complaint that women are double-crossing two-timers. The final production number (“I Feel Like Dancing”) teams Grable with the great Gwen Verdon; the first part of the number casts them as athletic ragamuffins and evolves into a ballet-like dream sequence showcasing Grable at her most glamorous. Favorite line, uttered by Grable as she suspected her husband of an affair with his show’s sexy financial backer: “Why did you have to get a bankroll with a body by Fisher?”—a reference to a logo used on automobiles produced by General Motors. Runner up, when Gable’s character has reverted to her old unsophisticated self: “Let’s go back to the hotel and tie on a feed bag.”

[] APRIL IN PARIS (1952)
Despite the fact that Ray Bolger plays something of a worm, making it hard to swallow the fact that the self-possessed gal played by Doris Day would fall for him, this film contains enough song and dance to make it well worth watching. Ignore the silly plot and the total lack of chemistry between these romantic leads. Concentrate instead on Day singing “April in Paris” (already an old standard by the time this film was made) and dancing so well that she outshines Bolger (a great dancer who played the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz). Original songs by Vernon Duke (who wrote the music for the song “April in Paris” in the early 1930s) and Sammy Cahn make up most of the rest of the musical numbers, and some of them are pretty funny; listen for “I’m Going to Rock the Boat,” “That’s What Makes Paris Paree,” and the rather amusing “Give Me Your Lips.” The film makes a great deal of fun of American marketing efforts to make Paris chic and romantic, especially in a scene mocking the weather in Paris as Day and French actor Claude Dauphin try to sing through a storm. Favorite line from Doris Day: “I’ll never believe another story about Paris as long as I live!”

As delightful as it is corny, this comedy-musical is based on a story by Damon Runyan, whose interest in the New York crime world led to the creation of Guys and Dolls, another must-see musical. Mitzi Gaynor is a delight as a country girl caught up in the escapades of a couple of crooks. It’s her film, whether she is dancing a duet with Mousketeer Sharon Baird to the folk tune “Cindy” or swinging with Richard Green and Mitzi Green to “I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Foolin’.” An incomparably good dancer, she shines during “Eighty Miles Outside of Atlanta” and “I Wish I Knew.” However many Mitzis they put in the movie, it belongs to Gaynor, whose enduring career makes her a performing legend and a movie great.

This film is one of the Hollywood musicals that marked the end of a particular genre–the romantic, comical romp filled with solid songs sung well by stars like Judy Garland, Doris Day, and Alice Faye. Based on a Broadway play and a 1935 nonmusical film, this half-hearted attempt is more insipid than romantic or comical. Betty Grable, whose talents have always escaped me, is miscast as a cook on a boat on the Erie Canal, with Dale Robertson (not a great musical talent) as the guy she falls for. Although they are written by the great Harold Arlen and Dorothy Fields, the songs are forgettable. The highlight of the film is watching an uncredited Gwen Verdon dance with Grable to the splashy tune “We’re in Business.”

The centerpiece of this movie is a spectacular number by the unequaled dancing duo of Marge and Gower Champion. Whirling to the tune of “It Happens Every Time,” this number has never been surpassed on screen, even in more successful movie musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, from which Debbie Reynolds was freshly minted and given this star vehicle to propel her career. Directed by the same director, Stanley Donen, Reynolds holds her own against the Champions, while Bob Fosse demonstrates that he has a great deal to offer musicals in the years ahead. This is an interesting look at the make-believe world of Broadway in the 1950s.

[] Latin Lovers (1953)
There is enough music in this film—minus the big name singers and dancers of the era—to make it a must-see musical. Although at times her hair looks like actual platinum, Lana Turner appears in so many mind-boglingly gorgeous outfits that her wardrobe alone makes the movie worth watching. Then there is Ricardo Montalban in perhaps the sexiest (especially for those who remember him as Khan in Star Trek) film role of his career as a leading man, his singing voice dubbed by one Carlos Julio Ramírez in “A Little More of Your Amour.” My favorite lines from that song: “Your samba is a stand-out, but I wish that you would hand out a little more of your amore.” Turner is gorgeous throughout, and Montalban equals her sexiness on every level. Next-to-the-best treat: the great Rita Morena as the jealous Brazilian who stands in contrast to the excesses of wealth on display in the film. Bonus: Jean Hagen (of Singin’ in the Rain) as Turner’s sidekick.

Schmaltzy as it is, this biopic about the legendary classical music impresario Sol Hurok and the many singers he introduced and represented to music audiences is worth every lengthy moment because of the voices and music it contains. Among the treats: Jan Peerce’s magnificent operatic voice emanating from the handsome face of Hollywood actor Byron Palmer, the great Ezio Pinza portraying the great Feodor Chaliapin, violin great Isaac Stern as Eugene Ysaye, gifted opera singer Roberta Peters as Elsa Valdine, and Tamara Toumanova as ballet superstar Anna Pavlova. Holding it all together in non-singing roles are David Wayne as Hurok, in probably the best role of his acting career, and Anne Bancroft as his devoted wife, in a role that barely gave a clue about what was to come in The Miracle Worker and The Graduate.

[] TORCH SONG (1953)
Although technically not a musical, this film stars Joan Crawford as a Broadway musical star, obviously dubbed (by India Adams). Showcasing Crawford at her tough, melodramatic best, in love with a blind World War II veteran who claims to have fallen for her at first sight as she sang “Tenderly” to the troops about to be shipped out. The fact that “Tenderly” was not written until after the war notwithstanding, its lilting melody wafts through the film along with Crawford’s dancing and cussing (savor the way she spits out “Buster!”). Scenes to watch for: Crawford in dark make-up singing “Two-Faced Woman” and pulling off her wig to reveal that she is not Caribbean at all! Also interesting is a rare film appearance by singer Rudy Render, who enjoyed a brief recording career in the early 1950s. Inexplicably, his “Follow Me” is also dubbed.

[] LUCKY ME (1954)
If you have already seen Doris Day in her best musicals (Calamity Jane, for example), you will find this bit of fluff rather unsatisfying, with its trivial plot and absence of memorable songs. The lack of chemistry between Day as aspiring star Candy Williams and Robert Cummings as her smitten pursuer is painfully evident, and I am not buying Cummings deception that he is auto mechanic Eddie Szczepanski. Take a look at his hands! Yet watching Day bounce through the opening number, “The Superstition Song” in the cutest 1950s dress you can imagine, plus the knowledge that this was the first musical filmed in cinemascope, make it worth watching. Doris Day does angry and hurt better than any actress ever has, and Nancy Walker is a stand-out in her way-too-limited role as part of Day’s down-and-out dance troupe working as housekeepers in a Miami hotel. Best and silliest line: “Men who pick up rusty pins marry girls with double chins.”

[] TOP BANANA (1954)
Actually a filmed stage show–my least favorite kind of movie musical–this film is worth seeing for Phil Silvers, whose antics sent people into laughing fits in the 1950s. One day I am going to understand why. More to the point are the 13 songs by the great Johnny Mercer, including “Be My Guest” and “Elevator Song.”

Historically and hysterically satirical, this showcase for the swimming talents of Esther Williams and the vocal talents of the great Howard Keel, is ostensibly set in the Roman Empire but oozes 1950s Hollywood. Based on the landmark 1927 play The Road to Rome by the great Robert Sherwood, this movie did not fare well at the box office, but the reason may be that it was too racy, the lyrics and dialogue too ironic, for the times. Dealing humorously with Hannibal’s march on Rome, the storyline is really a plea against war and features a gloriously athletic Williams driving a chariot, looking like Wonder Woman, and escaping her pursuers in a breathtaking underwater chase scene. Marge and Gower Champion’s dance sequences are equally athletic and mesmerizing, especially their dance with Hannibal’s elephants. While the songs may not be particularly memorable, the lyrics are often hilarious, especially “If This Be Slav’ry” and “Never Trust a Woman.” The narration sung/spoken by Richard Haydn is also an amusing touch. The film opens with a caveat that sets the tone: “In 216 B.C., Hannibal the Barbarian marched on Rome. The history of this great march has always been confused. This picture will do nothing to clear it up.”

If you have managed to somehow miss this musical, watching it 60+ years after it was released is a revelation. Betty Grable’s appeal finally makes sense to me, in this her last major film at the age of 39. The plot in a nutshell: A successful performer has been widowed by World War II. She marries her late husband’s songwriting partner, played by Gower Champion, but the new marriage becomes a racy ménage a trois when her first husband, played by Jack Lemmon, shows up alive and eager to claim his conjugal rights. Grable plays her cards right and trumps them both at every turn, through a series of dreamy song and dance sequences with music by George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Hoagy Carmichael. The extraordinary dance team of Marge and Gower Champion has never looked better, nor have “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Just One of Those Things,” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You” ever sounded better. Some critics say Grable imitated Marilyn Monroe; I prefer to think that her performance was a gesture of handing over the “Hollywood’s hottest blonde” crown to Monroe and quitting while she was ahead, which she definitely was in this film. Favorite line from Grable: “I’ve got what most women want—a lover and a husband and they’re both legal!”

Mix a little Singin’ in the Rain with a storyline loosely based on the lives of the songwriting team of Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson, throw in a little Guys and Dolls, and you end up with a film containing several beautifully choreographed production numbers starring Sheree North, Dan Daily, Gordon MacRae, and (of all people) Ernest Borgnine. Set in the 1920s and made in the 1950s, like Singin’ in the Rain, the movie features a great song-and-dance session filled with gangsters dancing to the tune of “Black Bottom”–a song that made flappers go wild doing the Charleston and provides the perfect music to showcase the dancing talent of Sheree North. “Oh Boy I’m Lucky” features the guys working through the writing of a song as a trio, no easy task. Other great DeSylva-Brown-Henderson songs featured: “It All Depends on You,” “Sonny Boy,” “Button Up Your Overcoat,” “Sunny Side Up,” and the catchy title tune. “The Birth of the Blues” number displays North at her finest, against a background of jailbirds, some black and some white. It is interesting that when the prisoners are shown lusting after North, only the white prisoners are shown, but when the prisoners are making music in their cells, the black prisoners are also shown. The most cringe-worthy moments in the film are the appearance of Norman Brooks (playing Al Jolson) in blackface. Entertaining as the musical numbers are, the film stands as evidence of apartheid America, where interracial marriage was considered a crime and African Americans were mocked and stereotyped in films like this one.

[] TOM THUMB (1958)
Filled mostly with the silly antics of Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas as the villains, along with a patched-on love story, this adaptation of a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm is nevertheless notable for the gymnastics of its star, Russ Tamblyn, as the thumb-sized boy dancing with animated toys. He uses no stunt double, and his athleticism throughout the film would astonish any sports hero. There’s quite of bit of music in this film but not a lot of it is memorable. “Tom Thumb’s Tune” by the great singer Peggy Lee had a lot of people doody-doody-doing back in the day. The combination of animation and live action won the film an Oscar for Special Effects.

This romantic story of Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt (played by the underrated Dirk Bogarde), whose scandalous love affairs are given the Hollywood treatment, plays fast and loose with historical fact. The film is beautiful to look at and most important for its Oscar-winning musical score, which delivers the goods–not just the music of Liszt but of his contemporaries such as Chopin. Favorite line: When Liszt is told to be careful with the Russians, who defeated even the great Napoleon, he replies, “But Napoleon didn’t play the piano.”

[] PARIS BLUES (1961)
Paul Newman and Sydney Poitier play jazz musicians in Paris in a love story wrapped around the artistic and racial dilemmas of post World War II Americans who found refuge in hip and smoke-filled Paris nightclubs. Although the stars’ musical performances seem obviously make believe, the music of gypsy guitarist Serge Raggiani (who seems as addicted to Newman as he is to drugs) and the jam session with Louis Armstrong are authentic highlights. It’s unfortunate to see, given her immense musical gifts, that Diahann Carroll does not sing a note in the film, and given the film’s efforts to touch on serious social issues, it ultimately plays it safe by letting romantic melodrama command the stage.

You have to be mindlessly in love with Elvis and his pelvis to really like this piece of time warp. Played out against the backdrop of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, a more cloying tale has never put Elvis Presley in a less likeable role. Despite the fact that he and his friend lie, leer, cheat, steal, and fight their way into one fix after another, the women in “The King’s” path find his sincerity (displayed with an angry pout) irresistible, as does the abandoned little girl whose uncle happily turns her over to the pair of creepy hitchhiking strangers. Only one song is memorable—“Relax”—and that because it is so appalling. Talk about inappropriate touching. Note the appearance of a young Kurt Russell as the boy Elvis pays to kick him in the shins; Russell wound up playing Elvis in a 1979 TV biopic. The fair is the real star of this movie.

Scrounging through a DVD rack at a gas station in Tennessee recently, I picked up for $8.99 a copy of “4 film favorites Elvis Presley Musicals,” which included Kissin’ Cousins; Live a Little, Love a Little; Girl Happy; and Tickle Me. Each one was more ridiculous than the previous, yet I was mesmerized by Elvis’s swagger, especially in his turn as twins in Kissin’ Cousins. Elvis is in top form with the dual role that enables him to switch from country to rock and roll from song to song, “Once Is Enough” being the best of them. The familiar faces of Mammy and Pappy Tatum turn out to be veteran actors Jack Albertson and Glenda Farrell, who steals the show singing “Pappy Won’t You Please Come Home.” Favorite line: “She’s a distant cousin but she’s not too distant from me,” from the title tune.

[] GIRL HAPPY (1965)
Arguably one of Elvis Presley’s best musical films, this one features plenty of witty writing and romance, with Shelly Fabares supplying the loveliness. “Do the Clam” and “Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce” are a hoot, and even the worst Elvis haters will have to admit that “Do Not Disturb” is one sexy seduction number.

[] SPINOUT (1966)
If you haven’t been dissuaded, as I was, by early impressions of Elvis Presley films, this one might come close to doing the trick. Posturing, posing, and phoniness make it clear why two generations later, Elvis Presley’s films seem like such malarkey. Despite all this, the man could sing, and “Am I Ready” is the one song that makes the movie worth watching. But how Shelley Fabares kept a straight face while Elvis sang into it, I’ll never know. Although this is not the best of The King’s films, it really gives you a taste of the absurdity of the pop culture that led to their creation (or was it the other way around?). By the late 1960s, Presley’s films seemed hopelessly dated and silly in the face of the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, and the sexual revolution.

[] EASY COME, EASY GO (1967)
Hardly any Hollywood films of the time captured the spirit of social change that was sweeping America in the 1960s, this one least of all. The movie stands as a mind-boggling example of how the motion picture industry could not figure out what to do with the talented Elvis Presley or what to make of the sexual revolution. With that in mind, listen for “Yoga Is as Yoga Does,” performed by Elvis and the venerable Elsa Lanchester, in which his perplexed pelvis is twisted into a pretzel shape as he sings, “Tell me just how I can take this yoga serious when all it ever gives me is a pain in my posterious.”

[] GOOD TIMES (1967)
Best described at a “camp classic,” this series of romps involves a singing duo called Sonny & Cher, played by a singing duo named Sonny & Cher. The film resembles episodes that later made up the “Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” of 1970s television. The pair spoofs three genres: western, jungle, and detective, so it’s a movie starring themselves trying to figure out how to make a movie starring themselves, with the wonderful actor George Sanders as the bad guy. The costumes, the music by Sonny Bono, the songs sung by Cher, and the glimpses at the performances that Cher had yet to deliver make the movie worth watching. They save their famous hit “I Got You Babe” for the very end. My favorite piece of dialogue comes after Sonny says, “Shucks man, I can’t sing” and Cher replies, “Don’t let that stop you.” It never did.

[] HANS BRINKER (1969)
The detail with which 1838 Holland is recreated in this version of the classic Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates makes it hard to believe it was made for television. Seldom seen, this should be a Christmas classic, hauled out every year way ahead of many others that are shown repeatedly on television. I watched it for the first time some forty years after it was made, on a crusty old VHS tape that I bought for 25 cents, and it was still beautiful. Containing eight original songs by Moose Charlap, the film boasts two songs sung by Eleanor Parker (she of the baroness in The Sound of Music) as Dame Brinker, but they are quite obviously dubbed.

What a strange movie. Generally regarded as a classic film fiasco, the movie takes all the Lennon/McCartney songs from the famous Beatles album of the same title and acts them out, with a cast of stars that includes such marvelous talents as Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, Aerosmith, Billy Preston, Steve Martin, Earth Wind & Fire, and the incomparable George Burns flouncing about singing Beatles tunes at age 82. Somehow I managed to miss this movie when it was released in 1978. Watching it for the first time a quarter of a century later was more a surreal experience than the “bad trip” critics called it. The movie comes off not as a celebration of the Beatles musical odyssey but a satire, and that may account for much of its negative reception. Nobody was ready or willing to see their darling Beatles exposed with their own songs as purveyors of nonsensical farce. My favorite numbers are “Come Together” performed by Aerosmith and “Get Back” by Billy Preston. It’s also fun to see how many stars in the title song finale you can identify (Carol Channing, José Feliciano, Tina Turner, Connie Stevens, Margaret Whiting among them), all looking delighted to be part of what was sure to be a major hit–not.

Whatever you think of the Beatles, there is no denying that they are among the most hyped, adored, and documented entertainment acts ever, so by the time this mockumentary came along, they were ripe for satire. Through fake interviews and testimonials the movie looks at the phenomenal rise to fame of the “Pre-fab Four,” a band known as the Rutles, following their career from their early days in Liverpool to worldwide fame. This parody of Beatlemania is really the first of its kind on such a large scale, and it features cameo appearances by, among others, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, and the best of all good sports, Beatle George Harrison himself. Monty Python’s Eric Idle stars as an intrepid reporter. The wealth of tunes satirizing familiar Beatles songs makes this worth a watch for the music alone. Listen for “Cheese and Onions,” “OUCH!” and “Get Up and Go”—parodies of “A Day in the Life,” “Help!” and “Get Back.” I’ll never know how I managed to miss this film for thirty-six years; perhaps I was busy taking the Beatles too seriously.

[] BEAT STREET (1984)
The great Harry Belafonte was one of the producers of this “gritty streetwise musical,” as it was hyped. A hopelessly dated and patronizing portrayal of hip-hop culture, the film is full of cheesy and corny dialogue, with unfortunately little music to redeem it. However, as a snapshot of hip-hop given the Hollywood treatment, it is fascinating. My personal favorite song is “Tu Cariño” (Carmen’s Theme), written by Rubén Blades and Carlos Franzetti and performed by Blades.

[] RADIO DAYS (1987)
Woody Allen’s nostalgic look at the heyday of radio during the 1940s is seen through the eyes of a mischievous kid and his ordinary family during a time when everyone seemed to want nothing more than to be normal Americans. If I could have assembled a soundtrack of the best songs from this era, it would look exactly like the one that fills this movie with more music than most flat-out musicals. Highlights include: “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” “September Song,” “In the Mood” “Begin the Beguine,” “South American Way,” “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” performed by Mia Farrow, “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” performed by the great Kitty Carlisle, “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” performed in a cameo role by Diane Keaton.

The classic fairy tale takes a musical spin in this underrated film, in which “the little people” really act up a storm. One of them gives the queen a magic spell so she can bear the daughter she always wanted, but an evil curse is placed over Rosebud, and the king demands that all the spindles in the kingdom be destroyed . . . . Well, you know the story. Morgan Fairchild is interesting to watch as the queen, but it’s Sylvia Miles, an Andy Warhol protégée, who steals the action as the Red Fairy. Music by Michael Berz and others really keeps this film fresh through the years.

Written and performed by the Branford Marsalis Quartet and Terence Blanchard, the soundtrack to this self-conscious homage to jazz musicians was directed by the highly lauded Spike Lee. The film tells the story of a driven trumpeter named Bleek Gilliam, played with his usual flair by the great Denzel Washington doing an admirable job of rapping and seeming to actually play the trumpet. Lee cast himself as the annoying manager of Gilliam’s jazz ensemble, and you really have to concentrate on the music to sit through their tedious arguments, not to mention scenes from Gilliam’s neurotic love life. The movie was hailed by many critics as a penetrating look at the life of a jazz musician, but it is more important for its music than for its insight.

A dozen songs performed by Whitney Houston, with an extra featuring her mother, Cissy Houston with Hezekiah Walker and the Love Fellowship Crusade Choir, qualify this as musical enough to suit any musical lover. A remake of the classic The Bishop’s Wife, with Loretta Young, Cary Grant, and David Niven, the film was tailored to showcase Houston’s marvelous voice and is every bit as charming as the original. A nice holiday film for the whole family.

A comedy-fantasy with lots of music, this odd little film concerns a young man of the 1990s who lives as if it were the year 1928. His encounters with modern-day women and modern-day criminals lead to some ridiculous and hilarious scenes, in which the hapless fellow seems clearly out of his gourd. But it’s all in good fun, and the delightful score offers more than a dozen songs, including old standards like “Look for the Silver Lining,” “Dancing in the Dark.” and “You Were Meant for Me.”

[] TOPSY-TURVY (1999)
Director Mike Leigh’s entertaining biopic about Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert contains over a dozen musical numbers, as the famed duo rise from theatrical failure to the creation of “The Mikado,” one of their greatest successes. The film does an excellent job of photographing a stage presentation, showing how thrilled audiences were with Gilbert & Sullivan’s operettas. “Three Little Maids from School Are We” is my favorite example of how their work comments on the Victorian Era in amusing ways. A very long film and not to everyone’s taste, this is essential viewing for anyone interested in musical theater.

[] BILLY ELLIOT (2000)
A young boy in a remote coalmining town discovers his love for ballet, much to the dismay of his hardened father and brother who are striking members of a labor union. This is not a musical per se; it’s a movie about a dancer who succeeds against all odds. Billy Elliot–played brilliantly by Jamie Bell—is supposed to learn to box but secretly chooses ballet with the girls. The film is unsentimental and inspiring especially when Billy finally dances in front of his father and the old man loosens up. Billy describes how dancing feels to him: “I feel a change in my whole body. And I’ve got this fire in my body. I’m just there. Flying like a bird. Like electricity.” The music score is brilliantly chosen and ranges from T. Rex to Tchaikovsky. This is the original (released under the title Dancer) that inspired a musical version of the film in England in 2005 that led to the Broadway production, which cost $18 million to produce, over three times as much as the original film’s budget. All three were financial and popular successes./p

This surprisingly dull take on the classic tale of the tragic gypsy, lacks both passion and memorable music. You will perk up, however, when you hear unfortunately brief echoes of Bizet’s classic opera. It’s an interesting experiment that showcases the good looks and expert voice of Beyoncé Knowles, with insight into why she would become one of those talented female superstars who need only a first name for instant recognition.

[] GLITTER (2001)
Essentially a makeover of A Star Is Born, this star vehicle for Mariah Carey is one of the most panned films of the 21st century. I avoided it for that reason but was surprised to find myself in the very small camp that found the movie entertaining, although certainly not wonderful. The script is rather dull, and it keeps interfering with the songs. I found myself saying out loud to the director, “Will you let her finish a song before you cut to more insipid dialogue!” There is some really nice music going on during the movie–not just Carey, but Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross and others thrown in for good measure. And Terrence Howard steals every scene he is in as the villain.

In this morality tale goodness prevails over greed, as Cuba Gooding Jr. plays a wheeler-dealer who returns to his home town to collect some cash at the reading of a will but ends up learning a few life lessons from the folks he left behind. The catch is that he has to lead the church choir to victory in a gospel competition in Atlanta. To say the moral of the story is simplistic is to miss the point. Brimming with good music and good humor, the film is totally unrealistic. Just the way I like my musicals. Among the many musical highlights of this film are “Down By the Riverside,” “Time to Come Home,” and “Loves Me Like a Rock.” Goodings’ costar Beyonce Knowles sings the classic “Fever” with the most sex appeal one woman ever possessed. It is also great fun to see and hear great performers like Melba Moore, Rue McClanahan, T-Bone, Tupac Shaker, and the O’Jays singing gospel, rap, and pop with ease and a sense of joy.

[] HAPPY FEET (2006)
This miracle of animation is alternately hilarious and poignant, with heavy doses of good-hearted ethnic humor and memorable voices, among them Robin Williams, Elijah Wood, Brittany Murphy, Nicole Kidman, and Hugh Jackman, all working in harmony to create a memorable cast of penguin characters who launch into singing and dancing routines to such old favorites as Stevie Wonder’s “Tell Me Something Good” and “I Wish” and “Golden Slumbers” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, all songs selected to move the action along and get you tapping your feet along with Mumbles, the tap-dancing outcast who learns to be true to himself. What is fun about this delightful family film is that it is also a non-pedagogical exercise in music history and appreciation.

[] ONCE (2006)
Loaded with so much interesting and original music, this film qualifies as a musical in a unique contemporary style. When Girl (played and sung by Markéta Irglová) strolls down a dimly lit street singing aloud to the music flowing into her earplugs, her song moves the plot along in ways new and sweet to 21st-century musical films. When Girl meets Guy (played by Glen Hansard), the no-name couple come together over his music in the streets of Dublin and discover each other’s longings and disappointments. Eventually Girl, who happens to be an extraordinary piano player, helps Guy make a demo disc in the hope of landing a music contract. During the same short period in their complicated lives, more songs reveal the ways in which Guy and Girl are working through their past loves and their feelings for one another. What’s even more impressive is that most of the songs in the film were written by Irglová and Hansard and “Falling Slowly” garnered the duo an Oscar for Best Original Song in 2007.

[] PARIS 36 (2008)
It’s difficult to explain this film’s charm, but suffice it to say that if you love Paris and films about it, this portrayal of the city in 1936 will sweep you off your feet. At two hours long and in French, the movie may seem off-putting at first, but go with the flow and savor the fine direction, cinematography, sets, and the original music by Christophe Barratier. The story takes place in and around a Paris music hall, the proprietor of which has been charged with murder; during his confession we learn the story of the music hall in flashback performances. Even the kindest critics dismissed the film as what one called “a gleaming hunk of French period schmaltz.” Exactly what I liked about it.

Supplement to Musicals on the Silver Screen: A Guide to the Must-See Musicals (Huron Street Press, 2013), distributed by Independent Publishers Group.

Musical-lovers may also enjoy watching “Stars from the Golden Days Dance to Uptown Funk.”

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