The title Hollywood Musicals: The 101 Greatest Song-and-Dance Movies of All Time gives the wrong impression of this book. Although author Ken Bloom says he’s writing about the best movie musicals, I’m not sure that’s entirely what he’s doing. His selection is too idiosyncratic.The Muppet Movie? Beach Blanket Bingo? Sunny Side Up (1929)?
Many of the musicals he writes about do deserve to be considered the greatest, but he’s less interested in writing about what makes these musicals work and more interested in exploring the many facets of the movie musical and seems to have chosen his films to allow him to cover as many facets as possible. Dubbing. Adapting a successful Broadway show to the screen. Why studios interpolated songs from their own songwriters into already popular musicals. Disney musicals. Musical biopics. The differences between a slick MGM musical and an anarchic Paramount musical (think Judy Garland vehicles vs. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope movies). His coverage is far reaching: rock musicals, animated musicals, country musicals, even disco (Saturday Night Fever) and stop motion animated musicals (The Nightmare before Christmas).
If you are looking for plot synopses or behind-the scenes explanations about the making of musicals, this is not really the book to read. There are little bios of actors and also – a great strength – bios that highlight overlooked directors (Charles Walters), songwriters (Mack Gordon), musical arrangers (Kay Thompson) and choreographers (Michael Kidd). He also discusses the usual suspects, like Bob Fosse, Busby Berkeley and Rodgers and Hammerstein.
With each musical, Bloom takes the opportunity to discuss one topic. For example, for Pajama Game, he talks about when Hollywood replaces the stage actor who created the role with a movie actor and the reasons behind this. One of the most notorious examples occurred when Ethel Merman was replaced with Rosalind Russell for Gypsy. However, because Doris Day was a huge star – and a genuinely gifted musical star – no one complained when she replaced Janis Page. It seems to depend on how well it works out. Another example is Julie Andrews being replaced by Aubrey Hepburn (I’m not sure if people will ever get over that one).
The strength of the book (apart from the mini-bios and the fun behind-the-scenes pictures, often with actors making peculiar faces) are the little nuggets of observations about musicals (and other things) and what makes them work or not. Here are some that I found most intriguing.
Fantasy is not easy to do – this observation does not only pertain to musicals, but fantasy in general. He believes that one of the secrets of a good fantasy (like The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) is that the people within the fantasy world must take their world absolutely seriously. There can be no winking at the audience, self-referential humor. The protagonist can find the world a little odd, but the people in it must notice nothing odd at all. Bloom actually believes the same thing about many comedy (he highlights farce).
He also believes that a good children’s fantasy (think Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Wizard of Oz) needs to have genuinely frightening villains. Otherwise, there is nothing at stake (he’s not a fan of funny villains from Shrek) and there’s no genuine tension.
Broadway musicals should not necessarily be adapted to the screen too reverently – this is a big pet peeve of his. He finds My Fair Lady far too static and reverential, like a museum piece. I kind of know what he means. There’s a spark missing from the movie that evidently was present on the stage, a liveliness and sense of fun. The film feels a bit stodgy to me.
The Music Man is another example of a film that seems to him too lifeless. His problem with the film version of The Music Man is a little different, however, than that with My Fair Lady. The main trouble, he believes, was that the movie was filmed like a stage play, unimaginatively and statically, often with the camera simply facing the action. He believes that a film director like Stanley Donen (who helped direct The Pajama Game) should have been brought in to help with the camera work and making the film more cinematic.
Bloom also mentions several musicals that he believes were better on film than on the stage, such as The Sound of Music and West Side Story. Apparently in West Side Story, several songs were shifted around and one song – “America” – was changed so that instead of just the girls singing, the boys join in, too.
Academy Award for Best Original Song has seriously gone down the tubes – it used to be that the song nominated for Best Original Song came from a musical and there were plenty of musicals to choose from. In the fifties, that began to change and more and more songs were sung during the opening credits. Now, the songs that win are often sung during the closing credits! Ah well…apparently there have been thoughts that this category should be removed, though I would be mildly surprised if they did any time soon.
People actually got tired of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers! – this seems incredible. How could you ever get tired of those two? Nevertheless, it seems to have happened. Not just Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but eventually of musicals. In What The Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, Brian Seibert wonders the same thing about tap dancing. Could people have simply been over-saturated with tap dancing after the fifties? After all, it was everywhere: stage, movies, even TV. Now, as Bloom points out, even many B musicals (though certainly not all) seem like “mini masterpieces” because of the professional know-how and talent that went into them, but they seem to have eventually wearied people.
Though not my grandmother. She didn’t leave musicals in the 1950s; musicals left her. They were her favorite genre (along with Hitchcock), but gradually there were less to see.
Many racist films were not meant to be racist – Many movies that contain racist material were actually trying to be progressive. There were several all-black musicals made (Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather) and given an A musical budget, but lack of understanding prevented them from fully ridding themselves of stereotypical portrayals and even cemented some.
But for me it is a reminder not to condescend to people with “benighted” views. It’s easier today not to be racist because it is not considered socially acceptable to be racist and it’s easier to rid ourselves of stereotypes because people of different ethnicities and backgrounds are much less segregated. Through the internet and social media and even movies and shows, we are less isolated in our own respective cultures. As Bloom pointed out, in the 1930s, most black and white people did not intermix socially. Now, we are even more familiar with how people live in other countries.
It’s doesn’t mean there isn’t racism today, but that it is easier not to be racist. However, at least these people were trying, even if they didn’t fully succeed (though there are numerous examples in films were people didn’t even try).
Here is a quote from Hal Johnson, a black musician and director who was asked by Cabin in the Sky’s associate producer to review the script for possible offensive material.
At the moment, the dialect in your script is a weird but a priceless conglomeration of pre-Civil War constructions mixed with up-to-the minute Harlem slang and heavily sprinkled with a type of verb which Amos and Andy purloined from Miller and Lyles, the Negro comedians: all adding up to a lingo which has never been heard nor spoken on land or sea by any human being, and would most certainly be “more than Greek” to the ignorant Georgia Negroes in your play.
Musicals as spectacle – I’d like to end this post with a quote by Bloom that ticked my funny bone. He wrote this while discussing the seriously psychedelic The Gang’s All Here, with bananas, almost no plot, Carmen Miranda, Busby Berkeley and floating stars. Seriously, if you have not seen this one, you really should.
The great dramatic spectacles such as Ben-Hur, El Cid, and Lawrence of Arabia were astounding in their scope but they had to be, given their plot. Movies such as the 1997 Titanic may amaze us for their sheer scale but they do not provoke that perfect mixture of awe, astonishment, glee and guilty pleasure boasted by the spectacular movie musical of the past.