Movie Musicals that Deserve a Second Look
There are many movie musicals that were not perfect. For one reason or another, they just don't delight audiences the way big hits like Singin' in the Rain, The Sound of Music, or West Side Story do. That's perfectly fine; not every outing is going to be a hit. There are, however, several movie musicals that may have missed the mark, but managed to still have moments of beauty and magic. Today's column explores eight movie musicals that deserve a second look.
Finian's Rainbow was a Broadway hit in the 1940s, an enchanting fantasy filled romp with biting satire coated in whimsy. It took several decades to reach the big screen (despite earlier efforts to do so), but in 1968 director Frances Ford Coppola ushered Finian's Rainbow to the cinema and the results are a mixed bag. Fred Astaire as the title character is funny as the Irishman who steals a pot of gold from a leprechaun and who crosses the ocean to America to bury it in the ground near Fort Knox (where he hopes it will yield a bumper crop of gold). Pop star Petula Clark is winning and spunkily winsome as his daughter Sharon who is dragged along for the trip and finds herself accused of witchcraft. If Tommy Steele is perhaps a little over the top as the woman hungry leprechaun Og, and Donald Franks a touch creepy as the romantic interest and resident schemer Woody Mahoney, the film still delights with its pastoral settings, stunning cinematography (for the outdoor, not shot-in-a-studio scenes), and particularly its heavenly Burton Lane/E.Y. Harburg score. The film is also on the long side, which may be why it loses steam in its final third, but it is enchanting and has some powerful messages about humanity. Give it a whirl.
Half a Sixpence
Speaking of Tommy Steele, there was a little British musical that came to Broadway in 1965 starring the ebullient actor that was a modest hit. Half a Sixpence, a charming story of a lifelong romance set in Great Britain (based on H.G. Wells' novel Kipps), was also turned into a 1967 movie musical that was very faithful to the stage production. Steele recreated his role as Arthur Kipps for the picture, along with a cast that also starred Cyril Ritchard and Julia Foster. The film’s greatest asset is its physical production, with costumes and scenery often breathtaking. The David Heneker score is decidedly agreeable, with a few standout delights including the title song, “Flash Bang Wallop,” and “Money to Burn.” The film’s chief detraction is its length. Director George Sidney stretched this already plot-heavy musical into a 143-minute marathon, with Gillian Lynne’s dance sequences going on for an interminably long time. Still, there are many charms to enjoy in the film, though I do suggest watching it in pieces.
Judy Garland made a lot of movie musicals. Some are classics, like The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, and A Star is Born, and others are great fun like Love Finds Andy Hardy, The Harvey Girls, and Babes in Arms. The one that I have always felt has been given short-shrift, and one that I feel falls somewhere between “great fun” and “classic” is her final film at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Summer Stock (1950). Down-on-her-luck farmer Jane Falbury (Garland), an uptight spinster who is trying to keep her farm afloat, has her life turned upside down when her actress sister leads a troupe of performers to the farm to rehearse their Broadway bound production. Jane has an adversarial relationship with her sister’s boyfriend and the show’s director, Joe Ross (Gene Kelly), but he eventually brings Jane around and ignites her love for theatre. The film’s most famous number is “Get Happy,” featuring Garland at her sexiest in a black fedora, a tuxedo jacket, and black nylon. The film may be a little corny and harkens back to that “Let’s put on a show in a barn” mentality, but it is such joyous fun, it’s easy to overcome its inanity and just have fun.
I’m not speaking of the recent insipid remake, but of the Pete’s Dragon many of us grew up with. It has always been one of Disney’s more polarizing films (people either love it, or hate it), but there is so much to admire in this heartwarming tale of an abused orphan who runs away and is guided to a family that will love him by a magical dragon. The all-star cast was its big selling point at the time (1977) with names like Helen Reddy, Jim Dale, Red Buttons, Mickey Rooney, and Shelly Winters on the roster, but it is the infectious songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschorn and the salty-sea breeze and atmosphere that really make the film come to life. Yes, the film is overly long, with a few musical numbers that might be easily trimmed or excised, but “Candle on the Water,” “The Happiest Home in These Hills,” “Brazzle Dazzle Day” and “It’s Not Easy” are as good as anything in Mary Poppins or Bedknobs and Broomsticks (two films to which Pete’s Dragon is often compared).
Julie Andrews and Robert Preston, two of Broadway’s most-beloved performers, come together for this delectable 1982 musical comedy of errors. Andrews plays Victoria an out-of-work singer in Paris during the 1930s. She meets Toddy (Preston), a female impersonator who takes Victoria under his wing and has the brilliant idea to try to turn Victoria into “Victor” who will then play “Victoria” on the stage. She is an enormous success at being a woman, playing a man, playing a woman (confused yet?). Her popularity rises and everything seems to be going fine until she falls in love with American nightclub owner King Marchand (James Garner). King is confused as to why he finds himself attracted to a man and Victor cannot reveal that he is really Victoria. Watch the film. It’s a heck of a lot easier than trying to explain it here, but be prepared for a distinctly low key musical directed and written by Blake Edwards. The Henry Mancini/Leslie Bricusse score includes some gems including “Le Jazz Hot,” “The Shady Dame from Seville,” and “Crazy World.”
Rodgers and Hammerstein are mostly known for the Broadway musicals for which they created indelible scores. What some people do not know is that they also scored a popular 1945 film musical, State Fair. Short on plot, but generous on whimsy and romance, State Fair follow’s the Frake family as they find adventure at the Iowa State Fair. Jeanne Crain, who delivers the film’s Oscar-winning song “It Might As Well Be Spring,” is positively luminescent as the melancholy Margery Frake who falls in love with a reporter (Dana Andrews) who is assigned to write about the fair. The film is mostly episodic, with funny little moments here and there: a flim-flam man unmasked, a mincemeat competition that ends in inebriation, and a depressed pig pining for another swine. It’s all a part of the kooky fun, and don’t miss the infectious “It’s a Grand Night for Singing.” The movie is like an actual trip to the fair: a little of this, a little of that, and a sad but satisfied feeling when the experience is over.
Call Me Madam
Never one of Broadway’s first-rate musicals, Call Me Madam (1950) is nevertheless a tuneful show filled to the brim with some great Irving Berlin ditties that never fail to charm. What makes the 1953 film version such a worthwhile watch is that it is one of the few times that Ethel Merman was permitted to recreate one of her stage roles for the screen. The film is a somewhat faithful (if uninspired) adaptation of the musical, but it does preserve Merman in her Tony-winning role. That documentation of a great Broadway star in one of her most-iconic performances makes Call Me Madam required viewing. The story follows Sally Adams, a brash society hostess, who has just been appointed to be the new American Ambassador to Lichtenburg (a fictional country). Sally travels to the little country and gets to know the country. Where the film does occasionally score is when Merman is paired with Donald O’Connor, playing Kenneth Gibson a journalist who tags along for the trip. When the two come together in Berlin’s contrapuntal “You’re Just in Love,” the musical just sparkles.
Babes in Toyland
Victor Herbert’s score for Babes in Toyland has become a regular part of our Christmas listening. The operetta was very popular in this country in the early part of the 20th Century. In 1961, Disney Studios decided to adapt the operetta and the score into their own version of the nursery rhyme-inspired story. Mary Quite Contrary (Annette Funicello) may be forced to marry the evil Barnaby (Ray Bolger) to keep her home for her myriad siblings. Tom Piper (Tommy Sands) is her real love interest, but Barnaby concocts a scheme to make Tom disappear at sea. Of course, Tom shows up in time to save Mary from marrying the crook. This all happens in the film’s first-half, leaving the second-half for a convoluted story where Mary, Tom and the kids go in search of Little Bo Peep’s missing sheep, Barnaby attempting to exact revenge, and everyone ending up at the Toymaker’s castle in Toyland. It’s that kind of film. It meanders in and out of musical numbers, but it never really has a focused plot. Still, Disney’s production values and the winning cast make for some really wonderful musical numbers, especially when Funicello sings “I Can’t Do the Sum” with herself, and the always reliable Ray Bolger swoops around the set, flipping his cape like a villain from a melodrama.