Top-Ten Underappreciated Movie Musicals
Most of us who love musical theatre cultivated our appreciation for musical storytelling by watching old Hollywood musicals. Let's face it: seeing a Broadway show is expensive and we had to get our song and dance fix somewhere. So, though we prefer live theatre, we found solace in the worlds of MGM, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly. Some movie musicals were spectacular: The Wizard of Oz, The Bandwagon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin' in the Rain and My Fair Lady come to mind. The same titles are always given as "the classics" of the Hollywood Musical, but there are other titles that are solidly entertaining and worth your time. Here is my list for the Top-Ten Underappreciated Movie Musicals that you should make a point to see.
This Judy Garland/Gene Kelly gem is often overlooked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's shower fair, but Summer Stock is quite a special little musical. Jane Falbury is on the verge of losing her failing farm. Her self-centered sister, an actress, shows up with her boyfriend's acting troupe in tow, needing a place to rehearse a new Broadway musical. Suddenly, actors are doing chores and Jane is sucked into the barnyard entertainment. The musical features some wonderful musical and dance numbers, including the athletic Kelly's "You've Gotta Dig for Your Dinner" and "You Wonderful You." A highlight is Garland, never looking more sexy, singing a stylized "Get Happy" in a fedora and short coat. Sadly, the film marks Garland's final project for MGM and she was dismissed not long after completing Summer Stock.
The Girl Most Likely
Jane Powell is at her comedic finest in this musical about a woman named Dodie who finds (though her own greed and stupidity) that she is engaged to three different men. The musical is mostly a corny comedy of errors as Dodie juggles all three, only to end up falling in love with an entirely different person altogether. The Girl Most Likely was made in 1957 and is somewhat reminiscent of Gentleman Prefer Blondes, with the catalyst’s main goal to marry a millionaire. Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane of Meet Me in St. Louis fame provided the tuneful score (though the title song was penned by Nelson Riddle and Bob Russell). For an sit-down of fun, laughter and catchy music, The Girl Most Likely will be just your cup of tea.
Many of you are probably going to chide me for putting this one on the list, but I stand by this one as entertaining, poignant, and at times, downright moving. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, not only is this helmed by one of Hollywood’s great directors, but he sees to it that the film is packed with atmospheric, sweeping cinematography. It’s one of the last film musicals of the old Hollywood studio system, and it took over two-decades to get this film made (politics and Communist witch hunts led to an animated version being aborted). Still, its messages about equality, bigotry, and believing in magic are still resonant and sublimely beautiful. Fred Astaire’s Finian is whimsical fun, Tommy Steele (as Og the Leprachaun) is over the top spritely, but it is Petula Clark’s earthy Sharon McLonergan who brings the real magic. Her rendition of “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?” is deeply affecting. The film may be a little long in length (141 minutes), but every second therein in worth your time.
This 1963 Disney film has never been one of the Mouse’s most revered films, but its wholesome, gentle story about family is exquisite in an understated, charming way. Based on the Kate Douglas Wiggin novel Mother Carey’s Chickens, Summer Magic features a catchy score by the always reliable, seldom understated, Sherman Brothers who manage some of their most subtle work here. “The Pink of Perfection” is humorous with just a touch of bite, “On the Front Porch” is quietly reflective, but it is Burl Ives’ turn singing “The Ugly Bug Ball” that is most memorable. Hayley Mills, Eddie Hodges, and Dorothy McGuire also star.
In the Good Old Summertime
The story The Shop Around the Corner has received so many adaptations for the stage and screen. Most musical theatre aficionados opt for the Bock and Harnick musical She Loves Me, which does have a far superior score. However, for a different take on this pen pal love story, try In the Good Old Summertime. Judy Garland and Van Johnson square off as coworkers who cannot stand each other, but who are secretly in love as anonymous pen pals. The score is not original, instead utilizing Tin Pan Alley standards from the turn-of-the-century. It is quite possibly the most understated musical to ever come out of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but Garland and Johnson make wonderful foils for each other and it features some of their best comedy acting.
High, Wide and Handsome
Who has seen this one? My suspicion is not many of you. For the longest time, this film musical with a score by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, II was inexplicably out of circulation. It only became available on DVD just a few years ago. With the epic sweep of their better known Show Boat, High, Wide and Handsome tells the story of a battle over land in Pennsylvania, one party wants it for oil drilling, the other want it for railroad expansion. Amidst all the drama, there is a love story that is constantly affected by the conflict. The film is directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the director of the original stage productions of Oklahoma! and Carousel. Made in 1937, it stars Irene Dunne, Randolph Scott and Dorothy Lamour. It’s startling scope (and almost two-hour running time) make it a marvel of early Hollywood musical-making.
Show Boat (1936)
Speaking of Kern and Hammerstein, the 1936 film version of their stage classic Show Boat is a particularly special piece of cinema. It features members from the original 1927 Broadway cast, including the stalwart Helen Morgan as the mixed-race Julie LaVerne. The film is directed by James Whale, better remembered for the string of horror classics he helmed in the 1930s. Audiences may prefer the splashy 1951 version made by MGM, though I find that version wears on for about a half-hour too long. For me, the 1936 Show Boat captures the sprawling tale best.
My own crucifixion comes with my inclusion of this title, I am sure. So many people would prefer anyone other than Madonna in the role of Eva Peron. I, however, found her mostly equal to the task, bringing to the screen the life experience to infuse this Argentinian social climber with believability. Does she sing the Hell out of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s finest score? Probably not, but there is still so much to recommend, especially in how director Alan Parker finds solutions to telling the highly theatrical piece in a cinematic way. Antonio Banderas as Che is also a revelation, bringing a spooky gravitas to his omniscient role as narrator and conscience.
Either you love Streisand as Dolly Levi, or you hate Streisand as Dolly Levi. I think that opinion will mostly be based on whether or not you encountered the stage production of Hello, Dolly! or the film first. Many have argued that Streisand was too young to play the matchmaking widow who sets out to find love for herself, but I think her youthfulness only makes it all the more motivated that she does. She’s a young widow and doesn’t want to spend her life living the shadows. Streisand certainly sings Jerry Herman’s score in her usual, entrancing fashion. One of the highlight is “Love is Only Love”, a song added to the film, deepening our understanding of Dolly and her motivations.
The Slipper and the Rose
Many people forget this sublime British take on the Cinderella story. Once again the Sherman Brothers provide a score that is a step outside of their usual, chirpy product, this time painting a lush, romantic set of ditties that are equal with the elegance of the film. Made in 1976, The Slipper and the Rose was chosen as the Royal Command Performance selection for the year. Perhaps the most exciting part about The Slipper and the Rose is to see Richard Chamberlain play (and sing…and dance) the role of Prince Edward. Fairy tale traditionalists will be aggravated by the liberties taken with the Cinderella tale (at least in comparison to the version they are used to), but if you approach it with an open mind, The Slipper and the Rose will beguile and enchant.