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There is something special about musical films.  They can appeal to all ages, and seem to have the effect of just relaxing an audience.  There is a whole different atmosphere when you take your seat in the theater, soda and popcorn in hand, and settle in to just have fun as you enjoy the latest musical.

Musicals (sometimes called musical/dance films) are films where music is a large part of the entertainment.  They usually feature several songs sung by one or more characters in the movie that form a part of the storyline and help the audience to “get to know” the characters better.

In the early days, most stories were adapted from stage plays, although it didn’t take long before screenwriters and composers were writing and producing fresh material.  The major difference between movie and stage musicals is the settings.  Theaters for live performances were limited by the stage size as to how large and how many scenes they could construct sets for.  These same restrictions did not apply to the studios because, as Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage…”  They could take their filmmaking equipment and crews almost anywhere to get the settings they wanted.

Some of the earliest talking pictures, and musicals, used sound recording equipment referred to as sound on disc.  The Vitaphone (developed by Warner Brothers with Bell Telephone Laboratory) was invented in 1925 and recorded sounds on discs (records) made of wax.  These records were played to hopefully (but not always successfully) synchronize with the films being projected on screen.  The system was used for a while, but by 1931 was replaced by newer technology.  Work on producing better sound was progressing, and in late 1928 RCA (a division of General Electric) came out with its Photophone system that would actually inscribe the sound onto film that would be run right with the movie film, resulting in better synchronization.  At that point the studios had to band together to basically agree on a sound system to be used for their movies, and work with theaters to see that they were updated with the right equipment so their movies could be shown.  But with these developments in technology, the stage was set for the making of musicals.

The first feature length film to use synchronized dialogue and music was “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, directed by Alan Crosland and released by Warner Brothers.  Although it was mostly silent with only a few lines of Al Jolson’s dialogue, it did feature seven songs sung by Jolson, including “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” and “My Mammy”.

In the late 1920’s, with the advent of sound, nearly all of the studios began making “variety” type films that featured several stars and acts such as vaudeville, comedy sketches, short drama skits and musical numbers.  These came to be known as All-Star Revue musicals, such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Hollywood Revue of 1929”.

The 1930’s to the 1950’s are acknowledged as being the “Golden Age” of musical films, and their popularity was so great that composers, lyricists, arrangers and conductors from the stage flocked to the studios to take advantage of the opportunity.  Greats like Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin began writing words and music and original screen musicals during that era.  Featuring some of the great stars of the era, movies like “Flying Down to Rio” of 1933 (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) and “The Little Colonel” of 1935 (Shirley Temple and Lionel Barrymore) drew very large audiences.  Show business themed films were extremely popular, with stories about chorus girls and stage producers looking for their big break being the focus in the films.  Over 100 musical films were produced by Hollywood in 1930. 

The same time span encompassed the early careers of such musical film greats as Busby Berkeley and Arthur Freed.  After the over-abundance of musical films produced in the early 1930’s the audience’s interest in musicals flagged a bit, but were revived by the extravagant numbers choreographed by Berkeley and Freed.  Busby Berkeley is famous for his productions that include large numbers of performers forming kaleidoscopic patterns which were filmed from many angles, most notably from straight above, such as “Footlight Parade” (1933), starring Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, and James Cagney.  The “Freed Unit”, lead by Arthur Freed, created the longest string of musical film blockbusters in history, using Technicolor productions and allowing his team and stars to explore the limits of their talents.  Two of his best know productions are “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) and “The Barkleys of Broadway” (1949).

After the late 1950’s interest in classic musical films had diminished, partly due to cultural changes and to the advent of rock and roll music.  Entertaining musicals were still being produced however, like “High Time” (1960), “Gypsy” (1962), “That’s Entertainment” (1974), and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (1982).  Studios did adapt, and this was also the era of rock musicals like “Hair” (1979) and more modern musicals starring current singer/performers like Elvis Presley in “Blue Hawaii” (1961).  Biographical musicals were also being made like “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in 1980 about the life of country-western singer Loretta Lynn.

Directed by Edmund Goulding and ten other directors and distributed by Paramount Pictures, “Paramount on Parade” of 1930 is considered by some to be the best of the “all-star revue” films ever made.  The movie starred Jean Arthur, Richard Arlen, Clara Bow, Evelyn Brent, Mary Brian, Nancy Carroll, Maurice Chevalier, Kay Francis, Helen Kane, James Hall, Jack Oakie, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Lillian Roth, with music by Harold Jackson, Richard A. Whiting, and Elsie Janis.  The film includes twenty different acts, and music like “All I Want is Just One Girl” (Chevalier) and “I’m True To the Navy Now” (Bow).

“The Broadway Melody” of 1929, directed by Harry Beaumont and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, is credited as being the first “All Talking – All Singing – All Dancing” musical film and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  It is also noted for being the first film to use a pre-recorded sound track and to have post-production sound effects and editing.  A vaudeville sister act Queenie Mahoney (Anita Page) and Harriet “Hank” Mahoney (Bessie Love) are looking for their big break on Broadway and are both attracted to song and dance man Eddie Kearns (Charles King).  The film features the music of Nacio Herb Brown, George M. Cohan, and Willard Robison with songs like “You Were Meant for Me”, “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Broadway Melody”.

Warner Brothers released “42nd Street” in 1933.  The film is directed by Lloyd Bacon and choreographed by Busby Berkeley, with songs written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.  A backstage musical, the story is set in the early Depression years when Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is a director trying to make a financial comeback.  The film features performances by Ruby Keeler as a newcomer to show business, Ginger Rogers as one of the chorus girls, Dick Powell as the juvenile lead,  and Bebe Daniels as the star of the show.  Songs include “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me”, “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, and “Forty-Second Street”.

Directed by James Whale and released by Universal Pictures in 1936, “Show Boat” is a musical film based on the stage musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II.  The plot follows the life of Magnolia Hawks (Irene Dunne) from the show boat Cotton Palace, through her marriage to a riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allen Jones) and eventually to the stage in Chicago.  Some of the songs included are “Ol’ Man River”, “You Are Love” from the stage play, and new songs including “Gallivantin’ Around”.

One of the greatest patriotic musicals ever made, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a biographical musical about all-around show-business man George M. Cohan known as “The Man Who Owns Broadway”.  The cast starred James Cagney in the role of George M. Cohan, and included Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, Richard Whorf, Irene Manning, George Tobias, Rosemary DeCamp, and Jeanne Cagney, James Cagney’s real-life sister.  Distributed by Warner Brothers in 1942 and directed by Michael Curtiz, the film includes the Cohan songs “Yankee Doodle Boy”, “Give My Regards to Broadway”, “Harrigan”, “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and several others.  The movie won Academy Awards for James Cagney as Best Actor and for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture and Best Sound, Recording.

In The Good Old Summertime” is a musical film released by MGM in 1949 and directed by Robert Z. Leonard.  Set at the turn of the century in Chicago, the plot of the story is of a young woman, Veronica Fisher (Judy Garland) and Andrew Larkin (Van Johnson) who end up working together at a music shop and don’t get along.  However, unbeknownst to them, they have been secret pen pals and are each dreaming of meeting some day.  Featured songs include “Merry Christmas” and the title song “In the Good Old Summertime”.

MGM’s “Singin’ in the Rain” is one of the most recognized comedy musicals of all time.  Gene Kelly stars, and he also provided the choreography and directed the film with Stanley Donen.  Released in 1952, it is a comical look at Hollywood as it moves forward from silent films to talkies, with a budding romance between Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) with complications by Lockwood’s leading lady, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), and help from his buddy Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor).  Probably the best remembered musical number is Gene Kelly’s song and dance routine of “Singin’ in the Rain”, but the film also featured numbers like “Fit as a Fiddle (And Ready for Love)” and “Make ‘Em Laugh”.

Gang rivalry and an ill-fated love—“West Side Story” has it all.  The 1961 musical was directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise and released by United Artists.  Based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, “West Side Story” was a successful stage play which was turned into a motion picture.  The story involves the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two urban gangs, and the impact the rivalry has on the love between Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) and their friends.  The cast also included Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris.  Leonard Bernstein was the composer and Stephen Sondheim the lyricist for many of the musical numbers.  Featured songs include “Something’s Coming”, “Maria”, and “Tonight”.  The movie won ten Academy Awards, the most ever for a musical film.

Adapted from Broadway, “Fiddler on the Roof” is a 1971 musical film directed by Norman Jewison and distributed by United Artists.  John Williams provided the musical score, and songs were by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, including “If I Were a Rich Man” and “To Life”.  The story of the film is set in 1905 Tsarist Russia and concerns Tevye (Chaim Topol), his wife Golda (Norma Crane) and their dealings with the local matchmaker in trying to arrange marriages with their five daughters, and their struggles to maintain their Jewish culture without clashing with the other, non-Jewish, residents of their small town.

In 1985 Columbia Pictures released “A Chorus Line”, directed by Richard Attenborough, with songs composed by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban.  “One” and “What I Did for Love” are among the songs included in the film.  The story evolves around a group of aspiring dancers auditioning for a new Broadway play for the choreographer, Zach (Michael Douglas).  The backgrounds of each of the seventeen auditioning dancers remaining after the first cut are revealed.  Their common element is that each of them is passionate about dancing.

There are so many great musicals to choose from.  So, whether you plan to watch solo or with friends in your own “chorus”, select some good old musicals and prepare to sing along just as you might have years ago at the Saturday matinee.

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